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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Let’s talk briefly about where things stand for me as an author in the fall of 2018. There’s some personal stuff here and an update on new books.
First of all, my wife and I have been living in this apartment for 24 years come Oct 3. And sometime in the upcoming months we’re going to be evicted.
The eviction will come in one of two ways: a massive rent hike, or a straight order to get out so the building can be demolished. Our landlord passed away, and his heirs would rather sell than collect rent, so the building is up for sale. (And no, I can’t afford to make an offer.)
My entire marriage has played out in this apartment. It’s the only home my son has ever known. But we don’t own it, so we don’t control it. That means we’re going to be moving on.
In a way, it’s fine. Moving will suck but at least it’ll force us to deal with our clutter, and the unit was old when we moved in, so it’s in a bit of disrepair. Still, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here and if you stay somewhere long enough, the rent sometimes lags behind the market, so a new place will cost.
And yet, move on we must. That means higher rents and longer commutes, probably from a brand new neighborhood.
To that end, I whipped up a resume and submitted it to a video game company who had expressed interest in hiring me about five years ago. At the time, I thought they wanted to talk to me about writing a book for them, but then I met the novelists they already have working for them and I was all What am I doing here?
But I actually play some video games now (thanks to decent recommendations from my son and the fact that he’s old enough for me to have more free time) whereas I did my best to avoid them when he was small. And while the writing has been going pretty well over the years, this year has been tough. If I have to move, too, it’ll be day job time.
Books what about those books?
Let’s take a look at where things stand:
City of Fallen Gods has made its rounds among the major NY and UK publishers without generating any interest. I need to do another revision and decide whether to send it to small presses or just self-publish it and let it out into the world.
When my agent took this one to the market, I told myself (and a few others) If this book doesn’t sell, I’m not going to write fantasy any more. Well, it didn’t. However, I am already in the middle of…
The Crown of Infamy, which is over 90k words in a first draft. It’s meant to be a light-hearted adventure, similar in tone (if not in plot) to Key/Egg, but I confess that I’ve been struggling with it. Soon enough, I expect to finish first-pass revisions on it and then I can return to City….
Hard Choices, previously titled Jack of Angels, Tiger Things, The Llewellyn Report, and One Last Favor, is a mystery/crime thriller I wrote last year as a sort of break from magic and monsters. It’s the sort of old-fashioned mystery novel that you can only self-publish now, and I intend to do exactly that as soon as City… is out in the world.
The [Adjective] [Noun] is the next Twenty Palaces novella I’ve been meaning to tackle. Earlier this year, I was saying I expected to get to it before the end of the year, but City… has bounced back at me and Crown… has been fighting me with every word, so that’s got to be pushed into 2019.
What will probably happen is:
1. Send Crown to my agent
2. rough draft The [Adjective] [Noun]
3. revise City
4. revise Choices
5. revise [Noun]
And somewhere in that timeline is a pause to execute my agent’s notes on Crown so it can go out to publishers, plus another Bookbub promotion for The Way into Chaos, plus cover designs for Choices and City, plus scheduling copy edits and so on and so forth.
Plus looking for a regular job (hopefully not simply more temp work, although I’m not exactly brimming over with marketable job skills) plus shedding extraneous possessions in anticipation of our move plus packing things for our move plus plus plus.
It’s a busy time, is what I’m saying, but I’m planning to do everything I can to get these books to you guys (especially the 20P novella).
Last note! I have that Patreon going (which you can see in the sidebar of my website) because of recent rent hikes and dips in book sales but, if I land a regular full-time job, I plan to shutter it, for the obvious reasons.
My Saturday was supposed to be fun. I was going to finish up my day’s writing, then pop over to the Summerfest celebration, which is basically the weekend when our local chamber of commerce rounds up food trucks, a beer garden, and some local musicians/cover bands. Not tremendously fun, but it’s outdoors and the beers are excellent. I’d planned to try some overpriced food truck treats, buy a fancy red ale from a nearby microbrew, and read in the shade for a few hours.
Hey, my wife was going to be away until the evening, so I could have all the fun. But did I have fun?
