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Musing: Why Are Zombies Fun?

July 15, 2014

Having fun yet?

I had an interesting discussion a couple of days ago with a fellow Walking Dead fan and some people who don’t watch it. The chief question: are stories about flesh-eating zombies and the people trying to survive them fun? The answer- absolutely a yes! Here’s why.

At its core, every good flesh-eating zombie story, whether film, TV show, book, comic, or game is this: an implausible horrific situation that is both disaster and predator, which brings out both the best and worst aspects of human nature in the survivors. There are endless variations on this premise, as we keep seeing in every medium there is, and we, the audience, get a front row seat to the drama.

You know that inevitably someone is going to put everyone else in danger by panicking like an idiot, or that some military-type person is going to try to take control of the living humans by force, thereby proving that humans are our own worst enemy. The mindless flesh-eating dead are a force of nature, and the living have to learn how to adapt to a world where the rules have suddenly changed on them.  But there’s a lot of room for different ‘how’s’, and I think that’s what keeps us coming back to watch, read, and play when zombies are involved yet again.

Add to that, the cathartic thrill of watching human-like monsters get their skulls shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned repeatedly. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

Just watch the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead to see what I mean. (It’s in the public domain due to a 1960′s copyright screw up. A quick search will tell you where to legally download it from.)

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On the writing front, I am actually making some forward progress on my Wasteland novel. Slowly, but new material written down  is new material. No zombies in that novel though. It’s just not the direction I want to go with it. I know that may lose me like fifty percent of my target audience right there, but that’ll just have to be the way it is.

Spreadin’ the Weird: The Drabblecast

July 3, 2014

Who has time to keep track of the short fiction market out here on the web? Not I. At least not with any consistency. The best I can do is skim through the current issues of the various online speculative fiction magazines for stories that I think I’ll enjoy, or authors I know I already like, for samples of what’s getting published and what’s been done to death. Thankfully podcasts make that a whole lot easier. I’ve found that the Drabblecast is one audio fiction magazine that consistently delivers the kind of inspiring, genre-bending weirdness I love.

The tagline is, “strange stories, by strange authors, for strange listeners”. They’re good at delivering what’s promised.

As good as the stories are, the highlight of the episodes are often the intros and ‘outros’ performed by host and editor-in-chief Norm Sherman. Norm’s unique style of voice and sense of humor are a huge part of what makes each ‘cast a magazine, and not just someone reading a story. Even though the voice actors they get are usually pretty damned talented as well. But some of the best narration I’ve heard is actually performed by Norm himself.

It’s named the Drabblecast for the flash fiction. Since they started running longer feature stories on a regular basis, most episodes open with a ‘drabble’, a 100-word story that usually comes from the fans on the forum. Each episode also closes with a ‘twabble’, a 100-character story also submitted on the forums. If you’re not sure how a story can be told in 100 characters,and I wasn’t before I began listening, it’s worth checking out.

Here are few of my favorite recent episodes. (But if you don’t trust my taste, they have their own list for new listeners.)

Drabblecast 325 – Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon

A western fantasy faerie tale of sorts.

Drabblecast 324 - The Ball Room  by  China Miéville

It’s a ghost story by weird fantasy/horror author China Miéville. What more could you want?

Drabblecast 313 and 314 - The Blue Celeb  by  Desmond Warzel (Part 1 and Part 2)

This is a long one, but great one. Two old friends run a barbershop in part of town that’s seen better days, and end up having to take responsibility for the deadly supernatural mystery that’s been parked on their doorstep. I don’t see how anyone could not like this story.

Drabblecast 301 - Everything Ravaged Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Vikings having a mid-life crisis and looking for a career change. Hilariously violent and violently hilarious.

Let’s see, then there’s the great stories by the late Jay Lake they’ve recently re-cast as Drabbleclassics. If you’ve ever wanted a single story to show someone that you could say “this is weird fiction — stories like this!” then you need look no farther than Clown Eggs by Jay Lake. The biologist in me wants to giggle incessantly at the title alone.

Oh hell, you could just dive in with the most recent episodes too. It’s hard to go wrong.

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The Drabblecast doesn’t have a monopoly on great weird fiction of course. To honor author Jay Lake, who recently passed away after a long battle with cancer (chronicled on his blog), Podcastle ran a full cast recording of the story “Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy” by Jim C. Hines. This story has it all: superheroes, talking tumors, fecal jokes, and jokes about cancer. It’s a phenomenal story, if you’re in the right place for it. They give fair warning in the intro that, depending on what’s going on in your life, it just might not be what you need to hear.

If you are in the right place for this story, be sure to listen all the way through the outro after the story. Trust me, it’s worth it. Especially for Drabblecast fans.

Totally Worth It

June 29, 2014

It’s been a very intense weekend, and I’m exhausted. This brief blurb will have to serve as my update for the time being.

