Monday, May 28, 2012

Why scary stories are the best

Being the avid horror fan that I am, I just had to see Chernobyl Diaries this weekend. Despite what the critics are saying, the movie does not disappoint. At all. In fact, it sort of reminded me why I love horror movies in the first place.

And it's not just because of cool looking monsters. (source)

The movie, like so many other horror movies, follows a group of twentysomethings on vacation. Chris, his girlfriend Natalie, and Natalie's friend Amanda are visiting Chris's brother Paul, who left home and now lives in Ukraine. They travel to the city of Pripyat, a real city which was abandoned in the 1980's after a very real explosion at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. And, like so many other horror movies, their car breaks down and they're stranded in the abandoned city. Their tour guide is mercilessly slaughtered by unseen monsters, which we later learn are (SPOILER!) the mutated people who stayed behind after the nuclear explosion and are now basically mutant cannibal zombie things. And now they're chasing the gang, who are getting picked off one by one. Pretty typical horror movie in some ways, but there's no way I could go into a movie about mutant cannibal zombie things and not like it.

The movie wasn't just awesome because of the monsters, but it was also pretty creepy. The monsters (I'm not sure whether to call them mutants, zombies, or what, so I'll just use the generic "monster" label) are only seen in the dark, when someone holds up a flashlight to them. So the characters spend a decent amount of the movie running around in dark places with flashlights, looking for someone that got eaten or having accidentally stumbled into said dark place and attempting to get out without becoming a snack themselves. So we see a lot of quick shots of the monsters -- just enough to pique our interest.

The horror genre, like most other genres, has lost its touch over the years. So many horror writers have forgotten what makes a story truly horrific in the first place -- the unknown. Why are people so afraid of death, the most popular subject in horror? Because it is completely unknown. We all have our various religious beliefs, of course, but nobody can know for sure what happens to us after death until we actually experience it. At which point, there is no going back.

Or is it? Haunted houses like Lemp Mansion are popular because of the idea that there is life after death.

There's a sort of underground internet sensation called creepypasta that originated in the early 2000's. Creepypasta is sort of like urban legends, but nearly all of them originated online, usually on message boards. They are usually very short -- what writers refer to as "flash fiction," 1000 words or less. And, like more mainstream urban legends, the most popular ones are more frightening than any horror movie. Because the thing about short fiction is that it doesn't have time to delve into characters or plots in the same way that longer fiction does. And when a short story is scary, there's no time for the dreaded explanations. The less explanation, the more frightening.
Unfortunately, when people don't know something or don't have an explanation, they want to find out. Once a week from 2004 to 2010, there were millions of us who sat down in front of our TV's to watch Lost. We didn't know what the heck was going on with these island or with these characters and dammit, we wanted to find out. Some people complained because they weren't satisfied with the ending and its explanation of what the island actually was. But maybe the mystery was a good thing. It kept people talking. If you lay everything out in the open, it's not nearly as intriguing.

That's why scary stories -- whether they be creepypasta, campfire tales, or a good suspense movie -- are so popular. They play on our fear of the unknown. Because if you knew for sure if ghosts existed...well, that wouldn't be very exciting, would it?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On fitting in and failures to communicate

The yellow flower stands out well. A weed probably would not. (source)

In my lifelong effort to actually stay in shape and at least try to be somewhat healthy, I started going to a bi-weekly zumba class about a year ago. It wouldn't have been my first choice of exercise regimen, but I do like to dance, it's 2 bucks a session, and there's no commitment. You go when you can and only pay for the sessions you do attend. Plus, it's a really good workout. But the purpose of this post isn't to promote zumba (though you should at least give it a try if you're interested!).
Last week, our instructor had this idea to have a black light party. Blacklight? Black...light? Who knows. Anyway, all she really told us was to wear something white and that she would turn out the lights, turn on some disco balls, and we would all "glow." Problem is, you only glow if you actually know to wear something white. And when the instructor tells you she's doing it on Thursday, then you get to class on Tuesday and SURPRISE! We're doing it today! Well, that's not so much fun. Especially when you're wearing red and green. Just like a badly lit Christmas tree.

