Welcome to My World

When you open an Eric R. Johnston novel, you are transported to a place of dark creatures and dreadful nights. There is no hope and no escape; only despair. Enter if you dare.

Series of Darkness

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Dark Tower

After years of failed attempts, a Dark Tower movie is here. For better or worse, we finally have a movie. Is it everything readers were hoping for?

Before I dive into that, let me put this movie in context. Before a movie could even be developed, the daunting task of engaging a movie audience with something adapted from 22 novels (8 main series books and 14 tie-ins) totaling a minimum of 10,000 pages seemed an insurmountable hurdle. Many have called the Dark Tower "unadaptable" for this reason. There is just too much material to cover, and to grab an audience with the first movie of a potential long-running franchise, many of whom have never read a single Stephen King book and, therefore, wouldn't be familiar with any of the mythos that connects them, would be impossible (unless they, you know, just adapt a book at a time, you know, like they do with other book series with extensive and complex stories). How do you convince a movie goer to invest the interest, the emotion, really anything into a story that will require many hours of effort for the eventual pay off? One answer is to not even try. Take elements from these 22 novels, make an entirely new story out of it that requires only an hour and a half of the viewer's time, and call it a day. And that seems to be what they went with. Although, this approach plays into the story itself, and if marketed properly, could have really paid off among the fans.

You see, part of the problem that lies with The Dark Tower is in the expectations it set for it's audience to know what they were doing while simultaneously advertising something else entirely. Inquisitive readers know this wasn't meant as an adaptation but rather a sequel to the series as a whole and, therefore, requires a familiarity with the books to really understand it. The marketing campaign completely missed this fact about the movie. A common complaint among the professional reviewers is they were unfamiliar with with the books so confusion abounded, and therefore, it's the movie's fault. Has it happened before in cinematic history that a sequel is blamed for confusing the viewer when said viewer is unfamiliar with what came before it? Although the question is rhetorical, I suspect the answer is no. And, in part, sums up the total weirdness of the project. Movies can be sequels or continuations of a TV series with no problems, and that happens all the time. A movie that is a sequel to a book series, though? Added into that a confusing ad campaign and a movie tie-in cover for the one book in the series that the movie is least based on? That's going to cause a lot of head scratching for those who are only slightly familiar with the material if at all or don't pay attention too closely on these type of things.

How is The Dark Tower movie a sequel? Roland Deschain and his nemesis, The Crimson King (the Man in Black is merely a henchman of the Crimson King), are trapped in a time loop. Every time Roland defeats the Crimson King, reaches the Tower, and climbs to the room at the top, he is transported back in time and space to where the reader first meets him the the Mohaine Desert on the trail of the Man in Black. The movie is supposed to be the journey to the Tower following the book series and is purported to be the journey in which he finally breaks the cycle. Roland is completely unaware he's made repeated trips to the Tower, but the Crimson King knows he's imprisoned by it, thus his desire to destroy it.

As a combination sequel and loose adaptation, I think The Dark Tower succeeds, but as it was marketed as a direct adaptation of the Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, it fails. That's almost like putting out Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them under the title Harry Potter (no subtitle) and claiming it's based on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  As far as The Dark Tower can be called an adaptation, it's best described as an all-new tale that takes elements (the barest of elements) from The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, The Dark Tower V: The Wolves of the Calla, The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower, Black House, Hearts in Atlantis: Low Men in Yellow Coats, among others.

The movie, although an enjoyable summer movie, cannot succeed without audience buy-in, and the failed, confusing marketing has all but shot dead any chance of that.

Let me know what you think below.

As an additional note, and to set up the next few topics for this blog, I've listed below all the books officially considered entries in The Dark Tower series. They are listed in order of publication.

'Salem's Lot
The Stand
The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
The Talisman
Skeleton Crew
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
Rose Madder
The Regulators
The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
Bag of Bones
Hearts in Atlantis
Black House
From a Buick 8
Everything's Eventual
The Dark Tower V: The Wolves of the Calla
The Dark Tower VI: The Song of Susannah
The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Rant on Serial Commas

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

What do these two statements have in common? They don't mean what they say and don't say what they mean because they are both missing an essential comma.

