Norwescon 37 Post-Game Film

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized
Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer in that there is no actual game film to speak of. Though I sincerely wish there was as I might then be able to identify the truck that ran me down.

Who am I kidding? We all know what truck that was. A truck by the name of Norwescon 37, that left me broken, sore, and exhausted by the side of the road, thankful to be alive.

And it really should have come as no surprise.

I saw the lineup of panels weeks in advance and knew this was going to be a packed weekend.

If memory serves, this was the first time I’ve attended Norwescon as a tourist in a few years rather than a panelist. That meant I could while away the hours doing whatever I wanted. And boy were there a lot of options. So many, in fact, that there were frequent overlaps and hard decisions had to be made.

Panel highlights included (but was by no means limited to): maps in fantasy novels, invisible disabilities, writing vivid scenes, tracking details, diversity in the genre (both of character and setting), and some great panels on horror cinema. I’ve got pages of notes, and new projects are sure to spin out of those…a process which is already starting. And until Sunday, I didn’t have any real experiences with people trying to hijack the panel to discuss their 80th level paladin or the end of the gold standard

One of the regular highlights of the convention is the chance to touch base with peers who I just don’t see often enough. Many excited and insightful conversations about current projects, the state of the industry, and comic books were had. I got to meet some new people who are, if not outstanding, at least incredibly entertaining. Through it all, I came away energized to be working on new and existing projects. And I feel reassured with my place in the genre, and the direction I’m going.

There were people I wish I had more opportunity to hang out with, but the convention was so packed I don’t know how that would have happened. As it was, I was there until after midnight both Friday and Saturday and back at road to the con by 9am the next morning, leaving a hard 6 hours to sleep in between. As I told a few people, I slept like I was trying to cure cancer, like the lives depended on me sleeping. It was dark. Dreamless. And when my alarm went off on Saturday morning I stared at it a long time trying to figure out what it was.

The convention wrecked me. It’s taken almost 24 hours since leaving to be able to write about it. That’s how fantastic it was.

Despite saying I didn’t need anything, I still ended up acquiring certain artifacts. Inventory accrued over the weekend include:

  • The Hole Behind Midnight by Clinton J. Boomer and published by Broken Eye Books, and if it’s half as entertaining as its author, it promises to be riotous.
  • Bless Your Mechanical Heart edited by Jennifer Brozek and published by Evil Girlfriend Media which has an astounding lineup. I wish I had been able to come up with a story to pitch to this, but I couldn’t squeeze an idea out of my brain. Instead, I’ll just enjoy reading the heck out of it.
  • Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail: Tales of Love, Crime, and Rebellion from PM Press which is entirely within my bailiwick.
  • Report from Planet Midnight by Nalo Hopkinson which is a slim volume that I’ve already finished. Excellent, and worth picking up for the title piece alone, but the other features, including the short story “Message in a Bottle” are brilliant.
  • A photo from the art show by artist Amber Clark that was used for the cover of Coins of Chaos. I’m partial to collecting cover art for books I’ve been in, and this marks my second from her. It’s gorgeous and I can’t wait to hang it.
  • Two crocheted eyeballs stuffed with catnip from a friend and fellow author to placate both my cat Shiva and the demon cats across the street.
  • Two DC Comics shot glasses: one Nightwing and one Green Lantern, largely because reading DC Comics lately makes me want to drink.

It was a great few days. I’m sure I’ll even recover in time for next year.

In the meantime, I’m excited to return to my projects with the stuff I learned over the weekend.

And sleep. Sleep would be good.

Life Cycles of a Story

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Novels
He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

  He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

I have a junk drawer in my head.

This is not uncommon with writers, or so I’m told.

We collect characters or bits of dialogue or story hooks the way other people might collect rubber bands or plastic bags. You never know when one might come in useful. Every time that junk drawer is opened to take something out (or more often than not, put something new in), the bits and baubles roll around. They strike up against other things and sometimes spark a fire.

Sometimes they spark a few.

This is an example of one of those. A story about a story that takes its seed from yet another story.

In 1997, the sequel to Matt Wagner’s incredible series Mage: The Hero Discovered appeared. I had loved the previous series from over a decade earlier, and while I enjoyed the new series, The Hero Defined, it was one particular page that tucked an idea into my junk drawer. In the first issue, the hero, fights a troll.

Somehow that brief appearance changed the way I saw trolls. My previous impressions had been formed by children’s books and the D&D Monster Manual. This troll was different. And it was kind of scary. So I filed it away.

It was around this time that I moved to Seattle, a city full of bridges.

I had recently finished writing a horror screenplay with a good friend of mine and we started talking about the next project. I mentioned the troll, and a few ideas got knocked around. Before I knew it, I was writing the first draft of a screenplay that I then sent off for his draft. He sent it back and we hammered out a tight third draft. It was a scary story about a reclusive millionaire, survivor of a childhood attack, forced to confront his fears and childhood monsters when they resurfaced to threaten his own child. We were both really happy with it, and it began making the rounds.

