Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Hope of Annihilation

When the trailer for Annihilation dropped last month I went to the library that day to pick up the book it was based on. I finished it in three days. It was a giddy reading experience. I stayed up late reading and took the book with me out in public on the off chance that I’d have a moment to sit down and read some more pages. I finished it in three days.

I went back to the library looking for other books by the same author. I came home with Borne.

I like Borne. It is very much in the same style as Annihilation, half-explained monstrosities, impossible in our world, yet existing in our world nevertheless. Even the characters are very similar, both of them intrepid women who once loved the mysteries of the sea.

But Borne hasn’t grabbed me like Annihilation did. In Annihilation the characters were venturing into a landscape they didn’t understand, maybe couldn’t understand. They were explorers, tasked with unraveling the mysteries of this place that had swallowed up so many explorers before them without trace.

Borne has none of that sense of exploration. The impossible world simply is. The protagonist has lived in it long enough that she has stopped questioning the nature of the things around her. She knows she has no hope of finding the answers, so she focuses instead on surviving.

There’s something draining about the book. Reading it is less an adventure and more of an ordeal. It’s not that I dislike it, but it makes me realize that there is something in the act of trying to solve a mystery that is inherently hopeful. Even if all aspects of the mystery are never revealed, even if the answers could never be understood, the search for those answers is an artifact of hope, hope that things can be understood, that life can be untangled into some kind of understandable order.

When Pandora opened her bottle and let out all the demons into the world there was one creature left behind. Hope. I’ve always loved the ambiguity of the ending of that story. Is Hope a cruel force in the world, just like malice and selfishness and pride, driving humanity on through bad times into worse? Or is it the balancing factor, the antidote to set right Pandora’s mistake? I tend to think the latter.

At least I hope it is.

Advice for Singles in Fact and Fiction

There’s something that’s bothering me more and more lately about single people. Not all single people necessarily, but many of you at the very least are obsessed with not being single anymore. You think you can finally be happy if you find a suitable mate, that one person that understands you like no one else, and you’ll finally have the chance to share life with someone instead of going it alone.

And yeah, as a happily married person, I can say those things are pretty awesome. If you find the right person to spend the rest of your life with, you can count yourself very very lucky.

But lets examine that phrase at the end there shall we? “The rest of your life.” The rest of your life is hopefully going to be quite a long time. I mean even if you’re smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish, and singlehandedly keeping your local Burger King afloat, you probably have at least twenty or thirty years ahead of you. And the thing you’re missing, the thing I missed until after I was married, is that you’ve got an incredible amount of freedom right now. You probably don’t have a house payment, you don’t have to worry about your kids having enough diapers.

How well do you think James Bond would function as a married man? And I mean really married, like to someone he cares about with long term goals and kids and stuff? How about Luke Skywalker? You think he’d have dashed off to join the Rebellion if he’d had a couple of mouths to feed back on Tattooine? If you do ever run into a fictional character that’s married or got kids, he’s either estranged from them or they’re getting kidnapped for him to go and save. Heroes almost never have to deal with normalcy. 

And that’s you right now. You have options a married guy or gal couldn’t imagine. You can go on a secret mission overseas. You can fly your X-wing and destroy the Death Star. You can move without being bothered by the the fact that you’re underwater on your mortgage.

Okay, so maybe mostly just that last one. But that one’s bigger than you’d think. You have the freedom to take risks us married folks don’t have.

So stop your whining. Stop being bitter. Stop turning Valentines into Singles Awareness Day.

Finding someone to love is awesome, sure, but so is having the option to jump in your car and drive to the Grand Canyon, picking up odd jobs washing dishes along the way. One day you’ll be married. One day you’ll have a kid and a house a dog and, oh yeah, a job you can’t afford to lose because your family counts on those health care benefits.

Don’t stop looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right. But don’t forget to celebrate what you’ve got right now.

Oh, and writers? About all those single characters: I know how tempting it is to write characters with no attachments, believe me, but maybe you could at least consider the fact that attachment raise the stakes. And not just in the cliched sense of “I’m worried the bad guy might kidnap my family.” What kind of character would James Bond be if he had to worry about paying his mortgage, or deal with the guilt of the fact that his child sees him so rarely he doesn’t even recognize him, on top of having to save the world? Think about it.