Ornaments courtesy of the now defunct Picnik.

Pretty stupid thing to get upset over, right? After all, it's not like I have this overwhelming desire to be turned into a human glow stick. But no matter how much we glorify standing out, no matter how many people say "be yourself" or "don't follow the crowd," anyone who looks like an evergreen Christmas tree amongst people who look like snow is going to feel a bit awkward. Especially when all the little snowflakes clearly got the memo that the evergreen tree missed.

Believe it or not, standing out isn't all it's cracked up to be. If I showed up to work in a tank top and yoga pants, I'd probably be sent home because that's not the appropriate way to dress for my job. If I was in the left turn lane at a traffic light and went straight when the light turned green, I'd probably crash into the car opposite me. Then I'd sure stand out...but in a really bad way.

When you're a teenager, it can be remarkably easy to fit in. Sounds crazy, right? After all, most teenagers will easily tell you that they don't feel like they fit in anywhere. But it's a lot easier to find a group of friends in high school than it is in the real world. In high school, you're forced to spend a certain amount of time in the classroom or on campus, even when you're not doing anything productive in class, so the best way to spend that seemingly wasted time is to get to know people. You know that you will see your classmates almost every day for hours at a time because they're required to be there.
In the real world, not so much. Not doing anything in class? No big deal. Just leave. Don't want to go 8 hours a day? No big deal. Just go part time. It's harder to connect with people when you're an adult because everyone is doing their own thing.

Holy crap, that was all very sporadic. So what's my point? I guess my point is that everyone has times where they feel like they don't fit in. For some reason, it ceases to become socially acceptable to talk about it when you become an adult, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen to us. I wish I had an easy solution, but it's just the way things go. Since that's sort of a depressing note to end on, here's a picture of the oh-so-gorgeous Adam Levine that I took Sunday night. That helps a bit...right?

Not the greatest quality...but hey, there's nothing quite like a guy playing a guitar.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

An important message for everyone

The other day at work, I was nearing the end of my shift when I ran into my ninth grade English teacher. I hadn't seen her in years, and it took us a moment to recognize each other. But as soon as we made the "hey, I know you!" connection, the conversation inevitably turned to what we had been doing. As I recall, it went something like this:

Her: So are you still in school?
Me: Nope, I'm done.
Her: Really? And you're working at Target? What is your degree in?
Me: Creative Writing
Her: Oh. Well, that explains it.

I didn't initially want to write about this because I didn't want to sound like a whiner. There are always going to be assholes who say things like this, and you can't dwell on them or you'll never get anywhere. Or can you? No matter how old you get, no matter how much you go through and grow and learn and stop letting stupid, petty little things get to you, there will always be things that do get to you. There will always be things that people do and say that hurt you. And that's okay. After all, we are only human.

The key is to believe in yourself, even when others don't. I'm an adult. I have a college degree and graduated with honors. I worked my butt off to get that degree, I worked my butt off to find a job after I graduated, and I work my butt off at my actual job. I don't have a family to support (yet), but I am working toward the goal of being able to support myself. Regardless of how I end up making a living one day, if I am able to write for a living or if I have to look elsewhere for a career, I do plan on making a living and being successful.
So...can someone give me one good reason why I should be degraded for what my degree is in and/or where I work? Yeah...didn't think so.

Don't ever let anyone convince you that you're beneath them. Don't ever let anyone discourage you, or tell you that you can't do something. It probably won't be easy to find a job and make a living, at least not at first, and there is a stigma against having a liberal arts degree. But lots of thriving, successful adults do have them, and one day I will be among them. If you're doing the absolute best that you can, if you have a good, realistic goal that you want to work toward and a healthy, positive, realistic attitude about life, then nobody has a right to put you down for that. So don't let them.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The world's greatest time wasters

This pretty much sums up how I've felt for the past few days. (source)

