Monday, April 2, 2018

Hard or Soft Magic?

With the release of my latest book, Gateway Mothman, I decided to ride this creative wave I've been fortunate enough to have found since late last year. I miss writing about mystical adventures and swashbuckling heroes.

But I wanted to do something a little different.

My roots are deep into science fiction and fantasy. It's what I choose to read for pleasure. I decided to plunge back into fantasy writing and world building. In doing so, I found myself wondering: What kind of magic system do I want to have?

My Mechanica Wars steampunk series had a little m
agic (especially in the beginning), but there was definitely more of the fantastical towards the end. But my magic was somewhat limited, and not really considered "high magic." In this series, my magic consisted of mostly enhancing a person's abilities.

With my new project, did I want a hard or soft magic system? I need to define each first:

1) Hard Magic: Where the author describes in great detail the nature, rules, and limitations of magic. For those who played D&D or any other RPG, I get the feeling that these folks are drawn to hard magic systems. Many poplar fantasies have a hard magic system (i.e. Sanderson, Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, Full Metal Alchemist). As a fan, you know exactly how the magic words, what the limitations are, and what the costs are for using said magic.

I'm a wizard!
2) Soft Magic: This is where the author doesn't give you any set rules or limitations of the magic system. Soft magic systems have vague or unclear rules and limitations. The best example of this is J.R.R. Tolkien. There's magic throughout the books and movies, but we really don't know exactly how it works or what are its limits. The Chronicles of Narnia is another good example. We know that Aslan is all powerful, but we don't really know its limits or costs (which might be none since he's actually Jesus).

Whenever I think about magic, I always think about Brandon Sanderson's Three Laws of Magic, particularly the First Law, which states: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

I think Soft Magic is inherently more dangerous in producing a deus ex machina type of issue in a story. With Hard Magic, because everything is so well-defined, there's less of a chance of getting your characters out of a tough situation out of nowhere. Because Soft Magic has so many unknowns, it's easy to use the vague magic to solve problems and conflicts for your characters.

That being said, I think there are some strategies to help avoid Soft Magic becoming a crutch. Consistency goes a long way, and maybe the unpredictability of the magic for the characters can provide extra tension. Or maybe the magic does help the characters get out of a jam, but it comes at a tremendous and unforeseen cost.

How about you? Which do you prefer? Hard or Soft Magic?


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Downfall of Superhero Movies? Not Quite Yet

Sorry for not posting here in a month. So much going on! I released my first solo novel in four years, Gateway Mothman. More on that later.

I'm late to the party, and I finally saw Black Panther. Like many viewers, I LOVED it. More profoundly, however, I feel Black Panther is one of two saving graces in the Superhero movie genre as of late. The other being Wonder Woman.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of running a writer's workshop for a big group of young writers. We discussed story structure and The Hero's Journey. I spend many hours in the car for my day job, so I do a lot of thinking while on the road. I think I figured out three things:

1) Why Superman hasn't translated well on the big screen since Christopher Reeve
2) Why Marvel continues to degrade the genre that they have been riding since Iron Man
3) And related to #2, why Black Panther and Wonder Woman have been the standouts among a bunch of mediocrity.

1) Superman, like many of us, is the epitome of the comic book superhero. The "S" is an iconic symbol for good and justice, sure. But the characters, at its basest form, is FLAT. Without Lex Luther, Brainiac, or Doomsday, you get the feeling that Superman would pretty much be relegated to saving cats and putting out fires. I think that's why Batman has translated much better on the big screen. Batman lends itself to more dimensions, and Nolan's writing and direction was able to bring that out most recently.

We can identify with Bruce Wayne more. Both Batman and Superman lost their parents, but they dealt with their losses in such different ways. Bruce Wayne starts out as a lonely, depressed, directionless young man, and in the end, he learns that fear should only be used against the bad guys. There's a real character journey to exploit. With Superman, he's awesome in the beginning...and he's awesome in the end. Sure, he loses his adopted father. But still, there's not much character growth going on.

