Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Page Turners, For Me

I said yesterday that I'd mention some of the page turners in my life. The ones below do not make an exhaustive list, but all of them are fondly remembered.

Misery, by Stephen King. I burned through Misery like a laser through cellophane. This is King’s best work, in my opinion. The prose is the weakest of the three elements in this book. I don’t think it sings, but it serves the purpose of the characters and plot so well that it is hard to find fault with it.

Ghost Story, by Peter Straub. This is a long book but I finished it in a weekend. It hit on every cylinder. Dramatic opening situation, more great characters than any other novel I can think of, and prose that was both delightful to read and chillingly effective. How do you convey the "silence" of the snow in words? Straub does it.

Midnight, by Dean Koontz. Again, a great dramatic opening, solid characters, although not as memorably as Straub’s, and crafted prose. I could include Koontz’s Phantoms here as well. The situation here was even more interesting than the one in Ghost Story.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. What could be more dramatic than two survivors, a man and a boy, struggling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland? And the father, so lovingly crafted in the way he cares for his son. Great characters. And the prose reflects the mood so perfectly that it’s both almost invisible and still scintillating.

Drive, by Jim Sallis. It starts with a man dying in a bathroom with blood all around and gun close to hand. Nearly the perfect noir opening. And the character as he is revealed is wonderful. Finally, Sallis’s prose never fails to satisfy.

To Tame a Land, by Louis L'Amour. It starts with a boy and his father standing beside their broken down wagon in Indian country as the rest of the wagon train rolls past. I'm already hooked, but Ryan Tyler, the boy who grows up to be a gunfighter, is a wonderfully drawn adventure character.

Of course, feel free everyone to share your own lists. This is a selfish invite, by the way. I'm always looking to discover my next big read. Gotta get my fix.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Attracts; What Repels

My writing group talked last night about what it takes to suck us into a book so that we become immersed and feel that we must keep reading, and what kicks us out of the work early and lets us toss it aside. Our discussion suggested that three main elements were important: 1) Character, 2) Situation, 3) Quality of Prose. Although I can’t speak for all our members, and you might find other input or comments at C. S. Harris and Sphinx Ink, I believe I can extract a general consensus.

First, most group members seemed to say that “Character” was more important than the other two. Great characters will cover up some sins in the other two elements, but having those elements working won’t make up for shoddily constructed characters. I know that, for myself, even if I’m attracted to a piece because of the opening situation, I’ll lose interest quickly if the characters don’t click.

Second, “Situation” is not quite the same as plot. The situation is what we are introduced into, before we have time to figure out what the “plot” is going to be. I know that I want a dramatic scene to open a book, and I suspect that I put more emphasis on that than many of my other writing group colleagues. The writer needs to put me immediately into a place where action or emotion abounds. Unless something is happening already, I cannot learn enough about their characters from a few lines of opening dialogue to keep me going.

Third, I have read stuff where the prose sings even if I don’t consider the characters terribly realistic and don’t find the situation exciting. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian comes to mind. But I read such works slowly and I don’t think I can claim to be “sucked in” by them.

Fourth, the works that click on all three cylinders are the ones that create the biggest vacuum effect and become the ones that we truly call page turners. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about some of those page turners in my life.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Human Stain

Psychological disorders are often poorly handled in fiction and film. When I was in graduate school and would go to see horror movies with non-psychology friends I would often be questioned as to: "What's wrong with that dude, man?" I appreciated their need to know, but the question was often impossible to answer because either 1) the "dude" appeared to be suffering from at least half a dozen disorders simultaneously, or 2) the "dude" was possessed by some evil entity as yet unknown to science. At the same time, I generally found that fiction writers did it much better than screenwriters, but still would make routine and disconcerting errors. It finally got so bad that I simply stopped watching movies of "psychological" interest. To this day, I seldom watch a movie that turns on some psychological principle, such as schizophrenia or multiple personalities. I do still read "psychological" books, but they are not my preferred reading.

So what should a writer do who wants to use an element of psychological deviance in their fiction? Well, one thing you could do is read an article by Tracy Knight in On Writing Horror called "More Simply Human." This is one of the best short pieces I've ever read on the subject, and clearly Ms. Knight knows her subject. She certainly points out one of my particular peeves, how many times writers confuse Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality disorder. They are not the same thing and have far different causes and courses.

