Shifting Gears & Sharpening Swords

Posted: November 19, 2016 in Novels
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In September, I was working on my punk rock fable A Winter Lullaby and taking my time with it because I want to do this one right. It’s the novel I’m taking seriously in the same way I pursued Ink Calls to Ink. But I set it aside to knock out a quick Cobalt City novel in November for NaNoWriMo because it’s something I like to do. And make no mistake, I was EXCITED for this year’s Cobalt City book. It was a political thriller, and it was full of intrigue and ultimately, hope.

And then the election happened and I felt my knees metaphorically taken out from under me. I spent the first day careening between states of shock, abject depression, and incoherent anger. It was not the best creative head space. In the week that followed, I wrote, at best 200 words. It didn’t feel important anymore. Not necessarily that it was a waste of time, because creating art is never a waste of time.

I was angry. That was the new normal, the new default that I came to settle in. Stubbornly, righteously angry. Those who have known me through my long live might share stories about my stubbornness and long-standing problems with authority. Honestly, if the past week is any indication, they haven’t seen anything yet.

But I needed to write. It’s how I exorcise demons. It’s how I process terror and rage. Writing is my sword, and in times of strife, we use the swords we know. But nothing I was currently working on fit what I needed. And time was ticking because I had a writing retreat this weekend. I couldn’t spend those days sequestered with my peers just spinning my wheels. It would make me crazy.

So I started knocking things around, and in that process I came across an old notebook heretofore known as the “International Fraternal Corps of Bears in Ill-Fitting Hats” notebook. In it, I found a breakdown of the heroes of the Protectorate and what their status was in the post-Protectorate era. I remembered that Cobalt City had a conservative talk show host named Lyle Prather who was more than he appeared–a hate-spewing demagogue if ever there was one.

And I recalled this dream project I wanted to do with some of the other Cobalt City authors, a big invasion story where there were several independent stories featuring groups of heroes fighting on different fronts of a big, intergalactic invasion. Each author was going to take a group and tell that group’s story and I’d link them all together into a larger narrative. Like one of those stupid comic book crossover events, but as a novel. Crazy and ambitious, and since everyone has such full writing schedules, impossible to coordinate.

But I have time. I have the fire. And goddamn but my sword is feeling particularly sharp right now.

I outlined the project and started writing yesterday. Seven story arcs that intertwine into four story arcs by the end of the novel, maybe eight or so little vignette chapters interspersed throughout the overall structure. All about a deep, interconnected community of superheroes (and villains and sorcerers and anti-heroes) in a world where an unqualified and narcissistic demagogue becomes president.

A quick preview of planned arcs:

  • Archon and Gallows go to D. C. where Archon is being tempted with a consulting job that threatens to derail their once sound partnership.
  • Kara Sparks and Lumien are on tour with the Madjack, facing the mood in the heartland and barreling towards a show that could spark a revolution.
  • Louis Malenfant and Emil al Aswan seek to dethrone Prather from the City Behind the Moon only to find out the new president is more than he appears.
  • The young hacker Wrecker of Engines coordinates Gato Loco and his team facing down a Nazi bike gang outside of Las Vegas with young heroes Ghost House and Kraken who are trying to rescue Kraken’s father from an internment camp in Arizona.
  • Pressured to remain neutral, Stardust and Huntsman find themselves at odds with Libertine in Cobalt City as prolonged protests threaten to bring an authoritarian crackdown on the city.

The currently titled Cobalt City: Resistance is going to be the most ambitious story I’ve told in the city since Cobalt City Blues. I’ve jokingly referred to it as a stand-alone Game of Thrones with capes. And for all I know, it could be a horrible failure. I might stumble and fail and never finish it.

But I can’t abide what is happening in our country, the rise of comfortable fascism that I’m seeing normalized in the press. I can’t accept it. I won’t. And neither will the heroes of Cobalt City (though some will find themselves disturbingly relaxed about it).

And at the end of the day, we fight with the swords we know.

img_1636It’s not that I have anything against peanut butter and chocolate. In fact, I remember one night with a friend back when I was sixteen or seventeen when we split a hand-packed quart of Baskin Robins peanut butter chocolate ice cream for DINNER. So I understand the appeal. But in a world of Reese’s everywhere (and in every seasonally appropriate shape–eggs for Easter, trees for Christmas, pumpkins for Halloween, butt plugs for Father’s Day…no…wait…that’s next year they roll those out) it’s nice to see someone mixing it up.

The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups swap out chocolate for butterscotch. Not white chocolate. Not dark chocolate. Butterscotch. And despite the fact that it’s disturbingly flesh colored…like, mannequin skin…it lives up to it’s name. And that name is Smoothie.

The history of the the butterscotch peanut butter cup reads almost like a footnote.

Take a trip back with me to Depression-era Pennsylvania. And no, I’m not talking football post season. In 1936 in the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania, brother Bill and Bob Boyer started up the original side hustle–making candy in their home kitchen to bring in extra income. These Boyer Brothers (hence the name of their company), started small, doing chocolate clusters, like peanut raisin chocolate clusters which was apparently a thing at the time. And as their candy became more popular in the area, they started branching out into new flavors.

