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?

Semicolon Cleanse: My Addiction to a Punctuation Mark

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When I started writing again a couple of years ago, I rediscovered something I had long since forgotten—the semicolon. It hadn’t gone anywhere; no, it was there all along, just sitting there on the sidelines waiting for me to pick it back up and start using it again. And now that I’m back to writing, I find myself wanting to use it all the time; I think I’ve become addicted.

The thing is, the semicolon is such a convenient piece of punctuation. It allows you to connect two sentences that otherwise you’d have to separate with a period, or put some separation between two thoughts where you may have instead put a comma. Hell, you all know what a semicolon is, I don’t know why I’m explaining it. The point is I love it, and I think I may be overusing it.

That’s not to say I’m using it incorrectly; as far as I know it’s grammatically correct wherever I decide to plunk one down. The problem is simple overuse. Maybe it’s because, like I said, I had forgotten about it for so long that now I’m excited to ‘make it rain,’ so to speak. Maybe I think it makes my writing look more impressive and “writer-ly”. Maybe it’s both. All I know is that in this blog post alone I’ve already had to resist putting in a few semicolons because it would’ve been repetitive.

I suppose in a way that’s a good thing. Since I know I’m throwing around semicolons like confetti in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, I know to look my stuff over when I’m editing to see if a period or a comma would better serve the sentence. What I’m noticing, though, is that semicolons are just the beginning.

I was bothered whenever I wanted to use a dash—all I could find was the simple hyphen. It never looked right compared to books I read; even if I put two of them together or put a space before and after one, it just looked odd. Then one day I stumbled upon the end to my punctuation woes: the magical em dash—it was what I’d been searching for all along. After a little digging on how to actually type one, since it doesn’t have its own key—it’s shift+option+dash for Mac users—I’ve been using em dashes all over the place: in place of parenthesis, when a character is interrupted mid-sentence, for a dramatic break in a sentence, you name it—I love it. I’m like a kid with a new toy.

I also have a tendency to want to put parenthesis everywhere too (em dashes have helped in that regard, though), but they’re easier to keep at bay. Same goes for the colon, too: they’re fun to use, but it’s easy to tell when you’re overdoing it.

Does anyone else out there have this issue? Do you find yourself falling back on certain punctuation marks again and agin? What punctuation problems plague you?

PS—anyone wanting a refresher in proper use of the semicolon should read this entertaining guide to it’s use, courtesy of The Oatmeal.

My Writing Resolutions for 2014

2014

Lose weight. Quit smoking. Exercise more. Stop drinking. It’s that time again, when people use the new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean and hit the reset button. Stop their bad habits and start over fresh January 1st with a new beginning. They share many of the same resolutions; some manage to keep theirs for good, while others may last a few months. Some will only last a week or two before saying ‘screw it’ and falling back to their old ways.

As the year comes to a close I’ve been reflecting on my writing—what I’ve accomplished, what I still want to accomplish, and how I can go about getting there. Hence, my writing resolutions for the coming year. I’m curious if any of you other writers out there share some of these same resolutions the way ‘normal’ people share theirs.

I will devote time to writing every day.

As writers, the phrase “Write every day” is engrained in us like the literary Pledge of Allegiance. Lately, though, I think that piece of advice is part baloney. I’m not necessarily saying someone should actively choose not to write, but I don’t believe forcing yourself to put words on paper (or on a screen) is always the most beneficial thing you can do.

Instead, what I’ve begun doing is setting aside time to write every day. If I use that time to write, that’s awesome. But sometimes, there’s just nothing in the tank. Chalk it up to a long day at work, too little sleep, or simply a bad mood/depression, sometimes writers don’t want to write. That’s different than you’re garden variety procrastination; I’m talking about just plain not having the desire to write anything. I think that as long as it isn’t happening regularly, it’s okay to not write once in a while.

