It’s Friday again, so you know what that means. It’s #FirstLineFriday! And if this is your first time joining us for this most fun of traditions, here are the rules.

  1. On Friday, write a post on your blog titled #FirstLineFriday, hashtag and all.
  2. You explain the rules like I’m doing now.
  3. You post the first one or two lines of a potential story, a story-in-progress, or a completed or published story.
  4. You ask your readers for feedback, and then encourage them to try #FirstLineFriday on their own blogs.

So this week’s entry comes from an idea I had for a novel about two weeks ago, inspired by the season premiere of Ghost Adventures (people can trash that show all they want, I don’t care. I love it, I believe in what Zak Bagans and his team are doing, and I get so many ideas from it. How can that be bad?). It’s definitely a weird and creepy story, to say the least. Enjoy:

The house didn’t seem to have changed a bit since she was last here. Indeed, Anna almost expected to hear Pinocchio come running up to greet her with his wagging tail, and Miss Myrtle to call to her from the kitchen and ask her how her day at school was.

Thoughts? Too wordy? Does the story intrigue you? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you enjoyed reading this post, why not give #FirstLineFriday a try on your own blog? It’s fun coming up with new lines every week, and you get such great feedback from your readers. Plus as an author it gives you an idea of how people might respond to certain story ideas, which is always nice.

Anyway, that’s all for now. If anything comes up–and knowing my life, that’s a definite possibility–you’ll probably hear about it pretty quickly. Have a great weekend, my Followers of Fear!

The other day I met some folks at the local Starbucks. We’re all part of a group  of college students and young adults run by Jewish Family Services of Columbus which promotes physical, financial, mental, and social health for its members. As often happens when I’m talking with new people, the writing career came up. And you should’ve seen how these folks reacted. They were very impressed, going on about how three published books and four more at various stages of the editing/compilation process* was quite the talent, how they struggled to get five-hundred words together and make that sound good, let alone an entire novel. Basically it all boiled down to “We struggle with this, but you make it look easy.”

And the whole time I’m just sitting there thinking, This is all very flattering, I hope you buy the books, but honestly writing is damn hard!

This came up during a discussion I had with an acquaintance over Facebook last week. He was trying to write a story but was having trouble getting the words down on paper, so he thought he’d pick my brains on the subject. One of the things we discussed was how difficult it is for even the most veteran writers to get words out on paper. You look at that blank page, and you know that you need to get several thousand words–sometimes much, much more–on that paper. Then you realize that you’ll have to go back several times, editing and rewriting, changing passages, changing entire plot lines sometimes.** It’s intimidating, almost like every word is like a soldier in a war that you have to defeat personally. Not very easy.

Okay, this is possibly me being overdramatic, but you get the idea.

Yeah, to some people I make writing look pretty easy. That I’m making those sixty-thousand-plus words just appear on the page with barely any energy spent. But in reality, it’s hard work coming up with the stories, making them compelling and fun and interesting. Creating the characters, making them fully rounded and sympathetic, giving them backstories and a reason for the readers to root for them or at least stay invested in them. Then doing the research, working the final details out, and finally  putting the words down on paper, picking them and putting them in an order that sounds right when read aloud. And even after all that there are probably more words to add, just as many to lose, and maybe twice that amount is going to be reordered or replaced by something else.

Like the title of this post says, it’s a struggle to write. We writers may make it seem easy, or people look at us and assume that to us it’s easy (even when you tell them that it’s bloody difficult work), but it’s as much of a challenge for us as finding a way to sustain life on Mars is for scientists, or making it to the Olympics is for athletes.

And yet still we do it. We come up with the ideas, do the outlines, create the characters. We research, put down the final plot details, and get everything we need done before we actually write. And then, through fears and anxiety and everything else, we face down the blank page, like two boxers in a ring, and we start working. And after all the writing’s done, we do the countless hours and hours of editing, until the story is as good as it’s going to be.

