Sunday, December 1, 2013

Oh How I Wish I’d Read Dickens as A Teen

My Grandmother bought me an abridged version of Great Expectations when I was about nine, but I didn't crack the book till my teens, at which time my dad tried as sincerely as he could (without pushing) to encourage me to read it. I couldn't get past the first paragraph - to paraphrase: "My last name being Pirrip and my first Philip, all my young tongue could make of them was Pip..." It just seemed like waffle to me at that time - I was into Marvel Comics, Conan the Barbarian novels, the sci-fi of Heinlein, Anthony, Niven and Pournelle, the horror of Stephen King, and that first paragraph of Great Expectations just seemed like nonsense.

How wrong I was. How bitter I am that I never allowed myself to read just the next page, where Pip is grabbed by the convict Magwitch in the cemetery! How that would have grabbed me and pulled me in! And how I could have sat for long hours with my dad, who passed away many years ago now, and talked Dickens! I believe I might even have begun writing my own novels sooner had I discovered Dickens back then. How I would love to be able to go back and do those things, especially sit and talk Dickens with my dad.

I won't go into anything of the plot of Great Expectations, one should read it and see for themselves, but I'll describe how I finally discovered Dickens, and how I have recently finished reading that old abridged version of Great Expectations that my granny gave me over four decades ago.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was unemployed and filling my days by borrowing and reading books from the library. My reading tastes were quite varied by then and I went through every copy they had of the Deathlands series by James Axler, everything I could find by Robert McCammon, The Ruby in the Smoke books by Philip Pullman, Little Women and the Eight Cousins books by Louisa May Alcott, and all eight books in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

Then I found a beat up old copy of something called Poor Miss Finch by a fellow named Wilkie Collins. It was in such a wrecked state, almost falling to bits, and I wondered why the librarians didn’t just throw it out and get a new copy. It intrigued me for this reason alone and I took it home. When I started reading it I realized it was no ordinary book. It was set in nineteenth century England and the style was something I couldn’t quite define, old-fashioned and yet at the same time seeming very modern and easy to grasp. And the story! What was I reading? It was about a poor young blind woman who is taken advantage of by twin brothers – they take turns in wooing her, pretending to be just one man – oh those black hearts! I wanted to jump into that book and throttle them both. It was a long book, very full and densely packed – something else I never would have read as a teen. But when I finished it I wanted more of Wilkie Collins.

A little research told me that not only was Poor Miss Finch set in nineteenth century England, it was also written back then! Collins was from those times and I realized that what I’d read was a Victorian Novel – I’d heard of them, never had the slightest interest in reading one, and now had by complete accident discovered that they were sensational. I was hooked. I read more of Collins: Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, No Name (a book every modern young woman should read!) and his magnum opus, The Woman in White (the title on his grave marker). I learned also that he was a contemporary of, and indeed best friends with, Charles Dickens, a discovery that made me wonder if Dickens would be as much fun to read.

The first book I could find of Dickens was David Copperfield. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was: funny, heart-warming, tragic and dramatic, and with that same old-fashioned yet modern and easy reading quality (and granted not all Dickens is easy reading!), but also, within the tragedy, there was at times a great sense of fun about David Copperfield. It was to that point the greatest book I’d ever read. And the best thing was there were many more books by Dickens that I would have the pleasure of reading – and they were all tomes! I had become an addict, hooked on Dickens and Collins, and I fed my habit.

After David Copperfield I of course thought of that old abridged version of Great Expectations my Gran had given me, but not having it to hand I bought a four-dollar paperback from Barnes & Noble (full version not abridged) and devoured it in less than a week. I marveled at it. I loved it more than David Copperfield. And that was when I began to wish I could go back and tell my dad how sorry I was I’d never read it while he was alive. This could never be, of course, so when I came back to Australia I did what I felt was the least I could, and read that old abridged version. I just finished it… and it only took me forty-four years!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Shouldn't I Promote Myself on Twitter?

I read so many blogs and posts on the Internet that say things like "stop posting links on Twitter" "stop selling yourself on Twitter" "enough with the buy my book tweets" etc., etc.

