Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

I’ve seen this on a t-shirt in a few different places. It’s supposed to be some kind of devil-may-care, “I’m try-sexual – I’ll try anything” type of declaration. But I saw it worn by the co-author of Hard Case Crime’s brilliant comic, Peepland.  And it might as well be the thesis for film noir, and their pulp crime antecedents.

It’s also a good guideline for compelling stories, and the hardest one to follow. At least, for me.

But, film noir first. The last few months, every unoccupied Sunday morning, I join Eddie Muller and a gaggle of folks on Twitter for Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley.  At 10am Eastern, you can follow #NoirAlley and join a conversation about that morning’s selection.  Yes, they do have well known entries, like The Maltese Falcon (the debut) but they also show off lesser known, but equally deserving entries like the boxing tale The Set-Up featuring one of Robert Ryan’s best performances. I’m still waiting for a chance to see Woman on the Run again – a lost classic starring Ann Sheridan as a wife searching for her estranged husband after he’s witnessed a gangland hit – but there are a large number of interesting films to explore.

Noir Alley was an offshoot of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” where, for Friday nights in August it was nothing but noir all the time.  An evening of desperate people making rough choices and exposing the dark underbelly of the American dream.  Hearing Eddie Muller’s insights before and after each feature exposed how much of the film noir movement grew organically from the American crime fiction and an onrush of talent escaping the shadow of fascism in Europe.  No one declared a movement until well after the ‘golden years’ of film noir ended.

Defining film noir always started with the aesthetics, but in truth, it was the story and the characters: deeply flawed, often villainous protagonists making bad decisions in their attempt to get what they want.  Many look at the Bogart detective dramas as the template for noir, but I look at Double Indemnity and it’s overlooked counterpart (and feature on this week’s edition of Noir Alley), The Prowler.  Both feature hungry individuals looking for ways out of their stifling lives.

Desperate measures lead to bad decisions. And bad decisions make great stories.

They rarely make for happy endings, though. At least, if you’re following the template of noir fiction. Or, the endings are never bright shiny ones. Let’s take “The Set-Up” for example. The happy ending involves a man having his hands broken and shattered for not falling down and being a terrible boxer, like everyone expected of him. It saves his marriage, and probably his life, but there’s a cost.

Bad decision lead to bad ends. No good deed goes unpunished, and the bad ones often end with you getting gunned down in the desert.  It’s not the best and most hopeful way of seeing the world.  To quote Greg Stoltze’s noir RPG game, it’s A Dirty World. Everything comes at a cost.

Which means adhering to the “Bad decisions lead to good stories” tenant when you’re suffering depression is a very difficult thing to do.  Despite everything you hear, no one ever does their best work when hungry, depressed, strung-out, or miserable. No one wants to write about grim situations and desperate individuals caught in traps of their own making when they’re clinging onto their anti-anxiety meds for a reason not to go back to cutting.

But their are other stories you can tell.

I know many folks deride ‘cozy’ mysteries. And I’m not to fond of them myself in some ways. But one can write mysteries, or stories exploring the dark, where the dark doesn’t consume everything.  The late P.D. James is a perfect example of this balance. She is not a shy lady when it comes to the dark side. She spends the first act of her Adam Dalgliesh books describing the deep flaws and dark desires of her soon-to-be suspects. And when the detective-poet delves into the lives surrounding the crime, darker secrets come to night.

But P.D. James offers the reader something noir doesn’t – a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train. For all the darkness she finds, at the end of the book, justice exists.  The killer will be found. And while not everyone is innocent, the truly guilty will be found and punished.  Bad decisions may lead to good stories – but they don’t have to be the protagonist’s bad decisions.  And I don’t have to write about them if I’m not in the best place to do so. There are other ways.

So every free Sunday at 10, I’ll settle with TCM and Eddie Muller and #NoirAlley. I’ll see how bad decisions can lead to good stories. But I will also curl up with P. D. James as well. I’ll find different kinds of stories, different kinds of comfort, and know when I can’t write one because it hits too close to home, the other is there for me.