2) Marvel has had a tendency to parody itself. Don't get me wrong, I love a great joke. I love humor. And the Marvel films are fun, and there's been a lot of laughs during the course of any of the Marvel films, particularly with Guardians of the Galaxy. But it's gotten to the point where the use of BATHOS, exemplified by Joss Whedon's philosophy of: "Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke" is staring to make the franchise feel like it's making fun of itself.

Nothing is wrong with bathos, but it's been undermining the stories for the sake of getting laughs. I love Tony Stark's wiseass comments, but overuse totally sucks the gravitas of some very serious and profound moments. Fighting against your teammates during Civil War is not a time to be making jokes. So the dramatic tension is completely gone in the moment. We won't care as much when Rhodey crashes inside War Machine at the end of that battle.


3) Which brings me to why Wonder Woman and Black Panther have been a fantastic example of how to do a Superhero movie right. Yes, there are laughs to be had. But both characters have well rounded character arcs, and both movies are (without question and without apologies) utterly SINCERE. This is what the latest Marvel films have been lacking. At the very moment of a profound and sincere theme or idea is about to surface during an important scene, Marvel directors are more than happy to fart in your ear for a laugh.


It's as if they are afraid of sincerity. With Wonder Woman, the subject of love is explored. It's the

film's central theme, and it's Diana's revelation about love that gives her the strength to defeat Ares.

In Black Panther, you could also look to the villain for sincerity. Here we have Killmonger who is not only multidimensional and a very real backstory, but he has such a profound revelation of his own at the end. The central theme of Black Panther is about stepping out of your ancestors' shadows. For T'Challa, he mustn't accept the sins of his father as his own. He has to make his own decision, for his destiny is in his own hands. The film doesn't shy away from this sentiment. Instead, it basks in it.


And the audience is craving this. There's a lot for writers to learn from Superhero movies. We can see the mistakes the Marvel movies have been making and avoid those kinds of missteps in our own work. We can write characters with depth, and we can make sure our protagonist actually PROTAGS instead of reacting to the villain.


We can be sincere with our audience, and not shy away from these important themes. We can entertain, yeah, but we can also give our stories some nuggets of truth and wisdom also.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

St. Louis Gave Birth to the Atomic Age

It's been a crazy start to the year, and we're on the verge of leaving February behind. Isn't that just nuts? The day job has been intense, and I've been on the road a lot in the last month. It's easy to neglect the blog when real life responsibilities take over my brain, but it's good to be back here.

So much has happened in the month I was gone, and to avoid being controversial and getting into any kind of debate (which seems to be popular on social media right now), I'll just focus on how I finished writing Gateway Mothman.

This book was fun to write, and I started writing it way back in 2014. Two years of writer's block might have killed this story, but I brought it back to life last fall. Even though Gateway Mothman focuses on one of my favorite urban legends/cryptozoid, the story's setting is important to me personally.

My story centers around a suburb in St. Louis, Bridgetowne. Bridgetowne is based on the real life town of Bridgeton. During the Manhattan Project, over 50,000 of tons of radioactive waste was dumped all around Lambert Airport near Bridgeton.

Mallinckrodt is based in town, and these days, it's known for it's lifesaving pharmaceuticals. Back in the 1860s, though, Mallinckrodt was known for its work in creating contrasting dyes for X-rays. This work lead them to become the very first company to have created a method of purifying uranium.

WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S APPROVAL, all that nuclear waste was dumped in Coldwater Creek just north of Bridgeton, Weldon Springs just across the Missouri River, and a bunch of it was piled in Bridgeton, which later became the West Lake Landfill - now owned and managed by Republic Services.

Over the years, residents surrounding Coldwater Creek started developing rare cancers. People were shocked to learn of this as they attended their class reunions. It got to the point where residents started tracking this, and the hotspots for all of these cancers were all around the creek kids used to play in. To this day, nothing has been done about it, despite soil samples showing high radioactivity in people's yards and high readings of contamination being taken INSIDE homes.

