A Head Full Of Ghosts

You can’t go wrong with a recommendation by Stephen King, and that’s why I picked up A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay -- plus it seemed right for the Halloween season. Those of you who know me know I don’t review books I don’t like, so this is an automatic recommendation. But it’s less about a rating of stars and more about how it made me feel.  Creepy and disturbing are both apt descriptions. There were times I felt, however, it was too clever for its own good, and I almost stopped reading about half-way through, thinking it was too much a play on the oft-referenced THE EXORCIST, in a way that the SCREAM movies are so self-aware.

I also went into this book with a mistaken idea that it was a horror novel. In my view, it is not (unless you consider, as I do, that human nature can be filled with horrors of the very natural kind.) A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS is a psychological drama, albeit a creepy one, and if you strip away the architecture of the plot, it’s really about memory and identity. Minor spoiler alerts ahead.

This is what I loved (as it’s told from an adult looking back on her childhood): it seemed as if anyone who has ever been in therapy could relate to the thematic premise of what happened back then? Why did the adults in my life act the way they did? How can love and hate and terror all circle our lives? And most of all: who am I after all that has happened? Those themes resonate loudly in my own work, and naturally, I found them in A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS. Maybe it wasn’t the author’s intention, but that’s what haunted me after I turned the final page. It’s a book that doesn’t give easy answers and no neatly-tied-up ending. But for me, those are the books I love. The book lingers. I tried to identify the feeling, and I was left with the idea that no matter how much we try to understand, some things will never be understood. Check out A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS. It’ll be worth your time.

James Morris is the author of the young adult thriller WHAT LIES WITHIN and the New Adult alternate history novel MELOPHOBIA.

Why Writing is Like the Martial Arts

I studied Chinese kenpo karate for over 14 years, finally earning my Black Belt in 2007. I spent years doing drills, sparring, learning to punch and taking punches. Often, the drills were repetitious until my reactions became second nature. I left blood, sweat and tears on the mat. For better or worse, I often earned bruises, pulled muscles and injuries along the way.

And yet, I kept coming back to that community of martial artists, of people gathering to learn a skill which probably had no practical purpose in the real world. No punch stops a bullet. But facing my fears? Learning to control my body? To live in my body and more in the moment? Priceless.

When I earned my Black Belt, my sensei told me something I’ve always remembered: that being a Black Belt didn’t mean I was the best, for if that were the case there would only be a single Black Belt in the entire world at a time. Being a Black Belt meant the journey to mastery had only just begun.

I think of writing the same way.

So many people when they start any martial arts training often ask: how long until I’m a Black Belt?

So many people when they start writing often ask: how long until I get an agent? How long until I get published?

Does the answer really matter?

Yes, it does, you say! To paraphrase Veruca Salt from
“Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory:” I want to publish, and I want it now!

Some of my peers are millionaires and they’ve created TV shows or films you’ve probably watched. Others of us work just as hard, but have day jobs to pay the bills. Yet, the craft and the work remains the same.

Do martial artists learn their art to beat people up? Or do they do it because it gives expression to something deep within?

Do writers write solely to become rich? Or do they write because they love it?

I spent years honing my writing before I ever earned a single cent. I worked as an assistant in TV development reading scores of scripts, absorbing how television shows were structured and paced. I listened to writers who pitched their shows, and I saw which shows my bosses eventually bought, and the reasons why. I took screenwriting classes at UCLA Extension, turning in pages and taking critiques. And I was lucky to find a mentor who encouraged me when I was despondent (a writer’s frequent companion, I would learn).

Even today, I don’t show anyone my earlier work – the earlier work, which at the time I was convinced was excellent. I know now it wasn’t. But I do think of it as a necessary stepping stone, as I needed to write badly in order to grow.

