On writing: race and the universal

I write about outsiders, mainly — characters who, in one way or another, are cut off from humanity at large, often in ways that aren’t obvious.

Take Danny, for instance, in my supernatural story Always Mine. He’s 15, plays for his high school lacrosse team, and he fits in well enough at school. He’s a good looking white suburban kid. Nothing wrong with his life, right? No, except that his mother is physically abusive and depressive, and his father is deployed to Iraq during the height of the conflict. He is alienated in ways that are hidden, even to himself. That makes it easy for him to fall for Tina, the new girl next door, who uses her Ouija board for not-so-good purposes.

As with Danny, many of my protagonists have been white (and male), in part because that has been my experience, so it’s easy to climb into that skin. But I enjoy writing heroes who are neither of those. Take Randy Velazquez. He’s the star of my book The Last Conquistador. His Hispanic heritage is vital to the story, but for him, it’s just a mundane fact of his life. He doesn’t strongly identify with it, and he doesn’t have the time for it to be an issue, between trying to track down his pregnant runaway girlfriend and dodging a creepy demon.

And a story I’m working on now centers around a 14-year-old Chinese-American girl, Mina. Her ethnic background is secondary to the story. So how do I, as a white guy, approach writing Hispanic or Native American or Asian or African-American characters? Simple, actually. I write them as human beings. My philosophy in writing any character is to get to their common human essence first, and then go from there.

But there seems to be a lot of reluctance to do this, especially in the world of movies and television. Too often nonwhite actors play roles that can only be played by nonwhite actors. It’s rare that you get a Will Smith in I Am Legend. That’s a shame for all of us, because it limits all of our imaginations.

A fellow Jersey City writer, Madhuri Blaylock, wrote a great novel titled The Sanctum: Book One: The Girl. It’s a paranormal thriller that follows Dev, a half angel/half demon teenage girl who is kick-ass. Dev, in a matter-of-factly way, is African American. Blaylock scored a hit with Dev because she wrote her from a place of universal experience. There is no preaching or educating, just entertaining. In a lot of ways, Dev reminded me of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games in that she was 100% relatable. You do not have to be female, black or a teenager to follow Dev as she fights the forces of the Sanctum. Plus, her love interest Wyatt is white; it’s about time we’re moving past the point of interracial relationships being any kind of issue. I highly recommend checking out this thrilling book.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there’s a place–even a need–for stories unique to gender, culture, age, race, sexuality and religion. But there’s also a need for people who are any or all of the above to be universally relatable. None of those qualities should matter all that much in our day-to-day lives. As writers we can make it so, at least in our fictional worlds.

Churning the Doctor Who rumor mill

Will the 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, be a short-timer as per Christopher Eccleston?


Rumor has it, thanks to UK tabloid the Mirror, that the new 12th doctor in the BBC’s half-century-long sci-fi series Doctor Who, will only stick around for a single season. Christopher Eccleston, who was the 9th Doctor when the show was revived in 2005, left after a single season, supposedly because he clashed with the higher ups over their treatment of the cast and crew.

If the new report is to be believed, Capaldi’s short stint on Doctor Who is for a different reason — to help steer the show in a “different direction.” So what could that mean?

Either 1) they plan on bringing a new actor to play the Doctor, and this actor would either be female or non-white. Why they’d need a soft transition is beyond me. Or, 2) lead writer Steven Moffat won’t stick around after 2014, so a new writer will want his/her own version of the Doctor.

I don’t buy it, and I hope it’s not true. Every regeneration of the Doctor is nearly a different character. It takes a little while to bond with this “new” character, to really get to know him. A single season is not enough bonding time.Doctor Who Jenna Louise Coleman

In other news, there’s a new companion to ride in the Tardis alongside Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman). This is welcome news. While Clara’s been real nice to look at, she’s never become a three-dimensional character, nowhere in the league of Donna Noble or River Song. She’s served as the Doctor’s conscience, helpmate, and even his savior. But too often she’s felt like just a foil — not a person in her own right. That may never change.

The new character is a colleague of Clara’s, a teacher named Danny Pink, played by British actor Samuel Anderson. He’s listed as a recurring character. Let’s see what he brings to Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Anderson



Helix spins a tantalizing, twisted tale

The SyFy Channel’s latest original series Helix, which airs Friday nights in the US, is turning out to be a multilayered labyrinth of a show.

When SyFy first began promoting Helix, I was captivated by the (literally) mind-blowing poster.Since then, I tried toHelix- 1 unravel what exactly it was about. Zombies? Scientific procedural? Lost-style isolation tale?

