The thing about an on-going project like this, with an absolute record, is that it will change. All projects do, but here, you will see the seams. I’ve marked them in bold and pasted them with care. There’s nothing to hide, so there’s nothing to redeem me. I approached this with all the objectivity I could muster under the circumstances, but I’ve realized that this project is me. That’s the thing about a blog; it’s alive. I could try, from day to day, to disguise that fact, but you will see what I’m thinking through it all. You’ll read my thoughts, and, for those of you that are sensitive to this sort of thing, you’ll see me. So, I might as well embrace that fact.
I was watching Doctor Who today. I’m not a huge fan of Series 7; it requires some suspension of disbelief to truly enjoy. It’s a little too predictable, a little too in love with itself. That’s fine, though, because so, so many people are. It follows the traditional Conan Doyle method of mystery writing. That is, it gives you tid-bits of information, while leaving out the important bits. However, if you know the tropes well enough, then you can read the story. “Spoilers”, as our dear River Song would say. Ironically, the better you are at telling stories, the more likely you are to not be able to predict the ending. When you write books or tell stories, you slowly learn to see the narrative possibilities split off from each other into infinitum. What can a single symbol mean? Look up “Ankh” on Google. Remember, also, that the Ankh is metonymy for entire cultures and many philosophies besides. Now, look at a pen, a bag or a monitor. There’s potential unbridled in everything we see, if we look hard enough.
Given that range of possibility, the hardest thing for you to do, as I said last entry, will be to temper that potential. In the process, though, you’ve got to think about what it means. You see, while I make jokes about the usefulness of my English degree and others may scoff at its practical value, there’s something you must realize. The word is powerful. It’s not just written. Video games, music, movies, ads and comments; textbooks, reviews, novels, short-stories and manuals: they all contain the gift of narrative. They’re all forms of communication. They are, in essence, what we do as writers. An English degree may be a precarious thing on its own, but combined with a little knowledge, it’s a powerful tool.
So, think, what are you going to do? Be very careful. Through narrative, we teach people how to love. How to laugh. How to deal with trauma. How to approach pain. When to end a life. How to take one. How to use toasters and on which side the butter goes. We also let them know how it lands. Yet, you’re thinking this is hyperbole. People experience life and learn from that. Of course they do! That’s where our experience comes from, too.
What if you don’t know? What if you have to Google it? What if you’re reading a review? How about if you’re unsure about something? Have you ever been on the fence about something and been influenced by a good story? Have you ever captured a heart, made a friend or fallen in love through a story? With a story? If you’re on my blog, then I presume you like writing and reading; so, I’m probably preaching to the choir. I sure hope so, because what we write matters. How we write about things, doubly so.
When I watch the News or read an opinion piece, I can feel how they want me to feel. I know when they’re being alarmist; I can tell when they’re placating me. Not everyone can, though. More frightening, I still feel, a little bit, the way they want me to. Yes, there is an irony here, but I don’t want to scare you or stop you from writing your thoughts. Quite the opposite, I want you to write as much as you can. I also want you to think about what it means and what it can do. I want you to be okay with that. Because, if it’s written and read well enough, then you will change someone’s world. Just a little bit.
That’s why I love Doctor Who. The world is a terrifying place. Looking outside, there are forces and technologies at work that I can’t begin to fully understand. There are political intrigues and personal connections holding the world together and tearing it apart. There are stories and dreams that are horrible and false, beautiful and tragic, that run and define people’s lives. We’re approaching a time unprecedented; we are barrelling toward a future that no one person fully understands. Put your hand on the canvas of the world and you can feel the vibrations of it all. Society… the universe is a moving, living, shaping, wriggling thing. It’s absolutely terrifying, and we are such small, powerless, absolutely insignificant things.
Yet, we can alter things, send shock-waves through existence. We don’t have to, and we should consider why we do, but we can. Oh God, can we. Terrible and benevolent, we are.
What is it that I love about Doctor Who? What is its message? When it’s being created, by a writer mind you, and being watched, by us, what is it trying to tell us? Be brave. Don’t be afraid. Yes, the world is an Eldritch thing: an unspeakably complex, infinitely confounding thing, but that’s okay. We’ve got science. We’ve got words. We’ve got stories. Even if you’re afraid, especially when you’re afraid, we’ve got courage.
It can be hard to find work as a writer. It’s more difficult still to find what you want to say. It is infinitely more difficult than even that to maintain your integrity, your standards, in the face of everything. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes, you’ll be true. Sometimes, you’ll sell out. Sometimes, it’ll be to feed your kids; sometimes, it’ll be to feed your ego. You will fail. But, that’s okay. It really is. You can learn from that. You can change things. You can count on the fact that another writer, of equal skill, exists that will oppose your words. Not all stories have happy endings. Not all of them have to.
So, don’t be afraid: write.
Word Count: 3966
End Chapter 1
This is the element of time that I was talking about. If you’re reading this post blog-roll, then you won’t feel the effect. For anyone else, it has been almost a month since the last time I posted about MB. It’s tempting the abandon the project and just write about writing. Although, honestly, that’s what this project is about any ways. So, we’ll stick with this framework for the time being.
In my attempts to parley my writing abilities into a sustainable living, I’ve spent quite a bit of time pitching story ideas or acting as a freelance consultant. During one of these forays into the potential literary world, I was pitching a novel idea for a zombie story. For the zombie-savvy, yes, I believe that there are still new things to be explored. Even with the semi-recent pop-culture zombie explosion, there’s still plenty to talk about. It was during a back-and-forth brainstorming session with my room-mate that I came upon today’s topic.