What I do believe in is putting the time aside to write. If you don’t feel like writing one day, don’t, but do something at least related to writing. Maybe read a book. Read some blogs, or work on your own blog. Write somebody an email. Even if you don’t write a single word, it’s still time devoted to writing and thinking about writing. Sometimes that can be just as productive (if not more) than forcing yourself to crap out a couple hundred words of something you don’t like.*

*this is merely one random guy’s opinion, feel free to disagree. Many do.

I will learn to use Scrivener and Evernote to their full potential.

As a novice writer and blogger (which, arguably, I still am), last year I read a lot of articles and blog posts about what tools writers use to capture their thoughts and ideas, and what they use to actually get them written down. I dutifully got Scrivener and, more recently, Evernote, and now I just need to learn how to make the most of them.

I’ve jotted down a few notes on my phone when I was out and about on Evernote, but I still don’t really know what else there is to do with it. Same goes for Scrivener: I’ve used it and am using it currently, but only in its most basic capacity. I need to take the time to watch the tutorials and fumble around in my clumsy old man fashion until I can really see what that program can do. At this point it seems like it will be something I mainly use in the editing stage as I do a lot of my principal writing away from home. I initially used Google Drive to write while away, but due to some inexplicable problems with it at work I’ve begun using Zoho. It gets the job done, but I do like Drive better.

I will read more.

I read seven books this year; not exactly what you’d call a staggering amount. But now, as the rough drafts pile up and editing becomes a bigger and bigger part of my day, the time to read has seemed to shrink to a sliver. I started a book two or three weeks ago and I’m still just 30 pages in. There is so much I want to read—old books I either haven’t read or want to re-read, fellow bloggers’ books, new authors making their debut—and the list goes on.

What I need to do is crack open a book every time I find myself wanting to play a new game, or if a TV show is on that I’m not totally invested in. Because I know what happens: once I get far enough into a book, I’m in for the long haul. Once I’m invested in the story I become determined to finish the thing so I can see how it all turns out.  My goal is at least 12 books in 2014—still not setting the world on fire, but a small improvement from this year.

I will study the craft.

This year I read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing (which I didn’t count as one of the seven), as well as the essays by Chuck PalahniukCraig Clevenger and everyone else at Lit Reactor. Together, those helped me make a giant leap in the quality of my writing. There’s nothing quite like reading something that details poor writing, only to find examples of said poor writing throughout your work.

But that’s not enough.

I still haven’t picked up what is considered by many to be the gold standard, the holy grail of writers everywhere, Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style, and I haven’t gone back through every aspiring writer’s hero Chuck Wendig’s website for his tips on writing. Reading what I did this past year helped, but I’m not done learning. A writer is never done learning, we all know that. I’m going to study up and make my writing goddamn bulletproof.

I will be published.

God, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? If only it were. I had seven short stories that I submitted to publishers this year, and as of this writing have amassed 11 rejections. That doesn’t shake me all that bad, honestly. Rejection is part of the game. No, what bothers me is my lack of diligence.

What happens is I’ll submit a story, receive the rejection, then do nothing for awhile. I don’t just automatically move on to the next publisher and submit again, like I should. Some stories have only been submitted once, while one story has been submitted and rejected four times. This year I’m going to be more businesslike in handling my submissions, and by god I’m going to be published.

That sounds so dramatic. What happens if I’m sitting here in late December of 2014 and still haven’t been published? Honestly, I don’t think that’s very likely but if that were to happen I’d have no one but myself to blame for not being persistent and sending out submissions regularly. A couple of the early stories I wrote may lack some of the polish of more recent ones, but I truly believe my work now is good enough to be printed somewhere, and somewhere out there is a publisher who thinks so, too.

So, there you have it. My writing resolutions for 2014. Hopefully I keep them all, or at least make a valiant effort. I look forward to reading all your blogs in the coming year, so keep ’em coming. Now, tell me, do you have any resolutions for your writing? Any of yours on my list above?

Thanks to everyone who follows and reads the blog. This has turned out to be more fun and fulfilling than I ever could have imagined. Putting out a new blog post is always the highlight of my week. Here’s wishing you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year.