Now both stories will still be shot by John Alton – but that’s another discussion.

Choose your own Adventure

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

The door opens up and you find yourself in the main hub area of your beautiful job. Rows of cube-chairs, one after the other, line the massive open plan office space. You can see your reflection in the great silvered mirrors of the executive offices. The executives get private thinking spaces where they can still observe every person. You’re glad they’re always watching over you, able to see and hear everything they do.

As you make your way to your cube chair, you see Don and Samantha. Don is one of the executives. His bespoke suit and designer interface apps show you just how well he’s doing with the company. He has Samantha in a small corner of the office, near one of the windowless ‘consultation rooms.’ He appears to be encouraging her to get inside.

Samantha seems uncomfortable. She wants to want to get back to her cube chair. She’s glancing at Don, and back at her chair, and then back at the consultation room.  Then, she looks at you.

Do you interfere? If so, select <HERE>
Do you head to your cube chair? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You smile to Don and give a not to Samantha, but then walk to your cube chair and get ready for the day. Don gives you a knowing smile as he pulls Samantha in for a private consultation. You feel warm: an executive has given you a positive personal sign.

 Your managers know best. Your Human Resources confessor told you the first day you were inducted into the sixth floor processing pool. Trust their judgement in all things. What’s best for them, is best for the company, and best for you.

You strap yourself into the cube chair, locking down your hands and feet. You plug in the appropriate fluid and waste taps before lowering the workspace helmet over your face and eyes. There’s darkness at first. Then, you can smell the delicious scent of fresh coffee and warmed apple tarts. The startup screen begins with daily announcements from management and HR, as well as your set tasks for the day and the amount of debt reduction you can expect from completing them.

And then static fills your vision. A woman in a silver mask appears and begins speaking to you in modulated tones:

“This is an emergency broadcast from free space to anyone listening. You are being used. Your mind is being used. While your conscious brain is being occupied with garbage work which will never clear your debt, the unoccupied sections of your brain are being hijacked. Your creativity, your dreams, your ideas are all being drained away and classified as company intellectual property.

They are stealing your soul! But you can fight this. Do not call HR and do not hit the cutoff switch. If you stay on-line, we can firewall your mind and let you work freely without the company patenting your dreams. Stay on the line and we will free you.”

This is obviously a dangerous transmission from anti-capitalist forces, but you find something bothering you. What if she is right? What if the company, HR, and management are not being honest with how they use your staff potential? What if the debt will never be wiped away?

Your doubts ring out as you finger the emergency cut-off and HR alarm button.

Do you listen to the broadcast? If so, select <HERE>
Do you call HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You hit the button several times. Your work helmet powers down and the transmission has replaced a blues screen, instructing you to wait until HR arrives. “You may remove your helmet at this time.”

You take off your helmet and look out onto the cube chairs. Around you, others are removing their helmets. Red lights flash, highlighting the cubes where assistance is needed. Men and women in black suits and handsome ballistic mesh armor move briskly through the workspace. Some stop and talk with your coworkers, asking them if they are OK, and checking their vitals.

Others move to cubes where co-workers still have their helmets on. They activate overrides and pull your former colleagues out of their cube chairs, quickly sedating and binding them so they do not harm themselves. You can see many of them were from original colonist stock – various shades of dark skin and musculature a not suited for intellectual corporate work.

You remind yourself you need to watch out for other co-workers like them. Did one of them plant the transmission?

And then you notice Samantha leaving the conference room with her clothes torn, trying to avoid the HR presence by heading right to the rest cube.

Do you follow her? If so, select <HERE>
Do you report her to HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries
by Andrija Popovic
(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

[Excerpt from artificial drive-through attendant Turing Test with Miss Rosa Mirella, 26, of Gaithersburg, MD. In this test series, subjects are randomly exposed to either a human attendant or an artificial one.]

INTERVIEWER: Miss Mirella, just to review, prior to the very end of your experience in the drive through of your local [REDACTED] franchise, you had no sense this was an artificial individual?

