Disappointing Vacation Destinations – Contest

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Dean has had his fair share of disappointing vacation destinations. Now he wants to hear yours! Submit your disappointing vacation story on the form here and you could win a signed, limited edition Dean Koontz book! Open to U.S. residents only.


Reading travel guides and glossy brochures excites my inner child. This is dangerous, because my inner child is easily excited to begin with, and the prospect of exotic adventure can get me spinning like the Tasmanian Devil in those old Looney-Toons.

Gerda and I have driven across country a few times. Between points of interest (hereafter POI), I like to be on the road a minimum of ten hours, snacking as we speed along rather than wasting time in a lunch stop. We leave the highway only to refuel——or when we’re levitated, vehicle and all, into the belly of an extraterrestrial mother ship. Oh, and we stop to use a public restroom, because I can never persuade my darling wife that we should be catheterized for the trip, which would be ever so much more efficient.

When we arrive at the next POI, I expect everything to be as the brochures and travel guides promised, for in spite of more than a few disappointments over the years, I always give the writers of those publications the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to believe they indulge shamelessly in hyperbole or that, worse, they boldly lie about the charms of any POI.

The first time we put a radar detector on the dashboard and set out on a continent-wide battle of wits with the highway patrol, one of our POIs was the Grand Canyon. It’s widely considered one of the wonders of the world; therefore, we were so excited that we could barely tolerate the poorly designed roadways that would not allow us to safely travel at more than 95 miles per hour.

Late in the afternoon, tires smoking, we arrived at one of the most touted viewpoints, from which we were prepared to be awed by the grandeur of nature and the patient work of time as it had carved the land. We stood together at the viewpoint railing, gazing at the famous vista——for, oh, two minutes——until we could no longer pretend that the Grand Canyon was anything more than a giant hole. Then we got in the car and drove away in search of drinks and dinner.

I can almost hear you besotted lovers of nature howling, but in this case, I’m sorry to say that I won’t be persuaded that Mother Nature and her version of Igor, Father Time, created a work of art. Yosemite, yes. Yellowstone, yes. But not the fabled canyon. A hole is a hole, is a hole.

I’ve been told that to truly appreciate the beauty of the canyon, you have to go down to the floor of it, which requires a 9-hour mule ride in each direction. If a backside-blistering journey on a smelly mule is a condition of the experience, then I refuse to call it a Wonder of the World. There’s no tedious and dangerous mule ride to be taken to see Elton John perform in Vegas, or even to hear Celine Dion sing “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from Titanic, or to see the World’s Largest Prairie Dog.

Once, driving across county, somewhere in the West, Gerda and I began to see big come-on signs announcing only 110 miles to the world’s largest prairie dog. Every few miles, we’d see an update: only 102 miles to the world’s largest prairie dog. Only 99 miles, 94 miles, 87 miles. . . Perhaps we’d been on the road a long time that day and had run out of topics of conversation, but soon we became so curious that we could talk about little else: Just how big could a prairie dog be in order to deserve so much signage and such a build-up? Ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty? Soon the signs promised that in addition to the animal freak, there was “gas, good food, gift shop, sourvenirs.” This had to be some humongous prairie dog if people bought souvenirs by which to remember it. Convinced that a speeding ticket would be a small price to pay if we could get to the World’s Largest Prairie Dog ten minutes sooner than we otherwise might, I increased our speed from 85 to 100 mph. Our sense of wonder reached dazzling new heights when a sign finally declared just 10 miles to the 1800-pound prairie dog. We were bound for disappointment, of course, because when we arrived at this POI, the prairie dog proved to be fifteen feet tall and made of concrete.

I won’t claim this was as big a disappointment as the Grand Canyon, but I was bummed. At least the 1800-pound prairie dog had been built in maybe a week or two, while Mother Nature took eons to carve her big boring hole in the ground.

Posted on: November 23, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas – Ashley Bell

When asked where I got my ideas, I used to say from an idea shop in Syracuse, which had been owned by the same family for six generations. I was a smartass then. I’m much sweeter now. In truth, story ideas come at me from all directions and at speeds ranging from snail-crawl to speeding bullet.

