Zombie Apocalypse

Sunday, October 30, 2011
With NaNoWriMo only two days away, I've been spending some time perusing the forums. It's always interesting to see where people are from, how old they are, how many times they've done NaNo, and what they are planning on writing for their novel.

A big plot this year appears to be Zombie Apocalypse. The first time I saw it, I thought, "Huh. Weird, but definitely a NaNo type novel." People tend to do crazy things in NaNo novels. It's all about typing 50,000 words in one month and there's a large contingent that will do anything to reach that goal. Including writing whacko stories about a Zombie Apocalypse. When I saw Zombie Apocalypse popping up more and more frequently, I figured out it must be some kind of pop culture reference that I wasn't familiar with.

One of the disadvantages of growing older is that you stop paying attention to pop culture and miss a lot of these references. The demographic that goes to movies and watches television is the 18 to 35 group. This turns into a feedback loop situation. Since it's the 18-35 year olds who are consuming media, the creators of that media focus on making movies and TV shows and video games that appeal to that age group. Generally this means that those who have started receiving solicitations from AARP on a regular basis don't like those movies, TV shows, or video games and do something else. Like read or tune in to PBS or TCM or go to symphony concerts.

Last night, after watching the PBR World Finals from Las Vegas (Hey! It's research. My novel takes place on a dude ranch, so I have to study cowboys, right?), I was scrolling through the channel guide and found that SyFy was just starting to show a movie called (you guessed it) "Zombie Apocalypse". This was just too serendipitous to pass up.

It didn't take me long to think "Roger Corman". Roger Corman is the king of sci fi/horror B movies. He started directing and producing these low-budget films in the 50s and 60s and, amazingly enough, continues even today, producing three films in 2010. These films have such classic titles as "Monster from the Ocean Floor", "Swamp Women", "Attack of the Crab Monsters", and, of course, "The Undead".

"Zombie Apocalypse" continues this fine tradition. The plot is minimal. A plague has turned most of the population into zombies and a small band of heroes is trying to reach a sanctuary on Catalina Island, fighting off zombies all along the way. The zombies are laughable, walking stiff-legged with shoulders angled, faces scarred and smeared with blood. Their heads burst in fine special effects sprays of blood when smashed with a bat. I'm sure many unemployed actors were glad for the chance to earn a week's rent by staggering around the set of this made-for-TV movie.

This morning I started thinking about how this same story has been done in so very many different ways. That's another consequence of NaNo. I've been reading "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder and following Alexandra Sokoloff's blog on plotting like a screenwriter to guide me in working out the plot for my NaNo novel. Both Blake Snyder and Alex Sokoloff discuss the basic plots and name movies the exemplify them. They suggest watching these movies to see the standard structure of a screenplay. So you could also say that watching "Zombie Apocalypse" was research.

But back to how this particular plot has been done before. I tend to think of this plot as The End of the World. Maybe it's because I grew up during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent for years, but this plot appeals to me. The world is ending, but it's possible for some humans to survive with will and pluck.

Most recently, "I Am Legend" did this same basic plot, but in a much more artistic and serious way. In this variant, Will Smith played a government researcher who was one of the few survivors. He was trying to find the cure for the plague that had turned most of the human race into monsters.

Then I thought of "Red Dawn". Although there are no plague-ridden monsters in this film, we do have a small group of survivors battling the evil humans. In this case, it's the Communists. I suppose you could look at it as philosophy as plague. The high school students are trying to survive after an invasion. Eventually they, too, begin a trek to find the safe haven where the forces of good have based themselves to try to defeat the forces of evil.

Now, all of the above movies take place on Earth, but "Serenity", the feature film Joss Whedon made to wrap up the threads of the television series "Firefly", is the same story told in a future era where man has colonized another solar system. Instead of Zombies or Communists, we have Reavers. And, as the master of "the same but different", Joss Whedon has his characters not running away to a sanctuary, but running toward the source of the evil.

