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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bad Day at Black Rock


I call today my “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Everyone has a bad day once in a while. Today is mine.

John Sturgis made a movie based on Howard Breslin’s 1947 short story published in The American Magazine. Millard Kaufman and Don McGiuire wrote the screenplay. MGM released the movie in 1955. It starred Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. It was nominated for several Academy Awards in 1955, including Best Story and Best Screenplay. It lost to Marty, which also starred Ernest Borgnine. In my opinion, this film is the perfect example of a noir thriller. And it is, coincidentally, also a western of sorts.

Today is my Bad Day at Black Rock because three years ago today my beloved wife of twenty-seven years, Gretta M. Anderson, died of a massive heart attack. I awoke at 5:27 AM on January 31, 2012 to discover Gretta dead on the bathroom floor. She died the same way Elvis did. Gretta had battled both diabetes and heart disease for many years, and she lost the battle and the war when her heart burst like a balloon pumped too full of air.

For more than a year after Gretta died, I awoke every morning at five-fifteen. My subconscious erroneously believed that if only I had awakened a few minutes earlier I might have been able to save Gretta. Although I now know there was nothing I could possibly have done that would have made a difference, I still awaken around the same time each morning. I do manage to go back to sleep most mornings, but not today. Today I had to get up and write.

Writing is what keeps me sane in an insane world. Many of my stories, both those written before Gretta’s death and after, have protagonists that punish themselves because of guilt over something they either did or did not do in their pasts. Perhaps it’s only a projection of my own self, but I discovered most of the clients I helped during twenty years of hypnosis practice also needed to overcome guilt issues that affected their lives in order to become well. If you believe as I do in the Diathesis-Stress theory of disease, you know that most cancers are the result of unresolved guilt. So are all diseases of the heart. Guilt is the insidious driving force that changes lives and often leads to death.

Those hypnosis clients of mine who alleviated their guilt feelings by reframing past events were able to significantly improve both the quality and duration of their lives, some becoming totally cancer-free and pain-free. The mind is a powerful tool that can kill or cure. We cannot consciously control which it will do.

Consciously, I know there was nothing I could do to save Gretta. Unconsciously, however, I still feel guilty.

Gretta knew there was nothing she could have done to help her mother, either. Gretta’s father deliberately made her feel guilty by insisting she had not done enough. I suspect he did that because he felt guilty for abandoning his own mother. Gretta’s diabetes and heart disease both manifested after Gretta’s mother became ill and Gretta’s father laid guilt trips on both of his daughters. Gretta was never able to overcome that guilt nor the anger she felt toward her parents and redirected toward herself. Eventually, it was that pent-up guilt and anger that killed her as surely as if her father put a gun to her head and squeezed the trigger.

Let me say this now as clearly as I can: Each of us is responsible only for our own lives and happiness. Feeling guilty about the past, especially about things one neglected to do, is counterproductive and can be deadly. We must learn to forgive ourselves and others. We can pay our karmic debts in the next life. There is no need to punish ourselves in this life.

