Design Notes for My Zombie Story at TZF

Hi,

Just wanted to pop in and offer a quick note today about my design notes for my short story entitled Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs, which is featured in The Zombie Feed, Volume 1. In the essay, I talked about how my blog exchange with Maurice Broaddus led to my memory of reading a book by James Baldwin, which inspired my main character’s backstory.

Here’s a quote:

In our blog exchange, one of the things Maurice asked me about was whether or not I’d be uncomfortable writing any particular areas of religion and spirituality. I talked about how I didn’t have any interest in sharing my personal views, but exploring that for a character was fair game. One book that has stuck with me through the years is entitled “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin; the powerful moments in it transformed the main character. Needless to say, I was inspired. –SOURCE: Beyond Survival: Living in a Zombie-Filled World

Confused? Well, you’ll have to read the essay to find out more. While I do cover a serious topic, I also spice it up some with a few dry humor references that’ll either make you groan or laugh out loud.

To read about “Tomorrow’s Precious Zombies”, hop on over to The Zombie Feed and peruse the rest of Beyond Survival: Living in a Zombie-Filled World.

On the Voynich Manuscript and Other Ancient Texts

When you write in the realm of horror, dark fantasy and science fiction, you’re often required to read and research different topics for reference. Like many other authors, I’ve poured through copies of ancient texts to get behind the myths and legends, to view them with a critical eye.

Working on Argentum, for example, required a deep dive into researching Alchemy. That field is interesting because there’s a lot of symbolism and allegory there. Formulas were coded into paintings, and there was often a dual-edged meaning embedded in the rituals. Alchemy wasn’t just about transforming one physical medium into another, it was about transforming the self. In many paintings, some of which you can see in this awesome art book from Taschen entitled Alchemy and Mysticism, there are parallels between the birth-death-resurrection cycle prevalent in Christianity and other religions. Indeed, this book correlates a premise using art. Really fine work, here.

As interesting as that may be, it’s important to understand these works in context. What was happening during those time periods? Why would these ancient texts need to be secret? Well, if you think about it, organized religion back then in many parts of the world isn’t like it is now. You could be killed or thrown in prison for your beliefs. Although Alchemy was practiced as a scientific art for hundreds of years, for many it also required varying amounts of secrecy. Remember, the history of Christianity is a turbulent one that affected every corner of social, scientific, religious and political development in certain parts of the world for many, many years. The references to Christianity in the Art and its formulas weren’t always obvious; there were often many artistic and visual references to other things that acted as symbols for the process.

In other words: these texts are important for more than the words written on their pages. I feel they can’t be read with stars in your eyes, though that is what some people tend to do. It’s always been that way, though. The words “ancient” and “magical” have always inspired people, for a promise of power. Just recently, there was a book called The Secret which sold millions of copies worldwide. What was this tome about? The Law of Attraction. Nothing new to see here. Brilliant marketing, though.

Voynich Manuscript

When I was reading up on other texts, I stumbled across the Voynich Manuscript a couple of years ago. Immediately, when I hear about some mysterious and ancient text it raises an alarm for me. I’m pretty grounded, even though I went through a short phase in my late teens where I wasn’t. Reading further, I understand that there’s a lot of theories about this unusual manuscript from the mid-to-late 1400s which many believe originate from Central Europe.

First, it hasn’t been deciphered yet and there are strange illustrations in it. Just as one example of my thought process, there’s discussion about why plumbing (e.g. pipes and whatnot) was used to depict the biology. Some Alchemists used to boil their bodies in hot water and scrub all the hair off to purify themselves. Bathing as a ritual was an important one for many years; people didn’t take daily showers and baths back then like they do today. Bathing is also relevant to a baptism, too. So, the paintings may not be direct representations, but allegorical illustrations drawn to represent something else.