R. MIRELLA: Nope. Honestly, I was completely fooled in the beginning. I mean, he had to confirm the order because the speaker was shitty, he forgot to put in extra ketchup packets, all of it. He even looked sweaty. I didn’t think you could do that with fake people yet.
 

INTERVIEWER: But at the very end, as you were reviewing your food, you definitively flagged the attendant as artificial.

R. MIRELLA: Oh, yes. Because of the soda.

INTERVIEWER: The soda?

R. MIRELLA: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t understand.

R. MIRELLA: OK, so, you know when you get a soda it has those little dots you push in? The ones that say if it’s Diet, Iced Tea, Root Beer or Other? Well, I ordered a diet Coke and a Dr. Pepper, you get me?

INTERVIEWER: I think so…

R. MIRELLA: So, when I got the drinks, the diet had the little Diet thing pushed in, right? And the Dr. Pepper had the Other thing pushed in.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, we saw that. And that’s correct.

R. MIRELLA: Have you ever been through one of your own drive-thrus? Or worked in one? No one ever just hits the Other button. Everyone pushes all of the buttons in on the lid.

[Extended pause as the Interviewer stares blankly at Miss Mirella.]

R. MIRELLA: What? I did it when I worked there. Only a robot does shit exactly like the manual.

[Interview was then terminated when Interviewer picked up notes, walked out of the interview room, and began to spew out a large number of obscenities in view of the observation team.

[Complied results and recommendations can be found in memo: “How Do We Get AI’s to Act Like Frustrated Employees?”]

[Excerpt ends.]

END

All Politics is Local

All Politics is Local
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Ms. Deveroux, give us a straight answer.” Duane Jefferson, seventy years old and elder statesman of the Groveton city council, crossed all four of his arms. “Is the waste water disposal system for the oil wells causing our inter-dimensional issues?”

Thea Deveroux, an occult seismologist with Oklahoma Geological Survey, tucked one of her antennae back against her pointed ear and replied:  “Yes.”

A storm of growls and keening laments rattled the town hall. Duane just shook his head. His membranous wings, black as his bald head, flapped irritably.

“Order! Dammit, order!” Alicia Sears, new mayor of Groveton, banged the gavel with a cilia-covered hand. Her six eyes were heavy and dark with exhaustion.

Chad Michael Rimer – representative from Halithon Pandimensional Petroleum and the only baseline human in the room- spoke: “Please. Everyone, settle down. Look, we all knew there may be minor environmental issues with this new fracturing and disposal process…”

“What?” Duane clacked his talons. “Look, we know the drilling boosted the economy. And we knew there would be risks. But when y’all came here, you didn’t mention gates to chaos realms on Henderson Drive!”

“The damn hounds mauled my cattle!” John Murphy stood, frills red and agitated. “Protective runes cost money and blood. How the Hell am I supposed to keep out seven dimensional predators without bankruptcy?!”

“I appreciate your concern. But, we don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the dimensional subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk,” said Rimer. The pandimensional wards sewn into his Alexander Amosu Bespoke suit gave it an oily sheen. “HPP is continuing its studies. We feel there is no direct correlation between our processes and the regrettable phenomenon–.”

Mayor Sears interrupted.”And the report?”

“Our in-house teams will be releasing a full rebuttal. We disagree with the hasty and ill-evidenced conclusions–”

Howls from the audience overwhelmed Rimer. Deveroux looked moments away from bludgeoning the HPP representative with the six hundred page report.

Duane slapped his wings. “Madame Mayor, I motion that, based on Ms. Deveroux’s testimony and the report submitted, we consider Ordinance 193 and halt this method of waste water dumping.”

Citizens and town council-members alike growled, snarled and slapped their shells in approval. Rimer glanced at the runes dancing on his tablet. “Point of order!”

Silence, and then Rimer said: “The council cannot take up this ordinance.”

“Mr. Rimer, it is well within our jurisdiction to regulate how business is conducted in our town. Especially if it impacts the well being, and pan-dimensional stability of its residents.” The Mayor rattled her spines, annoyed.

