Sunday, October 15, 2017

Our House (thriller): Chapter 1

The Eavesdropper (About the book)

Thanatos Postponed: a short tale of terror

In entertainment, we're all replaceable

I was unsure of what to expect from Hawaii Five-O this season. 

I was sorry to see Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim leave the series. I thought they both added a lot to the show.

I'm pleased to report, though, that Hawaii Five-O is just as good with the new costars, Meaghan Rath and Beulah Koale. The Five-O remains on my personal television lineup. 

Hawaii Five-O isn't the kind of television that is going to change anyone's life, but it's entertaining, with fast-moving plots and sympathetic main characters. 

Actors leave successful, long-running series all the time, for various reasons. M*A*S*H lost numerous actors over its eleven seasons on the air. The final season was just as good as the first one. 

In television (and in most forms of entertainment) everyone is replaceable. 

"Dazzling sentences"

It's generally been my experience that when the reviews for a book focus on "dazzling sentences" (an exact quote from a review of a book I'm now reading), I'm in for a slow, literary read. 

I'm much more optimistic when the reviews focus on a book's "pulse-pounding excitement", i.e., the plot.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In praise of Scrivener

I recently made the leap to Scrivener, and I am in love with it. (And curmudgeon that I am, I don't fall in love all that often, I should note.) 

I now use the software for all my writing, with the exception of super-short blog posts--like the one you're now reading.

As a word processor, Scrivener is adequate; but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table that you don't already have available in Word or Apple Pages.

The real power of Scrivener, of course, is it's outlining capabilities. The software's virtual index cards make it so much easier to organize all your ideas in a visual layout.

Yes, you can outline in Word or Pages. I've outlined stories in Microsoft Excel. For that matter, you can outline on a legal pad, or with paper index cards. But trust me, Scrivener enables you to outline far more efficiently than any of these tools. 

Should you buy Scrivener? Yes, you should--even if you aren't a professional writer. Even if you don't have any interest in writing fiction. Scrivener's capabilities could be just as easily turned to the writing of essays, business documents, and even personal correspondence. (I'm very surprised that Scrivener hasn't caught on in corporate environments. As a veteran of cubicleland, I can attest to its potential usefulness there.)

Many fancy software packages are expensive. But you can own Scrivener for less that $50 at the time of this writing. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Writing: outlining vs. not outlining

Do I "write into the dark" like Dean Wesley Smith, or do I outline my stories like the late Robert Ludlum? 

The short answer is: some of both

Blood Flats was written literally on the fly. I began this book with only the inciting incident and the basic conflicts in mind. 

Termination Man, The Eavesdropper, and Our House, by contrast, were all outlined extensively in advance. For 12 Hours of Halloween and Eleven Miles of Night, I used a hybrid method: I plotted out the major incidents of these stories in advance, and wrote the individual scenes "into the dark".

There is no "wrong" way or "right" way in this regard. Stephen King's early novels are incredibly tight and focused, despite being written without an outline. (I can only imagine how difficult the writing of The Stand was without an outline.) 

John Grisham, on the other hand, always works from an outline. Grisham has said that he spends more time on the outline of each book than on the actual writing. Think about that for a moment. But The Firm is one of the most original, suspenseful novels ever written.

And yet...herein we can also see the pitfalls of both methods. I love (most of) King's books and (most of) Grisham's books. But as both writers have churned out more work, the inherent weaknesses of their respective methods have become apparent. 

King's later works (Doctor Sleep, 11/22/63, Under the Dome) are too long, meandering, and drawn-out. In these books, the tight story structure of The Shining, Christine, and The Dead Zone is missing. I suspect this is a result of King's insistence on "winging it". (Stephen King is opposed to outlining on principle, based on various statements he's made over the years.) 

Grisham's work, meanwhile, is sometimes formulaic. Read enough of his books, and you'll start to notice common elements that appear again and again: a hidden pile of ill-gotten money, a lawyer facing a moral quandary, a conspiracy involving government or a large corporation, a race to the Cayman Islands, etc. 

I want to repeat: Both King and Grisham are great writers. I recently read (and loved) Camino Road. The point here is not to trash either King or Grisham. The point is to emphasize that a.) if you're a rigid non-outliner, you may develop a tendency to meander too much, and b.) if you're a rigid outliner, you may find, after a while, that you're repeating yourself. (As Dean Wesley Smith has said, your conscious mind will tend to go to the same plots and solutions that it's most familiar with.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Internet, and the perils of eating with plastic

The other day I did something rather boneheaded. I was eating some fruit with a plastic fork and talking at the same time.

