The (Name’s) the Thing (Or, What Should I Call It?)

Has it ever happened to you?  An idea hits you, seemingly out of the blue, as the best ideas always do–unasked for, unplanned.



You feel excited, energized, eager to get started.  You don’t have your story all figured out yet, but you don’t care.  Who needs an outline?  You have a situation.  You have a set of characters.  Most important of all, you have a need to get this boiling, rushing volcanic river of creativity down on paper (or on the computer screen, as the case may be).  You feel you’ll explode if you keep it locked away inside of you.



You have a story to tell.  And you want to share it with the world.

There are few things more exhilarating than this in the life of a writer.  One moment, there is nothing, but then, in the next . . .

Maybe you’re between projects.  Maybe you’ve been in a slump.  Or maybe you’ve been on a roll, your creative powers at an all-time high.  It doesn’t matter either way, because when this new idea strikes, you feel as though you could spread your arms, catch an updraft, and soar for miles.



You begin the story, the keyboard humming along, the words pouring out of you so fast, your fingers are having trouble keeping up.  But at some point, perhaps a paragraph in, perhaps thousands of words in, it hits you.

You don’t have a title.  You are writing a story “Untitled.”



What to do?


When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, it wasn’t called The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t called anything.  It seemed as if I had the necessary ingredients in place to come up with an attention-grabbing title.  I had ghost girls and nightmares and endless blue voids, and worlds upon worlds, without end.  Why was the title so difficult to get right?



I tried a few.  Pathways through Infinity.  Ugh.  Journey without End.  Double ugh!  Not to mention misleading.  There is, in fact, an end.  Through Time and Space.  Putrid!  It sounded like a B movie from the 1950s.  So I did the only thing I could.  I forgot about what to call the novel, and continued to write it.



It wasn’t really a surprise that a title didn’t stick initially.  They rarely do for me.  Even with short stories, I often do not think of a title until after the story is written.  But with The Eye-Dancers, it grated on me.  A short story, after all, can be completed in a day or two.  It doesn’t compare with the months-long marathon of writing a novel.  And as I reached 30,000 words in my ever-growing manuscript, and then 40,000, and then 50,000 . . . I started to become concerned.  What if I never thought of a title?  How could I publish a book with no name?



I tried force-feeding a few more would-be titles, but these were even worse than the first batch.  (Hard to believe, but true.)  So I plugged away and kept writing, and then . . . when I came to the final segment of the novel, Mitchell Brant, that weaver of tales and stories himself, helped me to solve the puzzle.

Earlier in the novel, when the boys are first transported through the void, via the swirling, hypnotic blue eyes of the “ghost girl,” Mitchell has the sense that they are dancing, or, more specifically, “eye-dancing.”  At the time, I never really considered that the makings of a book title were contained in those words.  (When you are tone deaf with titles, as I sometimes am, these things can take time!)



Thankfully, Mitchell bailed me out.  In the epilogue, Mitchell again uses the term “eye-dancing” to describe the dimension-busting adventure he and his friends have experienced.  This time, the lightbulb went off!  I had it.

The Eye-Dancers.

It was perfect.  It fit the story.  It had a catchy, mysterious sound to it–it was evocative . . . I liked it.



It just took a long time coming.


The more I think about it, the more I believe a title should come late in the game.

Writing a novel is like wandering through a maze, with lush, leafy ivy growing from the walls, ten feet high.  Just when you think you know the direction the story will travel, it does a sudden U-turn, then fakes right and goes left, taking you, the author, along for the wild, unpredictable ride.  This is why I don’t use chapter-by-chapter outlines.  I know the flux and flow of the narrative will change as I dive in.  The original conception will become a relic, a barnacle-covered shipwreck lying 3,000 fathoms beneath the sea.



Why, then, worry about a title at the beginning?  If you have a title, and you’re sure it will work, great.  That’s one less thing to concern yourself with.  But if you’re not sure, or completely in the dark, rest assured that your characters, your story, will ultimately provide the answer.

Some of my favorite novel titles include:  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sound and the Fury, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Grapes of Wrath.



Each one creates an instant mood and paints a word-picture and metaphor all its own.  Concerning the first three, I am unaware of how or at what point during the writing process they came to be (though I would be surprised if they materialized early on).  As for John Steinbeck, he struggled mightily to come up with a suitable title for his book, and only arrived at The Grapes of Wrath after his wife suggested it.




I am currently working on a sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  What will I call it?  At the moment, I haven’t a clue.  I’ll leave that to the roller-coaster ride of the story itself, with its ebbs and flows and sudden, unexpected turnabouts.  And its characters.

They will provide a title for me at some point.

I’m counting on it.



Thanks so much for reading!


No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?



When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.



Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.



Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.



However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.



However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.



And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 



But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.



The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.



Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.



He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.






“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.



“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.



“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”



The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.



She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”



Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.




Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.



But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.



If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.


Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.



You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.



Thanks so much for reading!


Precious Jewels Hidden in Tattered Pages

I remember it well.  It was one of those lazy midsummer days in western New York State, the air thick with humidity, the droning, mechanical call of the cicadas giving voice to the trees.



My parents were entertaining an old family friend, who lived out of state.  He hadn’t visited in several years, and now, upon his arrival, I wanted to impress him–with my growing comic book collection.  I was seventeen years old, a month away from my senior year in high school, and I was eager to show this well-traveled gentleman, who lived in a fancy home out West, that I was no slouch myself.



He slapped me on the back, told me he remembered me as a little kid with a bowl-shaped haircut, four feet tall–where had that kid gone?  I told him I collected old comic books, had been for years now.  Would he care to see the cream of my collection?



“Comic books?” he said.  “They’re worth something, eh?”

Were they ever!  I showed him the latest edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, published annually each April with updated market values for every American comic book that has ever graced the newsstand.  And I pointed out some of the issues I owned, purchased months or years ago, but which, over time, had appreciated, their price tag growing like green plants in a well-tended garden.



“Kind of like buying blue chip stock, I see,” he said, as I showed him my most prized issues, vintage copies of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, along with select issues of Superman, Batman, and other heroes from yesteryear.





After a few minutes, I could no longer resist.



“You know what these are all worth, put together?”

He didn’t hesitate.  “Absolutely.  They’re worth whatever someone will pay you for them.”

I exhaled, feeling like a pin-pricked balloon, all my pride and anticipation and excitement bleeding out of me, drip by drip.  Whatever someone will pay for them?  But . . . what if I didn’t want to sell them?  Did that negate their worth altogether?  And besides, I didn’t like viewing my comic books as commodities in such a bald, in-your-face manner.  Sure, I bought the Overstreet Guide every spring when it came out.  And sure again, I enjoyed seeing issues I already owned rising in value.  But that wasn’t why I owned them, or why I’d bought them.

Was it?




In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares my love of old comics, particularly The Fantastic Four.  They hold for him, as they always have for me, an undeniable magic.  And yet, he, too, feels the need to put a monetary value on them–and a fictional one at that.  As he is prone to do, Mitchell exaggerates their worth, claiming, to anyone who will listen, that his collection would go for thirty thousand dollars if he wanted to sell it.  He knows this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, but he just can’t seem to help himself.



I would like to believe, however, that when he is alone, thinking about it in more depth, he will realize he is not only lying to his friends.

He’s also lying to himself–for reasons that go far beyond the actual market value of his collection.


When the out-of-state family friend left the next day, returning to the house he had built, the life he had fashioned, I still felt bad.  And I felt worse when I checked the values of my best issues yet again in the price guide.  What was I doing?  Had my perspective really shifted so far from center?  I needed a new outlook, or, to be more accurate, an old outlook–the same one I once had, when I was nine years old buying my first comics off the drug-store  rack that squeaked when I spun it, round and round, watching the covers flash before my eyes like action scenes from the greatest movie I ever saw.  I needed something to remind me why I had started collecting old comic books in the first place.



So I sat down on my bedroom floor, cross-legged, and pulled out my priciest issues–not as a collector, or an investor, or even a hobbyist.  But as a reader.  As a lover of the ride they took me on.  As a seventeen-year-old, standing on the rocky, high precipice of academic choices, college majors, and career decisions but wanting, desperately, to cling to an aspect of my childhood that seemed to be receding, day by day, further into the shadowlands of an irretrievable past.



I read issue after issue that day, copies printed years before I was born, stories that transported me to other worlds, distant galaxies, negatively charged universes, where the very atoms of matter itself were in complete opposition to our own.  I read about super villains who wanted to rule the world and who spouted off the corniest dialogue I had ever heard, and yet I loved every word.  I read about characters I had grown up with, who I knew so well it seemed they were real, and might at any moment jump out of the illustrated panels and join me in my room.



And when I put those comics away, I felt better than I had in days . . .

I won’t lie.  I still purchased the Overstreet Price Guide in subsequent springs, still checked the market value of my comics from year to year.  But I also read through the entire Price Guide, enjoying the pictures of countless old comic book covers and reading the informative articles on the hobby.  It was now a supplement, a part of a whole.  It no longer defined the whole.

Because the truth of the matter was, those old comic books, many with brittle covers and spine rolls, water stains and clipped-out advertisements, housed jewels of the rarest sort within their tattered and yellowed pages.



Later that same summer, talking with a friend of mine, my comic book collection came up.

