Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).

Writing Fantasy: The Glorification of Aristocracy

Last time, I talked about two of the things in the fantasy genre that I wanted to change while working on my novel. Today, we’ll look at the first one: the Glorification of Aristocracy.

In The Lord of the Rings, we needed the rightful king to resume the throne after centuries of Gondor’s misrule by the Stewards, whose line famously flamed out (ha!). In Game of Thrones, even though the excesses and brutality of the ruling class are thoroughly on display (Joffrey, the Lannisters, most of the Targaryens), chances are pretty good your favorite characters in the series all came from the noble class. Good and evil are well represented in the upper classes; the working class, not so much. Off the top of my head, the only Point of View character who is working class is Davos Seaworth.

You can argue that the lives of peasant farmers aren’t terribly interesting, since most of them live and die on the same plot of land and don’t really get to go on crazy adventures most of the time. That’s fair, and for fantasy series that go low-magic (like Game of Thrones), that makes sense. But not all fantasy settings try to recreate the Middle Ages in all their dung-strewn glory. The High Fantasy genre certainly does not; you have magical broomsticks sweeping the streets and everyone is literate, except for D&D 3rd Edition barbarian characters and even they can suddenly read if they multiclass.

In these instances, you have enough science and technology in the form of magic, which is often understood in a scientific fashion rather than a supernatural or faith-based source. You likely have characters who have walked on different worlds due to teleportation. And you have timelines with civilization that dwarf our own, yet no where in any of these scenarios do you see someone point out that maybe hereditary monarchy or feudalism should be replaced. And I think the reason why that happens is because of how we view social classes.

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t really get the idea of class. We think we do, in that we understand that if you’re upper class, you’re wealthy. But that’s not quite accurate:

Class is what you are born and raised in; getting a windfall of money during adulthood doesn’t make a person who grew up working class into an aristocrat, it makes them working class with a pile of money. Trust me, this one is a subject I actually know something about. –Rich Burlew, creator of the Order of the Stick

Although the modern fantasy genre’s common ancestor is English by way of Tolkien, our more recent influences like Gygax and Martin are decidedly American. Which is why I think we’ve arrived at this weird fascination the genre has with aristocracy. Aristocracy is great if you’re an aristocrat and we all have this American Dream-esque notion that if we were to wind back the clock, we’d be aristocrats, too. Seriously, raise your hand if you go to the Renaissance Faire and imagine your past life as a peasant. The most humble “if I lived back then, I’d be…” musing I’ve ever encountered are the people who think they would be priests, and even that is still winning the social lottery compared to most people. We all imagine we’d be lords and ladies, but just by running the numbers, that isn’t the case. Unless you’re upper class right now, odds are pretty good your ancestors were commoners, just like the rest of us.

And so we arrive at the class problem in the fantasy genre. Either your most interesting people are nobleborn, because the aristocrats have all the education, wealth, and power to actually do something other than farm, or your commoner is a chosen one or bearer of some secret legacy, like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars. The Chosen One and the Secret Legacy are related to this issue, but separate enough that I’ll discuss them in a later post.

Since the modern fantasy genre is the pop culture version of older mythology, you could say it’s fair that everyone important is a noble, since most myths are about the same groups of people: kings, king-like people, or chosen by/descended from gods, which is also incidentally how kings presented themselves much of the time. People tend to tell stories that are interesting, and kings and kingly people tend to be the most interesting, therefore those are the stories.

But here’s the question that really got me thinking: why aren’t there more settings that twist this around? Our brethren in the science fiction genre seem to delight in twisting the conventions of the genre, so that the sparkling clean and technology advanced society is the protagonist in one story (Star Trek) and the villains in others (FarScape, Firefly). One setting’s tech utopia is the next’s hellish nightmare concealed behind a shiny facade. The good Federation (Star Trek, again) has the same aesthetic as the evil Institute (Fallout 4).

