The Usual Suspects – Use Of Red Herrings and Twist Endings

*Ridiculous spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen this 18 year-old movie, you decide whether or not to keep reading.

animated suspects

This is one of my favorite movies. Maybe not in my top five, but definitely my top ten. From what I gather when talking about the movie with people, your enjoyment of this movie will largely depend on what you think of the twist ending. Some people say the ending is all that makes the movie, and therefore it’s just a gimmick movie. I don’t know if I’d go that far. In my opinion, gimmick twist endings are ones you see coming. You may not necessarily be able to call it, but you know a twist ending is coming, and when it finally comes, it invariably sucks.

Obviously, the best twist endings are the ones you don’t see coming. You have to be invested in the characters and the story enough that you’re not looking for a twist. I think that gets lost on people sometimes. It seems like people use them as a sort of crutch or a safety net to save a lesser quality book/movie, not realizing you can’t…polish a turd (sorry, it’s the best I can do off the top of my head).

For those who don’t know, a ‘Red Herring‘ is a term to describe a plot device that serves to mislead the audience, and facilitate plot twists.  Since I started writing again, all the TV procedurals I used to watch with one eye open are now more interesting as I watch them with a more discerning eye, looking to see who they frame as the killer,  who they show as the plausible suspect, and who ends up being the actual killer.

My wife can call these shows like a psychic. 10 minutes in, the cops will be interviewing someone, and she’ll call out, “he did it!” and I’ll think, really? Eh, maybe. Then 45 minutes later I look over at her like, Holy crap! How did you do that?

In the past 15 (or so) years, when you mention a twist ending most people will think of The Sixth Sense. This relates to what I was talking about earlier; the foundation has to be solid, so people aren’t necessarily looking for a twist ending. That movie is perfectly plausible and interesting all the way to said twist, so when it’s revealed it’s especially surprising.

Which leads me back to The Usual Suspects. It leads you along a very believable trail before letting you know it was a huge  smokescreen and that you, along with the interrogating officer, have been duped. But depending on how invested you are in what you’re watching, you’re either left with your jaw hanging open, or you sigh and let out a disgusted pfft!

I’m curious, what are some of your favorite plot twists in books/movies?

Or, perhaps more interestingly, what are some of your least favorite plot twists?


T M I – Too Much Information

I was minding my own business on Facebook the other day, looking at posts, and I innocently followed a link that told me (in a very graphic way) something extremely personal about someone whose work I’m a fan of. It was that person’s choice to put the information out there, and it’s not something that affects how much I like their work, but it did make me think back…

Remember when we didn’t know every single thing there was to know about people? I’m talking not just about celebrities and the like, but really just anyone. It seems like there’s hardly any mystery around people anymore.

Not to date myself, but I remember a time when music videos were brand new. And it was weird, because before that there was a good chance you could listen to an artist for years and really have no idea what they looked like, other than a picture on an album cover or inside sleeve.

Now, with zero effort of my own, I know that Kanye West hates big-assed striped scarves. I know Justin Bieber likes mineral water. I know Pete Wentz‘s son got a haircut.

I don’t want to know any of this. But between Twitter, Facebook, TMZ, E!, Access Hollywood, Perez Hilton, etc. this information just floats around us like a giant ring of space debris.

I can see someone I might know on Facebook, and in under three clicks (or taps) I know their city, school, employer, social causes, political party, stance on hotbutton issues, favorite TV shows, movies, and music. You used to make friends with people, and ask them those things over time. Got to know each other.

“I was going to ask you if you watch The Walking Dead, but I already know you do, so…The Walking Dead is cool, huh?”

Remember what is was like to be talking to someone (in the flesh or on the phone) and just sort of organically realize the two of you had something in common? The act of connecting with someone in a natural way is almost a lost art.

Now, it’s more like, “Let’s see, Mike’s friend John likes Hoarders and The Following, that’s cool, but he likes EDM and…Ghost Rider?!? No, screw this guy, it wouldn’t work.”

I like the band Tool. I’m not one of their crazed, loyal fans, but I like them. But I loved their videos. One of the reasons was because they weren’t in them. They chose to do something inherently more creative and made weird little creepy mini-movies for their songs. And once again, a band existed that I couldn’t identify if I walked into them on the street. They had mystery.