Then nothing.

Nobody was going to touch a horror movie in which children were threatened. Certainly not fifteen years ago. Certainly not when Hollywood still had the bitter, troll-like taste of one of the worst movies ever made still in their mouth.

So Bridge, as it was then called, sat in a drawer. Which was a shame because I still loved that story.

When I started writing novels, I revisited Bridge, adapting it into a novel. While I added a few characters and changed up some scenes a bit, the overall arc remained pretty similar to the screenplay. Then 2/3 of the way through I had a data fail and lost the files. I had the foresight to have printed up each original chapter, and I was able to find most, but not all of them. Bridge sat, unfinished, for another year while I worked on other projects.

But I couldn’t get it out of my head. While the movie had been a single project, the novel sparked an idea for a trilogy of much bigger scope. I had to finish it. So I pulled out what battered chapters I had and rewrote it from the ground up. I even outlined the second book and had a very rough idea of what I wanted to do in the third. I got so far as to pitch it to an agent who shut me down when she realized the protagonist was married.

“People don’t buy books with married protagonists.”

That stuck with me. Bitterly.

But I wasn’t going to change it. The fact that he was already in a strong relationship that was tested by his actions over the course of the book was too central to what I was doing. I won’t lie. I lost hope for Bridge.

Years passed. I did a few edits on the book, but the last was probably 5 years ago. And really what the book needed was a full rewrite. Sure, I liked the book when I wrote it, but that was a decade ago. And to make it what I wanted, edits weren’t going to cut it. Every new novel I wrote, ever year that passed, the more aware I was of how much BETTER that story could be. But I didn’t touch it. There were too many other projects. And the protagonist was still married, so why bother?

As a final disincentive, I couldn’t make the outline for the third book work.

That was the kicker.

I had an idea what I wanted to do for book three, but couldn’t find a way to make it work in a full novel length. And that outline for book two? Gone. No idea where it went. In trying to reconstruct it, I could only remember about half of the story beats.

So I worked on other projects. My writing improved. And my perspective on what I wanted to be doing with my writing shifted as well. It no longer felt appropriate for the main character to be a hetero, white, male millionaire. While I liked the story, there was ultimately nothing about the character that I found compelling other than his damage and relationship to other characters.

Then, out of nowhere, I saw a fascinating opportunity to rethink the entire story.

If there wasn’t enough story to maintain a novel for the third (and possibly second) part, why try to write them as novels? Why be so committed to the form that I can’t do these as novellas? The only real hindrance was that I had a 75,000 novel to condense into a third of it’s original size, but I wanted to reinvent the protagonist anyway, which involved a major rewrite. I tore that first novel apart, beat by beat by beat, spread it out across the garage floor to see what I needed to keep and what I could discard. I figured if nothing else, it would be a fascinating exercise.

Several side characters got pared out, their functions in the story eliminated or shunted onto the protagonist’s partner. The bits featuring the monster’s hunting spree from it’s perspective were cut for space. The lengthy chapters of investigation and doubt cut or condensed to mere paragraphs. The timetable of events ramped up.

The result was leaner. Meaner. And darker in ways than I expected it to be.

But through all the formats, all the drafts, all the years, the core story that sparked in that cranial junk drawer has remained the same: we never truly leave our childhood monsters behind. Sometimes, like it or not, we pass them on to our children.

And there are still reasons to be afraid of the dark.

 

 

 

In Praise of Libraries

Posted: March 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

AmpersandI have this good friend who I first met in 8th grade. She transferred to my school from the only other junior high in town and made a pretty significant first impression. She was a bit of an outcast, like me. Bit of a punk edge. Bit of a rebel. Huge Billy Idol fan.

I suppose it was only natural that now, probably three decades from first meeting her, she’s a librarian, an information professional, at a prestigious college back east.  I wanted to be a librarian myself when I first moved to Seattle. If I had finished my degree, I might have been. In my experience, librarians like knowing stuff. They like knowing weird stuff–little kernels that they stumbled upon and hold like candles against the dark, like rare gems buried in coffee cans in the back yard to haul out and examine at their leisure. They like sharing that stuff with anyone who is interested.

That’s not exclusive to librarians, mind you. But they add another, crucial level to it. Not only do librarians know stuff, they know how to find more stuff. Even stuff that they’re not personally well versed in. They know how to dig. They know the arcane knowledge of how to find not just stuff, but the right stuff.

Growing up a weird kid in a small town, libraries were sanctuaries. There weren’t very many people there who would judge you unless you had the misfortune of encountering the librarian who thought you were reading too much, or above your level. And yes, I know a few people for whom that was the case.

Some kids were raised by wolves. I was raised by libraries.

Explains a lot now, doesn’t it?