Kind of like walking and chewing gum at the same time, eating while talking requires multitasking skills that are beyond some of us. During one of my bites, I simultaneously made an emphatic statement that caused me to bite down on my plastic fork and break off the tip of one of the fork’s tines.

Then I did something even dumber. Rather than spitting out the mouthful of fruit, I felt around with my tongue for the tip of the fork tine. Feeling nothing, I concluded that the errant plastic fragment had fallen to the floor or shot across the room. So I swallowed the mouthful of fruit.

My subsequent conclusion, a few short minutes later: I had probably swallowed the fork tine.

I immediately grew nervous. What does a plastic fork tine do to the human digestive system? Or to get more to the point: How long did I have to live?

I took my question to that font of collected wisdom and boundless information: the Internet.

At first I was consoled to find that I am far from the only person on the planet to have swallowed the tine of a plastic fork. If the frequency of the Internet search, “I swallowed a plastic fork tine” is any indication, a person must swallow a fork fragment somewhere on the planet about every six seconds.

But the actual information I found was decidedly a mixed bag.

This is the kind of question that people frequently take to Internet forums, and the resultant commentary quickly became predictable. I don’t know how many comments I came across like, “You’re forked!” and “Only tine will tell!”. I mean really, people: I understand the tineless appeal of puns. But when someone has swallowed a part of a plastic eating utensil, a certain degree of seriousness is in order.

I also found out that a man in the United Kingdom swallowed an entire plastic fork more than a decade ago. The good news? He was able to live with a fork in his stomach for more than ten years. The bad news? He eventually required surgery to remove the thing. (And just how does a person swallow an entire plastic fork, anyway?)

I also found out that there are eating disorders that compel people to consume inedible items like glass, plastic, and metal in copious amounts. One fellow has apparently eaten an entire airplane.

I learned that while gastric acid is very powerful stuff that can dissolve metal, it doesn’t do anything to plastic, because plastic is chemically inert. 

All this was quite interesting. But I still didn’t know: Was I going to be okay?

I went to some of the online forums that are purportedly manned by physicians, a suspicious number of which seem to be based in India. The physicians had no real consensus regarding the swallowing of a plastic fork tine. 

About half of the doctors in the various threads said that it was nothing to worry about. At least a few had stated that if you have ingested a potentially sharp piece of plastic, you should report to your local ER forthwith.

Of course, they can’t find a tiny piece of plastic in your gullet with an x-ray. So what exactly would the ER physicians do with you, absent any symptoms? Would they lock you in an isolation room, and wait for you to either double over in pain, or cry out?

I finally decided to let nature take its course. Almost a week has passed since I foolishly swallowed a plastic fork tine. (Or maybe it really did shoot out of my mouth and across the room. I’m not sure.)

What I can report is that I have yet to develop excruciating abdominal pains, and everything is moving from one end of my alimentary canal to the other without problems. (Yes, too much information, I know.)

My takeaways from this experience are twofold: First, if you ever suspect that a plastic fork tine has broken off in your mouth, don't mess around. Don’t swallow anything. Spit everything out, and start from scratch. If you are at all prone to anxiety, you simply don’t want that on your head.

And if you actually have a medical question that needs answered, forget about the Internet. The Internet is practically useless for anything serious. Do it the old-fashioned way, and go see a doctor.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Reading, writing—and exercising

I’m an efficiency junkie. I have always been obsessed with the restricted nature of our available time (both at the lifetime, macro-level, as well as at the daily, micro-level). 

This tendency was exacerbated by the years I spent in the Japanese corporate world, with its focus on concepts like takt time, and the prevention of muda.

As a writer, too, I am obsessed with efficiency. I constantly think about improving my brainstorming techniques. One cannot really standardize the artistic process, but there are ways of improving the generation and development of ideas, of prodding the mind, so to speak. I’ve purchased Dragon Dictate software so that I can write hands-free. Last month I finally bought Scrivener, an invaluable tool for the organization of any long-form piece of writing. 

I’m also an exercise junkie. I spend at least an hour a day doing some form of cardio. I began running in the summer of 1984, as a means to lose weight. Since that long-ago summer, rarely has a day passed when I haven't run, walked, or tortured myself on a cardio machine. 

Overall, that hour per day has been an hour well spent. Yes, there are those who would disagree,  but I’m not interested in debating them. For our purposes here, I’m going to skip the question of whether cardio is the “right” or “optimal” way to exercise. (This is a point of controversy in fitness circles.) I’m also going to conveniently omit any discussion of “alternative” cardio regimes, such as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. 

