Thursday, July 3, 2014


Movies based on Stephen King’s novels or short stories tend to be hit or miss for me. I didn’t think 1408 was a waste of time, but it did drag in places, and unlike Misery, it wasn’t the kind of film that’s likely to stay in my memory for a long time afterwards.

The premise is simple: an author called Mike Enslin goes around staying in various haunted-house locations to expose them as shams. No such things as ghosts. It’s later revealed he’s an atheist whose only child has died. Just once, I’d like to see or read about a happy, well-adjusted atheist. I live in hope, unlike our hero.

Anyway, Mike gets an anonymous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, warning him not to stay in 1408. Naturally, he high-tails it there, but the manager warns him not to go in. Mike holds his hand out for the key, opens the door and says, “This is it? It’s just a room.”

One thing I liked right away was that there were no attempts to “dress up” the paranormal element. No ancient Indian burial ground or satanic cult is responsible for what happens: 1408 is simply an evil room which causes people to commit suicide, and no one has lasted more than an hour.

At first, it all seems mundane. But then things start happening: the clock-radio starts up on its own, then resets the time to 60:00 and begins the countdown. When Mike tries to open the door, the key breaks off in the lock.

The film has a ton of moments intended to make viewers jump, and I jumped. But those aren’t what I feel is real horror. Real horror is something that keeps me awake at night thinking about it. There’s a chill factor, as opposed to a scare factor, and the film only had two of those really disturbing moments. They were great, but they couldn’t make up for the rest.

The first such scene is when Mike, trying to summon help from the window, sees a man in the building opposite. This man’s window is directly across, and when Mike waves his arms frantically, the man sees him and comes to the window. He waves back. Mike mimics “call the police”, and the man copies his actions. Mike’s desperation gives way to bewilderment as the man reflects his every move.

That really was creepy.

But then it gets better. A figure steps up behind the man and hits him with a hammer. Mike spins around, only to find the same figure attacking him. It’s an illusion, but an effective one.

Then Mike climbs out the window and inches his way along the ledge to the window of the next room. I was convinced he’d reach the open window and find himself right back in 1408. Still, it was suspenseful watching him move along the ledge, limbs spread for balance, counting off the steps. Then he looks sideways to see how much further he has to go—and there are no other windows. None at all. The camera pulls back to show a sheer brick wall.

I loved those two tricks. Unfortunately, everything else the room did was kind of—not predictable, exactly, but without significance. It didn’t matter if the room was splitting open or crashing in, because I knew it wasn’t going to destroy itself. And the room also makes it clear that Mike has to kill himself.

“…all guests of this hotel enjoy free will, Mr. Enslin. You can choose to relive this hour over and over, or you can take advantage of our express checkout system.”

On cue, a noose drops from the ceiling. Yet what the room really inflicts on him is terror and despair. That’s bad, granted, but no body parts are being cut off, nor is anyone else in jeopardy. Besides, if you know that everything you see is being caused by an evil room, then you’re not likely to wonder if you’re losing your mind.

In the end, Mike destroys the room with a bottle of brandy he turns into a Molotov cocktail. The room is perhaps aware that the film had to end, so it burns up. There’s a final attempt to wring a little more scare from the story by having Mike hear his daughter’s voice on his tape recorder, but it just didn’t work. As far as hotels go, the Overlook from The Shining is far more disturbing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five reasons to warn writers about scams

Why do watchdogs like Writer Beware warn people about literary scams?

Why not allow those people to either indulge their publishing fantasies with a stealth vanity press/fake agent, or do the research and get away? That way, the savvy writers will be fine and the rest will get to play pretend. Most manuscripts are unpublishable anyway, so for many of those writers the vanity press may be their only chance to see their names in print.

This is a paraphrase of an argument I once read. The idea is to practice the literary equivalent of Social Darwinism, allowing scams to cull the naïve or inexperienced from the herd and operating on the assumption that such victims are unpublishable and always will be unpublishable. So it’s no loss.

This idea has a surprising number of proponents. But what’s the problem with this again?

