“Slaughter, Slaughter, Everywhere” by Nick Slosser

I think it’s fair to say that Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 rekindled our love of zombies.  The film demonstrated that zombies need not be the slow-moving easy targets of earlier films, and that zombie apocalypses have much to offer—at least, for storytellers.  The movie created a wave of enthusiasm that’s still going strong:  Battlefield Baseball (2003), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Land of the Dead (2005), Slither (2006), Planet Terror (2007), Dead Snow (2008), Zombieland (2009), The Crazies (2010), and the upcoming Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament and World War Z to name a few.  Wikipedia lists over 180 movies with zombies made between 2008 and 2010.  Contrast that to an earlier heyday, 1984 to 1986, which produced such titles as The Return of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., Night of the Comet, and Night of the Creeps, but yielded a total of only 17 movies.

True, our love of zombies was more undead than dead, but for a long time George Romero, John Russo, and Lucio Fulci seemed to have had the last word on the subject.  But since 28 Days Later.  And now even publishing companies have caught the bug and zombie fiction is spreading like a zombie plague.  From straightforward narratives like World War Z to zombie POVs like Breathers to literary mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, from anthologies like The Living Dead to graphic novels like The Walking Dead to choose-your-own-adventures like Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?, zombie fiction is hot.

But while vampires are essentially malleable—they can be scary, sexy, romantic, funny, metaphoric, anti-heroic, or even sparkly—zombies have fewer inherent possibilities.  So why the craze and how long will it last—i.e. should I jump on board?

Perhaps it was, as Publisher’s Weekly suggests, a response to the September 11 attacks:  “Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the national fear of a faceless horde of enemies slavishly obedient to their objective of dishing out extreme violence.  Suddenly, the zombie became a monster for our time.”  It is notable that 28 Days Later hit the theatres that very next year.  And its raging zombies were neither slow-moving, nor easy targets—a closer approximation to terrorists than, say, Romero’s stumbling, fumbling meat-puppets.

But I wonder why, if terrorists really are behind our collective anxiety, the ‘alien among us’ story—e.g. The Faculty—didn’t take off as well.  Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflected our fear of communist infiltration during the early years of the Cold War, and updated versions of these stories could have done the same for our fear of highly-planned attacks by single-minded fanatics using our own institutions and technologies against us.  And better, I think, than zombie stories.

So I wonder, in the case of the zombie, if it’s not the “faceless horde” that actually scares us, but rather the upending of our world as we know it.  Think about some of our major crises:  terrorism and war in the Middle East; a depressed national economy with an uncertain future as a former superpower; environmental destruction and global climate change…just to name a few.  I wonder if it’s not the apocalypse in zombie apocalypse that’s really what gets us in the gonads.

Still, how long can the trend last?  Some publishing executives will tell you that it’s coming to an end.  On the one hand, I agree.  There’s only so much you can do with zombies.

But it’s interesting to note some other trends in fantasy fiction:  vampires (a perennial), steampunk, and young adult romance with angels—not guardian angels, but sexy fallen angels who become smitten with teenage girls.  Hell, it worked for a sparkly emo vampire named Edward, so why not an angsty angel?  This last trend is truly interesting.  Belief in angels seems to be on the rise.  According to a Time magazine article in September 2008, over half of 1,700 respondents believed in the existence of angels.  Could it be that the face of these crises, people are turning to religion for answers?  And getting angels in return?

The ebbs and flows in the popularity of horror, crime fiction, and film noir are easily traceable to periods of collective anxiety over issues too big for most people to fully comprehend, let alone influence—issues like the Red Scare and the Atomic Bomb in the 40’s and 50’s, the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 70’s, the War on Terror, Global Climate Change, and China as the Next Great Superpower today.  Perhaps belief in angels and interest in angel fiction fall into that same category and reflect widespread anxiety in the extreme.

