raven wing

When I created Anwat al Masewei over twenty years ago, I didn’t ever think it would bring me here.

I was engaged to my second wife, an artist, and we had the idea to do a fantasy comic book. Something different. We created a few characters, she did a few drawings, and I sketched out the idea of this city–a fantastical city built on a delta surrounded by cliffs and salt wastes and deserts beyond that.

But things happened, and we moved on to other projects.

A few years later, I was in a D&D game and had the chance to run a short interlude episode, so I recycled the city and used it as a port of call. I soon realized I really enjoyed that as a game location, so I set about building out the setting a bit more. That became what I referred to as the Anwat setting, and I ran a long, fruitful game there as I built out the Caliphate of Dust.

Then I started a second came. Influenced by the courtly politics of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, this one would be more recognizably European. So I started fleshing out the Caliphate’s northern neighbor, the Vale Lands. That went on to become my longest running, and most enjoyable experience as a DM ever. By this point, I realized what I really wanted to do was build up the world enough to publish it under the open license for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.

And so the book was built out. 86 pages of setting, religions, history, culture, politics, intrigue. As the Anwat game came to a close, I moved those players over to Ravensgate to tinker about the mountainous border city and college of necromancy. It had a bit of an anachronistic, cold war vibe–the Medieval analog for 1950 Vienna, perhaps. For mood and theme, the Portishead song “Sour Times” really came to epitomize the feeling of that game. It was, sadly, short lived for a variety of player reasons.

But it had lasted long enough. The world was built. The corners filled in. Everything was ready to get formatted out, the charts checked over, art commissioned…

…and then the open license was killed as they moved on to their 4th Edition.

What’s a guy to do? Well, this guy kept playing and fleshed out a few other corners (namely the Frost Islands). Meanwhile, I kept working on other projects. Until I realized that all the work I’d done in building the Anwat (and Vale and Ravensgate) locations didn’t need to be wasted work at all. Sure, there might not be the need for a game book anymore, but damn if it didn’t provide a rich setting bible for the purposes of writing fantasy.  I’d already written a few short stories set there.

And when I’d killed off the Ravensgate game, I did so in a particularly apocalyptic manner. Why not do something with that? The original outline was for a trilogy, because that’s what all the cool kids are writing. Three primary story arcs with a big cast of characters spread out over the three books.

I got writing, and at some point realized what I really wanted to do was less a trilogy and more of a triptych. So I hacked everything apart and put it back together with each of the three arcs having its own book, with the three books happening more or less simultaneously, all spurned by the same apocalyptic opening act. I liked the new structure. And it let me focus on different themes for each arc rather than make for one big muddled arc for ALL of them.

The first one, Of Rooks and Ravens, features a young, ACE academic forced out of her comfort zone and in the company of an untrustworthy (and at times unwelcome) mentor. While the book has gone through multiple drafts and revisions (and even more after selling it to Razorgirl Press who will be releasing it at the end of September), the book has remained a coming of age story that explores questions of culture and identity.

And I love it dearly. I wasn’t really aware when I was writing it that it was Gothic high fantasy. But apparently, it’s Gothic high fantasy. I blame the weather. And the dead things.

Interestingly, the second book in the triptych, Redemption of the Yellow Wolf, about families and second chances, is something like half done with the first draft. And the third, The Sea In His Blood, is maybe 25% finished and focuses on late-in-life responsibilities to make your life count for something. Yet neither of these books are likely to be my next novels.

First, I need to finish the next Cobalt City novel, which I should be able to wrap up in the next month. There are too many people waiting for that one. And the nature of that one is too timely to let sit. And then, while there are other books I’d love to be doing, I’ll be diving back into events that arose from Of Rooks and Ravens for something else entirely.

At some point soon, before the end of the year, certainly, I’ll begin writing a new trilogy, entitled A Conspiracy of Feathers. I don’t know if high fantasy espionage is a genre yet, but that’s what I’ll be doing. And the first book, Thrush Among Vipers, lets me return to where it all started, back in Anwat al-Masewei. I’m really thrilled to be working in this world, and even more excited that other people get to be able to see it soon.

In the meantime, keep watching this space (or my other social media) for pending cover reveals, launch information, and readings in your area!

 

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Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

I know I’ve discussed the current Cobalt City novel RESISTANCE once or twice before. For new readers (or those with the memory of goldfish), RESISTANCE is the novel I started last November as a way to process what I saw as our country’s decline into fascism and straight up dystopia. I’d hoped to be finished with it by now. I’m only 2/3 of the way through it, but picking up speed as I near the end. The goal is to have this draft done by sometime in October.

See…I process the world around me in my writing. I suspect most writers do that, to some degree. It’s part of that whole “write what you know” chestnut. Our life, our experiences, provide a filter and springboard in many ways for our stories. I’m a pretty political person. I pay attention to what’s going on in the world around me, the good and the bad, and I try to learn from as many people from as many different viewpoints as I can. I don’t always succeed. And sometimes that viewpoint is little more than ill-informed hatred that, upon examination, I can dismiss.

