Stranger Than Fiction

You don’t need me to remind you that this coming Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. You know it. I know it. And if you don’t know it, you’ll be reminded of it on Sunday the moment that you login to any social network or tune in to any media outlet.

I’m always reminded on this date of how much more horrifying reality can be than anything even the most demented creator of fiction can conjure by typing words into a piece of software. Horror fiction, like most fiction, is an escape. We all know it is fantasy, that it is not really happening. We even enjoy the thrill of being scared.

All too often we want to live our real lives as if we were simply watching them through a lens, detached from the world by a technological or media barrier: the Web, social networks, television, books, magazines, and more. The rise of reality television throughout the past two decades is testament to that. Reality is no longer lessons learned through the process of living. It’s entertainment.

However, September 11, 2001, was not horror fiction, not entertainment. It was reality dealing a powerful upper-cut that knocked the majority of us American citizens off our feet. For a few short moments in my generation’s lifetime, the invisible barriers in which we shelter ourselves on a daily basis were shattered. The bubble burst, forcing us to briefly consider that we regularly live our lives in a state of passive receptivity, convincing ourselves that we are simply watching the events of our lives unfold before us rather than participating in them. We were reminded that we are human, that we are not here to simply be entertained, and that we truly can be hurt.

In all the years that I’ve entertained myself by reading horror fiction, I have never yet read any so terrifying that I had to look away.

I cannot say the same about the real world.

Looks Count

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. –Steve Jobs

Would you want to read a book that is typeset in 18-point cyan bolded Comic Sans with all the "important" words (and sentences…and paragraphs) in all capital letters, underlined, and italicized? 

If you say "yes, I would indeed enjoy reading a book formatted that way," then I shall label you a spiteful teller of tall tales. Take that!

If you really want to tick off an editor or an agent and have them immediately toss your hard work into the recycle bin, submit an improperly formatted manuscript. What’s an improperly formatted manuscript? Anything that doesn’t fit the submission guidelines of the publication or agency to which you’re submitting. Always read the submission guidelines before you send a manuscript.

Barring that, an improperly formatted manuscript is anything that doesn’t fit within the generally accepted standards of manuscript format. Generically, a standard manuscript should have the following characteristics:

  1. one-inch margins all around
  2. an easy-to-read typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman or 12-point Courier New
  3. left justification, not full and not center; the words on the right side of the page should form a ragged pattern as you scan down the page
  4. a half-inch indent on the first line of each paragraph
  5. double-spaced paragraphs, which means that the lines of text on your page are separated by a full blank line that is generated by your word processor’s paragraph formatting function (not the Enter key); it also does not mean that you should manually include a blank line between paragraphs
  6. your name, the shortened title of the story, and a page number in the upper right corner of every page except the first/title page
  7. your name, address, email address, and telephone number in the upper left corner of the first page of the manuscript
  8. the approximate number of words in your manuscript (your word processor’s word count rounded to the nearest 100) in the upper right corner of the first page of the manuscript

Admittedly, the above guidelines were created before we regularly communicated our thoughts as bits over global network media, so they probably seem dated. Editors stick with them because not everyone’s standard of "looks good and is easy to read" is the same. The guidelines ensure that writers do not try to become graphic designers and that the quality of the written work takes center stage in the mind of the agent or editor.

You’re a writer, after all. You should be painting pictures with the meanings of your words, not with fonts, italics, bolds, colors, justification, and other word processor magic.

Travels Through Time

I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another. –Richard Matheson

I have a confession. Until very recently I had never in my life sat down and read a Richard Matheson novel.

That’s not to say I was unfamiliar with his work. Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend  inspired the films Night of the Living Dead, Omega Man, and, of course, 2007’s I Am Legend. His novel Bid Time Return became the cult classic film Somewhere In Time. Hell House naturally became The Legend of Hell House. He also penned the teleplays for many of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Therefore, I was familiar with Matheson’s work for the screen, but not especially with his prose. For that, I am deeply regretful.

I am now a Richard Matheson fan.