Look, I understand what these folks are trying to get across, but who are they to say? In fact, who are they period? Just folks like me. I'm an independent author. No big publishing house cares about me or my books. Even book bloggers don't care. And I don't care if they don't care. I love self-publishing. But why shouldn't I promote myself on Twitter? No giant corporation is going to promote me. No publishing house. No big time editor or publisher or agent is in my corner. So I have to promote myself. And Twitter is a great place to do it. But I don't post tweets that beg or demand others to "buy my book" or "like my FB page" (I don't even like my own FB page. It's boring!) - I agree that those tweets are wrong. I tweet something about my books and post a link. If anyone wants to follow that link and check out my book that's up to them. And if they want to buy a copy that's up to them too. I appreciate anyone that does but I won't ask anyone to do it. If the book sells, awesome! If not, that's cool too. But I don't see the harm in my tweeting about it. I tweet about other things too, and I promote other indie authors and other folks' stuff on Twitter as well. There aren't many places we can do it so why not? Oh, and I quote my own novels too. One blog went so far as to say something like "You're not Abe Lincoln, stop quoting yourselves." What does that even mean? Abe Lincoln's been dead for 148 years! He doesn't quote himself either. Nor did he do so when he was alive. He just said stuff. Other folks may have quoted him in his lifetime, and they sure do it nowadays. And why not? Abe said a lot of stuff that had great insight, meaning and impact. It should be quoted. But as for me or other indie authors quoting excerpts or dialogue from our own books, I say: You don't need to be Abe Lincoln, you just need to have your own stuff. Indie Authors, if you've got it, quote it! And promote it! There are folks out there who love to read great books. If you think you've written one, tell them about it. Don't ask them to buy it. That's up to them. But if they choose to, maybe they'll read it and love it. And you've done your job as an author.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Headhunter, by Michael Slade--Better than Silence of the Lambs?

I ignored this book for about 3 years. The cover gave me the creeps. Not the image in the link below, I'm talking about the hardcover-it was a woman's head on a spike. This was the late 80s and I was working for movie producer Elliott Kastner (EK), and the book was on a shelf in my office. EK had ignored it too-he was a literary snob and only made "classy" books into films, and let's face it, a woman's head on a spike ain't classy, just horrible. Then a friend of mine visited my office and saw the book. He'd read it and said if I liked police/murder thrillers, nothing could beat Headhunter. He told me I should try and make the movie. So I took that image of the head on a spike home with me every night to read the book. What can I say, the book grabbed me like Abel Magwitch grabbed Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations, turned me upside-down and shook the heck out of me. And when I got to the part where the killer's identity was revealed I was so shocked, so utterly blindsided that I cried out "no way!" and threw the book across the room. Then of course I picked it back up and finished reading it. And boy did I want to make the movie. I told EK and he said "okay run with it" which I presumed meant try and produce the movie. So off I ran.
At that time, Michael Slade was the pen name for three trial lawyers in Vancouver BC. The main scribbler and spokesperson for the trio was a guy named Jay Clarke (Jay still writes the books in the Special X series to this day, but I believe he now writes them with his daughter instead of the two other lawyers). I contacted Jay (it was easy to do things like that working for EK, my first day on that job I had Gregory Peck on the phone).
Jay told me the film rights for Headhunter were unavailable-they'd been held in option for a few years by a company that hadn't got the film made but was paying good money for the option. But Jay had heard of EK and a movie he'd recently produced called "White of the Eye" - a serial killer thriller, which was great but didn't make much of a splash. Jay didn't care; he was so excited about EK's involvement that we worked out a deal whereby I got the option for much less than the other guys had been paying.
White of the Eye was written and directed by Donald Cammell, who I immediately thought would love to do Headhunter. I'd gotten to know Donald when he came to Pinewood Studios to recut scenes in White of the Eye for the upcoming video release.
By this time, Donald and EK were in the process of trying to get financing for a script called "Jericho" that Marlon Brando had written and wanted to star in (EK, Brando and Donald were friends from way back). I told Donald about Headhunter and he agreed to read it. He went back to Los Angeles and a couple months went by so I called and asked him if he'd read the book. He said he had but I could tell it wasn't true - I just knew he'd be more excited if he really had. I told him not to worry and said just call me when you've read it.
Months went by. Then one day, I was with EK going over the mail when the phone rang. It was Donald calling from LA. And when he started raving about how great Headhunter was, I knew this time he'd really read it. It blew him away. He wanted to write the screenplay and make the movie. I thought we were off and running. But naturally Donald wanted his usual writing fee to adapt the book into a script, which was $75k. By today's standards that's really cheap, but EK hit the roof and said there was no way he'd pay Cammell that money to write that script. Again, EK didn't think a book whose cover was a woman's head on a spike was worth the money. So the entire project stalled and derailed and I never got to be the producer of a movie that, in my opinion, would not only have come years before Silence of the Lambs, but would also have blown that movie out of the water. If I had the money and connections today, I'd adapt Headhunter into a screenplay myself (doing it back then wasn't an option) and make that movie.
So anyway, if you love serial killer thrillers, and if you loved Silence of the Lambs (which I thought was great and one of the best book to movie adaptations ever), I think you'll agree that the book Headhunter makes Silence of the Lambs look like Little Bo Peep.

