Sunday, April 20, 2014

Writing To Be Read

Several authors I know would look at me with disdain if I started preaching the value of speed-reading to them. "Every word I write is sacred. I want a reader to savor each paragraph, each sentence."

Well, good luck with that. People skim. Like it or not. People tend to gloss over parts they find boring and pay attention to things which ignite their imaginations or affirm their beliefs. I know, I know, you're not writing for those folk. They're beneath you. Yeah.

Newspapers have gotten it right for decades. They put the important information up front and work down in what is called a "pyramid formation." In journalism you should be able to cut off the lower paragraphs and not necessarily damage the intent of the writing. Some newspapers are thrilled just to have headlines read, and maybe a sentence or two of a story. Then again, considering the misinformation presented by some news sources, maybe that's the idea.

Fiction writers sense they only have a small window through which to grab a reader by the throat. We talk about a "hook." Those first paragraphs and pages make a difference whether or not a reader continues. Even the most high fallutin' literary writer would agree the opening is important. Too bad we can't make demands on our reader for more self-discipline and attention when they make the same demands on us. And how has web reading affected readers?

I remember a panel with young adult author Tanya Huff in which she argued that while statistics showed young girls read more than boys, she believed (without support) that boys read as much, only their reading occurred online.

Michael S. Rosenwald, writing for the Washington Post, gave it a bit more deliberate consideration. According to the article, "To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia."

A study by the Nielson Norman Group showed that "on the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely."

As an educator watching more and more students sucked into the world of online learning, this figure gives me the shivers.  My friend Jon Zech would have said: "I knew those darned computers would ruin us eventually."

So what's a writer to do? Start developing a form of short hand? Skip everything but the good parts? And who determines those good parts? Readability software? Perhaps an idiot savant who lives in his mother's basements and subsists on pre-chewed pizza? (Okay, I don't know where the heck that one came from.) 

The Chronicle on Higher Education addresses how the new reader approaches academic writing. Author William Germano argues the writer dare not give in. Good luck with that and being published and read.

However, Germano states: " The scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take--even an academic book--is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader's own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters."

So, are we saying writing matters, or connecting with the reader? "I write for the prettiness of the phrase," Jon Zech would waft. I would scoff. "It's like painting a page with a brush and the prose is magic."

"I write to be read and to hell with it," I would respond. "I just want to tell a story." We were both right, I suppose.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Freemiums Are For Suckers...Which Unfortunately Includes Me

It's time to rebel against "freemium" games. I say this while mired in one of the most seductive titles, Clash of Clans.  

For the blissfully ignorant, here is how a "freemium" game works. The gamer downloads a free game and gets suckered in. The further they play, the more difficult it becomes to progress. The more difficult to progress, the more likely a person to invest a few bucks in a "helper" or "bonus."

Need a way to polish off a level in Candy Crush? Ninety nine cents might work. Maybe spend three to five dollars and buy enough helpers "just to be safe." Want to upgrade the town hall in Clash of Clans? Pay five bucks for three hundred green gems, or maybe a hundred dollars for fourteen thousand imaginary stones.

Oh sure, one doesn't have to spend the money. In Clash of Clans you can make a few clicks to start building and upgrading, and then wait two or three days until the upgrade is complete. But where's the fun in clicking a button and waiting days to click more buttons to wait more days?

This is a walk down a carnival midway, playing games which you know are fixed. And yet, you can't help throwing another ball at the stacked milk bottles, or shooting another basketball at an undersized hoop.

However, the carnival game is frowned on, mostly because it's penny ante.

The "freemium" game, on the other hand, is big bucks and big bucks buys respectability. The makers of Clash of Clans sold fifty-one percent of its stake to a Japanese company for 1.5 billion dollars. King, the creator of Candy Crush, filed an IPO on the NYSE for $22 a share. Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!

And yet, perhaps the "freemium" field isn't as green as one might think. Perhaps there's hope for humanity after all. According to sixty six percent of the people who download these games delete them within a day. And Candy Crush's King? While it may have opened at $22.50 a share, according to Wall Street Journal's "Market Watch," it had the worst trading debut this year, dropping 19% in a day. Another game company, Zynga, is down fifty percent from its opening IPO.