So what I’m talking about here is the conventional cardio workout, done at an ambitious but not overly taxing pace. The problem is: conventional cardio takes time. If you do an hour of conventional cardio per day, that’s seven hours per week—almost as much time as the standard workday. That’s 30 hours per month, or 75% of the standard 40-hour workweek. Annually, that comes up to 45 standard 8-hour workdays, the equivalent of taking a month and a half completely off. 

If you’re obsessed with efficiency, you simply have to find a way to use this time productively. I do the obvious things: Whenever I’m on an exercise bike or the treadmill, I have something to read. (I’ve read plenty of books that I’ve never touched when I’m not on a cardio machine.) While walking, I listen to audiobooks on my iPod. 

But these are examples of content consumption. Content creation—writing—while exercising is a different matter, of course. 

I don’t have a home treadmill, and so I haven't made the leap to a treadmill desk. I’ve tried writing on my iPhone while I’m pedaling my sole piece of home cardio equipment: a Schwinn recumbent stationary bike. While this is doable, I’ve generally found that the resultant output doesn't justify the effort and workout interruption involved. 

I have, however, used cardio time for brainstorming story concepts, and the details of chapters within a novel. For brainstorming, walking beats every form of cardio, hands down. Charles Dickens routinely walked as many as 20 miles per day. It was during these walks that he worked out the plots of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and his other novels. 

I don’t run as much as I used to because of foot problems; but there is no reason you couldn't brainstorm a story during a five-mile run, as well. In years past, I’ve had some of my best ideas while running. Oxygen and the brain—there’s something special about that combination. 

Crime writer Michael Connelly has said that when you’re a writer, you’re “always writing”—even while you’re having dinner with your family, and socializing with friends. You’re always working on stories in your head, in other words. 

For some people, this might be taking the quest for artistic efficiency too far. But if you have a daily cardio routine, there are plenty of ways to make your time on the treadmill or the running track more productive. Charles Dickens could have told you this, way back in the 1800s. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Novel of the week: TERMINATION MAN

For those of you who enjoyed my recently published corporate conspiracy thriller, THE EAVESDROPPER, allow me to introduce my earlier high-crimes-in-the-boardroom novel, TERMINATION MAN:

Get it on Amazon Kindle for $0.99 through September 23rd

TERMINATION MAN is on sale for just $0.99 through September 23rd! That's almost free!

The Termination Man is a hotshot corporate consultant who will use any trick to eliminate the Fortune 500’s unwanted, problem employees. A fast-paced, intelligent workplace thriller that will keep you guessing until the last page!

Amazon Description:

A long forgotten double murder of two young women in Ohio. A struggling corporation in turmoil. Two powerful men, two bitter rivals, each one hiding his own secrets. One driven by lust and rage, the other driven by a conflicted sense of right and wrong. 


“The novel that takes an unflinching look at the dark underside of the 21st century workplace.”

CRAIG WALKER is a hotshot young MBA with his own consulting firm. He’s handsome, rich, and in demand. His Fortune 500 clients—the most powerful men and women in industry—call him “The Termination Man.”

Craig Walker is no ordinary management consultant. He’s a spook, a workplace spy. Assuming false identities, Craig works undercover, building the evidence that will allow his corporate clients to terminate unwanted employees without legal repercussions. His targets are the troublemakers, the agitators, the employees whom management believes are no longer “good fits” for their hyper-competitive organizations.  

Craig Walker believes that he serves the cause of economic efficiency, and in a way, the greater good. Most of his targets don’t like their jobs anyway. In a free market, “a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes an employee needs to leave a bad a situation.”

SHAWN MYERS is a manager at TP Automotive, a global giant in the automotive industry. Shawn struggles to control his lust and rage, and to escape a hideous past that might catch up with him at any moment. His forbidden desire for a girl young enough to be his daughter threatens to drive him over the edge.

When TP Automotive hires the Termination Man to remove two innocent employees from its payroll, Craig Walker is forced to reexamine his notions of justice and morality. But these questions are soon overwhelmed by the dangers that he faces from the TP Automotive management team. After Shawn Myers commits a heinous act in Craig’s presence, the Termination Man discovers that his new clients will resort to any means in order to protect one of their own.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: "The Termination Man goes to work..."

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.

My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a "Union Yes" baseball cap.

I certainly didn't look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.

I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named "Ben" might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn't Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.

I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin's picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin's evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.

The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him: