Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My visit to the real world 6-30-15

After months of little more in life than writing and book marketing, I emerged today to mow the lawn, buy new bookshelves, and do a few mundane tasks that needed doing.

Elizabeth Aisling Flygare was nice enough to buy me dinner and introduce me to mocha shakes at Arby’s. We looked for bookcases at Furniture Row, but they were oversized or priced far beyond my meagre budget. We did find a five shelf bookcase at Target for only $26.99 that I’ll need to assemble myself. I bought that, plus a ton of cat food. I also bought a container of Liquid Plumber drain restorer for my kitchen sink. The drain opener set off an alarm at checkout causing the clerk to need to scan my driver’s license. It seems that drain opener is now treated as a controlled substance, not unlike pseudoephedrine. Misguided youths are using liquid drain cleaner to get high. Stores are required by law to keep a copy of my driver’s license for 2 years each time I purchase pseudoephedrine allergy medications or liquid drain opener. If I try to buy more than the normal amount in a 2 year period, I will be declared a potential drug dealer and investigated.

And then, when I bought a Fiskars hardened steel saw that I intended to use to trim unwanted elm trees sprouting in my yard, the alarm sounded again. This time I already knew why. It’s the kind of bone saw serial killers in my Instruments of Death novels use to dismember human bodies. Heh heh. Honest, officer. I was only planning to use that saw on trees. Heh heh.

The killer of the evening, though, was a visit to the local Barnes and Noble store at Cherry Vale Mall where the fiction section was being reduced to make room for displays of toys, graphic novels, and games. None of my novels were displayed on store shelves. The customer service desk said they would be happy to order single copies to send directly to my home, but they did not stock my titles. My books were listed in their online catalog, but the titles were not part of the local store’s inventory. Neither were Andrew Vachss’ novels, nor Joe Lansdale’s, nor Alaya Dawn Johnson’s. They did carry Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Leger series and I found all of James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Jo Nesbo.

Elizabeth asked me on the way home if I were depressed because today was the official release day for Darkness and no store had it available. It is still on pre-order at Amazon and B&N.com. I wasn’t depressed. But I was disappointed.

So now I am ensconced back at my keyboard after a brief visit to the real world. I think I will hide here for awhile until it’s safe to venture out again.

Maybe by then my titles will be in the stores where customers’ drivers licenses will be scanned and saved for two years because my books are considered dangerous when consumed in quantity.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Emily Bird—Bird to her friends—is the viewpoint character of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s amazing young adult novel LOVE IS THE DRUG (Scholastic, 2014). Bird is an African-American teenaged-girl in her senior year at a prestigious Washington, DC, prep school. Bird has selected Stanford as her college of choice, much to her mother’s dismay. Emily’s parents are wealthy and prominent enough, and Bird’s grades and SAT scores good enough, to get her into any college she desires. Bird is borderline upper-crust, and she has ambivalent feelings about her pretentious mother and social-climbing classmates. He isn’t even sure she wants to go to college. But if she does continue her education, someplace far from her parents is preferable.

I love reading well-written YA fiction. I prefer to think of Love is the Drug as more a coming-of-age novel where characters are forced to make real choices for the first times in their lives, and they finally have to grow up or die. Characters in YA novels refreshingly question everything and everyone. They’re raw material being molded by events and the environment and whatever nurture they may have experienced in the past. Their hormones often get the better of their judgment. And they’re in a constant state of becoming, just like people in real life.

What Bird is becoming is scared to death. A new strain of flu, more virulent than the 1918 swine flu epidemic, is killing people world-wide. The American government claims the flu was engineered by terrorists, most likely from Venezuela or Iran, and directed at Americans. The President has declared martial law. Washington, DC, where Bird lives and is nearly half-way through her senior year at an elite DC prep school where the daughter of the Vice President of the United States is also a student, has quarantined sections of the city and instituted a nightly curfew. Students become virtual prisoners at the school. Bird’s parents are biochemists who work for the US government, and they are out of town on a secret mission. Their jobs are so top-secret Bird knows nothing about what they do nor where they work. When Bird innocently lets slip, during a party she attends with her boyfriend Paul, that she knows the actual name of the company her parents allegedly work for, government contractor and secret agent Roosevelt David takes a special interest in Bird and Bird’s friend Coffee. Coffee is the son of a Brazilian diplomat stationed in Washington, and he is a whiz at chemistry and notorious for dealing drugs to other students at school.

