Finding Zen

Two faces of Buddha.

This is going to get personal. Perhaps uncomfortably so. But this has been on my mind a lot recently. Bail out now if you must. I won’t judge you.

Last warning.

Okay.

One of my most dominant memories of my dad was how no matter how early I woke up, he was already there, sitting in the dining room in the dark. He was one of the first things I saw when I padded down the hallway towards the kitchen. Sometimes he’d have music playing quietly, and my morning would be set to a soundtrack of Vivaldi or Beethoven or Dave Brubeck Quartet. He would sit alone in the dining room, a cup of coffee in his favorite mug, stolen from a diner in Denver when he was much younger, maybe a Camel filter or two, which he stubbed out in this salmon colored motel-style melamine ashtray, or maybe the abalone shell he reserved for just such a purpose.

Dad liked silence–quiet time with his books, or sitting in the sun on the back porch.

I owe a lot of who am now to him. Until the last few years, I didn’t realize how much. While mom took a very active role in our lives, dad’s aloofness left a different fingerprint.

When I was in 8th grade, I started having pronounced problems with school. At the time, I think they were viewed as a problem with authority, which I know has been an issue for me time and again. But there was a certain self-destructiveness that I couldn’t understand. I failed assignments I was perfectly capable of doing. I just didn’t bother putting in the work.

It drove my 8th grade English teacher crazy.

CRAZY!

At one point, as I was in danger of failing the class (despite acing all the quarterly tests), she suggested in a parent teacher conference that maybe I had a learning disability. Dad was outraged and I remember him kind of exploding at her. But he was frustrated at me because we all knew I could do the work. I just wasn’t doing it. My parents even sent me to see a psychologist for two unfruitful sessions.

I didn’t know what to tell her. She didn’t know what to tell me. We were back at square one.

I failed 8th grade English.

It was devastating. I knew I let my parents down. But I didn’t know why I couldn’t just handle my shit. I felt broken. Useless. I wanted to die, but in saying so, in saying I wanted to kill myself because I was such a fuck-up, my kid brother started crying because he didn’t want anything to happen to me. That was a bit of a wake-up call.

I don’t know if I actually would have killed myself. I doubt I would have. But it was the first time I actually thought about it.

I was 14.

I failed 8th grade English the second time, too, for the record. I don’t know if it’s possible for a teen to have a nemesis, but that particular teacher has been one of only two that I every truly cultivated. By my senior year, I was in AP English, a class in which I did quite well.

But I never quite figured out what was WRONG with me.

Then my dad died eleven years ago, and with that came a certain kind of distance that my mom felt comfortable sharing things that had never been shared before.

One of these was that my dad had struggled with extreme depression for most of his life. He generally woke up in tears and needed an hour or two by himself in the dark, steeling himself to go out and face the world. Sadly, that information was kept secret, even from my brothers and I. When I finally found out, I was halfway through my 40’s. I’d known several people quite well who were being treated for severe depression, but hadn’t seen the symptoms in myself.

Of course, once I knew, my deep funks and long, dark tea-times of the soul started to make a lot of sense. Knowing I was predisposed to depression made it easier to deal with, made it easier to take preemptive self-care as needed.

A few weeks ago, I read something about how depression manifests in complicated ways. It isn’t just sitting in the dark being sad. It’s also a messy home, or failing at work that you’re 100% capable of doing.

Just like I had in 8th grade.

Apparently, my parents were looking out for what they thought of as warning signs for depression, and they didn’t realize there were a lot of signs they missed. If they had been upfront about the history of depression in the family, maybe those two sessions with the psychologist would have gone differently.

But they didn’t. I continued to fail and flounder and wonder why I was broken for decades.

Around the time my dad died, maybe a year or two later, my son started having severe problems in school. There was only so much I could do about it, as he lived with his mom half-way across the country at the time. I could tell that his mom was at her wit’s end because she turned to me to help find out what the problem was.

The thing was, I didn’t know what the problem was.

See, I still didn’t know about the depression. I didn’t know about the role it likely played in my academic dysfunction. So ultimately I ended up as frustrated as my dad did.

Looking back, all the signs were there.

I’m proud to say that my son pulled it together, despite the burden of our blood. He’s a brilliant young man with a bright future, a spirit for adventure, and a real talent in the kitchen. And he knows the pitfalls that we’re dealing with because we’ve discussed depression since then.

Depression was something people kept hidden in my dad’s time. It was viewed as a flaw of character, a sign of weakness. And that’s bullshit. Depression is just like every other mental illness: an illness. It can be managed. There is a wealth of resources that weren’t available three decades ago. Part of what really helps me, I’m discovering, is being honest and open about it. And I’ve got good people around who I can talk to. I’m doing well now.

Maybe not NOW, now. But I know this comes and goes. There are bad days, and for me at least they’re greatly out-numbered by the good ones.

And that’s enough.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

Somehow, I figured this whole thing would get easier with practice.

