Thursday, January 31, 2008


As writers, we are completely aware of foreshadowing. The rule of thumb, especially in crime stories: if you put a gun on the table, be prepared to use it; and if you make more than one reference to something, you better explain its importance. I made this mistake one time in writing a short story about a young woman who returned home to visit a younger sister on her thirteenth birthday. Set in the 1800s, I introduced my character in the early morning hours before sunrise, as she rode through the valley in a horse-drawn cart, a common travel bag at her side. My error came when I mentioned the bag again, and then again, but never mentioned its contents. One of my readers was annoyed that I never revealed what she took with her. At the time, I thought it was a petty comment, given that the story was about so much more. Now, I realize that I could have saved my reader all the questions had I mentioned the bag only once and then left it alone. As a result of my inept skill, she anticipated some sort of foreshadowing, or at least some importance assigned to the bag, and then found disappointment when I didn’t produce.

The same holds true for me. While reading Madame Bovary, one scene struck me immediately. It involved a chemist, who scolded his son for the negligent oversight regarding the presence of arsenic. Once I came across that detail, I waited patiently for the poison to reappear. Thankfully, Flaubert didn’t disappoint me as the story drew closer to the end.

I must say that Madame Bovary has been one of the best, if not the best, of the Classics that I have ever read. The story, while tragic, touches on so many things that I feel are still important today. People tend to loose themselves these days in so much fantasy that they can’t see the real world in front of them. Sadly, they make unwise choices in their pursuits of Wanderlust. There are probably countless novels with the same theme, but Flaubert raised the issue beautifully with the person of Emma. Personally, I think this book should be a must-read for all young kids in their senior year of high school--or college, at the very least.

The book also reminds me of one of the Ten Commandments laid down by John Dufresne in his great book on writing, The Lie That Tells A Truth: Thou Shalt Confront The Human Condition (Commandment #9). In his novel, Flaubert confronts Emma's condition with care and precision. The reader is left with no doubt as to why she behaves so badly, why she so quickly falls into her affairs, and how she learns what everyone else should learn through her example--mainly that happiness doesn’t come with a pair of glass slippers. You can’t buy it, and you can’t find it through spending beyond your means. In tackling the issues, though, Flaubert doesn’t lay judgment down on Emma, or on her lovers; instead, he presents their cases, without any unnecessary Shakespearian justice applied against all, and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. As writers, it's not our job to hold court. It's only our job to write the story and let it go where it will (if that's what it wants).

Before I close this entry, I’ll include one more thing on the subject of foreshadowing. One week ago, I went to bed feeling fatigued with aches in my joints and lower back. I should have seen then what was coming, but I didn’t. A night’s rest brought no reprieve and Friday morning found me calling into the office sick. By Saturday, I was bedridden, and I didn’t get out of bed until Monday morning when I finally dragged myself off to the doctor’s office. As it turned out, I had a classic case of the Flu, which hit me harder than anything I have had in recent memory and left me totally incapacitated. You know you’re sick when you don’t even want to do the things that you love--like reading and writing. There was even this point where I wondered if this was how Mozart died: coughing and wheezing, moaning and groaning, all while waiting for the Angel of Death to take his hand. Strange, I know. But that’s what happened. Oh well. As they say in gay ol’ Paris: C’est la vie! I’m just glad to still be among the living.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Truthfully, it is a little unnerving to finally step out and let the world see what I really look like. Since I started blogging (even before that, actually), I've included a portrait of a brooding gorilla as my avatar, letting the picture become my surrogate personality. Doing so provided an element of security: it's not me they are rejecting, I told myself; it's the ape.

I remember the first time I purchased a Douglas Adams book: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. On the back cover (if memory serves me correctly), there was this photo of a man whose face had been melted and smeared like some freak show in a house of wax. Like his rather strange stories, the photo only deepened the sense of some mystery to the man behind the words. At the time, I thought it was rather cool. Mayber there was something of that for me, too, in using the avatar. As immature as it sounds, I liked the idea of cloaking myself in a shroud of mystery.

Sooner or later, though, most writers choose to face the public eye, open up and let the readers see the man behind the curtain. For me, that time has come. Gone is the angry gorilla; gone is the strange moniker of "Dostxbook", which I created some time back and has no real significance to anyone but me. I will continue to use it, though, for all my friends on the WD Forums.