Here are some other things that Ms. Knight either did not cover or only talked about briefly.

1. "Crazy" is a vague term that is almost never used by psychologists.

2. The "Insanity" defense is a legal concept and does not correspond exactly to psychological descriptions of insanity.

3. Having a diagnosed psychological disorder does not mean that you will always have it. Many disorders can be cured with little chance of relapse.

4. Psychological disorders come in all levels of severity. Some are quite mild while others completely disrupt the person's life.

5. A person with a psychological disorder, even a severe one, is not necessarily going to exhibit the symptoms of that disorder 24 hours a day. They will usually have periods where the disorder appears to be gone or in remission.

Finally, it is my belief that if someone filmed any of us 24 hours a day for a year or so, and then picked just the right fifteen minutes from that film, they could make any of us appear to be suffering from almost any known psychological disorder. In other words, you ain't so far from crazy yourself.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dark Wind Rising

I mentioned here sending a story to a group who is trying to raise money for animal rescue. The story was called "Dark Wind," and is a heroic fantasy involving a character named Thal Kyrin. They've put the story up now, if anyone is interested. You go to Welcome to Suburbia and click on the link at top "for Charity." Since they are raising money for animals, these stories are not free. I think they have only a Pay Pal option at the moment. Not sure if that is going to stay the case.

I wrote a series about Thal Kyrin for a magazine called Shadow Sword back in the late 1980s. They published four or five of them over about a three year span, and were going to publish "Dark Wind" before they ended up folding. This story has never seen print, but it is a "Stand Alone" piece. You don't have to know anything about the previous stories to understand it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Douglas Winter

Douglas Winter has written horror, but is better known as a critic in the horror field. Of all the critics I've read, I personally feel that Winter gets it right more often than not. I'm reading an article by him now in On Writing Horror that is quite insightful. One point he makes is this: "If your sole ambition is commercial probably lack the courage to write great horror fiction." I believe this to be true. True horror fiction is unlikely to attract the kind of huge audience that The Da Vinci Code commanded.

I know that as soon as I say this someone will toss out names such as Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. My first response is that Anne Rice doesn't write horror. The underlying power of her work lies in romance. Note, I'm not criticizing her for this, although it's not my cup of tea, but I sincerely believe that her readers are with her more for the love than the fear. Koontz can write horror with the best of them (Phantoms, Midnight), but most of his work, especially his recent work, is more clearly suspense with some horror elements.

Stepen King does write horror, and is an exception to Winter's rule. I don't know why, but I do know plenty of people who are happy to read King but eschew reading any and all other horror fiction. On the list of big selling horror writers, I'd include Peter Straub, one of our most literate practicioners, and I would claim that in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris wrote horror.

But the big names pale beside the small names in horror. Dennis Etchison and Wayne Allen Sallee are two of our best modern short story writers and yet their names are known only to an inner circle who truly love horror. Joe Lansdale has far better sales for his suspense work than for his horror. Writers like Sidney Williams and Del Stone Jr., toil brutally and well in dark fields and have yet to reap a golden harvest. Charles Grant produced one of the most significant bodies of work of any writer in horror. Ask his wife, Kathryn Ptacek, a horror writer herself, sometime about their big house and fancy cars. And who among you has heard of Charlee Jacob, one of the most significant new voices in horror?

No, if you want the "world" to love your writing then horror isn't for you. But if you want to explore lonely places where only a few will venture with you, then gas up that long black 4X4 and leave home at midnight. Pick the road less travelled. Hammer the highway down. Watch for the wicked. And stop to visit.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Flight House

"Flight" is a gravel road that runs near my place, and at the corner of Flight and Mashie stands a shunned house. I've never seen anyone at this house, though I've lived here over six months now and walk by there frequently. Once this place was loved. But no longer.

There is a dog run in the front yard and a lorn sign by the road that reads "Poodle Xing." There are decorative yard lights along the driveway that have long since broken or been so overgrown with tangled weeds that you can barely see them. In the side yard lies a girl's dark blue bicycle with a rusted chain.

Someone in this place must have been handicapped. Or maybe it was someone who visited there frequently. A wheelchair ramp leads to the back porch but the bottom of it would have to be cleaned of greenery before it could ever be used again. And across the back porch rails hang a couple of faded beach towels turned nearly into iron by long exposure to sun and weather. Yet, at night the lights come on, and you can see shadows cast on an upstairs wall by the slow wheel of a ceiling fan.