But writing is an eternal struggle between good and good enough. And if you have any sense of self awareness, the further you get into the creative obstacle course that is making art, the harder the challenges become.

Forever and ever.

Until you die.

Or, conversely, you could not push yourself to improve. You could find an acceptable level of good enough and cruise there to your heart’s content. Everyone does it from time to time. Sometimes you need to stop pedaling and coast, let gravity and momentum carry you through while you catch your breath to prepare for the next hill. Everyone’s route is different. And whether you’re cruising the lip of the plateau for a decade or so, or pushing for a new hill every year, the important thing is, you’re on the bike.

Also, apologies: I ran into a writer friend who is a cyclist just now. The tortured metaphor is her fault. My sharing it with you is my fault.

But here’s one more important consideration. Maybe the most important if you want to make something of a career doing this. That deadly tango of self-awareness and celebration, of good and good enough, that is everything.

So, let’s talk about the round of edits I just finished by way of example.

I wrote a book late in 2011 that I enjoyed quite a bit. The idea was to pitch it to someone who was considering publishing licensed novels set in their game universe. That didn’t end up panning out for a variety of reasons, which was fine. I still liked the novel. If nothing else, it was practice.

I gave it an edit and rewrite the next year, just to see if anything could be done with it. I still liked the book, but doing anything with it would require a major rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for that level of work. I wasn’t ready for that hill.

Another year later, I gave it that hard edit necessary to re imagine the universe and the alien races to make it my own. And then I let it sit for a while. Almost three years, actually. By the time I picked it up again to do a final pass with the intention of self-publishing this summer, something had happened.

In the intervening years, I’d become a somewhat of better writer. And a huge part of that was due to reading other incredible authors and wanting to write as well as them. That self awareness of your own skills, of where you are compared to where you want to be, is an incredible motivator. There was still a lot that I loved in this novel. I loved the dialogue, the overall arc, the characters, almost all of the component parts. But it was still weaker in execution than I remembered. And one of the antagonists was cartoonishly evil. Exploitatively evil. And that didn’t sit well with me.

Honestly, even with all the time I’d put into it, from the outline through the first draft all the way though multiple full rewrites/edits, it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I saw where it was and where I needed it to be, and considering how vile Zenda Vox was, I didn’t know if it was worth the effort to fix.

Because this was a hell of a hill. I could see it looming ahead of me. And even if I got to the summit, there was no telling if I’d be able to do anything with the novel. It was always possible that the antagonist was a problem I’d never be able to fix. Initially, I decided to scrap it rather than put in the work.

I’m not proud of it. I mean, I kind of was at the time. I was glad that I put on the brakes and decided not to release as-is. I’m glad that Zenda Vox gave me second thoughts.

But I’m not proud that I was willing to quit rather than put in the work. Because quitting is always an option. It’s an option that’s always there for every author. Writing is voluntary. And the difference between a successful author and an unsuccessful one is often that one of them kept working rather than quit. And if I was willing to throw in the hat rather than work for it, then I wouldn’t like who I was.

You don’t get better just by wanting to be better. You have to fight for it. So on the advice of another author who I respect, I decided I’d give it one more look, to see if it could be fixed. I knew going in that this was going to be a slog, that I’d have to break it apart piece by piece, spread it apart on the garage floor, and really make this work. And if, at the end of all that, the book couldn’t be saved, at least I’d have the practice of that level of edit. Win or lose, it was worth it to climb the goddamned hill.

I’m happy to say the view from the summit is pretty good. I’ll still need another edit pass to clean it up, but the book still feels like a victory. I’ll be getting it out to a beta reader or two to spot weak points. And once I get it cleaned up, I think I’ll be in shape to move forward with it.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Perfection is a moving target. A mirage. But is it a fun pulp fiction romp? Does it actually have something positive to say in the process? Absolutely.

And hopefully later this year you’ll be able to read it.

More importantly, at least to me, I feel like I’ve leveled up as a writer. At least a little bit. And that’s important because it’s a long ride with no finish line, just harder and harder challenges along the way.

And I feel up for the challenge.

Murder and the Modern Writer

Posted: March 19, 2016 in Novels
Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

Looking back at my novels, there are a few universal truisms when it comes to my protagonists. At their core, they are all objectively good people.

They aren’t all saints, mind you. But unless I’ve seriously blocked someone out, they do not take lives capriciously, nor do they resort to extremes of violence for revenge. Killing isn’t portrayed as fun. [Ok, the as-of-yet unreleased No Escape from Planet Motherfucker is gleefully violent, but that’s the nature of that project. And even then, it’s not outright murderous.]

It’s one thing to write a death when it’s a moment of passion, when there’s a brutal life-or-death struggle, when you’re at war or violence descends and the character has no choice but to fight back or die. It’s reactive. It’s a consequence, not the goal. Writing an out-and-out murder is an entirely different brainspace–especially when it’s committed by someone who, up til then, has been a sympathetic POV character. It was not a comfortable experience. I don’t care for it.

