Thursday, February 14, 2013


The process of writing a story usually begins, at least in my experience, with a question. In the case of my vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights, the question was “What happens when a human being, blissfully unaware of the existence of the supernatural, finds himself drawn into a world of shadows, immortals, and horror?”
            That question started the ball rolling and I soon had the first in a series of short stories that I later merged into a novel and had the good fortune to have published. But now, more than two years since I started to write the story, I find myself looking back on the process and wondering exactly how the pieces fell into place after I’d asked the initial question that became the core of the plot. I don’t mean I wonder how each event in the book took shape. That much is obvious: a story rolls like a snowball down a mountain and picks up not only speed but detail as the writer becomes more comfortable with his or her characters and themes. What I do mean is that I began to wonder why this particular writer chose, consciously or not, to answer the story-starting question in the particular way I did. What outside influences worked their magic on my mind in order to cause my brain and then my typing fingers to spit that story out onto the page?
            Looking at the novel, I realize that the primary theme is much simpler than mortal meets immortal. In fact, it’s perhaps the most common theme in all of storytelling: boy meets girl. But as I think of many of the stories I’ve written, I see a pattern. I have a habit of using a specific variation of that common theme. Quite a lot of my work could be categorized as stories of ordinary boy meets extraordinary girl.
            Using this theme was a natural pattern for me to fall into because I’ve been there. Like Eric, the protagonist in 100,000 Midnights, like Jason in my first novel, Gods and Galaxies, and like a few other characters I’ve written about, I’ve often felt that I didn’t quite fit in with what society seems to consider social success and, maybe, normalcy. Not that I was ever that odd or a complete outcast, but the general tone of my life, at least for the first twenty-five years or so, was that of a loner and an eccentric in the eyes of others, and my life may have seemed dull and mundane, to others and certainly to me. There’s a bit of me in all my characters. Like Jason, I’ve always been both fascinated and appalled by religion, interested in mythology but critical of the damage often caused by its believers. Like Eric, I’ve always had a fascination with the past, a feeling that maybe, at least in the corners of my mind where fantasy outweighs reality, I’d have been happier to have lived in a different era. I suppose I’ve always felt like an outsider in my time and place, a stranger in a normal land. For Eric and Jason, their dull lives are thrown into unfamiliar, exciting, and ultimately better (even if more dangerous) territory when they each encounter a very unusual woman. For Eric she’s a 300-year-old vampire; for Jason, she’s royalty from another galaxy. Both men make the jump to a brighter reality because of someone who comes very unexpectedly into their lives.
            My own experience might not sound as dramatic. My wife isn’t an alien, isn’t an immortal blood-drinker (which is good because I don’t even like needles at the doctor’s office!), but the experience of discovering her was no less powerful.
            Because of my solitary nature and my feeling of never really fitting in completely, I long held the expectation that I would always be alone. Then she appeared. I met the woman who would become my wife while filming a movie. I had done some acting several years earlier, studied the art, performed in some Shakespearean stuff around the New Jersey area, had fun with it, but stopped when I got tired of people who were more interested in being actors than they were in the actual work that goes into acting. Theatre became one in a long list of former hobbies that had worn out their welcome. So I stopped. But I got a call out of the blue one day asking if I’d be interested in a small role in an independent film an old acquaintance was making. I agreed to do it, having nothing to lose. When I said yes that the offer, I had no idea just how much I’d end up gaining. 
            I arrived on the set and there she was, working as a member of the film crew. She wore a Wonder Woman t-shirt and barked orders at actors in a voice that still held a trace of the accent she’d brought with her from Poland a decade earlier. At some point in that chaotic day of takes and retakes and debates over the delivery of lines and the torturous pauses that eat up time between shooting, electricity passed between us, magnetism, a hint that there was more going on than the filming of a movie. When the day was at its end and I asked her to call me, I was different. For once in my life, despite all my history of social awkwardness, I felt no fear, no hesitation, as if, for once, the universe was rooting me on, wanting me to win.
            I would have been crushed if she hadn’t called, felt like a lottery winner who has the ticket snatched from his hand by a strong wind before getting a chance to claim his prize. But she did call me, and the rest is history.
            It’s been almost a decade now and she’s with me every day when I wake up, every night when I go to sleep. During that decade, many things have changed. I own a house and I’ve become a writer. That second thing, the writing, I don’t know if I ever could have done without her. I write the words, but she encourages me because even when I don’t think I have another sentence in me or another story to tell, I know that she believes I do, and that convinces me. Before her, on my best days, maybe I could look in the mirror and hope to see Clark Kent staring back at me. But now she smiles at me and for at least a moment, I believe I can be Superman.
            There’s an old saying about a great woman behind every great man. That’s not quite right. I try to be a good man, don’t know if I’ll ever qualify as great, but I know that beside me—not behind but beside me—there’s a great woman. Unlike the women I sometimes write about, she’s not an alien with royal blood or a vampire with all the powers of the undead…but sometimes I think she does have some kind of superpower. What else could possibly explain how she puts up with me and my moods and my frustrations, frequent depressions and all the other things about me that must be aggravating at times?
            I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think anyone else could. But I know one thing for certain. Everything I’ve accomplished and everything I’ll accomplish in the future is a fire started by the sparks that came from her.
            As writers, we have to exaggerate events. A simple love story often isn’t enough. There has to be more. And so somewhere in that story is placed a fantasy element and in my writing it’s usually the extraordinary woman who changes the life of the ordinary man. I imagine the events and put them into words, but I don’t have to imagine the emotions. When one of my characters discovers the feelings of joy and wonder and chaos and surprise and disbelief and potential that come from finding the one person in an infinite universe of beings who can make him feel that way, I’m not making anything up. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