You know how when you're in high school and college, you get down to finals week and are basically doing nothing but studying your butt off for nearly a week? You stuff yourself with junk food when you need a break, get together in study groups, and become best friends with your coffee pot (or local Starbucks). And then finals are over and suddenly you're completely burned out and have the whole summer (or December) to relax. Kind of a nice contrast, huh?
Even though I'm not in school anymore and, therefore, have no finals to worry about, I guess living in a college town has rubbed off on me because I'm feeling a bit burned out too. Just like when I spent all those hours studying for college finals, my brain feels like it was just dipped in grease and warmed over a skillet for half a day. The work of a writer never ends, but I have been working significantly less over the past couple of days in the hopes of "sharpening the saw," so to speak. Also, I have about 80 trillion library books checked out right now and need to finish those up before I get stuck with as much due in late fees. (You know how some people go into the grocery store planning to buy 5 things and they come out with 20? Yeah, that's me in a library. And on iTunes. And at McDonald's...)

So what do you do when your brain cells have all sort of pooled together on the grease-filled bottom of your brain to fry? Why, you fry them, of course! I've spent the majority of the past week watching the Disney Channel and old episodes of Laguna Beach.

And I'll definitely have to get back to writing sometime. Probably within the next few days because even though I can't quite bring myself to pick up the pen again, I'm itching to do it. I just don't know what the heck to do yet. Or I somehow do but keep managing to avoid it. I'm an expert procrastinator, especially when Stephen Colletti is on my TV screen.

My point is, doing absolutely nothing isn't always a waste of time. Sometimes it's just what you need to recharge your batteries and  come back better than ever. The lovely Veronica Roth blogged also blogged about this very subject a couple of years ago, and now she's a full-time writer. So, you know, I'm not totally crazy.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Holy crap -- this is real!

In between novel research and Frasier reruns tonight, I caught an episode of Killer Kids on the Biography channel. For those of you not in the know about the most morbidly fascinating show on television, Killer Kids is about...well, actually, the title is pretty much self explanatory. Each hour long episode features three stories, in documentary fashion, about kids who have killed people. Like I said, fascinatingly morbid.

This particular episode was about school shootings. I was about to change the channel when a segment caught my eye -- the segment on Luke Woodham. In 1997, Woodham killed two of his classmates at Pearl High School, just an hour and a half down the road from me. Well, I lived in a different city at the time, so it was technically an hour down the road. But you get the idea.

The other two teens featured on this episode were from foreign countries. Most stories that make the national news take place far away from us and we are far removed from them. This kid made national news in my own backyard.

Unfortunately, my backyard doesn't look quite this nice. (source)

I've never been very good at grasping things going on around me. Sure, I know when things happen, but it takes me awhile to process the fact that HOLY CRAP THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. When I got into the Mississippi School of the Arts at the end of my sophomore year of high school, it took me a full year to realize that I had both been accepted to and attended this school that I had worked so hard for years and years to get into. And I didn't even stay the full time -- I went back to my old high school for senior year. By the way, I don't regret going and I don't regret leaving. Everything worked out for the best in the end. But I digress.

In July of 2009, I was watching the Jonas Brothers host the Teen Choice Awards. A week later, I was standing in front of them. Meeting a celebrity (or, in this case, multiple celebrities at once) makes you feel a little like the M&M's in that Christmas commercial where they come face to face with Santa -- "they do exist!"

Real M&M's, however, aren't nearly as interesting as Santa. (source)

Whether it's a band, a serial killer, or just an out-of-the-ordinary event, seeing it and experiencing it are always different. Think about it -- when you see a celebrity on TV, you're learning about them via the same medium that you learn about The Avengers and Spongebob. We see so many things in the media that aren't real, so it's natural to tend to think that nothing, not even real people on TV, are actually real. After all, if some dude carrying a hammer walked up to you and told you he was Thor, god of thunder and from some ancient civilization of whateveritscalledintheclouds, would you believe him? No, you'd probably call the cops. Well, maybe not if he looked like Chris Hemsworth...but again, I digress.