I think I'm going to forsake "freemiums" and just play chess.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Running With Scissors..Don't Say I'm Not Bad

Publisher Weekly put out a list of evil characters in literature, perhaps to prove that the PW doesn't know the definition of evil. At the top of their list, Mr. Hyde. Really? And Dracula? Cruela De Vil??? Okay, maybe Cruella DeVil. I mean, if you want to make a puppy coat, you must be pretty disgusting.

Don't get me wrong, these are good baddies, but the author creating this list, however she created it, could have done much better. Much, much better.

So, with that in mind, let me give you my own top ten, in no particular order and after giving it a look see, I'm curious if your favorite monsters are on this list..

  • Joffrey and Cersei from "A Song of Fire and Ice" R.R Martin [I had to include them together. And if you go past the third book of the series, you'll know why Ceirse rises to the list]
  • Professor James Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes series by A.C. Doyle. How Moriarty didn't make the list from PW befuddles me.
  • Mrs. Havisham from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.  Okay, she made the above list, and rightly so. What this woman does to Pip is stomach turning. And if you don't know Havisham, grab the book.
  • Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. Son of a bitch. Now this is a vile character. Not only does he create a poisonous garden to entice innocents to commit suicide, but he kills Tracy Bond on her honeymoon.
  • Hannibal Lecter from The Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. A glaring omission from PW's list.
  • Cameron Lowry from The Ravening by Stewart Sternberg. This son of a bitch is the leader of a cult that uses zombies to keep the post-apocalyptic population in line. And if you think he was bad in The Ravening, wait until the sequel (yes, it's still coming).
  • Randall Flagg, who makes appearances in The Stand and The Dark Tower series.
  • Norman Bates from Psycho by Robert Bloch.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How To Watch A Scary Movie

I went to see "The Conjuring." It is a worthwhile film with an expert setup for sustained scares, and it will probably be the best horror film of the year. Not a great film, but one that milks each moment. You know the scare is coming, but the delight is the anticipation and then the sledge hammer delivery.

That being said, about ten minutes into the film, I had my Stewart Sternberg Moment. Friends who watch horror films with me know exactly what I am referring to-- it is the point where, if I was in that situation, I would shake my head and go home. Or to someplace brightly lit surrounded by lots of people. someplace with people fatter than myself so if I had to run, I could out distance them. Just saying.

You can tell it's a Stewart Sternberg Moment because it is punctuated by me turning to someone in the room and saying "And what would I be doing right now?" The correct answer is "getting the hell out."

At "The Conjuring" I sat next to two Middle Aged women. When the moment came, and it was a simple moment where a dog wouldn't enter the new house, I said, "a dog don't enter, I don't enter." "Sweet Jesus no!" One woman replied.

And as simple as that, the communal experience of a horror film had been enjoined. A few scenes later, the other woman talked to the screen, "No...don't you open that. No." The other woman joined in with "Sweet Jesus no!"

"And what would Stewart do?" I asked these strangers.

"He wouldn't open that door," one said.

"No he wouldn't."

When someone behind us screamed at a demonic appearance jumping out of the darkness, I leaned back and asked, "Are you still in that house?"

"Hell no!" A teen answered.

And then something else happened on screen that had people murmuring and then shrieking.

"Where's Stewart?" An older man on my other side said with a nervous laugh.

"He ain't going outside," one woman answered.

"No he ain't." I said.

And you all wonder why I love horror films and why you should try and enjoy them in a movie theatre and not just in your living room.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Butch Effect

Tommy Bond, the child actor who portrayed the feared "Butch"
How many times have you heard a fan of Game of Thrones throw a fist to the sky and shout, "Kill Joffrey!"

He is the quintessential spoiled brat---a teenager able to wave a hand and have someone executed. However, what about the actor? How does it feel to play someone so hated, and to have to deal with it in public?

Worse, what if you're young? What if you're a child? Thankfully, Jack Gleeson, the actor who plays Joffrey Baratheon is twenty one, which is young enough, but imagine what poor Tom Felton had to go through when he played Malfoy Draco in the Harry Potter series.How about William Zabka, the bad boy from The Karate Kid? Or Alison Armgrim who was Nellie from Little House on the Prairie.

According to Alison Armgrim, she had to deal with being hated in real life by people who confused her with the character. Imagine being 12 years old and dealing with this, and the assault on the ego.

