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I am a Hardcore Zombie Apocalypse Survivor

I win! I survived! I get to be the one who carries a shotgun and slays zombies, preferably using a Winchester 1200 Defender with the barrel sawed short for close quarter action.

How do I know? I took a test.

Google would you survive a zombie apocalypse, and you’ll find dozen of quizzes, most them simply aimed at getting you to a website so that you might see other advertising.

This quiz wasn’t on the first page of the search results, but it caught my attention because of the video with it. I assume that author, Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, had something to do with this, but the only evidence I have is that it mentions his book, The Zombie Survival Guide, in the last question, and Brooks’ name is the answer. If he wasn’t involved in putting together the quiz, he’s the luckiest author of this year because it’s a great promotional tool.

Any author who wants to succeed already knows that the web is more than just words: it’s video, audio and audience participation–interactive was the buzz word back in the 90s that had everyone breathless. Even TV execs desperately tried to find a way to make news shows interactive, usually by having a provocative question that viewers could vote on by phone–not exactly the internet.

Most authors know they need creative ways to connect to their audiences, so they’re active on twitter and facebook, and they write blogs like this one.  But I think the blow out successful authors will find unique ways to connect, like this quiz.

Better yet, I bet that it’s not too hard to score survivor, which is what we all want–to survive the apocalypse, whatever form it takes.  On another quiz I even scored as a savior, a rather weighty title that commends me for choosing to bring the grandfolks along when we fled the city.

Suddenly I want to buy the book, because it’s about survivors and I’m a survivor.  I know because I took the test.

Rango – The Post-Apocalyptic Western

Johnny Depp has a knack for picking unusual and interesting films that don’t fit with the Pirates of the Caribbean box office smash, so when my kids wanted to watch Rango, I sat down with them, surprised that an animated Western even existed.

The Western, both as a film and novel genre, fell on hard times during the 1970s and 80s.  The movie-going and reading public had begun to realize the Indians weren’t nameless and faceless “savages,” but rather that they were actually human beings who had, and still have, a legitimate grievance.  The public lost interest in seeing John Wayne indiscriminately kill people who dared to oppose the US Cavalry or tried to stop the flood of settlers into the west.  The audience began to feel guilty.

Westerns didn’t die, of course, but they centered more on outlaws, sort of the Mad Max movies set in the 1860s.  Rango is definitely in the latter category.  Thugs dominate a town while controlling its most limited resource–water.  People are leaving, and everyone who stays behind owns a gun and knows how to use it.  During a gun battle, creatures on both sides kill indiscriminately–yup, just like John Wayne in a 1940s Western.

That’s when it hit me.  We’ve come full circle back to the Western.  Now the stick-figure enemies are zombies/vampires, but this time our heroes can kill without remorse.  The zombies are already dead and there are no land claims.  The humans who need killing are vicious Mad Max-type bikers with no morals. They would be locked up if only there were any jails.

But it goes beyond just guiltless killing.  It’s also the freedom that comes with being in a post-apocalyptic world, one where your credit card and mortgage are unimportant, but your next meal is always on your mind.  I read a great blog by author Steven Montano on the appeal of the post-apocalyptic world.  People actually enjoy the fantasy of waking up one morning to find out that they don’t have to go into work, that the boss is a zombie and their car payments can be skipped.  Indeed, if you can drive, you can grab any car you want, preferably a big SUV.  You don’t even have to worry about sustainable development anymore.  Better yet, in every post-apocalyptic scenario, you are the one who survives and gets to wield the shotgun.

There was a time when I wondered if this genre would peak at the end of 2012 and dip after the Mayan Calendar reset and the world didn’t end.  But now I believe that as long as the population density in major cities is on the rise, as long as consumer debt is high, as long as unemployment rates force people to stay in low-paying dead end jobs, there will be demand for post-apocalyptic fiction.  That’s what Rango is: post-apocalyptic fiction set in the lawless West.