I know this post is a bit of a rant, but sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating in information that I don’t want to know. I don’t care who my favorite actor voted for, I don’t care how much my favorite singer did or did not donate to charity, and I shouldn’t have to.

Ugh. I’m just going to go watch the Food Network. Because no matter how much I watch, I will never, ever know what Guy Fieri thinks about stem cell research. And that makes me happy.

Submission – Time To Make A Decision

I’m indecisive. There, I said it. I’ve been known to take weeks to make an online purchase. I read reviews, compare brands and prices, then go back and do it all over again a few days later. I’d like to think that just makes me an informed consumer, but it applies to many other aspects of my life as well.

Even being asked what I want for dinner. My response is always the same : “I don’t know.” It frustrates my wife to no end, but she endures it because, well, she’s awesome. Over the years, though, even her patience has worn thin at times, resulting in the words ‘make a decision!’ being uttered half-jokingly.

Now I’m facing a big decision. I’ve found a publisher to whom I’d like to submit my novella, I Hate Switzerland. They specialize in dark fiction, and they accept novellas. And despite being mostly a publisher of e-books, they also print all their books in a limited edition hardcover as well. The downside? They state on their website they will not accept submissions that have been or will be submitted anywhere else, and their response time is up to six months. Either one on its own doesn’t bother me much, but the two together make me slightly hesitant.

Maybe I’m just being neurotic. It just feels weird to send my work off to someone and know it could be six months before I hear anything, and if they reject it I start back from square one. We’re talking freakin’ October.

At the same time, if they accepted the novella it would be totally worth it, since they seem to have built a loyal following of readers. So maybe I’ve made up my mind as I’ve sat here typing. Hey, thanks blogosphere!

As far as my other works in progress, I have another novella awaiting revisions (Araceli Blues, if you’re interested), and I’m about 12,000 words deep in the rough draft of what I’m assuming will end up as a novel (tentatively titled The Devil On Your Back). I’m also slowly working on a nonfiction essay recounting my brief (and somewhat humorous) encounter with a medical cadaver. I’ll be putting that on the blog sometime after the A to Z challenge is over.

In the meantime, I need to come up with a brief ‘back of the book’ teaser for Switzerland to send with the submission. And I need to think of topics for my ‘T’ and ‘U’ posts (‘V’ is a already planned). Ugh, I need to get busy.

Recording Audiobooks

This is not me.

I make my living with my voice. It’s not the way I would have thought things would turn out, but it’s true. I spend 40 hours a week talking to people. I’ve been doing it longer than I ever thought I would, and even though I’m not always thrilled about it, I have to say I’ve gotten pretty good at it.What’s always surprised me, though, is the recurring compliment I’ve gotten fairly regularly since I started down this road: ‘You’ve got such a nice voice!’

At first, I wrote it off. I’m naturally nice when I talk to people (while many in my field aren’t), so I thought it was something people said just to be polite. But over the years, the compliments kept coming. Finally, I realized maybe these random people out in the world were right; if they were, how could I use that to my advantage?

I got interested in the world of voice acting and voiceovers, and bought books that helped you craft your voice and learn how to read copy. But in the grand scheme of things, my timing was pretty bad; had I gotten into that field a few years earlier, it may have been a different story.

Jump to the present, and I’m back to my original love and writing again. As I’ve looked at my options for publication of my novella, it appears not a lot of indie publishers deal with audiobooks. So even if I find a publisher, I may well have to do the audiobook myself. That’s exciting to me.

I’ve looked at ACX, and it seems surprisingly legit — which makes me skeptical. Unless something changes my mind in the next month or two, I will probably go ahead with them anyway, because I don’t know what other options I have. Does anyone else out there have any experience turning their book into an audiobook? Did you do it yourself or hire a professional?

If you’re not a writer, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

Q is for Mr. Quarles – An Ode To My Favorite Teacher

In 1986, my parents decided to move from Riverside, CA (an hour east of Los Angeles) to Hesperia, CA (a desert town an hour and a half northeast of Los Angeles). Technically, we were moving from a bigger city to a smaller city, but in terms of my schooling it was quite the opposite. In Riverside I went to a small, private school (a religious school, at that – go figure). Then we moved to the small desert town of Hesperia; but I joined the big, scary world of public school. I was in seventh grade.