Here's Headhunter on Amazon:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

You Can Never Go Home

I’ve always known the meaning of the old saying but never gave it much thought and never experienced what it feels like to actually discover why it’s so true.
Until my recent return home to Australia.
I’d been away for twenty-six years, wandering the world seeking my fortune, which unfortunately someone else picked up before I got to it.
Throughout my time away, I was occasionally struck with feelings of homesickness, but it was only in the last year leading up to my return that I was positively plagued by specific and vivid memories from my teens. One memory in particular was of sitting up all night with my best buddy at the time, Geoff Clements, watching old black & white movies on TV. They played from around eleven in the evening till about seven the next morning, and were called, in succession, The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, The Late, Late, Late Show, and The Early Show, which was so called because it started sometime around five o’clock the next morning.
The movies were nothing special; usually just the cheap and cheesy B-graders one can now get at Best Buy on DVD in boxed sets of 50 movies for twelve bucks. What was special was that at fifteen, I got to sit up all night and watch them. Back then we weren’t doing it with beer either, instead we drank coffee, and instant coffee at that, which was the cultural norm in many Aussie households at the time (and still is in my little sister’s household). One particular movie stood out that I always wanted to see again but had neglected to catch the title of—which was especially regrettable after everything became available on VHS and then DVD and I didn’t know what darned movie to look for!
Years later I told another best buddy, John Eenigenburg, the storyline of this movie: “it was about this woman who’s in a wheelchair and she goes to this house on the cliffs somewhere by the seaside and keeps seeing her father’s dead body everywhere and it turns out SPOILERS AHEAD…………… there are these people trying to drive her crazy and kill her.” By this time I wondered if I even remembered the movie accurately or if I might have actually dreamed some of it in the intervening years of thinking about it so often and was now mixing the movie up with a dream. I never thought for one second that John would know what the hell movie I was on about, but to my utter shock and absolutely happy amazement he blurted out “Scream of Fear starring Susan Strasberg!” And he was right! It was the very movie and one of his favorites growing up too. Turns out it was one of those old British Hammer Horror Films made in the 60s, and armed with this new information I promptly hit the Internet and discovered it was only available on VHS and was $100 bucks! And then I discovered that the VHS was no longer available. Horror of horrors! But at least I now knew the name of the movie.
More years went by and then one day, on one of my forages through Best Buy for bargain DVD packs, I saw a DVD “Icons of Horror” collection called “Hammer Films 4 Creepy Classics”—and lo and behold one of those classics was Scream of Fear. And the DVD pack was ten bucks! I bought it. I still own it. I’ve watched Scream of Fear a dozen times since then and it’s as great every time as it was when I was fifteen and stayed up all night to watch it.
When I came home to Australia in 2012 I thought how wonderful it would be to go to Geoff’s house—or The Clements House as we called it back then—and watch the DVD with my old best buddy Geoff, how awesome to recapture that old time and relive those lost moments.
But being back home these past six months has made me realize, and finally fully understand the old saying ‘you can never go home.’ The house Geoff lived in is still there and two of his brothers still live in it. But Geoff lives in NSW now with his wife and kids, his sisters are all married and moved on, and his folks passed away. The house I lived in across the street is still there too but it’s been built on and renovated to the point where it looks nothing like it did during my time there. My dad passed away in 2001 and my mom is in the advanced stages of Dementia and now lives in a nursing home. Visiting with her is sometimes like visiting someone who’s happy to see me but doesn’t really know who I am (the most agonizing change of all). I live at my younger sister’s house and my older sister, although not close by, is still only an hour’s drive away. But nothing is the same as it was. I could go to my old house but I cannot ‘go’ to it. I can go to The Clements House—with two of the Clements Boys still in it—but I can never actually go back to The Clements House that I knew growing up. The two Clements boys still living there are old men now, not the youthful guys I knew growing up, and although we’re still friends and except for getting older they really haven’t changed much. How can someone not change and yet change completely? It’s easy with time I guess.
It’s a painful thing to be struck by; this realization that every minute I lived back then should have been enjoyed and cherished. I cherished nothing and took it all for granted: my parents were there, my sisters, Geoff’s parents, brothers and sisters—we were all there, young and happy and carefree, with our entire lives ahead of us and I was too young and happy and carefree to realize that none of it would last, none of those people and none of those times would be there forever and I ought to be hanging onto every minute as if it was my last. Because it was, each one of those minutes lasted only a minute and then was gone, never to be got back again.
I read somewhere recently that it’s human nature when we’re young to think that the present will last forever. I’m no longer young but I can tell you that it’s still my nature to think the present will last forever. The minutes of my life continue to flare and fade like sparks in a fire and I should be cherishing every one of them just the same way I should have cherished those sparks I lived in my teens. But I didn’t then and it’s human nature that I won’t now. It’s impossible to go through every single minute thinking about how much I should be appreciating it—by their very nature they simply must go by without really being noticed otherwise I’ll miss them. The fire of time burns on, consuming everything I knew and leaving it in place and utterly changed, including me and yet somehow excluding me.
Home might still exist… but I can never go there again.

