Fresh Ink

So it’s officially into Autumn now and I have survived what several people have described to me as the most god-awful hot summer in Sydney’s recorded history, with a record breaking number of days in the high 30s and low 40s, humidity levels that make it feel like you’re swimming and your clothes stick to you from the second you get out of the shower, and breezes that feel a bit like standing in front of a hair dryer.

So I did the intelligent thing and picked up some new tattoos, my first two in Australia.

In my defense, when these were booked I did not count on it being so hot that I almost sweated my healing ointment off within minutes of stepping outside. That was not pleasant. Have you ever had A&D drip down the inside of your arm, stained with the various inks that your skin is slowly pushing out during the healing process? It’s the grossest feeling thing.

20170204_191020I started off with a design I’ve been wanting for some time now, Morpheus from the Sandman comics. The problem was that I wanted him on my right arm, which is mostly poppy and colorful, and Morpheus is a character of black and white with a few dots of color to him. Thankfully my artist (Melanie Milne, if you ever find yourself in Sydney and in need of a great tattoo) was far more visually skilled than I am and came up with a concept that worked: incorporating something a little bit like genie smoke, with slumber-sand slipping through his fingers and transforming into a rainbow hue of vapors as they moved down my arm. It came out really, really good and is almost fully healed up now with next to no color loss during the process.

I love Sandman, it’s in a three-way fight with Transmetropolitan and Lucifer for my favorite graphic novel series, and it feels kind of right to have the lord of dreams and stories taking up a hefty chunk of my dominant arm, the arm I do most of my writing with.

20170226_194132.jpgThe second one I actually got just this past Sunday. It’s based on one of those films where I watched it as a kid, and I rewatch it as an adult, and I go “wow, so this had a bigger influence on my aesthetic than I ever realized.” I am speaking, of course, of the filthy muppet monsters of The Dark Crystal. In a wrap around my wrist, ending just before the joint, I’ve got one of the Mystics, his corresponding Skeksis, and the broken crystal that splintered them from one glowing being into two muck-bound magical creatures. Sorry if the picture is a bit wonky and distorted, but getting a decent shot of a wrap is really difficult. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, it only covers 2/3 of the area and I’m going in at the end of March to fill in the back side a little bit. The astrological signs of the Great Conjunction and the silhouette of the Skeksis castle where the shattered crystal is located, most likely. I’m looking forward to it. That’s most of one arm fulled sleeved up, with just a couple of small gaps to fill in.


Speaking of new ink, I’ve also surged ahead in writing. I spend much of my lunch break each day scribbling away, and then in the evenings as I can. I’ve broken 45,000 words recently, on the side project, and it feels good. Writing multiple stories at once is nice because if you feel the burn out coming on, you can change gears, still be productive, and change back afterwards. You’re still getting 3,000 words down in a session, just split across two stories instead of 2,000 words in one.

It is funny, though, that I find myself getting inspired for one story what I’m writing in the other. I had one passage that I wrote for the secondary piece, and then later came back to it, went “ugh it’s too good, it needs to be in the primary one” and poached it, replacing it with something that fit the tone a little better. It’s helped to define a lot of the elements of each story by making me think about them, and making me concentrate on not accidentally sinking into the same prose for radically different tales. Having to keep the narrative voices distinct naturally drives the text along.

Writing at the office has also broken me of my habit of getting lost in research holes. If I only have 30-45 minutes to work on something with the deadline of “my boss will get antsy if I keep going,” it’s excellent at keeping me from popping on google to check something and then half an hour has gone by and I’m intimately familiar with the history of the textile industry when I just wanted to make sure I was using the right word for part of an old carpet.

Not to say that the research stops, it’s just far more compartmentalized. I’m still accruing books like mad and I even sprung for a cheap laptop to make note taking easier, so I can just pop it open in bed and jot down random points of interest.

Old Books, New Fairies, Forgotten Women

First off, I really just want to take a moment here and encourage people who want to write but haven’t started yet: you really should start. Everyone wants to have written a book. The hard part is not actually coming up with the ideas. I have friends who claim to not have a creative bone in their bodies but who still throw out cool ideas for settings or characters and blow my mind. The hard part is approaching it like a job, blocking out a time per day when you work on it, and forcing yourself to sit down and do that work at that assigned time. It saps the romance out of writing but it will leave you with a manuscript, and the manuscript will go further towards paying your bills than the idea of romance or “the zone” or “muses” will.

There’s a very good reason that widely published, beloved, brilliant writers all say the exact same thing: start putting words on the page and fix them up later, because you’re never going to get them perfect on the first go.

I got half an anthology put together over a couple of months of doing this. It’s doing well. I’m not going to be buying a house with what it brought in, but my co-author and I can certainly put the proceeds towards fancy booze and nice boots, and more importantly it got people looking at our weird stuff. Wouldn’t have that if we didn’t make ourselves approach it like a deadline at an office job.

I have carried that over into my solo stuff pretty handily now that I’m back in the habit. I have two, going on three project spinning outside of my day job right now. The everpresent war and nationbuilder epic that will not be done for awhile, and more recently that fairytale I started working on last month. I may start another one if I can block out the time for it and not deprive myself of too much reading time, but we’ll see.

Anyway, the fairy thing.

It literally started with a pitch I scribbled to myself after waking up early one morning: Mad Max – Fury Road meets The Dark Crystal. A caravan traveling across a post apocalyptic wasteland infested by horrifying, flesh eating, Froud-inspired fairies and spirits. I made a box around that concept and started making notes in the margins over a couple of weeks. Incorporate the old school Welsh bardic traditions and other oral historian orders. Translate that into modern music somehow. Take the idea of a “queen of air and darkness” like Mab from Midsummer Night’s Dream and work it into an entire host of fairies. Figure out how fairies would go up against a modern military. Figure out why they would go up against a modern military.

A week later I had an incredibly rough outline, and two days after that I shrugged, said “alright, one thousand words a day, go” and started free writing in accordance with that outline.

I should be breaking 20,000 words on that today, or 1/5th of the first draft.

