DiLeo Writes—Chapter 4: Notes on Writing and Some Stranger ThingsHello,
Welcome to all, first-timers and returners.
In my first newsletter, I confessed I had no idea how frequently (or rather infrequently) these newsletters would appear. This is only the fourth one since I started back in February; I guess that's not too bad. I've provided advice and encouragement to teachers, given out two free short stories, and—I hope—offered you a little bit of entertainment (and maybe converted you to the glorious world of writing with Blackwings on Rhodia paper, and even pushed a few of you into the analog-Luddite world of carrying around a Field Notes pad in your pocket; your phone won't care, trust me).
Either way, thank you for being here. Let's get started.
I've written at length about a novel I started writing in 2009/2010 entitled DEAD END. It was a long saga (both the story and the writing, along with the quest to try to get it published), and you can read all about it here.
Spoiler: the book did not find a publisher. The book did peek the interest of a literary agent and he tried mightily to place it, but the book couldn't quite make it there. Even so, I was, and remain, immensely grateful to Scott Miller (at Trident Media) for offering to represent that book.
During the following years, I tried my hand at several other novels and completed two I thought were pretty good. For various flaws, neither was sent to potential publishers. Now, I could have self-published all three of those books. I've self-published through Amazon before, and it is in many ways a great, equalizing platform for indie authors. Several prominent authors like J.A. Konrath, Blake Crouch, and Scott Nicholson believe wholeheartedly in the advantages of self-publishing.
I didn't want to do that. The main reason? I was too afraid that I'd put something out there that wasn't as good as it could be. I believe, perhaps naively, that publishing with a traditional press (large or small) would put my work through the editorial ringer, thus improving the book and teaching me valuable things about the craft of writing.
I have learned a thing or two about rejection: writers (and, presumably, creators of any ilk) experience a lot of it. Rejection is not personal. It is subjective, of course, but if you're a writer and you want to find success, you will need a tough skin, and a commitment to your work. It can be scary, sharing your work, but do it anyway—and get writing the next thing.
Do it for the joy of creation. Write because it rejuvenates you. Each trip to the computer screen (or yellow Rhodia pad) should be an adventure, a thrilling excursion into the endless imaginative galaxy between your ears.
Looking for more inspiration: read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I've read it twice. It's the perfect work for anyone who is creative in any facet.
Okay, back to Dead End: even as I wrote other books (including several partially-completed works and a 600+ page manuscript that was really awful), my mind kept flitting back to Dead End, urging me to give it another shot.
Last summer, I read A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and it became suddenly, perfectly clear how I could attempt to rewrite Dead End.
The novel was originally about a young couple in a possibly cursed house. The new version would twist that a bit into a young couple facing a possible demon possession.
I started last August and completed the first draft early this year. I tried to work on it every day. My routine is my greatest strength in this regard: up at 4am, write for two hours. Every day. I didn't set word-count goals; I just wrote.
The morning quiet is perfect for writing. My cats gather around me, too, and I think they're telepathically crafting the story (there's an incident with a cat in the original version that has subsequently been tweaked in the cat's favor).
I then took the book through five complete revisions.
The actual process of revision is long and somewhat haphazard, but the following books have helped me immensely: On Writing by Stephen King; How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King; How to Grow a Novel and On Writing by Sol Stein; The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner; Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.
Perhaps in a future newsletter I'll go into more depth about what revision actually looks like in the nitty-gritty, word-by-word, page-by-page process.
Once I felt it was in decent shape, I sent it to Scott Miller. He got back to me in a month or so with what's called "coverage": a written response to the book, including a summary of all major events, personal comments, and recommendations for improvement, from someone at the literary agency.
The "coverage" was very good—detailed, enthusiastic, and supportive. It also provided some specific recommendations for improvements; my book, I knew and this confirmed, was more of a gross-out than a creepy horror tale. I'd "really gone for it" in some scenes, and now it seemed I needed to dial it back a bit. This critique I'd received for free would've cost at least $500 on the freelancer market, but I was lucky enough to get it gratis, and it confirmed for me certain suspected weaknesses in my manuscript. The importance of BETA readers can not be overstated.
I spent another month revising the book. I made a major plot change, and that of course rippled throughout the whole book, I tamed down some of the grosser scenes and tried to play up the more eerie moments. I discovered, because of that insightful "coverage," that my book was really more of a dark mystery with horror elements than an all-out horror novel.
In a case of forest from the trees (often I would revise from tree to tree, even branch to branch—meaning word to word and moment to moment instead of appreciating the story as a whole [the forest]), I began to understand what my book wanted to be, and it was my job to help shape it in that direction.
