Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Zombie Apocalypse – a Story Gift That Keeps on Giving

Walking Dead Season 4 Cast – AMC image

The Walking Dead is a show that’s well and truly hooked me. I both yearn for and dread the approach of Sunday night (3-30-14), when the Season 4 finale airs. There are story threads I’m watching anxiously, to see how they play out. However, once those are resolved – or left all cliff-hangy – I will have to wait who knows how many months before there’s more Walking Dead to watch.

While imagining various outcomes, it occurred to me that the writers of this series sure know what they’re doing, in terms of keeping an audience slavering in anticipation. So obviously, I want to take the show apart to see  what makes it tick. I’m trying to leave spoilers out, though, so this discussion will be short on specific examples.

In MICE terms (where you classify a story depending on whether the main focus is on the Milieu, Idea, Character and Event; for further info, look here), the overall story arc of The Walking Dead is that of an Event story. There are some great character arcs and ideas/mysteries. In addition, the milieu (setting) has the benefit of being both familiar (contemporary America) and novel (after being smashed to smithereens). But what propels this series is the quest to bring order to the characters’ world in the midst of the aforementioned zombie apocalypse.

Some TV series peter out after a time. I suppose The Walking Dead could, too, if the show’s creators run out of ideas. Based on what they’ve come up with so far, though, that could take a good long while. As long as they keep introducing interesting characters at roughly the same rate they kill them off, and those characters deal with their horrible situation in compelling ways, this series could go on indefinitely.

Because – let’s face it. Once you have a zombie apocalypse, the world is unlikely to be the same ever again. This allows the writers to ratchet up the tension on a struggle many of us seldom worry about anymore – simple survival. In the world of The Walking Dead, that struggle is universal. No one has it any better than anyone else—at any rate, they don’t have it that way for long. You might find what you think is a safe setup for your hardy little band, but it only takes one wacko or evil person to bring it all down.

The characters’ lives would be fine if they could thoroughly vet the people they take under their wing, but human beings don’t work that way, do they? If you have ties to someone – maybe because you’re related or you’ve slept with them, maybe because they’re young and vulnerable, maybe because they did you a solid somewhere along the line – you’re inclined to say, “We have to bring this person in and provide safe harbor for them.”

The other people in your group, those who don’t have the same ties to this person, might say, “Screw that. Can’t you see this guy/chick is trouble?” But eventually the good-hearted Walking Dead band that we’ve come to know and love will say, “Aw, heck, nobody’s perfect. Might as well give them a chance.”

Sometimes it works out okay, sometimes it comes back to bite them in their collective butts.

Anyway my point is, it would take a lot to make this show jump the shark. I can see two ways of doing it: one, you allow your body count to include a character that too many viewers identify with. It could be Rick, or it could, as one internet meme has it, be Daryl.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon – AMC image

The second way is to find or create the orderly society to which most characters wish to return. Once an actual civilization (one that can keep you safe) is functioning, or once all the zombies die or go away, then the main problem of living in this world disappears. Everyone lives happily ever after. Obviously you save this solution for the series finale, and I bet you money, marbles or chalk, that’s the writers’ eventual plan. As clever as they are, though, there will be some twist I never would have anticipated.

And that, my friends, is what you call a well-milked Event story.

Somebody Else’s Turn – Jez Layman

Today on CB’s MoJo we have a special treat—a guest post. I met Jez Layman through Naperwrimo and The Writing Journey. I’ve known for some time that Jez writes fast. She won the coveted Hat of Word Wars in November 2013, for winning multiple word wars at a Woodridge Public Library write-in.

Since November, I’ve had the opportunity to read some of her writing and learn something else: Jez writes well. You do not, however, have to take my word for it. She’s won several writing contests, and she graciously shares some of her experiences below.


Jez Layman

Earlier this week, I was notified that I had won Sound and Scribe’s Flash Fiction contest with an untitled piece, which you can read here. I was intrigued by this contest and its unique prompt, which was to listen to a specific song (in this case, “Bangs” by Bricks+Mortar) and write a story up to 500 words on any topic inspired by the song. For my piece, I wrote what I would describe as an almost dystopian survival story, which wove in lyrics from the song. I was a little surprised to hear I had won this contest because I had spent maybe a maximum of fifteen minutes on this piece, and most of that was looking up and reading over the lyrics multiple times (it’s not a song I had heard before the contest). I did not hear of this contest until its last day, but flash fiction is my passion, as well as my strong suit in writing, and writing something to a specific theme (broad as it was) seemed a lot easier than figuring out which of my previous pieces would be best for submission, so I took a chance and entered. What I appreciated about this contest in particular was the ease of submission, which was through tumblr, a social media website I frequent daily, and the rules were straight forward. The host contacted me shortly after the end of the contest and the prize was sent to me early the next morning—a very quick turn-around! I certainly intend on entering next month as well, and highly suggest others doing the same.