So : I was the new kid in a small-town junior high, I was chubby, and I wore thick glasses that were too big for my face. Oh, and my school had no lockers to spare, so I had to carry all seven periods’ worth of books around in a backpack all day. To say I was not popular was an understatement (the way I was teased in junior high is its own blog post, I assure you).

By eighth grade I managed to make a couple of friends, one of whom I’m happy to say I’m still friends with to this day.

Eighth grade was also the year I had Advanced English with Mr. Quarles. I’ve mentioned before how I started reading Stephen King in the fifth grade, and by eighth grade I was devouring books left and right. I had never really thought about writing my own stories until Mr. Quarles started a unit on creative writing. He, like me, consumed books like a bottomless pit. I remember he liked all sorts of books, but his real love was Louis L’amour. He had a love affair with the old west.

Anyway, he encouraged us to write anything we could possibly dream up. There is no right and wrong when it comes to creative writing and your own ideas, he said. So I wrote a short story that was just a couple of pages long. It was a Halloween-themed story, about a maniacal killer who used a chainsaw on his victims and wrote messages to the police on the wall in his victims’ blood.

A 13 year-old writing some of the most gruesome things imaginable. His feedback? Awesome! Glad the killer got away, free to kill some more! A+!


I stared at the paper, dumbfounded. I didn’t think the subject matter was going to get me a bad grade, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of positive feedback he gave me, either. After being picked on and harassed for a solid year, it felt good to get some support. After the creative writing unit was over, he allowed me to keep writing stories for extra credit. I didn’t need the exra credit, but I cranked the stories out like clockwork. Every week, a new story. I wrote about killer cops, time travel, bullies getting their comeuppance, you name it. He would fix my grammar mistakes and make suggestions about problems with plot, but the way he built my confidence was remarkable. I still look back in awe at how much he helped me that year. He was by far the best teacher I ever had.

Incredibly, even with the advent of social media I have not been able to locate Mr. Quarles. I managed to find out that after I moved on to high school he moved from my junior high to another school in a neighboring town, but that’s it. Considering it was over 25 years ago, there’s no guarantee he’s even still alive. But I will always remember him. And with every piece of writing I finish, I will forever be endebted to him.

EDIT – Since I wrote this post (in advance) a couple of days ago, it began to bother me that I couldn’t find him online. Seriously, you can find anything online. Lo and behold, I think I may have found him. I have this weird fear of reaching out to him; I’m afraid I might disappoint him. I’ll hopefully make contact anyway, but for the moment I’m hesitant. I’ll keep you posted.

Publication and Promotion

Here we go again…the topic of publication and self-publication. I started the blog so sure I was going to self-publish, it’s not even funny. Then I reconsidered. Then I reconsidered again. And again. Now I’m just as undecided as I ever was.

It’s not the “stigma” some people put on self-publication that bothers me. I know there are some real dogs out there in the self-pub universe, but there are plenty of excellent writers doing well for themselves, too. When it comes down to it, there are two things that give me pause when it comes to self-publication: money and promotion.

I was totally ignorant to how much money it took to self-publish a quality product. Between editing and cover design, it adds up quick. Now that I’ve started making my own little network of friends (however small it may be) in the blogosphere, maybe I can find some quality folks out there who don’t charge an arm and a leg for their services. But the money involved isn’t even what seems like the hardest part to conquer.

There are so many books on Amazon and Smashwords, how do you separate yourself from the pack? I know there are marketing guides out there, and they offer a multitude of helpful tips, but I’m hesitant. I think of how much work it will take to promote and market myself and my books (I know no one said it would be easy; quite the opposite, in fact), and I know I would probably have to work just as hard if a publisher put my work out, too.

What keeps lingering in the back of my mind is that a publisher has a built in audience, a reputation that their books meet a certain standard. With self-publishing, I’m counting on people willing to take a chance on something with no real point of reference. I know I can put samples out and set my own price to make my work more tempting, but it’s hard.

I don’t have an answer to this debate, I hope you didn’t think I did going in. I was looking for anyone’s own recommendations or experiences out in the world. As my novella approaches being 100% finished, I have to decide what the heck to do with it. A little help here?

