Common Writing Mistakes

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In my centuries of evaluating and editing manuscripts I’ve probably been through five million of ’em. (Wait, I’m not supposed to exaggerate; it’s only one million.) With that large a sample size it’s clear that many of the same mistakes plague writers, whether they’re newbies or successful, multi-published authors. Here are just a few of them.

EACH OTHER/ONE ANOTHER

I’m going old school on this to say that I use “each other” when referring to two people (“John and Mary looked at each other in disbelief”) and “one another” when referring to three or more people (“The tour group took care of one another after their guide disappeared”). This rule has evolved through the years to the point where, these books 2days, most grammarians will agree that the two are interchangeable.

So why do I go old school? Years ago I submitted a couple chapters of a novel to a literary agent. The proposal came back with a rejection note. (What a surprise, eh?) The agent’s only comment? I didn’t know the difference between “each other” and “one another.” As I’ve always said, why give an agent or publisher ANY reason to reject your work? I’ll be using the old rule on this until the Mother Ship arrives.

EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

To be sure, an exclamation point is perfectly good punctuation! But here is the thing! Many writers tend to overuse them! Just like I’m doing here! I assume it’s annoying the crap out of you!

Seriously, the less of them you use, the stronger effect they’ll have when you do insert one. There is a school of writing thought that suggests not using any at all. I don’t buy into that. Why? Read this same sentence two ways:

  • The piano is going to fall on that man’s head.
  • The piano is going to fall on that man’s head!

I see far more overuse of exclamation points than the other way around. The record breaker (I’m not making this up): a manuscript in which every second sentence ended with one. I mean, read these sentences with the proper emphasis on the last word.

  • I’m going to the store!
  • The car is parked in the driveway!
  • I think I’ll brush my teeth!

You get the point (pun intended): save your exclamation points for when they count.

LOOSE/LOSE

So many of my best and most educated writers mess this one up. All wrong:

  • He had so much to loose.
  • The wild horses ran lose on the plain.
  • Did you loose all your money at the blackjack table?
  • There are lots of lose women in that bar.

If it ever does stump you, remember this sentence: “I hope that I don’t lose all of the loose change in my pocket.”

TWO- AND THREE-BREATH SENTENCES

William Faulkner wrote some long sentences.

William Faulkner wrote some long sentences.

Some writers get carried away with their prose and write sentences that seem to go on forever and ever and what they don’t realize is that they can lose their readers when they do this kind of thing because people like to be able to take a breath now and then and when you write endless sentences with little or no punctuation they don’t have a place to insert the figurative bookmark so they say to themselves that this person writes sentences like Faulkner used to write and since they didn’t like Faulkner when they had to read him in high school they’re going to put this book down and…

Did I make my point? Avoid overlong sentences.

 

This ad had it right AND wrong.
      This ad had it right AND wrong.

 

EVERYDAY/EVERY DAY

I’ve seen this one handled improperly on billboards, in TV and newspaper ads, you name it. I’m sure you have too. For example: “Low prices everyday!” Wrong-o. “Everyday” is a one-word adjective meaning “used routinely.” The two-word phrase “every day” can be interchanged with “each day.”

  • Wrong: “John did his chores everyday.”
  • Correct: “John did his chores every day.”
  • Wrong: “John did his every day chores.”
  • Correct: “John did his everyday chores.”

Jimmy Durante, a great comic from back in the day, used to say, “I got a million of ’em.” Same here with regard to common writing mistakes. We’ll look at some more in future posts.

PRAISE FOR FREEDOM’S HAND

A recent review: “You can’t stop reading it once you start. Yes, it’s well written. Yes, it’s framed in a believable manner that makes you think it really could be possible in our day. Yes, it’s gripping. But that’s not why you can’t stop reading once you start.

“We hear about the Nazi concentration camps, see clips of black and white film strips, Freedom's Hand Ebook Covermake movies that try to recreate what it must have been like, and go to museums. But…nothing makes you feel like ‘you’ are a character in those camps, experiencing the terror yourself. Sirota places you there, in this modern day story of a resurgence of Nazism and death camps—but here in America. You feel trapped with the characters, one of them. Your survival instincts will kick in as you read, and you’ll feel the need to plan an escape in your head…or die trying.”

Guilty Pleasures: Conan The Destroyer

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Over two years ago I wrote a “Guilty Pleasures” post for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first screen romp as Conan the Barbarian in 1982. Since that time this particular post has conan 2 posterreceived more views than any of the others I’ve done on my blog. Must be a lot of Conan—or Arnold—fans out there. At the time I also hinted at a post about Arnold’s 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer. The time has come to pay off on that.

While Conan the Barbarian is a true guilty pleasure—I love the film—I had to stop myself short of referring to its sequel as a guilty displeasure. There is much wrong with Conan the Destroyer—a good deal of which has to do with an acting-challenged cast. (Some even make Arnold look good.) But what the heck, it’s mildly entertaining, and it’s a sword & sorcery flick, and there has never been enough of those to go around.