The meaning here, of course, is clear--that Ayn Rand and God are the parents to whom the dedication is written, and JFK and Stalin are the invited strippers. Yet, it's not that simple. In fact the dedication is meant for three different entities--parents, Ayn Rand, and God. And, no, JFK and Stalin are not strippers; they were invited in addition to strippers.

So what happened? How can there be such a clear discrepancy between what is written and the intended meaning?

Punctuation. More specifically a comma--the serial comma, the Oxford Comma, the Harvard Comma, etc. Just adding another comma after JFK or Ayn Rand makes the difference between one referent and three distinct entities.

It's so clear, so obvious but what complicates matters is different forms of writing utilize different writing guides, while different countries tend to have different standards. In the United States, the standard for most forms of formal writing is to include the serial comma. With that said, a major American Style Guide--The Associated Press Manual of Style--forbids the use of this last comma unless you have a construction where two or more separate items in the list are combined with "and" or "or." So an example, according to AP, you would use the final comma in this construction, "My family brought over games, pizza and breadsticks, and fireworks," but not in this one, "My family brought over games, food and fireworks." This exception to AP's rule is so problematic for reasons I will discuss below that they need to abolish their prohibition on the serial comma.

Before I do that, however, I need to be upfront. I've always been taught--from my earliest years--that the final comma in a series is required, never once hearing even a hint from any educator throughout my primary, secondary, and post-secondary years that this comma could ever be considered optional under any circumstances outside of newspaper articles (AP Style) that cut all the essentials to save space.

When I started editing novels a few years ago, I noticed that many writers tended to leave out the serial comma when writing their books. This, I must admit, baffled me. And it still does. Why were they adopting newspaper rules for their novels? Why were Americans adopted British, Austrailian, and Canadian rules when submitting to an American publisher? Where did this trend come from? When did it start? And why does it seem to be so prevalent among amateur writers?

I don't have an answer for these questions, but we can take a step back and ask, where did this serial comma come from in this first place? When was its use first recommended? The serial comma has been in use for a while, first included in a style guide by some guy named Collins in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Generally speaking, that's how "rules" happen. Some guy (historically a guy anyway) says it's so, writes it down, and--viola!--the commandment is set in stone!

The rule goes something like this. Say you describe the American flag's colors. Is it red, white, and blue? Or red, white and blue. Collins argued these two phrases mean entirely different things. "Red, white, and blue" indicates that the flag has red, it has white, and it has blue. Each color is enumerated separately, so they are separate colors--red, white, and blue. "Red, white and blue," on the other hand, means the flag is red with a white and blue mix accompanying it--say a light blue--which is indicated by the fact that white and blue are not enumerated as separate entities in the list. They are not equal to the red individually, but only together.

Yet, when it comes to grammar, nothing is set in stone, nothing is agreed upon forever, and everything is dynamic. That's the way it is; that's the way it should be. Language evolves, language changes, and how we express that change must be reflected in our writing. So is there something worthwhile to this trend to eliminate what has been for a hundred years considered required punctuation?

Unfortunately, there just isn't. Not that I can see anyway. The "red, white and blue" example above is a clear reason, but let's revisit the original examples for a moment. To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. These are meant to be lists, yet because of the missing comma, they are appositions. "JFK and Stalin" is a noun phrase that refers to "strippers." "Ayn Rand and God" is a noun phrase that refers to "my parents." That is the way it is written, and that is the way it is read, so any reader would have no reason to think otherwise. If the reader meant something else--such as three entities instead of one--there is an error on the author's part that s/he would need to correct.

AP's exception to their rule is problematic. In the event that it clarifies meaning, you should use the comma (specifically when "and" or "or" play other roles in the list in addition to signifying the end). This standard, however, makes little sense because it creates more problems than it solves. It creates an inconsistency in what lists look like. The way you create a list should be the same throughout a piece of work. Not changed willy-nilly to resolve problems caused by omitting a necessary punctuation mark. Since there has never--that I have found--been a compelling or worthwhile reason put forth to cut serial commas, I argue the best approach is to stop this madness and go with what makes sense, which is to include every comma in a series.