I now describe it as a "mystery horror novel."
The log line: To save his future wife, Mike must unearth the secrets of the past, expose a murderer, and confront monsters both human and supernatural.
Because Scott Miller had taken the original version of the book to twelve major publishers who each passed for various reasons, he suggested I look for a new agent who is enthusiastic about the book. I do not begrudge him this: I am thankful for all he has done for me.
I recently sent out a query to a new agent.
As Tom Petty said, "Into the great wide open"; or perhaps "the waiting is the hardest part" is more apropos.
Hope springs eternal.
I'm getting close to (hopefully) finding a publisher, but (most importantly) I am pleased with what I've crafted—a book I can confidently say was the best I could produce at the time.
And, most importantly, one I enjoyed writing (and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing).
Maybe one day, you might be able to enjoy reading it after purchasing it in a store . . .
Last July 15, the Duffer Brothers gave me a glorious birthday present (one day early, sure, but I have no doubt it was meant for me) when Netflix released Stranger Things. If you haven't watched season one yet, do so immediately.
Here's what I posted about it after binging through the season the first time:
This show is fantastic.
It is the best thing (movie, TV show, book) that I’ve encountered in the past six months.
The show is exactly the sort of engaging, creepy, scary, and emotionally resonant project I relish.
As has been already said: it is the perfect blend of Spielberg, King, and Carpenter.
Here’s the pitch: in a small town in the early 80′s, a young boy disappears and the quest to find him exposes a secret government project, a young girl with extrasensory powers, and a blood-thirsty monster.
It is E.T., Goonies, IT, Stand By Me, and Halloween all mashed together.
The entire cast is authentic and wonderful. Winona Ryder may overact occasionally, but she plays the distraught mother of a missing boy quite well, and unlike many similar characters in other movies and shows, this mother doesn’t simply wait for something to happen—she takes action, and her frantic behavior is completely believable. There is a scene early on involving a mysterious phone call that Ryder plays perfectly.
David Harbour is wonderful as the small-town chief, and the rest of the adult and teenage cast rounds out the show skillfully.
It is the children, however, who steal the show. The characters are perfect and acted spot-on. I cared deeply for these characters, was invested in their journey and their friendship, and I was quite moved by the end. They provided genuine engagement, empathy, and humor. These are the best child actors since Stand By Me. Check out the cast here. Of particular note, Millie Bobby Brown (who was in Intruders in 2014) is so damn good, it is frightening. She is an immense talent.
I could go into greater detail about the main boys (Gatan Matarazzo is hilarious—the “Mad Hen” joke had me laughing for a while), but it is enough to say that each of these boys is a wonderful, talented actor with a great career ahead of him, and the ensemble’s dynamic is a joy to watch.
Now, SPOILERS ahead:
What I loved about this show in addition to the actors/characters:
1. 80′s nostalgia without overdoing it or going all cutesy. (I loved Super 8, but that film went too far for goofy at certain moments, though it managed to hit really well on the "feels," but that's a speciality of J.J. Abrams'.) Great score and soundtrack.
2. The monster is a predator—it must be defeated. (It might look like a creature from the Star Trek reboot, but it is a monster straight from our nightmares and it lives in a believable nightmare world.)
3. There are glorious moments of awe that conjure the same sense of magic and wonder that Close Encounters and E.T. stirred. (And this show does it with Christmas lights and a white van!)
4. There’s a shady government operation (complete with a reticent Matthew Modine villain), and a program to harness the extrasensory powers of supernaturally gifted children, and a parallel dimension that is clever and creepy. (Again, Spielberg and King.)
5. The episodes are titled as chapters, which is perfect because the season feels like a novel in the best sense, with the search for Will Byers driving all the characters and all events are organic developments stemming from character action. The twists and turns are not hokey or forced.
6. The need-to-know-what-is-going-on is balanced perfectly with the gotta-know-what’s-going-to-happen. There is a distinction between these two drives: the first is the story mystery; the second is the characters’ actions. The first alone might work, but without the second there is no real resonance. (This is why Lost and Breaking Bad worked so well.)
7. The show never overplays its hand or goes too far in any one direction (like endlessly cavorting around in that parallel dimension or over-showing [or never showing] the monster).
8. The cinematography is high-quality and used to startling effect. The CGI might be a tad disappointing at moments, but overall the special effects still worked.
