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.

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Christmas in Hell

14764449685_72755725e3_z.jpgOkay, that may be a little melodramatic. It was only in the low 80s this Christmas, high 70s if you sat in the shade. Fahrenheit, of course. I’m still getting the hang of the whole Celsius thing, as a godless Yank. My current rule of thumb is that if it’s over 28 by mid morning, I’m going to feel like death by mid afternoon. Anyway, anything over freezing is going to feel weird when I see Christmas trees decorating the shops, and will probably continue to do so for several years. Possibly forever, considering I spent 28 Christmases in Maine, and 2 in New York City. I equate it to shoveling massive amounts of snow.

When I say Christmas here, I really mean Hanukkahmas. Or Chrismakkah. Or whatever other bastardization other Jewish-but-not-super-serious-about-it families have used throughout the years. My parents always put up a tree under the rationale that it was the best way to show off all the ornaments they had collected traveling through Europe, and really, the whole bringing a pine tree inside and dressing it up has more in common with drunken pagan rituals than anything having to do with the fellow in the manger. We usually paired it with potato pancakes, menorahs, dreidels and all the other accouterments of the traditional Jewish holiday.

By the way, the story of Hanukkah would still make a kickass action movie and I’m forever upset that no one has made it yet. I mean, you’ve got a massive, bloody siege in the midst of the Maccabean revolt. A band of brothers standing up to an invading force being pressured by corrupt Tobiads to profane the great temple with pigs’ blood and idols to Zeus and whatnot. Do some gritty desert town battles culminating in the final week of the siege. Get The Rock, Vin Diesel, Nic Cage, Gerard Butler and Jason Statham as the Sons of Matthathias. Get Kurt Russell to play Matthathias himself. At the end of the movie he can run Antiochus through with a giant spiked menorah and yell “shabbat shalom, motherfucker” or something equally colorful. I’d watch it. I’d be there on opening night.

Well, I think that’ll just about satisfy my hate mail quota for the end of 2016.

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All that aside, this was a good Christmas, a good holiday season in general. It feels weird to get as much time off as I am. I’ve got a solid ten days here, and I’m used to maybe getting a four day weekend. I plan to spend a lot of that time doubling down on reading and writing, which is something I’ve already started chipping away at.

I had an idea pop into my head, related to that post I made back in October about fairies and horror. I kind of rolled it around in my mind over the weekend and I think I’d like to try and write a contemporary fairy tale, one that is uniquely American and not an urban fantasy piece. Not a noir-esque story with supernatural creatures, but something about the thin lines between the two worlds and what it looks like when the veils fray. I’ve got a couple thousand words down on paper as an experiment and I’m finding myself incorporating, of all things, the imagery of the post-apocalypse and the authoritarian-flavored dystopia as a parchment on which I’m slowly fleshing out fairies, changelings, bards and stone circles. I’ll post some more once I actually figure out what I want to do with it, but it feels good to write and that’s rare enough in a new story that I’m going to pursue it.

I’ve also transcribed about fifty pages worth of notes from all the historical documents I’ve been sifting through. Everything from Babylon to the WW1 era, everything I’ve been hinting at here to various degrees. It’s a lot of damn notes. Putting them in order and tagging them for future reference is as arduous a project as any amount of worldbuilding I’ve done before. I’m trying to be extremely careful not to get sucked into a worldbuilding hole under a different name, too. This is the bare bones I need to work on the story, the surface stuff and the bones underneath.

Now that I’m done making myself sound suitably Frankensteinian,

29069003.jpgI spent the week slowly doling out essays from Neil Gaiman’s new-ish collection, The View from the Cheap Seats. It is an absolute delight of a book. Every single essay inside of it is a treasure trove for hungry minds. You will find meandering essays on the evolution of Sword and Sorcery fantasy from Conan to Leiber nestled in alongside tributes to Lou Reed, prophetic warnings about the comic book recession from someone who had ridden the wave of its boom in the 90s, suggestions on books to read and things to look for. It’s one of the most hopeful books I have ever read, even at its darkest points. I think my favorite parts are the bits about his interactions with other artists of various mediums. Old stories about going on late night walks with Tori Amos or getting lost with Terry Pratchett and seeing how the man was basically a rage-fueled tornado with a gnomish smile and a silly hat hiding it all. I think it’s an invaluable book to anyone who looks books, either reading or writing them. If you do both then it might be one of the best things you read this decade, frankly. I acknowledge that I hero worship Gaiman a bit and that’s going to bias me heavily; I got into Neverwhere and The Sandman the same year I picked up my first Discworld novels and between the two authors I realized that I needed to write.

