The 411

Simon Sez is the online version of my long running e-newsletter. The blog will focus on my life as an author, my trials and tribulations as a foreigner in America and the oddities I discover along the way.

Monday, September 1, 2014

SHELF LIFE: Anatomy Of A Story

Maybe it’s my engineering background that compels me to take things apart.  I treat my writing no differently.  Before I sat down to write my first novel, I picked out four novels in the same genre and I dissected them.  I had no background in creative writing and this seemed like the best approach for me.  I broke down each story into component parts: action and reaction scenes, characters, their entrances and exits, and their motivations, changes in points of view, the plots and subplots, etc.  I did this chapter by chapter.  I read a chapter and made my notes.  When I reached the end I had a complete guide on how each book was created.  I could look over my notes and see how the threads pulled together and how all the parts connected to make a seamless narrative.  This exercise gave me a lot of confidence when I started outlining my novel.  It forced me to think about all the components that make a good book and helped me avoid the common errors of a novice writer.
I still analyze my favorite books every time I begin a new book.  I find it puts me in the mood to write my story and sharpens my mind.  I use unabridged audio books now.  It allows me to make notes while I listen.
Writing is an art, but it’s not all instinctual.  There’s a mechanical side to good storytelling and to master it, you need to know how it works.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Little Something For The Weekend

Retreat is always a worthy tactic…

“No problem is too big to run away from.”
~Charles Schulz


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

HUMP DAY: Saying Goodbye To Close Friends

I’m saying goodbye to some close friends this week. Namely some favorite tee-shirts and things (and when I say things, I mean under garments). The test of time has claimed the lives of some of my favorite clothes. Slight frays have become holes, tears and rips. There's even been “collar separation” in some cases. In Julie’s words, “God, you can’t keep wearing that.” And she was right. So, I’ve been sorting through some of my clothes and consigning them to the trashcan.

But before you think I’m a little weird I should mention that when some of these “aged garments” are little past their prime, they do get reclassified as “gym only.”

So how old are these clothes? I hear you cry.

All of have celebrated a decade in age, while some of my old tees are more than fifteen years old. Yes, astounding I know. Hey! What do you mean shocking? That’s a little rude, my faithful reader.

Look, the thing about me is that I can’t things go if I really like them. It’s why there are so many restraining orders against me. Instead of shame, I see these restraining orders as merely an endorsement of my affection for something, but I digress. The point is when I find an item of clothing that I enjoy wearing; I will keep on wearing it.

But for fifteen years? C'mon, Simon. What kind of condition are these things in?

Not bad, actually. I treat my possessions with respect and I’m a gentle person (and lover—that’s an FYI for the ladies). And it’s not just clothes, but with everything. I don’t own a book with a cracked spine or a CD with a broken jewel case. My car and bikes are treated with respect to reduce wear and tear. So my things look good until the day comes to retire them.

I suppose this is why Julie frustrates me so much. She has a bull in a china shop approach to her stuff and they look like they’ve suffered trench warfare after she's finished with them. She's a brute, ladies and gents. It’s why we don’t have children. We’d be forever gluing arms and legs back on.

Now, I know I may have lost your trust and respect among some of you, but if an item of clothing feels good, don’t you keep on wearing it? Yeah, you know I’m right. It’s just that I know how to make it go the extra mile. There's nothing wrong in that, is there?

Well, I’m off down to the mall to do a little shopping, but while I’m away, dish the dirt on your wardrobe. What’s your favorite piece and how old is it?

Monday, August 25, 2014

SHELF LIFE: And Many More...

