Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas, or So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters

Scott D. Parker

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.

When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own. But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooges”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

85% Problem

By David Nemeth

I’ve got a confession, in the 18 months I’ve been writing crime fiction, my author list is not as diverse as I imagined. It kind of sucks. And the worst part, I thought I was doing well. The rough numbers: 85% men; 85% white; 85% from the United States. I have no numbers on LGBTQI, but I’ll take a wild guess and say those numbers suck too. Did I miss reading crime fiction books by marginalized writers in the last year? Absolutely. I missed reading lots of fucking books in 2017.

I look at my review queue over the next few months of new crime fiction books and it’s like a fucking blizzard – white and whiter as far as the eyes can see. It probably doesn’t help that I do not like the more commercially-viable genres such as serial killer books, police procedurals, and psychological thrillers. Boring! By not reading these genres, the diversity baby is in the corner and I don’t see a way out.

I realize that to read crime fiction by people of color and other marginalized writers, I’m going to have to go back in time because when I look at my favorite crime fiction publishers, all I see is a lot of white and not much more. Publishers of books and short stories will say they only print the best of what they receive. I get that, but just as readers like myself need to search out new and different writers to read, publishers need to be searching too.

For now, the best I can do is to keep on looking for books by people that are not like me.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How to Support Writers Without Going Crazy

It can be very stressful deciding how to support your favorite authors.

Do you pre-order on online retailers? Or wait to buy the book from an independent bookstore?

What if you want to go to a signing event and the bookstore sells "tickets" that include a copy of the book? Not everyone has the scratch to buy two copies. Not to disparage the booksellers--events take labor to run, and I don't mind buying a "ticket" especially when it includes the book.

So what do I do?

I am not a big fan of Amazon, despite starting as a self-published author who used Createspace and the Kindle Select program. I tried all their plans, I used Amazon Associates, too. I'm not very satisfied as a customer; they have gone the way of eBay, there's so much junk that you can't wade through it. And I'm not even talking books, but when I want a phone case or a cable, home goods, or whatever, I've had to send back so many items. Then there's their business practices. Not gonna judge if you use the 'Zon but I don't. I moved the Protectors anthologies and my own books to Ingram distribution for print, and Draft2Digital for e-books. They distribute through Kindle, but I'm not directly using Amazon anymore. Their reporting was terrible, too.

But they will not be ignored. So I pre-order books there to help authors whose work I want to support. And then sometimes I cancel that order a week beforehand and order it at my local bookstore or get it at a signing event. Maybe that makes me evil. Maybe I don't care. If Barnes & Noble is your local bookstore, use them. Pre-order there, especially if they don't carry the press it's published by. That can help. Maybe they'll carry the next one.

As for Goodreads and so on, I try to rate every book I read there. Even though Amazon owns them and now charges $119 to $500 for a Goodreads giveaway. Which is downright horrible for small presses and indie authors, who have to pay for the books and postage as well, turning a $50 proposition into a $180 one. But there's more! Now giveaways will annoy readers by automatically putting them in your Want to Read list (previous it was optional) and sending you a notification to Rate and Review the book (and give the author one star because you are angry at the world!!!!!) a few weeks after the giveaway ends. Reminding you that you lost, and making you angrier.

Another thing I do is make sure the book is at my local library. Many libraries have online catalogs and if you are a member, allow you to suggest books if they don't have them. So this is a free way to help authors and read their books if you can't afford to buy them, or are on the fence.

How about social media? I'm not convinced that retweeting or sharing a writer's promo links has much effect. I've had links shared by people with 180,000 followers and it resulted in zero engagement, clicks, or sales. Maybe if Stephen King does it with his 6 million followers, you'll see action. The best thing a reader can do is spread word of mouth, make their own post on social media about how much they enjoyed a book. If you're not a book collector, give your used copy to a friend or the local library.

I'm not a fan of the memes "how to help a writer!" that turn readers into combination publicists, cheerleaders, and therapists. You bought the book, thank you. If you want to review it, thank you some more. But I really don't think you owe the writer anything. Just as the writer owes you the best book they can make at the moment, after that, everything is lagniappe. You come to a book event? You're awesome. Thank you. Every writer deals with empty seats, and it's a good time to chat up the booksellers when it happens. Or if only one or two readers show? They get a more intimate experience, as they share cookies and cheese cubes with the writer.