If you get the chance, watch the Sturgis Bad Day at Black Rock film. It’s a classic.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Those who know me well, know I’m a shy guy. I don’t like talking about myself because I’m a private person. I am a good listener, however. And I’d much rather hear about other people’s lives than my own.
            I’m the lurker in the shadows, the one who reads all of my friends’ posts on blogs and Facebook and who so seldom comments. I was the wallflower at the school dances, the reporter who covered the four-alarm fires and drive-bys, the one who preferred to take photographs to appearing in them. I would rather observe than participate. Perhaps that’s why I love reading so much. I get to observe other people living their lives while forgetting about my own.
            I was the sideline guy on the varsity teams in high school and college. I was good enough to make the teams and earn varsity letters, but I was never motivated to be a star player. I was satisfied just being a team player, although I didn’t get to play in every game. That has been true of my writing, too. I have been happy to be a mid-list author, qualifying for membership in SFWA, HWA, MWA, and ITW. But I never wanted to win an award, and I always downplayed the quality of my work. I hid behind pseudonyms like a shy child hiding behind his mother’s skirts.
            When I wrote about myself, it was usually in the third person. I much prefer reading books written in the third person, and most of my novels and short stories are third-person narratives. It’s difficult for me to write these first-person pieces under my own by-line, but the discipline is good for me, too. I’m out of my comfort zone, and I realize feeling uncomfortable may be necessary if I want to continue to grow both as a person and as a writer. One of the reasons I write horror is because it makes people uncomfortable and helps them grow spiritually as they confront their worst fears.
            Part of my growth as a writer occurred when I emerged from the sidelines to play the game in earnest. I now put my whole name on manuscripts and reviews, and I appear on panels at conventions and sign at bookstores using my own name. I have recently begun to give interviews where I will talk about myself and my craft.
            There is a familiar voice inside of me—my father’s voice—screaming loudly that I’ll make myself a target. Being out in the open makes me vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. My father, also a shy man, warned me often of the dangers of being a public person. Do only enough to survive, he cautioned. When you go public, you will create enemies. It is better to remain invisible, to be an average person, to get lost in a crowd.
            My father, whose name was Paul Anders Anderson, settled for half-measures all of his life. He died at the age of sixty-four when I was twenty-four. He was an average middle-class man. He left behind a son, a granddaughter, a house, and not much more. Few people alive today still remember him.
            I have spent my entire life making mistakes and learning from them. One of the mistakes I made was listening to my father.
            My father also told me it was okay to write, but one couldn’t expect to earn a living from writing. One should have a career that paid the bills and provided for a family. That was my father’s dream, and he realized his dream.
            My dream has always been to write stories that revealed a small kernel of truth buried beneath a top-layer of fertile soil. Truth—the real nature of things—is, by its very nature, occult. Truth, like God, must be hidden from man’s conscious mind if it is to continue to exist. It can only be revealed, a little at a time, when the subconscious recognizes the secret meaning of universal archetypal symbols. Otherwise, truth would surely be devoured by animals hungry for truth before it had even a chance to grow into a tall tree like the proverbial mustard seed.
            My father wanted me to be an engineer or an architect, someone who built things. Or to serve as a soldier, something he was unable to do because he was too young to enlist in World War I and too old to enlist in WWII. My mother wanted me to be a teacher or a minister. I was able to do all of those things, serving in the military from 1966 until 1987, part of which was with the Army Corps of Engineers. I studied electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, switching my major from EE to physics and eventually to journalism. I studied philosophy at Rockford College. I earned my BA from Loyola University with a major in English and a minor in journalism. I continued my education by earning a masters in Educational Psychology and most of a doctorate from Northern Illinois University.  I also earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. I taught creative writing at the University of Illinois and for Writers Digest Schools. I was a certified instructor for the National Guild of Hypnotists, and I taught hypnosis at the enTrance Center and at Rock Valley College.
            I have been an ordained minister, and I have married people and buried people.
             I have been, like Yeats’ slate-colored thing, many things in this life. Being many things, I think, is fitting for a writer.
            Now, at last, I am ready to write. I am ready to emerge from obscurity and make my name known. Too few people read my books unless they know my name.
            Name recognition appears to be the number one reason for book buying.  When I was an editor (yes, I was an editor, too, and have the mastheads to prove it), I know I paid more attention to big-name writers and often bought their works mainly to add prestige to the publication. I know agents also pay attention to established names. And I know from my own book-buying experience that I buy books from names I recognize rather than take a chance on an unknown author. I am also willing to pay more to read a name I know than a work from an unknown, despite the fact that the greatest joy a reader, agent, or editor can have is to discover a hitherto unknown masterpiece from someone new.
            Masterpieces are few and far between. Stephen King’s The Stand is a masterpiece. Gone With the Wind is a masterpiece. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a masterpiece. I like to think my own novel, Abandoned, is a masterpiece. I want people to read it. You don’t have to buy it. Just go to your library and check it out. Or find Abandoned at your local bookstore and read a chapter at a time while sipping coffee in the store’s coffee shop, if they have one.
            Of course, I have been disappointed with some of the works of big name authors. Writers are notoriously inconsistent, and good writers write a variety of stories as part of their growth process. Some stories appeal to me more than others. At least, with a name author, I can expect to read a competent story even if it isn’t my cup of tea.
            I hate giving interviews. I am a private person who only exposes himself through his writing, and I abhor talking about myself or my work. If I had the money and knew of a good publicist, I would pay to have someone else write news releases and give interviews for me. My publishers do a small amount of publicity, but they expect me to do the actual leg work of appearing in public. So, once again, I must leave my comfort zone and venture out into the cold cruel world and answer questions to make my name and face known. I would so much rather remain at home where it’s warm, comfortable, and I can write all day.
            Abandoned will be published on March 1st, and Eldritch Press is already taking pre-pub orders (at a 20% discount, I might add). The Devil Made Me Do It and Daddy’s Home are already available from Crossroad Press as e-books. A revised Claw Hammer will be next, followed by Pick Axe and Ice Pick. If I want these titles to sell well and lots of people to read them, I need to let people know what the books are about and where to get them. Interviews, especially magazine and newspaper interviews, reach a lot of potential readers. TV and radio interviews do sell books, but those books are seldom read all the way through. Regardless, I need to do all of those interviews in hopes of finding the one reader whose life will be changed forever by my words.
            You may have already guessed I wrote this to psych myself up to do interviews. I’ve done lots of interviews before, both print and media, and I want to be prepared with answers to as many questions as possible. When an interviewer asks me, “What is Abandoned about?” I’ll reply, “Redemption.” That’s it, really. My entire elevator speech. The book is about redemption.
            It’s about making mistakes and learning from our mistakes. It’s about ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities. It’s about good and evil warring on multiple levels. It’s about life and love and greed and salvation. It’s about belief and endurance, hope and despair. It’s about karma and reincarnation. It’s about forgiveness for not knowing and it’s about doing better the next time around.