Stephen King, of whom I’m also a fan, has stated that Matheson’s work was influential on his own. Upon reading I Am Legend, I can see that. King’s narrative style is quite similar to Matheson’s, particularly in the early works of King’s career (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone).

For me, dusting off and finally cracking that copy of I Am Legend was like finding an early unread King story crammed behind the volumes of his other works on my bookshelf, or like traveling back in time to when I first discovered King’s work. I Am Legend stirred the same page-turning excitement in me that I experienced from King back then, an effect that has not been reproduced in me by King’s post-1980s work (although Bag of Bones is an exception).

If you’re a fan of early King and have never read any of Matheson’s work, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of I Am Legend or download the recently released eBook. As for me, I’m ready to step back in time again, to experience those old familiar creepy sensations of horror that only works like these can produce. I’ll be adding more Matheson to my library.

Headline TK

I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers. –T.S. Elliot

An acquaintance of mine recently lamented that we now live in a "first draft society." To protect the bottom line, newspapers have slashed editorial roles the same way that the folks who formerly filled those roles slashed unnecessary commas and participial phrases. As a result of these cutbacks, my friend is noticing more mistakes in his daily fish wrap.
Writers–especially beginning writers–can be a sensitive lot. Often we display an aversion to constructive crticism that causes us to dismiss it out-of-hand. Why have an editor when you have a non-judgemental word processor that has built-in spell-check and built-in grammar-check? Why pay someone to catch a misplaced comma that only the most pucker-mouthed of English PhDs would ever notice?
The answer is simple: editors are the writer’s conscience and voice of reason. They’re not there to simply bleed red ink (or Track Changes comments), cutting up our work in a fashion similar to the way Sweeney Todd gives a shave. They see our mistakes in logic. They point out paths we started and never followed. They see the obvious forest in our work that we often cannot because we are so entrenched among the trees.
When you’re trying to get a newspaper out the door to the printer, it’s important to have someone examining that forest. Otherwise, that scandalous front-page story about a well-respected politician could be received by readers in a way different from the way you intended because beneath the most shocking of the story’s accompanying photographs will be these two words: cutline TK.
For those who don’t know, cutline is another word for a photo caption. TK is an editorial abbreviation that means "to come." If you see cutline TK anywhere in a newspaper, the subtext of what you’re reading is this: "I don’t have enough information to finish this cutline right now and there are other things on my plate that have to get done before we can send the paper out the door. I’ll just type cutline TK here and move on to my other duties. Hopefully, someone will notice it before we go to press and call me after I’ve forgotten about it and headed down the street to pound a few beers."
Sure, editors won’t catch everything. And many, many times writers will disagree and argue with them over trivial things. But they’re an important bridge between the information the writer is attempting to communicate and the audience for whom that information is intended. Without an editor, a writer’s best work is perpetually TK.

The Waiting

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time and technological progress sure do change things. Twenty years ago, I had to wait until I received a paper statement from my bank to balance my checkbook. Now I can just download transactions any old time I want. Back then, I had to wait until a television show that I missed showed in a rerun unless I had the foresight to record it on my VCR. These days, I might just be able to stream an episode of my favorite show any old time I want.

I also remember submitting short story manuscripts to magazines back in the late 80s and early 90s. Very few publications accepted electronic submissions at that time. And even if they did, you couldn’t email them. You had to copy them to a–gasp!–floppy disk and drop them at the post office [cue a toddler asking "Mommy? What’s a floppy disk?"]. Worst case, you typed or printed the manuscript and paid the postage to mail it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure its safe return when the publication rejected it. (Did I say when? I meant if.)

Once your manuscript was loaded onto the postal truck and en route to its destination, you could wait anywhere from six weeks to six months to a full year for a response–if you received a response at all.

The best you could do to mitigate such delays was to cull through the most recent edition of the Novel & Short Story Writers’ Market, hoping against hope that you’d find a market that accepted your genre, accepted your word length, accepted stories from your region, happened to be open to submissions at that particular time of year, and promised a reply in less than six weeks.