And though I’m a published writer with two books WHAT LIES WITHIN and MELOPHOBIA, a writer with produced television episodes on my resume, and maybe to some a “Black Belt,” I am still learning. There is no Best. There is only persistence, patience, a willingness to learn, and especially the ability to take criticism. In the martial arts, that criticism is often immediate and painful. Oh, you think, I should’ve blocked that; in writing, the criticism comes from teachers or trusted readers who say: this part of the story doesn’t make sense.

In karate, we practiced what were sometimes dull drills, repeating them over and over. The same may be true of writing. Grammar itself is often dull! But it’s the building block for any sentence, which grows into a paragraph, which becomes a chapter, and then a story.

And I learned in karate that the most dangerous thing was never anything physical: it was the ego. The ego, which wants to fight over stupid words. The ego, which needs to defend itself against all sorts of meaningless threats.

The same goes for writing.

Yes, stay true to yourself. Stay true to your voice. But learn to listen, even to those scathing reviews. There might be the smallest seed of instruction hidden within.

Or maybe, just maybe, like the middle fingers flicked on the freeways, you take a deep breath, allow the moment to pass, and realize what’s important: getting back to the mat; getting back to the page, and practicing your art.

Coming Soon: Melophobia

Melophobia means “fear or hatred of music.”  Who knew there was even such a term? It’s also the title of my second book from Kindle Press, available on September 22.

Though it may seem to readers that I pumped out a second book in record time (my first, WHAT LIES WITHIN, was published in June by Kindle Press) that is certainly not the case. WHAT LIES WITHIN may have been my first published novel, but it was actually the third one I wrote.

MELOPHOBIA was the second, and I wrote a first draft of the manuscript about 4 years ago. I queried agents, but no dice. I was repeatedly told that “books about music” didn’t sell. And so it sat. Disappointed, I set it aside and began working on WHAT LIES WITHIN. That book subsequently got me an agent, and the rest is history (such as it is).

While WHAT LIES WITHIN was going through the copyediting process, I picked up MELOPHOBIA and dusted it off. I like to think I’ve become a better writer with each book, and I attacked it with a vengeance. I tweaked, cut, and expanded. I breathed life into scenes, and scaled back others. I also tracked down and purchased the rights to use a few song lyrics, which I felt were crucial for a story set in a world where music is illegal.

And though the subject matter takes place in an alternate history, I think it speaks to our lives now. It’s been called New Adult suspense, and I guess that helps put it in a category. I’d rather call it a story about identity, about a young woman who has to decide what’s important in her life and what path to choose. Kind of like us all, really.

Every parent loves their children equally, but maybe in different ways. I love MELOPHOBIA because it’s the book that refused to die; it’s the book that defied the publishing Powers That Be; and it’s a book with a ton of heart. I’m its parent, and of course, I love it. But I think you will, too. It’s on pre-sale now, and it goes wide on September 22. My birthday is on the 26th, so I’ll take that as an early b-day gift!

The Beauty of Annihilation

I usually don’t do book reviews. It’s hard to critique another writer’s work because I know that behind every book – no matter the end result – was a soul doing his or her best. So I generally keep my thoughts to myself, and try to learn what went right or wrong in a book in order to hone my own craft.

But it’s easy to review a book you loved, and such is the case for Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION from his Southern Reach trilogy. Now, I don’t know Jeff, and he doesn’t know me.

I initially heard of the trilogy through the entertainment website Deadline Hollywood, where I learned the book was being made into a movie by one of my favorite directors Alex Garland (I LOVED “Ex-Machina”) that may star Natalie Portman as the Biologist.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of synopses. There is something that sounds so cheesy about many of them. This, of course, includes even my own synopsis for WHAT LIES WITHIN. I remember hearing about “E.T.” as a boy (yes, I’m dating myself here), and I thought, It’s a story about an alien that was left behind? DUMB. And yet, later, I bawled through it, over and over. A movie about a shark that terrorizes a tourist coastal town? RIDICULOUS. Unless it’s “Jaws.”

