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Today I’m going to take you behind the scenes of my first novel, tentatively titled Terrible Strange. I started this and completed a rough first draft when I was in grad school a couple of years ago. However, there was so much wrong with it that I decided to put it away for a while – it just wasn’t speaking to me, you know?
Anyway, it did start speaking to me a few months ago so I set about rewriting it. I’ve changed the POV, made the characters older, took them out of high school and put them in grad school, got rid of the clichéd “angry dad” character, and did a LOT more digging into my protagonist’s backstory.
I have also left behind “pantsing” in favor of plotting.
I’m not gonna lie – it’s been a struggle to make such a big change to my writing process, but whenever you combine pantsing with ADD all you get is a hot mess that kinda looks like a story. At least, that’s been my experience.
So, I checked out a bunch of different plotting books – there are so many good ones – and loved two books in particular: Save the Cat Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody and Story Genius, by Lisa Cron.
I was already familiar with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat series from my screenwriting days, and Lisa Cron’s blueprint method of building a story that has both internal logic and a sense of urgency is brilliant. Plus, constantly asking yourself, and your characters, questions – as she recommends – really, really works. Who knew?
Anyway, despite my lack of productivity – God, how I wish I could regularly churn out 2,000 words a day like my OCD girl idols on YouTube – I have still managed to reach the midpoint in my novel. Yay!
How about you? Have you ever rewritten something from scratch because the story just wouldn’t let you go? No matter how hard you tried to leave it in the box of shame, or the folder of forgetfulness?
Please let me know in the Comment section.
Thanks for reading.
If you’re at all like me, you alternate between “good” writing days (you know, where you actually get some writing done), and “bad” writing days (all those other days where you barely string two sentences together before deleting them anyway).
So I wondered what other writers’ creative flow looked like.
Here are a few of the most famous works of fiction along with how much time the authors spent writing them.
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne. Published in 2006, the movie based on it came out in 2008. Boyne finished the first draft in 2.5 days.
- The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Originally published in 1954. It took Tolkien 16 years to finish it.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.), by J.K. Rowling. Published in the U.S. in 1998, it took Rowling 6 years to complete it.
- A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. First book in the fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice. It was published in 1996 and it took Martin 5 years to write it.
- Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Published on January 1, 1818, it took her a year to write it.
- IT, by Stephen King. Published in 1986. King says it was first conceived of in 1978, but that he didn’t start writing it until 1981. It was finished in 1985.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Published in 1960. It took Lee 2.5 years to complete it.
- Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. Published in 2005. Meyer wrote it in 3 months.
- A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Published in 1843. Dickens completed it in 6 weeks.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Published in 1886, Stevenson knocked this out in 6 days. So there you go.
We now know it takes anywhere from 2 and a half days to 16 years to finish something worth reading.
I feel better already. Don’t you?
Does knowing how long it took some of your favorite authors to write their novels help, or hurt?
Let me know in the Comments section.
Thanks for reading!
In 1978 Christopher J. Koch wrote an amazing novel about the 1965 failed coup attempt to oust Indonesian dictator “Bung” Sukarno. In the aftermath of that failure over 1,000,000 people were butchered. The book was called The Year of Living Dangerously and it was made into a movie in 1983.
Sukarno was president for 17 years and suppressed Indonesia’s parliamentary system in favor of an authoritarian “Guided Democracy.” Endowed with a “larger than life” personality, Sukarno’s personal and political excesses, and his infamous cabinet of 100 corrupt and cynical ministers, induced a continuous state of national crisis.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, welcome to my world. There don’t have to be exact parallels between Sukarno’s rule and the current president’s rule for you to get the chills and the heebie jeebies.
Americans have always felt immune to the harsh realities of life in other, less fortunate, countries. You know, those places where sociopathic dictators gleefully destroy their own countries for the sake of ego gratification and money?
This shit only happens in other countries, not America. Right?
However in the few minutes it took to stage that ridiculous “photo op” in front of St. John’s church America’s plight became all too clear —
- there was the obviously timed escalation of a peaceful protest into a “violent” protest (which simultaneously diminished and demonized the BLM protesters who were seeking justice for George Floyd and everyone else victimized by racism);
- followed by a mask-less Trump’s meandering walk across the street (accompanied by his band of equally mask-less minions, because, well, The Boss doesn’t wear a mask! and because Fuck Science!);
- ending with an already-disinterested Trump holding up a Bible for the camera.