But over here in the fantasy world, we’re still working for kings, or aspiring to be kings, or killing kings . . . and then replacing them with other kings. We desperately hope that the Game of Thrones will resolve in a good king or queen taking the throne and replacing the bad ones that have existed so far. The show has flirted with the idea that Daenerys wants to destroy the system (“I’m going to break the wheel”) but thus far, she hasn’t indicated that she’s going to usher in a representative democracy

So when I started to work on the setting for Dinomancer, this was very much on my mind. And while my during my first draft, it seemed like an easy thing to address (just have my protagonist espouse some democratic leanings!), I realized I had more to say.

The world of Dinomancer is fundamentally about power. Humans like us find ourselves in a scenario with medieval levels of technology (swords, armor, longbows, etc) having to content with dinosaurs roaming the countryside at every turn. No guns, no cars, no planes. We’re completely outclassed.

Fortunately, humans do have a weapon they can use to fight back, which is called the Geas (prounced “gesh” instead of “gee-ahs” if you’re like me and learned this word from a fantasy book). The Geas lets a person take control of a dinosaur and direct it psychically. It’s a huge advantage.

And because it’s such an advantage, it’s something that’s hoarded by a small number of people. In fact, it’s so useful that if you have the power of the Geas, you are automatically part of the noble class. The noble families will fight to adopt you into their ranks and make you one of them. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

How does someone get the ability to wield the Geas? We’ll talk about that later. The main thing is, if you have it, you’re noble. Your social class is noble. But how does that square with the earlier quote, about how class is what you’re born into? The truth is, it doesn’t. Your class is always your class, regardless of whether you earn a pile of money or develop a super power.

If the nobles are honest (with themselves and with the general people of this world), they would be forced to admit that this entire social structure exists to benefit them. Rather than using the Geas to keep people safe, nobles use it to capture and train dinosaurs to use as weapons. Commoners huddle together beneath the umbrella of safety their nobles offer, but it’s all to further the grip of power. This should sound familiar, because it’s basically how most of human history has progressed.

But just like with actual history, few people ever want to come out and say this. Instead, you get these remarkable contortions that people go through to justify themselves, such as the divine right of kings or similar ideas that the ruling class is the best and the most worthy, instead of just being the most privileged and powerful. The nobles in this world do something similar; if you’re adopted as a noble, it applies retroactively to your entire life. You were always a noble if you become a noble, because they’re trying to preserve this idea that it’s something you were born into, that you can’t change, in a world where you can.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that the protagonist of the story doesn’t think about any of this. He’s noble himself and just thinks that this is the way that makes sense. Other characters don’t, and realizing his own privilege is part of his own development as a character, which, not coincidentally, is a story that I feel qualified to write about as a straight, white male in the current age.

The difference, then, is the direction of the text itself, the “truth of the setting.” In Return of the King, the reestablishment of the monarchy is unambiguously a good thing. In most fantasy settings, it’s the existence of the evil wizard or the demon lord that’s the bad thing to be overcome. But for me, as I’m writing, this is the world state I’m keeping in mind: this social system sucks for most of the people that live in it. We should not glorify this idea of noble houses and titled lords. This is the problem. We should do better.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not writing a philosophical book here. It’s still a fantasy novel with dinosaurs and people getting killed by dinosaurs. I’m not creating high literature here. But even the pulpiest of fantasy stories have something to say, even if it’s just “man, it would be so cool to be a knight” and that’s what I’m keeping in mind with my work. Will it pay off? Will those ideas be communicated? Hard to say. We’ll see what happens when I finish it.

Next, I’ll talk about the Bloodline Legacy issue, also known as the Midichlorian Problem that turned Jedi into the bad guys . . . from a certain point of view.

Pardon The Dust

Every time I pick a WordPress theme, I tell myself that this time it’s going to be permanent. There’s no way this theme could ever look dated, I think. And then a few years go by and I realize time has moved on and the thing I thought was cool now looks outdated and lame.

So then I have to spend two hours tweaking settings and playing with previews until I find something that feels not lame. And all the while, a little voice whispers in my ear that it’s time to get out of the bush league and buy a professional theme for real money dollars because the lack of professional theme is the only thing that’s keeping me from realizing my dream of being an author. And then I start to think, you know, maybe that’s a good point; 80 or 100 bucks for a theme isn’t an extravagance, it’s an investmentIn my FUTURE CAREER.

