“Thriller Thursdays” – The Suspense of Silence

Present word count of WIP:  59,985

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris contains one line that says it all about suspense novels . . . and harks back to my idea about the connection between suspense and human DNA:

“The washing machine’s rhythm was like a giant heartbeat, and the rush of its waters was what the unborn hear – our last memory of peace.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that our last memory of peace should be filled with noise? A comforting noise we grew used to for months. It’s silence that’s truly frightening.

And that was only one of the several terrific passages in this literary thriller. Here are a few more:

“Back at his chair he cannot remember what he was reading. He feels the books beside him to find the one that is warm.”

“Typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place.”

“Over this odd world, this half the world that’s dark now, I have to hunt a thing that lives on tears.”

And, finally, this from Dr. Lecter’s last note to Clarice:

“Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming? . . . I won’t be surprised if the answer is yes and no. The lambs will stop for now. But, Clarice, you judge yourself with all the mercy of the dungeon scales at Threave; you’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

Whether or not you’ve read the book and/or seen the movie, most of you have gathered enough about the plot of this thriller that I don’t think it’s worth summarizing here. Instead, I want to share a few of my basic impressions.

First, the bad language was sprinkled with care, not enough to make me set the gripping read aside. Though the crimes and criminal behavior described in this story are definitely perverse, it wasn’t a gory read. In fact, Harris is a minimalist when it comes to description. He can tell you everything you need to know about a person with one or two sentences, plus great dialogue.

That’s not to say he left out details. The book teemed with all kinds of information, always specific and important–either to the story or a character. In fact, there was so much detail that I simply had to look up the biography of this author. Had he been a former FBI agent? How did he know all this stuff?

The answer: research. As it turns out, his background is in journalism and he once worked a police beat. Still, the amount of research this novel displays, as well as its range and depth, is IMPRESSIVE!!! (And I’m not easily impressed.)

Two things about the writing stood out:

1) I loved the way he used Lecter to help reveal to the reader in a very natural and unforced way the background of FBI trainee, Clarice Starling. Bit by bit, the story gets peeled away for us.

2) There was an interesting switch to present tense now and then that kind of pulled me out as a reader, pushing the story to a safer, middle distance. In that way, all the uncomfortable aspects came off more clinically . . . as if the whole tale is being played out and observed from behind one of those windows in an interrogation room.

I’m sure if I thought about it longer, I would have a lot more to write, but if you want food for thought with regard to each and every chapter of this book, as well as the author’s own ruminations on his most famous character, I recommend this site.

Harris apparently hasn’t given an interview since 1976, but according to fellow novelist, Stephen King, Harris finds writing to be like “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration . . . the very act of writing is a kind of torment.” I think you can sense that when you read what he had to say about creating the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the link above.

As a suspense novel, as a thriller, The Silence of the Lambs definitely deserves the five star ranking I gave it.

 

Originally posted 2012-07-05 14:36:24.

“Moleskine Mondays” – “O” is for Organization

Present word count of WIP:  59,985

Location, location, location. What’s true in real estate is also true in writing. While the best of us may be able to hunker down and churn out words at any time in any setting, most of us (me included) need our “cave”–somewhere to hibernate and create.

I love looking at the broad range of writers rooms and offices, and found an excellent series on several current, well-known (in British literary circles, anyway) English authors posted in The Guardian three years ago. I’ll probably be referring to several on my “O” Mondays.

One, in particular, rang a bell. That of the British art historian and writer, Frances Spalding.

Here is the picture of her office (photographed by Eamonn McCabe) published in The Guardian on June 26, 2009:

And here is how she, herself, described it:

Apart from its central chimney and platform base, this house is entirely made out of wood. And very sympathetic it is too. It was built for the artist Elisabeth Vellacott in 1959. She had very little money and so the architect, Peter Boston, insisted it had to be all roof. An A-frame building well suits an artist, for it permits a double-height window beneath the apex. But for a writer, it is less good, limiting opportunities for bookshelves as well as walls on which to hang pictures. I have, therefore, yet to achieve a library-room and still live with books and papers squeezed in wherever space allows.