There are arguments on how many basic plots there are, but whether you think there are seven or twenty or thirty-six, the truth is that there are a limited number. However, there appear to be an infinite number of stories that can be told using them. Here's to all the WriMos creating those stories this month.

Preparing for NaNo

Sunday, October 23, 2011
Is it only a little over a week until the start of NaNoWriMo? This year I thought I was getting a good jump on planning my novel. I'd be all ready come November 1st with a detailed outline, character sketches, plot points, maps, and all the other things I usually develop as I write a novel. I'm not sure I'm going to make it.

Oh, I do have a list of characters and a vague idea of the plot. I've been getting good planning ideas from Alexandra Sokolov's blog over the past two weeks. But she just posted the details of Act 1 this week and I haven't even gotten to use that! There are two more acts and only nine days before I have to start writing! Panic is starting to set in.

Oh, I've done more prep than I have some years. But, for a plotter, it's never enough. Fantasy writers have a problem with worldbuilding. They can spend months--years, even--drawing maps and costumes and floorplans and developing languages and religions and magic systems.  Mystery writers--those of us who plot, anyway--can get bogged down in red herrings and suspects and arcane clues.

I've never understood how "pantsers" (those who write by the seat of their pants) ever get a novel out of what they write. I admire those who can sit down in front of a blank screen and just start typing a story out. They lead their characters to the edge of a cliff, push them over it, and only then do they worry about how they'll survive the fall. Me, I'd be hyperventilating, my stomach would be tied up in knots,  and I would probably turn that character into another victim. Unless I did several days worth of research on how someone somewhere survived a similar fall.

There's other kinds of prep that I have done, though. I've laid in a supply of chocolate. (Did Chris Baty plan on leftover Hallowe'en candy when he decided NaNoWriMo should start on November 1st?) I picked up a packet of Via, Starbucks instant coffee that actually tastes like coffee. I've been checking out recipes recommended for cooking during the month of November, things that don't take much time for preparation so you have more time for writing.

I'm nervous and excited all at the same time. There's nothing like the adrenalin rush of needing to type 1667 words every day knowing that there are thousands of people all over the world doing the same thing.

So, since I'm running out of time, I need to get back to my novel planning. That's all for this week.

Book Review: Sentenced to Death by Lorna Barrett

Wednesday, October 19, 2011
First a disclosure: Lorna Barrett is a member of the Guppies (see the link on the right) whom I've known for several years. I don't think that influences my opinion of the books she writes, but it might. I borrowed this book from the library based on the fact that I didn't like the last book in this series very much and am reluctant to buy books that I'm not sure I'll want to keep.

In this fifth novel in the Booktown Mystery series, Tricia's friend Deborah is killed when a small plane carrying a banner for the Founder's Day celebration runs out of gas and crashes into the gazebo where she's giving a speech. Everyone in town believes that this is just a tragic accident except Tricia. It doesn't make sense to her that an experienced pilot would forget to put gas in his plane.

Of course, Tricia doesn't sit still or mind her own business. She immediately talks to the NTSB representative sent to investigate the plane crash, persuades the local newspaperman (an ex-boyfriend of hers) to ferret out information, and generally noses about. This leads to the discovery that her friend had lots of secrets. As do others in Stoneham, New Hampshire.

This was a fun read that kept me turning the pages. Tricia's sister, Angelica, makes a perfect sidekick who listens to Tricia's speculations and aids her in the investigation. Although I do miss the antagonism that existed between them in an earlier book, I've come to accept Angelica's new role. Ginny, Tricia's employee at Haven't Got a Clue, the mystery book store she owns, grows and develops in this story. Mr. Everett and Grace put in an appearance.

The primary reason readers come back to a mystery series is to follow the lives of the characters as each mystery is solved. Lorna Barrett has created an ensemble cast that has become a group of old friends we want to keep up with.

Definitely recommended.