When I was a little boy of five or six, my grandmother would sometimes tell me bedtime stories about Dracula, Jack the Ripper, and witches that caught and ate little children. She left out some details, such as the specifics of the Ripper’s methods and the fact that his victims were prostitutes, but these were suspenseful, frightening tales anyway. Dracula drank people’s blood, the kids didn’t always escape the cannibalistic old witch, and Jack really did murder his victims. The stories made me shiver; maybe I had nightmares. But they also made me think. I could, I was sure, figure out a way to escape that witch if ever I crossed her path. I wanted to be the hero who drove a stake through the bloodthirsty count’s heart. I wanted to be the detective who finally caught old Jack. Looking back, I realize that hearing about horrible things made me dream of being the one who solved the problems. 
            At about the same time, my grandfather on the other side of the family bought me my first comic book. It was an issue of Batman, drawn by the amazing Gene Colan, one of the finest comic artists of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I started reading it immediately. In the story, Batman faces vampires. The issue ended with a cliffhanger, a powerful image of Batman with two little punctures in his throat after having been bitten by one of the undead. I was terrified. I wanted that wretched magazine out of my sight. Grandpa took it and gave it to the kid next door, who was a few years older than me. It wasn’t until I was eight that I took another shot at reading comics. This time, it went much better and I grew to love that medium. But despite the trauma cause by that Batman story, I later came to realize that it did a very good thing for me. Much like Grandma’s bedtime horror stories, it jolted my imagination awake, an effect that would have a major role in shaping the person I was to become as I grew older.

