Monday, July 16, 2018

Did We Skip Summer?

Yes, it's that hot here in St. Louis
Here in St. Louis, we literally went straight from winter to summer. We had the coldest April in history, followed by the hottest May in the record books.

And I skipped blogging. And for that, I apologize. Lots of stuff just piled up, and I yet again neglected this piece of the blogosphere that I've played in for THIRTEEN years now.

So here's a quick rundown of what's been happening:

1) I've been in the car. I drive a lot for my job. 3000 miles a month. Thank God for podcasts and audiobooks

2) I'm losing my job in three weeks. The medical sales industry is in constant flux, and instability comes with that. So, yeah, that sucks.

3) My daughter was severely injured on the 4th of July. Yes, we became a statistic. A neighbor's errant firework started shooting at us spectators. One blew up near my head, and really left me disoriented. My daughter protected two little girls she was making glow-bracelets for, and one literally fell in her lap. Exploded. And left deep 2nd degree burns on her legs and upper thigh. It was bloody, it was horrible, but she's on the mend. We have a great Children's Wound Center in town, and they've been great.

4) I attended another con (Mighty Con in St. Charles, MO) and did really well. I reconnected with readers I haven't seen in two years, since I was unable to attend last year. This con is in town, which makes it convenient

5) I'm getting close to 40,000 words in my new WIP, which I'm calling a "military, sci-fi/fantasy." I decided to write something just for me, with stuff I loved as a kid. So it's got spaceships AND dragons.

I hope you're all doing well, and I've missed you. I really have. I look forward to catching up with my blog-buddies (those who are left) and seeing what you've been up to.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Magic of Conventions

Me and some writer friends
This past weekend, I went to my favorite science fiction/fantasy convention, Cape Comic Con. I wasn't able to attend last year, so it was great catching up with friends and making new ones. It seems I've been fortunate enough to attend these kinds of events just when my confidence is at its lowest.

Most recently, sales of my latest release, Gateway Mothman, have been much slower than I expected. This book means a lot to me since the setting is my hometown, which is still dealing with the radioactive cleanup issues at the West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek. Also, my book features the Mothman. Yea Mothman!

I sold more books at this regional Con than I ever have at the big national shows (i.e. Wizard World). Readers who bought my books two years ago came back for more. I just about sold out of
Looks a little like Gaston
my entire stock, and most importantly, I got to connect with other readers and writers.

*There was a pair of young girls with a parent who described in great detail their fantasy universe, the stories, and the characters in their world. They said that the two of them, along with a couple other friends, would sit under a big tree and write down ideas and draft their epic fantasy novel. Isn't that amazing? Most kids are glued to their smartphones or playing video games. Talking to these budding writers really touched me.

*Another young man had purchased my Mechanica Series two years ago, but just recently started reading the first book. He said those first five chapters inspired him to start writing again. What??? Seriously? I was blown away.

*A group of what I call "super-fans" rushed over. They scolded me for not coming last year. They then introduced me to some new members of their crew who proceeded to buy a copy of every single one of my books. One of them even showed the cover art to a nearby artist who then sketched a fun caricature of Zenjiro, the MC of my steampunk series. They wanted pictures of all of us together, and they continually visited my table in the vendor hall throughout the weekend. I love them!

Most of my readers are also writers, and I lost track of how many engaging conversations I had with them. We traded resources and ideas, shared our favorite books, and we talked about the challenges we face as writers.

I'm glad I sold a lot of books. That helps offset the costs with travel and lodging to attend these kinds of events. But the connections and friendships I made were more than worth it. To me, it's the magic of going to sci-fi/fantasy conventions.

P.S. Lou Ferrigno was at this Con. Here he is being sworn in as an honorary deputy by the local sheriff's office. Mr. Ferrigno is 66, people. 66! And "The Hulk" still looks like he could crush Thor.


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