I wonder about the people who lived in this house. I wonder about the little girl. Did the family flee after Katrina and decided not to come back? Is "Flight Street" a prophetic name? Or is there a darker reason why the house lies empty? I imagine answers to my questions, of course. I imagine that it was the girl's mother who was handicapped. I imagine the family huddled with the night grown black as hurricane winds ripped through the woods around their home, snapping pines and power poles. I imagine the mother weeping when they left the house, with a fear that they'd never return. I have no idea if anything I think is true. But I wonder.

Sometimes I wonder most whether the little girl misses her bicycle.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Piece of Dialogue

I read a pretty good piece on dialogue by David Morrell yesterday. It had much of the usual good advice. 1) limit the dialogue tags where possible. Much of the time you won’t need them, especially if you’ve got two people going back and forth. 2) if you do use tags make almost all of them “said” or “asked.” Hissing and spitting and growling are not often of much use. 3) generally avoid using adverbs as modifiers for dialogue tags, such as “he said bitterly.”

He also said something I hadn’t thought of before. He mentioned how some people like to read their dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural, and I’ve been known to do that myself. But he actually said this is a bad idea. The reason? When you read dialogue out loud you supply the tone and inflection that you know should be there but which the reader will not see on the page. He said: “In fiction, dialogue is an act of silent communication. You can’t rely on a reader to imagine that your characters speak with the inflection you intend. Rather, you have to invent visual clues that will force the reader to imagine the tone you require.” That’s a very good point, and one that had not occurred to me.

Finally, Morrell made one point that seemed funny to me. He generally seems to dislike exclamation marks, and I agree. I try not to use them very often. The point he made, though, is that you don’t need an exclamation point when the dialogue already contains intensity, such as when a character curses. Now, Morrell has taught literature and would seem to know his stuff, but a writer friend of mine who is an English professor always told me that you should definitely put an exclamation point after any dialogue in which a character curses. His point was that the curse essentially demands an exclamation point. So who is right? I know I’m confused. Maybe you folks have an opinion?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You Know You're in the Country When

Today I found the gutted remains of a wild pig about half a mile along the dirt road where I live. The hide and the head were all that remained. Even the hooves were gone, and I figure the hunters kept those for souveniers. They're probably nailed to a tree or a barn somewhere even as I write this. I'm not sure why they didn't keep the head.

In the last two weeks I've found the remains of two deer along the same set of roads. In one case it was just hide and a nearly stripped spine. In another case the hide, spine, and most of the skull were there. I'm pretty sure the pig was hunted. I've never seen a wild one get hit by a car. But the deer could have been road kill before the good parts were taken and the rest cast away as so much litter.

It's a clear sign that you're in the country when you find the butchered remains of animals along the road. It's a clear sign when all the "signs" have bullet holes in them. But gunshots? That's not any indication that you're in the country. I heard plenty of those in New Orleans. And the animals being butchered there walked on two legs.

Monday, February 19, 2007

New Illuminata Up


The February issue of The Illuminata is out, which includes my newest column: "Characters: The Best and the Rest." Some of you may be getting it sent to you already, but in case you're not the link is The Illuminata, and the link to the February issue is at the bottom. Once again, this column owes a debt to many of you here who have joined me in online blog discussions about characters in the last month or so. Special thanks go to Candice, Elora, Emily, Sid, Wayne, Stewart, and Steve.

Write On!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Lucky

Some of you probably know that it's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. That means parties, parades, beads, cups, doubloons, hundreds of thousands of people. And I'm the luckiest man around at this time because I live in the country and don't have to see or put up with any of it. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there is a Mardi Gras. I do not begrudge a single individual enjoying it. I hope the city does well and the people have as much fun as they can stand. But I like it best because I get a week off school, get to be miles away from the parade routes and the noise, and can do the things I want to do, like read, walk, write, and relax.