The premise behind Ashley Bell didn’t pop into my head full-blown, but it didn’t take days to develop, either. I have a friend, Frank Redman, who’s contending bravely with brain cancer. I wanted to know more about gliomatosis cerebri, the cancer he has, and as I was reading about it, I suddenly had the idea for a novel that begins with a 22-year-old woman, diagnosed with gliomatosis cerebri, whose doctor tells her that she has a year to live, to which she replies, “We’ll see,” and within a few days, her cancer goes into remission, though it is a type of cancer that never relents. The doctors are astonished, and with that the story is set in motion. I realized then that the novel would be about the character’s obsession with understanding why she was spared from death.

This was obviously a little wish-fulfillment thing, a reaction to the truth that my friend was terminal, a way to pretend that his circumstances might not be as dire as they seemed.

So far, this is not a story. It’s an opening situation. Okay, so what would the lead character——who became Bibi Blair——think about her inexplicable cure? Wouldn’t she think, Why me, why does everyone die from this disease but not me?

And what was a logical conclusion she might make? Well, she might conclude that there was something she was meant to do. In the way of payback for her life. But what? Maybe. . . save the life of someone else? Someone of great importance?

Now we are on the verge of having a story. All right, so once this possibility is in her mind, what if she seeks out a medium, a clairvoyant, someone, anyone, who could give her direction? And she’s given the name Ashley Bell, whereupon she becomes obsessed with saving this girl.

But who is Ashley Bell? Where is she? How can she be found? Why is she in danger? From what or whom must she be saved? What if the medium or clairvoyant is not to be trusted? What if Bibi is being used, sent on a quest for reasons far different from what she believes?

Now we’ve got a story. Far from complete. But a story.

At this point, I had a sense that the novel was an epic quest, quite long, and that it would involve threats both natural and supernatural, though I still knew neither who Ashley Bell was nor who might wish to thwart Bibi’s search for her. All of that, I assumed, would come to me in the writing. I never do outlines. I always set out with just the initial premise, with a character who appeals to me, and see where the character will take the novel.

But then, an hour or two later, when I wasn’t even thinking about the story, or when I didn’t seem to be thinking about it, a narrative twist occurred to me that was so delightful I spun around three or four times in my office chair, grinning like an idiot (a grin I know well).

It is at this point that describing the source of an idea becomes more difficult. The imagination is set afire. Your mental landscape brightens, and each possible development spawns another two or three.

I started to make notes in a tablet, so I wouldn’t forget anything, and another twist occurred to me, and then a third so big that I literally sprang up from the chair and began pacing with excitement, mind racing.

I wanted to sit and begin at once to write. Fortunately, I had finished another project and didn’t have to wait weeks to launch upon the waters of the first chapter.

So the novel grew from my concern about a friend, from learning about his cancer, wishing for him a remission, and then building a story to explain how such a thing might be possible. When I set to work on it, I knew perhaps 10% of the story. But the rest of it came, page by page, in that mysterious and exhilarating fashion, the way the best of stories virtually tell themselves.

I recently said that Ashley Bell is in my top five favorites of my own novels, but lately I’ve concluded that it’s in the top three.

Octavia Spencer / Kevin Costner

Every once in a while, an actress or actor comes along who is so charming and watchable that anything she or he is in will be worth watching for that performance, even if overall the film is a hideous malodorous mass of . . . well, a malodorous mass of biological-system end product. That was especially true of Gene Hackman, who was riveting in great films and crappy ones alike.

I’m also taken with Octavia Spencer. Everyone saw her in The Help, which was terrific. Fewer than everyone saw her in Black or White, in which she was as good or better. Somehow, though well reviewed, the film didn’t click. It’s a completely fresh and nuanced film about race relations, without the usual cliches, and her performance is delightful, touching, and beautiful to behold.

Kevin Costner has that same watchability and ability to be good in a bad movie (though I admit to having all memories of Waterworld and The Postman chemically obliterated by memory reduction specialists from the CIA). He’s been in many good movies, too, and Black or White is one of them. Worth your time.

Leg Cramps

I’m not Dr. Oz. I’m not even the Wizard of. But if you ever have trouble with leg cramps in the middle of the night, I now know how to avoid them. No, I haven’t cut off my legs at the knees. I have matured enough so that I no longer seize upon the first answer to a problem that occurs to me. I was having cramps so awful, they made me scream louder than Jamie Leigh Curtis in all those old horror flicks. They went on for 10 or 15 minutes, and I couldn’t walk them off, had to wait for them to relent. Now, no leg cramps.

