Mount Doom and the Tuscan Sun

It’s not always this simple:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

It sounds like good advice, and if you’re a White Rabbit giving testimony in a jurisdiction in Wonderland, it apparently works quite well. It may also apply to some writers when they’re working on a story. But it doesn’t work that way for me.

Begin at the beginning. Yeah, that bit works. The beginnings of stories are always easy. Always. A cool idea or premise for a story pops into your head, you’re excited by it, you’re enthusiastic and engaged, and you bang it out. Then, of course, comes the long, dull, grunt work of actually writing the middle of the damned thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel-length manuscript or a short story, the middle chunk is like Mordor without the dramatic scenery. Enthusiasm isn’t going to get you to Mount Doom. The middle is a slog. It’s work. The middle is where most stories give up, curl into a ball, die a slow lonely death, and are never heard from again.

But hey, if you can gut your way through the middle, you can usually cobble together some sort of ending for your story. A lot of writers (me included) like to come up with an ending before we actually start writing. We may not actually use that original ending, but having an ending in mind when you begin can give you direction and a bit of momentum, which is handy when you’re wondering how much farther Mount Doom is.

But endings can be tricky too, because there are almost always a LOT of possible endings to any story. I mean, after you’ve hauled your story all the way to Mount Doom, do you just chuck it into the first fiery chasm you come across? There may be a better, more satisfying fiery chasm just down the path, right?

Here’s the thing: you’re probably never going to find the perfect fiery chasm. So usually you pick the one you think will work the best, and you chuck the ring in, and go on to your next story. Unless you’re like me. Sometimes you’re just not really happy with any of the fiery chasms; there’s nothing particularly wrong with them as fiery chasms, but they just don’t feel right. So you just park the ring in a drawer and forget about it, hoping that some day you’ll think of a better fiery chasm. So to speak.

An almost entirely unrelated image from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (because I feel like I need to include an image in every blog post…sorry).

Why am I nattering on about this? Because back in November of 2017 I couldn’t come up with an ending I liked for a short story. And I wrote about it (sorta kinda, in a rambling blog post). The story is about a part-time burglar who steals a Leica and later gets in trouble with the police for shooting photos in a park where kids are playing. Since it was just a short story and I wasn’t in urgent need of funds, I set the story aside and forgot about it.

Until earlier this year, when I got involved in an online discussion that tangentially related to a scene in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun. After that discussion, I took a walk, and on that walk I realized that what my old burglar-turned-photographer story needed was a connection to that movie. Which, okay, I realize sounds nuts. But I thought about it, went home and rewrote much of the story with a totally new ending, and tossed the ring into the fiery chasm.

Yesterday I got a note from the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine saying a contract for that story will be showing up in my mailbox by the end of the month.

The moral of this story? The King’s advice to the White Rabbit isn’t always good advice. Sometimes you need to begin at the beginning and go on until you decide the fiery chasm is all wrong, then wait for Diane Lane to invest in real estate in Italy.

rules for ghosts

I do a fair bit of manuscript doctoring; it’s one of the things I do to put beans and tortillas on the table. What the hell is manuscript doctoring? It’s like this: sometimes a writer finishes a novel manuscript (or almost finishes it) but feels it’s not quite working. Or maybe the manuscript has already been rejected by an agent or a publisher because it didn’t quite work. The writer sends me the manuscript, and for a reasonable chunk of money, I read it carefully, try to figure out why it doesn’t quite work, then offer a few suggestions for ways to ‘heal’ it. It’s a weird gig, but I enjoy it and I’m pretty good at it.

Over the last few years I’ve been seeing a number of supernatural manuscripts. They’re a pretty marketable genre — supernatural private detectives, supernatural love stories, supernatural thrillers, supernatural cozy mysteries. It’s not my favorite genre, but the concept offers a writer a LOT of flexibility in terms of plot and character development. I totally understand why it’s popular for readers and for writers.

But as a manuscript doctor, the thing that makes these stories interesting is also the thing that makes a lot of writers stumble: magic (or magick — and yes, for folks who work in this genre, there’s a difference; magic is grounded in illusion, magick is based on the physical manifestation of the supernatural or the occult). The most common problem I see in these stories is that the magick is used as a lazy way to solve problems in plot and character instead of as an existing supernatural system.

