Horror sequels and haunted office buildings

Book 3 of The Rockland Horror saga is now live on Amazon. There will also be a Book 4. (I already have the basic story mapped out, in fact.)  At present, though, I’m working on a sequel to Eleven Miles of Night.

Eleven Miles of Night is set in 2013, and was published in that year. The next book in what will become the Jason Kelley series will take place eight years later, in 2021. It will involve Jason’s re-entry into the world of paranormal research.

(You may recall that Jason swore off paranormal research at the end of Eleven Miles of Night, because he was so shaken by what he encountered on the Shaman’s Highway.)

In the next book, Jason’s challenge will be not a haunted road, but a haunted office building.

Why an office building? Oh, trust me, office buildings can be very creepy after-hours. And I have a very creepy one planned for Book 2 in the Jason Kelley series.

If you haven’t yet read Eleven Miles of Night, now might be a good time to do so!

The Headless Horseman returns

How I wrote a horror novel called Revolutionary Ghosts

Or…

Can an ordinary teenager defeat the Headless Horseman, and a host of other vengeful spirits from America’s revolutionary past?

The big idea

I love history, and I love supernatural horror tales.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was therefore always one of my favorite short stories. This classic tale by Washington Irving describes how a Hessian artillery officer terrorized the young American republic several decades after his death.

The Hessian was decapitated by a Continental Army cannonball at the Battle of White Plains, New York, on October 28, 1776. According to some historical accounts, a Hessian artillery officer really did meet such an end at the Battle of White Plains. I’ve read several books about warfare in the 1700s and through the Age of Napoleon. Armies in those days obviously did not have access to machine guns, flamethrowers, and the like. But those 18th-century cannons could inflict some horrific forms of death, decapitation among them.

I was first exposed to the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” via the 1949 Disney film of the same name. The Disney adaptation was already close to 30 years old, but still popular, when I saw it as a kid sometime during the 1970s.

Headless Horsemen from around the world

While doing a bit of research for Revolutionary Ghosts, I discovered that the Headless Horseman is a folklore motif that reappears in various cultures throughout the world.

In Irish folklore, the dullahan or dulachán (“dark man”) is a headless, demonic fairy that rides a horse through the countryside at night. The dullahan carries his head under his arm. When the dullahan stops riding, someone dies.

Scottish folklore includes a tale about a headless horseman named Ewen. Ewen was  beheaded when he lost a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. His death prevented him from becoming a chieftain. He roams the hills at night, seeking to reclaim his right to rule.

Finally, in English folklore, there is the 14th century epic poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. After Gawain kills the green knight in living form (by beheading him) the knight lifts his head, rides off, and challenges Gawain to a rematch the following year.

But Revolutionary Ghosts is focused on the Headless Horseman of American lore: the headless horseman who chased Ichabod Crane through the New York countryside in the mid-1790s. 

The Headless Horseman isn’t the only historical spirit to stir up trouble in the novel. John André, the executed British spy, makes an appearance, too. (John André was a real historical figure.)

I also created the character of Marie Trumbull, a Loyalist whom the Continental Army sentenced to death for betraying her country’s secrets to the British. But Marie managed to slit her own throat while still in her cell, thereby cheating the hangman. Marie Trumbull was a dark-haired beauty in life. In death, she appears as a desiccated, reanimated corpse. She carries the blade that she used to take her own life, all those years ago.

Oh, and Revolutionary Ghosts also has an army of spectral Hessian soldiers. I had a lot of fun with them!

The Spirit of ’76

Most of the novel is set in the summer of 1976. An Ohio teenager, Steve Wagner, begins to sense that something strange is going on near his home. There are slime-covered hoofprints in the grass. There are unusual sounds on the road at night. People are disappearing.

Steve gradually comes to an awareness of what is going on….But can he convince anyone else, and stop the Headless Horseman, before it’s too late?

I decided to set the novel in 1976 for a number of reasons. First of all, this was the year of the American Bicentennial. The “Spirit of ’76 was everywhere in 1976. That created an obvious tie-in with the American Revolution.

Nineteen seventy-six was also a year in which Vietnam, Watergate, and the turmoil of the 1960s were all recent memories. The mid-1970s were a time of national anxiety and pessimism (kind of like now). The economy was not good. This was the era of energy crises and stagflation.

Reading the reader reviews of Revolutionary Ghosts, I am flattered to get appreciative remarks from people who were themselves about the same age as the main character in 1976:

“…I am 62 years old now and 1976 being the year I graduated high school, I remember it pretty well. Everything the main character mentions (except the ghostly stuff), I lived through and remember. So that was an added bonus for me.”

“I’m 2 years younger than the main character so I could really relate to almost every thing about him.”

I’m actually a bit younger than the main character. In 1976 I was eight years old. But as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m nostalgic by nature. I haven’t forgotten the 1970s or the 1980s, because I still spend a lot of time in those decades.