You see, my room-mate has a hatred for zombies that borders on the psychotic. Not the creatures, mind you, the concept. He’s vehemently opposed to the idea of a virus zombie, because he believes the science of it to be untenable. While I’m sure we can all agree that the science could only be softer if it were puréed on high in a diamond-tipped blending apparatus for several hours, it does raise an interesting point about realism. I’m not going to defend his lack of suspension of disbelief, and I’m well-aware that the inclusion of the virus narrative is solely for the purposes of exploiting and exploring contemporary fears. However, it got me onto a certain line of thinking that’s perfect for MB.
Before you can write anything, you need to come up with a concept. While many of you will probably agree that this is both the easiest and hardest part of writing, it’s also the one that gets overlooked the most. As writers, it’s taken as a given that we’ll have a deep well of ideas and concepts to reach into. The truth is that we spend our entire lives developing and refining them. However, we rarely talk about the process. Yes, sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration, but professional writers get good at synthesizing them. Let’s talk about that topic another day. What do you do once you have an idea? You figure out the logistics of turning it into a story.
With the virus example earlier, my friend was being pulled out of the experience of zombie movies by an insistence on explanation. By linking a foreign concept to something the audience understands, viruses make zombies more intuitive. However, in a different way, it also makes them completely impossible for some people. We’ve spent hours arguing about the physical and metabolic changes that would be required to make a “walker” a possibility. Whether or not it is isn’t the problem. It’s that argument. If I’m thinking about how a zombie could be possible, then I’m not thinking about the horror of the concept. Really think about it. Outside of medical horror, what purpose does the virus explanation serve? How is that explanation more valid or engaging than none? Every zombie story already possesses a scene where the bite-transmission thing is explained, so it can end up adding very little. It CAN add a lot, but you have to be telling the right story. Given its pervasive nature, I can assure you that it is being included in stories where it’s unnecessary. In fact, including it can be damaging. The virus explanation is everywhere; now it’s almost colloquial. Now, you may actually have to spend time explaining that it’s not a virus. That’s a discussion for another day, though.
Sometimes, not explaining something can be the best thing you do. Or, using a symbolic archetype. Or, even, just making something up. There are an entire mountain of stories that would never get made if we insisted on explanations and realism in everything, both as readers and writers. Lovecraft’s strange geometries and eldritch lights are perfect examples of this. The ancient stories of the Gods or tales of the spirit worlds could be enlivened by an explanation, but it would have to be integral to the plot. Giving a half-hearted excuse is, ultimately, going to damage your story.
That being said, a little bit of the unreal can spice of an otherwise normal story. Let’s stick with the zombie theme, but go big picture on it. To be extra pop-culture friendly, let’s also stick with the one piece of exemplary zombie fiction that I think everyone should read: Max Brooks’ World War Z. In many ways, zombie stories have almost nothing to do with the zombies within them. Contemporary pop-culture theory states that you could replace zombies with any similar natural disaster and craft the same story. Zombie stories are about isolation and the break-down of the civilized world. They’re about when we turn on each other as the lights go out, but, also, about when we don’t. World War Z is a piece of political fiction that uses zombies as a catalyst to create a landscape of political exploration. The zombies are horrifying, but we are the horror.
That’s just true. Humans can be frightening things. It’s not always easy to pull out of us. It’s harder still to look at or admit. That’s why a dash of the unreal, the walking dead, is so effective in Brooks’ work. Simply creating a realistic world-wide epidemic or conflict would have raised too many other questions. It would have complicated matters without adding anything. Thus, we use zombies. Ever wonder why so many people have zombie survival plans? Well, it’s not just because zombies are cool. Really think about what that plan represents. Think about what it means. That will tell you what we’re scared of. This is what horror does. It’s the genre-space we put aside for the truly, literally disturbing. It’s hard to call the first half of World War Z anything but that. It details the worst sins of contemporary society in cleverly obscured detail. This is where he needed realism.
Max’s book would have suffered greatly if the politics weren’t at least believable. We’ll leave out the word accurate, for obvious reasons. His story was about real contemporary politics, something we’re all immersed in. So, that portion needed to be realistic. It was going to reflect us, so it needed to do so adroitly. Similarly, if your story uses zombies to explore viruses, then make sure your depiction of viruses is realistic. Research how they spread, mutate, interact with cells and multiply. Think about transmission and counter-measures. In other words, focus your realistic explanations of fantasy in the areas where they’re necessary to your narrative. Otherwise, it’s okay to let things be fantastic. Unicorns don’t need to evolve from horses. Dragons don’t need to produce fire through a chemical reaction. Serial murderers don’t need classic pseudo-psych back-stories. Give your concept some room to breathe.
Once you’re at the drawing board, really think about what your audience needs to know to make the story work. Think about plot-holes. Pitch to other people and let them tear the threads of your story apart, as long as they volunteer to help you weave it back together. That’ll let you know where you need to get real and where you can let an idea hang tantalizingly out of reach. After all, it’s not worth it to let a tiny detail throw off your whole story. Unless you want someone to leave your story with that niggling at them in the back of their head, be willing to leave it out.
Word Count: 2900
Today’s story is a mash-up-date of two classics, one older than the other. You can find it in the Stories section 😀
I wanted to try writing from a different moral stand-point than I usually do, so I picked one of the most infamous villains in history. In a way, he’s also my favourite character of all time. I hope you enjoy, ‘The Labours of Hell!”