41cQuu21lIL.jpgThat’s my nonfiction book of late. For fiction, I picked up a nice little anthology called New Worlds, Old Ways edited by Karen Lord. It was good. I am afraid that I lacked the cultural context to understand a few of the stories, but even then I was able to appreciate them on a purely surface level, the raw form of the story and the crafting of the language in all of these is great. If anything, many of them kind of remind me of Jorge Borges. I understand that this is extremely weird, Borges hailing from more of a Latin American backdrop, but there’s a certain dreamy, surreal quality that permeates their work in the same way. As I read more and more outside of the American/British monopolgy, I find the weirdest bleedovers and similarities, and I suppose Argentine and Trinidad writers having similar structure isn’t that much stranger than Finnish stories seeming a close sibling to Japanese literature in terms of how the stories are laid out. But I digress here. New Worlds is not perfect, but it’s new and different, and that happens to be what I crave lately. I was never sure exactly how a story was going to turn out because I didn’t have a massive amount of familiar tropes and setups to help me predict what would happen next. I like that. A lot.

Invisible Planets and the Fall of Civilization

Christmas vacation has officially begun, so here in Australia that means a lot of sunbathing, gardening and catching up on my backlog of books. I read two this last week that left a huge mark on me, so I want to go a little more in-depth than my usual “just go read this” type recommendations.

5156C3sbiOL.jpgThe first one is Invisible Planets, an anthology of short stories from contemporary Chinese authors with translations provided by Ken Liu, whose own personal work I have been championing ever since I got my hands on the first Dandelion Dynasty book. He’s done an absolutely brilliant job here, providing not just readable translations but also context for the stories and information on the authors that helps fill in the gaps of cultural knowledge I might have as a western man approaching Chinese speculative fiction. There are essays in the back of the book explaining the evolution of SF/F in China as something considered infantile and useless, to something that you might be able to use to bait younger audiences into “real” science, to propaganda, to a true cultural phenomenon experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Stuff about how there is a generation right now that instinctively lashes out against CCP propaganda and is at war with the volatile nationalism that many politicians carefully stoke to remain in power.

But it would be completely unfair to these stories if you were to read them as commentaries on China. Instead, as Liu says in the introduction, you have to read them as commentaries on humanity, our place in the cosmos, and the way that technology has been integrated with everyday life at an exponential pace.

There’s some absolutely brilliant work in here, unlike anything I have ever read before, using story structures that are unfamiliar to me and keep me guessing. I love that and it’s what I crave in literature these days, what drives me outside of the mainstream and into whatever I can find from other cultures. There aren’t the traditional three-act plot skeletons in this book and that leaves me feeling cast into a strange landscape, in the best way.

I’ll give a brief, spoiler-free rundown of some of the stories that stood out to me. First off, Chen Qiufan does some of the best near-future cyberpunk I’ve read since I borrowed my dad’s copy of Neuromancer as a young teenager. It does for the modern day what classics like that and Snow Crash did for the 80s/90s. “The Year of the Rat” is one of the best, most subversive military thrillers I’ve read since The Forever War and the other stories he contributes are on the level of something like Blade Runner to me. After that you segue into the works of Xia Jia, probably my favorite author in the collection, who tells stories that feel like a combination of Neil Gaiman’s best work and Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story film that blew my mind clean out the back of my skull in the late 90s. Then you get Ma Boyong’s sole piece, which feels like it could be a commentary on Chinese internet censorship but has chilling repercussions when you consider how universal its themes are. Hao Jingfang is a close second to Xia Jia for me with some almost whimsical travelogues through the greater cosmos and then “Folding Beijing,” one of my favorite short stories I’ve read in years, following an illegal courier who lives in a near-future Beijing where the population has been divided into three sectors who take turns inhabiting the surface, with the city folding up underground and new people unfolding to the surface as each sector goes to sleep.

