Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fairy Tales for Zombies

Being the I'm-always-up-way-too-late-and-never-get-enough-sleep type, exacerbated by trying to write with a baby-turned-toddler, you may think the zombies I'm referring to are those people with the hollowed eye-sockets of the sleep-deprived, wandering the world bemoaning their lack of brains - like me.

Normally you'd be right but this time I'm taking the zombie thing a little more literally (or is it 'pre-zombie' or perhaps 'zombie-predisposition'?).

I'm talking about a world where compulsive flesh-eating frequents situations and more often than not, those around you become the monsters of your nightmares before your very eyes. I'm talking about the world of fairy tales - not the Disneyfied, pixie-dust-laden, happily ever-after stories that most associate with the term 'fairy tales'. No. I'm talking about the 'olde world' fairy tales, where lecherous wolves eat grandmothers and little girls without repercussions, where seemingly sweet old women capture abandoned children and lock them up till they're fat enough to eat, where jealous mothers serve up their own sons as pies for dinner and families sit around gnawing the bones of their neighbors as if it were the normal thing to do. Cannibalism and the consumption of people is rife in fairy tales and while this knowledge isn't new to me at all, it only just occurred to me that the current zombie trend in urban fantasy and other cross-over genres actually has a lot in common with those tales long ago.

Today's 'hot' UF monster serves nicely as a metaphor for our Western culture's rampant consumerism blindly following popular trends as if we have no brains of our own.

And what are we telling ourselves? That we're rotting on the inside. That absorbing both the 'tripe' and the genius of others into our lives and minds at a voracious rate does nothing for our own mental state. It doesn't even sate the hunger we have. Instead it begets more. So we gorge, as we rot, and then we wonder where everyone went when it no longer feels good. They didn't disappear because they were disgusted by our eating habits. They disappeared because we ate them until there was nothing left.

Here's the thing. People are delicious. They really are.

I just can't help thinking it wouldn't hurt to be a little more discerning of who - and what - we bite into.

NOTE: Illustrations/color script by Katy Wu as part of a Pixar Art Internship. See more of the color script for her interpretation of Hansel & Gretel at her blog (click on the pictures to go directly there).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

When You Skid to a Halt...

Ah yes. You're weeks (or months) into a WIP journey that requires some sideways thinking, some creative research and some serious pedal to the metal (read pen to paper) when the inevitable 'brain does not comply' message starts to blink redly at you from the console of your mind.

What went wrong?

That's the million dollar (OK, maybe $50) question. If you can answer that then you have a good chance at fixing the malfunction, stopping that insistent (and mind-numbing) flashing and getting back on track before you completely lose the plot - and I mean that literally. The plot part, that is.

There are several possible causes for this revolting brain matter (and by that I mean your synapses are staging a little coup, holding your creativity hostage until you meet their terms and decide that yes, perhaps you should run things their way).

But wait! That sounds like terrorist activities! And we should never negotiate with terrorists. Right?

Right.

Except....

It's YOUR brain and you can't function without it. This is one warning you can't ignore.

Most likely it's a sign that whatever was going 'right' before (get it? 'Right' brain? Creativity? Don't worry about it... I know you're tired) isn't going right - or correctly - now.

So what to do?

We go back to the derailment, or at least the warning of one, and find out what the heck caused it. Unfortunately that's easier said than done. Its source could be several different things - or a combination of two or all of them. So far I've noted these possible culprits:
  1. You've gotten off-track, your subconscious knows it and is trying to get you to turn around
  2. You're going in too many directions at once and it's exhausting your inner resources
  3. You're bored and lost focus, direction and drive
  4. You need some creative fuel to get you safely away from those inviting looking ruts near the side of the road so you can easily turn the wheels of your mind any direction they need to go, depending on what's up ahead
  5. Or simply, you're tired and you need to have a good nap - maybe three
My little mental warning light has been blinking at me for quite a few days now (OK, maybe it's closer to a month) and after seriously checking the creative engine I've come to the reluctant conclusion that I'm suffering from a bad case of number 5 (notice how the letters were larger than all the others?) with a little number 4 thrown in for good measure.

