Saturday, April 20, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 16

Scott D. Parker

Crap, I need an extra chapter.

Proofing Aztec Sword

I wrote Aztec Sword last year and have read it through a couple of times. I check for spelling--and I always miss a few--word choice, the odd punctuation or misplaced word. You know. The usual suspects. Moreover, I start and keep a separate word file in which I outline the book as I go, noting the introductions of various characters and their descriptions, little nuggets I threw in about the characters, locations, and, the like. I also make note of where the text indicates I should start a new chapter versus merely a sub-section as in the original version. I also always include the end-of-chapter and end-of-section sentences so I know where my cliffhangers are.

Well, imagine my surprise that, upon re-reading this book again, my original ending seemed to lack something. It has been months since I last read this book, and dang it if I, as a reader, wanted an epilogue. So I'm writing one.

And I know that by writing this out in public, everyone can compare all the chapters of the book to the last chapter, but who cares? This blog series is my journey through a year of writing and publishing independently, and if I don't make a point to show certain trials and tribulations, then what good is it?

I wonder what that says about me the writer from 2018 and me the reader in 2019. I'd like to think my storytelling abilities have progressed in that time. Heck, don't we all hope that?

A Rod Serling Biography

Last week, I watched "The Comedian," the premiere episode of the Jordan Peele version of The Twilight Zone. It's on YouTube and it's free. Immediately after that episode, YouTube led into a short piece from CBS Sunday Morning talking about creator Rod Serling, Peele, and the massive undertaking it is to reboot a franchise such as The Twilight Zone.

My wife's a fan of Serling's other major television series, Night Gallery, and a thought came to mind. Serling wrote something like half of all Twilight Zone episodes and probably something like half of the Night Gallery episodes. As a writer myself, the feat is extraordinary, especially considering the quality of Serling's writings remained high.

That led me to the internet. Was there a biography of Rod Serling? Yup. And it was published just last year. Quickly I placed my order for Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination by Nicholas Parisi. It came in the mail on Wednesday and I'm only on chapter 1, but it looks to be precisely the book I want to read about Serling. I'll let y'all know later.

That Little Voice in Our Heads

Two separate blog posts jumped out at me this week, arguably talking about the same thing.

One is directly related to writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Thursday article on "Critical Voice" is a must read for all creative types. She talks about that critical voice that's in our heads and how it impedes the childlike nature of our creative brain. She quotes an article in which said critical voice is personified. Were that a real person, would you even want to talk to him or her? Then why the heck is that voice in our heads? She provides some answers.

On another blog entirely is Leo Babauta. I cannot remember how I ran across his Zen Habits blog years ago, but I have it linked up in my Feedly feed. This week, he wrote a piece entitled "The Universal Narrative: When You Feel Unworthy." Like Rusch's piece, he takes you through a thought experiment about how we often feel ourselves unworthy of things. Most importantly, he offers new habits we can develop to, hopefully, offset those unwanted feelings.

These two pieces go well together.

Quote of the Week

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.
- Leonard Bernstein

Considering I found a perceived defect in my book--and I do not plan on changing my 1 May publication date--Bernstein's quote is particularly apt. Guess what I'll be doing this weekend when not in church?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

On rediscovering the joy of reading.

Jenny Bowen is going home. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper, all she wants to do is forget about her upcoming divorce and relax on the ten-hour journey through the night.
In her search for her cabin, Jenny helps a panicked woman with a young girl she assumes to be her daughter. Then she finds her compartment and falls straight to sleep.
Waking in the night, Jenny discovers the woman dead in her cabin ... but there's no sign of the little girl. The train company have no record of a child being booked on the train, and CCTV shows the dead woman boarding alone.

I spent most of my childhood and teen years escaping from the world in fiction, and it feels like its been a while since I did so with any regularity. Oh, there are still writers who I will devour, into whose worlds Ill happily bury myself, but a sense of professional obligation you have, says the prevalent wisdom, to keep abreast of whats current if you want to be a writer of commercial fiction can sometimes suck the joy out of the act, make it more work than pleasure.

What She Saw Last Night (or, from here on in, WSSLN) is one of those books whose premise youve seen before. Its The Lady Vanishes on a contemporary train, crossed with elements of the Jodie Foster movie Flightplan.

But its in the execution that the book soars, and in the sheer rollercoaster exhilaration of the plotting that I forgot I was a crime writer and remembered how amazing it can be when a book just grabs you like quicksand and wont let go.

Saying anything much about the plot will inevitably involve spoilers, so let me avoid this by stating simply that the initial premise is swiftly subverted: The whole thing doesnt take place on board the train and so the claustrophobia of the previously noted pieces is discarded and replaced, instead with a classic paranoid chase thriller.

There was a girl. And there are some very and I mean very bad dudes who want to stop anyone asking questions about her.

In Jenny we get a classic everywoman hero: Someone whos out of her depth but uses her real-life skills (shes a wonderfully prosaic IT project manager) to attack the puzzle logically, and the couple of references to Agile (a project management approach that basically seems to boil down to poke it with a stick and, if it hisses at you, back off and try poking another part) made me chuckle heartily, while allowing Jenny to steadily unpick the mystery, unknowingly getting closer and closer to the very bad dudes running the show.

WSSLN is a perfect beach read, a perfect commute read, a proper page-turner thriller and one that reminded me of how much joy there is in a story that you cant wait to get back to. Highly recommended.


Derek Farrell is the author of Death of an Angel and three other Danny Bird Mysteries.

The books have been described as "Like the Thin Man meets Will & Grace," like MC Beaton on MDMA," and - by no less an expert than Eric Idle - as "Quite Fun."

Farrell is married and lives with his husband in West Sussex.

