Monday, December 31, 2012

Fact of the day: Emily Dickinson

You've perhaps heard that writers are loners by nature. 

Consider this: Emily Dickinson, the the 19th-century author of hundreds of poems, did not leave her home for the last 16 years of her life. 

Now that is taking artistic seclusion to an extreme.

Did not leave home for 16 years.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One: Intro + Chapter 1

Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One has been quoted extensively and used in university classrooms. Below are the video readings of the Introduction and Chapter 1: (There are two separate videos.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reading risk and the Fifty Pages Rule

I have noticed that a lot of people screen their reading list (in regard to unfamiliar authors and genres) with a degree of conservatism that would be best reserved for marriage partners and new home purchases.

One of my friends reads fiction by only five authors. That’s it—five authors!

Reading the first chapter of a book does not obligate your to persevere until the last. I probably abandon about 5% of the novels I open. Sometimes I give up because a novel is poorly written. Other times, I simply can’t “get into it.” For example, I know that a lot of people love Haruki Murakami; but his novels have never really worked for me.

My abandonment rate for novels is so high because I am promiscuous about trying new authors and genres. Over the years, this has led to some genuine surprises: In 2004 I happened upon a steeply discounted copy of Michael Connelly’s Chasing the Dime. At the time, I had never read Connelly. However, he has turned out to be one of my favorite authors since then—all because I took a risk on something new that day.

You can leverage your reading risk in two ways:

1.) Restrict your experimental reads to library books, low-priced Kindle novels, and used books. (You might try my attractively priced Blood Flats or Termination Man, for instance.)

2.) Remember the Fifty-Pages Rule. It’s a book, not a contract. If something doesn't grab your attention after fifty pages, chuck it. Don’t suffer through a 1,000-page dud. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Results orientation vs. process orientation

Lately I have been reading a lot of heated debates in the business press about the supposed conflict between the results orientation and the process orientation.

Process orientation and results orientation are not opposites. You need a process orientation in order to achieve any nontrivial, lasting result.

Conversely, a single-minded focus on results, when combined with the inherent flaws of human nature, inevitably leads to debilitating shortcuts, costly mistakes, and frustration. In other words, either a half-ass result, or complete discouragement.

Show me a person who dismisses the process orientation, and I’ll show you a person who doesn't really understand what the process orientation is all about.

The keys to a successful process orientation are as follows:

1.) Your process must be deliberately aimed toward an explicit, achievable goal.

2.) Your process must be properly planned, based on your own experience and the relevant existing body of knowledge in your field.

3.) No process, once begun, should be regarded as static or fixed in granite. The results of your process must be reevaluated at certain intervals or milestones. These evaluations will determine what adjustments should be made.

4.) Your process must be worked consistently. This last point is very important: The process orientation must not be mistaken for dithering or procrastination.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Self-discipline is a form of rebellion

For me, self-discipline is a way of rebelling against authority. It is a way of striking back against the Man.

In our society, the individuals who demonstrate the least self-control are also the ones who are most under the control of others:

               Criminals who break the law end up under the control of the justice/penal system.

               Drug addicts and alcoholics are controlled by pushers and the legal system. Most have minimal to non-existent economic resources (which makes them even more dependent on others).

               People who eat too much, drink too much, or smoke will eventually lose the physical vitality that enables independence. Drinking, smoking, and overeating are all pathways to dependence on others.

               The person who is not disciplined enough to start his own business will be under the control of an employer. (Overspending also makes one more dependent on an employer. If you have a million dollars in the bank, you do the work you love. If you have a million dollars in debt, you do the work they give you.)

Discipline yourself, so that others will not be in a position to discipline you

Facebook and friendship inflation

People who spend a lot of time on Facebook often succumb to what I call “friendship inflation.”

You have no doubt seen Facebook pages that list something like eight hundred or a thousand Facebook friends.

This is friendship inflation. Facebook gives you a distorted view of your actual inventory of real relationships. And this can happen on a smaller scale, as well. You don’t have to have 1,826 Facebook friends to be in a state of Facebook-induced friendship inflation.

Some of my Facebook friends (I have about 150 in total) include people I haven't seen since grade school. For me, grade school was more than 30 years ago.

These people show up on my Facebook feed; but I really don't have any sort of a "relationship" with them. We never talk; we never hang out. And why should we? We haven’t seen each other since the eighth grade, after all.

