Archive for November, 2007

I had one of those moments where I doubted myself as a writer today.

No, it wasn’t insecurity, it was a question of calling. I was on my way home from the store today with a half tonne of groceries whose future included a mango salsa and guacamole. Yes, I know it’s December Eve and mangoes and avocados aren’t to be had without a price. Still, I make these things well, and seeing as we’re having a small army into our small apartment (I keep thinking it’s around 60 people but it’s probably closer to 25 or so) it fell to me to provide some of the edible entertainment. It’s the least I can do since I’ll have the girls out and about with me while Suze plays hostess.

It’s a long story. The parents of sixth graders are pulling together a support group to help us all get through the tween years, and perhaps beyond. The meeting places rotate and Suze volunteered when someone else fell through. Better to get our turn out of the way up front, I guess.

Fortunately others are bringing other food and drink because having to actually feed a large crowd a week after Thanksgiving seemed a bit daunting. But at Thanksgiving I was asked to make stuffing for a platoon of a family gathering, followed up the next night with a double-family sized portion of what is becoming my famed macaroni and five cheese.

It was while riding my bike home in the near-freeze that my brain actually tripped and wondered if I hadn’t missed my calling in a kitchen. Do I have a talent for it or just an affinity? I do enjoy food, and there’s something meditative about the process (when I have time), and I like hunting down the slightly unusual recipe. And because I’m a guy that makes me slightly unusual. And it makes me wonder if I should have considered a different path instead of writing.

And then I start in the kitchen and I think “I can do this on small scale, and on a larger scale every once in a while, but not every day; writing I could do every day.”


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Why are guys afraid to shop?

How will boys learn to shop if they don’t see grown men shop?

Why don’t boys browse bookstores and shop the same way women and girls do?

How does “the market” know what boys want if (a) boys don’t know how to ask for it (b) boys don’t know how to shop for it and (c) it’s bought for boys but not by boys?

Yes, the retail season is upon us, and the statistics still hold: 98% of adult shoppers in our children’s bookstore are female and easily half of the books they’re buying are for boys. Oh, but they want something special for the boy, something he will enjoy.

I suggest I’m the Biggest Thing In the Ocean; they want Velveteen Rabbit.

I suggest the Sports Illustrated Almanac for 2008; they prefer Treasure Island.

I suggest some adventure, like Into the Wild; they would rather give something “meaningful” like the Kingfisher Collection of Poetry to Be Read Aloud.

People. I have no qualms with you wanting a gift of a book to be special, something that can have meaning down the road, but lets face facts: all your best efforts are turning boys off from reading more than anything else. Worse, if you are a female adult at least ten years older than the boy in question, and you insist on pressing your ideas about what constitutes a good book onto a boy, you are guaranteeing that the boy will never trust a woman to recommend a book to him.

Think about it. You’re a child — you can pick any age that you prefer to imagine — and it’s the holiday season. You get some time off from school, you get to see relatives and loved ones you don’t see often, there are holiday specials on television, you don’t have bills, you don’t have a job, and you’ve got a few years before you even understand what it means to be a responsible citizen in the world.

Now, what kind of a book do you want?

Don’t let your adult self answer, let your inner child speak. You’ve got all the time in the world, and for the sake of argument let’s say you’d love nothing more than to sit around and read your way from meal to meal, sunup to sundown. What do you really want?

One year, when I was that boy, I got a two-foot tall stack of collected Peanuts comics, the digest-sized ones. My parents were poor and the books were used and I couldn’t have cared less. I had days worth of reading and I re-read those books a brazillion times.

Another year I received from a female relative a collection of Australian aboriginal tales, boringly retold by a white man with dull paintings by another white man. I think I eventually got around to reading a few of the stories after I finished college.

One family friend — a librarian no less — bought me a field guide for rocks and minerals one year (I never collected or expressed an interest in geology, ever) and followed it up the next year with Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Oy! I’d have much preferred my own copy of Martin Gardner’s Perplexing Puzzlers and Tantalizing Teasers, a book I checked out from my local library a dozen times a year I think. But nobody ever asked me what I was reading, no one ever asked me what I was checking out at the library, no one asked me if I even wanted a book on rocks or birds.

