I live in Oklahoma City. Way down in the southeast corner of it. I can stand on my roof and see Moore. Which means, if I had stood on my roof all night, I would have watched the constant flicker of spotlights and heard the thrum of helicopters as relief workers, police, and firefighters slowly transitioned from search and rescue to recovery.
Yesterday was Miracle Monday.
Miracle Monday is a little joke among Superman fans. It's a holiday of the future celebrated on the third Monday of May by people who commemorate the time Superman defeated Satan.
I love it when I get to write sentences like that.
I also love the idea of Miracle Monday. Especially the part where, for generations, nobody remembered exactly why they were celebrating. They just knew they had an overall feeling of good will and well being on that day. It took a time travelling journalism student to even figure out what event could be so good, so noble, so life affirming that all of humanity celebrates it on an instinctive level.
Naturally, I told people "Happy Miracle Monday!" both in person and via social media. Some of them even wished it back to me, although you could see them trying to figure out if they should know what I was talking about.
But that was all before three in the afternoon. It was around then that I piled myself, my six year old son, and two dogs into the storm shelter in my garage to wait and see if we'd still have a house a couple hours later.
Once we were underground, it wasn't very exciting. I spent most of the time listening to hail the size of tennis balls hitting the garage door, fielding texts and phone calls from concerned family and friends, and wondering about my wife's safety. Elijah and I split the rest of the time between keeping our minds off the storm with Candy Crush and watching the angry blob of red and purple drift across radar in spits and sputters caused by a thin bar of WiFi signal.
When we finally got the all clear, I wrestled the boy and the dogs back out of the shelter and turned on the news. I began to see the aftermath of a tornado that spanned an entire mile and rode nearly the exact same path of destruction that one of its brethren had on May 3, 1999.
I discovered that it hit an elementary school less than ten miles from my house. The source of my drinking water is a lake less than five miles away, and the same tornado knocked out the water purification plant there. Some large pieces of the playground equipment from a park my son and I often played at had landed on a friend's porch. A farm we visited on a school field trip simply isn't there anymore.
The most destructive storm in recorded history. Ruined homes. Debris thrown into other states. Collapsed schools. Students trapped under collapsed schools. Dead children.
All that tumbled into my mind alongside Miracle Monday and I had the most honest, most ridiculous, most childish thought of my adult life.
I wished for Superman to save us. I longed for a streak of bright blue and red with lungs powerful enough to blow this monster storm the other direction. In my mind's eye, I vividly saw children trapped in darkness, afraid and alone, suddenly bathed in light, blinking against it to see a mighty S stretched across a broad chest.
But my wish didn't come true. Not in the way I wanted it to in that moment. Instead, I had constant television coverage of neighborhoods and businesses I knew reduced to rubble. Lists of children waiting for their parents to drive down highways choked with traffic and detritus and rescue them. The tally of the dead climbing.
I turned it off eventually, overwhelmed and overloaded with the sheer awfulness of it. I hugged my son and tried to explain why his mother and I were so upset, how there were far too many parents that weren't going to be able to hug their kids tonight or ever again.
Since then, the relief efforts have been stunning. Children reunited with parents. Okies donating massive amounts of food, water, blankets, clothes, and other necessities to relief efforts. People working all night to do what they could before any other weather struck. I'm sure eventually some amazing and triumphant stories will come out of all this.
But right now...right now, it's just a Miracle Monday without any miracles. I'm left in a dark place where it's hard to see the light. My heart aches for all my neighbors with no place to lay their heads and the grieving parents with holes in their lives.
Though we dodged tragedy yesterday, my family has honestly been living through the most tumultuous year and a half of our lives. With no exaggeration, the last eighteen months have been physically dangerous, emotionally harrowing, mentally exhausting, and bank account draining.
Today, I do what I must. I'll count my blessings. I'll hug my family and remember how much emptier my life would be without them. Soon, I'll head out to buy water for relief workers. I'll give blood for the wounded. Most powerful of all, I'll pray...for me, for those afflicted, and for those delivered.
I'll remember that, while my childish wish didn't come true, I already have a Superman with a special day commemorating the moment he overcame Ultimate Evil. I'll celebrate that, while he didn't defeat the tornado for us yesterday, he did defeat death itself. I will forget about my less-than-miraculous Monday and his long, dark Friday.
I will affirm with word, deed, thought, and prayer that Sunday is coming. No, better than that. Miracle Sunday is here.
Previously, I'd spent two posts walking the gamemaster (or self-aware career player) through the bare minimum steps of pre-writing and comparing to the prep work one usually does for a game. I'd left two items untouched, the Climax and Resolution. I'll elaborate on them now, then hopefully tie a bow of optimism on the whole thing.
