Saturday, January 31, 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing and outlining

There are writers who outline and writers who rely on minute-by-minute, impromptu inspiration. 

Put me solidly in the outlining camp. I believe that any complex writing project (including a business email) can be improved by outlining beforehand.

When I say "outlining", I don't necessarily mean the formal structure that most of us learned in school, with letters, numbers, and Roman numerals in both upper- and lowercase.

But writing typically goes better when the writer has a plan. More details in the video that follows:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The inspiration behind "Blood Flats"

Yes, Blood Flats is a Kentucky crime novel that involves drug trafficking. No, it wasn't inspired by the FX series Justified

As I explain in this video, if Blood Flats has a single literary inspiration, it would probably be Larry McMurtry's classic Western novel, Lonesome Dove

Monday, January 26, 2015

Reading: "12 Hours of Halloween" Prologue, Part 1

From my YouTube channel:

The first part of the prologue of my novel, 12 Hours of Halloween: description:

The year is 1980. Jeff Schaeffer, Leah Carter, and Bobby Nagel decide to go out for "one last Halloween" before adolescence takes away their childhood forever.

But this Halloween is different, they soon discover; and an outing that was supposed to be light-hearted and fun becomes a battle for sanity--and perhaps even survival.

From the author of the reader-acclaimed “Eleven Miles of Night”, “12 Hours of Halloween” is a coming-of-age tale unlike any you have ever read.

A sinister teenager known as “the ghost boy” declares that Jeff Schaeffer and his friends will endure “twelve hours of trial” on Halloween. The three young people subsequently find their once familiar suburban surroundings transformed into a bizarre and terrifying landscape.

They discover that just beneath the surface of their middle-American neighborhood lies a secret realm of haunted houses, demonically possessed trees, and spirits with unfinished business. One entity, called the “head collector”, lurks the darkened streets in search of grisly trophies.

At the same time, Jeff is forced to confront new feelings for both of his old friends.

He believes that he is in love with Leah, but does Leah feel the same way?

Meanwhile, his friend Bobby, who had always protected him from local bullies, now seems to harbor a dark agenda that threatens to divide and possibly destroy them all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The definition of worry

Not everyone who reads this blog is religious, of course. But the following quote from Chuck Swindall is worth contemplating, regardless of your religious convictions--or lack thereof:

"Worry occurs when we assume responsibility for things that are outside our control."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Finding conflict and horror in the suburbs

Someone once said that it’s difficult to find good story ideas in the suburbs.

After all, nothing much happens in the suburbs: For real conflict, you have to go to the battlefield, the boardroom, or the halls of government.

Conventional wisdom would hold this to be even truer for horror. The clich├ęd horror tale involves a lonely cabin in the woods, or a dilapidated Victorian mansion atop a hill.

But all those subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter McMansions? Nope…nothing scary there.

Not so fast. There is plenty of conflict in the suburbs—and plenty of horror, too, for that matter.

Take, for example, the real-life horror that formed the basis of my novel Our House.

Our House is a novel about a young couple that moves into their suburban “dream home”, only to find themselves harassed by acts of vandalism, and mysterious figures who appear on their lawn in the middle of the night.

Couldn't happen, you say?

Actually, something like this did happen: A few years ago I heard (through my local grapevine in Cincinnati) about a couple who moved into a house and had similar experiences.

The house had been originally owned by a middle-aged couple. Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. X

Mr. X wanted to sell the home, but Mrs. X didn’t.

After the contract was signed, Mrs. X unilaterally tried to void the contract, but she wasn't able to accomplish this through legal channels.

So Mrs. X began harassing her home’s new owners, who hadn’t even moved in yet.

The realtor who was in the middle of all this advised the new owners to agree to cancel the contract, even though they had no obligation to do so by law.

Mrs. X, the realtor said, was unstable and possibly dangerous….

The new owners didn't listen.

After the new owners moved in, they found horrible “surprises” on their doorstep once or twice per week. One day a stranger approached their young child and made vague threats…The exact identity of this stranger could never be established…

This real-life story sent a chill up my spine. I spent some time mulling it over, and the novel Our House was the eventual result.

Our House isn’t in any way a novelization of that real incident. And yes, the events in Our House are more extreme than what occurred in real life.

But this was one case in which “real life” in the suburbs was reasonably scary…And I found that I just had to write about it.

America’s widely circulated anti-Semitic newspaper

Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford had a lot of interests.

