Bees in My Bonnet

Bees

It has been entirely too long since I wrote a blog post for Girl Meets Monster. As I sit here in my living room, staring at my Christmas tree (um, today is January 23), it dawns on me that I’m behind in a lot of things in my personal life and my life in general.

Have I been writing? Yes.

Have I been submitting? Yes.

Am I waiting on pins and needles for what will surely be two more rejections? Yes.

Okay, so not too bad, right? Sure, but as always, I think I should be doing more, producing more. And, I have been trying to do that. I mean, I’ve been writing something — blog posts, social media posts, letters, journal entries, and snippets of fiction here and there. All of that is great. It would be better if I could stay focused and finish a project…projects. Aside from my thesis novel that I’m been submitting and resubmitting, I have two unfinished novels, at least one novella, and a handful of short stories that I desperately want to wrap up. The problem is, I’m stuck. Stuck on what? I’m not entirely sure.

I have some theories about what the blockage might be. And, all of those theories relate to unresolved emotional baggage and deep-seated fears that stem from childhood and my early adulthood. Self-esteem can be a real bitch sometimes. Especially when you have lived your life believing that you have to work for people’s love and affection. When you have been the recipient of conditional love since day one, it’s kind of hard to break that pattern and that mental process affects every aspect of your life: romantic relationships, parenting, work, school, friendships, and creating your art. (More on that in a future post.)

While I’ve been working on getting unstuck, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and things. If you follow my social media, then you surely know that I am insanely obsessed with Jason Momoa right now. I don’t think I’ve reached nuthouse status yet, but I am fangirling all over myself and anyone else who will listen. I mean, to be fair, he’s abso-fucking-lutely gorgeous, funny, interesting, and talented. And, he’s healthy. In fact, he’s been a source of inspiration for me to take my own health seriously again. I’m not a giant man who is in line for roles like Aquaman, but I can push myself to be better each day. His fitness videos are not only entertaining, but awe-inspiring. I hope he knows that he’s a role model not just for his kids and fans of the DC Universe, but for people who want to live healthier lives and become the best version of themselves.

Aquaman

I’m pretty sure I mentioned this, but just in case I didn’t, he’s H. O. T.

JasonMomoa

He has become the inspiration for one of my fictional characters and I can’t stop writing about this character. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why I’m stuck and not moving forward. I’m having such a good time thinking about him and breathing life into this character that I can’t think about anything else. Nah. As much as I love Jason Momoa, I’ve been writing and thinking about other things, too.

Recently, I received a handwritten card from a friend that reminded me of the cards and letters I used to send to my friends and other pen pals I had when I was a teenager.

Card

I remembered coming across a pile of these old letters a few years ago when I helped my mom clean out her basement. I kept some of them but didn’t really spend time looking at them until last week. Holy shit. What a treasure trove. It was like opening a time capsule from the mid to late 80s and early 90s and finding only the weirdest rants about being young and goth.

Letters

I used to have the pen name Antique, and weird goth and punk kids from all over the US and a few from the UK, would write me letters about how they wanted to become vampires too. They sent me photos, poetry, fanzines, mix tapes, and told me about how fucking boring or terrible their lives were. I was actually kind of shocked to read some of the letters and see just how candid people were with me. I wish I had some of the letters I wrote to other people, because that would make an interesting comparison between how much I shared and how much people bared their souls to me. I’m usually pretty open and forthcoming with people, especially in my writing, so I must have given these folks a reason to trust me with some of the personal things they were sharing with me.

One of my pen pals, Carl Velazquez, wrote to me on a pretty regular basis. Carl was roughly 10 years older than me, thought he was a real vampire, and wanted to engage in a romantic relationship with me when I was 15. I met him in person a total of three times. I went to visit him in New York where he lived when I was still in high school, he came to visit me here in Carlisle and stayed at a local dive motel for a few days. My friends and I hung out with him in the motel room — I was never alone with him — and he was basically bored out of his mind. The third and final time I saw him was during my junior year of college. I took an exchange student from the UK with me to New York to visit my friend Don and on that trip we went to Wig Stock, saw a showing of Female Trouble, and saw Lypsinka perform at the Ballroom. Carl joined us for Lypsinka and I think we grabbed a bite to eat at Stingy Lulu’s. I heard from Carl after that, but I never saw him again. And then one day, I didn’t hear from him anymore.

Carl

Carl was one of the first people to introduce me to erotic fiction and encouraged me to write about vampires. I loved vampires long before I met Carl, but he pushed me to explore darker and more sexual aspects of the creatures. His influence was so great, that I named my vampire antagonist after him in my first novel. You know, the one I keep submitting? Anyway, I found some of Carl’s letters that contained scandalous snippets of erotic fiction involving vampire personas we invented for ourselves. That’s right, my stalker sent me pornographic letters about what he’d like to do with me if he ever had the chance to get me alone. Is that vampiric enough for you?

