content by

Brian James

TV ain’t evil

Not all writers bemoan the existence of television as a corrosive force inevitably at odds with book reading. I’m not afraid to admit that I love television! Well, let me restate that. I love good television. There certainly is an overwhelming amount of junk food programming out there. I’ve never been able to stomach most reality shows (though Wipeout cracks me up and Project Runway is creative). I can no longer sit through serialized crime dramas. They’re all the same thing now. They use the old formula but throw in some of the disturbing imagery that was once groundbreaking when we saw it in Millennium. So when I find a show that pulls me in, I become pretty loyal and greatly frustrated when typically, it gets cancelled.


Invasion was one such show. The series aired at the time I was writing Zombie Blondes and it was far and away my favorite new show of the season that year. It was one of several shows that got the green light after the initial success of Lost. There was a whole wave of these continuous story type programs to hit the networks that fall. Most of them weren’t any good, but I thought Invasion was extremely well done. I sort of forgot how good it was, but thanks to the Chiller cable channel, which has been re-running the show the past few weeks, I’m remembering.

[More fan worship below the fold…]

Judging a book by its cover

Is there anybody out that truly believes they don’t judge books by their covers? In our visually dominated culture, it’s sort of impossible not to make some flash judgments. The use of images is the primary way to get a consumer’s attention and has been for a long time. We scan, we search, we browse, we flip through, we glance over and only pause when something catches our eye. Non-visual art forms such as literature and music are not immune to it. Everyone in the industry knows the cover can make or break a book.

As an author, this sometimes can be more than a little frustrating. Partially because you want your work to be discovered for its written worth and not some random image, but more so, it’s frustrating because you’re aware of the importance and weight that image holds. Though I don’t buy books because of their covers, it’s often the cover that causes me to pick up an unknown book and read the summary. And though, depending on the publisher, an author usually has some input on the cover image, it’s not necessarily a comfort because the input you’re giving is not on your field of expertise.

[More shallow observations below the fold…]

The Cheap Scare Scenario

When I sat down to start work on Zombie Blondes, there were a few key choices that I needed to make in terms of style. It was the first time I was attempting a horror novel and I had to decide what kind of fear I wanted to create. Not being an avid reader of the genre, I mostly used movies as my point of reference.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the brand of horror found in most American films. They tend to rely on fast cuts and spooky soundtracks to startle the viewer. I don’t particularly find this device effective in creating fear…the kind of real paralyzing, can’t turn away, fear that I wanted anyway. There’s a big difference between being scared and being startled. I recently went to see Drag Me Off to Hell and it’s a perfect example of what I mean. As viewers, we’ve become so used to this device that it no longer has the impact it did in say, the shower scene in Psycho. At most it gives us one or two cheap scares. In some cases, like in Drag Me Off to Hell, it can’t even achieve that because every startling moment is so telegraphed and we anticipate it. When this approach is taken in books, I find it even less effective regardless of how many exclamation points the author uses.

On the other hand, Asian horror films of the past decade or so have taken a different approach to create fear. They use long, steady camera shots to unsettle the viewer. The movies tend to build very slowly, lulling the viewer into the world they are projecting. After about an hour, they become so claustrophobic that you’re almost begging for some good old-fashioned American shock value. This type of horror was one I thought could translate very well into a novel.

[More below the fold…]

The Wonderful World of Writing for Teens

When I’d talk to anyone above a certain age (who doesn’t happen to be associated with the publishing world) about what I do, I used to always get the same question. “What’s a YA book?” Rather than have to explain that YA stands for young adult, I decided it was easier to just say I wrote teen novels. Though I’ve discovered that has its own set of problems. Images of Sweet Valley High covers dance through their heads and then they’ll usually ask me if I ever plan on writing any real novels, at which I point I’m torn between the urge to educate and the urge to insult them using the word skills I normally apply to said fake novels.

The fact of the matter is that I choose to write for teens. It’s not some sort of consolation prize, or a minor league of any kind. It’s actually an amazing group to write for. I find that teen readers are more engaged readers who connect to a text more than your average jaded adult. They’re also more receptive to unconventional ways of storytelling because they haven’t necessarily settled into the habit of reading the same type of book over and over again as most readers do once they reach a certain age. (As one who usually shops used bookstores by looking at the spines for the Grove Press logo of the 60s, I know I’m certainly guilty of that.)