First, before I got within 100 yards of a fancy beer, I fell. I had no excuse; my foot landed half on the edge of the sidewalk and half off, which threw off my balance and, like a lumbering ox, I toppled over onto the sidewalk and scraped the hell out of my leg. (And laughed at my own clumsiness)
Second, once I arrived at Summerfest, one of the hot dogs I’d picked as my food truck dinner (not that fancy, maybe, but lines are also a consideration and they were more like big brats than supermarket dogs from a pack) came apart as I was eating it and smeared mustard down the front of my shirt. I hate being a fat guy with food on my shirt, but by then I was already in the beer garden, beer in front of me, with tickets for two more in my pocket. Sunk costs came be tremendously powerful.
Also, this was the first time I’ve ever had a hot dog “Seattle style,” which apparently means sauerkraut and cream cheese. (Verdict: surprisingly good)
Third, when there was only two fingers of beer left in my cup, a strong breeze ruffled the thin plastic table cloth and toppled the cup into my lap. For the rest of the night, I was sporting a soaked crotch. Worse, some splashed onto the bag holding my library books. (Luckily nothing was damaged.) Still, wet pants in the front. wtf, natural elements?
Later that night, when I had arrived safely at home, I couldn’t figure out why my left leg was aching. Sure, I’d fallen and scraped my calf, but that was just a little thing, right?
Then my wife reminded me that I’m old now, and I don’t just bounce back from a little tumble, even one that had me sitting on my ass laughing at my own stupidity.
That’s what I get for trying to have fun. But I know what you’re thinking: What about new fiction?
Well, the new novel I’m writing has been surprisingly challenging. I make progress every day, but it’s been unusually slow.
A few weeks ago I had revisited the mystery/crime thriller I wrote last year, and I’d thought it was unsalvageable garbage. Earlier this week, I realized how to fix it, just by moving a few lines of dialog around. Hmf. So, look for that before the end of the year, if the WIP doesn’t do me in.
I have another big fat fantasy that’s still making the rounds at publishers, but none have bitten so far. That doesn’t look hopeful at this point, but it only takes one.
Finally, I have a new Twenty Palaces novella to write, once I square away a few other things. The story is coming together in little bits and pieces while I work on other projects, and I’m hopeful that I’ll have a rough draft done before the end of the year. However, with a balky WIP and other projects crowding for my attention, that might be too optimistic.
So there you go: a one-man slapstick routine and a bunch of fiction. That pretty much sums up where things are for me.
I listened to part of it last night. At one point, I brought my son into the room, played about fifteen seconds’ worth, and said: “Is this how I sound in real life?”
Him: “Yeah, Dad. That’s you.”
Me: “It’s a miracle your mother ever gave me the time of day.”
Him: “Yeah, Dad.”
So, check it out. I talk about the successes and failures of Twenty Palaces, the various seeds that became The Great Way, and a number of other things.
Apparently, I talk earnestly about my work, and am honest and open. Which is how people should be, I think, if they’re going to put a microphone in front of their faces and recording the things they say. Otherwise, what’s the point of making speech noises?
In which the author makes an embarrassing confession
One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.
Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.
And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.
The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.
It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.
The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.
I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.
But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.
What we talk about when we talk about luck
First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.
Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)
It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.
My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.
But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?
Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.
Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?
This is where my agent comes in
As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.
Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.
What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.
Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.
She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.
Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.
What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.
I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.
There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.
Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.
In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes
Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.
As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.
I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.
To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.
So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.
What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?
So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.
Here they are:
Book started too slowly
Too many characters/plot complications/names
Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding
The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.
Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.
The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.
My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.
There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.
(If you thought this post was interesting or useful, why not share it?)
I thought I’d pop in and update things for folks, writing-wise.
First, earlier this week I sent a new novel to my agent. It’s a crime/mystery novel, a genre I’ve been reading for years. This isn’t my first attempt at this style, but it is the first one that I feel comfortable with. Some aspects of it fall right down the middle of the genre, while some are probably all wrong and will make me tear my hair out in revisions. We’ll see! But it feels good to start a book and send it to her in under six months. I’m not usually that prolific.
Which means I’ve returned to revision on my Twenty Palaces novella. I know I’ve been talking about this for a while, but this mini-book has resisted several attempts to write it. At this point, I feel I’ve solved most of the problems and hope to have it on sale before the end of the year.