Thanks for reading.
This week I want to talk about some of my favorite horror books.
You know, those books that do things to your head or your heart or your soul and make you want to read them over and over again?
Incidentally, if you like horror, there shouldn’t be any surprises here. These are the classics everyone should be cutting their teeth on. So to speak. So here, in no particular order are my choices:
- Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. 1962. This is a dark fantasy about two 13-year-old best friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, and the nightmarish travelling carnival that arrives in their small town a week before Halloween.
- Hell House, by Richard Matheson. 1971. Not sure if this was the first real haunted house novel, but it was certainly the scariest. A physicist and two mediums — one mental and one physical — are offered $100,000 each to spend the night in a haunted mansion so terrifying that it’s been abandoned and sealed since the last psychic expedition in 1949. But don’t take my word for it. “Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.” — Stephen King
- The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. 1971. Based on the true story of a child’s exorcism in St. Louis in 1949, it has been called the most controversial novel ever written.
- The Shining, by Stephen King. 1977. A disgraced prep school teacher accepts the job of seasonal caretaker at a haunted resort in Colorado with a long history of murder and debauchery. Oh, and he brings his wife and young son along for the ride. All the characters are top-notch here with one of my favs being the Overlook’s chef, Dick Hallorann.
- ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. 1975. A writer returns to the small Maine town where he grew up and discovers the residents are gradually turning into vampires. With a bit of Bram Stoker’s Dracula mixed in there for flavor, this book took vampires out of Transylvania and plopped them right in the middle of rural America. And made a convincing argument for why it could really happen, too.
- Night Shift, by Stephen King. 1978. King’s first short story collection. There are some heart-racing gems in here. Favs — “The Graveyard Shift,” “The Mangler,” and “I am the Doorway.” Shudder.
- The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, by Edgar Allan Poe. My first introduction to horror. Don’t be afraid you won’t like it because it’s written in a kind of old-fashioned style — it’s Poe, goddammit! He’s the original tortured artist. Just suck it up and read them. Favs — “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
- The Ruins, by Scott Smith. 2006. A horror thriller set in the Yucatan Peninsula, a group of young American, German, and Greek college students/tourists head into the Mexican jungle searching for a missing girl. What they find is literally the stuff of nightmares. This one had me sweating.
- Books of Blood, by Clive Barker. 1984-1985. Six volumes of dark, bloody horror stories. Favs include “The Book of Blood,” “The Midnight Meat Train,” “The Yattering and Jack,” “In the Hills, the Cities,” “Son of Celluloid,” and “Rawhead Rex.”
There are SO many more, but this post has to end somewhere. There is a butt-ton of books I haven’t listed here, and others I know are out there waiting for me to discover them. Ugh. Why can’t we live forever?
Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know some of your favorites in the Comments section.
Thanks. See you later!
I’ve loved Poe’s work ever since I was introduced to him as a kid. Bedtime reading has always been a thing for me, so you can imagine what happened the first time I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” before bed – parental shouting to “Go the hell to sleep!” followed by threats of what would happen if I didn’t go to sleep, followed by nightmares. Ah, childhood.
Needless to say, I had to have more. Some of that “more” included these tales which quickly became favorites. Re-reading them for this assignment made me realize something I’d never noticed before – they are all written from the killer’s perspective. Also, that “The Black Cat” is basically a re-write of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Both of those two stories involve a nameless protagonist who is bopping along, being a normal human being until one day he develops a twitch – he becomes obsessively, bitterly irritated by something he’d previously professed to “love” – a cat, and an older man, who may, or may not be, his father. In the cat’s case, the cat became too attached to him, practically tripping him by winding around the narrator’s legs. The old man never did anything to the protagonist, he just had a pale “vulture’s eye” that annoyed, and then infuriated, him.
We watch, helplessly, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the objects of his obsession until he finally, brutally kills them. The cat he leaves hanging in a tree – after having gouged one of its eyes out – oh, and the narrator’s wife gets killed too, then buried behind the wall. The old man gets dismembered, and then buried beneath the floor boards.
