Inspiration a la Late Night Conversations

People ask me a lot where I get my characters from and if they can be in one of my novels. Yes, I suppose that the best authors are those who are the best observers, and that most novels carry twinges of the real. Not to condescend, but the saying goes that the best lies are based on the truth and what else is a novel but a big lie written down?

Truth is, the strongest characters I’ve written aren’t necessarily based on any one person, or even a conglomeration of my father with a bit of ex-boyfriend #6, but rather are juxtapositions of the many, many people I’ve encountered. Or, even other fictional characters. I’ll take bits and pieces of those around me and run with it. Byron is a mix of The Joker from The Dark Knight, the actual Lord Byron, ex-boyfriend #3, Lermontov’s Pechorin (from the magnificent A Hero of Our Time), and even a bit of Harry Potter.

Sidetrack paragraph: There’s an excellent article linking Quentin Tarantino ‘s films to Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin that conveys this sentiment exactly. And Bakhtin is a favorite of mine, so there ya go. The article is more about the Tarantino-verse rather than a sprawling pop culture extravaganza that is my mind, but basic principles apply.

However, some real life things are too good to pass up. Like, an eleven o’clock conversation betwixt Adam and me:

M: Pluto is my ruling planet.

A: How so?

M: I’m a Scorpio, that’s how that works.

A: Ah, yes. Astrology. The thing that makes people believe in stupid things so they can blame their stupid behavior on something else.

M: I don’t think Pluto will take kindly to that. He’s already had his planetary status taken away. You know, those scientists are going to rue the day they made that decision.

A: Why’s that?

M: What’s Pluto the god of?

A: Death?

M: And when those meanie scientists die, who do you think is going to show mercy on them?

A: Not Pluto? And believing in the punishment of a death deity isn’t superstitious and stupid?

M: It’s sort of like Pascal’s Dilemma. Better to believe in the death gods than not at all.

A: Do you know who my ruling planet is?

M: Nope. Who?

A: Zapados.

M:…the Pokemon?

GOLD. Dialog for my next quirky sitcom. DONE.

The Honeymooners

Hello, all. Adam and I are back from three major life events in as many weeks. (And boy…are my arms…tired? This is why I’m not a comedienne, folks.)

First, we moved — which was somewhat unexpected — but the valiant Adam worked until 2 AM to get us mostly out of our old place. We’ve settled a bit into the new place, but there are still boxes and kinks to work out. Mostly, my computer needs to be set up so I can blog and write more efficiently.

Then, we got married on Halloween! It was steampunk themed. Pictures, I’ve been told, are to follow shortly. Let’s just say there were lots of tophats, goggles, gears, an African explorer a la Dr. Livingston, a mad scientist, a few cowboys, and Daryl Dixon.

Lastly, we flew internationally (and I’m a horrible flyer) and went to Cabo San Lucas for the honeymoon. There we had a week of intense relaxation, sitting around the pool and/or beach and reading books. I got through four and Adam through a huge chunk of HP Lovecraft — he’s on the Arkham Horror kick too — and another massive novel as well. (We also may or may not have played a round of Arkham Horror each night until we got our asses kicked by Yog-Sothoth.)

Now I’m back and the question burning in all of your minds is…ARE YOU WRITING?

The horrible, horrible answer to that is no. Unfortunately. Our dreams of participating in the NaNo were dashed in hopes of relaxation and ridiculously good Mexican food. Maybe one day, when my looks have faded…

On lighter news: my birthday doth approaches, which means VAMPIRE MOVIE MARATHON. Commencing in a viewing of the best movie known to mankind, The Lost Boys. It’s really hard for me to write and speak about the greatness that is The Lost Boys without somehow using the epithet, “greatest movie known to mankind.” Someone should pay me for this.

Arkham Horror: Greatest Game Known to Mankind?

It’s no secret that I’m an avid fan of RPGs, especially the tabletop kind. There’s something about letting your imagination roam free, fighting dragons in your mind, and getting into adventures with friends that could otherwise never happen.

But then there’s the allure of board games. Who doesn’t have a fond happy vivid memory of playing Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders as a child, fighting over the racecar, losing pieces and then stepping on them in the dark?

Then, I was introduced to Arkham Horror. Not only is it based on H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, but it has similarities to both RPGs and board games. (Well, I guess it’s more than just similarity to a board game, since that’s what it is, BUT IT’S SO MUCH MORE.)

