Monday, January 27, 2014

Roll to Hit: D&D turns Forty!

 Dungeons & Dragons is celebrating its 40th year of existence. Wow.

To commemorate the occasion, I had hoped to do an influence chart similar to the one I created for Raidersof the Lost Ark, but there is no time. And besides, it’s less interesting than just posting the list from Appendix N in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Wait, let me back up.

Okay, we’ll start at the beginning.

My step-father introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was eleven or twelve years old. It was this boxed game, containing two books—an all-in-one rulebook, and the adventure book—The Keep on the Borderlands. The box didn’t even come with dice. I had to make chits. It was pretty crazy.

The first D&D product I owned.
We tried to play it, but kept getting lost in the rules. Nonetheless, I was fascinated and I read the play example over and over again. There was something here—I was sure of it—but I couldn’t quite crack the code.

Then I found out my step-brother was playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons while away on Boy Scout trips. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons? You mean, it’s more complicated than the single book I couldn’t quite wrap my head around?” And yet, peer pressure is a great motivator, and so, little by little, I started buying the now-legendary hardcover books. I started with the Player’s Handbook, and Joel helped me navigate rolling up a character. He ran me through my first game, and the light bulb went off, you could say.

While my step-brother branched out into the more esoteric books, like the Fiend Folio and the Dieties and Demigods Cyclopedia (and yes, he did get the first edition with the Cthulhu and Melnibone’ myths in it), I settled on the basics: the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the original Monster Manual. By this time, I knew I wanted to run the game, to be the Dungeon Master. I had dice, and a few modules, and I was all raring to go. Now, all I needed was some players...

Chalk it up to playing D&D in a small town. Joel and I knew everyone who played. It wasn’t a big pool to draw from. But that’s not the point. I found out a few things about myself: I was good at running a game; I had a knack for telling stories and making stuff up on the fly; and all of these seemingly useless talents were going to end up shaping my destiny.

I read, re-read, and basically committed to memory much of the original material in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This included the now-legendary Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.

Why “legendary?” Because that appendix was probably single-handedly responsible for the current crop of fantasy and sword and sorcery fans, ages 30-50. Think I’m exaggerating? Wait until you see the list. It’s been reprinted a lot, all over the Interwebs, but here’s the meat of the list for you to check out:

Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the
 first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al

Basically, a Who’s Who in Classic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. Also sword and planet, horror, and science fiction, as well. Looking back over the list, this is ground zero for anyone wanting to get back to the roots—or check out where it all came from.

I know there’s some modern authors who love to say that they were not, in fact, influenced by these old, dead white guys (and sometimes women). They love to kick over the idols and be the punk rock rebels and say, “I never read any of that stuff, and so it didn’t factor into my work.”


Dungeons and Dragons was a real game-changer, literally and figuratively. It gave the disenfranchised geeks of the world something to do, a reason to clump up on Friday nights, and yeah, it probably saved more than a few geeks, nerds and dweebs from social torture, loneliness, and much worse.  

When I moved from Abilene to Waco in the 8th grade (is there anything worse?) I was able to make friends—one of my best friends, in fact—through Dungeons & Dragons. That gave me something to do, an audience to perform for, and a reason to be creative and social and not completely disappear up my own tortured asshole. But I digress.

Dungeons & Dragons spawned a cartoon series, toys, games, and nearly propped up every B.Dalton’s and Waldonbooks in every mall across the country with the amount of original (and somewhat less so) lines of fiction paperbacks, all based on the imaginary worlds that we were all tromping through every Friday and Saturday night. It was like belonging to much bigger, cooler club that was still kinda secret. I mean, the cool kids knew what D&D was—they just didn’t get it. Or didn’t want to get it. Either way, it was ours and we embraced it. And my generation grew up to be the creators and the tastemakers and the people who are now producing popular culture.

So, to the new elite hipsterati and your denial of the Canon—through the transitive property of pop culture influences, if you played Dungeons & Dragons and claim that you never read Jack Vance, well, guess what? Your fighter character did it for you. Or your rogue that scaled the ruined tower on the outskirts of the borderland. That stuff is ALL in Dungeons & Dragons and the fingerprints show up everywhere. If you watched any sword and sorcery movie from the 1980s, you have the Canon to thank for that—specifically, if not obliquely, Robert E. Howard. If you read any of the spin-off novels, or any of the fantasy series that blanketed those bookshelves, it’s all because of the canon. And it all fed back into Dungeons & Dragons like the mythical serpent eating its own tail.