And then I see a perfectly good free theme that meets my needs and I go with that, because otherwise I have to justify to my wife (and to myself) why I spent 150 bucks on what basically amounts to a different usage of white space and a different font choice.

Yeah. Better stick to the free themes. When I find a good one, I play around with it until I’m happy and then I tell myself that this is the one, this look is timeless and will never, ever look lame.

So anyway, if you’ve been trying to read anything over the past few hours, that’s probably why things keep shifting. It’s not just you. Unless your graphics card is starting to fail, in which case it might be you.

Beginning Again

One of the the things that always came up during my monthly (or so) phone call with my dad was that he’d mention how I’d stopped updating my blog. He was right, of course; my last post was in May of 2017 and since then, I’ve been silent.

I don’t remember what I said each time he mentioned it.

Maybe something about how writing for my blog had felt weird lately, the fact that I was no longer comfortable writing my thoughts and sending them out into the open void. The internet got a lot more unfriendly after 2016 and given that it was never particularly friendly to begin with, that’s really saying something.

Or maybe it was something like how I just didn’t feel like I had that much to say anymore. That’s always been a common problem for me and in the past, I’d fill it up by looking around for something that made me angry and then I’d write about that. You don’t have to go back very far to find posts like that. I’ve disabled access to a couple of the ones that make me cringe the most, but otherwise I’ve left them alone.

I don’t know why I stopped, really. I could say I was too distracted (probably true, I’m frequently distracted) or I just didn’t feel like it anymore (also probably true, there are so many video games I’d rather be playing at any given moment). But that’s all just probably and maybe. I don’t really know, because I never really decided. I just stopped.

But I do know that my dad never stopped asking me about why I’d stopped and that meant he never stopped checking in.

The relationship between my dad and my writing has always been complicated. He’s never read any of my work, to the best of my knowledge. I wrote my first fantasy novel when I was sixteen and started six or seven other projects since then. I don’t remember if he read it at any point. Maybe I showed him a chapter or something?

Unrepentant was the second one I finished, but I was ready to move on from that world by the time I had a finished second draft, so I posted it up here for the hell of it. And there’s my current project, a fantasy novel with dinosaurs, which I’m pretty excited about even though at this point it’s been a couple of years since I started. No one has seen that yet, not even my wife, although I’m close to having a draft I can share.

The truth is, most of my writing is littered among half-finished projects that I never got around to finishing. So it’s not surprising that my dad never read any of those. It’s not like I was going to share them.

But he always kept coming back to this blog. He never stopped asking about what I was doing here.

I don’t think he realized it, but it kind of annoyed me at times. I don’t really consider this ‘real writing’ in any sense. It’s just something to do, something that leads to real writing the way running on a treadmill on a rainy day leads to going out on a hike when spring rolls around. It’s not writing, but it’s better than what I usually do when I sit down at my desk, which is play video games. That almost never leads to writing, not since I put my fanfiction days far behind me.

But even though I didn’t consider any of this to be my writing, it was interesting to my dad and he never stopped asking about it. I think he might have been my only dedicated reader.

The fact is, I’ve been sensitive about which of my things he showed an interest in ever since I was that teenager working on that first fantasy novel. At the time I was finishing up my first fantasy novel, I’d developed a bad problem with wanting to be good more than I wanted to learn how to be good at writing. I’d already decided I was a good writer at that point and I was hopelessly insecure about it. And the only thing that alleviated that insecurity was praise.

Have you ever had a moment in your life where you heard someone else tell a funny story or a joke or something, and later on, because it’s so funny you want to tell someone else the story you heard, but you realize it won’t be as funny if you say “my friend told me about this time . . .” so you just go ahead and make it a story about you instead? I don’t think I’m the only person who’s ever done this (I hope), but maybe I am.

The point is I wanted praise more than anything and at some point, I remember reading this short story that I thought was so goodso goddamned good that the ending gave me chills and I wanted to share it and talk about it. So I printed it out, but when I went to give it to my parents, I told them it was something I’d written, not something I’d found on the internet.

