Welcome to the Writer’s Apocalypse

I’ve always found the word “apocalypse” to be fascinating. It can mean a prophetic revelation, but it can also mean a widespread or universal destruction or disaster.

As a Christian and a Horror Writer, both those definitions weigh heavy on the subjects I write as well as the content I include in my works. Some may think that the two terms, “Christian” and “Horror Writer,” mix like oil and water. It all depends on how you write the story.

If you Google the phrase “types of apocalypse” here’s what you’ll find:

  • Alien Invasion
  • Time traveling robot infested future
  • Rise of mutants
  • Cloned dinosaurs
  • Apes conquering the planet
  • Divine Judgment
  • Technology Singularity
  • Humans all turned into batteries

The list comes from this site. The article is titled “Apart from zombies, what other types of apocalypses are there?” Give it a read, it’s rather interesting.

The Writer’s Apocalypse. When I first came up with the name for this website I was taking a college course called W315: Writing for the Web. I had to create a website with a topic of my choosing. At that time I was just an aspiring unpublished writer. The main topic of the site focused on writing and my personal struggle to become a published author. Years later, I am the author of three novels and four short stories.

I am a survivor of the Writer’s Apocalypse.

However, even a survivor can die after the initial apocalyptic event. Look at The Walking Dead. Characters die from a plethora of ways, not just from zombies. In order to prolong that survival, one must sharpen their skills. Hopefully that way I can show others to survive the wasteland that is the Writer’s Apocalypse.

On this site you will find not just my books and origin story. You’ll also find author interviews, book and movie reviews, and my weekly blog Mastering the Craft.

The Curse of the Written Word

Keeping up with this month’s theme of the spooky and creepy, I want to share my feelings about one of the curses of the Written Word. Don’t worry, it’s not really one of those curses that’ll turn you into a frog, newt, or any other amphibian. I don’t have that power.

But I do have another power granted to me by the Written Word.

See, words have power. The power to create, to sustain, to build up, and to grant freedom. Take the United States Declaration of Independence for example. Written in 1776, this document explained why 13 colonies sought to free themselves from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can’t tell me those two paragraphs are simply a well-connected string of words and punctuation. Those words have meaning. They, and the entire document that follows them, contain a power that has created a nation, has sustained that nation for over 200 years, has built up other countries that have sought independence, and has granted freedom to an unmeasurable number of men, women, and children.

People say magic doesn’t exist. Whenever I hear that claim, I ask them if they’ve ever read a book.

With all powerful things, there are neglectful people that use it haphazardly. And, of course, there are evil people that use it for abusive practices. Look at Twitter to see some of those abusive practices.

You might be thinking, “Jim, who are you to accuse us of abusing the power of the written word?” Because, dear reader: I’m a horrible practitioner of the written word. If you’ve read my past rants, you’ll know what I think of both James Patterson and the State of Michigan. Unlike the Founding Fathers, I’ve never used my power for good when it came to those two subjects.

Recently, I’ve been using it without thinking of the implications. The true curse of the written word is that it’s hard to interpret a message from a friend. I remember when I was married, my wife accused me once that I didn’t love her. It was on a way home from work. She was sitting in the passenger seat of our van and I was driving. She was abnormally silent, and I knew something was up. You could always tell when she was angry about something when she was quiet. Silence, in this case, was deadly.
After spending some time coaxing her into talking, she responded that I hadn’t ended a text with “I love you.”

It didn’t help that I laughed when she said that. I couldn’t help it. I thought I’d accidently done something wrong. After a few more minutes of driving in silence (her anger had renewed and grown after my outburst of laughter), she informed me that when I had texted back “Sure, Taco Bell sounds good” and I had left out those essential three words, the message was interpreted that while I loved Taco Bell, I somehow didn’t love her. So, after that day, I’d always text back with those three words. Even when I was indisposed. Example: “I’ll be downstairs in a minute. I’m using the bathroom… I love you.”

It’s been my experience that I often text something I think it funny, but when others read it, they are offended, confused, or think I’m serious. That’s why if I ever text you, you’ll usually receive another text saying “lol jk.” For those that don’t know lol means laugh out loud and jk means just kidding.