So I meandered a bit, but here’s the crux of the biscuit. Women know how to shop in general but not necessarily for the men in their lives; men and boys haven’t got a clue and until they know what and how they will always find themselves with the crappy end of the stick. Somehow men learn how to buy things like cars and sports equipment so I know it’s possible for them to learn what they like and how to shop for it.

Parents of the world, teach your boys how to shop and to know what they like!

And buy them lots of books, the kind they will actually read.

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As in, rolling it uphill instead of down.  It grows, it gets heavier to move, I let it go for a moment and I feel like I have to start all over again from the bottom.

I’m talking about a lot of things here: my blog posting, my reading schedule, my YA novel manuscript, my life in general.  I’m not complaining that there’s too much, or too much to do, but that I don’t feel like I ever get anything over the top so that it starts running downhill on its own.

And school is starting up soon.  Soon enough.  I’ll have finished the first residency sixty days from now.  We’ll be staring down the first presidential primaries sixty days from now.  The holidays will be a glowing ember of a memory sixty days from now.  I’ll be trying to finalize my graphic novel selection for the Cybils sixty days from now.  That’s two surreal months away.  I tell myself “That’s excitement that’s gnawing away at ya!” so I don’t get it confused with blind panic.

I’m torn with what to read these days as well.  I have my review books, and the books I want to read, but I also have the recommended titles for school, I’ll have a couple hundred pages of fellow student samples to read as well, plus I’ve got people telling me that I need to get all my “adult” reading out of the way because once I’m at VC it’s all kidlit all the time.


I suppose there are worse things in life to be plagued by.

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When I saw a blog post over at Powells.com about this series of books featuring in-depth uberfan-written examinations of key music albums in history, well, it was hook meet fish. The idea of book-length essays discussing key moments in musical history from the 60s, 70s, 80’s (and to a lesser extent the 90s) exactly like what I feel is missing from middle grade and YA non-fiction.

Parents and grandparents can pass down the personal predilections, but the music itself is an artifact out of place; it’s one thing to appreciate the early Bob Dylan but without context how can you explain what a break from style and tradition the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was without discussing the Dylan-goes-electric controversy. Not to take away from the work of more contemporary artists, but “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is clearly an early forerunner to rap and hip-hop (complete with video). My guess is there aren’t many adults who can share that with kids who might be interested in Bob’s music.

Here now we have a small press that is filling a gap so wide I’m surprised o one else has really seen it. The idea was to let fans give a personal, in-depth analysis of a specific album in an artists oeuvre and give it a place, a purpose, a meaning, a reason for what makes it exemplary. What’s more interesting are the album choices. Some are obvious pinnacles in an artist’s or group’s career — The Pixies Doolittle, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds — while others make their case for more difficult, less commercial, or just plain unique presentation — Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces.

Curious, and prodded by a buy-two-get-one-free offer at Powells, I took the bait and called up three titles whose albums I knew like the back of my hand (musically at least) so I could get a sense on where the series was coming from: The Beatles Let It Be, David Bowie’s Low, and Steely Dan’s Aja.

Steely Dan’s Aja by Don Breithaupt

It was a good thing I bought three and didn’t get just this one, because if I had I might have made the mistake that they were all like this volume and I wouldn’t have written about this series at all. You have to understand, this might be the best technically written examination of any Steely Dan product in the known universe, but it was written by a music geek for music geeks who understand composition, music theory, and the nuts and bolts of jazz right down to its modal chord progressions. Even for fans, the Dan have always been morbidly obtuse, but the music can be appreciated without a degree in music from Berklee or a PhD in cultural anthropology.

It can be difficult when you bring along your personal baggage to someone else’s party, and for me with Aja that baggage is heavy. The summer that Aja was released my closest friend Pete and I hung out at my girlfriend Laura’s house listening to that album endlessly while planning films we would and would not get around to making. The way Mozart can have an effect on the learning and retention of information for young children, Aja was like a creative elixir that seemed to be feeding something inside our 16 year old brains. It could have been the heady mix of accessible jazz and raging hormones that made us write a 25 minute silent slapstick comedy adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, shoot another couple weekends worth of cut-out animation a la Monty Python, and send prank letters to our “mortal enemy” who was off leading a Boy Scout camp that summer. We would listen to that album in silence sometimes before finally flipping the sides, starting over and getting down to business. In fact, on the rare occasions when Laura was home (and where was she anyway?) she kept a daily diary of our film-to-be and only one entry was noted simply as “did NOT listen to Aja today.”

