Thursday, April 28, 2011

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2011: Prelude

So I have it on good authority that "all those horror con people want to do is drink and get laid" (looking at you, Scott). With that ominous warning still echoing in my ears, I snapped up my ticket to Texas Frightmare Weekend posthaste. I'll be spending this weekend, April 29-May 1, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Dallas, TX.

Highlights I'm looking forward to:

  • Zombie walk
  • Hearse and shock rod show
  • Fondling other people's gorgeous tattoos
  • Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl screening
  • Human Centipede screening with live commentary by director and star. Can't wait to hear them justify this.
  • Mutant Girls Squad screening
  • Clive Barker doing... whatever he's doing, and looking pretty while he does it
  • Voltaire puppet show
  • and there's a teeny part of me that really wants to go to the Sharktopus screening, because after all that it's not like I have any damn shame left. I can feel you judging. Quit it.
  • Also, watching my best friend wet herself at the sight of Costas Mandylor and the rest of the SAW cast
  • And possibly, just maybe, imbibing some spirits

Updates to follow!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: The Pound, issue #1


The Pound, issue #1. Written by Stephan Nilson, art by Karl Waller. Published by Frozen Beach Studios. Created by Stephan Nilson and Charles Pritchett. FREE DOWNLOAD! :D

Animal control's dangerous enough when you're dealing with plain old dogs. Two laid-off dog catchers go into business for themselves. Just as the full moon is getting close.

The story starts with action right off the bat, and then we meet our heroes. Followed by some more action and end with a question. A good, solid structure for a first issue.

For a comic and a horror comic at that, a lot of work is put into developing Scott. That's worth mentioning. That work includes a strange moment, though. I can understand being offended by unrequested charity. Going out and starting a business because of unrequested charity threw me for a while... I guess I see the connection now, but he sounded pretty sure they were financially stable.

Unfortunately, there are a few places where the sequence of events is unclear and one place where the dialogue seems to be out of order. On the whole, the art's good and there are nice compositional details.

It's a start, though, and I do tend to be forgiving when it comes to first issues. I'd definitely look at #2 when it comes out.

Two and a half weeblies out of five.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dysto-mayto, Uto-mahto

In fiction, dystopias come in lots of shades.

There’s the oppressive gloom of social and governmental dystopias like V for Vendetta and Minority Report. The bleakness of ecological and environmentally skewed stories in the vein of Waterworld and Soylent Green. The menacing darkness of tech-induced hells such as The Matrix and The Terminator.

Mega-corporations. The post-apocalypse. Zombies.

But as varied (and as good) as these are, their premises are just dismal points plotted along the same grayscale continuum. The despair is widespread, the oppression equal opportunity.

How do you like your steak? Charred, burned, or just overcooked?

Many dystopic settings are points along the same grayscale contiuum.
But some of my favorite takes on dystopian futures come in vibrant colors. They have blue skies and fresh air. The food is good, and the tech is great.

Or if not - even if life never strays from beneath the dome of a city - at least the people are happy.

Write the Fight Right, by Alan Baxter

Write the Fight Right, by Alan Baxter
Published April 4, 2011
Ebook available on Smashwords and Amazon

From the Smashwords page: "Author and martial arts instructor, Alan Baxter, presents a short, ~12,000 word, ebook describing all the things a writer needs to consider when writing fight scenes. Baxter's experience from decades as a career martial artist make this book a valuable resource for writers who want to understand what fighting is all about - what it really feels like and what does and doesn't work - and how to factor those things into their writing to make their fight scenes visceral, realistic page turners."

Baxter has a number of good pointers and practical tidbits about fighting. "Something unexpected will happen almost immediately" and "Describe the reaction to the hit instead of describing the hit" particularly got my brain moving. I've done a fair amount on research into hand-to-hand combat over the years (he notes, and I'm sure he's right, that taking classes would be better than reading) so I had heard some of the thing he says before. Even so, I found this a good and useful set of pointers. 

