Another post on writing

At a recent meeting of our writers’ group, my friend Leonard Pung (who, by the way, is currently attending Clarion, the lucky dog!) referred to my twenty-eighth story of the week, “Code Zombie“, as a “feathered fish”. When I asked him what he meant by this, he told me it’s a term used in genre media. Essentially, it means a work of fiction that can’t quite decide what genre it’s supposed to be; or, more technically, when the target audience reads it or views it, they think it’s for another target audience. In the case of “Code Zombie”, he couldn’t quite figure out whether it was supposed to be a comedic romance story with some elements of horror, or a horror story with some elements of comedic romance.

Later, another conversation with another member of our writers’ group made me think about genre fiction versus literary fiction. I also thought about how some writers, whose works could technically be considered horror, fantasy, or science fiction, often find their books marketed in the general / literary section of the bookstore, rather in the genre you might think. For example, Christopher Moore (currently my favorite writer), whose books could be considered horror or science fiction or fantasy by some folks, usually end up in general or literary fiction, because that’s the way he writes. He writes mainstream fiction, fiction about regular people, with elements of genre fiction in them. His novels Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck might be about vampires, but their real focus is the characters and the relationships between them. They’re novels about people who just happen to be vampires, rather than novels about vampires who just happen to be people. The difference is subtle, but it’s the difference between the book being found in general / literary fiction, or in the horror / fantasy / science fiction section. It also means a difference in sales (though I, of course, being of a higher caliber morality than most people, don’t care about the money).

So, because it’s all about me after all, I found myself thinking about what kind of fiction I want to write. I enjoy horror fiction, of course, but I could read a dozen horror novels and not have any of them stand out in my mind; but a good character-driven story, well told, with warmth and sensitivity and humor, will stand out more. Such stories are harder to write, I think, because focusing on human beings and their relationships is more difficult than focus on than what monsters do. Vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? Tentacled monsters from beyond the stars? Those are easy to write. A couple whose been married for forty-seven years and now dealing with the husband’s rejection of their gay son thirty years ago while zombies march across their suburbs? Much harder.

The world is full of broken, funny, damaged, wonderful people, and I think I’d prefer, in the long run, to write about them. And the zombies that surround them, too. But mostly about the people.

Swine Flu: Should We Panic?

First, a bit of mental housekeeping. Thanks to everyone who suggested various metaphors for depression on my post “Co-opting Churchill’s Black Dog“. I’ve decided to go with Kobolds. Kobolds, in Dungeons and Dragons, are little critters that, in small numbers, are easily defeated, but in large numbers can overwhelm a full party of adventurers and be nearly impossible to kill. I think it’s a perfectly apt metaphor, so it’s what I’ll be using. It also lets me issue “kobold alerts” which can describe my mood. Today’s a “one kobold” alert, which means I’m mostly feeling pretty good. A “kobold army” alert would mean “stay the hell away from Richard, for today he’s a black hole of depression that will suck your emotions down into a singularity of despair.”

So, that’s done.

Next up: swine flu, and whether we should panic or not. Now I’m all for a general state of panic accompanied by vigorous looting, so long as I’m far away from it and it can be brought under control by the authorities quickly. But it has to be warranted. And, frankly, at this point, there’s no need to panic over swine flu. There’s not even any need to worry. There is, however, some cause for concern, so let’s take a look at that.

Note that the following observations are based on my admittedly limited understanding of how pandemics work. I’m not an epidemiologist or a statistician or a doctor of any sort. If you have corrections to offer, please let me know and I’ll try to incorporate them.

First, the World Health Organization’s issuance of a “stage 4 pandemic alert”. The pandemic alert is not a measure of a pandemic’s severity or panic worthiness, like a hurricane alert scale. Rather, it’s a measure of the infectiousness of a newly emergent disease. The stage 4 alert indicates “sustained human to human contact”, meaning that the disease can be spread from person to person. This compares with, for example, H5N2, the “bird flu”, from last year, which got as high as stage 3, meaning that infection required sustained contact with animals. Most cases of avian flu and avian flu deaths occurred in people who spent long periods of time in close quarters with chickens. This does mean that the disease is more infectious than the avian flu, but still doesn’t call for a state of panic.

Second, the fact that this flu seems to have a disproportionate effect on younger, healthier people. This doesn’t indicate that the swine flu is more malevolent in any way than regular influenze; rather, it’s actually a function of a healthier person’s healthier immune system. As a person’s immune system sends white cells to the location of an infection, more white cells at that location are formed, causing a more severe response, until, say, a person’s lungs fill up with fluid, and they drown; this positive feedback loop is called a “cytokine storm”.

Third, there’s the question of spread. While early cases of the avian flu and SARS were confined mostly to Asia, outbreaks of the swine flu have been reported all over the world, from the United States to New Zealand. It’s important to remember that in each case, the number of infections was very small. As of this writing, there are about 40 cases in the United States, and two in New Zealand; more people have leprosy than have swine flu, and that’s likely to stay true. The fact that we can’t necessarily trace the outbreak and figure out how far it’s spread raises concern but is still not a concern for panic.

