Why I Write About Vampires

 

I have no personal experience with vampires.  I don’t hope to meet one, much less be one anytime soon.  True, my father’s family came from Romania, leading my wife to suggest that my interest in vampires is in my blood.  But there were no family stories about Vlad the Impaler or any mention of Count Dracula in my childhood.  Indeed, my relatives and friends have avoided vampires altogether, even in fiction.  So why do I write about them?

 

The conscious reason I had when I first started out was that a vampire novel would be more salable than the humorous mystery I’d written. I was in a year-long struggle to get an agent for Murder in Millbrook, while books about vampires and zombies seemed to be flying off bookstore shelves. My reason turned out to be wrong, for Murder in Millbrook far outsells my first vampire novel, Ethics of the Undead. But even after I was aware of that, there were strong reasons, both conscious and unconscious, that kept me on the vampire track.  My next other-worldly effort, Cure for the Undead is almost finished.

 

Only recently did I realize that writing about vampires reflected growing concerns about my own mortality. In such concern, I am not alone. Throughout history, societies have enjoyed or been frightened by stories of death and immortality, about supernatural beings that come back from the dead or never die. Why is it that adolescents, who are much less likely than adults to think about their mortality, are much more eager to read stories about such imaginative, immortal beings?

 

Personally, I enjoy intelligent fantasy and science fiction, but I never liked to read horror stories and never wanted to write one. Therefore, I adopted a humorous approach to vampires (e.g., an Orthodox Jew and a native American trying to be principled vampires) and to serious issues (e.g., Would immortality be more of a curse than a blessing? What code of ethics would immortals follow? What if they didn’t?). Even when I need to write a macabre scene (how does one avoid them when writing about vampires?), I use humor to wink at my readers. I hope they’ll see I’m poking fun at the genre’s conventions and excesses, but that there are some underlying observations and/or issues worth considering.

 

Any work of fiction provides an imaginative world. The paranormal genre, like science fiction, or any stories of strangers in a strange land, allows the author to regard the human condition as an outsider might. Thus, my gripes about the fashion and funeral industries, the Department of Education, or the real world vampires who prowl Wall Street, find their way into my fiction. It’s a lot of fun for me as a writer. I hope readers enjoy it as much as I do.

Reality TV

The following was my response to a question about why people watch Reality TV, which some writers linked to the “dumbing down” of America allegedly caused by TV.

Like most TV offerings, reality shows provide an escape from our own realities of our past and present circumstances. Moreover, those shows allow viewers to compare their own, usually more normal existences with that of more unusual people. It can give some viewers the thrill of peeking into someone else’s life in a socially sanctioned way, and/or the reassurance that we are better off in some ways than those people are.

As for the “dumbing down” of America, it’s easier to attribute that to TV and video games than to parents who don’t encourage their kids to read or struggle with homework, schools that don’t teach kids adequately, and politicians who give lip service to improving child health, nutrition and education while killing programs like Head Start or underfunding school budgets. While I don’t think politicians deliberately try to create uneducated or undereducated citizens, many of them rely on and benefit from giving simple answers to complex issues, which is what they say the media wants, and the media says the public wants. Responsibility for our country’s failure to feed and educate al its children adequately is shared. And it won’t get fixed by each segment of society proclaiming its virtues while blaming someone or something else.

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Ethics “Beautifully refined, intelligent and profound,” says Kirkus Reviews

logo-kirkusI’ve been fortunate and delighted to get a number of great reviews and features lately for Ethics of the Undead, and I’m happy to have gotten another nice review from the well respected Kirkus Reviews. This was one of my favorite sections:

Schechter (Murder in Millbrook, 2012) manages to explore complex questions about ethics, diversity and culture without proselytizing to readers or detracting from an absolutely riveting storyline that few YA authors beyond Neal Shusterman have pulled off. The slow, sophisticated narrative structure reflects Shusterman’s, using multiple points of view and a lot of patience to allow readers to form their own opinions about richly developed characters as the story unfolds. While fans of teen vampires will be delighted to find something different, teen dystopian and horror fans who turn their noses up at the genre should certainly make an exception for this smart, fun read from an up-and-coming YA author.