 

           

 

           

 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two of the Nice Things about Social Media, Especially Blogs



 
I’ve quoted Shakespeare often before, and I’ll quote the Bard now again. In the first scene of the fifth act of The Tempest, Miranda exclaims, “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!” Prospero replies: “Tis new to thee.”

Social media is relatively new to me. I began writing in the late 1940s, pounding out stories on an old Remington upright. I migrated to a manual Royal in the early 1950s, acquired an electric Smith-Corona in the 1960s, and got my first dedicated word processor in the 1970s. By the 1980s, I was writing on computers: Commodore 64 (with a voice tape recorder to save files), Apple IIe (with dual 5.1 inch floppy disk drives), Mac SE with a 120K hard drive. I paid $7,000 for a Macintosh portable in 1990. It had one megabite of RAM and a small hard drive and used 3.5 inch floppy disks to store stories. But—miracle of miracles--I could connect it to a modem, connect the modem to a telephone line, and access Genie. SFWA had an online discussion board on Genie where I could post messages and read messages from other writers. HWA followed SFWA onto Genie not long after, and my novel and short story writing suffered as I learned the new technologies and spent way too much time online. I followed SFWA onto Compuserv and then AOL and, finally, to the worldwide web. I was a lurker as much as a contributor, and I felt a part of the writing community even if I were no longer writing fiction.

When Gretta developed heart problems and I was diagnosed with cancer, I stopped writing fiction entirely and became a researcher. I used hypnosis and visualization to shrink my tumors until they disappeared, and Gretta used hypnosis to generate new arteries in her heart. Gretta lost her battle with heart disease and diabetes in 2012, and I returned to fiction writing shortly thereafter.

I discovered modern social media while earning a masters in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin and working on my doctorate in Educational Psychology. So computers, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, e-books, and website creation weren’t exactly new to me by the time I returned to full-time fiction writing. But I still have Miranda’s sense of wonder at how many goodly creatures there are here online.

I now keep in touch daily with hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of readers through Blogger, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google +. I can download e-books instantly from Amazon or Barnesandnoble.com. And I can literally see the faces and workspaces of other writers and read about their daily struggles to commit words to memory.

That seems like a godsend to me. I am no longer alone at my keyboard facing a blank screen.

Writers are lonely people who want desperately to connect their minds with other minds. They attempt to do that with words and images while wishing direct mind-to-mind communication were possible. Sometimes, when a writer recognizes her own thoughts in the writings of others, mind-to-mind communication does indeed seem possible.