But what I gained with this house was an enormous desk. It is an artist’s working bench, with slots on one side where canvases can be stored. In Vellacott’s day it was thick with oil paint and the grime of charcoal. Without my asking, the builders, while renovating the house, one day sanded the surface of the desk, to great effect. As a biographer and art historian, I often work with images and text. Recently, while coping with the last stages of my new book – John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art – the entire desk was covered with page proofs, making it possible to check illustrations against lists, sources and textual references.

With light coming in on all sides, the room absorbs the mood outside. Grey days here remind me of Stevie Smith and her “loamish landscapes”. Despite having written her life, only now do I understand why an empty park, in the winter rain, had, for her, a “staunch and inviolate melancholy that is refreshing”. Then, too, on sunny days, this room fills with light that quivers and slowly slides round the walls, sometimes forming diamond shapes. The novelist Rebecca Stott noticed this when viewing the house, after Vellacott’s death. She eventually pulled out as its buyer, but recreated it and the surroundings in her novel Ghostwalk. So now, having been semi-derelict, the house lives on, in wood and words.

Why did this ring a bell? I only finished reading “Ghostwalk” by Rebecca Stott some months ago, so I knew exactly what Spalding meant when she wrote that “the light slides around the walls” in her office on sunny days. Though I can’t find the bit about the light in her novel just now, here are a few other snatches showing how Stott described the writer’s house in “Ghostwalk”:

She called it The Studio, but it reminded him of the witch’s gingerbread house in the forest, its wooden-tiled roof sloping precipitously all the way to the ground…Elizabeth had commissioned the architect to give her a steep-ceilinged expanse of white studio space to write in and a little bedroom tucked away in a mezzanine floor under the roof…Her work table was different too. The oak slab on which she worked was usually invisible under piles of papers and goods and card files.

I have yet to have the writer’s room of my dreams, but I’m fond of the small alcove in our master bedroom that I’ve made into my “cave.”

A large picture window lies at my back (unfortunately the only view is our neighbor’s house and I always have to keep the blinds down to cut out the glare on my computer monitor…so we’re considering having stained glass put in once we can afford it).

On one wall hangs a copy of a hand-drawn rendition of “The Pink House” in Beirut (it took up much of our view of the Mediterranean from our apartment there) by an artist friend of the family. On the other is a David Roberts print of the Gulf of Aqaba (a wedding gift from my parents).

My large light-colored wooden wraparound desk and a wide, two-drawer filing cabinet (topped by family pictures) take up most of the rest of the space, along with a couple of cat beds. In winter, Peach uses the heated one; in summer, he curls up in the cat-o-sphere.

I’d post pictures but things are a bit messy just now. I promise to post one next time I blog about writer’s rooms…probably in 9 weeks.

So, what is your room or office like? Large or small? Cluttered or tidy? Any unique touches?

Originally posted 2012-07-02 06:00:11.

Pathway Accepts Jason

Present word count of WIP:  59,985

Jason got accepted! In this next phase of his ongoing autism story, he’s been admitted to the BYU-Idaho Pathway Program, which is perfect for someone like him with Asperger’s.

According to the letter, as a new Pathway student, he’ll begin his studies in the Academic Start Curriculum. Once he completes three semesters satisfactorily, he’ll be a regular online BYU-Idaho student and able to pursue any of a number of college degrees.

Here’s a short video about the program:

While the program is new and really still only getting started, it’s going to have a tremendous reach all over the world eventually. Here’s a map showing how far it had expanded last year:

I guarantee it has grown since then and it’s exciting to think Jason will be a part of it come September. This will give him the opportunity to continue to live at home and even hold down a job or serve a local service mission while completing his course work.

Now if I can only talk him into learning how to drive. That’s the next big goal.

Originally posted 2012-06-29 09:49:07.

“Thriller Thursday” Preview and How Suspense Fits In

Present word count of WIP:  59,427

They say not all thrillers are suspense novels and not all suspense novels are thrillers. So what’s the difference? And how does Mystery fit in?

