Archive for August, 2006

The Internet is Not Your Friend

The Internet has brought us many innovative tools and has ushered in a whole new era in how we communicate. Among it’s mixed blessings (and I’m counting the world of porn and “things I’d rather not know people did” as part of that mixed bag) is the public journaling called a blog, you know, that thing you are reading right now. The word “blog” was at the top of Merriam-Webster’s list of “words of the year” in 2004. For those who don’t know:

A weblog, which is usually shortened to blog, is a type of website where entries are made (such as in a journal or diary), displayed in a reverse chronological order. Blogs often provide commentary or news and information on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, and other media related to its topic. Most blogs are primarily textual although some focus on photographs (photoblog), videos (vlog), or audio (podcasting). The word blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.

Now, I blog as a means of increasing my reading audience. I’ll use writer Wrath James White as an example. There are people who won’t pick up some of his fiction because he writes extreme horror. However, he has gained a whole new set of fans on the strength of his non-fiction writing in his blog. Professional writers, such as myself, use their blogs to drive traffic to their web site and otherwise give their readers something to read between projects. It is their public professional face. Sometimes, it can be a bully pulpit. Sometimes, since many blogs are little more than personal journals for public consumption, they are a place to gossip.

Whole friend communities can form circles at LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, etc. Technology has shaped how packs of friends move as a herd. Cell phone communities, Instant Messaging (and their away messages), as well as blogs can take the pack mentality and give an ease to the pack turning on one of their own.

The take home lesson for me has been to further drill into my head the need to be careful what I say. If I write a blog that I have to pull down later (because I’ve come to my senses and realized it shouldn’t have gone up in the first place), then I haven’t done my job. I haven’t had the conversations I needed to have. Not to mention the fact, and I hate to break it to you, but once you post something on the Internet, it’s out there somewhere. In person is one thing, words can be misquoted, taken out of context. On blogs, in chats, on message boards, my words are only a couple of clicks away from being passed around, context intact. Available to be screen captured and forwarded to all relevant parties. Saved in files on some computer to be used against me later. All the delete buttons in the world aren’t stopping folks from reading it. It’s still there somewhere. Forever.

More importantly, words said, blogged, or forwarded can’t be unsaid.

The anonymity of the Internet, from oh-so-clever screen names to not having to face folks face-to-face, gives too many folks keyboard courage. And the immediacy to write … NOW! Back away from the Internet. Sometimes silence (and time) is your friend. I know some of you messageboard warriors/flamers love to have the last word, but there comes a point when being “right” isn’t worth sacrificing the relationship.

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Fleas

My cat has fleas.

(While my cat is a black long hair, this isn’t an actual picture of him, but it certainly looks a lot like he feels right now)

Sitting here, having already gotten scratched and splashed while combing through his fur while giving him a bath, it got me to thinking. (Now go with me here – this is the third bath I’ve had to give the guy in a fairly short period of time, so it’s given me far too much time on my hands.)

It’s not entirely his fault: he’s an indoor cat and we took it for granted that he wouldn’t have a flea problem. The previous owners had dogs and a (now) obvious flea problem. So we’re partly paying for someone else’s fleas. It occurred to me that sin is much like fleas. Sin can latch onto us, though sometimes we may leap into them (or inadvertently play among them). Draining us. Bleeding us. Keeping us from living as free and healthy a life as we should be.

Now, we have adopted him into our family and with such adoption comes certain responsibilities. Adoption means that we’ve made a commitment to him. Like our kids, we do our best to take care of him, to shield him from the things life throws at him, (until, in the case of my kids, they take care of themselves and are responsible for the consequences of their own choices – we can shield people from choices they freely make. We can only hope to teach them to make better choices).

Sometimes, we have to deal with fleas.

Sometimes our fleas get on others – innocents, even (as my kids have been finding out). Sometimes we are treated within community and sometimes in times of isolation. At no time does that mean you have been abandoned. There are many ways to treat fleas, all of them inconvenient at best. It means I may occasionally get scratched while trying to bathe him or get messy as I hold him in my arms combing through his hair. And I have to think that this is a picture of how Christ deals with us and our own fleas, patiently combing through the fur of our lives. And I think that answers the question what would Jesus have me do?

I’m still working on the spiritual implications of having to bomb our house.

Twice.

The cost of being community I guess. Family is putting up with fleas until we can get rid of them. (Not quite the poetry of Lilo & Stitch’s “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind, or forgotten.” but it will have to do.)

P.S.

Dear Poppy Z. Brite,

I don’t know if this qualifies me as “a true-blue, A-level cat lover,” but I think I’m in the conversation.

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I’ve Been Tagged – Books for the Mind and Soul

Rod Garvin “tagged” me with the following prompts on books that I’ve read (and would like to read).

One book that changed your life: Autobiography of Malcolm X. A life spent learning, growing, and challenging his faith. Nuff said.

One book you’ve read more than once: A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. It put into words a lot of things that I was feeling about my faith and spiritual journey.

One book you’d want on a desert island, besides the Bible: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know this may get my nerd card revoked, but I’ve only ever made it halfway through Fellowship of the Rings. I couldn’t take the random elf songs. If I’m on a desert island … well, I can indulge the songs. Maybe even learn the history of Middle Urth. (It’s either that or learn Klingon – there, nerd credentials restored).

One book that made you laugh: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Do I honestly need to explain why?