            It wasn’t just in reading that I found violent, sometimes frightening events. I took part in them too, in the way that children have for thousands of years, by playing. My cousin and I would become Batman and Robin (after the traditional twenty minute prelude of arguing over who would get to be who) and run around punching imaginary villains.
            When I was old enough to understand that my grandfather had served in World War II, I made him tell me stories about it (he left a lot out of course, I later realized). It sounded heroic to me, intriguing. I had a toy army helmet and used to crawl around the yard, hiding behind bushes evading enemy patrols and shooting at them when the opportunity arose. Grandpa joined in the game sometimes, giving me tips on strategy. He even made me a toy rifle out of wood. He saw it for what it was, a kid having fun. Sure, he’d been through Hell over in Europe, but he was able to appreciate that kids like playing soldier. He’d probably done the same in his childhood. Even as an older man, he’d sit and watch westerns and I know for a fact that he spent many hours of his childhood on a horse nobody else could see as he shot Indians.
            So I, as a child, fought crime as Batman, shot Nazis in World War II, explored alien worlds as Captain Kirk, and went off on a thousand other adventures, most of which involved violence of some sort. My escapades were even assisted by a man who knew the horrors of real violence but could understand the difference between the terrible reality and the child’s impulse to fantasize.
            Years later, I have good memories of those days. Even more importantly, I can look back and see how far those early imaginary experiences have taken me. I grew up to be a writer. I spend plenty of time now thinking about ways to murder people, doing research on different kinds of weapons, figuring out ways to have characters narrowly escape death, sometimes unscathed and sometimes scarred and permanently changed. Yes, there’s a lot of violent, gruesome stuff that goes on in my mind. But guess what? For one thing, it helps pay the bills! And…it goes from my mind to the page and has no effect at all on the rest of my life. In my novel, 100,000 Midnights, a young man lives a peaceful and mundane life until he’s drawn into a world beyond what he once thought existed and forced to use his wits and sometimes resort to violence to survive. Would I want to be in his shoes and have to fight and even kill to survive? No, not in reality, but I think it makes for a good story. I, and my readers, and most people can distinguish between fantasy and reality, enjoying the wonders of imagination without wanting such events to be true.   
            That’s right. I’ve never fired a real gun, not even once, and I have no desire to. I hate violence. I’ve been in one fight in my entire life, a seventh grade, after school fistfight. I won that fight, but I felt dirty and guilty afterwards and have never wanted to be involved in anything like it again. So here I am, decades after a childhood of pretending to shoot and fight and go to war…and what did it leave me with? I have a successful marriage, I own a house, I’m a published writer, and I’ve never been in legal trouble or intentionally harmed another human being in any way. I think I turned out all right.
            With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about some recent events in the world and, specifically, in the Unites States. The shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 were an unspeakable tragedy. The massacre of all those innocent people, most of them children, is so disturbing that I can’t adequately describe how it makes me feel. In the shooting’s aftermath, the debate about gun control is loud, divisive, and prominent. I’m glad it’s being talked about. We need to examine that issue closely and decide what to do about the availability of such deadly weapons.
            But I’m not writing this to talk about the politics of real weapons. Something I find very disturbing in recent years has to do with the kind of weapons that aren’t real, that can’t hurt anyone. Children are being punished for using their imaginations, and that really bothers me.
            This didn’t begin in the wake of the Newtown incident, but instances of it have been all over the news since, so it’s heavily on my mind now. A seven-year-old boy in Colorado is suspended from school after throwing an imaginary grenade while pretending to save the world. A fifth-grader is scolded and searched for bringing a piece of paper shaped like a gun to school. A Pennsylvania girl of 5 is suspended after suggesting that she and her friend shoot at each other with Hello Kitty bubble guns!
            When I was in the fifth grade, the teacher told us to write a story about anything. I concocted an epic battle between soldiers on an army base and the horde of ninjas who were attacking. It was violent, it was action-packed, it was pretty powerful stuff for a ten-year-old, and I was proud of it. I got an A because it was creative and I spelled everything correctly! But considering some of those news stories I just mentioned, I suspect the teacher’s reaction might have been different if I was in the fifth grade now. It was a story. That’s all it was. Not a warning, not a threat, not a terrorist manifesto, not a cry for help from a demented mind! It was an adventure story written by a kid who liked to dream.  