When I started writing the current project, it was a palate cleanser–something weird and not too serious to clear out the pipes. It was part what-if, part dare, part joke. It was a response to a conversation about trends in Young Adult fiction, that the market was turning towards horror romance. Now, bear in mind that vampires and werewolves have been done to death and even zombies are starting to outlive their welcome. So what does that leave? Well, ghosts, for one. (Hm… I should have thought about that more seriously at the time!) And then, of course, there are always human monsters, namely serial killers and cannibals.

When I first proposed a YA horror romance about a young cannibal and a serial killer one of my best friends, biggest fans, and trusted readers said without hesitation, “You can’t write that.”

And by can’t, I know she meant shouldn’t. I understand entirely where she was coming from on that one. It’s a horrible idea. What is gained by putting that out in the world?

So I started writing to exorcise the horrible idea. And something weirdly sweet grew out of it–is continuing to grow. I’m honestly not sure how long it’s going to be when I’m done. I’m at around 26,000 words now, and I think I might hit 40,000. Maybe 50,000, but that seems a stretch. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when I’m done. But I know that I’m going to finish it. Because what started as a challenge has turned into a genuine love story about outsiders and outcasts. It’s a story about lonely people who find each other, who band together to protect each other from a world that would destroy them. It’s a love story. It’s a metaphor. It’s sweet and funny and, surprisingly, not gleefully violent.

But this week I came to a turning point I only abstractly realized was waiting for me. And it has thrown me for quite a loop.

I’d been writing Ophelia Durant, my protagonist, as an objectively good person. Yeah, she had been eating human since she could chew meat, but it was how she was raised. She knows her family is different. She knows she’s an outcast. For her family, it has been the primary source of protein for over a hundred years. A practical consideration rather than a bloodlust. She’s never gone on the hunt, never killed anyone. That definition of being a good person has started to stretch.

She’s already starting to fall for Grant Liu, the broodingly quiet new kid at school in the over-sized black suit jacket, when she witnesses him kill someone. While the act is in self-defense, it isn’t the first time Grant has shed blood. He’s a killer. And even as she starts to understand how deep his personal darkness goes, she also discovers justifications to stand by him. Yes, he kills people. But as he tells her, “They’re all bad people.” Her complicity stretches that definition of good even more. It’s looking a bit brittle at this point, when they commit to stay together as a couple in defiance of everyone trying to keep them apart. But at least she’s not a killer.

Until she is.

I gazed into Taylor’s glassy, green eyes. She hadn’t been a 100% horrible person. There were moments in her life of genuine kindness. For someone. Somewhere. I had to believe that. Her attack on Grant, however misguided, had been motivated by a sense of protection, of loyalty to her friends. It didn’t balance or justify the violence she had visited upon Grant.

Balance is arbitrary. Abstract. Good and evil even more so. They were just labels we use to justify our actions, to help us sleep at night.

Taylor had hurt Grant.

Taylor wasn’t going to hurt anyone ever again.

It was as simple as that.

At that point, we’re kind of off the rails. I can’t continue operating under the auspices of Ophelia being a good person any more. Sympathetic, maybe. To a point. You can certainly understand why she loves Grant. Love isn’t about finding the perfect person so much as finding the perfect person for you, and she’s found that in him. He’s a reflection of her–both essentially kind people shaped by their parents to believe that murder can be a pragmatic solution.

Their love is a terrible love. It burns with the fury of a thousand suns. Now that they’ve embraced that and who they are, the town of Pluto Falls is living on borrowed time. The Autumn Harvest dance is only a week away. After that, everything will change. And anyone who gets in their way before then is going to burn.

 

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

I’m looking at a list I’ve scrawled in one of my notebooks. It details the novels I’ve written since I hunkered down to write Cobalt City Blues somewhere around 12-13 years ago. It’s been a good run, even if I count the wrecks that fell apart before the midpoint, or the ones that limped across the finish line to be abandoned.

Books that I can call finished–by that I mean a finished first draft with no gaps–average just over one a year.

Fourteen novels. There are two that are objectively horrible, and a few that would need to be rewritten from the ground up if I were to do anything with them (which I actually did with one of them a year or two ago.)

And then there’s Ravensgate.

I’ve been working on the Ravensgate books in some capacity for three years or more. That doesn’t even account for the world building that I did. It was always conceived as three books, first as a trilogy, then as a triptych. Things got shuffled around. Themes were uncovered. They got broken apart and shuffled again, leaving me with most of the first book and chunks of the second and third. I finished the first one, Of Rooks and Ravens. Then I rewrote it in first person rather than third person and gave it yet one more edit pass.