Beautifully refined, intelligent and profound.

You can find the full review online at Kirkus Reviews. For more updates on myself or my books, don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter too.

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Ethics of the Undead featured in Publishers Weekly “PW Select” for March

logo-pwPublishers Weekly has just featured Ethics of the Undead in their March edition of PW Select, placing it among a select group of books to be considered by booksellers, publishers and agents. It’s exciting to be recognized by an institution as well known as Publishers Weekly, and I’m glad to see my book continuing to get out in the world! Including the great review I received earlier this week from Blueink, it’s been a great week for Ethics, and I hope all my readers are enjoying this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

For updates on myself or my books, don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter too.  And don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a free autographed copy of Ethics!

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Blueink reviews Ethics, calls it “A page-turner and a pleasure”

logo-blueink-reviewPopular review site Blueink Review has recently finished a review of Ethics of the Undead. While the full review that will appear on their website isn’t live yet, I’m excited to share the news with you today! I’m glad the reviewer enjoyed it so much and I think you will too.

The various iterations of teen vampires in fiction have taken so many forms that a website recently spoofed the genre by writing about vampires who were actually Yorkshire terriers. What’s even weirder than that? How about a charter school for Libertarian vampires? Ethics of the Undead fills that void splendidly, and does so with equal parts gore and humor.

When four teens receive scholarships to a wilderness school in rural Idaho, they have no idea it’s a scheme to fulfill a diversity requirement of the school—and then possibly provide a snack for either students or faculty. Once a counselor accidentally spills the beans, the teens team up to try and escape. Meanwhile, there’s an obligatory doomed romance, a trial whose jury is comprised of a busload of kidnapped gymnasts, and several digressions into the ethics of which humans, and how many, are okay to eat at a given time (the discussion is part of the curriculum!). It’s a wild ride, and the plot twists alternate with big laughs.

Author Loren Schechter writes with snap and intelligence. A subplot involving a group of Satanists who throw off the balance of power at the school is effective, and the pains the staff takes to survive the diversity inspection needed to continue its funding are a riot.

Teen vampires are a popular trope precisely because they raise so many ethical issues and ratchet up the stakes on the usual teen angst: for example, when vampire Conrad confesses his feelings for Kathy, she’s tempted to let him “turn” her, but isn’t ready to commit to one person for a full semester, much less all eternity. While a regular teen occasionally cheats death, these teens have beaten it entirely, and are suffering from both anemia and ennui as a result.

Ethics of the Undead will appeal to fans of horror laced with humor and give vampire lovers something new to sink their teeth into. This novel is a page-turner and a pleasure.

For more info and updates on myself or my books, be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter too.  And don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a free signed copy of Ethics!

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Writing a Sequel – Which “Ethics” Characters Do You Think Should Return?

Writing a sequel presents authors with some interesting problems. The overarching issue is to create a completely fresh and engaging story using some of the same characters. You might think that would be easier than creating the original, but that’s not always the case. So many ideas and so much care get poured into the original work that, if it’s well received, readers expect the author to deliver as good, if not a better, product. The author must think up a lot of new material to avoid repetition, continue the saga for those who have read the first book, include just enough backstory so new readers are clued in, and write the sequel so it can stand alone as a good novel.

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Who stays, and who goes?

Those are the challenges I’m facing as I write the sequel to “Ethics of the Undead.” First, I must decide which characters to bring back – and that’s not as clear-cut in a multi-character novel like “Ethics” as it is in novels where there’s a single protagonist, perhaps aided by a buddy. So I ask people I know who’ve read the book, “Which characters stood out most? Which would you like to follow or know more about?” That’s not to say I can or will abide by every person’s opinion, for I’ve learned how different people’s perceptions and tastes can be. Still, it’s great to get feedback, even if it’s negative, for my goal is always to make the next book better than the one I’ve just written.

I certainly didn’t want to change the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Ethics,” but I did want to dream up a completely different plot for the sequel. Where “Ethics” is a story of teens being trapped in a life-threatening situation and needing to escape, I thought the sequel should involve a dangerous quest, with the normal teens and vampires working together to battle a different adversary. By using the quest motif, I could get the characters out of the Idaho wilderness, so that wouldn’t be repetitive, and have them face some of the challenges of one or more modern cities.

