I’ve Been to a Magical Land, Full of Free Books for Every Man, Woman, and Child—They Call It a “Library”

When I was in Junior High/High School, the library was nothing more than the place that housed the encyclopedias and whatever else I might need to complete a research paper or other such project. I never appreciated the library for what it was—never saw its full potential. It didn’t help that the local branch, while a mere 2-3 minute drive from my house (also known as walking distance to the non-lazy), was old and run down, with a small selection of books. The library became less and less important as time went on, to the point that I thought they were all but obsolete.

After moving to the Midwest I never thought about the library once, until I started blogging. Among the blogs I started following was Eleventh Stack, run by the fine people at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (they don’t just blog about ‘library stuff’—it’s all things movies and music as well as books). Seeing one of their recent posts lit the light bulb over my head—Hey, yeah, libraries…remember those? I wonder if there are any still around. I looked up my local branch (which, while not walking distance is still very close) and decided to take a trip down to get my library card and have a look around.

I was less than impressed. It was much as I remembered the libraries I’d been to in the desert: small, old, and with a limited selection. After some thought, though,  I decided to try again. My reasoning being that while my local branch was small, I do live in the largest city in my state, and surely the main branch would have more to offer. I located the central branch and went to check it out.

Well now, this is better.

Well, now. This is better.

The building was impressively large from the outside and my hopes began to rise. I walked through the automatic doors into the atrium and my expectations were blown out of the water. The library is three stories in all, with a ground floor, upstairs, and basement level. I realize how silly this sounds, but I was kind of amazed by how vast the library was. Having only been in my small-town desert libraries years before and the local branch recently, this was incredible.

The bottom floor houses administrative offices and a Genealogy department, which I only poked my head in for a look around but did not actually enter. Another time. The top floor is dedicated to the arts and multimedia—CD’s, DVD’s, and books about art/artists, music/musicians, etc. I did a little more exploring here, and on my next trip I will definitely cover every square inch. This visit however, was dedicated (naturally) to fiction.

The landing between the ground floor and top floor.

Looking down from he landing between the ground floor and top floor.

To be honest, for as large as the library is I expected there to be more fiction, but seeing as how this is the biggest library I’ve ever been to maybe my expectations were unrealistic. There was still a very large amount, split between general fiction, mystery, fantasy/sci-fi, and western. Now that I think about it, I didn’t see a section for romance—do most libraries have a romance section? It would seem like they should. Anyway, I perused the shelves and found books by just about every author I could think of except for Chuck Wendig and Jack Ketchum, who I suppose are a little more under the radar. Aside from Stephen King, every author I did find had books I wasn’t familiar with, so I look forward to reading more obscure work from some of my favorites.

From the far wall, looking toward the top floor.

From the far wall, looking toward the top floor.

After some walking back and forth and careful deliberation, I picked a book from an author I knew and another I’d been wanting to read for quite a while. And you know what? As silly as it sounds, I like having a due date—it gives me a deadline. I know I can renew them or simply pay the minuscule late fees, but if I finish these two books by May 16th I’m going to feel like a freakin’ winner.

I’m leaving out the rest of the ground floor, with its technology center (computers with internet access), plus its massive non-fiction area and the references and periodicals, which I stuck my nose in briefly, and what I believe may be the area where you can get the most bang for your buck, audiobooks (seriously, why are audiobooks so expensive?). They had a fair selection, but I didn’t spend much time looking as most of my audio listening is digital nowadays other than in the car, and I’m not currently planning any cross-country road trips. Again, another time.

So tell me, do you guys take advantage of your local libraries? Leave me a comment and let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll be doing some reading—I’m on a deadline here.

EDIT: I’ve come to find out that I’m publishing this post two days after the end of National Library Week, so as usual my timing is impeccable. As a tribute to libraries in general, here’s a picture of the Kansas City Public Library, which has the coolest parking garage ever.

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The BOJ Quarterly Book Report: Spring Edition

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more. I set a goal for myself of at least 12 books this year; I thought that was attainable without stretching myself too thin. So far I’m right on pace with my book-a-month goal—in fact, I seem to be picking up a little steam as time goes on, maybe building my reading muscle back up(?), so I might even exceed it. Time will tell.

