Book recommendation: The Straw Men

Earlier in the summer, I started watching Intruders on BBC America.  It immediately hooked me because (1) Glen Morgan, from The X-Files, is a writer/executive producer on the show, and (2) it was weird.  Like, really weird – I had no idea what was going on for quite awhile.  It was also genuinely creepy – not in the kind of way where something jumps out at you, but an uneasy creepiness that stays with you and pops into your head at 2 a.m.

Anyway, I found out it was based on a book by the same title by a man named Michael Marshall Smith, who also writes as Michael Marshall.  I decided to try this author out by reading The Straw Men.  That was a good decision on my part.

How do I even explain what this book is about?  There are basically two simultaneous primary plotlines:  one follows an FBI agent and a former cop as they try to track down a serial killer whose made his first abduction in years.  The other follows an ex-CIA agent whose parents died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances.  Amazon labels The Straw Men as a thriller, in the categories of “serial killers” and “conspiracies.”  It’s so much more than that.  Like Intruders, there is a subplot lurking under each of the main storylines that just makes you feel uneasy.  When everything comes together at the end, it’s wonderful.  More than that, I was impressed at the depth of the characters.  I love psychological thrillers and crime dramas, but let’s be honest – characters tend to be somewhat cliched and often fairly shallow.  This book was different.  By the end of it, I wanted to know what happened next in the plot, but I also just wanted to keep following these characters around.

Luckily, Mr. Marshall wrote two more books in the Straw Men series, so that will be my next endeavor.

If you’re interested, you can buy it here:  Highly recommend.

Tackling writing distractions, part 1 – Other lingering ideas

Well, we are down to less than a week until NaNoWriMo! I think I’m going to stay up on Friday night and churn out some words at soon as the clock hits midnight (I know, I know – nerd alert). I’ve been less than enthusiastic about this upcoming month for a few reasons – delays in the self-publishing of my first book, getting a serious cold/infection that put me out of commission for awhile, etc. So, I’m trying to stay positive. One thing I’m definitely concerned about is handling distractions.

As weird as this might sound, I get easily distracted by other story ideas. I often have a few projects in process, and when I get bored with one, I’ll switch to another. I don’t want to do that during November, because I think it’s important to devote all my time to the NaNoWriMo project. But I already know that my other 4 outstanding projects are going to be lingering in the back of my mind, insisting that I write them.

I also get distracted by new ideas. New ideas pop up everywhere, and I love the process of developing an idea. Sometimes I think I like it better than actually writing, which is why I probably take so long to finish stories.

But not this month, fellow writers! This month, I’m vowing that I won’t let undeveloped, unwritten ideas distract me from completing my project. If an idea won’t go away, I’m going to write it down in my notebook, label it “December,” and put it away. Likewise, if I get an idea for a scene in an existing project, I’ll outline it in a few words and put it away.

What about you? What things distract you from finishing projects? And more importantly, how do we stop that?

Horror movies and the fear of the unknown

We’re nearing the end of October, and in addition to nearing the beginning of NaNoWriMo, we’re also getting closer to Halloween.  I love Halloween–if it were up to me, I would spend all day on Halloween eating candy and watching horror movies (unfortunately, work gets in the way this year).  I l’ve had an unhealthy love for horror movies since age 11.  Around that time, the movie Scream came out, and I watched it, despite the fact that I was way too young to see that movie.  It terrified me, but it also fascinated me.  I became obsessed with what scared people.  In fact, the first thing I remember writing to completion was a terrible yet awesome screenplay about a serial killer in the middle of nowhere.  I say “remember writing” because I can’t find any record of it on my computer – I probably deleted it during angry teenage years.  But I did find my second complete writing project, which was another screenplay, but this was more in the horror/comedy genre (think more Cabin in the Woods than Nightmare on Elm Street).

Wes Craven is quoted as saying, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”  I think he’s right, and I think there’s something very interesting about the underlying reasons why we watch horror.  Why do we like being scared?  It’s an adrenaline rush, forcing our minds to enter the fight or flight stage without any real sense of danger.  We can live vicariously through the hero’s fear and accomplishments, imagining ourselves in the central role, finally defeating evil.