I wish he had explained more about what "disrupting the opponent's centerline" means and entails. Disrupt how? By hitting? Knocking off balance? Both?

He includes a Cheat Sheet Checklist at the end with the major points -- I'll be using that for quick reference.

For only two dollars, a tasty twelve thousand words of insider information. I don't know what rating system we're using this week, so I'll give this two thumbs up!

ETA: We are using a five weeble system, so I give this 3.5 weebles! Now, as they say "weebles wobble but they don't fall down" but I'm thinking that half a weeble would indeed fall down... that's another post, though.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can dystopias be beat?

Reading Teresa Jusino article on dystopias and the new brand of dystopia coming out, which prompted some thoughts of my own since I believe the dystopia-genre was created with a certain message in mind, and thus the unhappy endings.

Looking at dystopias from a psychological approach, since they are very much psychological as they are sociological studies, one has to keep in mind that humans evolved to cohere to their group. Why? Because being left out of the group meant death. Humans need other humans, not just for basic needs, but also for emotional support; being around those you care also lowers cortisol levels, a side effect of stress, which prolongs your life.  So what happens when the entire group follows an authoritarian government? Well the individual follows along as well, even if they know it’s not right. Social psychology experiments such as Milgram’s  and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison have shown that people, just like you and me, will follow authority figures even though that means conducting in unethical acts. We don’t want to be left out, simple as that. This also leads to social effects such as diffusion of responsibility, where it’s not our personal problem to confront Big Brother, and that surely someone else will do it. Except everyone else is thinking the same.

And in a world where everything is controlled by the government, it’s easy to imagine the people learn to become helpless. Because what’s the point? All you can do is breath, eat, and sleep.

There are rare cases where an individual will stand up, even at the cost of being ostracized by their group. But such cases like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi have shown they face hostile reaction from their peers and eventual assassination. And that is the sad truth, sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a hero.

So can dystopias be beat? It’s a possibility, but it’s one that requires a lot of sacrifice from individuals, one that most of us are not willing to give (notice how people still drive around in their SUVs despite the rising gas prices). This is why heroes are so rare and revered, both in fiction and reality, because they did something that most of us can’t.

And I know it sounds very depressing, which is the point of dystopias, not to cheer you up but to kick you into gear. Don’t depend on a hero to come along when you yourself are capable of being active in your own government. Better to be mindful of what your government is becoming and halt its progress (i.e. don’t vote for bad politicians)  than to have to go through a bloody revolution to reverse its effects, which not only means fighting Big Brother, but also fighting people just like yourself who can’t quite see the truth.

Don’t beat a dystopia – prevent it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dystopia and hope

To try to bring together John's post on disliking depressing stories (a perfectly valid point) and Becca's question "What has dystopia done for you?", I'll get a little personal.

Like a lot of people -- like a lot of writers -- I carry around a certain amount of undiagnosed depression. My writing and my depression have a strange, symbiotic relationship, but for now let's just say that I've been wrestling with it for most of my life.

Dystopian stories are depressing, as John pointed out. I would even say that there's a certain correlation between a dystopian society and the inside of a depressed mind. I can attest to the interior harangues, the (self)flagellation, and the  sort of numbed haze that dystopian medications seem to induce.

Fortunately, a good chunk of dystopian fiction involves resisting and fighting the dystopia on some level. Maybe the protagonist does not win, but the fight will go on because we've seen one character struggling in the system, we've seen one light flicker to life in the darkness. There'll be more.

Here's where Becca's question comes in: dystopias remind me to keep fighting.

In other flavors of fiction, where people are beautiful and the quest may be tough but there's help to be had and love to be found, it's easier to fight the good fight. And I enjoy those stories, but they don't resonate with a depressive like me the way resisting-the-dystopia stories do.

I was going to recommend Mockingbird by Walter Tevis -- it's a hopeful dystopia, with a post-apocalyptic flavor -- but apparently it's out of print. I got my copy through If you can find it in a library or a second-hand bookstore...