The weather is cooperating too. It's sunny and close to 70 degrees here today. There's a light breeze. The outside and a good book calls. Maybe I'll even have a beer in honor of Mardi Gras. And for all of youse mugs who live in colder climates, don't hate me because I'm going to sit on my deck in a t-shirt and sweat pants and maybe do a little plotting on my novel. Damn, I hate suffering for my art.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Animal Rescue

Sid first posted about the animal rescue effort at Welcome to Suburbia. The idea was for folks to donate stories for a specific time period, which could then be purchased and the money used to rescue animals. I offered them a story, which they are going to put up later this month. I'm not sure exactly when. If you go to the Suburbia website the first paragraph will explain where to find the donated stories.

The tale I sent was called "Dark Wind," which is the last story so far in a fantasy series that I wrote about a character named Thal Kyrin. A magazine called Shadow Sword ran four or five of the stories in the mid to late 1990s, and though they lasted several years they eventually folded and "Dark Wind" was in the hopper at the time. The nice thing about Shadow Sword is that they liked long stories with some meat on their bones, but that has made it harder to sell "Dark Wind" since. It's pretty long at nearly 9,000 words.

Thal Kyrin is not really much of a Conanesque character in most of my stories about him, but "Dark Wind" shows him at his most barbaric. For this story I wanted to pit man against monster in the most physical way possible. The fight scene is like a quarter of the story. It was fun to write.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good Advice, Poorly Handled

I just finished reading an advice article on developing characters. I won't mention the writer's name because I don't personally know this person and I'm sure they meant well, but the article was terribly mishandled and I will not be reading any more of this writer's work, fiction or non-fiction. I just don't have the time to waste.

The writer's first point is to create three dimensional characters instead of cardboard cutouts. Wow, there's a news flash. Surely no writer starts out to create cardboard cutouts. The question is how to avoid it. Some good advice we get is to use real people as inspiration, to create character sketches, and to let your characters talk to you. I use 1 and 3, but character sketches are a double-edged sword. They have to be organic to work. I've found that if you sketch your character in too much detail early that it actually interferes with the character's growth during the book. In other words, it can promote cardboard characters.

Later, the article writer tells us how to introduce material from our character sketches into the story. "Show, don't tell," the writer admonishes us, then proceeds to give an example from their own work where they "tell" everything. What is this, "Do as I say, not as I do" advice?

To top it all off, the entire article is written with a smug, "I'm smarter than you" attitude. I wouldn't like getting that kind of tone from Dean Koontz or Stephen King, much less someone who hasn't even published as much stuff as I have. Hey, if you're writing a tip article then keep the smugness for your bathroom mirror. The readers are not there to serve your ego. They're expecting a return on their investment of money and time.

(Note: subject-verb disagreements intended to protect the gender of the article's author.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Musical Influences

Does music influence your writing? How so? Do you listen to music while you write? And, if so, what kind of music? What groups?

To answer these questions for myself, I never listen to music while actually writing fiction, although I do sometimes while writing non-fiction or miscellania like emails and reports. The reason is that fictional prose has its own music to me, and listening to outside music interferes with the inner music that I need to feel to get into the proper rhythm. Non-fiction is more about the facts than about the music, and hearing outside music doesn't bother me as much.

However, music has definetely influenced me. Listening to powerful music often makes me want to write, and sometimes whole visual scenes will pop into my head from hearing a snatch of song or a particular lyric. I've identified at least two cases in my writing where particular lyrics had influence on a title or the very phrasing of a sentence or paragraph (they're are probably many more), and for years I've been trying to write poetry that would have the power of U2's lyrics for "Bullet the Blue Sky."

As for the type of music that influences me, well there's classical, such as Holst's "The Planets" or much of Bach, there's hard rock, such as Z. Z. Top, and AC DC, and there's metal, such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, White Zombie. Metal has been by far the biggest influence. It was the metal bands who really began to sing about things other than girls and sex and drugs. And much of it was very dark and surreal. And the heavy lyrics were accompanied by a driving musical thunder that opened your very chest to the power.

At the moment, my band of choice is Rammstein, a German heavy metal band that only rarely sings in English. Last night, on the recommendation of several folks, I bought the Wolfmother CD, which is a band out of Australia. Wolfmother is pretty interesting because their songs are so filled with clearly identifiable musical influences, most of which, fortunately, I like. The primary sound of Wolfmother is a combination of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, but I picked up clear elements of Styx, Led Zepplin, The Yardbirds, and The Doors. I even heard some Jethro Tull and a fragment of the Clash. Fascinating, and they have a site on Myspace where you can go and listen to a few of their songs if you're considering them.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Storm Season

I was rudely awakened last night by the tremendous crash of thunder from a bolt of lighting that hit the woods behind our house. More bolts followed. Zeus seems to have been royally pissed. And who is the god/goddess of rain? He/she was pissed too as the rain came deluging. This morning I can see at least one shattered tree through my office window, and the backyard may very well be hiding alligators in its swampy environs. But apparently we got off lightly.

