How New Year’s Eve 1986 made me swear off alcohol

Another New Year’s Eve has arrived. I know that many of you will be consuming large quantities of alcoholic beverages tonight.

Not me, though. I haven’t consumed alcoholic beverages very much at all since New Year’s Eve 1986. But that night I did consume a lot of wine, beer, vodka, and other spirits.

For the last time.

I was eighteen years old on 1/31/86. The drinking age in Ohio had just been raised from 18 to 21. But what did I care? In fact, I hadn’t cared much about such niceties since 1981, when I’d begun experimenting with alcohol at the age of 13.

Hey—it was the Eighties! There was no helicopter parenting back then. Moreover, in those freewheeling times, shopkeepers could sometimes be persuaded to sell beer or wine to underage teens who looked mature. I started shaving at the age of 14.

And as for the hard stuff….well, let’s just say that not all parents minded their liquor cabinets, let alone installed locks on them.

Between the 8th grade and my high school graduation, I did my share of drinking. I wasn’t a lush, mind you, but I managed to try everything from beer to bourbon. (Rum was the only drink that I never tried, and I’d always wanted to shout, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle o’ rum!” with a pirate’s inflection, while holding a bottle of Bacardi or Captain Morgan.)

I quickly learned an unpleasant truth about drinking and me: I didn’t like hangovers.

Hangovers manifest themselves differently for everyone. For me, a hangover invariably entailed projectile vomiting, extreme fatigue, and the sense that my head had just been used to ring a church bell. A hangover left me feeling really bad—for at least one day, and probably two.

By New Year’s Eve 1986 I already knew that alcohol affected me this way. But I was eighteen years old. Since when have eighteen year-olds been fast learners? I had graduated from high school the previous spring, and a girl from my class (one I sort of liked) had invited me to a New Year’s Party. I therefore had to attend. And being a typical teenage herd animal, I had to drink—because that’s what everyone else would be doing.

I don’t know exactly how many drinks I had that night. I got drunk enough, however, that the operation of a motor vehicle would have been out of the question. (I had arranged for a ride that night, so no—I wasn’t drinking and driving; nor did I ever do that.)

The next morning, 1/1/87, my first thought upon waking up was that eighteen years was plenty long enough for any one person to live. I should just die now, and be done with it.

I had a bad hangover—my worst one to date.

I got out of bed and went for a run in the frigid morning air. This helped—to a point. I felt decent as long as I kept running. The thing about running, though, is that you eventually have to stop. Within a few minutes of completing my run, I was feeling just as lousy as I had upon waking up.

I still lived with my parents at the time. They decided to celebrate the New Year by going out for breakfast. And of course—I readily agreed to tag along when they invited me to join them. (Like I said, most 18 year-olds are not quick on the uptake.)

As soon as we were seated in our booth, I wanted to leave. I realized that I wasn’t up to eating anything. My parents, though, wanted their breakfasts. My mother insisted on ordering a breakfast consisting of eggs, hash browns, sausage, and gravy. If your stomach is up to snuff, that might be a delicious combination. But what if you have a hangover, and you can barely keep a glass of water down? In that case, the aroma of a typical “country breakfast” platter is a barf-inducing olfactory concoction.

My parents, being no fools, saw what was up. So did our sixty-something waitress, who poked fun at my misery while I sat there without breakfast.

When I arrived back home that morning, I had an epiphany: I’d been an idiot. Binge drinking was nothing more than self-induced misery.

And no, it wasn’t “cool”. What is so cool about projectile vomiting?

I clearly remember the moment—on January 1st, 1987, in which I said, “never again”.

I made a vow never to put myself through that again. More than thirty years later, I still haven’t. I’ve never consumed alcoholic to excess since that night.

I have had the occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer. But even these are rare. (My most recent tipple was a beer at a trade show in 2002.) Alcoholic beverages and me just don’t mix. I haven’t missed them.

And besides—now that I’m more than old enough to drink legally, what’s the point?

New Year’s resolutions 2020

Another New Year is almost upon us. Out with the old, in with the new!

As I’ve written before, it’s my habit to create New Year’s resolutions around this time of year.

My New Year’s plans/resolutions for 2020 are as follows:

Write/publish more books

I’ve got lots more books on the way in 2020, including at least one (possibly two) in January.