From that perspective it would be easy for me to fill a book that would delve into the essence of the Dan on the teenage psyche, when our taste for bland pop wasn’t easily or comfortably sated by the emerging punk and new wave music but by a pair of articulate throwbacks to another era. While the other outsider kids were eating up the beat generation we had the Dan teaching us hipster sex slang and leading us to Charlie Parker. There was a kid named Larry who, at the end of that school year, joked about how we’d all be totally into rock and roll until we got married or turned 30, whichever came first, and then we’d mellow out to jazz. “Except for you Steely Dan fans, who are going to be the ones telling us what we should be listening to because you’ll have been there all along.”

While it is true that the jazz runs deep and thick throughout the later efforts of Steely Dan it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on without being schooled. In that sense it falls into the “you-know-it-when-you hear-it” category, as Breithaupt’s book very quickly points out because without that schooling you’ll never really get what he lays down. Song after song, track after track, chords and chord progressions are striped-searched to the point where it might as well be a textbook of modern math. Nine years of playing the viola didn’t come close to preparing me for what I was reading and so I found myself skimming over whole sections looking for the nuggets that would feed me what I wanted.

What I wanted, what I think many Dan fans want, is the impossible; clear, concise answers to the lyrical and musical inspirations of the Dan core, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Cryptic and elusive, Becker and Fagen have made a life’s game out of shutting the doors and throwing misinformation out the windows to the fans. It isn’t necessarily a hatred of fandom and fame — though it sometimes can come off as arrogance — but an operational ethic that basically says “We do what we do, you either like it or you don’t.” What I wanted was a book that could never be written.

To that end I give Breithaupt high marks for writing the book that could be written, that lays down the law and breaks it. I’m willing to guess no other album in this series of equal or greater popularity could have withstood the mechanical scrutiny of Breithaupt’s analysis. Cold, yet informed, he marks every segment of the album’s DNA and shows you how it was constructed.

But even all that science can’t explain why I wore through two copies during the summer of 1978.

David Bowie’s Low by Hugo Wilcken

I’m feeling it here, as Wilcken examines the first in Bowie’s mythical “Berlin trilogy” of albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger). Stepping back he sets the scene by showing us a coked-out Bowie in LA working his Station To Station mojo and running down the significance of that particular time in Bowie’s life. It’s here that he hooks up with his buddy Jim Osterberg (Iggy Pop to the rest of us) and they dash off to tour the world before hunkering down in France to begin work almost simultaneously on Bowie’s Low and Iggy’s solo album The Idiot.

Yes, France. At the same Château d’Hérouville the the rockin’ Elton John called home in the 70’s was where the first moody Bowie album was birthed. Wilcken opens the doors and lets us watch as Bowie makes his break from reworked American funk and pop and begins to embrace his inner European. Producer Tony Visconti is on hand, Brian Eno is called forth, and musicians are called in randomly as Bowie attempts to construct the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth. His ideas for a soundtrack, ambient and avant garde, were eschewed before he even got started but as Wilcken points out Bowie sends the final product along to the film’s director to let him know what he missed.

By the time it comes to mixing the album Bowie’s moved to Berlin where the divided city’s vibe seems to be feeding his soul. His fairly open marriage is in ruins and he’s hanging out with folks like Kraftwerk and noted transsexual Romy Haag. He’s about as out there as he can get and still be mainstream enough to get some radio play out of the barest snippets of songs. This was the overture of this particular suite of albums, a bold career-bending move that forced the pop arena to join him in exile rather than feel alienated.

It’s taken me most of these last 30 years to come around to Low (I was on board with Heroes from the start) and I think it might have taken a trip to Berlin and a personal career shift to get there. The aural landscapes and the disjointed lyrical imagery aren’t of time or place but of mindset; it’s not enough to hear or feel these songs, you have to be able to live them is some way to make them truly relevant. At least I did, and understanding what went on behind the scenes only confirms that Bowie’s mind was in transit to someplace else. This album, then, became his interior monologue.