The story opens with Conan, author Robert E. Howard’s brooding Cimmerian, mooning after his lost love Valeria, who died in the first film, while fellow thief Malak (the always annoying Tracey Walter) sizes up their loot from a recent heist. The nasty

A true teenage crush...

A true teenage crush.

Queen Taramis of Shadizar (Sarah Douglas, even nastier as über-villain Ursa in the old Superman films) approaches with her head guardsman, Bombaata (the acting-challenged Wilt Chamberlain, who should’ve stuck to basketball). She wants Conan to accompany her niece, Princess Jehnna, on a quest to retrieve first a gem, then a horn. For that, she’ll bring Valeria back to life.

Seems like a good deal, though Conan never thinks to ask Taramis why she can raise up the dead but not take a trip with her niece. (Conan the Gullible?) They travel to the queen’s palace, which drips with intrigue. Taramis orders Bombaata to kill Conan after the horn is retrieved, and then return dear little Jehnna to the palace, where she will be sacrificed in a ceremony to bring Dagoth, the Sleeping God, back to life so that he can rule the world. Indeed, foul play abounds.

Sheltered from men and in the throes of raging hormones, teenager Jehnna (a terminally cute and minimally acting-challenged Olivia d’Abo) is kind of whiny and pushy, but she also has the hots for Conan. (Oy!) On the journey they pick up a wizard named Akiro (Mako, reprising his role from the first film) and an amazon warrior named Zula (the wild, acting-challenged Grace Jones). First stop: an ice

Zula kicks butt!

      Zula kicks butt!

fortress in the middle of a lake, where Thoth-Amon, a wizard, possesses the gem that they seek. They succeed, though not before Conan, in a cool scene, does battle with a man-ape in a weird roomful of mirrors.

The six next travel to a temple where the horn of Dagoth is guarded by a bunch of religious whackos. Even when they’re ambushed by the queen’s men on the way, and Bombaata appears to take their side, Conan (the Gullible) doesn’t figure it out. At least, not until the horn has been retrieved and, as they escape through a tunnel after killing half of the whackos, old #13 brings a ton of rocks down on him and the others and flees with Jehnna.

Their number now reduced to four after they dig out, the band reaches Shadizar just as the “ceremony” begins. Jehnna has finally figured out that her aunt is a psycho bitch, but maybe too late, because they’ve stuck the horn on the forehead of Dagoth—at this point he looks like a statue of a spaced-out guy—and as soon as he begins to move, Jehnna will be toast at the hands of the high priest and his nasty knife.

Conan kills Bombaata, and his little band does the same to a bunch of other guys. They arrive in the throne room just as Dagoth begins to move. Zula impales the high priest before he can kill Jehnna, and everything goes to hell. Dagoth transforms into a hideous, pissed-off monster. (André the Giant; anybody want a peanut?) It kills Queen

Dagoth is anything but horny.

       Dagoth is anything but horny.

Taramis (cheers abound!) but is in turn killed by Conan who, in a gross scene, rips its horn out.

The final scene, done with great solemnity (I don’t know how the actors kept a straight face), has now-Queen Jehnna appointing Zula her Captain of the Guard, Akiro her advisor, and Malak her court jester. She offers Conan the chance to rule Shadizar with her as king, but the barbarian, possibly fearing statutory rape charges, declines and heads out to seek his own kingdom. Maybe he wasn’t so gullible after all.

A closing voiceover promises another Conan story, but that didn’t happen, as Arnold went on to play numerous other entertaining roles, including his starring gig as Governator of Calee-fornia. Well, it didn’t happen until now. Believe it or not, a new Conan movie has been announced, with Arnold reprising his role. Say what?!? The dude is a year younger than me, and take my word for it, THAT’S OLD! I foresee a lot of work for his stunt doubles.

Anyway, this post is about Conan the Destroyer, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like I said, it’s a sword & sorcery movie, and even a so-so one in this genre is better than a good chick flick, by Crom! Happy viewing.

“Chilled Monkey Brains”

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Chilled monkey brains, yum!
Chilled monkey brains, yum!

 Memorable lines from our favorite movies are always a hoot. Here are a few more of mine.

“Ah, dessert! Chilled monkey brains.” A dinner guest at one of the funniest and most disgusting meals you’ll ever witness grosses out Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.” A signature line uttered by Detective John McLane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard.

“It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It has been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast.” A psychic named Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) gives this unsettling bit of news to the Freeling family in Poltergeist.

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin? Well then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.” Nope, this isn’t from a Disney movie. Crazed Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)

"Hee-ere's Johnny!"

               “Hee-ere’s Johnny!”

bellows these lines in The Shining as he takes an ax to a door. (And we all know what he says once he breaks through, eh?)

“Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.” Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) in the hilarious indie film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations. Man, free to kill gophers at will. To kill, you must know your enemy, and in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit—ever. They’re like the Viet Cong—Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on

Bill Murray and the gopher have issues.

Bill Murray and the gopher have issues.

superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that’s all she wrote.” Groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) has a one-track mind in the outrageous Caddyshack.

“Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here. This stuff will make you a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.” A pre-gubernatorial Jesse Ventura, as Blain, shares his thoughts on chewing tobacco in the original Predator—which, of course, starred another pre-gubernatorial actor of some note.