Another great thing about writing for teens is being able to create teen characters. A teen character has the freedom to be more dynamic in a lot of cases. These characters are still trying to discover who they are, which allows them to believably behave in ways that might seem far-fetched in an adult character. A teen character can be full of confidence in one scene and full of self-doubt the next and no one would blink and eye or cry foul about lack of consistent characterization. As a writer, this is gift that can be used to enhance a story’s tension.

[More below the fold…]

The Greatest Stories Never Told

My latest obsession for avoiding deadlines and plodding through a rather heavily marked up second draft of the current novel I’m working on is to occupy my time picking “My Top 5” things for a whole host of absurd categories online. This habit started off innocently enough. I chose items in mundane subjects like Favorite Movies and Favorite Books or Cartoons I Loved as a Kid. All typical internet fare that solicits a few interesting answers that reveal slight hints about your personality to the rest of the world, and by the rest of the world, I mean the handful of people bored enough to sift through other people’s narcissistic postings.

As my work piled up and beckoned me to get down to business, I naturally looked for ever more stimulating distractions that might motivate me to ignore it. So I dug deeper into the categories of top fives, seeking out the more absurd subjects. Once I plowed through those, the “Create Your Own” tab loomed large and I took the plunge. When it got to the point where I successfully wasting an entire morning, I realized that I was officially hooked.

I quickly discovered there was a storytelling appeal to carefully thinking about how five random things, when linked to a theme, could create a bigger picture. It’s like laying out all the ingredients on the counter, but leaving no recipe. In that sense, it’s like a story that’s never told. It’s just the spark of one whose possibilities are endless. I found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw these sparks out there.

[More below the fold]

Genre Police

Why is it that so many die-hard fans of certain genres are obsessed with this idea of staying true to the genre? You know the people I’m the talking about. They’re the one who always seem to have this handbook in their heads that’s loaded down with rules for whatever specific topic they happen to be interested in. And they stick to these rules with an unforgiving strictness.


These are the kind of people who know every way to kill a werewolf and won’t accept any slaughtering of one that doesn’t adhere to what they already know. They’ve studied the peculiar feeding habits and diet of vampires and scorn any deviation. And of course, they know zombies aren’t fast. They see themselves as defenders of a particular lore as if it were bound by some unwritten parameters. It’s all very noble work to some degree, but I can’t help but think some of these people have lost sight of the fact that these genres are fiction…the rules they swear by were made up! They can be broken. In fact, I’d argue that they should be broken.

I can almost hear some people shouting Blasphemer! as they read this, so I’ll try to explain my position.

[More after the fold.]

Field Study (An Author In Search of Zombies)

At the beginning of the writing process for each book, I like to familiarize myself with the subject matter. I want to get to know the kind of people that I’m writing about, see firsthand how they live and talk and what interests them. For obvious reasons, I debated skipping this step when I started work on Zombie Blondes. I asked myself if I really wanted to get up close and personal to flesh eaters. What if I were tasty? Or worse, what if I wasn’t? What would that do to my self-esteem? After all, us writers are notoriously fragile when it comes to our sense of worth. But in the end, I knew what I had to do. So regardless of my own personal safety, I set out in search of zombies.

I know there are some naïve folks out there who’d deny the existence of zombies, but that’s simply because they’ve never ridden the NYC subways at rush hour during the summer season. Surly if they’ve ever gazed upon the blank faces of these flesh and blood automatons as they moved mindlessly through the searing heat of the transit system’s underground maze of tunnels they wouldn’t dare suggest that the walking dead aren’t among us. But the urban species was not the zombie I was interested in. From what I can tell, the urban zombie is controlled by cell phone applications and intense marketing schemes. It’s a form of the disease that, while difficult, can be overcome. I was in search of another kind of zombie…the incurable, calculated, ruthless kind intent on controlling their own destiny.

[More below the fold]

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