            I have to wonder what would have happened to me had I grown up in today’s immediate-suspension atmosphere. Is mentioning a gun or committing a pretend (and sometimes heroic) act of violence all it takes now for a teacher or administrator to put a permanent mark on a child’s record by suspending them? These are children using their imaginations. Do people really believe that any child who pretends to fire a gun or toss a grenade or throw a punch has the real potential to grow up to inflict bodily harm on others? Do we really think that little of the intelligence and empathy of our children that a moment of imagination must be stomped on instantly before the six-year-old who points his finger and yells, “Bang, Bang!” grows up to be a serial killer or hitman or founder of a renegade militia?     
            Are we to ban all types of play that contain an element of imaginary violence? Teachers should encourage children to be good to each other, teach them that real violence and real war are terrible things, but harshly punishing a child for pretending sends a very wrong message. That real violence should be avoided is what should be taught, not that thinking about it or playing at it is something that will not be tolerated. What’s the next step after that? Do we make sure kids can’t have access to books or movies or any other material that might make them think about violence? What about Shakespeare? Should we shield the kids in English class from the violent betrayal of Caesar or the suicides of Romeo and Juliet or the murderous deeds of Macbeth?  Not that I’m predicting the widespread banning of books, but it falls along the same lines of logic as suspending a kid for pretending to be a soldier or a cop. We can’t deny children the right to their imaginations because a few of them are going to grow up to be criminals. That’s going to happen anyway; it’s inevitable. If we pull kids out of school and tell them that playing has consequences like that, we’re going to scare them out of using their imaginations. Do we really want to go down that road?
            Honestly, we’d be better off accepting the fact that people of all ages imagine all kinds of things. Pretending and fantasizing is part of being human and includes all aspects of life. We dream about success and money and sex and love and death and fear and war and everything else that makes us who we are. Some of us use our imaginations in positive life-changing ways and share them with the world as writers or actors or artists. Others, the few who quite possibly have issues that go far deeper, lash out at their fellow human beings in the worst possible ways. But telling a little boy or girl that the imagined scenario that just went through their mind is some kind of crime risks taking more away from the world that it ensures protecting it from. 
            We live in a world of harsh realities, about which children must be taught the facts and guided in the essentials of behaving responsibly in such a world. But we also live in a world where stories are told, fiction is created, and art is made. The imaginary worlds created by human beings bring joy to people even when the contents of those worlds are violent or frightening. And since fiction is an altered reflection of the world we really live in, it’s often going to contain the things that exist in our world, things like guns, swords, and bombs. People fight in reality, so people fight in fiction. But we have to learn to attend to the problems of reality without stepping on the wonders of fiction. Children are exposed to guns and battles and war through fiction. They see such things in movies, read about them in books, and, being children, imitate them. So what? That’s what kids do. The vast majority of children, I think, have the sense to have fun imitating the action scenes they see on TV or film or read about without thinking it’s all right to do anything to truly harm anybody. Play, at its best, is mental exercise. The imagination is one of the most important of all the things that make a human being special. To make a leap of ridiculously lazy logic and assume that a child having a pretend adventure that involves a bit of dangerous action is a step away from shooting his classmates or becoming the next Hitler is not only absurd, it’s an excuse to say you’re addressing a situation while what you’re really doing is ignoring the real situations, the real problems you should be looking for ways to solve.
            I won’t claim to know the solution to the problem of violence in society, of people who shouldn’t have deadly weapons obtaining them, of the potentially dangerous mentally ill sometimes going unnoticed until it’s too late, but I know the solution is not to extinguish the fires of imagination the moment those wonderful sparks ignite in the mind of a child. We’re putting far too much at risk if we start doing that.
            In conclusion, I’d like to share the memory of a conversation I’ll always cherish. More than twenty-five years after being scared witless by that Batman comic, I got to meet the artist, Gene Colan, at the New York Comic Con. I told him exactly what had happened, how that comic had scared me, but how I later came to love his work, and how I gave that story credit for delivering a jolt to me and setting my imagination to work. I told him his work had a lot to do with me growing up to be a writer. Then, this man whose work meant so much to me smiled and said, “You know, when I was a little boy, my father took me to see Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks…but it made me love being scared, made me love horror, made me want to draw things that would make people feel how I felt in that dark theatre. If my work did for you what that movie did for me, I’m very happy to have accomplished that, and I wish you all the success in the world.”