My dad was a librarian at a small liberal arts college, and my mom had been trained as a teacher, so books were always greatly encouraged. Between trips to the public library with my mom and brothers and being dropped off at the college library when she had intermural sports of some kind, I always felt at home among the stacks. I was drawn to “spooky stories,” tales of true hauntings, and the miscellaneous “unsolved mysteries” like big foot and the Bermuda Triangle. When I exhausted the shelves of the downstairs kid’s collection, I went upstairs to the main collection. That library building is gone now, replaced by a newer facility elsewhere, and I haven’t even been in that old library for probably 20 years, but I can still tell you exactly where that shelf was, can draw you what is now an outdated map. It’s imprinted in my DNA.

There’s a misconception that library brats are anti-social, that they’re all introverts who have no friends. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While I certainly went through phases where I was a bit introverted, I always had friends. And certainly while younger I spent a lot of time with my brothers playing. But I also valued quiet time and the magic of crawling inside a book for a few hours.

I can’t imagine what my life would be like without access to the library as a kid.

Being surrounded by stories, both real and imagined, helped me realize that my dry little mountain town wasn’t all there was in the world. It made me realize anything was possible. Anything I wanted to read was there, available to me, for free, with zero risk! If I picked up a book and realized I didn’t like it, I could just start another. It allowed me to explore. To question. To dream.

I have always been, and always will be, a dreamer.

The good friend who inspired this post recently mentioned National Librarian’s Day which is coming up on April 16th, in the United States, at least. Local mileage may vary. The thing is, for us library kids, that day is kind of year round. Libraries (along with the post office) used to be the heart of urban communities. They were the anchors of urban planning, built with an understanding that certain public services are important to a civilized society. Libraries were built around the concept that knowledge, information, the written word, were important, and that should be made available for anyone who wanted it. Libraries are, at least in theory, egalitarian spaces that allow us to make ourselves–and by extension society–better.

Libraries were never designed for profit, and now people seem outraged that they cost money. And hey, the internet has everything you need now anyway, right? And it’s free, provided you own a computer and can afford internet access!

With city and county budgets getting tighter and tighter, services are being cut. Operating hours cut. Collections sold. Libraries shuttered or privatized. Access to a world of possibility is going away, and with it the librarian who are there to serve the knowledge and those who seek it.

The portals to knowledge are in danger of getting tighter and tighter. And there are few real gatekeepers on an internet rife with sponsored content, opinion and baseless “facts” offered up as truth. That’s fine if you’re willing to do the work and fact-check or look for multiple sources, you know, like you might in a library. But most people are one click away from being well-intentioned but ill-informed, and it’s heartbreaking.

So get involved, whether it’s lobbying your local government for better funding, backing ballot initiatives or levies to support libraries, actually using the library one more day a week, or bringing the librarians there an occasional doughnut or coffee gift card.

You never know who those kids roaming the stacks might grow up to be.

Coming of age movies are a genre unto themselves. And when well-made, pretty awesome to boot. Few things helped to define my coming of age better than music–coming out from under the shadow of what everyone else was listening to to find my own musical path. A lot of movies seem to do that with soundtracks filled with pop hits played in the background (Breakfast Club, anyone?). But my personal favorites (Pump Up the Volume notwithstanding) are the ones that integrate that path to success and self-discovery through an active investment in creating music. First off, let it be known that I left Pitch Perfect off the list for two very key reasons: it’s pretty well known, even if I do totally love it, and also, I like the sound of “Three” movies.

Without further ado, 3 movies you should probably see to be a complete human being.


Fat Kid Rules the World
A little independent gem of a movie, Fat Kid Rules the World was shot in Seattle by Matthew Lillard. It’s sweet, complex, and has some amazing performances in it. It captures the punk rock esthetic in ways I haven’t seen many movies do in quite some time. The friendship forged between our hero and the “cool” but troubled guitar player is incredibly compelling and passes along some great messages about what it means to be a friend, and building self-confidence without being preachy. Plus, Billy Campbell does an amazing turn as the father, supportive and protective at the same time.


Bandslam
I honestly have no idea why this movie wasn’t a hit. I can only blame a totally horrible marketing campaign and people who expected it to be a High School Musical riff. At it’s core, Bandslam is about a sweet, awkward kid with a mysterious past and a deep love of music. When he moves to a new town with his mom (the delightful Lisa Kudrow) to start over, he gets recruited to help manage a troubled high school rock band. The storytelling is spot on. The use of music, both as background soundtrack, and performed by the band itself is top notch. I own this one and have watched it a good half dozen times. I loan it out on occasion and have yet to find anyone who didn’t enjoy it. Oh, and the band? They perform all their own music, and they rock.