Why do we do this? Maybe we like sharing the stories we create with our readers. Maybe we need to get these stories out of our heads before they drive us crazy. The point is, we engage in that struggle every time we open our notebooks or turn on our computers. And we do what we’ve trained and worked hard for. And it’s never easy. But for many of us, I think we wouldn’t have it any other way.

*More on that in another post.

**I may have to do that with Rose when I do the third draft. Oy!

It’s Friday again, so you know what that means. It’s #FirstLineFriday! New here and don’t know what #FirstLineFriday is? Don’t worry, the rules are coming right up!

So, here are the rules of #FirstLineFriday. On Fridays, you:

  1. Write a post on your blog titled #FirstLineFriday, hashtag and all.
  2. Explain the rules like I’m doing now.
  3. Post the first one or two lines of a potential story, a story-in-progress, or a completed or published story.
  4. Ask your readers for feedback and encourage them to try doing #FirstLineFriday on their own blogs.

So, my entry this week isn’t attached to any story, at least not any I’ve come up with yet. They actually came to me while I was helping my sister move into her new apartment earlier this week (when the time comes, I plan to make sure she returns the favor. Mwa ha ha!). If I can find a story where this sort of opening applies though, I’ll definitely use it. Anyway, enjoy:

Whoever had the bright idea to imply that moving was hard but glorious work should have been shot. Because as far as I’m concerned, moving is only one thing, and that’s a pain in the ass.

Thoughts? Errors? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

And if you enjoyed reading this, why not try it on your own blog? It’s a fun habit to get into, and you get such great feedback from your readers. I certainly enjoy it.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll probably take a short break from blogging over the next couple of days as I work on the many things that take up my life. If anything big happens though, I’ll make sure to let you know. Have a great weekend!

I read an article on BuzzFeed yesterday that really upset me. According to the article, emails from the University of Chicago’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historically Jewish fraternity, had been released and revealed a culture of racism and Islamaphobia within the chapter. The N-word was used prolifically, Muslims were called “terrorists” or “towel heads”, a vacant lot next to the fraternity’s house was called “Palestine”, and some of the brothers turned MLK Day into “Marathon Luther King Day”, celebrating with drinking and eating at a fried chicken place.

Over the past couple of years, stories about fraternities and some of the disgusting things going on within their walls have been coming out. Every time I’m absolutely disgusted, but this one hit me in a number of ways. For one thing, I have friends who are part of the Ohio State chapter of AEPi. They are good people, upstanding young men connected to their heritage and active in the broader community. To think they are in any way associated with this scandal just horrifies me.

Alpha Epsilon Pi’s University of Chicago branch is in deep trouble for the emails that have been uncovered.

But that’s only one level that this hit me on. Because this story also brought back memories from when I was young:

I went to a Jewish overnight camp from fifth grade to tenth grade. During my last year or two there, I noticed a disturbing trend among the boys in my year. Swearing was a regular part of camp culture–even the counselors swore on occasion–so saying “shit” or the F-bomb didn’t make me bat an eye. In fact, I reveled in it. We were being adult, we were being naughty. It was great.

But then I heard my friends calling each other “n***er”, and occasionally “faggot” or “fag”.

Understand, there were no black kids or staff on the camp, at least not as far as I know. This was also well before I realized I was bisexual. And my friends assured me their black friends were cool with it.

Even if I believed them, I still told them that I wasn’t comfortable with it, that they shouldn’t say it, or at least not around me.

Maybe it’s because I was bullied a lot back in the third grade (most of it verbal) and it left a big impact on me, but I’m sensitive to when people use words to hurt others. Especially those words. As much as words only have meaning if we give them meaning, these words do carry a meaning bred in deep history, and the meanings are not easily separated from the words. Every time a white person uses the N-word, they’re saying that African-Americans are lesser beings, second-class citizens and do not have the same rights as people with light skin. Every time someone calls a Jew a kike (like when, after a soccer match between my all-Jewish high school and a school of mostly African-American Christians, the opposing team began using the word after they lost the game and things nearly came to blows), that someone is calling the Jewish people a strange people, a parasite that takes money and power and killed the Christian God. Every time someone calls someone else a fag, they’re saying that there’s something inhuman or strange or obscene about being LGBT. And every time someone–not just a fraternity brother–calls a Muslim or a Palestinian a terrorist, they’re saying that entire religion is incapable of being peaceful, that their whole goal is destruction. That’s all completely wrong, and there’s not excuse to use those words.

