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On Writing

"Motel California" by Heather M. David (review)

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t often write book reviews in this space, in part because I don’t read many books cover-to-cover these days. Motel California was an exception. I’ll admit it’s a “coffee-table book,” so it didn’t take me long to cover its 184 pages, but it’s worth taking your time for the quality of the artwork, the presentation and the nuggets of information you’ll find there.

Heather M. David has created a beautifully illustrated, record of the motel in California that’s a worthy addition to the library of any highway history buff or fan of 20th century Americana. Motel California chronicles the heyday of the motor lodge in the Golden State, offering a glimpse at the kind of man-made scenery that transformed highways into something like an amusement park ride all their own, even if you didn’t stop for the night.

David approaches the motels from an architectural standpoint, briefly spotlighting the architects themselves before embarking on a series of chapters dedicated to various motel themes and styles: Storyland, The Western Frontier, Desert Oasis, Tropical Paradise, Cosmic Voyage, Seaside Escape and Mountain High. (David points out that these distinct themes allowed motels to distinguish themselves from one another and stand out from the pack.)

Other chapters focus on the restaurants/coffee shops adjacent to many of the motels; rooms; pools; and, of course, the neon and plastic signs that lit up the night, beckoning travelers to their destination.

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David does a good job covering most of the state, dedicating significant space to the Orange County/Disneyland area, as well as Lake Tahoe. I was pleased to find pages on some of the motels I’m familiar with and a few that I covered in my own book on Highway 99 and my forthcoming work on Highway 101. Those include the Motel Inn – the world’s first “motel” – and the nearby Madonna Inn, both in San Luis Obispo.

She also includes a vintage picture of the Western Motel in Santa Clara, with its distinctive cactus sign. I took a photo of this one myself for Highway 101, so it’s still there, although (unfortunately) the neon has been removed.

As a native Fresnan and the author of Fresno Growing Up, I also particularly enjoyed the material on Fresno’s old motels, one of which (The Tropicana Lodge) is featured both on the cover as well as inside. I was pleased to see the chapter on signs included both the old Fresno Hacienda sign and the iconic “diving girl” sign from the old Fresno Motel. The picture of the interior of the old Pine Cone Restaurant was a particular treat, as I remember visiting that place as a child and digging into a “treasure chest” for trinkets they gave away to youngsters.

The book is handsomely illustrated with postcards, historic and modern photos, souvenirs and vintage ads, all in vivid color on glossy pages. I was struck by the off-kilter sign on the Jump n’ Jack Motor Hotel (page 28), the camel attraction at the Pyramid Motel in Anaheim (page 60), and the outrigger-style architecture of the Palm Springs Tropics (page 76) and San Diego’s Half-Moon Inn (page 78).

In terms of the text, the book is at its best when it traces the history of the various locations, pinpointing when the motels opened and letting the reader know what happened to them. Something I didn’t know: The Palm Springs Tropics was adjacent to a Sambo’s, which also operated a “Congo Room” cocktail lounge on the site. There’s a cool photo of the interior of the Congo Room, too.

I’ve long been fascinated by once-ubiquitous pieces of our culture that have faded from view over time: old motels, gas stations, shopping malls, department stores, sporting venues, concert halls. For me, buying Motel California was a no-brainer, and I wasn’t disappointed. If your interests run parallel to mine, I’m betting you won’t be, either.

Motel California (184 pages, full color, $45, CalMod Books) is available from the author’s website or via Amazon.

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A heroic dragon and a dose of sarcasm: my two latest releases

Stephen H. Provost

What happens when you get two book ideas at the same time? Until this fall, I would have worked on one and put the other on the back burner, but when one idea inspires you and you’re facing a self-imposed deadline for the other, you don’t have that option. Besides, when one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, each tends to provide a nice break from the other.

So, over the course of the past six weeks or so, I wrote them both, which explains why I released The Only Dragon and Please Stop Saying That! within a couple of weeks of each other.

The Only Dragon: The Legend of Tara

In point of fact, both ideas inspired me, but under normal circumstances, I probably would have put off The Only Dragon had I not decided I wanted to release it in time for the local Dragon Festival, which was fast approaching. I’d been fascinated by dragons since my parents bought me a stuffed snake (which I insisted was a dragon) as a toddler, and I had wanted to write a dragon story for years.

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Finally, I had a good excuse. I would create a fable that explained why the dragon is known the world over, how she – in my book, she’s a girl – came to breathe fire and why the dragon is revered in the east as a symbol of good luck and reviled in the west as a fearsome, demonic creature. I’d throw in a pair of noble wizards, a couple of power-hungry kings, a mysterious goddess-like character and a snarky gray tabby for good measure.

(Coincidentally, I just adopted a gray tabby myself. The vet told me she was male, so I named her Ragnar, only to have the vet reverse herself six weeks later; so, now she’s Khaleesi – Kiki for short.)

Most authors don’t write fables these days, but I love the genre, and it’s something I enjoy writing (see The Way of the Phoenix, Feathercap and some of the stories in Nightmare’s Eve). It offers a poetic way to examine the world around us and what makes us human.

Please Stop Saying That!

Please Stop Saying That! is an old idea, as well. It’s a riff on something I did as news editor at The Fresno Bee: I created a local stylebook that included examples of jargon, clichés and buzzwords to avoid when writing stories. It was a serious endeavor, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but laugh at how silly and, sometimes, meaningless they sounded; about how we’d use them without even thinking because they were so deeply ingrained in ourselves and our culture.

Now that I’m no longer a working journalist, I can let some of that sarcasm out, and that’s what PSST! allowed me to do. There’s something in there to offend almost everyone if it’s taken seriously, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously, so please don’t (except for a few jabs at bullying and bigotry, which ought to be condemned whether you’re using humor or not). I toyed with the idea of calling it Think Before You Speak, but I liked PSST! better, in part because it sounded cool as an abbreviation.

Psst. I think you’ll like both these books, the fifth and sixth I’ve released this year. That’s a record for me, and I’m proud of it, but I’m not stopping now. I’ve got plenty of ideas waiting in the wings, and more time than ever before to explore them as a full-time author. This is the life!

 

 

Facebook friends aren't notches on your "networking" gun

Stephen H. Provost

Dear potential online friends: I’m not a target in your networking strategy, and I won't be another notch on your gun. Even if you are authors.

There’s a weird trend going around among authors on social media. They hit up as many fellow writers as possible with friend requests, immediately invite them to “like” their Facebook page ... and never have any other contact with them.

Then, they call it “networking.”

Often, these authors only post about their books, sales milestones and positive reviews; they don’t bother to visit other profiles after their request is accepted, and they don’t manage to post anything much about themselves except for industry stuff.

It reminds me why I never liked cocktail parties, where the whole point of the evening is to make contacts, exchange business cards, and talk about inane subjects everyone is certain to forget five minutes after the party’s over – if not sooner.

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other fields, but I do know I didn’t get a lot of requests from fellow journalists when I was working in newspapers.

Common interests

Look, I like connecting with authors because we have something in common. I also like connecting with Star Trek fans, classic rock connoisseurs, old highway enthusiasts and people who are into mythology. But adding someone to your social media “stable” and then proceeding to ignore them isn’t connecting. It’s putting another notch on that Facebook gun of yours.

I remember going to churches where pastors lamented the need to “grow their flock.” There weren’t enough warm bodies in the pews, and the way they talked about attracting new visitors made it sound like a numbers game. The focus wasn’t on getting to know the people as individuals, it was on adding more “souls” (who could put enough money in the offering plate to keep the church lights on and, of course, pay the pastor’s salary.)

Authors have more of an excuse. It’s difficult to support yourself putting out books, and marketing is as much a part of the job as writing – if not more. When book sales slump, people get desperate and start throwing “publicity” at the wall, hoping something sticks. I know what this desperation feels like: I’m going through just such a slump right now. But I also know it doesn’t work: When people start throwing random ads at me, I tune them out. It also alienates people who might be able to help you if you took a different tack.

Like, maybe, trying to get to know them.

What if you treated social media like a visit to a new neighbor’s home? You wouldn’t go over and knock on the door, wait for it to open, then just stare at the person for a moment and walk away. You’d introduce yourself, give them a bit of background on yourself, tell them it’s nice to meet them and maybe say something complimentary about their home.

Perhaps you find you have something in common; perhaps not. After a couple of minutes, you excuse yourself and leave. Maybe you leave it at that. Or, if you enjoyed the conversation, maybe you ring the person up a couple of days later and invite them out for coffee. Maybe then you start talking a little about your books ... along with other things you have in common. You forge an actual friendship.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do when you go over and introduce yourself is push your way past your new neighbor and into the house without an invitation.

