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.

The Best Writing Advice Of All

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In my decades as a writing coach and editor I have worked with first-time writers whose talents and abilities ranged from “I think you should take up needlepoint or jet skiing instead” to “How in heck are you not published yet!” The latter, to be sure, is the rare exception rather than the rule. And even the best of them need work in some area of crafting a solid novel, be it dialogue, pacing, the opening hook, POV, or any of the other elements necessary to make people want to read what we have to say.

For some of those writers, it may take one or two—or more—revisions before they “get” what I mean about a specific element. But there is one key bit of advice that I offer to every writer with whom I work, and they all “get it,” because they’ve all been there/done that, as I’m sure you have. I present it in a sort of story form, directed to you, and I’ll do the same here.

One evening you pick up a new book (or your eBook reader) and start reading. Shortly after, you notice that you’re on page 17. Then, you see that you’re on page 19. Oh look, now you’re on page 20, and then 21… Yawn; obviously, this story is not working for you.

Another evening you do the same thing with a thick, four hundred-page novel. You start it on page 1, and the first time

One of my all-time favorite page turners.

One of my all-time favorite page turners.

you notice how far along you’ve gotten, you’re on page 357. Holy crap, you’ve been turning the pages at Evelyn Wood speed! It’s nearly midnight; the cat hasn’t been fed, and your spouse has gone to bed without you. Must be a damn good story, ya think?

Our goal as writers, I tell everyone, is personified in these two examples: You want to make your readers feel that they are PARTICIPATING IN A STORY rather than just reading a book. That is the best of what we novelists can give. When a reader is furiously turning the pages to find out what happens next, you have succeeded.

Through the years I have found that, motivated by such a challenge, my most successful writers work even harder at overcoming their weaknesses while, naturally, building on their strengths. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer; you’ve got to put in the WORK, and that takes time. Consider this: you want to play a piano concerto at Carnegie Hall? Start practicing now, and maybe, in twenty-five or thirty years, you just might get there.

AN APOCRYPHAL TALE?

Relevant to the above, you should understand that mastering all the elements of a novel may not be enough for those who hold our publishing future in their hands. Let me go all Hollywood here and say that the story I’m going to relate is “based on true events.” In this case it’s the exact number of submissions that may be a bit off, and there may be a couple of minor variants, but you’ll still get the point.

An aspiring author submitted her work to twenty literary agents and/or publishing house editors. She received twenty rejection letters. Half of them said (to paraphrase), “While your plot showed promise, the majority of your characters were ineffective and not believable.” The other half: “You do well in developing your characters, but unfortunately the story did not work for us.” Make of that what you will.

I’ve written enough novels over the years to have garnered a potload of rejections, all of which I still possess. After

Another well-loved page turner.

Another well-loved page turner.

hearing that story a long time ago and feeling a bit incredulous I went through my collection and found that, with certain submissions that earned me a large number of rejections, there were quite a few contradictory comments. Must be true, I figured.

But it also gave me an idea. If the publisher or agent focused only on one issue, and that issue was easily fixable, why not just fix it and resubmit? I ran that question by my then-agent, Donald Maass, who said that he’d never tried it. At the time he’d just gotten back a project of mine that noted one minor issue as being the reason for the rejection. I rewrote the passage, and Don agreed to resubmit it as an experiment. It came back, of course, with a terse, handwritten note on the first page of the manuscript: “We don’t think you understand—we don’t want to publish this.” Okay then—but why not just say so in the first place?

Crazy business we’re in, no? Just forget all else and concentrate on creating the best work you possibly can—one that will allow your readers to participate in a story. That will go a long way toward your success.

“I COULDN’T PUT YOUR BOOK DOWN!”

That is one of the nicest compliments an author can receive. Being literal (not too often, I hope) I sometimes wonder, did they read it from cover to cover in one sitting, or did they—more BurningGround_eBookfiguratively—read it over the course of two or three days? Then I smack myself upside the head, ask the rhetorical question, “Does it really freaking matter?” and get on with my life.