To conclude this rant, I'll say I'm willing to examine my views on everything grammar, not only as a writer but as a reader, and I have, but my study of this topic only reinforces my lifelong view that all the commas in a series--including the serial comma--are essential. I'm all for cutting commas that can make writing seem cluttered or choppy, but I would argue--strongly--that the serial comma is the one comma that should never be cut under any circumstances provided the series construction requires any commas at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

License to Kill: Genre Conventions and 007

I am probably the only person in history who has never seen a James Bond movie or read one of the books. James Bond is ubiquitous in our culture, yet I have somehow managed to avoid it. Of course, I've viewed the Austin Powers movies with delight, but that was because I thought they were funny, not because the genreand it does seem to be a genre unto itselfdid anything for me.

I mention this because I took to my Facebook page to ask for input into my next blog. The idea was to get a taste of what people might request of a writer if given the chance. One response I got was James Bond fan fiction. It really got me thinking about conventions of genre and how if I were to write a James Bond-esque story, there would be next to no way I would get it right. But then I thought, why? Why would my story have to be anything like what it's supposed to be based on? Why do I have to copy what came before?

As I was thinking about this, I came across one of those internet cheat sheets on writing. It contained some useful information about things to look for while you are revising, but one thing struck me and I thought I should say something about it. The sheet advised you make sure you have followed your genre's conventions.

I have a hard time describing the genre of my novels, usually saying fantasy, horror, sci-fi, with a dash of romance and thriller. That's because, as useful as the strict conventions of genre are to some writers and readers, I personally find them next to useless. Genre, to me, is a starting point. After you let loose and let the words fly, you should let it take you where it wants to go, no restrictions, no strings attached, no commitments, no labels.

So, if I were to write James Bond fan fiction, even as just a mimicry of the genre, I would write with a license to kill the genre's conventions. That's the only way I care do it, and it is the only way I will do it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Writing Well Through Intuition

In Stephen King's book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he states, "Fiction writers...don't understand very much about what they donot why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad." This isn't to say writers are ignorant of their craft or don't know good/bad writing when they see it. Far from it. It simply means that a writer's skills cannot be enumerated into a set of prescriptive rules, principles, etc. Bad writing can't be corrected by a cheat sheet or a writing class. Writing is an intuitive skill that you either have or you don't.

That isn't to say that someone can't learn to write well, but writing well isn't about memorizing by rote the aspects of good writing or having a cheat sheet nearby, just as having a thesaurus handy doesn't give someone a large vocabulary. And like those who overindulge in a thesaurus, you can tell the difference between the truly gifted and those relying on a crutch.

So how do you internalize the aspects of good writing that will improve your own writing? In other words, how do you get to the point where intuition is all you need?

Read, and read a lot.

When you read regularly, you pick up on what makes good and bad writing. You'll learn about voice; organization; plot; story; character; you increase your vocabulary; learn punctuation; and, most importantly, you learn to distinguish between worthwhile advice and pure bunk--because it will be offered to you whether you want it or not. Intuiting what makes writing greateven if you can't explain itis far more effective than rote memorization of the facts of why it works or doesn't work.

Unfortunately, this intuitive aspect of writing is often overlooked in our education system. Everything needs an explanation, everything needs a prescriptive rule, everything needs a reason. Which is fine, but I think these things are elevated to undeserved heights.

The problem with prescriptive rules is most of them fall into one of three categories: First, they can and should often be broken (no, you should only write in complete sentences); second, they are only taught in order to prevent students (inexperienced writers by definition) from falling into common pitfalls but are otherwise made-up bunk (the world will not end if you begin a sentence with and. In fact, sometimes you have to!); third, they are just pure useless, made-up garbage that is not based on anything (if someone tells me you can't end a sentence with a preposition one more time!!!)

Good writing has a variety of sentence structures. Sentence lengths. Sentence fragments are a perfect way of providing a pacing cue for the reader. Well-written action scenes tend to mix in sentence fragments, and so does well-written dialogue. No one speaks in complete sentences all the time. Besides, bending grammatical rules helps you give a distinctive voice to your narrative, especially if you are writing in the first-person.