0c8fc758e6bc67308259b06975078c95.jpgThat’s a secondary story. That’s something I’m only putting less than an hour a day into. If I maintain that word count give or take a thousand a day, that’s a completed draft in less than four months. It may be complete trash that everyone hates, because I doubt there’s a huge intersection out there between fans of post apocalyptic survival road trip stories and the fairy courts, but it’ll be done and that’s the most important part. A finished draft.

You can absolutely do that. Trust me, I’m easily distracted, I have too many hobbies, I go to look something up and get sidetracked reading about weird historical tidbits that no one cares about for two hours, if I can hold myself to this you can too, and you should. It’s good for you.

So that’s my self-indulgent attempt at a pep talk, and setting the stage for what I really want to talk about for a little bit.

Because I’m writing fairies, and I want to do something new with them, I’ve gone back to some of the older texts about fairyland and fairytales. Urban fantasy is chock-full of fairies to the point that the new generation have their own well-defined tropes, ones that I don’t want to include. The older stories that served as a springboard are much weirder and largely forgotten to the public, which makes them perfect to mine for raw materials and inspiration.

It gave me an excuse to go back to a favorite book of mine, and one that I consider criminally underappreciated and unknown, along with its author.

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It’s called Lud-In-The-Mists, by Hope Mirrlees, and if you enjoy fantasy stories, poetry, even just literature in general it has probably influenced some of your favorites. Hope Mirrlees has become a little bit of an author’s/scholar’s writer and I’ve found her to be virtually unknown outside of people researching the roots of different kinds of storytelling.

220px-HopeMirrlees.jpgYou can learn some details about Hope from her wikipedia article and cited sources, but the short version is that she sharp, articulate, well-read woman during a time when those traits were not particularly valued in women. She was a polyglot who spoke Russian, Spanish, French and devoured the contemporary and classical literature from each of those countries, traveled extensively throughout Europe and South Africa, and cultivated friendships with many great scholarly figures of the time. She was incredibly close friends with Jane Harrison, an early feminist and suffragette, and someone known in classical mythology circles for defining the boundaries of what we consider the Greco-Roman mythos today. She was good friends with T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and a host of others. Her poetry influenced many, and her stories influenced many more.

Lud was her only foray into fantasy, and one of the greatest books of the genre. It incorporates, subverts and critiques elements of the hero’s journey cycle two decades before that cycle was clearly laid out. You will find trace elements of it in the DNA of most fantasy novels written since the 1930s.

It’s a pleasure to read. If you have an interest in fairytales, or fantasy, or just really good storytelling and narrative voices you should pick it up and give it a go. It’s short by modern standards but dense in prose and ideas. She asks you to invest some time into understanding it, but pays back way more than you put in. It’s as psychologically incisive as the best Pratchett novels and was written at a time that you had to put real legwork into the kind of research she used.

There are precious few sections I could quote for examples that don’t spoil major events, because it’s a tightly paced piece, but I always loved this section about a hero returning home after facing danger, and not necessarily missing that danger, but finding that he appreciates the banal from new angles:

But after he had heard the Note a more stay-at-home and steady young man could not have been found in Lud-in-the-Mist. For it had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands.’

From this there sprang an ever-present sense of insecurity together with a distrust of the homely things he cherished. With what familiar object – quill, pipe, pack of cards – would he be occupied, in which regular recurrent action – the pulling on or off of his nightcap, the weekly auditing of his accounts – would he be engaged when IT, the hidden menace, sprang out at him? And he would gaze in terror at his furniture, his walls, his pictures – what strange scene might they one day witness, what awful experience might he one day have in their presence?

[…]

From his secret poison there was, however, some sweetness to be distilled. For the unknown thing that he dreaded could at times be envisaged as a dangerous cape that he had already doubled. And to lie awake at night in his warm feather bed, listening to the breathing of his wife and the soughing of the trees, would become, from this attitude, an exquisite pleasure.

He would say to himself, “How pleasant this is! How safe! How warm! What a difference from that lonely heath when I had no cloak and the wind found the fissures in my doublet, and my feet were aching, and there was not moon enough to prevent my stumbling, and IT was lurking in the darkness!” enhancing thus his present well-being by imagining some unpleasant adventure now safe behind him.

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

So, yeah, go out and find a copy. It’s been reprinted fairly recently with a great introduction by Neil Gaiman and some notes by Michael Swanwick. Her other books and poems are good, too, and I wish she was more popular and read more widely than she is. Whenever I see something that’s been influenced by her, I’m reminded of all those really depressing figures on how when you see brilliant old quote attributed to “unknown,” it was probably originally written by a woman who no one bothered to remember even if they liked what she said. Mirrlees is as integral to fiction as all those forgotten women Harvard employed to document astral bodies were to space exploration.

Stress, Stoicism and the Adaptable Beast

As the great Joe Walsh once wrote, life’s been good to me so far.

I am just past ten months in Australia and I feel like I’m still adapting to it, but the last few weeks in particular have made me really hyperaware of just how out of water a fish I am. Prior to picking up actual work outside of writing, I’ve existed in a bubble of expat friends and Australians who are generally very familiar with America/Americans, so I haven’t had to go out of my way to explain things to them and they get my references.

Working outside of that bubble? I think I’ve spent a good quarter of my work time explaining stuff about the states. Not even the election and fallout, which is very obviously a major topic of discussion here along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country” and flipping out at those who consider Australia completely removed from the situation (not like it’s a continent notable for being the canary in the coal mine regarding climate change and sitting in China’s backyard should saber rattling between the other world powers occur). There’s been a lot of that, and as a political junkie I’ve been more than happy to explain things as best I can, but there’s an interest in cultural stuff I took completely for granted stateside.

My current long term contract has me running data administration and analytics for a children’s cancer care project with a pretty sizable coverage area. It’s a cool group of people from all walks of life, and almost all of them have been curious about everything from my prior jobs and working conditions back in the states to the shock of moving from a frozen wasteland to the subtropics.