I toyed with the notion of writing reviews for each book on GoodReads as I read them, but so far I’ve yet to pull the trigger on that (and BTW, if any of you are on GoodReads feel free to look me up and send a friend request—I don’t do much except rate books as I finish them, but lord knows you can’t have too many friends on social media, right?). Then I thought about a recap of all the books I’ve read at the end of the year, but then I thought I wouldn’t even want to write anything that long, why would anyone want to read it? So I came up with a new plan, to do a few at a time; quarterly seemed to make the most sense, at least for the time being. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with this format, but for now I’m just going to go with it. The star ratings are what I gave them in GoodReads.

 

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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013)

I’d been wanting to read some of Hill’s work for a while, and when Amazon had a sale on the e-book I couldn’t resist.

Victoria “Vic” McQueen is a fairly normal little girl. Until, that is, she jumps on her trusty bicycle. With it, she has the ability to ride onto a rickety old bridge (that was actually demolished years earlier) and use it to transport her to different places, helping her “find” things—and people—that are lost.

Someone who shares a similar gift is Charlie Manx, a vampiric old man who gets powers from children. He abducts kids and takes them to “Christmasland,” a surreal land from which there is no escape for the now soulless children. Vic encounters Manx as a child and manages to escape his clutches, upon which he is locked away until he seemingly dies. But with a little help Manx is let loose upon the world with revenge on his mind, and his eyes set on Vic’s son.

Thoughts as a reader: A great, original idea that’s a little anti-climactic. Despite it’s length, there are leaps in time from Vic’s childhood to adulthood where a little more detail might have been nice. Still, a really good book.

Thoughts as a writer: I really liked Manx; he reminded me almost of a modern-day Freddy Krueger, in that he was terrifying but had a twisted sense of humor. He also had a very distinct way of speaking—I found it a little distracting at first, but it grew on me by the end. Most of the characters were well fleshed out, except for Vic’s son Wayne.

4 stars

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (2012)

If you’re a writer, you most likely already know of Chuck Wendig. If you’re not, you’ll probably know about him soon enough. Author of god knows how many books and the Picasso of profanity, Wendig’s website, terribleminds.com, is a wealth of knowledge no writer should do without. It was high time I read something other than his blog, and Blackbirds, being the first in a series, seemed the obvious choice.

Miriam Black has the unique ability to be able to see how and when you’re going to die. All she needs is the briefest of contact—a handshake, the brush of an elbow in passing, anything—and she can see how and when you’ll meet your demise. She uses said gift to get by in a less than scrupulous manner, when she meets a man who knows her secret and blackmails her into going deeper, trying to get more and more, and a trucker who, through one of her visions, she can see will die in thirty days, calling her name. She is drawn into a world of criminal heathens who don’t care if she lives or dies, and must rely on her wit to make it out alive and try to save her new trucker friend.

Thoughts as a reader: A short, fast-paced, and original story. It was a lot of fun to read and I have the sequel ready to go for the near future.

Thoughts as a writer: Wendig isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but he clearly knows of which he speaks on his website. His writing crackles with energy and the story is tight. There were some cut-away chapters of Miriam being interviewed that seemed almost like filler to get the story to novel length, but other than that, no complaints.

3 stars

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Bag of Bones by Stephen King (1999)

I didn’t realize until after I finished this book just how well-liked it is. With someone who puts out as many books as King does, he has quite a variety of fans: there are the ones who still think of him as a horror author and don’t like anything else; those who don’t like the horror but enjoy the more literary works; and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd that love his Dark Tower books. As I read reviews on GoodReads, it seemed that this is considered one of his best “literary” books. And while not horror, it is spooky and does have some truly horrific goings on.

Mike Noonan is a successful writer who lives in Maine (hmm…sounds familiar) when his wife dies suddenly of a brain aneurism. It takes Mike a long time to start picking up the pieces and try to move on with his life—he does so by deciding to spend the summer at the lake house he and his wife had as a vacation home in a small town. Once there, a chance encounter introduces Mike to Mattie Devore, a young widower, and her daughter Kyra. Mattie is fighting for custody of Kyra against her father-in-law, a mega-rich old man who rules the town and can buy pretty much anyone/anything he wants, and is used to getting his way.