And, speaking of vampires…which is something I do often, and speaking of unfinished writing projects, I’m also trying to write an abstract to submit in the hopes of getting picked to attend an academic conference in Transylvania dedicated to vampires. Again, I’m stuck. I have all these ideas zooming around in my head, but condensing them into an abstract feels nearly fucking impossible. I still have a little time, and I have like…I dunno…at least 10 possible titles dealing with the concept of female characters’ acceptance of violence in vampire romances. It’s kind of a thing. If you read paranormal romance featuring vampires, something I do a lot…NO, like A LOT…then you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s this weird phenomenon of female characters, especially in YA Paranormal Romance, allowing their vampire boyfriends to expose them to so much violence that it’s practically a cliche. And, they not only allow themselves to be perpetually placed in danger, but forgive their boyfriends, whom they almost invariably marry, for their violent behavior. While I find this fiction entertaining, I can’t help wonder just how dangerous that message is to teenage girls and young women.

Anyway, those are just a few of the things I’ve been thinking about. Some of the things I’ve been thinking about a little more deeply will soon become blog posts. And, some of you who have followed my blog in the past may be delighted to know that I will be bringing back my Fuckable Fictional Characters series in February. At least one of those posts will feature Jason Momoa. Okay, probably more like three…or four.

Happy New Year!

Fifty Shades of Self-Awareness: Why It’s Good to Read Bad Fiction

Recently, I did something I swore I would never do. I picked up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Actually, I picked up the audiobook from my local library and listened to it in my car on my way to work and back and while running errands. It took me roughly two weeks to listen to the entire audiobook, during which time I laughed out loud, screamed “shut the fuck up” at the narrator, and said, “no duh” when something so unbelievably obvious was brought to my attention. This novel, much like the series of novels that inspired it (the Twilight Saga), is not a well-written work of fiction. In fact, it’s abysmal. So, why read/listen to it at all?

You Have to Read If You’re Going to Write

As a writer, I feel that it’s my duty to become better at my craft. Most good writers will tell you that to become a better writer, you need to read. A lot. I would argue that you should not only be reading the best of the best, but also the worst of the worst. This is especially true if you write popular or genre fiction. Genre fiction, when written well, can enlighten us, make us think about difficult subjects, and reimagine the world we live in. It is the fiction of the masses, so genre fiction is in high demand, and there is so much of it out there that I wouldn’t even begin to know how you would read all of it in a lifetime. Lots of people believe that it is easy to just sit down and crank out a romance, horror, or science fiction novel. If you are one of those people who think writing a novel-length work of fiction is easy, go ahead. Do it. But, your first attempt probably won’t be the masterpiece you’ve envisioned in your mind.

freddie-marriage-92621

Image by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

While there’s a lot of good genre fiction out there, there is perhaps more that isn’t so good. And yet, people read it. I read it. Happily.

As a consumer of genre fiction who has a great love and appreciation for literary fiction and the classics, I am not ashamed to say that I will read, listen to, and or watch just about anything with vampires in the narrative. I have been obsessed with vampires since I was twelve, and I’ve never lost interest. Vampires are scary, dangerous, mysterious, and sexy as hell. Anne Rice’s novels were my gateway drugs. Thanks to her Vampire Chronicles, I have consumed a lot of vampire fiction, which enhanced my interest in classic horror films, Victorian horror novels, and inspired my own writing (both academic and fiction).

Over the years, I’ve expanded my obsession to include werewolves and demons, and I’m especially fond of Lucifer. I like to read, and attempt to write, about romanticized monsters. Monsters, in my opinion, make excellent leading men and love interests. But, I’m also aware that in some ways this is an unhealthy perspective on romantic relationships. But let’s not kid ourselves, unhealthy romantic relationships make fiction interesting and marketable.

The Danger of Romanticizing Monsters

Fifty Shades of Grey is not going to end up on a canonized list of great works of fiction (at least, I hope not), but it sold a hell of a lot of copies, became a series of novels, and has a film franchise. And, much to my chagrin, like the Twilight Saga, I feel a compulsion to listen to the rest of the audiobooks. When I read Twilight several years ago, I absolutely hated the protagonist, Bella Swan. I hated her because of her self-doubt, her lack of self-preservation, her inability to let go of the boy/man she loves who is LITERALLY a monster, and the fact that regardless of the danger ahead of her, she clings to this romantic fantasy that has no real basis in reality.

The risk you take with falling in love with a vampire is that death is always on the table. Whether you are “accidentally” murdered in a passionate moment when the lines between sexual arousal and hunger are blurred, or you accept the inevitability that in order to get your happily ever after with a vampire, you’re going to have to become one. Of course, other consequences include nightmarish, life-threatening pregnancies, and inexplicable acts of self-sacrifice.

Bella

‘Bella Swan’ [Source: Summit Entertainment]


So, yeah. I hated Bella Swan. Not just for her lack of self-esteem and willingness to die for love. I hated her because I could see myself in her. Guess what? I hate Anastasia Steele, too. There are plenty of reasons for me to hate her. She’s a ridiculous twenty-something virgin who is completely clueless about sex, and has never masturbated in her entire twenty-one years on Earth. Despite her high GPA, she seems to have almost no grasp of human behavior and psychological motivations. Her internal dialog and incessant over-analyzing of EVERY. SINGLE. SITUATION. made me insane. But you know what really pisses me off? The fact that, like Anastasia, I am often riddled with self-doubt and second guess myself to the point of insanity, and I have also been manipulated by interesting men who turned out to be monsters.