If that’s true, then I wonder if the zombie craze is indeed coming to an end.  Fads may come and go.  And there are certainly aspects of this zombie trend that are fad-like—the literary mash-ups, for one.  But if, as I suspect, the interest in apocalypse fiction (and angels) is rooted in fears deeper and greater than that of terrorists plotting in our backyards, and realizing that the crises underlying these fears will not simply fade away, then I would argue that this zombie fiction trend might have a longer lifespan than God or nature had intended.

“The Vacuum of Self-Promotion” by Aaron Hilton

Last weekend I paid a visit to my favorite independent mystery bookstore, Murder By The Book, to skim the new releases, and catch up with my friend and writer colleague, Nick. He’s aware that I’m pursuing self-publishing, and when I selected the recent issue of Crimespree magazine, because it featured a pair of successful e-publishers sipping brandy in lounge chairs, a large garbage can full of their dead tree books burning, with the caption “The Future Of Publishing” at the top, I thought it would be packed with insider advice.

Nick encouraged me to read the article of the two writers interviewing each other before I purchase the issue, because it was more about a pair of good old boys patting each other on the back (a mutual admirations society) than sharing knowledge on e-publishing. I read the first column of the article and found that Nick’s opinion of the piece was accurate. I was a little disappointed. Then I figured maybe the magazine editor spun the article wrong, because one of the writers maintains an awesome blog loaded with information about e-publishing.

Nick commented that he too was hoping the article would’ve shed some light on how e-publishing is going to effect the future of publishing. I recommended The Complete Guide To Self-Publishing by Marilyn Ross & Sue Collier, because the 5th edition contains a new chapter on social media marketing.

My friend responded that one of the reasons he would continue to pursue traditional publishing is that he doesn’t want to be bothered with matters of marketing and promotion. ‘I just want to write,’ he said. Well, before this debate could get any deeper and enlightening, more customers walked into the bookstore, so I had to leave.

This post is the perfect platform to get the idea to my friend and other newbie writers out there, whether they’re pursuing traditional or independent publishing.

The success of your writing hinges on your own efforts to sell your stories.

Sure, Big 6 publishers in New York/L.A. throw thousands of dollars in marketing and promotional campaigns for the Stephen King, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and James Patterson books in their houses, but that’s because a large publishing house’s job is to sell paper, not the stories printed there.

Every day more and more writers (J.A. Konrath, Lee Goldberg, Marcus Sakey, Barry Eisler) are using electronic platforms (Kindle, PubIt, Smashwords, iBooks), social sites (Facebook, Crimespace, Goodreads), and blogs to build a readership.

How are they doing this? Most of them are starting out with baby steps, releasing novellas and/or short stories, either stand-alone, or as part of collection, and usually for ninety-nine cents or three bucks (especially on Amazon’s kindle because when you price you’re story at $2.99 or more you receive a 70% percent royalty, which is a preferable stipend compared to most traditional contracts only offering 15-20%).

Sorry. I got off track there for a moment.

This post is about how to begin using social media marketing to build a readership. Read the other posts on this blog. You’ll find information on the craft of writing, anthology databases, personal journal entries on dealing with and surviving rejection, and occasionally, flash fiction short stories.

On social sites you can build a page that’s for your personal identity, or even a character in your story. My illustrator on Facebook has a page for his personal life and a separate page for his artwork and the fans that portion of his life is for. As with chat rooms, use social marketing carefully and respectfully.

I’ve gotten in touch with a number of successful writers on Facebook and friended them, but if the pop up window says to only friend them if you know them personally, I only send a courteous, professional message and leave it at that. A mid-list author wished me a happy birthday once. As a result, I follow her work, even though it’s more soft-boiled.

The worst thing for a new writer to do is to post an ad about the release of their first book on the wall of another person’s page. You can ask for permission if you want, but even then, I still wouldn’t do it, as that published writer you made contact with will probably delete you from their friends list with a click faster than a sip of coffee. They’re apt to label you a spammer forever. Posting an ad of achievement on another person’s wall is the equivalent of a foreign country landing on the moon and spray painting the plague that commemorates the Apollo 11 landing.