Social protocols

On social media, that’s what it can feel like if someone immediately sends you a direct message. Somehow, we’ve had a hard time translating the social protocols we’ve developed in the real world to the online environment. Maybe it’s time we started doing so. (When sending naked or half-naked selfies to strangers has become common practice, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve lost our bearings.)

I’m friends with a good number of authors online – because they’ve let me get to know them, and vice versa, not merely because they’re authors. I’m friends with other folks who aren’t writers, too, and I feel more comfortable with some of them than I do with many of my author friends. Because, even though I’m an author, I don’t like to talk about writing all the time. I like to talk about music and history and science and politics and philosophy and a host of other topics, weighty and frivolous.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly more selective about the people whose requests I accept. I’ve become aggressive about weeding out potential spammers and scammers, and I’ve started watching new friends I do accept closely. Do they bother to comment on something I’ve posted? Do they post their own thoughts, or do they just repost links? Are they continually asking their contacts to buy this product, sign this petition or contribute to this cause?

Or are they people, authors or otherwise, who I can feel comfortable being friends with – even if it’s only online? I’m not trying to make people feel paranoid, as though I’ll drop them if I don’t hear from them for a week or a month. I won’t. I just want people whose company I can enjoy without feeling I’ve got a marketing target on my back.

We live in an era when the hard sell has collided head-on with a case of collective amnesia about how to treat others with respect and courtesy. That makes it even more of a challenge do real networking and cultivate real friendships. It also makes it even more imperative that we make the effort to do so. Not because we’re authors, but because we’re ... human.

Highway 99, the Lost Chapter: Trucks and Truck Stops

Stephen H. Provost

Sometimes, you can't squeeze everything in. You've done your research and you've found a lot of interesting stuff - too much, in fact, to fit in the pages of the book you're writing. So, something has to go. 

Highway 99: The History of California's Main Street originally included a few sections that ultimately failed to make the cut. I had to leave out an entire chapter on big rigs and truck stops that I'd intended to include, but which wound up being sacrificed when the manuscript wound up being longer than I'd intended. So here it is, the "lost" chapter, presented here for the first time with the photos I originally chose to illustrate it. Enjoy!

(If you like what you read here, Highway 99 is available for purchase on Amazon or through the publisher at quilldriverbooks.com)

 A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

More Than Four Wheels

You can’t get too far on the highway before seeing a “Divided Highway” sign. In some places, 99 is divided by a center median, often landscaped with oleanders or other shrubs. But there’s one kind of division you’ll find on the highway no matter which stretch you’re traveling: the division between vehicles with four wheels and those with 18 (give or take a few).

It’s hard to miss the big rigs, buses, tractor-trailers and the like that are so common on the highway. For years, 99 has served as the economic backbone of the state, passing through fertile farmland and industrial centers alike. Warehouses, grain silos and distribution centers line the highway. In the days of the federal highway system, it didn’t matter whether you were transporting raisins from Selma or dates from Indio: U.S. 99 was the way to go.

Still, even today, if you’re behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Mazda, you might not pay much attention to the infrastructure built around the trucking industry. The average motorist might cross the Tehachapis without taking much notice of signs with messages such as “6% grade 2½ miles ahead” and “Trucks use low gears.” Trucks are supposed to observe a lower speed limit and keep to the right, so swifter automobiles can pass. Runaway truck ramps, with their heavy gravel to slow down out-of-control big rigs, are visible on the downslope from Lebec heading north toward Grapevine. You’ll see the first one on your right, a little more than three miles north of Tejon Summit, and the second on your left less than a half-mile later.

In the highway’s early days, without such precautions, accidents were far too common and, often, tragic. The original Ridge Route had more than its share of hairpin turns hugging steep cliff walls; a single mistake, even at 15 miles per hour, could be catastrophic, and the white picket fences that served as guardrails around dangerous turns were hardly sturdy enough to keep heavy truck from lurching over the edge. The 180-degree hairpin called Deadman’s Curve between Lebec and Grapevine was particularly treacherous.

Once the Ridge Route Alternate was built, the straighter highway reduced the danger of missing a turn but raised a new threat: The straighter road meant trucks could build up a head of speed going downhill that made them even more dangerous if their brakes started smoking and failed unexpectedly.

In 1946, The Bakersfield Californian detailed a truck’s “mad plunge” just before midnight one July evening. It went out of control and sideswiped a passenger car, sending it off the highway and leaving the driver shaken but uninjured. The truck careened on toward Grapevine, where it slammed into the rear of a van, propelling it into a row of gasoline pumps and three other cars at the Richfield filling station. The truck, meanwhile, kept going, plowing into yet another car and shoving it to the edge of the embankment, where both vehicles burst into flames. A passenger in the truck was burned to death, its driver suffered a broken leg, and the driver of the final car to be hit was hospitalized with severe burns.

Other news reports told similar stories. Out-of-control trucks became, as one writer put it, “juggernauts of death” on a stretch of highway that was fast becoming known as Bloody 99: the steep grade just south of Grapevine. During one 10-day stretch in 1943, that single section of road bore witness to nine runaway truck accidents.

Engineers added a concrete barrier to keep trucks from swerving into oncoming traffic, and other proposals surfaced as well. One involved requiring trucks to stop at the summit and switch into low gear before descending, though critics argued that this would merely back up traffic and create a new hazard.

 The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The Grapevine Grade wasn’t the only trouble spot. The Five Mile Grade, heading the opposite direction near Castaic, was also the scene of numerous brake failures and truck crashes. A runaway truck ramp, like those above Grapevine, was built in the 1950s to reduce the number of accidents, but it only remained in use until 1970. It was then that a freeway upgrade created a novel alignment: New southbound lanes were added, following a gentler downward slope to the east, while the old southbound route was converted to carry northbound traffic. As a result, drivers traveling over the five-mile stretch between Castaic and Violin Summit progress British-style, on the left of oncoming traffic. (A significant gap separates the two segments of roadway).

The emergency ramps came in handy, not only for truckers, but also for law enforcement. On at least one occasion, one of the ramps Grapevine Grade halted more than a runaway trucker: They stopped an accused runaway kidnapper. In January of 2008, Highway Patrol officers and Los Angeles responded to a report that a man had assaulted his estranged wife and abducted their child, making his escape in a stolen truck. The officers pursued the suspect northbound over more than 70 miles from Highway 101 onto Interstate 5 before the chase finally ended just north of Grapevine. It seems the man mistook one of the runaway truck ramps there for a highway exit and found his vehicle immobilized by the coarse gravel.

He was arrested immediately.

One reason the trucks can be so dangerous on a steep downhill slope is their weight. Big rigs can weigh up to 40 tons, compared to the typical car at only 2½ tons. Once they get going at highway speeds, they can require two-thirds more pavement to stop once the brakes are applied – if the brakes are working. That’s part of the reason California requires trucks rated above a certain weight (currently 11,500 pounds) to stop at scales cleverly designated as “weigh stations.” And it’s no accident that two of the eight or so weigh stations along the historic U.S. 99 route can be found at either side of the Tehachapis, just south of Castaic and slightly north of Grapevine.

The state recognized the need for scales early. In 1938, officials set up a 24-hour truck-checking station at Fort Tejon, near the point where the 99 began the steepest portion of its descent into the San Joaquin Valley. Highway Patrol officers were on hand to make sure loads were within limits defined under state law. “This station,” the California Highways publication declared, “will not only guard against overweight loads, but will also enable the traffic officers to insure that trucks using this mountain route are in good running order, and that all their braking equipment is working properly.”

 A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Private scales operated by companies such as CAT also opened up and down the highway, with nearly two dozen along the old 99 route between Los Angeles and the Oregon border as of 2014. Such private operations help ensure truckers’ loads are below the legal weight limit. CAT, for instance, offered this guarantee on its website: “If a driver receives an overweight fine after weighing legal on a CAT brand scale, CAT Scale Company will either pay the fine or appear in court with the driver as an expert witness in order to get the fine dismissed.”

Scales are far from the only highway business to have emerged in support of the trucking industry. As the nation shifted from the railroad to the highway as its primary means of transporting goods, a new industry sprang up to support the drivers who spent days away from home, driving long hours cross-country. They needed places to spend the night, to clean up, to grab some coffee and get a bite to eat. They also needed a place to buy the kind of fuel their semis ran on, diesel, which wasn’t always available at traditional gas stations.