There’s something sinister in the fact that a book I am content to mock from beginning to end, a work of fiction that is so poorly written that it’s laughable, and has the power to send me into fits of rage, can still entice me to keep reading. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are not the only novels that have made me hate-read them to the end. In fact, some of the most popular works of genre fiction I’ve read in the past several years have had a similar effect on me. And, surprise, surprise, they had vampires in the narratives, too. I know, Fifty Shades doesn’t have any vampires, but for the sake of argument (and this blog post), let’s just agree that Christian Grey is based on Edward Cullen, and he would make an excellent vampire if given the opportunity.

Toast

‘Christian Grey’ [Source: Focus Features]


Some other works of fiction that made me curse the narrator (and author) are the A Discovery of Witches Trilogy and Laurel K. Hamilton’s later Anita Blake novels. I’m not going to delve into either of those series in this post, because I have too much to say about them beyond their usefulness as examples of how not to write good fiction. However, I will say that the normalization of controlling and abusive relationships in romantic fiction has the potential to influence generations of female readers who won’t be happy unless they find a partner willing to threaten them with violence under the pretense of keeping them “safe.”

Don’t get me wrong. Vampires are hot. Vampire sex is even hotter. While reading (or watching) any work of fiction in which a vampire is shaping up to be the romantic love interest, I practically shout at the reluctant female protagonist, “fuck him already.” But, again, the consequence of engaging in a relationship with a vampire is death, and if not death, at the very least, exposure to a world often defined by violence and extreme power struggles.

rehost_2016_9_13_8343a64c-4120-4b06-9d9f-0f5a525bf28a

‘Elijah Mikaelson’ [Source: The CW]

I know. It makes for exciting fiction, but at what cost? Yes, you can readily find strong female protagonists with compelling character arcs in the pages of paranormal romances, but in most cases, vampire cock is their Kryptonite. I have no problem reading about fictional characters engaging in Olympian feats of sexual congress with vampires. In fact, when it comes to genre fiction, that’s my jam. What does aggravate me is the incessant internal dialogue about why it’s wrong to do it. And, if it is so wrong, why do they end up doing it anyway? I get it. Conflict, internal or otherwise, carries a story. However, denying your attraction to a smoking hot vampire, or questioning every compliment and expression of interest he sends your way, gets annoying after a while.

This is especially true of Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey. She not only has conflicting internal dialogue, but an entire chorus of inner voices that never shut up. I’m not that in touch with my own inner goddess, but I know she’s down with vampire cock. And cake. And bourbon.

michael-mroczek-199382

Image by Michael Mroczek via Unsplash

Even Bad Fiction Can Teach You Something

All kidding aside, this absurd work of fiction made me think about my own writing. I paid close attention to dialog, character development, and a lack of plot that didn’t involve the protagonist having sex with her monster while battling her (and his) inner demons. Beyond the useful exercise of recognizing what bad writing looks (and sounds) like, Fifty Shades of Grey also made me think about how I view myself, how I behave in romantic relationships, and what I want from my future sexual relationships. Here are some random thoughts that occurred to me while listening to Anastasia Steele prattle on about how hard it is to be the object of desire for a smoking hot billionaire with emotional issues due to childhood trauma.

Giving up control is hot. I consider myself an independent woman. I don’t have a partner and I’m a single parent, so I make a lot of decisions all day every day. And, I’m exhausted. I’m tired of having to make all the choices. I’m tired of being in control all the time. I fantasize about someone else taking the reins for a while. I wouldn’t describe myself as a submissive, but in the bedroom, I would prefer to be guided, encouraged, and yes, controlled. Like Anastasia, I have hard limits. I have had only minimal experience with BDSM, but for the most part I have enjoyed what I’ve experienced. Being told what to do, being bound, and wearing a blindfold have all enhanced my sexual arousal. I’m even down with occasional spanking, but I don’t like the idea of punishment. I’d like to explore BDSM more with a rational adult who doesn’t push me too far when I set my limits. But, outside the bedroom, don’t tell me what to do unless I’m asking for your advice. Feel free to step up, take charge, and pitch in, but don’t assume that you’re the boss of me.

Blindfold

‘Anastasia Steele’ [Source: Focus Features]

Even though Anastasia finds herself sexually aroused when Christian uses bondage and spanks her as part of their sex play, she still doubts her own feelings. If you got off and nobody received permanent physical damage, go with your gut and accept the fact that those things turn you on.

Trust is not something I give freely. For me to feel comfortable letting my guard down, I need to trust people. That isn’t an easy thing for me to do. I’ve been hurt too many times by friends and lovers to simply allow people to get close to me. It takes time for me to open up, which is one of the reasons I don’t engage in one-night stands. It takes time to build trust between people, and if I don’t trust you, we aren’t having sex. However, if we do get to know each other and have a falling out over a trust issue, make up sex isn’t necessarily off the table.

Throughout the novel, Anastasia keeps saying she can’t trust Christian because she doesn’t know what he’s thinking or feeling. Yet, he constantly reassures her, spells out exactly what he wants and what he likes about her, and demands she communicate her own feelings better so that he can trust her as well. Trust is a two-way street. You can’t demand it from someone without giving them reason to trust you in return.