Thoughts as a reader: I thought it was really slow off the mark, taking a good 60-70 pages before anything happened (besides the death of Mike’s wife, which happens right off the bat). Once Mike gets to the lake house it does pick up and get more interesting, and there are some neat developments. It’s a good book, and I can see why some people (who don’t care for his horror novels) might hail it as one of his best. I wouldn’t quite go that far, as I’m not one of his “horror only” fans, but I do like a bit more in the scare department. Some of the scares here, especially toward the end, seemed a little hokey to me.

Thoughts as a writer: Is this book ever the lesson of Chekov’s Gun—the idea that something introduced in a story must come into play later on. If memory serves correctly, there is literally nothing in the story that doesn’t mean something and help resolve things toward the conclusion. I really enjoyed/appreciated that aspect of the book.

And while those first 60 pages or so seemed slow story-wise, as a writer they were very interesting, as he detailed what life was like as a famous author—the pressures put on him by his agent and publisher; the marketing strategy as to when they would release his books; how that can all get derailed by another famous author releasing a book out of their normal schedule (damn you, Mary Higgins Clark!); and, perhaps most interestingly, how when he was on a hot streak he wrote book after book and stashed them away, so that when he was crippled by writer’s block after the death of his wife he was still able to produce books on schedule for four more years. I assume most of that is pretty much true, which just goes to show once you “make it” you still have plenty of pressure on you to perform.

3 stars

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Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard (1988)

One of the coolest things about having a pretty good sized library of books is that you can go through them and find books you either forgot you had or don’t even remember acquiring. The latter was what happened with Bag of Bones—I still have no idea where that book came from—and the former is what happened here. A few years ago my wife bought me about 8 or 10 Leonard paperbacks (always the good wife, love you honey!) and I thought I’d read them all until I moved some books around and saw there were two or three I’d forgotten about. Despite the horrendous-looking cover seen above, I picked this one.

The story starts with a bang, literally, as we meet Detective Chris Mankowski, who as the story begins is leaving the Firearms and Explosives division  for a job in Sex Crimes. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Robin, a former radical/activist in the sixties, and Skip, her old flame and partner in crime who took his talent for making things go boom and got a job in Hollywood as a stuntman and explosives coordinator. Robin convinces Skip that the time they spent in jail in the sixties was thanks to two brothers: Mark and Woody Ricks, who since the hippy days have inherited a boatload of money and are now filthy rich. Robin has a plan to get some payback (and payment) from the Ricks brothers and needs Skip’s help to see it through. As with most Elmore Leonard stories, things don’t go according to plan.

Thoughts as a reader: Classic Elmore Leonard. Aside from Greta Wyatt, the woman Chris meets when she comes into the Sex Crimes unit to file a report on Woody, every major character has an angle and is looking to score. Robin and Skip’s plan changes almost right away before starting to unravel completely, but it never feels contrived or forced. For these (mostly dimwitted) characters, everything that happens seems perfectly plausible. King will always be my favorite writer, but Mr. Leonard’s books give me a certain satisfaction when I finish them that not all of King’s books do.

Thoughts as a writer: Good god, where to start? The dialogue. The characters talk in a natural way, which I’ve realized is hard to pull off. It’s really difficult to have a character talk like a normal human being without it sounding forced or corny. He really is the master. Also, his advice to writers about leaving out the parts that readers would skip? This is a good example of that. It’s a pretty short book, but the story is tight—there’s no need for any more. One final note, I really have to give the man credit—I don’t know how many other writers could pull off having a character named Juicy Mouth.

4 stars

As you can probably tell, I’ve been staying well within my comfort zone as far as author and subject matter go. I’d like to expand my horizons, so to speak, but I’m not really sure which way to turn. So, as corny as this sounds, have you read any good books lately?

Stephen King’s A Bit of a Tweeker

I was doing some what I heard once called AFTK (away-from-the-keyboard) writing the other day—some of you may just call it ‘spacing out’—and as I thought about a particular story idea, I realized I needed a certain type of minor supporting character. As luck would have it, I had already created such a character for a different story that would fill the role nicely; the two stories were set in the same town, so it was perfectly plausible. I thought that was neat, having a little thread connecting two stories. Then I started thinking, and realized that I’ve either already done that or had planned on doing it in almost all my longer stories.