Once I finish that, I’ll be working on something new. No idea what it will be, but I’m just going to pick an idea that sounds cool and run with it.
Today’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in a series that turned an awful lot of young people into readers. Of course, it came out with a different name in the U.S. the next year.
I didn’t encounter it until much later in the year, when NPR began to cover it. I grabbed a copy at the library, read the first book, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Not for me.
A lot of books other people love are not for me, and it’s usually because I’m itching for something specific. There’s no point in picking up Fellowship of the Ring when I really want to read Conan. For example.
But the popularity of the books kept growing, and people talked about them more and more online. What’s more, writers were seeing Rowling’s popularity and thinking I want that, too. Lots of online writing talk shifted from “How to write fiction” to “How to write fiction for young adults.”
It was everywhere.
What really stuck with me, though, was the weird advice people were giving. Most common was that YA writers should not waste time at the beginning of a book because young readers don’t have patience to wade through a bunch of boring text. Get that plot moving! They want the story to be exciting!
And my first thought was: I’m not a young person but I hate boring text, too! Why are people talking about adult readers as though we’re okay with dull shit?
At some point, a bookstore across town went out of business, and bussed over there to see what they had on offer. What I found were hardbacks of the first four in the series at half-price. I was a little leery, but half-off! And by that time it was a cultural phenomenon, and I figured I’d try to work out why.
Besides, they keep the plot moving!
With the second attempt, I was feeling less fussy and enjoyed myself much more. I bought the books as they came out and mostly enjoyed them; with the last volume, I took an internet vacation to avoid the gleeful spoilers that people were throwing around for book 6.
Some time later, my son saw a theatrical trailer for one of the movies, and said: “I want to see that.”
“You haven’t read the books yet,” I answered, starting a tradition that kept up until Surly Teenagehood.
In fact, we read the books as part of family read-aloud time. The second time through, hearing them spoken, I was amazed by how funny they were. For the first four books, anyway. Some parts had my son and me rolling on the floor, literally. With book five, they turned more serious, but we enjoyed them just as much.
All seven hardbacks still sit on a shelf in the back hall. I don’t reread often, and I don’t collect books, but I like having all of them in hardback.
By some strange coincidence, Sunday will be my (not) birthday–my real birthday already passed, but I’ll celebrate on this convenient date–and many months ago I decided to make my usual B-day movie marathon a Harry Potter fest. The library dvds are sitting on the shelf beside me. And as flawed as the books may be, they have a charm that the movies lack.
Still, the films are pretty uneven in terms of quality, and therefore instructive.
They’re also, when you watch them end to end, 19 hours and forty minutes long. If you assume that each of the eight films has ten minutes of credits at the end, that 18 hours and 20 minutes. Factor in bathroom breaks, meal times, pizza ordering, 2 am coffee brewing, and a previously scheduled afternoon role-playing session, I just might be staying up 23 straight hours to wait for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get his ass kicked.
And I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about it.
I’m sure I will enjoy the films more than I remember, because I’m more forgiving when I re-watch. Plus: carb cheat day.
Anyway, today I salute J.K. Rowling for her accomplishment. Few writers will ever have as much impact on the culture as she has.
But I don’t know what house I’d be sorted into and I never will.
When I’m reading a book and really enjoying it, I’m in my reader-mind: I’m invested in the character, I want them to do well, I don’t want them to suffer too much or lose anything too precious. I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I wish I could actually enter the story and tell the protagonist what they should do so they stop fucking things up.
In reader-mind, I’m a partisan for the main character
In writer-mind, I’m thinking more about the story as a whole. I (try to) create a character for readers to invest in, then I put them through their paces, running them ragged and making them suffer for the benefit of the story. I have them make mistakes, fail, and screw up in ways that can’t be fixed.
Hopefully, that leads to a hard-won victory that gives the reader something to celebrate. Unless the character is Ray Lilly, and that victory is pyrrhic as hell.
One of the big differences there is control. When I’m in reader-mind, the problems the character faces is wholly out of my control, and that shit can be stressful. In my writer-mind, I’m in complete control, and while I’m making life hell for that perfectly wonderful main character, I know how far I can push things. It’s up to me, and that takes a lot of the stress out of it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two perspectives a lot, mainly because of the role-playing games I’ve been playing lately.