Truck stops sprang up to fill these needs. Some establishments that catered to travelers and tourists, such as Sandberg’s, refused to serve truck drivers. But other stops along the old Ridge Route and elsewhere offered various combinations of a garage, cheap accommodations and a diner or coffee shop that suited truckers pretty well. As time passed, some roadside establishments started catering specifically to truckers, seating them first at the lunch counter or offering them a place to shower in the back.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, truckers had to make do. During the early years, some stayed at roadside auto camps, and many roughed it by sleeping in their vehicles, whose wooden seats were anything but the epitome of comfort. Anything more elaborate was usually improvised, and not necessarily any more comfortable. One San Joaquin Valley-based company rigged up a couple of ’22 Packards with wooden boxes over the cabs where the relief driver could sleep. The casual observer might have feared an appearance by Dracula at any moment.

By the mid-1930s, however, a few manufacturers had started offering sleepers as part of the package. The wooden boxes gave way to so-called “coffin sleepers,” cramped quarters usually placed directly behind the cab. These compartments might have been 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, giving the occupant barely enough room to turn over. Drivers with claustrophobic tendencies need not apply.

In the early 1950s, Kenworth offered a CBE model, which stood for “Cab-Beside-Engine.” The CBE design included a sleeping space for the relief driver between the cab and the engine, a configuration that earned it the nickname “suicide sleeper”: Few occupants could expect to survive a crash while they slept right next to the engine.

As trucks gained horsepower and gained load capacity, there was often no longer room for them at the inn. Many early motor courts included carports alongside their cabins, but they were called CARports for a reason: They didn’t provide enough clearance for trucks. Drivers ran into the same problem at some service stations, where canopies built to shield pumps from the elements were often too low to allow larger trucks access.

 A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99. © Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

Truck stops offered an array of services that establishments catering to the auto traveler did not.

Many of the earliest among them, like the earliest motels and gas stations, were independent operations, but larger companies soon entered the fray once they realized they were missing a large segment of the market. Flying A’s flat-top station in Fresno, with its 110-foot “GAS” tower on the west side of 99, was a prime example of an early truck stop. The canopy was 70 feet high, providing ample room for trucks – which got their own separate entrance. Diesel fuel was available; there was a “completely equipped” truck lube pit, a public scale capable of weighing the largest truck on the road, and free shower rooms for all truckers. The expansive parking lot provided room for truckers to park their rigs and get a few hours’ worth of shuteye.

The station was still there until recently (having been removed to make way for the new high-speed rail line), although it sold Valero gasoline at the end, as does another venerable establishment, Clark’s Travel Center in Indio, offering “everything for the traveler, whether you are an RV’er, trucker, river rat or desert rat.” Amenities include a truck wash, long-term parking, self-service laundry, 24-hour restaurant and car-truck wash. Clark’s, which opened in the 1940s, advertises itself as “the oldest operating truck stop on historic Route 99 from Canada to Mexico.”

 Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The restaurant at Klein’s Truck Stop in the hamlet of Herndon, just north of Fresno, earned a reputation for serving among the best breakfasts around. The restaurant stayed open into the new millennium before finally closing its doors, yielding to a Taco Bell and an am/pm minimart while maintaining a huge parking lot as a place for truckers. One traveler from Los Angeles endorsed it by stating that, no matter how hungry he might be, he always held his appetite in check if he were within 50 miles of Klein’s.

Despite its popularity among the locals, there was no mistaking its target audience: the truck driver traveling the Main Street of California. When a truck driver came in, the hostess would usher him to the head of the line. The waitresses wore beehive hairdos, and each table had its own jukebox, offering up (of course) country music. The cooks made the kind of all-American fare that kept the belly feeling full for hours: hearty portions of chili, barbecue dishes, chicken-fried steak, their famous biscuits and gravy, and “pancakes as big and flat as Fresno.”

As time passed, places like Klein’s were eclipsed by truck palaces called travel plazas or travel centers, giant complexes along 99, I-5 and other major highways that were affiliated with big chains. And as the complexes grew bigger, a funny thing happened: Suddenly, they weren’t just for truckers anymore. Convenience stores served as many travelers as truckers, selling touristy T-shirts and CDs alongside motor oil and citizens band radio accessories.

Flying J, with four locations along the old 99 route, offered such amenities as Subway and Denny’s restaurants, 14 showers, a CAT scale, public laundry, video game arcade and ATMs at its site north of Bakersfield. Pilot, which bought out Flying J and had six locations along the old highway route as of 2014, offered another option, as did Petro Centers (four), Love’s Travel Shops (four) and TA Travel Centers (five).

 The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Media Meltdown: Blurb for my new book

Stephen H. Provost

Here's the blurb for my forthcoming book, "Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump," due out June 1. Pictured above is the full cover:

Some politicians use the media to their advantage. Others reshape it in their image.

Had the political force that is Donald J. Trump met the immovable object that was the American news media in the 20th century, the result would have been predictable. Trump would have vanished without a trace, along with such wannabes and also-rans as Edmund Muskie, Howard Dean, Gary Hart and John Edwards.

Today, however, the once-powerful Fourth Estate might as well be in foreclosure, shattered into a million pieces by cable television, talk radio and the internet. Newspapers, their stranglehold on information broken, are on life support. Gutted by cost-cutting and consolidation, they see the very same digital platforms that crippled them as their last, best hope for salvation. Television news, meanwhile, has descended from Cronkite and Brinkley into a three-ring circus of breaking news and talking (or shouting) heads.    

Trump, a carnival barker of a president, has taken for himself the role of ringmaster, using his chaotic style and the power of his office to dominate the spotlight. At once condemning and exploiting the media, he's transformed the presidency into a reality show, complete with multiple scandals and cliffhangers to keep everyone tuned in.

He didn’t arrive out of nowhere. The way for his ascent was paved by the media themselves, hungry for drama to stoke ratings and boost subscriptions. When cable and the internet began siphoning off readers/viewers by targeting their built-in biases, the nation became polarized and the gloves came off. Civility was sidelined, spin became the MVP, and the referees – the mainstream media – were benched.

This is the story of how carnival journalism has supplanted and, in some cases, co-opted what’s left of the mainstream media, and how politicians like Trump have both fueled and profited from the change. Is any of this good for the nation? A game without a referee might be more fun to watch, but is it fair? Media Meltdown provides some of the answers.

Nightmare's Eve: About My New Collection

Stephen H. Provost

A Collection of Twisted Tales

Connoisseurs of the murky and shadowy side of our existence often seem at pains to define the word “horror.” Too often, it brings to mind the B movies unleashed on us every year at Halloween. Or the grainy black-and-white “classics” they used to tuck away at the upper end of the UHF dial on weekends between midnight and 3 a.m. All bloodletting and jump scares and shaky cameras. I’ve never been much for any of that, because (for one thing) it always seemed like a wilted daisy chain of clichés and (for another) it didn’t scare me.

Jump scares startle, they don’t scare. Shaky cameras  make me queasy, and blood loses its impact when it spews out all over the place like Old Faithful.

This kind of thing, admittedly, does scare some people. Everyone’s different. But blood and gotcha scenes and monsters don’t add up to horror in my book — which is one reason I never really thought I’d write horror. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest.

It may surprise you, too, if you’ve read some of my other material, say the whimsical Feathercap or the uplifting Undefeated. In many ways, Nightmare’s Eve is the antithesis of the latter, which is a series of true stories about people who overcame seemingly impossible odds. The stories in Nightmare’s Eve aren’t true — and thankfully so, because most of them involve odds that really, truly are impossible.

The essence of horror

That’s where my definition of horror begins. It’s got nothing to do with monsters or gore, specifically. It’s all about what scares you. True horror dawns when you realize that you’re somehow “on the wrong side of things” ... and there’s no realistic way that you’ll ever get over to the right side again.

Horror is being trapped, hopeless, desperate. It’s that sickening feeling that rises up from the pit of your stomach when you recognize there’s no way out. And isn’t that true for all of us, really? You’re stuck there in that body of yours, and you won’t be getting out of there alive now, will you?

But horror is about more than death, it’s about that inexorable journey toward it. Our survival instinct demands that we claw and rage against it, but our very resistance to the inevitable can make it all the more tormenting. In fighting a battle we cannot win, do we merely prolong our agony as we fall apart piece by piece, inexorably? What would be, to you, most terrifying? To lose your freedom? Or your memory? Perhaps a loved one, or your ability to separate reality from illusion. When the things we love, we count on, we take for granted are stripped from us one by one, with no hope of ever recovering them … that is the true, naked aspect of horror.

Horror is the dawning of hopelessness, in that twilight time between waking and sleep when fear and panic mount for we who find no solace in slumber. For those of beset by nightmares that visit us anew each time we close our eyes. We cannot make our eyes remain open forever, yet as we surrender to exhaustion, the Sandman shows no mercy — but throws open the doors of our inner mind to madness.