Even if I had been as eloquent then as I am now, I doubt that would’ve swayed my friends, because they continued saying those words without any care to my feelings. Even when the head counselor of our year had a discussion with us one evening about how disgusting we were being. Even after, while on a field trip to the city, my friend said the N-word and it was almost overheard by a passing black man. They just went on saying all those nasty words and by doing so, they were saying it was okay to say words charged with prejudice and not care whom it might hurt.

For the first time today I wondered if any of my camp friends ended up at University of Chicago, and then at the school’s chapter of AEPi. Those camps have the effect of bringing Jewish teens closer to their heritage. Maybe some of my friends went there and brought some of their bad habits with them.

Believe it or not, this is some of the nicer things this sort of uncaring attitude can lead to.

The only time I approve of those words are when they’re used in mediums like literature or film to illustrate a particular time period or mindset, like in Huckleberry Finn or even in my own Reborn City. The rest of the time, there’s no good reason to say that trash. Not only is it hurtful to the people those words denote, they are harmful to the people saying those words, desensitizing them to the effects of these words. At best, that leads to dumb crap from fraternities and doddering old men in front of cameras or near cell phones. At worst, that leads to hate groups, violence, and lynchings or shootings in churches.

My hope that in the wake of this scandal, people–especially students and teenagers–realize that you can’t be blase about saying the N-word or calling people terrorists because of where they’re from or what their beliefs are. They’re hurtful. They’re damaging. And I hope that maybe the backlash these students will get will teach them and others what happens when you’re not cognizant of the feelings of others.

And I hope my friends from those long ago days aren’t members of that fraternity, and that they learned long before this what your words can do to themselves and to others.

I would like to blame thank my good friend Kat Impossible from Life and Other Disasters for tagging me in what clearly looks to be a ton of fun. It’s the Burn, Rewrite, or Reread Book Tag, which doesn’t actually involve burning but is like a book version of Kiss, Marry, Kill.

Alright, here are the instructions:

  • Randomly choose three books.
  • Choose which of these three you would burn, rewrite, or reread.
  • Do three rounds of this, and then tag someone to do the book tag as well.

Alright, here I go. Let’s see what I come up with:

ROUND ONE

Burn: Day Four by Sarah Lotz. Oh my God, what a book that promised to be good but ended up being a great waste of time. Sure, it started out okay: cruise ship stalls in the middle of the ocean, everything’s in chaos. Quick pace and lots of interesting stuff going on. But then when it slows down after the initial chaos (because things can’t always be quick-paced after a ship breaks down), it just gets boring, with little to no clear direction of where the autor wants the story to go and an ending that is just bizarre (and not a good way). It’s enough that I probably won’t ever read a book by Sarah Lotz again (and considering the reviews online, I’m better off not).

Rewrite: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. If you read my review of that book, you know that I liked it but I wish it could’ve been a bit scarier. Especially since Stephen King recommended this book to me (why, Your Royal Scariness? Why did you say it was so scary? It wasn’t!). Anyway, if I could I’d rewrite this one and maybe make it a bit more on the scary side. How? I don’t know, some changes in atmosphere, a few more parts where the older sister acts like a creepy possessed girl. It’s a thought.

Reread: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. You know what I just realized? All the books in this round I’ve listened to as audio books. Also, I’ve actually reread Battle Royale already, but that’s because it’s one of my favorite novels. The language is flowing, nearly every character in the fifty-or-so large cast gets really fleshed out, and it really makes you think on a while bunch of different levels. Plus it does in one book what the Hunger Games wishes it could do in three. So I’ll probably end up rereading (or re-listening to) Battle Royale again someday.