Facebook “friends” are a bit like the people you see on television.

Facebook friends require little in the way of time, compromise, and "getting yourself out there in the world." You can acquire them with a few mouse clicks. But Facebook friends don't provide you with much, either. 

This is friendship inflation. When something is subject to inflation, it is easier to acquire, but it is also less valuable.

Friendship inflation is another peril of our obsession with online social media. You would be better off to spend less time making Facebook friends, and more time making real-life friends.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Novelists and Internet strategies

The other day another novelist asked me for a summary of my thoughts regarding fiction authors and online promotional strategies...

*   *   *

It goes without saying that every novelist should have an Internet presence. But not all strategies are equal. 

There are two high-level, strategic ways for authors to think about Internet strategy.

First there is what I call the "basic merchandising and promotion strategy."  

This means that at the minimal level, your work should be listed online, in some format that readers can both sample and purchase

These bare-bones requirements can be met simply by having your book listed on Amazon, and equipped with the "search inside the book" feature. 

If you are willing to expend a bit more effort (what I consider to be the real minimum level), you should also have an independent Web presence with a listing of your books and more reading samples. 

This is what practically every fiction author does, from John Grisham and Stephen King on down.

*     *    *

Then there is what I call the "Internet personality strategy." When you successfully implement this strategy, your online efforts take on a life of their own, independent of your fiction. 

At present, most of the writers who succeed with this strategy are in the nonfiction and science fiction realms.

Seth Godin is a business author. He also maintains a heavily trafficked business strategy blog. The blog definitely serves to promote Godin's books; but it is not explicitly promotional, in the same way that John Grisham's website is. 

Godin updates his blog on a daily basis (Grisham updates his website only when he has a new novel out); and he seldom makes a direct reference to one of his books (though they are strategically pictured and hyperlinked in the left margin.)

Likewise, science fiction author Cory Doctorow is heavily engaged in various aspects of online culture. He is an active blogger who posts daily on at least two blog sites. Doctorow is a science fiction author; but one could argue that he is an Internet personality first and foremost.

*     *     *

Which one should an author choose? At first glance, some version of the Seth Godin/Cory Doctorow strategies might seem optimal. This would mean that authors can best succeed by spending a lot of time tweeting, blogging, and making videos on YouTube.

Not necessarily. The fact is that few bestselling authors are "fully engaged" in online culture. For example, almost no bestselling novelists maintain YouTube channels. A relatively small number are regular bloggers.

On the other hand, there are many active and successful bloggers who enjoy only mediocre book sales, relative to their online activity. 

Much of this can be attributed to opportunity costs. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, and video blogging are enormous time sinks. This time might be better spent writing books. For many novelists, frequent blogging, tweeting, etc. are fragmenting rather than productive activities.

More importantly, though, not every author has the platform needed to become a full-blown Internet personality. Doctorow and Godin are both capable of producing large amounts of "Internet-friendly" non-fiction subject matter. 

Godin's business blog is focused on online marketing. The target market for his blog posts (and books) therefore spends a lot of time online. Likewise, science fiction readers (as opposed to readers of Westerns, romance novels, or historical fiction) have a higher than average level of online engagement.

*     *     *

When selecting an online strategy, consider your own strengths and weaknesses. Don't automatically assume that "the more you blog, the more books you'll sell." 

For better or worse, not every author can become an Internet personality. Such authors can still use the Internet to promote their work, but they will rapidly reach the point of diminishing returns when blogging, podcasting, and engaging with other forms of social media.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Reading List: A People's History of the Civil War

I am presently reading David WIlliams' A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.

A few years ago I read Howard Zinn's similar title, A People's History of the United States. While Zinn's book did bring out some interesting historical tidbits, it was every bit as skewed as those patriotic paeans that folks on the Left habitually get all worked up about. (Zinn seemed especially enamored of anyone, anywhere who ever published "an underground newspaper.")

I almost dismissed Williams' book as another tome of selective, ideologically biased  historiography. To be sure, Williams, like Zinn, points out everything that was wrong with America during the Civil War era. Even the much venerated Abraham Lincoln does not escape criticism for failing to be progressive enough. Much of this criticism is highly predictable. Like Zinn, WIlliams reminds readers that the America of the 19th century was predominantly run by Rich White Males, and Rich White Males were by default responsible for the misery of everyone else. 