…Or is it?

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to change your perspective. Sometimes it just takes three little words.

I was just sort of brainstorming about my work in progress today, trying to figure out which way the story was going to turn at one point. I thought of something pretty out there, and then I thought, ‘oh, I can’t do that, that’s crazy.’ Then I thought, ‘or is it?’

Just allowing myself the glimpse of a possibility that maybe there was something to that thought, instead of just shutting it out altogether, made me think of what I was doing in a different way. Suddenly, I had a wave of ideas that spun off from the crazy idea I’d just subconsciously tried to stomp on seconds earlier.

I’m a cynical person by nature, and I’ve started to realize while there’s some comfort in cynicism, it can sometimes stunt originality and creativity. Have you ever had an idea, and then you think, ‘That’s lame. That’s impossible, I can’t do that.’ Sometimes I wonder if what that means is ‘That’s really original. I’ve never seen/heard that before.’ Taking a second to just recognize an idea for what it is, and honestly consider it from all sides before casting it aside is extremely helpful for coming up with new ideas and creating. Or is it?

I don’t know, but for the time being, it’s working for me.

I have to mention where I got this notion of giving ideas a chance from. Kyle Cease is a stand-up comedian turned motivational speaker (which sounds corny, I know), but he doesn’t come across like one of those yahoos you see on infomercials. Some of what he says is still a little too cheesy for me (like I said, cynical), but when he talks about creating new ideas, it’s pretty useful. I’m sure not everyone would find him that enlightening, but if you have a few minutes to spare sometime, check out one of his many Youtube videos or  his website.


N is for No Boundaries

As I’ve mentioned before, my tastes tend to run toward the dark and demented. Be it books, movies, music or art, the stranger and darker it is, the more I like it. The two novellas I’m revising are not full on horror, but they both have some twisted elements to them. The novel I’m writing now (9,000 words in!) is my first attempt at full scale horror. But a while back I had an idea for another book.

I told my wife what I’d thought of, and she said, “that’s a neat idea.” Great, validation. But this idea is different for me. It very may contain absolutely no dark elements to it whatsoever. It may actually be, dare I say, heartwarming. So, I wondered:

1) Can I write something that style, and write it well?

2) Will people give it a shot if all I’ve ever written is dark fiction?

What I realized is, for number 1, the only way writers get better is keep writing. So I’ll make it the best it can be, and that’s that. And for the second one, of course they will.

As if the cosmic gods of writing needed to remind me, I was looking through some of my old paperbacks the other day. Completely at random, I pulled Different Seasons by Stephen King off the shelf. For the unfamiliar, it’s a collection of four novellas, two of which are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (which produced the excellent movie with the shortened title), and The Body, which was adapted into the also excellent film Stand By Me.


What I was interested in reading on this day was not any of the fiction in the book, but rather the afterword at the end. To briefly summarize, he talked about how Carrie turned out to be his first novel, and when it turned out to be a huge success his publisher encouraged him to send in what he was working on as a follow up. He sent two projects he’d been working on simultaneously, one horror and one not.  They both agreed the horror story was the better of the two, and that ended up being ‘Salem’s Lot.  He said that his editor was hesitant, even though he liked the book. His concern? That King would be dubbed “a horror writer” and never escape the confines that brought. It didn’t help that his third novel would be a little story he was working on about a haunted hotel, The Shining. By now his editor told him that was it, no escaping the trappings of being known as a horror writer.

In response, he said (paraphrasing), ‘If that’s what people want, I don’t have a problem with that.’ But he kept writing whatever he wanted in between novels, and that’s where the stories that make up Different Seasons came from.

I figure if Stephen King can get out of the box people tried to put him in, what do I have to be afraid of? Write what I want, and let the pieces fall where they may. Anyone can escape pigeonholing if they try hard enough. Except Jerry O’Connell. He’ll always be The Fat Kid From Stand By Me.


Morphine – My Appreciation Of A Criminally Under-appreciated Band



I still remember the first time I heard Morphine. It was the summer of 1998. My girlfriend put on their CD, Like Swimming.