Kittery_Point,_York_County_(Maine).jpgMy go-to at this point when asked “What’s Maine like?” is something along the lines of “you watch Game of Thrones, yeah? Beyond the Wall, but with less ice zombies and more moose. My hometown had under two thousand people at its peak, I lived a good half hour’s drive from anything resembling civilization, and I worked with a lot of people who took pride in never venturing outside of the state because home had everything they needed.”

It’s weird, because I’ve been put on the defensive about some of the things that bother me the most about the USA. There’s a definite element of “I can call it shitty as much as I want, I grew up in it and I understand why it’s shitty, but if you’ve never been there you’d better pump your breaks.” A lot of my time has been spent explaining why some terrible old social remnants exist into the modern day, even when I despise them myself. I have to explain the problems I see with the education system and how it doesn’t absolve people of blame for doing bad things, but it shows why they think that way beyond pure malice like many people see.

One of the big ones is when I was asking a couple of coworkers about leave, reimbursement, things of a financial nature. They were quizzing me on how it was at my old job and were utterly horrified when I told them about the pay rates, overtime policies, health coverage… one of them said it sounded like the third world and that she wanted to give me a hug at one point, and asked how I didn’t go completely mental over living that way for years and years.

And… It got me thinking. It got me thinking, as most things do, about writing and characters and adaptability. One of the oldest and most tired, worn-out tropes I love is that the human racial trait is the ability to be flexible and live anywhere, make anything the norm, and just deal with it. It’s an exceptionally lazy trope used to differentiate mankind from fantasy or alien races and is completely unrealistic because if we encountered elves or dwarves, if they had flourished at all as a people they would have had to adapt to different environments and social situations to meet localized customs. If nothing else you’d have, I don’t know, ice dwarves mining things in the polar regions and tropical dwarves living along the baked equator, and the difference in environment would necessitate different social norms and rules and whatnot.

But nonetheless, humans are usually the ones who get completely rounded stats and the most freedom for how you build them in roleplaying games, and are presented as something like the cockroaches of many sci-fi strategy games. Give us enough time to dig in and get used to something and we’ll treat it like it’s totally fine, what are you complaining about, of course I took my twelve doses of radiation medpac before going out onto the Belts of Zondarr to harvest glo-gems.

We are a remarkably adaptable people and I only see how stressful my life was in hindsight. When I was living it, well, I made ends meet. I recognized that things could be better and I worked towards that, but in the meantime I did what I had to in order to survive and meet my goals as best I could. I mean, I’m someone with chronic medical issues that I control through very strict, disciplined regimes I’ve had to develop since I was 17 years old and had to have multiple major surgeries ripping my large intestine out and reconstructing the ruins in my abdomen. I was, at any given time, even on a decent-if-overpriced health plan, a couple of bad cases of pouchitis away from bankruptcy. I worked 10 hour days and weekends for over a year just to be able to move here, to make a fraction of what I’m making now for similar work.

I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it. I try to be a woke, feminist dude but I’ve been bombarded by toxic masculine ideals my entire life and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed enough of them to keep a death-grip on my emotions a lot of the time; I simply don’t let myself panic and I bury my stress in a shallow grave. I come from the New England region where a lot of the societal norm is based around stoicism and not complaining about your lot in life. During the brief time I worked outside of New England, anyone who had worked with other people from the region tended to treat me like some kind of viking-golem who they could point at work and I would ponderously hack away at it until it was gone or I was, and that’s what I did.

It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of those ones where you don’t realize just how ridiculous the situation was until you were out of it. I look at my health coverage here, the kind of money I could make from entry-level stuff or short term temp work if I walked out of my job tomorrow, and I have no idea how I didn’t go insane from the stress of not having the options I do now.

I think that a lot of that shows up in my writing. I try not to do author avatar characters unless they’re well-hidden in the background or bit parts or I’m poking fun at myself, but there’s an element of that stubbornness that seeps into most of my main characters. And, weirdly enough, I feel like I’ve learned from them as well. There’s an incredibly bizarre kind of osmosis and reversal that happens to some writers, a bloc of which I feel increasingly part, where I really attach a good chunk of what makes me me to a protagonist (or antagonist, because I can also be an asshole) and throw them out into the vast ocean of fiction, and when I reel them back in at the end of the story I collect a lot of what they’ve learned.

It’s a bit like the old conundrum of how you write a character who is smarter than you, or better at you than something. You research it meticulously and you end up a bit smarter or better yourself. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing in the first place, more than any other creative form in the world.

My characters tend to be very adaptable, because when I read fiction that’s what I myself enjoy seeing. No one likes seeing a character who just gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. No one should ever feel like they need to be that character, either. Take advantage of the hoary stereotype of the incredibly adaptable people and let it be a wellspring of strength for you, and create these situations where you stand between the mirrors of real life and fiction and let both enrich you. I try to maintain the adaptability of the characters in my own life, in my case through sheer bullheadedness.

I don’t advocate bottling things up quite as much as I do, of course. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not that healthy for me and it’s something I’ve tried to work on for much of my adult life, but I recognize that it’s there and I can harness it when I need to. Your flaws can become strengths when you look at them just right. It’s like a much less violent version of Sam Vimes’s The Beast from the Discworld novels, particularly Night Watch:

Vimes felt his hand begin to move of its own accord–

And stopped. Red rage froze.

There was The Beast, all around him.

And that’s all it was. A beast. Useful, but still a beast. You could hold it on a chain, and make it dance, and juggle balls. It didn’t think. It was dumb. What you were, what you were, was not The Beast.

Self-indulgent wankery and shoehorned Pratchett worship aside, I need to get back to book recommendations beyond just re-reading the old Stephen King novels out of a misplaced longing for my homeland!

Rather than fiction I want to recommend one of the very few writing advice books I enjoy and have found helpful.

Now, I don’t have any personal hatred for writing advice books. I recognize that everyone needs to make money, it’s easier to sell shovels in a gold rush than the pan for gold yourself, and that many of the books contain really good advice, but I tend to look at them more as tools I can keep in a very large cabinet and fish out when I run into something that I can’t handle with my own homemade items.