In the old days, when I played D&D (before it became AD&D) and other games later, like The Fantasy Trip or The Morrow Project, I approached the role of GM with the writer-mind. I tried to measure the challenges without making them impossible. Hard-fought, but not impossible.
That could be a challenge, obviously, and those old-school number-crunching games sometimes made it hard to avoid a total party kill, once the scenario was committed. And I can admit it: I wasn’t a great GM.
But when I played a character, I was in reader-mind all the way. I never had the character do anything stupid or illogical, never had them take an action that might screw up their quest, whatever it was. They never rushed in without preparation. Never gave in to foolish temptation. Never trusted anyone likely to be playing the role of traitor in the story.
They never went down into the basement without grabbing a knife from the kitchen first, if you know what I mean.
As I’ve said before, rpgs are storytelling of another kind. Unlike novels or movies, they’re an oral, interactive narrative. And if you played those old-school D&D games, most of the time they were fucking terrible stories. Characters marched down halls in formation, stabbed monsters, searched for treasure, and if they survived, spent it. Often, that became the only goals: gather wealth, go up a level. “There’s a group of bandits stealing from those villagers” was nothing more than a fig leaf over the necessity to put our miniatures on the hex paper.
We made half-hearted efforts to create actual stories in the game, but frankly, we were terrible at it.
That was because the point of the game was not to tell stories, it was to hang out with our friends and make each other laugh. The game was always less important than the people we were playing it with.
However, as boring as these narratives could be, I learned a lot from them. I learned what people expect when they experienced stories with reader-mind. I learned to make the characters as smart and aware as I could.
Essentially, I learned not to have characters in my novels investigate a weird noise in the basement without first stopping for weapons in the kitchen. So to speak.
I still write with the writer-mind in place, but I try to be aware of reader-mind expectations.
Games have changed, though. The last few games our group has played required much more writer-mind perspective from the players. For example, many times our GM will say something like: “Okay. You’re in another dimension. What do you see? Describe it to me.” Everyone in the group is empowered to contribute to the setting and to design NPCs.
That’s something you can’t do if you’re stuck in reader-mind, and think the hellscape surrounding the villain’s stronghold should have a beautiful bridge across it, with napping guards and plenty of fountains for proper hydration.
I confess, that I sometimes struggle with this. I don’t want my characters to get killed every session, but I don’t want to play rpgs on EASY every time, either.
Which brings me to our last session. We’re playing a game called MASKS, which is about a team of teenage superheroes. The characters have power but they’re young and unsure of themselves. They try their best. They make mistakes. And it’s a great game. If you want me to go into details, let me know.
Briefly, here’s where things stood in the game, story-wise: the major villain we were facing was a time-traveling conqueror who, in the distant future, has become powerful enough to rule over every one. Basically, he’s a tyrant who conquered the universe, but no one knew who was really under the mask.
However, we knew he came from Earth and that, in our time, he was a regular guy. He keeps bumping back to our present to influence events, kidnap people, or just villain up the neighborhood. Basically, we were trying to unmask him and identify him, so we could beat him before he became a cosmic-level threat.
Now, since this is a comic book story (and in keeping with the theme we’re often asked to describe what we’re doing in terms of panels) it seemed very likely that the villain was either one of the player characters, or someone we knew. I thought it might be my character, who is a teenage version of Dr. Strange. His history makes him a candidate for turning evil, and when we did finally unmask the time-traveling villain in our last session, I figured there was a 50/50 chance it was my character.
And in my writer-mind, I was mentally prepared for that. It made me unhappy, because I was supposed to be in writer-mind without having the same control I do when I write fiction, but this is how it’s done and I’ve been trying to play the games as best I can.
But it wasn’t my character. It was my friend’s character, and my reader-mind was absolutely not prepared for that.
Here’s the thing about MASKS: the character classes are not defined by power/abilities. Not really. They’re defined by the kinds of stories you tell about them.
For instance, The Janus covers a hero with a demanding secret identity: they have a job, school, money troubles, an Aunt May… The game recommends power sets that work best for each class, but they’re only recommendations. You can play Peter Parker without taking bug powers.