The West Coast Writers Conference, hosted by the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society was 117% worth the time, and more so the money. (Waaay cheaper than many other writers conferences run.) I’ve learned a lot in the past three days. Too much to absorb all at once. But I have a full large notepad, and many handouts-worth of information to review in the coming days (or weeks). Lots of good information on improving my writing, revising and editing. Just as much on promoting myself and my work, and selling my work (eventually).

Lots of great people too. I encountered exactly zero cases of snobbery or elitism. Plenty of non-fiction and “literary” fiction writers, and not once did I hear (or even overhear) anyone talking trash about genre fiction authors.

Specifics will have to wait. After checking my work e-mail, it seems I may have another intense day ahead of me tomorrow, but one that will be much less fun . . .

True or False: Kill the King

June 27, 2014

Here’s a discussion topic and non-sequitur for the weekend.

True or False? George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. A Game of Thrones, was originally inspired by Rainbow’s song “Kill the King”, which was recorded in 1978.

 

 

If true, here’s a follow-up. Which character in the Game of Thrones books/TV series is based on Ronnie James Dio?

(No, you can’t choose Arya, smartass. She’s clearly more of a Dave Mustaine anyways.)

So what the heck am I working on?

June 26, 2014

If you read my last post, it might have left you wondering just what kinds of genre-crossing stories I’m working on. Here’s a short list of projects I’m working on, and some story ideas that I’ve roughly sketched out that I consider candidates for major projects. Specific details are withheld to help you resist the temptation to pilfer the brilliant products of my mind.

Ok, in all seriousness, this list is also to help me keep straight what I’m working on. Putting it up here helps makes some of these projects a bit more “real”. You know, real as in things that I actually need to devote time to in addition to stuff like the day job, or laundry, or that home budget my wife and I keep saying we’ll write up eventually.

 Project: Wasteland, my post-apocalyptic western novel that I’ve blogged about here before. Life and other excuses keep forcing me to take long breaks from this one, which makes it hard to get back into the flow again, no matter how much Nine Inch Nails I listen to. And it only gets harder because every time I think about it, I keep wanting to revise major portions of it, even though it’s less than half written. Recently I came up with a new ending, which I think is a good thing because it does a better job of justifying the story before, rather than forcing more changes. I think. At least I have a complete outline for this book. Outlining a whole novel was new experience for me when I started this one.

Project: Quentin, a modern-day urban fantasy novel that’s turning out to be more of a romance the more I write of it, and I don’t read “romance” novels as rule. One of my protagonists comes from a family of warlock’s that’s kind of like my own version of the Whatleys. I actually began writing a short story from this character’s point of view before I began the actual novel. I would like to finish that short story, but it’s sort of hit a rut, so I moved on to working on the novel. So far I have part of a first chapter, with two different limited third-person perspectives in it, and what I think is half of an outline. It’s working title is Quentin because that’s the name of my reluctant warlock protagonist. When I dreamed up the character, I honestly had no idea that the main character of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was also named Quentin. (Note to self: still need to read The Magicians) I may have to change the name later, but he’ll remain Quentin until I have a finished draft.

My current challenge with this project is understanding just how I want the magic to work in this book. I’m not generally a fan of magic “systems” in books. I think it’s a carryover from RPG’s, and that systematizing the mystical often sucks the magicalness out of it. But if my protagonists are going to solve problems using magic, or have to solve problems caused by magic in a logical way, then it still needs some ground rules. I think I know the problems that I want magic to cause in this story, so I have a start. Maybe I need to give The Key of Solomon another look over.

And here’s some of the quarter-baked ideas I’ve been scribbling down bits of in my writing journals. At least, the ones I’m taking the most seriously at present.

A set of military sci-fi stories set in a posthuman future that I’m starting to think of more as mysteries. The original idea was inspired by The Black Company series, but it’s evolved some since I first daydreamed it. My protagonist is a man from the near future who, due to an accident, ends up cryogenically frozen and thawed out in the not-so-near future of post-space age colonization.

No, no! Not that guy!

No, no! Not that guy! Mine’s different. Really!

I just have  some first-person fragments scribbled down for these so far. Whether it turns into a novel or I handle it as a series of short fiction, I think I will need an outline either way.

cyberpunk-weird western hybrid that does in fact involve an undead gun-slinging cowboy. Just a sketch of an idea so far. This story needs a compelling central mystery that brings its main characters together. When I’ve figured that out, I’ll be ready to do some serious work on it.

And, a science fantasy adventure story that draws its inspiration from old-style sword and sorcery pulp adventures. I’m thinking of this one as the start of a series of short novels or novellas. I’ve got the main characters sketched out. I’ve been outlining the first story in my head for what seems like years. The soundtrack for this one is a mix of The Sword, Abney Park, Rainbow, and oddly enough, The Black Keys. This one’s a candidate for NaNoWriMo this November if I participate. (And it’s likely that I’ll be participating.)

I’m also working on revising and improving some of my short fiction. Revision is definitely something I need to develop a better system for, but I think I’m starting to finally develop it.