At the moment, I have the first draft of five chapters done, and I have no idea what those challenges will be and which of my characters will survive. Some writers outline the story in advance and know exactly where they are going. I prefer to start writing and let the muse take me to unexpected places. Sure, I’ll have more written pages to throw out and have to refigure things as I go along, but discovering things along the way is, for me, part of the joy of creation.

I wish you such joy in whatever pursuit you find emotionally rewarding. That said, tomorrow I’ll start Chapter 6.

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How to Build a Character – Start by Asking Questions

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In my last two posts, I described a specific technique for building well-rounded fictional characters that I learned at the International Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende.  But there were other approaches to that goal presented at the conference and I want to pass along what I found intriguing in the sessions I attended. By no means are these techniques or tips mutually exclusive.

Deborah Brevoort, a distinguished and very engaging playwright from Alaska, presented an excellent workshop called “The ABC’s of Dramatic Action.”  She includes dialogue as an important component of physical action, for “when a character speaks, he acts.”  That is, he uses language in an attempt to get he wants. More often than not, the attempt is indirect, the agenda hidden, but the author should know what his/her characters are after and why they say what they do.

Ms. Brevoort’s contention is that “action is how you create character.” Although she was talking primarily about plays, her belief is that skillful authors of any type of fiction reveal a character by that character’s tactics in getting around obstacles to achieve his/her goal. Obviously, the nature of the goal can also be an important indicator of character, and in novels we also have internal reflection.

Ms. Brevoort stated that actors ask themselves 3 questions as they think about playing a character in a specific scene, and it would serve the novelist well to ask those same questions for their characters:

1.  What am I fighting for? (my objective and motive(s) in this scene and overall)

2. Who or what is standing in my way?  (the obstacle that creates conflict)

3.  What do I have to do to get what I want?  (tactics that will reveal character)

Some of her other helpful tips about characters included:

  • “Every character…must have a good reason to be there.”
  • Don’t include “foils,” those buddy characters who have no life or wants of their own and are just there to help a major character along  (often by revealing the major character’s thoughts or plans by way of dialogue).
  • All characters, like all people, have their wants. But every major character must have a want equally as strong as the others.  There’s no tension in an unequal battle.

Nancy Ellen Dodd, author of “The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages,” added a few factors beyond motive, goal and conflict to consider in creating characters. She asks “What makes your character unique? Intriguing to your audience?” She suggests thinking about the character’s timeline and the historical events that impact the character.

And finally (for this post), a suggestion from agent Jeff Kleinman, who pointed out that the “voice” of some characters might be defined in terms of a punctuation mark. One could imagine a character whose dialogue is curt and has a period after every few words. Similarly, a garrulous character might speak with commas between phrases and have difficulty getting to a period. A histrionic character might speak with an abundance of exclamation marks, and so on. “It doesn’t work for everybody,” said Jeff. Certainly. But then again, what does?

Yes, it would even work for cats.

Creating a Character – An Unusual Method

In my recent post, I promised to share a writing technique recommended by Jeff Kleinman, a literary agent and co-founder of Folio Literary Management, LLC, to find the unique voice of a character in a novel. Jeff made clear that he “adapted” the technique from another writer/agent (I wasn’t clear which and didn’t catch the woman’s name) and that initially he had no faith at all that it would prove helpful. However, after trying it, he now promotes it as the best technique he’s ever used for getting to know a character and that character’s voice.

Yes, it would even work for cats.

This exercise is for all characters – Yes,  even cats.

In essence, Jeff advocates that you, the author, interview the fictional character, who is obliged to answer in the “first person.” And playing the role of that character, you must answer four questions in writing (or possibly voice recording) for 25-30 pages of text. Those pages do not go into the novel, although small gems from the text might be used. It’s Jeff’s contention that the true voice of the character, with an individual speech pattern, phrase selection, punctuation, etc., will not emerge for at least 20 pages, and meanwhile the character will self-reveal and you, the author will become very familiar with him, her, or it. Yes, the questions are to be the same regardless of gender, age, or status as an inanimate object (he gave the example of a tree as a point of view character). All questions have a follow-up of “why?” to prevent “yes,” “no,” or other brief responses. You, playing/becoming your character must respond in paragraphs.

