Last week, mega-selling author James Patterson caused a stir after taking out a couple of high-profile ads urging the U.S. government to step in and help the ailing publishing industry.
Patterson’s suggestion was a bailout similar to the ones banks and the auto industry received at the height of the recession. If they can get government assistance, he reasoned, then why not publishers or bookstores? The idea, unsurprisingly, was hailed by libraries and booksellers. Authors took to Facebook and Twitter to praise his bold vision.
In a subsequent round of interviews, Patterson said he wanted to start an earnest conversation about the sorry state of the publishing industry. He talked about his efforts to promote literacy, including his website ReadKiddoRead. (Although, indicative of his genius at branding, the actual website bills itself as “James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead”.) He mentioned donating hundreds of thousands of books, creating scholarships and taking part in World Book Night. All of those efforts are noble, and I have no doubt about his sincerity in wanting to promote literacy, help bookstores and save libraries.
But let’s be blunt here — James Patterson bemoaning the state of the publishing industry is a bit like King Midas bitching about a gold shortage. The man is one of the best-selling authors ever. He’s made a staggering amount of money. If he wants to change the way things are done — really, truly change them — he has the power to do so. Off the top of my head, I came up with three ways in which James Patterson — and not the federal government — can help the publishing industry. All it requires is a bit of sacrifice on his his part and a willingness to set aside his own interests in service of the greater good.
Here they are:
1. Don’t release any books for a year
This sounds more snarky that it’s intended to be, and on the surface doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. How would a best-selling author not having books on shelves help stores? Wouldn’t the revenue from sales of his books help keep them in business, thus lifting all boats?
Ideally, yes. But Patterson’s output is so enormous that it has the reverse effect. Right now, the only boat being lifted is his own.
For a moment, let’s think of James Patterson as a tree, crowding the forest and blocking out the sun. Sure, a few other trees are able to plant roots and grow a bit, but they’re not going to get very big with a five-ton banyan in the way. But if that banyan was chopped down, many trees would have the opportunity to move in and thrive.
James Patterson has seven hardcover titles slated for release in 2013, and that’s not even counting his young adult books and books geared toward middle-schoolers. Seven books in one year! And all of them are assured a spot on the hardcover best-seller list.
If he took the year off, there would be seven more spaces on that best-seller list for other people. His millions of readers would possibly seek out seven other books to purchase. In short, at least seven other authors — and likely more — would be given the chance to build their readerships.
That would help the book industry far more than a James Patterson oligopoly, which is what we have now. Success breeds success, and the more successful authors there are out there, the better it will be for everyone.
2. Adopt an author
One could argue that Patterson already does this, what with his ever-growing stable of co-authors. But I’m not talking about his dubious practice of hiring someone else to write 95 percent of his books while he takes 75 percent of the credit.
No, my suggestion is that he pick an unknown writer and tout his or her work to his legion of fans for a month. Imagine if he sent an e-mail to his millions of readers recommending a new book. Or he gives an interview in People magazine mentioning an unheralded book and how fantastic it was to read. He could even give that book a place of honor on his official website, urging everyone else to buy it.
Think about how that author’s sales will skyrocket. No, it won’t get as huge a reaction as those lucky books endorsed by Oprah. But it will help. Quite a bit, actually.
Now imagine if he did this for an entire year. Twelve months. Twelve new authors. Twelve opportunities to create word of mouth and spread goodwill.
Like I said earlier, success breeds success, and this would go a long way in ensuring future success for others.
3. Control distribution
In his ads, Patterson mourned the closing of bookstores. He’s right in that booksellers both large and small are going out of business at an alarming rate. The reason for this is obvious to anyone with two eyes and half a brain: Amazon.com and e-books are changing how books are sold. The more they grow, the more traditional bookstores suffer.
So let’s remove them from the equation. Patterson can do what Stephen King is doing with his upcoming book JOYLAND and delay the release of the e-book version. Therefore people will be forced to buy a physical book. Like King, Patterson is one of the few authors with enough clout to pull such a move.
And if he’s so concerned about the fate of bookstores, he could even go a step further than King and not allow Amazon.com or any other online retailer to sell one of his newest releases. Think of what a game-changer that would be! Readers would be forced to go to bookstores to buy the latest Alex Cross novel or the next Women’s Murder Club adventure. You know, like they did for decades before Amazon came along.
No, Patterson’s publisher would not be pleased. And, no, not every reader would go along with this. I’m sure quite a few would just hop onto Amazon and buy books written by someone else. (Another win, quite honestly.) And, yes, there would eventually be an online black market for that book. And, yes, Amazon would probably whine or cry or sue someone.
But it would make a statement. A mighty powerful one. And that’s what Patterson said he wants to do.
So, those are my humble suggestions. Will James Patterson ever agree to one of them? Oh, hell no. I’m not naive enough to think he’ll ever read this. Even if he somehow does, I’m sure his eyes will pop out of his head.
Patterson is, above all else, a shrewd businessman. He would only agree to one of the above suggestions if it meant more book sales for him. Still, it’s nice to fantasize that he might possibly take one of them to heart or come up with another idea on his own.