Fourth, there is no vaccine against the swine flu. This isn’t all that surprising. Flu vaccines — which are pretty effective and which you should definitely receive, especially if you have respiratory conditions like asthma or are more susceptible to the flu — are based on best guesses anyway. Informed best guesses, of course, based on epidemiologists’ observations of what seems to be spreading among chickens in southeast Asia (that’s an oversimplification, of course), but still best guesses. It’s not unusual that a few strains come out of the blue that weren’t predicted, and sometimes the strains that are predicted don’t materialized.

Texas and California have already declared states of emergency, in order to receive federal funds to deal with a possible epidemic. According to Governor Schwarzenegger, this is primarily to ensure that the various state agencies that would be involved in dealing with an outbreak would all be working on the same page; I’m not sure what Governor Ric Perry of Texas has said, so I won’t speculate. Also, I won’t get into politics here. I’ll probably do that elsewhere, like on Twitter or Facebook (see my Contacts page if you want to follow me on either of those venues; chances are, though, if you’re reading this, then you already are).

So yeah, there are causes for concern with regards to the swine flu outbreak. However, there are no causes for worry, panic, or even elevated anxiety. As I mentioned, more people in the United States have contracted leprosy than have contracted swine flu. More people contract and die of regular influenza each year as well. More people die of drunk driving accidents, or of lightning strikes. Another way of saying this is that 0.002% of Americans have contracted the disease, and that number is very likely an exaggeration, since I don’t do percentages very well.

The mortality rate of swine flu is not that high. It’s disproportionately high in Mexico, but during outbreaks, such diseases do tend to have higher mortalities in less developed nations. The exact reason for this is unknown, but it probably has to do with economic status and access to health care. True, there has so far been one death in the United States from swine flu, but that was an 23-month-old child who was visiting with his family from Mexico. This isn’t to make light of the tragedy of anyone who’s died or their families’ pain and grieving; it’s just an observation.

It’s also easily prevented, just like regular influenza. All it takes is common sense. Wash your hands whenever you pass by a sink, especially if you’re out in public, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer. If you have flu symptoms, stay at home. Stay away from other people who have symptoms. And so on. In other words, take the very same steps to avoid the swine flu as you would take to avoid the regular flu.

If you do catch swine flu, you should, of course, visit a doctor, but your chances of dying are about the same as for the regular flu.

Remember also that the media has a propensity to spread panic anyway; most news media count more as entertainment shows rather than actual information, and are driven primarily by what gets the ad revenue. Bad news and scare stories generate more viewers and more ad revenue than actual news, so there’s that to keep in mind.

So, should we panic? Not really. If you want to panic and loot, well, that’s your prerogative, but you’ll have to be responsible for the consequences of doing so. Taking that 42-inch plasma screen TV might seem like a good idea, but trust me, it isn’t.

Co-opting Churchill's Black Dog

Winston Churchill’s “black dog” was the name he gave to the depression he suffered throughout his life. I like the metaphor. It implies something that follows him around, barking at him and nipping at his heels; yet at the same time it’s something he can master and take control of, because, well, it’s a dog.

So, I’ve decided that I need a metaphor for my own depression, something scary — because depression is scary, after all — yet kind of goofy, because I need to be able to mock it every now and then. Right now I’m thinking an ogre: specifically Sir Reynold’s Ogre, from my story “Sir Reynold Fights Another Ogre” (Story of the Week #11). Even though the ogre is powerful and scary to Sir Reynold, he eventually defeats it and moves on with his quest.

Or maybe not, because that story’s kind of weird. (Hard to believe, I know, but I have written a couple of strange little stories.)

So. I’m open to suggestions as I ponder metaphors to use for my own depression. Right now I don’t really need hints on how to deal with it; I just want to come up with a goofy metaphor that will help me characterize my depression and stomp on it when I need to.

A response to NOM's "Gathering Storm" video

If you haven’t seen the video entitled “A Gathering Storm” by the group calling themselves the “National Orgamization for Marriage”, that’s okay. It’s offensive, full of outright lies and exaggerations, and blatantly offensive in its use of the term “Rainbow Coalition” to identify a coalition of churches and other groups that oppose same sex marriage. I won’t embed or link to that video from here; I don’t feel like adding to their hit count.

Anyway, here’s a video that exposes the lies behind the Gathering Storm video. It’s worth the watch, especially if you’ve already watched the NOM’s video.

What DO women want, anyway?

I have my own theories about what women want, having actually asked them, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

I’d be surprised if Freud really was the first man to ask, even in a professional capacity, what women want. I don’t know for sure what he came up with, having given up on Freud after learning about the whole castration fear thing, but I gather he determined that women are “un-understandable”.

And the question seems to permeate society. Mel Gibson was in a film entitled What Woman Want, and this week’s Newsweek features a white cover with the words “What Do Women Want?” written in red lipstick. (The cover story has something to do with gender politics as well as Sarah Palin, so I pretty much tuned out from that, and it’s beside my point anyway.) And I have heard it said, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously, that humanity has been searching for the answer to what women want for millennia.

