Monthly Archives: August 2013

Reflections on Horror Literature: I Am Legend

I’m taking a course on monsters in horror fiction, and over the next few months will be blogging about responses to some classic and contemporary works. This week it’s Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which if you’ve only seen the Will Smith film is worth a read. In fact, none of the many adaptations of this book are even remotely faithful to this piece, which is actually chilling in its subtlety. As a piece of modern horror, I enjoyed it, but I had serious issues with the protagonist.

The horror of I Am Legend is the horror of a man left alone with his own thoughts. The creatures assaulting his home every night–vampire, zombie…it almost doesn’t matter what they are so much as that they are, to him, inhuman, and therefore to be avoided in the nighttime and slain in the daytime–aren’t the true monster. The true monster is Robert Neville, a fact which of course is his final revelation before death.

Even in flashback, as kind as Neville appears to be to his wife (though not particularly his daughter, who is an absent, fleeting thought to him both in life and death), he’s not necessarily the most likable hero. He has an unremarkable job, has to rely on a neighbor for carpooling, and is so sentimental that he can’t bring himself to dispose of his vampire-infected wife in such a way that he’ll save himself a lot of agony down the road. This is not a forward-thinking, rational man, and yet he’s the last vestige of the uninfected human race.

During the worst of the plague years, as he holes up alone with his classical music and alcohol (so much alcohol!), Neville veers from rational researcher to maudlin drunk and back again, interspersed with sweeps to clear the vampires, both living and dead, from his neighborhood. That lack of distinction, of course, is his hubris, and his illogical failure to recognize the source of his own immunity until well late in the game is also frustrating. Since Neville is the character the reader is stuck with, it’s frustrating that we’re stuck with such a dud.

My complaints about him are not to say his motivations don’t make sense, if one takes the idea of forced solitude to its logical conclusion: madness. By reading Neville as completely bonkers by about mid-book (or even before the book’s start) is to forgive a lot of his failings, rantings, and bad decisions. Who wouldn’t go crazy if your family died, you had bloodsucking fiends pounding on your door every night, and you had no one to talk to? I can give Neville a little leeway, then, if he puts more effort into soundproofing his house, rigging up his stereo, and stocking up on booze than he finally gives into figuring out the nature of the bacteria causing the infection.

But I still can’t completely feel at ease with Neville, even forgiving his insanity, because I am a feminist critic. And as readable an author as Matheson is, this is very clearly both a first novel and a novel written in the 1950s. This is not the later Matheson who started to delve into romance territory (and rather beautifully) in the ’70s; this is a guy writing as a product of his era. Given that, the Ruth of the final chapter of I Am Legend is actually remarkably capable and impressive, but it’s Neville’s inherent assumptions and sexual attitudes that provide the source of much of the novel’s uncomfortable moments for me. This is a man having lustful thoughts about the zombie-esque female vampires assaulting his home, those whom Ruth describes as not being all there any longer. Neville seems to already know this, and yet he practically has to put himself in a straight jacket to avoid raping one of them. The vampires he experiments on, too, he has fleeting thoughts of assaulting. And finally even Ruth isn’t immune to these fleeting ideas when he first encounters her, despite entertaining the idea that he might be able to break his now-comfortable second bachelorhood to start a family with her…upon first meeting, he truly wondered if he might rape her.

Certainly in a post-apocalyptic novel there will be fears about rape. Even in the disaster comedy This is the End, the male characters worry that one of them might rape the lone woman in the house. The difference there is that film’s social commentary on the breakdown of society plays with wondering why that even comes up in a work about the end of the world. Must the men devolve so completely from civilized person to rapist? That film turns the idea ridiculous by having the characters begin to question that far quicker than we can assume Neville starts to, but the fact remains that his supposed “temptations” are extreme, shocking, and far more monstrous than the actions the bacteria causes the infected to commit. In the latter’s case, it’s driven by something out of the victim’s control, but Neville—though drunk and no longer completely sane—is still supposedly in control of his actions. The actions he is tempted to commit are violent, sexist power plays based on an apparent inability to direct his sexual drive into safer avenues. The actions, then, that he does commit without much thought—murder of both living and dead infection victims—fully cement him as the monster of the piece. Perhaps a better title would have been I Am Monster.