Here’s the thing: a novel is a cosmological event. By that I mean the writer is creating an entire world. Since most of those worlds are based on the one we actually live in, it’s fairly easy to keep the world internally consistent. Once a writer decides to stretch the parameters of the world, things get a lot more complex.

I mention this because I had a parting of the ways with a writer who has written a very good story. Her characters (both living and not-living) are interesting and well-defined, her dialog is bright and witty, the story is structured in a logical and supportive way, her writing is accessible without being pedestrian, and while her plot isn’t entirely original it has to be admitted that very few plots are. I won’t go into detail about the story itself but I can say this: it revolves around a murder victim whose ghost/spirit is trying to help the detective who is assigned to investigate her murder. As I said, it’s not an original idea, but it’s very well written and told in a charming narrative voice. It could be a very marketable manuscript.

So why have we parted ways? Because we fundamentally disagree on one thing: rules for ghosts. I say she needs a coherent and internally consistent set of rules for ghost behavior. What are the limits of what a ghost can do? She says rules and limits would stifle her creativity. I say rules and limits will actually force her to be more creative.

It doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are; it only matters that they’re clear to the writer. They needn’t necessarily be spelled out to the reader (and in fact that would almost certainly be bad writing). They needn’t even be clear to the ghost (I mean, it’s probably the first time the ghost is ghosting, and it may take some time for her to learn how to ghost). But the writer has to know what the ghost can and cannot do.

How does haunting work? That’s pretty basic ghost stuff. Traditionally, ghosts haunt a place. That’s where the term haunt comes from, after all — from the Old French term hanter, which meant “to frequent, visit regularly.” Writers aren’t bound by tradition, of course, but the question still needs to be answered: where can the ghost appear? Is the ghost limited to the scene where the murder took place? Can the ghost shift between locations that were important to the living person? Or can the ghost just go anywhere it wants? If the ghost can go anywhere, how does spirit travel happen? Does it take place immediately? Or is there a time element involved? Does the ghost wink out of existence in, say, the apartment where it lived and immediately appear across town in the architecture firm where it was employed? Can the ghost decide to travel to another continent? Can the ghost travel to the moon? 

Another important question: can the ghost interact with physical objects? Can it move a chess piece? Can it move a kitchen table? Can it lift a car? Does the relationship between the ghost and the physical object matter? Can it more easily move things it valued in life? And how does that relate to ghost movement? If, for example, the ghost can ‘lift’ a wedding ring, can it move that ring from one room to another? If the ghost can de-materialize and move between locations, what happens to the wedding ring? Does it move as well? Or does it drop to the floor when the ghost leaves the room? Can the ghost use a typewriter or a computer’s mouse?

Does/can the ghost have an actual physical manifestation? If the ghost sits in a bathtub, does the water level rise? Who can see the ghost? Is the ghost visible to everybody, or just a select few, or just one person? Does the ghost have any control over its visibility? Can it choose to be visible to some people and not to others? Can it be visible when it chooses and invisible otherwise? Does the ghost have a physical appearance? If so, how does it manifest itself? Is it transparent? Is it dressed? If so, in what? If the ghost was murdered while scuba diving, does it appear in fins and a mask and a bikini? Can the ghost change its appearance? If so, can it change at will, or does its appearance depend on the person being haunted or the ghost’s present location?

Can the ghost communicate with people? If so, how? A ghostly whisper only the haunted person can hear? A disembodied voice that anybody nearby can hear? Is the ghost actually speaking or somehow communicating psychically? If the communication is vocal, is the voice identifiable? If the ghost wasn’t known to the investigator, how does the investigator know it’s the victim’s voice? If the ghost is actually speaking, can the hearer smell its breath? If the communication is psychic, can those unbidden thoughts be ignored? Can anti-psychotic medication mute the ghost’s psychic voice?

Those are the sorts of the questions I asked my client. Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the rules violate the laws of Newtonian physics or quantum physics; maybe that stuff doesn’t apply to ghosts. All that matters is that rules and limits exist, that they’re consistent, and that the writer is aware of them.