Thank heavens for progress! These days you can often submit a manuscript to a magazine in a few seconds (any old time you want), just by clicking your email client’s Send button, or by filling out a form and uploading the document through a Web browser. After much anticipation, you can expect to receive your response… in six weeks to six months to maybe even a year! If you receive a response at all.


I guess some things don’t change after all.

What’s more, that process of submission and acknowledgement probably won’t change much. The slushpiles on the desktops (real or virtual) of agents and editors might decrease a bit as a result of the new popularity of self publishing. Still, they’re called "slushpiles" for a reason. They’re massive. They’re hard to drive through. And they sit there forever, not melting away.

So, here’s one writer that you won’t typically find complaining about the length of time it takes to get a response on a manuscript submission, even if it’s a rejection (and most of them will be). Honestly, I’m happy if someone at a publication I submit to actually takes the time to pick up my submission and read through the whole thing.

Besides, our new culture of immediate gratification wears on me.

It’s kind of nice to wait for something for a change.

The Stuff of Nightmares

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. — Dean Koontz

Ever had a nightmare?

I’m not talking about the uneasy "I went to school in my underpants, whatever will I do now?" types of dreams. I’m talking about a full-on, dear-God-in-Heaven-where-am-I-and-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-out-of-this-alive-and-where-is-everybody-and-what-the-hell-is-that-crawling-up-my-leg type of nightmare; the ones where you wake up sweating, screaming, kicking, running, or any combination of the four.

Sure you have.

We all have.

Know what’s potentially more frightening than your own nightmare? Experiencing someone else’s. If you’ve ever been startled awake in the dead of night by someone you love screaming in her sleep, you know what I mean. Your first instinct is to leap out of the bed and scream along with her. Next, you struggle to to clear enough of the fog of sleep from your head to put together exactly what’s going on and to fix it, to rescue her from whatever’s "after" her and bring her back to safety.

Writers, especially beginning writers, put quite a lot of stock in dreams as a plot device. Even experienced professionals rely on it from time to time as a means of prediliction, psychological evaluation, or–in the case of 1980s nighttime soap Dallas–erasing an entire plotline.

As a result of its commonality, writing a dream sequence is something I mostly try to avoid in my own fiction. That’s not to say I’ve never written one. I have. And I was never happy with it. Besides, I find experiencing a dreamer’s nightmare from outside their head much more terrifying.

Perhaps I’ll write about that experience the next time I feel the urge to use a dream sequence as a plot device.

Reflections on Slowing Down to Look at the Accident

I resolved to spend at least a few hours every night of my eight days of vacation time working on the rewrite of my novel-in-progress. I failed at that endeavor. I have no excuses other than I was not, in the words of Stephen King, "brave enough to start."

It is true, that starting is the hardest part. During the course of my vacation, I became cleverly adept at finding excuses to not write, such as building an entertainment center in my living room.

I believe King also once described an audience’s desire to read horror novels or watch horror movies as akin to "slowing down to look at the car accident." I would swear I read that in Danse Macabre many years ago, but I can’t seem to find the precise quote now. The closest I could find is King’s oft-quoted assertion that "we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones."

Regardless, slowing down to look at the car accident is an apt metaphor for horror readers. From personal experience, I believe there are typically four types of people involved in a car accident, even if the accident directly involves only two parties.

  1. victims, those directly involved, whether at fault, killed, injured, or suffering some kind of property damage
  2. aiders, those witnesses to the accident who are first to render aid by tending to the wounded; rescuers and heroes also fall into this category
  3. communicators, those who place the call to 911, who help to divert traffic until police arrive, who pray, or who otherwise relay information from the scene
  4. rubberneckers, those who stand by and watch or (assuming traffic is flowing past the accident) slow their vehicles to a crawl and crane their necks out their windows to get a better look at what’s going on

In the world of fictional horror entertainment, only two of the above four are real-life people: the communicator and the rubberneckers. The communicator produces the narrative and the rubberneckers purchase and read it. The victims, the aiders, and the accident itself are all products of the communicator’s imagination.