They hit gold with the Mallow Cup in the mid-late 1940’s. If you’ve EVER had a Boyer chocolate outside of the greater Pennsylvania area, it’s probably this confection. Imagine a deep peanut butter cup, except instead of peanut butter, it’s filled with whipped marshmallow. It’s…distinctive. *Side note, I don’t get the appeal.*

Another thing that sets the Boyer Brothers candy  is the Play Money program. Each of their candies comes with a cardboard piece printed with fake Mallow Cup coins in random amounts. Collect them and cash them in for valuable prices in their prize catalog. Apparently you can also redeem them for cash, but at 500 points for $2, it’s not exactly a retirement scheme, especially now that you can only redeem $50 per person in a calendar year. That sounds like a lot, but one candy junkie redeemed for around $350 in 2006. Hopefully he spent it on insulin.

So, at some point, as often happens, Boyer Brothers got bought out by American Maize Products, a company specializing in corn products. Apparently, they had a sweet tooth, too. American Maize sold the Boyer Brothers concerns to the founder of Consolidated Brands in 1984. And it was here, in this twice-removed (yet still manufacturing in Altoona) incarnation that someone had the ingenious idea to swap out chocolate for butterscotch.

And holy shit, it really works.

I mean, it’s sweet. Don’t get me wrong. Butterscotch always seems a little bit sweeter than most chocolate, but it’s not overwhelming here. It has a a nice balance of richness, sweet, and salty. And true to it’s name, it’s pretty smooth. The peanut butter has a slight hint of nutty chunky texture, which I like. It sets it apart from those OTHER peanut butter cups just a bit. That said, I can’t imagine going on a binge of these, which is probably for the best. I needed to add a touch of bitterness and chase my two cups with a black Americano because I’m not a savage.

Jesus, I hope the guy who redeemed $350 of play money is okay. Could someone go check on him please? Last seen in Ohio? Maybe just ask around. I’m worried about him.

As for you, if you manage to track these little gems down, I encourage you to take a chance on them. The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups from Boyer are a pleasant variation on a theme that will satisfy lovers of both peanut butter and butterscotch.

sell-your-soulThere are few things I enjoy more musically than a well-crafted album that’s difficult to categorize. There’s something both immediate and timeless about Roland Pearsall’s album Sell Your Soul, released earlier this year. On one level, it bears a 60’s garage rock aesthetic, but with a decidedly modern touch to some of the lyrics and with the perspective of being half a century past the era it draws from.

Immediate standouts are the title song, “Sell Your Soul” that brings to mind British Invasion pep. It’s lyrics remind me of  the wit of overlooked Brit troubadour John Wesley Harding which is more of compliment than you probably realize. Likewise, the second track has vaguely menacing lyrics and buzzy soundscape of mid-sixties rockers The Animals. Both songs are excellent but Pearsall and his band have more tricks, and influences, to trundle out and share. Like the electric surf-tinged grove of “Riding On”

As an aside, it’s unfortunate that at least on the digital version of the album, there is no mention of who his other band members are, because they provide a really solid back up. Love the harmonies and the organ in particular.

But forget that. Let’s take a moment to appreciate Pearsall’s voice. He has a strong baritone capable of soaring to a passionate wail that can raise the dead on the track “In the Night.” I swear this sinister gem was ripped directly from the sixties and the original artist murdered and dumped in a gully never to be seen again. It oozes with character and is quite possibly my favorite song on the album. When he lets it rip, holy shit, he lets it rip. Take my word and play this one loud and frighten the neighbors.

Also, whenever that organ kicks in (as in “Next to You” or the psychedelic rocker “Aerosol Can”), I get a smile as wide as the ocean. It’s a personal thing. Having grown up playing the piano, it’s nice to hear someone on the keys bringing the rock.

If this album stumbles it’s in some of the more down-temp numbers. “The Way That I’ve Come” for instance is technically well done, it just didn’t grab me. And “Fog Country,” has great lyrics, I mean, really great lyrics. But while the bluesy ramble of the melody suits it well, I found myself just waiting for the next rocker. That said, an album full of rockers gets tired as hell (coughAC/DCcough), so bravo for showing us a range.

Pretty much without exception, Pearsall and his band swagger through the album with confidence. I imagine big hair, velvet pantsuits with wide collars, maybe leather pants and a puffy paisley shirt. I imagine a cocky sneer, wit, and energy. Ignore the picture of the shaggy-headed singer/songwriter on the cover. I’m certain it’s a filthy lie to avoid scaring someone’s grandparents. I know what I hear on this album.

I also imagine he puts on a hell of a live show that I am unlikely to witness myself as Roland Pearsall is Boston-based and I’m anchored firmly in the graveyard of grunge in Seattle. If you catch him live, hit me back and tell me what you think.

As for Sell Your Soul, you can check it out on his Bandcamp site for yourself, or, you can trust your Unka Nate and just buy the damn thing for under $10. It’s well worth the investment. No selling of souls required.

Ampersand
We have a parade that runs through the heart of my neighborhood every summer. For some, it’s a source of joy. For others, not so much. I got caught in it a few years ago and made the comment “Hell is a parade,” and a friend who is much smarter than me said I should write that story.

So I did. It is short. It is brutal. It is the meanest thing I’ve ever written.

And since that parade descends upon my neighborhood again this evening, it seemed only fitting to share it with the world.

Warning for language and violence. So kiddies, have your parents read it first.


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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!