The Inner/Outer Writing Paradox (Or, From an Old Oak Desk in New England)

Where is your special place, the place where you block out the clutter and noise and distractions, and let your creative energy flow?

Mine is an old oak desk that my father used to use when he was a student in school, decades ago.  It’s solid, heavy, and not designed for the accoutrements of 21st-century digital technology.  But it’s my little oasis to think and dream and create.

oasis

 

My father actually passed the desk on to me while I was still living with my parents, a high school student with my eyes peeled toward the future, the promise of ten thousand tomorrows, of horizons to be explored and aspirations realized.  We are old friends, my desk and I.  The oak is scarred in spots, dented in others, victim to the long passage of time and the elements.  But the imperfections merely serve to make it more approachable, more real, more mine.

imperfections

 

I’ve spent countless hours sitting at the old desk, pecking away at my keyboard, working through stories and ideas and inspirations–some of which took shape and became full-bodied manuscripts and novels; others that died a quiet, gray death, falling into the oblivion of the unfinished and uncompleted.

tossedoutmanuscripts

 

Through it all, one thing has remained constant–the desk, my sturdy oak friend, has always offered solitude and seclusion–it’s just me, tucked away in my den.  There are times, at night, the drapes drawn, the house dark and still, as if surrounded by a giant, soundproof glove, when I feel like the only person, the only creature, on earth.

aloneatnight

 

Writing is a lonely task–sometimes, it seems, the loneliest of all, especially when the words won’t come, the characters won’t cooperate, the sentences and paragraphs refuse to flow into anything resembling a coherent whole.

writersblockcharacterswontcooperate

 

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a paradox at work here.  From the solitude, a reaching out; from the stillness, a sharing of words and thoughts and ideas–sending them out, perhaps with confidence, perhaps with trepidation, to be read and contemplated and critiqued by others.  What was originally crafted in the quiet of a bedroom, the seclusion of a Thoreau-like woodland getaway, is now dispersed, as if by magic, away from the confines and isolation of self and out toward the vastness of an ocean of readers.

writersgetawayinwoods

 

And yet still, there is a paradox within the paradox. I, like many writers, am a lifelong introvert.  I recharge my batteries when I’m alone, lost in thought and wonder.  I suppose I’ve become a bit more skilled at social gatherings through the years (though perhaps my friends may disagree!), but mingling among partygoers or making small talk in a group setting has never, and will never, come naturally to me.  Much like Mitchell Brant or Marc Kuslanski, I tend to feel awkward and clumsy in such situations.  When I observe my extrovert friends or family members, the effortless way they break into, or begin, conversations, I cannot help but admire them for their skills and panache.  They make something I struggle with look easy.

partysocial

 

But the funny thing is–the majority of them would likely never dare to share the intense, personal accounts we writers do on a regular basis–often, to people we don’t even know.  A paradox, indeed, that an introverted writer feels the desire, the longing, the need, to become naked and vulnerable, sharing his feelings, fears, dreams, memories, foibles, passions, ideas, loves with anyone who chooses to read them.

passionsanddreams

 

It’s as if the solitary act of writing needs to shed its literary cocoon and fly out the window, looking for places to land.  There is value, of course, even in writing just for yourself.  Diaries and journals through the ages lend proof to this truth.  But within every writer’s heart, isn’t there a calling, as if a voice were whispering, to share the depth and breadth of her essence?  The ideas, expressed as words on a page, are disconnected from the whole, separate from the world, so long as they reside only in our computer hard drive or in a dusty corner of our dresser drawer.

writingflyingoutwindow

 

And the world, as it were, may contain only a handful of readers–perhaps family members and a few close friends–or it may include everyone, the reach as limitless as our imaginations.  The power of the Internet certainly offers such reach.  We write a blog post in New England, or Berlin, or San Francisco, or Prague, and we, through the simplest of clicks, instantly share it across the globe.  And we, more than likely, wish for our words to be read, and, hopefully, appreciated and digested and thought about, by as many people as possible.

earth

 

Perhaps writers, then, are, in actuality, closet extroverts?  Or, maybe more accurately, writers are people, and feel the same longing all people share–to be recognized, to be understood, to be heard.  We just go about it in our own way.