If you like the 1970s, you’ll find plenty of nostalgic nuggets in Revolutionary Ghosts, like Bicentennial Quarters, and the McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes of 1976.

***

Also, there’s something spooky about the past, just because it is the past. As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

For me, 1976 is a year I can clearly remember. And yet—it is shrouded in a certain haziness. There wasn’t nearly as much technology. Many aspects of daily life were more “primitive” then.

It isn’t at all difficult to believe that during that long-ago summer, the Headless Horseman might have come back from the dead to terrorize the American heartland…

View REVOLUTIONARY GHOSTS on Amazon

Goodbye to Goodreads

I’ve closed both my author and personal accounts on Goodreads. My books will still be listed there, of course; but I’ll no longer maintain an active presence there.

Since its launch in 2006, Goodreads has inspired both enthusiastic fans and detractors. There are controversies about the outdated design of the site, and whether or not Goodreads has declined since it was acquired by Amazon in 2013. I’ll leave those debates to others.

Since I first dabbled with Goodreads almost a decade ago, I have found it to be neither a uniformly good nor bad experience. Goodreads is social media. And all social media is a mixture of good and bad, best encapsulated in the acronym, YMMV.

Most of the people I interacted with on Goodreads were pleasant. I also ran across a few yahoos, of course. Once again: social media.

But it’s important to remember that Goodreads is for readers, not writers. I don’t want to be the author on Goodreads who is shouting “buy my book!” Nor is anyone served by the writer who hovers over reader-reviewers.

Nor does a Goodreads account really serve me as a reader-reviewer at this point, because I mostly don’t do that anymore. Once I started seriously publishing my own fiction, I became hesitant to review other people’s books on Amazon, etc. That’s a bit like Ford Motor Company reviewing the latest Toyota Camry, right? If I really want to say something about another author’s book (and that isn’t often), I generally say it here, on my own website.

Finally, throughout this past year I’ve been reassessing my relationship with social media. Since the whole social media thing began about fifteen years ago, I’ve been on Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and the now defunct Google+. At least I never had a MySpace page.

I’ve really gained very little from social media, either spiritually or monetarily. (YouTube, though, is useful if you want to know how to fix a leaky toilet.)

And so it goes with Goodreads. I don’t exactly hate Goodreads, but nor do I particularly like it or need it. This is not a personal boycott or a blanket condemnation of Goodreads. If the site works for you, then by all means continue to use it. But it no longer works for me.

Fiction/release updates

The big item here is The Rockland Horror 3, which is presently in the editing/final revision stage.

The Rockland Horror 3 will be somewhat longer than the previous two books in the series. Both The Rockland Horror and The Rockland Horror 2 were around 72K words. The third book will be closer to 90K words.

This is one reason why it’s taking a bit longer to complete. But  I think you’ll like the final result.

I’m working on some other projects as well, including a World War II epic. More details to come.

The novels of W.E.B. Griffin

I’m presently reading The New Breed, the 7th book in W.E.B. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series. This novel follows the lives and adventures of several U.S. Army personnel involved in covert operations warfare during the 1960s, particularly in Vietnam and the Congo.

Like most W.E.B. Griffin novels, The New Breed is not simply a series of combat scenes strung together. Nor is this a novel in which the Fate of the World rests on one man’s shoulders.

The New Breed is more a slice-of-life look at fighting men and their wives, girlfriends, and children. The entire series is like that. What Griffin wrote was not so much military fiction, but fiction about people who are in the military. Griffin’s novels are light on action, as novels set in global conflicts go. There are, in fact, quite a few W.E.B. Griffin novels in which not much seems to happen.

But when he was at his best, Griffin wrote engaging characters that drew you in to the story. I’m working my way eagerly through the Brotherhood of War books. Many readers have gone before me, and many more are sure to follow. 

When he was not at his best, Griffin’s books tended to ramble. Griffin was most on-point when he wrote stories set narrowly within the US military. When he strayed beyond that, he sometimes seemed to lose the plot.

Speaking of plot: I may be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that Griffin was a discovery writer—that is, he did not compose from an outline, but simply wrote down the story as it came to him. This kind of writing makes for memorable characters, but occasionally ersatz and meandering plots.

The consumption of alcohol is a big part of Griffin’s stories and characters. I’m not talking about drunken bacchanals here, but simply the demonstrated conviction that a grown man must be properly lubricated with spirits at all hours of the day and night. This was no doubt a real part of the postwar military culture in which Griffin came of age.

Also, it’s very clear that Griffin never bothered with what are now called “sensitivity readers”. There is a scene in the The New Breed in which one of the characters actually describes a woman’s breasts as “knockers”. Regular readers of this blog will know that I loathe political correctness; but even I would think twice before using this word in an unironic manner.