I think it may be the curse of the nightowl or, if we're keeping our metaphors straight, the midnight driver. No matter how exhausted you feel all day, come sundown or 9pm (nearer to each other than ever this Summer solstice) you're feeling 'awake' for the first time all day and simply MUST make up for lost time by re-tripling your efforts in the few precious working hours you have to yourself. This happens, of course, while all the sensible people have traded their thinking caps for night caps and are drifting blisfully into the land of dreams - the brain's true playground.

But once the warning light starts flashing it doesn't matter how many hours you try to creatively drive your brain - you get nowhere. The obvious solution is to pull over, turn off the engine and get some sleep. But it's hard. Habits are hard to break - harder, I think, when you're exhausted. If we could only be sure that pulling into a rest stop would actually benefit us getting to our destination.

Here's the thing I have to remind myself of though. It's not JUST about the destination. It really IS about the journey, and that, in the case of writing and other creative pursuits, AFFECTS the destination. I want to finish my novel - yes. But I'm going to be very unhappy if all this effort only produces something crappy. Crap is bound to happen but if you're barreling along on the road intent on finishing no matter what then you miss the gems on the way - the ones that make all those miles worth the effort in the first place. The ones that give you a story worth sharing at the end.

So, for the next week at least, I'm going to actually heed that warning light and turn off the engine a little earlier than usual for me. Stopping to count some sheep gives me a better chance of catching one of them acting out of the ordinary and who knows? Maybe it'll kick start my engine back onto the 'right' side of the write road.

Tick, tick, tick... Could that be my engine trying to tick over?

Or is it coming from that sheep over there?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Genre Town: Digging Into the Foundations of Urban Fantasy

I'll be writing another post on the definition of Urban Fantasy sometime in the near future I'm sure but it's worth mentioning beforehand just how difficult it is to pin down. Not only that, despite this genre/sub-genre/subset/writing expression's slippery boundaries -

(that's right - people can't even agree on whether it's a 'real' genre or not! But for the sake of simplicity let's just say it is... besides, I don't feel like spending days with my nose in the dictionary trying to define definitions!)

- this doesn't-fit-any-known-pigeon-hole of a genre's ambiguity is, I believe, one of it's attractions.

There are theories on where Urban Fantasy originated but one thing is for certain: it WAS around before Buffy hit the small screen and became an instant cult classic. Perhaps not the little-girl-kicks-demon-ass-with-witty-repartee kind of Urban Fantasy but nevertheless it existed - as far back as the 1920's.

So, very quickly (because I should be asleep, not ruminating on various kinds of speculative fiction) here's the areas Urban Fantasy both overlaps with and owes its style to in a broad sense (though individual series may or may not include all of these):
  • Fantasy
  • Mythic Fiction
  • Dark Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Romance/Erotic Fiction
  • Suspense
  • Contemporary Fantasy
  • Fairy Tales
  • Urban Legends
  • Mysteries
  • Chick Lit
  • Comedy
  • Adventure Stories
  • Noir
  • Superheros (including comics)
While many believe Urban Fantasy has it's roots in the Horror genre there's no doubt it garners interest from a much wider fan base than horror fans. Urban Fantasy runs the gamut from darkly intense and gory to light comedic adventure-romps to erotic suspense and paranormal mysteries.

It's definitely a mixed bag - and that's one of it's best kept, yet most obvious secrets: Urban Fantasy's lack of specific definition and combination of varying genre elements has an incredibly wide appeal.

Urban Fantasy draws in readers from many different genres, who would NOT normally pick up fantasy, and has them reading - avidly. There's something for almost everyone - well, at least the genre has the scope for enough differences in style to attract many different kinds of readers - from the more serious to 'popcorn' readers.

The popcorn readers have it made with explosions, chases, sassy humor, the 'wow' factor of magic and the supernatural, gorgeously troubled girls who know how to wear high heeled boots, attractive bad boys/vampires/werewolves/whatever and underdog wins situations.

More serious readers get their appetites sated with a nod or more to myths, legends and history juxtaposed against a contemporary society full of modern issues and situations. The use of myth and legend often leads to the feeling of a modern-day fairy tale - and one that isn't necessarily guaranteed a happy ending.

It's this fairy tale aspect in a modern setting which makes it a perfect vehicle to examine issues, both personal and global, through metaphor and as a result - I believe - engenders a loyal following among fans who not only love the worlds but the people they're populated with.

To put it bluntly it's story candy that might actually be good for you!

What's not to love about that?