It remains confusing in my mind, but I like Maeve Maddux’s delineation here. Nevertheless, I think one of the reasons I’m taking on this huge reading project is to help me clarify these genres.

As defined by International Thriller Writers, you can characterize a true thriller by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

For a lengthier description of what makes a novel a thriller, I recommend this site.

For those of you who haven’t yet looked up NPR’s list of “Killer Thrillers,” these are the first 20 I’ll be devouring in order:

1. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris 

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

3. Kiss the Girls, by James Patterson

4. The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

5. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

6. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

7. The Shining, by Stephen King 

8. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

9. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

10. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

11. Dracula, by Bram Stoker

12. The Stand, by Stephen King

13. The Bone Collector, by Jeffery Deaver

14. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton 

15. Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown

16. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham

17. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton

18. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

19. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth

20. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

In all honesty, I’ve already read at least seven of these thrillers (I can’t recall for sure if I read “The Andromeda Strain” or if I’m simply remembering the movie). However, I am not going to skip over those I’ve already read. I’ll read ALL of them in order to gain the full perspective.

One of my readers, Bob, already contacted me about having read and/or seen the movie version of most on this list. I realized then that much of what we might think of these stories has likely been slanted either positively or negatively by their movie versions. I thought that would make for a couple of good questions to put to all of you:

How many of these first 20 have you actually read (before seeing the movie)? (If you only saw the movie, it doesn’t count.) Of those you have read, which would you rank at the top?

 

 

 

Originally posted 2012-06-28 13:16:14.

The Suspense of “Moleskine Mondays”

Present word count of WIP:  59,112

Whether you’re writing suspense, romance, fantasy, or science fiction, or simply in need of a handy sketchbook, nothing beats a Moleskine notebook for jotting down ideas and sketching on the go.

Where did these notebooks originate? According to Wikipedia, these kinds of notebooks were standard in 19th and 20th century Europe and used by such writers and artists as Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Matisse.

Today’s Moleskine notebook is designed to look like those used by the English novelist and travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. In fact, he gave the books their nickname in The Songlines. His original supplier, a stationery store owner in Paris, told him in 1986 that the last notebook manufacturer, a small family-owned establishment in Tours, France, had gone out of business. He said, “Le vrai Moleskine n’est plus” (“The real Moleskine is no more”). He quickly bought up the remaining stock.

So if they died out, how is it that we have them today? Apparently, the Italians came to the rescue in 1997 (long after I left Milan). Two years later, they started distributing beyond Italy in Europe and the U.S., eventually expanding into Asia.

Anyway, they eventually got bought out, appropriately enough, by a French investment fund, though the items continue to be designed in Italy. Today, Moleskine products range from notebooks to bags, computer cases, reading glasses, pens and pencils, booklights, and reading stands. They are available in more than 53 countries and usually found in bookshops.

So what do I mean by “Moleskine Mondays?”

Every Monday, I’m going to try and blog about things having to do with the business of writing. I chose “MOLESKINE” as an acronym to summarize those things:

1. Media – things like…

  • moleskin notebooks, PCs, iMacs, iPads, Typewriters, Netbooks, Laptops, pens, etc.

2. Organization – things like..

  • office layouts, outlining methods, filing methods, planners, etc.

3. Libraries – I love personal libraries, so this will include..

  • cool ideas for personal home libraries (with pictures) and how best to organize them.

4. E-readers – you guessed it…

  • reviews (pros and cons) about each kind of e-reader as well as news of developments in the digital age.

5. Software – this means…

  • reviews (pros and cons) about the different software writing programs available on the market and their prices.

6. Knowledge – this will cover…

  • the best resources for research information and/or training for writers, whether it’s a website, a book, or a writing conference.

7. IPad Apps – naturally, these posts…

  • will review the different apps a writer might find useful and why or why not they work.

