John Klima is the Assistant Director at the Waukesha Public Library and editor of the SFWA Bulletin. John was a past editor of the Hugo-Award winning Electric Velocipede among other ventures and is currently working on series of short stories. These are his good things.
Good things to read.
Night Shift by Stephen King. This is potentially my favorite book of all time. This story collection brings together some of King’s early short fiction that he published between 1968 and 1978. This book showcases what King can do with the short form. While I feel that many of his novels go on too long, King’s short fiction really shines. He’s able to pack a lot of ideas into a small space. There are seeds for his novel work in this collection, too with “Jerusalem’s Lot” (Salem’s Lot) and “Night Surf” (The Stand) alongside a number of stories that were adapted (often unsuccessfully) into feature films including “Children of the Corn,” “The Mangler,” and “Graveyard Shift.” We’ll ignore the film versions of “The Lawnmower Man” and “Trucks” (made into Maximum Overdrive). There are taught thriller stories like “The Ledge,” “Quitters Inc.,” “Strawberry Spring,” and “The Man Who Loved Flowers.” There are also stories that border on science/speculative fiction like “I Am the Doorway,” “Trucks,” Battleground,” or “Night Surf.” And then there’s the meat of King’s oeuvre, horror with excellent stories like “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Boogeyman,” “Gray Matter,” and “Children of the Corn.” But it’s “Sometimes They Come Back” that’s the highlight of the book. It hits all the notes you find in later work like “The Body” or It but in a tight compact story that incorporates nostalgia, family, revenge, and the supernatural. I know this is mostly a list of story titles, but that’s the great thing about this book; there’s so many good stories you won’t go wrong with any of them.
The Empire of Ice Cream. A Short Story Collection by Jeffrey Ford. I take it back, this is my favorite book of all time. I debated recommending Ford’s first story collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant: And Other Stories, but this collection is stronger. If you like this one, go and find the other, you won’t be disappointed. From the Nebula-Award winning title story “The Empire of Ice Cream” where the protagonist whose synthesis starts to affect the reality around him to being able to calculate an actual weight to the printed word and thereby being able to impart subliminal messages in text in “The Weight of Words” there isn’t a bad story in this book. It’s hard to summarize Ford’s writing as he excels at taking the mundane and turning it inside out and on its head. To call this collection brilliant hardly does service to it. Perhaps my favorite parts are the afterwords that Ford wrote for each story which give you a different side to Ford’s unique voice. This collection really showcases the breadth of Ford’s abilities and is something any reader or aspiring author should have on their shelf.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. No, I was wrong twice. This is my favorite book of all time. It can be a little difficult to get into, it was published in 1818, but once you get going you’ll never look back. Considered by many, including me, to be the first science fiction story, we all know the story of Frankenstein, right? Frankenstein, the monster, Igor, lightning, groaning, pitchforks . . . not really. More recent movie adaptations have been more faithful to the original text, but none of them carry the weight of Shelley’s words. Do you know its backstory? Shelley started working on the book in 1816 when she was 18 during the “Year without a Summer” when it was too cold for outdoor activities during the summer. She and her then lover (later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, their friend Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori were stuck trying to come up with ideas to entertain themselves (as the Internet in the early 19th century was quite poor). Byron suggested they all try writing a ghost story after an evening of reading ghost stories from a French translation of a book of German ghost stories. Shelley (Percy) and Byron never completed their stories, but Polidori eventually composed and published The Vampyre in 1819 while Shelley (Mary) composed Frankenstein which was published anonymously in 1818 and then under her name in 1823. It’s the themes covered in the book that make it so amazing: creation, scientific exploration, religion, parenthood, child-rearing, mortality, feminism, and more. Forget everything you think you know about the story. Focus on the idea of a man creating life and dealing with the aftermath. A reluctant father who not only lacks the ability to nurture or care for his child but is actually disgusted and horrified at what he created. All the child, Frankenstein’s monster, wants is to be loved, for someone to validate its existence. And when the ‘child’ finally matures and rebels, the results are disastrous. I’m amazed that a book with this depth and maturity was written by a teenager. It shows how good a writer Mary Shelley is. If you’ve never read the book or you’ve tried and not finished, you owe it to yourself to give it another try.
Good things to watch.
In the Mood for Love. A film from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai from 2000. This is my favorite movie of all time. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Every shot is a beautifully crafted picture. It doesn’t hurt that the leads are Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The movie is set in 1962 Hong Kong and Leung and Cheung play married neighbors. The two often find themselves alone together and a friendship between the two grows. In 1962 Hong Kong a friendship between a married man and a married woman would have been under intense scrutiny so the two are careful in how they see each other. I won’t say more because I want you to see the film and enjoy it. It has a very slow and deliberate pace, so be prepared!
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My second-favorite movie of all time. It’s about a group of students in Texas who travel during their summer break to where their grandfather is buried because of reports of grave vandalism. The local gas station’s pumps are empty (a chilling reminder of the oil crisis from the previous year) so the kids drive to their grandparent’s house with the intention of getting gas the next day. One couple heads to a local swimming hole but find it dry. They hear a generator in the distance and decide to see if the generator’s owner would have some gas to spare. Hey, it was a different time. People were kinder (they picked up a hitchhiker!) so it’s not as dumb an idea as it seems. Things don’t go well. One of the other friends goes to find them and things don’t go well for him either. We’re left with the brother (in wheelchair) and sister who try to figure out what’s going on. The kids aren’t particularly bright but they’re not as dumb as later slasher film victims would be (this film being the start of the slasher film genre that dominated the 1980s). When they see scary stuff/dead people, they try to leave. They don’t keep looking. Even if you’ve seen this, you should probably see it again. There’s no supernatural killers, no extreme violence, just scary stuff. In my opinion, this movie does one of the best jobs of showing how frightening this encounter would be. It’s truly terrifying because the movie uses your imagination more than it shows you things. You only think you see stuff.