Actually, Go Ahead, Pirate My Books

So yesterday Chuck Wendig wrote this thing about digital piracy of books. The upshot of this thing was that he’d really rather you didn’t do it, because hey, he worked hard on those books and they are not unreasonably priced and he deserves to be paid for his work BUT he’s not going to get all angry at people who do pirate because- Actually, it was kind of a long post. Maybe you should just go and read it.

As a corollary to this Wendig has declared today to be “International ‘Please Don’t Pirate My Book’ Day”. Now I’ve got nothing whatsoever against Mr. Wendig, and for the most part I agreed with his post, but much like the those who choose to celebrate “Singles Awareness Day” instead of Valentine’s I’ve decided to make up my own opposing holiday. I’m calling it “Go Ahead and Pirate my Book if You Feel Like It” Day.

Why would I decide to encourage people to read my work without paying for it? I’m so glad you asked.

1. You Want to Pirate my Book? That Means You’ve Actually Heard of Me!

They tell you not to write for exposure. Don’t put so much of your work up for free that you can’t sustain your writing. But you’ve got to think that if practically nobody has heard of you a little more exposure couldn’t be such a terrible thing right?

If you’re looking to “steal” my book that means you’ve taken at least a passing interest in me as an author. How could I complain about that?

2. Money is Tight These Days

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pinching every penny I can. I’m not living in squalor or anything, but there’s not a lot of extra. I reckon there’s a good number of you out there in the same situation.

It bears mentioning that my books are pretty reasonably priced. Nothing I’ve got out there on the digital marketplace costs more than three bucks. So if you’d like to pay for my work it bears mentioning that this isn’t “Don’t You Dare Pay for my Book and Support me as an Author” day.

3. I’ve Totally Been There

I’ve pirated digital content. I’ve pirated books. Books I liked. Books I wished I had the money to pay for. I buy new when I can, but I’m constantly looking for the deal, the remaindered bins, the yard sale, the book shelves at the Thrift Store. And sometimes I pirate. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but it’s there.

4. Piracy isn’t Stealing

This is something that Chuck Wendig said in his original post, but it bears repeating here. When it comes to digital content there isn’t a finite number of possible copies. If you pirate my work, that doesn’t mean you’ve taken that work away from anyone else.

That’s not to say that there’s no moral grey area, but calling piracy stealing is like playing QWOP on your back porch and telling people you’ve been out running.

5. You Can Pay Me Back Later

Piracy today does not necessarily lead to piracy tomorrow. If you like what I’ve written maybe you’ll pay for my next book. Maybe you’ll tell a friend. Maybe you’ll leave a nice review on Amazon. Maybe you’ll just tell me that you like it. There is value in all these things


So go ahead, matees. Shiver my timbers and pirate my books. Can’t find a torrent site that’s heard of me? I’ve included some links below to get you started.

The Mulch Pile

A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw

Shards of Darkness

My Christmas Horror Story, Of Teeth and Claus, Now Available in Audio Form, Just in Time for…um, Valentines Day I Guess?

So the title pretty much says it all. A couple weeks back Tony Southcotte, my co-host on The Human Echoes Podcast (you are listening aren’t you?) helped me put together an audio edition of my short story Of Teeth and Claus which is available for download here. You can also listen to it in the embedded player below. Or if you can’t stand the sound of my voice (I wouldn’t blame you) you go all old-school and can read it with your eyes here.

An Explanation

I haven’t updated this blog in a few weeks, and in case some of you out there were wondering why here is the reason: I have mononucleosis.

Mononucleosis is some kind of immune system sickness, which I don’t completely understand because I am not a doctor, but from what I can tell it saps your energy so that all you can do is lay in bed all day long. When I first found out I was going to be lying around the house for days on end I thought it would be a great boon to my writing, but it turns out this mono thing saps you so hard you don’t have the mental focus to actively use your brain for more than a few minutes. This includes writing. And reading. And getting any kind of enjoyment out of watching television.

I’ve been able to do a little writing in short bursts, but I have to stop when my energy gives out. I have a story I really want to be editing, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to give it the attention it deserves. I’ve been writing a Bizzaro Book Review blog post in little bits that I’m not sure fit together.