Attractiveness comes from within. I don’t believe in love at first sight. No matter how good looking that person might be. Have I ever been physically attracted to a stranger? Of course. Do I make a habit of hopping into bed with everyone I find attractive? Or for that matter, anyone who finds me attractive? No. If I get to know you and find your character, mind, and soul attractive, your physical self will magically transform before my eyes and you will suddenly be the most attractive person on Earth. This is true for real people as well as fictional characters. Even smoking hot vampires need to have redeeming qualities to rev my engine. Speaking of vampires, take a minute to think about Eric Northman in the first season of True Blood.

Eric

‘Eric Northman’ [Source: HBO]

You can have more than a minute if you need it. I’ll wait.

He is without a doubt, a handsome man. I found him easy on the eyes at first glance, but the rumblings in my nether regions didn’t begin until he showed his true personality. Yes, he’s a monster. But he’s a monster who feels love, jealousy, and will risk his own life for the people he cares about. Sometimes he even risks his life for strangers. His kindness, sense of humor, intellect, and the fact that he can be a domineering control freak, are the qualities that make him most attractive in my opinion. Alexander Skarsgård is a very attractive man, but be honest, is he hotter as the complicated, Viking vampire in True Blood, or as the mentally challenged male model in Zoolander?

tumblr_nl3drcQQcU1qg6t4yo1_r2_540

‘Meekus’ [Source: Paramount Pictures]

Anastasia goes on endlessly about how attractive Christian Grey is. In fact, it seems that in her opinion, this is one of his best qualities. Oh, and his money. Is Christian Grey a domineering control freak who only wants to be in sub/Dom relationships? Initially, yes. Does he grow as a character and attempt to be more than that due to his feelings for Anastasia? Yes. In fact, each time we get a glimpse of his pain and the reasons for his behavior, and his willingness to change, he becomes slightly more attractive. Would I get pissed and tell him off if he spoke to me the way he speaks to Ana? Absolutely. I’m an adult. I decide what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, and every other aspect of my personal upkeep. Would I enjoy having someone making sure I was taking care of myself and encouraging me to be a better version of me? Hell yeah! And, if that person wanted to give me expensive gifts, I wouldn’t say no. Of course, I’m a single, divorced woman who is raising her child alone. If I could spend my weekends with an attractive wealthy man who found me desirable, I wouldn’t question it every single second that I was with him. But…Christian Grey is an incredibly high-maintenance boyfriend with too many rules. And, I’m sorry, but he’s written as having the sexual prowess of a vampire. That just doesn’t happen in Nature.

There Is No Shame In Enjoying Bad Fiction

Despite its flaws (such as its super-fucking-annoying narrator), Fifty Shades of Grey does have some redeeming qualities. Authorial intent aside, this narrative provides some really great examples of 1) how not to write dialog between adults engaged in a serious BDSM relationship, 2) why you shouldn’t have your characters repeat the same inane words and phrases until your reader wants to stab them in the face, 3) why you shouldn’t adapt what I can only assume was shitty fan fiction inspired by terrible popular fiction into an even worse example of erotica, and 4) even in the worst fiction, you can find life lessons that illuminate aspects of your personal experiences.

Would I recommend that you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Yes, but I would recommend it in the same spirit that I would recommend watching a film like Blue Sunshine. It’s entertaining because it’s so unbelievably terrible.

10 Things That Made Me Happy While Taking the #100HappyDays Challenge

main-image-call-to-action

Back on January 23 I started a #100HappyDays Challenge. The homepage of the site asks you, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I believe most rational people would probably say no. And, if like me, you suffer from chronic depression you’d be even more skeptical.

The second question the site asks you is, “You don’t have time for this, right?” Again, most of us would agree that we don’t have time to make an effort to be happy every single day for 100 days. But is that true? Why don’t we have time? Is it because we don’t believe we’re worth the effort? Or is it because we don’t believe that you can find happiness that easily? Or maybe, and I know this sounds a little crazy, we don’t really understand a) what makes us happy, b) what happiness really looks and feels like, or c) how to begin to find happiness in our everyday lives.

The challenge itself is simple. Each day, for 100 days, you simply take a picture of something or someone who made you happy and then follow the steps on the site.

So first you register in the challenge >here<, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation & happy moments:

  • Share your picture via Facebook, twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100happydays;
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to myhappyday (at) 100happydays.com to avoid any publicity.

The 100happydays.com site claims that “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.” Studies have shown that most people are not just busy, but overwhelmed with responsibility – work, housework, school, family, and other social obligations – that keep them running nonstop and afford little time for anything else. People typically don’t make time to take care of themselves, or just check in to see how happy they are with the life they are living.

Believe me, I get it. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time. I’m a part-time writer trying to become a full-time writer, which means I write fiction in the hopes of being published and farm myself out for freelance projects because my day job doesn’t pay enough. I’m not currently dating, but I have a fairly active social life. I rent, so I don’t have a lot of home repairs to tend to, but there’s still housework, errands, cooking, and child rearing. To be honest, housework doesn’t get done very often, but we always have clean laundry and dishes, and my son never misses a meal. My son is involved in activities outside the house, and he has behavioral/emotional issues that we manage through therapy and other strategies. I’m not going to win any awards for my parenting skills. However, I make a point of showing up and being present when my energy and own mental health issues are balanced. I’m actively seeking employment, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay in my current job after June. So, yeah, I’m busy. Like mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly busy some days. Depression has been an ongoing issue for me since I was a kid. I was diagnosed in my teens and have sought the support of therapists and medication on and off throughout my adult life. I’m not just busy. Some days are harder than others. Some days I have #zerofuckstogive. Some days I consider it a win if I get out of bed, get dressed, and make it to work.