Saturday Night Fever. My third-favorite movie of all time (yes, I have odd tastes). You think you know this movie, but you don’t. You think it’s a happy-go-lucky piece of fluff about a white suit and disco dancing. It’s not. This is a movie about growing up without a plan. About getting older and seeing life pass you by. This is about leaving the safety of your parents’ home and trying to make a go of it on your own. The movie is about uncertainty and fear. It’s about anxiety and failure. It’s blunt, it’s brutal. You will cry. You watch this young man try to figure out what to do with his life and no one has prepared him with the tools to do so. Yes, there’s dancing, there’s disco music, so be prepared for that. But the movie is about so much more. This is one of the few movies I own and I watch it as often as I can. Here’s something else you might not know: the movie is based on Nik Cohn’s article for New York magazine (“Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” which you can read online). The article was completely fabricated as the author had just moved to Brooklyn from London and didn’t know the local scene.
Good things to use.
Trello. I work on a lot of projects. To keep myself organized, I use Trello. It’s sort of a project management software suite, but sort of not. You create boards (e.g., Short Fiction, Novels, Library, etc.) and then in each board you can add lists. Each list then is populated with cards. Cards can have notes, labels (color-coded), checklists, due dates, attachments, etc. For example, my Short Fiction board has five lists: Ideas, Draft, Revise, Alpha/Beta Readers, and Submit. Then each idea or story has its own card that I move from one list to the next depending on where it is in development. I use the labels to indicate story length and genre so I can instantly see some information about the story without opening it up and reading the notes. And you can use it to collaborate, too. All the different pieces of Trello can be shared with individuals. So you could have three boards (e.g., Movie, Game, and Album). Each board could have unique members or shared members. Then within the boards, you can set who has access to which lists and even down to the card level. That’s where the project management angle comes in. It’s web-based and has a nice app (both Android and iOS) so you can update stuff on the go. This has been great as I’ve stopped losing story ideas since I can quickly create new cards in Trello on my phone.
Magic Spreadsheet. It’s been the one thing to motivate my writing where everything else has failed. The Magic Spreadsheet gamifies writing. If you hit your daily word count (250 words) you get a point (there’s a scale for when you write more than that, but let’s start simple). Then you get a point for every day of the chain you’re in up to 30 points. That means on day one you’d get two points for hitting your goal and starting a chain. Day two, you’d get one point for your writing but two for your chain. That means after two days you’ve got three points. If you keep an unbroken chain, you’ll max out at 30 (so you’d get 31 each day for your word count and chain length) but if you miss a day, you start over at one again for your chain points. I first heard of this via Mur Lafferty’s I Should be Writing podcast. You can find a Google Plus community dedicated to it and then ask to be a part of a future spreadsheet.
Function keys, keyboard shortcuts, and find and replace codes. When I worked as a programmer we tried to use the mouse as little as possible; it just slowed you down. The more you could do functions from your keyboard, the better. This might just be a Windows thing, but I use function keys as often as I can. Refresh a page on the Internet? F5. Need to rename a file quickly? F2. Need a search window? F3 (ESC to close it). Select the address bar in your browser (to enter a new URL)? F6. Use F7 to spell check in Word (SHIFT + F7 to open the thesaurus), F9 to send and receive email in Outlook and to zoom in and out in Publisher, and F11 switches your browser to full-screen mode. But my favorite function key? In most Microsoft products the F12 works as a Save As. When would you use that? When I’m working on monthly reports I open last month’s, hit F12 and save it as this month’s, and then I start working. That way I never over-write the old file. I also use a ton of keyboard shortcuts. I assume everyone knows the CTRL + C to copy and CTRL + V to paste. But did you know that CTRL + TAB moves you from one tab to the next (left to right) in most browsers and CTRL + SHIFT + TAB moves you the other (right to left) direction? In excel CTRL + PAGE UP/PAGE DOWN moves you from one worksheet to another in a work book. CTRL + W closes the open window in many applications. ALT + TAB switches from one open application to another, repeat to scroll through a list. CTRL + ARROW KEYS moves your cursor one full word at a time in the direction you’re pointing (left and right) or an entire paragraph at a time (up and down). Holding down the SHIFT key at the same time and you highlight that word/words/paragraph for copying/cutting. There are a ton out there and nearly every program has its own special set of combos. Finally, I used to do a lot of layout of documents from a variety of sources. I got to know Word’s find-and-replace function pretty well. You can do find and replace with special characters using the caret character (I did this in InDesign, too) which can be really useful. Ones I used most often were ^p ^t and ^m (paragraph, tab, and page break respectively). You can do a lot of powerful stuff in the find-and-replace dialog box. You can replace a double dash with an em dash (find — replace ^+) or a manual line break with a paragraph break (find ^l replace ^p) and more. Search online and you can find tons of examples.
Connect with John on Twitter, @JohnKlima.