I had the same initial reaction to reading the synopsis of ANNIHILATION. “Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization.” And so an expedition is sent in, the twelfth. I thought, What is this? “Lost” meets “Alien”?  UGH.

But I like to know what books are being made into movies (so that I don’t inadvertently work for a year on a novel, only to realize far too late that it’s too much like a movie in production.)

So I bought the book.

And immediately, I was sucked in. The language is sumptuous, detailed, and VanderMeer has a way of creating a total sense of unease. In fact, the whole time I read it, I was gripped with a sense of anxiety. I gulped the novel down in about two days, and the story owned me. It’s the kind of book where nothing else matters – not answering the phone, surfing the Internet, nothing. I was completely caught in its spell.

And like all great books, it breaks rules. These characters aren’t necessarily likeable; there’s no “Save the Cat” moment in the beginning (Hollywood-speak for making a main character likeable by literally having him or her saving a cat at the beginning of  a story). The characters don’t even have names, but are referred to by their function: Linguist, Biologist, Psychologist, etc. It makes sense in the world of the story, but talk about not being able to bond with your characters as a reader. And yet, it works beautifully.

I had no idea where the story was going; the plot moves along, with twists and turns, and reveals, and though (spoiler alert) I felt that the main character waiting to read the diary was a writer’s convenience, it’s a very minor flaw in the overall scheme of the book. The story and characters transported me to a new world.

This is not a novel that panders to the reader. Though it’s easy to read, it’s not “easy reading.” It asks questions and doesn’t readily answer them. If you’re easily frustrated or need every piece answered, this book is not for you. But if you love a mystery, a mystery that submerges you into a texture of the unknown, leaving you wanting more, then this book is most definitely for you.

After I finished, I immediately purchased the follow-up AUTHORITY. Lesson learned, once again: never judge a book by its synopsis. 

In Celebration of Goodreads

I’ve been a reader my whole life, and books are as necessary to me as a toothbrush and clean underwear. But after a career writing for television, I assumed (at least in the circles I swam in) that no one read. Not really. In the world of television, it’s more about What are you watching? Did you see that episode of such-and-such? Very little is said about books unless they happen to make the leap into being made into movies or a TV series. And it’s not because Los Angeles is filled with vapid people; understandably, executives and writers in the entertainment industry spend their days reading scripts, which is very different than reading novels.

So, when I wrote my first novel WHAT LIES WITHIN, and it was published via Kindle Press, I was both exhilarated and sad. Exhilarated for obvious reasons, but sad because I assumed that reading was going the way of newspapers – that only a small niche of the population actually read when compared to all the other options available: video games, movies, TV, surfing the ‘net, or a multitude of other diversions.

I’d read over and over about the Decline of Reading and how people like watching videos on Facebook over reading text. Until I discovered (late, to be sure) Goodreads. I found a community there that spans the globe of active, engaged, passionate readers; individuals with strong opinions about the work writers put forth. It astounded me. It invigorated me. Writing novels might never make me rich, but here was a community that appreciated the written word over film-and-TV’s passive spectacle. Seriously, how beautiful is that magical symbiosis between reader and writer?

And yet, I was warned again and again by fellow writers: do not engage. As if the readers there were the enemy, rather than co-operative imaginative partners. True, I’ve heard of authors acting like pouty gods on the Mount in the face of a poor review, or some reviewers taking too much glee in dishing out scathing sarcasm, but I have a fundamental belief that people are essentially good. Most people, at least.

I’ve had nothing but positive experiences so far. (Mind you, I didn’t say all positive reviews: I wish!) But I’ve treated my readers with respect, and I like to think they reciprocate. As for reviews that may sting the ego, well, it only shows how subjective and individual the reading experience is. The same book will draw reactions from love to hate. The very same book! Not everyone likes me, and I certainly don’t like everyone, either. So how can anyone expect the same from a single book?

And if I’m honest with myself: some reviews have pointed out things I may keep in mind with future projects. So I welcome Goodreads and its readers who make the writing worthwhile.