Sometimes I wish I didn't have this trait. After all, if aforementioned guy-who-says-he's-Thor-but-really-isn't did come up to me and, say, tried to whack me with his hammer, would I process what was going on in time to duck? Or would I get my brain smashed in? What's going to happen if I get a book deal? Get married? Have children? I've got so much ahead of me to look forward to. I just hope I can learn from my experiences -- and have many, many experiences, both good and bad.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On stereotyping others based on looks

A couple of days ago at work, I was cleaning off the tables in the lobby when I stumbled on this month's issue of Glamour. It had been sitting in the lobby for about a week, but I had never paid attention to it because a.) I was always too busy working and b.) I don't care much for magazines. But this time when I found it, someone else had apparently been reading it because it was open up to what turned out to be a really interesting article. I didn't get to read all of it, but it didn't take two minutes to go online when I got home and find the whole thing on Glamour's website. Ah, the beauty of the internet.
Anyway, the article was about weight stereotyping and how women of all shapes and sizes, whether they're a size 2 or a size 22, are stereotyped. I'll post the link to the article, but it can basically be summed up in less than a paragraph: Women of all shapes and sizes are stereotyped. Larger women are seen as being lazy and undisciplined, while thinner women are seen as vain and bitchy. If you don't want to be stereotyped or judged by the way you look, be the change you wish to see in the world as the saying goes and don't judge others. Obviously that doesn't always work because you can be nice to someone until you want to puke up cotton candy and glitter eyeshadow and they may not budge an inch. But I guess there's some merit in being nice and mature to someone who's being an complete asshat.

Before I go on, I should say that I am, for the most part, comfortable with the way I look. As far as my figure goes, anyway. I have a really small frame and don't have to worry much about my weight (though I'm sure that will change as I get older!) I know that there's a double standard when it comes to commenting on people's weight. Obviously it's not acceptable to walk up to a bigger person and say "gosh, you're so fat!" And it shouldn't be acceptable to comment on a thinner person's weight either. But  when people do comment on my weight (and they do it very often), it doesn't bother me, even though I know it's kind of not-super-polite, because I'm comfortable with my weight/figure, so I really don't care what anyone else thinks.

BUT...(there's always a but, isn't there?) being smaller does have disadvantages. For me, the main one is that people always assume I'm younger than I really am. Everyone tries to excuse it by saying that I'll appreciate it when I'm older, but that's sort of like giving a kid beer and saying, "you might not like it now, but you'll be drinking it by the pint when you're older!" even though they can't puke the stuff up fast enough.

That was a pretty bad analogy, so here's a cool picture of beer to go along with it. (source)

The truth is, no matter what anyone says, it hurts. I'm almost 24 and anyone meeting me for the first time generally assumes I'm between the ages of 16 and 18. Not that there's anything wrong with being between 16 and 18, but when you're looking to start a career and become an independent adult, people trying to talk to you about finals and silly bandz (or whatever the heck those things are called) is pretty unsettling. In fact, the way most people react to it, it really hurts. Every time I say anything that even remotely hints at my age, the person I'm talking to usually spazzes out like they just saw a ghost or something. Or a celebrity. Hey, maybe they saw Justin Bieber and were confused as to why I didn't spazz out as well. You know, because being 16 and all, I would have to be a Bieber fan.

Though I have to admit, the kid is kind of cute. In an adorable, he's-entirely-too-young-for-me kind of way. (source)

No wonder so few people know much about me. I'm so afraid of the conversation turning to age that I generally keep my mouth shut. I did recently make an attempt at updating my wardrobe, though, and a few minutes ago I borderline sporadically chopped off several inches of my hair. Maybe that will help. 
The point is, we all have at least a small part of us that stereotypes people based on the way they look. Challenge those stereotypes. When Lily Allen first started out, people thought she was just this cute little girl singing cute-but-mindless pop songs. Then she opened her mouth and...BAM! Not only does the girl drop one f bomb after another, but she's actually a really good singer & songwriter. Don't let stereotypes, whether they appear to be negative or positive, hold you back from being the best that you can be at whatever it is you do. It's sad when people expect so little of people with so much potential...but at least you can surprise them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

There's no such thing as a zombie movie

A couple of days ago, Amy Lukavics over at YA Highway posted about a zombie novel titled This is Not a Test. She had some interesting things to say about reviews, many of which said something along the lines of "this is not a zombie novel" or "even if you don't like zombie novels, you'll like this book. It's about characters/has a really good story/etc." The implication, of course, being that most zombie novels don't have those things. 
As someone who is in the process of writing her own zombie novel, this is a bit discouraging. Will people learn that I'm writing about zombies and automatically brush it off as fluff or a plotless gorefest?