1. A crime is a crime.

If it’s wrong to rip off a brilliant and experienced writer, it should also be wrong to rip off a naïve person who can’t string three words together. That the latter may be easier to do doesn’t change the fact that something unethical has been done.

2. Who gets to decide?

A lot of writers produce unpublishable slush when they first start out. I know I did. But does that mean that these writers will never improve, and therefore it’s all right for someone to sucker them into a scam?

I don’t think so.

No one has the right to decide that a writer, any writer, is so unskilled and so incapable of improvement that he or she deserves to be saddled with illusions and empty promises (and debts, in the worst case scenario). If the writers sign up with a questionable agent or a vanity press knowing what to expect and aware of potential problems, that’s different. But even if they’re naïve or desperate, they still have a right to hear the truth.

No writer deserves to be taken advantage of.

3. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Writers don’t emerge from the womb with a copy of Ten Percent of Nothing in their chubby little fists (and even that book doesn’t cover all the myriad forms a literary scam can take). They have to learn. Some learn from actual publishers or from experienced writers, but some learn from a scammer or that scammer’s defenders.

If writers don’t know any better, they may take that as the truth. Scams are nothing if not slick and plausible.

4. The truth doesn’t stay hidden.

”I believe you sincerely are trying to be helpful, but you are… taking away the sense of a fulfillment and accomplishment they should be feeling for being in print by focusing on what REAL publishers do for REAL writers.”

The problem is that this sense of accomplishment won’t last long. Vanity presses – especially the kind which try to pass themselves off as real publishers – give writers a feeling of success, but this feeling is unlikely to survive contact with bookstores, impartial reviewers and the writer’s first royalty check (or lack thereof). Writers soon realize that their books have no sales other than what they provide. They realize that the glow of gold at the end of their rainbow was the luminescence of radioactive waste.

And the letdown is all the worse as a result. The hard work and frustration involved in polishing one’s writing and getting rejections is nothing compared to knowing that you were taken for a ride, that you believed the lies, and that others knew it but said nothing.

Finally, there’s no such thing as a REAL writer/fake writer distinction. We’re all writers.

5. The argument from self-righteousness.

It’s easy to think, “I would be too smart to fall for that. Therefore you deserve what you got.” Sometimes it’s genuinely difficult for experienced writers to see how anyone could not do the research and learn about the scam.

But when you’re down-hearted from too many rejections and someone says they believe in your work, that produces an emotional high which overrides caution.

Even doing the research doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. Someone who’s unfamiliar with publishing may not understand why established publishers are safer than “getting in on the ground floor” of an eager new company. I once contacted two writers who had been with PublishAmerica originally, but had moved on to self-publishing. I said I was looking for a publisher for my first novel, and did they have any suggestions?

They both recommended PublishAmerica, without a hint of any problems that I would face by following their suggestion.

Anyone can be deceived under the right circumstances. That’s why we warn writers about scams.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Passionate Ink

I like reading books about writing, and erotic anything is a hot genre these days, no pun intended. So when I saw Angela Knight’s Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance, released by Loose Id, I had to give it a try.

This book is ideal for writers new to the erotic romance genre. The author explains the distinction between romance (which relies heavily on sexual tension) and erotic romance (where the characters are having sex, and plenty of it). Under those circumstances, something else will have to keep the characters apart—either their own personalities or some external conflict, or both.

There are plenty of examples from the author’s books, with the author adding notes throughout to show what she was trying to do in terms of intensifying conflict and deepening the relationship. I also appreciated the warning about what can happen if you tease your readership too much. The more you build up the anticipation leading to the sex, the better that needs to be.

The example given here is of one book where this buildup lasted for hundreds of pages. When it finally did happen, it didn’t last very long (due to the author, not due to the hero) and the impression that gave was of an author who wasn’t really comfortable with writing about sex. Hence the protracted teasing which lead up to a fizzle. Personally, I’m fine with fade-to-black in novels like Gone with the Wind, but yeah, if I pick up a hot romance I want heat.

