The Zombie Game Diet: a Tale of Grilled Cheese & Cola

grilled cheese ZombieThere are zombies in my house.

Not actual zombies, mind you, but the blood-less kind on computers screens deftly out-maneuvered by my resident teens and tween. It may seem strange, but I’ve come to enjoy the presence of these video-game zombies in my living room, as well as all the nonsensical hilarity such entertainment brings with it.

As I sat–placidly hemming a set of linen dinner napkins–last night, I happened to overhear a string of sentences emanating from a corner of our living room.

“Do you have any more grilled cheese sandwiches?”, my sixteen-year-old son asked of his younger sister.

“Nope,” Eleven replied. “But, I have four bottles of cola.”

My interest was piqued. Casually, I rolled my chair over and made inquires about the variety of zombie-game foodstuffs that the average survivor might come across in that cartoon-ish realm. While searching the dark corridors of an abandoned structure, my son assured me that a remarkable number of the fatty, dairy-rich sandwiches could be found strewn about the otherwise ruinous landscape.

My theory that they fell from the sky was met with scorn.

“No, they just spawn,” Sixteen informed me. “Like the bandages and ammo. But, sometimes you can get food from animals. See, I just killed this wolf and I got… venison.”

My son’s puzzled expression mirrored my own at this very strange turn of events. Eleven had her own theory.

“Maybe the wolf ate the deer,” said she, “and then, when you killed the wolf, you got what it ate.”

It sounded plausible, but none of us fancied the idea of eating deer already consumed by a predator (Sixteen has, after all, been studying bacteria in Biology) but more than that, we all doubted that said meat would be quite as whole post-chewing as it appeared in the character’s inventory. There was a unanimous feeling of gratitude among all present that the wolf had not eaten any fellow survivors.

As my children’s gaming counterparts plodded from one empty village after another, they found no end of candy bars, sandwiches and sodas, water bottles and sports drinks among the piles of brick and wood, seeded with the odd can of beans… or SPAM.

“Mom,” Eleven said. “What’s SPAM?”

“Compressed pig parts, I think,” I told her. “I’ve never had to eat it.” (Personally, I may prefer the previously-gnawed venison to SPAM, but I digress.)

The limited sustenance aside, the abstract nature of the zombie game continued, highlighted by the nearly-endless ‘slots in a given character’s inventory, a phenomena apparently ‘balanced out’ by the completely random order by which objects are found.

“Huh,” Sixteen wondered aloud. “How did I end up with $1,000, binoculars and a bedroom window in my hand?” I wondered that as well, but it seemed a happy problem to have.

Eventually, I penetrated the point of this game: to gather as many items with which to make and strengthen both bases and vehicles, with the aim of going even farther afield in search of more consumables. “Infected” items were to be avoided, a parting gift from slain zombies of yore.

True to the game’s name, the half-dead (un-dead?) creatures roamed the land, popping up now and again–favoring shadow corners to the point of tedium–and dressed in the most fashionable attire, complete with pricey rips and ‘distressing’ once . complete with their own funny noise… like a cat trying to imitate a bear by gargling Epsom salts.

Try as they might to invoke fear, the characters would have none of it, and for good reason. The zombie were easily dealt with by the swift smite of a stick, or a precious bullet from one of the abundant firearms laying in the corners of nearly every dark room. In a fun twist of irony, the rifles and handguns were often located in a entirely different area of the map than their particular type of ammunition. The only real zombie threat  was in large numbers.

“A zombie got me,” Eleven lamented. “But, don’t worry… I didn’t have anything on me but some money and a pair of pants.” Her character re-spawned and the game continued.

As I sewed, I made a mental note to have another talk with the youngest about the concept of Death and its inherent reality… one of many such talks I’ve had with my kids over the years. I was comforted by the notion that they enjoy playing these rather harmless game with each other, comfortable to play with earshot of Mom. I listened them laugh uproariously as their fictional helicopter glitched through a building and came to rest, half-buried in the ground.

“At least no one can steal it now,” Sixteen said, with immense satisfaction. Eleven agreed. They hurriedly picked up their scattered treasures from the wreckage: a golf club, a can of tomato soup, plate armor, a blimp (yes the Hindenburg kind) and a pair of socks.

