Monday, November 26, 2012

Speculative Spotlight: The Walking Dead

Gather round ladies and gents, as today marks the premier of a new monthly series  here on that I've been mulling over for quite some time. From now on, the last Monday of each month will bring the Speculative Spotlight, where I'll be talking about a book, movie, television show, or video game that I deem to be a worthy representation of awesomeness in the world of speculative fiction. Today, I'll be examining a franchise that is quickly becoming my favorite depiction of the coming zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead.

What's the Story?

Chances are most of you know The Walking Dead from the hit AMC incarnation that is currently smashing cable TV ratings records in the Unites States, and with damn good reason. But it all began with an Eisner Award-winning comic book series created by Robert Kirkman for Image Comics. Kirkman originally pitched his idea for a zombie apocalypse series as a Night of the Living Dead reboot. George Romero's classic film is considered a public domain work, which means anyone can distribute the movie or create derivative works without breaking any copyright laws. However, when Image saw Kirkman's ambitious plans for the story, they decided to greenlight the project as an original series instead. Thus, The Walking Dead was born.

The story of both the comic book and the television series revolves around former Kentucky police officer Rick Grimes, who wakes in a deserted hospital after being wounded in the line of duty. He soon finds out the hard way that the world has become a much different place while he lay comatose in that hospital bed—a mysterious plague has made ruins of his home, bringing the infected back to life as mindless zombies walkers, feeding on the flesh of the living. He eventually leaves town in search of his wife and son, who he hopes were evacuated with the larger population when the calamity struck. The long journey that follows is an emotional roller coaster, both for Rick and the audience at home.

Why It's Awesome

It's no secret that I'm a fan of zombie stories, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I love both incarnations of this series (I've yet to play the video game, though I hear it's fantastic as well). But what really sets The Walking Dead apart from others in the genre is its commitment to character drama. The focus of the story is less about the zombie apocalypse itself than what it does to Rick and the other survivors he encounters, how it changes them and their relationships as they struggle to survive and cope with leaving their old lives behind. It's a gritty and realistic portrayal of what might happen to ordinary people and their sense of morality when faced with such extraordinary circumstances.

It's a fitting approach, considering the story's original association with Night of the Living Dead. Compelling character drama is something that many of the Romero imitators (and occasionally Romero himself) have missed over the years, despite the fact that the source of their inspiration was definitely more about the diverse cast of characters who found themselves boarded up in that old country house than the nightmarish ghouls banging on the windows outside. After all, you can only see so many brains get eaten before it gets a little boring. But Kirkman seems to have known from the get-go that his story would be about people, not zombies. It's even outright stated in the comics that the title of the series refers not to the shambling zombie hordes, but to the survivors clinging to life as the world around them falls to pieces.

It's this character-driven nature that is likely so attractive to the mainstream audience that has come to embrace the television show. In fact, I think I can personally attest to this, as my girlfriend loves the show as much as I do, and she is most assuredly not a zombie fan. So if you're in the same camp that she once was, shying away from this excellent series because you didn't think it would be your cup of tea, you may want to reconsider. The television show is currently in the middle of its third season, but you can catch up on what you've missed on Amazon or Netflix.

At the very least, it might prepare you for the approaching zombie apocalypse. December is right around the corner. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Books on Writing That Don't Suck

It goes without saying that most writers are avid readers (and if they aren't, they ought to be), so it's only natural that we might turn to the written word for advice on how to approach the craft, especially in the beginning when we're still feeling our way around in the darkness. And as it turns out, there are quite a few books on the market aimed toward budding writers in need of a little guidance. Unfortunately though, books on writing are like books on any other subject or genre—some of them are fantastic, and some of them just plain suck. At times, it can be tough to tell which is which. So, I thought I'd share my thoughts on some of the good books on writing that I've stumbled upon in my groping quest for knowledge, along with a small quote from each work.

I'd like to nail up a few disclaimers before we proceed, though. For one, this list is intentionally short, and that's largely because I'm still devouring the occasional writing tome and have yet to nail down a true "must read" list. I will most likely return to this topic another time or two with more recommendations in future entries. Also, it's worth noting that the craft of writing itself has many subjective elements, and as such your mileage may vary with some of these books. I got something positive from every book on this list, but your experience may differ depending on your approach.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury 

"I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

In my opinion, this invaluable collection of essays by the legendary Ray Bradbury is essential reading not just for writers, but for any fan of this late literary juggernaut's work. Over the course of each essay, Bradbury conveys his love for the craft as only he can, weaving colorful anecdotes from life and learned practice with some of the most powerful words of wisdom I've ever encountered.