Celebrity messes with young actors. Just take a look at Justin Beiber and the other examples of those who may have had too much, too soon. Look at Britney Spears, Todd Bridges, Corey Haim, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes. And those are the kids loved by kids.

What about the actors who are reviled?

How we treat celebrity says much about us as a culture.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Give Them Back Their Masks

Why can't Hollywood handle a superhero's secret identity?

As a dedicated comic book reader for these many years, I've come to respect the man and woman hiding behind the mask, or even the pair of glasses. Yet, Hollywood can't handle it. Maybe it's a corporate thing. Perhaps it concerns the bankers and bill collectors that someone can slip on and off the radar with a swish of a cape.

Consider Spider-Man. Since he showed up onscreen it seemed everyone knew who he was without the mask, and that includes both Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy. The only one who seemed clueless was Aunt May, but that didn't surprise anyone.

Batman? Christopher Nolan sort of kept him secret, but somehow Bruce Wayne felt compelled to drop hints to those around him. "Hey, Commissioner, remember that kid you comforted years ago? The one with the coat? The one from the alley. You know, the kid who lost his parents? Come on. The kid with the initials B.W.? Last name rhymes with 'pain?'"

In the recent Man of Steel, one gets the feeling everyone knows who Clark Kent is. Lois managed to track him down with little trouble. And Kal-El, like Bruce Wayne, feels compelled to give hints, this time to the military. "Hey, you can trust me, I grew up in Kansas."

The worst offenders of the code of secret identity are the recent incarnations of Marvel superheroes forming the Avengers. In the comic books, Tony Stark plays his identity close to the vest, passing off his alter-ego as a hired bodyguard. In the movie? He announces who he is at a press conference. "I'm Iron Man!"

And what about Thor? The filmmakers didn't even let him have his mortal personae of Donald Blake, physician. Hulk? Well, the world knows who Hulk is in both the comic book and the film world, but let's face it, no one wants to pull the mask of the old Lone Ranger, and no one wants to mess around with Hulk, whether he's Lou Ferrigno in bad wig and bad makeup, or a CGI version of Eric Bana, or even Mark Ruffalo.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Memories of Dad

What would Father's Day be without spending a minute to remember my Dad.

He gestured me over. Henry wore the white shirt and gray pants he always wore to work at the factory. When he wore the same thing on his off day, it meant he had something serious to do. Today it was fixing some power tool. My father didn't often ask for my help, and when forced to do so, he always seemed to develop indigestion.

"Goddammit, come over here and help me," he grumbled.

Goddammit was his nickname for me. I approached warily.

"I have to solder these two wires together. I need you to hold. Can you do that? Can you hold them? Can you? Can you hold these wires?"

I showed him I could.

He pulled the trigger on the soldering gun and when it warmed sufficiently, he melted a bit of solder. The burning liquid metal plopped onto my fingertips and I did what should have been expected, I cried out in pain and spun away. 

"Goddammit, just hold it!" he shouted.

"You hold it!You burned me."

"It's just solder. Get over here and quit fooling around."

I gathered my dignity and returned to the task. He hadn't meant to drop a bit of super-heated solder on my tender flesh. I steeled myself and looked away as he once more warmed the soldering gun. And once again molten solder splattered me.

"What the hell?" I asked. I jerked my hand away and stuck the burned spot into my mouth. It tasted metallic.

"Why do you have to be a baby?" Dad demanded.

"I don't know," I said. "Hey, you want to work on the car later? I can lay in the driveway while you run over me a few times."

"Get over here and hold this."

"You hold it and I'll work the gun," I said.

"This isn't a toy," Dad countered. He brandished the soldering gun so I could see its power. "You could hurt yourself."

And being the youngest child, which meant the brains had been used up on my older siblings, I gritted my teeth and once more gripped the wires. I wasn't going to flinch this time. No show of emotion. Nothing. Let him splatter away,  I would stoically bear the pain.



"Are you freaking kidding me?"

"Goddammit. Okay go get the first aid kit."

Friday, June 07, 2013


My brother tells the most fascinating story about our grandmother, who happened to be a twin with the reputation for being a strange and unbalanced woman.