They loved the story. My mom said it was good enough to publish. My dad said it was the best thing I’d ever written.

I got the praise that I did not earn. They could tell at the time that I was upset by this and asked me what was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit that I’d stolen the story and lied to them about where it came from. I said something about how I was mad that something I’d put “no effort into” got all this attention, while the novel I’d been working on for a year wasn’t as good.

Which, if we’re willing to take the Obi-Wan Kenobi approach, might be true enough “from a certain point a view.” But let’s be honest: it isn’t true, not really.

I don’t think I ever told them the truth about that story. Maybe I told my mom at some point, I don’t know. Maybe they suspected the truth since I never brought up that particular story again after that day.

Regardless, since then I’ve always been a bit sensitive about which of my work gets attention and what doesn’t. And if you’re thinking, yeah, but you never invite people to see most of your work and you don’t really seem keen on finishing most of what you start, so are you really that surprised if the blog is the only thing your father asks about, given that it’s the only thing you ever ‘published’ in a way that was accessible for him?

And I’d say those are all really good points, annoying voice in my head. Well said. But he still could have asked about any of the manuscripts. He only ever asked about the blog, the thing I didn’t even really care about. The thing I stopped liking in 2017. For some reason, that’s what my dad liked.

And so he’d ask me, hey, when are you going to update your blog again?

He’d say, you haven’t updated your blog in a while.

And I’d say maybe someday I’d get back to it.

I’m getting back to it today. It took about a year and a half, but I got back to it. A year and a half is a long time when you’re a kid, less so when you’re an adult. But it’s enough time that a lot can change.

I’m a father myself now. My son is four and a half months old. His birthday is July 21. He’s taking a nap beside me as I write. He’s a good baby. I like him a lot. His mom and I are very happy.

I think my dad would like him, too. And I think he’d be pleased to see I’m finally back to updating my blog.

I say I think that’s how he’d feel, because I’ll never really know for sure. My dad won’t see that I updated my blog again and he won’t see any of my stories, because my dad died on July 24th, three days after my son was born.

I wish I’d started writing again sooner. I wish he’d lived long enough to see one more post. I wish I’d written something for him to read.

I wish he wasn’t gone.

I wish, I wish, I wish.

There’s a lot I wish was true. I wish I could say sorry it took so long for me to get back to this. Sorry for not thinking it mattered, even though it mattered enough to you to ask about it, to keep checking in.

But I’m here now. Picking it back up again. Writing down what I’m thinking, not knowing who it’s for or who (if anyone) will read it. Maybe my son will discover it some day. Maybe I’m just talking to myself at this point. I don’t know. But it feels good to do it again, regardless of the reason.

An Anecdote About How I Review Books

When I was in college, I studied Creative Writing, which had a fair number of literature classes required, as you might imagine (thought perhaps not as many literature classes as a literature degree would require). In fact, it’s only my years of extensive education that allow me to craft such complex sentences as the preceding one; my education in this area also explains my love of the semicolon.

There’s a lot about college that I don’t really remember. Sometimes, for fun(?), I try to remember all the classes I actually took. For the classes that I do remember, I try to remember my professors’ names. And eventually I arrive at the conclusion that my memory sucks, I’m bad at paying attention, and what’s the point of any of this! But there are things that I remember from college, in particular, the following anecdote:

It was a literature class, although fuck me if I can remember what the actual focus was. We studied Moby Dick for a while, which narrows it down marginally (I took an African American literature class once and can confirm Moby Dick was not part of the curriculum.) At one point in the semester, my professor showed us one of those videos you can create, the ones where there are two animated characters that can discuss whatever you like, and all you need to do is fill out the text bubbles so they’ll talk to each other with appropriate animations and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that’s a novelty for exactly the first video you see, maaaybe the first video you try to create, and then never again. I wonder if I can find it. Hold please.

And we’re back. For you, dear reader, the transition was instantaneous. For me, it was 45 minutes of getting sucked into YouTube videos. I forgot what I was talking about. Oh, right.