W.E.B. Griffin’s work largely avoids the ever-vigilant gaze of the culture nannies, though, because the culture nannies don’t read much military fiction. (So please, don’t link to this blog post on Twitter. Okay?)

W. E. B. Griffin (1929 – 2019) lived to within a few months of his ninetieth birthday. This is probably a wonder, as most photos of the author show him to be rather rotund, and smoking a big stogie.

After a childhood split between New York and Philadelphia, Griffin joined the U.S. Army in 1946. He therefore missed World War II; but he was involved in the military occupation of Germany. He also served in the Korean War.

Griffin was modest about his own military career, however. He once told an interviewer, “My own military background is wholly undistinguished. I was a sergeant. What happened was that I was incredibly lucky in getting to be around some truly distinguished senior officers, sergeants, and spooks.”

Nevertheless, the level of detail in Griffin’s military novels could only come from an author who has actually served in uniform. These books are extremely popular with veterans, as well as less qualified readers like me—who never served, and sometimes regret their failure to do so. 

Most of the Brotherhood of War series was written during the 1980s (with the exception of the final installment, Special Ops, which came out in 2001). All of these books are still in print, however, and available on Amazon in multiple formats. Highly recommended to the veteran and nonveteran reader alike.

***View the Brotherhood of War series on Amazon***

Kindle Vella: first impressions

Kindle Vella is Amazon’s newest subscription e-reading program. Several of you have asked me via email if I plan to write new stories for it.

I might start with the basic question: What the heck is Vella? Vella is a serial fiction platform. The best analogy I can think of for US readers is Wattpad, which seems to be mostly oriented toward teenage girls (given the prevalence of YA romance stories there). Online serial fiction is not especially popular among adult readers in the United States (yet), though it is popular with adult readers in Asia, especially those in China.

At least one major Chinese web novel publisher is now actively targeting the US market. Wattpad, moreover, has become a major online publisher within the YA romance niche.

I suspect that Vella is Amazon’s way of trying to eat the lunch of Wattpad and the Chinese web novel publishers. The creation of a paid platform for web fiction has some complicated aspects, of course; but it would be easy enough for Amazon.

You can’t read stories on Kindle Vella just yet. Kindle Vella has yet to be unveiled to readers, though Amazon is encouraging publishers to create content for it in advance of the launch.

Michael Kozlowski of Good E-Reader has done a detailed write-up of the fine print. There are some positive points: Vella will allow readers to get the first few chapters free, and the “pay as you go” system should discourage many of the scams that have plagued Kindle Unlimited.

On the downside, Vella content must be exclusive not just to Amazon, but to the Vella program itself. If a writer wants to republish a serialized story as a complete book, she will have to take it out of Vella.

Then there is the question (which Kozlowski raises) of whether or not Vella is likely to be a hit with readers. As Kozlowski notes, Amazon’s 2012 Kindle Serials program languished in obscurity and was eventually discontinued. But that was almost a decade ago. That’s a long, long time in  publishing.

I have mixed feelings about all this. My writing dream was born in the 1980s, when “writing” meant writing a book that would (hopefully) find its way to a shelf at Waldenbooks. Nowadays, most of my readers get my books on Amazon Kindle (though I do sell quite a few paperbacks some months).

I’m not opposed to the idea of digital serials, but I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to Kindle Vella. I want to see how Amazon rolls it out and promotes it first.

I have also flirted with the idea of serializing a few long-form stories here on my site. Don’t get me wrong: I love Amazon, as a reader, writer, and general consumer. (I just ordered some vitamins for my dad from Amazon.) But I don’t want all of my content to be exclusive to one company and one website. That would be a bad business strategy. And exclusivity tends to be the first rule of play with all of these Amazon programs.

‘The Rockland Horror 3’ and the Model T

The next installment of The Rockland Horror series is set in 1917, early in the age of the automobile. 

That, of course, means Henry Ford’s iconic Model T. The Ford Motor Company  manufactured  the Model T between 1908 and 1927.

The Model T was mass-produced with simple specifications. The car originally came only in black, though a few other color choices were added in later model years.

The Model T was also quite affordable. The base price for a 1916 Model T Runabout was just $345, or $8,324.76 in 2021 dollars.  This was, obviously, much cheaper than just about any car manufactured for the U.S. market today.

But this simplicity came at a price. If the Model T was cheap (even by early 20th-century standards) it was also far more difficult to use than modern vehicles.

The Rockland Horror 3 (now in production) will be a horror novel, not a book about early automobiles. But the story does involve some car chase scenes, and I wanted to make these scenes reasonably authentic.

My maternal grandfather was born in 1921, and even he never owned a Model T. Driving the Model T is one of those experiences that has passed out of “living memory”, so to speak.

I therefore went to YouTube, where there were, indeed, a few videos about starting and driving the Model T. I’ve embedded two of them here.