The horror genre has gotten a really bad reputation over the past few decades. It's a great genre for aspiring filmmakers because you can make a great horror movie without spending a lot of money (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, etc.) There are plenty of knock-offs of great movies that fail to capture the fear, characterization, and atmosphere that made their predecessors a success. But all of the horror movies that are even moderately successful have something in common: They all make us care about someone. Even if they're just lost college students (The Blair Witch Project) or the innocent babysitter (Halloween), horror movies (and novels) are just like any other story: They're about the characters.

Even these zombies have a story. (source)

In the book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, author Matt Mogk frequently mentions (and praises) director George A. Romero. And why wouldn't he? Romero is held responsible for singlehandedly defining the modern zombie movie. Nearly every zombie story (book or movie) told in the past three decades has been at least partially influenced by Night of the Living Dead or one of its sequels, subconsciously or otherwise. There is a reason why Romero's movies are so popular. As Mogk says in the book:

"Romero is clear in all of his films that the zombies aren't the real threat and never really were. To him, the root cause of mankind's demise at the hands of the undead is our own selfish agendas and unchecked ego. Ultimately, we are the tools of our destruction, because we're not able to work together to eradicate the lesser evil: the zombies." (page 141)

Every horror novel, every horror movie, every book or movie of any other genre, is not about the external factors. Zombies, evil warlords, sparkly vampires...none of that matters. If you don't have someone or something that an audience can identify with, your story is going nowhere.

So the next time you pick up a popular horror novel (or even a romance novel or science fiction novel), don't dismiss it as fluff, full of gratuitous sex or violence to keep an audience interested. If the audience wasn't interested in the characters, the story never would have gotten noticed in the first place.

Why adults should be like children

Three guesses as to who this lovely former child is.

A few months ago, as my parents and I were cleaning out our old house in the hopes of putting it back on the market, I stumbled across some old home movies. You know, the ones where your parents spend countless hours shoving a video camera in your face and waiting for you to sit up, roll over, walk, talk, and do general things that kids do. Since we already had them gathered together and I wanted an excuse to watch them all again, I decided to finally start the process of uploading them from VHS to DVD.
In the process, I stumbled on an old video of me singing Kum ba Ya at age six. I tried to upload it to YouTube, but thankfully failed (imagine how embarrassing that would have been!). But one thing I noticed about the video was how loud and confident I was. That's the amazing thing about little kids -- they haven't yet developed the social skills that let them know when to keep their mouth closed for fear of offending someone else or themselves. Or, you know, realizing when they really suck at something. It's why I painted and drew hundreds of pictures and hung them all over my bedroom (and living room) walls until I finally realized at age 10 or 11 that I was awful at it.
Now, I'm not saying that you should go out and try to audition for American Idol even if you know you're not a great singer (there's something called the Dunning-Kruger effect that comes to mind when bad AI auditions come up, but that's another blog post for another day). But once we get out of our pre-pubescent days, so many people are held back by the fear of failure. That no matter what we do, it won't be good enough, so we shouldn't even bother trying. That we shouldn't be singing that tune because nobody wants to hear it.
I've never been the type of person to let fear hold me back. At least when it comes to silly fears, like roller coasters and fire (both things I once feared, but now love). When it comes to bigger things like, say, taking a shot at getting my dream career, I'm a little more hesitant. Even though I'm working my way through the first attempt, I'm still fearful that I'll never make it and subjected to a career that doesn't include writing. Which plenty of writers do and are still perfectly happy. But being a young adult out in the real world for the first time, my life is finally starting, and that's pretty scary. And I know a lot of other people who are in my position. But we all have to remember to sing that tune. Maybe nobody wants to hear it. Maybe everyone does. Maybe enough people do to make us happy and we have to ignore the rest. And if we don't try, we can never fail...but we can never succeed either.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Questions (and comments!) I get about writing

If I'm not staring at a computer screen, this is probably what I'm staring at.