We try, “in utter loneliness,” as John Steinbeck once said, to “explain the inexplicable.”

steinbeck

 

So the next time you tuck yourself away in your room or your office or your secluded writer’s cabin in the wild, and you feel a pang of guilt that you’re not spending that time with your family or your friends (a feeling I’ve certainly experienced on numerous occasions), perhaps you can offer them (and yourself) a reminder.

cabininwoodsend

 

Tell them that you have something inside of you, insisting, unceasing, that must come out, something so personal, so inherently you, that no one else on earth can produce it.  And that it’s a wistful thing, ungraspable, really, like a phantom flower that materializes out of thin air, but when reached for, vanishes like mist.  All we can do, while sequestered in our little writing corner, the door shut, the phone off, is try to capture that feeling, that idea, that insistence within us and express it to the best of our abilities.

writersroom

 

And then, when we step back out into the light of day, share it with the world.

sunrisesharingveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Step-by-Step Journey–Or, Words of Wisdom from a Fictional Minor-League Catcher

In the 1988 romantic comedy Bull Durham, there is one sequence when veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis pulls aside the young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh to offer words of advice.  Davis knows talent when he sees it, and he knows that LaLoosh is headed, ultimately, for the Major Leagues.  Though raw, and with much to learn, the young pitcher has a golden arm, blessed with a rocket-like fastball and an off-the-table curve.  He has future superstar written all over him.

aloosh

 

But he’s arrogant, hot-tempered, immature, and, Davis is sure, not at all prepared to handle the fishbowl lifestyle of the Major Leagues.  And so on a road trip, as their minor-league team, the Durham Bulls, gears up for a new opponent, Davis instructs LaLoosh on the fine art of the interview.

crashdavis

 

“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” he says.  “You’re gonna have to study them.  You’re gonna have to know them.  They’re your friends.  Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.'”

As LaLoosh does indeed write this down, he says, “‘Got to play’ . . . it’s pretty boring.”

Davis is quick to respond:  “‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point.  Write it down.”

durhaminterview

 

He provides two other canned responses to interview questions, as well, both as cliched and dull as the first.  Indeed–how many times have we heard this oft-repeated phrase:  “One day at a time; one game at a time . . .”

“So, are you looking forward to playing the Yankees next month?”

“Next month?  Next month?  This is this month!  We’re not even thinking of the Yankees.  Who are they?  We gotta take this one game at a time.  If we start looking ahead to next month, the series against the Yankees won’t even matter because we’ll have lost the next few anyway.”

onegameatatime

 

It’s frustrating for the interviewer and the audience alike.  We listen to this, and think, “Can’t they ever be honest?  Of course they look ahead.  They have to.  Anybody would.”

tellingtruthmakebelieve

 

But maybe, just maybe, it’s not always just a tired cliche.  Maybe sometimes, they’re actually telling the truth.

**********************

Have you ever been there?  You’re writing a novel, or a memoir, or any long work of literature, and you know that just down the road, perhaps as near as the next chapter, a major development beckons.  The protagonist will face a monumental challenge, a huge shift in the plot will occur, perhaps someone instrumental to the story will die.  Regardless of the specifics, it is a crucial development, one of the most important sequences of the entire work.

majordevelopmentcrossroads

 

But it’s not the chapter you’re working on . . .

Speaking of, the chapter you are working on is relatively minor.  There are no groundbreaking events, no epiphanies or “aha” moments, no twists and turns that will create a sea change for the rest of the story.  It’s a quiet chapter, understated, a small hors d’oeuvre before the meal is served, an undercard to kick off an evening where everyone in the audience is breathlessly awaiting the main event.

horsdeouevres

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers,  there were certainly moments just like this.  There is a short chapter where Ryan Swinton walks off from the group, needing some space to think and reflect.  Later on, toward the climax of the novel, Marc Kuslanski has a similar conversation with himself, exploring the troubling reality of paradoxes, that not everything can be rationally and neatly explained.

paradox

 

It’s precisely at such times as these that Crash Davis’s advice to his young teammate most applies.  Because–if we rush through the little scenes, the reflective and subdued chapters, if we slap them together without much effort out of sheer impatience to move forward, it won’t even matter what that earth-shattering revelation will be in chapter 29, or how our protagonist will manage to survive the dangers at book’s end.  Regardless of how mesmerizing the big scenes are, they are built, in large part, by the “small” chapters and interludes that precede them.

quietmoments

 