9. The characters play homage to certain tropes, but their arcs are unique and satisfying. For example, in the group of boys there is no moron, only-there-for-laughs character. Each boy serves a distinct story and character-related purpose. Additionally, the teenage-love triangle does not go in the typical direction, instead opting for nuance and believability. Lastly, the bond between Mike and Eleven is real, including their kiss, not uncomfortably awkward like the young lust in Moonrise Kingdom.
10. Finally, the show is emotionally satisfying. There is hope and despair and love and friendship and grief and trauma and heroism and cowardice and devotion and self-sacrifice and all the complex mix of emotions that define what it means to be human. In particular, Chief Jim Hopper's arc (played by the wonderful David Harbour) is strikingly moving.
I could go on and on—and will for anyone who wants to listen—but this show rocks. I loved everything about it. I grew up with the works of Spielberg, King, and Carpenter, and this show brings all of my love for those works back without pandering or sentimentality.
Most reviewers have given approval to this show, but a repeated critique has been that the central mystery is not completely explained. I disagree. In fact, the show does not insult the audience by having a character explain in detail what the Bad Men have been up to—it shows us, gives us exactly what we need, and lets us make the conclusions.
I’m going to watch the entire season again, and here’s hoping work has started on Season Two.
Season Two premiers October 27, and my excitement is palpable.
Full confession: I've watched Season One four times, and I'm going to watch it once more before October 27th. Each viewing has been more satisfying than the previous. I feel the Duffer Brothers are friends I grew up with, and I delight in their homages to the defining works of my childhood and adolescence (the work of Spielberg, King, Carpenter, Scott, Dante, Cameron . . .).
The show has become a pop-cultural obsession, so I know it's not just me. There's a lot of us 80's kids out there . . . Still, though, it was a birthday present for me. Right?
I'm glad, however, so many people are reveling in it as well.
Watch the trailer for Season 2 here.
Authors Joe Hill and Waren Ellis have newsletters, which is why I thought it might be fun to have one, too, and they always promote the cool stuff other creators are producing.
Here's what's been getting me jazzed up lately (other than reading everything I can about Stranger Things Season 2 and simultaneously wishing I hadn't read anything):
What to watch:
It (in theaters)
A highly enjoyable adaptation of half of Stephen King's 1,000+ page 1986 epic story of a demonic clown. The child actors are worth the price of admission.
Baby Driver (rent or buy)
An absolute pleasure. The film is perfectly constructed and completely entertaining.
The West Wing (Netflix)
I've watched it before, but in these politically wacky times, I'm successfully convincing myself Jed Bartlet is my president.
The Big Sick (rent or buy)
A wonderfully well done romantic comedy that rises above the trappings of the genre to provide a real story of real people that will leave you feeling really good.
Gerald's Game (Netflix)
Not for the faint of heart, this perfect adaptation of Stephen King's 1992 novel works brilliantly as a psychological suspense story of a woman handcuffed to a bed, and it is (just like the novel) a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne.
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
The only news/politics (other than the fictionalized events on West Wing) I watch. Host John Oliver is the best, most insightful reporter/commentator I've ever heard. He's also charmingly hilarious.
What to Listen to:
Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Every track is phenomenal. This has been on repeat since his death.
Baby Driver Soundtrack
Watch the movie and you'll buy the soundtrack, as I did.
Gathering by Josh Ritter
Quite simply, one of my favorite singer/songwriters ever. Unbeatable lyrics and some kickass rock n' roll.
Texas Thunder Soul by Kashmere Stage Band
Thanks to Baby Driver, I discovered this funky jazz soul band that existed for a brief time in the late sixties and early seventies and consisted of high-school performers. Amazing.
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Sam Cooke
One of the best.
What to read:
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
A plague traps all the women in the world in permanent sleep. It doesn't take long for the men to really start screwing things up.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
A bit long in parts, but still an intriguing story of a boy, his mom, and a stolen painting. Some marvelous writing, too.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Want to know how bad things really are? Read this.
Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
My favorite work of Ellis', probably because it's an ode to horror stories served a la Stephen King.
Strange Weather by Joe Hill (pubbing 10/24)
Got my hands on an Advance Reader's Edition and devoured it (metaphorically). The first novella (there are four) is worth the cost of the book. It's set in the eighties and features a villain stalking a small suburban town who uses a Polaroid camera to steal people's memories. So, yeah, you can probably tell why I dig that sort of thing.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Are you creative? Want to be more so? Want permission to embrace that side of you? Read this.
Okay, that's (more than) enough from me. Send me comments or connect @authordileo.
Be well, be happy, and be kind.