Nevertheless, books like this are worth reading because they examine complex historical and political events from an alternative viewpoint. Zinn and WIlliams are unabashedly leftwing, ideologically skewed authors. However, neither author is some blathering maniac √† la Michael Moore. Both men write books that provide interesting information about the past---even if you can't bring yourself to agree with some of their conclusions.

In summary, I would recommend either of the "People's History" books to any reader who already has a solid grounding in history. Newcomers to the topic of American history--or readers who simply want an objective, just-the-facts summary of key events--would do well to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"The Vampires of Wallachia" short story giveaway: 12/6 to 12/10

When I was a corporate warrior who did a lot of business travel, I commonly had to travel the long route between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan (about four hours of drive time).

Most of this drive takes one through lonely stretches of Ohio along Interstate 75. Ohio is a mostly rural state outside of the big cities. In the sparsely populated counties in the middle of the state, there are many places where your imagination can run away with you if you aren't careful.

One day I had a thought: "What if a group of corporate employees were driving between Detroit and Cincinnati late at night, and they stopped at one of those lonely exits along I-75 for a late dinner, and they found that the restaurant where they stopped was actually a den of vampires?"  

That is the premise of the short story, "The Vampires of Wallachia." There is more to the story, of course. Any reader who has ever had to grapple with the frustrating intricacies of corporate politics will enjoy the story's secondary storyline: You see, "The Vampires of Wallachia" is also a story about bosses from hell. (But I won't include any spoilers here.)

To encourage new readers, this story will be free on Amazon Kindle for 5 days only--from December 6 through 10. 

If you enjoy the story, please consider the collection that it is a part of: Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writers and the importance of reading widely

Most aspiring writers realize that they have to read a lot before they will be able to write well. (This is territory that has been covered exhaustively by Stephen King, among others.)

An important addendum to this advice is that you have to read widely. 

This is a point that many aspiring writers (including your truly, in my early days) struggle with. But there are many sound reasons why an aspiring author of detective fiction, for example, shouldn't devote 100% of his reading time to Michael Connelly and Raymond Chandler. 

In this video I cover many aspects of this issue. It includes advice for writers of genre as well as literary fiction.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Post-Thanksgiving giveaway: Blood Flats and more!

I hope you all enjoyed the Thanksgiving Holiday! 

In the spirit of the holidays, I making two of my Kindle offerings free from November 24 through 28:

The first is these is Blood Flats. I don't usually put this one on the Kindle free list; but I am going to do so for the five-day period stretching from November 24 through November 28. (For more information about Blood Flats, click here or on the cover below.)

The second post-Thanksgiving freebie is a short story called "Giants in the Trees." This was recently reviewed by a reader on Amazon's UK site.  

If you like the free story, I might suggest that you consider the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense for only $2.99 on Amazon Kindle.

And finally, I'll remind you that Termination Man is now available on Kindle for $2.99. 

Enjoy the final week of November, everyone! 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why novelists need to read nonfiction, and the writing of "Termination Man"

I've been getting a lot of questions recently from aspiring novelists about reading recommendations. 

It goes without saying that aspiring novelists need to read a lot of fiction. Stephen King has repeatedly stated this, as have James Patterson and other bestselling novelist.

Far be it from me to disagree. I read about one novel per week--sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. 

However, it is also important for the novelist to read a lot of nonfiction. Nonfiction not only broadens your horizons in a general sense---it also helps you tie together the elements of your novels and short stories. 

I'll use one of my own novels, Termination Man, as an example. Termination Man is a novel about a business consultant who specializes in sabotaging the careers of corporate employees whom management has deemed "are no longer good fits" for their organizations. Much of Termination Man is based on my own experiences. (I worked in a corporate cubicle farm for more than 20 years.) However, the central idea, or premise, for the novel came from a variety of nonfiction sources. 

About ten years ago, I read Jim Collins' bestselling management guide, Good to Great. One of the principles introduced in Good to Great is the idea of "getting the right people on the bus."  What this essentially means is that every person in an organization must be a good "fit."

As anyone who has ever worked in a large company will know, the judgement of who is (or is not) a "good fit" is highly subjective. Popular management books and corporate executives tell us that this judgement is based on demonstrated results and capability. This is the notion of the corporate meritocracy.