Best of 2013 – Blogs I Follow

It’s December, that time of year when everyone and their brother doles out their Top Ten and Year’s Best lists. And since I, on occasion, lack any shred of creativity and originality, I wanted to do a Top Ten/Year’s Best list of my own.

That’s when I ran into a problem.

I boldly and with much confidence declare myself a “Pop Culture Lover” right there in the header of my blog, so I thought sure, this’ll be easy. Books, movies, TV, yeah, let’s do this. Wrong. I realized I’ve only read one book released in 2013, and have seen maybe a handful of movies released this year. The only subject I’d be halfway qualified to talk about in terms of the year’s best is TV, and I really don’t feel like doing that (although, since I can’t help the narcissistic notion that my opinion actually matters, I will say that my two favorite new shows of 2013 were Hannibal and Brooklyn Nine Nine).

So…I thought. What on earth could I possibly discuss with any kind of authority in terms of the year’s best? Then it dawned on me. I follow just shy of a gazillion blogs on WordPress (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration – more like 109), and it never ceases to amaze me how good they all are.

That settled it – I would pick my favorite blog posts of 2013. I will say now I’m sure I’m forgetting some, so if anyone out there is hurt or offended that their blog isn’t listed below just know that I’m not perfect, this steel trap of a brain is not completely infallible and I apologize.

Greg’s China – Guts and Bai Jiu (October 18)

Greg is a Brit living in China as a Mandarin translator, and before that he taught English there. He relays his experiences on this very entertaining blog, which I will definitely refer to should I ever find myself visiting the country. He’s shared the terrifying experience of riding in taxis, the way people try to take advantage of him when they think he doesn’t understand the language, and how people ignore him while simultaneously giving him a compliment.

In Guts and Bai Jiu, Greg explains how over his time in China he’s learned some extremely valuable survival skills – how to avoid unknowingly ordering food with organs in it, and avoiding the paint thinner-like alcoholic drink Bai Jiu, which according to Greg can leave a normal man crying in the fetal position between bouts of projectile vomiting.

He learned to identify the character mostly associated with organ meat on menus, and devised two clever methods for avoiding the nasty shots of what he describes as tasting like a “burnt, worn sock.” Click the link to read the desperate measures he went to, and follow his blog!

Darius Jones – Talk With a Young Writer (October 25)

Darius is a cool guy. He’s already self-published two books (available here and here), which is a feat worthy of admiration in and of itself. Add to that he’s done this on top of his full-time job, traveling, and having an otherwise full and well-rounded life, and the fact that he finds time to write fiction leaves me flabbergasted. I bitch that I don’t have time to write as I sit playing games on my iPad, and this dude’s getting shit done. I have a lot of respect for the guy.

In Talk With a Young Writer, Darius is asked to speak to a young budding writer – the son of a friend. Being a professional writer (in a technical capacity) already, there was a lot of advice Darius could offer. After speaking with the young man, however, Darius comes to a surprising realization that perhaps the talk did him as much good as it did the budding writer. I really loved this post.

The Surfing Pizza – Ocean (November 11)

The Surfing Pizza is a fun blog most of the time. A writer who devotes his blog mostly to the toys of his youth, proudly posting any new purchases from garage sales, the blog took an unexpectedly serious turn in late October.

During his annual build up/countdown to Halloween (which it seems is The Surfing Pizza’s favorite holiday by a mile), his mother fell gravely ill. Sadly, she passed away after some time in the hospital. Pizza continued to blog occasionally, and I could feel his pain through the computer. Without knowing all the details, it’s fair to say he did not it coming and was completely and utterly shocked by her passing. As someone who also lost his mother suddenly and at a young age, I could certainly relate.

Ocean is basically one man’s grief on the page. It’s his hurt and pain at the loss of his mother, but his fond memories that will last long after the pain is gone. I look forward to The Surfing Pizza blogging about his latest ’80s toy purchase again, but in the meantime I’ll read whatever he feels like publishing.

I hope it doesn’t seem too odd to “celebrate” this post as one of the year’s best. This post was not that long ago and what this guy is feeling is still very raw; I’m sure he really couldn’t give a crap who likes it. I just really connected with it and thought it was something special.