Now, after having looked at the illustrations and having read the theories, I have a few of my own. Let me be very clear on this: my thoughts are purely speculative since I haven’t put the time in nor have I poured over every word. Seeing a book like this makes me wonder not what the book is saying, but why someone would write it in the first place. Since it isn’t a modern hoax, there’s a theory that it was created for the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, who enjoyed rare and unusual books. If this were true, e.g. created for someone’s enjoyment, what would the creator of the book get out of it? Crafting something like this is a time-consuming process, so there would have to be some larger gain behind this or other story.

Instead, I feel this book might have been coded so no one would understand it, perhaps not even the person (or persons) who wrote it. In other words, there is no cipher because it was never written with one in mind. I don’t believe this manuscript is gibberish, either. It could simply have been written to document rituals in order to solidify their meaning in the writer’s mind. What the Voynich Manuscript could be, then, are the ashes of a life-long pursuit of rituals that cannot be replicated by anyone else.

Take, for example, the strong repetition of words. If I wanted to perform a secret ritual (or a series of them) for a life-long goal, routine would be crucial to me to ensure success. (Just reviewing the illustrations by themselves, you can see that the creator(s) of the Voynich Manuscript have some scientific leanings.) But what if I got stuck (e.g. couldn’t come up with a code or cipher purported to be rampant in Alchemical and other mystical texts)? For the sake of sticking to routine, which is crucial to those who have performed Alchemy and other arts like it, then I’d use the same word over and over because I needed to write something there. Here, the words may not be important as the writing itself, unless the repeated word is an anagram or cryptogram. In that case, the author might feel the word was a magical one, and should be repeated like a chant to imbue power into his concentration or ritual. (Abracadabra is just one of many examples of purported “power” words best used in repetition.) Perhaps the author read his words out loud as he was writing them down. For an Alchemist, that act would add another layer of symbolism and ritual to it.

My next step would be to research the time period and location before closely analyzing the manuscript, to see if I could narrow down the culture and atmosphere to help bring relevance to the text. What were the religious attitudes of the 1440s and beyond? What political influences were occurring at the time? What was the lifestyle like? Education? Literacy? Etc.

Sure, these are just my thoughts. And yes, there’s no way I could be certain I’m right. But here, I’m not trying to be accurate beyond a shadow of a doubt. Here, I’ve explored a mystery to show you how my author’s mind works. After all, researching or theorizing about the Voynich Manuscript is not all that dissimilar to thinking about how a character might have written that book, and for what reason, all those centuries ago.

[Game Design Concept] Politically-Based Card Game

You’ve heard me talk about how life inspires me to write short stories like Lady Yellowbird and the Flight of the Sad Panda, but I haven’t discussed how things around me also inspire me to design, write or play games.

The recent events here in Madison have made me wonder if political tactics and issues can be resolved by playing a game of cards. So how do I envision this working? Well, there’s a few different ways I’d explore in game design to see if it was possible. Since political ideology often runs the gamut of extremely simple to extraordinarily complex, I could see a problem where the politics is over-simplified. In short, you’d have to decide up front whether or not the game would be educational or not.

Educational games can be a ton of fun, but let’s say for the sake of playing devil’s advocate you didn’t want to instruct people about the differences between political parties. In that case, the game mechanic I’d use would have an element of customization. So instead of just having a pre-generated political party, you could customize your own according to what you were trying to do.

Enter the point of the game.

For a politically-based card game, I could see that the main focal point of the game would be to either a) win an election or b) pass a huge agenda (or smaller series thereof). Gameplay would consist of smaller tasks to achieve this goal. The opponent configuration could be player vs. player, team vs. team (requiring more cards) or players vs. general public.

Items you’d want to pass might range in difficulty from national healthcare to something smaller like government research on a disease. Each agenda would have the list of requirements on the card. In order to get national healthcare you need to have X, Y and Z. Maybe that X, Y and Z requires negotiating for certain advocates in order to get it to pass. Maybe to pass it for a vote you roll dice and add the number of advocates. Maybe in order to win an election you need to pass through the relevant phases and “win” by accumulating votes.

