Æsterverse 101 - Technology

 Lightkeeper working in city of light by tony Hicks

Lightkeeper working in city of light by tony Hicks

To understand the nuts and bolts of how the æsterverse and the technology within it works, there are some core pieces that need to be explained. I’ll try to not sound like that high school teacher you had who could put a monk to sleep at thirty paces just by opening his mouth, but this post is about tech, so I’m going to get a bit, well - technical. And as I’ve said before, this is just an overview, I’m barely going to scratch the surface of what’s out there, but this should give you a better idea of how the world works, why, and some of its thematic elements.

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One of the first keys to getting your head around all of this is to understand where everything started from. 1862 is the accepted date for the beginning of the Rise. Some of the greatest minds in human history were living at that time. Others who would form the basis of scientific thought we take for granted today would be born during the twenty year period of the Rise, 1862 - 1882. The problem is that many of them simply didn’t survive. Entire schools of thought we now consider foundational never came into being because the people who pioneered them didn’t live long enough to create them. By the same token, some rose to primacy in the æsterverse who have historically taken a back seat in the real world. To say that Nikola Tesla saved the world in the æsterverse might be reaching a little, but isn’t inaccurate. The reason? The fluorescent light can be turned into a grow light - that’s it. The ability to grow plants where there is no sunlight made Telsa a hero. Every city of light in the æsterverse owes its life to Tesla. And Edison? He’s the footnote in history in the æsterverse.

Another important concept is that during the rise, technology slipped backward. If it wasn’t useful for survival - right now - it fell by the wayside. Whole schools of thought, both social and technical withered and died. The champions of those ways of thinking died, the writings were lost, or they were simply forgotten. When you lose two-thirds of the human population in twenty years, a lot falls into the cracks never to be seen again.

Science in the 1860s was observational. The idea of “theoretical science” like what Einstein did, was considered nothing but flights of fancy. In the years of brute necessity during the rise, there was no room for it. Sure, there were drawing room fantasies, but the scientific community had bigger fish to fry - how to stop the extinction of the Human Race. By the 1920s, (PAe 60’s according to the æsterverse calendar. Sixty years PAe - Post Æster) the sciences had backslid and started to rebuilt themselves in whole new ways. And there was this new stuff that was part of the equation - the Æster. As science and technology rebuilt itself in the new, darker world, æster was now inextricably tied to every school of thought. This included social and spiritual. But we’ll deal with those in another post. Let’s stick to technology here.

Technology and the Draw

The draw is the key to everything happening the the æster’s clouds. To remind you, the draw pulls things upward into the sky. At the æster floor (nominally ten thousand feet), the draw overcomes the force of gravity, so things begin to float. It holds ships and platforms aloft and makes things like the giant aeroplexes possible. The force of the draw grows stronger the higher in altitude, or “deeper” you go into the æster.

This effect is a key element to the story of my first book, “The Tomahawk Incident.” If a ship goes too deep into the æster, they may reach a point where their engines cannot overcome the power of the draw. Unable to fight the draw, the ship will be pulled upward and destroyed. To combat this, the British Admiralty created the Æster Rescue Service. The “Tomahawk Incident” is about a rescue service ship that gets pulled into a mystery and a threat that no one on the ground is aware of.

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Back on topic - Technology. Aeroplexes exist to connect earth and æster. “Sky Hooks” are gigantic cable structures that run from the ground to æster anchors in the sky. Platforms above the æster floor are built onto the cables. Elevators transport everything from cargo and personnel to entire ships up and down these cables. Aeroplexes are only able to achieve their staggering heights by being built around sky hooks, or more accurately, onto them. The skyhook cables are the spine an aeroplex’s entire structure is built onto. The St. Louis aeroplex pictured above stands over twenty-one-hundred feet high. That’s more than twice the height of the Eiffel Tower to give you a sense of scale. The tallest aeroplex in the world, London, towers more than three thousand feet (more than three Eiffel Towers high) above the London city of light.

A quick note on electricity. The æster is basically like one gigantic battery with differences in potential constantly fighting for equilibrium in it’s supercharged clouds. Lightning is a constant expression of this interplay. Cities of light are powered by the æster through the basic electrical principle of electron flow. Current will flow along a conductor run from something with a charge (the æster) to ground. Power is not an issue in any city of light, nor is it a problem for most ships operating in the æster. Æsterships rectify electricity directly from the environment around them. The problem is controlling all that current. You are plugging into a battery the size of the whole northern hemisphere after all. Between insulators, bypasses, and careful regulation, ships and cities of light ride the lightning, having all the power they require with no need for any other kind of fuel. And hopefully without ending up getting burnt to a crisp. Needless to say, entire fields of scientific endeavor now study the peculiarities of the æster’s extreme current, the metallurgy of cables that carry it, the structures around it, and glass and ceramics used as insulators, just to name a few. These are just some of a cornucopia of unique fields of study that have come into being in the æsterverse.

As I said in the first Æsterverse 101 post. The draw acts like in inverse ocean, becoming stronger the higher in altitude, or deeper into the æster you go. Things “sink” upward into it. This throws normal physics on its head when it comes to things like navigation and gunnery. Imagine you are firing a gun at something in the æster. If the draw is strong enough you would have to aim beneath your target, calculating the ballistics of the shot based on the draw pulling the projectile upward. And to further complicate matters, unlike gravity, the effect of the draw changes depending on where you are in the æster. For a ship traveling in the æster, this adds an additional dimension of difficulty to every navigation problem.

To combat this problem and others unique to the cloud dynamics of the æster, beacon roads crisscross the sky to let ships know where it is safe to travel.

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The sky isn’t owned by the terrestrial empires. There are “gentleman’s agreements” and a few treaties about territories in the æster, but they are difficult to enforce at best. The sky above the established boundaries of a nation or empire are considered to belong to them. But when beacon roads extend beyond those borders, who owns, maintains and ensures the safety of those critical routes gets muddy pretty quickly. Warships and pathfinder vessels called Forgers do not rely on beacon roads for navigation, but in so doing take extraordinary risks in the dangerously unpredictable skies.

Electrostatic Sheathing - As I mentioned earlier, æster is corrosive. One of the ways it is prevented from just chewing its way through the hulls of ships and platforms is through the use of electrostatic sheathing, a charged field that mitigates the corrosive elements of the æster. But those fields must be kept balanced against the constantly changing electrical potential in the æster around them. “Æster Strikes” occur when an object’s electrical signature is sufficiently out of balance with the surrounding æster that it becomes the lowest point of potential. Put simply, a ship or platform whose sheathing has become out of balance suddenly becomes the target of huge amounts of current. This usually manifests in something resembling a cataclysmic, long lasting, lightning strike. Depending on the ship, how out of balance it is with its surroundings, and the concentration of the æster around it, it can make for a rough ride, or the ship can be incinerated. Needless to say, traveling in the æster is not for the faint of heart.

Electro-Kinetic Drives - Æsterships use electro-kinetic drives to push and pull them along the electrical fields and currents in the æster’s ever-changing supercharged clouds. Similarly, platforms, beacons and all other structures use electro-kinetic motors for station-keeping and maneuvering.

What about where there isn’t Æster?

The æster only covers the higher latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres. It grows sufficiently thin as it reaches the tropics to make it hazardous for æsterships to travel there. But people still fly.

Airships are common everywhere where there is no æster. Fast packet mail, pleasure liners and giant passenger ships crisscross the skies along the equator and operate in the boundary area below the æster floor at ten thousand feet and along the fringes where the æster is too thin for æsterships to navigate. Some are little more than motorized baloons, others are giant dirigibles.

But there is also another class of vessel out there, the Hybrid. Hybrids are vessels capable of operating in both worlds. Expensive, difficult to maintain and requiring extraordinarily skilled crews, hybrids can operate in the no-mans land where neither full æsterships, or normal airships can safely operate. Forgers, the nickname given to æster pathfinder vessels, are some of the most widely recognized hybrid ships. Their job is to map the æster, identify and establish new beacon roads and explore the wonders of the volatile skies.

But æster’s usefulness isn’t restricted to the clouds. Æster is collected and refined for fuel, used as a base component in industrial chemistry, even used in medicine. It may not be the basis of all physical sciences in the æsterverse, but it is one of the single largest contributors. Airships and hybrids depend on the Æster Lifting Component to fly. ALC is an electrically charged gas with a higher lift ratio than hydrogen or helium whose unique characteristics allow its buoyancy to be adjusted by altering its electrical charge.

Æster has been used as both a benefit and a bane in medicine. From it, vaccines have been produced that combat new diseases spawned during the rise and illnesses born from a world where mushrooms, fungi and molds have taken over the niche previously occupied by chlorophyll based life.

But it’s most infamous medical use has been the creation of the Janissary Formula. The mixture of æster, opiates and other unknown chemicals is used to create the Ottoman supersoldiers, the Janissaries. Called the “Crimson Death,” they are the most feared fighting force in the world. Stronger, faster, and able to withstand wounds that would kill normal men, the Janissary Formula makes them superhuman. Breathed from the time they are infants, they cannot survive without it for long periods of time. But it’s ability to heal them allows for the implantation of Anthromechanics, physical modifications that further increase their legendary their physical prowess. Sheathed in armor that somehow communicates with the anthromechanics in their bodies, they are relentless instruments of war.

So, there’s a quick overview of technology in the æsterverse and some hooks to things that are in my books. =) You can look forward to getting to know the captain and crew of the Æster Pathfinder Forger Achilles in “The Tomahawk Incident.”

Æsterverse 101 - A world of empires

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Empires and fallen kingdoms and upstart states, Oh My!

The first scene I wrote in the æsterverse was a slugfest between ships in the sky.  "The Tomahawk Incident" was born from that scene.  From that it was clear that the world I needed was one where empires were ready to start taking pot shots at each other at the drop of a hat.  So, as I began fleshing it out, competing imperial powers had to be a centerpiece.  

If the physical geography of the world was drastically changed by the cataclysms of the Rise, the changes in political geography were catastrophic.  Nations that had known centuries of prosperity were all but obliterated, others that had no place at the world table were suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  

Amidst all the chaos, the fall of empires and rise of others came down to two factors.  Darkness encroaching from the poles to eventually engulf the upper latitudes and rising ocean levels.

I did a lot of research on sea level rise as I was building the world of the æsterverse.  I was surprised to find out just how many capitals around the world would be catastrophically affected by a hundred foot rise in sea levels.  It's strange and disturbing that my research for the æsterverse is suddenly being mirrored in the real world.  What's below is a projection for a 30 meter sea rise around London.  The areas in red are land that has been flooded.  It's a stark image.  This sort of inundation happened to many capitals around the world during the rise as they lay along major rivers or near the sea.  As far inland as Paris was, it too saw flooding.  Anything along the Seine's long route was affected.  And yes, I'm a cartophile if you must know.  I love maps.

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The world's a big, complex place.  For simplicity I'm going to concentrate on the æster's effects in the northern hemisphere.  That's where the seat of empires were in the 1860's, after all.  The effects were mirrored in the southern hemisphere, but the politics below the equator were largely driven by the empires north of it.  As darkness encroached from the north and places like London and Paris were being inundated, imperial powers were forced to make decisions for survival.  For those capable of it, that meant moving their capitals to possessions along the equator.  The capitol of the British Empire moved from London to Darwin (now New London), Australia, and the French decamped from Paris to Dakar in West Africa.  At the time these decisions were made, the imperial governments had no idea that the encroaching æster clouds would stop.  They moved their capitals as far away from the danger as they could with no guarantees.  This thinking precipitated the British bypassing India as the seat of the British Empire, even with the considerable problems incurred by having the capital so remote from its possessions.  And this kind of survival-first thinking was repeated again and again by widely disparate governments, sometimes with disastrous results.