The problem is potassium deficiency. If I eat a banana every morning and every other day eat two, I have no cramps. I don’t love bananas. For all you banana lovers out there, let me hasten to say that I don’t despise them, either. Although I don’t love bananas, I like them well enough to call them “casual friends.” So I’m just doing a little public service here, because I do love my readers and want you all to be free of leg cramps. And ticks. And dangerous liver-eating parasites. Really, I want you to be free of all bad things.


More About Opening Lines

When I posted a piece about opening lines in my work and invited you to compete for prizes by sending in your favorite openings from other novelists’ work, I hoped enough of you would respond to populate, say, a classroom. I pictured a small and genteel group, but instead enough of you responded to form a dangerous mob. I read all your entries, and so many were good that picking the best ten was not easy. But as soon as the winners have provided their addresses, we will announce them, and the limited-edition books will be in the mail within a week.

The following are from winners and near winners. By the way, those who cited various openings of mine are assumed to be vastly intelligent specimens of humanity with impeccable taste, but in all humility (I have a little), I couldn’t award prizes to them. And those who offered openings from their own stories——nice try.

The no-brainer was the 119-word opening sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I’m not going to quote it here, but look it up. It’s the perfect example of how a bravura writer can break all kinds of rules and get away with it.

If you like quick-punch openings, this from the late great Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch should intrigue with its mix of the hard-boiled and the comic: “Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but finished shaving before doing anything about it.”

For purely funny, it’s hard to beat the opening of David Wong’s John Dies at the End: “Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead.”

The always lyrical and entertaining Alice Hoffman opened her excellent The Museum of Extraordinary Things with this gem: “You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous.”

With his unerring sense of narrative and comedy, Jim Butcher opened Blood Rites this way: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

I was delighted that an old favorite of mine, the late John Nichols, was cited for his opening to The Magic Journey: “Forty years before the Pueblo electricity scam rocked Chamisville a year after April Delaney had returned home to resurrect an embarrassingly radical newspaper called El Carin, April’s father, Dale Rodney McQueen, a sometime prizefighter, medicine-oil hustler, cowpuncher, flesh peddler, and general all-around ne’er-do-well from Muleshoe, Texas, entered Chamisville seated behind the wheel of a rattletrap school bus riddled with bullet holes.” My friends, that does Dickens and Jim Butcher proud.

Thanks for participating (if you did). And if you didn’t participate, what the hell’s wrong with you? We’ll have a couple of more contests, with more limited-edition books as prizes, in the days ahead.

Finally, here is an opening line that delights me and is not from one of my own novels. It is by William Goldman, from his wonderful The Princess Bride: “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”


Post-Novel Confusion: Ashley Bell

Each time I finish a novel, there is a day or two of euphoria, an irrational feeling that I have beaten death rather than just a deadline. I am more than half convinced that I could stand in front of a speeding freight train and survive. I have never tested this conviction, but only out of consideration for the cost to the railroad company and the potential injuries to the crew if the train should derail on contact with my invulnerable self.

When the euphoria passes, I enter a period of confusion, not sure what to do next. I answer a little reader mail. Reorder the contents of my desk drawers. Inventory my socks. Ponder at length, once again, whether to give away my neckties and whether I really need that white shirt for funerals or if, in the future, I can wear one of my more solemn Hawaiian shirts. This continues until I realize that, if I don’t start writing fiction again, I will have a quiet meltdown and spend the rest of my life in a mental institution, talking to myself and eating flies that stray by.

After finishing Ashley Bell, which was the most exhilarating creative experience since I wrote Watchers, the euphoria was so intense that, when it passed, I sank into a deeper state of aimlessness than ever. Counting snails in a bed of impatiens. Listening to audiobooks with the sound off. Fortunately, before I got to the point of spending days counting the hairs on my dog’s tail, I started an e-novella, Last Light, which came in at more than 23,000 words, at once started another novella, and life was good. I’m not sure if it’s sad or a blessing that I would rather be writing than lying by the pool with an umbrella drink, but considering that, during my first seventeen years, 347,846 people called me a slacker with no future, I suppose things have turned out all right.