It was my big fuck-all fantasy series. The kind you’re supposed to write. Except it wasn’t going to be just like every other fantasy series. And I still think in many ways I managed that. The three separate narratives spread out over three books, each with their own theme and feel, and one angry old god returned to tie it all together. I had my diverse characters, my broken characters, my unique races, my political and cultural conflicts…

Then a market opened up and I took a hard look at submitting the first book. The second book was halfway done already, the third about a quarter of the way there. I can write like the devil himself when properly motivated. So I took a hard, critical look at Of Rooks and Ravens. I cut the first chapter out entirely. It was too much like a prologue. I looked at the now first chapter, which I had written and rewritten and rewritten again so many times.

And I ended up not submitting.

Because as much as I love that book. As much as I love the characters and their arcs and the weird genre things and world building I got to do there, Of Rooks and Ravens just wasn’t good enough.

Who really wants another fuck-all fantasy series, anyway?

Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t GOOD. There’s some outright great stuff in there. There are scenes that make me tear up every time I re-read. But I genuinely despair that fundamentally, it’s just like every other fuck-all fantasy series out there. And in order to stand out, it has to be better than good. It has to be extra-ordinary. It isn’t there. I don’t know if I’m capable of getting it there. Not at this point, at any rate. And holy shit is that frustrating.

Maybe some day I’ll boil the meat off its bones and build it up again like the beautiful Promethium beast it wants to be. Maybe some day I’ll do the other two books: Redemption of the Yellow Wolf and Sea In his Blood. Maybe I’ll even spin Preston out into her continuing series where she’s building a network of spies to challenge Yuri Vostov at his own game.

Maybe.

For now, the Ravensgate series is going into a digital trunk. All 120,000+ words of it plus all the world building documents. Maybe less hypercritical eyes than mine will read it and kick some sense into me. But there is no shortage of other novels demanding my attention. So I’m going to give them my attention instead.

Ravensgate will abide. It’s what it does.

Neighborhood Eagle

Guardian Sculpture

I grew up in the land of cowboys and Indians.

This is not hyperbole. The cowboy part of the equation included several western wear shops in town, at least one annual rodeo, and I knew many people who wore cowboy boots unironically and rode horses. There was even a western movie hero named after my hometown–The Durango Kid–who was featured in 65 movies from Columbia Pictures. And with both the Southern Ute and Navajo reservations very close by, I knew several Native Americans growing up. With the usual myopia of childhood, I figured my childhood was more or less universal.

See, even growing up in a western town, I figured I had an idea of what the “Old West” was like, though this vision was largely informed by movies and television and the cultural makeup of small-town Colorado in the 70’s-80’s. And that vision was, by and large, white. Growing up in Durango, our minorities were Hispanic or Native American. Black people in Durango? They were mythical and lived only in cities or television. In the “West”–in the land where regional TV networks would have “Put up your Dukes Week” where they showed John Wayne movies every afternoon for a week–black people didn’t exist.

Of course, Hollywood lied.

The truth of the matter is quite different. For starters, the Cowboy evolved from the Mexican/Spanish vaqueros, a tradition which dates back to the 16th century.

Cattle ranching, particularly cattle drives, was damn hard work. And most of the time that work fell to black cowhands who, during “peak cowboy” numbered as many as 1-in-4 (some say as high as high as 1-in-3 in some areas). There is even some speculation that the word itself was used to distinguish black cowhands from their white counterparts, though I have been unable to find a reliable confirmation of that. The number of Mexican cowhands was even higher which shouldn’t come as a surprise as much of the Southwest had been part of Mexico as recently as the 1840’s. That means less than half of the buckaroos on a cattle drive were typically white.

And then you have Bass Reeves, the legendary U.S. Marshal who, over the course of his career arrested over 3,000 felons and killed 14 outlaws in self defense. There is some speculation that he was one of the inspirations for the Lone Ranger.

Not that you’d learn how diverse the real west was from watching Rio Bravo. (And for what it’s worth, Rio Bravo is a damn perfect Western, but it’s as historically representative as Lord of the Rings.)

Thankfully, historians are starting to address the imbalance and recover the real Old West that Hollywood fictionalized. CNN did a lovely piece on it not too long ago. The Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado is also a great resource. The Real Cowboy Association hosts the annual National Black Rodeo, which only makes sense as bulldogging steers (jumping from a horse to grab a steer by the horns and wrestle it to the ground) was invented by black cowboy Bill Picket. And there is the Federation of Black Cowboys based out Queens, New York (of all places) keeping the tradition alive.

And if you want to correct the balance by watching some pre-Django westerns with a more diverse main cast, here’s a great list to start with.

But the important thing is to understand that history isn’t a science: it’s a narrative. We need to examine it from time to time, consider where that history comes from and who is telling it. Because it is full of biases, some intentional, some purely accidental. And the deeper you dig, the more fascinating, rich, and complicated that history is revealed to be. It’s a rewarding experience.