“Not anymore.” Rimer placed his tablet into his briefcase. “As of twenty minutes ago the State Legislature voted on, and the Governor signed, HR 193. This blocks local governments from regulating energy operations in the state. If you want to shut us down, take it up with the legislature and the Governor.”

Everyone dove for their tablets as Rimer made his exit. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Our legal team will be in touch.”

Order was abandoned. People swarmed the council members. Others mobbed Thea Deveroux, demanding answers. Alice had to stand on her chair and let loose an unearthly howl before order resumed.

But no one was in the mood for further business. Motions were tabled, and everyone filtered out. Only Duane and Alice remained in the meeting hall.

“We can’t let this go on, Alice.” Duane stood up, one set of arms folded behind him. “I mean, look at this. We’re barely human anymore. Haystacks of tentacles roam Memorial Park like it’s their back yard. And what do we get out of it? The blood magic expenses eating away at the money HPP brings in. We’ve got to do something.”

“You know my grandfather was from West Virginia?” Duane shook his head. The Mayor clicked her secondary mandibles in thought. “Yep. Coal country. When I was young, he told me how the mining company cut safety gear costs by using outdated masks. Or how botched coal ash storage contaminated the aquifer with heavy metals. Then, he lost his best friend to methane explosion. The mine could have prevented it if they weren’t in such a hurry to open up new seams.”

“Every now and again, someone talked about suing or getting the government involved.” Alice stared at the text of the bill scrolling down her tablet. “No one ever did, though.”

“Why’s that?” Duane tilted his head and antennae.

“I asked my granddad. ‘Why they put up with it?’ He always told me to stand up to bullies when I grew up.” She packed away her tablet, notes, and documents into a messenger bag. “He said, ‘What else are we going to do? That’s just the price you pay for having a job.'”

“Do you believe that?”

Alice laughed. “Fuck no, Duane. I love my Grandad, but he spent his off hours crawled into a bottle of cheap beer.” The Mayor picked up her bag. “I’ve got to get to work, start making a plan to overturn this bill. Maybe go to court. I’ll be in early tomorrow. Should I expect you there?”

Duane smiled. He tucked his wings along his back. “Yep. I’ll be here. See you tomorrow, madam Mayor.”

“See you tomorrow, Duane.” She haded out. Duane turned off the lights, closed the door and locked the town hall behind him.

In the distance, green and purple flares jetted from the drilling wells dotted landscape. The tentacled mounds in the park stood in a circle, undulating around the statue of the town founder. A pair of hounds, lean and barely in this dimension, howled at the moon. They serenaded him all the way home.

Duane hoped they’d hush up, or find a rabbit to chase. Tomorrow would be another long day in local politics.

This Was Not the Corporate Dystopia I Was Promised

The other title for this post is “We Need The Punk In Cyberpunk Now.”

Recent events has me thinking on a big influence on my formative years: the literature and the aesthetic of cyberpunk. While many grew up with images of the space age, with (white, western) humanity cementing its manifest destiny among the stars, I grew up when a certain generation of authors looked at the great space wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered how many of the components were built by globalized companies using third world labor.

This was a world were the buds of the modern internet first took root when we started connecting home computers into telephone lines, then immediately used it to trade porn and complain about movies. Cell phones first hinted at the idea we wouldn’t be tied to cables and trunk-lines forever. And corporations grew, adopting a “Shareholder Profits Shall Be the Whole of the Law” attitude which still rules today. Conversations like the one ceased to be dialog out of Alan J. Pakula thrillers:

“We can make tones of money using these quick-term stock scams and hiding the results overseas. Now it’ll crash the economy-”
“What about the quarterly profits?”
“Oh, we’ll see a massive spike before total devastation.”
“We can blame the immigrants. Do it, and we’ll be rich enough to not care.”

And instead became standard operating procedure for every global company out there.