Hooray for Movies!! – Deja Vu (2006) – Time Travel Twoddle…Time Twoddle? (August 21)

Movie review blogs are a dime a dozen on WordPress. Good movie review blogs, however, are still quite rare. It takes more than simply having an opinion about a movie to make someone qualified to actually review them. Hooray for Movies!! is the cream of the crop.

In my opinion, reviewing a good movie is easier than reviewing a bad movie. It’s easy to recognize when things are done well, and easy to sing the praises of a well-written, well-acted, and expertly directed film. Identifying why a movie absolutely blows, however, takes more skill. Fortunately for us, Dylan at HFM has it down to a science.

Deja Vu is a Denzel Washington vehicle about an ATF agent who travels back in time to try and stop a murder. I’ll admit I have not seen the film, and after reading Time Travel Twoddle…Time Twoddle I’m sure I will probably never watch it under my own free will. This is one of the funniest things I’ve read in my time on WordPress; I read a lot of blogs on my lunch break at work, and this post made me struggle to keep from laughing in a quiet office.

If any of you are on Twitter (and you all are, right?) you may also want to consider following HFM. Dylan live-tweeting the recent massive storm that barreled through England was one of the highlights of my little corner of the Twitterverse.

Steven J. Dines – Free Fiction: The Fly (March 24)

Steven is not your average, every day writer/blogger. That’s because he doesn’t really blog the way many of us do, telling tales of our self doubts and wondering if we’re crazy for pursuing our writing endeavors. No, his blogs are of a different nature – he’s too busy actually writing and getting stuff published. He already had FOUR short stories published just this year, with one already scheduled for publication in 2014.

I can’t remember how I found Steven’s blog, but I remember clicking around and seeing a link to a flash fiction piece called The Fly. I clicked it and started reading, and I remember finishing the story and thinking, “Oh. This guy’s for real.” I think all that’s stopping him from basically conquering the world is time and opportunity. Before long his name will be on real Year’s Best lists for his forthcoming novel.

He doesn’t post often, but you should follow him for announcements of new stories being unleashed onto an unsuspecting world.

Rants from a Starving Writer – Creativity, Depression, and Self Worth (October 22)

Larua (LL) Lemke (Pogomonster, as she’s sometimes known) is a dynamo. Another self-published wunderkind, she has already self-published two novels with a third on the way. She’s also a freelance editor, and did I mention she’s a black belt in TaeKwonDo and is barely old enough to legally consume alcohol?

Creativity, Depression, and Self Worth is a post pretty much any writer can relate to. We all have these feelings – the joy in creating, the doubt that it will ever lead to anything or be read by anyone, and the question…is it worth it?

I’m only a few pages in to her first novel, Opus Aria (which you can find here), but I can say with confidence Laura’s self doubt will probably not last much longer; her talent is just too strong.

Miss Four Eyes – What-If-It-Sucks-Syndrome (May 15)

Miss Four Eyes really doesn’t need any help getting hits and page views to her blog. Her site is so popular, it’s really kind of disgusting. 🙂 However, as with all popular blogs, it’s popular for a reason. What-If-It-Sucks-Syndrome is a perfect example why.

She details the thought process of getting ready to publish a blog post, and it’s nearly identical to the way I feel each and every time. There are some cool animated doodles to help illustrate the point, too. It’s funny, cute, entertaining…everything you could want from a blog. If you don’t already follow her blog, read this post and snap to it!

The Hobbes – A Brief Analysis of Contemporary Post-Industrial American Transportation (October 28)

Hobbes is…a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside a puzzle that ate an enigma. I’m not entirely certain as to the gender of Hobbes (though I believe male), but they are one of the smartest bloggers I follow.

I get the feeling Hobbes needs an outlet for things he/she wants to say and started this blog as a way to do so anonymously. As of right now they have exactly 7 followers, and for some reason I’d bet they feel like that’s a few too many. A Brief Analysis of Contemporary Post-Industrial American Transportation takes a look at something we all tend to overlook on a daily basis – how much planes suck. To say more would ruin the joy of reading this post, so just click the link and read it for yourself.