Josie and the Pussycats
Did you honestly think I was going to leave this movie off the list? Not nearly enough people saw this movie when it came out. The studio marketed it in such a way that the people who would appreciate the satire of the music industry would never see it, and the people who did see it weren’t in on the joke. Wickedly smart, frequently goofy, and with a top-notch soundtrack. Not only do you get the Josie songs, you also get the boy band DuJour with their hits “Backdoor Lover” and “DuJour Around the World.” Trust me. If you haven’t seen this movie, clear an afternoon, pop some popcorn, and settle in. While a bit less of a coming of age movie than the others, it does remain a solid movie about friendship. And music. And subliminal messages in our media.

5996678001_6d170dd088_mI’ve been a Green Arrow fan for a while. Heck, I even blogged about it a while back when I reviewed issue #7 of the comic. And when the tv series Arrow started, I was looking forward to what they could do with the character and his mythology.

We’re now past a season and a half in, and overall, I’m delighted by the series. The way they reinvent the mythology, the way that they build on little tidbits laid out over the season. The big cast with solid support characters (particularly Diggle and Felicity). All really good. And I’ll admit, when I get to a reveal or see a payoff of things they set up several episodes before, I have been known to squeal with delight.

But, Arrow, for all it does right, has some problems. As one of my Arrow watching friends commented the other week: “Watching Arrow. I’m a glutton for punishment. If she gets kidnapped tonight. Jesus.”

Fans of the show no doubt know exactly who I’m talking about.

Arrow, you have a real problem with “Damseling” Laurel Lance. If you’re not familiar with that term, it refers to using the capture of female characters, the “Damsel in Distress” trope, to motivate male characters to action. It’s come into focus recently as an overused trope in video games, but the idea far predates that. It’s tired. It’s cliché. It’s sexist. And it’s lazy writing. I get that Laurel’s big arc for the season involves breaking her down to her lowest point so she can rebuild herself, but there are other ways to do that and I get the feeling that you’re not even trying as long as it fulfills that basic mandate. In the first half of the season, she’s been kidnapped at least twice, and her safety used as a carrot to motivate several other plot-points for her male protectors, both her father and Green Arrow.

It’s been noticed. It’s been discussed. And it’s problematic.

But it does have one unexpected benefit.

It helps to point out the trend in other media, including the novel I was in the middle of writing.

I have three primary characters in Redemption of the Yellow Wolf. The primary POV character is Ulls Sturmgard, and he is joined by two other capable heroes on his journey–both of them already limited in their communication range, Whisper being essentially mute, and Melkin not speaking the language. And I looked ahead to the middle arc of the book and realized that I was due to have all three characters captured, in effect damseling both Whisper and Melkin.

This was set up in the outline, and honestly, I didn’t even blink at the idea then. Over the course of writing, these characters became more than names. And thankfully I’ve been paying more attention to misogynist tropes and language, so I was able to spot this before I got to it. Whisper and Melkin aren’t plot devices, and it was wrong for me to use them as such. Not only is it wrong to strip them of their agency, it diminishes them as characters. And it’s lazy.

I’ll tell you this here and now, some free advice from your Uncle Nate: there are a lot of sins committed by bad writers and laziness lies at the root of a lot of them. Sometimes it disguises itself as “good enough,” or falls victim to “backstage-itus” where characters essentially fail to exist when they aren’t in a scene. I’ve been writing a long time, and I still do this. At some point in the draft, I expect most writers do. The challenge is to spot it and try and do better.

Whisper and Melkin are wily, capable characters. There is no rational explanation why they would be captured and not be capable of doing something about it. So I looked at it again. Tore it apart. Put it back together better, stronger than before. It doesn’t make Ulls less of a hero. Nor does it make his actions or decisions later in the book any less important. Do they still need him? Of course. But no more than he needs them.

That’s what family is.

And if my intention is to build this trio of broken misfits into a family, they need to respect each other’s strengths. They need to trust, and to know when to ask for help. They need to be able to stand on their own in such a way that any one of them could be the hero of the story if the camera shifted to them.

On Arrow, Laurel Lance is a righteous, tenacious woman and a fierce litigator. They made that clear for most of last season. And they’ve proceeded to tear her down, first with guilt, then with addiction, and trust issues. I know you want to keep her more involved in the story, but there are ways to do it that don’t involve her needing to be rescued so often. I want to like her. Most people want to like her. But damn if you aren’t making that difficult to do.

If you weren’t doing so much other stuff right, it probably wouldn’t bother me so much. I’d just write it off as another vaguely fascist adolescent male power fantasy. But you’ve proven you can do better.

I’m fixing my problems, Arrow. Let’s see if you can do the same.

Fringe Candy: Box of Boogers

Posted: January 20, 2014 in Fringe Candy
The Pick of the Day!

The Pick of the Day!

“Blog about candy,” the little voice in the back of my head told me ages ago. “You love weird candy! How could this possibly go wrong?”

Last October a good friend presented me with a box of candy she had picked up. Saw it and thought of me. Had to get it for me. Needed to see a post about it.