Several of the Cobalt City books have provided filters for me to process parts of this world through the medium of superhero storytelling. This actually came up with my therapist the other day, which might be a bit of an overshare, but she think’s it’s healthy, so I’m inclined to agree. I can’t fix the world. I can’t FIGHT the world.

But in Cobalt City, I can. So I do. And sometimes it surprises me how that manifests. The huge cast (spread out over seven arcs that condense down into four arcs and then into, essentially one) is all grappling with the same core issue: what are the responsibilities of heroes in a country that has turned toward fascism? Who do they serve, and what are they willing to risk?

Amid these larger arcs are three isolated chapters that help provide context, coloring in a larger view of what’s going on in the country and world. These chapters also allow me to write about things I see going on right now, every day in the news. As such, they’re proving to be particularly brutal to write. They’re a little too immediate. A little too real.

The first one was from the point of view of a C-list vigilante hero who was a police detective in her day job. As protest marches continue to grow around the city, the city, bowing to pressure from the federal government, is changing how they deal with protests. They’re bringing a more militarized presence, prepared to treat them less as peaceful marches than riots. While she understands the righteousness of the protests and the protesters, and knows first hand that yes, there are good cops, she also knows all too well that there are bad ones, too. She sees the conflict escalating from a perspective no one else in the book has, knows it’s a powder keg, and knows it’s only a matter of time before someone lights it.

The final of these chapters will be coming up in a day or two, and shows two heroes, both rich white women, returning to the country from Brazil after a mission, and will, hopefully, be the easiest of the three to write. I know they’re going to encounter problems with security overreach. And I know it’s going to raise blood pressure over privacy issues when I get to it. Thankfully I don’t have to deal with that one, yet.

In the meantime, I just finished wrestling with a chapter that I thought was going to be a fun little aside but proved me wrong.

Chapter 23, in which Xia Lo, former (and kind of still current) enforcer of Cobalt City’s underworld is meeting with the Asian Business & Community Alliance over police inaction regarding increased harassment. They’ve come to her, asking not only to maybe apply some pressure on the police to take these claims more seriously and increase patrols, but also to help them form a volunteer civilian protection force. Not a neighborhood watch. Effectively, a militia. And she knows that while it will help against random violence, it could also be seen as a provocation–reason for the government to use ICE to disrupt the community and sow fear. But maybe it’s a risk worth taking. Maybe it’s time to go to war. Because lives are already at risk. Businesses have been damaged. People have been not just confidently and loudly threatened in public, but outright attacked, including one who was shot dead in a bar in the Hollows (also, the only crime for which there had been an arrest) while the killer shouted that “This is OUR country now!”

It’s making me angry.

It’s making me angry, because this is happening. Not just in Cobalt City, but here. In Seattle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a community that the president or any of his sycophants have singled out for abuse. Violence, threats, harassment against Muslim and Jewish communities have surged, due in no small part to people in power vilifying those communities. But beyond that, this atmosphere of hate has seemingly empowered bigots of all stripes, with the only thing they hate more than people who are different is being called on it. It’s a terrifying time.

And I don’t know how to deal with it. So I write about it.

I write about it so that maybe shed light on a bigger part of the narrative–both Cobalt City and ours. I write about it to encourage people to stay strong in the face of authoritarianism, to push back against Fascism, to protect your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers from the hatred and violence of bigots. I write about it to show that no, if you punch a Nazi that doesn’t make you as bad as them, that standing up to protect someone from harassment and violence is fundamentally different than standing up to oppress someone. I write about it to show that no one is threatening your way of life or your culture simply by enjoying theirs, that it’s not just YOUR country–it’s all of ours, so fucking learn to share.

We’re on an express train to dystopia in this country right now. But it’s still not too late to fix things. Even now. Not everyone can march. Not everyone can go on strike. Not everyone can punch a Nazi in the head. Do what you can. Do what you need to. Then catch your breath and get back out there. And hydrate. Always remember to hydrate.

I might be able to fix Cobalt City. I’m counting on all of you to help fix the rest of it.

In like a wet lion

Rainy Spring in Greenwood

He hears thunder and steps outside, eyes on the horizon.

He’s been hearing thunder. It’s been more frequent since November 8th.

Still no storm. But it’s coming.

If history has taught him anything, it’s that the storm is always coming.

He shivers, rubs the goosebumps on his arms. Rubs his aching eyes. He’s been feeling tired, lately. Tired, sad, angry. It is the new normal. He tries and fails to remember a time in the last six months when a day could pass without incident. Tries and fails to remember a day in the last six months when he couldn’t feel the doom creep in.

He saw a doctor and the doctor gave him pills to fight it.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of this,” she says.

“For how long?”

“Since November 8th.”

“Will these help?”

She gives him a sad smile and a shrug. She gives him the pills. He wonders if she takes them herself. He wonders if they help her.

The do pills help. They blunt the anxiety. Blunt the panic. The internal screaming now a dull roar. The stabbing hopelessness now a dull ache.

The pills help. But they can’t stop the storm.