And in addition to why we want to be scared, I think it’s interesting to examine what scares us.  I’m particularly thinking about this lately because of my upcoming project.  What is scary?  What truly terrifies us?  I’m not a huge fan of the recent torture porn genre (Saw, Human Centipede, etc), because these movies focus on shock value.  It’s not necessarily scary when Jigsaw sets up his latest puzzle – it’s just disgusting.  When we compare these more recent movies to classic horror movies–I’m thinking, for example, Halloween, Alien (and yes, this is a horror movie), The Thing, The Shining–there’s clearly something missing from the new crop.  In the classic movies, the biggest fear comes from the unknown.  In Halloween, there’s no explanation for what Michael Myers does what he does.  He’s just evil.  Where did the xenomorph come from?  Who knows.  Likewise, where did The Thing come from?  When Jack and Danny see things in the hotel, are they ghosts?  Is the hotel causing a hallucination?

Contrast that again with Saw – we don’t need to know Jigsaw’s back story to make the story better.  I would argue that it weakens the story’s impact.  Jigsaw goes from being an unknown entity to just being a really weird dude who once had a tumor.  Once the audience knows that, it lowers his status as a villain.  Again, compare with Michael Myers – what is he?  What is Jason?  Are they human?  Supernatural?  Just evil?  The lingering question is what haunts our nightmares.

The original Alien movies led to a discussion among fans about the origin of the xenomorphs.  Fans debated and theorized what was really going on with the “space jockey” on the crashed ship.  What was he doing with the eggs?  Were they weapons?  When it was first announced that Ridley Scott was making Prometheus, a quasi-prequel, fans, myself included, went crazy.  “Finally,” we shouted, “maybe some answers!”  But it turned out that the story in Prometheus didn’t satisfy a lot of fans.  It didn’t present a true origin story, and what answers it did provide were embedded in a story with a lot of holes (sidenote: I actually liked Prometheus and found it incredibly entertaining, but I understand its faults).  The take-away?  Again, sometimes giving audiences more back-story/answers doesn’t serve the ultimate story (another sidenote: I’m sure R. Scott would argue that Prometheus isn’t necessarily supposed to further the ultimate story of the Alien universe, but come on, man, you had a xenomorph burst out of an engineer at the end of the movie).

Today, a lot of movies and novels answer questions that nobody even asked. I think that when we’re writing, we should ask ourselves why we’re giving the audience answers.  Do they need the answers to further the story?  Could we withhold the answers and keep more mystery?  And is the answer one that the audience deserves?

What do you think about answering/not answering audience questions?  Do you think I’m completely off-base about recent horror movies?


Happy Tuesday everyone! I had a busy weekend, so I didn’t get much work done regarding my writing. I’m trying to make some more progress on a story of mine before diving into NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, it’s sort of taken a back burner to outlining and continuing to edit The Historian.

But I did make progress on my NaNoWriMo project: I came up with a title! Some writers wait and come up with titles after the project is completed, but I prefer to have a title up front. I tell myself that the title isn’t set in stone, and that I can always go back and change it if they title doesn’t end up reflecting the story at the end.

Coming up with a title for The Historian was fairly simple – after all, that story is truly about Emilia. As much as there are other questions to be answered, it’s ultimately a story of her journey.

So my title for this upcoming project? Into the Void.

Kind of ominous and weird, right? I think it reflects the general plot well (at least, the plot that I have so far). I think I may end up changing it, but for me, I hate seeing the word “untitled” on my draft. Titling a story makes it so much more real to me.

How do you come up with titles for your projects? Do you find that to be an important, or even necessary, part of your process?

NaNoWriMo: Preparation and Choices

In less than four weeks, November will be here, and with it, National Novel Writing Month!  As I’ve mentioned before, NaNoWriMo gets a lot of heat on the internet, and the consistent criticism I’ve seen is that it encourages participants to produce subpar products.  I have a couple problems with that critique, because I don’t think it’s fair.  It assumes that the writers participating in NaNoWriMo signed up on October 31st with no prior thought about their novel.  Maybe some of them did, but I seriously doubt that’s the bulk of the writers.  Second, it also assumes that working on the novel ends November 30th.  Completely untrue.  Anything that it thrown together in one month will be far from perfect – but the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to achieve perfection, it’s simply to finish.  Any writer who is serious about this endeavor knows that there is a lot more to do in December and the months beyond.