Cody the Timid Pirate Sample Page

Cody the Timid Pirate goes adventuring. Art by Jeremy Madmardigan Matthews

You feel that on the air? That’s the anticipation of this year’s Norwescon, though the convention itself isn’t until the final weekend of March. This will be the 39th Norwescon, it would seem. After this year it be early bedtimes and complaining about how everything hurts. Or is that just what happened to me when I turned 40?

This year’s theme is “Remembering the Future” and features guests of honor Tanya Huff, Janny Wurts, and William Hartmann. Norwescon is a great convention, and draws a good crowd of pros and fans alike. There seems to be something for everyone who is eager to let their geek flag fly.

Except karaoke, sadly. Why they haven’t thought to bring in a karaoke company for one night up in Maxi’s, the lovely lounge in the sky, is beyond me. I can’t be the only one wanting to bust out some Ziggy Stardust. Especially not this month!

This marks my second year putting together the Horror track, which feels weirdly apropos as I just wrapped an edit pass on my haunted house novel The Lictonwood. We had some great panels last year, and this year looks like it could be even better. In fact, most of the tracks have some inspired panels. If you’re a geek about town, Norwescon is going to be the best convention bang for your buck in the Northwest if not further.

But primary reason for this post is to let my rabid fan base…no…um, morbidly curious stalkers? That seems off too. Um, how about “those who might give a crap?” Yes. Better. This is to let those who might give a crap a heads up on my panel schedule along with a bit of a sneak preview.

  • Thursday – 5 pm – Cascade 10: Horror’s Fantasy Roots. Join moderator Logan L. Masterson, K. M. Alexander, Jason Vanhee, and myself as we take a look back at some of the fantasy influences that help make horror what it is today.
  • Thursday – 10 pm – Cascade 10: Let’s Do some Comics Fancasting. I won’t lie. This is the panel I was born to do. Judging from the other names on the panel, you should show up for the romp. There might be some out-of-the-box actors bandied about! The amazing Mickey Shultz will lead myself and Logan L. Masterson in a journey down the casting rabbit hole!
  • Thursday – 11 pm – Cascade 10: Son of Terror in Space. This will be the follow up to last year’s Terror in Space which I missed out on. Expect a rousing hour geeking out about sci-fi horror with me, Jason Bourget, and Burton Gamble.
  • Friday – 4 pm – Cascade 9: You Are What You Eat: Cannibal Horror. Things might get freaky here, just in time for dinner! We have a great group of panelists with a wide range of experience–not in eating people, I hope, but in the sub-genre. I’ll be joined by Lisa Bolekaja, Jason Bourget, and the fabulous Arrin Dembo moderating.
  • Saturday – 10 am – Cascade 1: Story time! I’ve got half an hour to read and say howdy. Due to the early time of day, I will not be reading anything as dark as last year’s “Hell is a Parade,” but I will most likely be reading “The Last Real Man” from the Selfies from the End of the World anthology. Other possibilities are a novel chapter from Ink Calls to Ink or Ties that Bind. We’ll see.
  • Saturday – 2 pm – Cascade 9: The Ghostbusters Effect. With the new movie coming out, what better time to look back on the effect this classic had on not only horror but on the study of paranormal science? Ghostbusters expert Christopher Stewart will moderate a panel consisting of me, Amber Clark, and Nina Post.
  • Sunday – 11 am – Cascade 13: Worldbuilding: Standards of Beauty in Secondary Worlds. Alex C. Renwick will ride rein on a panel consisting of myself, Rhiannon Held, David J. Peterson, and Sar Surmick. I’m thrilled to be on this panel. It should be fun and informative for writer and readers alike!

Unlike previous years, my schedule is really front-loaded on Thursday, with all the other days spread out and earlier in the day. This will free up the rest of my weekend to haunt other panels, readings, parties, and should they bring in karaoke, the microphone.

If you don’t have your ticket now, get it.

It’s going to be one hell of a time!

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

Posted: January 2, 2016 in Uncategorized
Strange things afoot at the carnival

Beware the wonders you are about to behold!

First off, sorry if I pulled the bait and switch on you here, but this will not be a review or critique of the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde which is a delightful play you should all check out at some point.

Let’s start with the definition of “earnest,” shall we?

Resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.

It’s feels a bit outdated, doesn’t it? The world often feels too cynical for sincerity, let alone sincere conviction. Perhaps the word and what it represents have fallen somewhat out of fashion. Honestly, it had kind of moved to the back of my lexicon outside of the comic strip Frank and Ernest (which is not only a great play on words, it’s usually a guaranteed chuckle).

A few years ago, I was talking to a co-worker who I quite liked, who I generally thought of as cool. They were plugged into the heavy metal scene and hosted a long-running heavy metal show on a local station. Now, admittedly, I’m not the biggest heavy metal fan. My favorite metal is the kind of stuff that looks good painted on the side of a van–wizards, dragons, over-muscled warriors.