Another such EroFail is when the sex is too emotionally heavy—for insstance, one of the characters is severely scarred from rape. This can work great in other genres. But in erotic romance, the reader expects lots of exciting sex. If the sex comes off as difficult or heartbreaking because of the characters’ physical/emotional wounds, this might be tough to pull off.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the author’s heavy reliance on alpha males—basically, 200-pound guys who sweat testosterone, who are always ready for “a fight or a fuck”. Even if these are common in erotic romance, I would have loved to see more nuances here. I’m not asking for a man who’s shy or passive. I just want to see someone who would rather outthink the villain than outfight him.

But I did appreciate the her suggestions for how to write an erotic novella or a short story. There really isn’t much room here for the hero and heroine (or other hero) to meet for the first time, so it helps if they have a past history, especially a past romantic history. I used to wonder about whether a romance could be compressed into a short story a la Ellora’s Cave’s Quickies, and this went far towards answering that question.

The book also includes notes on fight scenes, medieval battles, the difference between plate and mail and why the designs of swords changed—which I wasn’t expecting. It’s an unexpected bonus in an erotic-writing book.

From a physics standpoint, a gun that could send somebody flying would also send you flying in the opposite direction when you fired it. So resist the urge to knock somebody through a plate glass window with a bullet.

But it looked so amazing in Blade Runner!

Finally, there’s an appendix of non-fiction books dealing with sex, BDSM, etc. I didn’t go through this in any detail, but that’s because this is a very comprehensive book that covers a lot of angles, which meant I needed to finish it quick and return it to the library. Not a gotta-have-it-forever keeper, but definitely an engaging and useful read.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the waterfront

I visited the Toronto harborfront recently when I heard some tours of boats were available. Always a good idea to do hands-on research, even though the ships I'm writing about at the moment aren't at the same level of technology. But it was a fun experience and I took some pictures.

I like ships and planes. This one got them both in the same shot.

Here I am taking the wheel on the Mariposa cruise boat Rosemary. Twin diesel engines, 1064 hp, 14 feet wide, 60 feet long. Yacht certified for "sheltered water", meaning she has to stay within 1 nautical mile of the shore.

I'm on the bridge of the much larger Mariposa cruise ship Captain Matthew Flinders. Three decks and can hold 575 people. The captain also provided some interesting details of what it's like on the bridge, e.g. at night, the bridge is kept completely dark so that the crew can see everything outside easily.

Ducks don't like having pictures taken of them.

The swan was more laid back about it.

It was fun, though I still wish I could have a few hours on an actual sailing ship. Some day...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The soulmate trope

There are a lot of romance tropes that I can take or leave, but for some reason, this one gets under my skin. Maybe because it has the potential to be fascinating, but so often it leads to romances with glaring power imbalances, or where there’s no real conflict once the hero and heroine meet each other. Because, after all, they’re soulmates so that means they’re perfect for each other.

For the purposes of my mini-rant, I’m going to define “soulmate” as someone who’s been destined for the main character, rather than someone who’s right for them but who hasn’t been preordained as their only choice by some higher power. So here are the problems I have with the trope, and a few ways to fix them.

1. Everyone else is automatically inferior.

No matter how much they care about the protagonist or how much he/she loves them, every other person they might be involved with is shown to be inferior or is forced to step aside when the soulmate shows up. In one case, the author flat-out made it clear that only a designated soulmate could actually love the protagonist.

Of course, that raised the question of whether the protagonist was naturally unlovable, such that someone had to be preprogrammed to care for him. Solution: don’t denigrate freely chosen love to make soulmates a more attractive choice (or the only choice). I’d love to read a romance where the hero found his soulmate, except she was happily married to another man and wanted to stay that way, even if she was with the hero too. Hey, menages are popular these days.

2. Obsessiveness or unhealthy controlling behavior on the part of either person is excused.

In two different stories I’ve read, the hero is a powerful immortal being while the heroine is an ordinary mortal. Fine, I’d prefer them to be on a more equal footing but I’ll go with this. But then I find out that, knowing they were soulmates, he watched her from the time she was a baby until it would no longer be statutory rape (under US law, of course, never mind the time and place of the story) for him to make a move.

This might have been presented in an "I'm watching over you like a sexy guardian angel" way, but I don't find it romantic. It's a violation of privacy. I mean, did these men even look away when the little girls took a bath?