Why? Because readers aren’t stupid. Nor are agents and publishers. Readers will wonder why your ghost in Chapter 3 is able to locate your detective in the evidence room at the precinct and travel there, but in Chapter 9 is unable to locate and travel to the detective when he’s been kidnapped and tied up in the back of a Volkswagen van. Readers will question why your ghost in Chapter 8 is able to psychically suggest your detective ask a question he hadn’t thought of himself, but in Chapter 17 is unable to psychically inform the detective that the guy he’s talking to has the murder weapon on him.

If a writer is only using the supernatural as a convenient way to move the story forward, that writer is not respecting the reader. As far as that goes, the writer isn’t respecting the craft of writing. As goofy as it sounds, ghosts (and the readers of supernatural stories) are better served when the ghosts have rules. It’s really that simple. And by the way, that’s also true for witches, and necromancers, and kitchen boys who inherit magic rings, and vampire librarians, and half-demon private detectives, and travel journalists who find a djinn in an antique bottle, and and and.

Again, all fiction is a cosmological event. All believable universes operate within rules. And from now on, when I get asked to evaluate a supernatural novel manuscript, I’ll send the writer a link to this post — just to save time and grief.

nobody cares

“Sometimes I feel like I should just give up.”

One of my writing students recently said that. In fact, I hear that with distressing regularity from my students. (As an aside, it still occasionally strikes me as improbable that I’ve become a Person Who Has Students.) That statement is almost never posed as a question, but the question is always there as a not-very-subtle subtext. Should I just give up? And that question always masks another question, which is generally phrased as another statement: I’m never going to be good enough to get published, am I.

The question at the heart of all this is an awkward question. It requires a graceful answer. It also requires an honest answer. As a Person Who Has Students, it’s my experience that honesty and grace don’t always dovetail together.

The graceful response is easy. “No, of course you shouldn’t give up. If you approach your writing with diligence and sincerity, you can become good enough to get published.” There’s some measure of truth in that. If you work hard at any craft — writing, cabinetry, weaving, brick-laying, pottery — you can improve. Most of my students have the capacity to be good enough to get published.

But most won’t. That’s the honest answer. Hard work doesn’t guarantee mastery, and mastery doesn’t guarantee success. The unwelcome Truth is that while most of my students have the capacity to improve, relatively few will actually fulfill that capacity; they either lack the necessary persistence or are prevented by circumstance from achieving it. And even whose who ARE good enough, may still not be good enough. Even if they produce excellent work, the first publisher to read it may reject it. And so might the second and third. And the fourth and and and.

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Instead of responding directly to my student, I asked a question: “What matters most to you — writing a good story or getting published?” Everybody wants both, of course — and logically one should follow the other. If you write a good story, it’s got a better chance of getting published. But knowing which of those matters most changes your approach. If getting published matters most, then you let the marketplace direct the work. If the marketplace is hot for zombies, then you write zombies. Some folks will sneer at that, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a professional approach  Getting paid for your work is a wonderful thing, and the best way to get paid is to give the market what it wants. And down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story — just with zombies.

If it’s the writing itself that matters most, then your approach is different and the reward is different. In that case, story takes precedence over the marketplace. You might still write a story about zombies, but it’s the story that’s driving the process, not the zombies. And I’m going to repeat myself: down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story. It’s an issue of whether you’re writing a good zombie story or a good story that has zombies in it. In either case, it’s got to be a good story.

A few days after my chat with the student, I came across this video by Ted Forbes. You should watch it. Not right now, necessarily (because c’mon, I want you to keep reading this, don’t I) but at some point take a few minutes and watch it. It’s called Nobody Cares About Your Photography.

I don’t know Ted Forbes; we’re ‘friends’ on Facebook, which just about the most tenuous sort of human connection possible. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged a word with him, but I watch his Art of Photography videos. I don’t always care about the subject matter, but it’s always worthwhile to listen to anybody who’s passionate about something talk intelligently about it. I’m pretty confident that if you listened to somebody talk passionately and with intelligence about lawn bowling, you’d learn something you could use in writing. Or in photography.