From The Twilight Zone

The stories and verse you’ll find in Nightmare’s Eve will strike a familiar cord to those familiar with The Twilight Zone. They’re stories of ordinary people in the present day, extraordinary people from the past and imaginary people from a not-too-distant future that might be. Some hope does manage to seep in, on occasion, a solitary beam of sunlight creeping through the blinds into the dusty, vacant prison that is our soul.

What will it illuminate? A way out of the maze, or another dead end?

And a maze it is, this journey, with twists sometimes ironic, sometimes terrifying ... but always unexpected.

There are tales of the occult; of two renowned and noble saints (one named Nick, the other George); of fate and vampires and space exploration. Of psychic powers and time travel; of malevolent entities and genies and dragons and man’s best friend.

This work began as a small collection of three stories: Turn Left on Dover, Will to Live and A Deal in the Dark. The first of these, also the first written, contains a character for whom I named my cat, Allie (not Alley, as in Alley Cat, as many often suppose). It takes place in a city modeled after my hometown. And if you don’t know where that is, just pick up a copy of a very different book I wrote titled Fresno Growing Up.

The collection expanded gradually over the course of about four months to include 16 tales and 10 poems. I’ll share below the table of contents to whet your appetite for a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart or heavy of foot. You’ll want to have a spring in your step for what lies ahead. Read it before bed if you dare; it’s designed keep you awake at night.

Tales

  • A Deal in the Dark
  • Will to Live
  • Just the Ticket
  • Turn Left on Dover
  • Mama
  • Breaking the Cycle
  • Virulent
  • Anatomy of a Vampire
  • The Ends of the Earth
  • The Howl and the Purr
  • Teeth
  • The Faithful Dog
  • Lamp Unto My Fate
  • Nightmare’s Eve (Rotten Robbie's Christmas Comeuppance)
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • George & the Dragon: The Untold Story

Verse

  • Certitude
  • Lost Soliloquy
  • Unwound
  • Upon Reflection
  • Merlin's LAment
  • Bleed Not
  • Lost at Sea
  • Torrent of Tears
  • A Never-Setting Sun
  • This Vale of Dreams

Catchphrase fatigue: Why buzzwords lose their sting

Stephen H. Provost

“Why are people talking like that?”

I ask that question a lot, especially when I see some new linguistic trend go viral … the way the term “go viral” went viral, for instance.

The answer I get most often is: “Get over it. Language is always evolving.”

Perhaps. But the process has accelerated since the advent of social media, which introduces new mutations to the literary gene pool at a frightening rate.  

Buzzwords and catchphrases used to be appear every so often, then fade gradually from our consciousness over the ensuing decades. One generation might say “keen,” another “groovy,” and another “cool” or “awesome.” We’ve always been prone to putting our own stamp on things by creating synonyms, but these days, new words appear, wear out their welcome and vanish at a dizzying pace.

Media in general, and social media in particular, have given us all immediate access to a national (or global) conversation. And this conversation has introduced us to words and phrases that, in the past, might have spread slowly or never caught on at all. Some remained confined to one region or another: Many words and phrases that “go viral” in the 21st century would have been subject to a natural geographic quarantine a few decades ago. “Y’all” has become more than a Southern affectation; and “dude” is no longer confined to the SoCal surfing culture.

Filter removed

Maybe that old-fashioned quarantine was a good thing. Widespread access to the internet —and social media in particular — has removed a filter that kept the language relatively stable. Now, it careens all over the place like a pinball. Buzzwords can go rolling down the black hole at the bottom of the table without warning. Or they can get stuck between two bumpers in a frenzy of repetition that tries the patience of the most dedicated arcade aficionado.

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It’s not evolution so much as mutation mania. Words and phrases become so pervasive that they can go from innovation to aggravation in a matter of months — or even weeks. That’s one thing about a virus: You get sick of it damn fast.

Are you already sick of hearing words like these: woke, snowflake, (blank)splaining, mindful, bae, GOAT, cuck? I know I am. How about phrases such as “fake news”? Some words seem to have been made up out of whole cloth; others are borrowed from the existing lexicon and reformatted with new or narrower definitions. “Privilege: comes to mind.

New and redefined words appear out of nowhere and leave us scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “What the hell does that mean?” That question soon gives way to a plaintive plea as we’re bombarded with these buzzwords time and again: “Please, make it stop!”

Redundant pundits

Further frustrations stem from the fact that some of these words don’t add anything to the language. We already have words for them. You can find them in any good dictionary. But we’ve put down our dictionaries because we’re too busy creating new entries for our own personal thesaurus. We’ve become redundant pundits.

Woke? Mindful? What’s wrong with just being aware? (“Woke” is particularly galling because it appears to be a bastardization of the perfectly good adjective “awake.”) And you don’t need to talk about ’splaining when you know the meaning of condescension. Are four syllables too many for you? (Yes, I know that last remark was condescending. I’m making a point.) Once upon a time, we called fake news propaganda … or bullshit.

Then there’s "privilege," which has become pervasive in the lexicon as a pejorative term against a person’s status. Once upon a time, we denounced people’s actions and attitudes — bigotry, racism, chauvinism, etc. Now, instead of condemning them for what they do, we berate them for who they are. They’re “privileged.” But isn’t this, ironically, just another form of bigotry? Because the target’s different, it’s supposed to be OK.

Really?

Adapting words like "Nazi" and "retarded" — a la "feminazi," "Grammar Nazi" and "libtard," for example — is distasteful, to say the least.

His jargon conceals, from him, but not from us, the deep, empty hole in his mind.
— Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say

“Snowflake” implies that it’s bad to be different. I don’t buy that: Conformity for the sake of conformity is downright dangerous. “Cuck” is just rude, and “bae” is … well, I don’t know what it is.

GOAT is a funny one. As an acronym, it’s short for “Greatest Of All Time,” and it’s become pervasive in sports commentary. But once upon a time, it meant virtually the opposite: A goat was someone who made a mistake that cost his team the game. Talk about confusing!

How many of these terms and definitions will still be in use fifty, twenty or even ten years from now? My hunch is that most of them will wear out their welcome and become fading footnotes in the evolution of the English language. That’s how evolution works, if you think about it: The vast majority of mutations aren’t helpful; they’re damaging or, at best, irrelevant.

Keep that in mind the next time someone defends the latest new buzzword on the grounds that “language is always evolving.”

Most mutations backfire. And most of these buzzwords are better off going extinct.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Goodreads to authors: Pay $600 to give away a $10 book

Stephen H. Provost

Hey, fellow authors, Jeff Bezos is laughing at you ... all the way to the bank.

Bezos is already the richest man in the world, but that’s not stopping him from making a few extra bucks off the proverbial “starving” authors.

Until now, Goodreads has offered a free service allowing authors to promote their books via giveaways. (They weren’t really free, as the authors were, giving away their books, but Goodreads didn’t make any money off it).

No more.

As an author who’s run Goodreads giveaways in the past, I received an email this morning about a new program that’s being touted as “a more powerful book marketing tool for authors and publishers.” Of course, there’s a catch: This new program will charge authors $119 bucks to run a “standard.” And if that’s not enough money to line Bezos’ (or his shareholders’) gilded pockets, you can run a “premium” giveaway for the bargain basement price of $599 smackeroos.

I call them Goodreads Takeaways.

Bezos, who just became the world’s only $100 billion man, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, which purchased Goodreads back in 2013.

Like he needs the money, right?

Forgive the sarcasm, but when you’re struggling to promote a book that sells for $10, it’s hard to get excited about paying 600 bucks just to give the damn thing away!

Any faint hope that these new packages would be somehow optional upgrades is quashed in the first paragraph of the email, which states that the new program “replaces our current Giveaways program.”

Of course, Amazon … er … Goodreads is touting enhanced features of the new packages. The standard package get “a notification letting them know there’s a giveaway starting.” Oh, goodie! Let me jump up and down a little bit higher.

And if you buy the premium package, you’ll get “premium placement in the Giveaways section.” Translated, this likely means that unless you dish out the $480 extra for the premium package, your giveaway will be buried.

(None of this is really much more than the giveaways offer now.)

I’ve paid to promote my books before. I’ve spent money on gas to drive to book signings. I’ve invested in posters and bookmarks and postcards. But I’ve never paid hundreds of dollars for the “privilege” of giving my books away, and I'm not going to do it now. That’s where I draw the line.

Oh, but the exposure!

I’m sorry, but I get paid to write. I get paid a decent salary to write in my day job, and I don’t value my work as an author any less. I'm not going to pay to do it. I'm not a flippin' vanity press.