In the real world, of course, these judgements often boil down to personal and political factors. I once watched a very mediocre performer (I'll call him Pat) work his way up the company ladder through coaching. Coaching soccer, that is. Pat's boss coached a girls soccer team in the evening. Pat happened to have a daughter who was about the same age as his boss's child, so it was logical for him to start coaching soccer, too. 

Shortly after volunteering to coach soccer,  Pat's performance review scores climbed, and within a few months he received his first major promotion. Everyone saw what was going on--but there was nothing anyone could do about it. 

This is only one example. I'm sure you have plenty of your own. The notion of the corporate meritocracy is not a complete myth, but nor is it the entire reality. In any large organization, these personal factors often go a long way toward the selection of the employees who are "good fits." 

And what about those people who are deemed not to be "good fits"? To continue Jim Collins's metaphor, these individuals must be somehow shuffled off the organizational bus. But in the litigious environment of the U.S., this is sometimes easier said than done. An employee who is fired for flimsy reasons can sue or otherwise make trouble, even in a "right-to-work" state. 

The protagonist of Termination Man, Craig Walker, is a management consultant who has cultivated a special niche. He goes undercover inside organizations, encouraging target employees to incriminate themselves in various ways. In one scene, Craig (working incognito, of course), convinces an employee to smoke marijuana so that he will subsequently fail a drug test. In another scene, Craig's beautiful and dangerous assistant frames a targeted employee for sexual harassment.

Now where did I get this idea? A few years ago I read a book titled Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know---and What to Do About Them by Cynthia Shapiro. I read Shapiro's book while I was still working in corporate America, in an effort to improve my grasp of "office politics." (This was a game at which I was always a dismal failure.) I figured that Shapiro's book would provide some valuable insights. 

In the book, Shapiro acknowledges many of the management practices that everyone suspects but most are afraid to name---for fear of trouble, or of being labeled a malcontent. 

One of the practices Shapiro discusses is that of "managing out" problem employees. This basically means that corporate management can manipulate circumstances to "encourage" an employee to leave without actually firing them. These might include transferring an employee to an unpleasant position, or setting the employee up to fail by tasking him or her with an impossible assignment.

These were the seeds that eventually germinated into the idea of Termination Man. The premise behind Termination Man is wholly fictional. As far I know, there are no management consultants who go undercover and deceive out-of-favor employees into incriminating themselves. (And Shapiro certainly doesn't suggest anything like this.) What I did was essentially take the idea of "managing out" problem employees and make it bigger. I amplified a very mundane practice into something that is dangerous, illegal, and novel-worthy

When you read nonfiction for story ideas, I encourage you to link your nonfiction reading back to your own life for a final idea. (This is what I did with Termination Man.) Suppose, for example, that you want to write a novel set in the Middle Ages. You should begin by reading exhaustively about that period, of course. But your novel should not stop at being mere historical travelogue. To find a central conflict, you'll need to examine your own life, and find a situation that you can port into the setting of the Middle Ages. Are you having difficulties with your boss, for example? Then your novel might involve a knight who is locked in a conflict with his liege lord. You get the idea. 

This is a good time to remind you that pure, unprocessed autobiography usually makes for dull, self-indulgent fiction. You can (and, in fact, must) use aspects of your own life when writing fiction. However, these personal conflicts and situations will work best when they are combined with something else. Something that makes them bigger.

Reading a lot of nonfiction is a good way to find that "something else."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Writers and the distraction of Facebook

No, this isn't another post about how writers can market themselves on Facebook. Rather, I want to encourage you to minimize your time on Facebook if you want to be serious about writing your novel (or engaging in any creative endeavor, for that matter).

Facebook, texting, Twitter, etc. Practically everyone engages in some combination of these. (Even my 66-year-old mother checks her AOL e-mail account compulsively nowadays.) Facebook in particular is addictive because it provides instant gratification, in the form of all those updates from your friends. 

I appreciate the connectivity that Facebook provides. After I finally opened a personal Facebook account in 2009, I enjoyed the interaction with old friends from college, high school, and even grade school. However, I soon realized that it was fragmenting me. 

This is one of the downsides of modern technology. For many people, it does become addictive or semi-addictive. We have all wasted time on the Internet and on our cellphones; and Facebook seems to be one of the biggest time sinks of all. The average person spends between 6 and 8 hours per month on the site. (And this is in addition to all the time spent texting, watching silly videos on YouTube, and reading emails.)