Fall Gardening

Sunday, October 16, 2011
Back in March, I wrote about the devastation of my yard due to the extremely cold February we had. Between the advice given by most horticulturists (don't assume the plants are dead too quickly) and the extreme heat of summer, my yard hasn't changed much since then. Well, except for the ground squirrels, but I'll leave the follow-up on that to another time.

I did trim back the dead branches and such before summer hit so the front wouldn't look like a Halloween stage setting. This did NOT improve the looks but, since it was small, it was able to hide behind the larger plant that survived.

Yesterday morning, before it got up into the nineties again (we're having a warmer fall than usual), I got out my brand new pitchfork and wrestled what was left out of the ground. I was glad to see an emitter for the drip irrigation next to the dead plant. That meant whatever I planted in its place would get plenty of water.

Then I showered, dressed, and headed off to Tohono Chul Park's semiannual plant sale. Now, this is a pretty good trek from where I live. It takes almost an hour to get there. But I'm a member, which means I get a discount, and I like to support the park. I was also hoping I'd be able to find the exact same plant that I had. The HOA has a rule about replacing any plants that die with the exact same plant that was there before. I think the intent is to make sure you use desert friendly plants instead of those that take a lot of water, but it doesn't say that.

This hasn't turned out to be all that easy. First of all, I didn't know the name of the bush that was planted at the entrance to my house. I'd made an attempt to find out in the spring with a trip to Civano Nursery, which is no more than a mile from where I live, but a nice lady and I spent a good amount of time walking around trying to match my memory of the plant without success.  I found a picture of it and sent it off to my friend the horticulture major, whose husband is employed maintaining the parks in a nearby municipality. The decided that it must be broom or sweet broom. I did some Googling and that didn't look right to me, but I hoped I could find it at the plant sale.

There were lots of plants to choose from. I wandered around for a while, but found nothing labeled "broom." I found a docent and asked if they had any. He was horrified. He said broom was invasive and I didn't want that growing on my property.

Hmmmm... well, I'd already come to the conclusion that I'd probably have to find a substitute shrub for in front of the door. I had a couple of requirements: it should be about the same size and more cold-hardy than whatever had been planted before.

 So I walked around some more. Eventually I found something that seemed to meet my requirements. It even has small white flowers like the previous bush. It's also supposed to have small, edible, red berries in the fall that the birds like.

I came home from church today and immediately got out my shovel to put it in the ground:
Western Sandcherry

 I'm looking forward to watching it grow.

I Should Be a Horror Writer

Sunday, October 09, 2011
I have a terrific imagination, particularly when it comes to imagining the worst. The least little thing can send my mind scurrying down dark tunnels towards disaster.

There was one place I lived where I hated to clean the bathroom. Every time I started scrubbing it, I'd notice this odd smell. I was convinced there was something nasty living in the drains or the walls that was going to poison me and kill me. I'd die and no one would find the body until several weeks later. They'd do an autopsy and pronounce that I'd died of a heart attack or stroke, blissfully unaware of the evil POISON that had really killed me.

A few weeks back, I heard a series of explosions in the middle of the night. There were two at around 11:00 PM, one at midnight, and another at about 1:00 AM. Just as I'd start to relax, there'd be another one. Each time I got up, walked around the house waiting for another bang so I could pinpoint where it was coming from, but nothing happened. Until I sat back down in front of the TV and relaxed for a while. I went outside to see if my neighbors had noticed it. All the houses were dark. I was the only one prowling the yard, shining a flashlight up on the roof to see if anything had fallen on it.

After the midnight explosion, I went to the garage and got the ladder so I could see up in the attic. All I could think of was that there was gas accumulating in the furnace until it reached the explosive point. I mean, the whole house shook on the first explosion, so it must have been close, right? Since there are no basements in Arizona, furnaces are in the attic or the garage. Mine hangs from the roof beams. I couldn't smell anything or see anything, but I also couldn't get up into the attic. I only have a ladder tall enough to reach the vent to change the air filter and I am too short to boost myself up through the hatch in the ceiling.