Basically, I’ve become the world’s biggest couch potato. I hate myself for it, but at the moment there’s not much I can do to change it. I’m thankful that I’ve got lots of sick hours saved up at my work, so missing several weeks won’t hit me too hard financially, but I wish I had the energy to get up and be a normal human being again.

That’s all I have the energy to write for now. Hope you all are having a wonderful November, smashing away at NaNoWriMo and all that jazz.

Albert, out.

Of Flashlights and Foolishness

Yesterday I got into an argument on Twitter I really should have stayed out of. Actually, that’s most arguments I have on Twitter, but this one was especially ill-advised because it stemmed from some disparaging remarks I made about the general attitude I’ve seen from the people threatened by Hurricane Sandy. You can go and read the tweet if you want; I haven’t deleted it, even though further consideration tells me it might not have been in the best of taste.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not just this storm. It’s every storm. Every storm is going to be a disaster. Every time a hurricane comes through the message is some subtle variant of “ARRGH, ITS GOING TO BE TERRIBLE, EVERYONE GO BUY A YEAR’S WORTH OF WATER, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE, ARRGH!”

For this I partly blame Hurricane Katrina. That storm really was a disaster. Thousands of people died, millions more were displaced from a city that lay in ruin for years afterward. And there seems to be a sense that people —particularly people in the media, but many average folks too— are holding their breath almost hoping that whatever storm is forming out in the Atlantic will be just as bad. And they’re disappointed when time and time again, it isn’t.

But that’s not what this post is really about. Because what bugs me, what really sticks in my craw about how people react to these storms is the fact that people react to these storms.

The last little puff of wind that blew off the gulf in my town saw the shelves in the sporting goods section where I work stripped completely bare of flashlights. And it really got me to thinking: what kind of person doesn’t own a flashlight? How is it you’ve gotten to this point in human adulthood without having ever needed a battery operated light source? Did you never go camping? Did the lights never go out at your house? Has your life up till this point really been so mind-numbingly convenient that there has never been a time when you flicked the light switch and nothing happened?

And this is really what I wanted to say: if you’re going out to buy supplies after the storm has formed, you are not prepared. Preparedness happens in advance. Preparedness is recognizing that you live in a hurricane-prone area and having stuff on hand to deal with that possibility. Preparedness is having a plan. Preparedness is owning a flashlight.

Of course you might not live in an area threatened by hurricanes, but the same basic advice still applies. It’s my opinion that everyone should have the supplies on hand at all times to survive for at least a few days without power.

One of the best ways to take inventory of your ability to make it through one of these events is to go camping every so often (and I mean in a tent. RVing and camping are not the same thing.) That way you find out the batteries in your flashlight (which you have because you are a normal person) have turned into corrosive gunk in a non-emergency situation. You’ll have figured out how to cook your food without power ahead of time (Propane camp stoves are nice, but if you’re on a budget like me, pick up a Sterno stove. They’re less powerful, but also much less expensive.)

Of course, you’ll need something to cook on your stove, which is why it’s a good idea to have a good supply of canned goods in your pantry that you periodically use and replace so as to prevent spoiling.

This advice? None of it is new. It did not come to me in a flash of mad insight in the wee hours of the morning. I am not passing down some arcane mystical wisdom that none of you have heard before. And yet every single storm that passes sees the exact same pattern of panicked buying of supplies.

I’m certain this one single blog post won’t stem that tide, but maybe it will spark you to think more about your own level of preparation. The very nature of preparation means it likely won’t be something that will benefit you in the near future, but if you have it in your mind what kinds of emergencies you might face and have a plan and supplies to deal with those emergencies when the storm, earthquake, flood, or solar flare hits you won’t be stuck with the rest of the lemmings cramming the aisles of Walmart somehow surprised by the fact that you weren’t the only one who didn’t stock up on canned goods.

You’ll have a plan. You’ll be prepared. You will own a flashlight.