You probably already know about the crank start. But even that isn’t the worst of it. To start a Model T, you had to arrange a series of switches and levers inside the car in the right combination. Then you had to “choke” the engine by priming it with gasoline, and then…

Let’s just say it’s complicated!

An American abducted by North Korean agents

The writing of THE CONSULTANT.

For fans of:

  • James Clavell
  • Vince Flynn
  • Brad Thor

Here’s a little about the story, and why you’ll enjoy it if you like a.) East Asian settings, and b.) adventure.

North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens

In my prior professional existence, I was deeply involved with Japan. I learned the Japanese language, and even worked as a translator for a time. I also worked for years in the Japanese automotive industry. I made many trips to Japan.

One of the ongoing issues I learned of in Japan was the so-called ratchi mondai 拉致問題, or “abduction problem”. This intractable matter came up whenever there was talk of Japan and North Korea resuming ordinary diplomatic relations.

Throughout the 1970s and part of the 1980s, North Korean agents abducted numerous Japanese citizens on Japanese soil. (Japan and North Korea are quite close, geographically.) These ordinary Japanese people, who happened to become targets of the North Koreans, were taken to North Korea and forced to work in a variety of capacities. Many were employed against their will as Japanese language instructors.

North Korea’s abductions didn’t stop there. In 1978, North Korea abducted Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. Shin Sang-ok was a well-known South Korean movie director. Choi Eun-hee, his former wife, was a successful actress. The pair spent about eight years in North Korean captivity. They worked directly for Kim Jong-il, the future Supreme Leader of North Korea. Shin and Choi were tasked with making films for North Korea’s movie industry (against their will, of course.) They finally escaped in 1986.

North Korean abductions and Americans

I knew there was a story there. I wanted to write a story about an American kidnapped by the North Koreans, though. So far as my research could determine, there had never been a documented case of the North Koreans abducting an American on foreign soil.

But why couldn’t it happen? After all, thousands of Americans travel to Japan and South Korea every year. Many are skilled business and technical experts, human assets that Pyongyang would surely covet. And North Korean agents are known to be active in both Japan and South Korea.

An American abducted and taken to North Korea

THE CONSULTANT is the story of Barry Lawson, a successful business consultant from Chicago who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And then he finds himself in North Korea.

Barry Lawson is an aging Lothario in his late forties. He has a way with the ladies, and this has often gotten him into trouble. Barry is divorced, with two children.

When Barry is approached by an attractive woman at a bar in Osaka, Japan, he can’t resist….even though he knows better.

This is a decision that he’ll soon regret. Within hours, Barry Lawson, successful business consultant and ladies’ man, must find a way to survive in—and hopefully escape from—the hellhole that is North Korea.

He’s not the only foreigner there, though. Barry he meets a Japanese man, Shoji Tanaka, whom the North Koreans abducted from Hokkaido (in northern Japan) when he went out for cigarettes one night.

Barry also meets Anne Henry, a woman who knows the Korean language. Anne, it turns out, has a traumatic abduction story of her own.

***

That’s all for now. I don’t want to ruin the book for you.

THE CONSULTANT is available in paperback and Kindle. (An audiobook is in the works.) You can presently read THE CONSULTANT in Kindle Unlimited, as well.

Want to preview THE CONSULTANT? You can do so below.

Winter wonderland, writing updates

As the above view from my front porch suggests, Ohio’s plunge into the Ice Age continues unabated.

This afternoon we had about three hours of ice pellets on top of last night’s snow. So…the snow that was already on the ground now has a thick, icy glaze.

I believe I’ve had about enough winter until the 2030s, thank you.

But as long as the power holds out, the writing continues.

At present I’m about halfway through Book Two of The Rockland Horror saga. You can preview Book One below. And remember: For the time being, at least, you can read it in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program.

I’m working on the first two books of another series as well, but I’ll provide more details on that later.

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope the weather is nicer there. But if you’re anywhere in the mainland United States, odds are that your weather is pretty bad, too. This has been a rough February, weather-wise.

Three early novels back in Kindle Unlimited

Most writers tend to change over time. Stephen King’s most recent offering, If It Bleeds, is quite distinct from his early breakout novels like Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining. If It Bleeds is almost like a book from a different author. 

King is  one of  the best-known examples of writers who’ve changed, but there are many others.

***

I haven’t been writing and publishing for as long as Stephen King, of course. But I’ve been at it for about a decade now, and that’s long enough for my story interests and narrative style to undergo significant changes.

Relatively early in the game, I wrote and published a short story collection, along with three novels: Blood Flats (2011), Termination Man (2012), and The Maze (2013).

The short story collection, Hay Moon and Other Stories, has remained on Amazon since 2011. Readers have liked it, and it sells fairly well, as short story collections  go. 