I have found that, when writing a novel, the task sometimes seems so large, so daunting–often literally taking years to complete–that it’s dangerous thinking too far ahead.  Granted, there needs to be some sense of direction.  I know, for me, I like to have an idea where I’m going before I begin the first chapter, and at times, during the course of writing the story, if an idea strikes me for a scene several chapters off, I’ll jot it down to make sure I don’t forget it.

ideawritedowndontforget

 

But if I start worrying too much about scenes as yet unwritten, developments around the bend, as it were, if I spend too much time stressing about specifics five or ten chapters hence, then I am in real trouble.  Suddenly the scenes I am working on become harder to write, and I find it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.  I may even get bogged down with doubts, wondering if the novel as a whole will be worthwhile or just some disastrous literary flop.

selfdoubt

 

Indeed, if I am about to begin chapter 17, as I am in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, even as I write this post, I need to focus exclusively on chapter 17.  Not chapter 18, or chapter 19, or chapter 26.  Even more specific than that, I need to focus on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph.  For, when it’s all said and done (a fitting description in a post talking about an old cliche!), a story is indeed built one word at a time, one chapter at a time.

The Yankees next month?  They can wait.

yankees

 

Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Exploring Different Points of View (Or, Riding Along with an April Witch)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, I used to like to pretend.  I pretended I was an explorer, navigating the river basins and leafy pathways of tropical rain forests.  I pretended I was an astronaut, drifting through the black depths of space, my rocket ship on auto-cruise as I sat back, sipped hot chocolate from a Styrofoam cup, and read back issues of The Fantastic Four (remember, I was ten years old when I was visualizing all this!)  I pretended I was surveying the uncharted regions of the ocean floor in a deep-sea submarine, discovering new species of aquatic flora and fauna.

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But most of all, I play-acted.  I would invent games, scenarios, sporting events where players–actual and imaginary–squared off in a battle for the ages.  Sometimes I’d be by myself in the basement or backyard, offering a complete play-by-play of the action.  I’d “play” nine innings of baseball, running through the lineups, making managerial decisions and switching pitchers when the situation dictated, impersonating every batter on both teams.  Sometimes I’d recruit my friends–the same ones who served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers–and together we’d shoot baskets or throw around the football, each of us in our world of make-believe and magic.

magic

 

As I grew older, went to high school and then college, little changed in this regard.  I’d still pretend as often as I could.  I would tell people that I never grew bored.  How could I when I was always a mere thought away from a home run in Yankee Stadium or a forehand winner up the line at Wimbledon, or a lively give-and-take in an embassy in Paris or Tokyo or Prague?  Sure, much of the time, my focus was on the here and now–homework, family matters, friends, career paths.  But when I had a moment, when I could break away from the grind, those were the times I let my mind roam and wander where it willed . . .

pathswanderingwherewill

 

*****************

In a short story from 1952 titled “The April Witch,” Ray Bradbury writes about a seventeen-year-old girl named Cecy who possesses the extraordinary ability of entering into other beings and experiencing the world through their eyes, their senses.

aprilwitch

 

The opening paragraph of “The April Witch” makes this crystal clear:

“Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy.  Invisible as new spring winds, fresh as the breath of clover rising from twilight fields, she flew.  She soared in doves as soft as white ermine, stopped in trees and lived in blossoms, showering away in petals when the breeze blew.  She perched in a lime-green frog, cool as mint by a shining pool.  She trotted in a brambly dog and barked to hear echoes from the sides of distant barns.  She lived in new April grasses, in sweet clear liquids rising from the musky earth.”

greenfrog

 

But more than anything, Cecy wants to experience love, feel love, something her parents have warned her about.  “Remember,” they say.  “You’re remarkable.  Our whole family is odd and remarkable.  We can’t mix or marry with ordinary folk.  We’d lose our magical powers if we did.”

losemagicpowers

 

So, unable to pursue a real relationship in her own form, Cecy inhabits the person of a young woman named Ann Leary, who she then coaxes, through her supernatural abilities, to attend a dance.  In this way, vicariously, Cecy experiences her first kiss, her first date, her first, soft taste of romance.

***************

Cecy’s story hits home for me on a number of levels.  First, of course, she is able to do, quite literally, what I could only pretend to do as a boy growing up with an overactive imagination.  In her case, she wouldn’t need to wonder what it would be like to serve an ace at Wimbledon.  She could inhabit the body of the player who produces the shot, feeling it for herself.  My initial reaction to this might be envy–what a gift that would be.  If we possessed such a power, we could experience anything we wanted, any notion that took root, any desire that compelled us to dream and imagine and aspire to something that, otherwise, would be perpetually and irrevocably out of reach.

couldhavedreamandimagineanything

 

But then I consider it again.