8. Networking – I’ll discuss…

  • the various social networking possibilities online, as well as how best to build relationships with agents, publishers, bookstores, book clubs, online reviewers, schools, and libraries (I’ll be wanting a lot of input here since so many of you know so much more than I do).

9. Events – you know, ideas for all those writer events like…

  • book signings, book club appearances, book launches, school appearances, conference presentations, etc.

How cool is it that my favorite number happens to be 9 and there are exactly 9 letters in MOLESKINE? Believe me, I’m going to welcome a ton of input and shared experience each Monday. Though I’ll try to post in order by letter, you won’t know the exact topic until you read it. That’s where the suspense comes in. I’ve just covered Media with this post about Moleskine notebooks, so next Monday it will be something about Organization.

What do you think about “Moleskine Mondays?” Did I leave anything out about the business of writing and, if so, can it still fit somewhere in my acronym?

Originally posted 2012-06-25 16:40:44.

A Suspense Novels Diet

Present word count of WIP:  58,962

Suspense novels are thrilling . . . when read in moderation. At least, that’s my theory. And any good theory needs testing, right?

As I’ve written in this article, humans are geared for suspense, but is there such a thing as too much? Would a steady diet of suspense fiction keep you on the edge of your seat, or would it begin to seem repetitive?

I’ve decided to find out. Two years ago, NPR put out a list of the top 100 “Killer Thrillers” as voted on by their listeners, and I’m going to read and review every book on that list. Except for some books by friends, as well as other books I may have to judge for contests, I’m going on a “suspense diet.”

Beginning in July (after my daughter has left for California), each Thursday will be my “Thriller Thursday” in which I’ll post a review of one of the “Killer Thrillers.”

Granted, it may take me 3-5 years to get through the whole list, but I’m game. (Note: I’m also perfectly willing to set a book aside if it proves too gory, violent, vulgar, or salacious. This may well cut the list in half, but at least I’ll get through it quicker.)

#1 on the list and first up: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (Shudder!)

I want to find out two things:

1) Will they continue to thrill or become repetitive?

2) What kind of effect will such a reading diet have on me personally?

What do you think the answers to those questions will be a year from now? I’d love to hear your own theories.

Originally posted 2012-06-22 22:53:42.

A New Phase of Education for Jason

Present word count of WIP:  57, 414

Strangely enough, Jason’s elementary and secondary education were both marked by newspaper coverage.

The first was The Press-Enterprise newspaper back in Riverside (a decade before they had an online version), when he attended Sunshine Early Childhood Center:

The latest was his inclusion by the online edition of The Tri-City Herald in their slide show of Richland High School’s graduation ceremonies. It’s one of my favorite pictures of him because he is simply beaming!

Jason gets his high school diploma, graduating Magna Cum Laude!

Now, he begins the next phase of his education as he transitions into adulthood.

First, this past Sunday he was sustained by the general membership of our stake (equivalent to a Catholic diocese in our church) to receive the higher priesthood and be set apart as an Elder. The actual ordination will probably take place in early July before his sister leaves on her mission. This will help him prepare to serve a mission in our church soon after he turns 19 in December.

In the meantime, however, he plans on beginning college studies in the fall. BYU-Idaho offers a new online program, by which those with learning/social disabilities like Jason can learn the social and study skills they will need to succeed in college courses. Called the Pathway Program, it offers weekly skill-building meetings at the local LDS Church Institute and some college prep courses. Once he is accepted into the program and has completed three semesters satisfactorily, he can be enrolled online with BYU-Idaho to pursue the degree of his choice.

He meets for his entry interview tonight, forty-five minutes from now. I promise to add an update, detailing how the meeting went (or as much as I can get out of him about it, anyway). Wish him luck!

If all goes well, he’ll begin attending Institute next week and then the Pathway courses will begin in September. The terrific thing is that I believe he’ll be able to continue his studies while he’s serving a local service mission for the Church beginning in January!

Now, if we can only figure out how to occupy his time this summer, besides helping him try to find a job. I have a few plans, but I’ll write more about them in a couple of weeks when I next post about Jason.