The book industry is in dire straits. There’s no doubt about that. But, in all honesty, a few ads can only go so far.
Someday, I suspect, I’ll write a story about Las Vegas, adding my meager words to the millions that have already been spent trying to describe the place. Today, however, is not that day. I just returned from there late last night, I’m bowled over with jet lag and if I close my eyes, I can still see slot machine reels spinning on the backs of my eyelids. Writing coherently about Vegas requires time and distance — two things I don’t have at the moment.
Instead, I’m going to write incoherently about this strange world that I love so much. Instead of transitioning from one thought to another, like a proper blog post, I’m going to offer random observations, augmented with plenty of photos I took using Instagram. I’m calling it a tone poem, although in reality it’s a tired author’s way of fulfilling his blogging duties while showing off his cell phone photos. Either way, I hope you enjoy.
For those who have never been, I like to describe Las Vegas as spending a few days on another planet that’s similar to our own. The people look mostly the same, but everything else is bigger, brighter, louder. It’s a place where the Eiffel Tower looms over one side of The Strip while a fountain-spewing lake sits on the other. Both of those things, by the way, do not belong in the Nevada desert.
And that’s the glory of Las Vegas. In a sane world, nothing should be there but dirt and tumbleweeds and a few cattle ranches. Instead, we get glass pyramids and gleaming towers and exotic gardens sprouting up in the middle of casinos. It’s a mirage and a reality all at once.
I’ll never get used to the dryness.
The glitz of the city often hides the fact that it sits in the middle of a desert. You don’t even think about it when waltzing from one air-conditioned spot to another, whetting your whistle with your beverage of choice.
For me, the only reminder is the unrelenting dryness that settles into my skin almost immediately. My face tightens. The backs of my hands get rubbed raw from reaching into my pockets. A ring quickly forms on my neck where my shirt collar has chafed my neck. And all the moisturizer in the world can’t make it go away.
There’s one section of The Strip that’s almost like a gallery of Las Vegas history. There’s the Flamingo, the casino that in the 1940s helped turn Vegas into the “glamorous” metropolis it is today. The sixties are represented right pretty much across the street, where Caesar’s Palace still holds court. Just south of the Flamingo is Paris Las Vegas, which exemplifies the whole Epcot-as-casino motif so popular in the 1990s. Directly across from Paris is the Bellagio, which brought elegance to The Strip in the form of its dancing fountains, lavish interiors and art galleries. Slightly south of Bellagio is the latest incarnation of Las Vegas resort — City Center. All sleek steel and glass, it’s a strange hybrid of a casino, a luxury shopping mall, non-gambling hotels and even condo space. That’s seventy years of history, all within a few blocks.
Another interesting history lesson can be found north of The Strip, at The Neon Museum. It’s basically a boneyard where signs of Vegas’ past are brought to die. Some of the city’s most famous signs are now there, including the record-setting Stardust sign and a piece of the city’s most recently deceased casino, the Sahara.
Perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas was Dog the Bounty Hunter sitting at a nickel slot machine at the Bellagio. What made it strange wasn’t that none of those things seem to go together in any coherent fashion. No, the weird part comes when you realize that the nickel machine big Dog was playing was themed after The Wizard of Oz.
I am also a slots guy. Sure, I sometimes play low-stakes table games, such as Let it Ride or Three-Card Poker. But I’m not made for the high-pressure table games. I prefer the one-armed bandit, which can give as generously as it can snatch away.
Las Vegas is known as Sin City, which is true in its own self-branding way. Any sin you can think of is there for the taking. Greed? The whole damn place exists because of greed. Gluttony? Just belly up to the buffet, boys. Sloth? Envy? Lust? Yes, yes and, oh boy, yes.
Perhaps I’m naive, but I like to think there’s another reason people come to Vegas — hope. They arrive hoping to get rich, to get lucky (literally and figuratively), to escape from their plain lives. Stand in the center of any given casino and you’ll see hardened gamblers, blue-haired ladies, businessmen dragged there for a conference, tourists struck dumb by the hugeness of it all, drinkers, smokers, frat boys and housewives. All of them, at some point in their trip, will sit down at a blackjack table. Or a roulette wheel. Or a slot machine. Each one of them will pay their dollars and place their bets. And while the roulette wheel turns and the cards are being flipped and the slot reels spin, each and every one of them will think, “I hope …”
The Oscars were held last Sunday and, as with most award shows, I spent it with my iPad nearby, allowing me to check the stream of snark about the ceremony on Twitter. (Some of the comments about Anne Hathaway’s dress, by the way, were priceless.) Because my Twitter feed consists mostly of other writers, I saw dozens of tweets complaining that no one was thanking the authors of the books on which many of these award-winning films were based. The only notable exception was Ang Lee, whose first act after winning Best Director for Life of Pi was to thank its author, Yann Martel.