It hits me hard when I hear back from people that I’ve offended them by something I’ve texted. I recently hurt someone close to me due to this. It’s painful for them, and it’s painful for me.

Texting someone is convenient, but we lose something in the translation between word of mouth and the written word. That’s the true curse of the written word.

As Uncle Ben once said to one of my favorite superhero’s: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Treat the power you have. Don’t trick people with it.

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Book vs Film: Scaring your Audience

Since it’s October, I thought it’d be appropriate to write a series of scary topics to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve. To kick off this series, I’ll be discussing the differences between a horror book and a horror film.

Boo!

By your reaction (yes, I’m watching as you’re watching this) I failed in my attempt at a jump scare. You see, that’s the main difference between a visual media and a written version. For those that don’t know the term, a jump scare is used to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event. Typically, that means something, or someone appears in front of the audience and often accompanied with a loud noise. At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two friends of mine. One friend, we shall call Angela, is particularly good at two things: hiding and jump scaring the other friend. The other friend, we shall call Kenny, is particularly good at one thing: being scared. Let’s just say, jump scares are an effective way to frighten your audience.
When used in films in an effective manner, jump scares can be a sudden payoff to a long period of suspense. As the tension builds up, the jump scare is the climax. They’ve been called “one of the most basic building blocks of horror movies.”

Recently, the use of jump scares has been criticized as overused and a lazy method to scare the audience. Which is true. Going back to my two friends, Kenny is like the audience and Angela is like the movie. Kenny’s been scared so many times by Angela that he’s used to it by now. Of course, that just means that Angela (and films) have to figure out new ways of scaring.

In a literary work, the author doesn’t have the above-mentioned technique to scare readers. Like film, authors must find alternative ways to scare the reader. One of those methods (there are many and I have just a limited amount of space, so I’ll only cover one in this article) is to create a false sense of security.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, author of The Devil’s Detective, talks about creating a false sense of security. He explains that if you make your story based in the real world so that readers recognize and relate to it, then add elements that show that world’s weaknesses. “Real fear comes from seeing in the narrative a set of events that, if they occurred, could threaten what’s important to the reader, and could change their world into something they no longer recognize or understand,” he once said. He goes on to say, and I really like this line, that “monsters aren’t really scary; monsters walking up the street where we’re living and threatening our children? That’s scary.”

Why do you think Stephen King’s books are so scary? IT, The Shawshank Redemption, The Institute, The Shining, Carrie, Firestarter… I could go on. He’s written so many books that are set in the real world and shows us that sometimes it isn’t a scary monster that’s the villain. It’s often society or the government that’s scarier than the space alien that feeds on children’s fear and then feasts on their flesh.

Even when your story is fantasy, there are still elements of realism that can be incorporated into it to make it more relatable to readers. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the characters are effected by addiction and mental issues even as they traverse across Mid-World on the Path of the Beam. Sometimes, the things that scare you are the ones that live inside your head.

Like the King of Horror once said in The Shining, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.” Sure, he was talking about a haunted resort, but it also meant Danny’s father turning into a homicidal abusive patriarch.

The real world is scary folks. Hopefully, we only experience it through the pages of a book or through the screen. It’d be nice to think that. Maybe that’s why we read and watch cinema. To escape the horrors of our everyday life. One last quote by Stephen King, I know, I quote him a lot. I think this sums up the article so here goes:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win,” King said. Isn’t that the scariest part of life and literature, when the monsters win?

Review of Joker (2019)

jokerSimply put, Joker is a great film. Better yet, it’s a better comic book adaptation. Even better than all of those things, I dare say it’s the best DC film since The Dark Knight (2008). I’m sorry to have to break it to all two of you that liked Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but it’s true. Joker is the equivalent to Marvel’s Rated R film Logan (2017). This is a gritty, dark, disturbing, and wonderful look at one of the most infamous comic book villains.