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” One of the most often-uttered lines in history came from the Road Prison Captain (Strother Martin) in Cool Hand Luke. ferris(Holy crap, that movie is now forty-seven years old!)

“Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) talking about his BFF in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (I crack up just thinking about this movie.)

As always, let me know some of your favorites. If you missed them, check out my posts, “She Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly” and “We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes” for more classic movie lines.

OUCH! MY EXPANDING SKULL!

Anyone know of a cure for SHS (Swelled Head Syndrome)? This newly posted five-star review on Amazon for FIRE DANCE speaks for itself. I am humbled.

“Sirota has created a blended genre ghost story-walk-in tale that has shiver-producing moments side-by-side with moments of extreme empathy. Is there pure evil in the world? Is that evil strong enough to reanimate? What happens when innocent souls are trapped in place and cannot rest eternally?

“Sirota is a masterful story teller and FIRE DANCE confirms his spot in the horror/gothic realm of Dean Koontz and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Myths And Legends: Haunted Anza Borrego

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Years ago, when I set my ghost story, Fire Dance, in the Anza Borrego Desert east of San Diego, I had no ideaFire Dance New Small just how haunted this bleak landscape actually was. Well, I do now. The following stories are courtesy of the Paranormalistics, a highly trained team of investigative paranormalists and paranormal investigators, headquartered in Carlsbad, CA. Paranormalists are experts in the paranormal field and occult sciences.

THE FORBIDDING DESERT

It is no wonder that so many ghosts haunt the lonely trails, mountains, and landmarks of the forbidding desert. The desert can be so unforgiving and, at the same time, unbelievably generous. Many travelers, prospectors and adventures have gone into the desert, never to return or be seen again. Others have returned with gold nuggets and treasures so rare and unique that we could only dream of being so lucky ourselves.

Desert lore, stories and quests for loot and gold have made men greedy. Gunfights, murders, and death from starvation and

Anza-Borrego: rather bleak.

Anza-Borrego: rather bleak.

dehydration have left many dead on the barren desert trails. Their ghosts still walk the mountain ridges, gullies, and deserted locations they once traveled or lived, spirits with unfinished business, who cannot rest. Some guard buried treasures and lost mines, while others battle perpetually until death, forever replaying their last moments of life.

THE LADY IN WHITE

The trip from Yuma to Vallecito was an arduous desert trek, long stretches of desperately dry sand and desiccated terrain. The stagecoach and its passengers staggered from one rancid, warm watering hole to the next, a bumpy, jarring ride across baked and burning countryside. You moved at a crawl, with shuddering winds and sudden cloudbursts. Choking dust was the passengers’ cruel and most steadfast escort. There were times where the road became so bad, the passengers had to get out and push the coach. People went mad in the midst of this 150-mile trek. Some coined the name for this tract of the Butterfield Stage Coach line, “The Journey of Death.”

The most well-known ghost story of Vallecito is about “The Lady in White”. Late in the 1850s, a young girl from the east arrived by stage at Vallecito. She was on her way to Sacramento to meet her lover, who had struck it rich. She was a frail young woman, worn with the hardships of travel and ill from improper food and doubtful water. She was carried from theghost coach, put to bed and given the best care available. But nothing could save her, and her fight was a losing one. Her journey came to an end at the Vallecito stage station.

Her baggage was examined and a brand new white dress was found. It was to have been her wedding dress. They dressed her in this and buried her in the Campo Santo, a few hundred feet east of the station. They thought they had put her to rest, but on moonlight nights she has been seen, down through the years, walking restlessly about the station. She harms no one but her presence is disturbing even to the most obstinate non-believer.

THE WHITE HORSE GHOST OF VALLECITO

Vallecito is famous for its ghosts. Its history contains many murders, deaths, robberies, and other wicked tales. One story involves a double murder at Vallecito Station. It all started with a stage holdup that yielded $65,000 worth of loot to four men on horseback, who robbed the eastbound stage before it reached Carrizo Wash en route to Vallecito Station.

As the men fled the scene, the driver of the stage fired one shot, killing one of the four men. When he reached the thief he had shot, he found not one, but two dead bodies. The driver concluded that the leader of the thieves had shot one of his own men so he would not have to divide up the loot.

The bandit leader and one other thief rode on to Vallecito Station. Shortly before arriving they buried their loot in some nearby hills then rode on to the station for a drink and some food. It is said that the two bandits argued while having a shutterstock_44312743drink. The leader went outside to check on his horse, promising to continue the discussion when he returned. He did return to the station, entering through the doorway mounted on his big white horse, and shot his companion.

As the wounded bandit lay dying, he drew his gun and fired back at the leader, killing him. The white horse, spooked by the gunfire and death of his master, ran off into the hills. It is said that when someone is in the valley around midnight, near the location where the bandits buried their loot, the ghost of a White Horse will appear from nowhere, galloping through the sand and then disappearing without a trace.