At 1:00 AM, knowing I would never get to sleep, I woke up a couple I know from church and asked if the husband could come over and check out the attic for me. He did. No gas. No critters. He did the same examination outside my house that I'd done with the flashlight and couldn't find anything wrong. Eventually, he left.

Two days later, there was a story in the paper about the explosions. It seems that there were some leaking containers from Raytheon that needed to be detonated immediately, so they were taken to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and set off there. In the middle of the night. Exactly at the times I had heard them. Lots of people had called the police about the explosions, recognizing that they were occurring somewhere not inside their own homes.

 This happened to be the night after there was a total lockdown on the base all afternoon, supposedly because there was a mysterious gunman. There was no access for hours, even to the point of not letting the school children leave. Afterwards, they said there had been no gunman.

So I start playing my "what if?" game and thinking that the gunman story was a cover and that the real problem had been that some top secret weapon had gotten out of control. They had kept the base closed so no one would see what was really going on. And they detonated whatever it was in the middle of the night for the same reason. I stopped before I got to the scenario that they really hadn't gotten it under control and it was still a threat to detonate in the middle of some other night and blow up the neighborhood. Barely.

Then I found a small snake, tiny really, in a glue trap the exterminator had put near the garage door. Immediately the phrase "nest of vipers" came to mind. I had to mentally beat down the image of a bunch of writhing snakes living in my yard before I started obsessing about it.

And now I find I have ground squirrels out of control. Now, I've been of the live and let live opinion regarding these creatures for the past couple of years. I'd noticed a couple of holes but, as long as they didn't come in the house, I was willing to let them stay.

Only they got greedy this summer. While it was too hot for me to work in the yard, they apparently decided to invite a bunch of their buddies over. They started eating the flowers off one of my plants every time a new crop of blossoms bloomed. They've dug a pretty good-sized hole next to the slab at one corner of the house. It was time to take action.

So what do I do? What anyone in the 21st century does. I Googled "ground squirrels." This is when I learned that they aren't as benign as I thought they were. Not only are they rodents that carry disease, they can undermine your foundation with their tunnels.

So now I've got this image in my head of a maze of tunnels weakening the structure of my house. Some day the weight of the house is going to be too much and it will collapse into a big sink hole. I'll climb out of the rubble and stand there shaking my head, wondering how such little animals could do such damage.

Of course, this isn't going to happen. I've got some bait traps and the recommended poison that I'm going to put out later this afternoon so when they come out for their nocturnal feeding they'll find a deadly feast. So now I'll get to fantasize about dozens, maybe hundreds, of dead squirrels rotting under the ground. Don't go there!

It's at times like this that I understand how Stephen King comes up with his story ideas. While I quash my fantasies as quickly as possible so I won't have a stroke, he just goes with them. It also explains why Poe was an alcoholic. And I never want to know what it feels like to be H.P. Lovecraft. I'll just stick with my nice, cozy mysteries thank you.

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Wednesday, October 05, 2011
I finally finished this second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I have to think my reading experience was damaged by putting it down to read some books I had put on reserve at the library, then moving on to some lighter fare after that, before picking it up again last week and finishing the book. I found myself wishing it would be over with, which is not a good way to feel about a book.

Or maybe it's just that I'm not meant for epic fantasy. These books have so many points of view, it takes me several pages of a new chapter to bring all the related characters and the situation we last left this character in back into my memory. Just as I'm getting thoroughly involved in this part of the story, the chapter ends and a different character steps forward to continue his or her tale.

I confirmed that my being overwhelmed by the number of characters wasn't exactly my fault. At the back of the book there is a list of all the major characters and their affiliated minor characters. This goes on for pages. And pages. This saga employs a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written. Quite the contrary. There are places where the words are stunning. I wondered how Martin comes up with some of the vivid descriptions he uses. And there are some characters I'm thoroughly invested in: Jon Snow, Danys, Tyrion, Arya. I really do care what happens to them.