Take all of the above, mingle onto it the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the paintings of Patrick Nagel, and Michael Mann’s visual palette from Miami Vice, and you have the birth of a neon-drenched corporate dystopia where the wealthy live in technological splendor, while the same technology alternately imprisons and liberates those scrambling to survive day in, day out. The tools of the oppressors became ways we could give them a massive “Fuck You.”

But while we have cyberpunk’s technology for the most part (No wicked cybernetics, but re-read Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. The book opens with someone killed by a drone strike, folks), and we certainly have the ever-present corporate domination (Get and watch the Max Headroom collection from Shout Factory. Check “Grossberg’s Return” for the shocking idea of the media creating news, not reporting it –  *cough*InfoWars*cough* – while “Lessons” talks explicitly about education treated as a commodity to keep it out of the hands of the poor), we are missing some things.

The aesthetics for one. I think Starcadian best expresses this longing for a familiar vibe in the video for “Chinatown”

The other part we’ve lost – and some would argue never really had – was the punk part. That rebellious growl at seeing our future stolen, at dehumanization, and at the abuse of power. The part of the aesthetic born from folks like Stiff Little Fingers. Listen to “Suspect Device

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell

Don’t believe them
Don’t believe them
Don’t be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

Tell me that’s not the punk part of the equation in a song?

This is what we need in the world right now. We need the punk side of cyberpunk. We need our Suspect Devices. We need our Edison Carters, though these days he’d be working for ProPublica, not Network 23.  It’s out there, but right now it’s controlled by people who think swatting a lady for not appreciating the dick picks you sent her after seeing her Steam profile. We need to take it back. We need to use what we learned from our CyberPunk forefathers to take this world and cast it into ugly, sharp relief. We need to channel the growling anger of punk and it’s children, and focus it on the folks who’d take away our freedoms in the name of liberty.

When I see an article posted about how our new administration is taking pages out of Totalitarianism 101 (Say, by de-legitimizing a free press or picking targets for ‘true patriots’ to rail against), I don’t react with a sad face. I use the angry one. And I tell them exactly how they can fight – Maybe not with their fists, but with dollars, votes, and showing up at a town hall meeting with a ZIP code on your chest while getting into a legislator’s grill.

I think anyone writing contemporary SF who felt something shiver inside when they watched the opening minutes of Blade Runner, saw Synners spelled in a unique way, or heard the sky described as television tuned to a dead channel, should do the same.  Or as Henry Rollins put it:

henryrollinsjoestrummer

So, borrowing from Joe’s bandmate, Paul – when they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head? Or on the record button of your cell phone, streaming live and direct to the world?

It’s cyberpunk time.

I’ve Seen The Future, Brother, It Is Murder

I couldn’t help but bring Leonard Cohen into this. He’s one of the many artists whose loss gouged great wounds in our hearts. But Leonard’s poetry will live on in everyone he’s touched, and in every story he’s inspired.

This month’s post is about the future. It’s about two different futures, though. One is personal – my hopes and ambitions for the coming year – and the other is about a dominant theme for 2017 in my opinion.

Let’s talk about the big things first:

An image from when my corporate cyberpunk dystopia also was stylishly designed and beautifully filmed. Alas, we know it’s a dystopia by the fact only the worst will come and we won’t have any of the cool features. If you don’t believe me, check out the new Ghost in the Shell trailer. It had me running back to my copies of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for the definitive adaptation of the material.

But as I was watching, and thinking about the themes of the series, especially the second one, I started to feel how it would impact our world in 2017.

The first series, dealing with the Laughing Man, introduced the idea of a Stand Alone Complex but the second series brought that idea to a more terrifying place: the idea that the phenomenon could be harnessed, with the right manipulation, to political ends.

As I watch it now, I realize this is rooted in something deeper I’ve been touching on in other entries: narrative control. Our world today, moreso than any previous time in our history, is vulnerable to active and directed efforts at narrative control. Information is spreading so fast, and people accept it so readily, one can use this to easily control a post-truth world.