It might sound like a pejorative term, but there’s nothing about being a rubbernecker that isn’t also a part of being human. You need only confirm by looking to the millions of people who tune into reality television shows, who watch news stories about natural disasters, or who tune in to the murder trials of parents of deceased children. Humanity is fascinated by the tragic and the macabre, real or imagined, and we rarely turn away from it.

A Would-be Novelist Looks at Forty

Do not write to make a living; write to make living worthwhile. –Robert Fulghum (What on Earth Have I Done?)

With apologies to Jimmy Buffett for the title of this post, I turn 40 on Saturday.

Based on everything I’ve heard up to now, I should expect any or all of the following:

  • a mid-life crisis that forces me to buy a Corvette or some other masculinity affirming vehicle or device
  • body breakdowns that are not too dissimilar to the automotive breakdowns one experiences the day after the warranty of the aforementioned masculinity affirming vehicle expires
  • tears; lots of tears.
  • the sudden dawning of the realization that I no longer understand those doggone young’uns and their crazy music

In truth, I have exactly one regret about turning 40, and that’s the fact that I haven’t finished the second draft of my novel. I finished the first draft way back in October of 2009, when I was still a young man.

It’s not that I’m no longer interested in the story. Nor is it that I find the rewrite process difficult. The problem, as unfortunate as it is, is time.

The novel is a personal project, something I’m doing for my own pleasure. I also have a full-time job writing for a living, a family, a lawn to mow, and dozens of other things to do on a daily basis. So I put off the rewrite.

And put it off some more.

Partly in celebration of my 40th, I’m taking a week’s vacation next week. I have made a resolution to myself that I will spend every night that week working on the rewrite, as much time and energy as I can possibly muster will be devoted to it.

I’ve already started flexing my non-technical writing muscles in anticipation. For example, yesterday I wrote my wife a love poem for her own birthday.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from one of Robert Fulghum’s writing memoes to himself. He posted it at his desk to inspire him to write and to remind him why he does it. After I presented my wife with the love poem, I suddenly understood the post-semicolon portion of that quote.

And so, upon my 40th, I will not only write for a living, but also write to make living worthwhile. Onward.

A Leap for Pizza

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. –Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I recently took my family out to dinner at a local pizza establishment that I hadn’t visited in many years. After we sat down, I drew in a breath and took a moment to familiarize myself with the environment.

On the front wall of the establishment, mounted high above the entrance, was the requisite widescreen television, just as requisitely tuned to what looked like ESPN. On the wall to my left were show posters from some entertainment establishment in New Orleans I’d never heard of. Along the rear wall were the cashier’s stand, the kitchen, and the restrooms.

Then there was the wall to my right.

I scanned it last, beginning with the corner connected to the entrance wall and ending…well, I never really ended that scan because I was stopped in my tracks by that vague sense of familiarity one sees sometimes in the faces of apparent strangers in a crowd. You know, those faces your eyes keep wandering back to despite your best efforts to steer them otherwise because there’s something familiar about them. You think you might know them from somewhere, or they remind you of someone you do know.

It wasn’t a face I saw that hit the pause button on my surroundings scanner. It was a font; letters on a framed newspaper masthead hanging on the wall. I couldn’t see for certain because of the distance, but it looked like a framed copy of an article from a newspaper I worked for way back in the mid-1990s.

I’m shy, so I sent my wife and step-daughter to investigate. "I think that might be my article on the wall over there," I whispered to them.

A couple of minutes later, my step-daughter ran excitedly back to me from the other side of the restaurant, the eyes of every other patron there on her, and loudly proclaimed that "it is your article!"

Fourteen years prior to that evening’s dinner, almost to the day, I had written a feature about this particular pizza establishment for the Business section of the local paper. It was simply a day in the life of a young reporter back then; a single story among dozens that I wrote in my time there. I hadn’t really thought about it since.

It warmed my heart, though, seeing that piece of my history so many years later, hanging on the wall of an establishment I hadn’t visited in ages. I felt like I’d found a small time portal, a wormhole, or some other means of traveling back to a time in my life that was filled with the day-to-day uncertainty of a news beat and the fast-food lifestyle of a man in his 20s.