A good method to start buzz and gain reviews for a book is to offer free electronic copies through your blog or a message board, as long as the reader agrees to post a review (positive or negative), on their own blog, website, or Amazon. J.A. Konrath did this with Draculas and Lee Goldberg did it with a re-release of his thriller Dead Space, which I recently participated in. Now, what’s your guarantee that the reader will just take the free book and run, giving you the middle finger, and not posting the review?

Faith, my friends.

You can also file that person’s name in the back of your head and if they ever show up at a signing for an autograph, refuse to give them one, then regale everyone in the bookstore how the jackass took a free book from you and didn’t follow through with their part of the bargain.

Just kidding. That may cause waves in the bookstore, or diminish the brightness of your star trying to sparkle in the void and vacuum of self-promotion.

Thanks for reading.

“The Definitive Marilyn Monroe Biography” by Aaron Hilton

A couple of weeks ago I tackled the chore of organizing the pit/office/second bedroom of the apartment so I’d be able sit at my writer’s desk in order to focus harder on my craft. This meant sorting through a great deal of books. A lot of them I’m holding onto, some I was able to trade at Murder By The Book (Portland’s most famous mystery bookstore) for some in-store credit, while a few others will be donated.

I came across many treasures. In particular a stockpile of Marilyn Monroe books. I know. Who doesn’t own a book about Marilyn Monroe? Whether it focuses on her photographs, films, life story, tragic death, JFK, RFK, or mental illness, there are mountains of tomes available about America’s iconic blonde bombshell.

For quite some time I’ve been plotting the backstory of my Generation-X private eye, Matt Grudge. He’s a third generation detective. His father was an insurance investigator in the Seventies and Eighties. I planned on writing about his grandfather being a Pinkerton operative from the Forties to the Sixties. Marilyn Monroe was going to be featured as a major character in this historical fiction novel. At times, I could still fool myself into believing this book had the potential to be my All American Novel that would bridge generation gaps, because it would reference so many icons from today and yesterday.

The key word here is ‘was.’

The definitive Marilyn Monroe biography, Inside Marilyn Monroe: A Memoir by John Gilmore, altered my vision. Weighing in at a little over two-hundred pages, Mr. Gilmore’s  frank and poignant rendering of Monroe is intimate and spare of bullshit. The Marilyn Monroe he writes about is a living, breathing legend who, as an orphan, was easy prey for the Hollywood identity grinder of the period to absorb and mold in an image that would make money. The only thing that kept her going were mutual friends (which he quotes throughout his book) and her love of art and poetry.

In Monroe’s final days depression, loneliness, and a dependency on pills took her life. End of story. But it’s not the end of her memory.

Not if the other biographies about Monroe continue to flow like the oil bleeding from a ruptured, sabotaged coastal refinery. The atomic sun inside the legend of Marilyn Monroe will fade away into the goo of tabloid journalism: lurid affairs, conspiracy theories, and true crime armchair theorists anticipating if her exhumed remains would bare any DNA evidence. Watch a CSI re-run on Spike or DVD for that kind of sensational crap, please.

So, back to how this has altered my craft. When I eventually write about the days of Matt’s grandfather, Marilyn Monroe won’t be a character in my novel. No matter what level of respect I could bring to her persona by studying material, which is 99.9 percent tainted, I believe her soul deserves to rest in peace.

On Music

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Nick Slosser, The Whole Works

“On Music” by Nick Slosser

In an earlier blog post, Jim Smiley talked a lot about mood music, listing various songs and artists he might listen to while writing a piece with a particular mood.  Aaron Hilton responded enthusiastically with his own list of songs and artists.  Writing with Aaron on a regular basis, I’ve gained some insight into his musical predilections, which include among other things an extensive soundtrack collection.  And I believe it works for him…and probably Jim Smiley too.