I maintain blogs on Blogger, Tumblr, and Wordpress, and so do many other writers. Some writers post about their daily struggles, and some talk openly about the process they follow to create works of fiction. I used to think it was a waste of time and creative energy to devote hours and thousands of words daily to blogs, but I was wrong.

Blog postings, like short stories, can be collected into books. I can go back to blogs I have written, extract the most salient points, and edit them into a book on the process I follow to create fiction. Such a book can be valuable not only to me but to other writers, especially new writers just learning the craft.

Just as important, however, is the name exposure. When people go into a bookstore—either a brick-and-mortar bookstore or an online emporium—they might recognize my name and take a look inside a book with my name on it. I do that, and I suspect others do that, too. I don’t buy a book simply because of author name recognition, but I do take a look inside every book by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, Joe R Lansdale, Billie Sue Mosiman, Mark Rainey, Lee Child, David Morrell, Brian Garfield, and everyone I befriend on Facebook. If their stories or styles interest me, I buy their books. I would hope people do that with my books.

One of the nice things about blogs is seeing a writer’s style before buying his or her books. It costs nothing but a few moments of time to scan a blog. I have bought books recently solely because I liked what I read on the author’s blog.

 

Coming Next: Author Interviews and Elevator Pitches

Sunday, January 4, 2015

First in a Series


We couldn’t afford to pay for premium cable television, so Gretta and I missed viewing The Sopranos when it originally ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007. To help Gretta, my beloved wife, recover from open heart surgery after her third heart attack in 2007, I brought home from the Rockford Public Library, where I worked daily at the main reference desk, copious books and DVDs, including the entire series of The Sopranos. Gretta, who grew up in Berwyn and Cicero, claimed she knew neighbors exactly like Tony Soprano and his fictitious family. Since Gretta’s father’s house and Sam Giancana’s house, where Sam the Cigar was shot in the head at close range in 1997, were less than eight blocks apart, I believed her.

Gretta and I watched the first five seasons on DVD between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. We had to wait a whole year for the library to acquire both parts of the sixth season. After we finished laughing at the Sopranos, we watched the entire series of The Equalizer, then Hunter, then the Wild Wild West (all mutual favorites). We made it a family tradition to watch another complete television series every winter after 2007, a non-stop marathon of old tv shows between Christmas and New Year’s.  When Gretta died in 2012, I kept the tradition alive by watching the first two seasons of The Game of Thrones.

            This year, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, I watched all five seasons of The Dead Zone, one of my many wonderful Christmas presents from Elizabeth. I also reread the novel by Stephen King.

            I wasn’t surprised to discover my daughter developed the same tradition independently. Tammy told me yesterday that she bought an entire season of The Andy Griffith Show on DVD. I gave her the first season of The Big Bang Theory a few years ago as a present. She told me recently she was bidding on e-bay for the complete first season of The Monkeys, and she had just finished watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Danny Thomas’ nostalgic Make Room For Daddy.

            The reason I mention this is the eye-opening epiphany I had recently when one of my publishers, Crossroad Press, offered bundles of e-books, featuring first novels in various series, for a song. I couldn’t help but notice that Amazon also offers first novels in series for a steal (often 99 cents or sometimes free), and I certainly couldn’t afford to pass up any of these deals. I now find myself purchasing the second, third, fourth, and even fifth novels in some of those series at regular price.

            What is it about series characters that we find so attractive? Why will we spend money on acquiring all of a series instead of buying stand-alone books or movies?

            As Rod Serling might say, “I submit to you the reason lies beyond human understanding, somewhere in that nebulous region of the human psyche known only as The Twilight Zone.” Or maybe it’s buried in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.

            I submit to you that the reason is simply a feeling of family evoked by series characters, a feeling we may have lost in real life. We feel it most strongly over the holidays. We feel a need to return home and be in the company of those people we have loved in the past. If we can’t do it in the real world, then we do so in fictional worlds.

            What all successful series have in common is this sense of family. Think about the incestuous Game of Thrones for a moment. Doesn’t the interaction of the various characters remind you of the interactions of your own family?

            Or how about John Smith and his extended family?

            Or Mary Tyler Moore and Mr. Grant and Maury and Rhoda?

            Or how about the characters in One Life to Live or General Hospital or The Days of Our Lives?

…To Be Continued….