...which brings me around to digital publishing and books that perhaps ought to be available as ebooks if nobody can be bothered to print them. I'm still a dead tree reader, but I can see how the wind's blowing. But that's another round robin topic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review - TRUTHSEEKER by C.E. Murphy

Release date: August 31, 2010 (Del Rey)
Trade paperback: 336 pgs


Gifted with an uncanny intuition, Lara Jansen nonetheless thinks there is nothing particularly special about her. All that changes when a handsome but mysterious man enters her quiet Boston tailor shop and reveals himself to be a prince of Faerie. What’s more, Dafydd ap Caerwyn claims that Lara is a truthseeker, a person with the rare talent of being able to tell truth from falsehood. Dafydd begs Lara to help solve his brother’s murder, of which Dafydd himself is the only suspect.

Acting against her practical nature, Lara agrees to step through a window into another world. Caught between bitterly opposed Seelie forces and Dafydd’s secrets, which are as perilous as he is irresistible, Lara finds that her abilities are increasing in unexpected and uncontrollable ways. With the fate of two worlds at stake and a malevolent entity wielding the darkest of magic, Lara and Dafydd will risk everything on a love that may be their salvation—or the most treacherous illusion of all. 

Stalk the author: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Find the book(s): Truthseeker / Wayfinder (TBR)


I had been looking forward to reading Truthseeker for a while - a faerie tale from one of the first writers to drag urban fantasy into the mainstream? Hell yes, please.

Down-to-earth Lara Jensen reminded me a lot of "Bones" heroine Temperance Brennan: she's straightforward, honest, and literal to an often humorous extreme. It's not entirely her fault, though; Lara is a Truthseeker, gifted with the rarest of magic. Her power allows her to feel truth and deceit along a spectrum of perceptions, often through sound. To Lara, when something "rings false" it really rings. 

Lara knows there is something off about Dafydd ap Caerwyn the moment he introduces himself as David Kirwen, and Murphy does not draw things out unnecessarily (a huge plus) before showing us what it is. Dafydd is a prince of the Seelie Court, and he has been looking for Lara for a long, long time. A hundred years to be exact, though only days have passed in the Barrow-lands he calls home, where he stands accused of his brother's murder.

The opening pages moved a little slow for me. The exaggerated nonverbal communication and revelation of backstory through dialogue along the lines of "As you know, xxx..." was a bit much for me, although it accomplished its goal of painting distinct characters and shaping personalities that remained delightfully consistent throughout the book. Patience with my own impatience was generously rewarded within the first fifty pages, and after that I couldn't put the book down.

Murphy is adept at exotic worldbuilding and I expect that from her, which might help explain why I was somewhat bored in the mundane streets of Boston. From the moment Lara entered the Barrow-lands, I knew I was screwed: there was no way I was putting this book down, and I would probably be late for work in the morning (I was). Murphy's Barrow-lands are breathtaking and shadowed by malevolence, the mythos woven by a pro.

Rating:   (4/5 weeblies)  
Recommend?  Yes.
Etc:  Look for the sequel and closing chapter, Wayfinder, due September 6, 2011.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What has dystopian fiction done for me, anyway?

The answer to that question is: a hell of a lot.

I mentioned in a reply to L.'s post that the first book I can remember really lighting up my neurons was The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Not to dis Pat the Cat, The Poky Little Puppy, or Mr. Grumpy, but The Giver spoke to me in an entirely different language.

It said, Adults are tall, imperfect children. It said, The whole world can be wrong.

It said, Self-deception is more powerful and alluring than you know, yet. It said, Question everything.

Succinctly, it said, "Think for your own damn self, mini-Becca," and it did so in a way that was both beautiful and empowering.

Dystopian fiction is often described as a warning, a stark illustration of what awaits at the end of the road we're already barreling down way too fast to hit the brakes anyway. For me, though, dystopian fiction introduced me to my first real role model.