Still, this works for some readers, because not everyone thinks it was creepy of Edward to watch Bella while she was sleeping.

3. “The universe will put a gun to my head if you don’t love me.”

In other words, unless the MC finds his preordained love interest, he will go insane, turn evil, be stuck in wolf form forever, etc.

For me, this puts far too much pressure on the love interest. I wouldn’t date a man who said he would die unless I did so—I’d think he was desperate or mentally unbalanced. Even if I had proof that yes, he would die without my affection, I’d admire him much more for trying to find the root cause of his problem, rather than sticking me as the Band-Aid over it.

This is my biggest problem with all soulmate stories where the failure to find a soulmate means insanity or death. Why has no one ever attempted to investigate this phenomenon, much less change it? These days, scientists are even studying the causes of aging, to see if lives can be extended, so you'd think that if everyone knows they have death or worse hanging over their heads, they'd try to investigate it or look for a third option.

If they don’t, either the author has created the most fatalistic, incurious population ever. Or they've all read the script and know they’ll be provided with a love interest.

I'd love to see a soulmate story where someone didn't accept that the rules were carved in stone. It would be awesome if the hero and heroine, without the usual insta-love between them initially, worked together to find a solution and fell for each other along the way.

4. No real exploration of what it means to be a soulmate.

If there’s some higher power handing out soulmates, what’s the reasoning behind the choices this higher power makes on behalf of the protagonists? It’s easy to say “a soulmate is someone who will love you and make you happy”. But that just raises the question of how this is different from someone you meet on your own, someone who doesn’t have a star on their forehead that lights up when you meet them, but who admires you and cares about you anyway.

For instance, is a soulmate someone whose personality matches yours or complements it? Does a soulmate think the same way you do, so if you’ve decided not to have children, the soulmate doesn’t want to have children either? But say you change your mind later. If the soulmate obediently goes along with the new decision, then they’re not a different person—they’re your reflection in a mirror.

On the other hand, if the soulmate has their own goals and needs, some of which conflict with the protagonist’s in a way that’s not easily resolved, that could be interesting. This would be a great example of the trope being used the right way—to bring the hero and heroine together, but as the start of the conflict rather than the end of it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sharkpunk bookmarks

These were fun to make, and I can include them with giveaway copies of The Deepest Ocean.

Not sure if the tiny fish who's in some of the bookmarks is a pilot fish or a snack.

On a completely unrelated note, the Cover Cafe's 2013 contest entries are up. My favorite category is always the Worst Cover, and this time there are some genuinely freaky ones, like the woman with the two mannequins or prosthetic-less Borg. Check them out and vote!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Teeth in fantasy

Teeth are an easy way to distinguish and learn about different species, but how to use them in fantasy?

Types of teeth

Grazers have flat-topped teeth to grind down the tough parts of plants. Carnivores have sharp incisors and canines to slice through flesh. Gnawers, like rodents, have teeth that constantly grow. The crocodile’s teeth and jaws are designed to grip, so that when it dives underwater, it drags its prey with it and quickly drowns the other animal.

Teeth can be large and spectacular in appearance as well – such as the tusks of a walrus or an elephant, or the large fangs of a saber-tooth. And finally there are the hypodermic needles of venomous snakes. Any of these could come into play when designing a new species of people or animal in fantasy.

Fantastical teeth

Not many SF races have different dentition. One exception is the Tilari of F. M. Busby’s The Demu Trilogy, who have forty teeth which ate correspondingly smaller to fit into their mouths. And of course, there are any number of paranormal races with fangs.

The Mouth of Sauron, in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, is a great example of this. Just making his mouth twice as large and giving him rotting fangs to match = instantly disturbing. People with circular rows of teeth, like lampreys or cookiecutter sharks, would be even worse.

Teeth in a fantasy world don’t need to be made of enamel. Metal teeth might remind readers too much of Jaws from the James Bond films, but there’s a character in A Song of Ice and Fire who has wooden teeth. Stone might work as well—or how about taking useful teeth from animals and implanting them in a character’s jaw?

Going one step further than this would be teeth that changed depending on what the person needed at the time, from injecting venom to opening a can of peas without the assistance of a can-opener. Dentition is used as forensic evidence, but in this situation it couldn’t be trusted.