Acting in the Theatre of the Mind

Sometime in the past year I changed my radio listening habits. I started tuning out the conservative talk radio I had grown up with (don’t judge me; or do: whatever) and amped up my consumption of NPR. Of course on NPR the tone of discussion is radically different, but on a basic level it’s not much of a switch. Talking is talking no matter which way you slice it up, and they do a lot of talking on NPR. They talk about politics, news, world-culture; and of course, they do interviews.

Sometimes they do interviews with people who actually matter, like politicians or financial experts or whatever. But sometimes they do interviews with other people; the kind of people that a lot of other people think matter, but they don’t really, except for the fact that so many people believe they matter kind of means that they do? That sentence: it got away from me.

I have a sliding scale for how well I tolerate these kinds of interviews. On the bottom of the scale is musicians. Call me crazy, but given the choice of hearing someone talk about music and listening to, you know, actual music, I’m gonna go with the latter.

Slightly higher on the scale, but not by much, are the writers. In theory I should be really interested in what other writers have to say. I mean, those be my people,  amiright? I don’t know, maybe they’re picking the most boring writers possible for these interviews, but I think it’s more likely that out of all the different professions out there, writers just tend not to be that interesting to talk to. Hellooo? That’s why we’re writers! If we could talk we wouldn’t be glued to our keyboards.

Then comes the third group. The group I should probably dislike the most, but somehow end up disliking the least. Actors. Actors tend to be way more interesting to me than writers or musicians. I’m not sure I can justify this. Probably it tickles the same bone in me that makes people buy supermarket celebrity news tabloids.

But there’s more than that too. Because when I listen to writers talk about how they write, most of the time I don’t get much out of it as a writer. They talk about why they chose a specific setting for their novels or what it is about one of their characters that appeals to them and it’s all very…safe.

More often than not though, I feel like I can learn something from actors talking about how they do what they do. The whole point of what an actor does is to create a character. Their job is to step out of who they are and into someone else in such a way that the audience believes in that person.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Albert, the guy who wrote the script created that character. He’s the one who came up with the guy’s motivations, he’s the one who puts the words in his mouth. The actor is just following the writer’s instructions.”

And you’re wrong.

Yes, the writer does write the lines for the character, he does come up with his backstory, maybe he even has an idea of the character’s mental and spiritual state in the story. But no matter how good the writing is, it’s going to fall flat if someone doesn’t step into that role and become the thing the writer envisioned, mannerisms, ticks, facial expression, and a million other tiny things that the script writer might have never conceived of when he penned the story. The actor is more than just a puppet spouting the lines he’s been giving, going through the actions he’s been assigned. In a very real sense he must become the thing he is portraying as the film cameras roll.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, but I’m writing a novel, not a screenplay you doofus. Why should I care about all this Hollywood mumbo jumbo?”

The reason you should care is this: if you want your story to be believable, if you want your work to make an impact, character matters. As a fiction writer you have more in common with the actor than you think. You’re not just writing dialogue. You’re writing actions and reactions, mannerisms and habits. You can’t rely on someone else to come along and realize the character in your reader’s minds. The whole burden of the process is on you.

The characters aren’t your puppets. Well, they can be. You’re the godlike writer, you can make them do whatever you want them to do. But if you want their story to be believable  if you want people to care about what happens to them, you’re going to have to do more than that.

You have to be able to step into their skin, understand what makes them who they are, and make sure that is reflected in every page that they’re on. This is more than just slapping on a backstory, a goal and a phobia. This is investing each of them with a soul of their own, making them into a living breathing person in your mind, and ultimately, in your moments of creation, becoming them.

Full disclosure? This is something I need improvement on. But sometimes I think I get it right. Sometimes I can feel what my characters are feeling, I can get inside their heads in such a way that their actions become my actions.

This is what writers mean when they talk about characters living inside their heads. We’re not schizophrenic; but maybe we are just a little bit crazy. Maybe we have to be.

Because in the end our insanity is infectious. The more we start to believe our characters are real, the more they start to live in and through us, the more the reader will believe that they’re real. Our characters will act out their story on the stage we’ve built in the theatre of the reader’s mind; and we can count ourselves successful if only for only a moment we can make our vision of the world feel more honest than the truth.