One book that made you cry: The otherwise hilarious Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Although, to be fair, I was re-watching the movie Big Fish, and that movie always makes me cry. (It’s one of the few movies that it’s okay for guys to cry at. There aren’t many, so don’t get any strange ideas).

One book you wish had been written: The Autobiography of Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Maurice Broaddus. In light of that novel not having been written, nor likely to ever be written, then I’d settle for the novel I am working on now. The outline alone is killing me.

One book you wish had never been written: The Da Vinci Code. If I never have to hear that title again, I’d be quite pleased. (And Left Behind isn’t too far behind it.)

One book that you’ve been meaning to read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I tried reading it once before and decided that I wasn’t smart enough to get it (nor a good enough writer to read it without massive jealousy). She makes me sick – like I don’t ever need to pick up a pen again. Tied for second on that list are Swan Song and Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon.

One book that you are currently reading: I’m way behind on my reading for the year, so I’m reading a bunch of books at a time. The Corrupted by Drew Williams (it’s not published yet, but if it keeps being this good, it should have no problems finding a publishing home). Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F Winner. Imaro by Charles Saunders. Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.

You’re it Rich Vincent and Lauren David.

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BMV Reform – If I Had To …

BMVs nationwide are the punchlines for sitcoms. They aren’t quite to the level of “lawyer jokes”, but they are everyone’s favorite punching bad (with the Post Office running neck and neck). I suppose it’s easy to make fun of a problem and a lot more difficult to come up with solutions. So I thought I would actually put some thought into looking at what some of the BMV’s true problems are as well what some viable solutions might be (though I don’t think people have given my turn them into branch casinos idea a fair shake).

Our local paper offered some solutions: Privatizing its operations might be a good start. Allowing auto dealers, insurance agents, motor clubs or bank branches to handle title work, vehicle registrations and license plate renewals could help. These options are just scratching the surface.

We ought to bring back as many electronic transactions as we can and put together a system we can put our faith into. Most of the problem starts with PR. A few years ago, the BMV generated their own press. If there were problems, it tried to let folks know in advance rather than an “oops” after the fact. A proactive press liaison, actually making what they are worth, not state pay (more on that later) would be worth their weight in gold. They could let people know:

-In our fervor to lengthen licensing time, we overlooked some unintended consequences. When licenses expired after four years, we had the option to renew our driver’s licenses online one time, thus making it eight years between on site visits to the license branch. Because we switched to six year licenses, our politicians decided that 12 years was too long between photo updates and thus eliminated our online license renewal. Thus, we have to come in every six years.

-Closing of various license branches around the state was a good idea. I know it inconvenienced some, but the BMV, under constant pressure to save money and run more efficiently, lost money on those all the time. Some branches were open only half a day once a week, but rent had to be paid on the building year round.

-They could say, “hey, we’re not ready yet. Our new computer system is crap and our people aren’t trained on them yet.”

The BMV could actually give their employees incentives. Let’s face it, you get what you pay for and nothing moves slower than unmotivated government (bureaucratic) employees. Too many times, government workers are folks who couldn’t get hired anywhere else (or are biding their time to get back into the private sector) and don’t want to work hard. Those who do hustle and bust their behinds aren’t rewarded. In fact, they get the workload of three other people’s jobs, their vacations during June and July cancelled, all in the name of efficiency.

Part of the problem is a matter of an arrogant attitude. Many times, the BMV operates in ways “because it can”/“screw you” attitude. A spirit of hubris extending from the top down of their “family friendly” leadership.

Maybe our paper is onto something. The less government is involved in the process, the better off we seem to be. The BMV is never going to be beloved. If it can’t be feared, like the IRS, then it could at least minimize our hatred of it by staying out of the press with SNAFU after SNAFU.

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BMV Woes – The Never Ending Saga

Gov. Mitch Daniels has made it clear that he’s ultimately responsible for the BMV fiasco. He has admitted that the conversion to a new computer system, designed to ensure the accuracy of BMV records, went badly. He’s openly stated, “No excuses made.”

Once again, I’m faced with an issue that I didn’t care about until it affected me. Earlier this year, we moved. Both my wife and I, no strangers to the vagaries of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, knew to wait to update our driver’s licenses until they were due to be renewed this year. Luckily my renewal date was in April 2006 B.U. (Before Upgrade); however my wife’s was a few months later, A.U. (After Upgrade).

It took her 4 trips.

There is a proposal by House Democratic leader Pat Bauer to place the BMV under the control of the secretary of state. Now the secretary of state largely oversees the elections as the bulk of their job. One would think that, considering the voting booth screw ups of this past primary season, the secretary of state was already handling the BMV.

Not that I may have any great solutions myself. I doubt I could come up with anything worse than the BMV’s idea to ban clocks at the BMV. Yep, that was an actual plan. As if hiding the clocks would make the waits seem shorter. That might work at casinos, but … wait a second, why not employ casino logic? The BMV could start passing out free drinks for those waiting around (except for those waiting to take their driving tests). Since we seem to be solving all of the rest of our problems with casinos, why not slip a few slot machines into each BMV branch. I bet more folks will be lining up to go renew their plates.

We can make money and actually make the BMV the destination spot of choice of any government office.

Brilliant!

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Snakes on a Plane

This hasn’t been the summer for great movies. I’m beaten down, tired of searching. I’m giving up. I’ve been accused of “losing touch” with what makes for a good movie (and you critics can just bite me: Underworld: Evolution was not a good movie). Every now and then, however, I will gleefully settle for popcorn movie junk. Yes, sometimes it’s the little things that make me happy. Little plot. Little acting. Little directorial sense. And yet, I’m a happy man.