Like Swimming

It instantly grabbed my attention, and never let go. I was stunned by it. I play guitar, and found myself fascinated by this power trio that didn’t even have a guitarist. At the time I worked in a music store, selling CD’s all day long. I was pretty conscious of all different types of music, but I had never heard of these guys. When I went to work the day after hearing them, I went to the rock/pop/soul section and started searching the M’s. Sure enough, there it was. We had one copy. Their older stuff was on an indie label, and we didn’t carry it. I special ordered their back catalog and soon was neck deep in their music. I wondered where this band had been all my life—no one (then or since) sounded like them.

Ah, the sound.

How to describe Morphine to the uninitiated? As I mentioned, there is no guitar. The lead instrument is actually saxophone, usually baritone, played by the incredible Dana Colley. Some songs had two saxes playing simultaneously, which may not pose a problem in the recording studio, but Mr. Colley pulled the songs off live by playing two saxophones at the same time.

For most of their career, Billy Conway handled the percussive duties, with Jerome Dupree behind the drums for their early records.

Then there’s Mark Sandman. He basically was Morphine. He was the bassist and vocalist, but the way he handled both was what made the music so unique. He took the typical 4-string bass and turned it on its head. He removed two of the strings, tuned the two he had unconventionally, and played with a slide instead of his fingers. The result is kind of hard to put into words. Which sucks, because it was my bright idea to write about them.

Then there’s his voice. A natural baritone, his voice, combined with the slide bass and baritone sax made for one of the most unique harmonies I’ve ever heard. And I thought I’d heard it all.

There are a lot of reasons I like Morphine so much. For one, despite the seeming limitations that you might think they would face because of their setup, they had an incredible range. They could play bluesy grooves all day long, turn it up to all-out rock, or play tender, soft songs with ease. Essentially, they were fearless. You got the sense they were playing what they wanted to play, and if people happened to like it, that was great. And no matter what type of song they play, you know who you’re listening to as soon as you hear it. They managed to have a distinct, signature sound without having every song sound exactly the same.

The other big thing I found when I got into Morphine was that I loved the lyrics. Now, I’m a child of rock, punk, and metal, and lyrics are often an afterthought—mostly meaningless and unintelligible. Honestly, I don’t have much problem with that. I lived my whole life without really caring too much about lyrics. But when I listen to Morphine, not only can I understand the vocals, they actually mean something. They tell stories, and they make sense. Morphine was the first band that made me actually appreciate lyrics, and see what an extra impact good lyrics could have on a song.

Sadly, Mark Sandman died on stage of a heart attack in 1999, during a show in Italy. So right after I discovered them, it became impossible to see them live. That was a difficult reality to face. Luckily, there are clips of them on youtube to give you a sense of what their live shows were like.

As far as their catalog, you really can’t go wrong with any of their work, but my recommendation would be the album they had just wrapped up before heading out on that ill-fated tour in 1999, The Night. It’s my personal favorite, and shows their range. Start there and work your way back through their albums, or start at the beginning with Good, and see how they evolved over the years. Or just go on Pandora and start a Morphine-themed station. Just do yourself a favor, and check ’em out. You won’t be sorry.

Mark Sandman (1952-1999)

Lying To The Audience – Use Of The Unreliable Narrator


As I was thinking about a future project the other day, I began to consider having the story told by an unreliable narrator. Not necessarily in a huge, plot-twisting, Fight Club sort of way, but definitely to mislead the  reader somewhat. I’m hesitant, though, because it’s a tricky thing to pull off. But when it’s done right, it really is quite effective. I suppose by the time I actually start working on it I’ll have a better idea of whether or not I want to go ahead with it, but I’m curious if anyone else out there has used the unreliable narrator in their projects, and how hard was it to make it work?

Meanwhile, an update to my previous post Editing – Boy, Does It Ever Stink : In that post, I boldly claimed that I was taking one last pass through my mostly-finished novella (titled I Hate Switzerland, by the way), and calling it DONE, not to be looked at again. And again, more experienced writers go ahead and fire up your laugh machines…I’ve already read through it four more times, tweaking a choice word here or finding an awkwardly worded phrase there. I’m going to give it a little time to rest, then go back and see if I can read it through without changing something. If I can do that, I’m done. Say, I just realized my Editing post was written by an unreliable narrator! I’ve brought this post full circle. 🙂

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