He can see it on the horizon. A wall of rain-fat clouds bearing enough lighting to set this country on fire. It waits there, terrifying and inevitable. His friends have seen it. His family. Most of them, at least. They’ve talked about the storm.

The storm has been building for a while. The rich getting richer, finding more and more things to steal now that people have no savings, now that people live paycheck to paycheck. They tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps while, in the same breath, stealing their boots.

Now they steal our future. Our education system. Our environmental protections. Our insurance. Our voting rights. Our civil liberties. God help you if you’re black or brown, because they can steal your freedom or life without consequence.

We’ve watched them do it.

We’ve seen it happen, unfold with our own eyes and raged and marched in the thousands, demanding justice, demanding changes.

No changes. No justice. Just riot police and tear gas. The storm cannot hear our cries over the thunder.

We’ve seen cowards and kleptocrats, despots and opportunists, ignoring rule of law because their peers in power will do nothing to stop them. Then they conspire to change the rules to keep that power. Maybe forever.

Or at least until the storm.

Because a storm is coming.

A storm that will topple the powerful and restore balance, that will wash the streets with its fury. A storm that will shake the boardrooms and penthouses and government offices. A storm that will empty the prisons and tear down the border walls and slums. A storm that will finally crush the patriarchy and white supremacy.

A storm is coming. Because it has to. Because he doesn’t know how explain to some people that they should care about others. Because he cannot understand how some people don’t understand that basic concept.

He hears the thunder again.

No. He is the thunder. We are the thunder. He looks about, sees those close to him, sees the storm build in their eyes.

They rise as one. They become clouds. Rain-fat and electric as the the charge builds to that first bolt of lightning.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you’ve probably heard me talk about Of Rooks and Ravens, the big, weird fantasy novel set in the world of Ravensgate. If you have missed all the randomness about how the project evolved, that’s okay. It’s a Gothic high-fantasy with an ace/aro female academic forced by fate into a world of intrigue, politics, and birds.

You’ll love it.

Anyway, the big change is that I found a publisher for the book last year and we’re in the edit process so that we can launch in early October of this year. And I realized that this was a great opportunity to talk about edits. And more importantly, working with publishers and editors on edits.

So get yourself an iced coffee and pull up a chair. Shit is about to get real.

I don’t know how many times I’ve edited this book. This includes at least one and a half edit passes heavy enough I’d almost consider them rewrites. It got at least two big edits before I let anyone read it or the first time. And a few more since then.

And you’d think with all those edits, all that time, the book should be in really damn good shape, right?

Well, yes and no.

If you do your job well and the stars align and you get your manuscript out to the right people, all of your previous edits might be enough to get it noticed. They might like it. They might, heaven forbid, actually think it’s good!

But that doesn’t mean you’re done.

Because why the fuck are you settling for good?

With a talented editor or two by your side, you should set your sights on great. But even if you never quite reach that vague plateau, if you commit to the collaborative process with good editors, you can at least attain better. 

They are your allies. They are there with the same goal you have: to tell the best story possible. No, they aren’t always right. But trust me on this: neither are you. Take your ego out of it and learn to listen.

Anyone who has gone through this process knows there are different degrees of editing. Everyone should at least have an extra set of eyes looking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the level of things a copy editor looks for. But ideally, you will find an editor who challenges you to look at the manuscript in new ways and find things that you overlooked.

“But Unca Nate! I’ve gone through this novel with a fine-toothed comb three times. I created this world! How could I have overlooked anything?”

Again, don’t get defensive. Do you know how much work I’ve done in Ravensgate? Years and years of work on this university city in the high mountain pass next to a vast, dark lake.

YEARS!

Guess what? It never occurred to me until the last set of deep edits that Preston had never eaten fish before because no one would eat something that came out of that giant, dead lake. It never occurred to me that despite the altitude and the cold that it was weird  the lake never froze over. You’d think someone would have commented on that

And then in an edit meeting yesterday something else occurred to all of us. Not only is the lake, which is so central to the city not even mentioned until the second chapter, but I’ve never thought to actually give the lake a goddamned name.

I’d like to take this moment to commend Alisha Knaff and Christine Smith from Razorgirl Press. The first time we sat down to talk edits, we went through an entire novel’s worth of notes and suggestions over coffee. It took almost three hours. After that edit pass, we sat down again and looked not only at those changes, but at the whole novel and, in particular, the first chapter which was annotated and flagged with tiny tweaks and questions like a conspiracy board of the Kennedy Assassination.

And we dug into those for over an hour, note by note by note.

It was the most intensively collaborative editing step I’ve ever experienced.

And I mean that in the best way possible. Because several of those flags marked things that were already great. Some were simple suggestions of revised word choice. And some were little tweaks to bring in more depth and detail.

I dug into the notes today and started the latest edit pass. Two pages in, and I had to take a break to write this post. Because no matter how good you think your book is, it’s possible to make it better. Because that book you read that changed your life, that blew you away and made you want to be a writer? I can pretty much promise you it didn’t just happen.