I understood the frustration. Many of these winners wouldn’t have had a movie (or an Oscar) if some writer somewhere hadn’t set words to paper. But I was also surprised by it. These folks were watching the Oscars, after all. In Hollywood. A place where script doctors outnumber real doctors. Where Scientology is more revered than the written word. Where, last year, a silent film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Thanking authors isn’t high on their priority list.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the movies. For almost a hundred years, they’ve been America’s shared dream, illusion and history, wrapped in celluloid and rolled up for all to consume. Yet it’s a world of images — faces, dance numbers, explosions. Words don’t matter so much. They are a means to an end, a way to get to those faces, dance numbers and explosions.
No one knows this better than the screenwriters who toil away in Tinsel Town. Over the years there have been a number of poisoned love letters to Hollywood. Barton Fink follows a playwright who goes insane trying to write a boxing picture. The Player is about a producer who murders a screenwriter — and gets away with it. And then, of course, there’s Sunset Boulevard, in which writer Joe Gillis, desperate for money, agrees to be a gigolo to an aging star who later kills him. The audience first sees Joe after he’s dead, floating facedown in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool.
That vicious Valentine came from Billy Wilder, arguably the greatest screenwriter in film history. And, I suspect, the only reason he got away with writing it is because he was also the director. That’s the oddity of Hollywood: Most of the respected screenwriters in town are also respected directors, their words and images inextricably linked. I’m thinking about the Coen brothers, Cameron Crowe, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino. It was Tarantino who, upon accepting his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, said he thought 2013 would be The Year of The Writer. I hope you’re right, Quentin, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In fact, I can think of only one universally revered screenwriter who didn’t direct. That would be William Goldman, whose philosophy on Hollywood was this: “Nobody knows anything.”
Yet the lure of the movies is strong, and I suspect 2013 will be like every other year in Hollywood. Writers will figuratively do what Joe Gillis did literally, only to end up floating in that metaphorical swimming pool.
Am I being a bit too cynical? Perhaps. But that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about writing a screenplay of my own.
And that, as they say, is showbiz.
I have a friend who wants to be a writer. Well, he already is a writer — a newspaper reporter — and a very good one, at that. But he would also like to be a novelist. In fact, he’s working on something right now. Something that he asked me to read and, hopefully, offer some guidance.
Now, before you think I’m some selfish writer who doesn’t want to help others, let me explain. I refused to read his book because it’s not finished. He still has a ways to go before it’s done. I told him I’d happily read a completed manuscript. But a half-finished one? Well, that’s just a waste of time.
When explaining my reason for not wanting to read his work right now, I gave him the biggest piece of wisdom I could think of. It’s this: The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is a completed manuscript.
It’s pretty straightforward, no? Also easy to grasp. Granted, there are dozens of reasons why some people get published and others don’t, but the biggie is what I stated above — a completed manuscript.
Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book”? Or witnessed that age-old excuse of “I just haven’t gotten around to writing it”? Every time I hear something of that ilk, I want to shake the person and remind them that books don’t write themselves. Writing a book is hard work. It takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes hour after lonely hour in front of a blank computer screen, slowly creating a world out of nothing but words. Those who fail to understand that often end up with desk drawers full of half-completed manuscripts.
I know this from experience. I was that person for years. Back when I was a young, aspiring writer, I started (and abandoned) several projects. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least four different books that I started writing but never finished. For most of them, I lost steam around page 100. That’s the point when, even after putting in so much work, I realized that I still had 200 to 300 pages left to write. And I got intimidated. And tired. And just flat-out bored. So I would stop and move on to something else, only to get intimidated and tired and bored all over again.
But then, one day, I decided to just push through all that doubt and tedium and kept on working. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just liked the idea I was working on better than the others. Or maybe, deep down, I realized the words of wisdom that I recently gave to my friend, that I would never, ever get published unless I had a finished product that actually could get published. And when I did finish it, I felt pretty good about myself. I had created something out of nothing! I had written a book!
There’s a great Stephen Sondheim song from the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” It’s called “Finishing the Hat.” While on the surface it’s about painter Georges Seurat and how the woman he loves can’t understand why he needs to paint, it’s also about the pains of creating something, anything. Georges’ example is a hat. And how you have to finish it, even though the rest of the world keeps on spinning just outside of your window.
I love that song. I can relate to it. I especially love the ending, when Georges looks at one of his sketches and proclaims: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” Whenever I finish a book, that’s exactly how I feel. “Look!” I want to shout to everyone who will listen. “I made this!”
So that’s why I said no to my friend. It was my way of dangling a carrot on a stick, coaxing him into finishing the manuscript. I don’t want him to be like younger, stubborn, lazy me. I want him to fulfill his dream of getting published. But, more than anything, I want him to feel proud of what he accomplished. I want him to finish that hat. Where there never was a hat.
I am an unrepentant pop culture junkie. I follow entertainment the way most people follow sports — with an insatiable thirst for information, statistics, winners and losers. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t web surf my way to Entertainment Weekly, BuzzFeed, the A.V. Club or the Arts section of The New York Times to get my pop culture fix.