Generally I like advice books that take almost a narrative form, like King’s On Writing or Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or some of Chuck Wendig’s collected essays. Authors talking about how much they love their craft does more for my brain than lists of how to do certain things or how not to do them.

41-+2jvwWJL.jpgOne of the very few exceptions to that is The Art of War for Writers by James Bell, written just a few years ago. There have been a billion business variations of The Art of War over the decades, all boiling down to strained “don’t be an idiot on the battlefield / don’t be an idiot in the boardroom” similes, but this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to storytelling. It presents the structures of a story as troop formations, the “enemy” as the reader, and winning the battle as battering down their defenses and capturing their attention fully enough that they not only buy your book but actively look to buy more. It’s split into helpful sections devoted to everything from narrative hooks to character development and how to foreshadow a compelling plot twist, and it does it with wry wit that is genuinely enjoyable to read on its own. You can’t use it as a blueprint for a story, nor should you because then it wouldn’t be your story or your voice, but it gives you a very useful tool that you can pull out when you find yourself in a bind or butting up against writers block. The snippets are, if nothing else, inspiration and story seeds for when you’re having a bad day and your head is feeling cloudy. It’s not going to hold your hand through writing a bestseller, but it can allow you to frame your own story from another angle and sometimes that makes a difference.

More Tyranny, Mindfulness, and Derry, Maine

I’m a bad person who has fallen completely down the gamer hole on Tyranny since my last post. Everything I raved about the other day? Pretend I did that twice as hard. I don’t think I’ve fallen in love with a game this much for years. I haven’t even touched Dishonored 2 yet or thought about picking up the new Final Fantasy, two other franchises I adore, because I’m too busy planning out future playthroughs and alternate paths through Tyranny.

Last time I talked at length about the morality of the setting, and how you need to approach it as alien to our own. This time I want to talk a little bit about the magic and how it differentiates itself from anything else I’ve played in the genre, or even in similar games like the Dark Sun series.

The magic of the game is sharply divided into three different tiers. At the top you have Edicts, which are the native power of Kyros the Overlord; proclamations that have a delayed or immediate effect on the world. Prior to the game’s start he could melt and entire nation into slag by having someone speak his Edict out loud, and the historians of the game tend to define eras by the Edicts proclaimed in them. We don’t really know what limitations they have, if any, and a large part of the game is prodding that. They seem to be open to interpretation and rules lawyering in a fun way. Here’s a small spoiler for how you can break the first Edict you encounter:

The game starts around the 20th of the month. The Edict you are sent to proclaim will take effect on the 26th of that mont once spoken. If you proclaim it on the starting day, you’ve got about a week. If you proclaim it on the 25th, you have one night. What I discovered was that if you buy up camping supplies and stay away from the settlements until the 27th, and then speak the Edict, you have a year until it takes effect. It will come down on the 26th of that month the following year, and you have what feels like infinite wiggle room. Not only that, but I found that characters actually have unique dialogue for if you break the game like this.

20161126205836_1.jpgIt’s really fun and you can either play it straight or be a sneaky bastard and get around the rules by interpreting them broadly. I think that adds a cool element to the game, where you aren’t just playing fantasy Judge Dredd who must enforce the letter of the law at all times. You can choose to make yourself into someone who interprets the spirit of the law and judges based on that, and you have a capacity to really stretch the boundaries.

The next level of magic is what the Archons have available, and to be honest I’m still exploring that a bit. One of them can shield his loyal followers from harm no matter how far away he is, another can devour the bodies of captives and add their minds to his, one can walk through shadows, so on and so forth. I’m just now entering the part of the game where I’m starting to poke and prod at how these interact with the world and if they’re permutations of the Edict or of the magic most readily available to the player:

Sigils.

Sigils are a little bit Morrowind-esque, which is already a massive point in their favor from me. I love them because they’re kind of like magic based on poetry or writing. Each spell is a miniature essay or argument against reality that you craft by hand.

You have a Core Sigil which represents your theme, your thesis if you will. Expression Sigils are the structure of your argument, how you channel your theme. Accent Sigils append your Expression, and Enhancement Sigils are kind of like citing other sources to draw additional effects. You could create a core sigil of frost, expressing itself in projected force, with accents of ricochets and enhanced residual decay. You’ve just created an ice lance that bounces around and leaves a ticking poison effect on each enemy struck, and within the context of the game, it’s because you’ve successfully argued reality itself into submission and twisted the new reality through your essay into a powerful magic attack.

I fucking love it. I usually don’t play casters in games – typically a bard or a ranger is the furthest I go – but in Tyranny I do find myself drawn hard into the spellcrafting system because it revs my imagination up like crazy. I get the feeling that Sigils are going to tie into the higher tiers of magic somehow, and I can’t wait to find out how.


Speaking of revving the imagination up, I’m almost done with my (admittedly very slow) re-read of IT. Man, I forgot how long this book is, and it’s not really one I can blaze through because I get caught up on details.

Details are what I want to talk about briefly here, in the context of mindfulness.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s something that has been around for awhile but has become affiliated with a lot of… I guess new age-y philosophical sects and there are a billion different permutations on it. Some people take it super-seriously as a lifestyle, others try to incorporate a few minutes of it into their daily routine, others only use it as a stress relief or pain management thing.

I tend to tap into it as a writer, particularly when I’m gathering information as an observer.

One of the core attributes to mindfulness is that you acknowledge things happening around you without judgement, accepting the good and not taking the bad personally. You don’t get upset at the red light, you just see that it’s turned red and you wait. You try to make yourself intensely aware of things like plants growing in cracks, or people smiling, or whatever else is happening immediately around you. There isn’t any focusing on the past or worrying about the future, you’re trying to fill your mind with the present without letting it have a negative impact.

You can see how this would be tremendously useful for writing.

It’s something I have to force myself to do, honestly. I tend to fidget about the past a lot, and spend the rest of the time daydreaming about the future (even if it’s just future story ideas), but that’s the equivalent of breathing out constantly. You have to remember to breathe in from time to time.