Several episodes in, I’m still not sure exactly what this science-heavy show all about, and that’s half the fun.

To recap the set-up, a team of CDC scientists is flown in to a Helix - Season 1remote Arctic lab to contain a mysterious viral outbreak. Once there, they are trapped. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) is the lead scientist, and his brother Peter is one of the Arctic lab’s scientists, who also happens to be infected. Alan Farragut’s team includes his ex-wife Julia Walker, who had an affair with Peter. Soapy and confusing. Luckily this aspect of the story has taken a backburner as the plot churns on.

The series is getting a lot right.

–We know the outbreak was engineered by lab head Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuke Sanada, a Lost alum), but we’re not sure what exactly it is, or why it was created.

–The writers on Helix aren’t afraid to play rough with the characters. No one is safe. Farragut and Hatake isolated scores of researchers they suspected were infected, giving them essentially a death sentence.

–Major characters are also at risk. I was shocked what happened to Doreen Boyle, a member of Farragut’s team. Likewise, big bad Constance Sutton (played by Star Trek: Voyager‘s Teri Ryan) proved less threatening in the end than she seemed. (And I loved the scene of her filing her own teeth down. Why??).


–Julia Walker, Farragut’s ex-wife, could have been an annoying distraction. Instead she’s become fascinating. Infected by the virus, then mysteriously “cured” by Hatake, Helix eyesshe’s revealed depth and determination. Adding to the mystery – is she really Hatake’s daughter? And what exactly has she become?

–One of my favorite characters on Helix is Major Sergio Ballaseros (Mark Ghanime). He’s duplicitous, murderous, and maybe even a touch remorseful. It’s a great portrayal of a mostly bad, complex character.Helix - Season 1

–Likewise, Hatake isn’t quite the villain he seemed. He reminds me of Lost‘s Ben Linus – a flawed man for whom the ends justify the means. His motivation is still unknown. It’s compelling to watch.

Another interesting aspect of the show is technical: the editing and the music. The scenes often seem a little off. They cut away too early, or they come in and out of focus, which keeps you slightly disoriented. It’s hard to understand without watching it;  this article at TV.com explains it better than I can. And the music choices, well, just watch the opening credits, with the 1960s bossa nova soundtrack.

I’ve referenced Lost a few times. That’s because Helix is similar to Lost in key ways. The mysteries unfold gradually, and the layers are onion-like. Character motivation is always in question, and the isolation heightens the drama. While it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Lost had, Helix is proving to be a fun addition to the sci-fi universe.

Nightmares reimagined

From sleep disturbances to disturbing art.

When I was younger I suffered through night terrors. I would be in the grip of a nightmare, screaming with my eyes open. It took a lot for my parents to bring me out of each episode. To this day I can still remember the theme and feeling of those nightmares.

I grew out of them. But I still have random incidents of what’s called hypnopompic hallucinations. Occasionally as I’m waking up I’ll see fantastical, otherworldly insects crawling on my bedside or dangling from the ceiling. The first couple of times it happened I scoured my bedroom looking for the centipede with a thousand legs and razor-sharp spines. I soon realized that they were leftover fragments of dreams. Now when I see these creatures I just close my eyes again.

I’m not alone in my sleep issues. Nicolas Bruno is a photographer who has dealt with sleep paralysis since he was 15. Sleep paralysis is pretty much what it sounds like: the body is weak and immobilized either when drifting off to sleep or waking up, and the person experiences strange and terrifying dreams or visions. As Bruno told 1o9.com:

“I have experienced bone chilling hallucinations and extreme terror during these dreams. Faceless silhouetted figures, embraces from shadow-like hands, warping of reality around me – all while [feeling] completely paralyzed.”

What did Bruno do with these terrifying experiences? He turned them into art. He’s created scores of photographs that reconstruct the content and mood of these dreams. Below are two of my favorites. Check out his website here for more.



(Both images: Nicolas Bruno)


Fictional faces brought to “life”

One artist is translating writers’ descriptions of their fictional characters. The results are jarring.

For me, half the fun in reading a book is imagining it in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get a clear image of the characters; other times the image is hazy as the action takes control. Either way, I’m engaged in creating this world in my own imagination with the blueprint that the writer provided.

Brian Joseph Davis has taken some of the best known — beloved and infamous — literary characters and created sketches of them using law-enforcement composite sketch software. He’s compiled the sketches, and the original descriptions, on his website The Composites.

Take Mr. Wednesday, one of the major characters in Neil Gaiman’s classic novel American Gods.