I was not able to find the video itself, though I did the original video that created the meme. Take a look if you’d like to see the style; it’s exactly the same as what my professor did, down to the robot voices and two bears.

In the video my professor created, the title was something like “the problem with reading difficult books.” And one of the bears (the one with the vaguely feminine voice) expresses frustration with how hard it is to read certain books and how she often has to read them several times to understand what they are saying.

Then the other bear points out that you don’t really need to do that. “Simply stare at the book for an appropriate length of time. Say ‘hmmmm’ a lot. Then in class, instead of talking about the book, talk about how the book made you feel. Other students will think you are attractive and interesting. You will go on many dates with other students who also did not read the book. And perhaps one day you will have children of your own, who will grow up not reading the book.”

And at the time, I was like daaaaamn, this guy is way too young to have that level of despair regarding the worth ethic of his students. And that video was the one thing I remembered from his class, so, hrm, maybe he was on to something.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because when I write reviews for books these days, I basically just talk about exactly that; how the book made me feel. And every time I do, there’s this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m letting Professor (sorry, can’t remember your name) down, because I’m just talking about how I feel. The little voice tells me that I should be doing more rigorous analysis, more detailed examination, more critical thinking, instead of something I type up during a fifteen minute break or during lunch.

I tell myself that I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t feel like doing; I’m not a professional reviewer and I don’t think my little reviews are going to earn me any actual career advancement. So I can do them however the hell I want. But there’s always that voice telling me that I should do more, that I owe it to the author and to my own ridiculously over-priced degree to do work at the level I’m capable of doing.

But I don’t. I just talk about how I feel after having read it and take comfort in the fact that in my mind, I’m always just talking to myself and if you’re actually reading this now, it’s entirely an accident of fate and not by my design.

Also, there’s the fact that I originally didn’t even bother writing reviews; I’d just slap a few stars down on Goodreads, grunt, and go on my way. So the fact that I’m actually leaving thoughts at all is a big step forward, if you think about it.

All I’m saying is that I’m aware of what I’m doing. But I also know that I don’t really like reviews as a thing. I don’t trust reviews if I don’t know anything about the reviewer. This is true for reviews of everything other than washing machines (for those, I just need to know if it’s going to wash my clothes). But for everything else, for books, movies, video games, I don’t actually care about the professional reviews. I need the reviews from people that match my particular profile: people who think that (motorcycle + velociraptor) x Chris Prat = awesome is an equation that leads us to the highest echelon of entertainment. I’m aware that Jurassic World was not actually a  good movie. I’m just also saying that I don’t care.

So, that’s why I do what I do.

In Case You’re Wondering What It Feels Like

I reached my NaNoWriMo goal on Monday: 50,000 words in 30 days (well, technically 27 days). What does that feel like? At this point, it’s more a relief than anything else. I did celebrate reaching my goal by opening the 12 year old single malt scotch and drank a glass with my wife, but only because I decided to save the 21 year single malt for when the manuscript is actually done.

Because that’s the weird thing about NaNo projects, at least for me; 50,000 words has never, ever conincided with me reaching “the end.” For the only NaNo that actually went on to become a finished manuscript, 50,000 words was roughly the midway point.

Which means that there isn’t really a feeling of being done. You turn in your word count, get the neat little validation thingy from the website, which I do like quite a bit because I’m a gamer and gamers are conditioned to perform repetitive actions to raise bars. This aspect of my personality is why YNAB worked on my finances and Fitbit was working for my fitness level (at least, it was working until the damn band broke and I stopped wearing it).

So here I am, done with my big goal, my winning streak extended by another year (up to eight wins in a row now) and then, with all that said and done, you get back to work. Because there’s still a lot more story to tell and a hell of a lot of rewriting for this one.

2015 Blog Retrospective

As another year comes to a close, I find that it’s fun to look back and see how things have gone for the blog over the past year. Overall, I’m really pleased; traffic has continued to increase at a steady pace and I’ve received enough comments from people to convince me that not all of the traffic is spam robots.

My post output has been reduced considerably compared to previous years, which sort of fun to puzzle over; more people are reading less content! Is that a thing to be proud of?