The last few stories I can’t really get into without spoiling them, but they are equally brilliant and imaginative to the extreme.

I truly cannot recommend this book enough. Doubly so because I want to see it succeed in the west to a level that more and more works like these get translated and released.

51-njdis6lThe other one I picked up is a serious change of pace, a historical text by the venerable Eric Cline called 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed. This is the kind of book that will somewhat ruin fiction for you, because you’ll never encounter fantasy on the scope of what actually happened. Entire cultures being swallowed up and leaving empty cities behind, languages lost to the dust of time, and a series of catastrophes on a scale that the next generation of civilizations could not even comprehend. This was the collapse that led directly to the Atlantis myths of the classical era, because the scholars and philosophers of that time could only come up with ideas like the sea swallowing an advanced civilization to explain the devastation that they discovered and the mangled framework of the people who had come before them. It makes the Fall of Rome look minor in comparison.

In college, when I was dipping my toes into the Late Bronze Age Collapse – as it was then labeled – I found that the general description was lacking. Sea marauders came, there was some sickness, and everything kind of got wiped out over a few years. That doesn’t begin to describe what happened. This was the entire Mediterranean region with some of the most advanced cultures on the planet all falling like dominoes in under a generation. The Mycenaean kingdoms collapsing alone would have been staggering, but then you get into the Egyptians, the Hittites, the people of Mesopotamia, these people who were the apex of mankind up until that point. All crushed into the dirt by both natural and man-made disasters, political mishandling, open revolt, quiet mutinies, abdication of royal responsibilities, alien invasions from beyond the waves. It’s truly apocalyptic in scale and it laid the foundations for later collapses just as readily as the aftermath of WW1 led into WW2.

Reading it also made me mad at all of the pundits saying that even with the madness of the current political world right now, all of the big nations around the world are simply too strong and powerful to succumb to any kind of collapse and that everything is going to be fine, that we should sit back and wait. Because they are unknowingly echoing that every single group of “learned” commentators have said about every culture that went on to fall into the dust piles of history.

What Comes Before

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I caught a couple of new prequels this week. You might have heard of them, even though they are small, indie movies: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, and Star Wars: Rogue One.

You know, it’s really hard to make a good prequel. A lot of them fall flat on their faces for a variety of reasons. When you make a prequel, the odds are already working against you:

  • You’re probably basing it off a beloved, or at least popular and profitable story, and it will be compared to that story right off the bat.
  • Everyone is presumably going to know what happens at the end of your story, or at least most of it.
  • If you have referenced events in the original story, you’re competing directly against the audience’s imagination and you’re probably going to lose.

So seeing two prequels back to back that I actually really enjoyed is kind of an oddity. I generally don’t like them, they come off as cash grabs most of the time and I find that even the best typically aren’t as good as the original stories.

I liked these, though, and I’m going to say why without any spoilers:

  • They add depth to the original story instead of width. There isn’t a feeling that they’re trying to outperform their respective parent stories. They’re not necessarily flashier or edgier. Instead they make it so that small things in Star Wars or the Harry Potter films suddenly have a lot more weight to them, small references are going to conjure up visuals and stories where they might have originally been filler.
  • There’s more of a focus on the characters, because both films acknowledge that you know what happens later. The Rogue team does not destroy the Death Star. Grindelwald will get locked up and eventually killed by Voldemort, and Newt will publish his manuscript and become very well known in the wizarding world. I will say that Rogue One didn’t measure up as well here simply because it threw so many characters at you in rapid succession, but the characters of the rebel alliance and the empire themselves were evolving over the course of the story. You can see the rise of one from ragtag cells to a movement, and the descent of the other from authoritarianism to fascism.
  • They married the old and the new. If you take a prequel and try to retell the original story or place it in a similar setting, you’re going to fail because it will seem like a pale shadow. Tweak the genre and turn it into, say, a travelogue in early 20th century postwar America or a military thriller with elements of the original story sprinkled in? That’s good.
  • Not too many injokes. Because, dear god, have I developed a hatred of blatant self-referencing over the last few years. I get it, you’ve got a shared universe of some sort, you want your stories to acknowledge one another, but revisiting iconic quotes or trying to be ironic with them every fifteen minutes is grating on the nerves.