This isn't an anti-technology post. I wouldn't want to go back to the pre-Internet age of my 1980s youth. (Nor would I ever want to use a typewriter again, thank you very much.) However, I do often reflect that the Internet and its various portals have created huge distractions that I didn't have to worry about resisting when I was in college. (A lot of people didn't even have cable TV back then!)

It is hard enough for me to resist the distractions of the Internet, and my age gives me a pre-Internet frame of reference. For younger folks, these distractions must be far more ingrained.

And among the most insidious of these is Facebook.

A suggestion for writers (and, again, anyone who wants to make more efficient use of their time): Strictly limit the minutes you spend on Facebook. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln: quick film review

I saw Steven Spielberg's film, Lincoln, today. Overall, a very engrossing, very enjoyable film. 

This is not a movie that can be watched lightly or casually. Spielberg successfully creates a vivid, credible on-screen world that pulls you in. The ending, of course, is a foregone conclusion to anyone with a basic knowledge of history. Nevertheless, Lincoln's death at the end of the movie is both powerful and emotionally draining. I watched the movie this morning, and I am still thinking about--even though I have read numerous books about Lincoln and the American Civil War.

Speaking of which, the movie is partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals. (This fact is mentioned in Lincoln's closing credits.) As chance would have it, I read this book back in 2007, shortly after it was published. Not surprisingly, sales of the six-year-old history book have recently spiked.

If you haven't read Team of Rivals, I would recommend it as a companion to the movie. For a movie set during the Civil War, Lincoln contains relatively few battle scenes. This is mostly a film about the political efforts that went into the passage of the 13th Amendment. To get the most out of the plot, it is helpful to be familiar not only with Lincoln, but with William Seward, Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase, Thaddeus Stevens (photo below), and other Civil War-era politicians who have faded from common knowledge. 

Thaddeus Stevens

While I recommend the book, I certainly wouldn't want you to wait until you read it before seeing the movie. Odds are, the movie will make you eager to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's fine book.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Hay Moon" snippet

Below is a snippet from the title story of my book, Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense

"Hay Moon" is a story about supernatural occurrences and the undead in rural Ohio. Most of the story is set in 1932; but the tale begins as a flashback:

Hay Moon

“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?”
It is odd how an innocent question like that can bring back such horrible memories; and even odder in this case, since the question came from none other than Lisa, my little great granddaughter.
Today is Halloween, and Lisa’s mother, Emily, brought her over to visit her sole surviving great grandparent before an evening of trick-or-treating. Lisa was wearing one of those plastic Halloween costumes that parents nowadays buy for their kids at Wal-Mart or Target. This particular one looked like a cartoon ghost character that I have seen on television over the years.
“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?” Lisa was standing in my living room, unable to contain her self-delight over her Halloween disguise. She was holding a trick-or-treat bag that bore the image of a typical Halloween clich√©: a witch flying on a broomstick, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. I had just dropped two Snickers bars into her bag—her first of many before the end of the evening, no doubt. Lisa was filled with energy even without all that sugar.
“Tell me what’s the scariest thing you ever saw.” She repeated. “Tell me, pleeeease! You always tell good stories, Gramps.” She stamped her foot once on my living room carpet.
I didn’t answer her right away, because the images that stirred as I considered the question made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Then I struggled to think of a suitable response. My answer would be a lie, of course. Not for a million dollars would I tell my great granddaughter the truth.
“Well, once this scary little ghost came into my living room.” I said, recovering myself. “And I’ve never seen anything scarier than her.” I pulled Lisa gently onto my lap and she began giggling. She is only eight years old, and still light enough so that her weight doesn’t hurt my knees—even though my arthritis has gotten quite bad in recent years.
“Lisa, say thank you for the candy your great grandfather gave you.” Emily said. Lisa responded with an enthusiast thank you and more laughter, her voice muffled by the plastic mask that came with the discount store Halloween costume.
“Will you be alright here by yourself tonight, Grandpa?” Emily asked. Emily is now what—thirty-six?—and it doesn’t seem like so many years since her own mother used to bring her here to visit me, and she would be the one sitting on my knee. (Or I should say visit us—as that was back when my wife Elsie was still alive.)
“I’ll be fine, dear. Don’t you worry,” I said. “Just take this little girl out trick-or-treating before she blows a gasket. And be safe, the both of you.”
They visited for few more minutes, and then bid me farewell. As they were walking out, Emily’s husband Todd called on her cell phone, and made arrangements to meet them for a quick dinner before taking Lisa out trick-or-treating. Emily invited me to accompany them but I declined. I knew that I would be an imposition; and anyway, I suddenly found myself in a thinking mood—not a talking mood. So I waved goodbye to them from my front porch; and they both waved back at me from the front seat of Emily’s SUV.
And then I was left alone with my own thoughts. From my front porch I could survey the jack-o-lanterns and cardboard skeletons that adorned the houses across the street. The afternoon sun was fading. In a few hours, an army of imposters would descend on the neighborhood: goblins, witches, and more ghosts like my little Lisa.
(“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?)  
Every life has its dreadful episodes, its junctions with stark, naked fear; and mine is no exception. I have been profoundly frightened on a handful of occasions. I was in the war—the big one in Europe; and I had several close calls there. But those involved the simple fear of death. And when you cheat death, the feeling afterward is more often relief than dread. That was close, you tell yourself, but I made it out alive. And after you have put the memory sufficiently far behind you, it even makes you feel lucky to be alive—or blessed—depending on your view of the world.
Once, though, I cheated death in another way—and perhaps I cheated something even worse than death. I escaped; but rather than relief, I am left with a memory that still causes me to wake up screaming from time to time—more than seventy years later.
Not that it is always with me. For years at a stretch, it leaves me alone. But then something—usually something casual and insignificant—drudges it up. And then I’m back there again—just like tonight.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mini book-report: Haunted Heart: the Life and Times of Stephen King