Snakes on a Plane is not a movie destined for Oscar consideration. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Let me boil down the carefully constructed plot for those unaware: there are snakes. They’re on a plane. In one of my favorite bits of dialogue, the bad guy explains that he has obviously exhausted every other option. [This is why black people talk in movies. I mean, really? You’ve really exhausted every other option? How many plans do you have to go through–follow me now, cause I don’t think you hear me–how many plans do you have to go through before you get to snakes on a plane? Don’t make me start having church on you in the middle of this review.]

The interest in the final movie product is the culmination of an Internet hype fest. Various web sites, from snakes on a blog to the one that allowed a friend of mine to have Samuel L. Jackson call me and tell me why I need to go see this movie. – the campaign has built a special level of buzz for a, at best, B-movie. Sadly, it may usher in a new era of Internet marketing.

Ever since Amos and Andrew, I’ve been leading a campaign calling for both Nicholas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson to fire their agents. However, I’ve come to realize that they are both nerds are heart. They love to do the occasional genre piece (Nicholas Cage has been rumored for the lead role in just about every super-hero movie in development; and who didn’t hear of how hard Samuel L. Jackson lobbied to be in the Star Wars prequel trilogy?). They simply can’t help themselves.

Samuel L. Jackson has come a long way. He was the “lone brotha sent down the long dark hallway by himself” in Jurassic Park, he was swallowed in mid-rallying speech in Deep Blue Sea (which, fun crap movie aside, still ranks as one of the best death scenes ever), and now he’s staring in his own horror flick. He still pulls off playing the action hero at his age, coasting on the power of his badass persona.

Jackson’s at least is having fun, while many others seem to be walking through the movie, except for Julianna Margulies, who is also no stranger to the occasional odd genre project (The Mists of Avalon, Ghost Ship). To be fair, this may be because they don’t have much to work with. We’re here to see snakes on a plane, not someone attempting their Oscar turn. What we’re left with are stock characters-cum-fodder: a cop partner about to retire; a flight attendants last flight (the equivalent of a cop partner about to retire); a newlywed couple, one of whom is an uneasy flyer; a high maintenance rapper; a high maintenance businessman; and a high maintenance rich girl. Not to mention the “plot” machinations of the “plan”: a criminal boss has to eliminate a witness to him murdering a prosecutor. In other words, a lot of set up, as if it mattered. All the dialogue and “characterization” felt every bit the time filler until the snakes are set loose. The whole film had an ad hoc sense to it, as scenes and dialogue were obviously added in (you can practically see the seams in the movie).

“Do as I say, you live.” –Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson)

At first the snakes seem to follow the rules of horror deconstructed in the Scream movies, going after “sinners” (such as the promiscuous couple) like an Old Testament plague. Now would be the time when I would ordinarily delve into an excursus into the iconic nature of serpents in the Christian story. From the serpent in the garden of Eden, to Moses in Pharaoh’s court and with the nation of Israel, to how Christ came to crush the head of the serpent under his heel. However, seriously, this is Snakes on a Plane. Even for me that would be a stretch.

“It’s all about choices we make.” –Neville Flynn

I could almost make the case that the overall truth of the movie is how we have a responsibility to the truth. The truth sometimes requires sacrifice; doing the right thing isn’t always easy. The prosecutor dies, his “noble gesture”, due to his commitment to the truth and seeing justice done. The witness (Nathan Phillips) has to learn to stand up and do the right thing in light of the truth.

This would be two spiritual touchstones to discuss about this movie … if you actually decided to turn on your brain for this one. I mean, do I have to remind you? Snakes on a Plane.

Snakes on a Plane is a jump-fest and even though you know it is and the jumps are predictable, you jump nonetheless. Well, I did anyway. Not since Showgirls (yeah, I said it) have I seen a movie so bad it was cheesily good.

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Stephen King’s Desperation

It always kills me when people say that they don’t read Stephen King (or horror in general, for that matter) because they “know” that it’s all blood and gore with no redeeming value. They forget, or are unaware of the fact, that he also wrote the stories that became the movies Stand By Me, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption.

As I’ve been watching the television series Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, I was struck by how hit and miss the series was. Granted, it was a hit and miss collection, but some stories that worked well on the page didn’t translate especially well to the small screen. Which stands in stark contrast to the adaptation of his book, Desperation. The problem could simply be a matter of scale: sometimes it’s easier to whittle a novel down to a three hour television movie than stretch a short story out to an hour. Mick Garris and Steve Weber must have it in their contracts that they are obligated to be a part of every Stephen King adaptation. However, like most Stephen King productions, the movie starts out great and then fades (in this case, the fade begins once Ron Perlman’s over the top hamming exits the movie).

In terms of plot, the story is fairly straight forward: Desperation, Nevada is a small, rural town run by an insane sheriff, Collie Etragian (Ron Perlman). The sheriff has lured in and trapped passing tourists, terrorizing them, as part of his homicidal spree. Ordinarily, this would be the standard escape from the madman thrill ride, however, King decides to do a deliberate meditation on the age old idea of spirituality as a means to defeat evil. This trick is troublesome to pull off: you don’t want the characters pontifications to get in the way of the atmosphere/story. It doesn’t quite work here either, but it does give us plenty of fodder to mull over.