Forbes says nobody cares about your photography — and he’s basically right. In the same way, nobody cares about your writing. There are SO many writers out there (and so many photographers or lawn bowlers) that it’s easy for you, as an individual, to be ignored. And if you’re proficient enough to care about your work and intelligent enough to wonder about your place, you’ll almost certainly at some point wonder if you should just give up.

Forbes, I think, makes two important, related points. He says No more easy shots and The world needs work that matters. What the hell does that even mean? And how does it translate into writing?

I don’t think he’s saying you need to be trying to create work that will be of historical importance (if he IS saying that, then the poor guy is delusional — but still worth watching). I think when he says No more easy shots he’s basically saying not to do the same old shit you’ve always done just because you’ve always done it. Do different shit, or do that old shit differently. Don’t relax, don’t sit down, don’t do it in your sleep.

And when he says The world needs work that matters I don’t think he’s saying the work must be Very Important Work. I think he’s saying to think about what the work actually means and how it fits into our culture. That sounds impressive as hell, doesn’t it. But consider the works of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s fluff. But it’s incredibly well-written fluff. It’s not easy to write comedic fiction that light-hearted.

Does the writing of P.G. Wodehouse matter? I’d say it does. People need a bright, witty escape from the world. They need it and deserve it. The question isn’t whether the world needs another novel about zombies — or about elves, or former special ops soldiers, or a sharp-witted nanny who is kidnapped by Barbary pirates. The question isn’t whether anybody really cares about your elven special ops zombie romance novel. They don’t.

But they do care about stories. They care about what stories do. About what stories make them feel. About the things stories inspire them to think about.

The world needs good stories. Stories matter. Grace matters, honesty matters, passion matters, intelligence matters. Stories will always matter. You may not write one that finds its way to an enthusiastic reader. But you can try. If you can approach your work with grace, honesty, passion, and intelligence, then it might matter. It might.

Lawn bowling

Lawn bowling

If it doesn’t — well, there’s always lawn bowling.


two of this, two of that

Occasionally I’ll take a walk with the specific intent to shoot photographs. More often, though, I take a walk just to…well, to take a walk. To get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air, to stretch the muscles and make the blood pump just a wee bit faster. And it helps me clear out the cobwebs when I’m having writing issues — like when I’m unable to think of a metaphor and I have to resort to a cliché like ‘clear out the cobwebs.’

Sometimes when I take a walk, I’ll stick my little Fujifilm X10 in a pocket. I almost never take it out. Almost never is another way of saying Sometimes I do. On a strangely warm morning back in January, I did. I took the camera out because as I walked through a small suburban park, I saw these two trees:

two treesBHere’s the problem. I’ve been working on a novel for a while. A novel is as much an exercise in persistence as anything else. I’ve published a lot of short fiction in various genres, I’ve published several nonfiction books, but I’ve only published one novel. So I very much want to get this novel manuscript finished and out the door. But I’m also heartily weary of the damned thing. Don’t get me wrong; I think the manuscript is good — but at this point I know everything there is to know about the characters and the plot. That leaves me with nothing to do but put words in a row. That’s not easy, of course. They have to be the right words. And that can be fun sometimes. But the real fun of writing fiction is, for me, the bit where you’re actively making shit up.

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because it means my mind has already moved on to other projects. My mind can be a real asshole. When I take a walk, instead of thinking about my current project, my mind is kicking around ideas for the future. So when I saw those two trees, my mind began to build a scene around them. An anonymous guy running slowly between them. A guy running from something? Or toward something?

I turned around to see what he’d be running toward. And I saw these two horses:

two horsesHere’s another part of the problem. I’ve only written for an adult audience. Not ‘adult’ as in ‘adult movies’ but adult as in ‘not young folks.’ But a lot of the most creative fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years has been in the Young Adult genre. I find myself wanting to write a YA novel. Most of the fiction I’ve published has been in the mystery and detective fiction field — and I’d like to try something altogether different. Over the last few years I’ve been drawn to the sort of world-building that takes place in fantasy fiction. However, I can’t really abide stuff with dragons and wizards, or magic swords, or those grand epic stories in which the pot-boy turns out to be the bastard-heir to the throne. If I ever write anything like that, you have my permission to stab me.