As Wil Wheaton said when he was asked to contribute his work to Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, “How about no.”

That’s my answer to the new Goodreads Takeaways, too. They take money away from authors and give them to the richest man in the world.

Not just no. Hell no.

Let Goodreads know what you think: Take the survey here.

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Why time travel doesn't work

Stephen H. Provost

Time travel. Whether you’re reading H.G. Wells or watching Capt. James T. Kirk “slingshot around the sun” in the U.S.S. Enterprise, and it’s always a lot of fun. “What ifs” make for great stories, and time travel opens up a vast trove of possibilities.

Still, it’s just fiction. We can’t actually do it, and here’s why.

I’m no physicist, but I know the difference between an object and a unit of measurement. The first is tangible in a very real way; the second is merely a convention. It’s a human construction, entirely artificial and fully dependent on the thing it’s designed to measure.

We create such constructs all the time. They help us make sense of the world.

The words you’re reading right now represent real things. The word “box” represents a real object, but the word is not that object – and apart from the object it refers to, it would be utterly meaningless. We could have just as easily called that object a Heffalump or a Bandersnatch. Whatever we decide to call it, as long as we all agree that the word in question represents a cube-shaped object with a hollow interior, we’ll understand one another just fine … which is the purpose of communication.

The same is true for numbers. Numbers don’t exist in and of themselves; they measure things that exist. We can use Roman numerals, Arabic numerals (our own system). We can use a base-10 system, a base-5 system or whatever. Our choice. The things we’re numbering remain the same regardless of the labels we place on them, and we can’t count anything unless we have something to count.

Say we’re measuring something in space. We can use inches or centimeters or whatever, but the actual thing we’re measuring – its physical length – doesn’t change, no matter what units we devise to quantify it.

So, how does this apply to time?

Like distance, it’s something we measure, using years, centuries, hours, minutes, etc. We can base our system on a sundial or modify it for daylight savings. We can monkey around with the calendar to create a year of 12 or 13 months if we so choose. For centuries, the Western world used the Julian Calendar, devised by Julius Caesar; these days, we use a calendar promoted by Pope Gregory XIII. But whether we use one or the other has absolutely zero effect on the way Earth rotates on its axis or orbits the sun.

In the same way we talk about “distance” and “volume” to measure length or storage capacity, we use the concept of time to measure a specific aspect of our universe: change.

Without change, there would be no time, because there would be no way to tell the difference between one moment and the next. In fact, there wouldn’t be any moments, per se. The concept of time merely gives us a way to understand and document change; without change, “time” is meaningless, just as the word “box” is meaningless without the thing it describes.

You might argue that it’s still possible to travel forward in time by entering a condition of stasis. This is at least theoretically possible – although the idea of “freezing” and “unfreezing” the human body is problematic in a practical sense and has not been achieved outside of science fiction. But think about it: We’re traveling forward in time anyway, so none of this would really change the nature of the way things work: You’d merely be altering a single physical element – the body – by prolonging its viability. Other than that, change would continue in the very same manner it otherwise would have.

(One could even argue that prolonging average human life span to more than 70 years from just over 30 at the start of the 20th century constitutes a form of forward time travel.)

To “go backward in time,” by contrast, would require far more than simply placing one small element of the universe into stasis. It would mean restoring the entire universe, down to the smallest subatomic particle, to the precise state in which it existed in 1776, 1492, 10 million years BC or whenever you wanted to go. To describe such a task as Herculean would be the biggest understatement of all time (pun intended).

So while it might be great fun to talk about slingshotting your way around the sun and finding yourself back in, say, medieval England or Biblical Judea, it ain’t gonna happen, folks. That’s why they call it science fiction.

It’s also why people like authors and poets, screenwriters, musicians and visual artists are so important. They can take us on journeys beyond the limits of this universe, into the only alternate universe any of us has ever really visited: our imagination.

The trip there and back again is no less a journey of discovery than any other adventure you can …

… imagine.

"Bird Box": a thrill ride about ordinary humans in extraordinary crisis

Stephen H. Provost

Every now and then, a story is so engaging and deftly told that it overcomes the reader’s own personal difficulties with style and renders the so-called “rules” of writing superfluous. Bird Box was one such book for me. Author Josh Malerman delivers a story that kept me interested from start to finish, which is – in the end – the hallmark of a successful novel.

Although he occasionally falls into a clipped voice (especially in the early going), his quick-hitting style is an asset overall. It’s far better than being sucked into an endless quagmire of unnecessary description, and it fits the story perfectly. It allows the author to build suspense throughout without boring the reader – quite a feat in any novel-length endeavor.

There are a lot of things Malerman doesn’t describe in the book, some of which the reader is probably just itching to know. But the fact that he leaves out these descriptions is a master stroke, because it allows the reader to focus on what’s important: the human story about how people cope (or fail to) and interact in a world overrun by paranoia, false hopes and heroic deeds that sometimes succeed but just as often end in tragedy.

 Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

The premise of Bird Box is ingenious: How do human beings adjust to a world in which opening one’s eyes means near-certain madness? The execution is also first-rate, sometimes in spite of the fact that Malerman breaks the rules - and sometimes because of it.

A writing coach might tell you that Malerman uses variations on the verb “to be” far too much. But it works, and that’s what matters. It amplifies the matter-of-fact narrative, which reflects the crisis situation that pervades the book. This is proof that rules sometimes demand to be broken, when the author does so in service to the book’s mood and plot. It’s to his great credit that Malerman is willing to do so.

The main stylistic problem I had with Bird Box (HarperCollins, 2014) was its reliance on present tense in the two streams of narrative that run through the novel, one present day and the other in the past. For me, it slowed down what was otherwise a tension-filled page-turner of a ride, especially when the writer moved to past tense in the midst of a present-tense section. (None of these moves were wrong, structurally speaking; they just slowed me down a bit.)

Malerman also seems to run short on material for his present-day narrative stream and, as the book goes on, uses it more frequently for flashbacks that aren’t covered in the “past” stream. At times, he does so to provide key information that might not otherwise be available, which is all well and good. In any case, this is a minor quibble and in no way a deal-breaker.

A few questions are left unanswered, such as why some animals go mad and others don't - or why they do so at varying rates, whereas nearly all humans are exposed to the danger that's involved in opening their eyes very early. But this, too, is minor, and not essential to the plot. In fact, Malerman's ability to keep from getting bogged down in the nonessential is part of what makes Bird Box such an engaging read.

In fact, I’m giving this book five stars because it’s so successful in spite of my own personal criticisms. I don’t do that often because, honestly, most authors who use a style I don’t enjoy, such as present-tense narrative, don’t hold my attention beyond the first ten pages. The fact that Malerman was able to hold my interest is testament to his ability as a storyteller and to the success of “Bird Box” as a story about humans in crisis and how they react both to that crisis and one another.

Highly recommended.

Don’t open your eyes.
— Tagline for "Bird Box"

Dear pretentious critics: Here's why we don't like you

Stephen H. Provost

How do you decide what movies you want to see? Do you read the reviews? If you do, you probably have one of three reactions: You might go to the movie if it gets a good review, you might decide to ignore the review altogether, or you might wind up doing the exact opposite of what the critics recommend.

If you’re in the third group, chances are you’re not acting that way just to be rebellious. You’re doing it because you’ve figured out that the critics’ choices usually don’t jibe with you own.

The same principle holds true for music, literature and any other form of art. Often enough, critics and fans enjoy the same things, but in other cases, their opinions diverge — sometimes sharply.

Critics tend to look down their noses at art they consider derivative or clichéd, saying to themselves, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. Why should I waste my time on seeing it again?”

Just yesterday, I wrote an entry here that touched on the importance (among other things) of originality in writing. I’m not one of those people who’ll see a movie several times or reread a book, no matter how much I enjoyed them. In fact, I’ve never read a novel twice in my life. Been there, done that. Hearing a song too often can turn it from catchy to cloying. Watching a movie repeatedly can put me to sleep.

But, hey, that’s me. There are plenty of people who enjoy hearing the same song over and over, rereading their favorite novels and watching the DVD of their favorite movie time and again. The Wizard of Oz became a yearly tradition on broadcast television in 1959, and the same treatment is given to holiday films such as Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas during the holidays. So, there’s obviously a big appetite for this.

One thing these movies have in common is they’re accessible: They tell stories in such a way that a lot of people can relate to them.

The problem with many critics is they think accessibility is a bad thing. Bands that put out songs with a lot of hooks are dismissed as banal or simplistic. Meanwhile, their music racks up huge sales and fans flock to their concerts.