In any case, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had that said to me quite a few times over the years. Many of those kudos came for my two ghost stories, Fire Dance and The Burning Ground, during their earlier publication. Both of them are now available again in Kindle eBook and paperback. Have fun turning the pages!

Redux: The Burning Ground Interview

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My Native American-themed ghost story, The Burning Ground, was first published a couple of years ago, weeks after I started this blog. I gave an interview about the story back then, and now that I’m re-releasing the book under my Atoris Press imprint—and since so many more of you now follow “Swords, Specters, & Stuff”—I thought that revisiting the interview was in order.

Q: How did you get the idea for The Burning Ground?

A: One of the most used and abused books in my collection is A.L. Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California. (“Handbook” is a misnomer; you can barely hold this thick tome in one hand.) I used it to research the Washo tribe in my BurningGround_eBooknovel, Demon Shadows, and the Modoc tribe in The Modoc Well. When I read about the burial customs of the Maidu people—they actually called their cemetery a burning ground and set fire to brush spread across the graves to help the dead pass on to the next world—and then learned that most of the Maidu had been slaughtered during the Gold Rush, the old “what if” kicked in. What if, because of the violent way in which they died, the spirits of those from one particular small village remained trapped in their burning ground? Then, in more contemporary research, I read about the (still ongoing) desecration of Indian burial grounds by people digging for artifacts. What if the graves of the Maidu from this village were desecrated, releasing the spirits—who are really pissed off by this time? And so the plot evolved.

Q: What research was involved in fashioning the life and culture of the Maidu?

A: Just about any and every book about California Indians that I could get my hands on (not too many), though again, Kroeber was the primary resource. A cultural anthropologist, Kroeber spent seventeen years among California’s indigenous population in the early twentieth century. The scope of his research is remarkable. (His daughter, Ursula Kroeber, is better known to readers of science fiction as Ursulaa kroeber LeGuin.) Three lengthy chapters are devoted to just the small Maidu tribe. TMI for most people, but I loved doing the research.

Q: How do you feel your work as an editor helped or hindered your writing?

A: My second and third drafts (I always do three) usually require minimal work from an editing standpoint. As a perfectionist, I probably go overboard in being anal. As an editor, I don’t want any typos or other errors. As a writer I want every detail to be correct. This doesn’t always work out 100 percent of the time, but I do my best.

Q: What writing habits do you keep?

A: I take a long walk in the morning and then start writing about mid-morning. Late in the afternoon—four, maybe five o’clock—the “creativity” button in the brain shuts off, and I stop. The usual output is 1,500 to 2,000 words. That’s the day-to-day routine. The bigger picture: I prepare an outline and do extensive preliminary research before I write word one. Then I write the first draft, beginning to end, not stopping at all for research. The second draft consists of grunt work—trimming the fat, filling in the many blanks I leave while focusing on getting the story down, that Downieville Sign Smallsort of thing. The third and final draft is my favorite, for it almost always follows a trip to the locale of the story. For The Burning Ground I traveled to the active ghost town of Downieville, population 325, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This “living research” breathes life into my stories. (See my post, “Downieville: A Ghost Town With Live People.”)

Q: Have you ever considered writing a sequel to any of your horror novels?

A: I suppose a sequel can be made to anything. Cripes, in Star Trek III they brought Spock back to life after Trekkies revolted! But mine have so far been stand-alone stories. I mean, how many people get the calling to help spirits move on to the next world (Fire Dance and The Burning Ground), or drive demons back into the hell that spockspawned them (Demon Shadows and The Modoc Well) more than once?

 Q: In what way do you feel this book stands apart from the rest of your catalog of work?

A: When I dug farther back into the decimation of California’s indigenous population I became appalled at the extent of this genocide, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and encompassing the decade or more after the Gold Rush. While my other two Native American-themed novels, Demon Shadows and The Modoc Well, have a comment or two about the treatment of Indians, none come close to The Burning Ground. (See my post, “California Genocide.”)