It’s amazing the effect packaging and presentation will have on a person.

Box of Boogers is made by Flix Candy just north of Chicago (though the candy itself is made in China). It’s part of their seasonal Halloween line, because late October is when boogers ripen and are picked and packed…

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself there.

Flix Candy is a special kind of fringe candy maker. One that I haven’t really touched on before. Most of the candies I review here are niche or fringe because they’re out of the mainstream, but enduring, candies that have been around for generations and have history. And I’ve also looked at things like artisan candies, particularly chocolate because that’s a huge and varied market filled by tons of small confectioners. This is neither, but it is undeniably fringe.

Flix Candy doesn’t have a lot of history. They started in the 1990′s and don’t try to make any claims about deliciousness. No, their own website proudly touts them as an “innovative and reliable source of quality candy products.” I know. Not much of a hook. But they aren’t selling the sizzle. They’re selling something else.

They make candy for licensed properties, like the broad spectrum of Disney-owned IP (from princesses to Spider-Man), or Klondike, or Angry Birds. They also make seasonal candies for those of you who want Monsters U Halloween candy or candy Spider-Man Easter eggs. You get the picture.

Fringe, but not exactly artisan, not exactly mom and pop.

And then there’s the Box of Boogers. They have a monster in a chef’s hat on the box because hey, Halloween. These are described as “Tangy gummy boogies that look & feel real!” I was understandably reluctant to open these up and dig in. Presentation counts for a lot. The market for these is most likely 12 year old boys. And I’m more than 3 decades removed from finding these appealing.

Upon opening the box, I find that these look boogers in the same way Mickey looks like a mouse. They’re cartoonish malformed blobs in shades of green and yellow. They have a slight powder coat, so they don’t have the high gloss of a good gummy bear. They’re more akin to a classic cinnamon bear by texture, but chew like a gummy. Texture and mouth feel is perfectly inoffensive. As for taste, these are nothing to write home about. They’re no more tangy than your average gummy. Bit of fruit flavor, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of fruit. Let’s just call it “Froot” flavor. The back of the box says “Watermelon/Green Apple/Lemon Lime”(actually, they call them “Snottermelon/Sour Green Boogy/Lemon Loogy) but I call bullshit. Maybe if I took time to savor each one…yeah. That wasn’t going to happen.

I’ll be honest. My expectations were low. When it comes to gummies, I’m a bit of a traditionalist unless you’re doing something kind of extreme like Sour Patch Kids. And I found that by putting these just out of sight so I didn’t really LOOK at them over much as I was eating, these were just…meh.

As a novelty, I can see the appeal if you’re a pre-teen boy looking to get a reaction from an adult. But if you’re an adult who likes candy rather than just a superficial sugar high and interesting presentation, look elsewhere. Glad I got to try them if for no other reason than they make me crave a good pack of cinnamon bears.

 

 

 

 

The Calm Between Novels

Posted: January 18, 2014 in Novels
Tags: ,
He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

As announced elsewhere, I finished the first book of the Ravensgate Chronicles a week ago. Yep. Draft uno of Of Rooks and Ravens is behind me, complete at 86k and change. The next book, Redemption of the Yellow Wolf, which will feature the undead hunter Ulls Sturmgard, the silent monk Whisper, and the feral Bloodood rider Melkin, gets underway soon. It’s already mostly outlined and just waiting for me to pick it up. The third book is set for next year’s project. And then I may spin the survivors from Of Rooks and Ravens out into an epic fantasy espionage series. The characters and where I leave them kind of call out for it.

None of that starts until next week.

There are a few other things in my hopper at the moment.

First off, I’m taking another, fresh look at an old project. Originally conceived over fifteen years ago as a screenplay, then re-imagined as a novel (the second I ever finished, in point of fact), it turned into an idea for a trilogy. But there were a few hold-ups. Despite liking the concept of the trilogy, I was having a difficult time with the second and third books. The second felt padded when I looked at the outline. And the third I couldn’t even get through an outline. I knew what the end of the series had to be, but I couldn’t stretch it into a novel. It was solid, but short. So after pitching the novel a few places (and having one very enlightening conversation with an agent where she told me that “no one will publish an urban fantasy with a married hero.”), I let it sit in a drawer. But I’m looking at it again, realizing I can strip it down to a leaner, meaner project.

And along the way, I have the opportunity to fix some of the diversity problems that I didn’t think about when I wrote the original draft. In the entire original novel, the primary cast was all very white. The only exception was a support character, a folklore expert who happened to be Chinese-American. And the hero was a reclusive millionaire. So, that needed to be changed. In stripping this down, the only characters who remain mostly the same are the cop support character (though I changed his name), and the protagonist’s young son. Everything else has gotten an overhaul and put back together in an outline that feels much more vibrant than the original. And rewriting it from scratch, it will reflect where my writing talents are now, compared to when I wrote the first draft, ten year ago. Bonus!