When it comes to major awards, they’re seldom, if ever, bestowed upon “genre” movies or novels. Academy Awards for Best Picture aren’t given to science fiction, fantasy, horror or comedy films. It "just isn’t done.” Similarly, you’ll never find Stephen King or J.K. Rowling in the hunt for a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Does this mean their work is unworthy? Millions of readers will tell you otherwise.

This doesn’t seem to matter to the critics. Many of them appear to thrive on the notion that they’re somehow “above” public opinion — and strive to maintain this impression by dismissing certain kinds of storytelling wholesale. The irony of doing so is that they’re judging genres based on stereotype, which is itself a form of cliché.

Clichés and stereotypes

What many critics have lost sight of is the difference between art that’s derivative and art that’s accessible. I make it a point to write conversationally so my readers can relax and enjoy what I’ve written. I don’t want to make them work too hard. One of the perks of being an adult is that reading gets to be fun, not the kind of textbook chore you had to endure in grade school.

(Sometimes, I think stale textbook authors and self-important critics emerged from the same mysterious protoplasm — that gooey muck that spawned F. Murray Abraham’s character, Professor Crawford, in Finding Forrester.)

Accessible writing isn’t simple-minded. On the contrary, it’s deft. I like to make my readers think. I’ve written books and articles on philosophy, for Pete’s sake. But that doesn’t mean presenting people with such a pretentious, confusing mess that it’s impossible to make heads or tails of it.

Despite what many critics seem to think, art can be accessible and original at the same time. It can be intelligent and fun. A good mystery can make you think and enjoy yourself at the same time. (Not coincidentally, mysteries are another popular genre that’s on the outs when it comes to consideration for major awards.)

Is it any wonder that some people choose to ignore the critics or even use critical disdain as an excuse to check out a book or movie? People don’t like being excluded. When their favorite film or novel is dismissed without a second thought, they don’t like that much, either. The people who do the dismissing will lose their credibility — regardless of their expertise or sense of self-importance.

The word “discriminating” can carry two different definitions: “selective” or “dismissive.” Too often, critics cross the line from the former to the latter, and in doing so render their opinions irrelevant.

That’s my critique. Take it or leave it … but either way, go have fun.

This is a writer's most precious commodity

Stephen H. Provost

A writer’s voice is like his or her soul.

No offense to ghostwriters. I don’t mean to suggest you’re selling your soul by trying to sound like someone else. Everyone’s got to make a living, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Writing is such a difficult way to make a living, that sometimes, it might seem like the best way to do so is to sound like someone else. I’m not just talking about ghostwriters. I’m talking about authors across the spectrum who can't help but feel the pressure to write the "next" Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I have three words of advice: Resist that pressure.

Because ...

  1. Someone’s already done it better than you possibly could, even if you were the best writer in the known universe, because the person who did it first was the original.
  2. Apart from that, another "someone else" out there can probably do it better than you can, too. No offense, but in a world of 7 billion people, there are probably just a few writers who are more gifted than you are.
  3. Most fans of established authors aren’t looking for the “next J.K. Rowling.” They’re looking for the next book from J.K. Rowling.
  4. Trying to emulate another author too closely isn't much more creative than filling in the blanks on a Mad Libs game (remember those?). We all try to emulate successful and talented authors; at a certain point, however, a line is crossed between inspiration and mimicry that's like comparing a bus stop to a bus. To put a finer point on it: Even if it feels like you're spinning your wheels, that's far better than not having any.
  5. And, most importantly, if you’re writing like someone else, you’re not writing like yourself. Which is not only a big loss for your readers (because no one else can write like you can), it’s can also be personally demoralizing. Is there anything that puts a bigger damper on the creative instinct than the feeling that you can only find success by imitating someone else? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one.

Your voice is your most precious commodity as a writer. You may feel like, as an author, you're on a leaky lifeboat in the middle of a storm-tossed sea (and what author hasn't felt that way at one point or another?) In such moments, the last thing you should throw overboard is your voice. That's your life-preserver.

Day jobs

The good news is that, contrary to what many readers believe, the vast majority of authors don’t make their living writing books. They’re journalists, science teachers, medical doctors, public relations professionals, website designers … you name it. Even many of those who have won awards use writing to supplement their incomes rather than to pay the rent.

This may not sound like good news, especially to the large number of authors who would love to quit their day jobs and make a living from their writing. But consider this: If you have a day job, it gives you the same kind of freedom authors like Rowling and King and Patterson have the freedom to write whatever the hell you want.

If you’re a mid-range writer on a contract who’s struggling to make ends meet, you might have a lot of people telling you that you need to write specific things that sound like a specific someone else.

How much fun is that?

“I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on,” bestselling author, scriptwriter, etc. Neil Gaiman said in a 2014 interview. “I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Gaiman is, in fact, a novelist, and he’s written some very good fiction. His point is, he isn’t just a novelist. He’s other things, too, and he can afford to be those things because he's "made it."

What those of us with day jobs often fail to realize is that we can do the same thing. We may not be free to write as much as someone at the top of the pyramid, like Gaiman, but we do have the same kind of freedom. So instead of trying to “make it” by writing like someone else — and becoming entrenched in a less-than-creative process of grinding out the next not-quite-so-great fill-in-the-blank title, why not exercise that freedom?

Original spin

I have a day job, and I don't make enough to live off writing books. Would I like to? Sure. But I’m luckier than most because my day job involves writing (I’m a newspaper editor/reporter) and exposes me to plenty of fodder for my off-the-clock writing.

That’s allowed me to, like Gaiman, explore a diverse array of topics and genres. I've written (as Stifyn Emrys) books that are philosophical and inspirational, and (under my own name), I've tackled speculative fiction and historical nonfiction.

As long as I don’t get caught up in worrying about “making it,” the process is a lot of fun. Plus, I get to keep my own voice.

My foremost criterion in writing each of the books I’ve written for Linden Publishing — Fresno Growing Up, Memortality and Highway 99 — has been originality. People had written about Fresno’s pioneer years before, but they hadn’t focused primarily on the Baby Boom generation. There are tons of books out there about Route 66, but Highway 99, which was similarly important out here on the West Coast, had received little such attention. As to Memortality, I have yet to run across another story that pairs the concept of a person’s eidetic (photographic) memory with a supernatural ability to raise the dead.

What fun is it to cover the same old ground, anyway?

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I’ve never been interested in flattering anyone. I’ll stick to plain ol' sincerity and hope someone else likes what I’m putting out there. If so, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll still have had a ton of fun along the way.

 Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Value your voice

A good editor will:

  1. Fix errors in spelling, grammar and usage.
  2. Point out inconsistencies and content gaps.
  3. Suggest ways to tighten and punch up your writing.
  4. Give you ideas about where to take a story.
  5. Suggest changes in style where they may slow down or confuse the reader.

But a good editor will never simply change your voice without consulting with you. Changing your voice without asking or just because it sounds better to the editor’s ear is not OK. (Your ear matters as much as or more than the editor’s — suggestions are fine; wholesale changes without consultation most definitely are not.)

If you come across an editor who wants to significantly change your voice, my advice is to run like hell, don't look back and keep on writing.

"Memortality," the movie: Hypothetical casting call

Stephen H. Provost

No one has signed up to make a movie about Memortality (at least not yet!), but authors are often asked whom they’d choose to play various roles if someone requested film rights.

 Daisy Ridley

Daisy Ridley

As a movie buff, I thought it would be fun to cast a hypothetical Memortality feature film. The result would be so far over budget it would likely never get made because I chose a lot of big-budget stars. Not to mention the fact that many of them probably wouldn’t be the right age anymore by the time such a hypothetical film got made.

But who cares? As I said, it’s hypothetical, so why not have fun with it? Here are my choices as of May 2017. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.

Minerva: Not only does she look like the Minerva I envisioned, but Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens went a long way toward Minerva’s toughness and determination.

Raven: This one was perhaps the hardest for me. I envision someone who’s heroic but vulnerable who can play off Minerva’s character well. I don’t see a Hollywood “hunk” in the role. A couple of possibilities occurred to me: Logan Lerman, who played Percy Jackson, and Eddie Redmayne from Fantastic Beasts. I’m definitely open to suggestions on this one, though, as long as they don’t include Robert Pattison (who’s too old now, anyway) or Channing Tatum.

 Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman

Carson: The actor I really want for this, Liam Neeson, is probably a tad long in the tooth, but otherwise, I think he’d be great in the role. He’s got the whole intense-but-wounded-and-refusing-to-show-it thing down pat, which is what Carson’s all about. Given Neeson’s age, I’d probably go with Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler or Russell Crowe. Jackman's Wolverine remains the definitive X-Men character, and since Minerva and Raven are similar to mutants, casting Jackman in the role just seems to make sense. But I think they’d all be great. I can just picture Butler shouting, "This is Los Angeles!" Well, maybe not. But Crowe's "What we do in life echoes in eternity," would fit nicely.