Buy Robert Shaw's books on Amazon:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Overwriting Was King

In my debut novel, The Scare, I’ve been accused by Kirkus Review of overwriting: “…a tedious torrent of overwriting…” is how they put it to be precise. I agree with them and am darned proud of their review! The Scare is overwritten for sure. But what overwriting! It’s a jolly good yarn with great characters readers love and a story that draws you in. And that’s all that matters. My goal as a writer is to entertain my readers and if I succeed it doesn’t matter how many words I used to do it. When I’m absorbed in a book I can’t put down I ain’t counting words or thinking about whether it’s overwritten! But okay, since I’m talking about overwriting let’s talk about it. I overwrite. I admit it and I admit that I love it. Come to think of it Stephen King overwrites and he’s doing just fine. So I’m in great company. Another guy who was big on overwriting--and who was around decades before King--is Robert Ervin Howard, aka Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. That’s right, Conan the Barbarian wasn’t created by some facile, overpaid Hollywood screenwriter fresh out of an Ivy League school, he was created in 1932 by a full grown Texan. In Howard’s day, not only was overwriting not frowned upon, it was King, just like Conan became! The 30s was the age of pulp fiction, no, not that movie by that director, but wonderful stories that could be found in the inexpensive fiction magazines that flourished from 1896 through the 1950s. The term pulp derived from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine and were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Many respected writers wrote for the pulps before they became respected, some of them, like Howard, became respected pulp writers. And yet Howard overwrote. In fact, he beautifully overwrote. And you know what? It’s great stuff. There’s not a thing wrong with it. Not back when it was written and not now. Howard’s stuff was so great it’s never been out of print. It’s been adapted into comic books, made into movies, copied endlessly. Some of today’s best writers have even written their own original Conan novels: Robert Jordan, Steve Perry, and L. Sprague de Camp to name a few. Conan the Barbarian is his own industry today. Not a bad achievement for a character created by a man in 1932 who was an inveterate overwriter. In “Queen of the Black Coast” one of Howard’s greatest stories, his overwriting shone brightly:

As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Belit came to the poop.
Her eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she
tore off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast
them at his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering
line of naked
 white, she cried to the desperate horde: "Wolves of the
blue sea, behold ye now the dance--the mating-dance of Belit, whose
fathers were kings of Askalon!"

And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping
of a quenchless flame, like the urge of
 creation and the urge of
death. Her white feet spurned the bloodstained deck and dying men
forgot death as they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars
glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a
blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan's feet,
and the blind flood of the Cimmerian's desire swept all else away as
he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted

There is no denying that Howard’s overwriting was a pure art form, and although my own overwriting may be nowhere near as good, to be accused of it is a thing to be proud of and shouted from the highest rooftops. Or from the humble keys of my laptop. And so I proudly shout it.

Buy Robert Shaw's books on Amazon:

What Makes Me Write?

I've been wondering lately what makes me believe I can write something that other people will bother to spend money on and then spend their time reading. I mean, time is a precious thing; we all have only a limited amount of it to spend here on earth. So what makes me think folks out there will buy and read a 300 plus page book I've written? Is it audacity? Arrogance? Or is it just plain optimism? I like to think it's optimism and not audacity or arrogance, that’s much more positive and sounds a lot nicer. There's a lot to be said for optimism. Take Star Wars for instance. At one point while George Lucas was in the middle of filming, Fox execs got word (which trickled up from various crew members) that Lucas didn't know what he was doing and his film was going to be terrible. Some of this stemmed from Lucas filming his actors on a sound stage fighting with sticks with nothing around them except green curtains. Of course Lucas knew what the finished product would look like (which the world now knows was the spectacular light sabre battle between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader). But this was the 70s and at that time none of those crew members had any frame of reference by which to guess what Lucas was doing, and they certainly weren't visionaries with imagination like Lucas so they had no faculty to foresee how it would eventually look on screen. So the production was shut down and a photo was taken of Lucas sitting in a gutter with his head in his hands. Imagine if the production had stayed shut down. We wouldn't have Star Wars! (Yes, I can't contemplate that either). But Lucas and his optimism managed to convince execs to let him continue and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. So when I see how many books are already out there in the world, and I start to doubt my writing talent and think I've got no chance and no hope and ought to just sit in the gutter with my head in my hands for the rest of my life, I tap into my bottomless well of optimism and remind myself that even if no one ever reads my books or thinks they're any good (or maybe even great), I should at least still allow them to be the judge of whether I have any talent or not. And the only way to do that is write the darned books and actually finish them and then boldly sling them out into the world. They may not become Star Wars but why let self-doubt and fear deprive me of the possibility? And at the very least, I enjoy writing them. I get to hang out with great characters and go on cool adventures. And that beats sitting in any old gutter!

Buy Robert Shaw's book's on Amazon: