For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Strange Puts on his Broken Watch: Understated Character Moments in Superhero Melodramas Like Captain Marvel

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Remember the end of DOCTOR STRANGE, where he straps on that super-expensive but thoroughly ruined watch to symbolize that he has learned to accept the broken things that are important to him? I thought that was beautiful because it underplayed the moment. It implied rather than stated, and it did so artfully.

Later, I heard a bunch of people didn’t like the movie because (in part) they thought Strange didn’t change. Never mind that he started off as a guy who was concerned only with his rep, to the point that he wouldn’t see patients if they were too old or sick and his treatment might fail, and at the end of the movie, he wins by losing, and he does so in a way that ensures no one will ever know about it except for him and his two buddies. He has turned himself upside down on reputation and failure, and he’s found a new, better way to live.

But DOCTOR STRANGE is a superhero melodrama, and the less obvious story beats were lost in all the disks of colored light, uncollapsing buildings, and kung fu. And now I think the same thing has happened to CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Now, to be clear, I really, really enjoyed CAPTAIN MARVEL. I saw it twice in the theater already, and once my wife and son go on their trip, I’ll see it again.

FYI: SPOILERS after the jump. You’ve been warned.

Continue reading

The Pressure to Continue the Story After the Story

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That video below? Worth watching, like Ellis’s other work.

(Actually, I’m sort of assuming the video shows up, since WordPress’s new “block” system doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.)

If you’ve watched it (and let me say again, you should) you already know that it’s a discussion of some relatively recent critical schools of thought about literature, namely, does the author have any authority over the story and characters outside the published text? Or, to use the examples in the video, does the author get to tell us what happened to the characters after the last page? Do we have to take seriously the secret things they tell us about the characters that’s not in the text (such as, that Dumbledore is gay)?

Like John Green in the video, I’m of the opinion that readers get to choose for themselves, and at least should be able to extrapolate from the story.

As a personal example, a number of readers asked me what happened to Lar Italga after the end of The Great Way. Me, I thought it was so obvious that I didn’t even bother to write it. But that wasn’t good enough for some, and they seemed annoyed when I turned the question around and asked what they thought happened to him. They didn’t want to extrapolate. They wanted the authoritative word.

A number of people also wanted authoritative insight into how the names were pronounced, and “however you like” was apparently not an acceptable answer. I’ve read I-don’t-know-how-many fantasy novels with goofy pronunciation guides and I’ve learned to ignore them. In the privacy of my own head, I think of the characters’ names however I like, but a significant number of readers want the “correct” form.

The video takes JK Rowling to task for many of her pronouncements about the world of the books and the future of the characters. Is it especially laudable to make Dumbledore gay if you don’t include it in the actual book where it would have counted? Do we need an apology about who Hermione ended up with? Do we need to be told that, before indoor plumbing, wizard students crapped on the floor and them magic-ed the mess away?

Lots of people had a laugh at that last one, but it seems she knows what she’s talking about. Click the tweet below to see why I will never ever time travel back to the middle ages in Europe.

I’m lying here being sick while @seraph76 reads me bits of a history of French royal court poisonings and I think we need another terror— rahaf mohammed al-qanon (@AliceAvizandum) January 5, 2019

I know it starts off talking about poison, but it quickly moves to sewers (or the lack thereof) and no, please, authors, do not try for this level of realism. Just click the tweet to open and read. It’s hair-raising.

So, yeah, Rowling has a history of coming up with a bunch of extraneous stuff about the Harry Potter books–seemingly without giving it a lot of thought–and not to the benefit of her books or herself. To which I have to say: Can you blame her?

The Harry Potter books were such a gigantic hit that she has been deluged with questions, many from very young readers. Is she supposed to tell a ten-year-old Hermione fan that the character is a fictional construct with no life or existence outside the text? Yeah, that would go over well.

It’s entirely unsurprising that she launched an entire website (literally “More Potter”) which lists a bunch of character biographies and other bullshit that Rowling (or one of her interns/social media hires/whatever) threw together in an afternoon. That it draws in the hardcore fans (and tries to sell them stuff) is an entirely reasonable way to avoid all those earnest questions flooding the author’s social media.

And then, when a new Fantastic Beasts movie comes out, superfans get upset because the backstory in the movie doesn’t match the extraneous BS listed on Pottermore. Not that it matters. The Hogwarts Cinematic Universe is different from the books, obviously.

So yeah, I get why John Green and other authors (like myself) don’t want to add more story once the story is done. I also believe that Rowling’s circumstances are unique to her, and the pressure on her to drop these little bits of extraneous story must be incredible. I don’t always like what she says, but she has my sympathy.

Randomness for 1/14

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1) The Chinese government’s extensive “social credit” surveillance system rewards loyal citizens and punishes whistle blowers.

2) Relationships vs Algorithm at Netflix.

3) For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain.

4) The Fall and Rise of M. Night Shyamalan

5) Forgery Experts Explain 5 Ways To Spot A Fake. Video.

6) Dating while in therapy? The advice column answer to this question is both kind and its not interested in the way we bullshit ourselves. Excellent.

7) How to take awesome food photos by Helen Rosner. (This is a terrific primer on visual composition)

Movies with Mikey vs. 8 Harry Potter Films: The Path to Success

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Hey, let’s talk a little bit about something that way too many people have already talked about: the Harry Potter films. And by “talk about” I mean “share this series of three Movies with Mikey episodes about the franchise.

Go ahead and watch. They’re good. If you’re not sure why you should bother, read more below.

The first time I told someone outside my family that I planned to binge all eight Harry Potter movies (nearly 20 hours worth of films but maybe more with bathroom breaks depending on beer) their reply was “Better you than me.”

And I get it. They’re kids films–at least at the start. They have good choices mixed with the not so good, and an inconsistent tone in some places. They take a while to hit their stride. It’s the BLOODLINE effect: how many hours do you have to watch before it “gets good”?

But I thought that binge-watch was valuable. The first movie is adorable, like a 130 million dollar school play. The last is as intense as any big-budget thriller. Making that journey is no easy feat.

I wouldn’t consider myself a Potterhead, or whatever Rowling’s Potter fans call themselves. I don’t visit Pottermore, write fanfic, or play quidditch IRL. I haven’t memorized the biographies of the supporting cast, so I couldn’t tell you where Minerva McGonagall took her gap year or whether Professor Sprout makes her own hats. I’m not that sort of fan about anything.

But I have read the books more than once (unusual for me) and I think there’s a lot to learn from the way the movies stumble and then correct themselves as they go on (which is a weird way to describe that process, I know, because movies don’t create themselves, but you guys know what I mean). I’m always interested in the creative choices behind a work that affects me deeply, which is why I’ve watched Beyond Stranger Things a half-dozen times, and I’ve already watched this three-part documentary twice.

In these videos, Mikey covers the onscreen character choices, the studio-level hiring decisions, and everything in between, showing how they came together to become this weirdly compelling long-form story. And I say “weirdly” because this sort of thing shouldn’t be my jam (except for all the death) but it is, and Mikey touches on that, too.

If you’re interested in how creative work gets made (esp in a group/corporate environment) give these a watch. They’re funny, insightful, and breezy. Neumann is also one of the few Patreon accounts that I feel I can afford to support, if you want to know how strongly I feel about his work.

Anyway, this is where I confess: I just binged these movies last July for my birthday, and watching this documentary makes me want to do it again, just to pick up on more elements that change in each installment: costuming, camera movement, sound design, and so on. And it just so happens that I got a box set for Giftmas. Maybe it should be a reward for finishing this round of edits on my new book.

AQUAMAN

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I bought a ticket to AQUAMAN. Deliberately.

If I’m speaking honestly, Aquaman might be the second superhero I ever really liked as a kid. (after ’67 Spider-man, obviously). This was before I was reading comics, and my sole exposure to the genre was cartoons. I had to look up the name of the show–The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure–but he was my favorite character, with the rings coming out of the bridge of his nose and water blasts/balls/whatever that he threw.

Then came Superfriends and, yeah, lets just drop the whole thing there. Even as a dumb kid I knew Superfriends wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t find a version I liked again until the New 52, which made him just about the only character from that particular reboot that I thought was well served.

Anyway, I almost skipped the film because of that anecdote about Jason Momoa tearing out the end of bookworm Amber Heard’s book because she wasn’t paying attention to him. More here: although it sounds as if he only did it once and she actually likes the dude, annoying prank notwithstanding.

The movie is gorgeous, and dumb, and utterly predictable. There’s a three-stage plot coupon/fetch the macguffin story, with Our Hero as the dumb guy who inexplicably wins over his mentor/super-hot love interest through his ability to… I dunno… withstand a bunch of blows to the head?

Which is a little unfair, because they give Aquaman a bunch of nice heroic moments. Then there’s this:

Character in movie: Atlantis needs something more than a king.

Me, in theater: A democracy.

Character in movie: It needs a hero.

But whatever. the whole pick-your-autocrat-through-trial-by-combat was as stupid in BLACK PANTHER as it is here, but it’s fun to watch. And for once, Ocean Master doesn’t come across as a dink.

Plus, Amber Heard in her fluorescent jelly fish dress, and the drumming octopus. And jousting from the back of a sea horse. And and and. The film is dumb and beautiful and eager to please. Buy some popcorn and have a few laughs, but try not to think about Amber Heard’s book.

“Mankind Was My Business”: The Annual Repost of the Best (Objectively) Version of A Christmas Carol

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Each year, I share this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which is still my favorite of all the versions of that famous story.

Because of the way they portray the ghosts and the spirits. There is no spookier version, and even fifty years later, the animation is gorgeous. So great, in fact, that it won an Oscar for short animated film, and prompted the Academy to change their rules so that shows that were first broadcast on TV were no longer eligible for their reward.

It’s the Wilt Chamberlain of animation.

If the embed doesn’t work, here’s the link.

Honestly, I think these times need this story more than ever. If you haven’t seen this version, this is your chance.

The Usual Giftmas Pics

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Every year my wife and I go to the gingerbread house exhibit in downtown Seattle and every year I post some of the pics we took. Except this year was sort of disappointing. There were very few displays and they weren’t all that nice. I mean, it’s good that there’s an exhibit devoted to raising money for juvenile diabetes, but the whole thing was sort of ugly.

The theme was The Grinch, and check this out:

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I had a bit of trouble with the new camera, but the whole thing looks cramped and unpleasant, unlike previous years. It’s more of a pile of sweet edibles than a beautiful design. Speaking of designs, this is the scene where the Whos gather around the tree and sing “Yahoo Doray”. In the cartoon, it’s an ordinary Christmas tree, but here:

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Is that Chthulu’s glowing schlong up there? It’s a little blurry because it actually moves. Yeah, it’s designed to thrust up and down and let me tell you, it looks creepy as fuck.

And look at the serpentine tree with the tentacle head in the right of this picture:

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This was less “Joy of Christmas” and more “Lovecraftian Holiday Goosebumps”.

After, we went down to Safeco Field to check out the light maze and ice skating track in the Enchant exhibit, and from the entrance, it looked like this:

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It’s dark and cool with a bunch of beautiful light displays, and you can see part of the track on the lower right. When you enter the maze, you get a little card with all Santa’s reindeer on them, which you scratch off as you find each one. And it’s lovely.

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They also had a bunch of booths with local craftspeople selling their products, and my family sort of rolled their eyes when I said I wanted to check them out, but we came away with a handful of lovely little gifts.

Anyway, I’m off to do some stuff for the day. If you’re in the Seattle area (and can manage the price) Enchant is the first truly delightful Christmas event in years. Check it out.

Fantastic Beasts 2 and the Basic Appeal of a Thing

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In a now-deleted tweet, another author wrote that the Fantastic Beasts movies sounded like the Star Wars prequels, because they focused on worldbuilding at the expense of characterization. That got me thinking about the basic appeal of fantasy stories, and what role worldbuilding and characterization plays in making that appeal long-lasting.

If someone as savvy as the one mentioned above thinks the Fantastic Beast films have Star Wars Prequel-level characterization, that’s a major failure of the WB marketing department. Whatever the flaws of the Fantastic Beast movies, boring lead characters are not one of them. Newt Scamander might be the most peculiar hero of big budget studio adventure films in my lifetime. Even something as simple as the way he stands when he talks to other people subverts the idea of a male hero, the guys who wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of their mouth with their fist.

Honestly, I found Newt’s body language off-putting at first. His body language suggests that he believes other humans are dangerous predators, even the friendly ones. Imagine a Harry Potter who can barely make eye contact with Draco. It’s a bold choice, and it’s about a thousand miles from sulky, petulant Annakin and whatever Liam Neeson was doing.

One the problems with the second film is that the newer additions to the story aren’t as distinctive as the characters from the first film. Grindelwald’s hench-people in particular are a bunch of stoic blank-faces and a big disappointment from the writer who created the faculty at Hogwarts.

But I have to ask, if you want to talk about interesting characters, what about Harry Potter as a character? He comes from an abusive background (without the harmful damage kids in that environment get in the real world). He’s good at sports. He’s earnest and brave and snubs Flashman… er, I mean Draco from the start of the story.

We like him because, in part (and I’ll get to the second part in a bit), he’s a good guy in difficult circumstances, but it’s the specifics of those circumstances that make his story compelling. That’s on the worldbuilding.

Really, it’s Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the centerpiece of the appeal of the Harry Potter stories. Yeah, the characters. Yeah, the names of the characters (which I love). Yeah, the mix of plot threat, magic, interpersonal character bonding and conflict–Rowling has a sense for mixing those things in just the right order. But the Harry Potter books work so well because of a fairly ordinary Brave Young Hero in an extraordinarily appealing setting.

There’s a moment in FB2 where the story briefly returns to Hogwarts and it’s announced by that musical motif. You know the one I mean. It made me wonder why the other characters didn’t have their own music. Shouldn’t Credence’s scenes have their own little jingle? Shouldn’t Grindelwald’s? (Or maybe they did, but if so I didn’t notice) It would have helped establish the various factions in the plot, and helped us connect them.But Hogwarts deserves its own jingle because Hogwarts is the place we want to be.

Personally, I think the worldbuilding is an obsession with fantasy readers and fans. I have seen people complain about The Lies of Locke Lamora because it didn’t give them a sense of the world as a whole. It’s been said that a crime novel is, at its core, about a city, while a spy novel is like a tourist’s travel guide. Well, I think fantasy readers want their novels to be expeditions into fictional places, and I suspect Rowling has plenty more travel guide in her.

This isn’t to say that characterization isn’t important–obviously it is–but I think what really matters (this is the second part I mentioned above) is the relationships between the main characters. How they’re connected, how that relationship is tested, how it survives (or doesn’t).

I think this is the biggest flaw in the FB2: not enough emphasis is put on the connections between the characters. Jacob and Queenie spend most of the movie apart. Credence and Nagini need a scene to demonstrate the powerful connection between them to make his climactic choice meaningful. Leta’s connection to Newt is demonstrated powerfully, but not her connection to Theseus. And Grindlewald’s connections to his henchfolk is simply assumed.

Yeah, the movie has problems, but I think it’s better than people think. As I said on Twitter, in a few years’ time I expect people to reappraise it, especially in light of the FB series as a whole, however long many movies turns out to be.

But I’ll sum up by saying the worldbuilding has to have lasting appeal to sustain a long series, which I think the HCU (Hogwarts Cinematic Universe, ‘natch) does. Also, it helps to have interesting supporting characters and standard heroic leads with strong relationships to the other characters, because it’s the connections the readers will invest in, not the characters themselves. IMO.