At least one tornado and probably two ripped through parts of New Orleans before dawn, although I didn't find this out until I was already on my way into work. One tornado hit along Carrollton Avenue, which is where my university sits, and I've heard the school is closed for today. But I'm also hearing that it's just because of electricity outage. I hope so. We blew all our money repairing the damage from Katrina. We can't afford a tornado. No tornadoes hit in the area where my son was sleeping so I hope he's alright. He's not answering his phone, but that's most likely because he's sleeping. Still, a little more to worry about.

Looks like I have the day off, but I'd rather not have it at this cost. So far they have one known death, but at least it doesn't look right now as if there will be more.

I think I'm going to have a closer look at what lightning did to that tree.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I'm fooling around with tense in something I'm working on now. Typically, I write most of my stuff in past tense, as do most writers, but for some reason I started writing a scene in present tense and I rather liked the sound of it. I'm going to copy a paragraph from it below, and then rekey that as past tense so folks can see the difference. My question, what do you think? And do you think you could read a whole book in present tense?

The evening arrives on a chilling wind. And there is sleet that sends the people of Vylenaar scurrying from the streets as the sun fails. Shutters are locked, fireplaces lit. Families huddle together. Only in the Temple of Silver do men and women gather for a reason other than warmth.

The evening arrived on a chilling wind. And there was sleet that sent the people of Vylenaar scurrying from the streets as the sun failed. Shutters were locked, fireplaces lit. Families huddled together. Only in the Temple of Silver did men and women gather for a reason other than warmth.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Horror Novel History Quiz

The horror “novel” was relatively rare up until about the 1970s. For most of the history of horror the field has been the province of short story writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Oliver Onions, Ambrose Bierce, and many others. But some longer works were around, and after the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974 the novel became the dominant mode for horror fiction. Can you match the horror authors below with their classic books below that? The answers are at the bottom but I’ll know if you cheat. Zero to five correct could mean that horror is not for you. Six to ten correct is...well, horrible in the best sense of the word. More than ten correct and you’ll have people wondering what kind of childhood YOU had.

1. Bram Stoker
2. Anne Rice
3. Dean Koontz
4. Ramsey Campbell
5. William Peter Blatty
6. Thomas Harris
7. Mary Shelley
8. Robert Louis Stevenson
9. Peter Straub
10. William Hope Hodgson
11. Shirley Jackson
12. James Herbert
13. Ira Levin
14. Anne Rivers Siddons
15. Peter Benchley

a. The Rats
b. The Exorcist
c. The Silence of the Lambs
d. The House on the Borderland
e. Ghost Story
f. Dracula
g. The Doll Who Ate His Mother
h. Rosemary’s Baby
i. The House Next Door
j. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
k. Interview with the Vampire
l. Jaws
m. Frankenstein
n. The Haunting of Hill House
o. Phantoms

Answers: 1. Dracula, 2. Interview with the Vampire, 3. Phantoms, 4. Doll Who Ate His Mother, 5. The Exorcist, 6. Silence of the Lambs, 7. Frankenstein, 8. Jekyll and Hyde, 9. Ghost Story, 10. House on the Borderland, 11. Haunting of Hill House, 12. The Rats, 13. Rosemary’s Baby, 14. House Next Door, 15. Jaws.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Rants and Reason

Michelle has a "rant" over on her blog about things that bother her, and I responded in a comment about school related peeves that I have. Some of Michelle's peeves seems pretty unusual to me and that got me thinking about personality and character. In my experience, people's likes and dislikes are so idiosyncratic as to defy understanding. For example, I hate the musical group The Police and every song they, or Sting, have ever written. I dislike their music so much that I turn the radio off or switch stations the instant a Police song comes on. There have been several times when others were in the car with me when I punched the channel change button in the first few seconds of a song and only then found out from my passenger that it was a Police song. I didn't even know it was them and I still hated it. Yet, there are strange people out there who actually like the Police.

