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?

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.

The Social Writer: Blogging Platforms

Continuing with the series The Social Writer, this week I’ll be talking about blogging platforms. Now, last week I discussed why a writer might want to begin his/her own blog. Let’s say you decided to take my advice and start a blog. But then there’s a hitch: you don’t know what blogging platform to host your awesome blog.

Well, have no fear, Mastering the Craft is here!

blogging for writersRecapping from last week, I am still reading Robin Houghton’s book “Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers build successful blogs.” It’s published by Writer’s Digest so you know it’s going to be full of stuff that writer’s will want to know. In all seriousness, so far I’ve found it to be full of stuff that I, as a writer, would want to know. If you’d rather go out and buy the book instead of reading this column, I’d fully understand.

So, back to the task at hand. You’ve probably visited or heard of some of the blogging platforms I’ll be discussing shortly. You might be wondering though, what exactly is a blogging platform? Houghton describes them as “the software that powers a blog. You could think of it as the underlying construction, like a house-is it timber-framed or brick-built? Once the house is built, you may not be able to tell. Most blog platforms do pretty much the same job.”

There are so many of these platforms out there and it’d take more effort than I’d like to spend so I’m going to give a summary of three of the more popular ones. Here goes.

WordPress.com. This is the platform my website uses (www.james-master.com) and I find it very comfortable to use, yet also a little challenging. Let’s say it’s for intermediate level internet users. Prices can range from Free to $45 per month. Of course with most things, the more you pay the more perks you have access to. Stages include Free, Blogger ($3/month), Personal ($5/month), Premium ($8/month), Business ($25/month), and eCommerce ($45/month). All of those prices are billed yearly. That’s how they get you. You think, of that’s not a bad price, but then you’re panicking when they want you to pay a crazy amount.

Screenshot (40)

Screenshot of the pricing and what it includes from WordPress.com

 

• Blogger.com. I had no idea that Blogger.com was owned by Google so automatically I was logged into my webpage. “It’s like trading off some control for more convenience,” writes one review site. The site also states that Blogger has very little in terms of content management. While you can buy a custom domain, a blogger on Blogger.com is free and you get essentially unlimited resources to run your blog. I might actually try this one.

Wix.com is the third blogging platform. They have a basic free package like all the others, but then they have their four different levels including Combo ($13/month), Unlimited ($17/month), Pro ($22/month), and VIP ($39/month). The one thing that I like about WordPress.com is that they tell you ahead of time that the price is billed monthly. With Wix.com, they say the price, but only tell you it’s billed yearly later on. For instance, the Pro plan is $22 per month if you pay for one year. If you pay it month-to-month it’s $27 per month. Of course, if you pay for three years it’s only $16/month. So there’s that.

Screenshot (41)

Pricing and what it includes from Wix.com

 

Here’s what you need to think about when making the choice of where your blog is going to call home: Do you like the look and feel of the blogging platform sites? Do you have the budget for the higher tiers? What are the goals for your blog when thinking about the future?

The last piece of advice I can give you is this: search for other blogs that use the platform you’re thinking about. Do your research. Read some reviews about it. And always remember that you can start on the free option and then upgrade to a higher tier later on.

If you use a blogging platform, let me know in the comments which one and if you like it or if you are looking for a different one. If so, which one?

The Social Writer: The Art of the Blog

It takes amazing willpower to enter Barnes & Nobles without walking out a book. Apparently, I have absolutely no willpower because I left with three books. One of them was a book titled “Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers Build Successful Blogs” written by Robin Houghton.

blogging for writersIn my experience, as an author, social media has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, I waste a lot of time endlessly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter when I should be writing. However, in this technological age it’s imperative that authors risk the temptation. Not only can social media introduce you to other writers, but you can use it to introduce yourself and your books to literally millions of people. This week’s Mastering the Craft will discuss what is a blog and other topics.

Houghton starts things off by explaining that a blog “is simply a particular type of website, for the main part consisting of posts (articles) usually date-stamped, and organized in reverse chronology so that the visitor always sees the most recent post first.”

My website is exactly that. If you head over to https://james-master.com/category/mastering-the-craft/ you’ll find all of my Mastering the Craft columns in reverse chronological order. My first bit of advice is this: if you’re going to write a blog, write about something that interests you. On my website you’ll find articles about my writing journey, but you’ll also find some sample fiction as well as a section that compares movies against the films they were adapted from.  Your readers can tell if your interested in the subject. At least, if you’re a decent writer.

There are three attributes all blogs should contain: frequency, brevity, and personality. In my experience, frequency is the easiest of the three but it’s also the easiest to fail at. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. If your blog doesn’t have fresh content for your readers, they won’t come back to it. Imagine if your local newspaper quit publishing on their normal schedule. You’d quit buying and reading it right? Same goes with blogs. It’s all about schedule. Set a reminder on your phone to site down and write a post. Heck, write five of them on your day off and schedule them to post automatically for the future. Once you get into that rhythm, it’s all downhill from there.

Brevity is the one I struggle at the most. When writing short stories, I often exceed or come very close to the maximum word limit because there’s just so much to tell. You wouldn’t really think it, but crafting a good micro-fiction, a short story consisting of under 1,000 words, is pure artwork. I struggle with writing one of these columns in under 1,000 words. You guys don’t know it, but I delete so many puns and pop culture references because I try to keep these around 900 words. You have to convey your point and its arguments in a concise and interesting manner yet not write a novel. It’s tough.
Personality is somewhat difficult to convey through your writing. Developing your blogging persona is important. Houghton writes:

“Perhaps the idea of sharing anything to do with your personal life makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s fine, but decide where you personally draw the line. It’s different for everyone. If blogging their daily life and work routine, some bloggers are happy to mention their family members by name, but won’t post photos of them. Others have no problems with that, but don’t use real names.”

When I write Mastering the Craft, I take a conversational approach as if I’m sitting down with you at a café drinking coffee. Which I am mostly, drinking coffee that is. I don’t share names of my friends or relatives though, opting to use pronouns instead. Sure, you could be a creeper and search for the names of my sisters or my ex-wife, maybe even comb through my Facebook friends list. It’s easy to do.

Another aspect of personality is: how transparent will you be? Mastering the Craft often blends my writing life with my… well, my real life. If you read one of my columns, you’ll find that, more often than not, that there’s a deeper meaning. Sure, they’re all about writing but they’re also so much more.  Houghton writes that “not everyone wants to lay themselves bare by mentioning rejections, spats, loss of motivation, or other negative aspects of their writing life. Others revel in it and find visitor numbers and comments increase when their blog posts are at their most raw and honest.” It’s really about your comfort level.

Like I mentioned above, brevity is the thing I’m worst at and now I’m looking at the word count exceeding 800 words. Alas, my dear readers, it’s time we part for another week. I’ve only just purchased this book but if you’re interested in getting into blogging, it’s definitely worth it.