In any case, I’m looking forward to my son’s educational achievements in the future. Perhaps he’ll even make the newspaper again!

Originally posted 2012-06-15 06:00:10.

Writing Blind

Present word count of WIP:  56,872

Writing, for me, is an act of faith.

I believe that when I face an empty Word document on my computer screen (or a blank piece of paper)…and set my fingers to the keyboard (or take pen in hand), words and scenes will begin to flow into my mind and out of my hands to create a story.

If I’m writing a novel, all I usually start with is a character and a situation. I am not an outliner. And this has always struck me as odd, since I organize and make lists for everything else in my life. When it comes to creative writing, however, I close my eyes and leap.

Perhaps it stems from my beginnings with poetry. Verse is always born from inspiration. Yes, at times I’ll sit down with the subject in mind, but that is all. I wait patiently and let phrases come and go then grasp at those that build a vision of sorts. A vision that feels true. And as it rises in construction, I’ll knock a wall out here, add a window there, take off a whole wing if it detracts from the vision’s elegance. And how do I know if it adds or detracts? By the feeling I get as I read the words, say the words. It’s a heavy, full feeling…a feeling not unlike what I’m experiencing right now. Closer to what I feel in spiritual moments than when I am enthralled with a work of art. It’s a humbling sensation.

And when I write stories, it’s much the same. I take the first step or two and then count on a higher power to carry me through. Always, so far, I have been pleasantly surprised at plot points that seemed to have arisen out of nowhere.

In The Reckoning I had not planned to bring Peter back to Baghdad to find Theresa imprisoned in her cell. But as I introduced the element of hidden audio and video devices in her cell, it suddenly came to me how powerful it would be to have him witness for himself her growing affection for Tariq. That is just one instance. There were countless other examples in that book.

In the forthcoming The Boy in the Pool my random selection of a particular book for my main character to read in an early scene turned out to provide some major plot developments as I felt inspired to research the book’s title. What I discovered was too good to be mere coincidence.

And in my current work in progress, it’s happening again. Symbols recurring seemingly by chance. Myths foreshadowing the course of the story. Some I’ve noticed myself, while others have been pointed out to me by those in my writing group.

I don’t know why I should be surprised. After all, writing blind is merely putting your work of creation in the hands of the Creator. I’m not discounting the need for craft, technique, and talent. I’m simply saying that without faith those are insufficient to produce my best work. My truest work requires a connection with the source of truth.

And the longer I write blind, the truer I believe my work will become.

Originally posted 2012-06-08 13:59:25.

One Chapter Ends, Another Begins

Present word count of WIP:  56,872

Jason before the Graduation Ceremony

He’s done. He graduated. He walked with the Class of 2012 on Friday evening, and received his fancy diploma holder (minus the actual diploma, which will arrive in the mail soon). After moving his honors tassel (he graduated magna cum laude) from the right to the left along with all the other graduates, he tossed his cap in the air.

Of course, he was careful to toss it only so far so that he could quickly and easily retrieve it. After all, Jason didn’t cease being Jason upon graduating.

It was interesting to me that I didn’t get emotional during the ceremony, though my feelings seemed to cut through to my heart like a sharp knife slicing through a doughy loaf of bread. I watched as he walked in through the honor guard of academically robed faculty toward his assigned seat to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

My eyebrow rose as he then walked straight past his row toward the front. Was he making a major faux pas? No, I realized, seeing his destination: the three small risers set up in front of the dais for the “Senior Choir.” As soon as all the seniors had entered and taken their places, everyone in the sports arena was asked to stand and face the flag as Jason and his fellow graduating seniors from Richland High’s Chamber Choir sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Afterward, they took their assigned seats and the welcome and speeches got underway. Two things that were memorable:

First, a young man from Egypt, one of the nine graduating foreign exchange students, surprised and touched everyone when he seized the podium for a moment to give a sincere thanks for his experience here, saying “I will never forget you.” Considering the political turmoil to which he’s returning, I am sure he won’t.