“Faith isn’t just believing in God, but believing God is sane.” –Davey

One of the captured tourists is a young boy, David “Davey” (bringing to mind the old Davey and Goliath cartoon) Carver, who had recently come into a special relationship with God. The nature of his faith is fleshed out more (and better) in the book. In the television movie, Davey’s faith is presented as a bargaining sort of faith, one barely tested. His friend was dying, Davey prays, and a miracle happens and his friend is healed. “Heal my friend and I’ll do your will” – which isn’t the sort of relationship I would want to have with anyone – plays to how too many relate to God: as some sort of cosmic genie to be bartered with. However, the main theme is how that faith is tested and sustained, not the most common plot to be found in a horror movie.

Davey: “Why are you here?”
Pie: “For the same reason we all are: to love God and serve him.”
Davey: “What am I supposed to do?”

We have choices. We have regrets. “Good old free will” as Davey puts it. Our faith can be inwardly focused, about ourselves, our walks, getting our butt into heaven; where spiritual growth is defined by how deep/vast your Bible knowledge is, how active you are in church related activities and how many people you had led to Christ. Or our spiritual journeys can be outwardly focused, about being a blessing to others. This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, but too often this is how it plays out. Ideally, like Davey, we ought to be moved to action, to love others because we are so loved – a faith that reaches beyond ourselves into the lives of those around us.

Mary: “So, what’s the plan?”
Davey: “We do what God tells us to do … we ought to pray.”

We often wrestle with the problem of evil, whether it is in the form of nature going awry or in the form of the evil we do to one another (though not as often, we face people possessed by extra-dimensional evil). So the issue that people of faith have to deal with (and the most asked question people “outside” of that faith have for them) is trying to figure out God’s will in the face of evil: how God allows evil, senseless violence, to land on the innocent. So most times, my best theological answer to many questions is “I don’t know,” but the questions are worth struggling with and working through. Honestly, what answer would satisfy you? That is why I question the value of such exercises a lot of the time and choose to tread the road of mystery. Some things can’t be taught, they have to be lived. No amount speculation will comfort those truly suffering (nor will the most rational or well framed argument win an “unbeliever”). Some questions have no answers, at least not here and not now.

Yet, He seems to bring people together to do good in the face of evil. There seems to be a plan that we can’t always see. In the shadow of the big showdown with the ultimate evil, the band of survivors recite the Lord’s Prayer. The power of prayer in the face of evil serves to calm them as they seek God’s will; to maintain communication with Him which in itself draws them closer to Him. To trust in Him even when they don’t understand His ways.

That’s faith.

Our faith gives us hope, and in light of that hope, we act. We draw near to the suffering, continue to ask “why?”, and then act in compassion. That is our response to how could God allow this: be the arms of God in comforting the victims of suffering.

Davey: Sometimes God is cruel.
John Edward Marinville: What good is he then? He wants us to love him and serve him, right?

In the last couple hundred years, the image of God as both good and severe, a God that fit readily into our (Old Testament kind of) paradigm, was gradually replaced with that of a one-dimensional, only-good God. The whole God = Love, as in Love is the only dimension of who He is, has its own set of problems. So of course people couldn’t reconcile how a supposedly good God allowed horrible things to happen, especially to the most innocent among us.

We forget that God is also holy. And, like Aslan, the lion from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, we need the occasional reminder that there is a (righteous) fearful element to holiness. “Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God” (Romans 11:22a, The Message version).

That said, the reality is that God is also love, even in the face of tragedy. Sometimes faith seems crazy. The movie does little more than toss out platitudes, never truly engaging the topic of faith in light of evil. However, as Stephen King’s theme alludes to, we are either in a state of faith or a state of Desperation. And Desperation is no where to be.

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Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

I know we’ve danced around the topics of language use and social responsibility, so let’s go right to the heart of the beast: what about “the ‘N’ word”? As writers, we know more than others the power of words.

Linda: I haven’t yet written anything that uses the N word, but I’ve read work that used it effectively and other work that didn’t. I can’t say I’ll never use the N word in a piece, perhaps tomorrow I’ll write a poem where that word is needed to say what is coming through me. Depending on how it’s used it can be very powerful or demeaning. Writing is a gift. We each have to honor gifts given by God. I believe in walking the path of least resistance. When I write I let words sing through me without editing. Then I sit down to rewrite. There are many words that are powerful. I respect these words. This is one of them.

L.R.: I don’t think we should use the “N” word at all. But, I also think we shouldn’t curse. That’s not to say I haven’t stubbed my toe and yelled out, “shit” or that I haven’t been cutoff in traffic and muttered the word “asshole” under my breath. That being said, in a perfect world a lot of things shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen. Our world is far from perfect. And, in writing, we need to tell the truth, even if we’re writing fiction. And, the truth is, the word exists, it means different things to different people, and it’s still used very often.

Chesya: Personally, it’s banned in my house and in my mouth… but if the character calls for it, then I use it the way the character would from his/her reality. I “try” not to use it in my work, but if I’m doing gansters in a situation, if that’s how they speak, that’s how they speak.

Wrath: I say it/write it when it’s appropriate and feels natural coming from that character. If it’s forced it’s insulting. The reader can tell when you are just trying to be hip or controversial and with a word that incindiary it should just not be done. Even after I’ve taken pains to use it only where and when it is natural and appropriate I still usually go through and replace it with “Brother” or “Dog” where I can just to avoid using it too excessively. I’m leery of making it sound acceptable and advocating it’s use because I don’t find the word acceptable. It is however a reality and avoiding it can sometimes make your writing ring false.