So I’m mostly finished with outlining the three pieces. I hope to have it done soon, then I can boil it down into a presentable format.

Maybe I’ll find the time to re-write a few short stories and get them back out to markets while I’m at it.

Next Saturday…heck, maybe by Thursday, I expect to be back in the world of Ravensgate. I need to get this second book done in time to let me edit stuff from last year and then prep for NaNoWriMo 2014.

This is shaping up to be a busy year.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hello, 2014

Posted: January 1, 2014 in Novels
Rainy Spring in Greenwood

Rainy Spring in Greenwood

I have been doing the seemingly obligatory year-end review the past few years, usually as December draws to a close. I didn’t do one this year. This, right here, is as close as I’m going to get to that.

I’ve seen a lot of people who are quick to write-off the year that was. 2013 was rough on a lot of people. Some of my best friends have been through a spectrum of hardships I can’t begin to catalogue here. And there have been deaths–more than I’m used to dealing with in a given year. And the deaths have been closer to me than they’ve been in a while. I expect that comes from getting older, and from accumulating a larger and larger list of friends and acquaintances. I like to think we took some lessons from those lives that ended too soon.

I can’t say 2013 was great for me, either. There have been disillusionments, and let-downs and some hard truths. Plus, I didn’t write that much short fiction, and didn’t submit a bunch either, especially compared to previous years. On the up-side, I made and strengthened some incredible and unexpected friendships. And I was really happy with the short fiction I did finish, and was incredibly happy with the longer fiction I worked on this year. I put in a lot of effort on novels, from Cobalt City: Los Muertos to the work on the Ravensgate Chronicles. The only regret is that I’ve let Ink Calls to Ink languish. I really need to do another wave of queries.

But mostly, the past year has been a long period of readjusting priorities, and figuring out what’s important to me. I’m making the life I want to live. I keep learning, keep challenging myself creatively, and keep fighting for the stuff that’s important. I’m learning to feel the frustrations then let them go and move on. I’m getting better at taking a breath and reacting with compassion rather than anger. And I’m learning that true friendships can survive any kind of time and distance.

So what does 2014 hold?

Honestly, who the fuck really knows at this point?

I have goals: finish Of Rooks and Ravens (Ravensgate Chronicle book 1) by the end of January, do a deep edit/rewrite of Cobalt City: Los Muertos so I can get a publishable draft by Halloween, finish the first draft of Redemption of the Yellow Wolf (Ravensgate Chronicles book 2) before end of October, and write a new Cobalt City novel in November. That will be 3 finished first drafts in 2014 which seems ambitious, but the first Ravensgate book is about 24k from being done which is easy, and I have around 30k of a lead on the second book as well since I had to break things up last year. And NaNoWriMo is kind of a given. Somewhere in there, I need to take a few hours here and there to do agent queries and submit some short fiction. And if something needs to be written, I can spare the time to do it.

I have travel plans: World Horror Con in Portland in May, my daughter’s wedding in St. Louis in August, and World Fantasy Convention in D.C. in November.

And I have my schedule: writing on Thursday nights, all day Saturday, and a half-day on Sunday, as well as a potential other weekday night. TV night on Tuesdays. And running a D&D game on alternating Sunday nights just to keep refreshed. And, of course, karaoke on frequent Wednesday nights or as needed.

My life is full of the most amazing writers, artist, dreamers and dime-store philosophers a guy could hope for. My head is full of stories that need to be written. And my 2014 is full of potential.

I just need to act on it.

RoninWitchThere are only two reasons I’m likely to review a movie. One: it’s a small movie I enjoyed that deserves a bigger audience. Two: it’s a big movie that defies expectations where I see people missing the point and piling on the hate-train. With the pretty big ad campaign, you can guess which category 47 Ronin falls into for me. But honestly, I probably wouldn’t have decided to review it until I saw the review Charlie Jane Anders posted on io9.com.

I’m okay with a negative review. I get that Keanu has his haters. And fantasy adventures can be a tough sell. Plus, the director was pulled from the project and editing process so the studio could re-cut the movie (which I’ll get into). But the core argument seemed to be stated early on in the review, that it took this historical story of the 47 Ronin and, in her own words:

…preserves the bones of this storyline — except that it has to make room for two elements that do not belong in this film at all:

1) Keanu Reeves, playing a random foundling who’s an outcast because of his “half-breed” heritage and because he was raised by demons who look sort of like Buddhist Voldemorts. (I am so not kidding about that.)

2) A whole fantasy storyline in which Kira is in league with an evil shapeshifting Sexy Witch, who wants to help him take over Japan.

Therein lies my problem with the review. How can you be critical of a fantasy movie for having fantasy elements in it?

Is 47 Ronin a great movie?