West Lake Landfill made national news when a smoldering underground "fire" was discovered, and over the last few years, it has crept closer and closer to the mountain of radioactive waste. There is NO barrier stopping the fire from reaching this stuff, and the EPA has continually done pretty much nothing but stonewall residents' concern. My parents still live in Bridgeton, and when we cross the Missouri River to visit them, the stench hits you pretty hard. Property values continue to sink in the area, and my high school alma mater has dad to draft up emergency procedures just in case the fire should reach the radioactive waste and poison the air.

HBO recently premiered a documentary focused on both Coldwater Creek and West Lake. You can watch it for FREE right HERE: https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/atomic-homefront



Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Fanboys Are Crazy

What is a "fanboy?" A fanboy is usually a male fan of ___________ who becomes obsessed and acts overexcited, overly-passionate, and over-protective of whatever they are obsessing over.

Many people associate "fanboy" with the gaming world. But these days, it seems fanboys have taken over just about everything.

And fanboys are no longer just "boys" anymore. Just think back to when the Twilight series came out and all the girls (and their mothers) were literally FREAKING out over the books and movies.

Most recently, I've been hearing from all the Star Wars fanboys who are having aneurisms over The Last Jedi. It's one thing to not like a movie, or even hate it enough to say they are quitting the franchise or boycotting anything Disney. They feel betrayed by the director and by Disney for not portraying their favorite characters in ways that they expected or demanded.

Why are people so obsessed with stuff lately? Whether they have to buy the latest and greatest Apple product, or if everything they wear has to be Nike...fanboy-ism is all around us.

Big companies know how psychology works, and they market their products in such a way to strike a nerve and make us want to buy them. Then they work hard to make customers loyal customers. For many of us, it stops there. But to a certain percentage of these loyal customers, they take brand loyalty to a whole new level.

Psychologists believe that fanboy-level obsession stems from the social identity phenomenon. The social identity theory is essentially how your idea of who you are is derived from the group you connect with. Christians, athletes, Liberals, Californians, Vegans, Dallas Cowboy Fans....it doesn't matter what the group is. People tend to extend preferential treatment to those in their group and develop an "us vs them" mentality if competition is involved (i.e. Apple vs Android).

We live in a world that wants us to pick a side. We also now live in a world that expects us to defend whatever side you pick with extreme rigor. Everything seems so extreme these days, doesn't it? Fanboys place their identities with "their side" to the point where any criticism they receive is either flatly discounted, denied, argued against, and then redirected right back at the critic. Fans of opposing teams will fight in the stands. Opposing political parties will beat each other up in the streets. Longtime friend with opposing views will un-friend each other on Facebook.

It's the job of marketers, brand managers, and campaigners to persuade and entice people to join "their side," and they have been amazingly good at it. Then again, our desire to belong and be a part of an exclusive community makes us easy targets.

We are living in the Age of Fanboys.

God help us.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"A Plague 'O Both Your Houses"

Happy Belated New Year!

I planned on posting at least once before today, but like many across the country, I got sick. I'm not exactly sure what I had. The flu has been hitting America pretty hard, but I'm not sure I actually had influenza. I had a horrible respiratory thing, and then it went away on Christmas Eve and Day, and then I most definitely had a sinus infection knock me down hard.

I'm on the road to recovery, although this lingering cough is such a pain.

With the new year upon us, I've got some awesome things in the works.

Quixotic Publishing will be putting all three books in our Black-Eyed Kids series together into one boxed set. It's always sad finishing a series, although we're not done with this "world" yet. The Black-Eyed Kids trilogy is part of a larger series titled the Dark Projects. You all know how I love the paranormal, and I've got a conspiracy theorist streak in me, so this series is going to be a lot of fun.

Here's our boxed set:


I'm also up to my ears on edits of the first spin-off novel of Dark Projects, Gateway Mothman. This is a book that I've been thinking about for many years. In fact, I first posted about the Mothman back in 2005 here on the 'ol blog. It's hard to believe that it's taken this long to finally get this story out there.

The cover art is currently a work in progress, and I can't wait to see how the finished product looks:



How about you? What projects are you working on? What are some things you're looking to tackle in 2018? If you're like me, just trying not to get sick is priority #1.