Continue to exercise

At the age of 51, I am fortunate to have my good health.

Many years ago, I developed an addiction to exercise. Dieting is not as easy for me, but I have enough discipline to avoid the really bad stuff. I plan to continue my fitness regimen in 2020.

Read more books

This year I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to. I plan to spend more time reading and reflecting in 2020.

Avoid social media

I haven’t seen much positive on Twitter, YouTube, etc. Social media seems to bring out the worst in everyone.

I do have a personal Facebook account, which I use to maintain contact with my old high school classmates and work colleagues. I will continue to use that in moderation.

But I’m done with the outrage, snark, and shrillness of the wider ocean of social media, beyond people I know in real life.

The world was better off before social media existed. I believe it will be better off after social media is gone, too.

Become a better person

Like many people do in middle age, I’ve fallen prey to cynicism at times. I’ve been guilty of the sin of pride.

I have often been too harsh toward my fellow human beings. I haven’t empathized with others as I should.

In 2020, I plan to speak more kindly, to love more deeply. To be less prone to anger and defensiveness. To see the good in others.

Or at least I will try. I am—like most of you—a deeply flawed human being.

But I will try to do better in 2020.

***

Anyway, those are my plans for the New Year, at a high level. Good luck achieving your New Year’s resolutions.

And if you haven’t yet come up with any, you still have time before 1/1/2020.

New on Amazon: ‘I Know George Washington’

Available FREE for subscribers of Amazon Kindle Unlimited:

($3.99 for non Kindle Unlimited subscribers)

I Know George Washington and other stories: five dark tales

View it on Amazon!

Five dark tales of crime, supernatural horror, and suspense…

In Tennessee, a father and his adolescent daughter must battle two evil men who harbor sinister intentions toward one of them.

In Zacatecas, Mexico, a recent college graduate takes a job as a private English language tutor for a wealthy family. But the entire household is hiding a horrible secret.

In Virginia, a young stockbroker’s colleagues insist that George Washington, the First President of the United States, is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

In rural Ohio, curiosity compels two travelers to stop at an abandoned schoolhouse with an evil history, and a reputation for ghostly activity.

In western Pennsylvania, a junior high student learns that his beloved teacher is not what he purports to be. 

A collection of five unique stories, each of which contains an unexpected twist.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the stories in this collection:

“The Van”: While traveling through Tennessee, a single father and his 13-year old daughter encounter two men who take an unwholesome interest in one of them. 

“Thanatos Postponed”: A recent college graduate takes a job as a private tutor at the estate of a wealthy businessman in Zacatecas, Mexico. But there is something horribly wrong in the palatial residence high in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. 

“I Know George Washington”: A young man’s new work colleagues insist that George Washington is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

“One-room Schoolhouse”: A young couple stop at an abandoned schoolhouse in rural Ohio. The schoolhouse is reputed to be haunted. 

“Mr. Robbie’s Secret”: a beloved English teacher is not what he appears to be. 

I hope you enjoy these stories.

Every Which Way But Loose

Admittedly cheesy, but good…

Clint Eastwood is one of the few actors for whose work I am a completist—meaning that I have made it my mission to watch everything the actor ever made. 

My favorite Clint Eastwood movies are the more recent ones: Gran Torino and The Mule. But if you’re in the mood for something cheesier, you might give Every Which Way But Loose (1978) a try.

Every Which Way But Loose is a movie about a guy, Philo, who drives a truck and bare-knuckle boxes for extra money. 

Oh, and Philo has an orangutan as a sidekick. And a human sidekick. And a foul-mouthed mother.

The movie takes place at various locations in the American West. But it begins in Southern California. Philo falls for pretty but dodgy lounge singer, Lynne (Sondra Locke). She takes off, and he pursues her to Colorado.

That’s the main plot—sort of. But Philo also makes enemies of two vengeful police officers, and a neo-Nazi gang called the Black Widows.

If this sounds a tad ridiculous, well—it is. Nevertheless, Every Which Way But Loose is an oddly entertaining movie. From what I’ve read (I was alive in 1978, but too young to have watched the film), this movie was roundly panned by the critics, but it was a commercial success.

It just goes to show: Never trust professional critics. 