Appendix N became a checklist for me, and I started reading and exploring as fast as my allowance could keep up. That appendix made it okay to branch out, and even though many of those books were on my family’s bookshelf, I didn’t get interested in reading them until Dungeons & Dragons said they were going to help me run a better campaign. Funny how that works, huh?  

That was how I interacted with my interests back in the days of Commodore 64. I read, and read voraciously. Dragon Magazine was my lifeline. We were all scrambling to find new things to work into our games. By now, it was just accepted that I was the dungeon master. I ran games, all the time. And by now, I was running more than just Dungeons an Dragons.

Call of Cthulhu, 3rd edition boxed set.
I miss when RPGs came in boxes.
When Joel started reading H.P. Lovecraft, I did too, in order to keep up. But that turned into me buying the Call of Cthulhu game, which is still a favorite to this very day. And when I noticed the ads for a super hero game in Dragon magazine called Villains and Vigilantes, I simply HAD to have that. Super hero role-playing? Forget about it. I was hooked. Other role-playing games followed. Some stuck, and some didn’t, but we always returned to the old reliable D&D. It was our Go-To for killing a boring afternoon.

You may infer, correctly, from the box art above that the earliest of Dungeons & Dragons artwork bears little resemblance to the amazing artwork they now routinely employ. In fact, some of that early artwork was amateur at best. But there were some diamonds in the rough over in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. One of the most recognizable early artists from the 1980s was a very young Bill Willingham. His stuff leapt off of the page—it didn’t look like the scritchy noodlings of some of the other artists. You could spot his work a mile away. It had a decided comic book feel to it. Yeah, I know, it’s funny NOW, but you see, I started following his career though Role-Playing Games. He was involved in Villains and Vigilantes, too, along with game designer and artist Jeff Dee (another guy whose D&D artwork just leapt off of the page). I was fans of these guys before they were Bill Willingham and Jeff Dee.  

When I realized that the Destroyers in the
Elementals comic were the same ones
from this V&V module, I felt like I'd
stumbled into a much bigger universe.
So, when Elementals first came out in the mid-80s as part of the Indie explosion in comics, I had the first issues—BECAUSE it was Bill’s comic, see? I won’t say this lead directly to our meeting, and subsequent friendship, now in its second decade, but I know this: I wouldn’t have first known about him had it not been for Dungeons & Dragons. I’m also not supposed to bring up Bill’s early artwork, as a friend, because he’s improved so very much over the years. While I agree with that, and try not to embarrass him about it, I find that his early game art has a lot of nostalgic charm, and I am not the only one who thinks so.

Now that you know—I have to tell you this very cool story. I was invited to playtest the re-vamp of Villains & Vigilantes some years ago back when Jeff and co-creator Jack Herman (another Very Fine Fellow) were working on it. Bill decided he would run the game. So I played V&V with the three game designers and writers who meant so very much to me at a teen-ager, and it was one of the coolest Nerd-Things I’ve ever done.  When I told my old friend from high school (who played V&V with me obsessively) about that day, his head exploded.

Because of Dungons & Dragons (and the role-playing games that came after it), I met, and befriended, a LOT of people I otherwise wouldn’t have. Some of my oldest friendships, folks I’ve known for twenty or thirty years, were people I used to game with. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been able to overcome some latent shyness had it not been for gaming. If you were ever in a Call of Cthulhu, a Justice, Inc., a Villains and Vigilantes, a Champions, a GURPS, a Top Secret, a Gamma World, or a Dungeons & Dragons game with me (or any of the other one-offs and experiments tried over the years), well, I just want to say, thanks for playing.  

I stopped actively role-playing in the early 1990s. It came down to the point of either writing stories down and trying to get them published, or playing games every Saturday night and not ever publishing anything. I chose door number one, and I don’t regret it. But I still miss gaming.

I’ve played in some games over intervening years. Every time, I spend weeks talking myself out of starting up a game again. It’s like a siren that calls to me. No, make that a harpy. A 3 hit dice Harpy, armor class 5, that attacks for 1d8 damage—sorry, old habits die hard.

This Christmas, I made a present of Dungeons & Dragons to my niece, a very active and bookish 12 year old geek, and on Christmas Day, I ran a game for her and my brother and his wife. And you know what? I got hooked all over again. Sure, the game has changed, but the imagination, the suspense of rolling dice, the storytelling, the on-the-fly plans of brilliance, the comedic moments of improvised dialogue...that doesn’t change, not at all.