But I do have this favorite band, New Model Army that is kind of metal adjacent. Technically I guess they’d fall into more of a post-punk category. Angry and political with a great bass line and sharp lyrics. I’ve been a fan for over a quarter century now, and my first tattoo was the Celtic knot from their Thunder and Consolation album cover. They’re not that well known despite having been around for over 30 years now. But this co-worker knew them and was immediately dismissive, waving them off as goofy.

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And I get that not everyone who knows who the band is aren’t fans. But “goofy” is not a word I would have ever associated with New Model Army. They take themselves pretty seriously. No costumes, no flash. Just music. I don’t think I said anything, but she saw my confusion and clarified, “They’re just so earnest!”

I should have seen that for the red flag that it was at the time. But I’ll get back to that.

Last night I rewatched High School Musical for the first time in about ten years. I was one of those people who stumbled onto it before it was a phenomenon. Skimming through the channels, I clicked into our two leads, total strangers, being pressured into singing a karaoke duet at a party. I like karaoke. The song was reasonably catchy, so it hooked me for the rest of the movie. It was only later I realized this was the second broadcast and it had since become something of a “big deal” for Disney. I enjoyed the movie. I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t rank it in my top ten musicals, or even the top twenty. But I do own three songs from it courtesy of iTunes that I listen to from time to time.

So determined to start off 2016 with something positive, (and unable to find my first two choices), I swung back around to High School Musical. Yeah, it’s a flawed, simple movie. Gee, you’d think it was made for television or something! And yes, Zac Efron didn’t do most of his own singing. I don’t honestly care. It’s no more simplistic than a lot of crap out there that people are more than happy to give a free pass. But the music is good, I like the story, and the central message is one I honestly think we need to do a better job of communicating to kids.

That message is that we’re all complex people with complex interests, and that sometimes those conflict with how people see us. For instance Zeke from the basketball team who loves to bake. Or our heroes Troy and Gabriella who realize that they enjoy singing as much, if not more than the narrow jock/mathlete niche everyone would rather stick them in. It suggests that we be genuine with who we are, what we like, and not try to be someone other people want us to be. And most importantly, it encourages us to support our friends when they figure their own shit out.

It’s a sweet film. And it’s so goddamned earnest!

And here, kids, is the real takeaway.

Fuck being cool. Seriously. Chasing after “cool means spending energy worrying about how others view you. It’s not genuine, and it never lasts.

However being genuine, sincere, and yes, earnest, is the gift that keeps on giving. Yeah, you might lose a few friends. I don’t talk with the co-worker who thinks being earnest is a negative. At one point I thought that we were friends, but slowly they revealed themselves to be more interested in the superficial trappings of things, more interested in being cool than invested. This person is no longer a part of my circle or my life, and I don’t miss them. Instead, my life is filled with weird, creative people who are passionate about all kinds of weird stuff. And I support that. It makes for a better world.

Embrace the genuine. Be your best, most real you. Life’s too short to be anything other than earnest.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

Last night I celebrated New Years in the traditional manner: booze and dystopian sci-fi. Nothing makes you feel more thankful for the future when the new year rolls around and it’s not as bad as Brazil, Strange Days, or Clockwork Orange.

The cinematic viking funeral for 2015 turned out to be a strange trip. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York from 1981 followed by The Visitor from 1979. Escape from New York is a personal favorite that I hadn’t seen for several years. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies. In fact he once owned a VHS tape with Escape, Blade Runner, and Road Warrior on it, all taped off HBO one month.

But I’d never seen The Visitor. In some circles, it’s kind of a well known film, but I don’t think of it as a well regarded film. More a cult “classic.” But weirdly enough, I was able to glean a little bit of writing/publishing wisdom from watching it. Most important being, there is more value than risk in doing your own thing.

I found it impossible to watch The Visitor without thinking of it as an attempt to capitalize on the success of recent movies. And who could blame them, really? I frequently think of Star Wars, which came out just two years prior to The Visitor as a game changer for sci-fi films for a few decades. Everyone wanted a piece of that pie. But you also had movies like The Omen (1976) generating a huge buzz with veteran actors and a God vs. Evil narrative. As a producer in the late seventies, how much must it have sucked to try and chase those tigers?

We see that in the fiction game now. Vampires were huge, everyone started writing/publishing vampire novels. Then zombies. Then apocalypse. There are cycles and trends. There are always people leading the charge with original ideas that they’re passionate about and a bunch of people ready to surf the wave with similar projects that they’ve either had ready or have planned for a while. And then there are the ones chasing that wave not really clear what that wave was.

The Visitor is a prime example of the latter.

Here’s the IMDB description for those too lazy to have clicked through on the above link:

The soul of a young girl with telekinetic powers becomes the prize in a fight between forces of God and the Devil.