Now, this is the time of year when all of these websites and publications offer their Top Ten lists of best movies, books, TV shows, commercials, Twitter memes, etc. Reading all of them can be both exhilarating (Hey, I love that book, too!) and exhausting (So many lists!). But it also creates the itch to compile a list of your own. So, at the risk of adding to the list-mania, I have decided to cobble together my own Top Ten. I call it The Awesome List. It’s not a “best of” ranking. It doesn’t focus on just books or movies. It is, quite simply, a list of ten pieces of entertainment that I thought were awesome in 2012.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Like the title implies, this is one strange beast of a movie. It’s about a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives in squalor with her daddy in a post-Katrina Louisiana swamp called the Bathtub. There’s illness and apocalyptic storms and literal beasts charging across the land, all set to a zydeco score and filmed through what appears to be an Instagram filter. It’s not a perfect film, nor is it intended to be. Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t care about perfection. He’s more interested in mood, in myth, in images that refuse to leave your memory. The end result is a gorgeous, sometimes maddening tale about the human spirit and growing up and being brave in the face of unthinkable change. It is, flaws and all, that rare film that transcends its medium to become a wholly original work of art.
BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter
My favorite book of the year, not just for the story, which is lovely, but for the audacious way Jess Walter goes about telling it. It’s ostensibly about a young hotel owner in an Italian fishing village who, in 1962, meets a dying actress, recently shuttled off the Rome set of Cleopatra. But it’s also about present-day Hollywood. And old Hollywood. And Richard Burton. And family. And aging. And responsibility. And dreams unfulfilled. Basically, it’s a book about messy lives that spans decades and continents and genres, all coming together in a final chapter so wistful and all-embracing that it took my breath away.
“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan
An interesting experiment by Pulitzer Prize winner Egan and The New Yorker that turned the limitations of social media into an advantage. Egan wrote her tale of a reluctant female spy in a not-too-distant future in bite-sized paragraphs of 140 characters or less. The story was not only published in The New Yorker’s inaugural sci-fi issue but was also released through the magazine’s Twitter account over the course of several installments. The size constraints were surely a test for Egan, whose work illustrated the importance of every word. It didn’t hurt that, Twitter gimmick aside, the end result was one kick-ass story.
“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
Forget for a moment all the YouTube parodies and lip-synched tributes featuring teen stars, Olympians, soldiers, soccer moms. And forget how every radio station, mall and grocery store played it on a endless loop all through the summer and into the fall. Instead, focus on the first time you heard it. Remember Jepsen’s voice, poised somewhere between Britney Spears and fellow Canuck Avril Lavigne. And those lyrics, which, you have to admit, were pretty good for a pop song about love at first sight. And the undeniably catchy chorus, with strings punctuating every word. Still sick of the song, despite those fond memories? Then consider this: It’s far, far better than Gangnam Style.
DARE ME by Megan Abbott
I’ve described this book to friends as both a cheerleader noir and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Bring It On. Honestly, though, there’s no way to adequately describe Abbott’s tale. Sure, it’s a crackerjack mystery, but it digs deeper than most books of it kind would even, well, dare. With prose as sharp and precise as a scalpel, Abbott peers into the lives of privileged and popular teenage girls. What she ultimately revealing are the girls’ confusion, insecurity and, most disturbingly, hearts of darkness.
Let other TV viewers have their Mad Men, their Breaking Bad, their Homeland. I’ll take Downton Abbey over all of them. The second season of this upstairs/downstairs look at a British estate managed to be both insanely melodramatic and coolly elegant. It was as if Merchant Ivory had suddenly decided to remake All My Children. Even though Series Two brought us pregnant Ethel, Fake Patrick and the Spanish flu, I couldn’t tear my eyes away, even as they were rolling. And when the show worked — Matthew and Mary, Anna and Mr. Bates, the entire Christmas special — it was some of the best drama on TV.
Norman is a zombie-obsessed loner who just wants to be normal. The trouble is, he sees dead people. This makes being normal rather difficult, especially when a street full of ghosts says hello every morning as he walks to school. But it also comes in handy when an ancient curse unleashes Puritan zombies on his town. Norman must embrace his gift and come to the rescue, with the help of a few oddball friends and relatives. Sure, it’s all a tad familiar, but ParaNorman has quite a few tricks up its claymation sleeves. It’s sweet, but not cloying. Creepy, but appropriate for the whole family. Yet what makes ParaNorman stand out, other than its excellent stop-motion animation and inventive use of 3-D, is that it assures oddball kids that it’s OK to be a little weird. And in a world of animated princesses and superhero flicks, that’s an important message.
Rolling Stones in concert
Two words: Mick Jagger. More words: Mick Jagger, at age 69, tearing up the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with the help of Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, The Black Keys and, of course, fellow bandmates both past and present. This, the last of a mere handful of shows the Rolling Stones held to celebrate their 50th anniversary, was the concert of the year. I was lucky enough to be there, sitting near the rafters, watching in awe as Jagger danced and sang for two and a half hours like a man half his age. As an added bonus: Mick and Lady Gaga absolutely killed it on “Gimme Shelter,” my all-time favorite from the Stones’ playbook.
