How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

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My Trump Connection

trumpInteresting story. Found this in an article online from 1993 in Caribbean Beat magazine. Caldwell was owner of Palm Island in the Grenadines, West Indies when I arrived around the same time to interview for another magazine, Cruising World (a yacht mag.) He told me about Streisand, but not Trump. Several celebs wanted to buy the place. When I later wrote a novel based on John’s story, I called it FAME ISLAND, detailing a Powerball winner’s battle to save the island from development (and using a Survivor type reality show as cover to fight a corrupt governor on neighboring Union Island.) !  Well, Mark Burnett happened to be producer of Survivor and The Apprentice, so I included a quote by Trump: “People are impressed by fame. Think big and live large.” Imagine my surprise to see the other day Trump liked Palm too! Caldwell died, and his sons sold the island to a private company. The audiobook version is narrated by Emmy winner (and Star Wars gaming voiceover and TV actor/director) Kris Tabori; the ebook version is titled “The Instant Celebrity.” Caldwell had sailed around the world with his family to discover the place, then spent 20 years with a wheelbarrow transforming it into paradise. He always hoped a movie would be made there, so I wrote a fictional version that includes his account of fighting off an attack from renegades. The audiobook was directed by a Grammy winning dramatist, and got accolades from a Disney producer, who said, “it would make a great movie, lots of twists and turns.” Alas, it was an indy press and not in hardcover first, and so didn’t get much press.

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Also interviewed pianist Lola Astanova, who Trump admired (and who played in Palm Beach.) The photo below shows her with Trump and Julie Andrews in 2012 at Carnegie Hall in NYC. Astanova reposted it from my Instagram feed. Andrews starred with one of my fav actors, James Garner, in the anti-war classic “The Americanization of Emily,” and read the intro to Garner’s biography. Garner’s daughter liked my review of the biography, AND Tabori (narrator of Fame Island above) was once in The Rockford Files as a guest star! So that’s my Kevin Bacon “6 degrees” moment. (Oh, and I also penned a Kindle ebook “TrumpWorld: Post Election Daymares.” It’s a fantasy on reading in honor of my mentor, Ray Bradbury.)

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Eat, Sleep, Repeat?

AdvertisingAre human beings sheep? A case can be made. We even share a nice percentage of the DNA of sheep. Even more with hogs. When we sleep we talk of counting sheep, though. Not pigs. Why? It rhymes. Sheep/sleep. Advertisers mostly treat us like sheep, too. Except for some selling fat burgers, in which case we are seen as hogs. Others employ jingles or cow bells to herd us into the direction of their corral, where we can be better counted and resold products we don’t need or wouldn’t buy if we weren’t sheep. Yes, even the major network news use these tactics now. If a few carrots don’t work, they use other cute animals with whom we may relate. “Coming right up, a cat video gone viral you can’t miss!”  
—Flipping through channels today is like skating on a frozen lake around a thousand fishermen with poles over holes in the ice. This is a good analogy, by the way, because the words “skate” and “lake” and “poles” and “holes” rhyme. Also because it forces you to see the situation from the outside: you haven’t yet fallen into one of those holes, each being a slippery slope. If you now imagine being a sheared shivering sheep skating, you are getting close to visualizing a funny New Yorker cartoon. Or cover.
—Speaking of covers, there’s an old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover.” But we do, anyway. Stats show that a great cover can increase sales by as much as 2000%. Used to be they published novels by Faulkner or Joyce or Hemingway in plain brown wrappers, so to speak. A title, a little flourished frame, and maybe just the suggestion of a design. Today there’s raised lettering, provocative imagery, wild unnaturally vivid reds and ultramarine, and upwards of a hundred blurbs recommending what could still be junk, just in case you happen to nibble at the lure but haven’t yet bitten. This is because the attention span of some sheep may be longer than a goldfish. Sadly, top writers must play along with these tricks or face decreased sales. So, on the one hoof, a snoutful of famous authors need to endlessly repeat their formulas while allowing co-authors to keep even more bestsellers (and their brand) forever visible, while from the other pen there’s the 99.9% filling out job or grant applications…while the Kardashians get $10G per Tweet mentioning some product (never books.)
—Thanks to personalization filters, we sheep are fed back the same diet we always “preferred.” That word is in quotation marks because we only preferred it once, but then are force fed it forever instead of other tastes or ideas or viewpoints because filters are robots. Like the automatic gate that swings shut behind us, trapping us like a grain fed hog in a shallow pen. Which brings me to my final point: we, as sheep, are food on the hoof. Mutton. Or, in other cases, bacon. Because while we are consumers, we are also the consumed. Indeed, there’s some cannibalism going on here, too.
—How so? Homo sapiens are animals too, at least according to scientists. Top of the food chain, perhaps, but as apex predators still animals fighting for survival. We are the only species on the planet that performs genocide on itself, as well. So we may not survive. “Flip a coin,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others. Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking fears that a singularity of machine intelligence may make us obsolete, and extinct—if we don’t do it to ourselves first. True, cholera or other infectious diseases or superbugs may do it, but this is less likely than hotheaded leaders bickering or insulting one another, as that which started WWI. Ray Bradbury, many a writer’s mentor, including me, once repeated Einstein’s quote that WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones. Besides writing about burning books and the lost literacy and low attention spans associated with television, he also wrote a story called “A Piece of Wood” in which a soldier invents a device that turns metal weapons to dust, and after a demonstration—before the sergeant can end war forever—his commander busts a chair and runs after him with a wooden leg as a club, to kill him. Now, a choleric is a personality type which angers easily, is irascible, hot-headed. And, ironically, the word is derived from the medieval science and medicine word “choler,” associated with yellow bile, anger: the same word associated with the epidemic of cholera. See how it all fits together? Okay, maybe that’s illusion too. Supposedly the Dark Ages of ignorance, static culture, and viral memes of violence are over. But not if we just eat, sleep, repeat.