All DCEU bashing aside, Director Todd Philips was able to reinvent the classic Batman nemesis into something that serves as a cautionary tale, but also creates an interesting character story. As the title suggests, this film centers around the origin of Joker. Audiences watch as the character of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is slowly degraded and humiliated by society until that smile he tries to keep on his face turns into a snarl.
I say that this is a cautionary tale simply because, unlike most comic book adaptations, this one could actually become reality. Social Services, local government, his family, and the rest of humanity failed Arthur Fleck which turns him into the Joker. Unlike other films in its genre, there isn’t a radioactive spider or magical ring from outer space that creates the protagonist. It’s simply the way Fleck is treated that turns him into the crown prince of crime. The moral of the story is: be kind to your fellow man.

The highlight of the film is the acting performance by Joaquin Phoenix. From the odd dancing and the shots of his gaunt rib cage to the ill sounding laughter, Phoenix will definitely go down as one of the best Jokers in film history. One of the quirks that the character portrays is an uncontrollable laugh that displays itself during moments of intense awkwardness or stress.

joker 3The supporting cast is quite remarkable as well. Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, a late-night show host that is the focus of Fleck’s comedic career. Zazie Beetz plays Sophie, Fleck’s love interest. Frances Conroy, who many will remember from American Horror Story, plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s sickly mother.

The thing that sets Joker apart from the rest of the DC superhero films is that this is a standalone story, not linked to the other films in the DC Extended Universe. Having said that, expect to see a young Bruce Wayne. As stated before, Batman doesn’t appear in the film nor is there a hint of an antagonist other than those that are the target of Joker’s ire.

If you’re a fan of comic book villains, Joker is an interesting origin story that will keep you wondering if you should be rooting for Fleck or hoping the police bring him down before the credits roll. I will caution anyone that wants to go see it, this is a Rated R film for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images. This is not a film to take your children to. Don’t think that just because this a character in the Batman universe that this is a safe, child friendly film.

Review of The Institute

institute.jpgLet’s get this disclaimer out of the way so that we can get down to the meat and potatoes of this book review. I absolutely, positively love everything that Stephen King has ever written. Not so much his film adaptions, but that’s another review for another time.

Released in mid September, the storyline of The Institute follows two main characters. The first readers encounter is Tim Jamieson, an ex-policeman that’s traveling to New York for a job. Following his intuition, Jamieson ends up in DuPray, South Carolina. He ends up being a Night Knocker. For those that don’t know what a night knocker is, don’t worry I didn’t know either. Basically, it’s just a lowly paid member of local law enforcement that walks around at night making sure places are locked up. Jamieson has his own interesting history and is developing a life in DuPray when the story shifts over to the central character of the novel, Luke Ellis. 

Luke is a twelve-year-old genius that’s about to enter college. One night, he’s kidnapped from his home in suburban Minneapolis and taken to The Institute. It’s a facility located in Maine. Luke soon finds out that he and all the other kids in the facility have either telekinesis or telepathy. Oh, and the facility is operated by a super secret shadowy organization.

Going into the novel, I was certain that it was a sequel King’s 1980 novel, Firestarter. It’s essentially the same premise. A child with pyrokinetic powers is hunted by The Shop, a super secret government operation that does drug testing on people with telekinetic abilities. Spoiler alert: Firestarter ends with The Shop reforming under new leadership. With Doctor Sleep being a sequel to The Shining, it wasn’t that hard to think that The Institute was a sequel to Firestarter. However, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no references to the book that was adapted into the 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore.

While I really enjoyed Luke’s journey of survival and vengeance, all I really wanted to do was get back to Night Knocker Tim. For some reason, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tim’s normal, everyday life compared to the freaky and slightly traumatizing tale of Luke Ellis. As you could guess, the two main character’s path eventually collide and that’s when the story picks up. To quote Pam Beesly-Halpert from The Office, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Stephen King is one of those authors that has an innate talent to craft a decent story with children as characters. The Institute is pretty much a mash-up of IT and Firestarter. You take a shadowy government organization testing children and the children must band together to survive. Luke and the other children share a deep relationship together and King so masterfully gives each child a story arc without bogging down the narrative.