So Much Glamour You Want to Puke

Back in the day, when my novel Phantoms was being turned into a film by Miramax, through their Rogue division, Gerda and I were invited to the Miramax party following the Golden Globe Awards. At the time, that party was always described in the media as the one for which all the most glamorous people sought invitations. The impression was given that the stars so desired being at this soiree that Julia Roberts might have beaten the crap out of Woody Allen and stolen his invitation if she could have gotten away with it. So I put on a tux, and Gerda dressed beautifully for the occasion, and we drove less than a block, from the Peninsula Hotel, where we were staying, to the hotel where the party was being thrown, expecting to be agape for several hours, stunned by the lavish decorations and the presence of a virtual hornet’s nest of movie stars.

Instead, at least two banquet rooms had been connected, the walls concealed with tacky red faux-velvet drapes, so it seemed that either the hundreds of people standing around with drinks in their hands were waiting for the curtain to part and a movie to begin in a vast theater with a 360-degree screen, or we were in a low-rent bordello that couldn’t afford beds.

There were serve-yourself food stations offering all manner of treats. However, there were numerous guests with colds, sneezing and coughing around the food, and people were picking up items for their plates but then having second thoughts and returning them to the food stations. We stuck with cabernet sauvignon.

The guests weren’t 80% famous faces, as the media portray such events, but 95% producers and film executives and film critics and the like, so for the most part you might have thought you were at a convention of office-equipment salesmen in Cleveland.

There was a large circular bar, and one of the eight bartenders did his version of Don Rickles, issuing insults when he took your order and delivered it. I heard him insult two people ahead of me, and when I placed my order, he said, “You want the cabernet in two glasses? Man, you look like you take it straight in a vein.” Some of what he said was potentially amusing, but he delivered his lines with such a vicious edge, you couldn’t be sure if he was treating the gig as an audition, hoping to land a job as a stand-up comic, or if he was a dangerous psychopath.

While I was waiting for the wine, Matt LeBlanc, then starring in Friends, stepped to the bar beside me. As the bartender poured the second glass of cab, he looked at LeBlanc, whom he clearly recognized, and when his new customer asked for one drink or another, the would-be Rickles spewed forth a colorful series of expletives that I won’t repeat here, suggesting that if the actor couldn’t be patient, he should get his own damn drink. LeBlanc, who had been perfectly nice, is apparently a mellow guy. Though he hadn’t had the benefit of seeing the bartender in action, he stood blinking as if bewildered at the heated response, said not a word, and waited for his drink.

According to the media, the party was expected to go on until the wee hours of the morning. After less than an hour, Gerda and I fled back to the Peninsula Hotel and had dinner together, having overdosed on glamour for the night.

The Crow Shrieker

The Horse Whisperer was published some years ago, featuring a man who had an uncanny ability to communicate with horses. I now reveal that I am a crow shrieker, which is not as glamorous as being a horse whisperer, but I’m proud of my uncanny talent.

In our backyard, there’s a big oak tree on which crows have roosted for thirteen years, ever since we moved into this house. Each night, after I take our dog Anna for her end-of-day pee, we sit on the patio sofa, enjoying the sunset or, if the hour is late, the lights of Newport. At sunset, the crows are active, often taking offense at Anna’s presence, shrieking at us.

One night, I imitated their shriek but belted it out at great volume. I was amused when repeatedly my shriek silenced them for a minute. After my fifth or sixth response to them, they were silent longer——until one bird flew down from the tree, to the edge of the patio, and stood staring at me. I stared back, and after a moment, it shrieked. I shrieked in, if I do say so myself, a perfect imitation of it, but louder. The crow flew away, and a second later, a dozen crows in the oak burst into fight and followed it. Two months later, they have not returned. I lack Dr. Dolittle’s ability to speak with animals, but I seem to have the power to scare the hell out of crows.

Anna watched all this with interest. My shrieking did not in the least disturb her. But she knows her dad is. . . different.