So, thank you for whatever you do, readers. If you like a book, spread the word. As I've said before, if you don't shout out about what you love, don't be surprised when it's gone.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Lingering Mystery

The incident happened when I was seven or eight.  My parents and I were living in the suburbs, about twenty miles north of New York City.  But in the Bronx, very close to where we had lived till I was six, my uncle and his wife lived, with their three kids, two boys and a girl, all several years older than me.  The uncle was my mother's older brother.  What I heard of the story came to me through my parents, when they were talking about it between themselves, and from what they said, I couldn't understand why the woman who injured my uncle's wife, my aunt, had acted as she did.  Did they even know? I wasn't sure.  Maybe they knew the reason for the woman's violent action, but they never uttered that reason in front of me.  Or maybe the woman was crazy and acted out of some irrational hatred toward my aunt.

But here's what happened.  They all lived in an apartment building, on the same floor I believe, and both my aunt and uncle knew the woman in question.  To what extent they were friends with her, if they were friends with her, I couldn't decipher.  But apparently there had been some tension among them, something that caused animosity between my aunt and the other woman.  I can't say with one hundred percent certainty but I didn't get the sense then and I don't think to this day that the friction revolved around a sexual triangle of any kind, or cheating on the part of my uncle. Anything's possible, but I highly doubt that.  

In any event, one afternoon, when my uncle was at work (he was a New York City subway conductor for a long time), the doorbell rang in his and my aunt's apartment, she opened the door, and before my aunt could react, the woman from down the hall threw acid in her face.  What precisely happened after that, I don't know, but from the time, I do remember my mother saying something about how my aunt kept her wits about her and managed to think fast even with the acid burning her face.  She dashed over to a sink (kitchen or bathroom, not sure which) and doused her face with cold water. As it would turn out, this action tempered the effects of the acid.  I don't know whether any of her kids were home.  This could have been a school day, perhaps a Friday afternoon.  But at that point, she or somebody called the police and my aunt wound up getting rushed to the hospital.  From what I can remember, there was great worry about scarring and damage to her eyes.  The acid also had hit her hair.  I remember great concern on the part of my parents, and, when we drove from our house down to the Bronx, the worry, of course, that my uncle showed.  My aunt was in the hospital at least one night, maybe more.

To everyone's relief, the acid did not cause severe burns.  Disfigurement proved minor, and in the years to come, if you didn't know the attack had happened, you wouldn't have known from my aunt's face that she had ever been assaulted. But the acid did discolor her hair, turning the parts it had struck from black to white.  In later years, all my aunt's hair went white, and it looked good.

And the woman who threw the acid? Here I have almost a complete blank.  I don't know what became of her.  I don't know whether my aunt pressed charges, though I assume she did, and I have no idea what kind of time, if any, the woman served.  The only thing I do recall for sure is that right after the incident my parents said something about how she had been put in Bellevue for observation.  Even an 8 year old knew what that meant.  

So that's the story, as I blurrily remember it.  There are gaps everywhere in my recollection, and besides that, I'm sure I never had an adequate understanding of the background behind the incident.  On and off now for over 40 years I've wondered about the acid attack, but the weird thing is, I never asked either my mother or father about it.  Nor did I ask my aunt or uncle.  It's not like it's any taboo subject or family secret (I don't think), but I just never brought it up.  Neither did anyone else, at least not in my presence. Now after all this time, my aunt and uncle are dead, as is my mother.  The two male kids of my aunt and uncle died (too young), so that leaves my father to ask or my one remaining cousin from that family.  She, my cousin, would probably be the best person to probe for information. I guess I could say I'm curious about what happened to her mother that afternoon, and why it happened, and that I've been curious for over 40 years.  It'll sound slightly ridiculous to bring it up now, but it's either ask sometime soon or never find out.  And I'd hate not to find out.  I have no plans to do anything with the story, but four and a half decades is long enough to be wondering about what then seemed an inexplicable act.  I just hope my cousin remembers it and doesn't object to talking about it.  What's an incomplete narrative to me, ever irritating because I want the gaps filled, may be something she mentally buried and prefers to keep buried.

Only one way to find out.

Monday, December 4, 2017


As of tomorrow, a contest will be open on Spinetingler Magazine. I was going to be clever and come up with some creative or challenging trivia questions, but I think this time of year is too crazy for that.

Instead, email spinetinglermag @ and put the word 'Content' in the subject line. In the body of the email tell us which story in the fall 2017 issue of Spinetingler Magazine is your favorite and why.

A collection of free books will be given to the winners. Contest ends January 15, 2018.