In this way, games are born. While this is a really rough idea and isn’t sophisticated by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a start. After brainstorming, I’d work with different prototypes of cards to come up with a simple game. My requirements would be: 1) Everything has to be printed on the cards. This reduces cost to create and doesn’t require additional instructional inserts or pieces. 2) The game isn’t inflammatory. Would have to be accurate, nonpartisan (e.g. not skewed unfavorably one way or the other) and family-friendly. 3) The goal would have to be clear.

So, with those requirements, I’d definitely re-think the end goal and lean more toward “winning an election” than “winning an agenda.” Instead of money, you get votes.

This idea isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Many of the kinks would be worked out during rounds and rounds of playtesting or even moreso when (if) I ever worked out a prototype. In many ways, that’s where I feel the true power of game design comes into play. For once you’re at the table, rules can be adapted, tested and fit within the parameters of who’s playing. Theories and concepts are great and all, but until I see them in a game, they’re not a reality. Much like this concept.

My Take on Pepsi Refresh’s Social Media Campaign Results

Hi folks,

Not sure if you’ve heard this or not, but this past week in social media news an article entitled Social Media’s Massive Failure at The Ad Contrarian made a lot of refreshing waves. (Pun intended). In the article, the author talks about how Pepsi spent millions of dollars on a social campaign wasted their money. Why? Even though the campaign was successful in every way, shape and form according to what a social media marketer might expect, the campaign didn’t result in higher sales for the company. Hence, millions of dollars “lost.”

I’m going to be blunt. “Well, duh!”

Now, to explain my position. First, social media has its own currency and that unit of measurement is not in dollars and cents. It’s people. Yes, people buy things. That is true, but social media has the word “social” in it for a reason. It’s not primarily about shopping, it’s about sharing. Ergo, unless you make the social media campaign about getting people to buy a new product, it is not going to automatically result in higher sales. From the articles I’ve read, it sounds like the people at Pepsi knew this and were willing to test what they knew about the digital space to see what kind of an effect it might have. For that? I say: “Awesome!” Sometimes it’s the only way you learn. However, it does make me question what their goal was in the first place.

So, let’s look critically at the Pepsi Refresh campaign and see if we can’t figure out why this didn’t result in higher profitability for the company. I go to Pepsi’s Facebook page which asks me to click to support. Okay, if you were to show me this page before the campaign even started I would have said: “You will not make money off of this.” Why? Well, on the first page we see the word “support,” which means I suspect this campaign has something to do with a charity. The requirement for me to do something good is to click “Like.” That’s it. (No seriously, that’s all you have to do.) Sure enough, when we get to the page we see that I’ve done a good thing and I am automatically rewarded with the information about all the good things that this campaign is doing. So here, to pay for the charity efforts you have to take an action. Your reward is instantaneous. Out of sight? Out of mind. Boom. End of story. Immediate action, instant pay-off, no long-lasting impression.

In this regard, I argue their social media was successful if you look at currency in context.

To convert Pepsi fans into revenue-generating customers, here’s how I would have approached this campaign:

Stick with the “do good things” idea because that is a great angle to take. Set aside concerns about the volume of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers. Nine times out of ten, those concerns are unwarranted — especially for uber-big brands like this. When it comes to conversion, it doesn’t matter how many visits you get or how many fans you have. What matters is what percentage of those people will convert into customers. Social media is never a one-to-one relationship because it depends on the volume of friends and followers you have in addition to a number of other factors. There’s no guarantee that you’ll even see a campaign which is often why so much money is dumped into these efforts.