Title and Cover Woes

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels.  Fitzgerald can write description that is so effortless to read that a whole page of it with no other action is still captivating.  But I have to wonder if Fitzgerald’s great work would have made it to a second printing (it barely did) if it had been called The Incident at West Egg.  That’s the original title.  Not horrible, but certainly not as engaging as The Great Gatsby, and I think the novel really is more about Gatsby than the “incident” at the end of the novel.

My friend and fellow writer, Jill Edmondson, had a blog post about several novels that almost ended up with such mediocre titles.  Another example is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which nearly ended up as Something That Happened.

So when I noted that sales of my novel, The Book of Bertrand were nowhere near the sales of Vampire Road, I had to take a deep breath and ask friends and writers what they thought of the title.  You guessed it.  I found two fans but the rest totally panned the title AND the cover, even though they loved the novel.  The most common comment: sounds too much like Sunday school and looks too much like a bible.  Boring.

I had to decide whether I’d stick to the title I’d had in my head for years or try something new.  The original title is actually a bit of an inside joke until you get to the fourth novel in the series, so it means way more to me than it does to a reader browsing through Amazon.

When in doubt, go for a 19 kilometer run.  Okay, I don’t actually do that very often (the 19k) but the marathon is on May 6th and I’m well into training.  During the run I had the inspiration that you can only have when fasting or exhausted beyond all reason and still running.  It’s a shaman/spiritual journey thing I guess.  I realized that my novel is not just about three people trying to survive the apocalypse.  It’s also about three people leading a revolution against a government that is actively perpetuating the apocalypse.  It’s about clashes with riot police and the rippers that support them.

So the new title is Apocalypse Revolution, and my brilliant wife suggested that before I change it I should name the other novels in the series to ensure that all the titles would mesh nicely.  Since I’ve already outlined them all, that turned out to be less challenging than I would have thought.

Next challenge was the cover.  I’ve hired a professional cover artist but he’s buried in other work for at least three weeks, so I decided to do a quick and dirty cover myself.  That didn’t go so well.  After three hours of cursing my way through Photoshop and hating the results–there’s a reason I’m not a graphic artist–I sent my feeble efforts to a pro and in no time at all he turned out the great cover that you see at the top of this article.  He also created the cover for The Book of Bertrand, but it was all my idea, so its failure to generate interest is mine.

I fully admit that if I had a traditional publisher or agent they probably could have warned me that the original title and cover weren’t going to sell, but the great thing about eBooks is that an author can change these things if necessary.  It is important though to have it all locked before doing the CreateSpace P.O.D.

Will all this help my sales?  Who knows, but I’m happier with both, so I’ll keep you posted.  Which would you buy?

I Just Found My 1999 Website

It even has a pre-YouTube book trailer starring a friend who thought the idea was fun.  Here it is in all it’s 1999 glory: The Book of Bertrand

It’s so antique it’s quaint.  I built the site as a marketing tool aimed at publishers and agents, thinking they’d like a quick and easy way of finding out more about my novel.  I didn’t know back then that the publishing industry is extremely conservative, and I’m referring here to the Webster’s definition of conservative: “tending to oppose change.”

I kept track of the page views of the site, expecting that some agents or publishers might visit it a few times, perhaps impressed that I was ready with such a great marketing tool.  Guess how many even looked at the page?  You guessed it.  A big fat zero.  In hindsight this should have allowed me to predict how the publishing industry would react to eBooks.  The internet is something that even back in 1999 a lot of people wished would just go away.

I even wonder now if having a website hurt my chances of publication.  The internet is a big and scary place if you’re resistant to change.  I love the internet because it’s changing all the time.  Imagine if I’d had Youtube back in 1999.  I wouldn’t have had to put up a tiny low res video trailer under the assumption that some people might still be on dial-up with a 56k modem.  Yeah, remember that?

I’ll work on a new book trailer with apologies to my friends Mark (who helped shoot it) and Gord (the star).  But the times, they are a changing, and they’re going to change again.  Who knows what the internet will bring in another decade?  My bet is that it’ll be fun and very cool.