No. With the level of studio muckery that went on, there was no way that this movie had a chance of being great. But it’s a good movie (better than The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug). A fun movie. And, I’ll just say it, an important movie.

Let’s start by addressing the two points raised in the review that prompted my counter-review, because it speaks to the core of “What is Historical Fantasy?”

The basic story of 47 Ronin is a matter of historical fact, a key moment in the Genroku Era of Japan, and happened around 1701-1702. It’s been dramatized/filmed six times before this, but all in Japan. Someone wanting a historically accurate version of the story without the fantasy elements would be well advised to watch Chûshingura from 1958. Or really, take your pick. All the versions I can seem to find retell the story without a single sexy shapechanging witch or dragon in sight. But the purpose of historical fantasy is to overlay or interweave magical elements into historical event, ideally without compromising the integrity of the historical event itself. The novels of Tim Powers are an excellent example of this (Last Call being a personal favorite), or even the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

If you saw a single trailer for the movie 47 Ronin, you had to know this was a fantasy. This was no secret, no bait and switch. Why was there a whole fantasy storyline? Because this was a historical fantasy. And why was the character of Kai, as played by Keanu Reeves in it? Because he was part of that fantasy storyline, there to help set up and resolve that fantasy element while allowing the historical integrity of the core 47 Ronin story to remain intact. As for the “Buddhist Voldemorts,” they were Tengu, a demon from Japanese mythology, originally described as being part human, part avian. The design, with the very birdlike eyes and a nose which suggested a beak without being beak-like, was incredibly well done.

Who is this Voldemort you keep talking about?

Who is this Voldemort you keep talking about?

I can’t expect everyone who sees this movie, not even film reviewers, to know what a Tengu is. But I would like to hope that they could trust the film makers to know what the fuck they’re talking about. Maybe that’s just me. (edit: It has been pointed out to me that trusting film makers to know what they’re doing is a historically dodgy proposition. Personally, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.)

But this touches on why this is an important movie. The power of Historical Fantasy is that it introduces people to history and cultures that they might not otherwise have known about. And in this, 47 Ronin does a great job. While the voice over and opening and closing title cards are a bit clumsy, I point to the studio re-cut of the film being the likely culprit there.

And as for Keanu, thank goodness for him. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a genuinely wonderful and humble person.

You know what Hollywood doesn’t make? $200 million action movies without a single recognizable white star in it, that’s what. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with so many Japanese actors in it. The vast majority of the cast was Japanese. The creepy skeleton tattoo’d guy in the posters and trailers (and yes, that’s actual tattoo work), he’s in one scene and has one line, and other than a few random background guys in that scene, it’s an all Asian affair. And far from being the Magical White Guy Here to Save the Day, Keanu has a much smaller role than the trailers would have you believe. In the original cut, he had maybe 15 minutes of the movie. But the producers were unhappy with a big budget movie where their one name actor was minimized. So they…fixed it. I’d love to see the original cut. I can’t help but think it would be a much better version than this.

Even with the bulked up Keanu part, it’s still solid fun. But don’t be deceived by the sadly misleading commercials–it’s not really his movie though I enjoyed him in this role.

It seems like we’re constantly chastising Hollywood for only telling Euro-centric stories with Euro-centric casts. They got this one right, whether that was their intention or not. 47 Ronin does not feel like the same, tired fantasy films we’ve been seeing for decades, and it should be enjoyed, hell, celebrated for that. It does not have an entirely predictable narrative structure. It’s a solid ensemble cast. It’s visually beautiful. And it avoids a cliche Hollywood ending. This is a decidedly Japanese fantasy epic. It just happened to come out from an American studio.

Worth seeing in theaters, but skip the 3D as it really doesn’t add anything.

Two faces of Buddha.

Two faces of Buddha.

Last night, maybe an hour or so ago, actually, marks what might be only the third time in my life I can recall someone stealing from me. Now, it’s quite possible that there are other, minor offences that I don’t recall, or once or twice something was taken from someone close to me. And there were books or records loaned to people who then vanished from the material plane. But something that was specifically mine and deliberately taken, that’s been a rare occurrence.

I honestly don’t know if if it’s luck, or karma, or vigilance on my part. Maybe its that I tend not to have shit worth stealing very often. The benefit of not being into material possessions, I suppose.

The first one I can remember was a backpack that was stolen from me after school in 6th grade. I was goofing around in the playground after school and left my backpack by the side of the grass. I noticed someone over there at one point, and when I back, I realized it was gone and the contents–my book of sheet music for piano, had been torn in half and left behind.

This was kind of more than my 11yr old brain could handle. I flipped out, broke down to my mom. And, because I paid attention, I had noticed who had been standing over there near the bag. My mom called his mom and we drove over to deal with the situation Mom-o y Mom-o.