Bird wakes from a coma eight days after the party. She finds herself in the hospital with stitches in her head and an IV in her arm. She remembers little of what happened the night of the party. Was she drugged? Did Coffee drug her? Did Paul? Did Roosevelt David? Why?

The mystery deepens. Is Bird paranoid or is there a real conspiracy going on?

Love is the Drug is filled with great imagery and decent dialogue. The character insights are interesting. Sometimes even adults act like children, and sometimes children are more adult than they get credit for.

Identity is a recurring theme in this novel. Is one defined by family? By friends? By color? By education? By age? By sexual orientation?

What’s in a name? Would a bird, by any other name, be able to fly?

If you love science fiction or a good mystery or a well-wrought apocalyptic tale full of secrets and delusions and paranoid speculations, then Love is the Drug is a book you want to read.  It’s not perfect, but the story is superbly crafted. The human conflicts—both internal and external—seem real. The conspiracies seem plausible. The book may be a tad too long and might benefit from some selective editing near the end. But by then you’re so hooked you don’t want the novel to end and the final twists and turns of the plot keep the pages turning. Although this novel is suitable for young adults, it’s not a juvenile book by any means. It’s adult fiction at its finest.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dark Screams 5

Mick Garris knows horror. And he knows the film industry. So it should come as no surprise that “Everything You’ve Always Wanted” combines Mick’s love of horror with his love of film. Jack Tarrington (shades of Jack Torrance) is the middle-aged writer-director of Taxed, a twenty-five-year-old low-budget horror flick that is now considered a cult classic. When Jack accepts an invitation to be guest of honor at MonsterThon, a film-fan convention in Indianapolis, he discovers he’s not only idolized by midwestern horror fanatics but he has literally bit off more than he can chew. This is a cautionary tale along the lines of “Be careful what you wish for because you might actually get it.” It’s extreme horror that’s bloody, sexy, and scary.
“The Land of Sunshine” by Kealan Patrick Burke is like viewing a gloomy black-and-white silent film after Mick Garris’ noisy 35mm full-color print. “Mechanical Gratitude” by Del James is about a ‘68 Camero that goes, like intervening years passing Arn and Betty by, much too fast. “The One and Only” by J. Kenner takes us to a New Orleans where lost loves and voodoo forever reside. “The Playhouse” by Bentley Little is a nasty little tale about a haunted real-estate agent who loses more than track of time. The Bentley Little and Mick Garris stories are the best of the bunch this time around. Dark Screams Volume 5, despite the Garris and Little contributions, lacks the superior quality of earlier volumes.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

I see voices

Each writer has her or his own distinct “voice.” Some writers spend decades looking for their unique voices, and others find theirs with the very first story they write. Voice and style are related but different.

Voice is what a reader hears inside his or her head when reading words. Storytelling is an art that existed long before the written word, and the best storytellers have a natural rhythm that mesmerizes listeners with alliteration, repetition, rhyme, parallel structures, and patterns of pacing that enchant and entrance.

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information. Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

One of those writers admitted to having difficulty reading stories published in books and sf magazines. It wasn’t until he listened to books on tape or CD—auditory files—that he found his own voice for his writing. He “hears” stories inside his head. Then he translates those stories into symbols that comprise the written word based on the spoken word. Once he discovered where his voice came from, he has become a prolific author.

 I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help. Different strokes for different folks.