Oh, and that very unprofessional voice over: that’s me.

When I Gave Myself Up for Dead

I was twenty-seven when I did something incredibly stupid and dangerous.  I often still feel the need to apologize to my mother for putting her through prolonged worry, but I had reached maturity, finished university, gone out into the workforce and felt that somehow I had missed my destiny.  I couldn’t tell you what it was, just that my life was an empty disappointment.  My job was okay.  The people were nice and I was liked.  There were promises of advancement, and one women at the head office had made it clear that she was interested.  The whole world, my whole life was before me and I turned my back on it.

A friend asked me before I left, “but what if you get killed?”

I answered with the bravado of a young man.  “Then my tombstone says I died at twenty-seven.”  At the time I meant that in the lifespan of the solar system, let alone the universe, it was essentially the same as gasping my last breath at eighty.

But I hadn’t really learned that lesson yet.  It was later, when I truly did fear for my life, when I stood beside men who did this every day and weren’t flinching, that I took that lesson into my heart: I was going to die no matter what.  Someday, somewhere, I would have a tombstone that marked my passing from this world.  It was just a matter of time, and in the grand scheme of the universe, a minuscule amount of time.

Now a few of you will think that’s depressing, but I found it liberating.  While I sometimes forget the lesson of that time in the day-to-day rush of life, I’ve held it in my heart and it has allowed me to continue to do things that I might never have ventured had I lived as if I could coast on forever.

At a family function over the holidays, my brother talked about cancer screening, saying that if my father had gotten some at fifty he’d never have gotten the cancer that killed him at eighty-three.  Eighty-three!  If I should live so long!  I’m not against cancer screening, and I’m going for a check-up myself in a couple of weeks, but it sounded as if my brother believed that dad could have lived forever.  It sounded like he was saying that we weren’t going to die as long as we had good health care.  I know if asked he’d state that of course he knows we’re all going to die, but I don’t believe he’s taken that knowledge into his heart.

Some days I wake up and wonder why I chose to be an author, why all my career decisions have been built around getting more time to write.  On a good day I remember that I’m going to die.  On a good day I remember that I have to fight to get every bit of me down on paper so that when I go at least some of me will stay behind, if only for a little while.  I want to reach as many people as I can, to give them a moment of ease, a moment of insight and maybe even a sense of their own mortality so that they can do great things too.  I want my grandchildren (if I’m so lucky) and maybe even great-grandchildren know another side of me, to be inspired by me.

I want to be great in a quiet way.  Not a president.  Not a mover and shaker, but a persistence presence that spreads over time, even after my novels are forgotten and the electrons have spun into chaos, or the paper has returned to the earth.

But the other gift of that great insight into my mortality is a fearlessness about who I am.  I don’t care if people think I’m a literary genius or an purveyor of pulp, and this has allowed me to write books about anything, whether it be a lost soul wandering in Afghanistan, a construction worker afraid of heights or a plague of vampires in Chicago.  Yes, vampires.  It’s more the situation that interests me, how people respond to the pressure, how they struggle to survive, how my characters interact that fascinate me.

So giving myself up for dead was the best thing I ever did.  I can do anything.  I can write anything.  It’s my destiny.  To die. When that moment comes I won’t look back and say, “what if?”

So what did I do that was so dangerous?  My friends and family know.  My readers will already have guessed, and the rest of you…does it really matter?  It’s knowing you’re mortal that sets you free.

But don’t worry, I’m not reckless.  I want to see my children grow up, so when I run at night I watch out carefully for cars.  They scare me.  No need to go too soon.

And mom…sorry about that little episode.

Why I Spoke to the CFUW

There were about thirty-five women at the meeting of the Ajax-Pickering chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women.  I was invited to speak about my life as a writer, and since I find me so interesting I had no problem showing up for the talk.