Included with the idea of anonymity, using a psuedonym for my writing once held a pretty strong possibility. There are some, like Samuel Clemens, who keep their psuedonyms through the remainder of their writing lives. And while I currently choose to try publishing under my own name, I acknowledge there are good reasons for having a psuedonym. One reason is that some writers work in separate markets (e.g. in both romance and crime) and don't want to confuse their readership. One example is that of Nora Roberts, who is also J.D. Robb. Looking back through the publishing credits of Dean Koontz novels, I found that he wrote under several names before re-publishing all of his works under his birth name. For me, part of the reason behind using a psuedonym was to avoid any disappointment from family. What will they think when they read what I write? Over the last year, however, I think I have shucked off that shirt, and decided to write what I write best. Let my family think what they may.

So, here I am--for good or bad. And below is a picture of me at the office. This is the boring, accountant I refer to in my profile. Obviously, someone needs to powder the top of my head.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words, felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Right now, I am sixty pages into this classic literary novel. Personally, I am not fond of Flaubert’s writing style, which, using countless words and paragraphs in the process, relies more on telling than showing during the course of the story. However, I am impressed by his achievement in setting up and dealing with a very interesting issue when it comes to love and marriage: unsatisfied expectations.

In a previous posting, I addressed the issue of motivation. In that posting, I inserted the following passage by Lois J. Peterson: “If [the character] is pursuing something as specific as a new watch, a job or a trophy, identify the bigger need it represents.”

In the case of Madame Bovary, Flaubert efficiently identifies Emma’s bigger need of romance in the excerpt above; the next chapter, which immediately follows this sentence, then explores in great detail all the reasons behind her need. Growing up, she spent some time in a convent, under the tutorship of nuns. It was during this time that Emma discovered books, where she then learned of different landscapes, animals and social classes. In her readings, she developed a Cinderella ideal regarding love and marriage, believing more in the written page than in the real events of life itself. She suffers from the same malady expressed by Neal Simon in Biloxi Blues: people tend to believe what they read. If someone went to so much trouble to write it, then it must be true. With writing, then, comes responsibility. The same can be said regarding the act of reading.

Unfortunately for Emma, Charles Bovary is on the opposite end of her ideal spectrum. In time, dissatisfaction draws her eyes to the world around her. As a result, comparison sets up court and opens an intellectual dialogue in her heart, which is evidenced by the following passage:

She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one.

While I have much more to read, I can’t help but anticipate that Emma’s unrealized expectations will motivate her future actions in the story. And while her unrealized expectations concern love and romance, as a motivator the same issue can affect people in other aspects of their lives.

During an interview, the new employee, an aging single mother of three, sees the bright and cheery side of her prospective boss. However, it only takes a few months--after the employment honeymoon is over--for her to see the evil Mr. Hyde behind the mask of the good Dr. Jekyll. Every day brings a new assault on her intelligence and her values. What once seemed like the answer to her prayers has now taken a turn for the worse, and she desperately begins looking for a way out. But it’s a new job. Looking for something else so soon will only look bad for her. As a result, she considers an opportunity to have a new boss, but keep the same job. Maybe she sabotages him by revealing that he’s having an affair with the department head of human resources, a single woman with platinum blonde hair and a cute little figure. It isn’t true, of course, but haven’t they shared one too many lunch hours together? She decides it is just plausible enough to serve her purpose. And while the HR department head will be collateral damage, she’s young and can more easily find another job.

A happy couple buy into their first house, and then the unspeakable happens. A convicted sex offender buys the house next door. This isn’t supposed to happen, is it? Whatever happened to living happily ever after? And how can they have children when a monster lives just over the fence? They can’t sell. Who wants to buy a house next to a sex offender? They can’t rent for the same reasons. But what if something were to happen--something like an auto accident? The fool does ride a motorcycle, after all. And aren’t motorcycles dangerous? Sooner or later, everyone has to lay it down. Why not make it sooner?

Setting up the unrealized expectation should be easy. Reading the local newspaper--a daily blotter of disappointment, these days--will give an author plenty of ideas. How the character responds to the unrealized expectation, how he struggles to achieve Nirvana, and at what cost, can make up the heart of a good literary story.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


While reading Paranoia, an intriguing novel by Joseph Finder, I came to an alarming scene where Adam Cassidy, the protagonist, attaches a piece of hardware called a KeyGhost to the back of his supervisor’s computer in order to track her keystrokes, thus gaining access to her security codes so he could hack into her sensitive files. In the book, Adam is engaged in corporate espionage, working in one company as a spy for another company, trying to gain intelligence into a purported “skunkworks” program. However, as a reader I soon started asking the question: Is this real technology? It better be, or Joseph Finder has just lost credibility because his novel is not a futuristic tale.