Uses for teeth

Once they’ve been removed, there are several purposes they could be put to. Jewelry. Weapons. Armor with overlapping rows of sharks’ teeth. Tools, such as the large molars of giant herbivores as pestles or grinders.

Or for something more fantastical, how about a secret method of assassination? Mix tiny teeth in with cooked rice, or with something that’s likely to be swallowed whole without chewing. Once these teeth are inside a person’s stomach, they jab into the nearest surface and burrow in. Death from peritonitis occurs soon, and short of an autopsy, no one will know why.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lovely Bones

If you’re not a fan of the book, there are only two reasons to watch The Lovely Bones. One, Saoirse Ronan’s acting. Two, the CGI. Everything else is… well, I’ll get to that.

The story is straightforward. Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a hideaway by a neighbor and killed there, but her spirit, from heaven, watches as her father and sister try to find out the truth and slowly put their lives back together. The theme is one of accepting what we can’t change, relinquishing what we can’t have and learning to let go. But in a happy way, because there’s something good ahead.

Saoirse Ronan is a talented actress, and it’s difficult not to like her as a teenager who’s by turns exuberant, shy, annoyed with her parents and filled with dreams—typical, in other words. And the scene where Mr. Harvey meets her in the cornfield and persuades her to check out a cool underground room is very tense.

Stanley Tucci’s performance as George Harvey is… mostly good. A bespectacled middle-aged man, he’s the embodiment of the phrase “banality of evil”. What I found a bit difficult to buy was the way he babbles and giggles once he’s lured Susie down. I get that he’s excited (while Susie quickly realizes something’s wrong) but he’s more scary when he’s calm and serious.

What I also found difficult to buy was that he excavated this room in a field in winter and no one noticed. There’s a shot of him digging at night, but it’s still an elaborate feat of secret construction. Still, the best way to enjoy this film is not to think deeply. For instance, if I went to my personal heaven (a limbo meant for people who haven’t yet moved on), I would want to be with people I cared about. Instead, Susie gets Holly, a girl who appears out of nowhere and who tells Susie nothing about herself, but who becomes Susie’s BFF.

If you’ve ever watched Mary Poppins, remember the scene where they go into the chalk painting? Something similar happens here. With her new pal, Susie romps through a magical landscape that keeps changing to entertain her. No lingering trauma from murder, no attempts to change anything or tell her family the truth.

And it’s clear that she can influence the occasional event on Earth, if she tries hard, but her major accomplishment there is to put herself in a living girl's body so she can finally kiss the boy she likes. Meanwhile, just outside, Mr. Harvey disposes of the safe containing Susie’s body, which she knows about. Yet the kiss is more important.

I suppose that was part of her acceptance-and-letting-go, to not care about her body… but wouldn’t her parents care? Wouldn’t they want her remains to be laid to rest with dignity, rather than never even knowing where she might lie?

But, like I said, don’t think too much. Or you might wonder, if the real heaven is a place where there’s “no memory”, is there a blank in your mind when you try to think of how you got there? And it’s clear that Susie’s heaven is influenced by other victims of Mr. Harvey’s, which leads to a truly schmaltzy scene where all of them come smiling out of the horizon while the music swells.

I did get teary when the little girl—the youngest victim, who’s six—gives Susie an evaluating look, then smiles, runs up to her and hugs her around the waist. But then I wondered, is that girl going to stay six years old for ever? An eternal child, frozen at the moment she died? Anne Rice did that more realistically with Claudia in Interview with the Vampire.

I understand why the joyous get-together, since there was a previous scene when Susie’s heaven showed her the corpses Harvey had discarded, so Jackson had to assure the audience that these women and girls are now frolicking in paradise. Plus, they’re all friends together in a Raped-N-Murdered club.

But back on earth, Susie’s father is ham-handed in his attempts to find her killer and to stop Harvey, whom he suspects despite having no evidence. So her sister breaks into Harvey’s house to find some. This is the second tension-filled scene in the film, though I have no idea why the sister carefully leafs through Harvey’s scrapbook upstairs even after she hears him enter the house. Wouldn’t it be better to leave and then check out the book?