Here’s what I remember from that confrontation: the kid was a classmate of mine who shall remain nameless, his mom was mortified and made him apologize and return the backpack, and the thief was embarrassed and deeply sorry. I also remember that this was was the first time I had ever been in apartment in my life.

I don’t know why he took my backpack and vandalized my book. I’m not even sure if he knew why. He wasn’t a bully or a thug. We didn’t have a problem with each other that I can recall. In fact, in first grade he had been one of my three best friends. So it was all a bit baffling, and I ended up feeling sorry for him. Because as much as I lamented the temporary loss of my backpack, I’m sure he got it much worse from his mom after we left that day.

The second time someone stole from me was more complicated. It was nine years later. I was 20 and living on my own with a few friends from college and theater. Two of these friends lived in an apartment upstairs from an apartment I shared with two other friends. We went bowling together a lot. Most of us were in a league. I even had my own shoes. I also had these amazing black leather gloves. They were cowboy style, long, with fringes on them.

Man did I ever love those gloves. Even then I had some sense of my own, weird, personal style.

Then went missing one night at the bowling alley. I had been convinced by my roommate who was there at the time I had left them on a pinball table or something, and someone must have walked away with them. It didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t seen anyone else around, no strangers who might have taken them. It was a mystery that kept bugging me for a few months until the pieces fell together.

The roommate who had worked so hard to convince me that I had lost them was arrested for check fraud. Seems she had pilfered a sheet of checks from the place she worked and wrote one out to herself. When she was arrested, that entire circle of friends got together and started comparing notes. Seems she was a bit of a pathological liar with a established pattern of embezzlement and outright theft. My gloves had been hocked at a pawn shop and were long gone.

It seems that she hadn’t been able to hold down much of a steady job since being fired from a bookstore where she had lifted tons of product and, if memory serves, cash. And here she was with no one to fall back on, needing to make rent, and a serious problem being able to tell the truth. I have no doubt to this day that she had some serious mental health issues. I don’t know if they ever got treated. I got engaged and moved in with my fiance within a month of the shit hitting the fan, and she sort of dropped out of sight after that.

Yeah, I missed my gloves. Heck, still miss those gloves some times. But for her, they meant groceries. And they meant having to live with stealing from a person she considered (at least on some level) a friend and then perpetuating an ever deeper series of lies about it. And I’ll never forget the first thing she said when she came home after the arrest, knowing that we knew about it. She asked, “What do you know.” Because she knew the cycle of trust had been broken, but she was cagey and needed to know what lies were left standing and which ones had fallen. I know what a cycle of lying can do to a person. I’ve seen it first hand.

It’s been almost 25 years and I still feel sorry for her.

And then Saturday night, I had gone to my “third place,” the karaoke bar near my home to celebrate the end of November and the completion of my most recent novel. People have given me shit for hanging out there and call it a dive. I know people who live in the neighborhood who refuse to go in there. And yeah, it’s a dive, but it’s my dive. I’ve never felt unsafe there. And trust me, I have seen the belly of the beast in that place and had conversations with some truly amazing people, from rock musicians to ex-cons. But it’s like a second home in some ways.

It wasn’t even a busy night. There was a birthday party there and a handful of people at the bar. But for a Saturday night, it was tame. I checked my phone at one point before going on stage to sing, and maybe half an hour later checked my sweatshirt pocket to find it gone. While I had been on stage, someone had slipped my phone from my pocket and walked off. For all I knew, they were still in the bar. I had no way to know.

All I knew was that it was gone. Not misplaced. Not slipped out and fallen on the floor.

Gone.

And here’s the thing: that phone is a piece of shit. It was the lowest end smart phone that came free with a 2-year contract almost two years ago. Once I deactivated it and changed my passwords, I can’t imagine it having any value to anyone.

Anyone but me, that is.

I had almost two years of contact information in there. Phone number of people I have no way of getting again. And of course a handful of pictures that would mean nothing to anyone but me. Losing the phone is an inconvenience in a lot of ways. I use it as primary means of communication with some people. I use it for my alarm to wake up in the morning, my calendar to keep my schedule straight.

I’m trying to find the Buddhist path through this, to divest myself of attachment to the physical. It’s not that difficult. Like I said, it wasn’t a great phone. Replacing it will be inconvenient, there will have to be some adjustments made as a result, and I’ll just have to accept that many of those phone number, etc. are gone forever. The worst thing is that those people who chided me for hanging out there will feel their derision was justified. And that’s just not the case. Bad stuff happens everywhere. If anyone’s at fault, it’s me for not keeping my sweatshirt on or in sight the entire time I was in a public place. That was reckless.

And I’m feeling sorry for whoever took my phone. I don’t know who they are, but if their life has sunk to the level where they need to do something like that, then their life must be unbelievably shitty. I can’t imagine how stealing my phone will make it any better for them. Heck, maybe they’ll turn it in to the bar. Stranger things have happened.

And if nothing else, the right hand of karma is a motherfucker.