What this description leaves out is an alien bloodline, space Jesus, psychic control of birds and a few hits of acid out of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s private stash. It also features veteran actor/director and champion beard grower John Huston as this khaki-clad eponymous “visitor” come to mentor/kill/confound the central young girl. Speaking of, the young girl bears an uncanny resemblance to another troubled young girl *Cough*Exorcist*Cough*. Like The Omen, you also get old-school Hollywood mainstays Glen Ford, Mel Ferrer, and Shelly Winters, plus a young, evil Lance Henrickson. You get this weird light show near the climax that evokes Close Encounters of the Third Kind so hard it’s impossible for me to think it’s coincidental. You get an alien psychic bloodline with a bearded mentor that might as well be carrying a light saber. And let me say it again because it bears repeating: space Jesus.

Despite a few well shot scenes, it’s a largely incoherent and crazy as fuck. The music defies description. Sort of a seventies action movie vibe with a disco element. And it’s dropped into the movie without any rhyme or reason. Here’s 10 minutes of it to satisfy your curiosity:

Even now in the brilliant sunshine of the first day of 2016, I don’t really know what the hell I saw. I don’t know if I liked it. But it was fascinating in the way a fatal circus accident is fascinating. For fucksake, it had a cameo from Kareem Adbul Jabar in a basketball sequence early in the movie (one of my favorite in the movie, weird and unnecessary as it was).

I wish I knew what kind of movie this would have been if it hadn’t been built on the ideas and expectations of the movies that came before. But I also don’t know if The Visitor could exist without the DNA of all those other movies. Take away all those influences and I’m not sure what’s left.

Ultimately it failed in it’s primary mission–to get a piece of that fat Star Wars pie. It wasn’t an expensive movie to make. IMDB estimates put the budget at around $800,000, which wasn’t even a lot by 1979 movie budget standards. Alien, the other sci-fi horror of note to come out that year had a budget in the $11 million range. But even so, The Visitor failed to make a mark as anything other than an oddity. And I doubt they made their money back. Alien, however did okay.

And here’s the weird thing–Alien itself was built on other influences, namely the art of H.R. Geiger and the 1965 Mario Bava film Planet of the Vampires. But these influences were used to inspire a entirely original masterpiece an not a mishmash of dissimilar elements. Also, watch Planet of the Vampires. It’s not as extreme as Bava’s more straight up horror films which require a strong stomach.

Oh, and the number 1 film for 1979 for the curious among you? Kramer vs. Kramer. A movie that could not possibly be further from everything The Visitor was trying to be.

The Dark of the Year

Posted: December 29, 2015 in Anthologies, Novels, Short Fiction
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Time is never on our side.

It seems like it’s been a year since we’ve done this. It was, in point of fact, almost a year, since I sat here and looked back at the year that was and the year to come. The dark of the year provides a good opportunity for perspective, like standing on a high peak, the world spread out around you.

I had hoped we’d make progress as a nation in confronting systemic racism and a murderous (and unjust) criminal justice system. Instead, it appears to be getting even worse, black and brown men, women, children gunned down by police, arrested for no cause, left to die. Coupled with bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia digging in like a stubborn tick, 2015 has been a challenging, and for far too many, a deadly year.

America, get your shit together. You can do better. You NEED to.

Ok. I’m getting off the soap box. That’s not why y’all come here anyway. Let’s take stock of the personal and professional milestones of the year that was 2015.

I had planned on finishing Rooks and Ravens and publishing the latest Cobalt City novel both of which happened, though the title changed on the later project to Ties that Bind. But Rooks is not ready for submission yet, and though Ties sold a handful (literally, a handful, as in less than 5) of copies, I have no reason to believe anyone has read it. Not that I can blame them, really. I love the book, but the subject matter is bleak, and the desire for escapism in the bleak year that was 2015 makes a lot of sense. I did not touch the novella trilogy at all until a week ago, so I’m kind of beating myself up over that. I wrote only one new short story, “The Last Real Man” which was published in the fantastic Selfies from the End of the World anthology. And instead of writing a new Cobalt City book in November, I wrote my first full horror novel, the haunted house story The Lictonwood. Time will tell if anything will come of that.

The biggest writing news in the last year was that Ink Calls to Ink, which I was afraid I’d eventually have to self-publish, was picked up and published by CHBB Publishing in July to rave reviews. It has made for an interesting year in which I learned a lot about marketing and promotion. And people seem to love the book, so I feel vindicated there.

The less sunny writing news from 2015 is that I spent a lot of time feeling like I was spinning my wheels as a writer. There were a lot of false starts, a lot of abandoned projects. I spent too many days in the last year feeling like a fraud–even a few where I contemplated giving up on writing entirely. It didn’t last. It never does. But it was a rough year. I had two novels and one novella that started off in a blaze of excitement die before they found their legs. I might be able to go back and resurrect one or two of them. I don’t know.

Other sad news was the untimely death of my favorite local karaoke bar. Though it was reborn newer, slicker, and cleaner (with better food), the community that had grown up there has largely scattered. The drinks are more expensive, the bar stools aren’t held together with duct tape, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” vibe is gone. I still do karaoke at the new location, but it’s been a rough transition. I miss my karaoke family.