This zombie virus must be infectious… for now I, too, crave grilled cheese and cola.

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A Wayward Mistral

52678_weather_vane_smAll hands are off the wind, today

It flies free off the crest of an ocean wave

It must have watched with envy

The inland breezes

Hankering to taste the calm, green places

 

On swift feet it visits us now

It bandies leaves

Pushes the trees

Their drooping posture momentarily corrected

They let fly oranges in protest

Scorning these tokens

The shift mistral hurls past our shed

Disappearing at last over the dunes

 

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

(  Word Count 48,731 #NaNoWriMo )

Amazon: an Indie Writer’s perspective

In reading numerous articles, blogs and comments related to or about Amazon over the last four-five years–both pro and con–I found myself discussing the issue this last weekend with my husband and fellow author. In our minds, the various aspects of the Hachette kerfuffle, the anti-trust arguments and rather vitriolic opinions on the subject came to a head.

What is this issue really about, we pondered while sipping our morning cups of coffee. Why are publishing houses, their contractually-obliged authors and adjacent talking heads so upset with this one company?

Simply stated, it boils down to Control or–more accurately–the loss of it, an issue heavily debated and fought over throughout history.

Take the invention of the printing press, for example, a device that took the idea of mass-producing literature—initially the Bible–and put it squarely in the hands of the consumer. It’s presence provoked an instant catharsis among the mainstream idea-producers of the time, who lost no time in decrying the printing press as “evil” and actively sought to repress its influence.

While this may seem ludicrous—even criminal—to readers now, at that time the printing press was merely a thing that suddenly–and irrevocably—shifted control from one party to others. The press changed when and where the Bible could be read, as well as who could get their hands on it… a truly revolutionary notion. Over time, the initial animosity lessened as literacy and learning increased. More books followed and newspapers cropped up. Ideas flowed and were shared, all because of one invention that—at the time—was heralded by those in control as a bane to humanity.

Utilizing a more modern example, the Internet became a sort of modern reincarnation of the printing press—subsequently giving birth to companies like Amazon–by inducing yet another series of control shifts within the free market. Almost overnight, average consumers could buy a varied array of items online and have them shipped to their doorsteps. These items included books, once strictly available through tightly-controlled displays at brick and mortar stores, or temporarily at libraries. At first, the big publishing houses thought online platforms were merely a niche market, but an intriguing one; some willingly struck deals with the fledgling Amazon.

Quite a few commentators online today seem to forget that the oft-vilified tactics that Amazon now employs were then used by publishing houses, most notably (to me) over the issue of indie writers and control.

Just as the future of the eBook market seemed rosiest, the Kindle Direct Publishing platform rolled out… and the entire publishing industry gaped in yawing horror. For the first time, almost anyone could upload a book without the interference of a literary agent and/or publishing house… and sell it directly to consumers, rejoicing in a royalty that–even in the paper book publishing’s heyday—most authors could only dream about.

“Sacrilege!” publishing houses/firms cried.

“Indeed!” the mainstream media assented.

Even worse—in the minds of such conglomerates–these ‘independent’ writers were given algorithmic equal billing with traditionally-published authors on the new platform. Suddenly, consumer spending was the main determining factor as to whether or not a title rose or fell in popularity, which—on Amazon at least–eclipsed the efforts of publishing house PR departments and/or marketing firms.

Another thing that many commentators today seem to have forgotten is that before Amazon, a handful of huge conglomerates dictated not only what was being published but also forced authors to accept a paltry percentage of sales in exchange for the privilege of being published. These houses & firms would cherry-pick what they thought the public should see, and repressed what they didn’t think would sell, or didn’t agree with, etc.

What happened next is a mixture or rumor and conjecture, gathered from the far-flung corner of the internet, via message-board-trolling and discreet inquiries. Apparently, several large publishing houses banded together and outright demanded that Amazon make a clear distinction between indie writers and ‘real’ authors, or create a separate platform for indies altogether. Bezos refused… and as an indie writer, myself, I’m glad of it. Clearly, Amazon’s team could see the sales potential (for them) in allowing a massive number of new writers to flood in, upload their work and sell it. Many indie writers hopped on board, from starry-eyed new writers to folks embittered by rejections from the traditional publishing industry. These optimists created a self-perpetuating production engine of new material to sell, one that continues to this day, a few titles of which have broken out into the realm of Ridiculous Popularity.