I wanted to keep the stories, wanted to share them. I wanted to see in color and show others what I saw. I wanted to be strong enough to bear the truth and the memories, all of them. And I've never lost that guiding star.

What has dystopian fiction done for you?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Round Robin - Dystopia: Unhappily Ever After

Dystopias are quite fascinating ‘what ifs’. What if the government became a tyrant? What if all our rights and freedoms were taken away? What if our lives were completely disposable? It gets pretty scary, like a horror movie on a sociological scale. And that’s what I believe dystopias were originally meant to achieve: to scare the hell out of you with terrifying Big Brother societies that could toss you around like their personal play thing. Your life meant nothing. You meant nothing.

But why all the unhappiness? Can’t we have a glimmer of hope that the hero may make? Sure, but it’s going to be a false hope. The idea of dystopias was a warning, that this was the sort of society you didn’t want and for good reasons too. George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian society was brutal fascism, where propaganda was pounded into your head and Big Brother invaded your privacy. You learned to believe in contradictions and to always trust the government’s decision. If Big Brother said ‘jump’, you would ask ‘how high?’ And in the end you couldn’t win. Oh, the hero (Winston Smith) does try, but ultimately he is broken and re-educated. It’s unhappy and it’s meant to be.    

A happy ending would only offset the warning that Orwell was trying to show. Imagine if the Surgeon General’s warning ended on a light note: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema – oh but with modern medicine, you have a fair chance of surviving just about anything. Doesn’t quite have the same impact.

And think about it, if it were really that easy for the protagonist to escape or fix society, wouldn’t it have been done long ago? It takes a lot for society to change, massive movements and sometimes bloody revolutions. And if the government has an iron grip over the citizens, chances are any change has to occur underground, which really hinders it. Escaping may not be so great either as most folks don’t know how to survive on their own, and unfortunately, society has done nothing to prepare people – hell, they can’t even prepare kids who are entering the real world. And then there are surviving the elements, disease, and predators. After a while, Big Brother might not be so bad. 

The best way to stop a dystopian society is to prevent it from ever happening, because once it’s set up, you going to have a helluva time trying to get away. And although dystopias may be speculative fiction, there’s always a shred of truth to them, art imitating life. So be mindful, because Big Brother hasn’t stopped watching you. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


While I found the linked article interesting, I tend to feel that it's using the word dystopia in a manner most people wouldn't understand; even calling Blade Runner dystopian seems wrong to me, as the society shown in the movie never seems particularly repressive. For a world to be truly dystopian (i.e. the opposite of utopian) I think it really has to be authoritarian, and the decayed world of Blade Runner doesn't seem to count; it's certainly not what I'd call utopian, but the human characters still seem to have the freedom to live their lives their way if they don't draw undue attention to themselves. Replicants might feel differently.

At least one of my unproduced horror movie scripts is set in a dystopian world, but the biggest problem I find with writing dystopian fiction these days is that events in the real world overtake me so fast that I can barely keep up. A few years ago I started writing an SF novel about a future civil war in Britain which I've been dabbling with ever since, but British society has changed so rapidly over that period that news stories often seem far more dystopian than I'd imagined the country could decay to when I began writing it.

I mean, who'd have imagined ten years ago that people would be 'strip searched' by an X-ray machine merely in order to get on a plane?

Winter is Coming. Grab Your Skis.

This weekend, I’m losing my favorite secret to the world.

Not that I can really consider a New York Times bestseller -- and one of the best-loved fantasy novels of all time -- my secret. But for years it’s felt that way. I first read A Game of Thrones in hardback when I was working part time at a Super Crown books (anybody remember those?). Back then, the cover still looked like this:

First Edition Hardcover

Nobody recommended it to me. I didn’t read any reviews beforehand. I just saw it hit the shelf, bought a copy, and read it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Round Robin Conversation #1 - Dystopia

Let's start with dystopia.

There was a fairly recent blog post about dystopia (at Literary Friction) which got me interested in how it's being defined currently. Why currently? Because the current definition's a little different from the one I remember.