By nature, a writer works in isolation.  Not literally, but when it comes to connecting with the public, bookstores, publishers and editors, the writer is isolated from people’s reactions.  And as such, it’s difficult to know where you stand.  Is my standing in the community growing?  Am I on the way up or the way down?  If the publisher tells you that they’re dropping you, then that’s a very good indicator that your personal stock is on the slide, but there are some subtle indicators to take note of.
One such indicator is what I call the “And Many More” syndrome.  This occurs in the magazine and anthology markets.  The magazine or anthology cover screams, “featuring stories by …” and it lists half a dozen names then tails off with the dreaded “…and many more.”   “And many more,” a breed of people who fill up the pages while the big name people take all the glory.  As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been in the “and many more” or “and others” bucket for quite a while, but things are changing.  I’m slowing rising above the parapet to be a name in my own right.  As much as it sucks to be relegated to the “and many more” side of the tracks, it’s quite a lift to see my name appear on the magazine cover. 
It first happened a couple of years ago.  I’d sold a story to a mystery magazine and it was quite a shock when I received my contributor copy to find my name third on the cover.  Recently my name received second billing in a horror magazine and they had some pretty well known writers in that particular issue.  My last article for Writer’s Digest was mentioned on the cover.  The editor quoted from it in her editorial and the piece got a very nice spread with lots of glossy stills to illustrate.  Yay, me! 
One spot still eludes me.  I’ve never been the headliner.  My stories haven’t been the inspiration for that particular issue’s cover.  I hope to get there soon.  I can handle it.
On the downside, I’ve not totally risen above the minutia.  Depending on whom else I’m sharing page space with; I get the bump back down to minors.  I returned to my “and many more” status for the promotion of the anthology, Eulogies.   I haven’t achieved the rip-roaring status of sitting pretty on the cover of every magazine or book I appear in, I’ve got to work on that. 
So what can I take from my on and off status as a name on magazine covers?  I’m a bubbler on a low heat.  I’ve yet to reach the status where I’m so damn hot that I boil over onto every cover I grace.  That’s good.  I’ve got work to do—I’ve always got work to do—but I can live with that.  My purpose is to keep on keeping on and doing my best to break through.
Postscript: If you look above, it does look like I made it to the promised land.  :-)

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Little Something For the Weekend (Dr. Who Style)

With the Doctor returning to our screens tomorrow, here's some Time Lord philosphy.

"I never carry weapons. If people see you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. Nine times out of ten."
~Doctor Who

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hump Day: Are We Watching The Same Movies

I love a good movie, but the problem with movies is what makes a good movie good is subjective. What I think is a good movie may not be your cup of tea. I accept that and you do too. However there are movies which take on iconic status because they're universally loved. Well, not quite. More often than not, I tend to be one person who doesn’t like certain iconic movies. Now this could because I’ve had a lot of head injuries, but I don’t think so. So, I feel I have to play the role of the little boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes and I have to tell you that the King is naked.

Here are four movies that I think are mediocre at best that most of the world thinks are masterpieces.

This is my number one pet peeve movie. Most people agree that this movie is a masterpiece. I’ve watched documentaries about the symbolism in this film, but I’m sorry I don’t get it. I find Chinatown a dull and confusing movie. I did as a kid and I do as an adult—and I shouldn’t. I love 40’s noir, especially noir set in LA, but it’s as if Robert Towne took that’s confusing about The Big Sleep and used it for the inspiration for Chinatown. Take the classic line, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” What’s Chinatown!?! Corruption, incest and murder?? That’s Chinatown. How is that Chinatown? That’s not Chinatown. That’s gibberish. So much so, I’m going to write a book about fatigue levels in commercial airline manufacture and the subsequent cover-up and I’m going to call it, Paper Cup, just so that the last line can be “Forget it, Jake. It's Paper Cup.” Yes, I am a little hot under the collar, thank you, but this movie does that to me. Maybe that’s Chinatown. Who the hell knows? Let’s move on.

Now, I’m talking about the Al Pacino remake done in ’82. Quite simply, this is one of the most God awful films ever made. Everybody’s acting is terrible and over the top, not mention poorly cast. The music makes me ashamed to have ears. The story is bad Shakespeare. The set design is hideous to the extent to give the movie the impression that it had no budget. But for some reason, guys love this film and I don’t know why. I’m a guy. I like sports. I believe in turning my underwear inside out to make it last an extra week between washings. So I should like Scarface, but I don’t. It’s just bad. When I like to say hello to my little friends, this isn't one.

Full Metal Jacket:
Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam masterpiece. Well, not for me. Again, this is another guy movie must have. Like Scarface, most of my men buddies have this movie in their DVD collections. While they’ll rave about the male camaraderie of it and violence, the movie falls flat for me and for one very big reason—the lopsided storytelling. I don’t know what the movie is about. Is it about the horrors of basic training or is it about being a greenhorn in battle? I don’t know, but it should be one and not both. And to be honest, the basic training section dominates the film that the Nam portion feels tacked and really doesn’t have a purpose or a sense of meaning. The only thing to marvel at is that they did a really good job at making London’s east end look like Vietnam.

The Empire Strike Back:
I’ll be upfront. I could have taken a poop over episodes I-III, but I think most people agree that they're terrible movies, but Empire is different. Star Wars fans float this one in rarified air where a sequel is better than the original, but I disagree. The problem with it is that the movie doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. Star Wars: A New Hope does. Empire doesn’t. Two hours in, someone blows a whistle and says, “We’ve got enough in the can. Let’s go.”I remember sitting in the movie theatre, just twelve years old, and thinking—this is just an intermission, right? Wrong! George Lucas duped me because he knew he had Jedi to come and he could leave it there. I also take issue with what is considered one of the greatest story twists in movie history—“Luke, I am your father.” While this is a great twist, it’s also the kind of twist that happens most weeks in daytime soap operas. Also, once we possess this knowledge, story integrity develops a little wood rot. Why didn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi drop this piece of knowledge to Luke earlier? Also when Vader and the Emperor are batting on about Anakin, you'd have thought Vader would have said, “You know Anakin was me before I went all dark side up in this bitch?” Empire is a good movie, but let’s face it, it ain’t a masterpiece.