The battle to escape the northern latitudes spawned some of the most horrific human catastrophes of the Rise era.  For empires with no possessions along the equator, there was nowhere for them to run.  The Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were torn to pieces in the melee.  Austro-Hungary's many internal conflicts ripped it apart in a series of conflicts that were given the blanket name, "The Wars of Austro-Hungarian Disintegration."  Russia had no choice but to try to move south, marching into the meat grinder of the Ottoman Empire, the British along India's Northwest Frontier or the Papal States holding Italy in the west.  Worst case estimates say that as much as ninety percent of the Russian population perished during the Rise.  And of course there are the empires of China and the Ottomans.  The Chinese capitol now resides in Guangzhou (Canton).  The Ottoman Empire is the only empire whose capital resides under the æster's clouds.  Constantinople, at forty one degrees north latitude, sits firmly in the darkness of the Nyx, a brooding symbol of the the empire's implacable will.  Ottoman possessions stretch to North Africa and throughout the Middle East, but they have stubbornly refused to shift the seat of power from the darkness.  To their west stands the bulwark of European defense against the Ottomans, the Papal States.  Ruled by the Pope from the capitol in the expanded, walled city state of Vatican City, the Papal States are a not considered an empire but a coalition of independent kingdoms.  The Papal States straddle the Mediterranean like a titan against the Ottomans.  From the Alps in the north, and across the heavily fortified islands of Sicily, Malta and others known as the Iron Chain that stretch from the toe of Italy to Tunisia, the Papal States cut the Mediterranean in half, trapping the Ottomans in the east. 

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Other groups made new alliances to survive.  The Low Countries, Scandinavian countries, the German Empire and those who split off from Austro-Hungary came together to form the New Hanseatic League, their capitol is in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Spain and many of her possessions formed the Hispanic League whose capitol lies in Bogota, Columbia.  Some Kingdoms remained independent, largely due to alliances with larger empires.  The Kingdom of Abyssinia in East Africa and Kingdom of Siam stand in strategic locations, supported by the British and the Hanseatic League as checks against the Ottomans in East Africa and Chinese in Southeast Asia.  

For fledgling America, the Rise was the anvil the country was broken against.  In the throes of the Civil War, the federal government was ill equipped to face the rampant flooding and impending doom rolling down on them from the north.  In 1862, amidst the chaos of rising waters and oncoming æster, the Union lost the battle of Antietam.  The Confederacy took Washington and forced a surrender, then separated themselves from the Union.  The Confederacy may have won the war, but they lost the peace.  Within just a few years, the Confederate government was drowned under the flood of refugees from the north fleeing the æster darkening skies.  Since that time, the southeast of North America has been labeled the Former Confederacy, an administrative no-man's land.  It is neither British America nor under any real authority from it's former owners.  In the Former Confederacy law only extends as far as an artillery round can be fired from the walls of the remaining city states and walled cities.

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With no possessions along the equator, America's citizens had no place to run.  What began as humanitarian requests of the British Empire to allow Americans to emigrate to British possessions eventually turned to the Federal government requesting reintegration into the British Empire.  And British America was born.  Encompassing all of Canada and extending far into Mexico, British America has become one of the largest and most powerful British possessions in the world.  The fact that most of it lies under the darkness of the Nyx does little to blunt its industrial might.  The last vestiges of the United States now lives on as the Republic of California.  Occupying the west coast of North America from the Baja Peninsula to the Columbia River, California is an ally British America must keep on good terms with.  They are the gateway to the Pacific.  Without California, British America's only Pacific ports are in British Columbia. 

In the fifty years since the æster has settled, the empires have returned to the upper latitudes, building the Cities of Light, night train lines and retaking abandoned cities.  Some of this was done as a show of defiance in the face of the world turned against humanity, some of it was done as an expression of imperial might.  But like so many other things, it's easy to see the real reasons as economic.  There are resources in the darkness of the Nyx that the empires need.  

Where there are empires, there is conflict.  In the æsterverse, the primary threats to the British Empire are the Ottoman Empire and the Empire of China.  The last several major conflicts fought by the British Empire have been against the Ottomans.  And everyone expects another is in the offing.  The tension between the two empires is at a constant low boil, only rarely dropping to a simmer.  With the two empire's allies entrenched in low level conflicts almost constantly, another war is just one misstep away.  Britain and the Empire of China have been in a proxy, not quite Cold War for decades, playing out primarily in the Kingdom of Siam.  Siam is supported by both Britain and the Hanseatic League - it has to be.  With the British capitol in Darwin (New London) and the Hanseatic League capital in Jakarta, Southeast Asia is not a region that can be ignored.  The possibility of a conflict that could be catastrophic to all parties involved has largely kept things from boiling over there.  But should China invade Siam or cross into India... all bets are off.   

With the changes to global weather systems, places that had been seen as having little value suddenly became critical to the empires survival.  The "Green Sahara" was turned from desert into lush fertile soil during the upheavals of the Rise.  It is a constantly contended resource between the Ottoman Empire holding the eastern half of North Africa and the Middle East and the French Empire who hold the west.  Similarly, the outback of Australia has turned into a bread basket for the British Empire.  What was arid, has turned green and fertile.

With the loss of sunlight in the northern latitudes, all the great boreal forests of North America, Europe and Russia went extinct.  Wood has become one of the highest value commodities worldwide.  And no countries cash in on that as powerfully as those in South America and Central Africa.  The Portuguese have stepped forward onto the world stage as a power player primarily because of their control of the vast forests of Brazil.  Every empire has its footholds in Africa, but the Zulu Empire controls areas of south central Africa wielding iron clad control over the resources of that region.    

"The Tomahawk Incident" and other stories take place in the spaces between Britain, her allies and her enemies.  There is a lot of unexplored world out there. And there are a lot of stories to be told in the darkness of the Nyx, the æster's corrosive, supercharged clouds, or even in the Aureus along the equator where the sun still shines.  

 

 

 

Four Days in December set to play at Tri-Cities International Film Festival!

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I just got confirmation that our short documentary “Four Days in December” is going to be playing at the Tri-Cities International Film Festival on the weekend of October 12-14! I’m super excited for people to have the opportunity to see it in a larger venue again. Hopefully, this will lead to other showings!  

This looks like an amazing lineup and I’m thrilled we were chosen to be a part of it!

 

It’s been nearly two years since we went to Standing Rock and it feels both strange and gratifying to have the opportunity to share the story of our small part of what happened there again. We all know the battle against the Black Snake isn’t over. Water Protectors continue to be arrested and abused both here and abroad by government and law enforcement who are in the pocket of the oil companies.

 

We see the evidence of corporate greed everywhere; every time we turn on the news. But at Standing Rock I was slapped in the face by the reality of just how blatantly that news was controlled. I saw the lie for what it really was for the first time - What we see isn’t any version of the truth of what’s happening. Everyone who went to Standing Rock witnessed that first hand.

What the mainstream media called “violent protesters” and “rioters” were women and men standing in peaceful prayer, exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly on land that belonged to them. Unceded territory land that to this day legally belongs to the Standing Rock Tribes. The companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline were drilling illegally on land they didn’t own. They knew it, they just didn’t care. They had corporate mercenaries to harass and attack anyone who stood in their way. Water Protectors were attacked by dogs, tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, sprayed with firehoses in twenty degree weather, beaten and arrested by state and local law enforcement.

But it was the Native Americans and their allies who were standing up for their rights, for the land, for the water that we all depend on, who were cast as the aggressors and the villains.

Four Days in December tells only a very small piece of the huge story of Standing Rock and what happened in Oceti Sakowin. It’s the story we who went out there with Veterans for Standing Rock experienced. As veterans, we swore an oath to “Defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and we couldn’t just stand by and allow what was happening in North Dakota to go unanswered. Those four days in December changed my life, and I know it changed the lives of others who went with us.

“This is Spiritual Warfare” someone said. And it is. There are forces in the world that serve life, the greater good, each other and our communities. And there are those that serve greed and ownership at the expense of the very things we require to survive - air and water.

I am once again proud to say, Mni Wiconi! “Water is Life!”

Æsterverse 101

 Cetacean æstership by Tony Hicks

Cetacean æstership by Tony Hicks

One of my friends commented recently that I should do some blog posts about the Æsterverse.  After all, it's what I've been writing the longest and it's what got me started writing seriously.  A pretty fine idea!   

I'll start with an overview of the world.  Obviously, there isn't enough space in a blog to go into detail, but this should give an idea of the world my first book "The Tomahawk Incident" exists in as well as the follow on books and other stories.

First off, let's get the name thing out of the way.  Æster is pronounced like the name 'Esther.'  Purists will complain that the Æ should be pronounced like an 'ay' combination, but that's not the way it works in the Æsterverse.  The name was coined by a scientist in the world as a combination between the chemical concept Ester and that of Æther.  Voila!  Æster pronounced like Esther.

One of the first things you need to know about the world of the Æsterverse is that it's post-apocalyptic.  The Rise was a twenty year period that drove humanity to the brink of extinction.  It began in 1861 with the Æster's first appearance and ended when it settled into its final form.  By then, two-thirds of the human population on Earth had been extinguished.  The Rise also changed the map of the world, both physically and politically.  There were catastrophic seismic changes and the earth's magnetosphere was disrupted.  There can be over a dozen 'magnetic norths' at any given time now.  Needless to say, magnetic compasses are useless, relegated to the trash heap of history like many other things as quaint relics of the world that used to be.  Ocean levels rose one hundred feet to inundate coastlines and drown capitals.  Never before seen cataclysmic weather slashed across the globe.  And finally, Human action in the face of what seemed to be the end of the world spawned decades of unimaginable suffering and death. 

The second thing you need to know is that the apocalypse is over.  We clawed our way back from the edge of the precipice.  Humanity stubbornly refused to succumb to what seemed inevitable.  The world I wanted to write is summed up in the phrase, 

We now stand on the brink of a Golden Age, if we are bright enough, brave enough and bold enough to seize it.  

The dying is over and wonders never before imagined have been wrought in the aftermath of the awful years of the Rise.   

What is the Æster?

The æster is many things, but I'll start with its global effect.  The æster's clouds cover two-thirds of the earth's surface, stretching from the poles to the tropics at twenty-three degrees north and south latitude.  It's clouds are densest at the poles growing progressively thinner as you travel toward the equator. From the poles to forty degrees north and south latitude, the region known as the Nyx, no sun reaches the earth's surface at all.  By the time you reach twenty-three degrees north and south, it's thin enough that the sun comes through the æster's thin clouds.  The equator, and to the line of the tropics at twenty-three degrees north and south there is no æster cloud cover.  This band around the equator where the sun still shines is called the Aureus, from the Latin Aurei for golden.  The band of progressively increasing cloud cover between the Aureus and the Nyx is known as the Argentum.

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The æster is a volatile gas with numerous significant properties.  To answer the nuclear winter question that always comes up, the æster's volatility makes it act like a thermal blanket, keeping the earth's surface temperatures from plummeting as they normally would when deprived of so much of the sun's warmth.  

Æster is conductive, flammable, refinable into fuel, and corrosive.  In the right conditions, it is capable of rendering flesh to dust in a matter of minutes.  Having two-thirds of the earth's surface covered in such a substance does not create a recipe for survival.  Fortunately, one of the æster's significant phenomena pulls it away from the earth's surface.  Counter to logic, it grows denser the higher in altitude you go, what is referred to in the world as "deeper" into the æster.  The "æster floor," is normalized at ten thousand feet through most of the habitable world.  Below this, the environment is free of æster.  This allows life to exist on the ground even in the Nyx.  The æster floor is also the point where its concentration becomes sufficient for the æster's most extraordinary property to come into play - the Draw.

The draw pulls objects upward into it allowing giant vessels called æsterships to travel within its churning, corrosive clouds.  The draw also allows titanic platforms to exist, some anchored to the ground, others floating free.  Scientists in the world have described the æster as an inverse ocean.  Objects "sink" upward into the clouds, the æster growing more dense the higher in altitude you go in the same way water pressure increases the deeper you go in the ocean.  With the increase in the æster's density comes a corresponding increase in the power of the draw.  At a certain depth, a vessel's engines can no longer fight the power of the draw and the ship is pulled upward to their doom.  Nothing - weather balloons, scientific instruments or anything else has ever survived above a certain altitude, or depth in the æster.  It is assumed that the powerful corrosive and violent forces beyond a certain point simply destroys whatever reaches these depths and they are torn down into their chemical components, possibly to create more æster.  But no one knows.  