Both these tales of madness and murder are told by unreliable narrators who refuse to believe in their own madness. Could a madman describe horrors like these in such perfect detail? Could a madman exercise such monstrous patience, and cunning? Could a madman appear so cool and calm even after the police appear?
The short answer: Yes. Yes, he could.
Poe’s narrators go to great lengths to convince us they are not mad, they could never be mad, while the whole time they are very, very obviously mad.
The third story, “The Cask of Amontillado”
– even though it too is told from the perspective of the murderer – is different from these two stories for a number of reasons:
- There is no obsession over some minor point, developing into a monomaniacal hatred over time (unless you count whatever “slights” Montresor has suffered, which I suppose we can)
- The atmosphere of this story is light, even witty at times; it takes place during a carnival (and not during the Dark Ages, at night, which is how the other stories feel)
- The killer’s motives are somewhat more apparent to both him, and us – he seeks revenge for some former slights at the hand of a social superior (the murderers in “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” both insist there was “no reason” for their crimes, they just happened)
- The narrator of this story appears to have gotten away with his crime! (unlike the other two killers who are so overcome with guilt they give themselves away just when the police arrive)
However, the ending is familiar in one important way – the murderer walls up his victim. Only here, the victim, poor Fortunato, is not dead when he ends up in the wall. He is still alive! Poe has been leading us from murder to murder to murder. Each one more awful than the last, until finally, he reveals his ultimate horror – it’s not getting accidentally killed like the wife in “The Black Cat”, and it’s not being deliberately killed and dismembered as in “The Tell-Tale Heart. For Poe the worst kind of death is a long, lingering one; where you’re trapped in a dark, forgotten place, and where no one can hear you scream.
And that’s why we’re still reading Poe more than a hundred and fifty years later.
A fantastic graphic novel, originally written in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke is still being discussed by comic book fans. The most obvious reason, initially, is because of Bolland’s stunning, legendary art. That’s what draws you in – all those amazing pictures. Bolland’s Batman is truly the Dark Knight, while his Joker is deliriously, magnificently insane. Know how you can tell? Those perfect, yellow teeth.
Anyway, so you come for the art, but you stay for the story. Alan Moore is the guy who wrote The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell – all extraordinary works that went on to become terrific films.
The Killing Joke is supposed to be a stand-alone story in the Bat-verse – not part of the accepted canon, but tolerated as an alternate nightmare coming from the minds of two masters. Here we see an origin story for the Joker where he’s just a regular guy with a wife, and a kid on the way, who gets led astray by his criminal pals. This Joker seems almost unbearably naïve – anyone can see those “friends” of his are up to no good. (Of course, it helps that all the early Joker bits are done in a kind of Forties-style black and white. Nothing says “mob” and “criminal” like guys in fedoras and cheesy moustaches.)
The Joker, appropriately enough, is a failed comic. But he used to be a lab assistant at a chemical plant, and that’s how he gets mixed up with the bad guys – they want to rob that plant – although I don’t think the reason why they want to do that is ever made clear. When it goes bad, the crooks run away, leaving their “friend” behind to get caught. Batman chases him; he falls into a vat of mysterious chemicals and eventually emerges as The Joker.
So Batman is there at The Joker’s beginning. You could say he was the cause of The Joker, because he never would have fallen into those chemicals if Batman hadn’t been chasing him. Maybe Batman feels a little responsible for the guy. Maybe The Joker blames him a little. Maybe a lot. In any case, in this story The Joker is trying to “Make a Point” – yes, he’s one of those psychos – by doing as much damage as he can think of to two people Batman holds dear – Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, Barbara. Things get pretty heinous. You could even say they get graphic.
And the point The Joker is trying to make here? That anyone, anyone can be driven insane if given enough incentive. It’s been his theme song all along, it seems. The excuse The Joker needs to believe, the rationale has been telling himself all these years – It’s not my fault I’m crazy.
Does he succeed? Does The Joker manage to ruin three good people just so he can finally feel good about himself?
As if. Read it and find out for yourself.
I’ve been reading comics for years. The best ones are amazing collaborations of art and literature, and Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the best.
Jack Ketchum’s writing is astonishing.