Michelle: I don’t use the “N” word and I don’t buy into the theory that its repeated use somehow diminishes its negative power. There’s some amount of ugly that just will never be erased, and in my opinion, shouldn’t be. We never want to send the message that it’s ok to come up with ways to offend and abuse an entire group of people because somewhere down the line all will be forgiven. I don’t disparage writers who do use it, as long as it serves a specific purpose. If I were writing an historical piece, I might use it sparingly–most likely to jar the reader out of some sort of complacency or idealized vision of “the good ol’ days.” But to throw it around like the latest and greatest slang word I think is irresponsible.

Brandon: I’ve used the “n” word numerous times in my stories. I don’t have any compunctions about it. Again–I strive to be honest in my work. And the honest truth is that a lot of black people (and non-black folk) use the “n” word. We can tapdance around the issue all we want, but that’s the truth. If I’m writing about a certain kind of character, he may use this word, because that’s part of his background. I’m not going to sugarcoat these kinds of things in order to avoid some perceived societal taboo. I’m going to write what I feel is the truth.

As a lesson to newbies just beginning to pick up their pens, are there any particular obstacles we face as black writers?

Chesya: White people. [Editor’s note: have I mentioned how tough it can be to get your friends to give you straight answers?]

Linda: I haven’t faced any particular obstacles as a black writer in horror. Once I started attending conventions I was treated very fairly by other writers and publishers in the field. There is so much unfairness in the world. Humans have the choice to act humanely or not. To be human is to realize that no one is different: we each bled, want to love and be loved. To act less than human is to put down another person because of some perceived difference, whether because of their race or sex. Using the race card or sex card is not irrelevant yet, unfortunately.

Wrath: I think the biggest obstacle we face is walking that line between “Black” and “Writer”. Most of the pressure there is internal, “Do I keep it real or do I sell-out?” “What is selling-out?” “What is keeping it real?” “Am I keeping it too real?” But of course there is always the struggle between staying true to your art and being cognizant of certain economic realities, namely that the largest consumers of horror fiction are not African-Americans.

Michelle: I think our primary obstacle as writers is the same one that blacks in general face. And that is that race relations in America are stagnant, and in danger of slipping backwards. America’s early history was an epic horror story. It took a century after emancipation for changes to be made, and where are we now? America is still so preoccupied with race–and black/white relations in particular–that we’re still counting “firsts” for blacks. The fact that we have so much “hate crime” that we have to create legislature for it is disturbing, not comforting. At what point does race become an aside, and not the focus of a person’s being/achievement? I want to write and be read and be appreciated for my talent in telling a story. Period. Whatever labels are appended to my achievement are just that–labels. They may have their uses, but I think black writers face the possibility of being marginalized, because we are fighting preconceptions about what sells and to whom. We need to acknowledge that we are black writers, and then I think we need to work hard to redefine what that means, in our own terms.

With all the different theme anthologies, I can’t believe that “black writers only” anthologies would get criticized as exclusionist, unnecessary, silly, or even insulting. (Well, yeah I can: affirmative action. You say those two words and I get to hear all the “my white dad got passed over for a promotion by a less qualified ‘minority du jour’”. Same criticisms, different context). My heart wants to believe that we are to the point where people judge works based on the work itself. Yet my gut tells me that it boils down to fear of someone else cutting into an alread
y shrinking pie, rather than being seen as someone trying to bake a bigger one. The quiet insinuation is that the final product must be inferior or else these writers would have gotten their stories into other markets.
Are we passed the point of being able to use the race card? Does it, in fact, hinder us?

L.R.: I don’t know if we’ve passed the point of being able to use it. But, if using it prevents us from doing our best work, then yes, it is a hindrance. At the end of the day, the only thing we really have control over is what we write. Once it’s bought, edited and published, it’s a whole other story. But, like anything else, our work starts with a seed, and I think we have to be very careful that we’re using water to grow it, not vinegar.

Wrath: Anyone who thinks that race is not a factor is obviously deluded … either that or white. That being said, I don’t think that you are going to get any breaks from anyone by virtue of being a minority and playing off the guilt of the ruling class. I don’t even know what it means to “Play the race card.” I can’t see where you can ever get any type of leverage in the business world by calling someone a racist. No one is going to publish someone because they’re afraid that if they didn’t they’d be called a racist. I don’t think most people care anymore. There seems to be this cavalier attitude towards racism in America as if they’ve given us enough sympathy and have absorbed enough guilt and are sick of it. There’s a backlash of resentment now from many white people from having been demonized in our society for so long. This backlash could definitely prove detrimental. Racism in a way is almost becoming fashionable now. Racists are the new rebels.

Lawanna: To hell with the “race card” thing. There are certain truths, and one is that minority writers of any race have to fight harder to get their stories out there.

Michelle: I guess it depends on how it’s used. I think it can certainly hinder us; the affirmative action backlash out here in California is an example of that. And we definitely need to avoid getting into “crying wolf” scenarios with race. We do more damage to ourselves and our credibility than any of the truly ignorant and evil bigots out there could ever do when we fall into that trap. That being said, I do see race as one of many marketing tools. And if it gives me an edge with an editor, publication, etc. looking to promote “diverse” voices and experiences, you better believe I’m going to let them know I’m black. But it doesn’t mean I trumpet it across the front page with the admonition that they have to pick me if they’re really committed to diversity.