I loved Of Rooks and Ravens. I loved this weird story about an awkward girl forced out of her comfort zone and into a bigger world which she has to navigate alongside an utter bastard of an accidental mentor. I loved it more after that last edit pass I turned in earlier this spring. And holy shit, guys, I can’t wait for you to read what it’s going to be when we’re done.

You’ll be able to see for yourself in October. And pay attention to this space. I’ll be revealing more, including the cover, in coming months.

 

 

Red Leaves, Blue SkyWhen you’re a kid, there’s this concept of the “cool house” where everyone hangs out. I was fortunate as a teen growing up in Durango in that we had several such homes. Places where we could keep ourselves entertained in a what was, to many of my friends, a boring and sometimes downright hostile town.

For the most part, the parents at those houses were distant figures, keeping out of our way. Old before their time adults who didn’t know how to or care to interact with us at all as we undertook whatever activity we assigned to that particular home. We had the house for day-time parties and games, where the parents were often traveling, or where we could hunker down in the basement and play games when they were home. We had the house where we could listen to music late into the night and experiment with underage drinking in a relatively safe environment while the parents slept like the dead at the far end of the house.

And we had Eric’s house.

If we were going to camp out around a television and watch movies or read comic books, 95% of the time, it was going to be at Eric’s, tucked into the narrow den in what had at one point been a garage. The walls were covered with movie poster and a variety of geek artifacts abounded. It was here that we would have “Schlock Nights,” binging on 6-8 crappy genre movies in a row, all night long, fueled by Dr. Pepper and Doritos.

And no matter the time of night, if you had to go the bathroom, you’d wander through the living room and find Eric’s mom, Jan, watching TV or puttering around in her housecoat. She had a problem with her back, as I recall. That meant she slept in shifts rather than straight through the night.

Jan was something of an artist. And a sci-fi geek. And political. And unlike my other friend’s parents, she engaged with me. She didn’t talk down to me. I don’t remember if we had any long conversations, but we had innumerable small ones about all kinds of topics. One in particular, about the TV show The Prisoner when some network began re-broadcasting it, stuck with me particularly well for some reason. When I made my stage debut as Mr. Bumble in Oliver, she came to the show with Eric and proclaimed I was a better actor in that role than Harry Secombe. She even came to my first wedding. Jan was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of my favorite adults.

She had a mysterious past. A single mom who raised her only son while teaching on the Navajo reservation before moving to Durango. Apparently she travelled around the world before that. If you told me today she’d been a spy, I’d likely believe you. I certainly have no reason to doubt that.

Eric and I remained in touch, despite living thousands of miles away. I would still ask about Jan, who moved down the street from him in Cleveland Heights over 20 years ago. I was aware her health was failing. None of us live forever, and she had always seemed a little too rare for this world. So I suppose I wasn’t too surprised to learn of her passing peacefully yesterday with her son at her side at the end.

The world is a grayer, more mundane place for her loss.

Jan showed me that it was possible to live life on your own terms. That being an adult didn’t mean you had to stop being weird. That encouraging creative passions and nurturing kindness might not make you rich, but it could give you so much more instead. She was an inspiration and I loved her.

And she’ll be missed.

 

 

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

That’s the dream, right? Pack the bags and fuck off to some far-away place for an indulgent period of time to write, research, absorb your surroundings, and write some more.

If you’re like me, and I expect many of you are, you rarely get further than the closest convenient coffeehouse or bar.

But still the dream persists. We hold onto that “What if?” We Google the hell out of that dream destination. We scribble notes for that dream project that we would tackle if only time, money, and life permitted.

So, inspired by a conversation this weekend with a fellow writer, here’s my list of Top 5 dream writing vacation destinations and what I’d work on while I was there.

Mexico City

I’ve heard nightmare stories about Mexico City for years. Mostly by people who watched the movie Man on Fire or have a view colored by their interpretation of crime statistics filtered third hand through other people. Is there crime in Mexico City? Of course. There’s crime everywhere. And it’s a huge city with some extreme disparity of wealth from neighborhood to neighborhood.

But it’s also beautiful city rich with art, culture, and history. A good friend visited there recently and every photo she posted made me want to visit more. Ok, maybe not every photo. I’m still not sure about the consumption of chile-roasted grasshoppers, though I hear they’re delicious. I just can’t wrap my taste buds around that yet.

But a month to wander around, hit the museums and libraries, the markets and cafes–that would be incredible.

I have a short story I want to do about a couple of occult “problem solvers” who themselves happen to be dead. It was inspired by a drawing that same travelling friend did. I’d also really love to write some early Gato Loco stories, maybe a novel, that take place during the beginning of his vigilante career. And I can’t imagine a better way to capture that spirit than some full immersion.

Paris

I’ll admit, I didn’t really see the appeal of Paris until a few years ago.

Ok. So I was wrong.

A month hanging out on the Left Bank, living on black coffee and pastry at outdoor cafes with a notebook on my table? Yeah, that’s pretty much perfect. Give me a camera to capture the buildings, the streets, the flow of the city, and I’ll be in heaven.