As described by Gaiman:

Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to him…He grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all…His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…The man’s craggy smile did not change…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…humorless grin…Wednesday’s glass eye… He was almost Shadow’s height, and Shadow was a big man.”

And as visualized by Davis?


That’s not how I pictured Mr. Wednesday in my head. To me he was older, craggier, beefier.

There’s more on Davis’ website. Here’s Marla Singer, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as Palahniuk describes her:

My power animal is Marla…Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips…Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings…She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up…Marla never has any fat of her own, and her mom figures that familial collagen would be better than Marla ever having to use the cheap cow kind…Short matte black hair, big eyes the way they are in Japanese animation, skim milk thin, buttermilk sallow in her dress with a wallpaper pattern of dark roses…Her black hair whipping my face…The color of Marla’s brown eyes is like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.

And here’s Davis’ image.


My favorite of Davis’ images is the one that captures a different view of a classic character. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the monster as:

Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And here he is:


With all the Hollywood depictions of the Monster as monstrous, it’s easy to forget that he was not created to be hideous.

As a reader and a writer, I’m not a fan of over-description. In my book The Last Conquistador, I tried to be sparse but concise in my descriptions of the characters. For instance, the protagonist Randy describes his wayward girlfriend Lise as “solid and shapely, like the kid sister of a truck stop waitress.” I wanted to seed a broad image in the reader’s mind.

In Always Mine, Danny, the young hero, meets the stepfather of Tina, the mysterious girl next door that he has a crush on. How do I describe Bob? Using just a few key images:

“He shook Danny’s hand rough and hard. He was meaty with a walrus mustache, and he glared as if Danny harbored bad intentions for his daughter.”

While I prefer the less is more approach, after browsing through Davis’ website and comparing the writers’ words with the sketches produced, I have a greater appreciation for those writers who are meticulous in crafting their characters. It’s fascinating to see how writers shape the worlds we create in our minds.

Earth-bound monsters

When I was eight my parents took me to see the classic horror flick Alien in the movie theater. Little did they know what they were getting themselves–and me–into. They were sure I’d be terrified, but I barely flinched through the horror and gore Johnhurt(except for the iconic spaghetti scene, where the baby alien bursts through John Hurt’s stomach).

Maybe that’s because a few years earlier I was terrified by the flesh-eating zombies in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead–and thus inoculated–from horror.

Nevertheless, the Alien franchise features some of the scariest, awe-inspiring monsters. These are creatures that use aliens.1humans not for food but as breeding pods, suffering through slow, agonizing deaths. Very much an H.P Lovecraft view of horror: the alien monster as a destroying force that gives no consideration to our humanity in pursuit of its destruction.

It turns out, once again, that nature parallels these horrors.

alien 1Take this parasite called PhironimaAccording to this article, it is thought to be the inspiration for the Alien monster.

And with good reason.

This tiny parasite lives in the ocean. It survives and thrives by attacking free-floating zooplankton. First it carves out the zooplankton’s insides. Then it climbs in and uses the hollowed out creature as its transport.

It’s not clear whether the Phironima kills the zooplankton, but the parallels to the Alien xenomorph are blood-curdlingly clear: a monstrous-looking creature alters and destroys another to use for its own benefit.

This is nature.

American Horror Story: Coven – the autopsy

Did the writers go astray, or was the whole show a goof?

What was it with American Horror Story: Coven? I could never look away, as much as I wanted to. It was like driving past an accident where you hope to get a glimpse of the burning wreckage.

CovenThe show had a lot going for it. Top-notch cast. Heavy buzz. Solid premise: a coven of witches under attack in New Orleans. That premise alone is overflowing with possibilities.

But sadly it failed to live up to its promise.

The finale gave us a glimpse of what American Horror Story: Coven could have been. The finale involved the selection of a new supreme witch after the reigning supreme, the narcissistic and evil Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), was supposedly chopped up by her demonic lover and fed to the swamp creatures. After the selection process, the new supreme turned out to be none other than Fiona’s weak-willed daughter Cordelia (Sarah Paulson).

In one of the final scenes Fiona returns. It turns out she faked her death to draw out the new supreme and then hopefully kill her. But Fiona was by then severely weakened. This scene between mother and daughter relayed a complicated, damaged dynamic. If only the show had focused more on this, it would have had a solid footing. It could have been a case study of power, family, good vs evil.

But what we got instead was some unholy mess that bordered on farce.

Exhibit A: next-door-neighbor Joan Ramsey, a religious cliche who gave her grown son bleach enemas (?!?)