These days, most of the stigma of tabletop gaming is gone, thanks largely to the number of Generation X that is still playing, and now including their kids. It’s become a family activity. Something we never thought we’d all see, back during the 1980s, when it was thought that Dungeons & Dragons was devil-worship and a gateway to black magic. We laughed about it then, but it was pretty serious. But the Conservative Christians were right about one thing—the game was a gateway. It was a gateway to a multitude of fantastic worlds, authors, concepts, and friendships—the exact opposite of what they accused it of being. Forty years later, that gateway is still open—wide open—for the next generation. In my own very small way, as a consumer and a player, I am partially responsible for that, as are the rest of you who played and loved it and then passed it on to others.  That’s definitely magic, in my book. 

Here’s the full text for Appendix N for any of you who’d like to read Gary Gygax’s remarks. I can’t think of a better way to honor the anniversary than to give him the last word. Thanks, Gary, and Dave, and all of the rest of you who worked on this game over the years. Your contribution to the world has made it a better, more magical place.   

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Working Through WONDERBOOK, Part 3

Author's Note: These are transcripts of my notes that I took while going through this project. As such, the post below may not make a lot of sense to the casual reader who doesn't have a copy of Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. So, if you click on that link, you can go get yourself a copy.  Or, don't. It's up to you. But I'm going to be transcribing my handwritten notes for myself (and others who have the book) and I won't be using a lot of context to back it up. 
CHAPTER 2: The Ecosystem of Story
“Stories are animals” is slightly more fanciful than I’m used to thinking about my work. But okay, I’ll roll with it for now.

The Elements
These are the things that make up a story.

Characterization: punting to Chapter 5

Point of View: I really like first person

Setting: Punting to Chapter 6

Events/Situations: --the plot—Punting to Chapter 4

Dialogue: “snippets of speech.” I think that dialogue can also establish character. Maybe we’ll get to that later.

Description: "Details that set the scene and can be used to create tone."

Exposition—“relates needed information by telling it directly to the reader.” Hmm. Not sure I’ve ever used that in that particular way.

Style: The way the story is told.

A Closer Look at Some of the Elements
 Point of View—who tells your story and how close you get to their perspective depends in part on point of view.

First Person: “I” is the narrator.

Second Person: “You” is the narrator. The reader is in the brain of the narrator experiencing life as that person does.

I don’t like 2nd person for exactly the reason why Nick Mamatas cites. It’s very awkward for me to write in, as well.

Third Person: I prefer third person omniscient. But some of my best work was done in first person. It’s a toss up.

Point of View: “Subjective Versus Objective” on “Roving” by Nick Mamatas.
Oh, boy. Nick. Let’s see what he has to say.

Side note: look into his novel “Bullettime” It sounds very cool.

Okay, that was a really good, concise essay on Point of View. It didn’t enlighten overmuch, but there’s a lot of good fiddly bits in there to think about.

Dialogue: can perform many functions: Ah, good, here we go.
            Convey a mood
            Reveal character traits or motivation
            Provide information
            Move the plot forward/increase the pace

There’s more here, but yes, to me, I think dialogue is terribly important. “Dialogue is meant to emulate real speech, not reproduce it.” I completely agree.

“Pushing information that you think the reader needs into dialogue may be a ‘tell’ that you are having trouble with your story.”

There are a couple of Turkey City terms that cover this very thing. Of course, Michael Crichton wrote all of his exposition in dialogue, so, there’s that.

Really good notes on regional dialect. I’m all over the place when it comes to that. But I’ve used the suggested method that Jeff outlines before in third person and it worked out well.

Tagging—in general, I agree. I try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rule about not tagging at all, but I think there are a couple of exceptions—like early in a story, before everyone is established—when one or two tags is okay. Even then, they have to be within reason. I don’t know who first wrote “...he ejaculated” at the end of a sentence and didn’t expect everyone on the planet to giggle like 12 year olds, but they’ve done every writer since a grand disservice and ruined tagging forever.

Quotation Marks: THANK YOU JEFF, for insisting that they be used. I can’t think of anything more irritating than not using quotes. It’s one of the many things I hate about Cormac McCarthy. And he’s a Texas writer, too. Do you know how that pains me? But it does, because even Texas writers are obligated to use all forms of punctuation when telling a story. There are no exceptions.