I’ve been thinking of writing a series of short mystery stories featuring Jean-Paul Sartre, one of my dad’s heroes. I picture him and Simone de Beauvoir in post-war Paris solving mysteries. Tie that in with some Existentialism and the atmosphere of the city at that time and it practically writes itself. Though I’d really want to soak up as much of that Paris atmosphere–and coffee–that I could before I undertake that kind of endeavor.

New England

I’ve never been to New England. Odd that I’ve been drawn to setting stories there in the last several years. Maybe my brain is trying to tell me something.

On top of setting Cobalt City there just south of Boston in the crook of Cape Cod, I’ve also got a (languishing) punk rock fable called Winter Lullaby set in the fictional western Connecticut town of Devil’s Gap, and the ostensibly YA project Tastes Like Teen Spirit about a young cannibal who falls in love with a serial killer in Pluto Falls, New Hampshire. Also fictional.

But give me a month, preferably October, to pack up a rental and drive from town to town on back roads, stopping where I need, writing where I can, making myself sick on red leaves, apple pie, and maple syrup, and I promise you, I’ll find those fictional towns.

Fez, Morocco

I’ve been wanting to go to Morocco for decades. I want to go to Fez, the high mountain city that happens to be home to one of the world’s oldest universities, in particular. I’ve been fascinated by the Almoravid period, in particular (1040-1147), for much of that time.

Though I’d want to incorporate much of my month there into a big, optimistic sci-fi novel, mostly I’d want to write non-fiction. Essays about the use of public space in Moroccan culture, and studies of urban design. So, lots of time sipping mint tea at cafes (you see a theme by now, I expect), and walking the narrow streets. Taking language classes in the afternoon, maybe even a camel tour out into the Atlas mountains to see a little bit of the countryside.

As for that sci-fi novel, it’s going to take place in three locations. One is near orbit, so that’s out of the travel plans. The part that takes place in Morocco involves a former NASA astronaut, the last American to go to space, who is finding a late-in-life career as a consultant to a pan-African space program that is building an orbital launch platform in an international race to send a manned mission to Mars. He gets caught up in the intrigue and politics of the mission, very much a stranger in a strange land.

But I feel I need to have that experience to do it justice.

As for the third part of the book…

Cameroon

I’ll be honest. I don’t know how I landed on Cameroon when I was looking at African countries near the Equator to set the other third of this book. Something about the country just grabbed my imagination. I’ve decided the launch platform for the space agency is located there, and one of the three main characters is a mid-level security supervisor for the site who begins to suspect a plot to sabotage the program. And when he is attacked and left for dead, he figures out someone on the inside, higher up on the chain of command, is part of the conspiracy.

Of all the five travel destinations, this one is the biggest wild-card. I don’t know much about Cameroon. In fact, one of the deciding factors might have been their national basketball or soccer team snagging my innate love of underdog sports teams. But I’ve been wanting to visit Africa for a long time, and it’s a huge continent with even more huge cultural diversity. At some point, you just have to roll those dice and open yourself up to the experience.

That is, if I ever get the resources to do any of these writing vacations.

In the meantime, there’s always the coffeehouse across the street.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

Gato Loco + Shadow

The devil rides tonight!

I don’t know how other authors do it, but at least in my case, it’s uncommon for a character to leap fully-formed from brain to paper. I find that often times the character comes together in bits and pieces until they’re ready to be seen. And even then, they can continue to evolve over time. For me, it’s one of the most compelling things about writing.

So, let’s take a look at Gato Loco.

Gato Loco began not as Gato Loco, but as Manuel de la Vega, a swashbuckling hero created for a 7th Sea RPG somewhere around 1999-2000. Inspired by the character Richard St Vier from Ellen Kushner’s fantastic novel Swordspoint, he was driven to be the best swordsman around. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I highly suggest it. Courtly manners, dashing swordplay, and a fabulous gay protagonist. The game only lasted a few sessions before personalities caused it implode, but during that brief run, Manuel did get the chance to mask up to conceal his identity. Making an improvised mask from a bit of curtain, he proclaimed himself el grande pantalones. Yes. The swashbuckler known as The Big Pants.

It should be pointed out, my Spanish at the time was pretty much non-existent.

I liked something about his personality enough that when I ran an even shorter term superhero game on the Paladium superhero RPG, I brought him back. This time many of the familiar elements of the character were present: black leather cycling suit, cat-head helmet, sleek motor cycle, nimble, and a little bit psychic. Much of this visualization was inspired by the look of Kaneda in the manga/movie Akira. Swap out his red costume for black, slap on a helmet, and you’re there. He even had the iconic giant laser gun known from the end of the movie. However, he wasn’t even called Gato Loco yet. Instead, he used the name Krazy Kat.

In 2002, Green Ronin released the Mutants & Mastermind RPG, and a distillation of Manuel de la Vega surfaced again in a game run for my kids and girl friend (and then wife) over the summer. This time, I dropped the laser, added the familiar stage-field generator force fields, and adopted the name Gato Loco (both because Krazy Kat was a cartoon cat and at this time the character of Wild Kat was being added to the setting). This game which came to be known as the Mysterious Five also saw the creation of the Tesla Twins, Mister Grey, the Society of Evil Geniuses (including Kara Sparx, Lumien, and Nicodemus Candledark).