View Every Which Way But Loose on Amazon

Star Wars cards, circa 1977

I was a member of the original Star Wars generation. I remember sitting in the cinema with my dad, in the summer of 1977, watching that opening text crawl:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

I was instantly hooked. There was something special about being a kid in 1977, when Star Wars was brand new, and there was one movie, instead of a gazillion of them.

I also became one of the millions of child consumers who fueled the Star Wars licensing boom.

Collecting action figures would be an extremely nerdy activity for me today (pathetic, actually—I’m in my fifties); but at age nine I was just fine with that. I had many of the Star Wars action figures.

But I especially liked the Star Wars trading cards.

I had always felt left out of the baseball card trading craze of the 1970s. (I never minded spectator sports, but to this day I’m not crazy about them.)

But Star Wars cards, yes, I loved those.

Each card featured an iconic scene from the movie. Also, each pack of Star Wars cards contained a sticker (very useful for adorning my looseleaf binder in the fourth grade).

Oh, and a stick of gum—just like the baseball cards.

I doubt that kids bother with any sort of trading cards anymore. It’s all about i-this and i-that nowadays.

But forty-odd years ago, if you were a kid who was crazy about Star Wars, it was a lot of fun to collect those cards.

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ $0.99 for a limited time!

If you haven’t read Revolutionary Ghosts yet, here is your chance to get it on Amazon Kindle for less than a buck.

Revolutionary Ghosts is a coming-of-age horror tale set in 1976…

Revolutionary Ghosts

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again. A dark fantasy horror thriller filled with wayward spirits, historical figures, and a cool 1970s vibe.

Get it on Amazon Kindle for just $0.99 for the next three days!

Terrifying horror stories that you can read online for free

If you’re looking for frightening tales, you might turn to a book. (I’m definitely an advocate of those!) 

There are, however, plenty of short horror tales that you can read for free online.

First of all, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe are in the public domain. 

The copyright surrounding H.P. Lovecraft’s work is varied (and a little confusing). Much of it, however, can be found in the public domain. 

Plenty of FREE horror stories here!

I’m also publishing horror stories that you can read here—completely FREE. 

The list will continue to grow, but here are some to get you started:

Giants in the Trees: Unspeakable horrors are lurking in the trees of a suburban back yard. 

The Vampires of Wallachia: Three travelers discover that a Chinese restaurant in Ohio is home to the undead. 

The Wasp: Leo had always been afraid of wasps….for good reason, as it turned out.

For more horror fiction, check out this page, where I regularly post story updates!

Get some stories, help disabled vets

How would you like to get 981 pages of action-thriller stories, and help disabled vets in the process? 

Check out Origins of Honor: An Action-Thriller Collection on Amazon.

Many of the authors in the collection are military veterans themselves. 

100% of the proceeds go to the Oscar Mike Foundation for disabled vets.

I’m from that generation that was too young to serve in Vietnam, and mostly too old for the recent troubles in the Middle East. I turned eighteen in 1986. At that time, Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR were easing, but no one was thinking about the threat of Islamic terrorism yet.

I was twenty-one in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and everyone naively believed that we’d seen an end to war and strife.

I did not serve in the military. 

Nevertheless, I’m immensely grateful to those who have. And we should all be grateful to those who have paid the ultimate price, as so many young men and women have in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So I finally saw ‘Taxi Driver’

Watching Taxi Driver (1976) had been on my to-do list for quite some time, and tonight I finally checked it off.

This was, first of all, a very dark film about the psychological and social malaise of post-Vietnam America during the Sickie Seventies. The film is set in New York, which—by all accounts—was truly a hellhole during that era. 

Robert DeNiro stars as 26 year-old Travis Bickle, a troubled Vietnam vet with obvious psychological issues. Travis takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver as an antidote to his persistent insomnia. 

Early in the movie, Travis meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Betsy is a volunteer for the campaign of Charles Palantine, a surging candidate for President of the United States. Travis’s approach is a bit odd. But Betsy admires his spunk, and agrees to join him for coffee and pie.

At first it seems that Travis may find happiness with Betsy. But when he takes her out for a movie, his choice is very…inappropriate second-date fare. Disturbed by the date, Betsy stops taking his calls.

Disillusioned with Betsy, New York, and the human condition, Travis hatches a bizarre plan to assassinate Charles Palantine–though his plans take a surprise turn.