What are the four questions?

  • Do you wear clip on or pierced earrings?
  • Do you like your marshmallows lightly toasted or burned?
  • Do you vacuum a room in straight rows or in random patterns?
  • Do you prefer a window or aisle seat on an airplane?

I know. I was as surprised hearing this as you are in reading it. But I’m in the process of trying this technique with a character in the novel I’m currently writing. So far, having typed 3 pages as fast as I can to avoid censoring what comes out as I role-play my villain in the “first person,“ I have two observations:

1. These apparently ludicrous questions are like a verbal Rorschach test, bringing forth responses and potentially useful information I might not have consciously thought otherwise.

2. It’s damn hard to write 25-30 pages as another person without repeating myself (in this case, herself). I’ll let you know how I did once I’ve finished or given up.

Jeff said it’s very important to pay attention to the emotion the character carries. Indeed, one can later interview characters in moments of emotion (love, hate, grief, fear, etc.) to get appropriate dialogue.

When the 25-30 pages are done, you look for the phrases, language and style of speaking the character has used. And that’s going to be different than what you, the author, uses. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Jeff recommends you do this for every character. I think I’ll forego the tree in my next novel.

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Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene Reviews Ethics of the Undead

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I’m excited to share the latest review for Ethics of the Undead, which comes courtesy of Doug Holder at the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, a great site for anyone in interest in that, well, scene.  Here’s a quote from his review:

The misdirection of Loren Schechter’s first sentence and what followed hooked me. The tempo with which the scene developed pulled me into the first chapter of Ethics of the Undead… On the whole Ethics of the Undead will fulfill the promise of this first chapter… So, even if you are, as I am, 4-5 times the age of the intended audience for Ethics of the Undead, you’ll probably get the next installment [to] know the how and why of [the protagonist’s] continuing adventure.

For more updates on my books, be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter too.  And don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a free signed copy of Ethics!

By the way, I do know I promised my next post would be to share a writing technique I recently learned.  Don’t worry, that post is coming up.

 

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Learning to Write, A Life-Long Task

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As I write this, I’m two days into the 9th annual Writer’s Conference and Literary Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I’m here for a break from the terrible winter up North and to learn as much as I can from the other writers, agents and publishers who comprise the 900 attendees. I believe learning is a life-long task, sometimes a joy, sometimes a grind, and that without continuing to learn, we stagnate.

In this post and the ones that follow, I’d like to share some of what I’ve been learning here or remembering from past writing workshops. The first lesson, explicitly stated here by successful writers such as Calvin Trillin (journalist, humorist and author of 28 books) and obvious from the multitude of published and unpublished writers that are here trying to learn and to advance their careers, is that it’s very unrealistic to expect fame, fortune, or even financial security to come from a writing career.

I write because I love the process of trying to tell a story that amuses me and might amuse other people. Other writers have personal experiences and/or more powerful stories they want to share. I’m sure there are as many motives for writing as there are people who do it. But I think that almost all writers, even if they don’t like a particular piece or the whole body of an author’s work, appreciate the time and effort it takes to write a decent article, poem, short story, memoir or novel.

With 7 classes on different subjects going on simultaneously in each of two sessions each morning, I had to choose the topic or teacher I thought would be most interesting to me. I didn’t always guess right, but the classes were taught at a professional level. One excellent one I attended was taught by Jeff Kleinman, a founding partner of Folio Literary Management, LLC, a literary agency in NYC. Jeff emphasized several points he found critical (but not sufficient) in the writing of a good novel:

1. The author must find every character’s unique voice.
2. The author must not get between the character and the reader (by intrusions of voice, opinion, teaching, excessive description, etc.).
3. “Readers care about characters because characters care about something that’s critical for them.”
4. “Everything boils down to emotion…we are carried along by emotion,” which provides the momentum of a story, memoir or novel.

In my next post, I’ll describe a technique Jeff suggested to help find and understand a character’s unique voice.