It then spun out into a big blow-out one-shot game that saw the Icons leave Earth, followed by a massive extra-dimensional invasion that allowed me to bring most of the core of the next iteration of the game. This was the longest run period of Gato Loco as a character, even though he’d largely been side-lined to a support character in favor of Mister Grey. During this period, the Protectorate took shape and I started taking writing seriously again.

Part of that was writing the Gato Loco story “Masks.” While an early story, it helped solidify the shape of Gato Loco as a fiction character, and the shape of the Cobalt City universe as a something other than a game setting. Encouraged by Kathleen, Wild Kat’s creator, I undertook writing a novel for the first time in my adult life. I chose to write a Cobalt City novel, the book that became Cobalt City Blues. In it, I told an epic story that was logistically impossible to run as a game–too many solo elements. It had been written for fun. Just something to share among the players in the game. And not only did it give me a chance to tell a big chunk of Gato Loco story, it brought back the giant cutting laser not seen since the old Paladium game–though this time it was wielded by the panda Snowflake. And the chemistry between Manuel and Snowflake was undeniable.

Cobalt City Blues ended up became something enduring. Much to my surprise.

Then in November 2005, in the middle of some huge life changes, I decided to undertake National Novel Writing Month. That month, I wrote Greetings from Buena Rosa. Taking part a year after the dissolution of the Protectorate, it was yet another evolution of Manuel de la Vega. Crippled by the events that led to the end of the Protectorate, he hadn’t been Gato Loco for a year. Forced out of retirement to help a cousin in a Mexican border town, it focused on Manuel as a detective looking for his place in the world rather than the grim specter of Cobalt City. It and the subsequent book allowed me to kind of go back to his roots as a cycle racer and detective, travelling around the country with Snowflake.

And now, I’m evolving him yet again: back in Cobalt City, legs and spine damaged beyond the point where he can wear the Gato Loco suit, he’s busy training his replacement and figuring out what’s next. Gato Loco may not ride anymore, but Manuel de la Vega goes on.

I look forward to exploring that in future stories on my Patreon.

If you’re not a subscriber yet, you might want to look into it. I expect to have a new Manuel de la Vega story posted sometime in June.

 

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I saw a meme going around the Social-Media-Sphere™ this morning, a listy kinda meme, where you list several bands in a Band you Hate, Band you feel is Over-rated, Guilty Pleasure Band…kind of a gang of five musical Fuck/Marry/Kill situation. And I considered doing it. Because the kind of music a person listens to (or doesn’t listen to, or if they don’t even like music at all) says a lot about them.

But the truth is, it was an impossible list. I don’t know if I genuinely HATE any band. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who it seems it’s now fashionable to hate), have a song or two I like. And I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I either like a band or I don’t. I’m not going to feel an ounce of fucking shame for jamming out to Spice Girls “Stop” or Barenaked Ladies “The Old Apartment.”

And as for picking a single favorite band?

Go fuck yourself. Who does that? Who CAN do that? I’ve never had a single favorite band. Instead, I’ve periodically narrowed it down a glacially rotating roster of top five favorite bands. Sometimes another band will put out a brilliant album and replace a long-time roster holder, but these have been relatively constant for some time. So, without further ado, my 5 Favorite Bands.

Aimee Mann

I still remember my formative teen years when I (and the rest of the country) discovered Til Tuesday. For most people, the fascination began and ended with their hit song “Voices Carry.” But some of us bought every single one of their albums. And when singer/songwriter Aimee Mann split out to do her own thing and record solo albums some of us followed along with her then, too.

Such a singular voice. Sharp, witty as hell lyrics. Excellent musicianship. And determined to do her own damn thing. She’s been off the radar for a little while, but just released a new album that might be the best thing she’s written. Considering her previous one came out over a decade ago, it was long overdue.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve chosen something off the earlier album, The Forgotten Arm–a concept album that draws its name from a boxing term. It’s a fantastic album, and you should give it a listen. And her new one, Mental Illness, too. Anyway, here’s “Little Bombs.”

New Model Army

My kid brother introduced me to New Model Army over 30 years ago. I’m still a fan. My first tattoo, over 20 years ago, is the Celtic knot from the cover of Thunder and Consolation. I point to this album in particular as being the cornerstone to my early politicization. Justin Sullivan’s lyrics are uncompromising, angry, righteous, and hopeful.

These guys are one of the champions of my top 5 list. They’ve been on it pretty consistently for a long damn time. It doesn’t hurt that they keep cranking out incredible albums. I’d long worried I’d never be able to see them live due to visa issues for most of their career. But I got lucky 11 years ago and found out about a local show at a small venue that very night, and moved heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve seen them twice more since, and each time is the closest I’ve had to what I think of as a religious experience.

For your sample song, I present “Believe It” off the incredibly now hard to find album The Love of Hopeless Causes, one of the three best albums they ever produced. For a follow up, I highly suggest their newest album, Winter, which rocks just as hard.