One could argue (and I gladly would) that Casino Royale is the best of the modern Bond movies. But Skyfall comes pretty darn close to topping it. From the sultry Adele theme song that plays over the eye-popping opening credits to the thrilling action scenes, it got all the Bond basics right. But director Sam Mendes gave us more. Much, much more. Like Javier Bardem as the best Bond villain in more than two decades. Like stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins. Like Ben Whishaw as a younger, hipper Q. But the best part of Skyfall was how the movie explored Bond’s past while simultaneously examining his relationship with mentor M, played with brass and pluck by Judi Dench. And by the time it was over, Skyfall revealed something few Bond flicks ever have: a throbbing heart.
There are better comedies on TV at the moment (I’m talking about you, Parks and Recreation!) but few make me as happy as this one about a single dad from New York who moved his artsy teenage daughter to the candy-colored suburbs. Everyone there is vapid and vain and looks like they just walked out of Ira Levin’s Stepford. But the show isn’t simply content to make jokes about fake tans and nose jobs. Instead, it humanizes each cartoonish character by giving them hopes and dreams and disappointments, all while somehow staying screamingly funny. And Suburgatory‘s Thanksgiving episode, in which our teenage heroine Tessa finally meets her long-lost mother, was the most honest and heartfelt (not to mention hysterical) half-hour of television in 2012.
So, that’s my list. Now it’s your turn. What books, movies, songs and TV shows did you love in 2012? Sound off in the comments section.
“How do you write a book?”
It’s universally acknowledged that every author will be asked that question at least one point in their writing lives. Usually it’s posed by an aspiring writing. Sometimes it’s from someone who’s merely curious. No matter who’s doing the asking, the answer is pretty much the same — one page at a time until the book is finished.
If that sounds flip, I’m sorry. But that’s the answer. No matter how varied our writing preparation is — Outline or winging it, character sketches or not, tons of research or none — the actual writing is the same for every author. One page at a time until the book is finished.
That’s an absolute. A given. A certainty in a world where few things are certain. So, knowing this, I’m surprised no one has ever asked “How do you write a book?” and wanted to know the actual physical act of writing one. Since every author writes one page at a time, how do they write each page? Where? With what?
The topic fascinates me, and over the years I’ve discovered a few strange ways in which writers work.There’s newly retired Philip Roth, for example, who wrote standing up, on a desk raised to his specifications. And Jonathan Franzen, who writes facing a blank wall on a computer that has no Internet connection. At Thrillerfest a few years back, Lisa Gardner mentioned how she writes with a scented candle burning nearby. The scent triggers a Pavlovian response that it was time for her to write some pages. Then there’s PLAINSONG author Kent Haruf, who told the New York Times that he writes blindfolded.
I have to admit that I have some odd habits myself, although they have changed slightly over the years. Now, I pretty much hate writing at my computer. There’s nothing wrong with it, as you can see from the picture on the right. It’s a bit cluttered, but suitable for writing. What bothers me is that, when I sit down at that desk and try to write, it feels like work. And that leads to being distracted. (Unlike the estimable Mr. Franzen, my computer is connected to the Internet.)
So I ended up writing a good portion of my debut novel, DEATH NOTICE, in the book nook on the second floor of my apartment. It was designed for reading, of course, but also makes a perfect place to curl up and get some writing done. I wrote DEATH NOTICE longhand, using a few trusty pens and many, many yellow legal pads. My goal was to write a thousand words a day, and several times during my writing session I counted each word scrawled on the page until I hit that magic number. The next morning, I typed up the previous day’s work, revising here and there. When that was finished, I’d grab the legal pad again and start to scribble my next thousand words. Yes, it was time-consuming. But it worked for me.
When it came time to write my second mystery, BAD MOON, my situation had changed. With a contract in hand, I no longer had the luxury of time. I needed to get a publishable manuscript finished by a certain date. Which meant the purchase of a laptop. This was a revelation to me. I could write literally anywhere I wanted to. And I did. In the book nook. At Starbucks. At the library. I even wrote one chapter in a Walt Disney World hotel while on summer vacation.
But the place that laptop guided me to — the location where I now do most of my writing — is the same spot where I sleep.
Yup, my bed.
It’s not unusual to find me crawling into bed an hour or two after waking up. I prop up a few pillows, scoot under the covers and fire up the laptop. But that’s just part of the process. I also need something else besides my bed to get some writing done. I need noise. Good, constant white noise.
That’s where the fan comes in.
A fan, you ask? Oh yes. I keep a standard-sized box fan in the corner of the bedroom. When I write, I turn it on full blast, no matter the time of year or temperature. Its whir blocks out all noise outside of that room, thus blocking out the world entirely. When that fan is running, it’s easy to sink into the world of my book and get a lot of work done.
So that’s how I write. In bed with a fan cranked on high. That’s how I finished BAD MOON. It’s how I completed my third book, DEVIL’S NIGHT, which is coming out in August. And it’s how I’m writing my fourth novel.
Is it weird? Yes. But I don’t care. It’s how I write my books, one page at a time.