Travis also befriends Iris (Jodie Foster), 12 year-old prostitute. (Yes, really.) Although he has an opportunity to sexually exploit her, Travis only wants to save Iris from her life on the streets and her manipulative pimp.

How does it all shake out? I’m not going to tell you—just in case you haven’t yet seen the movie.

Taxi Driver is a good movie, but it’s a dark and depressing ride through nearly two hours of mid-1970s social decay, and the mind of an extremely disturbed young man. This is no John Wayne movie. Travis is an antihero; but there is enough good in him to maintain him as a sympathetic character.

Taxi Driver is also a film that would never get made today. The content in this movie would generate a long list of twenty-first century trigger warnings and speech code violations. Most shocking to present-day viewers (and this was even a boundary-pusher for me) was the blatant depiction of child prostitution. There is no underage nudity or sex scenes between adults and minors. Nevertheless, Jodie Foster would have been about thirteen when this movie was made. Though all the really bad stuff is merely implied, it would be a bit too close for comfort for today’s moviegoers. One can only imagine the outcry on Twitter.

Anyone who was alive in 1981 will know the historical significance of Taxi Driver. This was the movie that stoked John Hinckley Jr’s obsession with Jodie Foster, and gave him the idea of assassinating a president in order to impress her.

Hinckley originally planned to assassinate Jimmy Carter. But Carter left office before Hinckley could make a serious attempt. So Hinckley shot Reagan in Washington D.C. on March 30, 1981. (I can still remember hearing the news from a childhood friend’s mother; but that’s another story for another time.)

By all means, watch Taxi Driver; but realize that it will give you a mental hangover for a few hours. Although the ending is not entirely unhappy, this is not an uplifting movie.

But sometimes dark films can be worth watching, too. I believe this is one such case. 

View Taxi Driver on Amazon!

‘Treadstone’ is not to be missed

I’ve been watching the USA Network’s Treadstone. Loosely based on the premise of the Jason Bourne novels, Treadstone is an ambitious espionage action/adventure series with deep-cover agents, international locations, and multilayered plots.

I had been anxiously waiting for something like this. Since The Americans ended last year, there hasn’t really been much on television in the espionage genre.

Like The Americans, Treadstone involves a complex, ongoing story. It might be possible to jump in anywhere and begin watching; but you’re advised to start with the first episode and work your way forward.

The producers of Treadstone also take pains to make the show authentic—down to the details of language. Characters in North Korea actually speak Korean. When the action crosses over to China, they speak Mandarin. (There is even a storyline set in Hungary in 1973, and these characters speak Hungarian.)

I would like to see more television like this. I’m sick of goofy superhero retreads, and endless stories about teens performing magic.

Treadstone is an engaging series for an adult audience. I don’t like Treadstone quite as much as I liked The Americans, but I like it a lot. 

The future of Amazon

From Motley Fool: Why Jeff Bezos Might Want to Break Up Amazon

There’s a case to be made here. Those of us who can remember when Amazon was nothing but an Internet bookstore never dreamed that it would become what it is today.

A planned breakup might make sense functionally.

From a political perspective, the success of Amazon’s model has earned the company detractors from both sides of the left-right continuum.

Think about it: Both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump have criticized Amazon in recent years. And those two agree about almost nothing.

‘Nevada Smith’: one of the last golden-age westerns

In 1966, the war in Vietnam was already a major concern for most Americans in real life. The tumultuous year of 1968 (also the year of your humble correspondent’s birth) was fast approaching. The golden, innocent era of postwar America was drawing inexorably to a close.

But Hollywood was still cranking out westerns. The Great American Western, too, would be killed by the societal upheavals of the 1960s. After that decade, American audiences were no longer as willing to embrace the straightforward notions of good and evil, heroes and villains, that typified the western movie. Make of that what you will.

But Hollywood was still cranking out these movies in 1966. In that year, Nevada Smith, starring Steve McQueen, hit the theaters. (The movie hit my cable box last night, fifty-three years later.)

Nevada Smith employs a classic revenge plot. Max Sand (aka Nevada Smith) is the son of a white father and a Native American mother. During his youth, both of his parents were brutally murdered in a crime with vaguely racial overtones. Now an adult, Max sets out to track down the killers and avenge his parents.