Still, all ends well. This isn't a bad film per se, just a slow-moving one which has little going for it besides its prettiness and philosophizing. I couldn’t help sympathizing with one reviewer who said Susie’s endless voiceovers became so annoying that if she wasn’t already dead, he would have shot her.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Infamous Cat Incident

That's how I think of it, after I started this thread on Absolute Write to discuss something that happened in my third novel. I wanted an idea of how readers might react to the antagonist harming an animal, and... well, I got that idea, all right.

Though learning how people felt and discussing the issue gave me enough material for a short article on the topic, and that appeared today on Writers Helping Writers. Check it out! And a big thank you to Angela and Becca for hosting me. I love their thesaurus collections, which are just a great, easy-to-browse resource for writers.

Plus, The Deepest Ocean is now on All Romance ebooks and I'm at 64K/100K on The Coldest Sea. So it's shaping up to be a pretty good day. :)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Five literary hoaxes

1. Laurel Rose Willson/Lauren Stratford/Laura Grabowski : Satan’s Underground

Laurel Willson took advantage of the ritual child abuse scare of the ‘80s to come out with this book. Published under the name Lauren Stratford, it’s the story of how she escaped a Satanic cult. One of her claims was that her children had been murdered by the cult—either in snuff films or sacrificed to Satan.

When her story started coming under scrutiny, according to an article in Cornerstone Magazine, she reinvented herself as Laura Grabowski, a Holocaust survivor—basically, replacing Satan with Josef Mengele.

The best part? As Laura Grabowski, she befriended Binjamin Wilkomirski, who had written a memoir of his time in two concentration camps and the murder of his parents by the Nazis. Wilkomirski was compared to Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, before a journalist exposed his memoir as fiction. One of Wilkomirski’s claims was that he’d known Laura Grabowski from the camps.

2. Herman Rosenblat : Angel at the Fence

This memoir of a romance began when a little girl outside the concentration camp threw food over the fence to a little boy inside. The film rights were bought for $25 million and Oprah Winfrey described it as “the single greatest love story” on her show.

Unfortunately the truth turned out to be right up there with James Frey, partly because guards in concentration camps didn’t allow prisoners to approach electrified fences to pick up care packages. I can only imagine what the Holocaust deniers made of this. Hopefully the money was worth it for Mr. Rosenblat.

3. Clifford Irving : Autobiography of Howard Hughes

Back in the ‘70s, Irving made use of Hughes’ reclusiveness and some forged letters, claiming that Hughes had authorized him to write an “autobiography”. The publishers’ check was made out to H. R. Hughes, so Irving’s wife opened an account in the name of Helga R. Hughes and deposited it there.

A telephone conference between Hughes and seven journalists who had known him years ago started unraveling the deception. Irving was sent to prison for 17 months.

4. Sylvester Clark Long : Long Lance

In 1928, the autobiography Long Lance, written by the son of a Blackfoot chief, was a huge bestseller. The author became a sought-after guest in high society.

After his death, it turned out his father was a janitor at a school—and black. In white society, Sylvester Clark Long clearly found more acceptance as an exotic Native American chieftain’s son. When he landed a starring role in a motion picture in 1929, he was hailed as the first Native American character to play the lead role in a film. He committed suicide in 1932.

5. Norma Khouri : Honor Lost/Forbidden Lies

Norma Khouri’s best friend when they were growing up in Jordan was Dalia. But when Dalia fell in love with a Christian man, her father stabbed her to death.

This was the premise of a Random House bestselling memoir which turned out to be a sham. Khouri left Jordan for the US when she was three years old, and her life since then has included a lot more unethical activities than just a literary lie. The Jordanian National Association for Women claimed that despite promises, they received less than $100 from Khouri.

A common theme for the hoaxers these days is to catch a hot trend and ride it for all it’s worth before the scheme falls through. There are plenty more such fake memoirs—including one by another supposed Holocaust survivor who was adopted by a pack of wolves. Mowgli of Belgium later ‘fessed up. But while it lasts, there’s money and sympathy. And so people will keep doing it.