Like flash fiction itself, this contest was pretty quick-and-easy for me, and done with no prior preparation. This is not the case for all fiction contests. In fact, it’s quite rare. I’m not very likely to enter long-term or long form contests, but I did enter and win 1st place in the OPUS fiction contest in 2011 with a short story called “The Damsel,” which is about a professional Damsel in Distress. This was part contest, part conference, and I was asked to present my work to a live audience after winning, which I did happily. I cannot commend live readings highly enough to writers. The feedback is immediate and you can gauge the interest of the readers immediately. I received quite a few laughs from that piece and was happy to hear that my jokes and allusions hit home the way I had intended. This contest was different from Sound and Scribe not only because of the live reading and length of the piece, but because I had entered a pre-written piece. I prefer to submit my writing for publication, rather than to contests, but I had been asked personally to submit to this contest and I felt very confident in this particular short story. That’s the number one thing I think writers need when submitting to contests with pre-written pieces: confidence. These pieces should be written, adhere to the rules of the contest, be edited multiple times (and read by a second party, if possible), and fit the theme of the hosting entity or the specific contest.


To all submitting to contests or publications, I wish you luck.

 Would love to hear more about people’s experiences with writing contests, either via the comments section or whatever way you usually contact me. Ditto if you have questions for Jez.

Chicago Writers Conference

CWC 2013 Venue

Last September, I went to the Chicago Writers Conference (CWC) at the Chicago Public Library – Harold Washington Center.

A few things lit a fire under me last year. The first was Whitey, because that’s how he rolls. But CWC was definitely on the list. Recently Ines Bellina (CWC’s Social Media and Programming Assistant) contacted last year’s attendees asking what we were up to, so I obliged her. You her post about what we’ve all been up to here.

So, what was CWC like? After the Saturday morning and afternoon sessions at CWC 2013, I was on the phone with BK. He asked me what I thought so far, and I said it was okay, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the money. 2.2 days at CWC cost a few bucks more than my 4+ days at WorldCon in 2012, and there was a lot less programming at CWC.

“So,” he asked, “you don’t think you’d do it again?”

“Probably not,” I said.

“When are you coming home?” he asked.

“I ought to go to this session tonight. Some of the writers from the conference are reading at Brando’s Speakeasy. And Whitey says I need to network more.”

“You don’t sound that happy about it.”

“You know. Me in a roomful of people I’ve never met? At least there will be drinks and people reading, so I can look attentive, have a drink, maybe duck out if I feel too weird.”

“Okay, try to have a good time. See you later.”

Everything changed at Brando’s Speakeasy. To start with, I wandered in, probably looking as lost as I felt. There was a table full of people right by the door, and they waved me over. “You here for the readings?”

I allowed as how I was.

“Well, sit with us.”

I did. They were great people. The cast at the table changed, but all were friendly, interesting and interested. I met Mare Swallow, the conference’s founder and executive director, and worked up the nerve to introduce myself to author William Shunn. I almost felt as if I knew him from Tuesday Funk, which I attend intermittently. He was gracious and almost behaved as if he already knew me. I met several other lovely people, including Patricia Skalka, who has a mystery novel, Death Stalks Door County, coming out this May.

After finding the Chicago writing community so welcoming, I’ve gotten more serious about writing short fiction and better at reaching out to other writers. I’ve started this blog. Meeting other people who are moving forward with their writing can really motivate a person. So, yes, the conference was worth it for me. The next one is October 24-26, 2014. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Oh, Happy Day!

Rock of Cashel (Photo: Tourism Ireland) via Smarter Travel

It’s the holiday of my people, if by “my people” you mean American mongrels of European descent. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

My lineage is maybe half-Irish, if you’re feeling generous. There’s also a healthy slug of Lithuania and Alsace-Lorraine in the mix. But today, I mostly feel Irish, so here are my 3 wishes for you all:

May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.

May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven
half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Gorey at LUMA

B is for Basil, assaulted by bears*

Mary Anne Mohanraj recently spilled the beans on Facebook about the Edward Gorey exhibits at Loyola University Museum of Art (aka LUMA). My BFF Cookie went to Loyola for both her undergrad and med school, so she was all over the idea of visiting her old stomping grounds. Her daughter (and my goddaughter) Cookie Junior was on spring break, so we all went together.