THE EIGHT-FOOT SKELETON

If you find yourself out late in the desert night, somewhere between the Superstition Mountains and Seventeen Palms, you may see the apparition of an eight-foot skeleton with a lantern in his chest. A prospector by the name of Charley Arizona first saw the ghost about four miles southeast of Borrego.

It was a dark night and Charley had already set up camp and was settling down for the night. Not long after he turned in, something disturbed his burros and he went to investigate. Suddenly, he saw a large human skeleton with a lantern light shining through its ribs. The skeleton walked in a crazy fashion, as if looking for something, or as if it were lost. Shortly after Charley sighted the skeleton, it disappeared over a small ridge.

About two years later, two prospectors had a similar experience while camping in the Superstition Mountains. They caught sight of a flickering light in the distance and wondered what it was; it quickly disappeared. One of the prospectors thought it looked like a skeleton carrying a lantern, but they figured it was the fire reflecting off a rock.

A year later, a traveler came into the Vallecito Station with the tale of a skeleton he saw wandering in the desert and skeletoncarrying a light. It wasn’t long before news of the skeleton got around and two adventurers went out into the desert to search for this legendary skeleton ghost.

During their third night in the desert, they encountered the ghastly lit skeleton. One of the men shot at it with a gun, but the skeleton continued on, unfazed by the gunfire. The two men followed the skeleton for three miles as it wandered in a strange and intermittent gait, over ridges and through valleys, before they lost track of it.

Many believe that the skeleton is the ghost of a prospector who discovered and worked the Phantom Mine, which has been lost for many years. The skeleton is no better off than the rest of us, for he too continues to search for the lost Phantom Mine, wandering the dark desert nights looking for his final resting place.

These tales barely scratch the surface with regard to the many spirits that continue to haunt the Anza Borrego Desert. Perhaps I’ll scare up some more of them in future posts.

 Copyright ©2014 Paranormalistics. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. For information visit their website or their blog.

Read & Critique: The Drama Queen

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In facilitating read & critique workshops in my home for over a dozen years I’ve encountered more than my share of drama queens—and kings. The subject in this post is a compilation of them all.

First off, what do I mean by a drama queen? Well, just like actors rehearsing for a play or movie with script in hand, actress 2participants in read & critique are reading chapters from their current work in progress, usually a novel but upon occasion a narrative non-fiction project. The big difference: while the actors and actresses are worried as much or more about how they DELIVER those lines as what those lines say, we writers are only concerned with the basic elements of the story. Are the characters believable? Do the expository passages move the story forward? Is the dialogue crisp and authentic? Is there a story arc? And so on.

Remember, unless we’re talking about an audiobook (we’re not), people will be reading your words on paper, and they’ll be providing the appropriate emotions in their heads. With the infrequent exception of getting to read an excerpt of your book at a library or bookstore event, you won’t have the luxury of physically “entertaining” your readers.

ACT I

With multiple read & critique groups running simultaneously, and with turnover through the years, I had to continually “educate” my writers in the skill of dealing with a drama queen. Let me give you an example—an example we’ll call Shirley. This enthusiastic writer actually came from L.A. and had a (brief) background in stage and film, so what transpired from the first time she read in class was, I suppose, inevitable. Shirley stood (most of my writers never did), made eye contact withactress everyone in the room, and launched into her “act.” She read with great passion, modulating her voice to fit the characters, using hand and body language, facial expressions and so on, as if she were auditioning for a role in a play at the Old Globe. My other writers loved it; so did I.

ENCORE!

But by the time Shirley was done—to a round of applause—I had scribbled down quite a few notes—issues that I found with one thing or another in her story; the usual, I guess, as it is with most works in progress. As facilitator I was always the last to speak, so we went around the room and discovered that my well-trained group, mesmerized by Shirley’s read, had practically nothing to say of a helpful nature. They had succumbed to the presentation, not the writing.

So yeah, they were surprised—and humbled—when I proceeded to deliver my litany of “this is what didn’t work for me in the pages you read.” Shirley took it well—why else was she there?—and afterward I gave the group my spiel on critiquing the words, not the “performance.” From then on they had no problem helping Shirley improve her story.

So does that mean I asked Shirley—and my other drama queens and kings—to cool her jets and read her work without the readertheatrics? No way! As noted before, I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. We all looked forward to hearing Shirley read more—and helping her make the writing better.

“YOU PUT ME TO SLEEP”

There is, of course, a 180° side to the drama queen and king. I had hundreds of writers participate in read & critique, and while just about all of them wanted to be there to work at improving their writing, quite a few were uncomfortable reading before a group. We had quiet ones, stammering ones, and—inevitably—ones who read in a dull monotone from beginning to end. Once again the group listened to the presentation, not the words, and some negative critiques ensued—even though the writing may have been spot on.

I recall one of my writers saying the following after a read such as that: “Wow, your chapter just about put me to sleep!” Yeah, I nipped that bit of nastiness in the bud; stuff like that doesn’t belong in a good read & critique group. But I actorunderstood where the guy was coming from. It’s not easy listening to a monotonic fifteen-minute read, even if the writing, on paper, is solid. I ultimately added comments on dealing with both overly dramatic and monotonic reads to my Workshop Guidelines, which all potential participants were required to read before I added them to a group.