We do have such an ability.  We can experience whatever we want.  We can drive a race car at 200 miles per hour.  We can climb Everest.  We can journey through the eyes of a mysterious “ghost girl” and come out on the other side, in a parallel universe.

everest

eyedancers

 

We can dance across the canvas of the sky, using the stars themselves as our springboards.

stars

 

Anytime we write a story, anytime we read a story, we are seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, living as vicariously through them as Cecy herself does as she enters the bodies of frogs and crickets, flower blossoms, or young women out for a night on the town.  The possibilities are endless, limited only by the scope of our imagination and the roads we choose either to walk along or bypass.

flowerblossoms

 

With The Eye-Dancers, for example, I was able to inhabit the consciousness, the points of view, of four distinct and different characters.  In short stories I have written, I’ve seen the world through the eyes of a small-town shop owner dealing with a declining profit margin and an odd customer who won’t leave him alone; a man haunted by a recurring dream of falling to his death from a high-rise; a clown in a traveling circus who discovers something horrific in one of the towns his troupe stops in; a husband coming to terms with the accident that has crippled his wife; a thirteen-year-old experiencing the moment when he knows, unequivocally, that he is no longer a child; a patron at a Chinese restaurant who reads a haunting, ominous message in his fortune cookie and then must struggle to overcome a long-held fear.

fortunecookie

 

Sometimes, as a writer of stories, as a creator of characters, I feel like a patient with multiple personality disorder engaged in a form of therapy, as effective as it is magical.  It’s no different, really, from my flights of fancy in years gone by–it is no more, and no less, than the written manifestation of them.

We all write, read, watch, partake.  We all dream, imagine, and long for something better, something more.  We are all, each in our own way, riding high, aloft on the currents of the wind alongside Ray Bradbury’s April Witch.

ridingthewind

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Protons, Neutrons, and Shrodinger’s Cat

How much is enough?  And how much is too much?  These are questions every writer must wrestle with at some point or another.

Let’s say an idea strikes.  It hits you, unannounced, perhaps as you’re walking the dog or lying half-asleep in bed, the sounds and silences of the night enveloping you like a warm, familiar blanket.  Maybe you’re out jogging or playing a tennis match.  Ideas are funny that way.  They often come at the oddest, most unexpected of times.

ideastikes

 

But this particular idea, this hypothetical kernel of excitement, also carries with it a hefty helping of intimidation.  Not so much due to the story itself, or the characters–they’re the aspects that are so exciting, after all.  No.  It’s the research.  The subject matter.  The amount of know-how that must be present to write about the topic intelligently.

research

 

“Write what you know,” is a maxim every writer is familiar with, and to a degree, it’s true.  We can only create from our point of view, from our own unique and perhaps even idiosyncratic vantage point of the world and the people who inhabit it.  But does that mean we can’t write about the past?  Bygone eras?  Or what about the future?

writewhatyouknow

 

What about “ghost girls” with swirling blue eyes who are able to pull four seventh-grade boys into a parallel dimension?

wirlingblue

 

Are these ideas somehow off-limits to us?  Of course not.  This is why the “write-what-you-know” edict can be constraining if applied too literally.  There is nowhere our imagination cannot take us.  No star is too far away.  No date too distant.  No world too remote.

distantstars

 

But what about the details of said world?  What about the nuts and bolts of the journey to that star?  How much actual history do we incorporate into our period-piece novel?  How much science do we put into our science fiction?

Admittedly, genre does play a part.  After all, it’s possible the plot of a historical novel will revolve around an actual event–perhaps the sinking of the Titanic or the First World War, or any of a number of a million other possibilities.  In such a case as this, the historical details are crucial to the flow and outcome of the story.

titanic

 

Even in the realm of science fiction, there are no hard-and-fast rules.  Some stories, by their design, their makeup, subject matter, and perhaps even intended audience, will be more technical in nature.  Whether we are dealing with a period-piece romance set in 19th-century France or a futuristic, galaxies-spanning epic, however, no fictional story can afford to get too bogged down in the minutiae of the subject matter.  A novel is not a textbook.

textbooks

 

But how much is too much?  Do we really need to do copious amounts of research?  Does an author need to be a subject-matter expert to be able to write adroitly about a particular topic?