A Cast of the Pod

So there’s this thing I’ve been doing lately. If you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably heard more than you really wanted to know about it. But just in case you haven’t heard, I thought I’d put the word out in this space that for the last few weeks, I’ve been co-hosting the brand spankin’ new Human Echoes Podcast with fellow-writer and all around awesome human being Tony Southcotte.

Why am I doing a podcast? Well, aside from loving the sound of my own voice, it has come to my attention that people are more likely to partake of a medium if it requires very little participation on their part. A podcast you can listen to while you do the dishes, or on your commute to work. A blog on the other hand? Well, a blog requires you to take a block of time out of your day, and focus exclusively on what’s been written. That’s not to say I’m turning away from blogging, but I’m looking to expand into other stuff as well, cast a wider net.

What is the podcast about? Each week we pick a film you probably haven’t seen before and spend some time discussing its themes and through-lines, strengths and weaknesses. We break down the story from a writer’s perspective and give our opinions on the things that worked and the things that could have been done better.

And then we yammer on for a while about…whatever. Books, culture, politics, how to be a man, why I be hatin’ on Chuck Palahniuk…you name it.

We’re only four episodes in so far and still climbing the learning curve, but in spite of our youth and inexperience I’m fairly proud of what we’ve put out there so far. If that sounds like your cup of Earl Grey then head on over to the Human Echoes Podcast website and check out what we’ve done so far.

Beginnings for Beginners

I am a literary hobo. I panhandle my way through the library, I paw through the dumpsters of remaindered books at Barnes and Noble, I shop the discarded treasures at the local Goodwill.

And, of course, because I can often pick them up for cheap or free I read self-published stories.

There’s a lot of good out there in the self-publishing world. It’s true that there’s more bad stuff than good stuff, but on the whole I haven’t had difficulty finding compelling books that were competently edited and reasonably well-written.


When reading self-published books I’m aware that what I’m seeing many times is the work of someone new to the writing scene. Someone who is still polishing their craft, who hasn’t had access to the professional feedback the “real” writers get. (This is another blog post all on it’s own, but make sure you’re getting someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t afraid of hurting your feelings to read your stuff and give feedback before you hit “publish”. Listen to what they say. It will make a world of difference.)

And in reading these stories there’s one thing that I’ve noticed many new writers have a hard time getting right. The beginning.

See, beginnings are important and difficult things. Actually stories are important and difficult things, but I’ve only got a few hundred words here so lets focus our attention shall we?

Beginnings have to do a lot of work. They have to introduce the main characters, they have to set up the story world, they have to set the tone of the story.

And most people get that stuff right. Even the beginning writers I’ve seen faltering at this, usually understand the basics of setting up the story. But the problem is that beginnings have to do more than just set things up. They have to set the hook.


A good opening scene makes the reader ask a question. It doesn’t really matter that the question is. It could be, “Why does a fifteen-year-old girl have a unicorn in her room?” or “Why is a cyborg fighting through a horde of aliens with a paper heart stapled to his chest?”

That advice you’ve heard about opening your story in the middle of the action? It’s fine to do that —though I would argue not completely necessary— but the action can’t just be there to look pretty; it has to plant a question in the reader’s mind.

Note however that the opening scene shouldn’t do the asking directly. You drop a line like, “So, have you noticed that John disappears every month around the time of the full moon? Wonder what that’s about.” and you’ve just lost about half of your readers.

Instead, the opening scene insinuates the question into the reader’s mind. It makes him believe that he came up with the question all on his own. And that makes him care about the answer. That’s why this moment is so important. Because that question is what is going to pull your reader further into the story looking for answers.

Of course the question and answer cycle doesn’t end at the opening scene. The beginning is just…well the beginning. Making your readers keep turning the pages looking for answers is what drives good fiction forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the end, all good stories are mysteries.

So take a look at your opening scene. Be sure it’s going to make the reader ask the question you want him to ask.

Because the reader will ask a question. Your job is to make sure that question isn’t, “Why am I reading this?”

Franz Kafka vs. The Tomatometer

Last week, I read through Franz Kafka’s classic story, The Metamorphosis for the first time. I feel a little weird for having waited so long, but there it is: twenty-seven years old, and I’ve finally experienced one of the touchstones of literature.