They were both good and I’d recommend seeing them on the big screen, they qualify as spectacles worthy of being viewed via huge projector if you have the opportunity. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you’re probably going to love Fantastic Beasts – I went in with somewhat cynical fellow fans and we all walked out talking about it being better than expected. If you’re a Star Wars fan you’re probably going to love Rogue One, but interestingly, I think if you weren’t very impressed with The Force Awakens you’ll like this much more. I’m admittedly a huge Gareth Edwards fanboy and I’ve seen Monsters and his Godzilla more times than I care to admit, but I think he really did a good job here by looking at the old SW universe through a new angle. It’s absolutely the same place but it has strange shadows you’ve never seen before.

Getting back to new fiction books, finally, I just finished a great one today.

Well, new as in over 50 years old and recently made available to the wider public.

Tolkien_aotrou_itroun.jpgI speak of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by the one and only JRR Tolkien, released by Harper Collins last month. It is a 500+ verse poem in the format of a 15th century Breton lai, a particular kind of adventurous poem borrowing heavily from the stylings of German and French narrative poems popular a couple of hundred years prior. It follows a man who is so devoted to a woman that he sells his life to a witch/fairy in order to be with her, giving up what essentially makes him human to try and fill the gaping wound in his heart. I will say the book is not for everyone. It’s dry, and it’s incredibly archaic, and the main reason to read it is to pick up on the ways that this particular style of poem – and this lay specifically – influenced the way Tolkien approached the penning of his elven/human histories. You can see direct ties between it and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, or The Lay of the Children of Húrin. It’s probably one of the darkest pieces of prose that Tolkien ever laid his hands on, it deals with the utter destruction of a man and his family at the mercy of powers beyond their comprehension, something that is echoed in the far more glamorous Fëanor stories.

A man being beguiled by otherworldly women is a recurring trend in Tolkien’s stories and the roots stretch way back before this particular piece, but you can see it strongly here. It’s hard not to read the negative messages in that. I choose to take it less as Tolkien himself expression misogyny as him romanticizing the fairy tales of the land, many of which were misogynistic in nature and meant to warn young men off dallying with sexually adventurous women. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien’s body of work has a common theme drawing from this tradition, although he never gave me the impression that he himself believed it. You can see the most pleasant representation of it in Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, or Aragorn and Arwen, or even Beren and Luthien themselves.

Hell, you can see elements of it in the way he described his wife and the way he used to watch her dance in fields of flowers to draw inspiration for his work. He always describes her in such beautiful, otherworldly terms and their romance as a thing beyond the bounds of earth, like in this letter he penned shortly after her death and shortly preceding his own, when he sought to explain that he did not nickname her Lúthien so much as draw Lúthien the character from Edith the woman:

I never called Edith Lúthien, but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left.

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.

2533672285_364e4f0099_o.jpg
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.

Clowning Around

satgdsg.pngDamn, I’ve been neglecting this blog of late. I’ll try to remedy that; the contract I was working ended up getting extended twice over and I’ve been very carefully juggling priorities outside of work. I’ve even had to cut back on reading a little bit, or at least doing a better job of balancing work and pleasure reading so that I’m not just reading “fun” books all the time at the cost of my crunchy history texts that I actually draw on when I start writing.

I did, for the first time in awhile, pick up and start re-reading a book from ages ago.

IT, by Stephen King.

A classic, obviously. Some consider it a bit overhyped, others think it is underrated compared to The Shining or ‘Salem’s Lot. I liked it a lot the first time I read it, sometime in my late teens, and I’m enjoying it in brand new ways reading it as an adult who has done more and more writing and analytical reading.

