Archive for June, 2010

The Carrot-Peeler of Paranormal Fiction

Over on my Tumblr thing, Josh of Blue Ink Alchemy asked this question:

What makes the best supernatural fiction? How do you keep the paranormal fresh and interesting?

Here’s my rough-shod answer:

Oh, man, you put that word in there: best. That’s like a pile of C4 with wires running out all over the place. I’m afraid to tamper with it, afraid to even look right it. Fortunately you’ve provided me a second question I can use as an escape chute.

What makes the paranormal fresh and interesting is, to my mind, the same thing that makes interpersonal drama fresh and interesting after 5,000 years of telling stories: character and detail. The trick to making any story interesting is to get the audience to connect with it—that’s what interest is, I think—and characterization is how that’s done. I could say, instead, that conflict is how you get people interested, and that’s true, but I think to have conflict you need to characterize two or more sides of the conflict. In other words, Person Vs Nature isn’t an interesting story, but an angry cyberpunk lost in the last jungle on Earth is, because the two main forces have been characterized a bit.

Characters are like the sockets we can use to connect with the story; they need to be deep enough for our plugs to fit into. That, or it’s the characters’ hands that we hold on to as we climb aboard the moving train of the story. Pick your metaphor.

I used to think that situation was key, and it is for sure important, but I think characters are a vital part of situation. So often, when I’m cooking up situations, I realize that the characters are implicit parts of the situation—as vital as organs. For my story about a vampire stranded in an English country manor, trapped by curious and foolhardy Edwardians, I thought the situation was key: vampire trapped. (The same goes for my vampire-on-a-submarine story.) The reason you’ve never seen these stories, though, is because they suck a little bit, because I put too much emphasis on the situation and didn’t play up the extent to which characters are essential to situation. The situation was good, but my characters weren’t sturdy enough to hold on to. I think too much supernatural fiction expects the situation to do all the heavy lifting. I could be wrong.

As to freshness, I firmly believe the trick to that is in details. A vampire drinking blood is rote, but having him drink something else isn’t the only way to freshen the material. Details, in the moment, make things tangible and immediate in a way that always has potential for freshness.

Consider the vampire who uses a blade, maybe a carrot-peeler, to draw back a curl of flesh from his drugged victim’s throat. He laps at the running blood, probing the wound with his forked tongue, meddling with it like it was a gash on his own gums. When he’s done, he peels off a spot of soft electrical tape and adheres the curl of flesh back into its sticky groove. “Maybe someone will think it’s a wannabe vampire,” he tells his bloodsucking cohorts, “but at least they’re unlikely to think it’s a fucking vampire.”

A bit of detail—uncomfortable or cozy, familiar or strange—is the difference between repetitive, same-old storytelling and freshness. A story without detail is a stiff, dried-out thing, while new detail restores even old stories to supple life. Whether it’s a grainy old raisin with a stem like a tiny brown bone or a juicy grape that bursts when bitten, at least it’ll have that telling detail.

You can ask me questions via my Tumblr or in the comments here, to help me decide what to blog about next. Please?

On Mediocrity, Storytelling, and Getting It

Did you read this thing I posted on my tumblelog? I may be wholly foolish to even write this out loud, this call for perspective on the subject of mediocre stories, but it just sort of fell out of my head onto the page this way, and I’m not afraid to be wrong for a little while if it’ll help me be right in the future.

PvP: Wheaton Vs Scalzi

So John Scalzi is hosting a fan-fiction contest, which you can read about over on his well-known and book-spawning blog, called Whatever. The gist of it is this: Write a bit of fanfic to go with a painting that Scalzi commissioned from artist Jeff Zugale. Let me be more clear: Write a bit of fanfic to go with a totally eye-blastingly awesome painting Scalzi commissioned depicting Scalzi as an orc and my friend Wil Wheaton, wearing his clown sweater, astride a kitten/hippogriff/unicorn thing against a backdrop of exploding volcanoes, all painted by artist Jeff Zugale.

The winning entry becomes part of a chapbook from Subterranean Press, which goes on sale as a benefit for the Lupus Foundation of America.

I don’t expect that this will be in the actual running, on account of I probably won’t submit it, but I gave myself 45 minutes or so to riff on the painting, and this is what I came up with. (And since I’ve been working in screenplay format a lot these past few months, it’s where my head’s at.) If nothing else, I hope this amuses you.