Scientists and philosophers have theorized what the æster's origin is, or what could have begun the cataclysms of the Rise.  But even decades after its first appearance, the æster remains as much a mystery as the ocean's abyssal, frigid depths.  

What do you listen to when you're writing?

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To me, music is a kind of magic.  There are few other things that have the power to alter people's emotions the way that music does.  And it's instinctive - babies respond to music.  Sometimes strangely and wonderfully so, in the case of our head-banging baby below.

 

People have asked what I listen to when I write and I think it's a really appropriate question.  I draw tremendous influence from music.  There are particular kinds of music I listen to when I'm writing certain things or am in certain moods.  It's all a part of my creative process.  

For example, I was writing content about the Æsterverse's version of World War One, the Great War, and there were two songs that I had on repeat in my playlists.  As you might imagine, what I was writing was pretty grim stuff.  These songs helped keep the emotional temperature up so that I could get to the emotions I wanted to evoke. 

Within Temptation - Our Solemn Hour

VNV Nation - Nemesis

I tend to listen Pandora and Youtube 'soundtrack' mixes most of the time.  Audiomachine, Two Steps from Hell and Thomas Bergerson are some of my favorites.

 

Audiomachine - An Unfinished Life (Pandora 'Siren' version) is one of the most emotional pieces of music I've ever heard.  I don't know why this particular piece of music hits me so hard, but it does - every time I listen to it.  I hear loss and sacrifice playing out when I listen to it; nobility, cowardice, fear.  This music has supported, inspired and deepened so many scenes I've written. 

Audiomachine- Legacy of the Lost - This piece of music is tied to one of the most pivotal events in the of history in the Æsterverse.  The æstership Forger Perseus is disabled in battle.  Without power to fight against the strong currents, she is dragged toward the wall of an æster storm, which will surely destroy her.  Perseus' sister ship, Forger Agamemnon ties onto her with tow cables and grapples in an attempt to save her.  Forger Agamemnon's captain, "Edger" Lancaster, and Perseus' captain Sam Ward are lifelong friends.  Edger continues to fight to save Perseus even as they come under attack by enemy ships.  Tied onto her wounded sister and unable to maneuver, Forger Agamemnon is a sitting duck.  But Edger refuses to abandon his friend, even when Sam Ward demands he leave them.  Captain Ward finally orders the tow cables and grapples cut, sending the transmission, "I'll be damned If I will drag Agamemnon down with us!"  Sam Ward's sacrifice of Forger Perseus and her crew gives Edger and Forger Agamemnon a fighting chance.  It begins the saga of one of the most storied ships and captains in the history of the æsterverse and gives rise to the toast shared by all Forger crews, "Remember the Perseus!"   

I do listen to film soundtracks, or at least parts of them, but generally I go for things that don't have specific imagery for me yet.  They give me space to fill in what the music is telling me.

But there are times when I want the emotions that I associate with scenes from movies, so they go into my playlists.  "Brothers in Arms" from "Mad Max: Fury Road" fits firmly into that category.  The camaraderie between Max and Furiosa is great, especially given how tenuous their relationship is up to that point.  And the intensity of that music really drives me when I'm writing stuff where characters lives are in each other's hands.   The Devil and the Hunstman from "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" is another that has particular power.  It's primal, ancient and is something I have had in my playlists a lot as I work on my modern fantasy novel. 

And then there's "Wonder Woman's Wrath."  I don't know anyone who doesn't feel it when this music plays.

 

 

Some music is a writing prompt in itself.  It's so evocative that I immediately see imagery when I listen to it.

 

"Shenavallie Farm" - The Wicked Tinkers (with Jay Atwood on the Didgeridoo) - The video is terrible, but this specific rendition always gives me goosebumps.  Being of Scottish descent, the bagpipes always get my blood moving, but it's the Didgeridoo's haunting voice that really makes this song special.

 

"See the World Burn" - Goran Dragaš & AsjaKadrić 

And VNV Nation's "The Farthest Star" has been not only the inspiration for some stories, but also sort of the support soundtrack for others. 

World, celtic and ancient music play a big part in what I listen to when I'm writing tribal or fantastical elements.  I was introduced to ethnomusicology when I was taking undergraduate classes in anthropology and this kind of music really struck a chord in me.  Pun intended?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  And of course I heard a wide variety of medieval/ancient music over the years I was in the SCA. 

 

"Sztoj pa moru" - Laboratorium Pieśni  This particular piece is one that's stuck with me since the first time I heard it.

 

Hard rock and heavy metal are a go-to for me when I'm writing action.  It's hard to find better music to churn up the kind of intensity I want to capture in those scenes.  These are just a couple of my favorites. 

AC/DC - Shoot to Thrill, Thunderstruck

Metallica - Seek and Destroy

 

Everyone's got classical favorites.  I'm no different.  Sometimes, they feel a bit cliche' because they've been used so often, but I still can't hear Adagio for Strings without getting goose bumps.

Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings

Escala - Palladio

Carl Orff - Carmina Burana

 

If music's power is in it's ability to evoke emotions in us, then it's the blood of storytelling.  Storytelling, when done right, reaches down into us and grabs our emotions at our hearts, right from our bones.  Music does this whether we're conscious of the story it's telling or not.  It cuts past our rational brains and hits us in the guts.  And as a writer, that's what I always want to do, have my reader feel.  A friend once told me, "If it gives you goosebumps, it'll give them goosebumps."  So, if I listen to something that makes me feel, it's easier to pass on those emotions in my writing.  

 
 

Okay, so I'm a Geek/Nerd and that's okay.

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So, I'm a nerd.  Duh... I write sci-fi and fantasy.  It kinda goes with the turf.  Select your adjective, Nerd, Geek, whatever, I pretty much fit the bill.

As I've told people, "My geekness cannot easily be measured."  We're Harry Potter fans at my house, I'm a Ravenclaw.  I'm more a Star Wars person than Star Trek, though Discovery was pretty epic.  Battlestar Galactica is a series my wife and I rewatch every year.  I like my sci-fi gritty.  And just so we're all on the same page, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool-Browncoat.  I do aim to misbehave more often than I probably should.

I nerd out about metal working and sculpture, that's what I did when I was in art school, after all.  Historical nerding is something I can go way down the rabbit hole on.  It could be the details of nineteenth century saber use, or why modern folks don't seem to get just how important a waistcoat is and the differences in waistcoat length between 1750 and 1780.  And then there is primitive technology...  How to make fire without matches, twining thread from milk weed, or building a metal casting furnace from only clay, straw and sand based on a Bronze-Age design...  The list goes on and on (and on and on and on). 

 Building one of my first primitive bronze furnaces.

Building one of my first primitive bronze furnaces.

 Not me, just a good picture of primitive casting.

Not me, just a good picture of primitive casting.

 firing some components for casting:  a Ladle, a couple of air flow plugs, cast off bowl.

firing some components for casting:  a Ladle, a couple of air flow plugs, cast off bowl.

 Charcoal + forced air = a couple of pounds of bronze ready to cast.

Charcoal + forced air = a couple of pounds of bronze ready to cast.

I'm a great fan of Andy Goldsworthy's environmental art and picked up a fascination for Inukshuks while I was in art school.  So, in short, I like playing with dirt and rocks.

 Inukshuk 1 - cle elum, Washington

Inukshuk 1 - cle elum, Washington

 White inukshuk - cle elum, Washington

White inukshuk - cle elum, Washington

As a writer, all of these spheres of geekdom inform my writing.  Every writer does research.  I like to live some of mine.  I like to get my hands dirty.  And I know there are other writers who do the same thing.  Being a Geek or a Nerd isn't the epithet that it was when I was growing up.  People have come to realize that geeks and nerds are some of the smartest people they will ever meet.  That's a great thing.

Not every artist or creative is a geek.  I've met plenty of artists who looked down their noses at me because I went into the woods wearing eighteenth century woodsman's clothing to sleep rough in front of a camp fire.  And historical reenacting is filled with people who are conservative, who looked askance at me for being a sci-fi nerd.  So, there are all kinds of 'steps of geek/nerddom.'

Someone once told me to "Write the stories I want to read."  What a fantastic piece of advice!  I didn't have to write things that fit someone else's framework, just what stories I wanted to hear.

I am a Star Wars fan because I saw "A New Hope" when I was thirteen.  I was exactly the right age to be affected by it and it changed everything for me.  I'd grown up watching Star Trek, but suddenly there was this grittier (by the standards of the time in 1977) heroic story with mind-blowing special effects.  

Before this were things like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, but nothing like Star Wars.  The serial sci fi of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were just too "old" to catch my interest.

I started writing fanfic about it immediately.  I gobbled up "Splinter of the Mind's Eye," and that set my interest in expanded world/universe storytelling.  

 

"When he created ‘Star Wars,’ George Lucas built a universe that sparked the imagination, and inspired others to create. He opened up that universe to be a creative space for other people to tell their own tales. This became the Expanded Universe, or EU, of comics, novels, videogames and more." - Lucasfilm sets record straight on Star Wars Expanded Universe

One of the key things I learned from this was the idea of "myth" in a fictional world.  The same story could be told from different points of view within the same universe and that story could be wildly different because it was based on the perception of those telling it.  In a universe the size of Star Wars, that meant there could be wildly different versions of the same event.

Following Star Wars' success, the floodgates of scifi opened up on TV.  There were things like Jason of Star CommandARK IIBuck Rogers in the 25th Century and the original Battlestar Galactica.  Some were awful, some were good.  I consumed just about anything scifi I could get my hands on reading-wise.

It wasn't until I was in the Navy that my geekness really got refined.  On ship, boredom was a huge part of life, so I read voraciously, the Thieve's World series, Starship Troopers, Dune, Anne McAffrey's Pern series, Spellsinger, BOLO, Lord of the Rings, Foundation, the Thomas Covenant series, Shanarra, Dorsai, Darkover etc, etc.  

I also really got into tabletop gaming when I was in the Navy - D&D, Traveller, Gamma World, pretty much anything I could get my hands on.  We played on ship, on friend's ships, at the USO, anywhere, anytime we could.  Anymore, I don't really have the time or energy for tabletop gaming, LARP, etc.  Pretty much all of my friends are involved in them in one way or another.  Even playing in a game puts my brain into storyteller mode.  I end up spending hours and hours building backstories and at the end of the day, that's creative energy I need for my writing.

I started playing in the SCA - the Society for Creative Anachronism, while I was still in the Navy.  Once I got out, it became my passion.  Let's just say the next decade of my life was in one way or another shaped by the weight of a shield on my arm and a rattan sword in my hand.  

 

What's above is a shorter version drawn from "SCA - The Dream."

And then I got involved in historical trekking.  What can I say, I like black powder shooting, starting fires with flint and steel and wearing filthy moccasins.  Going out into the woods and camping with only what an 18th century woodsman might have carried gives a very different view of the world.  That 'different view of the world' was most clearly pointed out one morning when I was on a trek.  It was cold, so I was trying to get the fire started to make coffee, but I kept dropping my flint because my fingers were numb.  It wasn't until hours later that I talked with someone who'd brought a thermometer with them (part of a period set of scientific instruments for mapping) that I found out it was nineteen degrees - at that time.  Which meant it had been substantially colder earlier.  But I didn't -feel- cold.  I know that sounds weird, but it's all about situation.  With my wool clothes next to a fire, I was fine.  But that's not something many people are going to experience or understand.  It's part of the concept of 'a different kind of comfort' when out in the woods.  

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 My buddy Nate in our lean to

My buddy Nate in our lean to

 

The video below gives an idea of what historical trekking is all about although these guys are representing a later era, 1820s-1830s or so vs 1750s-1780s.

 

Like I said above, my geekness cannot easily be measured.  These things are all part of what makes me - me.  And as a creative, they are the things that inform my storytelling.  So, as the saying goes, I'm no one to judge.