This is an entertaining film. The main character goes on a long quest to fulfill his aims, and that presents numerous opportunities for plot twists, and a colorful array of secondary characters. I suspect, though, that at 128 minutes (a little more than two hours), Nevada Smith would have to be cut down for twenty-first century moviegoers, who are now so accustomed to peripatetic superhero flicks.

If anything detracted from Nevada Smith, it was the film’s lack of realism, which was simply taken for granted by moviemakers and moviegoers alike prior to the 1970s. To cite one example: when characters are shot, they simply grab their chests and keel over. This may have spared 1960s audiences blood and gore, but it also required a lot more suspension of disbelief.

Nineteen sixty-six was not a “woke” year (no one back then would have even known the term), nor is Nevada Smith a “woke” movie. That said, the film’s portrayal of Native Americans, and various mixed race people, is sympathetic and respectful. (I have no doubt, though, that today’s PC crowd would watch the film and find something to carp about. Don’t they always?)

Steve McQueen died in 1980 at the age of 50. Nevada Smith represents one of his better performances. Worth a watch if you like classic westerns.

View Nevada Smith on Amazon!

Should you major in the liberal arts?

One day in August of 1986, I sat down before the desk of a Northern Kentucky University (NKU) guidance counselor to discuss my class schedule for the upcoming fall semester. I was an incoming freshman. 

The guidance counselor began by asking me what I intended to major in during my four years at NKU. I told her either history or English literature.

She told me, in so many words, that I was an idiot.

“So what you’re saying,” she said, “is that you want to pay to read books. You can read books on your own time, for free.”

Needless to say, I was taken aback. This was several decades before it became fashionable to refer to callow young adults as “snowflakes”. Nevertheless, I was used to receiving almost unconditional encouragement from the adults in my midst. The ink on my high school diploma was still drying, after all. 

I explained to her that English and history had been my favorite subjects in high school. She told me that that didn’t matter. What mattered was, how was I going to prepare myself to earn a living by reading Shakespeare, and learning about the Treaty of Ghent? 

What are the liberal arts?

I will freely admit that I love the liberal arts. 

What are the liberal arts, exactly? In short, they are subjects of fundamental, as opposed to applied, inquiry. 

Imagine a group of students at one of the great universities of Europe during the Renaissance, say in…the year 1504. How many of them do you think were studying HVAC repair or managerial accounting? No, most of them were studying subjects like philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and literature. 

The liberal arts, then, don’t necessarily mean subjects for the numerically challenged, like literature and history. The liberal arts actually are divided into four categories: social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, and humanities. Some of these require a substantial amount of number-crunching. 

The problem with the liberal arts

The problem with the liberal arts, of course, is that it’s hard to make a living as a philosopher or a historian. In most cases, a career in the liberal arts means a career in academia. That can be an okay career, but there are only so many universities and so many open slots. 

And you’ll need an advanced degree. As one of my college biology professors once told my Biology 101 class: “A Bachelor of Science in Biology qualifies you to sell shoes.”

Oh, and that was in 1987, when there were still mall shoe stores to give you a job selling shoes. Today, of course, people buy shoes from Amazon—where they buy seemingly everything else. 

What should you major in, then?

Probably something that you see people doing around you, for actual money: nursing, engineering, accounting, and yes—HVAC repair. (The guy who works on my furnace and air conditioner is typically scheduled four weeks in advance). 

This is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who love books. It’s not that there aren’t books in the applied fields, but they are different kinds of books, and you’ll require a different kind of curiosity to get enthusiastic about them. 

But trust me—it can be done. I finally ended up majoring in economics—yes, another field in the liberal arts! Later on, though, I took some accounting courses at the graduate level. Accounting can be interesting. Really, it can be.

Why should you be so coldly realistic when choosing a major? The answer is simple: money. With rising tuition costs, a college education is an investment. And every investment requires a plan for ROI (return on investment).

If this doesn’t seem immediately obvious to you (it didn’t seem obvious to me in 1986), don’t be too hard on yourself. Our system of higher education is still stuck in the early twentieth century in many ways. 

Before World War II, a university education was largely seen as a “finishing school” for members of the upper classes. Most of them didn’t have to be too practical. They already had plenty of career options. Many went to work in well-established family businesses. 