Pretty much as soon as I started reading this book, my entire body wanted to clench up. Literally. I usually read in bed before turning in, and by the end of the first chapter I had to remind myself to relax – it’s only a story.
So Ketchum really knows how to ratchet up the tension and keep it there.
The guy is talented. However, despite that, I didn’t like this book. I’ve read one or two other Ketchum books – since he is often found lurking in the horror section of Barnes and Noble – and even though they definitely had an effect on me, it wasn’t one that I liked.
Joyride is the story of Carole, an abused ex-wife, and Lee, her lover. They plot together to knock off Carole’s ex, since he can’t seem to either stay away from his ex-wife, or to keep his hands off her. The police, of course, see nothing and do nothing since the ex is a local, powerful businessman (is there any other kind in these stories?). The plan? Lure the ex to a secluded place in a nearby public park – lots of woods, hiking trails, and varied topography. You get the picture. Then, after a rather clunky murder of the ex, Carole and Lee take off, shocked by their experience, but also relieved. Like, Thank God, that’s over.
Except that it’s not. Up on a hill, looking down on them the whole time, is batshit-crazy Wayne. Wayne had just been in the process of trying to strangle his girlfriend while having sex with her, but it wasn’t working out. She gets up and leaves in a huff – and Wayne lets her go. It is here that Wayne’s character – bored, fickle, randomly violent – starts to emerge.
(I always cringe for the close-encounter- almost-victims in fiction and true stories: Girl, do you know how close you came…? Shiver.)
Anyway, Wayne watches the desperate lovers do the deed. Then when a nervous Lee glances up to see if anyone is around, Wayne recognizes Lee as a sometime-patron of the bar where he works.
Ouch. More randomness at play.
In that moment, Wayne mistakes them for his long-lost soul mates in murder and decides to make friends. It’s kind of all downhill from there for Carole and Lee as their lives descend into a pit of murder, rape, torture and mayhem, courtesy of their buddy, Wayne.
Joyride is not exactly like a written version of a gore-fest movie since there is an effort to create real and sympathetic characters with Carole, Lee and Lieutenant Rule, but it’s kind of a limp-fish attempt.
The depiction of Carole as an abused ex-wife felt like a checklist job. I also felt like Lee was just going through the motions of acting as the ardent, righteous lover who saves his girlfriend from her nasty old man. Towards the end, there, I honestly thought he was going to tell Carole, Bitch, you are too high-maintenance for me. I am outta here. But then he got killed before he could. Lieutenant Rule, the one cop in town who’d kept half-an-eye on Carole’s plight while she was going through hell, seemed like he’d wandered out of a different novel. You know, like maybe a detective story where he was the protagonist?
The real star of Joyride, though, had to be Wayne. He was a realistic, creepy psychopath; there’s no denying it. The fact that he was an amalgamation of two real-life psychopaths only made him stronger, in my opinion.
Speaking of that, a few people have complained that Ketchum basically steals his story ideas from true life situations and people. There is nothing wrong with this. We all do it to some extent as writers, and remember – Robert Bloch did it with Psycho and everyone loved it.
As far as I’m concerned, Ketchum is a terrific writer. His stories grab you by the throat and squeeze,
turning your head towards the horror that waits.
I just wish that horror was something more interesting than humanity at its worst.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with this movie. I’ve seen parts of it, several times, whenever it’s been shown on TV. Once or twice I might have seen most of it, but because it was so damnably QUIET I was never sure what was going on, or who was doing the killing. So this time I rented the DVD from the library and activated the closed caption feature.
Voila! Now I know what the hell is going on.
As it turns out – quite a lot.
Here we have one of the serial killer classics – a killer with an axe to grind.
Or, as I like to call it – a Guy with a Theme.
This guy’s problem is that humanity is corrupt, and so the best way to point this out to the blind masses is to make an example of seven “lucky” winners – by killing them. This killer, known only as John Doe (and played by the delightful Kevin Spacey), is a big fan of the Seven Deadly Sins.
And, as every writer knows, once you have your theme down, everything else just falls into place. Now, armed with his list – gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath – John Doe sets out to teach the world “A Lesson”.