I think you need more than an hour during lunch to read this series in the way it should be read. They're the kind of books you should sit down with in the morning and keep reading until you turn off the light at night. Unfortunately, I no longer have days like that in my life.

I also found myself comparing A Clash of Kings to books in the other epic series I enjoy reading, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. I realized that there's a distinct difference between the two. While each book in the Outlander series stands as a complete story by itself, you're always acutely aware that you're only reading an installment of a continuing story when you read A Song of Ice and Fire. It's really one mammoth book in separate volumes. Going in you know that the story won't be over with when you finish the book. It reminds me of my experience with Dan Simmons' Hyperion.

I probably won't read another in this series for a while. Yes, I am invested in some of the characters, I would like to know what happens in the rest of the storyline, and Martin writes some incredible scenes. But I find the length and amount of detail too much work to get through to find that one bang-up scene that makes reading the book worthwhile. At least, for now. Perhaps if I had a two week vacation and could read a book straight through, I'd start the next one.

Loving My Mac

Sunday, October 02, 2011
I usually don't write about the geeky stuff in my life. I've always been a math and science nerd and, in my early thirties, became a computer nerd. After discovering that a Bachelor's degree in psychology wasn't a whole lot of good when it came to finding a job, I went back to school and got an Associate's degree in Data Processing, where I learned to program computers.

This skill served me well until a few years ago. I built my career on the IBM midrange computers (System/34, System/36, AS/400) and, as PCs and Microsoft took over the business world, it became harder and harder to find a job. When I was laid off from my last job two years ago and found a different type of computer-related job, I figured my days of business application programming were over. I was too close to retirement to make retraining realistic. Besides, what I really wanted to do was write mystery novels.

Writing a novel is not easy. It sounds easy. I mean, all you have to do is sit down at your computer and type up a story. Try it. What you learn pretty quickly is that the first thirty or forty pages are easy. That's all the stuff that's the premise for your story, the ideas that have been floating around in your brain, the things that inspire you. Then you get to the dreaded middle and you have to figure out how to get from that inspiring beginning to the bang-up finish. There's plotting and subplots and how do you get all those characters to play nicely with your story?

As Walter Smith said:
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.
My biggest stumbling block was my inner editor.  I suffer from PERFECT. I expect that what I write--the first time I write it--will read like Hemingway or Dennis Lehane or Agatha Christie. That's nonsense, of course. Even Agatha Christie's writing didn't read like Agatha Christie the first time she wrote it. My expectation of perfection crippled my ability to write anything.

That's when I discovered NaNoWriMo. In case you've never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide effort by thousands of people who have always wanted to write a novel "someday" to actually write a novel. It's not a long novel--only 50,000 words--but the catch is that you have to write all of it during the month of November. The whole point of NaNo is quantity, not quality. If you are going to meet the daily quota of 1667 words, you haven't got time to fiddle around with each sentence or paragraph or chapter and make it just so. You have to write. Fast. You can't delete anything or you'll fall behind. You're encouraged to write nonsense, silly sentences, unlikely scenes, all with the goal of "winning" by finishing your 50,000 word novel in thirty days.

NaNoWriMo was a godsend for me. I learned to turn off the inner editor and just keep writing. I've done it five of the last seven years, winning four times. That means I've completed four "novels" for NaNoWriMo in addition to two novels of traditional length. I sometimes think my NaNo novels are better than my "real" novels.

On the NaNo forum boards, which, of course you go to when you're trying to avoid actually writing or as a reward for completing your word count for the day, there's a section for writing tools. People talk about what they're writing their novel on. It's amazing the variety of devices and programs people use. This is where I learned about the Alphasmart (now rebranded Neo), a handy portable device that, at the time, was much cheaper than a laptop, lighter, and perfect for just writing text. Being the nerd that I am, I opted for the sister Dana, which runs the Palm OS and could use applications developed for the Palm Pilot.