Q: Are there any writers or books that were influential in this particular novel…or in your career in general?

A: Not this story. But for my career? The answer is always the same: Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan,

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs

John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar—all of his numerous books were among my favorites. Without ERB I would have never become a writer.

Q: Looking back at the books you’ve written over the years, how has your work developed with time and experience?

A: I re-read many of my early works a few years ago in preparation for making them available again under my own imprint, Atoris Press. Most of them made me want to hurl. Each one requires extensive revisions before I let anyone see them. As a teacher, editor, and writing coach these past couple of decades I also learned a great deal. With every book—with every page—that you write, you should be improving your craft.

Hard Rain Coming Down

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Until today, I hadn’t even begun talking about disaster movies—so many of which I enjoy. High on the list is the 1998 mini-gem, Hard Rain. Now I could’ve included this as a Guilty Pleasure, given its negative reviews and poor box office (though subsequent VHS and DVD sales made it profitable). Or for the same reasons I could have resorted to the bad joke, “This one really was a disaster!” Nope, none of the above.

hard rain posterFor starters, consider the solid cast: Christian Slater; the Oscar-winning Morgan Freeman; Oscar-nominated actors Minnie Driver and Randy Quaid; Emmy-winners Ed Asner, Richard Dysart, and the ever-popular Betty White. Not too shabby.

A SIMPLE PLAN. AN INSTANT FORTUNE. JUST ADD WATER.

With that tagline, the story opens in a small Indiana town ravaged by endless rainfall and a crummy dam that is threatening to give way. Sheriff Collins (Quaid) and his deputies are hustling people out of town, likely Collins’ last official act, having been voted out in a recent election. Armored car drivers Tom (Slater) and his old Uncle Charlie (Asner) are picking up money from the town’s bank vault for safekeeping. Including other stops they made, they’re carrying about $3 million.

On their way out of town, Tom and Charlie are first stopped by rising flood waters, then confronted by a criminal named Jim (Freeman) and his three accomplices, one of whom kills Charlie. He didn’t know that the old man was part of the heist scheme. The honorable Tom flees with the money, which he hides in a (mostly underwater) cemetery. A boat/jet ski chase (way cool) ensues, and Tom escapes. He then takes refuge in a church, where restoration expert Karen (Driver), thinking he’s an intruder, knocks him senseless.

Tom awakens in the town jail cell, where he is questioned by Collins and two of his deputies, Wayne and Phil. After he tells them what has happened, Collins and Wayne head off to investigate, while nice-guy Phil, who has always had the hots for Karen, is ordered to take her out of town. Tom is left in the cell.

Tom and Charlie have bigger problems than rain.

Tom and Charlie have bigger problems than rain.

Karen, who does not want to abandon her project, pushes Phil out of the boat and heads for the church.

Dam operator Hank is forced to open another levee because of the building pressure from the endless rain. The ensuing surge raises the water level in the town. Karen, realizing that Tom is trapped, returns to the jail and barely manages to get him out. They are confronted by one of the gang members, who is hanging onto a metal pole just as a transformer blows. Zzzzap, he’s fried.

Karen and Tom take refuge in the home of seniors Doreen (White) and Henry (Dysart), who refused to be evacuated. Tom borrows Henry’s boat in order to return to the armored car and call for help, but the vehicle is submerged and the radio is useless. He surfaces to find the bad guys holding the seniors hostage. (Karen managed to escape.) Tom bargains for their release by promising to show Jim where to find the money.

But surprise, it’s gone—already picked up by Collins and his deputies, as well as Hank, who has come down from the dam. The sheriff, it turns out, is worse than Jim. They’ve also captured Karen. A shootout

Tom and Jim are up to their necks in trouble.

Tom and Jim are up to their necks in trouble.

ensues, and Jim’s two goons are killed. Jim and Tom, now thrown together by fate, get away and hide out in the church.