I much prefer stories that drop ordinary folks into extraordinary situations. So I’ve been wanting to write a YA novel revolving around a fairly ordinary kid who gets caught up in a situation having fantasy overtones. When I saw those two trees and those two horses, my asshole mind began to concoct an opening scene. An ordinary kid sitting on the bench near the horses sees an anonymous guy running slowly in his direction from between those two trees. The kid, of course, would be the protagonist. And the kid would have to be asking the very same question I was asking myself as a writer.

two bollardsBTension. It’s almost always the driving force in fiction, and it often expresses itself in some form of question. Like Who is that guy and why is he running towards me?

I kept walking and considering possible answers to that question, and soon found myself behind the local Salvation Army store, where there was a rubbish hatch tucked away between two bollards. A great place to hide, if somebody was chasing you. But who is being chased? The kid? The guy? Maybe both of them? Maybe the guy was being chased until he met the kid, and now the kid is being chased by whoever was chasing the guy?

I checked the rubbish hatch; it was locked from the inside (of course it was — this is real life). But one of the advantages fiction has over real life is that it doesn’t have to completely conform to reality. It only has to conform enough to be believable. There are a lot of ways to deal with a locked rubbish hatch. But what we’re after at this point is tension, and one way to ratchet up tension is to offer a release from the tension — then snatch it away. You show the protagonist (and the reader) the convenient rubbish hatch, you let them think a solution has been found. then you turn the apparent solution into another problem.

This is how writers torture readers and make them happy.

two crossingsBI walked along, thinking of various ways to construct the scene. You’d want the kid (and maybe the guy) desperately trying to open the hatch, looking back over his/her/their shoulder for whoever the hell is chasing him/her/them. Maybe have the kid and the guy (if he’s there — and there would be some distinct structural advantages to having the guy there) run off together. Maybe have them run off separately, never to meet again. Maybe have them run off separately, only to meet later in the story. Maybe have the kid run off and the guy stay behind to face whoever is doing the chasing — give the kid a chance to escape. So many options.

As I walked I saw two potential avenues of escape. The first, a shiny railroad track passing between two crossing signals. Hop a slow-moving freight train? Maybe one that picks up speed and becomes too dangerous to hop off? Lots of potential there — an ordinary kid sitting in a suburban park, and half an hour later he (or she, of course) is on an express freight high-balling out of town toward some unknown destination.

The second, by turning the other direction you see two muddy ruts leading to some old out-buildings.

two tracksBMore places to hide. And who knows what might be stashed away in those out-buildings? Farm implements, maybe. Rows of high-stacked pallets filled with potting soil and fertilizer and grass seed. Maybe rusting circus equipment. Or a meth lab. I spent the rest of the walk thinking of things that might be found in those buildings — everything from a secret missile defense system to the bastard heir to the throne who’d been turned into a dragon by a wizard with a magic sword. (I told you my mind can be a real asshole.)

That was back at the end of January. This is early April. Over the intervening two months I’ve continued to grudgingly work on the existing novel manuscript — but almost every time I set out on an idle walk, my asshole mind returns to this story idea.

An ordinary kid sitting alone in a park at dusk, a stranger slowly running towards him.

words is my business

Words is my business. I know a lot of them, and I enjoy using them. I enjoy seeing and hearing them used. I adore people who use them well.

One of the reasons I adore Meera Lee Sethi (just one of the reasons; there are so many reasons to adore Meera that you’d need an abacus to keep count) is because she’s engaged in the most wonderful and quixotic projects I’ve seen in some time: 366 Days of Words in Science.

This is more than a mere introduction to esoteric words. It’s partly a sort of diary, and partly a collection of philosophical musings, and partly a work or art (each term is accompanied by a photo that in some way illustrates the concept), and partly an act of immense generosity. It’s a delightful combination of intelligence and charm, and every day it offers something new to captivate the curious.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to use ‘ceratotrichia’ or ‘palpebral’ in casual conversation, even if I can remember them. I’ve no idea how many of these 366 words I’ll actually fold into my vocabulary. But I do know that each day I look forward to another term, another photograph, and another brief peek into Meera’s mind.