In the decades after World War II, the significance and the purpose of the university degree gradually changed. On one hand, by the 1960s, people from the middle and working classes were now attending university. That was a good thing. On the other hand, though, the 4-year university degree lost its scarcity value. And since people in the middle and working classes needed to earn money, they had to be practical when choosing a major.

These changes were already well underway in 1986, when I entered college. But I’m not going to lie to you: When I graduated in 1990, it was still possible to get a corporate, professional job if you had some kind of a 4-year degree—even in history or astronomy. 

Yes, the engineering majors were most in demand, but few English lit graduates truly went without. Somebody would hire you. The only downside was, you wouldn’t be using your major. I graduated with a B.A. in Economics, but no employer ever asked me to draw a supply-and-demand curve, or estimate the marginal utility of some activity. (My first job out of college was a low-level sales job for a machine tool distributor.) 

Nowadays, though, it isn’t uncommon to find twentysomethings with BAs in English working as baristas and waiters. I’m not gloating here, or saying that’s good or fair. I am saying that it’s harder than ever to get a decent-paying job with a liberal arts degree.

What about the liberal arts, then?

Here’s another confession: I still love the liberal arts, and I still think they’re vitally important. 

There are some things that every person should know, and most of these come under the rubric of liberal arts. Every person should know how to set up a basic algebraic equation. Every person should know the differences between capitalism and Marxism. Every person should know the basics of the histories of the major world cultures, and the major world religions. 

Oh, and the Treaty of Ghent: Signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 between the United States of America and Great Britain. If you’re reading these words in one of those two countries, you should probably know the Treaty of Ghent, too.

To revisit the advice that the NKU guidance counselor gave me over thirty years ago: You can learn about the liberal arts without spending thousands of dollars in university tuition. 

Want to read Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. If you have an Internet connection, you can read them for free. You don’t have to spend $300 per credit hour to read Shakespeare. 

Likewise, most of the liberal arts have been covered in thousands and thousands of books, written by some very bright people. You can get books for free at your public library. Or you can spend a little money and get them on Amazon. (But you won’t spend even a fraction of what you’d spend to acquire a 4-year degree in one of these subjects.)

The hard truth

I wish the truth were otherwise. I love the idea of study for its own sake. But given the realities of tuition fees and the job market, you probably shouldn’t pay to take college courses in Shakespeare or European history. 

You’d be much better off reading about these subjects on your own time. Go to college for engineering or nursing. 

Or maybe HVAC repair. Remember that HVAC repairman who’s booked four weeks in advance. I doubt that there are many philosophers with four week waiting lists, and not many poets or playwrights, either. 

‘Hamburger Hill’: Vietnam, 1980s style

Several of the best Vietnam War movies ever made were made during the 1980s: namely Platoon (1986) (the best one ever, IMO), and the dark and surrealistic Full Metal Jacket (1987). 

Then there was Hamburger Hill, also made in 1987. 

While Platoon and Full Metal Jacket are classics, Hamburger Hill is a Reagan-era movie about Vietnam that simply doesn’t age well. (I don’t know how good it was in 1987, all things considered. I saw it for the first time last night.)

For starters, this movie contains every possible cliche about the Vietnam War.

The  Procol Harum song “A Whiter Shade of Pale”?  Check!

Vietnamese prostitutes who promise to “love you long time”? Check!

Hackneyed and tortured portrayals of racial tensions in the ranks? Check!

The action, moreover, is uneven. And there is not a single scene in which actor Dylan McDermott doesn’t have perfectly arranged hair. 

Hamburger Hill isn’t a horrible movie, but there are far better options in the Vietnam War movie genre, including the more recent We Were Soldiers (2002), starring Mel Gibson.

View the Hamburger Hill DVD on Amazon!

Stephen King adaptations

Not all of them are equal, as an article in The Boston Herald reminds us.

The article includes a list of must-see Stephen King adaptations.

I have one  quibble with the list. The 1994 TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand (starring Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinese) is not included.

Yes, it aired 25 years ago. Nevertheless, that was a top-notch television adaptation of very complex and visually challenging piece. 

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.

Winter in Ohio…in November

It was barely a month ago that I was complaining about the blistering heat in October.

Well, now November is here, and suddenly we’ve got January weather in Southern Ohio. Tonight the mercury will dip all the way down to 13 degrees Fahrenheit in Cincinnati.