If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, Kevin J. Anderson, and the guy I met at the nebulas, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder or into a program like Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking. Dragon for Windows or Macs will type your spoken words for you with up to 95% accuracy. There is a slight learning curve, but it will increase the output of an auditory person exponentially.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see. The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory. The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

I can listen to music all day and appreciate the rhythms but not duplicate the sounds “as is” on a musical instrument. I can, however, imagine the notes appearing individually on a musical score, write those notes down, arrange counterpoint and harmony, and play the music on nearly any instrument by following the sheet music. After translating the visual score into kinesthetic fingerings or vocalizations, I can practice until I get the rhythm right. I then artificially add feeling to change tone and timbre and provide warmth to the composition. The end result might be the same, but it takes an auditory-digital a much longer time to get there than an auditory-kinesthetic. I don’t do well at impromptu jam-sessions. I don’t hear or feel the music. I see the music.

It took me fifty years to find my voice. I went about it the long and hard way. Instead of listening to other voices, I saw written words on paper. I only imagined what those words sounded like. It wasn’t until I read my written words aloud at conventions that I decided to include the spoken word as an important part of my writing process.

Some people tell me they find it difficult to imagine. They feel, they do, they hear, they speak. They don’t see images. They’re not lying. They can’t easily visualize. The way to reach such people is to touch them, to speak to them, to mimic them and then lead them to accept new experiences via their primary senses. It’s easy once you have established rapport. Let them hear and feel what you want them to see. Images will eventually appear in their mind’s eye. It just takes some people longer than others to see what you want them to see.

Auditory digitals, like me, often get hung up on description. We tend to write long narratives that include copious details better left to dialogue. We tend to view scenes from multiple viewpoints rather than a personal POV. We tend to lecture and to provide too much information, much more than any one character (or any one reader) is capable of handling. Therefore, we need to be ruthless in our editing. We need to butcher our little darlings. We need to cut out all the fat but leave enough meat on the bone to be both nourishing and palatable.

To find your own voice, determine how you primarily access information and process sensual input. Listen to your voice, see your voice, feel your voice, taste your voice, smell your voice. Temper your voice with style. Style is deliberate manipulation of words to invoke more than one sense by using alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, simile, and all those other verbal skills you possess but don’t normally use. Begin in your own comfort zone and venture outside it. Write until all your fingers are sore, you’re vividly hallucinating, and the voice inside your head is telling you what to do next. Then stop just long enough to smell the roses and to taste success before you pick up the pen to write again.

Tell your stories in your own way with your own voice. Just remember that not everyone will be able to see or hear your words the same way you do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Dark Screams Volume 4

Dark Screams Volume 4 begins with a Clive Barker story that proves death can, after all, be fun. In “The New War” by Lisa Morton, Mike Carson is more than a little confused. Has he lost touch with reality? Or is someone or something really trying to kill him? “Sammy Comes Home” by Ray Garton is a deceptive retelling of the old Lassie Come Home tale, only this dog isn’t Lassie and home isn’t home sweet home any more. “The Brasher Girl” by Ed Gorman proves that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” is so very true. Gorman admits to stealing the story idea from his friend Stephen King. Gorman’s tale is so powerful that Heather Graham’s “Creature Feature” seems lame by comparison. “Creature Feature” is an okay story but the writing seems hurried and the editors should have offered suggestions for shoring up the prose. Gorman’s brilliant story and Lisa Morton’s poignant tale make Dark Screams Volume 4 worth buying. The other stories are icing on the cake.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fast Reads

When I used James Patterson’s magic formula for fast-paced thriller fiction—lots of dialogue, short one-sentence paragraphs, and two-to-five-page chapters—critics were all over me like flies on excrement. One critic wrote he’d bought the book at an airport newsstand and finished it by the time he landed at his destination. He had nothing bad to say about the plot or characters. What pissed him off was paying for a novel that satisfied his hunger about as long as Chinese takeout.

We expect series novels to be fast reads. When you finish one, you are ready for another. That’s what keeps series writers in egg rolls. We want you to hunger for more of the same.

Unfortunately, I listened to critics in those days before James Patterson. I began to craft elaborate narratives with long, complex poetic sentences. My chapters became twenty or more pages long, and my dialogues sounded like university lectures or Shakespearean soliloquies. Those novels got better reviews, but sold far fewer copies. I had plots and subplots coming out the ying-yang.