“Alas, poor writer, I knew him well—before he joined one of Sirota’s workshops!”

Another Milestone: 150 Posts

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Those of you who know me are quite aware that I am seldom at a loss for words. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about reaching that number, although I must admit, early on I wondered if I’d have that much to say on a consistent basis. Well, those concerns are way in the past, and as long as I’m still here (chief), and as long as I still have a brain (debatable at times), the posts will keep on a’comin’. Here are some thoughts on what has been and what will be.

WRITING. By far, writing, and writers, and all things relevant to writing and writers will remain primo in this blog. I have a lifetime of experiences ranging from practical to outrageous, from writing that first sentence to attending book

This film told of Robert E. Howard, one of my favorite writers.

This film told of Robert E. Howard, one of my favorite writers.

launches and signings for my most successful writers. Been there, done it all, happy to share.

FILMS ABOUT WRITERS. I just added what will now be a regular feature of this blog, combining my affection for movies with my love of all things writing. While there are a fair amount of films from which to choose, I welcome input from readers. Let me know if you have a particular favorite.

GUILTY PLEASURES. Sad to say, but many of my favorite film genres—horror, fantasy, science fiction—seem to spawn alleged clunkers that the critics (curse them!) enjoy tearing apart. But I love many of these movies, and based on your reactions, so do a whole lot of you. We all have our guilty pleasures, whether it be “Eight Legged Freaks” or “Lake Placid” or “Mimic” or “An American Werewolf in London.” So we’ll keep on watching, and I’ll keep on writing about the gazillion others.

NATIVE AMERICANS. Given the fact that three of my novels—The Modoc Well, Demon Shadows, and The Burning Ground—have their basis in Native American culture and mythology, I’ve already written much about The People, in context with both literature and film. (Check out a few other posts: “California Genocide”, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” “This Film Left a Strong ‘Imprint’”, and others.) That said, my

Tonantzin Carmelo as Shayla Stonefeather.

 

feelings about the abhorrent treatment of these, the first Americans, over centuries ensures that I will be writing a great deal more.

Sneak preview: later this year, in a departure from what I usually write, I will be releasing a historical novel based on the true story of a little-known Native American tribe. As seen through the eyes of a remarkable woman from this tribe, their story is at once heroic and tragic. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this one.

MYTHS AND LEGENDS. I love this particular category, simply because there is so much from which to draw. Be it the robert 4mythology of different cultures, such as the dybbuk or Kokopelli, or ghostly legends such as Kate Morgan or Robert the Doll, there are numerous untapped stories to be told.

So, on to the next milestone of two hundred posts. I imagine there will be plenty of surprises along the way. Enjoy!

A FREEBIE!

To celebrate this milestone I am making my desert-themed ghost story, Fire Dance, available for free Kindle download on Friday and Saturday, July 25th and 26th.

PRAISE FOR FIRE DANCE: “Sirota returns…with this atmospheric tale of horror in the American Southwest. Horror fans will enjoy this updated take on the western ghost town.” – Publishers Weekly, 12/6/10

The setting for Fire Dance is the bleak but surprisingly beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California. It was there Fire Dance New Smallthat Concordia Sanitarium stood, home to the mentally ill—mostly elders suffering from senile dementia—until a fire leveled the adobe buildings in 1878. All of the staff and the inmates perished…

…including the monster in the dungeon, the deranged mass murderer named Bruno Leopold.

There, in the sand amid the ruins, the tormented spirits remain trapped—until over a century later, when one of them decides to free himself from his prison and renew his atrocities in the nearby, unsuspecting town of Smoke Tree.

Films About Writers: Finding Forrester

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We writers don’t usually find cause to save the country, or the planet, or the galaxy (except in our own stories), so forrester postermaking us the heroes up on the silver screen is not something that gets box office-driven Hollywood all atwitter. That said, there are more movies about writers and writing than one might think.

With that in mind, today’s post launches a new series for the blog. My first choice is a particular favorite: the 2000 drama, Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery and Rob Brown.

I suppose if you want to get technical, this is the second time I’ve featured a film about a writer. In 2012 I wrote about a little-known movie titled, The Whole Wide World, which chronicled the last couple of years in the life of sword & sorcery author Robert E. Howard, one of my all-time favorite storytellers. This gem starred Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. Check it out.

One other note of interest: in researching lists about movies that feature writers, I noticed that the majority were either foreign films or were ones directed by Woody Allen. Hmm; not being a fan of the latter, my choices might be limited. But, I’ll manage.

IN AN ORDINARY PLACE, HE FOUND THE ONE PERSON TO MAKE HIS LIFE EXTRAORDINARY

Sixteen-year-old Jamal Wallace (Brown) attends a run-down high school in The Bronx, where survival is more important than learning. A gifted student, Jamal tries to fit in by maintaining average grades and excelling at basketball. He loves to write and keeps notebooks in his backpack, scribbling down stories and essays whenever possible.

Across the street from where Jamal and his friends play hoops, a reclusive old man (Connery) watches them from his

Jamal is not welcome at first in Forrester's world.