Despite all the challenges I face day-to-day, I managed to find something to be relatively happy about for almost every single day of the 100-day challenge. I chose to post my pictures, thoughts and reflections on social media – Facebook and Instagram. Each day, beginning on January 23 and ending on May 2, I posted a photo, a meme, or simply an observation about that day and what brought me joy.

100happydays.com also asks the question, “Why would I do that?” Good question. I’m sure lots of people would ask that question. Well, here are some answers.

People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.

Need help figuring out what makes you happy? Here are the top 10 things that brought me happiness during my #100happydays challenge (in no particular order). Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the things that make you smile too.

  1. Booze. Let’s face it, adult beverages are delicious and when they are drunk responsibly, they can have amazingly curative properties. When I was younger, I was hell-bent on self-medicating. I drank too much and too often. I also was careless about mixing drugs with alcohol, and usually in questionable company. That’s a story for another day. At this point in my life, I don’t drink very often. I keep some booze at home, typically bourbon, which is my favorite liquor. Occasionally, I’ll drink rum. Booze appeared in my social media feeds on Day 1 of the challenge. It was a rough day. And, booze played a role in bringing me happiness 4 out the 100 days, 5 if you count the codeine cough syrup I drank when I was sick. Fun fact: Because of my love of bourbon and booze in general, I gained roughly 20 new followers on Instagram who are either bars with specialty cocktails, bourbon aficionados, and distillers of small-batch spirits. So, I guess you could say that booze has the ability to make me popular and interesting.
  1. Coffee & Tea. I don’t know about you, but caffeine is 90% responsible for keeping me conscious most days. It’s no secret how much I love coffee, but I also enjoy drinking tea. Coffee and tea have been staples in my life since childhood. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s and 80s, and my grandmother didn’t see a problem with putting iced tea in my bottle when I was a baby. I drank my first cup of coffee when I was five. But don’t worry, she cut the bitterness by adding a tooth-decaying amount of sugar to it. Essentially, my grandmother was my first drug dealer. She hated alcohol. Most likely because her father and one of her brothers were alcoholics. People who drank alcohol pissed her off, but she was the poster child for coffee, sugar, and cigarettes. When I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford to maintain my cigarette habit (I smoked between the ages of 14 and 35), my grandmother would either give me money or buy my cigarettes for me. By the carton. In fact, when I was a junior, studying abroad in England for a year, her biggest concern, aside from my safety, was that cigarettes were so much more expensive there. She sent me care packages on a regular basis, and I could always count on finding at least one carton of Camel Lights in the box of goodies. In a related story, after my first week of living in England, I discovered that I was getting headaches almost every day and was feeling lethargic even though I was drinking between 6 – 10 cups of tea a day. Eventually, I realized that I was suffering from dehydration. Basically, I lived on tea, beer and cider, scones with clotted cream, packets of cheese and onion crisps, and Camel Lights. Once I figured out what was wrong with me, I kept a plastic cup near my sink and I would drink 2 – 3 cups of water before going to bed and upon waking. By the way, I had purchased the cup with Camel Cash, and the cup featured an image of Joe the Camel wearing a leather biker jacket, circa early 90s.
  1. Food. I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat. I see food as something beyond a means of nourishing my body. Food conjures memories of childhood. Food comforts me. Sharing a meal with family and friends is one of my favorite ways to interact and be social. Learning a new recipe is akin to learning a new spell. Food is a perfect marriage between magic and science. Cooking allows me to express myself, get creative, and heal myself through healthy foods. During the #100happydays challenge, food appeared in my social media feeds 34 days out of 100. Foods that appeared the most were fruit salad and tacos. A lot of the foods were healthy and involved my crockpot and meal prep that allowed me to cook once and eat for several days in a row. Some of my most popular posts dealt with food and the recipes I featured, and these posts got some of the most comments, including requests for recipes. Food is the glue of cultural and social interaction. The healthier I eat, the happier I am.
  1. Friends & Family. I have a small family. For the most part it’s just my mom, my son and me. I also have aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, I am close with my cousins. We’re all around the same age, grew up in the same generation with access to the same elements of popular culture. I saw my cousins during the summer at family picnics most of the time when I was a kid, and now I make time to see them when I can. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Tara. I think of her as a best friend and sister, not just a cousin. She’s 1 of 4 kids and I’m an only child. Her sister and I are the same age and get along well too, but we don’t hang out as often as I’d like. Tara and I have similar tastes in music, movies, television shows, art, food, and enjoy mean jokes at the expense of others. She’s a talented artist, a supportive and loving person, and she can always make me laugh or think more clearly about something happening in my life. I will happily tell you that I am blessed with an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of friends and acquaintances. One of my best friends, Pat, has been my friend since we were 14 or 15 years old. He has an uncanny ability to zero-in on what is at the source of the negative feelings I might be feeling about any given situation. Sometimes it’s spooky how well he knows me, but I don’t know what I would do without his friendship. His ability to make me laugh never ceases to amaze me and he is always brutally honest with me when I find myself in crappy situations. He’s usually the first to tell me that I can a) overcome the problem, and b) if I look at a situation a little differently and take full responsibility for my own actions, 9 times out of 10, things will be just fine. I have other amazing friends, like Sarah and Isabelle who have been in my life as long as Pat has, and I have newer friends, like Stephanie who I feel like I’ve known just as long. And, I can’t forget my friend Danielle. She always has a way of making sure I’m taken care of, even if it’s just getting together to talk over dinner. Friends and social occasions really make a difference in my life. Typically, I prefer one-on-one interactions or small gatherings, but every now and then I attend larger events. I have a touch of social anxiety, so that’s where my good friend Booze comes in to play again. Out of 100 days, 31 of my posts were about friends and family.