I know they were conscious decisions on some level, but it was never anything I really put a lot of thought into. It’s not just a little easter egg to myself (or my eventual readers, someday), there’s some actual benefit to it. Once you create a character you like (and manage not to kill them off), it makes it a little easier to put them into a story because you already know them. Their backstory, their attitude, the way they talk. It provides a depth that new characters may not possess until they’ve been developed a lot further.

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I’ve been thinking about Elmore Leonard a lot lately. I just started reading his book Freaky Deaky, and for the story I’m working on right now I’m trying to shoot for a Leonardian (did I just make up a word?) vibe and wanted some inspiration. Mister Leonard has also happens to have quite a few intertwining characters throughout his world of cops, crooks and cretins. It adds an interesting layer of depth to his stories if you happen to know the characters from other books.

Then there’s Stephen King.

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I’d heard once that a lot of King’s characters wove their way through his stories, so I decided to check it out for myself. It’s enough to make your head spin. I honestly don’t know if there’s a single novel of his that doesn’t cross over with another in some way. Not even just characters themselves but relatives of characters. King has created entire family trees in his universe, even going so far as writing himself into his heralded Dark Tower series (a fact I didn’t know until I started doing the research for this post—I really have to read that series).

If you have the time are awake and alert enough to try and follow it, click here to see how his characters, locations, and more intertwine in this insanely detailed flow chart.

Do any of you find yourselves going back to characters like they’re old friends you’re going to visit for a spell? Are there books or authors that bring in characters from other works that especially tickles your fancy?

The Bechdel Test: I Passed and I Didn’t Even Study

I recently became aware of a sort of litmus test for movies, which I feel also relates to writing and storytelling in general. It’s called The Bechdel Test, the origins of which go back to a comic created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. From the site Bechdeltest.com:

The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

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Sounds pretty simple, right?

Yet despite its simple construct many, many movies fail to meet the criteria. That piqued my interest, so I decided to take a look at my own work to see how I fare.

Of the four longer projects I’ve either completed or am working on (novels/novellas), two pass and two don’t. Is that good? Should I alter the ones that don’t meet the criteria?

I understand the point of the test—to put a spotlight on gender (in)equality in moviemaking. Which makes sense, since most big budget Hollywood movies are produced by a group of old, rich, white men, and the movies they put out are not always a true representation of the moviegoing public. The publishing industry is a different beast altogether, what with the multitude of indie and genre specific publishers in the business, but that doesn’t change what became my ultimate question: whether they pass the Bechdel Test or not, are my stories relatable?

Sometimes a story just can’t have every demographic present. The Pass the Remote blog just discussed the Bechdel Test, and presented a lot of examples of movies that do and don’t cut the mustard and for what reason. As I thought about it, I realized one of my wife’s favorite movies (and mine too), The Shawshank Redemption, fails miserably. I don’t think there’s a female in the whole movie, other than a few mentions of Andy Dufresne’s wife. That doesn’t take anything away from it of make it any less of a movie (or book, as I’m sure most of you know it’s based on the novella by Stephen King).

Still, while I wouldn’t go out of my way to alter my story simply to pass this unofficial test for gender bias, I do consciously think about gender and ethnicity when I’m dreaming up a story. There’s even a version of the Bechdel that changes the focus from women to people of color—unfortunately none of my work passes that test. I want to have characters from all walks of life, but I don’t want any of them to be caricatures or stereotypes, and I don’t want to throw in characters who are flat or one dimensional just to be able to claim diversity.

One of my current works in progress features several hispanic characters, for two reasons. 1) Necessity, since the first half of the story takes place in a small town in Mexico, and 2) I have been surrounded by Latinos and their culture my whole life and am comfortable creating Hispanic characters that are realistic and three dimensional (or at least as realistic and three dimensional as any of my other characters).

My newest work in progress has an African-American character in it, my first. I did originally conceive the character as a white guy, but all the other principle characters (who am I kidding, every other character in the book) were white, and it just seemed like that was A) boring, and B) unrealistic. So I made the change, and I’m glad I did. It brings a different dynamic to the four main characters (homicide detectives) and makes the story more interesting. What I realized as I began writing this post was that I made the change because I thought it would make the story better, not because it would diversify the make up of the characters.