Jamal is not welcome at first in Forrester’s world.

window on an upper floor of a tenement. His friends dare Jamal to climb up and go inside the man’s apartment, which he does. The apartment is crammed with books, which fascinates Jamal. When the old man scares him off, he leaves his backpack behind.

The next day the backpack flies from the window and lands at Jamal’s feet. His notebooks are intact, and his writing has been redlined, with editing and many critical comments. Stunned, Jamal goes to the man’s apartment and asks him to read more of his writing. The old grump tasks Jamal with writing 5,000 words on why he “should stay the fuck out of my home.” Jamal does exactly that and leaves it on the man’s doorstep the next day.

Because of his outstanding test scores—and even more, his basketball skills—Jamal is offered a free ride at a prestigious prep school, Mailor-Callow. While contemplating this, he returns to the old man’s apartment and is invited in. The recluse, he learns, is William Forrester, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize over four decades earlier for his only published novel, Avalon Landing. No one has heard from him since. They make a deal: Forrester will help Jamal with his writing, but Jamal cannot tell anyone about him, nor can he ask about Forrester’s personal life.

Jamal chooses to attend Mailor-Callow where, other than academically, he is a fish out of water amid the spawn of rich

"How about 5,000 words on why you should stay the fuck out of my house!"

“How about 5,000 words on why you should stay the fuck out of my house!”

yuppie scum. His one friend is Claire (Anna Paquin), whose father is on the school’s board. Jamal’s skill at basketball (he ultimately leads the team to the state finals) wins him grudging acceptance from all but the school’s writing instructor, Professor Crawford (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham).

Jamal’s writing improves dramatically with Forrester as his mentor, and the bond between them grows. But the asshole Crawford rags on him and even hints at plagiarism, given the high level of his writing. Crawford puts Jamal on notice. This putz is a frustrated writer of minimal talent and is quite familiar with Forrester’s work, even making Avalon Landing required reading.

Jamal convinces Forrester to leave his apartment for the first time in years and go with him to a basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Once there, Forrester is overwhelmed by the crowd and has a panic attack. Jamal instead takes him to Yankee Stadium, which is empty. He had seen an old photo of Forrester and others at the ballpark. Forrester opens up and tells Jamal about his family, specifically his brother, who suffered from PTSD and alcoholism after World War II and later died. That was when Forrester, blaming himself for his brother’s death, stopped writing and became a recluse.

Forrester trusts Jamal enough to pull out some of his old essays and have Jamal rewrite or expand upon them, with Jamal’s promise to never take them out of the apartment. Jamal uses the title and first paragraph of one particular essay then writes the rest of it in his own words. He decides to enter it in the school’s writing contest, not knowing that it had been published decades earlier in the New Yorker magazine. Crawford, in front of the board, accuses Jamal of plagiarism,

Professor Crawford is a real dick...

  Professor Crawford is a real dick…

and unless the boy can receive Forrester’s permission—that’s impossible, Crawford figures, as Forrester must be long dead—he’ll be disqualified from the contest, and likely expelled from the school. Jamal keeps his promise to Forrester and refuses to reveal that he knows him.

Jamal tells Forrester what has happened. The old man is angry about Jamal taking the essay from his apartment. They argue, and Forrester tells him to leave.

The school board comes up with a deal for Jamal: win the state basketball championship and the plagiarism charges will be dropped. Jamal, an excellent free throw shooter, has a chance to do just that with two shots at the end of the game. He misses both—on purpose? More than likely.

SPOILER ALERT: Jamal pours his heart out in an essay to Forrester about the importance of friendship and family but does not give it to him. He has chosen instead to attend the judging of the writing contest, where he will make an apology to the school. His brother finds the essay and gives it to Forrester, who is moved by what the boy has written. Overcoming his agoraphobia, he goes to the school and asks to read Jamal’s essay. Given his god-like status there,

An unlikely friendship grows stronger.

An unlikely friendship grows stronger.

Forrester reads the essay, and Jamal receives the accolades. The board, above asshole Crawford’s protests, withdraws the plagiarism charges. In an emotional scene, Forrester thanks Jamal for his great gift of friendship and says that he will be going back to his native Scotland for a visit.

The story ends a year later when Forrester’s attorney (Matt Damon!) tells Jamal that Forrester has died of cancer. He had been diagnosed with it before Jamal met him. There is a letter thanking Jamal for giving him the will to go on living, as well as the keys to his apartment for Jamal to have all of his books. And one more thing: a manuscript, the second novel of William Forrester, which is not to be published until Jamal Wallace has written the foreword.

Finding Forrester is a splendid story, and believe it or not, it did well at the box office. Was it the star power of Sean Connery? Or its excellent reviews and word of mouth? Don’t really know—but does it matter?

WRITE ON, OCEANSIDE!

Once again I will be participating in the Write On, Oceanside! Literary Fair on Saturday, July 19th, from 1-4 p.m. This is a free event where participants can meet and talk with Oceanside, California authors (there are lots of us), purchase signed copies of our books, and take part in writing/publishing workshops. For details visit the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation website.