L.A.: I think we face market challenges in publishing that one faces in general, but if we let that stop us, then we would still be back in slavery. We’re very resilient and creative. Self publishing as a boom shows that will to create and step over narrow perspectives that want to keep us within a certain box.

I would like to thank these fine writers for taking the time to answer a few of my questions. I look forward, as I’m sure all horror fans do, to reading any of your future stories.

***
The Black Horror Writers Round-Table Discussion Guide:

Black Horror Writers I – A Little Help from My Friends
Black Horror Writers II – Defining Ourselves
Black Horror Writers III – The Black Market?
Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do
Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters
Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

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Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters

Do you feel obligated to write black characters? This may strike some readers as an odd question, but as black writers you feel a certain amount of social pressure as you approach your art. I know a few black writers who go out of their way to never write or describe black characters either because “race doesn’t matter” in their stories or due to marketing/connecting with their audience concerns. It’s a topic that I know many of us have wrestled with.

Lawanna: No, but I do. Familiarity, you know? We have so many different types of stories to be told. I have ones that have been set in 1800s Senegambia and 1600s Illinois, for instance. So many stories are just waiting to be discovered. Black folks didn’t just pop up on the scene in the 20th century.

Brandon: I do feel a certain amount of responsibility to write about my culture and history. If I’m not going to do it, who is? And it’s not a burden at all–it’s a chance to open people’s eyes, show them that black people have the same needs, desires, joys, and fears as anyone else. And it’s a chance for black readers to see their own lives reflected in fiction, in all their wonder and glory–something that has largely been denied us since we’ve been in America. (Look at any popular novel published before 1950 and see how often black folk are featured as three-dimensional characters . . . go ahead, you’ll be looking for a LONG time.) However, I DON’T consider myself a spokesperson for all black people, the mouthpiece of black America or any of that nonsense. I’m writing as an individual, with my own biases, likes, loves, dislikes, and opinions.

Wrath: Nope. I write what I feel. Always. I would never force a character to be Black just because I am. When I wrote Succulent Prey I made the character white because statistically it was more likely that the personality I was describing would be white than black. Most serial killers are middle or working-class white men in their late twenties to early forties. The only reason to make him Black would have been out of some misguided sense of social responsibility which would have just felt artificial and dishonest to me.

Michelle: No. Although in my mind’s eye most of my characters are black or multiracial, a lot of times I will write characters with minimal description. If a reader is going to project his/her own experience onto my story, he/she can view the character however he/she wants. When I do describe a black character more specifically, it’s because it’s important to the theme or setting of the story.

So when crafting your black characters, do you worry about stereotypes? How much does this weigh on your mind when you sit down to write dialogue using Black English Dialect (Ebonics)?

Michelle: I do worry about stereotypes. I don’t use Ebonics or whatever the modern equivalent to “jive” might be, because that’s not my experience and it rings false to me. This might also be why we don’t get a lot of horror stories set in a black, urban environment. Writers who don’t have that experience (and I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt) don’t want to go there because they don’t want to slip into stereotypes. Writers who do have that experience perhaps aren’t writing horror, or are struggling to market that experience to a broader audience. I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, which is also why I haven’t (yet) tried to write a character from another culture. But I’ve learned there’s always somebody out there with something ignorant to say (“that character’s black? really? she doesn’t *sound* black..”), so for me it just comes down to writing what seems right at the time. And I will do “research,” which means whenever I’m out (or sometimes I go out specifically for this) I listen to the group I need to feel comfortable writing about. It’s a limited method, but eventually I’ll base my forays into writing about other cultures on this, and not what I see on TV or in movies.

Wrath: I write Black characters the same way I write white characters. I reference people I know or have met with similar backgrounds and I try to put myself in their shoes and react as I would if I were them. If I’m writing about someone who displays many stereotypical behaviors I’ll put those behaviors in there but even stereotypes have to have depth. They still have to be multi-dimensional.

I have always had a problem with the over-use of dialect. I hate to read it so I don’t typically write it. There are many slang words that have become part of the American English lexicon and so I feel free to use those words but I’d never sit in front of the TV watching Rap City trying to find cool new slang words to put in my writing in order to keep it real. I don’t think it ever needs to go that far.

L.R.: I do worry about this, because, if I’m writing a stereotype that’s related to race, I’m being lazy and ignorant. That’s not to say I won’t use a stereotype in a story, but, if I am, I like to think it’s for a purpose that serves that particular story and it’s not just a shortcut to get through a difficult piece.

L.A.: I write dialogue (never narrative) and internal POV the way people really speak. Some of my characters speak in Ebonics, some speak in trailer park slang, southern drawls, wherever they are from. If you try to make them not sound true to where you’ve set them, then that’s a disservice to the reality of the character. My old grandmother never used “Ebonics,” but she would say “honeychile” and “suga” in a minute. Those things are like spices and add flavor. Otherwise the writing is stilted.

Brandon: I approach it with as much honesty as I can muster. Some black people are good, some are evil, most are a blending of grays. I aim to show all of that in my work. I use some of [B.E.D.], when the characters warrant it, but I tend to stay away from too much of it, because it can be hard to write dialect that will be easily understood by a wide body of readers. I strive for clarity of meaning at all times.