But the aforementioned novels were a different matter. These are all standalone novels, and in a mix of genres. A marketing nightmare. Although reviews were generally positive, sales languished.

***

These three novels are all long books, well in excess of 100K words. (Blood Flats is about 180K words). This past year I decided that it would be a good idea to take the books off the market for a time, give them a thorough reread, and decide if they needed to be altered, republished as originally written, or scrapped.

I’ve written so much in the intervening years, that rereading these books was a bit like reading three books written by another person. I remembered the general plots of each novel, of course; but I had also forgotten huge swaths of the stories.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that all of these novels are, well…pretty darn good.

I subjected these books not only to an author’s reread, but also to an external proofread. A handful of typos were found and corrected (though not many). 

I’ve rereleased these books and put them back in Kindle Unlimited. Here they are, with Amazon links and descriptions:

Blood Flats: Lee McCabe is on the run from the law, mafia hitmen, and rural meth dealers. A gun-blazing chase through the badlands of Kentucky.

Termination Man: Sex, lies, and corporate conspiracies! A workplace thriller for fans of John Grisham and Joseph Finder.

The Maze: Three ordinary people step into an alien world of magic and nonstop danger. A modern-day parallel world fantasy with the soul of a thriller!

***

If the above story descriptions appeal to you, then I think you’ll like each of these books. And you can presently read them for free in Kindle Unlimited. 

A father, his daughter, and two serial killers

The story that came to me while I was waiting in line at the cable company…

“The Van” is one of five long short stories included in the collection: I Know George Washington and Other Stories: 5 Dark Tales

The basic setup for the story is this: a divorced father is driving with his 13-year-old daughter through East Tennessee, near Knoxville. Under the custody agreement of the divorce, the girl spends the summers with her dad in Ohio. As the story opens, the summer is coming to a close. Father and daughter are on their way to Florida, where the man’s ex-wife (the girl’s mother) lives.

That route—from Ohio to Florida—takes them through the eastern corner of the Volunteer State, where trouble awaits. 

They stop at a barbecue restaurant, not far from Knoxville, to eat dinner. It’s been a long day on the road, and they’re both feeling tired.

The man happens to notice two men standing in line with them. The men look suspicious, and they are ogling his daughter.

“The Van” is the story of what happens next…

***

The trigger for this story came to me one day at the branch office of my local cable TV company, of all places. I was standing in line to see about an irregularity on my bill. There were about a dozen people in the line with me.

I looked at the faces around me and thought: What if one of these people is a serial killer?

That was the kernel of the story: a wait in line leads to a random encounter with human evil.  

Stories often begin (for me, at least), with single images or ideas like that. Something will happen—often something very mundane—and it will get me thinking.

A trigger idea always needs work, of course. So it was in this case. “The Van” is not a story about my trip to the cable TV company. A middle-age man (yours truly) standing in line at the cable company is not very exciting.  But what about a father who must take daring actions to save his daughter from two very bad men? Well, that’s something else entirely. That’s something we can work with.

I chose the location of East Tennessee as a setting for several reasons. First of all, I’m familiar with it. I’ve been through that area quite a lot. Secondly, this is  a portion of the country that you would pass through if traveling from  Ohio to Florida, along the I-75 corridor. 

If “The Van” sounds like an intriguing story, you might check out the aforementioned collection. I Know George Washington and Other Stories: 5 Dark Tales is available in both Kindle and paperback at Amazon.

What kind of horror do I write?

This is a question I received the other day on Twitter.  It isn’t a frivolous question, I suppose. About a third of my titles are classified as horror, after all.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what kind of horror I don’t write.

I don’t do excessive gore/violence.

I have never been interested in horror fiction that fetishizes violence and cruelty for the mere sake of wallowing in such things. (If that’s your goal, then why not just watch one of those ISIS beheading videos?)

This means that graphic depictions of torture (for example) don’t appear in my books. Cannibalism is pretty much out, too. (Gross.)

I’m old enough to remember the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991. Suffice it to say that I am not interested in exploring the most extreme possibilities of human depravity in fiction. Again, what’s the point?

Are you into “splatterpunk”? You probably won’t like my books. Do us both a favor, and read something else.

I don’t like horror tales with unlikable characters.

Likewise, I don’t care for horror stories that simply involve horrible things happening to horrible people.

You’ve certainly seen horror movies that involve the following scenario (or something like it): A group of obnoxious, unlikable people enter a house, and they’re killed off one by one.

But the thing is…you don’t care! The protagonists were all awful people, anyway. (Maybe you were even rooting for the monster.)

I don’t do comedy-horror.

Do you like the Zombieland movies? My horror fiction probably isn’t for you.

I love comedy films—Airplane, Blazing Saddles, etc. Cheers from the 1980s can still make me laugh.