Guilty Pleasures: Deep Rising

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Not having felt “guilty” for a while, I dug way down into the well of duds for this 1998 action-horror flick. I mean, how could I not like a movie co-starring Famke Janssen (X-Men’s Jean Grey and a Bond villain in GoldenEye) and a bunch of giant, multi-tentacled sea worms? What more could a (weird) guy want?

FULL SCREAM AHEAD

With the above tag line, Deep Rising opens with a boat plowing through stormy seas on course to intercept the Argonautica, billed as the most luxurious cruise ship ever, on its maiden voyage. A guy named Finnegan (Treat Williams, in a role turned down by Harrison Ford) pilots the boat with crewman Joey and his girlfriend Leila. Seven nasty mercenaries, led by Hanover (Wes Studi, a fine Native American actor), are also on board with enough weaponry to deep rising posteroverthrow a Third World country. Finnegan has been paid well to take them to their destination, no questions asked.

So what are they up to? Seems that a rich asshole named Canton, the owner of the Argonautica, is afraid of losing his butt on his investment and has concocted a little plan with the help of the mercenaries. He’ll sabotage the ship, the mega-rich passengers will be safely evacuated, then Hanover and his men will loot the vault before sinking the ship so that Canton can collect the insurance money. Seems foolproof, yes?

No, of course not. Just as the ship’s systems begin to shut down, the aforementioned worms rise up (conveniently) from tens of thousands of feet below

A pleasant-looking worm thing...

    A pleasant-looking worm thing…

and invade the Argonautica, their goal—as we later learn—to suck out the juices of all on board. (I’m not making this up.) Only Canton and a few others, including a pickpocket/jewel thief named Trillian (Janssen) survive the initial invasion.

As Finnegan’s boat nears the Argonautica it collides with a small speedboat that broke free from the cruise ship. Now damaged, the boat will require parts to effect repairs. Everyone except Leila and one mercenary climb on board the ship. The latter pair, of course, will become worm food in short order.

Finnegan, Joey, and the mercenaries hook up with the survivors, the majority of them eventually providing a nice buffet for the wormy, kind of octopussy things, even as they squabble amongst themselves. In a memorable—if rather disgusting—scene they come across the fluid-drained bodies of the

Losing bodily fluids really sucks...

   Losing bodily fluids really sucks…

hundreds of passengers, all stacked up in one room. How will they survive this nightmare? Who will manage to make it out alive?

Who really cares?

Deep Rising was a box office bomb and received mostly awful reviews, so I guess that more than qualifies it as a guilty pleasure. Still, I get a kick out of watching it every once and a while—and not just for the eye candy. You can be the judge as to its merits.

WRITE ON, OCEANSIDE!

Once again I will be participating in the Write On, Oceanside! Literary Fair on Saturday, July 19th, from 1-4 p.m. This is a free event where participants can meet and talk with Oceanside, California authors (there are lots of us), purchase signed copies of our books, and take part in writing/publishing workshops. For details visit the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation website.

Trimming The Fat From Your Manuscript

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We writers tend to fall in love with our words—sometimes too much.

As a writing coach and editor for decades I have been personally responsible for millions of words of unnecessary exposition being excised from my writers’ manuscripts—usually with those writers kicking and screaming. “After all,” each would utter with indignation, “I wrote those words, so they must be good.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATell the truth, I was once among those indignant writers who believed that every one of my words glowed like the top of the Chrysler Building. Fortunately, I learned otherwise. So whenever that issue arose, I would tell my writers that I once cut 90,000 words of unnecessary exposition from one of my manuscripts, and if I can do that, then you can easily cut a few hundred, or a couple of thousand words out.

Wait, what? Is that a misprint? Mike, did you say ninety thousand words? Yes, I did. Yo Mikey, that’s longer than most manuscripts! Yes, indeed it is—and I’ll talk more about it shortly.

To me, there is no such thing as “filler.” Every word of your story should matter, whether your manuscript is 70,000, or 90,000, or 125,000 words in length. Every sentence, every paragraph should MOVE THE STORY FORWARD. If not, you’re wasting words—and wasting the readers’ time.

Once upon a midnight dreary I reviewed a manuscript that had countless examples like the one I’m going to share with you. The main protagonist and a couple of secondary characters sit down at a table in a diner to discuss something relevant to the plot. No problem so far. A waitress wearing a nametag that says “Charlene” walks over to take their Booksorder. Again, no problem. Then, for three-quarters of a page, maybe three paragraphs, we learn about what part of town Charlene lives in, the extent of her education, her ex-boyfriends, how she came to be stuck in this dead-end job, what her aspirations are, etc. She leaves the table, returns a few minutes later to serve their order—and is never heard from again.

Extraneous exposition? You bet your sweet bippy. Those 200 or so words did nothing to move the story forward, so out they came. And with many others like it in this manuscript, at least a few thousand more words needed to be cut. At least the writer “got it” and followed the guidelines well.

“MIKE, WILL YOU DO IT?”