Another fascinating element is how Bowie is working these two projects at the same time — Iggy’s and his — and in the end realizes he needs to release his first so as not to sound derivative. The irony is that by producing and writing much of Iggy’s album he’s worried about being perceived as borrowing from himself, but no matter. Image is kind and Bowie did his fair share of muddling his image up to that point.

Wilcken’s book is well-informed and well-rounded in its interpretations and readings. He places Bowie in context of Bowie, pop music of the time, various cultural influences, with just enough personal drama to give it flair without seeming gossipy. Writing about music should make you want to dig out that music and listen along; good writing about music will make you appreciate the music in ways that compliment and improve both the music and the listener. Wilcken succeeds.

The Beatles Let It Be by Steve Matteo

In some ways writing about this album is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Anywhere you aim, you’ll hit something.  I saved this for last because it was the album I felt closest to in terms of knowing cold, the album I knew the most background about going in, and was my least favorite album for many reasons.

When Let It Be first hit my ears I found it to be the sloppiest sounding album ever recorded.  Granted, I was young and hadn’t had much to go by, but after all the previous Beatles albums even the raw energy of the early music had a kind of polish on it that this lacked.  Only later when I learned that it was a deliberate attempt by the band to capture their early, pure roots did I understand the documentary nature of the exercise. Even so, I still wondered what these songs would have sounded like if they’d made them as “real” studio albums, or at least practiced a bit more.

Post The White Album The Beatles were in a state of dynamic entropy. They were as prolific as they had ever been yet couldn’t stand to work together for a variety of reasons.  Yoko gets kicked a lot during this time for per perceived meddling, but there’s just as much kicking of George by John and Paul. What emerges in Matteo’s examination of this album is nothing short of a day-by-day diary of the rehearsals and filming that was to become part of a TV documentary.  The end result was to be a concert but all that happened was the short live performance on the top of the Beatles Apple Headquarters.  Recordings were made, and while it should have been placed before Abbey Road in the chronology complications caused the album to be released after the Beatles had already announced they had broken up.  Much can be said of Let It Be standing as the Beatles last statement — moving to just let things be and move on — and in the end, as Paul and their producer George Martin cobbled together a final album from various bits and pieces the boys spat it, the black-rimmed album became the perfect tombstone for a band that had come to the end of its long and winding road.

For those unfamiliar with the sessions, or only mildly familiar with a strong desire to know more, Matteo’s book puts those sessions together in a way that connects the dots with everything going on at the time.  If you are familiar with the songs, have seen the Let It Be video and the Get Back session on the roof, what you can read in Matteo’s recounting of the events will out it all neatly in place.  That said, there is a lot of discussion about songs never officially released, unfamiliar oldies, and a general sense that the Let It Be album only represents the tip of an iceberg that has never been fully appreciated. Of all the songs practiced and worked on, why were these selected in the end?  We may never know as many of the tapes and documentary recordings disappeared.  Some of these recordings did show up in Amsterdam recently and perhaps there’s a chance we’ll have a better context for this album in the future, but for now all we have are the primary document and the subsequent attempts to put that document into perspective.

Interesting but unsatisfying ultimately, both the album and Matteo’s examination of it.  Perhaps that’s all we can really hope for.

*    *    *    *    *

Looking back I suppose it wasn’t fair to judge the series by titles I was familiar with; the sign of a good review would be the desire to hunt down the album being featured and want to listen to it.  I like what Continuum has set out to do with this series and, if anything, would hope they have a long and fruitful run of titles.  There’s so much music out there, and so little of it documented in this kind of detail, that I wonder sometimes what future generations will make of our era culturally.  Bach didn’t invent classical music, nor did Beethoven, nor Stravinsky, but know what they did and how they achieved it in their time and what it’s meant since.  Perhaps it’s too early to suggest that rock and roll albums of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s have their relevant moments in history but it’s fun to study the possibilities.

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Not a very PC thing to say, but then when would that have bothered someone like Norman Mailer?