But horror is serious business. There can be moments of levity amid the darkness. There are many of these in some of Stephen King’s novels. (Cujo and The Stand stand out in this regard.) But when the monsters come out, it’s all business. Monsters are serious.

***

So what kind of horror do I write, then?

My influences are Stephen King, Peter Straub, and the campfire ghost stories of my youth.

I have always been fascinated by urban legends. I am endlessly interested in the dark house at the end of the lane, the one that all the kids say is haunted.

A good horror story should involve characters that you care about. If you don’t care about the characters, then you won’t care if the monster gets them. 

A good horror story should involve redemption. The evil is defeated in the end. Or some crucial lesson is learned. Or the human condition is in some way illuminated.

Redemption is a key element of most of the horror stories that we love best. The salvation of Mina Harker at the end of Dracula. The closing scene of The Stand, in which Frannie Goldsmith and Stu Redman wonder aloud if people ever really learn from their mistakes. The last scene in The Dead Zone, in which the shade of Johnny Smith assures Sarah that nothing is ever really lost, nothing that can’t be found.

Note that redemption doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. But there has to have been a point to it all.

***

I like ghosts, monsters, things that go bump in the dark. My sainted grandmother was a direct descendant of immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. And every Irishman (even a diluted, generations-removed Irishman like me) loves a good ghost tale.

Let me give you some examples. Here are a few of my horror novels, to date:

Eleven Miles of Night

A college filmmaker takes a walk down a notoriously haunted road, in order earn a $2,000 fee for documenting the phenomena he sees.

This novel contains ghosts, demonic beings, and a long-dead witch who inhabits a covered bridge. Oh, yeah—and hellhounds!

View Eleven Miles of Night on Amazon

12 Hours of Halloween

On Halloween night, 1980, three adolescent friends go out for “one last Halloween”. But they have been cursed by an entity known as “the ghost boy”. As a result, their familiar neighborhood is transformed into a supernatural landscape filled with vampires, wayward spirits, and trees with minds of their own.

View 12 Hours of Halloween on Amazon.

Revolutionary Ghosts

In the summer of 1976, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner discovers that the Headless Horseman has returned to terrorize twentieth-century America. The Horseman has brought other ghosts back with him, including the once beautiful (but now hideous) Marie Trumbull, an executed Loyalist.

View Revolutionary Ghosts on Amazon

I have others; but these are the three you might check out first. They are usually enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which means you can read them for free if you subscribe to that service.

McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes

My coming-of-age supernatural thriller, Revolutionary Ghosts, is set in 1976.  The tale’s hero, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner, has a summer job at McDonald’s. 

One of the recurring jokes in the book surrounds the Arctic Orange Shake, which McDonald’s did indeed introduce in the summer of 1976. Continue reading “McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes”

Jenna Moreci and WriterTube

“WriterTube” refers to the YouTube community of writers. Basically, it is an ongoing discussion about writing and (mostly self-) publishing with YouTube as the platform.

The vast majority of the WriterTube vloggers and commenters are teen girls and young women who are interested in the romance and young adult fantasy genres. I’m a 52-year-old man who writes and reads suspense, horror, and thrillers. WriterTube therefore isn’t a big draw for me, on either side of the camera.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. From time to time, I have tuned in to the videos of Jenna Moreci. She was recently interviewed by Craig Martelle, whom I follow.

Most indie writers nowadays spend all of their time writing new fiction, and relatively little time building an online platform. Many indie writers have no fixed online presence beyond their Amazon sales page. As a result, they must spend disproportionately on various ads, mailing lists, and the like. Continue reading “Jenna Moreci and WriterTube”

Should you outline that novel or not? 9 considerations

Should you plan out your novel before you actually write it, in words that you want other people to eventually read?

That’s a good question.

Most writers agonize at some point about the choice between outlining a novel in advance versus discovery writing it. (Note: I refuse to use the term “pantsing”, as it’s a little too cutesy for my tastes.)

To begin with the conclusion: Yes, and no….and maybe.

I am not going to mandate a method here. I am going to lay out some considerations that you should keep in mind when making this decision for yourself.

Therefore, this will be a somewhat free-ranging discussion, rather than a linear argument leading to the absolute resolution that you must do it this way.

An emotional issue

When this issue is discussed in various online writing forums, there is often a lot of emotion and drama involved. (Imagine that, on the Internet!)

This is because most writers are extremely conflicted themselves. Art, after all, is a combination of ideas that just pop into the brain for no apparent reason, and decisions that one must consciously make. 

For a number of years in my youth I took guitar lessons. I found out that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician. But having studied music, I can tell you this: When you see Iron Maiden or Metallica jamming onstage, there is an entire system of order underlying all that. Not only are there rules, there is mathematical precision.

At the same time, there is also a large degree of inspiration, of purely individual choices. This is why Iron Maiden doesn’t sound like Air Supply.