ROUND TWO

Burn: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. No offense to Sister Souljah, I admire her work, but I did not enjoy her debut novel, about the daughter of a big-time drug king who suddenly finds herself without money or connections and tries to come out on top as her world falls around her. Not only was the main character totally unsympathetic (imagine a novel narrated by an even more annoying Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and you have Winter Santiaga), but it’s basically one big morality tale about why you should walk the straight and narrow and stay away from drugs and hustling and all that or it’ll come back to haunt you. Yeah, I think there are a few memoirs out there that told that story better.

Still, I will say that the book’s language influenced me when I was writing Reborn City and I wanted to really show the dialect of West Reborn. That’s one thing I’ll always be grateful to Sister Souljah for.

Rewrite: Destroyer of Worlds by Mark Chadbourn. This was the last book in a trilogy, the trilogy itself being the third trilogy in a trilogy of trilogies that took our modern world and placed it into a mystical universe mixing Celtic mythology with Eastern philosophy. It’s a wonderful series, but the last trilogy had its problems. Especially the last book, which felt rushed to the point that characters who should’ve gotten some character development got none at all, barely a mention in one case. I really think this book could’ve used a hundred or so more pages to really tell the story the way it should’ve been told, and if I could I might help out with that.

Reread: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. If you liked Harry Potter, you should love the Bartimaeus trilogy, which is kind of like Harry Potter but is told in three books (plus a prequel) and is slightly more grown up than HP. The story of a magician’s apprentice who summons a demon to help him get revenge on another magician and the mayhem that ensues when he and the demon get embroiled in a plot against the British government is pure fun, with a wisecracking demonic narrator and a world that is beautifully constructed and mirrors our own in interesting ways. I’ve reread the trilogy before, and I’m always entertained when I do. Check out the first book. You might just find the same gem I found as a kid.

And finally…

ROUND THREE

Burn: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Honestly, I’ve had to read this novel twice for classes, and each time I wasn’t at all surprised that Emily needed a review by her famous sister Charlotte to get this book noticed by people, because it sucks! Not only is the narration and style annoying, but the story drags, and a lot of what happens makes you scratch your head. Seriously, did the Lintons never consider calling the local sheriff when Heathcliff kidnapped his niece and tried to marry her off to his sickly son? Like I said, I’ve read it twice, and I don’t plan to read it again. It may be a classic, but it’s a classic that never should’ve been one.

Rewrite: Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz. Koontz has written some great novels–I love the Odd Thomas series, though I’m behind on the books, and The Face would make an amazing movie, it’s that good–but this one really got me angry. It started out with promise: guy who made money off the Internet needs a heart transplant, but he’s very low on the donor list. His new doctor gets him put high up on another list, and he gets a new heart. Thing is, the person who gave up their heart for him might be coming back for it. Yeah, sounds like a ghost story, but it turned out to be some weird spy thriller tied up in a Christian morality tale. I kid you not, if Koontz had stayed with the ghost story element instead of switching things up about two-thirds in with the spy twist, I might’ve really liked this novel. And now you know how I’d rewrite it.

Reread: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This is a wonderful novel about following your dreams and fulfilling your personal destiny in this grand world, as told through the eyes of young shepherd Santiago as he goes on a journey to Egypt after having a dream about finding treasure at the pyramids. I read it as a teen and it blew me away. If given the chance, I’d love to reread it again, because it’s such a beautiful story that gets you on so many different levels. If you haven’t read it, this is definitely one you should check out, especially since it’s been translated into so many different languages. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

And now, the people I tag:

Have fun! And make sure to link back to me when you post these.

That’s all for now, I’ve got a busy day ahead of me and I’m going to get to it. Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear!