Similarly, if you want to play The Transformed, you don’t have to be a big, strong, left-hook throwing pile of orange rocks like The Thing. But you can still role-play Thing-type stories–the fearful way people react to you, the normal life you can never return to, the whole deal–if that’s what you want.
Weeks ago, as an exercise, I sat down and wrote out the same Deathlok-style hero, with the same powers, for three different classes. Same guy. Same origin. But the changes between one class and another were like different runs by different writers on a long-running comic. It was just a change of tone and style.
One of the character classes that lets you play someone like Raven, from Teen Titans. (Her dad is a super-powerful demon who plans to invade the Earth, and the team helps her keep him at bay. But the danger is always there.) The playbook for that character class is The Doomed and it suits any hero who is the child of demons, scout for a race of alien invaders, etc.
Now you would think, logically–I mean, logically–that it would be obvious to me that a character who is called, literally, DOOMED in the game, would be a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by an evil force and turned into our deadliest enemy. You would think that.
But I never saw it coming, and here’s why:
On the character sheet for The Doomed, under the section “Advancements” (which is a bit like leveling up, except some advancements are plot beats you unlock) I could see RIGHT THERE on the page was an advancement called: “Confront your doom on your own terms; if you survive, change playbooks.”
Which is a way of saying “Your character wins over their mortal enemy and can become any hero you want them to be.”
When I saw that on the character sheet, I thought: “I can’t wait to play out that moment.” My reader-mind wanted my friend’s character to win the day. I was blinded by the expectation that he would get a happy ending. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get to play that scene.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, except to say that the games people make now are wildly superior to what we played in my junior high days in the seventies.
Also, it’s been really hard to keep my reader-mind in check when my writer-mind should be working. It’s also hard to stay in writer-mind when so much control of the narrative has been ceded to the other players. Old habits, I guess.
Even when I’m ready to put my own character through it, I’m still rooting for the rest of the team.
I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.
Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.
It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.
But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:
Biggest impact of #Logan should be studios realizing they can just tell a great story.
Forget sequels. Just tell story.
LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.
And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.
And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.
They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.
This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.
The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).
They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.
But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.
She gives up her life for a guy.
This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.
Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.
One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.
And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.
I can be a cheap date, story-wise.
Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.
Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.
But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.
I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.
Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.
First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.
It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.
Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.
This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.
But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is
not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.
Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.
There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.
Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.
I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.
(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)
I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?
Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.
This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.
It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.
But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:
It’s just so disappointing.
Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.
“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”
“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”
I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.
No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.
And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:
“Where did you train?”
Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.
“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”
The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?
Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.
Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.
Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.
I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.
Let’s talk about where things stand in general with me.
1. Last night I posted fiction onto my Patreon. It’s the first scene of ONE MAN, the novel I’ve been working on, and I thought my patrons deserved a sneak peak. Just my way of saying “Thank you.”
Someone immediately cancelled their pledge.
Can’t please them all, I guess.
2. My gaming group has been playing MASKS, which is a genuinely great game about teenage superheroes. For the longest time, we couldn’t settle on a team name, so I’ve been throwing out joke suggestions (The Integriteens!)
The other players have latched onto one of my jokes as the name they actually want to adopt.
It starts with a hashtag.
3. I shipped my latest revision of ONE MAN to my agent last weekend, and I feel pretty good about it. She may have additional tweaks, but maybe not. If she does, I’m not sure how long it will take me to do them, because
4. I’m sick and getting sicker. Low-grade fever. Body aches. Exhaution.
And a cough that could shatter marble. At this point, I’m coughing so hard that my vision goes fuzzy and my extremities tingle. I honestly feel close to fainting. Which sucks.
Now that I’ve gotten older, it’s common for me to suffer a lingering cough after a cold, and I mean that it lingers for months. My wife hates it, because I cough big. BIG. She tells me to see a doctor, but they never do anything except prescribe cough suppressants and try to placebo me into thinking they’re super powerful. That never works and I’m sick of going. This time, though…
5. I’m not doing too much social media right now, because HACKING. It’s too hard to focus, which is why I’m doing Lemony Snicket and PI shows on Netflix.