I have to admit that Norman Mailer never did anything for me. I can’t remember what it was I read that did it — Armies of the Night? The Executioners Song? — but that coupled with reading Capote’s In Cold Blood pretty much cemented these two together in my mind as writers I didn’t need to revisit.

Sorry, folks, but that’s just the way it is. Not all writers can be all things to all people. I’ve lived quite a fine life without them.

I did try and give Mailer another chance a few years later with Tough Guys Don’t Dance, one of his weaker works of fiction I’m told, but all I remember thinking was “Wow, that would make a really crappy movie.” And just to prove it true, he directed the adaptation himself.

Speaking of Hollywood, Mailer had a bit part in the movie adaptation of E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime playing Stanford White. Toward the end of the first act his character gets shot in the back of the head. Given the proximity of that cinematic moment with the shooting of John Lennon the same year I began to wonder what it was that drove individuals to shoot others.  Given Mailer’s examination (and occasional defense) of those who committed murder and were sentenced to death it’s also fascinating that he chose to play a character who was at once both an arrogant bully and a victim.

The joke flying around the Internet is that now Norman Mailer is both naked and dead. As much as I can’t say I miss him I already do.

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Well, the college sent out a big ol’ packet of goodness for the upcoming January sessions and as I expected there’s a bit of panic worked into the excitement.  Just one look at the schedule for the last session left me wondering if I’d have to schedule in time to breathe.  I’m sure it’s just that shock of the new and unknown thing.

There were also a couple of reading lists.  Not really required reading although “100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know” makes it a hard list to ignore.  Everyone, not just students of children’s literature.  And can I take “should know” to mean the same thing it does in Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy books where a familiarity with a title or concept is good enough?

I did what probably hundreds more before me have done: I counted the number of titles I could safely say I have read and remembered.  That last part is essential because in cases like this in the past I have discovered that there are books I have forgotten but will suddenly remember by cover or by the first page.  One of the downsides of age, the deep memory archives grow to that point that you begin to feel you’re living the cliche of having forgotten more than you’ll ever remember.

46.  Almost half.  That’s not too bad.  They’re picture books, so I can pretty much pick up the remaining titles in short order. Then it’s on to “100 Books That Shaped the Century.”  Fortunately there’s some overlap between the lists.  Unfortunately these books tend to be longer.  Fortunately they’re only recommended.  Unfortunately that isn’t how my brain works.

Time to revise the TBR reading list.

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I’m up to my eyeballs in review books this past week and, well, there’s no way to soften this: I’m cramming. Actually, I put off a trio of books to the very end because I couldn’t dredge up any real interest without a looming deadline. That fact alone has nothing to do with the quality of the books, only my lack of interest.

Funny thing, though, when your mindset is already dreading a task at hand the brain seems anxious to verify your mood. For two of these books the only thing that keeps me from hating every word on the page is the constant reminder I am giving myself: It isn’t the book, David, it’s your attitude. The downside is that all that extraneous thinking tends to put me to sleep, which slows down my reading even further.

But one book did a funny thing to me. The more I tried to convince myself that the perceived flaws in the book were actually my own, the more the book grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me to rights. How old are these kids? I wondered as they tackled an entire city government with the ease and elan of a seasoned war reporter. How are these subplots going to tie together without appearing deus ex machina? I pondered as every new layer of story stretched credulity to the point snapping like a crazed sniper in a bell tower. And then right on cue, in case I was unable to nail the point that had been nagging at me from the start, the author has a main character come right out and say it:

“Are there any normal grown-ups?”

Often you hear people in charge of presenting content to mass audiences that they are merely giving the people what they want. So just exactly how and when did non-adult readers signal to the publishing world that the only adults allowed in a piece of fiction are either stereotypical exaggerations, hysterical power mongers, ineffectual obliviods, subversive allies or just plain all-around wallpaper? Where exactly are the normal grown-up characters who are as honest and confused as their child protagonists? Why are these books populated with adults whose villainy can only be seen and corrected by children, whose sole purpose is embarrassment, or whose wayward attempts at connecting with children sounds like Michael Jackson as a guidance counselor?

I get that kids like to feel empowered, that they like reading books about characters like themselves achieving great things that feel obtainable if only for a certain application of extra effort. I understand that it resonates with younger readers to have adult behavior seem at odds with their reality, and to have their explanation of that foreignness play off as humor to lighten the proceedings.

But does it have to be? Do we, as adults, believe that young readers don’t deserve solid adult characters to balance out a narrative? Do we believe the only adult they can accept in their fiction are the buffoons that make them feel better about themselves? Young readers look to books for many things, not the least of which is to better understand the world around them. If we are filling their heads with book after book of adults who are neither sympathetic nor realistic, do we expect that they’ll be able to make those adjustments in real life and not assume that all adults are abnormal?

I’ve got my eyes wide open now, a theory formulating in my head. My hypothesis comes down to a very simple question: Is the difference between a young adult or middle grade book (as a genre) and a book dealing with tween- and teen-age characters (as “serious” fiction or literature) simply a question of whether or not the author portrays adults as human beings?

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So I got an advance email heads-up from the writing program that a large envelope is coming next week chock-full of all the preparatory paperwork and instructions for the coming semester. Attached to the email was an attachment with instructions for sending along my written material to be workshopped while I’m there. Everyone sends in their twenty pages, they’re bound together, and then everyone gets a copy in advance so they can read them before they get there.

Twenty pages.

Going in I already know what I’m submitting because I need to know whether or not I’m on the right track. I need to break out of this vacuum and see how a total bunch of strangers react. It’s going to be the first twenty pages of my YA novel.

But twenty pages?

Backing up for a moment, twenty years ago when I was wet behind the ears and started joined MFA program at San Francisco State I was facing down three short stories with a minimum of fifteen pages each. I wasn’t dedicated to the novel yet and short stories was where I felt the most comfortable, and even then I remember thinking that fifteen pages seemed like a lot. Not lot for a short story but a lot for the types of stories I wanted to write. Looking back on it I’m amused with my younger self because if I’d had any sort of clue I would have recognized that what I wanted to write was more along the lines of flash fiction or prose poems, and there I was in the middle of classic short-story-as-literature country.

Also, I didn’t have much to write about. I think there are a lot of great young writers out there who can dig deep into reserves of life and pull out great writing without having had a whole lot of life behind them, and bless them, I’m not one of those writers and it’s taken me all these years of living to both realize it and learn how to use it. I think if I could go back in time and talk to my twenty-year-younger self the only thing I could say that he might understand is “Dude, you’re such a chucklehead!”

Today I look at twenty pages and think “So little?” How much can really be gleaned in those twenty pages? Already two-thirds through the manuscript at 250 pages, it feels like twenty pages isn’t really enough.

But it’s plenty.

In another lifetime when I was learning how to write screenplays I heard some of the most amazing stories about how quickly (and harshly) scripts were reviewed and summarily rejected. Most books on the craft of screenwriting (and craft is the word because rarely does it approach art or literature) will point out that you’ve got ten pages to catch a reader’s attention; your tone has to be set by the first page, your central question established by the third, all your main characters by the tenth.* If you haven’t hit your act-turning plot point by page thirty you’re dead in the water. Formulaic? Yes, but it’s a tried and true formula as weekend box office grosses can attest.

Fortunatly the novel isn’t as rigidly formula-driven. Still there are some parallels. The first line, or the first paragraph at the very least, has to set a tone. The central theme needs to be apparent within the first five to ten pages. After twenty pages or so you’re going to need to have your main characters grounded and showing you where they’re headed or else you’ve lost the reader.

Twenty pages, do-or-die.

I’ve looked over the first twenty pages of the manuscript this morning and I’m comfortable enough to send them off into the world on their own. Not so comfortable that I won’t be open to suggestions, but comfortable that the reader — my fellow students — will at least want to know what happens next.

That’s the least I can hope for, right?

* By the way, once you understand this formula and can internalize it, there are very few Hollywood movies that will surprise you in the end, especially mysteries and thrillers. Your bad guy is going to be there in the first 25 minutes, if not in person at the very least mentioned by another character. The same is true with television, only on a shorter timeframe. Police shows will show you who the person-of-interest is usually within the first five minutes and then spend the next hour trying to hold your suspense while they feed you red herrings and connect the dots. To those who wondered at how I guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense from the beginning, it’s all there in the first ten minutes.

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