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you’ll float, too

King, I think, really gets that. You can see it in any of his books, but IT is probably the most solid example. His narrative voice is mindful and not passing judgement, which makes it stand out all the more when you zoom in and see something through a protagonist’s eyes with their thoughts coloring things one way or the other. It’s how his country town settings are densely populated with some of the most believable characters I’ve ever read. Never mind that, on the surface, they’re rarely more than caricatures. Every one of these characters has a certain level of realism, honesty even, that most authors can’t capture in a novel. Sometimes there are authors who can’t capture it in a series. King regularly captures it in a paragraph. He gives you just enough of a realistic frame that you can fill it all in with people you’ve known.

I think in many novels, in many stories – mine included – the bit characters can become objects knocked around by the protagonists or the antagonists. By being mindful of the fact that every single bit character is a fully realized human with all the unpredictability that entails, King is able to flip that around and have the main characters get knocked off their feet by the bit characters. Their actions directly influence the course of the overarching story, because each of them has their own parallel story that may intersect with it at the most random time.

I also like that the stories make it all the more clear that Pennywise isn’t necessarily the main villain of the piece. We don’t really know for sure whether he made the soil of Derry for fertile for atrocities or if it was like that and he settled down to plant his proverbial crops. Just like Salem’s Lot, IT represents the massive ugilness just beneath the surface of some small towns. A shape-shifting cosmic horror is almost unnecessary when you’ve got an entire town of damaged and abusive adults pretending that they know how to raise a generation of kids and failing miserably. If anything, the monster is a welcome reprieve because you know that in a fairy tale these 12 year olds stand a good chance of beating the dragon, at least better odds than preteen Beverly has of winning against her physically abusive father or Eddie has against escaping his helicopter mother.

When the narrator is talking in a neutral, mindful tone of all the little details in Derry, it makes the horror stand out all the more when we’re seeing those things through the eyes of one of the protagonists. The dispassionate description of a homemade dam becomes a totem of hope and unity for the Losers when they realize it’s brought them together and made several of them the first friends they’ve ever had, and the nonjudgemental descriptions of decay in an old apartment become creepier and creepier when viewed through the eyes of those same kids when they realize that what we disregard as water damage might be a true monster getting its claws in the world and manifesting through things falling apart. Be that buildings or relationships.

It also does something that I strongly admire King for, which is being kind of a time capsule of progressive thought for different eras. For a novel written in the 80s, it opens with a truly horrific gay-bashing and it’s explicitly portrayed as a very bad thing, to the point that it is tied in to the awakening of a fear-eating monster that kills everyone on both sides. You can see all the prejudices of everyone in the town in a way that’s completely realistic, like the cops who talk about how they “hate fagolas” but that doesn’t mean they want the guys to get beaten to death walking home together. Just by mindfully presenting the casual homophobia, racism, sexism, domestic violence, torture, extra-judicial executions… the ugly parts of American history and still very much parts of America now, he presents them as inexcusable and something to stand against, because in addition to being atrocities in their own right they often point towards a sickness under the skin where they manifest.

A Stranger in Skyrim

I don’t like it when people get into arguments over which is “better,” books or games. They’re so wildly different that it feels pointless even trying to compare them. There’s a legitimate argument (originally spearheaded by Roger Ebert) that video games shouldn’t be considered art in the traditional sense, that they are something more akin to a sport that you fully immerse yourself in. There’s also a legitimate argument against that, where video games are such a young medium and still evolving on a monthly, even weekly basis that it’s unfair to build such a stigma against them just because the current majority are built around a rule system where you can score points and “win” them.

They’re still storytelling mediums, though, whichever side of the fence you come down on. Sports can tell a story. The act of scoring points and winning is, in and of itself, a narrative arc to me.

Morrowind and Skyrim both hold a special place in my heart. I like the Elder Scrolls series in general, but those two have done a lot for expanding my mind. I grew up primarily playing strategy games and Japanese RPGs which a big emphasis on linear storytelling, making them more akin to a book with mild choose your own adventure overtones than anything else. Morrowind was my first step into more of a sandbox mode, and on top of that it served as a first taste into non-western fantasy storytelling. It takes place in the land of the Dunmer, the dark elves of the setting, and the creators went into the Dunmer territory wanting to draw influence from Egyptian, Japanese and various ancient Middle Eastern cultures without actually transposing one into the game. They came up with an incredibly fleshed out setting with these martial elves who lived by their own codes of ethics, where if you went into a situation expecting a resolution based off of your rules you could get yourself killed or imprisoned. More importantly they made many, many factions of the Dunmer. City-dwellers, recent converts to the ways of Imperial life who have accepted the “protection” of the Empire in exchange for giving up many of their traditions that clash with the imperial edicts. You have Ashlanders, various nomadic tribes who consider this a betrayal of everything that makes the Dunmer strong.

You have hundreds of NPCs caught in the struggle between these two broad views, and more importantly, they’re both right. In Morrowind, life does feel better under the Empire, but part of that is because they’re based heavily on the Romans, and that is familiar to us and makes the Imperial holdings feel like little pockets of western civilization in an alien landscape. The Ashlanders have a lot of good points as well, the Empire does feel like it demands more than it gives at times. This is a recurring theme of the faction throughout the Elder Scrolls; they are broadly the “good guys” but they are… well, Imperialists who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and exploit natives in colonized areas if they deem it to be for the greater good. Doubly so when the natives are not of human descent.

The Dunmer themselves are intensely xenophobic, have practiced slavery, and many of the older generations worship what the rest of the world considers literal demon lords. The younger generations worship the Tribunal, three “living” gods who ascended to godhood together and have their own agendas. Building clockwork universes, unraveling magic, peering past the veil of reality, sometimes working together and often working apart. Machinations within machinations. And this is just a fraction of the game, a bit of background on which an entire volcanic island has been built. I haven’t even gotten into the pack lizards, yurts, jellyfish public transit or other stuff that makes for such a unique experience.

That’s a lot of words about Morrowind for someone who wants to talk about Skyrim today. I wanted to lay down just how integral Morrowind was to me growing up before I dive into Skyrim, because on the surface Skyrim is much more of a traditional fantasy setting. Conventional, even. Straight up vikings.

Except it isn’t.