And so it is with writing. You have to balance chaos with order. Most writers are constantly uneasy about where the line between the two should be drawn. Many of us tend to swing back and forth between outlining and discovery writing, depending on our moods, and how the last project went.

Hence the emotions that surround the debate.

1.) There are bestselling authors in both camps.

Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Connelly are discovery writers. John Grisham, James Patterson, and Ken Follett are meticulous outliners. The late Robert Ludlum’s outlines were often small books in their own right.

The proof here being: Either method can result in a quality product—quality defined as “pleases many readers and makes enough money to fill an ocean liner.”

2.) You can discovery write mystery and thriller fiction, too.

I once read an online essay (I forget where) alleging that Stephen King only discovery writes because most of his stories involve small numbers of protagonists battling supernatural forces. The argument here seems to be that he doesn’t have many balls in the air, and he can change the operating rules at will.

That might be true of some of his novels: The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. In 2014 and 2015, however, King published the much acclaimed Bill Hodges Trilogy. I read the first of these books, Mr. Mercedes.

Mr. Mercedes, at least, is basically a hard-boiled detective novel (and it’s a pretty good one, too.) The book contains no supernatural elements to speak of.

Michael Connelly, another discovery writer, is the author of the popular Harry Bosch detective novels. (I’ve read every one of these ever published.) Connelly writes almost exclusively about the world of forensics, police procedure, and criminal activity.

And he doesn’t use an outline. Connelly told an interviewer in 2014: “I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline.”

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) wrote what might be called literary horror. His stories are heavily weighted with mood and description, but the plots are often kind of thin.

This suggests that H.P. Lovecraft was a discovery writer. Wrong. Lovecraft indicated in several pieces of correspondence that he was an outliner.

3.) There are only two nonnegotiable factors: story structure, and a system for keeping track.

Whether you discovery write or outline, you have to have a knowledge of the elements of story: rising incident, lock-in, climax, etc.

Knowledge of story structure can be acquired by osmosis. You’ve spent your life watching films, television dramas, and reading stories, after all. But it’s probably worthwhile to read at least a few books on the subject, too.

There are many good books on story structure, but the best might be Robert McKee’s Story. McKee wrote this book for screenwriters, but its content can be easily applied to novel and short story writing.

No matter how you write, you also need a system for keeping track of what’s already happened in your story. Who’s been killed off? Who was involved in that heinous crime that occurred in Chapter 10?

Many beginning writers forget this. Then they find themselves 50,000 words into a discovery written story, and chronically unsure of whether the next plot point will make sense in relation to previous ones.

A simple solution is to write a brief summary of each chapter after you’ve written it. You can do this in Excel, Word, or on a legal pad.

(I personally prefer Scrivener. The use of Scrivener is beyond the scope of this essay; but Scrivener’s index card system facilitates organized discovery writing.)

The idea here is that you’re creating an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline, a record of what you’ve already written, versus a plan of what you should write.

4.) Outlining in advance may lead to repetitive stories that feel “thin”.

I’m a huge fan of John Grisham, a noted outliner. But I can’t help noticing that many of Grisham’s stories repeat the same character types and plot devices.

Grisham’s stories often involve a secret cache of ill-gotten money, often in a secret bank account in the Caymans. Many of his stories feature an idealistic-but-reluctant attorney. There is frequently a big, shadowy corporate, governmental, or organized criminal faction directing things behind the scenes. More than one Grisham novel has ended with a mad dash for the money.

James Patterson, on the other hand, writes novels that are technically competent but emotionally thin—at least to me. Trashing James Patterson is a favorite avocation of lesser-selling novelists. (Even Stephen King has taken potshots at James Patterson.) I won’t go there. But I seldom find myself emotionally engrossed in a James Patterson novel. And Patterson outlines everything.

(Note: The comparatively mechanical style of James Patterson novels may have something to do with the fact that most James Patterson novels are written between Patterson and a cowriter. (This explains his uber-prolific output.))

5.) Outlining in advance may lead to procrastination.

This seems counterintuitive at first glance. An outline should result in highly efficient, prolific output, right? Because with an outline, the writer always knows what she’s going to write next.

Not necessarily. Some writers find that after they’ve thoroughly outlined a story, that story is “done” so far as they’re concerned, and they’re ready to move on to something new. The actual writing of the outlined story becomes a chore.

The idea here is that discovery writing preserves enthusiasm—a key factor in any form of artistic output. Or, as Jonathan Franzen stated:

“You have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, then it becomes an adventure…And I have almost a cult belief that if it’s fun for the writer, and kind of an adventure for the writer, some of that will rub off and feel that way to the reader.”  – Jonathan Franzen

6.) Discovery writing relies on bursts of inspiration

This is the counterpoint to #4 above. We can sometimes come up with good ideas (about anything) through a process of directed brainstorming. More often, though, good ideas seem to arrive upon waking up in the morning, while in the shower, or while standing in line at the grocery.