Okay, well that’s it. My favorites of the year. I’d love to hear who you think I forgot; like I said, there were so many I’m sure I must’ve missed a few. Until next time, keep blogging!

How Writing Heightened My Senses

“When a regular person gets sick, they take an aspirin.  When a writer gets sick, they take notes…”

This past July I found myself in the hospital – as a visitor, not a patient. It was the first time I’d been in a hospital in years.

I was there early in the morning, and as I rounded a corner there was a multi-tiered cart pushed against the wall holding dirty dishes from the patients’ breakfasts. Walking past, I was hit with the unmistakable smell of stale pancakes and maple syrup. Despite everything that was on my mind that morning (my wife had stayed overnight with a mystery illness), those smells put a thought in my head – I need to remember this.

Suddenly I began looking around more aware, trying to take it all in:

The smell of the pancakes and syrup, the way the cart with all the dirty plates was pushed against the wall.

The chatter at the nurses station as well as all the different beeps, boops, and hums throughout the floor.

The people ending their overnight shifts with dead, heavy eyes, in contrast with the morning shift who had just started, bright-eyed and smiling as they made coffee and chirped “Good morning!” to everyone.

The (mostly elderly) patients that you could tell had been there quite some time, padding up and down the halls in their robes and slippers as part of their physical therapy, rolling their IV’s along beside them.

It was like I’d flipped open a mental notebook and was trying to commit to memory every detail I could because, as I realized that morning, it was inevitable one of my characters would end up in the hospital someday. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to take more notice of my surroundings.

I’ve always been a people watcher and an eavesdropper by nature; I could sit in a mall food court or similar public place and watch people for hours – making up imaginary backstories for them, trying to figure out where they’re coming from and where they’re headed, that sort of thing.

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Judging from the size of his backpack, this young man has obviously just run away from home. (Wikipedia)

But now I’m listening to ambient noise, looking at minute details, trying to identify smells and thinking about how to describe them. It’s like suddenly my senses have been heightened; everything is more vivid because I’m paying more attention in hopes of being able to describe it in my writing later on.

About six weeks ago I had a stomach bug that lasted for about five days. It was awful. I was absolutely miserable. But it was different this time – I thought about it like a writer. I paid attention to every little twinge of pain in my stomach. Of course it hurt, but how did it hurt? What did it feel like?

I was driving not too long ago and saw that the street up ahead of me had been closed off. There were firetrucks everywhere with their lights on. I slowed to just above an idle and grabbed my phone, snapping pictures as I took the detour. When I got home I looked at the pictures to see how many vehicles were actually there and where they all were. Some parked diagonally to head off traffic; a few were on the curb; two just stopped right in the middle of the street. I had no idea what was going on or why the fire department was there, but it helped give me a frame of reference whenever I have to describe a situation where emergency vehicles arrive on scene.

We’ve all heard about how when a person loses one of their senses, their others are heightened. Someone who loses their eyesight will find their hearing becomes quite acute, or maybe develop an exquisite sense of smell. That’s kind of how I feel anymore. Ever since I started paying more attention to improve my writing, I feel like I have super senses. I see more, I hear more, smell more, feel more than ever before. As an added bonus I haven’t had to lose any senses in the process. 🙂

I’m not sure if this is normal for other writers or not. I’d imagine a lot of writers already have that attention to detail that I’m just picking up. That’s probably why it seems like every writer but me has an 80,000-100,000 word first draft to slash down, while I can barely hit 50,000 and keep finding more to add. So tell me, fellow writers, has writing made you more aware, or were just born that way?

Serial Killers and The Nature of Fear

In the winter of 1986, my family was in a bit of a transitional period. We were in the middle of a move from Riverside, California (just east of L.A.) to the desert about a half hour north. We had managed to sell our old house before our new house was finished being built, so for a few months we stayed with my Grandmother, who also lived in Riverside. There were a lot of things going through my twelve year old mind that winter: having to move away from my friends, trying to make new friends at a new school – the usual concerns any kid would have when they move. There was one thing in particular, though, that crept into my head every night during those months at my Grandma’s house, and kept me absolutely petrified.