What I like about Skyrim, possibly even more than Morrowind, is how much they’ve hidden in the nooks and crannies. There are entire series worth of books in the game world to be read, and that’s just stuff you can collect and read from the safety of a tavern. When you get out there into the world there’s so much exploration it’s kind of mind boggling. I’ve played through the game with several characters and I’m still stumbling on new things every time.

If I had to compare it to a book, it’s like a straightforward viking adventure novel. But on every page, you can fold the paper out on certain sentences and find that they hide entire paragraphs, and sentences within those paragraphs then fold out to do more. You can walk past a viking crypt as scenery, or explore and find it full of ancient demon altars hinting at cults that, by the Imperial Record, should not exist. Poke a few stones near those and you might find a hidden passageway leading into a cave system filled with blind, cannibalistic elves. Fight your way past those and you could stumble into Blackreach, an abandoned city of amazing clockwork devices, artificial suns and spectral mushrooms, still patrolled by the bearded golems of a vanished race.

I like how these games make me think, how they inspire the creative portions of my brain to start sparking and lighting up. Part of that is just playing through as how I imagine my character would play through.

My first Skyrim playthrough was as a Nord barbarian with a giant axe. It felt kind of right, you know? It takes place in the Nord homeland, there are some cool ancestral ties going on there, it’s a tried and true narrative. It’s a “going home” story. When I played through as a Nord I ended up doing all of the dragonshout quests first because those seemed like the kind of thing a Nordic warrior would be interested in; discovering the secrets of great warriors past, not really caring about the civil war brewing in the background. He only joined in on that when he had to, to continue his questing with the greybeards and unlocking the most powerful dragonshouts so that he could confront the great wyrm attacking the Nord afterlife. There was a familiarity I imagined my character would have with the landscape and with the legends that came through in how he interacted with the NPCs.

Second playthrough I wanted to do something a little more magical, so I went with an Imperial combat mage wielding conjured weapons and throwing around destruction magic, and he dove headfirst into helping the Imperial Legion solidify their holdings in Skyrim, put down the rebellion, and then he worked on taking over the mages’ college before researching ancient spells led him down the path of the dragon language and the harvesting of dragon souls to power them. He became the prophesied savior after the fact because it was more realistic for him to advance the interests of his country and his art, being an intense patriot and practitioner.

I’m currently playing through as a Redguard, which is interesting because it’s the first truly neutral character I’ve done. Within the context of the story, the Redguards are really not a big fan of the Empire by the time of Skyrim, they used to be tight but they feel that the Empire gave in too soon to the elf nationalists who besieged them in the wake of the Oblivion gate crisis. The Redguard, being a very military culture, were able to repel the Aldmeri Dominion along the edges of their homeland for a long time and eventually drove them off. They split from the Empire, seeing them as weak allies who could have outlasted a prolonged siege instead of surrendering key aspects of their religion to the conquering elves (who, as it turns out, believe that the human race needs to be exterminated in order for the elves to retake their rightful place as rulers of the world).

20161103101410_1.jpgSo going into Skyrim as a Redguard, I really sat down and asked myself how and why this dude would find himself in a war-torn frozen wasteland with a bunch of factions he doesn’t have any personal ties to.

Merchant is an easy answer but flies against the idea of him being a master of the blade and shield, so I went with the idea of making him a smith. He’s on a pilgrimage to Skyrim because he hears that there are various magical forges dotting the landscape, some dating back to the dawn of the human race, and he wants to learn all the secrets of the agents. He signs up with a caravan and decides to use his military background to an advantage as a bodyguard, figuring that once they reach Solitude he can use the money earned to buy his way back into blacksmithing equipment and a decent horse.

His caravan gets caught in the middle of a skirmish between the Legion and the Stormcloaks, he’s one of the armed dudes and ends up on a prison wagon and the story picks up from there.

Coming into Skyrim as a Redguard character has been a really interesting exercise, because it’s so far removed from what other characters are going to experience, particularly other human characters. The Redguard, in kind of a weird plot twist, aren’t actually descended from the ancestor-race that gave us the Nords, Imperials, Bretons, etc. They’re from another island entirely, one that sunk long before the games and necessitated them to flee to Hammerfell and the surrounding regions. This isn’t even a visiting your forgotten homeland story, it’s stranger in a strange land. He’d have no ties to the culture, the history or anything else.

20161103100506_1.jpgHe does, however, know the importance of a tightly regimented military and the peace of law, so he knows he needs to sign up with one of the two factions ASAP. A quick trip to Windhelm, the Stormcloak HQ, shows that non-Nords live in abject misery and can be subjugated or even killed on a whim of any Nord living there. Our hero does the math in his head and hightails it to Solitude, where the Imperials recognize his use and outfit him with a full suit of heavy armor, a nice shiny new sword, and send him out to quell rebellions.

20161103100832_1.jpgThey are quelled without complaint, because when you’re a Legionnaire you follow your orders to the letter and with utmost efficiency, but you bet he’s been marking down every interesting tomb, crypt, town and temple while he travels. As soon as he finishes his tour of duty he’s going to be visiting all of them in search of the secrets of ancient smithing, of working dragonscales into armor, possibly of visiting the fabled Skyforge and the clan of warrior-mercenaries who have protected it for generations.

If he goes delving in the right (or wrong) ancient burial tomb, who knows what he might find? He’s already met the draugr and been very impressed by the quality of the weapons and armor they come adorned with, even if they have been left in damp crypts for hundreds and hundreds of years. The ancient Nords certainly knew their way around a forge, and some of the weapons still crackle with enchantment after generations of abuse, and that’s to say nothing of the strange runes he’s seen embedded on these structures. He’s certain he’ll learn something interesting if he keeps pushing through the darkness and braving the traps.

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One other thing that playing a Redguard has done, relevant to my writing, is it’s gotten me out of my own head and into other cultures. Within The Elder Scrolls, the Redguard are typically portrayed as pre-Islamic Arab tribesmen, with many NPCs playing up the fascination with curved swords. If you look at the character creation options, however, there’s a lot to play around with and I ended up basing my guy on something more like a Moorish swordsman with some elements of the Ayyubid dynasty mixed in and trying to incorporate the Yokudan religion (which itself is like a weird mixture of bushido, hindu and dervish sword dancers).