The problem is that posts don’t equate for all of my online footprint. If you take a look at my Goodreads page (perhaps through the helpful widget on the right siderbar!) you’ll notice that I’ve been writing reviews for the books I read. Time was I used to read a book, slap a star-rating on it, and go on my merry way with nary a grunt. About two years ago, someone pointed out that they were really curious why I’d rate a book with whatever rating I happened to give it, so I started actually writing my thoughts out.

The reviews tend to be shorter than blog posts, but since I read pretty quickly, there are a lot of them. So while blog post content is down, I think that’s because my output shifted to a source outside of this site. I’ve considered linking WordPress to Goodreads so that reviews would get posted here, but thus far I’ve resisted for the same reason that I don’t tweet my Goodreads links anymore; it feels annoying and spam-y to me. The content is there if you’re interested; no need to plaster it everywhere.

Which is an attitude that I realize makes me doomed in the evolving ecosystem of the Internet (see previous post about online advertising and ad block).

Finally, there were less posts this year because I’ve actually been writing my novel again! Between the experiment with giving my book away for free (and actually getting a bit of money for it, whee!) and the new project that really has my attention, there’s actually been a huge increase in my word ouput. It’s just in a place that no one gets to see right now, except for me and my spreadsheet.

So that’s what I’ve been doing over the past year. I realize it’s made this blog somewhat of a lonely place, but it’s been infinitely better for my head. I haven’t felt the urge to write a post just to write a post about something, which usually meant seeking out a topic that made me angry enough to have thoughts about it. It’s made for a more harmonious life. And really, we don’t need one more blog by a straight white guy on the Internet talking about things that make him angry. There are a lot of those already.

So instead I focus on my book, because my research has shown me that we really do need more books where people ride dinosaurs into battle and kill each other with them. Because dinosaurs are awesome.

NaNoWriMo Denouement

I meant to type this up a few days ago, but after thirty straight days of solid butt-in-chair time for the latest NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the unfamiliar), it just felt really good to not write for a few days. But now that I’ve let my brain slack off for a bit, it’s time to get back to work, because even though another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, the book is nowhere near finished.

To be honest, I’ve never actually finished a book in the 50,000 words it takes to win a NaNo.

Which is why I have a hard drive filled with half-completed novels, along with one completed novel, which is, incidentally, the novel you can read right here on this very website, if you are so inclined.

So how did NaNo 2015 go for me? Really well! Let’s take a look at the stats (because I love stats).


I love the NaNo stats page. As a gamer, I’m conditioned to see stats, numbers, and bars, and then do the actions necessary to fill them. This is why YNAB got my personal finances in order when no amount of New Year’s Resolution budget-attempts ever managed to stick for more than a week or two. It’s all about dem bars.

NaNo 2015 was easily my steadiest year ever. There were only two days where I didn’t hit the word goal; the first was Friday the 13th and that was due to have a Friday the 13th party with a bunch of friends and the second was Thanksgiving. I’m pleased to note that even on those days, I still managed to get some writing done.

The other thing that I’m really happy about is the quality of the writing this year. I did a lot more outlining, note-taking, and brainstorming when I wasn’t writing, so I never put myself in that “fuck it, now what, I dunno, something explodes” mode. That’s a great NaNo technique and I don’t discount its usefulness, but there’s a cost associated with it that you have to pay later. If your plot goes down the wrong track because of a “shit-now-what” decision, it can create a tremendous amount of work later to try and fix. This is precisely what derailed my 2013 NaNo book The Snake Detective. I was really unhappy with a decision I made to get unstuck. Even though it got me to 50k for that year, I ended up with only about 20,000 words that were usable. Eventually, my interest in the project faded during the attempted rewrite and I moved on to other things.

But let’s go back to this year! 2015’s NaNo is Dinomancer and I feel really good about it. The writing went well, as I mentioned, but more than that, I feel really inspired about this world. It’s my attempt to do something new with the fantasy genre, beyond the usual elves, wizards, dragons, medieval European fare. So instead, we have a world of dinosaur riders locked in a vicious battle for survival and they have a vaguely Roman flair. Also, there are intelligent, talking velociraptors. Well, they’re not really velociraptors, because “real” raptors were about the size of a turkey, but this is the description that creates the right image in your head.