Exhibit B: Madame LaLaurie, a sadistic southern slave-owning madam from the 1800s, lalauriecursed to eternal life, who at one point was just a severed head singing (the context doesn’t make it better). LaLaurie goes from rich woman to prisoner to maid to severed body parts, and is then magically reassembled by Queenie, only to have her immortality revoked by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Everything about this character was a fail.

Exhibit C: Young witches Madison and Zoe resurrect Kyle after Madison kills him and his date-rapist fraternity brothers. Kyle spends the rest of the season moaning Frankenstein-style, eventually becoming the Coven’s attack dog/butler. What was the point?

Exhibit D: The previous butler, Spalding, collected dolls and likes to dress as a doll. Oh, and he was missing his tongue for the first half of the season. It was hidden in a box in a closet.

Exhibit E: Cordelia, the witch who became supreme, was so weak and pitiful throughout the eyescordshow that she stabbed her own eyes out (well, not her own eyes…long story) to regain powers that never materialized. Then, in the space of ten minutes she’s suddenly the most powerful witch.

Exhibit F: Death? What’s that?

–Madison: throat slit by Fiona, and resurrected by Misty, then strangled by Kyle

coven–Zoe: impaled on an iron fence and resurrected by Cordelia

–Kyle: killed in a horrific bus crash thanks to Madison and resurrected by Madison and Zoe

–Misty: burned at the stake and resurrected by her own self, then buried alive by Madison, then resurrected by Queenie (sort of — it was unclear how dead she was), then turned to ashes

–Queenie: killed by her own hand (long story), then somehow resurrected (she just shows up alive again and rattles off a 3-second explanation)

–Myrtle: burned at the stake by Fiona, then resurrected by Misty, only to be burned at the stake by Cordelia (after insisting on it (!?!))

–Joan Ramsey: gunned down as collateral damage by the witch hunters, then resurrected by Misty, then killed by mind-controlling Nan (forced to drink bleach) after smothering her enema-clean son (whose ashes told Nan what happened)

Exhibit G: Stevie Nicks showed up for a couple of episodes, as herself, a white witch. She sang and she twirled around. Whatever.

I could go on and on. I won’t. The bottom line: American Horror Story: Coven could have been great. It had an award-winning cast and a solid premise. But the most promising subplots (the witch hunting group, the Axeman) were pushed aside or minimized. Instead, the writers chose camp over coherence.

California: the muse of modern American sci-fi

I’ve only been to California a few times. The state didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But a dense and intriguing article makes the case that the development of California in the 1900s was fodder for some of the best sci-fi writing we’ve seen.

Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are titans of US sci-fi writers. Bradbury’s best known works include Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers, among others, and Philip K. Dick is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted for the big screen as Blade Runner.

All 3 men were prolific, and according to this article by Michael Ziser that appeared on the website Boom California, they were often writing about the dramatic transformations that took place as California was turned from a sparsely populated harsh landscape to a lush multiethnic state powered by land management, urban planning, and the defense industry.

Bradbury, the writer states, “dramatizes the personal difficulty of adjusting to the radical novelty of West Coast civilization ray bradburycarved out of the desert.”

His evidence? Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles series of stories, which capture themes including development that alters an arid landscape, plagues that devastate native populations, societal makeovers, and a longing for a lost world.

In Bradbury’s classic short story There Will Come Soft Rains, which describes a fully automated house going about its business long after the family has been killed by a nuclear war, he may be reflecting the anxieties of mid-20th-century progress. Technology has outlived its creators.

robert heinleinLike Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Heinlein wrote about a transformed landscape in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein merges technology and an alien world. Heinlein, the author writes, reflects the optimism of his era about the potential to remake civilization, while reflecting an unease with the technology that makes this possible.

Philip K. Dick, who wrote later than Bradbury and Heinlein, also told tales of colonization, but he also reflected a 1970s-era sensibility, as his stories often focused on infrastructure philip k dickand environmental threats. His story Survey Team includes a character who mourns for the lost world of his Californian boyhood.

“It was a lot different from the way he remembered it when he was a kid in California. He could remember the valley country, grape orchards and walnuts and lemons. Smudge pots under the orange trees. Green mountains and sky the color of a woman’s eyes. And the fresh smell of the soil…. That was all gone now. Nothing remained but gray ash pulverized with the white stones of buildings. Once a city had been in this spot. He could see the yawning cavities of cellars, filled now with slag, dried rivers of rust that had once been buildings. Rubble strewn everywhere, aimlessly….”

What a great piece of writing.

Science fiction is often derided as commercial and pulp. But this analysis shows that, like the best of literature, sci-fi can incorporate larger themes of our world and our humanity.

(Philip K. Dick image: Nicole Panter)