At home later that night, I could not help but crack open the tomes and tomes of three-ring binders I used to store clips of my work from those days. I was reminded of the character of Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, one of my all-time favorite television series.

In the show, Sam can leap into the lives of other people in other times, as long as the date and lives he leaps into existed within the frame of his own lifetime. Similarly, I found myself leaping into the lives of different people and places on a daily basis in the years that I wrote for that publication. And I was a little surprised after my dinner at the pizza establishment to find myself somewhat nostalgic for those days.

But I am a different person now, an older man with different ideas, opinions, energy, and a different lifestyle. In Quantum Leap, Dr. Beckett’s primary objective, his singular longing, is to find a way to stop traveling in time, to leap home.

I’ve already done that. These days I have a beautiful wife, a wonderful step-daughter, a cantankerous dog, and a vegetable garden outside a house on a hill.

I wouldn’t trade it.

Forward Momentum Is Great As Long As You Can See The Edge of the Cliff

The only way that I could figure they could improve upon Coca-Cola, one of life’s most delightful elixirs, which studies prove will heal the sick and occasionally raise the dead, is to put bourbon in it. –Lewis Grizzard

I’m not a man who is afraid of a little change.

  • PDCs and BDCs to Active Directory DCs? No problem.
  • Mac OS to Mac OS X? No biggie.
  • South Beach Bars to Nabisco SnackWell’s? Just the way the cookie crumbles.
  • Flavored toothpaste to unflavored toothpaste? Whatever. I just spit it out anyway.

You get the point.

However, there is one area of life where I always find change difficult, and that is change related to the tools that I use to write. My word processing platform of choice is something familiar to me, and it makes the process of sitting down to churn thoughts into creative meaning a lot like relaxing in a comfortable chair.

Yet the software isn’t the only conducer of the creative juice. I also have specific places and environments where it’s easier to create. My study at home, for instance. Or the kitchen table at my in-laws’ place at 2:30 in the morning, when the rest of the house is asleep.

Add to that the familiarity of the particular human input device I use (that’s keyboard to you), and you uncover a delicate balance, a nurturing ecosystem of contributors to my production of technical documents, poetry, short stories, and a novel (well, a partial novel).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so wholly averse to upsetting that balance that I refuse to keep up with the times, as did the late great Lewis Grizzard; a man who reportedly insisted on writing his four-day-a-week humor column on a manual typewriter long after the dawn of the word processor. I’m all for making the process of getting the words on the page (screen) easier. And I much prefer the Backspace key to Wite-Out.

But there is one thing about modern technological advance that bothers me: touchscreen keyboards. I own an iPhone. I can truly see the benefit of a touchscreen keyboard for that particular device, although I am persistently frustrated when I tap the wrong key in my ham-fisted attempts at two-thumbed typing.

Microsoft Windows 8, due in a couple of years or so, also has an on-screen keyboard. I’m sure that’s because it’s intended to scale to phones and tablets. I’ll still be able to use a regular old keyboard on a regular old laptop or desktop with it, as before. However, I find even the availability of the touchscreen keyboard on my desktop workstation utterly terrifying.

"Hey," you might say. "An on-screen keyboard is nothing new. You can launch one right from your Accessibility menu in XP. And it’s kind of neat to be able to continue to work if your keyboard breaks." To which my answers are: you’re right, but clicking a letter at a time on an on-screen keyboard isn’t exactly my idea of "continuing" work as much as "impairing" it. Can you imagine trying to write a 100,000-word novel that way? A single mouse click (or thumb tap) at a time? Granted, when you use a regular keyboard you are still hitting single letters at a time, but at least you’re using all 10 digits. Therefore, the pace of the work is a bit more impressive.

In the main, anxiety over touchscreen typing isn’t going to keep me up nights, because I don’t really believe the physical keyboard is going anywhere. I just find it ironic that many times our technological attempts to make something "better," such as including the instrument of input inside the operating system rather than as a physical device connected to the hardware, seems to suck the convenience out of digital life rather than contribute to it.