This is part of a larger cold front. Most of the eastern half of the United States is experiencing unseasonably frigid temperatures both today and tomorrow.

The good news: the weather is supposed to moderate later in the week!

‘The Pacific’: HBO

I’m watching The Pacific on HBO. This series is a significant investment in time, but well worth it. 

There haven’t been nearly enough films and novels about the Pacific war. World War II movies and fiction tend to gravitate to the war in Europe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The war in Europe took place in the middle of Western Civilization, in countries that everyone is familiar with: France, Germany, Russia, etc.

And, of course: Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Probably half the documentaries on the History Channel are about the Third Reich. 

Much of the war in the Pacific (the part that we were involved in, anyway), was fought on thinly populated, remote islands. While the ideology of the Third Reich is well known to anyone with even basic historical literacy, few Americans grasp the essentials of the Japanese Empire, and its major players. 

Those are among the reasons why the war in the Pacific has been such a challenge to storytellers, and–as a result–often neglected by them. But this HBO series does a great job of bringing “the other World War II” to life.

How songs connect us to memory

I was never a huge fan of Richard Marx. (I never actively disliked his music, either. I just wasn’t a raving fan.) 

But boy, the summer of 1987 was his moment. That summer, I spent a lot of time in my car, listening to FM radio, and this Richard Marx song was on the radio endlessly

When I hear it now, I’m instantly transported back to that time and place. That hot, fun summer. I was nineteen years old.

Songs often ground us to particular moments in our past–sometimes even songs that we didn’t necessarily love at the time, but nevertheless heard a lot.  

The Internet, Jonathan Franzen, and distractions

About a year ago, literary novelist Jonathan Franzen shared his “10 rules for novelists”. Number 8 was:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure I would be this absolutist about the matter. But as someone old enough to have reached adulthood before the Internet was “a thing”, I can appreciate just how distracting cyberspace can be.

It was bad enough in the beginning. But then came social media (I’ll spare you my usual rant), and those damned smartphones. 

As for Jonathan Franzen: The guy gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. Yes, he is quirky and eccentric. Yes, he is fashionably progressive and eye-rollingly politically correct in his politics. But no more so than many other people in the arts.

I’ve read two of his novels: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). I thought both books were pretty good. 

Fall of the Berlin Wall + 30 years

The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago today, on November 9, 1989. (Several more years would pass before it would be systematically demolished.)

I won’t recount the entire history of the Wall’s fall here. (You can find that in various places throughout the Internet.) But I will provide a personal perspective.

I was twenty-one years old in November 1989, and a college student. Like most people at the time, I viewed the fall of the Wall with intense optimism.

And there was a lot to be optimistic about in late 1989: The USSR still existed, but a progressive-minded reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, was at the helm. And he was allowing the Berlin Wall, that symbol of Cold War Soviet tyranny, to come down.

US domestic politics were relatively calm. Not everyone loved George H.W. Bush, of course. But few saw his administration as seriously divisive. This was an era when you could simply ignore US domestic politics, if you wanted to. There wasn’t a lot of drama.

There were problems in the Muslim Middle East. (Aren’t there always?) But the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait was still just a gleam in Saddam Hussein’s eye. No one in the West had yet heard of Osama Bin Laden.

We believed, at that time, that the world was on the verge of a peaceful new era of free markets, international harmony, and peace.

Some scholar–Francis Fukuyama, I believe it was–described this moment as “the end of history”, meaning: the end of traditional historical conflicts.

But it didn’t work out that way, did it? Russia did not develop into another Sweden (as many predicted at the time), but became a paranoid, bellicose, neo-czarist state, in some ways worse than the USSR. The Muslim Middle East continued its long descent into fratricidal chaos. China became more aggressive.

And the West–well, let’s just say that both North America and Western Europe looked much better in 1989 than they do today.

Proof that things don’t always work out as you expect. The evidence can deceive you. Sometimes the future is better than you anticipate, but sometimes it’s far worse, too.

Perfect autobiographical memory

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), or hyperthymesia, is a rare condition in which an individual remembers every single day of his or her life in precise detail.

Less than a hundred people in the world are believed to have perfect hyperthymesia. One of them is actress Marilu Henner. In 2012 she published a book about her memory (with tips for how to improve yours) called Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. 

(I’ve read it, by the way—it’s a worthwhile book if you’re interested in this topic.)