My philosophy is 'Let your geek flag fly!'  It's who we are and I'm unapologetic about it because it's allowed me to explore things that many people seem reluctant to.  So don your plastic armor, raise your rattan or foam swords, sit at a table and work out tactics for your miniatures, or how you and your plucky adventuring party are going to get past the basilisk, grab your rendezvous gear and go burn some powder.  It's all good.  We're geeks and nerds and that's okay.

Anxiety and being creative. In other words, "Oh my God! Do I suck!?"

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I'm having an unusual experience for me.  Anxiety about my creativity.  Normally I just plod along, do my thing and it doesn't generally bother me.  Sure there's anxiety when I get critiques from people or do read-throughs with a group.  I'm pretty much used to that anymore.  But now, I'm getting ready to direct my first narrative short film, which I also wrote, and suddenly I feel like I'm waiting for my self-esteem to plow through puberty again.  At least I have the comfort of knowing that St. Deadpool knows my pain.

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It's filmmaking - it's complex, there are a lot of moving pieces.  And it takes a team of people to make happen.  I ran a mid-sized LARP (20-50 people) for five years (Yes Virginia, I'm that much of a nerd), so the organization and people part of it isn't what's tripping me up.  I think the issue is the technicality of it all - technicality that I'm not as well versed in.  I'm a storyteller, not a technician.  I'm learning the ins and outs of filmmaking (mostly how not to embarrass myself on a set), but when it comes to specifics, I depend on those who know more than I do.  And that, right there, may be the problem.  Having to depend on other people for my creativity to become real.    

When I write it's just me and my keyboard.  With sculpting it was long hours in the studio by myself.  I've worked on plenty of collaborative projects over the years, but in most of those cases I pretty much knew what the hell I was doing, or at least I wasn't "in charge" if I didn't.  Right now I feel like the poster boy for "Fake it till you make it!"  Don't get me wrong, I trust my filmmaking partners in crime.  They are some of the most awesome, creative people I've ever met.  And they know their stuff.  But the feeling of dependence sets the anxiety engine churning.

The great "What if?" machine is working overtime.  I think a lot of creatives run into the "What if?" monsters.

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What if someone doesn't do what they're supposed to?  (Again, I trust my crew, but those anxiety tapes still play.)

What if my actor gets sick?  What if they get hurt?  What if someone's car breaks down on the way to the location?  What if... What if... WHAT IF!

The location we're shooting in is dry and I had a nightmare last week about accidentally setting the whole damn place ablaze.  And the list of possible transgressions goes on and on.

I've been trying to do my part in the art department, building some things, dyeing some things, and generally getting my hands dirty.  So far, that's pretty much been an all-out bust.  That's just frustrating.  I've done a lot of fabric dyeing over the years.  I love working with fiber, weaving, dyeing, all that kind of thing.  Well, NONE of the stuff I've been trying has been working.  Something I "should" know how to do (Let the monkeys of self-loathing fly!  Fly my pretties!  Fly!) hasn't and... Woops! there goes another part of my self-esteem into the chipper-shredder.

As a pyro and metal artist, I was going to build a flame bar for us to use (please refer to nightmare about setting all of Western Washington on fire above).  A flame bar is used to put an easily controllable fire in the foreground of whatever your shot is.  For our purposes, the shot is looking across a campfire at our actor.  After spending a week or so researching and designing one, I was out buying the parts when we decided (-rightly so-) to not do it.  Given how we're filming, it just made people nervous.   My dream about burning the whole place to the ground would seem to indicate I too was less than a hundred percent on the idea.  So, there's another couple of days of creative work down the tube.

 

I don't know about anyone else, but I hate embarrassing myself in front of my friends.  I figure that's probably a pretty common thing.  Well, here we have a script I wrote, that I'm directing (faking it), with a bunch of technical requirements such as lenses, lighting and sound that I'm not a pro with, being shot outdoors where God only knows what's going to happen - all in front of my friends.  No pressure...

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I love film as a storytelling medium.  The only way I'm going to get better at it is to do it - and risk sucking in the process.  And as a late addition to all this, I got word last night that another publisher passed on my first book, Tomahawk Incident - so there's another kick in the creative balls.

I just have to keep reminding myself that my friends don't think I'm as much of a dumbass as I feel like I am and that getting out of my comfort zone is where I really learn things.  All that rational stuff and a lot of "breeeathe... breeeeathe..." keeps the worst of the fear and anxiety at bay.  I tell myself that if I'm learning, it's about change and there's alway some discomfort that goes with that.  Sometimes that discomfort is a twinge.  Right now, it's more like a barrel of bricks being dropped on me.  

So on that thought, I'll leave you with a song about a barrel of bricks that pretty much sums up what the anxiety beating currently feels like.

 

 

 

Politics and the blog... What am I supposed to say?

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Wheeew... Where to even begin.  We are currently "living in interesting times," as the Chinese curse goes.

I'm a student of history as well as a creative.  It's clear to me that there will probably never be another time in my life when wielding art as a weapon of resistance will be more sorely needed.  Pablo Picasso said:  "Painting is not made to decorate apartments.  It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."  He was, of course talking about his painting Guernica.

 

As someone who peddles fictional worlds filled with made up conflict and characters, it sometimes feels like what I'm doing is less "meaningful" than it should be - whatever the hell that means.  It's not like I'm the 'gonna go out and find the cure for cancer' guy, or anything, but given what's happening right now, writing sci-fi and fantasy sometimes just feels kinda 'fluffy'.  

But then again, that presupposes there is a greater reality or truth out there.  In our current situation, we can't argue "truth" because it's become a meaningless slogan.  Facts are irrelevant in a world where people in power simply choose whatever reality they want, spinning fabrications that their followers believe even when they don't match what they see with their own eyes.  

I'm certain I'm not the only person who verges on being paralyzed about what to do, what to say or how to take action.  And as we all know, speaking out puts a target on our backs.  I've had friends arrested, doxxed, and it's become so common for people to be threatened that we're becoming immunized to it.  If you are a Person of Color, Immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ or are part of any number of other groups, every direction you turn is threatening.   So, many people don't speak out.

I've been told to 'stick to your fandom,' talk about your fictional worlds or anything else - just don't bring up politics.  Unfortunately, we're kind of in a place where we can't get away from it anymore.  Those arguments might have held water a few years ago when people weren't marching under Nazi flags, ripping children away from their parents, putting them in cages and calling for journalists to be lynched.  But that's where we are now.  Some people have the privilege to stay silent.  They know that things won't affect them immediately because they aren't part of one of these targeted groups.  The word those people need to keep in mind is - YET.  They haven't been targeted - yet. 

So, what are we as spinners of fantasies, game writers, novelists, entertainment bloggers supposed to do?  It's simple really - "MAKE ART!"

Paul Sizer is an artist I follow and respect.  He's never shied away from meeting these things head on.

For me, it's about doing what I set out to do as a storyteller - communicate.  Now, it may not happen in the traditional ways I normally think of.  For example, there are a couple of songs that have been in my playlists a lot lately.  I'm sharing them because they kind of cut to the guts of what I'm feeling.

Under the God - Tin Machine (David Bowie) 1989 (Prophetic much, David?) - Lyrics and music - but who wouldn't rather watch Bowie in a live performance?  "White trash picking up Nazi flags
While you was gone, there was war
This is the west, get used to it
They put a Swastika over the door."

 

Cross the Line - Superchick

"They want us to lie down, give into the lie, 
that nothing has to change and no one has to die.  
But that's not the secret but I know what is
Everybody dies, but not everyone lives." 

 

I've been going back and forth about whether or not to even do a post like this, whether to open Pandora's box if you will.  But after talking with friends I decided to head down this road.  We're in a strange no-man's land these days.  Many of us understand that to be silent is to be complicit, but we aren't interested in turning our blogs or other outlets into strictly political venues.  But to say nothing is disingenuous.

If I say something and it offends someone who believes that what is currently happening in this country is good for us, is that someone I really want to follow me on social media?  And before we go down the whole mock civility rabbit hole, let me be clear.  I have friends who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum.  That's not what I'm talking about.  

Nazis marching, people chanting about an ethnostate, kids in cages, people calling for journalists to be lynched?  Sorry, we're never going to see eye-to-eye on these things.  If I were putting out a personals ad for people to follow me on social media there would have to be a section that says, 'racists, misogynists, bigots and science-deniers need not apply.' 

I will let St. Deadpool express for me.

 "Listen, the day I decide to become a crime-fighting shit swizzler, who rooms with a bunch of other little whiners at the Neverland Mansion of some creepy, old, bald, Heaven's Gate-looking motherfucker... on that day, I'll send your shiny, happy ass a friend request!"

How the hell we are in a position where video game companies have to explicitly say, 'Nazis are bad.'  

"Wolfenstein (Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is the new game) has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren't going to shy away from what the game is about. We don't feel it's a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we're not worried about being on the right side of history here." - Pete Hines from Bethesda ("It's disturbing that Wolfenstein can be considered a controversial political statement" - GameIndustry.biz )

A great and telling line from the game, "Come and get f*cking me you fascist, nazi pig!"

And from the folks at Ubisoft, who produced Far Cry 5:

“We started building this game three years ago,” reflects Far Cry 5 director Dan Hay, “we could have never imagined, and to be honest I wouldn't have wanted to... that in some ways, it's echoing out in the real world.” - from "How Far Cry 5 became more Political that Ubisoft Intended"  

So, where does that leave me?  Right here.  I'll continue primarily blogging about writerly things, sci-fi, fantasy, and other geeky stuff, but I'm also not going to censor the rage, fear, and anxiety I'm feeling.  This blog is me, or at least as much of me as I'm comfortable sharing with the world, warts and all.  And some of those warts are what I will and will not stand for, what I believe in.

So, if you're a fascist, neo-nazi, bigot, misogynist, or anti-science nut, consider yourself warned.  This may not be a comfortable place for you because Black Lives Matter, Families Belong Together, I'd rather sit in a stall next to a Trans person than a violently repressed one, Planned Parenthood saves lives, universal health care should be a human right, the world is round and climate change is real.  

Oh, and...

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Action is Emotion

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As I've said in the past, action scenes are usually what starts me on a writing project, or what gets me out of being stuck.  But how do 'action scenes' work anyway?

Action scenes are often more about emotion than physical action.  Putting my characters through the emotional wringer is a great way to break up the log jam in my head.  I may not end up using the scene, but like everything else I write, these scenes will inform something else, even if it's just what my state of mind was at the time I wrote them.

I can hear some people saying, "Okay, okay, I get what you're saying, but you said this was about action scenes.  Can we get back to that?"  Sure.

Why do guys love war movies?  Is it because we get to see sh*t blown up?  Yes.  Do we get to see the good guys kick the ass of the bad guys?  Yes.  But I think there is something more going on behind the scenes.  Don't worry, this ties directly to the subject of action scenes.  War movies make us guys - feel.  

A great example of this is the movie Hacksaw Ridge.  This isn't the normal war movie narrative, about killing the bad guys or taking ground.  It hits us in the guts because it's about Desmond Doss, a guy who refused to carry a gun, but still served on the front lines of World War II and saved lives.

 

Camaraderie, loss, victory, etc, etc; war movies get our heart's pumping in a lot of different ways.  They are a place where we're it's acceptable for us guys to have strong emotional responses.  Now, I'm speaking for myself and from my generation and I know a lot of guys out there are much more tuned into their emotions than some of us.  

Actions scenes need to work the same way war movies do.  There have to be kick-in-the-guts emotions running through them or they are just stage direction.  Who gives a damn that our protagonist is strong and fast if we don't feel the risk to them, if we don't feel their fear and uncertrainty, if we aren't entrenched in the reason they are fighting?  In my opinion that is the key to action scenes.

A good example of an emotionally driven action scene is the duel between Achilles and Hector from the film Troy.  Achilles' fury at Hector for killing his cousin would have have been far less powerful without the counterpoint of Hector having been shown as an empathetic character earlier on.  As a result of these clashing points of view the crescendo fight scene is a seething display of emotion.