You are an investigator in a the war-ravaged and murky city of Arkham in the 1920s and OH MY GOODNESS you have to stop evil Cthulu-y demons from coming into the city from gateways to other dimensions before the Ancient God wakes up. You have stats like Sanity and Stamina (just like in RPGs!) and those help you fight demons and have encounters (just like in RPGs!) by rolling dice (yep, like RPGs again!) and picking random cards!

There are many different investigators to be (my favorite right now is Gloria Goldberg) and many different Ancient Gods to pit them against. Depending on which investigators and Ancient One are chosen, the game varies wildly in outcomes and offers so many unique challenges, I can never see it getting old. And if you’re a loner and hate friends, you can have a single person mode! Try playing D&D by yourself. It doesn’t work, does it?

The bad news is that it takes a while to learn to play since its system of complex rules run a good 25 pages long in the instruction manual. After that, it’s easy-peasy! The game play says it can happen in 2-4 hours, but I’ve yet to have a match last under four with more than four people playing. So, be prepared to spend your afternoon HAVING THE MOST FUN YOU’VE EVER HAD WITH CARDS AND GATEWAY TOKENS AND A MONSTER CUP.

Coffee Shop

The question I get asked the most is, “how do you like owning a coffee shop?” (That’s not true. The most common question is, “you’re a writer, huh? What do you write?” And when I respond, “horror zombie steampunk novels, some sci-fi, and some Cthulu fan fic,” I get in response: “But you seem like such a nice girl.” But, for the purposes of this blog, I’ll pretend that the former question is more prevalent.)

I’ve worked in coffee for almost a decade now. That’s pretty much more than a third of my life. My first job is still the one I have, basically. Out of it, I’ve gotten amazing heat immunity in my hands, a resistance to all forms of caffeine, and espresso eternally encrusted under each fingernail.

Now, because of it, I have a small business. I worked for my previous employer, Michele, for about six years before she asked if I wanted to buy the store off of her because she was moving away to Durango, CO. I jumped at the chance and it’s been a year later.

There have been many ups and downs. I feel that just now I’m getting the hang of everything I have to do. A rhythm has appeared and knowing that things come in waves and cycles helps a lot, instead of just being a scared Russian Lit major wondering why she never took a business class. (Answer: too many bros.)

It eats up a lot of time. When I graduated college with said Russian Literature degree, I told myself — after a stint as a receptionist at an electrical company run by my father — that I would focus on writing, since I couldn’t do that all throughout high school and college. It’s difficult, knowing that I have to put writing on the back burner, once again, in order to pursue my other passion of serving great coffee and having a place where people can enjoy themselves.

It’s also probably the biggest thing I’ve done to make my parents — especially my father — proud. They’ve always supported me, but raised a few eyebrows when I said I wanted to be an author, around age 7, and then again, when I majored in something rarely useful outside of academia. He’s owned his own business for more than twenty years now and he feels proud knowing I’ve followed in his footsteps.

That also opens the door for a lot of pressure from him. They never got angry if I didn’t get straight As (which I ALWAYS did), but the unsaid thing was that anything less was unacceptable. I’ve been a perfectionist for a while and the coffee shop doesn’t help. I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to berating myself if something goes wrong.

Which many, many things have.

Refrigerators broke. Pipes broke. Neon signs broke. Sanitizing machines broke. I had to buy 40 boxes of coffee sleeves and 50 boxes of sprinkles. A lot of my first 8 months’ worth of profit went back into the shop for repairs and inventory. (But, hey, at least there was a profit!) Having my dad wonder why the shop isn’t as profitable as it was under Michele (yo, loans, different payroll, increase in rent, etc.) is difficult to deal with, on top of everything else.

The big shiny finish line, however, is knowing that years from now, if I stick with it, I’ll have a prosperous business that will allow me to set my own hours and give time for writing. I’m already down to working just five days a week (ONLY FIVE?!), and I’m trying to alternate between five and four to allow more writing time.

It’ll depend on business, however.

I get asked a lot if I’m glad I did it. The truthful answer is: I don’t know yet. I would probably make the same decision over, but it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be, with more stress than I’ve had since my senior year of college, defending a thesis and trying to graduate in three years with a 3.9 GPA.

Let’s just say it’s been interesting and shall, more than likely, continue to be so.