One these interests was anti-Semitism. In 1919 Ford purchased The Dearborn Independent, which he transformed into a voice for his personal anti-Semitism.

Thanks to Ford’s promotional clout (he required Ford dealerships to promote the paper) the paper had a circulation of nearly a million in 1925, making it second only to The New York Daily News.

But the reign of The Dearborn Independent would not last for long. Under pressure from lawsuits, the paper finally folded in 1927.

Free 1/21 and 1/22: "Gate Time"

From my Hay Moon short story collection, the short story "Gate Time" is free on Amazon today and tomorrow: description:

“Traveling software salesman Josh Gardner had never been afraid of airports---until he discovered that some of his fellow travelers were not what they appeared to be.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Charles Dickens opium connection

The abuse of opium was relatively common in the nineteenth century, when narcotics were largely unregulated.

Many people in both America and the United Kingdom took opium in the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture formed from opium powder.

Although he was not known to be a regular abuser of the drug, British novelist Charles Dickens visited opium dens in London’s seedier sections on occasion. There he observed the pathetic clientele of these establishments. 

Charles Dickens

One particularly memorable opium addict became the inspiration for “Opium Sal”, a character in his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 

Original cover of a serial installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Dickens collaborator and contemporary Wilkie Collins, on the other hand, was a noted opium addict. Wilkie Collins is now largely forgotten, but in the 1860s he was one of the most popular novelists to work in the English language. Among Collins’s best-known works are The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and Armadale. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins coauthored several works, including a briefly popular play called The Frozen Deep.

Wilkie Collins

Collins was addicted to laudanum, which he began using in his forties to relieve pain from gout.

The drug eventually led to a decline in both the quality and quantity of his output. Wilkie Collins died in 1889 at the age of 65.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Reader question #1: 12 Hours of Halloween

Dear Ed:

"I noticed that you would be about the same age as the lead character in 12 Hours of Halloween. To what extent is this novel autobiographical?"

Dear Reader:

The short answer is that 12 Hours of Halloween isn't autobiographical at all--well, not really. 

12 Hours of Halloween is a supernatural tale set in 1980. The events of the story--which include encounters with various ghostly entities--are highly improbable, of course.

But you already knew that. What you really want to know is to what extent the lead character's basic circumstances mirror my own.

Like Jeff Schaeffer (and his two friends, Leah Carter and Bobby Nagel) I was born in 1968, So yes, I was twelve in 1980. 

I also attended Catholic schools...and I grew up in Cincinnati. Just like the main character.

But that is about where the direct similarities end.

If you had known me at age 12, you wouldn't have mistaken me for the lead character. 

Let's start with the basics: Jeff has a sister; I was an only child. My father is much younger than Jeff's father. 

Nor did I know a girl named Leah...

I don't write about my own life for a reason. Generally speaking, direct autobiography makes for bad fiction

I do sift the raw material of my experiences for fiction ideas, as was the case with Termination Man. (Termination Man is a corporate novel set in the automotive industry, where I worked for a number of years.) 

However, I wouldn't think of publishing novelizations of periods in my own life. Those novels wouldn't be very exciting to read--even for me.

So although 12 Hours of Halloween--as well as Termination Man--draw heavily on my "real life" experiences, neither book is "real life", or at least my real life.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Duke U.: no campus-wide calls to Muslim prayers

"Duke University has reversed its decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer to sound from a campus chapel bell tower, school officials announced Thursday.  
Plans changed because the Durham, North Carolina, school's effort to "unify was not having the intended effect," Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a statement. 
 "Duke remains committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students," Schoenfeld said.  
The Duke Muslim Students Association had planned to chant the call, or adhan, from the Duke Chapel bell tower. The adhan signals the beginning of the weekly prayer service. Jummah prayers have taken place in the basement of Duke Chapel for many years, the statement said."
The issue here is not whether or not Muslim students will be allowed to pray on campus. As the article notes, Muslim students at Duke have long been allotted space to practice their faith. No one is suggesting that there should be any change in this regard.

The question is whether or not Muslim students should be allowed to broadcast their religion five times per day from the campus's bell tower.

If Catholic students were requesting the right to broadcast sectarian prayers to the entire campus five times daily, I suspect that most people would say, "This goes above and beyond a reasonable accommodation of your faith at this non-Catholic* institution. If you want to do that, please attend a Catholic university."

I see no reason why the answer should be different in the case of Muslim students and Muslim prayers. 

*Note: Duke is a nonsectarian university with historical ties to the Methodist church. 