    "Come here," she told him, when he was five. "Do you want to see something?"
    "Come down the basement and I'll show you my cabbages."
    "Your cabbages, Bubbie?"
    "They're down here," she said. The old woman took his hand and pushed open the door to the dirt basement. She flicked on the one electric bulb which illuminated the narrow wood steps and pointed a bony finger into the darkness. 
    "There," she said. 
    With the trust only a five year old can possess, my brother started down the steps with the old woman close behind. He kept peering into the gloom, but except for a few rusting utensils, a ringer washing machine, and a furnace, his eyes showed him only a cold and gloomy place.
    "I don't see them," he said.
    "There," my grandmother said. "There. And over there, tomatoes. And there, I've got some corn."
    My brother stared at the dirt and listened to the old woman's breathing. He was aware they were alone in the house. Confusion turned to fear and he eased back to the first step. The woman's gaze followed.
     "Don't you see them?" she asked. 
    My brother answered by turning and hurrying upstairs. The old woman remained behind. He listened for her but many minutes passed before she finally appeared. With a sad face she closed the door to the basement. 


Thursday, June 06, 2013

Whence Come The Ravening?

The Ravening is now available for Kindle on Amazon or as an epub for use on various other readers. What is it about?

Society has collapsed under the weight of the Zagreus Virus and survivors battle one another,  as well as the walking corpses that are the Zagreus dead. Trying to find peace in this apocalyptic landscape, a father searches for his family when they are taken by members of a cult who clai see the animated dead as evidence of divine intervention. The corrupt leader of the Church of the Exalted uses the zombies as a way to control his people and spread his influence throughout the countryside.

The Ravening is the first of several novels following the Tucker family as they struggle to retain their humanity in a world descending into barbarism. 

Is this a different version than the trade paperback? Yes. This has been rewritten to be a tighter read than the original. Also some scenes have been added.

Why is this just being released now? First, it's part of a new writers collective known as Woodward Press and its release is set to coincide with the launch of this group. You can also look forward to works by Joe Ponepinto (The Face Maker and Other Stories), Dora Badger (Charlie Cat's Carnival: Tales of the Midway) and Jon Zech (God's Wife and Other Stories). With luck, my collaborator on The Emerald Key, Christine Purcell, will also have something later this year. More about Woodward Press next week.

So why else should you read this? It will greatly enhance your reading of its sequel The Zagreus Swarm, when released later this summer. And you know you are going to want to read The Zagreus Swarm. And finally, and for some folk, it has zombies. Let's face it, The Walking Dead's return is months away, and you're going to need something to fill the gap.

Go on, give it a read, and make sure you leave a review. I need the reassurance. Trust me.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Some Conversations Best Left Unrecorded.

Self published works account for over thirty seven percent of books sold in the U.S. That, my friends, is a sizable chunk. Unfortunately, just as one cannot necessarily count on the quality of corporate tomes dominating the New York Times bestsellers list, grabbing a self-published work is sometimes a frightening experience. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of great self-published works out there, especially in a land where getting published is more and more challenging, but self-publishing also means anyone can be published.

"I just published my third book," he says.


"Yeah. It's the third part of a tetrology dealing with elves who are advanced technologically so that they fight one another with giant robots powered by magic. It's sort of steampunk meets Vampire Diaries meets Fast and Furious meets Cthulhu. It's Stephanie Meyers meets R.R. Martin meets Nicholas Spark's second cousin."


"Two thousand words," another author blurts out. She's hiding behind a lawn ornament. Apparently shouting out how many words she has just finished in a day is her form of self-affirmation.

The other writer is still staring at me. He has his tablet out and has clicked on a jpeg of the cover of the third part of his tetrology. It's a photograph of the writer wearing "Spock" ears and standing beside an abandoned car with a super-soaker in his hands. Very "apocalyptic."

"When you read it, the grammar is authentic," he says.


"Oh yeah. I mean, it's not anal. I don't let the grammar get in the way of the storytelling."

"At least you know yourself."

"The other books didn't sell real well," he said. "But this time I'm going to market the heck out of it. Hit the social networks, hang out at conventions. Writing is about staking a claim, you know, and holding onto it. It's about being true to yourself. People want to read something they can relate to, something they might have written themselves."

"Good thing you wrote it first," I say.

"Witches are going to be hot this fall," he shares. His tone is conspiratorial.

He shuts down his tablet and answers the siren call of Attention Deficit Disorder. The woman behind the lawn ornament takes off as well, pausing as she passes me, and whispers, "I'm still writing about werewolves. Gray ones."

"Keep on writin'," I offer.

She does a little heron dance and takes off.