If you watched the PBS show Mystery during the 90s, you already know Gorey’s style from the animated opening credits. Or you may have seen his elegant, unsettling work–somewhat Victorian or Edwardian, with a touch of the Gothic–in The Gashlycrumb Tinies or The Doubtful Guest. In addition to illustrating his own work, he worked for a time at Doubleday Anchor, providing book art for such famous works as Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot.

He resisted classification in many ways. He wrote, he illustrated, he did theatrical design. In fact, he won the 1977 Tony Award for Costume Design (and was nominated for set design) for Dracula.

Since he preferred not to be classified, there’s no way I’ll attempt it here. Edward Gorey must be seen (in person, the web doesn’t do him justice) to be appreciated, and I feel that I just scratched the surface during my recent visit. Well, Bro is visiting in late April. Maybe I can sucker—uh, talk—him into a trip to LUMA. In any case, I need to get back there before the exhibit closes on June 15, 2014. Next time, I’m bringing a notepad and pencil so I can take numerous notes.

*Image: Edward Gorey, B is for Basil assaulted by bears from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, pen and ink, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963, Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved

The MICE Quotient


One of the best things I’ve done in the past year was to take a writing workshop from Mary Robinette Kowal. It was 2.5 days of rewarding work, and I got to meet the wonderfully talented and supportive writers who also participated. One section—on the MICE Quotient—was self-contained enough that I decided to share a version of it with my local writing peeps, The Writing Journey.

I’d read about the MICE Quotient years ago, in Orson Scott Card’s book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Short version: stories can usefully be structured as one of 4 different types. A story may principally be about the milieu, an idea, character, or an event. For the longer version, see the presentation I link to, below.

The MICE quotient was interesting in the book, but after Mary explained it in her workshop, it became much clearer to me. She had gained a terrific understanding of the concepts from taking Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, and after her explanations, writing exercises, and the group’s critiques, I think I understand better, too. It’s made structuring stories much easier than it used to be.

The workshop I ran for my writing group was an attempt to share that understanding, and now I’m passing it on to you.

You can access the main presentation here. There are places in the PDF where I suggest participants upload their writings to a shared story folder on Google Drive, but that folder is private and won’t be available to most readers of this blog. I’d love to see what you wrote for the exercises, though. If you’d like to share, please feel free to post in the comments below.

Since our time was severely limited, we weren’t able to do the second exercise as fully as I might have liked. We were divided into groups of 4, and each person within the group chose a different story type, rather than getting to do all 4 types. Still, the participants were able to share and learn from each other. And now, without time constraints, they (and you) are free to spend enough time to try writing all 4 types: milieu, idea, character, and event.

It was fun to revisit these concepts, and I believe many people come out of the workshop feeling as if they’d gained something useful to add to their writing skills. However…I should probably mention that I’m not the award-winning writer that either Orson Scott Card or Mary Robinette Kowal are. If my presentation doesn’t make sense to you, you probably want to look at their work on the subject before giving up on the MICE quotient.

Scoreboard Update & Party!

wikimedia commons image, artist unknown

I suppose it’s no secret that I’d like to have a fabulous writing career. I haven’t figured out exactly what that means. I’ll probably flesh it out as I go along, kind of like an outline. Here’s what I do know: I want to write things that people are interested in reading and I’d like to be paid for doing so. I hope that will lead to more people discovering it, and enjoying it. Upshot: I’d like to be published in the traditional way, by folks who have been at it for a while and know what they’re doing.

There’s a whole discussion on the interwebs about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing (aka independent publishing). I don’t know what my entire writing career will look like by the time it’s all over. Independent publishing might figure in, but not until I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about it.

My plan for now is to submit my fiction to magazines when it’s short and agents/publishers when it’s long.

However. I don’t have total control over how soon anyone will be interested in publishing my fiction. One thing I can do is to improve my writing, and thus my odds. There are multiple ways to do that, and I’m trying a few, but the underlying tenet is this: I need to keep writing. That’s why I post ad nauseum about writing daily, with a heavy emphasis on

The other thing I can do is to submit stories. It does me no good to sit on a story, stew over it, or endlessly show it to various groups for critique. I’m still working on when to let a story go. I may blog about that some other day. For now, I’m trying to aim for sooner rather than later. I have one story that’s as ready as it’s going to be, and which has, in fact, been submitted to several markets. I have another story that’s close, I hope. It’s the one I submitted to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction a while back, and which I’m revising next week. I will be looking for new readers for it soon. It’s already been through alpha readers and beta readers. What’s next, gamma readers? Omega readers, since I hope this will be the last pass? Anyway, if you’d be willing to read a 6000-word story for me, please leave a comment below, or facebook message/tweet/email me to let me know, and we’ll work out how to get it to you.