Second, in talking about success, one of the valedictorians quoted the poet, Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

That spoke to me because I found that to be a measure that would work for someone like my son. So many of these graduates are headed away from home either immediately or once the summer’s over–to college, jobs, or the armed forces. Perhaps they will measure their success by the world’s standard: a degree, an increase in salary, or a promotion in rank.

In the end, however, it’s the inner measure that truly counts. How happy are you? Do you like yourself? Do you like what you’re doing and how you’re doing it?

And that brings me to the true moments of joy I felt and witnessed as I watched Jason end his high school days this past week and a half.

At his final choir concert, Jason was named “Most Inspirational” among the Chamber Choir members and you should have heard the roar of approval and cheers from all his friends. That’s when I got emotional. I think it even surprised Mr. Fryhling, his director.

Again, as I watched him with his friends after the graduation ceremony on Friday (and at yesterday’s Open House honoring the graduates at our church), I was struck by how far he had come since his pre-school days.

Jason and Cody

David and Jason

Jason greeting another friend

James and Jason

Christian, Harrison, and Jason

It was a surprise for me because, unlike elementary school where parents are allowed to hover a bit, helping out the teacher as their cover, middle school and high school are practically “No Trespass” zones (unless they happen to be teachers there, as well).

Sure, he made friends in elementary school, but they were perhaps a handful at most. And he spent time with them as much for the toys they offered as for camaraderie.

But these high school years have brought Jason true joy. Check out his smile in this picture with his friend, Harrison, for example. That is no pasted on smile. That is true happiness.

Jason and Harrison

And, in the end, that’s all that counts in my book.

I can’t be sure about what lies ahead for my son, but I know he’s already gained two things that last forever–knowledge and friendships.

Originally posted 2012-06-03 09:41:13.

Another Road Trip

Present word count of WIP:  56,674

Unlike most mothers, I never really had to do a lot of chauffeuring when my kids were younger (except for the three years they were involved with Riverside Children’s Theatre). After one year of girls softball, Allison gave it up, and Jason was NEVER interested in sports.

Then my daughter entered high school and gave one more sport a try: Cross Country. She did quite well (even competing at State), and more importantly, found a life long pursuit. In the process, I put a lot of mileage on the van and then the SUV.

In California, I drove to schools in the Inland Empire, the famous Mt. SAC competition, and even up to the well-known Clovis Invitational, all to watch her run and cheer their team on. Once we moved up here to Washington after her sophomore year, the driving continued to points east and west of the Cascades and even into Oregon. Fortunately, the state championship was held in our own backyard–Pasco.

I thought most of my driving days were pretty much over when Allison went off to college. And sure enough, I only averaged 1-2 trips down to Utah during most of her years at BYU (and one of those annual trips each year was for my benefit–a writing conference).

Allison's Graduation Picture

Then this past April hit. With our daughter preparing to graduate and go off to serve a mission, we decided we should attend General Conference as a family. One trip. A niece in South Jordan got married. Another trip. Allison graduated and went through the SLC temple in preparation for her mission. A third trip. The LDStorymaker’s Writer’s Conference. A fourth trip.

Tomorrow morning I’m heading down again, this time to help her pack up and bring everything home so she can attend her brother’s graduation. But do you think she’s staying put once she’s home? Nope. You see, there’s this half marathon she wants to run back in . . . you guessed it. Provo.

I think that’s one race I can miss, particularly because we’ll be taking yet another trip down that way in mid-July to drop her off at the MTC.

Have all these trips been worth it? Of course! Spending time with her, seeing her graduate after working so hard, seeing her so beautiful in white in the temple. Socializing with, and learning from, all my writing friends. Every single trip was worth it. And this one will be no different.

Besides, it’s helped me train for long-distance travel. Something I hope will come in handy when The Boy in the Pool comes out at the end of summer and I have to drive around for signings in bookstores and Costcos here in the Northwest and in Utah (and wherever else my publisher recommends).

But this time around I’ll be chauffeuring myself.

Originally posted 2012-05-28 17:31:54.