Students are often taught never begin a sentence with the word "and." And I know exactly why, although this is a bogus rule. But ("but" falls into the same category) I know why they are taught this. Starting a sentence with a conjunction can be tricky business and should only be done by professionals. Nah, I kid. In fact, this is what a good writer says. If the sentence structure causes confusion that can be alleviated by just creating a new sentence, go for it. It's perfectly fine. In this case, clarity is king. Really, in all cases, clarity is king.

Students are also sometimes taught never to begin a sentence with "because." Because this bogus rule is so common, I feel I need to destroy it here. Does anyone object to the second sentence of this paragraph? I didn't think so. Students are taught this in order to avoid the dreaded incomplete answer. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Because he had a death wish? No, no, no. Write, "The chicken crossed the road because he had a death wish." Write a complete sentence! (This is my interpretation of "the other side" the chicken is supposedly trying to get to).

The Made-up Rules: And, finally, the made-up rules.... I gave the example above concerning the prohibition on sentence-ending prepositions, which is just a piece of garbage some guy with bug up his ass made up as he attempted to make English more like Latin. And people just repeated it. He made it up.

But I want to address another item that we often repeat and never think about. The paragraph, something we are taught is a clearly defined group of sentences that include a topic sentence and three to five supporting sentences.

I'd hate to go against my teacher brethren on this, but that definition of a paragraph is pure crap. Writing like this is dry, formulaic, and boring. In other words, it's not natural and I don't like it.

But wait a minute, isn't this definition of a paragraph useful though? For the most part, I've stuck to the basic premise of that idea of a paragraph throughout this blog. But that's the point. The basic premise of the idea is useful, but a paragraph is not only a topic sentence followed by several supporting sentences. Although I categorized this definition of a paragraph as made-up bunk, it can also fall into the category of useful but not necessarily true rules that keep students (or other inexperienced writers) from falling into certain traps.

A well-written paragraph can look like anything. From one sentence--hell, it can even be a single word--to many sentences.

But none of this negates the fact that there is nothing in the English language that says writing needs to be broken up into paragraphs at all.

So then why do we chunk our sentences into groups called paragraphs?

To help the reader. Nothing more, nothing less. And how to appropriately divide those groups is another example of the intuitive writing. There is no prescriptive rule that can teach you more than intuition. I recently heard about an experiment where several highly skilled writers were each given the same written passage that had all of its paragraph breaks removed. They were to break the passage up into paragraphs on their own. Hopefully, I've primed you well enough for you to know already that each writer inserted paragraph breaks in different places. Which should prove to you that paragraph breaks are largely arbitrary.

I saw a chart online yesterday that detailed when to change paragraphs when writing fiction. It seemed useful, but, as I said before, rote memorization and cheat sheets can only get you so far without a good intuitive sense. When a new character speaks, when a new idea is introduced, when time passes, etc. are all there, but none of these should be followed 100% of the time. Why? Because depending on the context in which any of these fall, it may be better to keep the same paragraph or two break up paragraphs in ways that might contradict these rules.

For example, I could write a scene where a character wakes in a hospital and is hearing all kinds of voices spoken by different people: "Eric opened his eyes but saw nothing but stark blackness. 'He's awake,' a deep voice said. 'Someone get the doctor'--a woman. 'Eric! Eric! Can you hear me?!' someone else-- was it his wife? A roar of other voices rose: Eric! Hey! Can you hear us! Please don't leave me!" This is a perfect example of not switching paragraphs with multiple speaks. And it is perfectly fine because of the effect it creates.

I hope I've convinced you that memorizing prescriptive rules is not enough. There are too many instances where they are either completely wrong or do not apply to every circumstance. To write well, you are best served to arm yourself with a good intuitive sense of what makes good writing, and you do this by reading. Reading a lot. Reading every chance you get.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why Do I Write?