Wayne, the sleazy deputy, takes Karen to her house, where he handcuffs her to a lower bannister. He plans to rape her before leaving her to drown when the water inevitably rises. She manages to stab the asshole, and he dies. (Yes!) But she cannot free herself.

Back at the church, things don’t look good for Tom and Jim against the heavily armed Collins and his men. As a mostly one-sided firefight ensues, and as Karen struggles desperately to break loose, the alarm up at the dam sounds, and a wall of water the size of Mount Doom roars toward the town. Oh crap…

No spoiler alert here. If you’ve not seen Hard Rain, and if this post has stirred your curiosity, you’ll want to totally enjoy the breathtaking conclusion. Screw the reviewers. I’ll watch this 97-minute action flick once a year until the Mother Ship arrives. Enjoy!

Myths And Legends: The Dybbuk

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A Jewish demon? Who knew! Yes, according to Jewish mythology a dybbuk is a ghostly, troubled spirit—most often the wandering soul of a deceased person—that possesses the body of a living person. (Though any living entity works, even a bug or a beagle, their host of choice is primarily a human.) In biblical times they were called ruchim, the

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

   Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Hebrew word for “spirit.” Not until the sixteenth century did the word “dybbuk” appear. It is a Yiddish version of an abbreviated Hebrew phrase that translates to “clinging spirit.” Apparently, when these spirits cling to a host, they’re not too inclined to let go.

Though stories vary, most portray a dybbuk as a disembodied spirit that, for whatever reason, is unable to pass on to the afterlife. Perhaps it wronged someone in its recent life and is unable to move on while it still has unfinished business. But if it truly was an evil person, it may be trying hard to avoid the inevitable punishment of the afterlife—the Hell realms or whatever.

In Jewish orthodoxy, those most susceptible to possession by a dybbuk are women (what else is new) or people living in a house where the mezuzah on the doorpost is askew or otherwise neglected. (A mezuzah is a vessel for small pieces of parchment that contain biblical passages from Deuteronomy.) That means the people living there are not particularly religious, or spiritual. Seems kind of extreme for a demonic possession, but what do I know…

So how do you get rid of a dybbuk? This brings us to the ever-popular concept of exorcism. For starters, a pious man needs to perform the exorcism. Usually that would be a rabbi, but I imagine any godly person will do. Some accounts say that this man should be assisted by an angel or a beneficent spirit. A synagogue seems a likely venue, though it does not necessarily have to be done there. Other accounts

A scene from The Dybbuk (1922 play).

A scene from The Dybbuk (1922 play).

insist that it be performed before a minyan, a gathering of ten Jewish adults. It is especially helpful to learn the dybbuk’s name, which allows the exorcist to take better command of it. Also useful: learning why the spirit has not been able to move on. A troubled but not particularly evil dybbuk will gladly share its tale of woe. A nasty one, however, will require a lot more effort on the part of the exorcist and his assistants. It may even have to be trapped and contained in some kind of vessel. (More on the Dybbuk Box shortly.)

THE DYBBUK IN POP CULTURE

Ignored for much of Jewish history, the dybbuk first came to light in a 1914 play by Salomon Ansky, called The Dybbuk. This later became a 1937 Yiddish language film.

But wait—so says Hollywood—a Jewish DEMON that takes possession of unsuspecting people and makes them do nasty things? How could we not jump all over that! Which brings us to two movies of recent vintage that highlighted—as only Hollywood can show us—the dastardly doings of dual dybbuks.

In the 2009 horror flick, The Unborn, the writer posits that dybbuks have a strong connection to twins. dybbuk unbornNone of my research indicated this to be so, but that doesn’t mean anything. Seems that a young woman named Casey is having all kinds of weird visions, plus her eye pigmentation is changing, to which an eye specialist asks if she is a twin, as this change is common in twins. She says that she’s not, but later on she learns that her mom, who committed suicide years earlier, had twins in the womb. The boy was strangled by Casey’s umbilical cord.