  1. Film & Television. I’m obsessed with popular culture and have long-loved the escapism of watching movies and TV shows. My preferences for genre tend to be Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Black Comedies, Historical Dramas, Mysteries, and Romance, but usually the Paranormal variety. I love vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. And, I love superheroes. Marvel’s film franchise has provided me with hours and hours of happiness. And, I’ve been known to fall in love with fictional characters. Here’s a short list: Loki, Magneto, Wolverine, Captain America, John Constantine, Elijah Mikaelson, Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, Damon Salvatore, Simon Bellamy, Lucifer, Preacher, Lawrence Talbot, Rupert Giles, Spock, John Mitchell, Captain Ross Poldark, Spike, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. In fact, if you’ve read my blog before, you’re familiar with my obsessions and may even share some of them. 12 of 100 posts referred to films or TV.
  1. Books. Reading is important to me. I don’t remember a time in my life when books were not available to me. Bookshelves filled with books, trips to the library and used books stores, talking about new books that a favorite writer had written – these were all common occurrences in my childhood. Before I could read, family members and teachers read to me. Once I could read on my own, I read as many books as I could get my hands on. Stories bring a certain richness to my life that I often can’t find anywhere else. My love of stories, books and words led me to become an English major in college. Why? Because I love to read and write (I’ll get to that shortly). I’ll read just about anything, but like my preferences in film and television, my taste in genre and to a certain extent literary fiction, are the speculative genres – Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I also enjoy nonfiction. Over the past few months, I have been consuming Roxane Gay’s books, An Untamed State, Difficult Women, and Bad Feminist. Her writing speaks to me in so many unexpected ways. Not only does she show me the different parts of myself that would normally seem disconnected, but she also shows me how they relate to each other to make me a whole and complicated person. And, more importantly, she makes me want to be a better writer. Books appeared in at least 12 of my posts.
  1. Writing. Writing has been a part of my life almost as long as reading. Narratives have always been an important part of my life. Whether I was watching a Hitchcock film or favorite Western with my grandfather, an epic Romance or Soap Opera with my grandmother, “Creature Double Feature” or “Dark Shadows” with my mother, “King Fu Theater” or “The Prisoner” with my father, or enjoying the ridiculous premises you’d find in 80s music videos, and later an obsession with foreign language films, I consumed a lot of narratives in and out of books growing up. Stephen King’s books lined the bookshelves in almost every house in my immediate family. A year or so ago, my aunt bequeathed her Stephen King collection to me. I hadn’t read a lot of his books, but I had seen film adaptations of them. In the last few years, I took the time to read Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, Misery, Salem’s Lot, and I just finished listening to Doctor Sleep as an audio book in my car. I tried reading IT at one point, but I couldn’t get past the clown. It’s weird. I can watch the film starring Tim Curry and I can’t wait to see the remake with Bill Skarsgård, but the book scares the shit out of me. One day, I will read that book cover to cover. Today is not that day. As much as I love Stephen King’s fiction, my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. It is the only craft book that ever brought me to tears. I have two copies. A copy I bought to read while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and the copy I found on my dad’s bookshelves after he died. My dad was a writer. He wrote a lot, but never finished writing his novel. I finished writing my first novel after his death in 2015. I’ve since started writing 2 more novels, and I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since I was 12. I’ve only had one short story published, but I will have more of my work published, damn it. I owe that much to my dad. And, I can’t talk about writing without talking about Anne Rice. She is probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, and I must give her at least partial credit for why I write about vampires. Her novels gave vocabulary to some of the things I thought and felt as a teenager, and her vampires made me feel more alive than any characters I’d find in the fiction geared toward teenagers at the time. Thanks for all the good books, Anne. Your work gave me the courage to write about taboo subjects in a way that allowed me to talk about the beauty I found in them.
  1. Self-Care. Technically, participating in the #100happydays challenge is an act of self-care itself. Taking the time to pay attention and make note of the things that make you happy really is an enlightening exercise. In doing so, I found myself seeking out more ways to care for myself. I ate healthier foods. I spent more time in the company of people I love. I tried to develop better habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and scheduling downtime so that I could do the things that recharge me and fill my brain with creative ideas. Don’t want to take my word for it? Try the #100happydays challenge for yourself and see what I mean. Self-care and self-love are not selfish acts. Doing nice things for yourself, taking care of yourself, enables us to care for the other people in our lives without killing ourselves to do so.
  1. Art. I’ve talked about several art forms/crafts in this post, namely writing and visual media. I’d also include culinary arts in that list. However, I also like to go to museums and galleries to check out the work of mixed media artists – painters, sculptors, ceramicists, collage makers, and several other mediums. During my 100-day challenge, I visited two galleries, CALC in Carlisle, PA, where my son had a drawing in one of the local student art shows, and Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, PA, as well as The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In each art space, I got to see some wonderfully beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking art. I need to go to more museums, and I need to create more of my own art. Perhaps there are projects I can work on with my son this summer to get us both creating and spending more quality time together.
  1. Michael Fassbender. Laugh if you must, but Michael Fassbender’s work as an actor brings me happiness on a regular basis. I had enjoyed his work in films prior to last summer when I went to see X-men: Apocalypse, but for some reason, his portrayal of Magneto in that film struck a chord with me that caused me to not only revisit X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past, but I also rewatched Inglourious Bastards, and then began making my way through his entire body of work. I’m particularly fond of Shame, 12 Years a Slave, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Jonah Hex, Macbeth, Prometheus, Slow West, and I loved him in the TV show “Hex”. His characters make me laugh, cry, think, feel shame, and I’m not going to lie, ignite my desire. He is a beautiful and talented man. Eventually, I will see all his film and television performances. His Magneto breaks my heart, and makes me question right and wrong. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I went through a period of deep meditation and self-reflection based on my confused feelings of repulsion and attraction for his character, Edwin Epps. His Carl Jung left me feeling sexually frustrated, and his Rochester made me realize how many toxic relationships I have been in and examine why I keep returning to those doomed relationships. He is a master of his craft, not just a handsome face.