4/5 stars

I just finished reading Lisa Rogak's SK biography, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. 

A longtime Stephen King fan, I had not read a Stephen King biography since reading Stephen King: The Art of Darkness (1984) by Douglas E. Winter. Excellent for its time, Winter's King biography contained a thorough handling of everything that King had written up to 1983 or so. Needless to say, though, this book is obsolete and largely unobtainable now. So much has happened in King's life and writings since the mid-1980s. I decided that it would be worthwhile to read a second, more recent biography of The King of Horror, even though I knew going in that some of the content would be a repetition of facts and incidents that I'd already learned about in Winter's book.  

Published in 2008, Haunted Heart covers the author's life from 1947 until January 2008, at which point King was in his early 60s. This means that the story begins with King's childhood in Maine (a familiar topic for most King fans) and his early struggles before the Carrie breakthrough. 

Having already read a King biography, plus the highly autobiographical On Writing (written by King himself) I was tempted to skip the first few chapters. In retrospect, I am glad that I didn't, as Rogak has uncovered some facts and insights not contained in earlier King biographies. 

Rogak did a solid job of blending personal, biographical narrative with literary analysis (although the emphasis is on the biography, not the literary analysis.) By the time you finish with this, you'll know everything there is to know about King's drug addiction, his near-death accident in the summer of 1999, and the background behind his later works (up to and including Cell, Duma Key, and Just after Sunset.) 

One insight I gained from Rogak's biography is that Stephen King is a very entrepreneurial author. King has sometimes licensed his books rather than selling the copyrights outright. He has also engaged in some ventures that can only be described as self-publishing or co-publishing. Although generous with his millions in wealth, Stephen King is a very savvy businessman, it turns out. 

Some reviewers skewered the book for its editing mistakes. Admittedly, Haunted Heart could have used one last proofread before going to press. Some of the errors are merely typographical; and there are one or two spots where the dates listed don't fit into the rest of the chronology. Overall, though, I found these to be only minor annoyances that did not significantly detract from the enjoyability and informative aspects of the book. Unless you are super anal-retentive about this sort of thing, the editing mistakes shouldn't bother you.

Haunted Heart is recommended to all Stephen King aficionados and general horror/fiction fans. Aspiring writers will likely glean some valuable insights from the book as well.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Termination Man" and your employer's HR department

Termination Man is a novel about an undercover business consultant who helps corporate HR departments "manage out" employees--often using marginally legal (and even illegal) means. 

If you've read the novel (and if you haven't--what are you waiting for?) you'll know that the novel doesn't portray corporate human resources departments (and their management overlords) in the most favorable light. 

This raises an obvious question: The fictional world of Termination Man aside, can you trust your employer's human resources department?