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Celebrating 60 Posts!

This is the sixtieth post I’ve made to this blog since I started it back in November of 2011, just after We Shadows Have Offended was first published. Since then, I’ve done series on National Novel Writing Month, writing and yoga, steampunk, and general writing advice. I’ve had six new short stories published (with another in press), I released three chapbook collections of short stories (some new, some old), and I secured a publisher for my first full-length novel, The Red Eye. I also began pursuing my MFA at Seton Hill University, through which I’ve met some amazing writers among both the students and faculty.

But 2011 isn’t when I became a writer, of course. At the signing/reading events for SIDEKICKS!, that was a common question: When do you begin writing? I struggled with my response. I began writing with the goal of pursuing publication as long ago as 1998 or so, and I started getting far more serious about that in 2002, the first time I did NaNoWriMo. But I’ve always written stories, going back to elementary school when I wasted stacks of paper printing out lavish epics which I would occasionally also illustrate. (I sincerely hope these never leave the confines of my parents’ garage.) I’ve also always been a reader, curled up on my butterfly-festooned bedspread devouring things ordered from the newsprint sheets of Scholastic Books. In high school, my stack of schoolbooks always had a novel teetering on top, and I’d sneak chapters of The Stand in between Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations during study hall.

To my students, I’m Methuselah, but for an author I’m still young. The career of a writer can be blessedly long and often blossoms—if it is to blossom at all—in one’s thirties. You’re no longer so young as to have nothing to say, but you still have enough optimism that you’re willing to try something so ridiculous and financially unrewarding.

Perhaps this is also why the protagonist of The Red Eye is in his mid-thirties. At the time I started that book, I was weary of YA coming-of-age stories and wanted to see what would happen when someone discovers his “chosen one” status during that oh-so-fun decade when you’re just as likely to have pimples as wrinkles. I made my protagonist a dreaded “man-child,” irresponsible and hard-drinking, but I also gave him a failed marriage, a professional full-time job, and a grown-up love story, because that’s the kind of POV I wanted to see and could relate to. I can certainly understand and appreciate the struggles of twentysomethings from observing them at work, but I’m delighted to be done with high school and wasn’t interested in revisiting it in my fiction.

Then again, maybe I’m particularly well-suited to consider writing “new adult,” that liminal stage of moving from one’s early- to mid-twenties, when you are indeed on the precipice of change but you may have already gotten a mortgage, as I see these folks every day, trying to balance school and work and sometimes even families. I’m excited to see where that genre goes in the next few years, just as I’m excited to embark on this next phase of my writing career.
Here’s to sixty more blog posts and a whole lot more fun stuff to write about.

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Turning your book into a game

I just got back from Gen Con, the annual gaming convention in Indianapolis. I’m a casual gamer when it comes to RPGs—I like storyline, I like character, and I like hanging out with people, but I really hate rules and prefer them to be invisible and simple. On the other hand, when it comes to board games, I am an absolute fiend. I love all kinds, from political strategy to Trivial Pursuit to complicated role-playing hybrids based on movies and TV. My favorite RPG hybrid is A Touch of Evil, from Flying Frog Productions (and no, they’re not paying me; I just really dig the game). It has all the elements I appreciate: collaborative play, storyline, characters, and rules that are complicated enough to be a challenge but simple enough that they quickly become invisible once you master them. There are a lot of similar games out there, but most of them are needlessly complicated and often based too heavily on their source properties. The other cool things about ATOE are that it’s an all-original setting and premise, it comes with a soundtrack album, and the company is constantly putting out expansions, all of which enhance the game without breaking your budget.

Thinking about ATOE in particular got me interested in the idea of turning something I’ve written into a game, or simply writing a game from scratch. The pitfall of the former, however, is that it should still be a fun game unto itself regardless of its ties to its source material. A board game I really dig is actually based on Star Trek, and I’m barely interested in any variations of that property. But I like the game because it pings all the same things I like about ATOE: it’s straightforward, character-driven, and collaborative. (Side note: it has fun playing pieces. I also like games with lots of little moving parts, tokens, and weirdly-shaped pawns, and all my favorites tend to have those elements. I think I just like playing with toys without having to call it that.)