Now I want to hear what you guys think. As a writer, a reader, a watcher of TV and movies—how much do you think about this stuff? Will you watch/read something even if it leans one way or the other in terms of it gender and ethnic make up? Would you consider adding more diverse characters to your own story for diversity’s sake or do you trust your instincts and let it fly as it is?

‘Unpacking the Suitcase’ and The Pain of Knowing What You Don’t Know

I want to start by wishing best of luck to all the writers out there crazy/brave enough to embark on the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, November is designated as National Novel Writing Month, and if you sign up for the challenge the goal is to write a complete draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) by the end of the month.

I don’t think I have the organizational skills to have a story so well thought out that I can crank out the words that fast; maybe next year (?). I’m with you all in spirit, though – I’m 26,000 words into my current rough draft, and the way I work I may need all month to finish that. So read my blog, then get back to churning out the 1700 words a day you need to hit that goal and win NaNo!

I’ve been re-reading some of the craft essays on Lit Reactor (which, again, I can’t recommend highly enough) for help and inspiration as I go, and there’s a phrase Chuck Palahniuk uses throughout his essays: he refers to ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ a term he came up with for identifying what writers need to do sometimes to slow down and be more descriptive. I have a really hard time doing that.

I sent out a tweet recently (follow me on twitter here!) saying that as I read over what I’d written I heard the voice of an annoying little kid in my head. Do you know the kind of kid I mean? The one who doesn’t know how to regulate the volume of their voice when they talk, and love telling lengthy stories as though it’s the world’s longest run-on sentence? Since my writing (at least in early drafts) tends to lack some of the details that makes a reader slow down and take in what they’re reading, it felt like I was rushing through it as I read it. When I go back on future drafts I need to slow down and ‘unpack the suitcase’ so the scene is a little easier to visualize. It’s good to leave a reader room for imagination, but you don’t want to leave it all up to them. Throw them a freakin’ bone, ya know?

A couple months ago I read The Long Walk by Stephen King (from way back in his Richard Bachman days). It’s one of his most well-liked by a lot of the die hard King fans out there, and if you’ve never read it I highly recommend it. It’s not flat out horror, but of course it’s very bleak and dark. As I read, I came upon a paragraph that stuck out to me so vividly that I went back and looked it up now months later just so I could quote it in this post. The book is set in New England during an unseasonably warm early May:

Birds sang in the high-crowned trees, the furtive breeze now and then masked the heat for a moment or two, sounding like a lost soul as it soughed through the trees. A brown squirrel froze on a high branch, tail bushed out, black eyes brutally attentive, a nut caught between his ratlike front paws. He chittered at them, then scurried away higher up and disappeared. A plane droned far away, like a giant fly.

When I came across those four sentences I stopped. I don’t think I’ve written that much detail in a single paragraph, well, ever. I’d like to think as I keep writing I keep getting better at ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ but I suppose time will tell. Which brings me to my next point.

I was thinking about how frustrating it is, knowing I’m not usually descriptive enough with what I’m writing, but at least I should take comfort in the fact that I know and don’t just keep doing it wrong without realizing it. That took me back to something I heard in high school, which I had to look up to refresh my memory, called the four stages of competence. They are (cribbed from Wikipedia):

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I suppose I’m in between 2 and 3. I know enough to recognize what I’m doing wrong, but for the most part I think I do know what I’m doing (if I do say so myself). I don’t know if many writers ever feel like they’re fully at number 4, aside from maybe King, Cormac McCarthy, people like that. I have a hard time believing I will ever reach number 4, but that’s okay – there are lots of 3’s out there who are doing just fine.

With that, I’m going to retreat back into my little writer’s dungeon, start mashing on the keyboard and see what appears on the screen. Once again, best of luck to the NaNoWriMo participants, may the word count gods be with you.

The Three Things That Shaped Me Into the Horror-Loving Weirdo I Am

Going back as far as I can remember (which is probably around the age of 8 or 10), I’ve always loved the dark side of things. The horrific. The violent. The macabre. By the time I was thirteen, I was renting slasher movies at the video store every weekend, reading the scariest books I could find, and watching any horror movie I came across on TV.