This has necessitated a lot of research so I can properly get into the mindset, which left me with a bunch of notes I can incorporate into my own, uh, actual writing when I’m not throwing my free time into the void that is sandbox gaming.

I figured that a smith is probably not going to fare as well in a nomadic area so he probably would have come from one of the coastal, metropolitan areas of Hammerfell. Probably Old Hegathe, an area that had once been colonized by the Dwemer and one of the few regions outside of Skyrim and Morrowind where their technology is still buried but reachable. It also provides some cool ties to the Dark Brotherhood once they pop up, since they originally show up in texts from Hegathe and may have originated there before becoming an international organization.

Knowing what I do about the overall Skyrim plot, I think he’s going to build up a grudging respect for General Tullius once he realizes the old wolf is still a worshiper of the forbidden god, and that he only wants to crack down on this civil war nonsense so that the Empire can start preparing for a massive counterattack on the Dominion, which may draw the forces of Hammerfell back into the old alliance and renew those bonds.

tumblr_nhd8qq1Dfd1qgikhco4_1280.jpgPlus I refuse to believe anyone can play Imperial and not come away loving the General. He’s one of my favorite NPCs in the series and an example of how to write a really good character with three faces: the one he presents to the world at large (by the book officer), the one he presents in private (secretly admiring of the Nords and their rites and rituals even if he doesn’t want to admit it), and the one he is (a Talos-worshiping badass who just wants to steamroll these dumb, racist elves and get back to serving the throne). Don’t worry, General Tullius. I won’t let the Dominion take your eye.


 

In lieu of a book review today I’d just really like to point people towards this article that Kai Ashante Wilson wrote this week: The PoC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction. I have a huge amount of affection for Wilson’s work; Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is one of those books that changed the way I look at fantasy writing forever and something I have recommended at least twice to all of my friends, and the recent followup A Taste of Honey is something I want to write about in more depth next week, I’m still kind of processing the density of ideas he puts forward in the story before I speak about it beyond “it blew my mind, go read it now.”

I’ll try not to regurgitate the text of the article here and steal his words, but it’s all about coded regional, ethnic and class-based dialects and accents and how they can work for or against people in publishing. He ran into some real problems getting his work published originally because so much of it is… well, in his words, unashamedly black. It’s a dying earth society where PoC are the only ones around featuring a queer black transhuman with powers that put him somewhere between a god and a genetically engineered space marine, who has to shroud himself in mysticism and constantly hammer his own dialect down into something more easily understood by the commoners he has signed up to escort through dangerous jungle. Having a cast of characters who talk like lyrics from a Mobb Deep or Nas song felt jarring in a way that made me step back and question my preconceived notions and realize that it was only jarring because it was new, not because inserting contemporary dialect into a fantasy story was at all out of place. There’s plenty of stuff I read prior to that where I wouldn’t have batted an eye at modern slang because it was slang I grew up using or listening to in heavy metal.

It’s a really, really good article by itself. Definitely aimed at PoC but useful for anyone who wants to try writing outside of their comfort zone and incorporating dialect without making it come off as absurdly racist by tying characters’ ethical levels or intellect in to the slang they use. It reminds me of some of Nisi Shawl’s best essays in that way, particularly her Writing the Other manual.


 

Last time I will post about it, if you enjoy my word vomit on this blog and have a little cash to throw around, we’re coming to the end of our first week on the anthology and it’s stayed buoyed remarkably high in the rankings with even a few reviews right now. The feedback and word of mouth has been really great so far, more than enough to justify the months spent working on it (it’s a self published anthology, I know it’s not going to be a blockbuster hit and if I come away with getting money for a big bottle of spiced rum while Chris buys himself some fancy new boots in exchange for sharing the weird shit that pops into my head, then I’m happy) and we have a few more days to try and solidify it in that first-week boost that starts recommending it to people who read similar books on the market. This is basically tied in to reviews; if you review it and another author as 5s, when people go to that author’s stuff they might see us pop up and vice versa.

For those of you still reading it, I really hope you’re enjoying it.

The Week So Far: A Triptych

Panel the First – Two Skeletons Collapsed At the Base of an Altar, Upon Which Rests a Kindle

51BmHrGNVKL.jpg The book is selling well. I know, this is obnoxious. I promise I’m only going to mention it a couple more times, it’s just that the first week is incredibly important to spike up there in terms of marketing and trying to rake in sales, and solidifying it in the Amazon search stuff. Some reviews are beginning to roll in and, unless they’re blowing smoke up our asses, they’re good. The themes are coming through to other people, that’s a big thing that I always worry about. So far it’s doing way better than the last book did in terms of ranking, and while I know ranking is mostly a vanity thing that doesn’t translate accurate sale rates, it still feels really nice to see something shoot from the four digits into the lower three digits practically overnight and then stay there for more than a day. Both Chris and I have really tried to stop being shy nerds and have done a lot more networking and research this time around, and I feel like it’s paying off. A big part of that is you guys who are sharing my blog posts(s) about it. I can see you, even if I don’t know who you are. It shows up under my tracking stats as no referring link, which usually means it’s being sent over messenger or e-mail. If you’re doing that, I give you sincere thanks. If you aren’t doing it, but you enjoy the words that come out of my fingers, consider doing it? Just this week, at least. Don’t make a continual pest out of yourself. I suspect sharing my posts constitutes a breach of the geneva convention.

 

Panel the Second – Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones Ascending to Heaven, With Shades

MEN-IN-BLACK.jpgI’ve started working again. Just temp stuff for now, it pays the bills, it gets me out of the house, it forces me to interact with other people. These are supposedly good things, but we’ll see. I’m okay with temp at the moment, it’s not something I’ve really worked before but it feels refreshing after holding down a single job long term, it’s letting me broaden my experience a bit and the networking potential is nice. Plus, it gives me a little flexibility and freedom to continue writing, which is how I’ve started outlining my Big Novel And/Or Series Story, which I will probably get into sometime soon. It’s also gotten me to break my work clothes out of hiding.