UK bookstore chain claims Kindle "dying"

"Paper books are fighting back against e-books — at least according to the UK's biggest book retailer, Waterstones, which claims that sales of Amazon's Kindle have all but "disappeared," while print sales are climbing."

Read between the lines, and you'll find more than a little bit of wishful thinking in the above article. A brick-and-mortar bookstore chain would naturally like to see the demise of the Kindle and ebooks, for the same reason that real estate agents would like to see the demise of FSBO (for sale by owner) websites.

The truth is a little more complex, though. A few years ago, digital enthusiasts were hastening to declare the "death of paper". That prediction was wrongheaded then, just as predictions of the "death of Kindle" are wrongheaded now.

First of all, it is important to remember that many Kindle readers now read the ebooks on iPads and other tablet devices. iPads have not only become more widespread, but they are now available in a variety of sizes. The Kindle reading application (free from Amazon) can run on practically any tablet device.

If you have a tablet with a Kindle reading app installed, then you probably don't need an Amazon Kindle too. That would involve a level of redundancy. (And the iPad minis are about the same size as a Kindle, anyway.) 

So the drop in sales of dedicated Kindle devices can be attributed to the proliferation of tablets in recent years. 

But this number is separate and distinct from sales figures for Kindle ebooks--which can also be read on tablets.

This isn't a binary choice for most people. Very few readers, say, "I'm only going to read in x format." I'm an avid reader, and I read ebooks, paperbacks, and hardcover books. I also listen to audio books. I buy some books new, I buy others from secondhand bookstores like Half Price books, and borrow others from the library.

Underlying the hyperlinked article is, in fact, a very real war for marketshare. Amazon has severely disrupted the business model of the traditional chains: first with its Internet ordering system in the late 1990s, and then with the Kindle in 2007. Meanwhile, Amazon has invested heavily in Kindle technology, and Jeff Bezos would no doubt like to see one in every backpack and on every nightstand.

But actual consumer behavior is more complex. The "war" between print and ebooks isn't going to end in the death of one and the universal triumph of the other. Most avid readers will continue to use both formats, as is already the case.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Rendezvous" by Nelson DeMille: mini-review

I just finished "Rendezvous", a short story by Nelson DeMille.

(I listened to the audio version.)


"Rendezvous" is a long short story about a U.S. Army patrol in Vietnam that is "hunted" by a Vietcong sniper. 

The hook? The sniper is a young female, but she's as deadly and cold-hearted as any male enemy could be.

DeMille, as some readers will know, saw combat as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam. Therefore, the authenticity is there, as is the tension. 

Because this is a short story, "Rendezvous" isn't filled with exceptionally memorable characters. However, the ending is quite haunting.

If you like this one, I would recommend DeMille's (rather lengthy) novel about Vietnam, Up Country.

Does Kindle Unlimited hurt authors?

Some apparently think so. I have a differing opinion:

Authors are upset with Amazon. Again.  
For much of the last year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over e-books. 
 Now self-published writers, who owe much of their audience to the retailer’s publishing platform, are unhappy.  
One problem is too much competition. But a new complaint is about Kindle Unlimited, a new Amazon subscription service that offers access to 700,000 books — both self-published and traditionally published — for $9.99 a month.  
It may bring in readers, but the writers say they earn less. And in interviews and online forums, they have voiced their complaints.

Participation in Kindle Unlimited is voluntary. And participation is done in 3-month increments. So no one is being forced to sign away the farm.

Every writer has to make a strategic decision about every title: Does it make sense to enroll the title in Kindle Unlimited, or not?…And for how long?

Obviously, a borrowed title brings in less money than a purchased title. But...the lower cost to the reader makes Kindle Unlimited a valuable promotional tool…for some titles, and in some instances…and for a while.

Many writers want to independently publish, but they do not want to think like businesspeople. So they complain that is trying to ruin their lives.

Print not dead yet...

Even among the generation known as "digital natives":

Poirot still popular

"His creator described in her autobiography how she developed him directly from her observations of what made up the figure of Sherlock Holmes to which she added a stock version of the comic foreigner. Poirot, the ageing bachelor, is the pure essence of detective and has consequently little of the real person about him on the page, simply an indiscriminate collection of engagingly eccentric traits."

Amazon saving college students money will replace UMass Amherst on-campus book store

Key point: 

"Students are expected to save about $400 each year with the new service."

I have fond memories of browsing in the campus bookstore during my college days. 