So if there's a Big Event at the beginning of your story or game that kicks everything off and lays out the Story Question, and the middle is all about refining that Question and denying the protagonist(s) any closure on it, then the Climax is where you finally answer the question.
Luke throws away his lightsaber and insists he'll never join the Emperor. The Ghostbusters commit to crossing the streams to save the world at the (theoretical) expense of their own lives. Jake and Elwood play a set and get the cash advance to bail out the orphanage. Marlowe figures out what happened to Regan, but he refuses to tell the General.
When planning game sessions, most GMs have a Climax in mind. Again, part of this is just prepping for the night's session of gaming. But additionally, if you've gone to all the effort of setting up this long chain of interconnected events, there needs to be a satisfying win, loss, or draw that says to the players, "that's it, you solved it or survived it, that part of the story is over."
Take a Chance on Me
Thanks to the whims of chance (that is, rolling dice), there are two main lessons that gaming can teach a GM about the Climax. One is, in my opinion, more positive and the other is more negative. We'll start with the happier but more difficult of the two.
Sometimes, players don't roll well enough, or the GM rolls very well, or some linchpin of the plan just goes south, and the heroes don't succeed. They might die, they might get captured, the person they're meant to save could flip to the dark side or get sacrificed or whatever.
I prefer stories where the answer to the Question is No. Or, even better, a "Yes, but..." that makes you wish it had just been a No. Years of experience at the gaming table combined with reams of Noir reading material left me with a firm grasp on how to answer No or Yes, but... in a way that others would find satisfying.
They may not be happy about it, but my players will be satisfied. That might mean the loss leads into the next adventure, or they might just recognize that their heroes went out in a blaze of glory. Whatever it is, when the dice force you to tell your players No or Yes, but... and you manage to do it in a particularly compelling way, then dissect it to see exactly what you did right. When you figure it out, take it to heart and do it again.
Game of (un)Chance
The more negative lesson -- although much easier to fix as a writer -- is when chance screws your table out of the chance at a Climax. In what the GM considers the middle of the story, the heroes have a mishap, or a random encounter table generates a bit too robust of a monster, or somebody fails a skill check in a way that leaves death or imprisonment as the only reasonable outcomes and you score the dreaded Total Party Kill (TPK).
There are ways to make this work at the table, but they take a lot of tapdancing for me if I want to leave the game's teeth in. I can hand wave it, I can fudge the damage, but if I do that and the players catch me, then they feel the game will just gum them but never bite.
The reason this is easy to fix as a writer is that you aren't rolling dice to see what happens in your story. Oh, you should make it difficult, painful, and all around terrible on your protagonists, but they don't die, aren't maimed, and don't piss in the king's favorite wine cup unless you want them to. And if you want them to, then it's easier to figure out how they're going to get out of it to progress towards that Climax.
As exciting and important as the Climax is, it doesn't really work without a Resolution. Blowing the Death Star up is great, but rolling the credits right away without the celebratory hugs and medals would just be weird and unsatisfying. Same thing in a different way when the Story Question's answer is in the negative. Double Indemnity doesn't work nearly as well without Keyes finding Neff recording his confession.
This can be tough at the game table. I can't tell you how many nights I am scrambling against the end of the night to get an action scene finished before everyone has to leave for the night. The last foe is vanquished and everyone starts to stand up and gather their books and dice. They had fun, but they're ready to go even though the storyteller in me wants have a moment to appreciate the victory.
This can be doubly difficult at the end of an arc. Everybody wants to know how much XP they get or what loot the Big Bad had upon her person or in her stronghold. For an RPG, these mechanical concerns are very, very important. But if part of what we're doing is telling a story together, so is the Resolution.
There aren't a lot of dice to roll, but it's still important for the city to throw a parade for the heroes, or for the kidnapped princess to kiss the hero that saved her, or for M to tell the 00s they kept the world from slipping over the brink. Sometimes I'll even write this section out in advance. I try not to read it verbatim, but a few choice phrases down on paper can give the moment just as much gravitas as when they rolled the final to-hit on the evil mastermind.
Same thing goes for your story or novel. You have to work very, very hard to write yourself to a spot where you don't need some kind of denouement. I did it once with my Saga of the Myth Reaver: Downfall, but even after all that work for the big punch ending, I felt the need for a very brief epilogue to bring it home. In fact, a good rule of thumb is allow one chapter as Resolution. Even if you use part of it to lead into a sequel, your readers will thank you with a warm feeling of a satisfyingly finished story.