After Amazon did not concede to the separation demand, the traditional publishing houses—apparently as one voice–threatened to walk, a threat that included pulling their titles.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Whether by the fleet-footed competence of their internal number-crunchers or the fact that, by that time, Amazon had surpassed them in consumer popularity the publisher’s bluff was called, and the relationship between them and Amazon has been rocky ever since. If all the above really happened then I don’t really blame Bezos for turning such tactics back upon the folks that tried (unsuccessfully) to strong-arm him into agreeing to their demands.

The perceived victory was bittersweet, however. A maelstrom of one-sided opinions flooded the mainstream media (another industry that stood to lose control of content in such a consumer-driven market) with talking heads and contractually-obligated authors disgorging snark and fear into the market, postulating that literature itself was being threatened by a glut of ‘toilet-paper’ writers.

Just for fun I’d to remind the audience that—at the time–scores of book industry experts kept insisting that eBooks were a novelty, that hardback sales would rocket back to life after the recession and nothing would ever, ever dent paperback sales. If true, this was more cause for celebration on their part than slander, but I digress.

Like or dislike Amazon as you will, but what the KDP platform accomplished for the consumer and the independent writer alike is nothing short of revolutionary. That is the main reason many an indie writer feels rather unwilling to join the “here be monsters” refrain when referring to KDP’s owner.

Now, I don’t consider the company in question on equal footing with the Gutenberg Press, nor does it somehow ‘enlighten’ the masses. It’s a business—and a substantial one at that–claiming a smidgen less than two-thirds of the online book market, according to a recent report by the Codex Group. Admittedly, that’s a scary amount of power for one group to hold, but the change of control from one party to another was not unexpected. Judging between the traditional publishing houses/firms and Amazon, the latter appears to listen more to the consumer and evolve itself accordingly, for now at least.

As a consumer, however, I like the current book market, in so much as seeing a wide choice of books available to purchase. I likewise enjoy knowing that–when I buy a self-published book–more of that sale actually goes to the writer. Even better, I like that if I cannot find a book that I would want to read, I can write one myself, upload it, put it into paperback, ePub or audio form and share it at a price that I stipulate. Whether said book sells four copies a month or fifteen-hundred, I’ve won either way.

Most other consumers I’ve queried about Amazon likewise revel in the proffered variety and like knowing that their purchases matter in determining an item’s rank. Even more consumers feel that the prices of eBooks (given their rather marginal production cost) should change to reflect demand; many also argue that eBooks should not be sold too cheaply.

All the feedback that I’ve received so far on the eBook pricing wars subject, however, strongly agrees with my own view, that prices should not be set by the overhead-driven, antiquated whims of the more obsolete sectors of the book market… especially ones intent on dogmatically consulting the golden bones of the past to determine their business model.

All the pros and cons and subsequent rebuttals aside, no one company is ‘untouchable.’ If history be our teacher, we know that conglomerates aplenty have risen and fallen, replaced by others that performed the similar function of catering to the desires and/or needs of the masses.

Considering the rather harsh lessons that traditional publishers have recently endured (i. e. the failure to recognize an evolution in their own industry) should they choose to ignore history they will invariably repeat it, leaving even more of the market share for another to absorb.

L. R. Styles

(Originally posted today on LinkedIn)

What is it about Books, really?

I read a particularly heartfelt essay in early 2011 that explored a writer’s personal book memories, expounding on the many reasons why paper books were important in spite of the modern-day acceptance of their digital counterparts. The essayist listed some of her fonder memories of packing books in a suitcase to read over the summer and climbing a tree with a paperback wedged in her back pocket.

After I finished reading the essay, I noted how the writer’s musings paralleled my own experiences. Nearly everyone I know–who has ever read a good book–remembers when they first read it, where they were sitting (or standing) while they read it and most remember all the characters and (most of) the minute details the good author penned.