Doing a quick fact-check on the internet, as well as asking questions of some techno-gurus, I found that not only is the technology very real, it is also easily obtainable. Attaching something like this to a laptop might be more noticeable, but what about a desktop where the box is located under someone's desk and the device wouldn't run as high a risk of discovery? I couldn’t help but go into the office and check my own computer. Whew! Nothing there. Not that I have anything to hide, mind you, but I want to know if someone is trying to spook on me. That way I can give them their money’s worth, give them some really juicy keystrokes.

So another question comes to mind: What are other reasons to attach such a device to someone’s computer?

For the paranoid, delusional boss, he may want to verify whether an employee is devoted to him or is involved in subversive activities. For the leader of Team A, she may want to uncover what Team B is working on so she can either present the idea first or sabotage it. For the IT department, they may be tracking keystrokes to an employee’s “chat room” discussions, building a case to discreetly dismiss the employee--no muss, no fuss. The list goes on, with as many reasons, I suppose, as the world has people.

Reading a lot has its benefits. First off, it helps to develop the mind and improve the focus--especially when you are trying to connect the dots and discover the truth before the author reveals it. Secondly, it educates the reader on what is happening out there in the world. Without reading a book like Paranoia, it might have been years before I would have known about this technology. Also, it helps to gain an understanding of people. I’m not naïve enough to say, “That doesn’t happen in the real world.” Just by the existence of a KeyGhost device, it tells me that what the author reveals in the book is a very real aspect in espionage--corporate or otherwise. Why a person would use the device, though, is worth the exploration … which leads character, which leads to a plot, which leads to a novel.

So, how many of you will be checking the back of your computer now?

Be warned: Companies don’t have to use hardware to track their employees; they can use software, too!

Thursday, January 3, 2008


The master, Mr. Dobbins, had reached middle age with an unsatisfied ambition. The darling of his desires was to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

I remember a comment my pastor made while sitting in a men’s group. If he was to write a book about men, he would write about the quiet anger of frustrated hearts. At the time, I had only a small notion of what he meant; years later, I understand.

It is a fact of life that every child will encounter the same age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? There is no getting around it, as they say. While sitting in church years ago, I listened as the pastor’s wife asked a group of children about their plans. Aside from those who had no higher ambition than to be a Power Ranger, you could tell by the answers the jobs their parents held--airplane pilot, lawyer, doctor. Just this last year, my seven-year-old, looking for admiration, said that he wants to be both a nurse and a CPA. Those are noble professions, I told him, though wishing to share that accounting is not an altogether glamorous calling.

As children, we tend to want recognition, to be the hero. We want to be the Sheriff while playing Cowboys and Indians; we want to be Robin Hood; we want to be Babe Ruth, pointing to the bleachers with a determined finger. These days, I’m sure that some boys want to be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But what happens when, as poor Mr. Dobbins found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, our social class or environment pigeonholes us into something less than our goals. Not in America, you say? Not in a country where the sky is the limit and anything is possible? Au contraire, mon frère. Take a walk through the poverty stricken neighborhoods, see the generations of people who have been sucked into a vortex of malaise, where parents are so depressed that they can see nothing better for their children. Venture into the middle class, and take a look at capable men and women who, for lack of political skills, have already petered-out, passed over for the darlings who can drink beer and talk a good game. The truth is, it happens all the time.

So, the question for writers is: how does a person respond to quashed desires? Frustration and resentment are two such possibilities. A lineman at a General Motors plant may spend his day planning for ways to foul up the system--just one more way of sticking it to the man, as the commercial says. Another lonely soul may turn to violence, an act of justification and retribution. Or a bottle of whiskey may be the answer for a man who wants to feel better and seeks Jack Daniel’s version of anesthetic to numb the pain in his soul.

Whatever the reaction, the motive behind the action (as mentioned in my last post) is the target that writers need to focus upon. Understanding even the smallest detail of an “unsatisfied ambition” can make for a deeper, well-rounded character.