Pick this up and not only will you learn a thing or ten, but you'll get a very good idea of what made one of the most influential literary minds of the last century tick. I find myself turning to this book in moments of doubt, and it almost always does the trick, whether I need an energizing shot in the arm or a nice meditative moment of zen.

On Writing by Stephen King

"Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will."

~ Stephen King, On Writing

Stephen King is a polarizing figure in the literary world. His enormous success obviously speaks for itself, but there are plenty of people who just don't "get" his stuff, and that's understandable considering how damn weird some of it is. But whether you're a fan of his work or not, you would most likely be doing yourself a favor if you picked up On Writing, his memoir of the craft.

Part autobiography, part guide book, this is one of the first books on writing I ever read, and to this day it's been one of the most helpful and inspirational, despite the fact that King and I don't see eye to eye on everything. For instance, he advocates the "discovery" or "seat of your pants" approach to writing, which isn't always for me. Even so, much of his advice has stuck with me to this day, and at the very least it's an intriguing glimpse at the way one of the most popular novelists of all time does what he does.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

"If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

The War of Art will always have a special place in my heart as the book that brought me out of the longest writing drought I've ever experienced. For two long years, I lived a lie, ignoring the blank page and stubbornly trying to believe that it was too late for me, my ship had sailed. Then, on the advice of a stand-up comedian, I picked this book up and gave it a read. It was like having my own personal muse slap me across the face and shake me by the shoulders.

Within, Pressfield outlines the concept of Resistance, that relentless, malevolent temptation to move in the wrong direction. Whether you're a writer, a painter, or just an average joe looking to improve yourself in some way, at some time in your life you've probably heard that little voice that wants you to fail. It wants you to spend as much of your time doing anything but what you should be doing. That's Resistance, and this book helps you to recognize the various forms it will take to seduce you away from your calling, and teaches you how to shut it up for good.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

"The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake.
~ Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman has been a successful literary agent for years, and in The First Five Pages he gives writers a glimpse at the long list of telltale signs that agents look for while weeding the amateurs out of the slush pile. The title refers to the fact that most agents can tell a manuscript is worthy of a rejection letter within the first five pages of reading it. Lukeman not only lets you in on the mindset of an agent and the good and bad things they look for, but he offers tips on how to keep that agent (and your readers) glued until the end.

I haven't done any work on a novel in almost a year, but the things I learned in this book have crossed over into my work on short fiction as well, since most of the editors I'm sending my work to are looking for the same glaring flaws that The First Five Pages helps you stay on top of.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

"We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us—the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path."

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Okay, I'm kind of cheating on this one. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is not, strictly speaking, a book on writing (though it has inspired one or two). Instead, Joseph Campbell explores mythic structure, specifically the "journey" of the hero archetype as seen in popular world mythology throughout history. He breaks down the patterns and trends that have appeared in some of the oldest stories that human beings have ever told each other.

Since the publication of Campbell's work, some of the most popular and successful works of fiction have been built around the monomyth he describes, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. If you're unsure what kind of structure to incorporate into your story, you could do a lot worse than taking your protagonist down the path of the Hero's Journey. This book will help.

So there you have it. Have you read any of the books on this list? Feel free to let me know what you thought of them, positive or negative. Also, if you have any suggestions for great books that might be worthy of my next list of books on writing that don't suck, please let me know. I love reading about the craft.

photo credit: savvysmilinginlove via cc

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Murder Your Darlings

Last month, I did a little musing on the art of making your characters hate you, calling it "ruthless writing." It has since occurred to me, however, that abusing your characters is far from the only way to write ruthlessly. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better word to describe what I believe is the perfect writer's mindset. You should be ruthless every time you sit down at that desk and summon the creative forces. After all, every editor, agent, and reader who ends up aiming their eyes at your precious story has absolutely no reason to treat it with kid gloves of any kind. They expect to be entertained, and if you cannot meet that one provision, they will ruthlessly close your book.