We’ve been seeing this building for many years. But what once were ‘whisper campaigns’ or coded statements have become very open attempts at narrative control, and misdirection. The atmosphere has become so permissive, that people will shoot up local DC pizzerias based on deliberately created lies.

This upcoming year, I see Narrative Control becoming a key battleground for the spirit of the world we live in, but it will be done in tandem with something I’m calling ‘narrative distribution control.’ It’s not enough to create a narrative and set it lose in the world, then back it up. You’ve got to suppress counter-narratives or, even worse, actual facts.

I heard a description of a small mid-west rust belt town from a former resident. He said everyone listened to specific radio stations, which carried specific songs and messages. Listening to anything else got you odd looks. You only believed certain information sources. Challenging those would get everyone looking at you, saying ‘your education is showing.’ And Gods help you if you deviated from the norm.

It honestly sounded like descriptions of North Korea, except in this case the narrative control, and the choking of information to ‘approved’ sources, comes from the community and not the government. What’s more terrifying? A government imposing a narrative on you, or your own neighbors doing so?

So how do we stop this? How do we prevent us from becoming a less colorful version of The Village?

Do not not be pushed. Start small rebellions. Find these communities and the dissidents within. Let them know they’re not alone, that you know the narrative they’re being fed is not the whole truth. Create alternate narratives and find ways to deliver them to occupied areas.

We need to become the pirate radio station intercepting and countering the control narrative. We have to speak the truth, with proof and citation, and sneak the truth under the wire to those who need it. Learn from those fighting authoritarians elsewhere. Fight them here.

And don’t be afraid to yell “You lie!” when needed. They were willing to do so to support easy falsehoods, you have to do so to support the complicated truth.

Now, on a more personal note…

As with all years, I discover a bit more about myself as a writer, and then immediately get angry at college me for not realizing this. Time is the biggest enemy. But here is what I have learned:

Comfortable structures work best: Now, by comfortable I do not mean ‘comfort zone’ or anything similar. I mean finding a structure that works like a good hammer, or a pen that’s just the right size so it doesn’t dig into your hand the wrong way.

In this case, the comfortable structure is the one I was first trained to use: Screenplay outlines and treatments. During November, I cranked out several short stories at a speed which surprised me. And I realized the key was not only having a good old Syd Field outline for the story and writing up a treatment with scene breakdown beforehand.

I’m still working on how to scale this up, and start layering it for multiple plots, but the focus it conveyed contrasts heavily against the way I wandered around on Metaphysical Graffiti. Even using a plot outlining structure there, it lead to a lot of bloated beginnings and boring middles. I’m going to have to tear down the whole project at this point. But I think it’s for the best. I’m still unsure if I am ready to write this book yet.

Short Stories vs Novels – the battle continues: These days, with the limited time I have, my energy has gone into short stories and the submission grind. I’m still working on novels – still developing long form projects – but they are not my sole focus at this point. Right now, short stories are letting me further development my craft and try to get them out in the world. I won’t pretend I’m the second coming of Ted Chaing or Aunt Beast, but the chances of me getting stories published and developing a name is still greater than my chances of getting a novel subbed at this time.

Speaking of novels…

Generating Stories: Here, I come back to the great question – what stories do I want to tell? What do I want to read? I’m developing bits and pieces of backgrounds, thinking about the stories I want to tell, but finding the right voice for them proves difficult. I know the feeling I want to generate – a feeling I can’t get elsewhere – but grabbing onto it is taking a while.

But I’ll keep working on it. Can’t do much else – the stories aren’t being quiet.

Give yourself time: If this November taught me anything, I need time. Concerted, focus time where I can write. During this November’s write-ins with my group, I was able to put down words at a rate I can’t manage when sneaking out time after work, or in the wee hours before my job drains me of everything but anger.

The hardest part? The part of me, brought from a very Slavic upbringing, that says this isn’t real work, and I should be spending this time on the weekends fixing the fireplace. I think the biggest issue I have to overcome is the continued, nagging sense that this is not a worthwhile activity, even though I’d probably go mad if I couldn’t do it….