 

Yes, there are technical pieces in all action scenes; punches, kicks, gunshots and sword blows, but if the action is driven by emotion, the details of the fight become less important.  After all, what is the reader really there for?  Sure, some readers want the technical nitty-gritty, and that's great.  But for most people they are (hopefully) invested in the character who is in the fight, like Hector above, and so they want to -feel- along with them.  In narrative writing, we don't have the advantage of a stirring soundtrack or stunning visuals to get our emotions ramped up, we have words.  Now, the other side of this conversation is that we have 'lots of words' to tell the story with, to give wonderful description.  With words the reader can smell the distant flowers and trees, taste the dust and sweat and feel the heat of the sun.  But we still have to get the most punch in the fewest number of words. 

Conflict on every page.  That's a common thing most writers are taught.  In an action scene, it has to be reduced to surgical precision.  Every breath and action must carry all the emotional weight while moving lightning fast.  If it drags, the reader becomes distracted.  Too much detail, the reader loses the flow of the action.  And so on and so on.  I'll often punctuate my action scenes with short 'punch sentences.'  These punch sentences can be just a few words, but they imbue the action with rapidity and a feeling of stop and start motion - in other words, action.

In this example, from 'The Tomahawk Incident,' things are happening fast, there is confusion, self-recrimination and assessment, all occurring at the same time.

"The lightkeeper's eyes suddenly went wide.  “LOOK OUT!” 

A powerful swing of his staff sent Katja tumbling.  When she looked back over her shoulder, he was falling.  The lightkeeper crashed to the sidewalk with a sharp cry of dismay and pain as a tall, severe-looking woman lunged past him.  

Katja saw the outline of the long knife in the woman's hand.  Her mind caught.  She’d allowed thoughts of David to block her awareness of her surroundings.  But her body reacted instinctively, before she could think, bringing her attaché up like a shield.  The point of the dagger slammed into the paper-filled leather case.  Katja twisted it hard and threw the case aside, pushing up to her feet from the bricks.  All thoughts of David vanished as the nondescript woman pivoted, following the motion and dislodged the knife.  Katja hadn't realized she’d grabbed the collapsed baton at her belt through the opening in her overcoat until the weapon snagged.  She gripped her coat and yanked.  The baton came free with a pop of stitches.  The knurled grip in her hand and familiar Snap! as she threw her arm downward to extend it focused her."

There's a lot happening here and there should be.  Action is about chaos, but chaos the reader can (hopefully) easily follow.  

The other thing that makes action work is that the reader has to be invested in someone or something involved in what's happening.  The someone could be our hero in danger such as Hector in Troy above, or someone attached to them such as Lois Lain being thrown off of a rooftop that Superman has to save - again.  The 'thing' could be a vial of serum that's going to save the world that our hero is lunging after before it rolls off the edge of a cliff.

Action is part of the narrative.  In film, fight choreography is carefully crafted to fit the story that's being told.  Like a fight scene in a book, every breath and action as well as each camera angle and the way shots are edited together combine to hopefully enhance the story.  This works better and worse depending on the film.  Let's look at the Bourne Identity.  Action all over the place, but in service of the overall story of our amnesiac ex-assassin.  In this clip, we can clearly see the character's surprise and revelation about his capabilities.  This is the first time we see what Bourne is capable of.  That's why the scene is there and the character's emotions are what make it work.   

 

And this is what that whole fight scene looks like in (a version) of the script:

"COP #2 has heard enough --

giving a sharp poke with the nightstick -- into THE MAN's back -- and that's the last thing he'll remember because --

THE MAN is in motion.

A single turn -- spinning -- catching COP #2 completely off guard -- the heel of his hand driving up into the guy's throat and --

COP #1 -- behind him -- trying to reach for his pistol, but THE MAN -- still turning -- all his weight moving in a single fluid attack -- a sweeping kick and --

COP #1 -- he's falling -- catching the bench -- trying to fight back but -- THE MAN -- like a machine -- just unbelievably fast -- three jackhammer punches -- down-down- down and -- COP #1 -- head slammed into the bench -- blood spraying from his nose -- he's out cold and --

COP #2 -- writhing on the ground -- gasping for air -- struggling with his holster -- THE MAN -- his foot -- down -- like a vise -- onto COP #2's arm -- shattering the bone -- COP #2 starting to scream, and then silenced because --

THE MAN -- he's got the pistol -- so fucking fast -- he's got it right up against COP #2's forehead -- right on the edge of pulling the trigger -- he is, he's gonna shoot him --"

Obviously, writing action in a screenplay and in a novel are radically different, but what I'm aiming at is still there.  Action in service to the story.

Action = Emotion.  Rage, terror and even dispassion.  In 'The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter viciously attacks his guards.  We learn earlier on that 'his pulse never got above eighty-five' while he was committing some awful act.  In the case of attacking his guards: 'Dr. Lecter's pulse was elevated to more than one hundred by the exercise, but quickly slowed to normal.'  His lack of emotion is the dark mirror of the terror and powerlessness of his victims, making it that much more frightening.  And that tension gives the scene its impact.  

Representation Saves Lives

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I was recently sitting in a panel about representation at a con when one of the panelists repeated something I'd heard before, "REPRESENTATION SAVES LIVES."  Unlike the other times I'd heard it, those words hit me square between the eyes like a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.

So, I'm going to jump into some messy territory this week and talk about my struggle with trying to be representative in my writing.  This a minefield of complicated, uncomfortable issues.  As I've dug into this, I've realized that my greatest obstacles are the filters I have between what I 'believe' I know or think, and the reality of what's going on in my head.  Put simply, there's a disconnect between what I 'think' I know about myself, and what's really happening behind the curtains in my mind.  It's like Oz the privileged white guy is back there still pulling levers.  It's personal, messy, challenging stuff.    

I'm writing about me, but this is also a call to others to really dig in and look at how we view others.  This isn't simple stuff, it takes work, but it's important.   

I kind of look like a poster boy for white privilege and the patriarchy.  I'm a middle age, cis, white guy with white-grey hair and blue eyes.  I've seen myself represented in film, TV, comics and every other media from the moment I could understand what it meant.  I grew up in Arizona where casual racism was everywhere.  I grew up hearing people called "Spics", "Beaners" and "Wetbacks", the undercurrent of cowboys and Indians translated to 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian', brazil nuts were referred to as n***er fingers, and on and on. 

How do I begin to wrap my head around how important it is for other people to see themselves represented positively?   With my upbringing and a base level advantage of being white, male and middle class, it's not something I can understand at anything more than a rational level.  It's nothing I've lived.  

The first thing I learned from my friends who are People of Color, Native American or LGBTQ, is to shut up and listen to people.   That doesn't mean trying to explain my perspective, it means exactly what it says.  Shut up and listen.  And that's hard, uncomfortable work.  If I really listen, I can't help but hear the pain, the fear, the rage, the heartbreak.  That's intimidating.  

People of Color, Native Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community have endured things I can't begin to imagine.  And in that is precisely where some of the disconnect happens.  I literally can't understand what they've been through.  Had I experienced some of the things they had, I could easily see myself either in prison or dead.  And that, right there, is white privilege talking.  As a white guy, I come at situations with the expectation that the playing field is going to be level.  That simply isn't true. 

I can't fix what my friends and others have experienced, but as a writer I can make the effort to see that they are represented positively and powerfully.

Why representation matters:

According to the Trevor Project (statistics),  "LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25."   

According to the CDC, "American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States. The rates of suicide in this population have been increasing since 2003."  "Compared with whites, AI/AN decedents had... 2.4 times the odds of a suicide of a friend or family member affecting their death."

There are loads more statistics out there including a spike in suicide among Black boys between the ages of 5 and 11 (Journal of American Medical Association).

"Researchers looked at the suicide rates among children ages 5 to 11 between 1993 and 2012. The rates overall did not change over these years, but the rates among black boys rose from 1.78 to 3.47 per 1 million. In contrast, suicides among white boys declined from 1.96 to 1.31 per million."  (CNN)

When it comes to positive representation one obvious place to start is Black Panther.  Like the words "Representation saves lives" finally hitting home at the con, it took seeing the reaction of people to an African superhero for another part of the whole equation to unspool for me.  Seeing kids playing with toys from stories about people that looked like them somehow made it all make sense.  These people that looked like them were not only smart, but powerful and compassionate.  They did things just because they were the right things to do.  And when we talk about masculinity that isn't toxic, King T'Challa is a great example.  He treats people in his sphere with respect, even though he is king.  He doesn't claim to know everything, instead he listens to those who are more knowledgable and considers their counsel deeply.  This in no way erodes his power as a leader or a man.

"T’Challa’s nature is to be merciful. He’s internalized this principle to the point that it guides him instinctively. Rather than kill M’Baku, he asks him to yield. Rather than let Agent Ross die, he takes him to Wakanda and lets Shuri heal him. Rather than turn Erik away, he accepts Erik’s challenge for the throne." One Tribe: Black Panther's Altruism

"It’s about more than gender equality, however, as the film takes a pretty serious look at fragile masculinity and the way in which men are raised to deal with (or not deal with, more often than not) their emotions.  T’Challa and Killmonger both openly weep at multiple points in the film, as two incredibly strong men struggling to come to terms with their pasts, and specifically their relationships with their fathers."  Why ‘Black Panther’s T’Challa Is a Better Man Than Most Superheroes

And then there's the 'Scully Effect.'  Research now confirms that women who watched the X-Files and saw Dana Scully portrayed as a smart, independent, powerful woman, were motivated to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. 

"But Scully didn't just inspire women to work in STEM; she also helped to spike an interest in STEM among female viewers. For 63% of those women surveyed, Scully was the character who clued them in to the importance of STEM work, and 50% said their interest in STEM increased after watching Scully onscreen."

Both of these are great examples of representation.  

One of the characters in the modern fantasy novel I'm currently working on is a trans woman.  I really liked the character's arc, but her story concluded with her becoming possessed and doing something terrible.  Her arc ending that way would be tragic, a great end for any character.  But I wanted to check with someone who had 'skin in the game', which I as poster boy of the patriarchy didn't.  I reached out to a trans friend of mine, Elayne.  She got back to me and said she liked the character's representation and understood the reasons for her to go out that way, but warned me away from that ending.  Her response hit the nail on the head: 

"...there's already a lot of evil, murderous, demonic, possessed, psychotic, broken transgender characters in stories. In my humble opinion, we don't need any more. Not one more..

The world needs more stories about trans people making a difference. Trans people parenting, arguing with their spouse about important things, building structures, leading people, inventing things, and shooting the bad guy, and generally becoming icons that young humans growing up and discovering their identity doesn't match their body...and they can see someone living a life worthy of emulation. 

If, for no other reason that this: write a character that future generations can look back on and hold up as an example."

Needless to say, that character is now in the trenches right alongside the main characters through to the end of the book.  As I was working on the banner for this post I asked Elayne for suggestions for a trans character to use.  I decided to go with Sera From Marvel's “Angela: Asgard's Assassin”, but Elayne had an awesome idea to leave the space blank with text something like "Insert transgender hero character here," to address the fact that there are so few characters like that out there.

It's a challenge to try and see past my own blinders.  It takes work to change how I refer to people.  I have a hell of a time using They/Them pronouns, it's just not something I'm used to.  But I'm putting in the work and making the effort because it's not about me.  And that's a critical piece in all of this.  I care about my friends and others who need and deserve representation, so I do the work for them.  Given the spectrum of experiences they have had, making sure I use the proper pronouns seems a pretty insignificant effort to support them.

On the Writing the Other facebook page, they sum up what I and other writers struggle with.

"Writers know that it’s important to write about characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity differs from their own. But many are afraid to do so for fear that they will get it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and think it is better not even to try."

There is so much more to this than I can get into here.  I'm not an expert on any of it.  I'm just a guy trying to make sense of it for myself and I hope this encourages others to take a hard look for themselves as well.  I would recommend looking at what the folks at Writing the Other have to say, sit in on panels on representation like I did, and all importantly talk to people you know from communities that need representation - Then shut up and listen.  

World Building - You gotta trust yourself.

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I love world building.  I assume that most people who write, run roleplaying games, or tell original stories in any other way do as well.  I've got a drawer full of concepts that are really just about worlds I want to explore.  And for me that's a huge piece of all this, I want to explore these worlds and their people - to tell myself a story.  In the end, hopefully that story will be something other people will want to read/hear/see as well.  But therein lies part the problem.  I've got to trust myself enough to say, "This is pretty cool!  I think other people will think so too!"  

Action scenes are usually what starts the ball rolling for me.  The Æsterverse and 'The Tomahawk Incident' were born from a scene I wrote about a life and death battle between naval ships in a sky filled with churning, supercharged clouds.  The world grew from there, being built to make the things in that initial action sequence possible.  My protagonists were part of the British Admiralty and their attackers were from some unknown faction.  Okay, I've got a world of empires but there are unknown players out there in the darkness somewhere.  There are huge ships suspended in the sky by some force in these clouds - the basics of æster physics were born.  

I don't know if there is a 'right' way to go about world building.  I figure it's as personal as the worlds coming out of it are.  I'm not going to try and imagine what the kinds of things were going on in Frank Herbert's mind when he was creating 'Dune'.  (A favorite book of mine, btw.)  It's easy to see the analogs to the real world in 'Dune', but it's such an iconic universe nowadays it's hard to realize just how groundbreaking it was when it came out.  A book published in 1965 where a huge portion of this epic science fiction universe is run by women?  

Currently there is word that Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario) is set to helm a two film adaptation of the book.  

 

Then there is the film, 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).  Based on the book by Pierre Boulle (Bridge over the River Kwai).  It's certainly dated to our modern sensibilities, but it was mind-bogglingly original when it hit the screen.

 

It takes tremendous trust in oneself to go this far off the reservation.  I mean think about the pitch for 'Planet of the Apes':  "Were gonna put folks in ape suits and toss Charleton Heston in there on an Earth where human beings have devolved to take the place of apes.  Oh, and it all happened because we blew up the world with nukes - Whaddaya think!?"  Yeah, I can imagine that took some meetings to work out.

A lot of worlds we see are derivative.  We see the oft repeated Tolkien model of Elves, Dwarves, Dragons and Mages in books, games and films.  When I compare the 'Lord of the Rings' movies to Guy Ritchie's 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword', I see similar worlds, but the dynamics in them, political and magical, are vastly different.  Yes, Aragorn and Arthur are both guys who don't want to be King, but the story of their paths to the throne is where the worlds really get fleshed out.  But of course there is that little question of whether Lord of the Rings is itself a retelling of the Arthur story... and round and round and round we go.

But then we've got things like 'The Dark Crystal'.  Here, we've gone -way- outside the norm.  The story elements are age-old, a young person coming of age, etc, but the world is completely unique.  The fracturing of the crystal devastated the world and split a single race into two halves, the Mystics and the Skeksis.  That's pretty cool stuff.       

Years ago when we started building the Rise of Æster world, what would become the Æsterverse, I spent huge amounts of time with one of my friends who is a master of history, politics, natural sciences and how they interact.  Thanks, Jeff!  Because we were building a whole world to tell stories in, we needed to know everything from what governments were doing and why, to how the Earth and its ecosystems responded to the cataclysms that shook it.  Let me add a quick public service announcement here - You don't really get how much of civilization is near the ocean until you introduce a one hundred foot sea level rise... not pretty.  We went into huge detail because that's the kind of nerds we are.  All that work created a foundation that I can now build any kind of stories I want on.  And it's easy for them to be internally consistent.    

World building for fiction is different than it is for something like a role playing game.  I'm using tabletop gaming for the example here.  In an RPG, the players can go haring off in any random direction at any time.  The old adage that 'no plot survives first contact with the players' is an absolute truism.  As a result, the world has to be sufficiently built out for players to be able to do this.  In narrative fiction, the world only exists within the field of view and experience of the Point of View character.  There can be huge holes in the world because the writer controls the PoV.

As I write stories now, I don't go into the level of detail I did when I was creating the Æsterverse.  If it's not within the scope of the character or the story specifically, it doesn't have to be fleshed out - yet.  The world evolves as the story grows.  But as soon as the story touches something there'd better be at least a rough sketch of what's there, otherwise I can end up painting myself into a corner.  

One of my favorite stories about this sort of thing comes from the new Battlestar Galactica series.  In the season two prologue they talk about the Cylons saying, "And they have a plan."  

 

Well, according to one of the producers, there was a day that they all met to start talking about season three and someone asked 'Okay, so what's the Cylon's plan?'  The answer was that no-one had the vaguest idea.  They'd painted themselves into a corner.  A surprisingly common occurrence, even among professionals it seems.

As I said above, I love world building because I want to explore the worlds that I'm creating.  And I think it's critical for writers and storytellers to trust themselves enough to know that if we love the worlds in our heads, others will too.  That doesn't mean there isn't a staggering amount of work that has to happen to bring them into being, but they are uniquely ours, our truest voices speaking to us.  And by exploring those worlds, I believe we find our truest stories.  

 

 

Fearless or Foolish - Why the hell would anyone write anyway?

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I just got another rejection from a publisher for 'Tomahawk Incident' so I thought I'd talk about that this week.  It sucks, we all know it, but it's just a part of the business.  You gotta have thick skin if you're going to be in a creative field.  

My degree is in fine art, sculpture and metal arts.  Like everyone else who has been to art school, I developed that thick skin pretty quickly.  The weekly flagellation of critiques often felt more like abusive, self-serving 'criticisms' from classmates who were just as beat up and overwhelmed as I was.  And  instructor's tirades sometimes felt equally self-serving - less about teaching anything than showing their expertise by tearing their student's work apart.  But in the midst of all that, there were invaluable, useful criticisms.  But I had to have a thick enough skin to hear them among all the other punches coming my way.  

I feel like having a relationship with my writing is kind of like trying to be friends with Deadpool.  He's a mouthy asshole, but you love him anyway.  Sorta...  On some days...  Uhhh..  Well, maybe not the best analogy.  

Writing isn't for the faint of heart.  No creative endeavor is.  It's about putting our heart and soul out there and having other people judge it.  That's tough.  And at each step along the way, some new obstacle seems to sprout up that's purpose built to chuck our self-esteem into the chipper-shredder.

You get your rough draft written, Hooray!  Tens of thousands of hard won words strung together into something that resembles a complete narrative.  Time to celebrate!

Uh, what do you mean the work is just starting?  

Next comes what I refer to the as the 'Machete Edit.'  You (and hopefully someone else who isn't attached to whatever you're wrting the way you are) hack away a third of those hard won words like Paul Bunyan going after them with a chainsaw.  Your novel is a lot tighter after this, but your heart's blood is sprayed everywhere and you feel like the last survivor of a Saw movie. 

Dammit, now there's the first polish edit.  With great crocodile tears you draw your sacrificial sword following the demand of the writing gods - and murder your favorite children.  

What do you mean things don't make sense now because you've cut so much away? 

Words, words, words.... hack, hack hack... Hooray?

Nope.  Over and over, you go on until finally, you have a manuscript you're ready to put out into the world.  You send the precious baby to agents and publishers... What do you mean I have to have a social media presence?  Rejection, rejection, rejection...  Your baby is too fat, too boring, has too many freckles, not enough freckles!

That's the world of writing.  So, while I'm waiting to hear back from more publishers I'm still plowing ahead, working on rough drafts for my next books.  As I look up the broken glass and barbed wire incline of edits, polishing and rejections again, thoughts of red wine and ritual suicide by stale biscotti grow larger in my mind like the brake lights of a semi on an icy road.

After all this, why the hell would someone want to write then?  My answer's pretty simple.

 

I started writing because I enjoy it.  And don't get me wrong, I still do.  I didn't learn the daunting truths about it all until after I was too far down the rabbit hole to turn back.  The reality of writing can be pretty succinctly described by the uplifting title of Steven Pressfield's book 'Nobody wants to read your shit.'  This was very helpful in driving me further toward the precipice of a red wine and stale biscotti apocalypse.

I write because I love writing.  It's not something I can just drop now and say 'Well, that was fun.'  It's part of who I am.  As I proceed down this rocky path, there are new challenges at every turn.  That's part of what makes it compelling - specifically because it isn't easy.  I'm constantly learning and growing, not just as a writer, but  as a person.  You can't throw your heart and soul out onto a hotplate for other people to poke at and not grow from it.  At least I don't think anyone can.

I was reading Tom McAllister's article 'Who Will Buy Your Book?', it's about a challenge I hope to have in the future.  His article talks about the realities of what happens after you're published.  Again, it's pretty stark, but at the end of the day, he hits on the thought I've heard repeated over and over again.  I'm just going to steal his summary because he's not only more eloquent than I am, but he's -actually- published.  

'As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.'

Creative endeavors of any kind tend to be a lonely thing.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who sometimes feels like I'm sitting on an island hollering out at the world trying to be heard.  Sometimes people hear, but most often they don't.  And that's okay.  They are busy living their own lives, doing their own things.  That's reality.  I am fortunate enough to have creative friends whose triumphs I get to celebrate, and they celebrate mine.  But at the end of the day, I create for myself.  There is a hope that others will connect to what I write and be interested.  But like Tom says above, once something's out in the world, it's out of your control.  And that's okay too.  

So, for all the creatives out there, I can only give you my support and say, 'We who are about to create salute you!'  

 

Genre Hell Part V - Solarpunk

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Whew... Trying to nail down Solarpunk as a genre is... a MESS.  There are so many things going on with it that it's hard to figure out where to begin.  Solarpunk isn't just a literary genre.  It's a design/architectural/urban planning philosophy, a spiritual way of looking at how we interact with the Earth, a political point of view.  And for my purposes here - a REALLY cool narrative construct.  With all that said, the central question raises it's ugly head.  

"What the hell is it?"

Remember when I said this was a mess?  Yeah...  Taking a hint of wisdom from the all-knowing Deadpool, it's not pretty.  'It's like two hobos...'  Uhhh... Nevermind.  Too graphic.  

Anyway... To start with, I'm not going to try and cover all the bases.  I'm not qualified to talk about most of them.  There is a concise but thorough description of Solarpunk here, and I've put a couple of other links at the end of this post.  What I want to talk about are some of the challenges I've discussed with writer/creator friends when we try and tackle Solarpunk from a storytelling perspective.

One of the core issues in dealing with Solarpunk is that it's utopian.  A Solarpunk world has found itself in balance.  That's a big problem narratively.  Where's the conflict?  There are a couple of devices that come to my mind to address this problem.  The first I think of is that our characters and our story haven't reached utopia - yet.  A quote I've used to describe my Æsterverse setting is 'There is a golden age right around the corner, if we are bright enough, brave enough and bold enough to seize it.'  The second idea is that of utopia in decay.  Ages-old technology is failing, risking the destruction of everything the characters know.  These aren't new constructs by any stretch of the imagination, but when I think of trying to do something with a setting as exciting as Solarpunk, these have some serious narrative 'teeth' to them.  With them I can really feel the heartbreak, hope and fear of having such a shining world as Solarpunk either just out of reach or slipping from my grasp.

On Hope - Just because something is hopeful doesn't mean there is no conflict.  Wars, murder or any of the other horrifically normal human activities can take place along the road toward utopia.  In 'The Return of the King,' we never see the "Age of the King" Gandalf talks about after Sauron is defeated.  But the path the characters have trod to reach that bright future is littered with carnage.  In 'The Last Jedi' and 'Rogue One,' hope is all that drives the characters to make enormous sacrifices, and in 'Rogue One', to be utterly ruthless revolutionaries.

Solarpunk vs. Cyberpunk - Solarpunk as a literary genre is said to be a child of, or reaction to Cyberpunk.  I can see that.  They both live firmly in the science fiction spectrum (at least in my opinion).  Where Cyberpunk is dystopian, harsh, futurism,  Solarpunk is hopeful futurism.  In Cyberpunk we often see people live under crippling corporate authoritarianism, their only escape in drugs or virtual reality.  That stands in stark contrast to a world where technology is built to work with nature, not against it.  Now a story about a Solarpunk cyborg, that's breaking some interesting ground.

Working with Nature instead of dominating it - In Solarpunk we often see buildings and technology that not only blend with the landscape, but take inspiration from it.  This seems to be a central piece of Solarpunk.  Much of the art that's labeled 'Solarpunk' features buildings that are festooned with greenery, in some cases their architecture mimics that of the natural world, buildings shaped like flowers, etc.  This is a place where Solarpunk really gets infused by architecture and urban planning.  What happens when you have a city that's built around a river whose power is generated by the river's natural flow?  Or one built on a mountainside where air currents up and down the slope run turbines?  There are loads of different ideas for how technology can work with nature instead of taking from it.

Arcologies - I grew up in Arizona where an amazing architectural experiment called Arcosanti has been in work for nearly fifty years.  The architect behind it all, Paolo Soleri, is the man who invented the term 'Arcology.'  We see arcologies all over the place in cyberpunk and other science fiction, but for me arcologies are a hand in glove fit with Solarpunk.  Some of Soleri's original intentions behind arcologies are an exact match to Solarpunk's themes.  "We're here to be a part of the landscape, not in spite of it."  This is a core of Solarpunk.  And arcologies are just really cool conceptually, very fertile ground for storytelling.

Societies attuned to the natural world - Many societies in scifi and fantasy see the world around them as filled with 'natural resources,' ie something to be exploited.  In creating a narrative where society sees themselves as bound to the natural world, instead of in charge of it, I feel we take a huge jump in a different direction.  Yes, we already have those societies in the world - Native American, First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.  They have their own unique and vibrant histories and stories to tell.  Solarpunk is fiction, it can create its own societies that are in tune with the natural world without having to infringe on the REAL history and stories of Indigenous cultures.  If we have an industrial society that has come to a realization that it must live in harmony with nature due to some cataclysm, or even a cultural awakening, I think that's a really cool concept to build a story around.  It's a 'return to nature' from technological dependency versus the concept of living in a cultural continuum that has always been tied to the natural world.  And that can happen without being a 'fall'.  We always see societies simplifying after some terrible thing has happened.  Solarpunk says it doesn't have to be that way.   

A ruined world remade - One of my all time favorite video games is Horizon Zero Dawn.  Sorry for any spoilers for those who haven't played it.  I'll try and keep them to a minimum.  In Horizon Zero Dawn, the apocalypse is long past and a new world has grown up in the ruins populated with mechanical creatures and dinosaurs.  The setting is what I would call a 'version' of Solarpunk.  There is high-tech, but it's not under the control of the characters.  In this, Horizon Zero Dawn isn't quite Solarpunk to me, but the look and feel of the world certainly is to me.

This points directly to what I see as another key element in Solarpunk - Intentionality.  Most of what I've seen described as Solarpunk has to do with societies taking specific steps that lead them to this more balanced world.  It's not random.  As I think of some of the ideals behind Solarpunk, I see a tie to spiritual or mental practices that focus on creating intention and making it real.   That, in and of itself is a powerful message and narrative aspect of this genre.  It is a distinct counterpoint to the reckless, 'winner take all' exploitation that lies at the heart of many other genres. 

That's my take on Solarpunk.  There's certainly a LOT more that can be said about it.  It's such an amazing concept that there doesn't seem to be an end to the possibilities of what can be done with it.  It's something I really look forward to playing around with in the future.

Some references I give for Solarpunk:

Horizon Zero Dawn Concept Art - Overgrown Deathbringer

Ruins of Seattle from The Shannara Chronicles

Solarpunk Wants to Save the World

The Environment, Distopias and Energy 

 

Genre Hell Part IV - Arcanopunk

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What I refer to Arcanopunk/Arcanepunk is some seriously fun, messy territory to play around in.  Arcanopunk is a far less clearly defined genre than either Steampunk or Dieselpunk, but to me it shares the same ‘technological’ justification.  Magic or some other mystical energy ‘powers’ the world. This can be blended with spell-slinging, but at the end of the day, the thing that differentiates Arcanopunk from standard Fantasy is this blend of Magic and Technology.

‘Magical Technology’ is at the core of this genre.  And just let me say that I think that the entire concept of magical/arcane technology is SUPER cool!  I love the idea of things being imbued with arcane energies that then allow those energies to be used in some way.  Now, we see something similar in everything from The Dark Crystal to Warcraft, both the game and film.  Life essence is drained from creatures and is then directly used to enhance someone.  See Necromancy below.  

The Dark Crystal - Draining the Essence from a Podling (start at 1:10)

Warcraft - Gul’dan draining life

But this is NOT the same thing.  Warcraft certainly has Arcanopunk elements to it, items having mystical crystals that can be added to them, etc.  But this magical technology isn’t the CENTER of the narrative.  That’s where I see the line.  I don’t classify things like Warcraft and The Dark Crystal as Arcanopunk because of this distinction. 

So, what makes something Arcanopunk?  I'm not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll toss out some ideas about how I break it out in my mind.

Arcane Crystals - Some form of ‘arcane batteries’ or 'foci' seem to be a set piece of this genre.  Arcane forges, soul cages, magically inscribed weapons, mystical matrices and all the rest are widely seen elements in Arcanopunk. 

Necromancy - I see Necromancy playing a significant role in some aspects of this genre.  The idea of souls or life force being stored in vessels to power machinery or abilities is pretty standard fodder.  And storing someone's soul in a cage is just so much more efficient than dragging around all those shrieking unfortunates you’re draining the life from, don’t you think?  Besides, their filthy rags tend to clash with the drapes.

Magical/Arcane Institutions and Governments - If you have a focus on putting magic in containers, the idea that there would be places where people learn to do that makes sense.  If arcane weaponry is the most powerful thing around, governments and institutions existing to control those sources of power would similarly make sense.  

Tool Wielders vs. Spellcasters - This is another foundation of what I see as Arcanopunk.  Tool wielders - characters who use magically imbued objects for some purpose, are very different from Mages, wizards and their ilk - people who cast spells.  This is a critical distinction for Arcanopunk.  In some settings, such as Iron Kingdoms, (a favorite of mine, I might add) it requires an amount of magical ability to use many magically imbued objects, but these people are not spell casters.  Iron Kingdoms bills itself as 'Heavy Metal Fantasy,' a cool and evocative theme.  Artificers in the Eberron D&D setting are another good example of this.  They create magically imbued objects others can use.  'The artificer uses Intelligence-based Infusions instead of typical magics and psionics.'  For my purposes, these fit pretty neatly into Arcanopunk.  One of the underlying mechanics in Iron Kingdoms is melding magic and pieces of machinery, such as the Jack pictured at the top of this post.  Yes, there are spell-slingers, but this melding of magic and tech is at the core of the story.  The folks at Privateer Press might differ with me, and again, that's okay.  Lots of room for different interpretations when we're talking about genre.

In Jim Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass, arcane crystals power everything from weapon gloves to airships.  Every facet of society is interwoven or dependent on this magical technology.  That's Arcanopunk.

Now that we've gotten this far into the genre swamp, I want to look at an example of how genres can be applied, or entirely ignored when we think about stories.  I'm using a film as an example because of the visual medium.

The Golden Compass - This is a great example of messiness.  Airships, gunslingers and a pseudo Victorian setting - Is it Steampunk?  Magically imbued objects.  What powers the alethiometer or the Magisterium airships? - is it Arcanopunk?  The world is inherently magical with Daemons, Witches, talking bears and alternate worlds hidden in the Aurora Borealis.  Does that make it straight fantasy?  It's all a matter of perspective.  It can be all of the above, or a cases could be made to fit it into a single box.  Like all other genres, It often just depends on who is looking at it.

How about a story where spacefaring spell casters use mystical energies flowing between the stars to drive their ships?  Is it scifi, or Arcanopunk, or something entirely different?  With the concept of magic being so wide open, then blending that with technology, Arcanopunk is filled with fantastic possibilities like this.  

Some references I give for Arcanopunk:

Psiforged (Warforged) from the Eberron/Athas setting

Iron Kingdoms

Social Media Hellscape - My Twitterpocalypse

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As I've been trying to get my blog working - that is to say properly connected to social media, it's been... trying.  Since I needed to once again test to see if it's connecting to anything other than some Hellscape-social-media-apocalypse-dimension, I thought I'd make it a bit more fun.  Here we are.

Drag and drop they say... to where?  See above - Hellscape-social-media-apocalypse-dimension (HE'SMAD) 

Facebook and Instagram have behaved relatively well, but Twitter has been the particular Imp of HE'SMAD.  First nothing shows up in Twitter - or so I thought.  But noooo... through some arcane portal to HE'SMAD, tweets have gone to some quasi-Schrodinger Twitter account that I don't even remember creating.  I thought you could only have a Twitter account that's attached to an email...  

"Oh how wrong you are!"  The demon of HE'SMAD cackled.

And of course, this HE'SMAD twitter account has people following it.  So, I proceed to send them messages, flying the plague flag of my Twitter-ignorance for all to see.  This, shall we say, has proven subpar when it comes to the ego front.

Finally, I engage in battle.  Emails, account passwords and cryptic Twitter-cantations fly, all while I'm beating back the shrieking HE'SMAD hordes as they try over and over again to force me to log into the unholy pocket hell account that should never have been spawned...

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It is 9:26am and my old confidante Jose Quervo is singing me sweet Mariachi love songs.

But, I digress.

I suppose learning that you have created Twitter accounts should be a blessing.  That they don't work and play well with each other makes them rather like children.  You're unwanted Hell-spawned children.

As I go forth in hopes of conquering the HE'SMAD legions, I hope my frustrations provide inspiration for those battling the seething storms of Twitterpocalypse.  You are not alone.  

Vaya con Carne and a pleasant day to you all.

 

 

Genre Hell Part III - Steampunk

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In my first Genre Hell post, I gave a quick definition of what I think Steampunk is, but after doing a much more in-depth post on Dieselpunk, I figured I should probably go back to my “home” genre and dig in a bit. 

Steam Power is the foundation of Steampunk as a genre to me. As I said in my original post, this is the single largest factor that separates Steampunk from other genres.  Steam remains King. Since I’m getting into the weeds a bit here, I’ll be more specific.  In this context, steam does the “work,” whether that means pushing a piston or turning a high efficiency turbine.  Here is where we dive right back into the alligator infested genre swamp.  A modern nuclear powerplant creates power by generating steam that turns turbines.  Is that Steampunk?  No, it’s set in a modern context.  But we stick a nuclear reactor into the Nautilus and have Captain Nemo go tearing around the oceans of the 1850s ripping the keels out of ships… Bingo!  We have Steampunk.  Context is critical in all conversations about genre as far as I’m concerned. 

And onto the next messy part of Steampunk.  (There are many)

Aesthetic - Moreso than any of the other genres, Steampunk has become defined by the large community that grew out of its core concepts.  Of course, even saying that means having to define what those “core concepts” are.  Not to worry, I’ll do a bang-up job of misrepresenting what those are here in a minute.  My confusion = your confusion, so grab a cocktail, ‘cause we’re going for a ride! 

An “old school” definition of Steampunk could be ‘science fiction or fantasy placed into a pseudo Victorian context with mind bending gadgetry.’  The genre and its expressions have grown far beyond Victoriana, but we’ll get back to that later.  We can also think of it as “punking” Victoriana.  This image of Kit Stolen is a good example.  It was one of the first “iconic” Steampunk images I ever saw.  Going with this blend of punk and Victorian or similar styles, many of the underpinnings of what is now Steampunk can be seen as having come from within its own community.  There are a lot of really cool people that wanted to make and wear cool things, and voila! Steampunk.  Trying to separate this living community from the literary and other aspects would be missing the point by a wide mark in my opinion. 

As I’ve said before, “Ask ten people involved in steampunk what Steampunk is, and you’ll likely get ten different answers.” This wide-open playing field is great for creativity, but lousy for trying to put a fence around.  But here we go.  

Steampunk has a more “genteel” sensibility than other genres - Nobody start shooting yet! I’m painting in broad strokes here.  You don't tend to see tea parties, men in frock coats and top hats, ladies in hoop skirts, and gentlemanly duels in most other genres. Sure, there are gritty stories, dirty hands and all that in Steampunk, but for the most part, the genre keeps its waistcoat on, even when it’s working.  This civility is great storytelling fodder.  It can be strained against, or something a character is striving to attain. I think it’s one of the many hearts of Steampunk as a genre.   

Colonial/Imperial setting - If the world wars are a common setting in Dieselpunk, then stories with colonial and imperial powers as a backdrop are a similarly consistent setting in Steampunk.  Most Steampunk includes some variety of class division, nobles, royalty or at least Imperial/Colonial governments.  And for clarity, I’m lumping the wild west in as colonial expansion in this context.  Nobility and royalty can easily be translated to land owners and cattle/rail barons. 

Non-Victorian Steampunk - Many core Steampunk narratives are White European centric.  The gentleman/lady explorer, the soldier, the wild west lawman, and so on.  Really cool ideas for Steampunk have come into being because people wanted to do things that they felt represented by.  Afro-Steampunk, Chinese Steampunk and numerous others have added their invaluable part to the multicultural continuum that is now Steampunk.  And I cannot say loudly enough how utterly fantastic that is!   

Where does all of this leave us?  We have a genre that’s wide open with a few loose parameters that are sometimes cast off entirely in favor of better storytelling.  But generally we’re going to see waistcoats, skirts and technology that failed spectacularly in the real world turned into hero tech.  All with a thumping, whining heartbeat of steam driving it.

As I've said before, most things don't fit neatly into a single genre box.  Stories, books, movies and other narratives are usually combinations of elements.  This is fiction after all.  It's as individual as the people writing/creating/participating in it.  

Some references I give for Steampunk:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Funeral beneath the Sea

The Time Machine (1960)

The City of Lost Children (1995)

Imperial Chinese Airship - James Ng

Afro Steampunk - Tahir Karmali - Steampunk?  Cyberpunk? Both?  Image reference (The prize for contemporary African photography goes to)

Steampunk Around the World

Genre Hell Part II - Dieselpunk

After last week’s post I realized that some people may only be passingly familiar with what I’m talking about when I refer to Steampunk/Dieselpunk/Arcanopunk/Solarpunk, and the dizzying array of other genres out there.  I thought I’d talk about what defines some of these genres to me.

My definition of several genres is based on an overarching technology of the given worlds - Steampunk = Steam power, Dieselpunk = Diesel power, etc.  Those two are pretty straight forward, but it gets fuzzier when we start talking about things like Tesla/Electropunk.  Electricity is clearly the core of these ideas, but what generates the power to drive it?  Then we look at things like Solarpunk and definitions pretty much go out the window. 

Ready?  Great!   I’m not sure I am.

In my last post, I gave a quick definition of what I think Steampunk is.  This week, I thought I’d dive into Dieselpunk.  Again, these are -my- thoughts.  There is plenty of creative space for a wide array of different outlooks about genres.

What are elements that make something Dieselpunk?  I’ll lay out some themes that jump to the forefront of my mind when I think about Dieselpunk.

The Internal Combustion Engine - This is the single largest factor that separates Dieselpunk from other genres for me.  It draws a sharp line between it and Steampunk.  There can be similar elements in both genres, submarines and dirigibles for example, but with the internal combustion engine, automobiles, aircraft and tanks suddenly roar onto the stage.

World War I and World War II - Sci Fi/Fantasy that uses either of the World Wars as a backdrop falls into the big bucket labeled Dieselpunk to me.  In keeping with what I said above, the internal combustion engine is a central factor in what enabled the mechanized warfare that defines WWI and WWII.

A subcategory of this are “Weird War” stories.  Usually set against the backdrop of the world wars, this is where we see werewolves in Nazi uniforms, trench lines filled with the undead, Thul mages trying to summon the power of the elder gods, and so on.

Machine Guns - This is going to be a sticky wicket for some people, but the modern concept of a machinegun is something I associate with Dieselpunk.  If we’re talking about hand-cranked Gatling guns (or even steam driven ones), I see Steampunk.  But as soon as we shift over to weapons that don’t require being cranked, it jumps across the line to Dieselpunk for me.

Fixed Wing Aircraft - Again, some people are going to disagree with this and that’s fine.  Fixed wing aircraft are iconic to the world wars and the eras around them.  Here, I see both a feeling of a particular “time” associated with Dieselpunk, ‘20s through ‘40s, but there is also a specific technology involved - aircraft. 

Noir - Sci/Fi Fantasy set in a world with the feeling tone of fedoras, trench coats, tommy guns, gin joints and self-narrating detectives.  The term “Noir” is in and of itself a Pandora’s box of what it is/means. For my purposes, if we have a spell-slinging Humphrey Bogart-esque character or a smooth dame lounge singer who happens to be a cyborg, we’re talking about Dieselpunk.  Now, there are HUGE, muddy swamps of crossover between genres in what I’ve just described.  Our spell-slinging detective could also be Arcanopunk, and our lounge singing cyborg could be Cyberpunk, but those are different conversations.

Other - There are some things that for a variety of reasons/elements listed above, I always classify as having a Dieselpunk aesthetic.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and The Last Exile really exemplify this “other” category.  In Nausicaa, you have a giant city killing robot, tanks and big aircraft.   The vanships of the Last Exile clearly draw some of their design inspiration from aircraft of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

These are all super broad strokes, but they break Dieselpunk out relatively neatly (at least in my head) when trying to define it against other genres.  And just to be clear, many things don’t fit neatly into any single genre and that’s okay. SciFi/Fantasy is a big, messy pool of really cool ideas.  Genres just help make some kind of sense of all that craziness.

Below are some things I always reference when I try and show someone elements of what I think of as Dieselpunk.

Jakub Rozalski 

Warlord 

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

The Last Exile 

Genre Hell - Or what is Urban Fantasy/Steampunk/Dieselpunk anyway?

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After fighting the good fight for a while trying to determine what genres I write in, it’s now clear to me that there are no ‘rules’ beyond staggeringly incoherent broad strokes.

The genres I write in are Sci Fi and Fantasy.  Easy enough to break those out.  But then you go down the rabbit hole.  Military Sci Fi, Alt History, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Teslapunk, Solarpunk.  Is it “Modern Fantasy” or “Urban Fantasy”, or should we call it Arcanopunk?

Is your head spinning yet?  Yup, mine too.

I’ve got specific definitions for some things.  I started seriously writing while I was part of the Steampunk community after all, so I have a definition of Steampunk that works -for me-. 

I define Steampunk as fiction where steam power is still king and there are -usually- elements of Victoriana or its close relatives involved.  Once you introduce the internal combustion engine, you cross the boundary into Dieselpunk, in my opinion.  On the other hand, here’s an example of something I’d still call Steampunk that has nothing to do with Victoriana.  Say you have Imperial Chinese airships going to other worlds using some kind of mind-bending technological gateway.  So long as some version of -Steam- is central to the technology, I’ve got no problem calling it Steampunk. 

These are -my- definitions, something that allows me to put structure on things.  Nobody has to agree with them.  If someone has a different definition, no problem.  In -my- version of Steampunk there are no fixed wing aircraft or ray guns.  Once you introduce airplanes it feels like we’ve once again jumped across to Dieselpunk.  Lightning guns are one thing, but ray guns don’t “feel” right to me in Steampunk. There are a load of people who don’t agree with these opinions.  And that’s fine.  I used to say, “ask ten Steampunks what Steampunk is and you’ll get ten different answers.”  I think that level of creative openness is really cool. 

As I get into my next book, it’s what I think of as “Modern Fantasy.”  Modern Fantasy to my eyes is fantasy taking place in our current world or a close approximation of it.  In the case of my book, it’s the mundane world, then things happen that thrust fantastic elements into it.  Just because the story takes place in a modern city doesn’t make it urban fantasy IMHO. 

Genres fall in and out of fashion.  Talking with my agent, they told me that Urban Fantasy is currently a non-starter with publishers, at least the publishers we’re talking to.  In a few years it could swing back into vogue, but right now they aren’t accepting urban fantasy.

So… What the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?  I’ve heard a bunch of different definitions that bleed into both what I’d call modern fantasy or arcanopunk.  The one thing that seems to define “Urban” fantasy is that the setting, usually a city, is another character in the book.  It’s like ships in my sci fi.  They aren’t just a big box the characters walk around in, they have a personality that the characters interact with.

People say, “Don’t get so hung up on genre.”  That’s really good advice if you’re writing.  Write your story, whatever it is, and don’t sweat what category it might fit into.  My experience has been that trying to write into a box seriously crippled my creativity. 

But when I started pitching Tomahawk Incident, I very quickly realized that I needed to be able to define what it was, to put it into a descriptive box.  IE, what genre is it? 

After the first time I participated in a Twitter pitch party, PitMad, I realized I did myself a huge disservice.  I’d pitched Tomahawk Incident as “Alt History” which seriously limited the people that would see it, as compared to pitching it as just Sci Fi.  In pitch parties like this, people interested in finding new authors search for the tags they’re interested in.  I only showed up to people specifically looking for Alt History, robbing myself of being seen by people searching the much larger category - Sci Fi.  This was twitter, so every character was critical.  All the tags took up characters that were then unavailable for the pitch itself.

Genre has different value in different contexts.  When I’m writing I don’t even think about it.  Once I get a better idea of where I’m going, then I start considering it.  But at the end of the day, it’s the wild west.  For the most part, there are no hard and fast rules about what a genre is in Sci Fi and Fantasy. 

Well, it's official. The rough draft of my second novel is complete.

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Take a long, deep breath... and... 

Yay, it's done!  Uhhh, waitasecond, well maybe it's more like, sorta done.  I'm sure I'm not the only writer who looks at their hard won pages and all they see are flailing, disconnected plot threads, paper thin characters and dialogue that sounds like a gang of two-year-olds talking about the contents of their diapers. 

Long cleansing breath...  Breathe...  It's a ROUGH draft...  Rough draft... breathe...

And people wonder why creatives drink.   The rough draft of "Black Gallant" is indeed complete and I'm torn between celebration and terror.  There's a part of me that  says "Wow, does that suck!"  That's the perfectionist down in there that if it had it's way, I'd get nothing done. 

It's time to take a break from Black Gallant and work on something else.  But there is a strange sense of loss that goes with putting something aside that I've put so much heart and soul into.  Rationally, I know I need the break from it so that I can come back fresh.  I can feel the burnout on this particular story, but the feeling of loss is still there. 

Writing is weird.  You develop a relationship with your characters.  When you're not writing them, it feels like you've stopped talking to friends you've spent vast spans of time thinking about, worrying about, and torturing.  I have relationships with the people in my head so that hopefully readers will build relationships with them too.

Then you get back to something else and visit with old friends, now with entirely new thoughts on how to torture them, or begin something new and make all new friends.  This is part and parcel of what I feel like Hemingway was talking about in his quote, "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."  

I get invested in the emotions of what I write.  I'm sure I'm not the only one.  And with that emotional attachment comes ups and downs.  If I'm really putting my characters through the wringer, then I'm in some way right there with them.  I have to apologize to my wife for that on occasion.    

All of that said, the feeling of accomplishment at having completed a second novel is amazing!  It proves that all of the work that has gone into it was worth it.  It reinforces the idea that I CAN do it, the first time wasn't a fluke.  That reinforcement is critical, it's part of what keeps the creative pump churning.

 

 

Writing Process

Writing Process

It feels appropriate that the first post on my new blog should be something about my writing process.

When I was writing my first book, “Tomahawk Incident,” I was learning the craft. -Insert Deadpool voice here - “Spoiler alert!”  I still am, probably always will be. Given the myriad ways writing continues to adapt, constant learning isn’t just something nice to think about, it’s survival.  

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