NOTE: All images ©Linda Bergkvist. Click on the pics to link back to her site FURIAE to see her amazing and extensive galleries or click on the banner below.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Creative Detour: Vitaly S Alexius

Why haven't I heard of this guy before??!

Almost all his work uses dramatic light sources and has complementary color palettes playing against each other to make you stop and look.

His digital paintings are perfect for fantasy and sci-fi inspiration... ...(though be aware he's illustrating book covers as well as producing original works)

and his photography is an urban fantasy author's dream, with some dramatic landscapes thrown in for good measure. There are stories in all of his pictures.

I can't make up my mind if I prefer this guy's illustration or photography.Luckily I don't have to choose!

NOTE: Be prepared to be at his online gallery for a while - he's a prolific artist!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inkling: A Project By Any Other Name


"There’s a garden I visit nightly. It’s vast. I’m a lucid dreamer of the astral trailer park variety. These characters are part of the pantheon of my personal mythology, representations of myself, my friends, my obsessions, desires, fears… played out in urban fairy tale action adventures."
Alfonso Kellenberger


Inklings
, ideas... they tickle the back of your mind so you twitch uncomfortably in the midst of doing other things, making you want to screech to a halt and grab them before they dissipate in your exiting Muse's jet stream.

That impulse doesn't guarantee they'll be any good when you get a close look at them but the promise that they might be..? Every writer knows it's worth risking a pulled brain-muscle over, even if it's only to stop and check.

I had one of those rubber-braining ideas last night.

But first let me give you some context.

I've been trying to think of a way to combine subjects and genres I love into one big, ongoing writing-plus project and I think I'm getting close.

(What's a 'writing-plus' project? Hmm. I think I'll keep that under my hat for now. You'll just have to wait and see...)

This pot I've been throwing things into has the following predictable ingredients (well - it's predictable if you know me at all): a base soup of fairy tales (ye olde gritty ones), generous rashes of retold fairy tales (sometimes more of a stretch from their origins than you might think), rough chunks of urban fantasy (where the otherworld overlaps and influences the mortal one), a mix of myths and legends to taste and suspense for spice.

It's not a new idea to combine these facets to make a single type of story, or in my case string of stories, but pinning down exactly what I want the emphasis to be has been on the slippery side. I want enough room on the menu to serve a large enough variety to keep the reader's interest (and mine!) but still retain a specific 'genre-cuisine'.

Names help with that. Titles. They set up expectations as well as provide boundaries. For example, whatever this project ends up being called I want it to imply 'the fantastic' in a contemporary setting - a setting that's unlikely to cater to having the main characters argue about the efficiency of warp drives, for example.

So the question is:
How do you attract the attention of the edgier UF crowd as well as the Retold Fairy Tale enthusiasts?

It's not as simple as trying to figure out what would catch my attention because I'll look into anything if there's even a whiff of fairy tales about it. The books labeled as being written in the Urban Fantasy sub-genre just need a unique angle to make me read beyond the blurb.

I really think half the battle will be won if I can just find the right title... (the other half, of course, is making sure the stories have enough of everything to keep them all reading - including that original voice that they won't be able to get enough of... but that's a concern for another day.)

Last night at the ridiculous hour of 4am-and-change I found it! It had everything I was looking for including a creative use of the word 'Fae' to imply the fairy tale aspect.

One problem though - and it's kind of a big one.

The fairy tales I love and the re-tellings I admire contain a distinct LACK of Fae (faeries and fairies too!). The fact that they're called 'fairy tales' is rather incongruous and I totally understand why literary professors prefer to call these tales by the German word Marchen or simply Wonder Tales.

And that's my problem too. Though my stories qualify for the label 'urban fantasy' and the word 'Fae' (in the context I used it) implied 'fairy tales' my stories rarely have actual Fae in them. More often there's an incidental oh-by-the-way-this-amazing-thing-happened event that, while being a catalyst, isn't what the story is REALLY about at all.

Kinda like fairy tales.

So it's rather misleading to use 'Fae' or 'fairy' in the title when in fact the fairies are very few and far between. Werewolves? Yes. Magic practitioners? Certainly. Happily ever after with pixie-dust? Absolutely not. But I will be using fairy tales (some might say 'abusing' but that depends on your perspective), myths, legends and folktales to ground my stories.

Magic being used to give stories reality
- ironic, no?
Perhaps there's a clue right there...