Or can you get away with simply winging it?

As with so many things, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

**************

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I realized early on that I had a challenge on my hands.  While there is a significant fantasy aspect to the story, I also intended to incorporate an element of pure science fiction, as well.  I didn’t want every otherworldly twist and turn to be nothing more than a product of the imagination.  After all, parallel-worlds theory is not merely relegated to the fictional.  There were some fundamental quantum-mechanics principles at play here.  The question was:  How to incorporate them into the fabric of the story?  And did I even know enough about quantum physics to attempt this?  I had always enjoyed a fascination with alternate universes, and had long dabbled in scientific literature.  I knew my protons from my neutrons and electrons!  But I was far from an expert.

protonneutron

 

So . . . I decided to read up on quantum physics.  I researched online and read a few books, making sure I at least had some understanding of the basics.  I learned much more on the topic than I would use in the novel–but that was by design.  I was more comfortable trying to pick and choose selectively from a base of knowledge as opposed to blindly groping for random, low-hanging quantum fruit.

lowhangingfruit

 

But I knew the quantum-physics aspect of The Eye-Dancers needed to be judiciously utilized.  The goal was to sprinkle it in and scatter it throughout the story like finely dispersed particles of stardust.  At no point did I want a reader to feel bogged down.  Rather, with hope, the quantum principles would enhance the story, make it more interesting, and attempt to give a (at least somewhat feasible) scientific rationale to a fantastic series of events.

stardust

 

One advantage I had was the character of Marc Kuslanski, the precocious science wiz.  Throughout the novel, it is Marc who gives voice to the quantum-physics possibilities.

For example, shortly after the boys arrive in the variant town of Colbyville, Marc, after a brief reference to Shrodinger’s Cat,  a quantum-mechanics thought paradox, explains the concept of parallel worlds . . .

“‘Everything in existence fits together,’ he said.  ‘The smallest subatomic particle, the worst hurricane, the largest whale, the layers upon layers of reality.  All of it.  And what quantum mechanics tells us is–there are infinitely multiple versions of each of us.  Infinitely multiple versions of our own earth.  You couldn’t even begin to count them all.”‘

parallelworlds

 

His logic-oriented views of the universe may not always be right.  But they serve as a counterpoint to, as well as a conceptual explanation of, the paranormal events he and the other protagonists endure.  In this way, Marc discusses the rational behind the irrational, the theoretical behind the random, the science behind the fantastic.  Some of his hypotheses, rigid as they are, unwilling to account for those phenomena beyond the purview of science, may not always be true.  But hopefully they provide an additional layer, an interesting nugget, to the plot.

nuggets

 

************

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” British poet Alexander Pope once wrote.  And that may be the case, much of the time.  But for novelists, “a little learning” can be the difference between a believable story and one that doesn’t quite ring true.

Or, put another way:  There is always room for Erwin Schrodinger’s theoretical feline.

shrodingerscat

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

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Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

patterns

 

At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

wallaceinterview

 

“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

eyeofthebeholder

 

Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

herbertbrodkin

 

To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

serlingwallce1

 

***************

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

hardtounderstand

 

I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

artistic

 

But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

literaryroadmap

 

Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

parallelworlds

 

But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

************

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

themasks

 

The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

doingboth

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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?

flippages

 

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.

hitch

 

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.

scream

 

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.

toilet

 

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.

runningaway

 

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.

batesmotelatnight

 

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. 

stolenmoney

 

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.

mansion

 

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.

normanwiththefood

 

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.

stuffedbirds

 

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.

normancharming

 

 

normantaxidermy

 

“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.

eatslikebird

 

“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.

normanscowl

 

“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.”

sheneedsme

 

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

marionbecomingconcerned

 

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?”

normaninparlor

 

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.

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.

boyishsmile

 

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.

lurkingbeneath

 

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.

rollercoastersuspense

 

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.

insidebrain

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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.

windingpath

 

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.

lessonslearned

 

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 . . .

rochesterspring

 

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 . . .

R

O

Y

G

B

I

V

“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.”

roygbiv

 

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.”

greatamericannovel

 

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.

notebook

 

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.

read

 

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.

critique

 

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.

passion

 

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.

heart

 

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.

grammar

 

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.

tortoise

 

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.

vistas

 

*****************

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.

rainbow

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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