I’ve been watching a lot of Supernatural on Netflix lately, and something in the most recent episode I watched got me thinking. It was stated at the beginning of the season that the main villain of the season, the demon Lilith, is breaking magical seals to raise the demon Lucifer out of Hell, and she needs to destroy sixty-six seals to do so. Based on that, I thought there were sixty-six seals in total, which seemed reasonable. According to the episode I watched yesterday though, there are over six-hundred possible seals, and Lilith needs to only destroy sixty-six to get Lucifer out of Hell.

Now I’ll admit that I’m still working my way through the season, so there may be more to these seals than what I know right now, but based on just the description I have above, that’s a pretty poor security system. You’re keeping the ultimate evil bound by six-hundred seals, but only sixty-six need to be destroyed to let him out? That’s like only needing an eleven percent passing score on a lie detector test to get access to Top Secret national security files. You’re just acting for trouble.

With that in mind, as well as my thoughts on the movie The Boy that I reviewed earlier this week,* I got to thinking. Sometimes creators do things in fiction that make absolutely no sense when the fans get to them. Obviously, there are things in fiction that are most likely impossible–the magic of Harry Potter, actual giant lizards like Godzilla, TARDISes and Time Lords (sadly)–but we forget that so we can enjoy the story. This is called suspension of belief, and it’s how we can enjoy these stories. However sometimes a creator–whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or a TV show–is just too hard for us to believe. When that happens, the story, and our enjoyment of the story, suffers horribly.

With that in mind, here are some things every storyteller can do to make it easier to tell a story without dong something that will make a reader/viewer say, “What the hell? That’s so stupid!”

  • Avoid the unnecessary or stupid twists. Back to The Boy again, which, if you haven’t read my review, singled out the twist that the boy Brahms was alive and a full adult as the movie’s biggest fault. I get that they were trying to distinguish the movie from others like it with a unique twist, but besides feeling kind of lame, the twist made the whole concept of the movie nonsensical (see my review for full details on that). If you plan to include a twist in your work, ask yourself a few questions before you use one, such as: is this twist necessary to make a good story? Is it predictable? Does it make the story seem silly or even make the events of the story make no sense? I’m convinced if the filmmakers of The Boy had asked these questions, they might have had a better movie on their hands.
  • What brought people to your work in the first place? I love bashing 2009’s Friday the 13th remake, because it is such a terrible film. In fact, the filmmakers even seemed to think that the movie was crap, or that they were unable to really make a great Friday the 13th film, so they packed in as much swearing, sex and nudity, drugs, alcohol, and raunchy or childish humor as possible. The result was a film that felt like it was trying to be one of those dirty teen camping trip comedies that had to remind itself every few minutes it was about a serial killer living on a lake.
    If you’re going to tell a certain type of story, keep in mind at every step what sort of story it is and don’t focus unnecessarily on elements that are only a small part of the story or even unnecessary. In the case of Friday the 13th, people watch those movies to see Jason go on a rampage. The sex and drugs and all that other stuff are just added bonuses as well as what causes Jason to target his victims, not why we pay nine dollars at the box office. And the fact that the filmmakers felt those elements were more important is why I’ll always enjoy bashing this piece of crap out of Michael Bay’s bum.
  • Could this happen in the real world? I have a lot of problems with the Hunger Games books.** One of my biggest problems is how the series ends: Katniss finds out President Coin ordered the bombing that killed her sister, so she kills Coin in revenge as Coin takes control of the nation. The new government of Panem hushes up Coin’s treachery to preserve the new order, so for all intents and purposes Katniss just assassinated the new President unprovoked. And Katniss…is portrayed as a girl gone mad with grief over the loss of her sister, she gets exiled to District 12 with weekly phone conferences with a shrink, and lives happily ever after?
    I don’t care if you’re the face of a movement, if a similar revolution occurred in America, and the face of that revolution killed the new leader, you bet that person would at least get locked up in a prison or psych ward so they couldn’t tell anyone what they’d done. Exile and getting to raise a family? Nothing bad happens to her? I don’t care if she has nightmares a lot and never tells us her kids’ names because she’s afraid of losing them, that still would never happen in real life!
    So when you’re telling your own story, ask yourself if a situation is so unbelievable, even in the wackiest of fiction, that people can’t suspend their disbelief anymore. If it is, you might want to consider tweaking it so that guys like me don’t go on a rant about it on the Internet.
  • If it needs a lengthy explanation for why it happens, you might want to rethink the why. This one comes from personal experience. When I was writing Reborn City, I had this really complicated reason as to why my protagonist Zahara Bakur had to join the Hydras. That, and another situation later in the book had really complicated reasons why those things had to happen. It wasn’t until later drafts that I realized how overly complicated those situations were and found simpler explanations for why Zahara had to join the Hydras or the other thing had to happen, explanations that were so simple but worked so perfectly I wondered why I tried to use the run-around logic that a smart reader could easily poke a hole in.
    So if you want a specific event in your story to happen for the sake of the story but the way you get it to happen is really overly-complicated, requires a lot of explanation, and from certain angles makes no sense, perhaps you should reconsider either the event or why it happens. It beats having two unnecessary pages of dialogue explaining why something needs to happen when a much simpler explanation is at hand, at any rate.
  • And finally, don’t forget what is obvious or necessary. This kind of fits into my third point, but I’m making it separate because I feel that’s the best way to present it. Anyway, in one of my fiction workshops in college, a classmate turned in a story that took place in a post-apocalyptic setting. It was a good first draft, but a major problem I had was that the protagonist apparently forgot his bow and arrow at home. I said to her, “This is a world where people dumb enough to leave their weapons at home while on a trip are likely to get killed a hundred different ways. No seasoned hunter like this guy forgets his source of food and protection.” In the same way, make sure that you avoid moves like that, where a character does something that makes no sense for someone in their position or the setting has some part of it that also makes little sense when you think about it. Trust me, it will improve the story if you avoid those problems.