With October almost over and All Hallow’s Eve practically here, I realized I hadn’t written anything about Halloween or my love of all things frightful. I contemplated some sort of Top Horror Movies list, but to be honest, as much as I love horror there are tons of people out there who take it a lot more seriously than I do. People with encyclopedic knowledge of virtually every horror flick released since Noferatu – that sort of thing. I’m not going to insult a true horror fanatic’s intelligence by ranking horror movies when I haven’t even seen The Conjuring yet.

So I started thinking, and a question popped in my head: if I was watching and reading all this crazy stuff so young, when did it all begin? What turned me into such a little gore-obsessed freak by the seventh grade? I began to think back, and I realized if I really had to pinpoint the origins of my love for the sick and twisted it could be traced back to three things.

1. Pet Sematary – Stephen King (1983)

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It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely no one that one of my first forays into horror was via Mr. King. It wasn’t the first King book I read (that would be The Dead Zone), and it wasn’t the first horror book I read (that was Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, although I don’t remember a thing about it), but it had the biggest impact on my young, impressionable brain. I believe I was around 10 when I was given the book as a gift, and between the gore, the reincarnations, and the terror of those that have come back to life being a little ‘off’, the book captivated me like nothing I had read before it and set me on a very dark path, entertainment-wise.

2. Elvira’s Movie Macabre – KHJ-TV Channel 9, Los Angeles (1981-1986)

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Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I don’t know if everyone reading this will know who Elvira is/was, but in L.A. in the early eighties she was a freakin’ rock star. I remember tuning in to her show every weekend and being treated to schlocky B-horror classics, as well as some not-so-classics. I was but a tiny tot, so the memory is faded at best, but the standouts I remember were The Man with Two Heads, Crucible of Terror, Blacula and especially The Incredible Melting Man. Elvira would make cheesy jokes and double entendres throughout the movie, bringing me my first glimpse of the combination of horror and comedy – another big part of what makes me, well, me.

My dad did not share my love of horror, but he would watch Elvira with me every weekend. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that he watched for a couple of obvious reasons.

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3. Scanners – Directed by David Cronenberg (1981)

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The first “serious” horror movie I remember watching (even though it’s largely part sci-fi as well). Although I would later immerse myself in all things Voorhees, Krueger, and Myers in my teens (not to mention Pinhead), before all that there was Scanners.

I haven’t re-watched the movie in ages, and to be honest I had to look it up on imdb to remind myself exactly what it was about – a group of extremely powerful psychics are able to control minds and inflict bodily harm on people at will, and they must be stopped from reaching their goal of complete global domination. But really, none of that mattered when I was a ten year old boy excited to be watching his first real, grown-up scary movie. What it really all boiled down to was one scene that burned into my brain like a smoking-hot branding iron.

A man’s head explodes right before your very eyes. There’s no cut away to blood splattering on the wall then back to the bloody stump, there’s no little spray like when someone gets shot in the movies. His head blew up into a million little pieces and it left me with my jaw hanging open and changed me forever. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

I re-watched the short clip of the exploding head before writing this, and I have to say after all these years the effect holds up incredibly well. As a young boy just getting his feet wet in the pool of horror and gore, Scanners took me and threw me in the deep end head first.

Some might think it’s odd that I enjoyed such gruesome stuff at such a young age, and some may find the fact that my parents would let me watch and read things with such graphic content a little troubling, but I turned out okay (heh heh, right? I’m okay, right?).

If you want to see the cranial carnage in question, take a deep breath and watch the 11 second clip by clicking here.

So, there you have it. The three things that set me down the path of evil, darkness, and…more evil. Writing this got me wondering: what would you point to in your childhood that set you on your path, whatever that path is? No matter what you do, for most of us one (or in some cases several) things helped shape us to go in the direction we headed. What are yours?

Have a great Halloween everyone, and since I can’t help myself: for anyone out there who doesn’t watch a lot of horror that is wanting to scare themselves silly, I would recommend turning off all the lights and watching The Descent (2005), directed by Neil Marshall, preferably with the original UK ending. Enjoy!