Chinese Triads and Velociraptors

It’s been a while since I’ve had a dream worth sharing on ye olde intertubes. And Halloween is for wacky stuff (and weddings!), right? I had two doozies the other night:

1.) Dreamt that my car — yes, Sir Blimey, the lime green Jeep, skeleton-look-alike, and inspirer of The Jade Skull — was picked up by a tornado and twisted around a few feet. I frantically tried to accelerate away, only to be picked up higher and dumped into a ditch, my car ruined and steaming.

Upon exciting Sir Blimey, I began to run away from said tornado when I found a velociraptor a midst a series of boulders. Living in a society where such things were common, I knew had to run back into the tornado-filled danger zone in order to warn the Hunters (in my dream, I knew they needed a capital H) because it was their duty to destroy the ‘Predators.’

Three of them shuffled me and about thirty other survivors into a creepy abandoned warehouse so as to seal off the exits and protect us. I went with a male Hunter and his lady new-recruit in order to check all of the rickety doors, thinking that being next to a killing machine would prevent the Predator from eating me alive.

Next thing I know, we’re securing a door and a velociraptor looks through the little window, steams up the glass just like in Jurassic Park and we hear a scream as another one eats another Hunter in the stairwell below us.

Once back with the room filled with survivors, I watched in horror as the Predators broke in and started eating people.

Gruesome.

2.) Dreamt that I was in high school with a lovely teacher named Miss Joon Yuen (which is a Korean first name and a Cantonese last name, I know) and my friend had gotten amnesia from breaking her arm. In order to restore her memory, my other friends and I needed to break into a schoolbus in order to concoct a machine to fix memories. We asked Miss Yuen’s permission and she told us to be careful.

Once outside, on our way to the schoolbuses, we had to cross through a tent where the Chinese Triad was hanging out. My red-headed friend snuck in, intent on hacking into the Chinese Triad Internet and saving our amnesiac friend. My brown-haired friend and I tried to stop him, knowing the Triad wouldn’t like it, but we had to sneak in as well to stop him from getting killed.

We got the okay from a spiky-haired Triad member who cleared us through security, only to have to hack into the Internet first and erase everything it had so as to prevent our red-haired friend (who was now buddy-buddy with the Triad leader) from getting in trouble.

Upon exiting, we were accosted by another, sunglassed Triad member who knew that the spiky-haired one had betrayed the entire mafia by letting us in. The dire consequences of this were that my friend, Laura, who was set to marry the spiky-haired Triad member, now had to marry the evil sunglassed one!

Knowing that she was unhappy, not marrying her true love, Miss Yuen intervened, and she was actually an ancient Chinese Fox spirit with blue skin and silver hair!

Before the grand Fox/Triad Wedding Fight, I woke up.

Poop.

It’s no wonder Synopsis rhymes with Nemesis

Part of the ridiculousness absurdity charm of submitting to different agents is a.) they all want different things and b.) they all want different lengths of different things.

Most go like this:

  • Query letter
  • Synopsis
  • Sample writing

Easy-peasy. I can do that in my sleep. (In fact, I had a dream the other night where I was writing query letters, but not to agents to publish a manuscript, but rather to Illyria Illyria from Angel, asking her if she could take me to the shrimp world.)

Anyway.

Some want a 10 page synopsis. Totes, yo. I can do that. Some want a one page synopsis, which was incredibly difficult. Suddenly the 450 page novel I worked a year and a half on is now reduced to a one page no-frills, no-chills, no-spills dried out husk of what said novel should be.

After much struggling and rewording and laboring, I got it down to one page.

The next agent wanted one paragraph.

It’s a good thing I was writing on my desktop and not an easily-throwable laptop. (Never trust technology that you can throw out the window, I always say. I’m looking at you, phone.)

The hard thing about synopses is that they are not a movie trailer, they’re not a blurb on the back, and they’re not a pitch. After trying to hard to hook people’s interest and to sound as “in-a-world”-y as possible, to write a non-partial, non-prejudiced account of a novel is incredibly boring. I looked at my synopsis of Byron and just about fell asleep.

Or maybe I’m doing this wrong…

“Paradise Circus” by Massive Attack ft. Hope Sandoval

Here’s a free double-whammy of depressing-ness! Hope Sandoval is known as the voice behind Mazzy Star, a 90s psychedelica band, whose most famous hit is “Fade Into You.” My favorite off of that same album, however, is “Into Dust.” It’s haunting, chilling, and on more than one occasion, made me cry when I’m driving into work at the coffee shop at five in the morning.