Jules: Scarlet Johansson, in her red-haired incarnation, came to mind here, largely based on her portrayal of Black Widow in the Avengers series. She’s knows how to play dangerous and volatile. I think she’d be perfect.

Josef: Christoph Waltz. If you’ve seen this guy’s performances in Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, you won’t have to ask why he’s perfect for the role of a sociopathic mad scientist with aspirations to grandeur that may be more than delusions. Besides, apart from the gap-toothed smile, he really looks the part … and Hollywood makeup artists could make the tooth problem disappear (or appear?) without a problem.

Amber: Jennifer Lawrence. Amber is basically an uber-achiever, and Lawrence just fits that role for me.

Henry: Tom Hiddleston would bring the perfect British sensibility to the role of the physician who finds himself caught up in something he neither wanted nor imagined.

Jessica: I’m not sure why I think Cameron Diaz would do a great job playing a thoroughly unlikable, self-centered, chain-smoking woman on the make. But I do.

 Mark Wahlberg, Christoph Waltz, Scarlett Johansson, TomHiddleston and Betty White

Mark Wahlberg, Christoph Waltz, Scarlett Johansson, TomHiddleston and Betty White

Jimmy Corbet: Mark Wahlberg’s Boston tough-guy would fit this role pretty well, I think. Or maybe it’s just because the character’s name (and believe it or not, I just realized this) is almost identical to that of turn-of-the-century heavyweight champ James J. Corbett … and Wahlberg once played Irish Mickey Ward in a film called The Fighter. It certainly is not because he was in a mediocre Planet of the Apes remake or because he started his career as a singer called Marky Mark.

Sharon Corbet: I think Jennifer Connelly, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, would do well in this role, even though the character wouldn’t get much screen time.

Mary Lou Corbet: Betty White. Because, Betty White.

 Jason Momoa

Jason Momoa

Actors I’d love to cast but don’t really fit any of the characters include Robert Downey Jr., Bradley Cooper and the late Alan Rickman, who would have given Waltz a run for his money as Josef (even so, I think I still would have chosen Waltz for this particular role). I might have roles for Cooper and Downey in the sequel, though, and Jason Momoa would be perfect for another character introduced in the second installment. There’s also Idris Elba and Denzel Washington, either of whom would do well as a character in the third book, which I’m writing now.

Who would they play? I'm not giving that away. You'll have to wait until the sequel comes out early in 2018. Then have fun guessing!

How to write a mystery without even knowing it

Stephen H. Provost

Fleetwood Mac released an album in 1973 titled "Mystery to Me." The cover featured a cartoon baboon sampling a cake, having apparently already taken a bite out of a book.

Four months have passed since the release of "Memortality," and readers have taken their first bite (not literally, I hope) out of this, my debut novel on Pace Press. I'm happy to say the reactions have been positive: a series of 4- and 5-star Amazon reviews, along with praise from respected literary magazines such as Amazing Stories and Foreword Reviews.

Many readers don't know how to categorize it. Is it fantasy? Science fiction? Horror? A spy novel? That's because I wrote to the story, not to the genre. I've never liked labels, so when my publisher called the novel "genre-breaking," it made me smile. I'm all about breaking down artificial boundaries, even if it makes things harder for booksellers to find the proper shelf for my novel.

I wasn't even sure whether to call it YA, new adult or adult fiction. Truth is, I wanted it to be all of the above. Hey, if J.K. Rowling could impress my then-octogenarian dad with a series of books written for kids, I figured that was a pretty good role model.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
— Oscar Wilde

But one thing did surprise me most about the readers' reaction: Some classified it as a mystery. I definitely didn't set out to write a mystery. I've even been known to remark that I didn't think I'd ever write a mystery. For one thing, it's been my impression that good mysteries are elaborate exercises, and I'm mostly a "pantser," which is to say I write by the seat of my pants.  I don't create elaborate outlines before sitting down to write a book. I start with a general concept and let the story take me wherever it wants to go.

When people say the word "mystery," I tend to thing of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and the like. But mystery, in the broader sense is about keeping the readers guessing; it's about sprinkling enough clues around in the plot to foreshadow a twist without giving it away. And I do love twists. If you haven't read "Memortality," it's got a great twist toward the end, if I do say so myself.

So maybe I did write a mystery, after all, even if, to quote that old album title, it wasn't a mystery to me.

 

Me a workaholic? Give me a break!

Stephen H. Provost

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in "The Princess Bride"

My name is Stephen, and I am not, repeat not, a workaholic.

It might look like I am at times, but these days, it’s easy to mistake someone who’s conscientious, driven and passionate about what he does for a workaholic.

What’s wrong with that, you ask?

If people think you’re doing something because you’re addicted to work, they’re likely to tell you to “take a load off,” “relax” or, my favorite, “Don’t take life too seriously.”

I have an offbeat (some might say warped) sense of humor, but I like a good laugh as much as the next person. If there’s anything I might be addicted to (other than caffeine), it’s puns. But addicted to work? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s like accusing me of being addicted to exhaustion and stress, two of my least favorite things.

Another problem with being mistaken for a workaholic is that people overlook the real reasons you work as hard as you do. Here are a few:

  • You want to make sure a task is done well.
  • You want to meet a deadline.
  • You don’t want to make others do the work that’s your responsibility.
  • You want to succeed. This point is particularly true of the self-employed and small-business owners, who frequently get classified as workaholics. But their motivations aren’t a love of work for its own sake. It requires a tremendous amount of work and dedication to pursue success apart from the established corporate structure, simply because there’s no established support framework. You have to build one from scratch, which requires a lot of work on top of the typical workweek. What most people in this category want is independence. The work is merely a means to that end.
  • You want to feed yourself, contribute to your family’s success and maybe, just maybe, have a little bit left over for (gasp) playtime! (Workaholics don’t have playtime, so if you’re looking for a way to distinguish the conscientious, driven worker from the workaholic, this is a great bullet point to remember.)

All of the above apply to me. As a journalist, I want to make sure my newspaper contains high-quality content and is delivered on time, and I know it’s up to me and my reporter to make that happen.

As an author, I’m trying to establish a support framework (fellow authors and others in the industry; and, most importantly readers) in addition to doing the actual work of writing.

In order to give all this a chance to work, I have to establish clear boundaries. My work as a journalist comes first, because that’s my primary source of income. So, I make sure those goals are met first.

Sometimes, that means working outside the "normal" workday to cover a meeting or respond to breaking news. But that doesn’t mean I go out looking for extra work just for its own sake. I have books to write and market, too. So, on the weekends, I don’t do journalism unless 1) there’s a crisis involving breaking news, 2) my boss asks me to or 3) I need to in order to ensure the aforementioned quality and timeliness standards are met.

I became an author (and a journalist, for that matter) because I love to write. Most of the time, writing isn’t work to me; it’s pleasure. The stuff that goes along with it – the marketing, promotion and the networking – is necessary work. If I were a workaholic, I’d love that stuff. I don’t. Not even close.

Yes, it’s fun to meet other authors and talk to readers, but nine-hour drives to conventions aren’t kind to a 53-year-old body, so they’re not my idea of a good time.

(An aside: I don’t want people contacting me on social media or personal email about their pet peeves regarding the newspaper or telling me that one of my books sucks. Just put yourself in my position. Would you? I don’t think even workaholics enjoy that sort of thing.)

It’s easy to dismiss hardworking, conscientious people who are passionate about what they do as “workaholics,” as though there’s something wrong with them. But is there really? Aren’t hard work, conscientiousness and passion positive traits? They sure were when I was growing up, and I think they still are today.

So, the next time you see someone working hard, don’t assume the person's a masochist or workaholic. Far more likely, it's someone with a goal, a vision, a purpose. And chances are good that, if it's achieved, it will help make the world a little better place.

My first video book trailer: Memortality

Stephen H. Provost

For the first time in my career as an author, I commissioned a video trailer for one of my books. (I figured if it was good enough for Twilight and The Hunger Games, it was good enough for me.)

Friend and fellow author Drew Wagar created this 54-second clip for Memortality to the soundtrack of Quinn's Song: The Dance Begins by Kevin MacLeod.

Drew, the author of The Shadeward Saga, the The Elite Dangerous Saga and The Midnight Chronicles, had created a series of video trailers for his own novels that caught my attention, so I asked him to come up with something for Memortality

I'm thrilled with the result.