So, now that I’ve told you my strange writing habits, it’s time for the rest of you to return the favor. How do you physically write your books? Where? And is there anything you do that rivals my fan in weirdness?
Fear is subjective. What frightens one man may leave another unmoved. What one woman finds silly could terrify another. It all depends on past experiences, childhood traumas, the power of individual imaginations. Case in point: The Blair Witch Project, that seminal 1999 film that divided most viewers into two distinct camps. For some, it was a dull, annoying mess – more nauseating than eerie. For others, it was the most frightening thing they had ever seen. (For the record, I’m in the it-scared-the-crap-out-of-me camp.)
I bring this up because, well, it’s almost Halloween, which is a perfect time to talk about being scared. I also mention it because today’s post is about books that terrified me. And before I delve into those chilling tales, I want to make clear that I don’t expect these particular books to scare you. (Although they very well might.) They’re just four novels and one short story that, for whatever reason, have seared themselves into my consciousness. When someone mentions scary reads, these are what I think of. (Warning: There are spoilers. So if those also frighten you, it might be best if you stopped reading now.)
I might as well start with a classic. Jackson’s tale of four people taking part in a paranormal experiment inside an allegedly haunted mansion isn’t just about things that go bump in the night. (Although it does contain probably the greatest bump-in-the-night sequence ever written.) By focusing on poor, lonely Eleanor Vance, Jackson puts us inside the character’s head, making us feel the house’s tightening grip on her sanity. But the thing that truly unnerves me – the gotcha moment, to use horror-movie parlance – is this passage that begins and ends the book:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
From the first moment I read them as a teenager, those sentences burrowed into my brain the same way the house invades Eleanor’s. On the surface, they shouldn’t be that scary. It’s just a vague description of an old house. But the words take on a cumulative power, beginning with the first two – Hill House.
That name alone taps into our collective unconscious, summoning up images of a rickety manse atop a fog-shrouded hill. There are dead trees there, certainly, their gnarled, leafless branches rattling in the night wind. Maybe there’s a cemetery in the backyard, and a single light glowing in one of the upper rooms.
The next two words, though, are the kicker. Not sane. Who the hell thinks of a house in terms of sanity? Well, Shirley Jackson, for one, and those two words, bracketed by polite commas, produces shivers every time I read them. By the time we get to the grand finale – and whatever walked there, walked alone – it’s hide under the covers time.
Another haunted house tale, this time by the master of horror himself. I’ll confess: I’m a huge King fan and could have picked any number of scenes from his books that have stuck with me. The Glick boy floating outside the window in ’SALEM’S LOT. The dark walk through the Lincoln Tunnel in THE STAND. The devastating bus crash in THE GREEN MILE, when Paul Edgecomb realizes he’ll outlive everyone he loves. But I chose a moment from THE SHINING, a book I never finished.
What? you say. You never finished THE SHINING?!?
Nope. I know how it ends, of course. And I wanted to finish it when I started it at an age far too young to be reading such things. But I couldn’t. I was too scared to finish it. Too scared after reading the scene young Danny Torrance steps into the hallway and sees a man in a dog costume crawling on all fours and threatening to kill him.
Again, fear is subjective. I have no idea why that image terrified me so much. I was too young to understand what it all really meant. All I know is after reading that passage, I was convinced that there was an insane ghost in a dog costume just waiting for me in the hallway. I was so sure of it that, for several nights, I refused to leave my room in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. The fear kept me pinned to my bed. My mouth stayed dry. My bladder remained full. And, to this day, the second half of THE SHINING remains unread.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
I read this gem in junior high English class, apparently because the curriculum requires scaring the shit out of students at least once outside of gym class. I’m sure a lot of you read it in school, too. For those who didn’t, it concerns Mr. and Mrs. White, who come into possession of a withered monkey’s paw that allegedly has the power to grant three wishes. Simultaneously disbelieving and hopeful, Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds. The bad news? The next day, their son, Herbert, is mangled in machinery while working and dies. The good news? The benevolent company gives them 200 pounds. For their next wish, Mrs. White wishes that poor, dead Herbert would come back to them. That night, someone disrupts their sleep by knocking on the door.
Now, here’s a perfect example of what I meant about imagination being a large part of fear. Someone with an underactive one might think it’s merely a stranger at the door, knocking to ask for directions. But those of us with overactive imaginations know that it’s Herbert on the threshold. Mangled, twisted, dirt-covered zombie Herbert.
Jacobs wisely avoids giving the reader a good idea of the extent of Herbert’s injuries. We just know that they were bad. Very bad. So we’re left to our own devices to picture what’s on the other side of that door, knocking harder and harder as Mrs. White fumbles with the lock and Mr. White shouts, “For God’s sake, don’t let it in!”
I can assure you that whatever Jacobs could have written paled in comparison to the demented vision my young mind created. It scared me to think of that wretched thing knocking on my door. It scared me even more to realize that I was solely responsible for creating that image. A good many fears were created with that short story. And, most likely, quite a few authors, as well.
RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris
I’m not going to mince words here: RED DRAGON might be the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. Before he began to deal exclusively in Hannibal Lecter hijinks, Harris was a phenomenal talent who knew how to turn psychological insight into pure fear. And of the many, many, many scary parts of RED DRAGON, the one that punched me in the gut the hardest is, in fact, comparatively benign.
It concerns profiler Will Graham’s visit to the home of a family recently massacred by the killer known as the Tooth Fairy. To put himself in the same mindset as the killer, Graham first waits in the woods behind the family’s house. When night falls, he slips inside, using police reports and blood trails to describe, in exacting, horrifying detail, how one monster destroyed an entire family. It’s grim and fascinating and horrifying. It has also stuck with me for more the twenty years that have passed since I read the book. Now, every time I pass a window at night, I glance outside and wonder what, if anything, is out there, watching and waiting. Thanks for the nightmares, Mr. Harris.
Because sometimes fact is more frightening than fiction, I reserved the last spot on this list for a piece of nonfiction. THE HOT ZONE is about the government’s efforts to halt an Ebola outbreak in the suburbs of D.C. But before Preston gets to the book’s characters, he introduces us to the disease and what it can do to the average human body. The end result is an opening chapter so disturbing that it was tough to re-read for the purposes of this blog post.
Sparing no detail, Preston tells us about Charles Monet, a Frenchman in Africa who contracts Ebola and then, quite unwisely, is shipped to a hospital via a commercial airplane. As his condition worsens, the reader becomes privy to just how the man’s body is breaking down. Ever wanted to know what happens to intestinal muscles when they start to die? Preston tells you. Were you aware that highly infective black vomit is really “a speckled liquid of two colors, black and red”? Now you know! And of course, Preston doesn’t hesitate to inform us that Monet’s airsickness bag is bulging and brimming with black vomit and threatening to leak as he hands it to a flight attendant.
It’s enough to make you not want to fly ever again. But that’s not the scary part. Oh, heavens no. The truly unnerving part – the part that makes me quiver even while typing this – is a factoid Preston slips in among all the nose-bleeding and skin-sloughing.
A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four hour plane ride from every city on earth.
Scared yet? You should be. Because even though I’ve reiterated that fear is subjective, sometimes it’s not. That, my friends, is enough to terrify everyone.
Well, those are my scary reads. Now I’m interested in hearing yours. After all, fear is subjective and I’m curious to see what makes the rest of you quake in your boots. So, tell me: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever read?
I’ve been busy. An odd, unexpected wave of professional tasks and personal obligations took over my September, leaving me little time to think about a good blog topic, let alone write a decent post. So I’m going to keep this one short. In fact, it’s not even a post. It’s a quiz. But a fun quiz!
Allow me to explain. I am a huge fan of the works of both Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. So much so that, back on my old blog, I had a recurring feature called “Hitchcock or Disney.” The gist was simple: I gave a movie quote and readers had to guess if it was from a Hitchcock movie or a Disney movie. They got a bonus point for guessing the name of the film. Often, it was harder than it seemed.
Today, I’ll be doing the same thing, only instead of one quote, you’re getting a whopping fifteen. Answers appear below the photo. No cheating!
1. “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.”
2. “She ought to be locked up and never released.”
3. “We better keep an eye on this one. She’s tricky.”
4. ”You don’t love me. I’m just something you’ve caught.”
5. ”You have just s-s-sealed your doom.”
6. ”I guess I don’t like to be an average girl in an average family.”
7. ”I heard some talk in the kitchen. They say, ‘What a pity if they must kill The Cat!’”
8. “Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”
9. “It’s incredible. Sixteen years and not a trace of her. She couldn’t have vanished into thin air!”
10. “I don’t set a fancy table, but the kitchen’s awful homey.”
11. “On the surface, there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces.”
12. “She’s a female! And all females is poison! They’re full of wicked wiles!”
13. “Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked.”
14. “A jealous female can be tricked into anything.”
15. “Look, someone upstairs is playing musical chairs with an elephant.”
1. Hitchcock, North by Northwest
2. Disney, 101 Dalmatians
3. Disney, Mary Poppins
4. Hitchcock, Marnie
5. Disney, The Jungle Book
6. Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt
7. Hitchcock, To Catch a Thief
8. Hitchcock, Rear Window
9. Disney, Sleeping Beauty
10. Hitchcock, Psycho
11. Disney, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
12. Disney, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
13. Hitchcock, Lifeboat
14. Disney, Peter Pan
15. Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes
So, how did everyone do? There was a total of 30 points to be had. Post your scores into the comments section, if you like. The person with the highest score will win … well, bragging rights about getting the highest score.
It was the summer of 1985, and I was an 11-year-old sitting in front of the TV watching the ABC Sunday Night Movie. The movie playing, of course, was Jaws. And while the terrifying tale of an insatiable Great White had been around for a decade and spawned two sequels, it was all brand new to me.
I don’t remember much about that first viewing. I can recall realizing I had seen the ill-fated nighttime swim that opens the movie somewhere before. Most likely during one of those movie-clip specials they used to show on TV in the days before VCRs and Netflix Instant. I also remember being thrilled/grossed out by the sight of poor Chrissie’s arm on the beach, tangled in seaweed and crawling with hermit crabs.