Let’s go back to the first assumption – that writers are jumping in with no preparation.  While I wouldn’t say that I did that last year, I was definitely not as prepared as I could have been.  I’m trying to fix that in 2014.  But before I can get to preparation, I face a more difficult dilemma: choice.

I have three projects that are currently in progress, and while I would love to continue on any of them, I know that the rules of NaNoWriMo say that I need to start something new.  I’m debating between two ideas.  One idea falls into the category of science fiction, while the other is more of a dark fantasy/horror.  The science fiction story, like the novel I wrote last year, involves time travel, so I’m a little reluctant to repeat that concept so soon (even though the plot is completely different).  The fantasy/horror story seems more challenging to me, because it will require a lot more worldbuilding, and because I don’t have a clear outline in my idea.  But I’ve been thinking about that one a lot more, and so I have a better grip on the characters.  I think I’m leaning toward the fantasy/horror story at this point, if for no other reason than that it’s writing in a new genre, but the concept of worldbuilding another dimension for this novel is terrifying.  None of my previous projects have required extensive worldbuilding – what if I’m terrible at it?  (Ah, there it is:  That quiet yet determined voice of criticism in the back of my head).

The answer to this problem is clear: preparation!  If I’m writing a fantasy novel that involves a different world, I need to sit down before November 1st and flesh out what that world looks like.  I can’t wake up on November 1st without the bones of the world built.  Just like I shouldn’t sit down to write without having my main character at least somewhat developed in my head, I shouldn’t sit down to write this story without a structure for its world.

What are you doing to prepare for NaNoWriMo?  Have you picked your story yet?  What factors did you consider in picking?

Defining Success and Failure

Putting yourself out there is scary in any case, but it’s especially terrifying when it’s something you truly love.  It was hard to tell my husband, my family, and even my close friends that I wrote a book and actually wanted to publish it.  I still haven’t told some of my close friends, and I haven’t let most people read it yet.  I mean no offense toward them by this – just the opposite.  There’s almost something less scary about giving your work to a stranger to evaluate.  If Bob Jones on the Internet doesn’t like what I wrote, who cares?  But if my mom or my best friends think this is complete crap, what does that say about the work and about me, as a writer and a person?  I think there is something in the back of my head that says if I fail as being a writer, it’s a strike against me as a person.

The first step toward changing this mindset is to redefine what failure and success are to us.  If we think that failure is failing to become a bestselling novelist, well–we’re probably going to fail.  Writing to get rich and famous probably isn’t going to work, just based on the odds.  If success only comes with a publishing deal at Big 5 company, again–maybe that won’t happen.

Of course, we should all strive to be the best at what we do. But when I went to law school, I didn’t define “successful” as going to Yale Law School, getting a Supreme Court clerkship, and then someday becoming the Attorney General. I couldn’t do that, because I would have been setting myself up to fail.  I defined success based on my own terms and my own interests.  I’m in the exact job that inspired me to go to law school, so I think that’s a slice of success.

So, why do we, as writers, let commercial success be a guiding post about whether we’re good or bad?  Maybe I’ll never have a publishing deal.  Maybe I’ll self-publish all of my work.  Maybe my mom won’t like it.  But here’s how I’m going to define success:  I can finish an entire project (done!), clean that project as well as I can (pending!), and hold a printed copy of that book in my hands (soon!).  I want to adjust my lifestyle so that I’m making time every day to write a little bit, and I want people–even if they’re people I know–to read my ideas and evaluate them.

Success doesn’t have to writing the next great American novel.  Success can be as little as one person reading and enjoying your work.


Welcome to my WordPress site.  I’m not too technologically inclined, so for now, this will have to be sufficient.

Why do you need a WordPress site, you ask?  Later this fall, I will be publishing my first book (!), The Historian (coming soon to Amazon).  This site will serve as a resource for that book, as well as future projects.

Speaking of future projects, you should all know what is right around the corner – National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  NaNoWriMo gets a lot of hate from bloggers around the internet, most of whom complain that it pushes out crappy products.  No first draft is a masterpiece, and to me, it’s more important that writers just get out there and write – and NaNoWriMo is a wonderful motivator for that.  I participated last November, and I also participated in Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July.  Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I like structure.  You can look forward to posts about the challenges and rewards of the month.

So, sorry there isn’t too much content yet, but I hope that will change in the future.  You can also find me on Twitter: @racheliswriting.

Talk soon,