Maybe the point of all this is that characters, real or fictional, are as defined by what they dislike as by what they like. And I realize I have never given this as much thought in my fiction as I should have. My characters need peeves. They need something to rant about, and--importantly--it is the more unusual peeves that will tell me the most about them as characters.

Now the question becomes, can I give my characters peeves that I don't share? What if my character doesn't like Z. Z. Top, or *gasp* Black Sabbath? Will I lose all respect for them? How will I ever even speak with them again? How will I be able to resist having them slaughtered quickly by some newly introduced serial killer as punishment for their foolishness?

I guess we'll see.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Holy is the Morning

This morning's sky was scabbed over with gray cloud, but there were cracks that let the sun bleed through. And as I drove across the lake the light rained down in streamers to strike hard and spray back into the air like foam at the bottom of a cataract. It was the kind of light you imagine with scenes of angels and saints, and in the distance I saw a shadow that I first took to be a hill where no hill should be. Then I realized that I was seeing a pair of shrimp boats anchored close together and still on the surface, with masts feeling up into the light. There were three masts, and an image came unbidden. Three crosses on another hill, on Golgotha. After Christ and the criminals had been taken down. It had been a long time since I thought of the crucifixion; I was raised Catholic but haven't been to church in many years. But no matter your beliefs, or lack thereof, sometimes the morning is holy.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

Steve has posted about the danger of wasting too much time on "research" when you should be getting the damn words down on screen. By research I think he means such things as I did yesterday, when I spent 20 minutes trying to find out whether Russelville, Arkansas is a direct northern drive from San Antonio or whether you have to go more northeast. Creative writers can sometimes be at their most creative when they're finding ways to avoid writing. I've done it myself, and my problem is compounded by the fact that I do write a lot of non-fiction where research is often the biggest allocation of time.

I do allow myself to do some research as I'm working on a fictional piece, but I use quick sources such as Wikipedia and put in marks to indicate that I need to check these things more closely later. The internet has been such a boon to researchers (although you have to be careful of its "facts" sometimes), and for me has also increased the fun level of that research. It's so easy to click another link, follow another trail to another fascinating tidbit. But down that way lies madness... or, uhm, at least procrastination.

In other news, both my new home computer and my new office computer are up and running and all is well with my little world. Now, if I can just keep from "researching" all those new bells and whistles that I'll never need.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Rewriting the Classics

I found a great quote in On Writing Horror, in a piece by Michael Marano, although he makes clear that he got the basic idea from another writer. The quote is: " read a passage is to fly over it, while writing it out is to walk the same path that the writer did." Marano suggests finding passages from writers that you find particularly effective in creating horror and "type" those out yourself so as to put yourself in that writer's shoes. It wouldn't have to be horror, of course. You could retype a particularly telling bit of description, or an adept bit of characterization. I think I'm going to give this a try and see what happens. Has anyone done this?

Here's my first example, from Matthiessen's Snow Leopard:

"The old man has been ravened from within. That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out. I nod to Death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path. The ancient is lost in a shadow world, and gives no sign."

OK, a couple of quick points. For this exercise I don't think you need to worry about such things as getting the dash in "caved-in." Maybe it is even informative if you "don't" get it perfectly right but then compare your version to the other author's. I also automatically feel a push to rewrite it, to make it my own, not because I see problems with it, but just because, beautiful as it is, it's not how "I" would say it. And yet, I don't think I could improve on it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Year I Gave up on Writing

At eighteen I wrote my first novel, a western entitled "The Bear Paw Valley," which was pretty much a Louis L'Amour pastiche. One of the English profs at Arkansas Tech University where I went was a writer with a dozen published novels, and he was also the only writer I'd ever heard of who grew up in my tiny home town of Charleston, Arkansas. I took my book to him to read and he graciously did so. He came back and told me that it was unpublishable, which was true, but that I seemed to have a talent for writing and that he'd like me to write something else for him, and that he'd look it over for me and then send it to his agent. That was probably about as high as I'd ever been.

I went home that night and started a new novel, a much more contemporary and autobiographical work. Within a week I had over thirty pages, and I went to talk to him the next Monday morning about my progress only to find out that he'd choked on a chicken bone and died over the weekend. The man's name was Francis Gwaltney, and even though I'd known him only a little while I'd come to like him very much. Apparently he'd gone out to celebrate the publication of his new novel.