In other words, the creative process is often random and nonlinear.

If you plan to write a 90,000-word novel from start to finish, without any advance planning, you may find yourself staring at the screen of your laptop during some of your writing sessions.

On the other hand, an outline for a story can be easily assembled over time, in a completely nonlinear manner. You can write down the inciting incident and the climax (if those happen to spring to your mind first), and then list out the other scenes as they occur to you.

Then, when the whole outline has been assembled, you can start writing. At that point, it really is just a matter of execution.

Greg Iles (a discovery writer) once described his writing process for a television interviewer. He stated that he spends most of the year “incubating” his story in his mind. Then he sits down and writes the whole thing in one burst, over the span of just a few weeks.

Lee Child (another discovery writer) writes the Jack Reacher novels the same way. This is how Michael Connelly also works.

Child and Connelly are both trad-pubbed authors. They put out one book per year. If each of their novels is 100,000 words long, that works out to about 275 words per day (a typical piece of office email correspondence). This isn’t exactly a blistering pace; but it’s based on the book release practices and business models of the traditional publishing industry.

Discovery writing, then, with its inevitable fits and starts, is less problematic when you have an entire year to crank out a single book, and when you’re only working on one book at a time.

Most indie authors aim for a more ambitious production schedule. Three or four books per year is common. Some indie authors publish one or more books per month.

That would be tough to achieve through pure discovery writing, and without having multiple books going at once.

A process of outlining and preplanning facilitates nonlinear work, and the management of multiple WIPs (works-in-process) at once. You don’t have to work in 275-word bursts of inspiration.

Is it possible to be prolific, year after year, as a discovery writer? Sure it is. But I’m going to suggest that it might be trickier.

Oh, a final observation about Jonathan Franzen: He publishes a novel an average of once every six years.

7.) Discovery writing sometimes leads to meandering stories.

Back to Stephen King. Almost all of the novels that Stephen King (a discovery writer) wrote early in his career were tightly plotted. Some of those original King novels were long, but there was little fat in them.

Then (I mark It (1986) as the turning point), Stephen King’s style abruptly changed. His novels became much, much longer, and the stories meandered all over the place.

Read The Shining (1977) or Cujo (1981). Then read Duma Key (2008), Under the Dome (2009) or 11/22/63 (2011). You’ll see the difference. I love the tight structure and economical plots of Stephen King’s earlier works. His later novels…not so much. (It used to be possible to adapt a Stephen King novel into 2-hour movie; now, a Stephen King adaptation requires a 12-hour miniseries.)

The tendency of the discovery writer to meander seems to grow more acute as the author becomes a brand name, and, one would assume, less subject to the oversight of editors. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami starts each book with “no plan”. Murakami is known for his oddball plots and surrealism. Nevertheless, there is a clearly structured storyline in some of his early works, like Norwegian Wood (1987).

Fast-forward to 2013, and IQ84. This 1,184-page novel of magical realism is all over the place. I tried to read IQ84. I gave up. Even some longtime Murakami fanatics whom I know were put off by the novel.

I realize that the preceding paragraphs contain an aspect of subjectivity. I like tightly structured thriller-type novels, and that bias is clear here. I don’t like 1,000-page literary novels that go all over the place. That’s clear, too.

Not everyone shares my preferences, of course. You might think that 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s greatest novel, and that Haruki Murakami hit his stride with IQ84.

I’m not tell you which kind of story to like—or to write. I am telling you that discovery writing tends to lead to a.) longer books, and b.) lots of subplots and segues.

8.) You don’t have to do it one way or the other.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that you shouldn’t do it entirely one way or the other.

In the beginning, especially, you should try both methods, to see how each one feels—and the results that each method produces for you. Where writing is concerned, the acronym YMMV, “your mileage may vary” definitely applies.

You might come up with a hybrid method. It may be helpful to think of this as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Perhaps you’ll want to plot out the major moments in your story, and then discovery-write your way between these points. That’s perfectly valid.

Other writers brainstorm scene ideas, and then structure the scenes they’ve thought up into a coherent story, inevitably adding and discarding some of the brainstorm work along the way. (Read Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream, for his explanation of “dreamstorming”.

9.) And finally, reevaluate your process at regular intervals.

Your writing process is bound to evolve over time. You may also discover that a method of writing that didn’t work for you two years ago suddenly works for you today.

This is because you’re a different writer than you were two years ago. In the intervening period, you’ve (hopefully) done a great deal of reading and writing.

The important thing is to remember that your writing process must strike a balance between chaos (inspiration) and order (story structure).

In other words, too much woo-woo, and you’ll never get past the dreaming stage. Too much meticulous planning, and…you may spend three years planning a story that you could have easily written in three months.