So, I've decided to turn the broad topic of ruthless habits into a blog series of sorts. I say "of sorts" because this is largely loose and unplanned, so I'm not sure how many entries it will entail or how regularly I'll post them. But from time to time, when fancy strikes, I'll write a bit about taking those gloves off and getting your hands bloody dirty. Today, I'm going to talk about those precious darlings of yours, and the liberal relationship they ought to have with the chopping block.

Die, Die, Die My Darling

Now, when I say you should "murder your darlings," I am not telling you to shoot your girlfriend, drown your puppy, or poison your goldfish (and I am prepared to testify to that effect in a court of law). This phrase is actually quite an old one in the world of writing, and there's a good chance you heard it long before stumbling onto my little section of the multiverse. I first read it in Stephen King's On Writing (which I'd recommend to any budding scribe, whether you're a fan of his work or not), but it's usually attributed to a lecture series by renowned writer and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings."

Most of us have been there at one time or another. The muse lights on our shoulder and the words come pouring out, seemingly of their own volition, and before we know it we've written something beautiful. We read that glorious sentence (or paragraph or scene) again and again, proud to have produced a string of words that we know rivals anything in one of the latest bestsellers. Then, we continue on with our work, fingers crossed that the rest of the manuscript will measure up. Perhaps, if we are well practiced, we are lucky enough to produce several of these darling moments of literary enlightenment. They help to keep us moving through the tough parts, feeling like greatness is always just outside of our fingertips, and if we keep lunging forward we might even grab another handful or two.

And so comes revision. We steel ourselves and break out the axe, ready to chop our manuscript to pieces in service of style, structure, and a good yarn. We cut a swath through our work, weeding out the bad, the boring, and the watered down, and then—gasp—it happens. We find ourselves staring at one of those little pieces of greatness that we so loved, one of those darlings, and are forced upon a horrifying realization. It doesn't serve the story.

Must My Darling Die?

This can be a tough moment to wrestle with, particularly for a new writer. When you're still struggling with the nuances of the craft, still questioning whether or not this is even the path you were meant for, chances are the last thing you want to do is cut away one of those shimmering beacons of hope and potentiality that says you might be a damn good writer one day if you keep at this. Those are the parts of your work that you want to cling to. They validate all those days spent laboring over a keyboard. They eclipse all of the odd looks you've ever received from doubters and naysayers. The last thing you want to do is put your finger on that backspace key and pretend like they never existed.

But you must. Every single word that you put in front of your reader must serve a greater purpose. Anything that does not impart character, support theme, or move the story forward is just useless window dressing, no matter how well written and no matter how proud of it you are. If you want to save those words to remind yourself what you're capable of, that's perfectly fine. Paste it into another document, save it, print it out—hell, post it on your blog. But do not leave it in your story. Do not succumb to the temptation of fruitless self-indulgence. If all goes according to plan, your reader will never have the chance to thank you for it, but chances are you will thank yourself later.

And don't worry; it gets easier. You'll probably always have those conflicted moments from time to time, hesitant to let go of a particularly attractive piece of text. But the longer you engage in ruthless revision, the more comfortable you will be hacking away at the unnecessary, and those moments of indecision will grow shorter and shorter. Then, one day, you may open up that folder of slain darlings and find they weren't even as pretty as you thought they were. As you continue to grow in the craft, what you once considered your best work may one day be an average Tuesday afternoon's auto-pilot, and on that day you will be thankful to have written ruthlessly. Trust me.

photo credit: Bryan Bruchman via cc

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

IWSG: Bridging the Chasm

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote is about that long, often troubled journey your work takes from the back of your mind to the bottom of the page. Have you ever measured the fruit of your toil against the grand promise of the original idea and found yourself a little disappointed? You're not alone. In fact, you stand in the company of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Twice a winner of the U.S. National Book Award for his short fiction and children's literature, Singer was known for writing his books twice, first in Yiddish and then in English, often with significant differences in style. He considered the English versions more than mere translation, calling them his "second original," which has lead to some debate amongst readers over the "true" versions of his work. He had this to say about the aperture that exists between that spark of inspiration and its eventual yield:

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper."