This was not my first #100happydays challenge rodeo, so I can attest to the fact that most of the claims made by the folks at 100happydays.com are true. Are they true every single day of the challenge? No. I don’t think anyone is happy every single day of their life. However, I will say that by taking the time to notice the things that do make me happy, I have a better understanding of my own happiness (or lack of happiness). I understand that happiness is a choice, and we are responsible for creating it for ourselves. And, like me, you might be surprised to find that happiness is all around us. All we need to do is take inventory and remind ourselves that happiness is not completely out of reach. In fact, it may be closer than you think.

Save

Save

Interview: Craig DiLouie, Suffer the Children

Craig-DiLouieSome critics of horror fiction have speculated that the zombie sub-genre has reached its saturation point with an almost infestation-like abundance of zombie novels, movies, and TV shows paying homage to the flesh-eating undead. But, in a recent interview with George Romero for Quora.com, Bradley Voytek, Zombie neuroscience expert (it’s totally a thing) and Zombie Research Society advisor, examines data that suggests that the popularity of zombie fiction is actually on the rise. He attributes some of its success to the fact that the genre is “more or less a blank slate upon which a writer can cast any number of big, unfathomable societal and psychological fears or concerns.” This week I talk to apocalyptic horror writer Craig DiLouie about his 2014 Stoker-nominated novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN to find out why writing about zombies really matters.

ML: Many people consider Horror the redheaded stepchild of speculative fiction. Why do you write Horror fiction? Why not another genre?

CD: I came to horror through an interest in apocalyptic fiction. The end of the world has fascinated humanity throughout recorded history; in fact, some of the world’s oldest literature, from the tale of Gilgamesh to Genesis, contains apocalyptic elements.

As a young man, I found wish fulfillment in these stories. As an older man with a family, I face my worst fears and survive them.

There are so many storytelling possibilities with such scenarios, all involving ordinary people dealing with crisis. Some rise to the occasion, some fail, the ethical choices are often horrible, but the struggle to survive is heroic, particularly when people fight not only to live but to preserve what makes them human.

Several of my books deal with a zombie apocalypse and allowed me to explore these themes and more wrapped in an action-packed thriller. My first major foray into real horror was SUFFER THE CHILDREN, a story in which the world’s children become vampires who need blood to survive, the parents are compelled to feed them out of love, and once the blood supply starts to run out, the parents begin to prey on each other. Many parents will admit they’d put their arm in a shredder for their kids, but would they put somebody else’s arm in a shredder? Two people’s arms? Five? Would they kill an innocent person? Good horror holds up a fractured mirror to that which is dark in us, and it makes us uncomfortable. The question in SUFFER THE CHILDREN is, how far would you go?

ML: Why zombies? Why not other monsters? What broader meaning do they have for you as part of your creative process?

CD: I like zombies because they’re us, which multiplies the sense of tragedy. I’m not the kind of zombie author who says, These people are zombies, shoot them without conscience. The zombies may be monsters, but they wear the faces of people we love. I also like apocalyptic stories where the protagonists must work together against a common monster enemy. I think that makes the story more unpredictable, the struggle to survive more heroic, the stakes more dire. The trick is to make the reader believe that these monsters are real.

For me as an author, anyway. Zombie novels may be considered either akin to AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD or Syfy’s Z NATION. THE WALKING DEAD takes its subject matter seriously. Everything is fairly realistic and has consequences. The people suffer. The stakes are higher. This is really happening. It’s a visceral experience for the reader. Z NATION is more like a comic book. The characters are likeable people fighting their way through difficult situations involving zombies, there are no mind-bending ethics or people dying or wondering what they’re surviving for. It’s just plain fun, and it doesn’t pretend to strive for pathos.