I'm not exactly an expert at many things. I guess most people aren't, because nobody knows everything about anything. There are subjects I'd say I know a lot more about than the average person, but I still don't like getting asked a lot of questions about said subject for fear I'll get something wrong or come across as having no idea what I'm talking about.

But nearly everyone is an expert on themselves -- at least we'd like to think so. And since people normally ask strangers/new acquaintances things about their professional lives (as if that's the most important thing about us!), most people figure out pretty quickly that I'm a writer. I'm sure there are plenty of people who hear that and think that I'm a nutcase or that I'm wasting my time on a career path that could very well require hundreds of hours/blood/sweat/tears with little payout. But hey, let them think what they like.

Over the years, I have received tons of questions and comments about writing -- well, more comments than questions. I thought I'd go over some of the more interesting/frequent ones. I can't speak for every writer, of course, but here are some of the general thoughts that go through my head when I hear typical responses to "I'm a writer."

 "When you become rich and famous, I'll be able to say I know you!" Interestingly enough, this is the most common response I get. I wouldn't say it offends or even bugs me...but do people really think that will happen? We're always bombarded with the success stories of authors like Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. In a sense, this can make people think "if they can do it, anyone can." But at the same time, anyone with half a brain has to know that those success stories are one in a million...right? After all, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. And nearly every successful author (or actor or athlete or musician or plumber) gets to where they are through a mixture of hard work and luck. Sometimes with a little bit of talent mixed in. This isn't a particularly offensive response or even one you should try to avoid when speaking to a writer. But it is sort of the equivalent to finding out someone is a Maroon 5 fan and saying, "When you marry Adam Levine, I'll get to say I know you!"

"Where do you get your ideas?" Like most writer questions/comments, this is one where responses probably vary greatly. But a lot of us will have an answer something like this "Everywhere!" I get ideas from the most unexpected and sporadic of places. My novel that's on submission right now was spawned after a comment a World Lit professor made in class one day. I have another work in progress that was inspired partially by a television show and partially by a dream (but there are no meadows or sparkly vampires in this one, I promise. Well...actually, there might be a few meadows.)

"Never piss off a writer." It's true that some of us will base our characters on people we know -- and not always people we like. Writing can be a great outlet for expressing frustration or even revenge. But due to both legal issues and, you know, maturity, most writers won't specifically call people out in a novel. Nonfiction is slightly different, of course. But even if you did unintentionally piss off a writer a long time ago, you probably don't have much to worry about. Don't attempt to refrain from pissing people off just because you don't want to get called out. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you find yourself at the mercy of a writer...well, that's really more their problem than yours.

"So, you have a degree in Creative Writing...what do you want to do with that?" I don't get this one as much as I get some others. But that's probably because people hear "I have a degree..." and they say "OMG HOW OLD ARE YOU?" And I sheepishly say "I'm 23," and they say, "OH MY GOSH YOU LOOK SO YOUNG I THOUGHT YOU WERE 16 OH MY GOSH I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU FINISHED COLLEGE" and other generally offensive things that I can't believe people actually say out loud and with the fervor that they do. Maybe that will be another blog post one day, but it pisses me off. A lot.
Anyway, if they get past that stage, I usually tell them that I want to be a full-time writer, but acknowledge how difficult it will be and that I might never get there. Unfortunately, I don't know what I will do if I can't afford to write full-time -- and, statistically speaking, the chances of me being a full-time writer are pretty slim. Maybe not as slim as me, say, getting to marry Adam Levine. But it's still pretty hard to do, even for those who work our butts off writing day in and day out and are driven insane with the desire to write.

"I'm not a good writer, so I admire people who are." I don't have any deep feelings on this one. I just find it interesting. I'm a writer. I enjoy writing and I would hope that I'm good at it (I think I am, but every good writer doubts themselves sometimes). The fact is, some of us are artists. Some people are good at making art, some people are good at performing heart surgery, and some are good at unclogging toilets. If we were all the same, not only would the world be unbelievably dull, but nothing would ever get done. We all have different gifts to fulfill different purposes, and I believe that mine is writing.

So there you have it. A brief list of general writer questions and comments. By the way...if anyone can get me that marriage proposal from Adam Levine, it would be greatly appreciated.