I also love music and have plenty of it to fit almost any mood, and occasionally I do just that.  For example, a gloomy, not-bound-for-a-happy-ending story might call for Concrete Blonde or Mazzy Star or the soundtrack to Chinatown.  More often, though, I’ll match the music to my story’s setting.  If I’m trying to cast my mind back to the early decades of the last century, then popular jazz is my weapon of choice.  Nothing puts me there quicker and with less pain than old-school crooners and husky-voiced torch singers.  And if my story is set in the 70’s or 80’s—post-Vietnam and Watergate, pre-cell phone and Internet—I favor bands with plenty of adolescent Cold War angst like Blondie, The Clash, Television, or X, while for 21st century stories, I might punch in The White Stripes, The Black Keys, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But music is a tough one for me.  It can hinder as well as help, feeding the need to create the right atmosphere before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), which can turn into a deadly trap.  Finding time is difficult enough already.  If I suddenly realize I have a free hour or two, I’ve got to be locked and loaded, ready to fire.  I cannot allow myself to think there’s too much noise, not enough light, too many people, not enough cushion beneath me, or it’s the wrong time of day or the wrong kind of music or the wrong kind of pen and paper.  Worrying about too much/not enough/the wrong kind of anything only obstructs the writing.  It is nice when it all comes together, and the music and mood and time of day and everything else contribute to productive vomiting, but it’s not necessary.  And if you’re in the habit of going to a coffee shop, as I am, then you don’t always have a choice in the music being played.

While music can set a mood, it can also be distracting.  If Blondie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing, I’m very likely singing along—at least in my own head—which is certainly not good for word-smithing.  Worse, music can alter or limit the writing.  Ever hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” and not think of that scene in Reservoir Dogs?  Listening to an evocative soundtrack, like Reservoir Dogs, can dampen the creative possibilities by evoking too many associations—associations that might creep into your story, or worse, push it toward the derivative.

Most often I like music to be simply background noise that allows me to focus when silence would be distracting.  But to be background noise, the music must not be distracting or tied to the story.  So there are times when I listen to punk or funk or surf or southern rock or anything but the logical, predictable choice.  Example:  Tejano music.  Aside from the few videos I’ve seen on mounted TVs while waiting for my bean burrito and Coke with real sugar, Tejano music does not carry with it strong visual or narrative associations.  And neither do the lyrics, which are ninety percent indecipherable to me anyway.  Tejano music is neither distracting nor does it nudge my story in any direction by dredging up images and clichés that are better left lying dormant.  So when I’m writing a story, sometimes the best music for me to write by would be my last choice for the soundtrack.

Rooting for a Friend

Posted: February 5, 2011 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“Rooting for a Friend” By Jim Ehmann

One of my best and oldest friends is an extremely accomplished writer. His experience is as a journalist. Writing and editing for several different major newspapers, he has received top writing awards from The Chicago Tribune among others. Faced with the uncertain future of the newspaper business, my friend enrolled in an MFA writing program as a step towards opening a new career path.

One result of his Masters program was the completion of his first book-length project. He acquired a genuine agent and has been seeking a publisher for a while. I asked for an opportunity to read the book and he was kind enough to send me a draft.

Although his writing is unquestionably beautiful and professional, the agent told him there is a significant problem with the book. It is quite difficult to classify the book for marketing purposes. The subtitle – at least on the version I have – includes the phrase “A Memoir…”.  I have no experience reading memoirs, but looking at any bestseller list from the past few years informs me that memoirs are very hot stuff. I read an article months ago about the most famous circle of local Portland writers, and when asked what they were working on now nearly every one of them said they were in some stage of completing a memoir. Anyway, after reading my friends book I can see where it might be an awkward fit in that category.

His book has an unusual structure. Probably at least three-fourths of the book’s word content actually directly concerns a certain famous historical figure. My friend tells how his own recent life became entwined with this figure, literally and metaphorically. He did a huge amount of research on this person. One goal of the book seems to be about documenting a new or previously little-known angle on this person’s life. A great deal of history is presented. He adds substantial speculation about his subject’s innermost thoughts and personality based on his thorough research, including imagined conversations. He artfully finds ways of weaving his own story in and out of this history.