The one thing that I truly did not like were the political digs at President Trump and the Republican Party. If you follow King’s social media, you’ll know that he doesn’t particularly look on them with a positive light. There aren’t many of these references, but they always made me cringe and pulled me out of the narrative when I read them.

I guess I wouldn’t be a good reviewer if I didn’t mention how the novel parallels real world events. When you finish this 576 page science fiction/horror thriller there are a few things that hit close to home in terms of vaccinations, missing children, and zealots that believe that the ends justify the means. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that The Institute is an interesting look into these issues and the deeper and terrifying implications they have on society.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, The Institute will itch that literary scratch. For those that haven’t delved into the deep library of King, you’ll find this book a great introduction into it. The Institute is definitely one to put on your To-Be-Read list.

Finding the Time to Read

With only about 93 (at the time of this writing) days left in the year, I fear I’m going to fail another one of my New Year Resolutions I had made just 272 days ago. I’d failed just about every other resolution too, but this one was the one that I thought I’d be able to finish. It was the goal of reading 50 books in 2019. So far, I’ve finished 23 books this year. I keep track in my Goodreads app. If you’ve never tried GoodReads, I highly suggest it. If a group of librarians decided to get together and create a social media app, then that’s Goodreads.

Sidenote, follow me on Goodreads here.

There’s a quote from Stephen King I always like to pull out and dust off when people ask me what’s the big deal about reading. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

As writers, we must keep our skills sharpened. One way of doing that is reading books of different genres. By doing this, writers glean nuggets of wisdom from within the pages of those books. Examples of what to do, and what not to do. That means reading books that aren’t great.

One of the problems about reading is that it seems like I never have the time to actually sit down and enjoy it.

I remember when Stephen King released The Dark Tower. It was the very last book in his Dark Tower series. It came out Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004. I graduated from high school in 2004 and had recently started college at IUSB. At that time, I was also working at the gas station in North Liberty. Back then it was still Citgo, right before they changed ownership to LuckyMart. Getting back on track, that weekend after the book was released, I had the weekend off. I’m not too sure how I was that lucky, maybe it was Ka (only fans of the book would get that). I read the entire book, all 845 pages, in that single weekend. I remember where I spent most of that weekend. It was on the couch of our living room (at the time I was still living at home). I remember crying at both sad and happy moments of the book. I also remember feeling that sense of shock at reading the ending of King’s magnum opus.

Having a weekend off is a rarity now a days.

King once said that books are “uniquely portable magic.” It’s important that we don’t forget that. As adults, we need to remember that and take time out of our day to read. It’s tough trying to find the time to read. As we get older, our lives get more complicated and we have more commitments and sometimes we just don’t have the time.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Listen to audiobooks while to and from work. I work about 30 minutes away from where I live. That’s about an hour of book consumption each day. Typically, books can last from four to seven hours. It depends on the length of the book. Think about this. There’s no commercials and no songs you don’t like. Whenever I look at what to listen to, I normally go for series. This spring I burned through the entirety of The Lunar Chronicles written by Marissa Meyer. When you get a talented voice actor that can enchant you mixed with superb storytelling, you’ll never want to press the pause button. Currently, I’m in book three of The Chronicles of Narnia (The Horse and His Boy).

 

  • Read an ebook on your phone. Waiting in line. Arriving at a movie theater a few minutes before the film starts. Sitting in the lobby of a busy BMV because you were too lazy to make an appointment. Eating dinner at a restaurant by yourself because that blind-date stood you up. All of these situations can be made better by reading an ebook. The great thing about an ebook is that you don’t need to have the Kindle app. There’s a variety of apps that’ll allow you to read books. And if you have a library card, then there’s Hoopla and Overdrive. Read my earlier post about the benefits of a library card here.

 

  • Sitting on the toilet. Let’s be completely honest we each other. There’s nothing to do except your “business” when you’re in the bathroom. Why not bring a paperback? Instead of playing Candy Crush on your phone (don’t deny it), just open up your Kindle app and read a few pages. Please be a little courteous, don’t take a borrowed book into the bathroom. That’s a bit icky. And, it’s probably not the first time that borrowed paperback has seen the bathroom. You didn’t think those were chocolate pudding stains, did you?