In the distance, a pair of volcanos ERUPT, gushing forth smoking LAVA and screaming-hot GUITAR RIFFS. It’s TOTALLY METAL.

Bursting out of the mid-ground SMOKE and ASH comes a BLACK VAN emblazoned with an air-brushed image of a HALF-NAKED MAN & WOMAN battling shit like LIVING SKELETONS and probably a motherfucking DRAGON, with big spiral HORNS. The van is adorned with huge wood-and-steel SHIELDS and bristling with AXES on RACKS.


In the front seats are TWO ORCS: ZOOGALE (driving) and SCALZEE (shotgun). Fuzzy 20-SIDED DICE hang from the rearview.


We’re not gonna make it!


We’ll make it.

SCALZEE slams a cartridge into the EIGHT TRACK PLAYER in the dash. Chanting, wordless VOCALS echo from the HI-FIDELITY STEREO SPEAKERS over pounding DRUMS and cutting, lethal GUITARS. The bass is SO FAT, sodas in the theater ripple and tremble. It’s an ORC METAL OPERA.

ZOOGALE checks the driver’s side rearview mirror.


In the mirror, something is coming. It’s a winged dot above the horizon, backlit by CHURNING MAGMA, sunlight GLINTING off SOMETHING GOLD. It’s getting closer.


ZOOGALE points a thumb over his shoulder.


He knows it was us who logged in on his account and left him naked in the Valley of Darkwoe! He knows we have his gear!

In the back of the van, POULDRONS and GREAVES, a CUIRASS and WHATEVER PLATE-MAIL PANTS ARE CALLED rattle in a pile.


Keep driving.


But that’s a flying mount! We can’t outrun that!

SCALZEE opens his door and snatches a SHIELD and an AXE off the side of the VAN.


I’ll hold him off. You get rid of this stuff as fast as you can.


SCALZEE DIVES out of the van in SLO-MO, rolling over VOLCANIC GLASS and ASH and coming to a skidding stop ON HIS FEET. Badass.

ZOOGALE pulls the passenger-side door shut, then pulls the CB HANDSET off the dash and yells into it.


WTS [Pouldrons of the Dire Owlbear] [Shit-Kickers of Infinite Skanking] [Leggings of the Whale Narwhal] PST!!!

As the VAN tears off into the distance, SCALZEE turns around in SLO-MO to face his APPROACHING FOE. He SQUINTS into the SKY, and then A TERRIBLE REALIZATION spreads across his face.


Oh, shit!

Out of the GLARE, he descends: WIL WHEATON astride his UNIKITTENGRIFF! Above the BLUE HOT PANTS that make up the underwear of all HUMANS he is dressed in gleaming multi-colored CHAINMAIL: a [SWEATER OF THE GIDDY CLOWN]! In his hand: an [AWESOMANTIUM SPEAR OF LANCING]!




Rawr! LOL!

SCALZEE hoists his SHIELD with his right hand, deflecting the first of WIL WHEATON’S blows! The volcanos BELCH FORTH FIRE in the background.


Where’d you get that gear?! We cleaned out your vault!

WIL WHEATON circles around, hovering on his mighty steed, reigns in his right hand, spear in his left. His eyes say “I NEVER SHOULD HAVE GIVEN YOU MY PASSWORD SO YOU COULD PLAY AS MY ALT!”


I swapped out a feat last level and forged these myself!



WIL WHEATON unleashes an encounter power, THRUST OF A THOUSAND SMITES, rolls an 18, and deals 2W+15 points of damage. Red numerals float away above SCALZEE’s head.


Ow! My hit points!


Give me my stuff or the next one will be a daily power!

SCALZEE smiles. Knowingly.


Why are you smiling knowingly?


Because I know something you don’t know. I am not left-handed!

SCALZEE throws his SHIELD away and tosses his axe into his right hand, then whips is round and round WITH A FLOURISH.


Don’t be a dick!

WIL WHEATON FLIPS off his mount, spinning through the air, and lands opposite SCALZEE.


I’m not left-handed, either!

SCALZEE and WIL WHEATON growl and CHARGE, their weapons CLASHING, teeth GRITTING, sparks FLYING, volcanos EXPLODING, guitars SCREAMING!