After Mazzy Star disbanded, Hope Sandoval had a solo act, and, more recently, guest stars on Massive Attack’s latest album, Heligoland (Virgin, 2010). The great thing about Massive Attack — besides their awesome radicalness — is their changing repertoire of vocal talent. Others have included the lovely Sinead O’Connor, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and Blur fame, Guy Garvey of Elbow, and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. Star-studded, right?

It’s unfortunate that when we feel a stone,
We can roll ourselves over, ’cause we’re uncomfortable.
Oh well, the devil makes us sin.
But we like it when we’re spinning in his grin.

Love is like a sin, my love,
For the ones that feel it the most.
Look at her, with her eyes like a flame.
She will love you like a fly and never love you again.

Oh my goodness, do I love this song. No only is the music haunting with subtle, heart-beat like percussion, but the simplicity of the few piano chords then blooms into an orchestral wall-o’-sound that is enveloping and beautiful. Hope Sandoval’s just right mix of breathiness and pout convey the emotional breadth of the song.

It’s an interesting concept, thinking of love as a sin, which, in its turn, is caused by the devil. Free will is taken out of the situation entirely, hitting a person unexpectedly, driving them out of themselves, much as love is wont to do. A greater force — the devil, not usually associated with love, but as I wrote a 94 page thesis on the devil, I can say, with no exaggeration, that it’s not THAT out there — causes the hurt and the aggression that love can spawn, especially an unequal love. Flames, flies, stones — these are all antithetical to God, to good, and are associated with devilry. Love, in its unrequited, crazy-obsessive form, can lead to this crushing area of heart-break and betrayal.

And the betrayal comes in with my favorite line, “but we like it when we’re spinning in his grin.” (Some say that last word is “grip,” but the symbolism is so much better if it’s “grin!”). This is allusive to Dante’s Inferno, in which the three greatest sinners — Brutus, Cassius, and Judas — are in his mouth (and now, forever in my brain, spinning as well.) Their sin is betrayal of Julius Caesar and Jesus, respectively.

Love has a way of making us be someone that we’re not. We pretend to be better, funnier, more extroverted, or even change our tastes to suit what we think the other person wants. At its core, this type of love is dangerous because a person can get lost, refuting themselves in order to please someone else. It’s this type of self-betrayal that leads to “flames,” and in a later verse, a smile made out of them. In contrast to the devil in Dante’s Inferno, which is freezing because he’s so far away from God’s warmth and love, a person can burn up and be consumed by the rush of being someone they’re not.

The inversion of the coldness of the devil as opposed to the intensity of the flames plays off of the title. It’s a circus — a long-standing tradition of reversing traditional values — of Paradise. What should be one of the most sublime feelings is, instead, a vacuum of suffering and delusion. Love burns, but sometimes it’s not a assuaging kind.

This shows the trickster aspect to the devil. In the West, we’re so used to the Puritanical version of a being so powerful that he is at odds with God, causing people to sin, that we forget most of the world has a slightly more sympathetic viewpoint, in which the devil is more of a rascal, running around, subverting people’s beliefs only to show them the ridiculousness of their own actions. Sometimes, the devil can do some good, by being bad, as we learned from our Faust. An awesome book about said Devil is the trilogy by Jeffrey Burton Russell, beginning with the excellent Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity.

I read all three when writing my thesis, along with several other tomes about the different aspects that the devil has played throughout his varied career. I had to convince the librarian checking me out that I wasn’t in a cult.

This trickster though, can take love and subvert it into something harmful. Are there lessons to be learned from such a thing? If we can roll ourselves over, yes.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian* Flynn is one of the New York Times Bestsellers that I sometimes read in order to connect with the average reader to see what the hullabaloo is all about. I’ve done this with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and even that Dan Brown monstrosity The Da Vinci Code and rarely am I left impressed.

This time was no exception either.

TL;DR version: interesting writing style and formatting that is squandered by unsympathetic characters and a drawn-out plot.

Story is simple: guy (Nick) meets girl (Amy). They get married. On their fifth wedding anniversary Amy goes missing and there’s talk about murder. Nick is the suspect because, duh, he’s the husband and the story unravels, revealing both Nick’s and Amy’s sides of the story chapter by chapter until the truth sets no one free.