 

That’s it for this week. I know, it’s a shorter rant then what you’re usually used to, but I was too busy reading. See what I did there? Now go read something!

Victory is Sweet

When it comes to games, I’m pretty competitive. Of course, if you ask my nieces and nephews, they’ll tell you I’m ruthless. When playing Risk, I’ll backstab my allies. When playing Sorry, I’m not sorry. I don’t try to collect four of the same kind in the game of Spoons. I just pass cards and wait for the first spoon to be grabbed.

In Candyland, there is no mercy.

Because of my ruthlessness, I’ve been accused of being too hard on the kiddos. Whenever I’m accused of this, I defend myself by stating that I want my nieces and nephews to win. And I do want them to win, but I want them to win because they achieved it. I want them to learn that if you want something in this world, you need to work for it.

When one of my nieces started playing Candyland, my wife (at the time) and I played. I took my turn, my wife took her turn, and then my niece took her turn. Now, if you’ve never played Candyland, the game doesn’t use dice to advance. Instead, you draw cards from the top of the deck and then advance to that color or location. My niece had drawn the Chocolate Swamp card that advanced her to the end of the board. While my niece was celebrating, I looked at my wife suspiciously. It only took one look at her mischievous smile to know that she’d rigged the deck. I understand that my niece was like three or four at the time, but it was irritating that my wife had just handed the victory to her.

Now, I know what you all are saying. “But Jim, it’s your niece. She’s like three-years old.” Or, “But Jim, it’s only Candyland.” Or “But Jim, you’re a monster.”

Believe me, I’ve heard all of these before. Sure, it’s only Candyland. But what about after Candyland? If we allow children to become used to winning because “it’s only Candyland,” then they’ll become used to winning. And like it or not, we can’t win all the time.

As an author and a survivor of a failed marriage, I know about not winning all the time.
When my two nephews started playing chess, I never let them win. My oldest nephew was about five or six at the time when he started playing the game. My second oldest nephew started about the same age. Both are formidable opponents to this day. In fact, I recently played my second oldest at a game and he nearly had me in checkmate.

proud uncle2

My nephew upon realizing he’d just checkmated his uncle.

I’m not a chess genius, but I’m pretty good. And with that ruthlessness, I’ve become elevated to a Bobby Fischer legend status in that household. My sister has beaten me less than a handful of times, and I think my brother-in-law had beaten me once. Other than that, I’m undefeated.

Well, that was until Zeke, the oldest at 12 years of age, defeated his uncle. He didn’t even know it at the time. It wasn’t until I extended my hand in defeat that he realized he had me in checkmate. The legend was defeated.

Seeing his face flush in realization and the gigantic smile was worth the six or seven years of being ruthless. He won because of his own cunning and merit, not because I gave the victory to him.

The publishing world is like a ruthless uncle. It will never hand you a publishing deal. It wants you to do the work. Write that novel, submit it, wait all of those agonizing months, and suffer rejections. Maybe, you’ll taste victory.

Don’t quit playing the game. Even if you receive rejection letter after rejection letter, keep it up. Strengthen your game, know your opponent, and plow ahead. My nephew could have given up playing the game. I assure you he had moments after a crushing defeat where he thought I was undefeatable. The next day when I’d walk into their house he’d say “Uncle Jim, let’s play chess. This time I’m going to beat you.”

proud uncle

Victory is Sweet!

I promised my nephews and niece that if someone defeated me at chess, I’d take that person to Dairy Queen for a reward. Last night, I did just that. We ate medium Oreo Cookie Jar Blizzards while talking about the game. Just a smiling teenager and his proud (and now humbled) uncle. For my nephew, victory never tasted sweeter.

If my nephew can topple that undefeatable and ruthless uncle, then you can get that book/poem/artwork/ (insert whatever goal you have) accomplished. Do the work, persevere, and never quit. Maybe then, you too, can taste victory.