In this vein, I’d build the campaign from the end goal up. So, if the goal is to increase Pepsi’s revenue through engaging people to work with Pepsi on a charitable campaign, then you absolutely need a financial component. I would have done small scale testing in this regard before launching the super big mega millions of dollars initiative, by looking at different options. First? Send a Friend a coupon. Now, Mr. Customer, that you’ve done this wonderful thing by helping us commit an act of kindness, we’d like to help you get refreshed. You can either a) have this fabulous two dollar coupon for yourself or b) send two of these coupons to two of your friends. Your choice. Get refreshed. Second? Micro-payments!!! Also would require testing, but what if you could buy a can of Pepsi for charity? The amount per can would be clearly disclosed and you could pick where you wanted it to go. For something like this, you’d have to streamline the conversion process (PayPal, Facebook dollars, etc.) so it’s a one-or-two-click sort of a thing. (Hint: this is the reason why social media campaigns can work well because it’s all too easy to “Like” or “RT” without having to invest anything into it.) Imagine the power of that campaign. If you had even twenty percent of the now three million people who liked the Facebook page spend a dollar… That’s a lot of cash.

After the conversion, I would have an optional screen that would say: “Thanks for refreshing the world. May we send you a follow-up e-mail to show you how you helped [charity of choice]?” Here you get the person’s e-mail address and you send them one e-mail later on with whatever information you have. Then you give them another, smaller coupon for themselves and ask them to sign up for your newsletter.

In the initial campaign, the event occurs within a span of five seconds (I counted!). In my version, the event still happens quickly but the first option has a viral component, so you potentially double or triple the effect and potentially monetize a portion of the campaign. In the second version, it would take a little bit longer, but it would give Pepsi another opportunity to remind them of how they did this really great thing, building a memory or recurring instance. No, there’s absolutely no guarantee whatsoever these ideas would work, which is why I would encourage testing on a smaller sample within a geographic location or demographic to offer some projected data.

So can social media make money? Yes, yes it can. The success of Ian’s Pizza on State Street happened organically through social media; people wanted to feed the protesters here in Madison, Wisconsin, Ian’s provided the service, business increased exponentially. In other words, social media was leveraged by its customers, in many cases without Ian’s knowledge, to pass the phone number and make it easy for people to donate. Emotionally-charged, customers had a reason to buy and believed the only place they could go to was Ian’s on State Street. No, this wasn’t a start-to-finish campaign, but there is a lesson I feel businesses can learn from this. Social media facilitates the sale by incurring people’s emotion, but you still have to have something for them to buy.

That’s why it didn’t surprise me that the Pepsi Refresh sale didn’t (and couldn’t) generate revenue — because they didn’t ask for the sale.

What is the Solution to Authors Not Getting Paid?

For some background on this post, I’d like to point you in the direction of Brian Keene’s website, author extraordinaire. In his Friday Frenzy wrap-up, you can read the latest and greatest on the Dorchester boycott debacle along with several other links. I’m deeply saddened by this event; in order to support a group of authors, you have to refrain from buying their books. That sucks. Incidentally, if you want to help Brian out or any of the other authors affected, follow up and ask them where to legitimately buy their latest and greatest.

My question for you today, folks, is not about the boycott. Instead, I’d like to ask you about what the solution might be. If you knew you were walking into an industry where there was a chance you could be a) plagiarized and b) not paid for your work — what would be your approach? (Note: both these things can and do happen. Even to people like myself.) However, these occurrences don’t happen to every publisher or author. I have very strong feelings about bashing publishers, agents or authors. Want to see my eyes glow red? Yeah… Let’s not go there.

Several websites and pro organizations exist to help provide communication on when deals go bad, but as far as I know pro authors don’t have groups like the Hero Initiative or the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Is it time we started a similar group to support authors? Work more with pro groups like RWA, SFWA and the HWA to move in this direction? Should we place the onus on literary agents beyond the inking of the deal? Or, do we need to educate readers to ensure the money is flowing to the writer?

I’m not sure I have an answer. What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: I totally spaced. There is the Author’s Guild. Thanks, Yasmine!

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