So this little blog post is just an aliquot (a measured portion from a larger sample) of my affection for words and for science and for Meera. The level of my actual affection for words, science, and Meera is only measurable on a galactic scale.

lightning in the blood

I wrote this novel in 1993, sort of by accident. I was working on my doctoral dissertation (an exploratory sociological study of private investigators) and one of my advisers suggested I should consider including a chapter comparing the work of real life private investigators and fictional ones. I wasn’t a fan of mystery of detective fiction and didn’t see any value in such a chapter, but you don’t argue much with your dissertation advisers.

So off I went to the Literature Department, where I tracked down a professor who taught a course in mystery and detective fiction. We set up an independent study program, she gave me a reading list, and I spent a semester reading detective novels. They all seemed a bit silly to me; the characters might be interesting, but most of the cases and the investigative approaches were pretty loopy. With each book I picked up, I found myself thinking “Hell, I could write something like this.”

So I did. I think it took me a couple of months, while still working on my graduate studies. I sent off the manuscript and St. Martin’s Press bought it. I still had to write a paper for my independent study, but when I showed the book contract to the professor, she just laughed and gave me an A. It’s hard to argue against a good grade and an advance. I began to grow fond of the detective genre.

My editor at St. Martin’s asked for another novel with the same characters. So I started working on a second novel. But the format (alternating First Person narratives) felt forced and awkward a second time. I decided the characters would work better in short fiction. I wrote some short stories and published them mostly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (some of which can be found in Dog on Fire). I suggested a short story collection to SMP, and my editor seemed receptive to the idea. But then she decided to go to law school and her replacement wanted to develop her own stable of writers. The project became ‘orphaned,’ as they say in the publishing biz.

And that was that. The first run of Lightning in the Blood sold well and I earned a bit more than the advance. But I had no desire to write a second novel with the same characters.

After I published Dog on Fire I decided to revamp LitB and release it as an e-book. At first, it was something of a painful experience. It was like the literary version of looking at your high school yearbook photo.

But since I hadn’t read the book since it was published (nearly two decades ago) I found I was able to read it as a reader. Normally I dislike reading anything I’ve written; I tend to see only the flaws. But I found myself actually enjoying parts of the book.

In the end, I decided to update LitB a bit. I removed references to outdated technology (it was written in an era when there were relatively few cell phones, most of which were about the size of extra large bean burrito, and were carried either by doctors or assholes who wanted people to know they could afford cell phones) and examples of 1990s slang. Other than that, it’s the same book.

And hey, considering I wrote it in my spare time, it ain’t bad. It should be available for the Nook and the Kindle by the end of the week, and for other formats at some point in the near future.

(Also…the new cover art features a photo by our own Lynn Longos.)

complications of the writing life

So Dog on Fire is done and out there (although I’m still waiting for it to appear in the Apple and Sony stores). I ought to be doing promotional stuff—and I intend to—but what I really want to do is get engaged with the next project.

The question is, which next project? I have four possibilities. 1) A novel that’s been published already and needs to be converted to e-publishing formats. 2) Another set of short stories. 3) A sort of police procedural/zombie novel. 4) A fantasy novel.

The most logical choice would be #1. I wrote Lightning in the Blood while I was doing the research for my doctoral dissertation. It was published by Saint Martin’s Press. The novel got generally good reviews, sold a few thousand copies, then disappeared—which is the fate of most novels.

But when I look at it now, all I can see are the flaws. It’s about the same two characters who appear in Dog on Fire. Each alternating chapter is narrated by the other character. That works pretty well in short fiction, I think, but not so much in a novel format. That’s exactly why I scrapped the second novel SMP asked for and began to use those characters in short stories.

If I undertake this project—and it would be stupid of me not to—I’ll want to update the novel, both to reflect modern PI tech and to improve bits of it. It would be dull grunt work, but this plan makes the most sense. Which doesn’t seem to weigh much in its favor.

A second book of short detective stories has its appeal. I’ve got maybe half a dozen scenarios sort of semi-sketched out. It would be fun and fairly easy, though time consuming (but then all of these possible projects would be time consuming). I know there’s interest in the characters, so there’s that. And I could probably sell some of the stories for print publication and bring in some extra jing that way. That’s an attractive aspect.