However, I don't remember saving a lot of money there. Even then, college bookstore prices were noticeably higher than other book-buying alternatives. (And I went to college long before the Internet.) 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Is your boss smarter than you are?

It is worth asking: How do the people who rise to the top of corporate management stack up intellectually, as compared to the general population, and (more to the point) the people who work for them?

Cartoons like Dilbert have fed the comforting populist notion that corporate managers are dimwits. This is not entirely accurate or fair. It is, in my experience, exceedingly rare to find a genuine dummy in a position of responsibility in a large corporation.

That having been said, the boss may not be any smarter than the people below him. (Moreover, it is statistically likely that some of his subordinates are significantly brighter.)

The question, “Is your boss smarter than you are?” is not an unfair question, but it is probably the wrong question to be asking yourself, if your goal is to climb the corporate ladder.

What most corporate work requires is not profound intellect or creativity, but the ability to execute fairly repetitive tasks efficiently and cheerfully.

The real challenge is navigating the “human side” of the organization—otherwise known as corporate politics. Success in a corporate environment is 30% competence and 70% politics.

Here is a specific and well-known example. Lee Iacocca was fired from his president’s position at Ford Motor Company in 1978, even though the company had just posted a $2 billion profit. The reason? Iacocca had a personality conflict with Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder. This should tell you something.

I should note: Apple-polishing alone is not sufficient for moving up in the company. But once you achieve a base level of demonstrated competence, your relationship with your superiors is probably the most important factor in your future advancement.

Likewise, assuming a base level of demonstrated competence, improving your relationship with the boss is probably more important than making further marginal and incremental improvements in your performance.

In regard to temperament, the person who moves up the ladder is usually not the one who is brutally honest, the one who continually challenges the system and generates good ideas.

That person—if she is as smart as she thinks she is—usually gets fired, or quits. Then she starts her own business.

The person who moves up the ladder in a large organization is the person who knows how to be compliant without being a milquetoast, the person who knows how to demonstrate a common level of smarts and efficiency without threatening the next highest person on the organizational chart.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Writing, brainstorming, and daydreaming

Most of us have been brought up to think of daydreaming as a wasteful activity.

Daydreaming can be wasteful, when it is too random, the main focus of one’s life, or used to indulge in negative or counterproductive thoughts.

However, a certain amount of what people commonly call daydreaming is a necessary part of the writing process.

No one sits down at a keyboard cold with an inexhaustible supply of ideas. Ideas have to come from somewhere; and they usually come from time spent in reflection. (Ideas also come from doing extensive reading of both fiction and nonfiction, and having a full and varied intellectual life—but this is a separate topic.)

The trick is to engage in directed daydreaming—otherwise known as brainstorming. Brainstorming is daydreaming with a purpose in mind.

Brainstorming is a necessary part not only of writing, but of any creative endeavor. Brainstorming is no less necessary for the entrepreneur or the corporate manager than it is for the writer.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Harry Bosch and the problem of aging characters

One problem that writers of series fiction face is the issue that characters must age as the series progresses (just like real people do).

The producers of television series face a similar problem. M*A*S*H, a popular sitcom about U.S. Army doctors during the Korean War, ran for eleven seasons, from 1972 to 1983. The problem? The actual Korean War only ran for three years, from 1950 to 1953.

In the case of M*A*S*H, viewers were more than willing to suspend their disbelief. The final episode, which aired on February 28, 1983, was watched by more people than any other television event to that date. (The final episode was 2.5 hours long; and there were reports of the sanitation systems in several large cities being overwhelmed by so many people flushing their toilets at the end of the unusually long episode.)

Friends was another long-running sitcom. This show’s topic was not the Korean War, but the exploits of a group of single twentysomethings living in New York City. Friends ran for ten years, from 1994 to 2004.

Like M*A*S*H, Friends was also highly rated, and generally pretty good as mass-market television goes. However, the show was undoubtedly affected by the natural aging of the characters (not to mention the actors).

At the beginning of the series, the premise was wholly fresh and believable. As the characters and the actors entered early middle age, however, the original setups and situations were no longer quite as fresh and believable. Several of the characters got married and had children.

Married thirtysomethings who have kids don’t do the same things that single twentysomethings do. They approach life differently. It would certainly have been possible to continue Friends with a more mature, thirtysomething angle (there actually was a series called Thirtysomething which ran in the late 1980s), but that would have been a very different sitcom. The series had probably reached its natural end when the plug was pulled in 2004.