The other tool I learned about was Scrivener. People raved about this writing software. It sounded perfect for writing novels. But it only ran on a Mac and I, being the business application programmer that I was, had a Windows XP machine. (They now have a Windows version, still in beta, but didn't then.) So I did my planning on paper and wrote in Word and tracked my word count in Excel for several years.

Then two years ago (remember how I started this?), when I found a job a lot quicker than I'd expected to and still had severance pay in my bank account, I made a decision. I wanted to use Scrivener. In my mind I was transitioning from a career as a programmer to a career as a writer, an artiste, if you will. So I bought a MacBook Pro. Macs are cool. Macs are fun. But they're not Windows PCs. You have to relearn habits built over years. And I bought it right before NaNo started.

It didn't take too long for me to find how I needed to do the minimum on my Mac in order to use it for the things I commonly use a computer for. I switched from Outlook to Mail without too much effort. I downloaded Firefox so the browser was familiar. I'd tried Open Office on the PC previously because I knew in my heart the change to a Mac was coming, so I immediately downloaded OO for the Mac. The functionality there was a little different because it used Mac conventions, not Windows, and it was frustrating in that most of the instructions and messages on the OO forums talked about the Windows and Linux versions, not the Mac version. But I could use the word processor for most things. And I downloaded Scrivener.

Okay, there was a whole lot of learning curve involved in all of this. New computer, new software and NaNo coming. There was too much to Scrivener, a genuine Mac application, to learn it before NaNo. I wrote that year's NaNo novel in Open Office, which was enough to deal with. And I fumbled along with using the Mac as best I could.

This month, two different things happened. The Guppies decided to form a Scrivener subgroup to share tips and ask questions about how to use this software. With the Windows version being tried by a number of people and many of us Mac people not using the program to the extent we knew it could be used, we figured a group of us discussing it was a good idea. That got me interested in looking for functionality and actually (gasp!) reading the manual.

Now, in my real geek days, I would have taken the manual to bed with me. I thought IBM technical manuals were terrific bedtime reading. And, no, they didn't put me to sleep. But I wasn't about to take my MacBook to bed with me and the only manual that comes with Scrivener is a pdf that you read on the computer. Even the suggested third party books are ebooks. Now, I love my nook, but I prefer to read non-fiction in paper. I need to be able to flip pages and stick my fingers in three different places to figure manuals out. You just don't have that kind of functionality in an ebook.

As long as I was into manuals, I decided it was time to get one for the Mac. One of the paper kind where I could highlight and stick my fingers in the pages (see above) and have it open beside me as I sat at my computer. I'd read in a set of blog comments that "Switching to the Mac the Missing Manual" was a pretty good resource, so I ordered it from Barnes and Noble. Yesterday I started reading it.

Oh. My. Word.

I'm only on page 20, but already I am loving it--and my Mac. I have learned so much in those first pages. What I suddenly realized is that I have been using my MacBook and always thinking in terms of what I wanted to do on a Windows machine, then figuring out how to do it the Mac way. I haven't learned to "think Mac" or, as the ads used to say, "Think Different."

It's kind of like when you take a foreign language in school and have to answer the teacher's questions in that language in class. You think of the answer in English first, then translate it in your head into the equivalent in the foreign language. I took four years of French before I started to formulate those answers in my head in French rather than English.

The Missing Manual has opened up a whole new feeling about my Mac. I realize now why so many artists and writers are in love with the Mac. While a computer and technically a left-brain object, the whole way it works is much more right-brain. It's not all logic and formulas. It's movement. It's freeing. I can't believe it took me two years to get to this point. I wish I had found this book earlier, but at least I found it now. I'm going to have a lot more fun on my computer than I have in a long time.
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A Clash of Kings
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