So, what am I going to do in 2017?

  • -Continue to write short stories, at least one a quarter, and keep pushing them out into the world to see who grabs onto them.
  • -Work on adapting Screenwriting structures to plotting
  • -Find characters and settings that will let me tell the stories I want to tell.
  • -Fight the part of me that won’t give time for writing
  • -Work on connecting with others and building a support network.
  • -Re-plot Metaphysical Graffiti
  • -Brainstorm the type of stories I want to tell and find characters within them
  • -Anger is an energy. Use it.

Talk to you all in the future
-> Andrija, Dec 2017

Two Updates for October

(Image by the great Ron Spencer)

It’s the waning days of October and, here in the DC area, it finally feels like October. Morning air bites you on the cheek. Leaves rattle on the asphalt in slow-motion tornadoes. ALIEN ARTIFACTS has seen print. I’m still focusing on writing short stories, especially now that three new anthologies have opened for submission.

If you’re interested, click here.

Which leads me to my first update: This year NaNoWriMo is more about getting short stories finished than anything else. I’m finishing up one, and I’ve got at least three more I hope to write over the course of the month. If nothing else, t his is going to give me a good supply of stories I can rework and shop around at a later date.

Now, is the focus on short stories a good strategic one? Well, there are a few factors here. First and foremost: writing is not my full-time job. My goals here are not economic. This means, I’m more worried about getting my name out there and being seen for producing good stories, working well with editors, and adding to my publication credits.

Will I stop work on the novel(s)? No. Working on the novels(s) have taught me a lot and I’m still learning from the experience. But the short stories are giving me something immediate to focus on while, in the background, I can think about novels in a larger, more structural framework. In either case, I keep writing.

This is the second update. It’s more a follow-up on my last entry on writing horror.

I’ve started reading short stories in alternation with my massive stack of novels. My copy of People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror! came in. Silvia Garcia-Moreno’s opening essay talked about her experience watching horror films from America, or reading stories where everyone was well-off, white and trouble-free until they discovered their idyllic house is on a Native American graveyard!

She rooted for the ghosts in those cases.

I immediately thought about going to see The Ruins with some friends. We expected a trashy horror film. We didn’t expect to have the theater almost to ourselves. And what I didn’t expect was to be rooting for the carnivorous plants right from the first five minutes.

“Oh, I hope these privileged little shits die horribly.”

Most American horror falls on the conservative side of John Carpenter’s spectrum: there is evil out there come to sap our precious American bodily fluids! We must do all we can to defend our white picket fences against these terrors, be they atomic-powered ants, Satanists, or ethnic folks.

For the most part, I couldn’t take those films seriously. If the dumb teenagers got cut up, was their own fault. There’s literally a crazy old guy telling you about the murders! What do you need, a Greek oracle?

I felt more for the people in Alien and The Thing. They were just trying to survive, same as the creatures they faced. Of the suburban horror films I enjoyed, they were usually handled by Wes Craven. The Nightmare films, at their core, are all about kids paying for the secrets and lies spread by their parents. Suburbia isn’t a thing to defend – it’s a prison hiding everyone’s sins.

What happens when you sympathize with the monsters too much?

Or, think of it this way: What happens if I do start with a human I sympathize with? Someone who’s struggling to make it through the day, is happy he doesn’t get pulled aside for a more detailed search while going to a game, has depression and a mess of issues? And then I sic some terrible traumatic horror on them, destroy their world, rip them to pieces…

My first thought was, “Why isn’t this happening to his douchebag of a boss? Isn’t life tilted enough in the dudebro’s favor that even the monsters don’t go after them?”

Yeah, there’s my world of horror:

One day, the great monsters dwelling in the outer dark will see you, weighed down by stress, anxiety and the grind of surviving this world. Instead of torturing you they will just sigh, pat you on the head, hand you some antidepressants, and go to haunt the $1.4 million dollar home your boss bought for himself and his mistress while working into an early grave.

But that’s not horror then, is it? That’s just a lovely, lovely fantasy.