Bringing It Home
So you've plotted your course and gone on the long, scenic drive of writing a story. It probably felt a lot like prepping for six months of games at a one go, but you've done it. Do you think it's time to sit down at the keyboard and start typing words?
Almost. We need to talk a bit about one more core concept (and a few bits of friendly advice after that. That core concept is Story Structure. Honestly, this can be a bit problematic to map to your gaming experience. Or rather, you do it in microcosm over and over, but now you're going to have to do it in macrocosm (sorta like your prep versus your pre-writing). Sound complicated? It is...a little. But it's nothing gamers don't already do, they just do it differently.
Come back next time and we'll talk about Story Structure. See you then!
For a long time I've been thinking about a series of post called "This Week's Reason Copyright is Baloney Sandwich," but I've hesitated. I feared that the world wouldn't give me a weekly reason to get angry about intellectual property land grabs. Well, this week gave me not one but two and I decided that "This Week" didn't have to mean "Every Week." It will be interesting to see how many weeks out of the year I have these posts come 2014.
But anyway, now on with this week's cavalcade of BS.
Eyes Meet Roll
So Marvel (Disney) and DC (Time-Warner) filed a joint trademark on the word "super-hero." I for one am shocked, shocked, to hear that Disney and Time-Warner are stealing language and characters out of the public domain. There is absolutely no precedent for this!
Neither of these companies invented the term and they aren't the sole users of it. Adding a ™ to super-hero is a Jedi mind trick of BS even these two bastions of greed should be ashamed of.
Thanks to Boing Boing for my discovery of the story.
So GW Stands for "Goliath Wins"?
Games Workshop, creators of various Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fantasy and sci-fi games, miniatures, novels, et al, sent a notice of trademark infringement to Amazon about a self-published book called Spots the Space Marine.
First, that trademark is complete BS because space marines have been a staple of science fiction for nearly as long as there has been science fiction. Space marines were here before GW and, in fact, the authors who went before GW made it possible for GW to create their own, admittedly unique take on the concept.
One with a legal bend will note that Games Workshop has a trademark on "space marine" in the areas of board games, parlor games, war games, hobby games, toy models and miniatures of buildings, scenery, figures, automobiles, vehicles, planes, trains and card games and paint, sold therewith.
So fiction isn't in that list. Which means that a big company sent a spurious notice of infringement to another big company to screw over a self-published author, and all over a term they didn't actually invent and that wouldn't have been useful to them without all the usages before they used it.
Friends of mine who buy Games Workshop stuff often tell me that GW hates them, yet they buy their stuff anyway. I give them a hard time about this, but now it's moved beyond bad customer service. They don't just hate their own customer base, guys, they now hate free expression. Free expression which made their success possible in the first place.
Yeah, sure, there are obviously no issues whatsoever with copyright and trademark. Nothing to see here, move along.
This is a short story about my son. Well, truthfully, it's more about his teacher, or at last how clever she is. We're all really big fans of her's here, my son, wife, and I. I hope this short story will explain a little of why.
As usual, though, I have to give a little background.
My son has been playing with language lately. Testing out words and rhymes and new usages. There have been some amazing inventions from him, but also some pushing of limits. He's said a few curse words (honestly, I have no idea where he might have heard them...), but I've nipped that in the bud.
Instead he's used non-curse words, like "eyeball" and "toilet," as curse words. (A very complicated spot for me since I don't want to discourage using new words even when I know exactly what he's up to.) But more than that, he's managed to skirt the edges of words I'd rather he not use but can't quite bring myself to come down on him about.
Case in point, he declares things are BS. He uses only the initials and his contextual usage is flawless. This makes it hard for me to get too upset about it. I'm pretty sure he doesn't even know what the initials are supposed to stand for.
So he's been doing this language play at school as well. Again, I don't want to misrepresent this. Most of this is great learning potential and showing the world that -- surprise, surprise -- my son has great facility for language.
But then one day at school, he declared something to be BS.
The teacher glossed over it, but the other students had to know. "Teacher, teacher...what's BS?"
Without missing a beat, with nary a batted eyelid of hesitation, my son's fantastic kindergarten teacher responds, "Baloney Sandwich."
I have no idea if she invented that or heard it elsewhere and I'm the only one who doesn't know about it because I'm a heathen who will just say the dirty words. Either way, the wife and I love it so much we say it all the time now. My friend Jeff has started saying it to see how long before it comes back to him.
That's an inspired bit of teaching right there and an addition to my own vernacular that I can't get enough of. So thank you, Miss Awesometeacher!
Hopefully this has brought a smile to your face, dear reader. This knowledge will also help you understand an upcoming blog series title, so it's a doubly useful post! And that's...