But then there’s the police procedural/zombie idea that’s been banging around in my head for a couple of years. It’s not a traditional zombie ‘must eat brains’ idea. It’s actually more of a civil rights story. Here (and other writers will probably think I’m nuts for putting this out in public) is the basic premise of the story.

Some unknown environment circumstance triggers a viral event which causes a person’s body to effectively meet the legal criteria for death: the heart stops, the circulatory system stops, respiration stops, brain activity stops. Many hours later, the patient revives—after a fashion. The heart doesn’t start beating, but it sort of vibrates; blood no longer circulates through the body, but it sort of quivers like jelly; respiration doesn’t take place, but the virus simulates hemoglobin so closely it deceives the body into behaving as if was receiving oxygenated blood; electrical brain activity resumes but not in any way recognizable by an EEG. The patient’s bodily functions fail to meet the legal criteria for life, but the patient still retains their ability to think, their identity, and a degree of mobility.

Naturally, fear of contagion means these people are quarantined. Over time it’s discovered the virus isn’t transmitted from person to person, but is triggered by some circumstance in the environment. One ‘zombie’ can’t create another ‘zombie.’ Something in nature does that, though most patients come from a very large geographical region (the Southwest).

The story takes place a few years after the outbreak. There’s a population of a few thousand ‘zombies’ who are being detained in one location—the town where the first patient died and revived. They’re confined to the hospital grounds, which has become overcrowded. An isolation zone of several square blocks of empty buildings, established during the early months of the outbreak, surrounds the hospital. Because each ‘zombie’ was declared legally dead, they have extremely limited civil rights. The courts are beginning to hear lawsuits by ‘zombies’ seeking relief from what they consider unlawful detention. It’s believed the courts will soon expand the limited rights of the ‘zombies,’ allowing them to occupy what has been the isolation zone. The community is opposed to the idea. During all this, a living hospital worker is murdered.

Somebody has to investigate the crime, but it appears the killer may be a ‘zombie.’ If so, can a person who is legally dead be arrested and charged with a crime? How could that person possibly be given a trial by their peers? Could the State just dispose of the accused in the way they’d dispose of any other dead body? The investigator has to deal with the political and cultural issues while trying to solve the murder. This stuff fascinates me.

Finally, I’ve been kicking around a fantasy novel for some time. I like the idea of the genre, but not much of the genre itself. I simply haven’t read much fantasy that wasn’t painfully formulaic. Magical swords, potboys who are rightfully the king of the realm, an evil force bent on world domination. That crap bores the hell out of me.

I have an idea for what’s essentially an adventure story that takes place in a border region between two hostile cultures. Again, it’s the clash of cultures that intrigues me. Nothing fancy about it, but it appeals to me.

So I have all these ideas. I just have to make a decision and focus on one of them. It ain’t easy. I’ve already written the novel, so there’s nothing new for me there–but it’s the logical next step. I enjoy writing short stories, but I’ve just finished a collection of them. The zombie market is flooded, and I’m not sure my idea is marketable even though it’s different and I’m sort of jazzed by it. There’s always a huge fantasy market, so that direction would also make sense and maybe be amusing.

The writing life—she is complicated.

i have a crush on stephen fry

If I was gay (or if I were gay and interested in the past subjunctive—which I’m not and which I’m not) I’d be in love with Stephen Fry. I’m about half in love with him anyway. Because he has one of the most delicious voices in this part of the galaxy, and he knows how to use it, and he uses it to say things that ought to be said, and he uses it to say things that ought not to be said but need saying anyway.

And because of this:

I confess, I’m one of those people who sometimes get annoyed at the verbing of nouns. In my defense, I’m only really annoyed when I see it used in corporate jargon. There’s a place for CorporateSpeak. For the most part, that place is Hell (which is where the guy who sent out a memo saying ‘Please gist your reports before sending them to me’ belongs). But the employee who first said she couldn’t go out to lunch because she was ‘dining al desko’ has a special place in heaven.

I can hear that—I shall be dining al desko today—in Stephen Fry’s voice. He makes it sound even better.

(Thanks to Olga van Saane for bringing that video to my attention)