And if any fairies appear there's a good chance they'll have teeth - sharp ones.

For now I think I'll just call it:
'Project Bite Me*'.


* An oft quoted Buffy-ism. I wonder if faeries like irony?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

WWW Shortcuts: Tag Galaxy

When you're on a road trip, every now and then the opportunity will appear to take a shortcut. It's risky, often less well paved and there's no guarantee you won't have to retrace your steps but the adventure can be worth it and you almost always learn something along the way.

The Internet offers all sorts of tantalizing side-roads for writers, including writerly-type tools for inspiration, motivation or cutting down on a writer's perspiration.

Of course, it's easy to get caught in the Web and be stuck there for hours if you're not careful, squandering your precious writing time, but sometimes it's worth the risk, just to see if your Muse is jolted from their off-season hibernation in the back seat of your brain and offers to take the wheel again.

In the WWW Shortcuts feature I'll share some of the potentially useful things I've found on the web and, where possible, give you a preview so you have some idea of what you're in for if you decide to go there.

Today's Shortcut: TagGalaxy

It's funny that as a writer I should be such a visual person and rather than beat myself up about my need for images and pictures as I work, I've been figuring out ways to make it work FOR me
instead.

One of the ways I kick-start the story-movie in my head (see? Another visual writing tool!) or re-focus my approach (yeah - another visual aid for writing) is to collect pictures from books, magazines and of course the web. The idea it to either evoke the mood I'm aiming at for the overall story/ specific scene OR, if I'm basing my location on an existing place, having reference of the landscape, fauna, flora, buildings etc to help me get the details right.

And I've just found a new image search tool that is INTUITIVE, lots of fun and really cool.

It's called 'Tag Galaxy' and uses the tags (metadata) people attach to Flickr public photos to search for topics you type in, then collects the results into a 'visually searchable planet'.

I made some screen shots to show you how it works.

Here's the first screen. This is where you type in your topic:I typed 'Halloween' and Tag Galaxy found not only pictures tagged with this word but related pictures. The 'planets' indicate how many photos it found for each topic when you hold your mouse over them:When you click on the planet of your choice (I chose 'Jack O' Lanterns') it zooms to the planet and thumbnails start flying in to cover it's surface. At the top of the page you see it's showing pictures 1- 50 of 18 520 and there are arrows to navigate to the next or previous set of pictures:To search the image planet you click and drag your mouse to spin the world around in any direction. Holding it on an image gives you a closer look: Clicking on that close-up takes you to a bigger picture with the Flickr details and a link to the page it's on.

And now my head is full of Halloween images and ready to get on with my story. I think it was worth the detour.

Fun app that's useful? That's extra cool!
(Now if I could just figure out how to embed it in my site...)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Genre Town: Urban Fantasy

I've been thinking about Urban Fantasy a lot for a while now. A long time reader, it's come into focus as a genre I should be paying attention to as a writer - specifically since last November when I joined a zombie writing hoard, known to the rest of the world as NaNoWriMo* participants, and realized the novel I was writing - titled 'Deadwood' - might just qualify for the genre - maybe.

It's a weird dilemma. When I think about 'Deadwood' as a suspense I write one way. If I'm thinking contemporary fantasy I focus on different things. If I think urban fantasy then I start flirting with a whole heap of ideas that, while tantalizing, may make me re-write some decent sized chunks of it - not that that's necessarily a bad thing. As long as the result is good I don't mind, though getting the bulk in the ball park on the first go would help my morale a lot!

Interestingly, I got the exact tone I wanted in the first two pages so when I get unfocused I go back, read those then start writing again. While that helps me write more story it hasn't helped me define exactly what genre it is, though I'm sure it would be perfectly be comfortable between other UF titles, despite the lack of vampires and werewolves roaming through the pages.

I'm still on the fence about which pigeon hole my story belongs in - I'm leaning toward contemporary fantasy suspense. How is that different from urban fantasy? *shrugs* It's not such a straight forward question. There's the perception of urban fantasy as opposed to what the publishing industry classify as urban fantasy and then, of course, there's the actual definition.

The label 'urban fantasy' implies a whole lot of things in which my story, while definitely following the path of this tradition, would not currently qualify as a main street attraction.