In November I appeared at the Oklahoma Creativity Forum's after party, IgniteOKC. Along with several other speakers, I spoke for five minutes about a topic I was passionate about and tried to transfer some of that passion. There were no breaks in the five minutes and I'd prepared slides that moved forward every 20 seconds whether I liked it or not.
I have never had even one second of nervousness about public speaking...until the morning of Ignite. It scared me to death. But I did it anyway, and the video is finally available. I'm posting it here for all the world to see because I'm proud of it both professionally and personally.
Professionally, this is not only "why copyright is a damn mess" in a tight package, but it's the shortest pitch I can make for how the Consortium plans to play a whole different game. On the personal level, I'm a firm believer in doing things now and then that really scare you. Being more confident than I really have a right to be, I don't find enough things that really put a wobble in my knees. This did it, though, and I made it through.
I don't think I can stand to watch it, though. You guys do it for me. I'll be hiding over here.
PS: If you'd like to see some of the other talks from smart people (some of whom I'm lucky to have turned into friends since IgniteOKC), you can find the Youtube Channel with all the 2012 talks, as well as the past talks, here.
Yesterday I had JJ Abrams on the brain so hard I watched Star Trek and thought about rewatching Alias. This morning, I read a fascinating interview with Steven Soderbergh. These two guys got into my head and made me realize something about the fiction I'm enjoying lately. Basically, everything I'm enjoying right now comes from two camps of thought, and these guys can represent them well.
Abrams makes beautiful movies and tv shows that are pulse pounding and interesting. They're usually pretty smart with well-oiled plots as well. But if it comes down to Smart versus Exciting, Abrams is going to go with Exciting every time.
He considers himself to walk in Spielberg's footsteps. The craft of movie-making will be in full effect, but these movies are here to make you eat the living hell out of some popcorn.
For examples, watch the first season of Lost and Alias, 2009's Star Trek, or Super8.
The Soderbergh Camp is just as likely to give you a low-fi indie thing as it is to give you a slick, exciting film that makes you eat popcorn by the handful. But even when it's giving you slick and exciting, there's more going on there. Sometimes the craft slips or becomes a little rote, but there's always a lot of thinking and character work going on beneath the surface.
Bottom line, even when the Soderbergh Camp makes pulp entertainment, it's always doing something else beneath the pulp.
For examples, Sex, Lies, & Videotape, Out of Sight, Ocean's 11, or The Good German.
No Judgment Zone
These descriptions should not be read as value judgments. Remember, I led with saying these are the two camps I'm enjoying these days. Not necessarily everything from both camps tickles my fancy (sometimes slick and exciting is also stupid and sometimes multi-layered is just muddying up the better bits), but these are the generalized approaches I love.
Figuring this out, or at least putting names to it, has already helped me understand some of the issues I've had with my creative endeavors lately. Basically, I've left myself in a really confusing place.
If you ask me what camp my work is in, I'd say the Abrams Camp. But the fact of the matter is, when it comes to my work habits and the way I plan my fiction, I write as though I'm from the Soderbergh Camp.
Even if I have a thrilling story half planned, I often find it difficult to explain my Story Question succinctly. As much as I love plot driven pieces, I often start with a theme, a feeling, or a character who needs twisting and then create a plot to get at that.
Basically, I really and firmly believe I want to be one thing until I actually have to do the work, and then I realize I have to be the other thing in order to finish the work. But when it's finished, you could very likely mistake it for the first thing.
I can think of one writer -- a comic book writer, of all things -- who manages to synthesize these camps nearly perfectly. Maybe that's what I'm working towards. Or maybe I'm just figuring myself out as a writer on the job. (The best way to figure it out, by the way.)
What about you folks who have read a few things by me? Do you have any thoughts or theories on which Camp I trend toward? Maybe you see neither one? I'd be interested to hear from you guys on this, because if I actually stopped to gaze at my own navel that hard, I might never come out again.
Very recently, a friend brought it to my attention that it had been a month since I posted to the blog. I've been writing mad posts, but admittedly for another blog. And that's only the beginning of the neglect here. Still, as a guy who really cares about popular culture and genre fiction done well, I'm going to shortly weigh in on the burning nerd question of the moment...
How do I feel about JJ Abrams on a Star Wars movie?
The more interesting thing to me is the irony of Disney, the creator of our copyright problems, taking a beloved piece of pop cultural landscape and opening it up to the world for reimagining and reinvention in a way its creator only had minor interest in.