So there you have it. Now feel free to convince me otherwise and I invite you to do it, but don’t expect me to change and with Christmas around the corner, don’t think about sending them as stocking stuffers. Alternatively, lob out a few of your problematical classic movie suggestions. I know we all have at least one in us.

Monday, August 18, 2014

SHELF LIFE: A Crazy Little Thing Called Hate

I don’t know if anyone saw the stand Anne Rice has been taking against cyber bullies and net rage.  She started a petition to have Amazon and other sites remove nasty and hateful reviews.  I’ve long lamented that it’s quite depressing reading the comments feed on any news story as it seems to be an excuse for people to trot out their hate and contempt for anything anyone does or achieve.  I swear the headline could be “The sky is blue” and within ten minutes the sky will be condemned for its connection to the political right or left or the NSA.  So I applaud Ms. Rice’s efforts attempt to clear up the online nasty reviews.  However, at the same time, I’m not sure how much it will help in the long run.  Whatever measures anyone takes to correct a problem, people will find a work around pretty quickly.
I don’t say this lightly or without personal experience.  A few years ago, some of my essays were syndicated on Yahoo.  Within a day there were 250 online comments.  Half of which were hateful or derogatory.  This didn’t include the personal emails I received of a similar tone.  Things got strange when ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN broke out a few years ago.  The book had been climbing the charts for several weeks, then Amazon highlighted as a book to buy and it ended up at the top of Amazon’s charts.  It stayed in Amazon’s top 100 books for six weeks or so.  It would have stayed there longer if things hadn’t gotten a little nasty.  Now, I know the lead character’s faults are polarizing with some readers.  So as much as I want everyone to love the book, I know not everyone will like it.  It’s the problem with any subjective work.  There's no right or wrong answer.  There's just opinion.  But some of the reviews were brutal, even libelous in some cases.  I didn’t think anyone could hate a book that much.  However, the strange part was seeing reviewers bullying other people who’d posted good reviews and telling them to take them down.  Some people did.  The reviews got weird in other directions.  In some cases it was obvious that trashing books was what they did from their review history.  In other cases, it was pretty obvious that some people were hiding their identities because the reviewer was XYZYZXC or something with no other review history.  It became clear in some cases that that person hiding their identities were other authors.  To Amazon’s credit, they took down some of the offending reviews—not at my behest but at the request of strangers who found certain reviews objectionable. Kinda lovely to see people do something nice for me.  However, the damage was done.  Sales of the book collapsed which in turn impacted revenue which in turn impacted my livelihood—and that’s a problem.  Also I withdrew.  I don’t think I spoke to anyone online or otherwise outside of Julie for six weeks.  I was quite ashamed of what I’d chosen to do with my life.  But I bounced back and got on with what was important to me—telling stories.
 Still after all that and other experiences, I support the petition but I don’t have much faith in any countermeasures.  The reason is simple—you can’t stop people from being dicks.  As much as I wish you could, you can't.  Dickishness is a universal constant like gravity.  It’ll always be with us. 
I don’t know why people seem to go out of their way to vilify everything and everyone they disagree with and I won't bother boring everyone with pop psychology.  I just know this online contempt has been growing over the last decade or so, and it’s depressing.  I find the level of intolerance and ignorance shown for another person’s beliefs while screaming bloody murder should anyone dare to challenge theirs truly saddening.  Being that angry all the time has to be exhausting for them.  However, like I say, dicks will be dicks and we can’t change that.
And hitting delete on cyber bullies will only serve to turn them into victims.  They’ll scream their free speech is being challenged and this will lead to more hateful outlets.
And as lame as this sounds, the only way to deal with the cyber bullies is to ignore them.  Let them scream and shout and spew their hatred and contempt.  Just don’t engage it.  Engaging them won't diminish them.  It only emboldens them and draws more attention.  If no one listens and the more discerning readers filters them out for more reasoned commentary, all the hate in the world has no effect.  If the review read: the author is a whore who sleeps with dogs.  I don’t think many people are going to base their purchasing decision on remarks like that.
I know this is the approach used for dealing with unruly children, but that's what we’re dealing with at the end of the day—immaturity expressed by people who don’t know any better—yet.