If I want people to read my novels—and I do—I need to make my novels more accessible to modern readers. Our attention spans have narrowed dramatically, and we prefer sound-bites to in-depth analyses. I appreciate quick reads as much as the next guy.

I’m going to experiment with fast reads and see if I can create a series people will want to buy because, even if they can’t put the book down, there will be an end within easy reach. Then, if they hunger for more, they can buy my next novel.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What I Learned at the 2015 Nebua Awards

What I learned from attending the 2015 Nebula Awards

I just returned from the Nebulas. Wonderful to see so many of my old friends at the Awards ceremonies and receptions. I had to take second looks to recognize some of those old friends because they have literally become old (not just older, but real-world old) and now have grey or white hair and, in some cases, extra pounds around the middle or walk with the help of a cane or walker. It’s the ancient story of Cane and Able made flesh: we seniors need canes in order to be able to walk. Some of my old friends recognized me, and some didn’t. Esther Friesner bumped into me in the SFWA hospitality suite and said, “I know you. Where do I know you from?”

After a voluntary absence from major science fiction and fantasy publications for more than twenty-five years (although I did remain an active SFWA member and attended the 2005 Nebulas), none of the younger puppies (no relation to the sad or rabid puppies) recognized my face, my name, or my writing. I wasn’t really surprised because something similar happened when I attended the Stokers in Atlanta and Odyssey Con and Wiscon in Madison, so I prepared in advance to make new friends by handing out printed business cards and free pens.

Once or twice I even actively engaged in lively conversations with new writers. I’m the shy guy who prefers to sit in the shadows and listen to conversations and observe human (and inhuman) interactions. Lively conversations are not my forte, except when penning written dialogue. I was born with a physical speech defect and I get tongue-tied easily. Few people know that about me. I had corrective surgery as an infant, and I endured remedial speech classes at Rolling Green Elementary School from second through sixth grades. My speech handicap is one of the reasons for my extraordinary shyness.

I learned, at a very early age, to write rather than speak. My comfort zone is sitting behind a typewriter keyboard (now a computer keyboard) to communicate. When I get tongue-tied or stutter, I can easily edit it out of written words.

I can, of course, edit real-world spoken conversations. I acquired the necessary skill sets while completing research for my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertations in Ed Psych. I usually refrain from toying with people’s memories because I don’t think it’s ethical without informed consent. That’s the type of thing villains in my novels do.

Some of you know I am an accomplished hypnotist and NLP practitioner. I was Board Certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists and I taught hypnotism to students in my own school at the enTrance Center and in college-level classes. I helped people recall past-life memories and reframe memories from their current lives. It is ethical to use my skills for therapeutic purposes. I have mixed feelings about using them in sales and marketing, although I am aware they can be highly effective.

Some of the writers I encountered at the Nebulas do use, whether consciously or subconsciously, the same skills for marketing themselves and their fiction. Blake Hausladen is an expert at marketing his books. Richard Thomas, besides being a fine writer, is personable and friendly and promotes other writers, thereby promoting himself in the process. Many of the up-and-coming writers are primarily auditory, and they have excellent story-telling skills because they can translate everything they hear directly into words. Since I am primarily auditory-digital, I translate into symbols before I can translate into spoken words or words on paper. I often get locked into left-brain activity for ninety to one-hundred and thirty minutes where I am lost in thought and can’t respond automatically. I know how to overcome that limitation, but I must consciously choose to do so. It takes extra effort on my part. I’m not always willing to expend the extra effort.

            But I did learn a lot from meeting and interacting with people at the Nebulas this year. I made new friends and renewed old acquaintances. I learned that name recognition and awards are even more important than most people believe.

            I also learned that writers are readers and they buy books. But writers, like fans, buy books only from names they know. There are far too many books available to waste time and money on books that aren’t guaranteed good reads.

            The value of awards—whether Nebulas, Stokers, Edgars, or Hugos—is they have been previously vetted by a large number of readers. Award winners are considered worth reading and knowing. I’m grateful I was able to rekindle (no pun intended, Amazon) relationships with former Nebula winners and get to know future award-winners. Thank you SFWA for the wonderful memories. It was worth every minute spent away from my keyboard.