But I can’t pretend that these women are going to be interested in reading my vampire apocalypse novels.  The CFUW are a group of well-educated women, and I’d guess the median age in the room was fifty-five.  This is not the kind of crowd that wants to read about machine guns and crossbows, slashed throats and desperate battles.  They’re probably more the cosy murder mystery crowd.  In fact, it’s unlikely they’d even read my coming-of-age Canadiana short stories that were first published in Storyteller Magazine.  So why did I agree to speak despite the poor sales prospects?

Practice.  I’m actually not very comfortable at the front of a crowd, but I’ve learned that as an author I need to be there if I want to sell.  So I’ve appeared on panels at mystery and SF cons, and I accept all invitations to speak, and every time the adrenaline subsides, I review my performance with a critical eye.

Here’s what I learned last Wednesday.

First, I interrupted the moderator just as she began to introduce me, chopping her short and not giving her a chance.  Oops.  I was excited and nervous and launched right into my talk, stepping on her moment as it were.  I should have taken a deep breath and remembered that they were there to hear me and would wait for the end (or in this case even the beginning) of the introduction.

Second: take my time.  I still speak too quickly in front of a crowd.  I shouldn’t be afraid to pause, check my notes and carrying on intelligently instead of relating the first stories about Afghanistan or bridge painting that pop to mind.

Third: Have better cue cards.  There were some amusing anecdotes I had intended to share, like the time a mujahideen commander in Afghanistan told me I should shave because I didn’t look good with a beard–he was right.

But I did do one thing right that evening:  I really had fun.  Better yet, I think my audience had fun too.

Does the World Need Another Vampire Apocalypse Novel?

Vampire novels are everywhere.  You can find them in bookstores, at the library and on the electronic shelves of every eBook retailer.  They’re populated with sexy vampires, conflicted vampires and murderous (as opposed to vegetarian?) vampires.  The blood suckers can be found in space, alternate universes and historical fiction.

So why am I launching a vampire apocalypse novel now?  I first thought of  the idea of vampires having a communicable disease back in the eighties, but that theme is so ubiquitous now that it’s now far from an original concept.  My novel is a unique approach, but so are a lot of novels in the genre, those that aren’t simply quick rip offs of Twilight.  I could also point out that vampires are still hot, that the majority of the eBook reading public is under thirty years old and that there’s always room for one more vampire, but it’s not really why I wrote this novel.

It’s all about the 1000 Souls.  I came up with this concept, this new religion, when I met a Russian in Bokhara, Uzbekistan.  The man owned a small hotel.  He was smart, professional and a master at supplying  tourists with everything they could need at fair prices.  He reminded me so much of a South African caterer in Canada that I was stunned.  It was as if the two men had the same soul, even though their DNA had taken very different routes down through evolution.  These men didn’t look at all alike, but they were  the same guy in different bodies.

So as I wrote my vampire novel, the religion of Erics (yes,  plural) and the 1000 Souls was born, the concept that there are only 1000 souls spread between 7 billion humans.  Ever meet someone and swear you’ve met them before even though it’s not possible?  Well maybe you have, but you were shaking hands with a different host body for the same soul.

So each living human’s body is playing host to 1/seven millionth of a soul, meaning you could meet quite a few people with the same soul.  It also means that the souls are pretty thinly spread, which is where the vampire apocalypse comes in.  Kill off billions of people, and the remaining host bodies now contain denser souls.  This makes their human hosts more passionate and daring than our thinned-souled present day humans.

Confused?  Like any religion, the devil is in the details.  The Book of Bertrand is just the beginning, and religions evolve over time.  A quick check of the first centuries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alone prove that the formation of a new religion is a tumultuous time.

But why vampires?  Why not a less dramatic plague like bird flu?  Because every new religion  at its beginning needs to confront pure evil.

But the biggest reason I’m adding another vampire apocalypse novel to the world, is because I enjoyed writing it.  I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkien who stated that he wrote novels that he would enjoy reading himself.  I enjoyed reading (and re-reading) the Book of Bertrand.  I really like Bertrand and his friends, and I can’t wait to write what happens in the next novel.