While I enjoyed reading the essayist’s delightfully varied book memories, she came just short of really explaining why many folks cling to the paper medium in a sort of desperate nostalgia. I’ve heard the “book smell” argument, the tactile-feel-of-the-page rebuttal, the defense of the cover, the full-page illustrations argument, the ease-of-use pleas and the cases presented for paper books being one of the last “unplugged” items. I have not, however, heard or read about why a physical hold-it-in-your-hand paper book really appeals to humans.

To me, it is because the contents of a paper book defies the physics of its appearance. Without the aid of electricity (and with little to no fanfare) what seems to be a bunch of squiggly lines–on pieces of pressed wood pulp, slapped together with industrial glue—is in actuality an invisible treasure chest, just waiting to let that golden glow out onto the face of the reader upon being opened. A good book is the closest thing to real magic that a logical person can experience. Opening this unassuming recyclable shape sets the imagination loose… no film, soundtrack, digital screen, online platform, remote or batteries needed. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating parallel universe that can contain knowledge, opinions, poetry… or an entire realm of fictional creatures entirely consumed in their own lives, waiting to begin or continue their respective journeys.

Just the act of reading provokes the most profound memories, which is something I’ve not only witnessed in others but have experienced, myself. My first memory of books was of my father reading The Hobbit out loud–to my brother and I–by the flickering light of a campfire (a thing which just made the trolls and goblins all the scarier.) The Lord of the Rings followed in the summers—and winters–to come, interspersed with the Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess & The Goblin, Robinson Crusoe and many other tales. My parents gave us paper and colored pencils to draw with while we listened at home, or laundry to fold; my mother would knit or sew as the stories filled the air, while the television–in the corner of the room–sat dark and silent.

In middle and high school–during which I discovered how heartily I disliked the company of my fellow youngsters—my parents remedied my abject loneliness with piles of books; Austen and Forester; Peters, Wodehouse and Shute; Stevenson and Defoe; Doyle, Dumas and Durrell… such minds were these! Such stories did they write on this strangely bland medium of paper and ink. I began to look upon these writers first as visionaries, and then friends, teachers and finally, muses. Like the essayist at the beginning of this piece I, too, began carefully selecting books to take with me various places and even scaled (numerous times) a nearby alder to sit among the breeze-blown branches and read.

That is the reason many are so disinclined to stop regarding paper books as “real” books despite the advances of technology, social movements toward anything labeled “green” and the very real threat of younger generations growing up with all-digital libraries. It is not a thing so singular as ‘smell’, or ‘touch’ but it is rather the entire experience of opening printed paper pages—with no flash animation–and yet one is still able to ‘see’ a full realm billow out of the object, the details of which (if the writer knows their stuff) engage all of the senses… and is powered only by the brain.

Books are literally the stuff dreams are made of, only tangible.

Can eBooks ever really capture that unique experience? As an eBook writer and proponent I can only say “I hope so.” EBooks continue to sell globally in the billions of dollars, so I assume at least a few million folks-with-money think they come “close enough.” It is true that most eBooks need assistance in order to make up for the loss of paper smell and physical page-turning, such as swiping animation, music, digital bookmarking, images, re-flowable text and other bells and whistles.

But, hope is not lost, for there be one more asset in the digitized book industry’s arsenal… a transition between the old and the new: the audio-book.

It is a category within publishing that seems to still sell extraordinarily well, and in this I am not surprised. The voice carries a weight to it, soulful inflections that digital text (nor computers) cannot plausibly imitate… yet. Handy to load on one’s music player/phone and listen to during commute/ travel/ waiting-in-line, audio books seem to be the most popular when read by someone with a voice that can spark the imagination… one that re-captures that ethereal, memory-laden notion of “real” books being read aloud.

It is that still-burning desire for paper that led several of our epic fantasy series fans to request that we offer our series in paperback. Once considered a daunting quest–for a small operation like ours–the POD system proffered by CreateSpace made this dream fulfill-able, helped along by the somewhat recent decrease in printing costs. For about $11 retail we were able to put out the first of our Kingdom Isle series in a 304 page paperback last week, doing the formatting with InDesign and Fireworks for the cover art. We are not only pleased with the result as it appears online, but once the first proofs made it to our doorsteps, we experienced that unique sensation of holding the full weight of our work in our hands.

You can see (and buy) our very own out-of-book experience Here.

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L. R. Styles is an author at Belator Books