But the thing I remember most, the image that stuck with me more than any other, was Richard Dreyfuss scuba diving next to the wrecked hull of a fishing boat. There was a hole in the boat. A big one. The darkness beyond it blacker than your worst nightmare. And then, lurching out of the dark, was a head. Ben Gardner’s head. Face a frozen mask of terror. One eye missing. Nerves wriggling out of the socket like worms.
I jumped at the sight of it. I don’t specifically remember doing it, but I’m sure I did. How could I not? I had just witnessed one of the greatest out-of-nowhere scares in movie history. And I was hooked.
So began a lifelong love of Jaws. I’ve now seen the movie too many times to count and in a dizzying array of formats. Edited for television. VHS. Now Blu-Ray, in which it has been restored to its original glory. (Seriously, movie buffs, the quality on the Blu-Ray is astounding.) And every time I see it, I think the same thing: They really don’t make movies like this anymore.
There are many reasons Jaws works as a pop culture masterpiece. The irresistible hook of Peter Benchley’s novel. Steven Spielberg’s ace direction. John Williams’ ominous score. Robert Shaw’s riveting speech about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The dialogue that manages to be so unique but spot-on. The fact that we don’t get a good look at the shark until more than eighty minutes into the movie. Not until this wonderful, unexpected moment.
All of it fits together like clockwork, working in perfect harmony, creating a film so beautiful, so relentless, so sublime. It’s perfection on film.
But Jaws is more than just the sum of it’s well-honed parts. Yes, at its heart, it’s a classic story of man versus nature, of the primal fear of the unknown, of things lurking just beneath the water’s surface, waiting to reach up and grab us. But the more I watch it, the more it changes, taking on new meaning and shapes. Different aspects come in and out of focus, as if I’m watching it through Chief Brody’s trusty binoculars.
As an 11-year-old, all I wanted to see was a shark chomping on some unsuspecting swimmers. Jaws delivered that and Ben Gardner’s head, to boot. As a film geek in college, it was all about Spielberg’s mastery of composition, of timing, of slowly building dread. As an adult writing my first thriller, I was struck by the concept of a community terrorized by something they can’t begin to understand and how different people react to it. (Those of you who have read DEATH NOTICE will know exactly what I’m talking about.) Now, twenty-seven years after that first viewing, I latch onto the character of Chief Brody and the way he has to man up and face his fears head-on in order to save his town, his family, his life. Now, the shark doesn’t just represent the fierce power of nature. It represents adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with it.
I suspect that, twenty-seven years from now, I’ll watch Jaws again and find another aspect to savor. I also suspect that everyone has different interpretations to bring to the beach party. So tell me, shark fans, what parts of Jaws appeals to you?
Bless me, authors, for I have sinned. My sin is a terrible one, committed against the written word. It is a sin of omission. What makes it worse is that I’ve committed this sin before and probably will again. What is this sin, you may ask. Well, since this is a confession, I must admit that I, Todd Ritter, have skipped pages when reading a book.
I know, I know. It’s awful. As a writer, I know how much effort goes into each and every page. In fact, I’ve spent entire afternoons trying to compose one page worthy of publication. Yet, sometimes when I read, I can’t stop myself from skipping a page or two or four.
There are two reasons for this nasty habit of mine, one good and one bad. The good reason is that sometimes a book has gripped me so much that I must absolutely know what happens next. This occurred last weekend as I was reading a thriller currently hovering at the top of the best-seller lists. (Why be coy? It was GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn.) I knew there was a major twist in the book. I also knew it was soon. So, with my interest definitely piqued and my heart racing, I began to skip a sentence here and there. Soon I was leaping over entire paragraphs. And then, well, whole pages flew by. I tried to stop myself. I really did. But it was of no use. Those pages passed unread. (For the record, I must add that GONE GIRL is a phenomenally written book. I’m sure those skipped pages were my loss.)
But now we come to the bad reason for skipping pages — I’m just not into the book. This, coincidentally, also happened last week. Again, I was reading a book — more literary than thriller — that’s received great buzz and has an amazing cover. (That’s all you’re going to learn about this one. I don’t like to talk smack about the works of other writers, so I must remain coy.) The prose was fine and the story intriguing, but I found my attention straying. The characters didn’t grab me and the plot was taking its good old time to get going. In short, I was bored. Not enough to put the book down, mind you, but enough to start leafing through the pages, giving them only cursory glances in search of the good stuff. I stopped to read long passages here and there, but I suspect I skipped a good fifty pages of this novel. And I’m not sure if I missed anything important.
Still, I feel guilty about both instances. Books, after all, are meant to be savored. Every page is a brushstroke in a larger portrait, and by skipping some of them, I’m not seeing the full picture. So, in order to assuage my guilt, I vow to read every word of the next book I pick up. No skipping for me! (Well, maybe. You never know.)
So that’s my confession. Now I want to hear yours. Have you ever skipped pages in a book? If so, for what reason?