Can I be completely honest with you? As a teenager I thought suits were stuffy and dumb and overrated. I still think they’re a bit stuffy (ask me about wearing dark fabric in the Australian summer) and deeply rooted in some gross socioeconomic strata (fun fact, the tie was originally meant to show off that you didn’t work around hazardous machinery that maim or murder you if it caught on loose clothing), but at the same time? It’s kind of empowering and fun. It really changes how people treat you, which changes how you treat yourself. I essentially fool myself into being more mature when I wear it, and from a writer’s perspective it’s like creating a garment out of an unreliable narrator. It’s stiff and stylish and a little intimidating, but I can leave cracks in it to let the weirdness pop out. Bright socks or strange ties so that the attentive people understand that I’m just a weirdo underneath it all.

The Men in Black were completely right in how it’s the most important piece of equipment, even more so than any ray gun they were able to steal from an alien smuggler: it gives you the power to act authoritative and have people at least start to listen to you, even if you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

Panel the Third – Books Strewn Across A Smoldering Hellscape

514DLmSeGmL.jpgI’m playing mega catch-up on my reading list right now. I have some good stuff I want to review in the near future but the final burst to get all the final work for the anthology done, and then work and doubling up on Halloween stuff and you get the idea. I just finished up with Hammers on Bone during my commute yesterday and absolutely loved it. It’s a tightly paced and plotted little novella with some fascinating twists on what are completely archetypal cosmic horror tropes. It plays around with your expectations and nestles you securely in what seems by-the-numbers before upending that in ways I’m not going to spoil here. Besides that, it’s just a damn good detective story with a cool setting, and that’s all that I ask out of a book.

Launch Day for The Shadow Box

Well, today is the day. The Shadow Box is available for public consumption now. I’m never really sure what to do for launch day posts, everyone does them a bit differently. I’m going to talk about the book broadly, and then my own contributions to it (I’m sure Chris will have a similar post up) and some plans for the future.

The Shadow Box Cover Final.jpg

The Shadow Box was a real labor of love for both of us. Chris and I last collaborated on That Weird City (which we have dropped the price on for a combo deal kind of thing, if you haven’t read it) back in 2011-2012. We both knew each other from some writing and gaming communities prior to that, and we’d seen publication in the same magazine a couple of times, so we decided to throw together an anthology of weird horror stories that we’d had kicking around. It was very much a new author book with all that entails. Some formatting errors, some typos that slipped through, one story where the initial upload was a draft instead of the finished copy in the rush to get it up and ready for the self-imposed deadline. We actually just uploaded a kind of remastered version of the collection this weekend to coincide with the new launch, utilizing a lot of things learned over the years.

We have both learned a lot since City came out. We’ve both made a huge effort to expand the scope of our reading. City was very much a couple of New England dudes who grew up reading too much Lovecraft and associated mythos authors. Going back over it for the recent edits, I’m honestly kind of shocked at how little I cringe away from the narratives but also at how many new ways I would have expanded those stories if I’d written them today. My voodoo-tech support would be way, way more enmeshed with contemporary New Orleans Voodoo and all the social and cultural depth that entails, instead of being a convenient magical system for my white protagonist to use while fighting off evil spirits. I also would have leaned way, way less on the cosmic evil antagonists that popped up in many of the tales. I’m also very aware that five years from now I might look at that story and figure out a way I would have written it differently. Writing is never being satisfied with what you put out and knowing you can do better, but still making your best available while pursuing the higher goal.

Hindsight is 20/20. I walked away from the revision thinking that I played it really safe, and it was okay, but I want to do better than “okay” in my writing.

The Shadow Box is an attempt to push ourselves outside of the comfort zone. We may dip into the mythos for some trappings, but we’ve decided to twist them into new shapes and new directions. Chris’s work is tackling themes of masculine insecurity and testosterone poisoning, or art criticism and the idea of the creative zeitgeist as a force outside of our world entirely, or looking into the future-that-wasn’t of cyberpunk and marrying our current corporate dystopia with the trappings of the 80s. I’m shoving myself out of my own culture and upbringing to look at other things; I’ve got stories more approaching fantasy and dark fairy tale than the new weird, I’m trying to incorporate settings that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise, and I’m trying to be hyperaware of the ways that stories can be misconstrued if you aren’t careful with them. I have some stories on immigration and refugees that I went back over three, four, five times to make sure they were written right, because when you’re blending real world issues with the fantastic there’s so many ways to do it wrong.

I think it came out okay. I hope it came out okay. We’ve sent these out to beta readers of all genders, creeds and colors and we haven’t had anyone come back with “you insensitive assholes” yet. We gave ourselves a much more flexible deadline this time around and I think it paid off. There were many cases of finishing a draft and basically just taking a core element and a few characters to rewrite them from scratch. There was one where I had to stop it a few pages in and then work on another while reading several hundred pages out of a historical textbook to make sure I was getting a bunch of details right when they weren’t on Wikipedia.

Now it’s out there and if you decide to pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, or even if you don’t, the reviews help. Even a couple of lines on Amazon bump it up in the search and sorting algorithms. If you like it, maybe recommend it to some friends. Lend it to them on kindle – I mean, the spiced rum money is nice but the point of writing is to get it into a lot of hands – and throw a “hey this isn’t awful” post up on FB if you are so inclined. It’s incredibly helpful and appreciated and allows us to keep doing this kind of stuff.

Speaking of. I have no doubt that we’re going to put another anthology out sometime in the next couple of years, but with this having gotten us back on the writing horse we’re both working on our respective novels/series. Chris has some crazy-cool stuff brewing, I’m hammering out what started as a bit of a murder mystery and is now growing in scope with every history book I read and take notes on. Hell, when I finished a few of these short stories going “I want to make a novel out of these characters or this setting,” and I’ll probably take a stab at that as well. Doubly so if there are reviews from people saying they liked reading them in particular. Hint hint.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Off to read a treatise on turn of the century Cairo.