Ben Folds Five

It was Sunday night in 1996 and I was sitting around watching 120 Minutes on MTV with my mom, back when they still showed music videos. 120 minutes was my favorite show on the network, as it showcased off-of-center bands and music. Their two-hour showcase of alternative music. And my mom was watching with me because she was waiting for my kid brother to either come home or call from the police station. You know how kids are. Anyway, that was the first time I ever heard Ben Folds Five, the song “Underground,” off their debut album. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget, and tracked the CD down next chance I got.

See, I used to play piano. I’m drawn to piano musicians. In fact, from here on out, it’s all piano players, so get out now if you can’t roll with that.

And Ben Folds played the fuck out of those ivories. I’d be hard pressed to name another artist quite like him, piano yet punk. And his bass player, Robert Sledge is just a dynamo. While I love Ben Fold’s solo stuff, too, it’s really the stuff with his original trio that grips me by the short hairs. In particular, the masterwork that is The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

Damn, such a solid album. So, I’ve chosen one of his quieter songs off that album for your introduction, “Mess,” performed live because these guys are something else live.

Joe Jackson

I bought my first Joe Jackson album, Night and Day on the strength of the single “Stepping Out” through one of those 14 cassettes for a penny clubs in the age of antiquity. And I’ll be honest. I didn’t like it. But I kept coming back to it.

Call it Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe just maturing tastes. But I eventually came to love that album. And here’s the thing with Joe. He keeps mixing it up, experimenting with different lineups, different sounds, different styles. Some, you might not like. Some you might love.

But he’s never boring. He surrounds himself with top-notch musicians, like the very deep bass of Graham Maby or percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. And his live shows need to be seen to be believed, as he frequently re-arranges his old songs to suit the new lineups. Case in point, his song “Is She Really Going Out With Him” appears three times on his incredible double live CD, and each is distinctly different.

Your provided sample is the live recording  of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)” that swaps out the brass section for Vinnie Zumo on guitar.

Billy Joel

Billy Joel was my first piano man, the first pop/rock star I ever became a fan of. In fact, in junior high, I didn’t listen to ANY pop music outside a scattering of soundtracks (Urban Cowboy and Heavy Metal being the two that come to mind). But I eventually succumbed to the Billy Joel. It was hard not to. He was everywhere!

But for my money, the earlier stuff, the albums before he hit it big with The Stranger? Those albums are all amazing. When I had to write a paper in my AP English class senior year about someone I admired, I wrote it about Billy Joel. I had three volumes of his his sheet music for piano, and would hammer the hell out of the keys trying to master “Angry Young Man” or “Captain Jack.”

By far my favorite album of his is Turnstiles, the one that marked the formation of the lineup that would stick with him through his peak. It also marked his return to New York after several years living in and recording in Los Angeles. I used to sing along to this on cassette in the back of the bus on Knowledge Bowl and Speech Team trips.

Because I was cool.

I still remember him playing this at the first Farm Aid, and it’s a prime example of why I love Billy so much. God. When he finally shuffles off this mortal, I’m going to be devastated, so fingers crossed he has many, many more happy years. Anyway, here’s “Summer, Highland Falls.”

In news that might not surprise many of you, I’m one of those bastards who loves musical theater. No joke. Couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. Found my mom’s album of My Fair Lady and never looked back. Now, my tastes have evolved considerably in that time. So much so, that there’s nothing from old-school musicals on this list. If you’re a fan of South Pacific, prepare to be disappointed. But at least I stuck to shows that originated on stage. And there are several on here that are at least a few decades old. I’ve also made a conscious effort to only list one song from any given composer. Otherwise this would skew heavily towards Jason Robert Brown. (Ok, I lied, I included two from JRB. It was a game-time decision. Don’t hate me. He’s so good!)

You’re welcome.

Also, for the Hamilheads out there, I didn’t include anything from Hamilton on this list, though I was tempted. It basically came down to the fact that Hamilton has so much exposure right now, I’d rather give that slot to a somewhat less-exposed show.

So, in alphabetical order and without further ado, it’s showtime!

Beautiful City from Godspell

I came across this musical as a kid on television in my grandparent’s basement. I had no idea what it was. It was strange. It had gutter-clowns, and some guy in a Superman-like t-shirt. And it was kind of Jesus-y. (Yes, I was very young and didn’t get a lot of churchin’.) It kind of fell off my radar until my late teens when my friend Eric re-introduced me to the soundtrack in his den. He later played Judas in the college production, thus confirming that Judas is okay in my book.

The book of the musical is not my favorite, but man, the music from Stephen Schwartz is so good. And “Beautiful City” has recently become my favorite from the show. I like the message of hope. And the revival cast from a few years ago was outstanding, which is part of why I chose this version to share.

Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar

Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this is the one that resonated with me. I know. It’s weird. And it’s merely by virtue of the alphabet that these two songs are back to back. I swear, the music gets to sinnin’ pretty quick after this.