L.R.: This should only be done on a character by character basis, and conservatively then. I had a professor tell me one time that, when it comes to writing, one hair on an ice cream is enough. I had to think about it to get it, but, what it basically comes down to is, you can use a bit of dialect to establish how a character speaks and, if you’re skillful, you don’t have to beat the reader over the head with it to the point where they have to decode it.

Linda: I see the world as a mix of international characters, not just black or white. I’m such a mix of genetics: African, American-Indian, Caucasian and yet I’m no more or less human than the next person. I like to mix up the characters I write; if I
just wrote a main character that is female I’ll try to write a male character. I don’t worry about stereotypes, I try to write believable characters. Male or female, no matter what nationality. I have the same feeling about using Ebonics; I use dialogue that works for the characters.

I ride the NY subway to work every day from the Bronx to Manhattan and hear how teenagers talk. I’m fascinated by the rhythm of their speech, their interaction with each other and subtly others around them. There’s a wonderful rush of young energy that says LOOK AT ME. I can see others repelled by the energy, some are amused.

Do you have similar concerns when it comes to how you approach writing characters of other cultures?

Linda: It’s been said we should write what we know; I like to also write what I don’t know. I find it stretches my imagination. My husband and I have a huge library of books about other cultures (mostly his books). One of my favorite poems I wrote was inspired by a chapter on Mami Wata, an African goddesses. I love reading about other cultures. My story in Dark Matter is about the rainforest tribe, Yanomami, which I’ve tried to obtain every book in English on them since I’m writing a science-fiction novel inspired by their culture. I used a book on Navaho language for my vampire story in Dark Thirst and did a lot of reading about voodoo and magic for my stories in Dark Dreams I and II. Now with the net it’s even easier to read about other cultures.

Lawanna: Other cultures are just people too. Human nature isn’t different, just our appearances. You write them like you’d write anyone else. Do your research and get your voice right.

Wrath: I model them after people I know who are from that culture. If I am completely unfamiliar with that particular culture I just don’t go there. I know a lot of Thais. I have spent time in Thailand, so I would feel comfortable writing about someone from Thailand. I’d feel comfortable writing about Mexicans, Fillipinos, and White folks. I would have a hard time writing about a Nigerian or a Pakistani because my experience with people from those cultures has been so limited. You can’t just pick up a documentary or read a book and think you are going to accurately portray someone from that culture. What you will most likely wind up with is a stereotype or someone who acts more like some culture you do understand and bares little resemblance to the culture you are trying to portray. So why bother?

[to be continued …]

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The Black Horror Writers Round-Table Discussion Guide:

Black Horror Writers I – A Little Help from My Friends
Black Horror Writers II – Defining Ourselves
Black Horror Writers III – The Black Market?
Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do
Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters
Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

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Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do

What originally got you interested in writing horror?

Linda: My mom and I used to stay up late on the weekend watching scary ‘B’ movies on television when I grew up in Philly. I loved reading fables and fantasy, then later when I went to the library; science-fiction. I always loved scary movies. My mother is a wonderful storyteller. As the oldest of nine children it felt very natural to make up stories to entertain my brothers and sister. I was tagged as a ‘daydreamer’ by my teachers. My earliest memories are of daydreaming about flying animals and magic. I started out writing more fantasy and science-fiction. Somewhere around 1995 I started writing horror poetry and fiction. For me, it took a certain level of security inside to face the chilling things I started writing about.

Wrath: I started reading horror because I’d always read about UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch. I was fascinated by the possibility that monsters might actually exist. I would watch Creature Double Feature and Dr. Shock with my Mom every Saturday morning. It was my escape from the streets. Werewolves, zombies, and vampires seemed a lot cooler to me than crackheads, muggers, and drug dealers. I read fantasy and sci-fi too but they just seemed a little too divorced from reality. I wanted to escape but not quite that far.

Michelle: I became interested in horror because my dad had a huge horror collection when I was growing up, and something about it spoke to me. My only other options were “typical” kids literature, which bored me, my mom’s medical books, which fascinated me, and my mom’s romance books, which, even at 10, I could see followed the same basic plot time and time again. But I think way back in the beginning it started with fairy tales. I still can’t get enough of them. There’s always something slightly dark and “off” about them, and they’re trying to teach you a lesson. I want my writing to make you think about something in a new way. And if you learn something about the world or about yourself, all the better.

L.R.: I had an uncle who exposed me to sci-fi and horror very early in life. Truthfully, I’ve always wanted to write comic books, but exposure to the EC comics reprints back in the late 80’s/early 90’s turned me onto horror stories.

Chesya: I’ve always been interested in dark stories. I grew up with stories of haunted woods and family legends of headless Indian ghost and thing of that sort. It was simply natural that I started writing about it.

I hear editors call out for culturally diverse writers and voices. They may say that they want an ethnic voice, but not necessarily an urban one. Maybe it is simply a matter of marketing to your audience. I do know one black writer who refuses to write black characters because this person is afraid of alienating her potential market. I think that this mindset springs from the fact (illusion) that the horror market is essentially a community, a community that ends up marketing mostly to each other (which is debatable). I know we’ve talked about the black community’s embrace of horror, but that then begs the question where are our black writers?