Casey’s research leads her to an old Jewish woman in a nursing home who turns out to be her grandmother. (I guess she adopted Casey’s mom, but it is not explained.) This woman and her twin brother were prisoners in Auschwitz. The brother died at the hands of Nazi experiments but “returned” to life two days later. Knowing it was not her brother but possession by a dybbuk, she killed him and drove the spirit out. It has haunted the family ever since (the reason for mom’s suicide), and now it is Casey’s turn.

Lots of nasty stuff happens during this film in typical Hollywood gross-out style, but ultimately Casey enlists the help of a rabbi, played by Gary Oldman (yes, Sirius Black!), to exorcise the dybbuk. His method of exorcism: a minyan, and prayers…

I won’t tell you what happens. Despite the role of the dybbuk and the methods in fighting it, The Unborn is pretty standard horror movie fare. Its reviews were poor, but what the heck, it made a potload of money for its creators.

Somewhat better was the 2012 film, The Possession. But before I talk about it, some details about the fascinating story of the Dybbuk Box are in order.

THE DYBBUK BOX

You may have heard about the Dybbuk Box (or Dibbuk Box), a haunted wine cabinet that appeared on eBay a little over a decade ago. For greater details check out the Dibbuk Box website. Short version: the box came to America with a Holocaust survivor named Havela, who purchased it in Spain. An antiques dealer in Portland OR, Kevin Mannis, bought it at an estate sale in 2001 after Havela died. The woman’s family seemed overly thrilled to be rid of it. They told Mannis that, according to grandma, a dybbuk had been trapped in it years earlier.

After a series of bizarre happenings at his shop, Mannis opened the box and discovered a number of odd,

The Dybbuk Box, opened.

            The Dybbuk Box, opened.

assorted items inside, including a lock of hair and a statue with the Hebrew word “Shalom” carved in it. He also found Hebrew words carved on the back of the cabinet. Later on he would reseal the box and give it to his mother as a birthday gift. That same day she would suffer a stroke. When she could eventually write, she begged him to get rid of the box.

And so the box went up on eBay, along with a long disclaimer by Mannis detailing the gruesome history of the Dybbuk Box. Apparently there is a culture that deals in strange objects such as this. A college student in Missouri purchased it, but after his own misfortunes he sold it to Jason Haxton, a museum director in Missouri. Haxton also opened the resealed box (check out the video), and his misfortunes began. After consulting with some rabbis he again sealed the box and hid it away from his family. It has remained quiet since then.

THE POSSESSION

No less a luminary than San Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spiderman 3, The Grudge) took an interest in the story of the Dybbuk Box, which led to him producing The Possession—“based on a true story,” Hollywood-style, of course. In it, a young girl named Em buys an ancient box at a yard sale, even though a dying old woman inside the house tries to warn her away. Her dad, Clyde, cannot open it with tools, but later on she finds a trick latch, and the dybbuk is released. The sweet little kid becomes a holy terror, even causing the death of a schoolteacher, among other things.

The distraught Clyde shows the box to a college professor, who says that it is a dybbuk box nearly a hundred years old, and that it was used to contain a demon. Read a portion from the Torah, he says, and dybbuk possessionit may be driven out. Clyde tries, but the dybbuk, now in full possession of the girl, destroys the pages. Clyde then enlists the help of a Chasidic tzaddik—a man of great piety—to lead a forced ritual exorcism. The results are amazing to watch.

With one exception, I won’t tell you much more than this. While this film had its share of Hollywood horror hokum, it also offered some truly unsettling moments without the requisite over-the-top blood and guts. The one scene that really creeped me out: young Em, having been hospitalized with a seizure, is undergoing an MRI. As everyone watches the monitor, the dybbuk’s face appears—next to her heart. Eeyew! Needless to say, this one made a potload of money as well.

Spirits that cannot pass on over to the next world appear to be a common theme among a great many cultures and ethnicities. So discovering this in Jewish folklore should not come as any surprise.

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