I took Gwaltney's death pretty hard, and part of that honestly was because it seemed to destroy a dream that I'd had for myself of writing. I remember taking it as a kind of sign and I didn't write another word of fiction until I was in graduate school in psychology, which was about six years or so later.

In retrospect, it was a childish thing for me to do, to give up on my writing because of something that happened to another writer of my acquaintence. But if I was so childish as to do so, then maybe it was a good thing. Because maybe it showed that at the time I didn't have a damn thing to say. Writing is not just the words and the style. It's about something. Maybe nothing profound. Maybe nothing more than "here's the way I see it." But even that can be important. Even that is needed.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

New Computer Buzz

Well, my computer woes have been dealt with. I got a new laptop at school and spent most of Friday setting that up, and Circuit City finally found my new computer. I brought that home but haven't hooked it up yet. We have company and there's no time at the moment to fiddle with a computer. In fact, I may not get to hook it up until Tuesday. Our company isn't leaving until late evening and Monday I have a 15 hour day at work. But I feel better just knowing I've gotten my new machines. I'll have to let everyone know how the new Vista machine with Microsoft Office Standard works. For reasons unknown, my new school laptop still has XP on it, but it certainly has more capabilities than the old one did, as well as having a mouse and word processor that works.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Sometimes I'm envious of movie makers. They want to show something horrific, they just splash it on the screen and it's in your face. You may turn away, but the image has already imprinted itself on your neurons. Visual stimuli are potent for all humans other than those who are blind. We can see what is put before us.

Writers don't have the same luxury, and that's because our medium is not a silver screen but the imaginations of our readers. Literally, readers determine the effectiveness of our prose. Unless the reader can imagine what we describe, we fail. And while visual systems work largely the same in all people who see, imaginations come in a tremendous range of forms and strengths. Ever wonder why others rave about a book that you couldn't force your way through? It's because that book engaged their imaginations and not yours.

This doesn't mean that your imagination is weaker. It's just different. Or, maybe your imagination is stronger than the average. Maybe you weren't engaged because the images that others saw were old hat to you. I think this explains in part why rereading well-loved books from our childhoods can be disappointing. Our imaginations have moved on since that time, have grown fuller with experience.

I began thinking of such things because I'm trying to write a scary scene and it is damn hard. I can see the scene perfectly. If it happened in real life it would scare the bejeebers out of me. But how can I translate what I see into the words that will make others see the same? I suspect that I can't, at least not perfectly. Instead, to write this scene I have to step outside of myself and into a potential reader's imagination. I have to analyze how my words might be interpreted by someone with a different kind of imagination. And I have to remember what is perhaps the most important rule of writing horror.

Let the reader's own imagination do most of the work. The writer is only a facilitator of that process.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Computer Update

My old computer at home has been becoming steadily less usable over the past year. Microsoft Word locks up constantly, usually in the process of trying to save a file, which means information is lost. I back every file up three times and save every minute or so to multiple copies but information is still lost. And getting into a "flow" is virtually impossible because of the need to save every change so frequently. Last night I forgot, because the work was flowing, and I lost at least 10 minutes of writing.

My office computer is a laptop and a couple of weeks ago the internal mouse stopped working. I attached an external mouse, but every once in a while the internal mouse will spontaneously move the curser, highlighting a section of text which my next keystroke will erase.

So, I decided to buy a new computer. I went to Circuit City last Friday and put in my order for a new machine. They said I'd have to wait until Tuesday of this week to get the new Vista system so I waited. They didn't know what the cost of Microsoft office would be so I was to call them Tuesday. I did so in the morning, hoping I could pick the computer up on the way home, but they said they couldn't load it until I paid for it. I went in and paid for it but couldn't wait for the required hour to get everything set up and told them I'd get it Wednesday.

Apparently, Wednesday was national computer theft day because I went in the afternoon only to find that part of my order had been stolen, along with some other items, and that nothing was being released until an investigation was complete. They couldn't even give me a date for when my "already paid for" computer might be available to me. I suggested that Friday should be the latest or perhaps I'd be looking to cancel the order and get a refund. It would mean starting the process over, though, and mean more time working on my frustrating system at home. Sigh. I just wanted a new computer. Is that too much to ask? Lots of people have them. Lots of people get to take them home. I just wanted....