This got me thinking about what exactly urban fantasy was, is, where it's going and how popular it is. No matter how much people roll their eyes at sexy vampire and werewolf stories, the demand for them - and stories like them - seems to still be increasing. It's spilled over into the young adult and children's markets (whether or not it's Halloween), taken over the romance genre (as paranormal romance and/or erotica), invaded both the fantasy and sci-fi shelves (then been split up into 'urban fantasy' and 'contemporary urban fantasy' to boot) and has even made it's way onto the literary shelves - albeit by some initially clever disguises.

It's interesting to me that the more technologically savvy and dependent our society gets, the more people cry out for stories of magic in and among the mundane...

Can you tell I'm just getting warmed up on this topic?

Looks like I'll be making a base here for a bit so I can get my bearings, orient my stories and see just what it is that keeps bringing people back here. While I'm at it I might as well check in with the residents and see what they're up to these days. Better make sure my pen is loaded on my roamings though - you never know when you might run into some nasty local clich├ęs!

In the meantime, zombie-like that I am, I should get some shut-eye. (It helps me avoid eating my own brains.)

Watch out creatures of the night, magic practitioners and all other residents of Urban Fantasy Town - the hunt is on!

I'll bag and tag you yet.

*National Novel Writing Month
NOTE: The artist featured is Linda Bergkvist. Click on the pictures to be taken to her pages and galleries.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Zombie Approach

It's 3am and my thoughts are being uncooperative - both for going to sleep and for writing anything useful so I'm taking the zombie approach:

Need brains - preferably chewy.

No - I'm not advocating a morbid midnight snack. What I'm suggesting is that when you're too tired to galvanize your creativity into producing something useful to, instead, draw on the observations, insights and thoughtful experiences of others.

This is where the other brains come in: in yummy bite-sized pieces of input from people who've successfully managed to use their gray matter and produce something that's stuck in my mental teeth.

It doesn't have to be earth shattering concepts, a big Zarathustra-theme-announced revelatory thought or even a deep contemplative and profound thing to count as being brain-fodder. It's things like remembering that the word 'extemporaneous' exists because some dweeb used it badly in a blog and made you laugh. It's a muppet quote catching your attention because the stupid sock just told it like it was and made you think. It's realizing that the chalk marks made by a gifted toddler* look remarkably like a CIA code you saw used in a movie once. It's noting that the subjects on your mind seem to suddenly appear around you in droves - like when you're contemplating the Urban Fantasy genre and suddenly every experience can be paralleled with stories of zombies, vampires and werewolves.

Ahem.

But what on earth does this have to do with writing? Specifically, what does it have to do with persisting with writing in the middle of the night?

Taking the focus off me and the writing I 'have' to do makes it easier to let random thoughts about things I've seen and heard tumble into one another, forming a mental soup of weirdness from which I might - maybe, if I'm lucky - find a maggot - uh, nugget - of something worth staying up for.

In that near hallucinogenic state one can get into when you're tired but can't quite get your eyes to stay closed long enough to fall into an escapist sleep, the mush of my neurons start firing up little connections between the oddest things: like the reflections in the kettle sitting on my stove that might reveal more than moonlight if I stare at it hard enough, or that the swirl of patterns in the living room rug might put me on the path to Faerie if I let my feet follow them with the right concentration, or that the dogs twitching in their sleep are trembling due to sensing their greater shape-shifting cousins talking a walk in the neighborhood...

Yes. It's all rather fanciful, even trite for the most part, but every now and then there's a little Eureka! moment where two or more disparate images or pieces of information draw me into a world where there's magic and mystery just around the corner and a story waiting to happen.

And abruptly my own brain shudders out of its stupor and kicks into high gear.

My body might protest at the sheer dead weight of my too-heavy eyelids trying to slam shut for the night and the most my voice-box can manage is a mumbled, incoherent grunting sound but inside the wheels are turning, the inspiration is firing, my fingers appear to be on auto-pilot and the next thing I know I've typed up a new article, the opening paragraphs of an intriguing story or a surprisingly insightful blog entry that not only makes the readers crack a smile but perhaps gets them thinking themselves... (even zombies can dream - right?)

It's a great way to get a whole lot of writing done without needing a fully-alert and functional brain of one's own.

Of course, the fact that I'm not using a brain may very well show in this post.

Excuse me while I pick that cortex out of my teeth. Mmm.

* That would be MY very gifted toddler by the way.. of course.