Superhero Movies

I don’t know about you, but I’m burned out on superhero movies for the time being. Those guys all seem to go to the same two costume designers. There’s one who is obsessed with tights and capes and masks and cool boots, who isn’t terribly imaginative but who probably has an interesting and complex sex life, though he may be in danger of Spandex poisoning. Then there’s the costume designer who’s also an engineer, who makes the suits for Ironman and Ant Man and, I suspect, for some of the politicians currently lumbering robotically across the politiscape. I’ll get interested in superhero movies again when one of them dresses more imaginatively, maybe like the late Liberace or Elton John in concert, or like John Candy in his polka-band-leader costume.

Aside from being bored by their same-old-same-old costumes, I need a break from superhero movies because I’ve started to get an uncomfortable feeling some of them are closet fascists, strutting around in their flamboyant togs. Have you noticed that in the battles with supervillains, the superheroes destroy as many buildings and as much infrastructure as the bad guys do, like hundreds of billions in collateral damage? And then they expect to be praised. It’s as if Godzilla obliterated Los Angeles and then wondered why he never received a generous grant from the American Foundation for the Arts.

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? – Life Expectancy

I was driving home from L.A. after a conference with producers and network executives. As usual after such a meeting, I was in a mood: proud of myself for not having beaten anyone with a blunt object, for not having thrown anyone through a window, for not having applied the corkscrew in my Swiss Army knife to anyone’s throat, but at the same time berating myself for not having done all of those things. Studio/network pitch and story meetings often test the patience of a saint, which I am not.

For some reason I no longer recall, I was in my wife’s Ford Explorer, and on the CD deck were albums by Paul Simon and by Simon & Garfunkle. The song “Patterns” came on, which I’d heard often, but now a line intrigued me as never before: My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled. Maybe I was stewing about the fact that the film-TV part of my career was at all times in the hands of people whom I couldn’t control and who didn’t get it. Anyway, I was struck by the thought that a story about someone whose life was governed by a pattern he couldn’t control might be compelling and suspenseful——and something with which every reader could identify, since we all at times feel that we have lost control of our lives.

But what pattern? It had to be something the character was aware of and could not deny. A pattern that, at each repetition, put his life in danger. It had to be entirely beyond his control, something that he had to endure and survive, but that he could not resolve by his own actions; otherwise, it would not pose a mortal threat and would not require him to seek and find within himself the courage and philosophical wisdom to press forward.

As I drove south on the 405, I decided that on the night of the lead character’s birth (eventually he would be named Jimmy Tock), someone would predict five unspecified crises in his life, five “terrible days,” beginning when he was twenty. But who should do the predicting? Not a psychic or anything as predictable as that. So. . .what if Jimmy’s grandfather is in the hospital where Jimmy’s mom is giving birth, dying from a stroke as his grandson is born. Grandpa has been unable to speak for days——but suddenly he sets up in bed, terrified, and predicts the five terrible days. Could be very dramatic. Jimmy’s dad is dashing back and forth between the expectant father’s lounge, where he will soon hear the news that he is a father, and the ICU in which his own father is dying. Great drama for an opening situation.

Okay, now I’m ten miles closer to home, but there’s another problem with the set-up. Why should anyone believe Grandpa’s predictions, as he’s never shown psychic ability before? An obvious answer occurred to me perhaps half a mile later: Grandpa would make other predictions that establish his bona fides. On his deathbed, he also predicts the newborn baby’s sex, precise weight, length, and the fact that he would be born with syndactyly, a congenital condition in which fingers or toes are fused to one another (in Jimmy’s case, a few toes) and must be separated surgically. All of these predictions come true that very night, so the prediction of five terrible days, the first when Jimmy is twenty, have to be taken seriously.

As always, in trying to explain where a story idea came from, we now hit a moment that defies explanation. I had traveled no more than thirty miles during the time the story kernel came to me and the supporting details were worked out, when for reasons that can never be deduced, four lines from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” floated into my mind: Here is a sigh to those who love me, And a smile to those who hate; And, whatever sky’s above me, Here’s a heart for every fate. That was the attitude that the lead character would have through all his travails; he would be a good-natured guy, frightened but game, and that would mean the story, while suspenseful, would almost certainly be a comic novel as well.

And theme? What truth about the human condition lies at the heart of the novel? That came to me a moment later, and again as lines from a poem, this time by Anne Bronte: But he that dares not grasp the thorn / Should never crave the rose. In other words, everything good in life requires the acceptance of risk. Later, other themes would be raveled with the first, but I was ready to go.

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