Isn't it funny how unbridled truth in a potent enough dose can serve both as a reality-inducing punch to the gut and an inspirational propellant all in one blow? I can't tell you how relieved I felt when I first read this quote some years ago. It's not just me. Sometimes when you stare at the words you've produced, you can't help but shake your head and wonder what happened to that masterpiece you thought you were writing. It makes you feel like a fraud, as though you've shortchanged yourself by wasting all that time, shortchanged the muse by mistranslating the unfiltered excellence she brought you. The next time you start to feel that way, read this quote and smack yourself.

Even the best of us cannot perfectly reproduce that feeling of awe and excitement we get when inspiration strikes. How could you ever hope to capture something so perfect that it makes you drop your silverware in the middle of a meal, leap out of bed in the middle of the night, tumble out of the shower with shampoo still in your hair? You can't. All you can do is dash after it and hope you gain enough momentum to carry you across the finish line.

But the more you give in to that chase, the harder you work at it, the nearer you will come to closing the gap. So keep at it. Keep putting the hard work in, and you will notice improvement. Keep indulging those ideas, no matter how short of the mark you think you're coming. Eventually you'll begin to learn the language of the muse, one word at a time, and your translations will become clearer and clearer. You might never feel you've managed to bottle the whole thunderstorm, but that's no reason not to allow yourself a little satisfaction at having held a bit of lightning in your hands.

And at the end of the day, it's a good thing to feel you haven't done your idea justice. The first step in bridging the chasm is realizing it's there, acknowledging how far you must go. Don't ask me what the hell the next step is, because I haven't made it that far yet. I'm still peering across mine, wondering how big a ramp I need to build. If I ever make it across, I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Shapeshifters

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, the blog is morphing and changing forms as we talk about shapeshifters.

We've all encountered that familiar scene, be it horror, fantasy, or science fiction. You know the one. One of the protagonists finds himself in a ghastly predicament when he bursts into a room in hot pursuit of the bad guy and instead finds two identical versions of his best friend, fighting each other. "Don't shoot, it's me!" they both shout in unison. "He's lying, shoot him." "Not me, him!"

Thus are the perils of dealing with a shapeshifter. Should you find yourself at odds with a creature that can change its form at will, you'd better make sure you know every member of your party very well.

Like many tropes, shapeshifting is a very old concept with roots in the folklore and mythology of varied cultures around the world. Countless stories speak of creatures, beings, and deities that assume multiple forms at various times, either as an unwilling act of punishment or happenstance, or of their own volition. Examples include the manipulation of one's outward age or gender, becoming an animal of some kind, or even the envious ability to change into any form at will.

Many Native American tribes told tales of "skin-walkers," magicians who had the power to perfectly disguise themselves as any animal in the forest. Some Navajo even believed that these skin-walkers could take the form of another person if they were able to establish eye contact. Meanwhile, in Greek mythology, Proteus, one of the many gods of the sea, could take any form he desired. His legend says that he could foretell the future, but refused to portend anyone's fate unless they had the skill to capture him. He would then elude his adventurous pursuers by changing shape.

In modern fiction, shapeshifters often play an antagonistic role, especially in the horror genre. What could be more frightening than a predatory villain with the power to become a carnivorous beast? Or worse, a monster that takes the shape of your allies and infiltrates your group, picking you off one by one?

The latter is found in the John W. Campbell story Who Goes There?, thrice adapted to film. My favorite is the 1982 version, The Thing. John Carpenter's adaptation captures the escalating tension of Campbell's tale, as scientists in a research facility on Antarctica encounter an alien entity that takes the shape of its victims.

I've yet to write any shapeshifters into my own fiction (er, not explicitly anyway), but the idea is certainly a fascinating one. As history shows, it's also a versatile one, lending itself to just about every genre in speculative fiction depending on how you want to approach it. If you're writing sci-fi, make your shapeshifter an alien, or the wielder of advanced technology. Writing fantasy? A shapeshifting spell or magic potion will do the trick quite nicely.

And perhaps the most interesting part of the shapeshifter trope is that, like many concepts in mythology, it does have a basis in reality. Our own animal kingdom is possessed of some of the most incredible examples of life imaginable, including shapeshifters. There's nothing "magical" about a cephalopod's eerie ability to change its color and skin texture to avoid predators, but seeing it in action can be awe inspiring. So if we do indeed come into contact with alien life one day, don't be shocked if we end up running into some shapeshifters. After all, we already have them right here on Earth.

Recommended Reading:
Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson
A Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin
It by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
The Thing (1982)
Terminator 2

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
Mortal Kombat