I asked my youngest daughter today if she was going to be a writer like me. She looked up at me with the beautiful round eyes and a smile, so I knew what she was going to say even before it came out her mouth: "Nooooooo!" Then she laughed as if it was the most ridiculous question I could've asked. Maybe asking a three-year-old her aspirations for the future is a little silly, if not premature, but it got me thinking about just why I write.
Of course, I can't speak for them. We all have our reasons. Some of the fortunate do it because that's how they earn their living. For others, it's something they like to do in their spare time or retirement. And I would guess many are hoping to hit the big time, to be the next Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or James Patterson.
I work at a middle school, and I don't often talk about my writing with the students. I have only one novel out of six that I feel is really appropriate for the age group. Plus, I don't want to create the impression I am using my position to promote my writing sales. But several kids found out I’m and author, and one came up to me and said, "Mr. Johnston, why don't you tell everyone who you really are?" My confused look must have given away the fact that I had no idea what he was talking about, so he went on, "I know you're rich and you only teach here as research for your next book."
And I thought I had the active imagination!
The stereotype of the rich writer that only works a day job as research for his/her next novel is a pleasant enough one, but it isn't true—I would imagine—in most cases. Few writers make enough to live exclusively on their art, but that is the nature of working in the arts, and that's okay.
So what is my real motivation to write? Is it the feeling of accomplishment? That moment when I am holding a book I wrote in your hands, shuffling through the pages, reading random pieces of prose that are so brilliant there is no way I could have written them—except I did! Or, is my motivation one where I know if I keep at it, my hard work will pay off financially?

Or perhaps there is another option: my love of reading. When I have an interest in reading a book that doesn’t exist, it’s on me to write it—and it’s a burden I will gladly shoulder every time.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Revival by Stephen King: A Terrible Sermon

I finished Revival last weekend and have thought about it since then, playing it over in my mind, trying to figure out where it went wrong. The novel is narrated by Jamie Morton (an unsympathetic heroin addict and guitar player in every cover band in the state of Maine from the 1970s until now), who was telling the story of his former pastor's fall from grace. Although the story is ostensibly about the pastor, Charlie Jacobs, we see very little of him, as the story takes place over a five-decade period in which Morton sees him for only the briefest of intervals. The story is really about Morton's self-indulgence, and, let's just say it, how he is a complete loser, lacking in anything resembling a redeeming quality. All because of Jacobs and the "Terrible Sermon."

There are spoilers ahead. That is the only warning I am giving, so if I haven't yet convinced you the novel isn't worth reading, you may want to stop.

Jacobs and Morton form a tight bond as soon as they meet. Jacobs is a little quirky, having a strange obsession with electricity, but nothing too bad. That is until he loses his wife and son in a horrible traffic accident. That's when he turns away from religion and delivers what becomes known in town as the "Terrible Sermon."

This plot point is where the book really begins to unravel for me. Jacobs, a person of great faith, turns away from God due to a horrible circumstance in his life. The cliche alarm is going off. This just didn't sit right with me. Yes, the loss of his child and wife is tragic, but this motivation is not a compelling one. It's cliche, and, frankly, it is an egregious simplification of how real people go about belief and non-belief and how they may at points in their lives drift from one view to another. But more than that, the way Jacobs goes about declaring his break with faith is, to me, not well done at all.

The "Terrible Sermon" isn't really that terrible. Jacobs likens religion to an insurance scheme, where you pay your premiums every month, but when you need to use it, you discover the insurance company doesn't even exist. Sure, maybe something like that would lead to a reprimand, a firing, or perhaps even get you run out of town with pitch forks and torches, but this "Terrible Sermon" destroys the religion of the community, as they never replaced Jacobs, and service attendance drops to literally nothing in the next few decades, leaving behind nothing but a boarded-up church. I don't think I need to say the worst thing about the "Terrible Sermon" is how the reader has to suspend disbelief quite a bit to accept that it was as "terrible" as King wants us to believe.

Jacobs comes off as a simpleton, yet we find out, based on what he is able to achieve with his electricity experiments later, he is far from a simpleton. It is clear he was never able to get over the loss of his family, which motivates his experiments with electricity. This motivation, the electricity, what exactly he is trying to do, all of it would have made for a far more compelling case for losing his faith. And, a "Terrible Sermon" that reveals what exactly he is doing and the "truths" he is hoping to uncover would have been a far more terrible "Terrible Sermon."