The answer depends on what you mean by "trust." Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when talking with corporate HR:

- Don't mistake HR friendliness for real friendship. All reasonably competent corporate HR reps know how to persuade people to drop their guard and talk freely. The first tool they usually employ is friendliness. Ever wonder why HR folks seem more friendly than the folks in accounting? The HR folks want you to feel comfortable when talking to them. (The folks in accounting, more often than not, don't want to talk to anyone. Accountants aren't known for their gregariousness.)  

The deliberate friendliness of HR is not necessarily evil in and of itself. However, you must alway remember that your company's HR representative is not your best friend, counselor, psychiatrist, priest, minister, or rabbi. He or she is a paid representative of your employer's management. If your HR rep ever has to choose between you and management, she is going to pick whichever one of you issues her paycheck. (Hint: that isn't you.)

- Remember why corporate HR exists. The mission of corporate HR is not the achievement of employee job satisfaction. Nor do they care much about the happiness, spiritual well-being, and mental health of the company's employees. 

HR's mission is to assure that employee-related issues do not interfere with the company's primary, profit-generating operations. And if that means hustling out a troublemaker or stepping on a habitual malcontent, so be it. No one is forcing you to work there, after all. 

- What you tell HR can and will be used against you. Don't ever assume that what you reveal to HR is a private matter, even if the HR rep tells you that it is. HR reps routinely reveal the content of employee conversations to management. Once again, this is a matter of economic self-interest. Management signs their paychecks, after all. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On people reading "crap"

The other day I was explaining to a friend how the Amazon Kindle (and similar e-readers) could potentially revive the habit of reading among Americans. 

My friend wasn't as excited about this prospect as I was. She said, "Sure, but look at the kinds of books that they're reading!" Then she cited the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series on Amazon.

I haven't read any of the Fifty Shades of Grey books, nor do I believe that I ever will, given their subject matter. I didn't read the Twilight books either, because the idea of teen heartthrob vampires just strikes me as wrong on so many levels. Nor did I read the Harry Potter books. I was already in my early thirties when the series first appeared.

However, once upon a time, I was a fifteen-year-old boy who never read. I had been something of a reader during my childhood and early adolescence; but I had fallen out of reading after I hit puberty. I was more interested in girls, sports, and rock music. And girls. I read the books required for school, of course. But I never read for pleasure. Who needs books when there is MTV, my 15-year-old self would have fatuously argued.

Then one day I was hanging out in the school library (checking out girls), and I happened upon a dog-eared copy of Stephen King's second novel, Salem's Lot. It was a novel about vampires. (This was 1984, when vampires were still real vampires, mind you.) On a whim I picked up the book and started reading it. I fell immediately into the story. In fact, I liked the book so much that I checked it out--a very uncharacteristic step for me at the time. 

Thus began my lifelong love-affair with books and reading. Early on, I was only interested in reading Stephen King. And there were a lot of Stephen King books to read, even in 1984. But eventually I ran out of King books, and so I had to read something else. 

I tried other horror authors; but I found that I didn't enjoy their novels as much as I enjoyed King's. I therefore stretched myself and picked up some other popular fiction: John Jakes, an author of historical fiction, was popular and widely read at the time. I also read The Godfather by Mario Puzo. 

I didn't stop there. Before long, I was reading any sort of fiction I could get my hands on--even the "boring" classics that I had once disdained.

It was around this time that I identified my interest in writing my own books. Now I read not only fiction, but nonfiction as well: history, biographies, science, and economics. I also read books in other languages: Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish, to be precise. 

My objective here is not to impress you with my reading list. I've been a bookworm for going on thirty years now. Unless you've been a bookworm for a similar period of time, I've probably read more books than you have. But so what? This isn't a contest.

The important point is that I started out by reading popular fiction. In the mid-1980s, Stephen King was the popular fiction author that the academic literary types most loved to hate. (John Grisham was still an unknown Mississippi lawyer; Twilight and Harry Potter were still more than a decade away.) My adolescent 15-year-old self, caught up in the youth culture of the time, would never have started reading for pleasure if that had meant reading Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud. But I would pick up a story about vampires.

Popular fiction is a positive form of a "gateway drug." Sorry to say, but your average nonreader simply isn't going to start with Guns, Germs, and Steel, nor even with more literary fiction like something written by Jeffrey Eugenides. Nonreaders aren't necessarily less smart than readers, but they do typically have shorter attention spans. When they read, they expect books to be like movies and television shows: fast-moving, not too long, and not overly complex.This is why Patterson, King, and Grisham can sell books to people who don't otherwise read very much. 