            I walked away from that conversation with a tear in my eye and joy in my heart. A few years later, when I heard that Gene Colan had died, I was glad I’d had a chance to have that talk with him and glad to have been part of the cycle of inspiring fear that went from Karloff to Colan to me and, hopefully, to somebody who gets a thrill or a scare out of one of my books someday. I cringe to think what might have happened if any of the links in that chain had been told it was wrong to imagine anything dark or dangerous.    

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What's Coming on Halloween?

I was asked to participate in a blog hop called "The Next Big Thing" in which authors are answering a series of 10 questions about their next project.

Also participating today are the following authors, so check out their blogs when you've finished with mine!

 Malena Lott
For my part in today's blog hop, I'll be answering questions about a novel I have coming out around Halloween of this year. 
1: What is the working title of your book?
Chicago Fell First was my working title and it’s now become the official title.

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?
The initial spark of the idea came from something my wife mentioned to me. She works for Verizon Wireless and has heard dozens of ridiculous stories of the ways people manage to find to damage their cell phones. She came home one day and told me that people have taken to using rice to dry out water-logged phones! This sounded so absurd that it stuck in my head and became an incident in the first chapter of the book and the rest of the story kind of grew out of that little seed. As soon as I heard that, I knew I could find some kind of weird angle to the idea, but I wasn’t sure what it would be until I started writing. 

3: What genre does your book come under?
It’s a horror novel in the zombie sub-genre.

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Whenever I’m asked that question about any of my books, my mind usually turns toward whatever movies or TV shows I’ve been watching the most lately. In recent weeks, I caught up on Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, so I’d probably end up pulling people from those series to cast the Chicago Fell First movie. That would work just fine for me, since those shows are loaded with excellent actors. But…I don’t want to name any specific character/actor matches because I’d rather let the readers see the characters however they form in the mind during the act of reading the book. 

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When a city is overrun by an unimaginable horror, a group of strangers try to save themselves from what could be the end of the world.

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
Chicago Fell First will be published by Buzz Books, for whom I’ve previously written short stories for the anthologies Prom Dates to Die For and Something Wicked.

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It was written well over a year ago, so I don’t remember the exact time frame, but I’m a pretty fast writer, so I don’t think it took more than maybe three months for the first draft.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Well of course it has things in common with other zombie books, but those are factors that are kind of essential to the sub-genre. Those kinds of similarities are impossible to avoid. That pattern of people coming together to form a temporary "family" to survive a horrible situation is one of the core themes of horror, from Dracula to The Walking Dead and everything in between. 

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The aforementioned rice story started the ball rolling and it just went from there as the story built itself and I decided that zombies would be the focus. The human characters in the story came from a variety of different places. The fact that one of the main characters is a cancer survivor is due to the fact that a friend of mine was battling cancer around the time I was writing this book, although she and the character are much, much different. Another character is loosely based on a waitress in one of our local diners. Others just pop into my head when I need someone to move the story along. 

10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
What I really wanted to do with this book was focus on the human beings. The zombie outbreak and all its gore and horror and destruction is the backbone of the story, but the way the people deal with it is the face of the book. At its heart, it’s a story about how the worst of circumstances can bring out the best in people, much like the way those who survive a war often come home stronger because of their experiences.  

So those are my answers regarding Chicago Fell First. Look for more news about the book as we get closer to October. This will be my first full novel with Buzz Books. They've previously published my two young adult paranormal stories in their anthologies, Prom Dates to Die For  and Something Wicked, so I'm, thrilled to be working with them again.