I will say I was impressed by the format of the story — Nick’s events traveled further past the days Amy is “gone” and Amy’s are moving closer to her disappearance until they meet at the end of part one — because it allows for your sympathies as a reader to shift from one to the other as more and more information is revealed. First you side with Amy as she relates how her and Nick fell in love so many years ago. Then, to Nick as Amy’s strange and obsessive behavior is slowly revealed. Then again, back to Amy as more information about just what Nick has been up to stomps around the stage.

It’s not really a mystery, but there is some suspense around whodunit and if there even really was a crime. But that suspense slowly peters out and there isn’t much tension left behind after the big reveal, which is about two-thirds the way through the novel. After that, it’s just a boring third act that has to tie everything together before a flat ending.

I also found it difficult to connect to either Nick or Amy. Both are incredibly well fleshed out and Flynn has the amazing ability to write multiple points of view. Nick’s voice is drastically different from Amy, who has several voices of her own, so that I didn’t even need to see a title telling me who was narrating, the voices were so strong. But this doesn’t make up for the fact that they’re both despicable in their own ways and have little to no redeeming qualities.

Everyone loves a good villain. No one loves whinny, weak, and self-pitying fools who both get what they deserve in the end, which is neither satisfying nor cohesive. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth after finishing this novel — which took me six months because I kept reading other things at the same time.

Three stars out of five. The writing style is brilliant and refreshing; Flynn’s observations through the characters of Nick and Amy are amazing (ha!), but the plot and the ending were too flat and bogged everything down.

*My fiance and his twin think it’s hilarious that Mulder and Scully’s names can be reversed so they’re Sculder and Mully. Now I’m left not being able to remember which ones are the right ones.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror by Dan Simmons is a 2007 book about the Franklin Expedition, a doomed Northwest Passage endeavor that failed spectacularly when all of the men were never seen again after being trapped in the frozen ice for three years.

TL;DR Version: Very dry and slow beginning with lots of fruitless and repetitive details, but pays off at the end with an interesting interpretation of what really happened steeped in mythos and humanity.

I’ve read novels by Simmons before — most notably 2009’s Drood that was a pointless exercise in editorlessness — and was rather turned off. I like description and I like wordiness, but there comes a point when I just stop caring about what’s happening — even if what’s happening is super exciting, like ZOMG PEEPS IS DYING FROM EPHEMERAL POLAR BEARS — because of the repetition of lists of people’s names and where things are on the ship in specific, nautical detail, and even cycles of events.

Simmons tells a story well, but gets bogged down in minutiae, effectively stopping any terror or dread from creeping into the novel. The creepiest bits, as usually happens with horror novels — not that this is a ‘horror’ novel per se, it just has many a horror element in it — are in the beginning as each chapter shifts temporally until the past catches up with the present and the story moves fairly straightforward from there.

It starts with the men already frozen in ice for the second year in early 1848 around King William’s Island (which they thought to be a Land before realizing it wasn’t connected to the mainland of Canada) and bumbles back and forth between a giant, polar-bear like entity killing the men whilst they are trapped and the rough beginnings of the expedition that should never have taken off in the first place.

Simmons does his homework; everything is meticulously researched so that events play out as historically accurate as possible until the world lost all communication with the Franklin Expedition when they abandoned their ships to the ice in April of 1848 and decided to walk to open water so as to sail south toward the Back River. The accuracy lends atmosphere building and enriches the hopelessness of the world these 19th century Royal Naval sailors found themselves in, but some things are best left out so that the reader can either decide to fill in details, or so that the story isn’t weighed down with unnecessary lecturing.

And I understand how that can be difficult. There are times when I write an entire outline for the background of a story that’s ten pages long, only to use one paragraph from it. Not using the rest is frustrating, but necessary.

The ending, however, is where this book really saved itself. I was going to dismiss it as another slightly creepy yet still rather uninteresting Simmons novel, until the last 150 pages (it’s a good 650) that detail, much like The Walking Dead, how the survivors of such horror — the elements, scurvy, starvation, food poisoning, evil polar bears — turn on each other and become their own destroyers. Once the book becomes more human and less of a historical report, Simmon’s excellent character development drives the story and it becomes unstoppable. I finished the last third of the book in one night, wanting to know how the remaining survivors deal with the horrible consequences set in motion against them.

It’s not surprising that AMC has decided to make The Terror into a television series, since it shares so many themes with one of the best character-driven shows in the last five years.

Four stars out of five. My own conceptions about the novel were turned around by the end, but that still doesn’t even out the repetitive nature of the beginning.