It is also worth noting that not all of what the critics and academics call "crap" actually is crap. Some of Stephen King's early novels--The Stand, The Dead Zone, and Carrie come to mind--will likely be read as "serious" literature by future generations. Patterson and Grisham, on the other hand, write potboilers that are pure entertainment. But entertainment isn't all bad. 

To those of you who disdain popular fiction: Popular fiction is not the enemy. The enemies are the mind-numbing video games that suck up hours of teenagers' time, and reality television shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. (Even the worst popular fiction is preferable to either of these.)  Add to that list Facebook, all the silly videos on YouTube, and our national obsession with texting friends to report what we ate for breakfast (and, of course, to find out what they ate for breakfast.)

Popular fiction creates the habit of reading. Sure, some popular fiction is of low quality, but it's still reading. And for many people (myself included, in 1984) popular fiction is a useful and necessary starting point. So don't disdain popular fiction. Embrace it as an ambassador for  the more "serious" books out there. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Walking Dead and the post-apocalyptic cliche

I've written before of my enthusiasm for AMC's The Walking Dead. The program is, and remains, the best film version of the zombie apocalypse to date. There is none of the grotesque silliness that has some to characterize Romero's approach to the genre. 

So yes, I still love The Walking Dead. But I'm not quite as much in love with it this season as I was in seasons past. This time around, the series has lost a bit of its mojo. It is still good; but it isn't as over-the-top brilliant as it was in seasons 1 and 2.

Since the beginning, the main strength of The Walking Dead has been the human stories that it has told in the background. Sure, The Walking Dead has always been about dead people that get up and attack the living. But it has also been about marital discord, jealousy, and the struggle for dominance within a group. Fundamentally mundane, human issues.

During the early seasons, the series focused on the sense of dread and dislocation that would accompany an actual zombie apocalypse. In this era of terrorism and financial meltdowns, many people had been feeling some anxiety about the basic stability of society. This has been a major factor in the popularity of zombie fiction over the past decade; and the writers of The Walking Dead did a virtuoso job of portraying these fears within the context of approachable human characters. 

We are attached to the characters in The Walking Dead because they remind us of our neighbors. And this sense of familiarity--of the normal--helps us to suspend our disbelief when watching The Walking Dead. The action seems real because the characters are so real. This is a sweet spot that Romero never managed to hit, obsessed as he is with probing the depths of the comic gross-out.

So why, then, am I wary of the direction The Walking Dead has taken this season?

Here is a common cliche in the genres of zombie fiction and the post-apocalypse: From the wreckage of the end of the world, someone (usually an archetypical Angry White Male) has reestablished institutions and government--but in the form of a diabolical dictatorship. This New World Order involves not merely the gaps in due process that would almost inevitably occur in a post-apocalyptic setting, but cruelty and sadism for their own sakes. 

You've seen versions of this before, in Stephen King's The Stand, in at least one of the novels of Brian Keene (a skilled practitioner of zombie fiction), and in movies like Waterworld. The end of the world seems to be a signal for all the passive-aggressive middle-aged men out there to emerge from the ashes and form dictatorships. 

This plot twist is not wholly invalid, and it was entertaining the first dozen or so times you saw it. However, it has now become a staple of any sort of fictional work that depicts the apocalypse. Screenwriters and novelists who use this device therefore need to exercise caution, lest they break the spell by treading ground that has long since become a cliche. 

In this season, two of the characters of The Walking Dead were captured by armed men from a makeshift post-apocalyptic community that bears all of the familiar signposts: A mysterious, charismatic leader who pretends to be good, but who is really a Very Bad Man at heart. Lots of semi-literate men with guns, and depraved cruelty occurring just beneath the placid veneer of the proto-civilization.    

Add this to the somewhat unbelievable character with the samurai sword and the pet zombies, and you are straying dangerously close to the realm of cliche. This season, The Walking Dead is looking less like The Walking Dead of the first few seasons, and dangerously reminiscent of the sort of horror slapstick that Romero would make. 

Such a formula will doubtlessly continue to hold the interests of the diehard horror fans; but will it retain the more general audience that The Walking Dead has attracted thus far?