So as I contemplate what it would mean to write and design a game based on my writing, I would need to investigate how to let players in who are both unfamiliar with the source material, potentially reluctant/beginner gamers in general, while also being challenging enough to satisfy the more serious gamers. One concept a lot of the board/RPG hybrids employ is multiple layers of rules based on the level of your players, as well as using expansion packs to enhance existing rules.

Game production itself can be as basic or as complicated as you want to get. Some of the most complex games use only decks of cards or a small set of dice, whereas some of the simplest have twenty-pound boxes full of accoutrements. You’ll probably want to stay small and simple to start, gradually expanding as you play test.

And play test you must. Get friends together, teach them the rules, and get feedback from them, fix what doesn’t work and add more of what does.

Look at your game as an additional piece of promo for your source work, if it’s a spinoff, but do treat it as its own property, too. This isn’t merely advertising. A good tie-in game should be relevant and engaging in its own right.

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How I increased my writing productivity with a $40 piece of hardware

I write where and when I have two seconds to spare, but one thing I was rarely using to write was the netbook computer I got specifically for writing. My obstacle? I couldn’t install Office on it easily without a DVD drive, and netbooks—for the sake of weight—don’t come with optical drives. So I put it off, I limped along with freeware and copying things to .rtf files and converting them where and when I could. I tried a bunch of different workarounds and alternatives to the real Microsoft product (and I’m no MS loyalist or anything, but Office is the standard in most environments, and it makes things like reading track changes and comments from editors incredibly easy). At the end of the day, however, I knew I had to figure something out; it had gotten to the point where I was starting to price new desktop machines, totally negating the point and portability (and price!) of my netbook.

On July 12, I went to my local big box electronics giant. Ten minutes later, I was $40 poorer and had an external USB DVD RW drive. I installed Office that same afternoon, and proceeded to finish a 100-page editing project I’d been putting off. If I hadn’t done this simple thing, I would have had to carve time out for this project when I could use a Word-installed machines, typically on weekends. I finished the editing project in exactly 19 days because I could do it in mornings before work, afternoons and evenings after work, and on weekends. Had I done it piecemeal, I would still be working on it.

So the point of this post is not to say that a DVD drive will make you a more productive writer. It’s what helped me, because it was something I needed. Look at what your equivalent obstacle is. Sometimes we make things harder on ourselves for no good reason. I can afford forty bucks. Your technology, time, or effort block might not even be that expensive to fix—heck, it could be free. On the other hand, it might be significantly pricier. If I didn’t already have the netbook and a copy of MS Office, this would have been more like a $400 outlay. But if the obstacle is something that can be overcome quickly, easily, and creatively, why aren’t you doing it? Laziness? Procrastination? Fear?

I think there’s probably something in the back of my head that knew that if I did this, it would mean I had to write more consistently, because there was no other excuse not to. So maybe my fear wasn’t of failure, it was of success—success at creating a regular writing practice and getting pieces out the door more regularly. If I wasn’t publishing as much before, I could always claim it was hard for me to get enough writing hours in. Now, if I’m not publishing as much, I don’t have that as an excuse and must examine why my output is still low. The happy result of this simple addition to my home office has shown me that I’m capable of a better output, as I’ve managed to place some short stories this summer and have several more in various stages of completion, not to mention my novels-in-progress. I also managed to get The Red Eye ready to go, so in a roundabout way, this $40 piece of hardware led me to the impending publication of my first novel.

If you’re feeling not so much writer’s block as writer’s laziness, see if something as simple could shake you out of that rut, too.

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Orange is the New Black: What makes a story fiction?

Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix series, has garnered critical acclaim this summer for its feminism, diversity, compelling storylines, and winning combination of raw and shocking comedy and drama. But this series began life as a memoir, and in comparing the true story to the screen story, it’s interesting to see just how much is different.

In Piper Kerman’s account of her time in a women’s federal prison, she already had to take dramatic license to protect those involved. When dealing with such a sensitive subject as a term of incarceration, you would certainly need to change identifying details and names. Thus, we’re already at one step removed from reality, not to mention that a memoir is seldom a verbatim account of every conversation and moment, unless these events were recorded for verification. A memoir captures the spirit of reality—events should be accurate, even if the words spoken by those involved are not precise.