If you’re a dinosaur geek like me and want to know what they actually are, they’re a highly evolved form of Troodon.

And this is why I’m excited; not just for the win, although it feels great to keep that winning streak going. I’m excited because this story feels exciting to me. One of the problems I’ve had for a while is, after writing a book about fallen angels and the Apocalypse, I didn’t really have a lot of enthusiasm for my own subject. I didn’t feel like I was doing or saying anything new about them.

But dinosaurs? This is shit that I read about for fun, because I never really “grew out” of my dinosaur phase when I was a kid. I love reading about new theropods. I love the ongoing scientific discussion about the new depiction of Spinosaurus. My dinosaurs are covered in feathers because that’s what the science is telling us, and it’s my secret goal to make the idea of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex cool and scary. I want talk about this stuff with people. I want to think about it when I’m not working on it. That’s something I haven’t felt for a while now. It’s a great feeling.

Work on Dinomancer continues. My personal goal is to be finished with the first draft by May 1st. I’ve scaled back my daily writing goal, because 1667 words a day every day does demand a tremendous amount of effort and focus. I’m not sure I could keep up that pace much longer than thirty days. But 500 words a day, as a baseline? That’s easily doable and it’s something I can do well and still generate a strong story.

So that’s where I’m at now. I have 50,000 words of a new novel that I’m really proud of, a story I want to finish, and a story that I want to publish. I feel like I’m doing something new in this space; there are a few books out there about fantasy dinosaur riders, but not many, and I think it’s a ripe area to explore. Even if it isn’t, I’m having so much fun with it that I don’t think I can stop.

And that’s why, even though NaNoWriMo 2015 is my seventh straight win, I feel like this year’s effort might just turn out to be the most important and most rewarding yet.

Oh, Right, I Have A Blog

When last we spoke, I informed you of the exciting news that NASA is planning its first voyage to Mars. That’s still true, which is good. I also saw The Martian at the movie theater and liked it very much, which is also good. In fact, I loved the movie whereas I only enjoyed the book. This has everything to do with the fact that I’m an artist rather than an engineer and I tend to favor soft, squishy subjects like the humanities rather than MATH.

Ahem. Sorry. I may have lapsed into the remnants of a heated discussion about The Martian that evidently I’m not entirely over.

In other news, it’s November and November means NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo means “oh my God, I have so much writing to do, how can I waste it blogging, what the hell am I thinking, I have to get back to WORK!” So, you know, there’s that.

The new book I’m working on is pretty cool, though. At least, think it’s cool. My working title is Dinomancer and it’s a book about people who can ride dinosaurs into battle. I’d tell you the elevator pitch about it, but since I haven’t written it all yet, it’d be somewhat insubstantial. I feel good about it, though, and my girlfriend fiancée says that she hasn’t seen me get this excited about a new project in a long time, so who knows. Maybe this will be the book that makes millions of dollars enough dollars to make a small payment on one of my outstanding student loans.

Also, this is my first winter since I moved to Washington state several months ago. My verdict thus far: seasons are beautiful, I really enjoy the cold weather, I look great in my stylish long raincoat, I hate the fact that it gets dark like at 4pm, and related to the previous bullet point, DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME SUCKS. Arizona may not get a lot of things right (politics, 115 degree summer days, the impending fiery apocalypse drought brought on by global climate change), but they’re the only state in the Union that doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time, and that’s pretty damn good in my opinion.

Anyway. Thanks for stopping by. I’m going to get back to writing about dinos.

Unrepentant: The Final Chapters (39-41)

This post contains the final chapters for my novel, Unrepentant. For those that have been reading since I started this experiment a few months ago, thank you for your interest in my work. Most of all, I’d like to thank my supporters on Patreon; more than anything, your support and readership has made this an excellent and enjoyable experience.

Thank you for reading.

Continue reading “Unrepentant: The Final Chapters (39-41)”