However, unlike most of the serial killers we’ve encountered in this course, John Doe is very fastidious. He prefers to have his victims kill themselves. With a little firm “encouragement” from him, of course. You’ll thank me later, he no doubt tells them.
So, what can we make of a serial killer who never actually kills anyone himself … oh wait, that’s not quite true. At the end he does kill Tracy Mills (played by a luminous Gwyneth Paltrow), doesn’t he? He kills an “innocent” – someone who was not guilty of any of the seven deadly sins herself – but who was “responsible” for making him guilty of the sin of envy.
How’s that for evil?
Other than that little slip up at the end, though, John Doe is a clever, and well-read, killer. He has the detectives assigned to his case – William Somerset, played by the always-great Morgan Freeman, and David Mills, played by the always-hot Brad Pitt – scrambling to figure him out. They even – gasp – have to visit the library to do research. (In one of the few light moments in the film, Brad Pitt receives a suspicious-looking item in a crumpled brown bag from a shady-looking guy in a trench coat – the Cliff Notes to Dante’s Inferno.)
John Doe is a terrific serial killer (the smart ones almost always are, The Sculptor being an exception), because once you figure out what The Theme is then it’s more like a game – which sin is next, and what will he do to punish the perpetrator?
Plus, serial killers with a Theme usually don’t just pick on women when they are making their point – unless, that is, their point is All Whores Must Die
– so we get that whole equality thing going on, which is nice.
Now having finally seen, and heard, the entire movie, I heartily recommend “Seven” to anyone who loves serial killers. And to all you darkness freaks I say – John Doe is a worthy addition to your messed up collection.
Charles Manson is the first, and only, “true crime” serial killer we have looked at in this course. He is also the only serial killer to come with his own soundtrack, specifically The Beatles’ White Album. He was convinced that every song on the album held hidden significance aimed only at him. He was a lot like Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes in that he felt his musical idols, The Beatles, were speaking directly to him in their music. Only instead of creating romantic fantasies as a result of this belief (like most starry-eyed fans), Manson became convinced they were telling him to start a race war with their song lyrics, specifically the song, “Helter Skelter.”
This book is the work of the prosecuting attorney – Vincent Bugliosi – who was pretty much responsible for realizing that a seemingly unrelated series of murders in the Hollywood hills actually were related. And, that they were the work of one man and his “family”. It was fascinating for the most part, even when I felt like I was getting bogged down by the weight of all that detective work.
Charles Manson, like nearly all of our fictional serial killers, had a shitty childhood. As a result, he’d spent most of his life in prison by the time of the murders. And of course, he has been in prison ever since.
Manson is a lot like John Doe, the serial killer in “Seven” in that he gets others to do the actual, messy killing. Only in his case, the motivation is not personal, or sexual, or moral. It’s political. With a little crazy thrown in there for good measure.
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine what was passing for philosophical thought and political discourse back then, but personal charisma went a long way towards smoothing any rough edges. And Manson apparently had that in abundance. Even so, it is hard to imagine all the hopeless drifters wandering around looking for something to believe in. Instead of joining the Peace Corps and making the world a little bit better, they ended up being part of a “family” who believed their leader was a man of vision who would help them survive the coming Armageddon. The fact that they were creating the seeds for that biblical event by committing these shocking, high-profile murders seems to have only made it sweeter.
If this post has not been full of my usual, snarky comments and wacky pictures it’s because, unlike every other killer we’ve encountered this term, Charles Manson and his “family” of weak-minded toadies was real. And their victims were real. Somehow it’s not as much fun poking holes in a serial killer’s motivation and methods when it’s the real thing. Manson is still alive, and still in prison. Most of the “family” is also alive. Before “Helter Skelter”, Manson was a wannabe singer-songwriter, and a number of musicians have recorded his songs. There is a Charles Manson Fan Club.
Helter Skelter, the book, was an amazing opus, an operatic rendition of the end of the Sixties. Complete with all the trappings – sex, drugs, rock and roll … and Death. If you were alive then, and you ever had a moment when you thought it would never, could never end – the publication of this book, with its 50 pages of black and white photographs of all the victims, their houses and properties, along with almost 700 pages of painstaking details and mind bogglingly horrifying facts was the final, orchestral blast of the decade. Kind of like the last song on another Beatles album.