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What Pro Wrestling Taught Me About Character Development

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Starting when I was around 12, I loved Saturday nights. My parents would let me stay up late to watch my favorite show: Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember the exact year I got hooked, but it was during the Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo/Billy Crystal days. But some Saturday nights ended in disappointment. I would be in front of the TV at 11:30, waiting for the show to start, when I would hear the ring! ring! ring! of a bell. That would be followed by the loud, obnoxious voices of Vince McMahon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura and I would realize that SNL wouldn’t be seen that night, having been replaced by the World Wrestling Federation’s presentation of  Saturday Night’s Main Event. I would see these idiots parade around in their tights, acting a fool, and I would shut off the TV in disgust. Even though I had been granted a later bedtime I still just stomped off to bed. I hated wrestling.

People change.

Years later, I became friends with a guy who loved pro wrestling. I still couldn’t take it seriously, but I would watch it to try and see what he got out of it. I mean, he knew it was fake (as do more wrestling fans than you might think), so I just couldn’t figure out why he liked it. Long story short, over time it started to grow on me. For a period of maybe five years, I became consumed with pro wrestling. I don’t watch it very much anymore, but I still have an affinity for it that surprises a lot of people when they get to know me. (Fun fact: I actually went to a pro wrestling school and worked out once. Once. But that’s a blog post in and of itself.)

One thing that becomes apparent when you watch wrestling is that it can get very repetitive. The storylines repeat themselves over and over with different wrestlers. During the time I was watching it a lot they found interesting ways to tweak the stories to update it for a new generation, but it was still basically the same story – good vs. evil.

A lot of times, what I found more interesting than the storyline itself was who was in the role of the good guy and bad guy (the ‘babyface’ and the ‘heel,’ if you’re interested in wrestlingese). The reason was, with a few exceptions, wrestlers would always change sides at some point. A guy could only be on one side or the other for so long before people got bored with him (or his character just didn’t work) and the powers that be would decide to ‘turn’ him.

Whenever a wrestler turned one way or the other, they’d usually get the chance to explain themselves. A few minutes either in the ring or backstage to give their side of the story-their motivation for the switch. Going from heel to babyface was interesting, but as someone who naturally rooted for the bad guy I lived for the heel turn. And if you’re still with me, don’t worry, I’m getting to my point. Those few minutes when a wrestler held the microphone could make or break their new direction. If they weren’t believable (in a pro wrestling sense of the word), the fans wouldn’t really get behind it. But if their promo made sense, the turn could propel them into bigger and better storylines, which made for more dramatic matches and payoffs. And when it came to promos and heel turns, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest.

foley

Mick Foley, aka Cactus Jack/Mankind/Dude Love. This guy is quite the case of not judging a book by its cover-he’s one of the smartest, funniest, most charming guys you can imagine, even though he looks like someone who’s never heard the cracking spine of a book opening. The absolute insanity he subjected himself to in and out of the ring might also make you question his intelligence. On the mic, however, he was peerless.

In his book, Have A Nice Day, he describes how he prepared for promos explaining his various turns. He said that he thought for days, if not weeks, about why his character would turn on his other wrestlers and the fans; his motivation. He said that once he understood why his character would do theses things in his head, then he could go out and deliver a convincing, emotional promo that would engage the fans. And he did just that each and every time.

I was reminded of this as I sat blankly staring at my empty computer screen the past few days. Last week I enthusiastically announced I was going to start writing the continuation of the story I had thought was already done, and I thought I’d start in a day or two. Well, now it’s been over a week and I still haven’t started. Before I began, I started to think about my new protagonist and her relationship with the prior one (they are exes). How would they have met, how long would they have been together before calling it quits, that sort of thing. I realized I needed to know those things before I felt ready to tell the rest of the story.

I can’t remember where I read it, but at some point in the past year or so I read some advice for getting to know your characters – interview them. Ask them questions and just let them talk, tell you about themselves. It seemed a little silly at the time, but here we are all this time later, and what do you suppose I’ve been doing? I decided to let my characters tell me how long they were together, how they met, when they decided to split, everything.

Now that I feel like I understand who my new protagonist is, I think I’m ready to tell her story. Here goes nothing.

How about you? Have you ever done anything to get inside your character’s head? How do you prepare to tell their story?