My favorite zombie novels, and the ones I like to write, are of THE WALKING DEAD flavor, but they’re harder to pull off. They tend to be loved, but frankly, I think the Z NATION-type books have broader appeal.

ML: While I was reading SUFFER THE CHILDREN, I couldn’t help making parallels between your book and Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND. Like Matheson’s monsters, your undead aren’t clearly defined as being zombies or vampires. They’re somewhere in between. Did Matheson’s work inspire you? Who are your Horror heroes?

CD: I love I AM LEGEND. It’s one of my favorite apocalyptic stories. It didn’t directly inspire SUFFER THE CHILDREN, however. The story came from my worst fear, which is if something bad happened to my children. The question of how far a parent would go to protect his or her child. In that, I guess influences might include “The Monkey’s Paw” and PET SEMATARY. Whether doing the right thing based on the purest love in the world could end up being an instrument of evil.

The result is a different kind of vampire story, though the children are hardly vampires in the traditional sense. The children aren’t monsters. The real monsters in the book are the parents. They become monsters one little decision at a time, and they do it out of love. It’s a dark, horrible book—the most authentic and disturbing thing I’ve ever written.

Otherwise, I admire different horror authors for different things. Jeff Long for his imagination and original ideas. Stephen King for his empathy with ordinary people and slow builds. John Skipp for channeling the inner hilarity that is part of horror. Jack Ketchum for his lack of inhibition. Peter Clines for his easy voice. Joe McKinney and Jonathan Maberry for their productivity, with each book better than the last they wrote. David Moody for the realism he builds into characters in crisis. Stephanie Wytovich for being able to boil fear and loathing into a simple poem. The list goes on.

ML: H. P. Lovecraft has been quoted as saying, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” By the end of your novel, we still don’t really know what caused the epidemic. You play on multiple fears for your readers. Which of your own fears did you delve into to create this sense of dread?

CD: I went through an emotional journey with each of the characters as they each dealt with the unending crisis differently. Nobody becomes a monster as a sudden thing. It happens as a matter of one little decision leading to the next. Some of the characters try to resist the madness, others are swept along, others embrace it and go all the way. I really came to love the characters over the course of the book, making the writing a harrowing experience. It was painful to watch them go through what they did.

ML: Talk a little bit about your writing process. When you sit down to write an apocalypse novel, zombie or otherwise, what inspires you? Where do your ideas come from? How do your keep your genre fresh (there’s a zombie joke in there somewhere)?

CD: Writing a novel is like climbing Everest. You look up and you say, No way am I doing that. But then you take a step, and then another, and then another, and you look back and you’re suddenly halfway up. That first step is the hardest. To take that step, you need inspiration. For me, it’s an idea that needs to be written. Something fresh and powerful.

I’m a commercial writer by trade; I write about an industry, and I write as work. A novel is different. If I were a commercial fiction writer, I’d take a familiar idea, add a little twist, and write it in accordance with the bestseller formula to have the broadest appeal to the greatest number of people. But I’m not a commercial fiction writer. I’d never take that first step in the climb because I really wouldn’t care about the idea or the story. So for me, the idea is everything. Something compelling that hasn’t been done before, or a familiar idea that in my view hasn’t been done right. Everything inspires me. I immerse myself in the genre and find tiny bits of inspiration in little things. The little things add up to big ideas.

ML: What advice would you give to new Horror fiction writers? What do you wish you had known as a beginning professional writer?

CD: It’s a great time to be a horror writer. Digital media has democratized publishing and created new paths to publication, each of which has its pros and cons. Whether somebody else publishes you or you publish yourself, be prepared to treat your writing as a business and take an entrepreneurial approach, particularly with marketing your work.

Typing is not writing. There are many approaches to writing a novel, but one I use is to think an idea through for a few months and then start typing after that. Writing isn’t just typing, it’s also thinking, taking notes, planning and researching. If you like this approach, keep a small notebook in your back pocket and a pen in your front pocket at all times. Think about your book in the still moments during the day and write down snatches of character, plot and dialog. When you reach a critical mass, start typing.

One approach is not better than another, though one will be better for you. Some writers like to crank out a horrible rough draft, get notes from beta readers, and then do a polished rewrite. Others like to write a close-to-finished draft from the get-go, editing the whole way. Do what feels good to you, while being open to innovation and new ideas.

It pays to know where you’re going. The idea should start with a killer point A (the hook) and point B (the climax and perhaps a denouement that leaves the reader thinking). After that, do a general outline of the plot so you continually ramp up tension (increasing stakes punctuated by critical change) without long empty stretches where you have no idea how to fill the page. A great book on plot structure is STORY ENGINEERING. I highly recommend it.

You’ve asked a big question where the answer could go on quite a while, so I’ll end it there. For more advice on how to write a horror novel, here are links to a series I wrote about that subject on my blog:

Fright for Your Write, Part 1: Why Do We Read/Write Horror

Fright for Your Write, Part 2: The Horror Element

Fright for Your Write, Part 3: Plot

Fright for Your Write, Part 4: Character

Thanks for inviting me to visit your blog, Michelle! I enjoyed it.