They have no goats chickens, children or pets, but they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever made. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cereal Killers Lucky Charm

I'm kind of a serial killer hipster. I was a fan before they were popular.
Well, not a fan, but I was intrigued by the macabre, and now they have absorbed enough American kitsch that they are corn on the macabre. (That pun is for Dave White).

Before I read The Silence of the Lambs I was a gore punk who read about Ed Gein and watched Faces of Death and thought I was so cool because I knew about killers like Albert Fish and had read the journals of Carl Panzram, one of the earliest documented psychopaths. It's a sheltered suburban kid thing. And while I did grow up on the literal wrong side of the tracks (see photo), those tracks were in the town where Martha Stewart graduated high school, so they were relatively cushy, even if we had a superfund site, played soccer on a former quarry capped with landfill, and found gay porn novels and used contraceptive sponges behind our grammar school.

After Hannibal Lecter nibbled his way to America's heart, serial killers were everywhere in movies, books, and TV shows as the go-to bugaboo, and they have stayed at the top ever since. The FBI profiler and self-salesman John E. Douglas wrote a bunch of books with Mark Olshaker expounding his genius, and ignoring all the times his "profiles" failed, like with the Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, who was able to avoid capture while the police looked for a white man, because the victims were all white women, and we were told that serial killers--ahem, SK's, sorry, gotta use the lingo--preferred victims of their own race. This would later stymie attempts to capture the D.C. sniper, as well. I'm not saying that it isn't a good rule of thumb, but when you use it to automatically exclude suspects, you need to take into consideration that profiling is not a hard science.

I was an acolyte of Mr Douglas for a while, and even began a successful petition to keep a child murderer that he helped capture from getting early parole. So I'm going to talk about two lesser-known serial killer movies, one good, one bad, because at first glance the good one looks bad and vice versa.

The first one stars Charles Bronson in his post-Death Wish days and the second stars Kevin Kline as a brainy police sleuth. See where I'm going? I'm less inclined to think Kevin would star in a stinker, but The January Man is probably one of the most entertaining, yet badly written movies about serial killers out there. Now, the movie has a lot going for it, and if you ignore the serial killer's modus operandi, you can enjoy it. Kline co-stars with Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the script was written by John Patrick Shanley, who also penned Moonstruck, Joe Vs. the Volcano, and adapted Doubt for the screen.  He's no slouch!

The January Man was released in 1989, so I can't imagine the screenplay being written to latch onto the success of Silence of the Lambs, which was published in 1988. Where did he get his ideas about how a serial killer behaved?


I'm about to ruin the twists of the movie, which really isn't about the twists anyway. It's about spending time with Kline, Sarandon, Rickman, and Mastrantonio, as they hunt a killer who strangles women who live in high-rises, exclusively. How does he choose them? I forgot that, honestly. But I do remember that he chooses the floor that his victims live on by pretending all the high rises in the city are a musical scale, and their windows occupy the spaces that the notes to "Calendar Girl" by Neil Sedaka.

Yes, really. Mastermind Kline manages to predict the building and the floor of the next victim because the previous ones are done to the tune, and Mastrantonio poses as bait, wearing a neck protector so they can catch the killer. And when they pull of his mask, someone asks, Who is he?
"Nobody," Kline replies. Because at this point we weren't overwhelmed with serial killers, and expected the killer to be someone we could deduce from the cast. Aha!
The movie is far from satisfying, but you get to see Alan Rickman play a painter who works in nudes, and Mastrantonio and Kline are always fun to watch. My friend JD at Radiator Heaven wrote a detailed review, if you want to dig deeper. The movie will frustrate anyone who isn't a big fan of The Cell, which was another movie with great visuals and a terrible script, where the killer gets off on drowning women in a box kept in secret locations, on a timer, while Vince Vaughn races against the clock. The part where Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of Vincent Donofrio (the killer) to unravel his psychosis and find the victim is idiotic but beautiful, like a unicorn trying to play the piano.
Oh, Vincent.

So, what's the surprisingly good serial killer movie? 10 to Midnight, starring Charles Bronson. This one was written by William Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for The Magnificent Seven, and it's lurid and sleazy, but portrays a much more realistic serial killer. Gene Davis plays the part and gives it all. He's a often a small part character actor, but this role has him glaring at photos of his mom while sucking raw eggs out of the shell, chasing victims through the park while completely naked, and otherwise gnawing the scenery with his mental torment.
Now, this doesn't mean the movie is a masterpiece. It's an exploitation slasher in the vein of Vice Squad and makes the misogyny of its killer very obvious if oblique, with Bronson scowling as he recites lines like, "this killer mistook his knife for his penis."
Bronson with the killer's jackin'-off-hammer.

To be honest, the most memorable part of the movie is the ending, which I'm going to spoil for you. Bronson catches the killer, after he leaves a bunch of naked young women dead. And being who he is, the killer has to brag that he's sick in the head and will be released soon, and come after his daughter, and "you'll see me again!"
Let me see if you can guess what Bronson says before he shoots the unarmed killer in front of everybody.
Hurray for extrajudicial executions! Who needs laws?

So I spent all this time slamming serial killer stories. I really like Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, and feel that is the paragon of the form. I'm told By Reason of Insanity predates it, but after slogging through The Anvil Chorus by Shane Stevens, I won't be reading him again. The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood is quite good, but even modern serial killer novels often rely on lazy tropes like The Evil Foster Child and The Serial Killer Gene, when it doesn't work that way. I'd be interested in a fictional take on the BTK Killer (other than Red Dragon) now that he has been captured. His family claims to have been completely unaware of his sideline as a family slaughterer, and he was a deacon in his local church. He was able to stop, something we're told serial killers don't do.

You know what they say, sometimes you have to write it yourself.
The next book I'm working on will continue this old story of mine, The Uncleared.