I have always preferred to show my writers what to do, rather than do it for them. (See my post, “Give a Writer a Fish…”) But many years ago, after showing a writer what he needed to do to trim his 145,000-word thriller down closer to 100,000 words, he insisted that he was incapable of doing it and asked if I would undertake the task. I warned him that it would involve a great many billable hours. No problem, he said, just do it.

So I took the scalpel to his manuscript, and after about a week I emailed the revised project back to him—over 40,000 words lighter. Read it all the way through, I told him, and then report back. He called a couple of days later to say that he was finished reading. I asked him what he thought. His reply: “I cannot tell what you cut out!” The heart of his story remained, and he was thrilled with the way it now read. Heck, and all I did was trim the fat.

Elmore Leonard

 Elmore Leonard

In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard, “When you write, try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

BUT 90,000 WORDS? YIKES!

Later this year I will be publishing my “labor of love,” a book that I have tinkered with on and off for three decades. I will only say this about the project: it is a historical novel—mostly a true story—circa mid-nineteenth century America during the period of westward expansion. Its length is a bit over 150,000 words, not unusual for the genre.

In one of its early drafts its length ran over 240,000 words.

If you’re a writer, you probably love research as much as I do. With regard to my story, just about everything I read during the research phase needed to be shared with readers. It took me years to come to my senses.

Still, 90,000 words out seems almost incomprehensible. So let me explain: the story takes place almost entirely in California and involves two main protagonists, one already there, the other coming from back east. The latter needed to covered wagonget to California, and since I loved researching every facet of westward migration in the 1840s and ’50s, I sent that character along the slowest (literary) route possible. Swollen rivers, hostile Indians, treacherous mountains, searing deserts, and so much more I threw in his path—at least 70,000 words worth of adventures.

And not one of those words did anything to advance the plot—to move the story forward.

So, when I realized that many important scenes in the story occurred just prior to and after these two characters came together, I knew that those 70,000+ words needed to come out. Was it easy excising them? Hell no.

Was it necessary? Absolutely.

It is difficult to be objective about your own writing; still, you need to be the first line of defense in determining whether a scene serves to move your story forward. If you can’t do this, there are always beta readers, editors, and coaches. But give it a try. With this new awareness, you may surprise yourself.

And The Award Goes To…Me?!

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Okay, I think I’m allowed one “Brag Post” a year, so here goes. After I came back from a dark place and started publishing again in 2011, I’ve had three of my novels nominated for best in their category by the San Diego Book Awards Association. My ghost stories, Fire Dance and The Burning Ground, were runners-up the first two years, and truthfully, just being nominated is an honor in itself.

Freedom's Hand Ebook CoverBut things turned out differently this past weekend at the SDBA’s 20th Annual Ceremony. My novel, Freedom’s Hand, won the top prize in the Action/Thriller category! In accepting the award I quoted something that Kevin Kostner said in my favorite movie, Field of Dreams: “THAT’S SO COOL!!!”

True story: the first two years I prepared something to say, just in case I won. Those notes died in my pocket. So this year I decided not to prepare anything. I guess it worked. The attendees got a real short “thank you” from me. A good thing—I mean, who wants to hear an award recipient thank everyone from their second-grade teacher to their current shrink!

A great fan--my daughter Molly.

     A great fan–my daughter Molly.

 

Win or lose, nominated or not, this event is a highlight for the San Diego area’s vibrant writing community. As I wrote last year in my post, “Writerly Energy,” there is an electric atmosphere when a bunch of writers gather in a room and put aside their solitary avocation for an evening.

At this year’s event the SDBA honored Chet Cunningham, a legend in the San Diego writing community, with a Lifetime Achievement award. Chet, who has published well over 300 books in his career (this is not a misprint), actually founded the SDBA in 1994 but has been minimally involved in recent years.

Like so many writers in the San Diego area, I have a Chet Cunningham story. Over thirty years ago I was publishing fantasy and sword & sorcery novels as fast as I could write them, which in my warped brain made me the coolest guy on the planet.

Chet Cunningham

          Chet Cunningham

Chet invited me to speak to one of his read & critique groups, and then hang around afterward to participate. Tell the truth, I had no idea what read & critique was, and it stunned me to hear the depth of insight that people in the group—most still unpublished at the time—offered to their peers. I left that meeting quite humbled, but wow, did I learn a hell of a lot. About a decade later I began facilitating read & critique workshops in my home and over the years was gratified to see many of my writers achieve publication.

Congratulations to all of the nominees and the winners. We all know that writing is the coolest thing you can do.

GOODBYE, TONY

This is my first post since the tragic and untimely death last week of Tony Gwynn. He was a great baseball player—everyone knows that. But he was an even better person. I knew it was coming, given his courageous, long-time battle with an insidious form of cancer. Still, I spent the day of his passing in tears, as did most of San Diego.

I saw Tony play basketball for San Diego State University in the 1970s. I saw most of his games with the Padres, and

Tony Gwynn, "Mr. Padre"

     Tony Gwynn, “Mr. Padre”

many of his 3,141 hits, from the time he first came up to the majors in 1982 through his final game in 2001. I traveled to Cooperstown, NY to watch his induction, alongside Cal Ripkin, Jr., into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

May the Great Spirit watch over you, Tony.

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