In the end, the thing you want to tell is a good story. Avoiding anything that strains the credulity of your audience can be very difficult, but with trial and effort, you can get very good at it. This is also why I recommend having your stories looked at by editors or beta readers who won’t spare good advice because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings or risking your friendship. They can help you avoid these traps and improve the overall product of the story.

What tricks do you have for avoiding situations that strain the credulity of your audience?

What are some stories where they did something that really took you out of the story?

*By the way, it’s been nearly a week since I published that post, but an average of 36 people a day have been checking that post out since. I guess I’m not the only one who found that twist completely stupid.

**Especially the trilogy’s very backstory. A nation in the far-flung future had a massive civil war, and the Capitol decided that to stop future rebellions, the entire country should revolve politically, economically, and socially around an annual death game involving youth from the Districts? If Panem can genetically engineer scary monsters, they can synthesize a drug that takes out aggression and dump it into the Districts’ water supply. Problem solved, and all those seventeen-hundred and twenty people who died for the Capitol’s perverse pleasure instead grow up to be contributors to society. Yes, that is diabolical and I know I’d make a great dictator. My mother informed me of this fact when I pointed out this problem with the books.

It’s Friday, so you know what that means. It’s #FirstLineFriday! As always, I’ll be laying out the rules, while reminding everyone that you can do #FirstLineFriday too on your own blogs. Trust me, it’s a ton of fun and you don’t want to miss it.

With that being said, here are the rules for #FirstLineFriday:

  1. You type up a post with the title #FirstLineFriday, hashtag and all
  2. You explain the rules like I’m doing
  3. You post the first one or two lines of a potential story, a story-in-progress, or a completed or published story.
  4. You ask your readers for feedback on the line or lines you’ve posted.

Everybody got that? Good! On we go. Here’s my entry for this week’s #FirstLineFriday, a possible beginning for a novel I had an idea for earlier this week:

The stormy waves rose higher and higher, sometimes slipping over the side of the ferry and onto the deck. Yet despite how angry the sea was right now, it seemed too much to hope for that the ferry would capsize and they would all drown.

How do you find that? Should it be shortened? Anything I could leave out? Let’s discuss.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ve got a busy day planned for today, so I’m going to get right on it. Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear!