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!'