Adapting a memoir for the screen is trickier. Film has the ability to merely condense events, as in Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, for example. But to sustain an ongoing television series, unless you’re making a documentary in real time, you have a much more difficult task. Thus, the television adaptation of Orange is the New Black is definitely fiction. Characters already slightly changed are changed even further, to the point where Kerman’s real-life ex Nora bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to fictional Piper Chapman’s ex Alex. Where Kerman’s fiancé Larry visited every weekend and was a constant and positive presence in her prison life, Chapman’s fiancé Larry is real-life Larry in name only. Not only is he not a constant, but he flails about cluelessly, undermining Piper’s rehabilitation efforts and driving her back into Alex’s eager arms.

But this isn’t to just enumerate the differences. What I’m really getting at here is to question at what point things stop being real and what is it about memoir that we expect to be sacrosanct. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle made the literary world suspicious, and rightly so. However, if Frey had released his book as a novel, no one would have batted an eye, and any resemblance to real life would have simply lent the book an air of verisimilitude. The problem is that we live in an age where reality sells. Reality is cheap, and it’s what we’re used to from endless reams of bad cable programming (Kardashian et al). When a book purports to be real, we have been trained in the last few decades to invest more, feel more because it happened to real people.

And yet the craft of designing stories that feel true but are not, stories about characters we care about—even if they only began life as ink on a page—is definitely more difficult. As I read Kerman’s memoir, I enjoyed it because of the points she made about the failings of the American prison system, but it’s not the same enjoyment I felt at the TV flashbacks to Sophia or Red or Alex’s life before they became criminals. These people were absent from the memoir, and yet it’s the show’s inmates I cared about more. Kerman’s book is all Piper (a much more likable and regular girl than Piper Chapman, who is Flawed with a capital F); other players in her life are mere shadows seen only through her eyes. The TV series allows for the POV shifts impossible in memoir, which is always first person. This is how we’re able to care not just about our protagonist but the supporting characters as well.

I definitely recommend both versions of this title, but I hesitate to call it two versions of the same story. They’re two vastly different ways of telling a similar story at two different points on the fact/fiction spectrum.

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Short and long fiction word counts

The first question I usually get asked about writing short stories is how long they’re supposed to be. Here, in one handy spot, is everything you ever wanted to know about word counts, though in some cases the answers lead to more questions.

Flash fiction (a.k.a. microfiction) is 1,000 words or fewer. Flash fiction of exactly 100 words is called a “drabble.”

Anything from 1,000 words to 15,000 can be a short story, though the closer you get into the tens of thousands of words, you’re veering into novella territory.

Novellas are usually thought of as 15,000 to 50,000. The seldom-used term “novelette” can be given to anything on the shorter end of that, but the distinction is arbitrary and, in my opinion, sounds belittling. There’s something elegant and romantic about the word “novella” that, to my ear, “novelette” does not have. (It doesn’t help that Smurfette has rendered the –ette suffix demeaning, fake, sexist, and juvenile.)

Novels, then, are 50,000 words and up, and epublishing has made further preferences a bit fuzzy. Time was 60K was the sweet spot for literary fiction and 80K for genre fiction (those fantasy fans like their epics, went the thinking).

My novella We Shadows Have Offended clocks in at 16,715 words, which I suppose puts it in the maligned “novelette” column, and my forthcoming novel The Red Eye is in the 55,000 word range. While these are both on the shorter end, I’ve also been working on an urban fantasy novel for about three years now that not only isn’t done yet but is already over 90,000 words, so it’s not as if I’m incapable of long stuff; that’s just how these two pieces worked out. The Red Eye‘s first draft was originally written for NaNoWriMo, but another of my NaNo novels is 65K. It’s really just what feels organic for the story.

Duotrope, the publishing market search engine extraordinaire, defines flash the same way I have, short story as 1,000-7,500 words, novelette as 7,500-15,000, novella as 15K to 40K, and novel as 40K and above. I strongly disagree with their start of novel-length at 40,000, but again, epublishing has changed the game a bit. I suppose if I read a 40K-word ebook I would feel it was meatier than the average novella, but I still might find it on the short side.

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