- I'm a huge Star Trek fan and JJ's reboot/reimagining is the best thing since Original Flavor. It gave me back the thing Star Trek had been missing since Original Flavor turned into movies about saving whales and The Next Generation let nonsense words take over for good writing. Excitement.
- Star Wars sure as hell can't get any worse.
A while ago, I said I'd do reviews only when I read something I really enjoyed or that really caught my attention. That happened the last couple weeks with The Hammer and the Blade, although some of the reasons it caught my attention are because of its publisher, Angry Robot. I'll try and explain all that, why you might enjoy the book, and why the ending sorta made me cringe twice. Hopefully it'll take less than a thousand words.
This is probably the seventh or eight Angry Robot published novel I've read. I have found almost all of them disappointing and several of them frustrating. The reason for this is also the reason I really appreciate Angry Robot.
You see, Angry Robot gives first-time novelists with very clever ideas and enjoyable plots a shot at getting published. But as near as I can tell, Angry Robot does not story edit these first-time novelists. Which leads to clever ideas and enjoyable plots getting mired in rookie mistakes. Hence the disappointment and frustration.
Now, before anybody thinks I'm getting too uppity about my own work, the reason I recognize these obvious rookie mistakes is because they're mistakes I keep making. The difference is, my publisher also prides itself on being a school and my rookie mistakes get caught, I get coached through them, and they don't (usually) make it into publication.
So, that said, I am equally in love with Angry Robot and want to throttle them with my bare hands.
But then my good friend Jeff (source of most of my Angry Robot reading) loaned me The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S. Kemp. Jeff knew that I hadn't read much of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but that I'd loved what I had read. He described Egil and Nix, the protagonists of The Hammer and The Blade, as Leiber on methamphetamine. In addition, this was not Kemp's first novel, so I hoped to avoid the usual Angry Robot issues. How could I not read it?
And reading it was a very good decision. The characters, from the protagonists through the jerk who helps kidnap them and on down to the villain and his sisters, are vivid and interesting. The wit is sardonic and sarcastic without growing too quippy. The plot is fast-paced. Lastly, the worldbuilding is dexterous by dangling interesting bits of entertaining information that -- and this is a rare gem in fantasy novels -- leave me wanting to know more rather than bogged down in details.
No, seriously. Egil worships a guy who is the Momentary God...as in, he was only a god for a moment. Dur Fallin is a city with ten thousand of its own stories. Hell, just the bar that Egil and Nix buy, The Slick Tunnel, seems to have all kinds of story potential. Affiron, the Egypt/Stygia stand-in, is evocative and useful without being overbearing. The mysterious pasts of our protagonists that are only hinted at could be reams of "Untold Tales of Egil and Nix."
So, that's all the good news. And make no mistake, it IS good news. But there are a few rough patches mixed in this story as well. For instance, if you're looking for literature, look elsewhere. This is the fantasy equivalent of your Die Hards and Lethal Weapons. You'll note, this isn't really a complaint to me, I'm just being upfront. I've had all the literary fantasy (or pretenders to pretension) I can stand.
The real hang up, for me, comes very near the end. I'm going to be careful about spoilers, but there are several things you know right from the beginning that I'm not giving away. First of those, rape is the lynchpin of the main villain's plan. Second, it's rape of his usually drugged sisters by a demon lord. Third, rape of their women by demons is pretty much the cornerstone of this douche bag family's power.
Okay, that said, that's not the thing that bothered me. He's a villain and a bastard and his plan gets the point across. There's even some rape imagery in how he compels Egil and Nix. The real problem is when the vileness of rape as a subtext becomes ham-fisted RAPE IS BAD text. There are even all caps in the book.
The inelegance of this became especially difficult for me when I recalled the many scenes with the prostitutes at the beginning of the novel. These ladies were smart and interesting characters who apparently didn't begrudge their lot in life. But if Mr. Kemp wants me to believe that they chose that job while rejecting many other lucrative offers, that's pretty much impossible to swallow. And it make his uncomplicated "rape is bad" text unnecessarily murky.
What's more -- and here is where spoilers would abound so pardon while I'm circumspect -- the denouement of the story is simultaneously very clever while also leaving me uncomfortably unsure what I'm to do with the "rape is bad" mantra.
To sum up, I enjoyed this book and I'd suggest it to other fans of sword and sorcery fantasy. It was a fun read with very engaging characters and teasingly clever world building. The ending, while clumsy and problematic, did not at all ruin the overall enjoyment of the novel. Angry Robot dodged the "first time novelist" issue and they keep both the paperback and the e-book versions reasonably price. You can see for yourself here.
Hey! Look at that! I reviewed a publisher and a book and still didn't quite break a thousand words. I'm calling that a win.