Heck, another spoiler warning for you. Here is the ending and what this whole shin-dig is about, along with an account of what I would've done differently.

Charlie Jacobs is trying to find out what's on the "other side." He devises an experiment with electricity, which he believes will bring a recently deceased person back to life long enough to describe the afterlife. He succeeds (sort of), but also gets a glimpse, as does Jamie, of this afterlife, which is far worse than the heaven he was envisioning. The afterlife resembles a dark, destroyed city inhabited by large ant creatures that enslave humanity for eternity. Imagine if this was his impetus for leaving his faith, such as "Do you guys really know what we are worshiping?! Ant creatures that just wait for us to die and enslave our souls!" Now, that's what I would call a "Terrible Sermon"!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Harvester: Ascension, Revision and Backstory

This June will see the official relaunch of Harvester: Ascension, a novel I have rewritten over the past six months.

The original version of this story was written between October of 2009 and August of 2010, with most of the writing completed in July of 2010. When it found its home with a publisher, I couldn't be happier, but much of the original message and intent were lost through the editing process, as the original editor on this piece had an entirely different vision than I of what it should be. This left me ultimately unhappy with that edition. It didn't at all resemble what I had wanted, so when the contract expired, I decided to rewrite it from scratch, and republish it under my own brandDarkness Press.

Ultimately, Harvester: Ascension is a battle between a jealous and petty "god" and a loving one. Taking elements from our cultural mythology, including stories from both the Old and New Testaments, I portrayed one being, the villain, as more akin to the God of the Old Testamentwith destruction of places and people, concerned more about being worshiped than forgiveness and love; while the protagonist is the God of the New Testament, the God of love who sacrifices Himself for His people--of course, this "god" in the novel is female. Before I get hammered too heavily on this point, I should point out that I have taken quite a few liberties in order to tell my story, so this portrayal is not intended to be 100% true to the source material, but more of an approximation.

The backstory in Harvester: Ascension is often referenced but never fully explored. This is because it is a story that will be told in the sequel, which I am now calling Harvester 2: The Creation. The Father, which is to represent the Highest Power, is the creator of the universe, but soon afterwards assigns his children--the two named in Harvester: Ascension are Torqa and Moria, but there are more than these two--to be guardians over the planets that are destined to bear life. One of the Father's commandments is to never allow themselves to be worshiped. Moria is the guardian of Earth, a goddess who sometimes refers to herself as Gaia, while Torqa is the guardian of a distant world known as Oraplax.

The inhabitants of Oraplax, a species called the Q'Thiel, were a war-torn, yet proud people, who eventually came together to solve their energy crises by building what they called The Harvester, which was a huge--about the size of the moon--orbiting station that collected energy directly from their sun, which they called Alsar. This Harvester was able to collect the radiation like a super solar panel, as well as being able to collect actual material from the star. What the Q'Thiel didn't intend was to infuse the mind of the machine with Torqa, their guardian, whose existence had only been known as a part of long-ago myth.

Over the next few centuries, many of the Q'Thiel forgot they themselves had built the large orbiting station and began worshiping it as a god. Torqa loved this worship, despite the Father's orders not to allow this to happen, and demanded more, eventually forcing the Q'Thiel into submission. Meanwhile, the scientists that worked aboard the Harvester knew exactly what it was, yet were surprised that it had somehow developed sentience, not realizing that the mind was infused with their planet's guardian. Fearing the mind was unstable, and the danger that posed, the scientists encoded the genetic information of all Oraplaxian species and stored them on the Harvester, creating a kind of Noah's Ark, which, later, Torqa aimed to take full advantage of to reintroduce the Q'Thiel race.

Eventually, Torqa grew tired and jealous of the Q'Thiel and used the Harvester's powers to destroy the entire solar system, which was an event it soon came to regret. When it found Earth untold eons later, it claimed Earth for it's own, choosing to eradicate all life on the planet and replace it with that from Oraplax.

This dichotomy of gods--what seems to be two different gods within the Judeo-Christian tradition--is something that has always interested me. I'm satisfied with this new version of the novel, and I am looking forward to completing the sequel.