Ahem. I promised scoreboards today, didn’t I? Here’s my progress report.

Updated Scoreboard 1: Submissions

March 7, 2014
Submissions: 3   Acceptances: 0   Rejections: 2

I win!

If that’s not immediately clear, let me explain. As I said above, I have limited control over how soon my writing will be published. Two things I do have control over are:

  1. my writing process (practice makes perfect) and
  2. my attempts to get it out there (it does me no good sitting on my hard drive)

As long as I keep writing daily, with an eye to reducing suckitude, I’m doing what I can for the first part of the puzzle. As far as the second part goes, here’s my goal:
#Submissions + #Acceptances > #Rejections.

Since 3 + 0 > 2, I win!

As long as #Submissions + #Acceptances > #Rejections, I’ve done what I can on my end.

Updated Scoreboard 2: Words Written

March 6, 2014
-885,494 words- from a 478 day streak (out of 907 total) on 750

That word count puts me within 115,000 words of the million words Ray Bradbury says you need for mastery.

Bradbury Image by Rev. Terry Canttel*

If I can manage to write an average of 800 words a day going forward, I can have my million-word party in about 143 days. As of this writing, that makes it July 25th, or thereabouts. I’ll firm up the date later.

So here’s the plan. If you want to come to my million-word party, leave a comment below, or message me via email, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+  to let me know. I’ll make sure you receive all the relevant information.

I don’t know what all will happen at this party, but there will definitely be singing and alcohol. And seriously, I’d love to see you there.

* Bradbury Picture Creative Commons License

Happy Birthday to Me


We celebrated up a storm, starting on Saturday. I used part of my combination Christmas/birthday gift. Every year for the last decade or so, my sister has gotten me a subscription to Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier. We usually choose the 4-play subscription, unless the season doesn’t interest us that much. This year was interesting. We’ve already seen Cyrano de Bergerac, Merry Wives of Windsor, and now Gypsy. (Henry V is still to come—woo-hoo!)

As I’ve noted in previous posts, Chicago Shakespeare doesn’t only produce Shakespeare. They’ve put up Molière and Sheridan, among others. And director Gary Griffin has an ongoing interest in exploring the works of Stephen Sondheim, so we’ve also seen A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, and now Gypsy.

CST production photo by Michael Brosilow

I thought Gypsy was swell. The cast was good from top to bottom. I went to school with some of the actors, like Rengin Altay and Matt DeCaro, so it’s always a kick to see them in professional productions.

Maybe it’s goofy to single out performers, since one of the great strengths of the show was how well the ensemble performed as a whole, but I should probably mention that Jessica Rush as Louise and Keith Kupferer as Herbie were very affecting. The single best part of the show for me was the first act finale, and the reason it was so chilling was because of the interplay among Louise, Herbie, and Rose. Of course, Louise Pitre as Rose was wonderful.

I was iffy with with a couple of artistic choices in the second act. It was hard to tease out whether these choices belonged to the director or to the actor(s), but in any case, they were minor. I can definitely recommend this production to anyone who still has the opportunity to see it. Get there by March 28, 2014.

The rest of the long birthday weekend was similarly excellent. Cookie (who joined Sis and me at the theatre) bought dinner for all of us, including BK and our son.

We got carry-out from Clara’s

Clara’s heard it was my birthday and gave us a quart of pasta fazool for the price of a bowl, and topped dinner off with free tiramisu. Yum!

Did I mention the cake?

On Sunday, BK, Son, Cookie and I had chocolate birthday cake (drool). Then Sunday night I experimented with tweeting (@cmbrennan09) through the Oscars, which made the long telecast more entertaining. It was especially fun to come up with my John Travolta name—Catapult Branana. That’s not what I got from the “official” John Travolta name generator, though. You can play along here.

Monday (my real birthday), my daughter Lori called to wish me a happy birthday and generally warm my heart. She had already sent my birthday gift a few weeks early. She knitted her fingers to the bone to make it. I’ve been wearing it, and it is gorgeous!

Fabulous hat, right?

I actually got a bit of work done. Revision. Scary! But you feel so virtuous when you manage to make yourself do it. I also hit the gym. So I felt perfectly justified in taking off to go see American Hustle when BK came home early. We finished our evening with dinner at House of Emperor and a viewing of the latest episode of Castle. Sis called to offer birthday well wishes, as did Bro. What’s not to like?

My next post will contain a submission scoreboard update. Stay tuned.