Lately I’ve been feeling like a lot of my stuff is still very amateurish in terms of style and structure. I’m looking forward to learning things at this weekend’s conference.

 

Labels and Genre

June 24, 2014

A while back, say around the time of my last blog post, I commented on someone else’s blog in response to a question of what genre I write in. I truthfully answered that, even though most everything I write tends to be at least partly science fiction or fantasy, a.k.a. speculative fiction, I don’t intentionally limit myself to a particular genre. After listing a few examples of stories I’ve worked on over the past couple of years, I went on to say that genre considerations are something you worry about after you have a first draft.

This blogger responded by saying that publishers and readers will assign a genre to your book anyways, and that it’s not possible to write a first draft without knowing the genre, whether you label it or not. This doesn’t directly address what I actually said as much as how this blogger chose to interpret what I said. (This blogger also said that he wasn’t sure what speculative fiction is, which I think is a really strange thing to claim ignorance of.) But this slight misunderstanding in our comments does raise some points that I’d like to address in more detail.

How important is it for a novel to conform to the expectations of a particular genre? Do readers ultimately set the standards for genre expectations, or are they set by the marketing departments of corporate publishers? At what point in the writing process should you start to worry about whether or not your work is going to fit into the conventions of a specific genre?

I certainly don’t have definite answers to those questions, but I have my opinions.

First off, I believe that very few readers limit themselves to a single genre. There may be true crime fans or hard science fiction fans who refuse to read anything else, but they’re a minority of the people who buy fiction. In speculative fiction in particular (does the term really need explaining?) there’s no lack of crossover in readership. How many people in this day and age do you think like John Scalzi’s novels, but don’t follow the work of at least one fantasy author? How many Neil Gaiman fans do you think have never read at least something by Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein? Show me someone who considers themselves a Stephen King fan, and I’ll bet you money that they have either read, or at least plan to start reading A Games of Thrones.

Tell me if I’m being presumptuous here.

The question of readers versus publishing house marketing departments is probably too large a question to really address in this post. I think for now it will suffice to say that if a real disparity exists between the two, and I think it does, that it may be another driving force behind the recent explosion in independent publishing. Marketing know-it-alls label a novel as something lame, leading to poor sales, leading to authors saying ‘screw traditional publishing, I can handle it myself and keep more money’. Which is undeniably working out just fine for many professional writers out there.

And when should you start considering whether the story you’re writing fits a particular genre or genres? At the point when such considerations won’t turn you into a hack. If you’re setting out to write a epic fantasy novel (0r three, or twelve) and you’re actively trying to make it conform to some epic fantasy formula before you even have a first draft, then your story will be a pastiche at best. (Ever read Sword of Shannara? I don’t recommend it.)

On the other hand, if you’re writing in a particular genre with the intent of using old tropes in a new way, that’s great. In that case, you need to be familiar with the genre conventions so that you can re-purpose them. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is a great example of an epic fantasy series that pulls this off.

I realize that as an unpublished author, I’m hardly in the position to be dispensing advice. These are just my opinions. Agree? Disagree? I’d love to see what you think in the comments.

 

Improving the Craft

May 26, 2014

Here’s something else you probably already know: the craft of writing fiction, like any other art form, requires practice to produce quality work, and writers of all levels can always improve and refine their craft. This blog’s major purpose is to give me a reason to practice writing when I’m not able to focus on actual stories for whatever reason. Between working on longer form projects, dealing with eye-strain headaches, and life’s many distractions, there hasn’t been a lot of new material posted here lately. I don’t know if that’s going to change in the near future, but it does worry me somewhat that I’m not really getting in the practice that I need.

(I often do a fair amount of writing for my day job, but it’s not really the kind of writing that I think of as creative. Maybe that counts for something in the way of practice. Maybe it just contributes to my eye-strain headaches.)

So, besides actually writing, what other means do I have of improving my creative skills? Well, for one, those that aren’t doing can always watch. Or listen as the case may be. I’ve been downloading and listening regularly to Writing Excuses.

Writing Excuses is the weekly podcast of three professional novelists (Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal) and one web cartoonist (Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary), all about the craft and business of writing fiction. Each episode is typically less than 20 minutes long (despite the tagline). I’ve been sporadically working my way through their back-catalog and, besides being informative, I’ve found them to be invaluable sources of motivation. They frequently have other writers come on the show as guests as well, so listening to a season is like getting a survey of what’s hot in speculative fiction right now. I definitely recommend Writing Excuses for any fiction writer who isn’t already making a living at it. (And if you are making a living at it, I’m sure you already know about Writing Excuses, because one of the hosts is freakin’ Brandon Sanderson!)

For two, there’s the old tried and true method of putting oneself in a situation where you have to write. Since I can’t seem to find other writers in my position who are able to make time for a writing circle, I’m setting out to kill two or three birds with the same hand grenade, by attending a local writers conference. From June 27-29, I’ll be attending the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference, which is hosted annually at L.A. Valley College. Maybe I’ll see you there?

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