I’m really starting to think that, moreso than the rest of King’s library, IT is a book that you should look at if you want to learn to play to your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, because the entire core concept of the book ended up doing so for him. I think that’s one of the reasons it endures as well as it has for several decades running, well enough to justify an updated remake and continual book sales.

First and foremost, it’s about a monster that hunts and attacks its prey by drawing upon their memories, their bad experiences, their emotions. I really can’t think of a better antagonist to put in a King book, because one of his biggest tics as a writer is that every single character, no matter how minor, inevitably gets several paragraphs devoted to their past, to their personality, to their little neuroticisms. Here you actually end up needing to know all of the fluff in their history because that’s what the monster is going to use to gruesomely murder them, so when you read their flashbacks for the first time you’re filled with a certain sense of dread that these things are going to be twisted into a weapon and used sometime in the future.

It’s brilliant, and it’s not something I caught onto as a kid. I have a huge appreciation for it now.

Second, you know how there’s a common trope of writers always writing about writers (because, to be fair, it is a bit of an antisocial profession and if you’ve grown up wanting to write what you know, what better than writing a fellow misanthrope into being)? It’s on full display here but in a way that works for the story on multiple layers.

It presents a pretty great central protagonist in Bill. Bill is obviously a King figure in a lot of ways. He’s an author who writes pulpy stuff and seems to have lucked his way into stability and a loving relationship, and who doesn’t take any of that for granted. He has a stripe of contempt for people who think that you have to pull every story apart and that you can’t just enjoy it on the surface level of being a story. More importantly, and more than almost any other King novel (besides Misery, obviously), the protagonist being a writer is so absolutely integral to how the plot works.

Bill becomes a writer to better hone his mind into a weapon, becoming kind of a foil to Pennywise. Pennywise tells stories to hurt and kill people, but Bill tells stories to empower and strengthen; he’s a horror writer who writes about monsters to show that they can be killed in the end, even if they seem overwhelming. I love the section very early on where he’s struggling with what exactly he wants to write, and he’s drowning in the opinions of people who only want to concern themselves with literary analysis: he ends up reaching deep inside of himself, tapping into his own past traumas and bad memories and ripping them out onto the page as a horror short. When he starts writing it, he becomes like a man possessed:

…his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete … after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button to the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It has started up. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.

I mean, come on. I love that. I love the simple, brutal poetry of the piece. Ironically enough, in a story that lashes out at people who analyze, I love what it means underneath the surface.

I think that if you’re a writer, not even a published one but someone who is serious enough about writing to sit down and do it and finish a story, you’ve had an experience like that. You find something that clicks in the narrative and all of a sudden it’s 4am, you want to die from exhaustion, and you have something resembling a first draft cobbled together in front of you because you’re afraid to stop in case you can’t start again.

That’s basically what happens over and over to me. I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of going up against a cosmic clown monster in the sewers to fuel my work, but more and more I’ve started pulling out bits and pieces of historical lore I stored away in the recesses of my brain, mixed them with various personality traits of mine, and ended up wanting to at least finish the story before I stopped to look at what I was doing.

Doesn’t happen with every story. In the recent anthology I think it only happened for a few. Others I really mapped out and planned to the hilt, and they were good and I feel good about writing them, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones I’ve been most heavily complimented on are those that I couldn’t stop writing when I started, because the story absolutely needed to be told and I didn’t think I could tell it as well if I paused in the middle.

Also, on the trail of all this and on an intensely personal note, I didn’t realize it so much when I was younger but Christ did King manage to nail the feeling of Bangor, Maine when he wrote Derry. I read about Derry and I can just imagine walking down the Bangor versions of those streets, looking at those bridges, seeing the peeled paint and the flood damage. My own hometown was probably a lot closer in tone to Durham, King’s childhood home and the basis for Jerusalem’s Lot (probably why Lot is the King book I always gravitate back to) but I spent plenty of time in Bangor growing up and seeing the subtle nods through adult eyes is really mind blowing. It makes me feel weirdly homesick even though the entire book could be seen as a treatise on the unimaginable evil lurking just below the surface of country towns like that.