So is the book a memoir about my friend’s life? I think many people would more likely see it as an alternate biography of the famous person, but it is clearly not just that. The book is complex in many wonderful ways, in ways I could never have conceived or executed. In the end – not surprising to me – my friend elevates the book to a universal level, making a powerful statement for us all.

But how do you sell it to a publisher? It is obviously too personal to be on the biography shelves, but has so much historical detail that it might not be what memoir readers expect. More than anything, it is great writing, a work of art. Art and business often do not get along. I am hoping someone will give my friend a chance, and that many people can read his book and decide the meaning for themselves.

Persons of Interest

Posted: February 3, 2011 in Jim Smiley, The Whole Works

“Persons of Interest” by Jim Smiley

My new friend looked at me intently. “Wait a damn second. You’re a Southerner?”

I puffed out my chest and made pigeon noises. “Enough. I’m actually just a border ruffian from Southwest Missouri.”

Lou laughed. “I think to be a Southerner is to be forever in a state of exile.”

“I think I agree, but is it because we know that no one, ever, lives up to the bullshit they preach in church? And everyone who knows better would rather live in exile than be a hypocrite?”

“You might have read some Flannery O’Connor.”

“I might have, at that.” I took a deep breath. “But if what we say is true, then that means the place we love is less about the geography than the people.”

“That means the people are the geography.”

Point taken.

The upshot? Get out there. People are interesting. Pull on your hip waders, and prepare to bullshit!

“Intriguing But Not Compelling” by John C. Caruso

Well, Portland Mayhem Company made it through a bumpy start to the new year, but it seems like we’re all as committed as ever to keep bringing you fresh fiction each Friday and sharing with you our daily tragedies and triumphs here in the trenches as “early career” writers.  We’ve got some great things planned for the coming weeks and months, including some guest posts from a few local writers whose novels and stories you may have read.  Keep coming back for updates on this.

A couple weeks ago, my friend and colleague Aaron Hilton shared with us the rejection letter he received from an editor who had been considering his first Grunge Operatives novel.  It’s a hard thing to get a rejection, and I admire Aaron’s courage in the face of this as well as his willingness to share with all of us his process in dealing with this apparent set-back.  The thing about being a writer at this stage is that you put in long hard hours behind the scenes and when you emerge with your manuscript, ready to share it with the world, you’re often not quite prepared to be banished back to the study.  After sending your little treasure off to an editor across the continent and waiting patiently for several silent months of secret hope, you feel a cold shock when your months of labor are answered with a brief reply of just two or three paragraphs.  Try as you might, you can’t quite read between the lines well enough to fathom whatever cryptic pearls of wisdom may be offered.

You want to be logical about it.  You want to be rational and really take in the criticism so your writing can get stronger and you can do even better next time.  But it’s hard to be clear-headed and analytical about a rejection because, well, it’s a rejection.  Emotions get mixed up in there and you tend to take it hard.  I know I do.

Just this last week I got my own rejection letter from an editor who had been looking at my novel The Lawn Man for several months, and since he had requested the full manuscript this had been just long enough to get my hopes up.  He sent a nice rejection.  Not the best one I’ve ever gotten, but at least I could tell he’d read the whole thing and seemed to appreciate a lot of things about it.  He said he liked the escalation of the crimes committed.  He said he “found the characters interesting” and enjoyed the “clever elements . . . throughout.”

Ultimately, however, the answer was no.  Although the plot was “intriguing,” he hadn’t enjoyed the novel as much as he had hoped.

“Intriguing but not compelling” is a phrase I’ve heard before.  My previous novel, Gasoline, still unpublished and now collecting dust in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet also made it pretty far with several editors but never saw its way into print.  And the rejections, polite as they were, boiled down to this phrase.

I haven’t given up on selling The Lawn Man.  Far from it.  This is just the beginning, and I’m still confident that it will find a publisher — and plenty of enthusiastic readers — but as I work on my next novel, I know what I need to do: make damn sure from day one that I have something compelling.