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Richard Ramirez, aka ‘The Night Stalker.’ Convicted of murdering 13 people.

Richard Ramirez was a brutal serial killer who terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area for months in 1985. The majority of his crimes were break-ins or “home invasion” style crimes. In many cases, he killed his victims in their bedrooms, some while they were still asleep.

Since my parents and I were in an already occupied house, sleeping arrangements were a little different, especially for me. My parents got the spare bedroom, while I got to “camp out” in the formal living room. For the sake of practicality, my little air mattress was placed on the far side of the room – under the large picture window.

By that winter at my grandmother’s, Richard Ramirez had already been captured. That was of little consolation, though, as I lay nightly under the large picture window in the living room of a house that had already been burglarized once. Ramirez terrified me. Would tonight be the night he escaped custody and broke into my Grandma’s house? It may sound silly now, but to a scared twelve year old that was perfectly plausible.

By this time I had already begun a steady diet of horror books and film, and they were scary in their own right, but this was different. This was tangible – a real, deep down fear of something quite real that could (theoretically) actually happen. This wasn’t a burnt-faced boogeyman who haunted people’s dreams like Freddy Krueger, or a hockey mask-wearing slasher with a machete who killed campers like Jason Voorhees. This was a real person, who really did kill people with a machete, in real life. It was fear on a whole new level.

I still love horror stories and always will – the monsters, the zombies, the slashers, etc. But nothing ever seemed quite as scary after that winter sleeping under the window, wondering if I would be the Night Stalker’s next victim.

I bring all this up for a couple of reasons. Since that winter, I’ve always had an admittedly morbid fascination with serial killers. What could possibly be wrong with their brains to make them do the horrible things they do? Some acted out of pure impulse, while others were extremely careful and calculating. When I think of what could really scare someone, put the fear of god in them, that’s what I think of. Not monsters or demons or vampires, but another living, breathing human being who is perfectly capable of taking a life, and you never know who will be next. It could be anyone. It could be you.

That’s scary.

I just finished reading a relatively old book (1989), The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum. The book tells the story of a teenage girl in 1950’s rural America who is abused, tortured, and eventually killed by the relatives she is sent to live with following the death of her parents. It’s a work of fiction, but the horrifying part is that it’s loosely based on a true story. Ketchum makes up the methods of torture and adds fictional characters for the sake of adding context and drama to the story, but it really happened. That’s what makes it truly scary.

One of the most unsettling and disturbing movies that doesn’t always get talked about is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It’s loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The unflinching depiction of violence, especially one scene in particular of a family being murdered and Henry and his partner Otis watching the videotaped recording of the killings over and over on their couch later, is downright chilling. That scares me more than any made up monster.

henry

It relates a bit to what Stephen King has said in some of his many interviews regarding the pressure he feels with his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. To paraphrase, he said that he understands that many of his fans were kids when they read The Shining, and it’s a lot easier to scare a kid than an adult. As I’m finishing up my latest rough draft, I find myself grappling with the same thing – is it going to scare people?

It’s a thriller/mystery/detective story about serial killers with a bit of a ‘meta’ edge to it. There is talk of serial killers past in the book, and my killers want nothing more than to instill fear in everyone in the city as they increase their body count. I think it’s a pretty damn scary concept; now I just have to revise and edit to try and make sure it scares people as bad as I was, lying under that window in January of 1986.

I want you to tell me what scares you. In a great bit of irony, as I let this story I’m finishing sit and “breathe” a bit, so to speak, I have another project to go back to – one that involves monsters and the supernatural. So I want to hear the scariest stories you know, real life or otherwise. Be they books, movies, creepy pasta (do any of you read that stuff?), urban legends, ghost stories you heard around the campfire…what makes you afraid to turn out the lights?

‘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.