My first wife got me hooked on JCS. So much so that I used to have an Easter tradition with a friend of mine. We’d cook up a feast and sing along at the top of our lungs. So maybe it’s timely this ends up in my list right before Easter. I’ve been doing the Norwescon convention the last several years which always falls on Easter weekend, and I’m missing those sing-alongs.

For my money, there’s no better Judas than Carl Anderson.

History of Wrong Guys from Kinky Boots

I love the movie Kinky Boots. I didn’t have any idea how they’d pull it off as a musical. Then they got Cindy Lauper to do the music.

Sold.

I don’t know what to say about this song other than the fact that it’s infectiously fun.

I love Annaleigh Ashford’s delivery. Strongest or best song in the musical? Probably not. But favorite? Yes, hands down.

Home (Reprise) from The Wiz

There are a lot of versions of this. Well, of course there are. Written by Charlie Smalls, this song is just an outstanding showcase for a great vocalist. And I went with the Diana Ross version for the very simple reason that she was my introduction to this song and musical.

I was a sheltered nine-year old living in rural Colorado when this came out. I either went to the theater to see it myself or dragged along my kid brothers. And I loved it. LOVED it. Sure, Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on Broadway might have been a better Dorthy. I didn’t know, and at the time I couldn’t really care. This movie was magic. And this song still hits me in the gut each and every time I hear it.

I’m Going Home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Damn that Richard O’Brian, but he writes a catchy torch song. And Tim Curry just sings the shit out of it. That said, my feelings about this musical are complicated. It’s not a good musical, the material is problematic as hell, but it has great music. It’s also impossible to watch with other people without them shouting along. Sometimes, I just want to listen to the music, much like I did the first several times I heard it–on a record at my friend Ivan’s house.

I’ve also done this one at karaoke a few times. Damn, just such a good song about coming to the end of a road and realizing the ride is over. For some of us, far too soon.

Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George

If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite Broadway composer was, I would have said Stephen Sondheim without hesitation. That’s largely on the merit of how much this musical changed my life. I came across the musical on Great Performances on PBS about halfway through the first song and knew I needed it in my life almost immediately. For years, the only way I could watch this show was on an unlabeled VHS tape with part of a song missing. I have long since upgraded to better versions. And my friends Aarron and Michaela took me to see the revival for my birthday when it toured here almost a decade ago.

For years, the song “Finishing the Hat” was something of a theme song for me. It’s only been edged out in recent years by this one. The first is almost an argument Georges Seurat has with himself, that yes, he’s missing out on life, but that his art is worth it. But Lesson #8 reflects a bit more of where I am now. This feeling of being lost, questioning your artistic direction or if the journey is even worth it some days. I suspect all artists experience this from time to time. And Mandy Patinkin really sells it, too.

George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George too may fade leaving no mark, just passing through. Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”

Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

With music by Stephen Trask and book by it’s initial star, John Cameron Mitchel, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was like nothing else I’d ever seen. This song, in particular evokes David Bowie, which always works for me. And I went with this recording from the movie because it’s just so goddamned triumphant.

Sweet baby jesus, it gives me chills. I could, and have, listened to it on a loop a dozen times in a row. I can’t think of a better example of how we use music to discover our own sense of identity.

Never Get Married from Honeymoon in Vegas

Did I tell you I love Jason Robert Brown? I love Jason Robert Brown. He’s got a great ear for a hook and his lyrics are clever as hell. The idea of a musical based on an old Nic Cage movie is a weird idea. But damn if he doesn’t pull it off. The fact that this show was so overlooked breaks my heart. It’s fun and clever (and not without some problematic material, particularly in how it portrays Hawaii), and holy hell, it had Tony Danza tap dancing!

It’s pure Broadway.

This song, in particular, is just fun. It’s like something you’d expect to see on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Nancy Opel kills it as the mom to bewildered Rob McClure.

See I’m Smiling from The Last Five Years

Consider this your daily double dose of Jason Robert Brown. Hey, I could have thrown in stuff from Parade as well if I wanted, but I wanted to keep it reasonable. But damn, this show is so good. A strange concept, yes–five years of a relationship portrayed by two people, one moving from front to back, one from back to front.

The way it changes moods on a dime is incredible. Some songs are light and fun. Some are a slow knife to the ribs but in the best way possible. Then some transition in the middle with little warning. Like this one, that goes from hopeful to angry to resigned in a way I’ve seen real relationships do far too often in my life.

Really, the bridge just kills me. And while I have much love for Anna Kendrick who recently did this in the movie, there’s no substitute for Sherie Rene Scott from the original recording.

Telephone Wire from Fun Home

Got your tissues ready?

Good.

You’ll need them.

This musical came out of nowhere and kicked some ass at the Tony Awards a couple of years back. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics & book by Lisa Kron, it was based on the great graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. It deserved every Tony it won. Such a great show. It’s playing here in Seattle this summer and I can hardly wait.

That said, I’m likely to cry myself to death. This song, where a woman looks back at trying to have a real conversation with her dad–her, a recently out college student, and him a closeted married man. A complicated relationship at best, it provides no easy answers for either character. And it’s one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater I’ve ever heard.