Looking forward into 2016, I’m starting off the year driving my son back to Colorado before he flies to Florida for a great new job opportunity. Our schedules made it difficult for us to see each other when he was here, but I still loved having him in Seattle. It’s our loss, but it’s Florida’s, and his, gain.

Other hot-ticket calendar items include Norwescon 39 over Easter weekend. I put together the Horror track for them in 2015 and it went well enough that I was invited to come back and do it again. I’m thrilled with the lineup of panels and panelists. That weekend is going to be outstanding.

As for writing, I’m still doing it. Finishing something in November put a bit of a fire in me. I’m letting The Lictonwood sit for a few months before giving it a hard second draft. Then it’s off to beta readers and a third draft before I submit. At this point, at least, I think it’s an entirely marketable horror novel. I guess we’ll see what the beta readers think. While it sits and rests, I’m writing A Winter Lullaby, which is less urban fantasy than it is rock ‘n roll fable. I’m making good progress and hope to have the first draft done by end of February. I’ve also dug out the novella, the first part of the Shadows of Architecture. I think there’s life in it. I’m giving it one more edit pass and then sending it around. Time permitting, I’ll write the other two parts, and if no one bites on the novella, I will combine it all into a novel. Like motherfucking Voltron. I’m sure another novel lies in wait for next November, maybe even sooner. Time will tell what shape that takes.

I have no plans for short stories at the moment. But I do have four out making the rounds now. My short fiction has been hard to slot into a category or genre lately, so it’s been more difficult to sell. I’ll still write it if the story is there, but it’s taking up far less of my focus these days, and that’s okay.

Finally, the last new thing I’m writing is comedy. Yeah. You heard me right. I’ve been flirting with the idea of trying my hand at stand-up comedy since World Fantasy in Toronto a few years back. But I never followed through. Turns out one of my friends from karaoke also has the comedy bug, so we’re going to workshop a few things, put together a tight set, and try our hands at open mic somewhere in Seattle.

Because if we need anything in our lives right now, it might be a little bit of light, joy, and humor.

See you in 2016.

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I’ve done an update. November can get like that around these parts. So let’s take stock of creative projects and give y’all a glimpse behind the curtain.

My November novel (i.e. NaNoWriMo novel), The Lictonwood, was finished on schedule, much to everyone’s surprise–especially my own. And by finished, I mean I hit my word count goal. I still have a short final chapter to write, but I’m glad I didn’t rush to write that section immediately following the preceding chapters. If I had, the shape of it would have been very different from what I now know it needs to be. I’m going to let it sit for a while and then write the final chapter after I’ve re-read the whole thing sometime in February.

At that point, I’m going to give it a solid second draft rewrite, then a hard third draft polish, and at that point get it out to a few beta readers. Since it’s a horror novel set in Detroit that involves home reconstruction, ideally I’ll find a few betas who: 1) love horror, 2) know a bit about construction, and/or 3) know a bit about Detroit. Interested parties should contact me. They will be rewarded with a mention in the book and a bag of candy.

Once I’ve done a post-beta rewrite, I’m going to get The Lictonwood submitted out. The market is ripe for horror novels right now, and at this stage at least I’m really pretty happy with how this one turned out. It has a great heroic lead in Navajo construction worker Daryl Chee, and I’ve had the titular building spinning around in my brain for almost a decade now. The timing for setting this in Detroit, with the city rebuilding and reinventing itself, made it kind of perfect.

Now that I’ve set that aside to pickle for a month or two, I’ve moved on to the next book. Just in time for winter.

Entitled A Winter Lullaby, it features a faded black punk rocker at the tail end of an in-glamorous career as the New England leg of his tour falls apart. Forced by circumstance to stay with his estranged sister in the mysterious town of Devil’s Gap, Connecticut, he has to wrestle with past mistakes and a lifetime of hard choices. But things are not as they seem in this sleepy town. And as the first snow approaches, something powerful and ancient is returning to Devil’s Gap.

Pitched as a rock ‘n roll fable, A Winter Lullaby will examine how growing old is not the same as growing up, the fine line between leaving a toxic situation and running away from your problems, and what price we’re willing to pay for our security.

I love this cast of characters, from musician Calvin James Lincoln who feels forgotten for being both black and gay in a genre that tends to overlook both, to Nathan Pembroke, the 92yr old painter who lost his hearing during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but knows more about the town’s secrets than he can ever express.

I’m currently two chapters in and aim to have it finished by the end of February. At approximately the same length of The Lictonwood, two and a half months should be ample time to knock out a draft. Maybe I’m a bit crazy, but due to the subject matter and setting, I’d really love to get the draft finished during the winter.

In the meantime, I should get back to writing.

If you don’t hear from me again in the next two weeks, have a wonderful holidays!