L.A.: My personal opinion, based on no scientific data at all, purely anecdotal… is that black folks, from cultural upbringing, “Don’t play that.” We are, down deep at the core, very wary of sitting with dark subject matter too long and allowing that to fester in our brains. A movie–okay, 2 hours and you’re in and out and laughing (like a roller coaster ride.) But to concentrate on it the way one has to as a writer, takes some serious intestinal fortitude to overcome all that “church” upbringing and the fears of “messing with evil.” The other reason is, if you don’t see yourself successful in it, because there are few role models, then you don’t feel its accessible. But if a black Stephen King popped onto the scene, I bet a lot of African American horror writers and folks who like to read that sort of thing would come out of the proverbial closet.

Linda: Actually I see a small increase each year in the number of black writers in horror. Being any kind of writer is difficult. There is little support in our society for writers especially in the genre field. The publication of books along the Dark themes show young writers that there is a possibility of getting published, this is more than I ever had growing up. By looking at the books on the shelves of book stores there is a definite increase in urban/romance books by blacks.

Michelle: I think there hasn’t been a big enough, “break out,” black horror writer to make it seem like a viable option for black writers. It took me a long time to see writing as an acceptable career goal, and even though horror and science fiction feel like “home” to me as a writer, in terms of making a living, new black writers are seeing “girlfriend” and “life in the ‘hood” books fly off the shelves. I also think if you’re already struggling to be taken “seriously,” dealing with the derisive comments about horror will turn you away. I’ve actually had people tell me, “you don’t look like a horror writer,” or, “I used to read horror when I was younger, but then I grew out of it.”

Chesya: I think there are. Look at the Dark Dreams series, and Dark Matter. The genre is still dominated by middle ages white males, but then too, most things are.

Wrath: There are less Black writers in horror because there is less money in horror. Horror is a labor of love and therefore a luxury. Most Black people in our society don’t have time for luxuries. If there’s more money in writing Romance you are going to find more Black writers writing romance. It’s just simple economics. I doubt that there’s a Black author writing right now who hasn’t considered writing an Urban Horror just to make a few dollars for a change. That’s why there’s more Black people boxing and playing basketball and football than kickboxing or wrestling. There’s less money in those sports. You don’t see collegiate wrestlers riding through the ghetto in brand new Escalades and you don’t see them on TV every week either. In addition to the money there’s the prestige. “I write Black Erotica or Urban Romance” will definitely get you more play in a nightclub than, “I write horror.” Where are our Black writers? Writing Romance.

At what point we would have made enough of a name for ourselves in the horror market/community to make that leap into other markets. Adding black book conventions to our convention schedule rather than doing
exclusively horror conventions, thus aiming to grow the horror market by going to an untapped market. For one thing, the romance market had written off the black reading public until someone waited to exhale for that very market and made oodles of money. Now I can’t throw a rock in my local bookstore without hitting a display of the latest black romance books.
Is it more difficult for a black writer to become established?

Wrath: I think it would be more difficult for anyone writing about characters that were not white on any consistent basis to become established outside their own communities. As I said earlier, people like to read about characters that look and act like them. Since Caucasians are the majority you will always get further with Caucasian characters than African-American ones. I watched a documentary on Black actors in the movie industry and there were some very frank discussions about how a movie with a black actor as the lead will gross half as much as a movie with a white lead actor. I suspect the same is true of books. And I would venture to guess that the same discussions take place in the larger publishing houses.

Brandon: Any black writer with talent and drive who has a salable manuscript and who knows how to take advantage of current market conditions, can get signed to a major publisher and start building a real career. There are more opportunities for black writers than there have ever been before. Getting established isn’t easy for anyone, obviously, but I do think that the market is very open to work from African American writers.

Linda: I spent many years sending work out and being rejected. It wasn’t because I was black, since the editor couldn’t see my color by my stories, even if there were black characters in the story. The stories were judged by plot, characters, storyline, editorial needs and quality of the writing. There are a lot of very good writers not getting published no matter what nationality. The market place is very competitive. Once I started attending genre writing conferences I actually found most people in it very respectful of me as a writer.

Michelle: I’m not sure I have enough experience in the field yet to answer this. But when I was growing up, my mother would tell my sister and me that people would see that we were black and female first, so we had to work that much harder for them to get past the physical. The advantage of writing is that you can hide behind pages that don’t necessarily reveal your race, gender, religion, etc. But writers that hide can’t promote their work, so don’t reach the audience they have the potential to reach. Sooner or later you have to come out from behind the curtain, and some people may not be able to get past what they see to get down to reading your work.

L.A.: I think yes and no. Right now, there’s a black Renaissance in writing, where African American authors have been expanding title selections in record numbers. But at the same time, that expansion is in the very overcrowded niches of urban fiction, baby-momma-drama books, girlfriend novels, and the like. Sci-Fi, Horror, fantasy, political thriller, espionage, mystery, suspense, are all waiting to be opened up. It’s not just a “horror” problem… there are still (even after the passing of the late, great Octavia Butler) only a handful of premier Sci-Fi writers of color… Sam Delany, Stephen Barnes, et al, few horror writers, Walter Mosley (and like 3 others) in mystery… you see what I mean? We have to bring the stories out. I think our perpective is new, edgy, different, and we always set the standard for whatever art-form we adapt to — whereas white writers have a very difficult time differentiating themselves because all those genres are filled to the hilt for them. It’s a double-edged blade.

[to be continued …]

***
The Black Horror Writers Round-Table Discussion Guide:

Black Horror Writers I – A Little Help from My Friends
Black Horror Writers II – Defining Ourselves
Black Horror Writers III – The Black Market?
Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do
Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters
Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

***
If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.