The stark, unadorned visual, with words that appear, then vanish as the video progresses, provides a "calm before the storm" prelude to a book that's filled with action. The music Drew chose underscores the mood: a feeling of reluctant tranquility, of serenity laced with a hint of foreboding. The candle - prominent in the work itself - preserves a fragile light, flickering bravely against the dark backdrop that's first grim, then dangerous. This is the life of Minerva Rus.

Will her flame endure? You'll have to read the book to find out.

I hope this brief preview whets your appetite for what lies ahead in the pages of Memortality. As I write this, there's just a week left before the release date. Like Minerva, I'm both anxious and excited about what's about to happen next.

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

Stephen H. Provost

I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.

But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.

Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now, and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.

That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:

  1. It’s not conversational. Strike up a discussion with someone. Anyone. I’ll bet you he or she doesn’t talk in present tense. When people tell stories, they’re usually telling you about something that happened to them in the past; making it sound as though it’s happening in the present can be confusing and downright irritating. It’s kind of like Kanye West referring to himself in third-person. Most people don’t talk like that. It sounds weird at best, pretentious at worst.
  2. You’re not a tour guide. Or a golf announcer. There aren’t many people who speak in the present tense when describing something. Sometimes, it can work, but that “sometimes” is rarely in print. You’re reading a novel, not taking a tour of Hearst Castle or watching The Master’s. Even that can be galling. How often do we have to listen to an announcer state the obvious: “He lines it up and approaches the ball …”? I can see that for myself, Einstein. Be quiet and let the action speak for itself. Which brings me to No. 3.
  3. It makes you more aware of the narrator. You’ve no doubt heard (probably since middle school) that good writers “show and don’t tell.” The present tense does the opposite by emphasizing style over substance. Writers who use it are relying on a technique to bolster the story, rather than getting out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. It’s crutch. The more you’re aware of the narrator, the less you’re able to connect with the story. Unless deftly done, the present tense is a distraction that keeps the reader from becoming immersed in the tale. Think about how often you see actors turn to address the audience directly from the stage. George Burns used to do it on the old Burns and Allen TV show, but there’s a reason it’s the exception, not the rule: It reminds the audience (or the reader) that this is “just” a story. If the story’s good, the reader should forget it’s a story. It should become an alternate reality. An intrusive narrator can keep that from happening.
  4. It’s tiring. While it may seem like fun at first to feel like you’re in the middle of the action, this can get exhausting. Part of the magic of reading is being able to go at your own pace, and – at least for me – being caught up in a present-tense narrative can be exhausting, especially if it’s heavy on the action. I can wind up wanting a break after a few pages, which is exactly the effect I don’t want to have as a writer: I want my readers to become so engrossed in the story they don’t want to put it down.
  5. It’s difficult to maintain. Because it’s natural to tell stories in the past tense, you have to pay close attention as a present-tense author to keep from reverting back into what’s more comfortable. You have to continually be on your guard to make sure you’re still writing in the present tense, and you have to have a damn good editor to catch the lapses you miss. Why spend all that energy on maintaining the present tense when you could be devoting it to telling the story? The best answer I can come up with is that you shouldn’t.

I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break, in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)

I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free. 

Active and reactive writing: A journey from journalism to fiction

Stephen H. Provost

With the year drawing to a close, I decided to look back on the blogs I’ve posted in the past 12 months and noticed a theme: A lot of them involve politics.

It wasn’t my intention, when I started blogging, to spend so much time on political matters. An earlier blog I authored (no longer available online, sorry) was meant to do just that, but I wanted to move away from politics with this one.

I haven’t been entirely successful.

I could take the excuse that this election year has been so crazy it would have been hard not to write about it, and I suppose that’s true. In my defense, I’m not the only one who’s done it: A lot of very accomplished author friends have devoted considerable space to the news of the day in articles, blogs and social media posts.

Excuses aside, however, it raised the question of why.

Restating the obvious

First off, it occurred to me that outrage can be one of a writer’s greatest motivations. It’s also one of the easiest things to write about because it’s so obvious. If you’re irate about something, it’s often because the answer is so obvious (at least to you) that it might as well be screaming at you from a couple of inches in front of your nose … so you want to scream it at other people.

Obvious things are easy to write about, and we writers aren’t immune to the temptation of taking the easy way out. In some ways, we might be more susceptible to it than most: Writing – especially creative writing – can be laborious, so it can feel damned good to see the words just pouring out from your fingertips onto the screen in front of you.

Add to that the feel-good nature of a nice long rant – or a short, Twitter-pated one – and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of political posts, especially in a year such as this one.

There’s a second issue at play, however, that’s related to the first but is more fundamental. It involves the distinction between active (or creative) and reactive writing.

I’ve spent most of my career doing the latter, because it’s what a reporter or columnist does: He or she reacts to the news. This transitioned nicely for me into historical nonfiction (my books Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99), because writing about history is another sort of reactive writing.  This is fairly easy, because the ingredients for a story are right in front of you. All you have to do is put it on the page.

That’s not to diminish the importance of telling the story well. In some ways, nonfiction is a bigger challenge: You can easily fall into the trap of parading events before the reader in a predictable chronology (“and then, and then, and then”) that will put a reader to sleep. This is how you get dry textbooks and newspaper articles full of jargon, wherein police “respond to the scene” and victims “sustain multiple contusions, lacerations and blunt-force trauma to the head.” Are you still awake? Me, neither.

Next stop: Novel Land

That’s a challenge to a writer’s skill set, but not to his or her creativity, which is what comes into play with active writing.

A couple of years ago, I set about writing my first novel, Identity Break, and I remember being very excited about it. I had what I thought (and still think) was a great concept, and all I had to do was put it down on paper. I was still reacting to my own idea, but there was more work involved because I had to keep drawing on my own creativity to fill in the blanks. The novel, which I self-published, got some good reviews but didn’t create enough buzz to really take off, and what I had planned as a trilogy wound up truncated into a single book and a prequel novella called Artifice.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I decided to give novel-writing another go. Memortality started out as a “fun breather from non-fiction” after I’d finished Highway 99. Once again, I had a great concept – even better than Identity Break, and a lot more complex. It was that complexity, though, that exposed me to the real challenge of writing fiction: keeping the creative juices flowing while ensuring iy all made sense.

I told myself I never finished the sequel to Identity Break because I didn’t want to spend time on a project that wasn’t taking hold with readers, and that’s mostly true. But I also wasn’t as comfortable about active (fiction) writing as I was with (reactive) non-fiction, so it was easier to tap that well again for my next big project, which turned out to be Fresno Growing Up. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I did. It has turned out to be far and away my most successful book to date.

That led me to the idea for Highway 99, and after I’d finished writing that, I plowed ahead with a similar work on U.S. Highway 101, thinking I’d found my niche. That was before I asked my publisher: “How would you prefer me to spend my time, working on 101 or putting together a sequel to Memortality?” I expected him to say the former, because Linden had always focused heavily on California history books and Memortality was its first fiction release. When he suggested I focus on the sequel, it threw me right back out of my comfort zone.

Yes, this is work

I finished writing that sequel last week, and I’m very pleased with the result (sorry, no title yet – I have one, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now). But it may be the most difficult book I’ve ever written. The more I wrote, the more I had to delve into my own creative space; the longer I had to rely on active, rather than reactive writing. In the end, I think the struggle paid off with a story that’s pretty damned inventive, if I do say so myself, and one I hope readers will find engaging.

But it was work. I’m used to having everything just flow, the way it has since I started writing in high school. Most of that writing, I now realize, was reactive. As a journalist, that’s what I’ve done for 30-plus years, so I’ve all but tamed that beast. Active writing is a different animal – one you don’t want to tame. You want to let it run loose and see where it takes you. I’ll need every one of the skills I learned as a journalist to keep up with it, but I’ll also need that little extra something known as inspiration.

It’s easy to react to the events of the day, especially if you’ve worked yourself up into a lather about them, so I don’t blame myself or my fellow writers for focusing so much on politics. I will admit, though, that seeing the same posts on the same subjects from the same people on social media day after day can get tedious, especially when I know the people making those posts are gifted, creative writers.

None of this is to say they should never write about politics again – or that I never will myself. My father was a political science professor, and I’m supposedly a distant relative of Alexander Hamilton, so it’s a family tradition. Nor am I going to stop writing about history: It’s just too damned much fun (go ahead, call me weird). What I will say is I have a lot of respect for writers to delve into their creative reservoirs and have the guts to engage in active writing, and I can understand why George R.R. Martin might take a while to produce the next “Song of Ice and Fire” novel.

This stuff ain’t easy, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding.

Note: I'll be speaking periodically about a related topic, "Making History With Your Writing: The Past as Every Author's Inspiration," at various presentations. Check the Events page for details.