Which brings us to the topic of aging characters in series fiction. M*A*S*H and Friends were both locked into fairly rigid timeframes: the Korean War in the case of M*A*S*H, and that brief period of relatively unencumbered early adulthood in the case of Friends. A fictional series can of course be more flexible. But time still takes its toll.

The fictional detective Harry Bosch is probably the most popular and well-loved recurring character in modern crime fiction. Generations from now, Bosch will without a doubt be ranked alongside Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

Harry Bosch made his first appearance in The Black Echo, published in 1992. Readers were immediately drawn to Bosch, and we may suppose that author Michael Connelly liked him, too. As of 2015, Connelly is still writing Harry Bosch novels. Connelly has written around twenty-five of them in total.

Readers of the Harry Bosch series will know that Bosch is a Vietnam vet who was born in 1950. This placed him in his early forties when the series began—not a kid, by any means, but still young enough to chase bad guys on foot and engage in shootouts.

More than twenty years later, though, Bosch is now in his sixties. He is past retirement age, but working for the LAPD on a deferred retirement (DROP) contract.

Connelly has skillfully managed Harry’s age. While the Harry Bosch novels are still fast-paced page-turners, readers will notice that they have become a bit less focused on physical action than they used to be. More troublesome is the fact that Harry will eventually have to retire completely.

Although I can’t claim any knowledge into Michael Connelly’s plans, I have noticed the character development of Bosch’s teenage daughter, Maddie. In the latest Bosch novel, The Burning Room (2014), Maddie is a 17-year-old girl who is planning a career in law enforcement. She spends time at the shooting range, and she participates in the police Explorers program.

This compels one to ask: Is Michael Connelly planning a crime series with Maddie Bosch as the main character? It isn’t too far-fetched, when you think about it. While Harry Bosch is becoming too old for active-duty law enforcement, he could remain behind the scenes in an advisory role for Maddie for quite some time. So there could be a transition of sorts, which would hopefully carry over the existing fan base.

It might work. And if any writer can successfully transition the reader base of a hard-boiled, middle-aged male detective to a young female one, Michael Connelly can.

But a Maddie Bosch detective series will necessarily be different in tone. The scenarios will also be different. Connelly, moreover, will have to balance the demands of old readers and new ones.

Readers of the original Harry Bosch series will demand an ongoing active role for Harry. New readers, drawn to the idea of a young female detective, will want to see Maddie doing the things that a normal single twentysomething female does. She’ll have to go on dates, for one thing. But will Harry Bosch readers want to read about Maddie Bosch’s love life? Throughout the series, Harry has had a number of romantic relationships—but these have been minor subplots. A young woman who barely takes time out for relationships may be less believable than a hardened, been-there-done-that, haunted-by-his-past, middle-aged man who is fully absorbed in his work.

Maddie can replace Harry Bosch, in other words, but she can’t simply step into his shoes. She will have to find shoes of her own. And longtime Harry Bosch readers may or may not like those shoes.

All of this is purely speculative on my part, of course. I have no idea what Michael Connelly ultimately plans to do with the Harry Bosch series. But one thing is certain: Ten years from now, the seventy-five year old Harry Bosch will no longer be believable as an active duty detective on the LAPD.  And since Harry Bosch is Connelly’s most popular (and most lucrative) series character, the writer will be forced to make a decision.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Now available for Kindle: 12 Hours of Halloween

Book description:

The year is 1980. Jeff Schaeffer, Leah Carter, and Bobby Nagel decide to go out for "one last Halloween" before adolescence takes away their childhood forever.

But this Halloween is different, they soon discover; and an outing that was supposed to be light-hearted and fun becomes a battle for sanity--and perhaps even survival.

From the author of the reader-acclaimed “Eleven Miles of Night”, “12 Hours of Halloween” is a coming-of-age tale unlike any you have ever read.

A sinister teenager known as “the ghost boy” declares that Jeff Schaeffer and his friends will endure “twelve hours of trial” on Halloween. The three young people subsequently find their once familiar suburban surroundings transformed into a bizarre and terrifying landscape.

They discover that just beneath the surface of their middle-American neighborhood lies a secret realm of haunted houses, demonically possessed trees, and spirits with unfinished business. One entity, called the “head collector”, lurks the darkened streets in search of grisly trophies.

At the same time, Jeff is forced to confront new feelings for both of his old friends.

He believes that he is in love with Leah, but does Leah feel the same way?

Meanwhile, his friend Bobby, who had always protected him from local bullies, now seems to harbor a dark agenda that threatens to divide and possibly destroy them all.