Though I should point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to read Kafka’s master work. Somewhere about a year ago I saw a book of his stories for sale in a thrift store, and I thought to myself, “I have heard of this Kafka fellow, and upon reviewing my mental table of value judgments it would appear that I would rather have this book of his stories than the dollar in my wallet.” Thusly does the engine of our economy run.

When I got the book home I tried to read it. Only there was a problem. See, I had heard of The Metamorphosis. Likely you be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t. It’s the story about a guy who wakes up one morning turned into a cockroach. (And don’t give me that B.S. about how the proper translation is “vermin” because what Kafka describes is clearly a cockroach, mkay?) Which, and maybe this is just me, I always kind of assumed was horror. I mean, really, how do you write a story about a guy turning into a cockroach and not have it be horror?

Except when I went to read it that first time, it fell pretty flat as a horror story. All things considered our newly-insectified protagonist takes the whole thing pretty well. He doesn’t look down on his tiny legs and segmented body and scream out in primal terror at what he has become. Instead, he worries that he’s going to be late for work, because his cockroach arms aren’t well-suited to working the doorknob in his room. And at this point I’m thinking, “Come on, dude. There’s dedication to your job, and then there’s ‘Please forgive my lateness sir I appear to have turned into a giant cockroach.'”

And the story that follows? It’s all very literal. Kafka doesn’t dwell directly on the horror of being turned into a cockroach, but he goes to great lengths to examine the consequences of such a transformation. The fact that Gregor can no longer communicate with his family, his changing habits, his growing isolation from the world he loved.

And it really works. So why didn’t I get into it the first time? Because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had this image in my head of some Stephen King flavoured foray into insectile horror and what I got was completely different. What I expected the story to be managed to get in the way of the wonder of the truth.

Which is why I’ve decided to stop using Rotten Tomatoes.

Um…okay, bit of a jump there, but stay with me. For a long time when I was considering watching a movie, I would go to Rotten Tomatoes and check out the movies “Tomatometer” score. And if the score was high enough —generally I’d look for something over seventy percent— then I’d consider watching the movie. Otherwise it was obviously not worth my time.

Now a long time back I wrote a bit about how reviews were a kind of virus that infected our minds with someone else’s opinion. But the power of one review is different: because if you disagree with one guy, so what? Your opinion against his opinion. But if there are lots of people sharing their opinion, it becomes easier and easier to assume that the majority opinion must be more fundamentally correct. You begin to believe that there are Good Movies and Bad Movies.

But the truth is there are really only Movies You Liked and Movies You Didn’t Like.

And for my part, I know that my opinion doesn’t always line up with the consensus. Right now, one of my favourite movies ever, Revolver, has a Tomatometer rating of sixteen percent. In contrast, I watched The Bourne Ultimatum the other night, a movie with a rating of ninety-four percent, and when it was over I was left with a distinct feeling of meh. And the worst part about that last one? I had watched it once before and remembered not particularly caring for it. But I looked at its approval rating and thought, “Well it couldn’t have been all that bad.”

And here’s what this has to do with Kafka. For one reason or another I had formed an opinion of his work before I ever experienced it. I knew what I was expecting going in, and when I didn’t get it, my response wasn’t to push on thinking, “Well this is interesting, my preconceptions were wrong,” but rather to turn away from it entirely for a time.

And with Rotten Tomatoes it’s possible to form an opinion of something based on nothing more than how close a number is to one hundred. I’m not here to bash Rotten Tomatoes or the people who choose to use it. It is a useful tool, I’d say. But I had come to the point where I was looking down on people who said they liked movies that I had never seen because of those movies’ low scores on the Tomatometer. It was getting out of hand.

I know we can’t ever eliminate preconceptions from our lives entirely, and I’m not sure that we should. But I am sure that I can figure out whether or not I like a movie, a book, whatever, on my own. I shouldn’t need to check my opinions against the consensus.

Will I still listen to other people’s opinions and recommendations? Sure. But in the end I want to be able to make up my own mind. I want to free myself from the idea than an opinion can be right or wrong.

Is it possible that because of this self-imposed restriction I’ll end up watching more movies that really aren’t for me? Yes. But I’ll also have the chance to watch and enjoy things I might otherwise have passed over in disdain.

And that, I believe, is worth the risk.