I’m curious about this, about the notion that “humanity” has been trying to find that answer. It’s almost as if the 49% of the population that wants to figure it out are the only ones that matter. So we men learn that women are incomprehensible, that no one (by which we mean “other men” of course) can figure them out; and since so much media out there is really men just talking to other men, I can’t help wondering whether women find themselves buying into this concept as well. Do women internalize the broader message, that they are incomprehensible and even if they think they know they want, they’re still too mysterious, even to themselves, to know for sure? Or do women feel left out because 51% of humanity knows the answer to the stupid question, yet the other 49% feels they are the ones who matter? I sometimes think that if I were a woman, I’d find myself feeling left out of society when these questions are put forward. It also implies that everyone knows what men want, so the question isn’t worth asking.

I personally don’t find the question particularly mystifying — at least, no more than the question, “What does your buddy Keith want?” Keith’s been a close friend for over ten years now, but sometimes I just don’t get, say, his love of the Pittsburg Steelers… Or his love of football in general. You take people one at a time, and try to figure them out on a one-by-one basis. So it seems that women just want the same things that men want, but it’s more useful to ask the question on a person by person basis, and not on a gender-wide basis.

So, do you think these questions are valid? Or am I just exaggerating the the whole thing out of proportion?

Right wing lunacy

Is it just me, or has the extreme end of the right wing jumped off the edge of reason and landed gleefully into a pit of pure batshit insane? Between Glenn Beck’s bursting into tears at the very mention of America and Michelle Bachman’s deliberate misinterpretation of a new community service program as a sort of network of camps for the “re-education” of America’s youth (not to mention Chuck Norris’s outright jumps of joy at the notion of right-wing terrorist cells popping up all over the country), it just seems that loony conspiracy theories, once the exclusive domain of the darker corners of Usenet and street corner pamphlets, are turning into whatever passes for “news” on the Extreme Right Wing Apologist Network Fox News Network.

I swear, it’s like they learned nothing when President George H. W. Bush ceded America’s sovereignty to the United Nations and took everyone’s guns in 1992; or when Janet Reno became dictator and took everyone’s guns after Waco and Ruby Ridge; or when President Bill Clinton did the same thing in 1999 and also threw all the right-wing conservatives into concentration camps (not to mention ceding America’s sovereignty to the United Nations and placing the entire country under martial law) all under the guise of the dangers of Y2K. Glenn Beck says he can’t “debunk” the idea that concentration camps are being built to right-wing conservatives, which is kind of like me saying I can’t debunk the idea that Bigfoot has impregnated Amelia Earhart with a space baby. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there will always be people who believe. Since January, Fox News, especially Glenn Beck, has been possessed by the spirit of Morton William Cooper, and become the fodder for mockery and an episode or two of The X-Files.

It is, of course, disingenous at best and mind-explodingly stupid at worst to suggest that all conservatives are represented by this sort of conspiracy thinking, just as it’s disingenuous at best and mind-explodingly stupid to suggest that all liberals want to enforce mandatory abortions on every child in America and turn everyone gay. Of course, if you believe either of these positions — and I know folks on both sides of this particular fence — then no amount of contradictory evidence or reason will dissuade you.

Of course, most of this posturing is just that: posturing. Fox News, like Rush Limbaugh, exists primarily for entertainment rather than information, and as long as the ad revenue keeps flowing in they don’t care that they’ve turned the Republican party and the conservative movement in America into a parody of itself. And that’s what saddens me. Conservatives in America used to be best represented by reasonable, thoughtful folks like Barry Goldwater; people I could disagree with but who I was sure would actually give issues serious consideration and not jump to conclusions that are not just silly but outright batshit insane.

And what saddens me even more is that people believe this shit.


Jennifer and I just finished playing House of the Dead: Overkill, the latest in the House of the Dead franchise of zombie shoot-em-up games available for the Wii. The whole series of games has featured the finest in voice-over acting, character rendering, and realistic mayhem. Or, you know…. Not. Basically, we just enjoy shooting zombies and watching the green goo splatter everywhere.

House of the Dead: Overkill is sort of a Quentin Tarantino meets Rob Zombie thing, with allusions to plenty of old monster movies and some imagery that was, frankly, a tad on the disturbing side. The story came with some twists and bits of humor that, amazingly enough, surprised me and made me laugh out loud. The final scene, with the two agents discussing the meaning of the whole situation, just made the two of us guffaw with hilarity. There’s plenty of self-parody in this game,which was hilarious and… Well, it just made the game more fun.

Twitterspawn for 2009-04-04

  • A perfect day for a stroll though the cemetery. #
  • Today’s agenda: reading, critiquing, revising, cemetery tour, concert, writing, writing, writing, writing, revising, writing, revising. #
  • Back from the cemetery tour. It was fascinating. Must go back to better appreciate it. #
  • Now listening to the soundtrack from John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” while I work on my story about the rogue shithouse. #
  • The robot uprising has begun. In my own kitchen, no less. #
  • Off to see my beautiful wife singing with Vox Musica – #

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Twitterspawn for 2009-04-03

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