Inevitably, perhaps, the question arose:  “So, what’s your collection worth?”

I looked at him, smiled.

“Priceless,” I said.



Thanks so much for reading!


The Colors of the Writing Rainbow

As time pushes on, as the months and years pass by and life navigates its twists and turns, the things we learned in school sometimes blur into the trees and promontories of the background.



We might remember our first date, our best friend from school, we may recall, painfully, feelings of rejection and loneliness, moments of ridicule.

But how many in-class lessons do we remember?  Can we remember anything pertinent our 8th-grade algebra teacher taught us?  (Well, surely, Marc Kuslanski can!)  How about 10th-grade history or chemistry?  Sadly, so much is lost, often irretrievably so.  But some lessons endure.  Some remain vibrant and alive, decades later.



For me, one such lesson occurred one sunny spring day in English class when I was a freshman in high school.  The teacher, a large, balding man with a soft voice, was a writer at heart, and sometimes, seemingly at random, he would provide the class with tips for the craft.  Some of the students would roll their eyes, yawn, check their wristwatches.  But I was riveted.  Even back then, I knew I wanted to be a writer.  So I watched as he scrawled his ideas on the blackboard, and I listened . . .



That particular early May morning, one of the first hot days after the grueling, gray upstate New York winter, at the start of class, he had written the following on the blackboard . . .








“Can anyone tell me what those letters stand for?” he asked?

Several students looked away–at their sneakers, their desks, their textbooks, the wall–anywhere but at the teacher.  But one girl raised her hand, eager to provide the answer.

“They’re the colors of the rainbow,” she said.  “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and . . .”  she paused for effect  . . . “violet.”



The teacher nodded, but then explained that, today, they stood for something else.

“Let’s call them the colors of the writing rainbow,” he said.  “Each letter stands for some quality you should always bring to your writing, be it essay assignments, newspaper articles, poems, or the great American novel.”



He turned to the blackboard, and began to write.   Many of the students in class that day did not take notes on what followed.  It wasn’t something we’d be tested on, after all.  It was just an ancillary lesson, a teacher’s effort to venture outside the box of the curriculum and share with us something he loved, something he felt deeply about.

I did take notes, however, jotting them down in my spiral notebook.  Even today, they serve as a reminder, a guide of sorts, and they were very much with me when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, like lingering echoes from an old friend.



What follows, in a nutshell, is what my 9th-grade English teacher taught that day.


R is for “Read.”  Any writer serious about his or her craft, first and foremost, needs to read.  A lot.  Read what you like and read a few things you don’t like.  Learn what works and what doesn’t.  Absorb like a sponge.



O is for “Open-mindedness.”  When someone criticizes your work, listen, carefully, to what they are saying.  Do not close your mind or your ears.  Weigh the critique, objectively, examining its merit.  Do not become defensive.  If you agree with the criticism, even in part, then keep it in mind for future writing projects.  If you genuinely disagree with it, factually disagree with it–then brush it off and move forward.



Y is for “Young.”  “Even I can remember what it was like to be eight years old,” he said, smiling.  “So surely you can, too.”  Approach each writing project with fresh eyes and a child-like enthusiasm.  Be excited.  Be passionate.  Don’t be jaded.  Rekindle that sense of wonder you once had.  Remember the first time you wrote something you loved?  Try to approach each new creative project with the same spirit.



G is for “Give.”  Give of yourself, generously, completely–be willing to bleed, to open your heart and spill its contents onto the page.  Be honest with your readers always.



B is for “Basics.”  They are not the most exciting aspects of the writing trade, but the fundamentals are crucial.  Sweat the small stuff.  Revise, revise, and revise some more.  And learn the nuts and bolts of the language, the rules of grammar and usage.  Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “That’s what my teacher is for,” or, “That’s what my editor is for.”  You are your own editor.



I is for “Indefatigable.”  Be tireless, be persistent, never give up.  If you send out a hundred stories for publication and receive a hundred rejection slips back, send out the one hundred and first.  Persistence is as important in writing, and pursuing your goals, as talent, perhaps more so.  Do not allow yourself to quit.  Hold on tight to your dreams, and keep reaching for the stars.



V is for “Vistas.”  Explore new areas of interest, read and write in new genres.  Swim far out, where you can no longer glimpse the land, and dive down deep into the creative waters.  Try not to allow yourself to be pigeonholed as a writer.  You are not exclusively a “poet” or an “essayist” or a weaver of “fairy tales.” You are not a “suspense” writer or a “romance” writer or a “young adult” writer.    You are a writer.




When he was finished with this impromptu lecture, he simply segued into that day’s regular lesson.  I can’t remember what it was.

But I’ll never forget the Colors of the Writing Rainbow.



Thanks so much for reading!


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