I grew up in the later stages of the Cold War (in the US) and we had our prime example of dystopia right over there in the USSR: paranoia, surveillance, people disappearing, fear and violence, all under the pretense of being a "worker's paradise." Sure, there were a few people accusing our government of the same, but we were obviously nothing like the Soviets. Maybe there was some concern that we were heading toward a better-living-through-pharmacology dystopia as seen in Brave New World and THX 1138, but at least we weren't heading for a violent, fascist state like 1984.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, the internet brought the world to our desktops, 9/11 blindsided us and it's ten years of war and counting.

What does dystopia look like now? What does it look like in urban fantasy, high fantasy, horror? I think this is a great place to start a conversation among the six of us. We'll be blogging our thoughts and letting the conversation stray where it wills (which is what's so great about conversations after all) as long as we keep it relevant to our genres and/or creative writing.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Query Do’s and Donuts

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Hell – Query Letter Hell to be precise. Straight-up, queries are the bane of all writers, but they’re required if you ever plan on getting published with an agent. But don’t panic! They can be written, and here are a few hints and many wrist-slappings that I’ve picked up.

DO NOT shove your entire book in a query. It’s literally impossible to cram 70,000-word manuscript into 200-250 words summary. People try – and they fail. Miserable, miserable failure. Instead…

DO focus on the beginning of your story or the main conflict. Have too many conflicts and can’t weed them out? Try writing a one-sentence summary of your plot to focus on what’s REALLY important to your story. If Jill finding her magical locket before the demon does is your plot, then Jill’s romantic fling should not show up in the query.

DO NOT put too much backstory into your query. Not only will this expand your query, making it too long (remember, an agent’s time is precious and they’re not going to wade through your 1-page query), but it also bogs down what could be the really cool parts in your query. Instead…

DO create a well-constructed sentence or two about the premise. This is more important for fantasy/sci-fi queries, to help establish the world your character is going to be running through. Get to the bare bones, the most relevant parts of the world, and move on to what your character actually does!

DO NOT tell. This should be an obvious one, right? In queries, with the limited space you have, it’s ever-so-tempting to tell instead of show, because it takes less wordage. But what does that tell the agent? Your query is not only a pitch, but also a sample of your writing, and if they see nothing but tell, tell, tell, they’re going to think that’s how the book is written. Instead…

DO – back to the well-constructed sentences. No really, this is what query writing is all about, the most concise, straight to the point, sentences ever imagined. You like writing purple prose? Forget it. There’s no room for it and you’ll never get your point across if you write elaborate sentences. Make. Every Word. Count.

DO NOT get frustrated. Another no-brainer, but it’s easy to get pessimistic about these things because it’s truly a different set of skills to write queries than it is to write a story. But don’t give up! You need to get back on the horse after it’s bucked you off and take another round of punishment. Think of school, how many hours did you spend studying for tests and quizzes? How many hours of note taking did you do? I bet a lot. And learning to write queries is no different. But if you lose faith, you’ll never see your book down at the local bookstore with its (hopefully) perdy polished cover. Just keep that goal in mind.

DO look at and critique other queries. Yeah, I get it, we all have busy lives, but if you can’t spare a few moments to sharpen your query writing skills, then you aren’t really dedicated to the craft nor to getting your book published. The best way to learn is to read many, many queries, to see what works and what doesn’t. Check out QueryShark and its archive of queries. You can learn even better by actively critiquing other queries on forums. Even if you don’t know how to, just sit back and watch the gurus do it and see what they do, what they pick out. Read something in someone’s query that had you stumped? Then point it out! Because chances are, if you didn’t get it, then neither will the agent.

Most important, and above all, a query must hook the agent. You could write the most well-constructed query, but if it’s boring as hell, then guess what? Reject.

For more info on how to write queries, check out Absolute Write’s QLH stickies (password protected to keep the robot-ninjas out). And remember, writing is fun – if not a little scary at times.