Description—Wow, there’s lots here. Some relevant highlights:

*Specific and significant detail is the key to good description. –Yes! I need to get back to word-sketching. I used to do it all the time, and I miss it.

*Describe people, settings and things in the right progression. –I never thought about it consciously, but I do this all the time.

*When describing people’s actions, do not divorce body from mind.—Hmmm.. I’m guilty of this occasionally. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with “he looked.” I’m more disinclined to use “gaze wandered around the room” because it belongs in the same tool box with “it was a dark and stormy night.”

* Study Poetry for interesting approaches to desctription—Yes! The only creative writing class I took in college had a huge poetry component included and it really helped me. I think this should be higher up on the list. And I emphatically disagree that the compression necessary for poetry can’t improve prose writing. Poetic economy is one of my most valued tools for a number of reasons. It’s not about the reduction of words; rather, it’s about choosing the perfect one word instead of using three pretty good ones.

Style: I try not to waste time thinking about my style. It is what it is.

* Each story must be told in the style best suited for it.
*Inasmuch as a story has depth (or depth perception) it achieves this quality
*Some writers’ styles cannot multitask, or cannot lithely pivot.
*Artists and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style

I was having real problems with this discussion until I hit the “Approaches to Style” graphic by Jeremy Zerfoss. Good save. Good examples. But I still don’t think too much about style. I write for comfort and also intention.

SIDE NOTE: There is so much info crammed into this chapter, it’s kind of stacked up on itself. This has broken the flow of the chapter a couple of times, now. Granted, it’s all good, but I’m hopping around instead of reading from point to point.

Thoughts on Exposition by Kim Stanley Robinson
Another great collection of thoughts and advice—some of it at odds with what Jeff thinks. Kudoes to him for including dissenting opinions in the discussion.

The Greater and Lesser Mysteries
 Voice: This one is easy. My voice is conversational. I tend to “write like I talk,” whatever the hell that means. I don’t really think I do, but that’s the most frequent comment/compliment I get about my work, so there you go.

Tone: “Tone is created not just by word choice, but also through the rhythms and lengths to the sentences, the images evoked, and the descriptions.”

After I read that, I got an epiphany for a story I’ve been struggling with. I wrote it down hurriedly and now I can follow up on it. That alone was worth the whole chapter.

Structure: “How things happen as much as what happens.” Okay.

Theme:  This is another thing I try not think about, even wif I have a theme in mind for a particular story.

Form: I’m not grokking this at all right now.
“What is probably meant in this latter case is simply that all of the tenants of the story have worked so perfectly in tandem, and matched so perfectly the vision in the writer’s head, that the effect on the reader seems miraculous and cathartic.”

Um, wow. That’s a hell of a trick to pull off. There’s no way in hell I can plan for this. It never even crossed my mind before.

INSERT: Typing these notes up the next morning, I realized that I DO know what this is all about. These are the stories like “Gift of the Magi” and “Shottle Bop” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The perfectly constructed Jenga towers that look like magic tricks when you read them and in fact, they kinda sorta are.

I think of this as when the alchemy comes together just so.

The Complete Relationship Between Story Elements
 I get that the elements are interdependent, but thinking of them as a living system feels—what? I don’t know. Wrong for me, I guess. I like gears and cogs and alchemy better, myself. But I understand the point being made. It’s all got to work, and just so, in order to function. See above about alchemy.

I won't say that Jeremy Zerfoss is saving the project outright,
but I cannot imagine trying to attempt a project of this
scope without his help. These two page graphs and
charts are really helpful. I hope Jeff sent him a pie
for all of his hard work. No, scratch that. Two pies.
The Roles of Types of Imagination
 --Creative and Technical imagination

Nice idea. Hadn’t really thought about the difference between the two, but yeah, when I’m writing, I put on one hat, and when I’m editing and proofing, I put on a different hat.

I LOVE the Life Cycle of a Story. The Living Organism point Makes TOTAL sense in regard to this graphic.

A Message About Messages by Ursula K. Le Guin
 Brilliant essay. But then again, it’s LeGuin, one of the smartest writers, ever. “As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message. I speak story.”

Awesome. Amen to that. 

It's a very good assignment, but I didn't do it. I started researching, pulling books off of the shelves with the common denominator of "The Moon," and I started looking for paragraphs or sentences that described it. Then I looked up, and I'd lost three hours. On the other hand, I was able to rearrange some Robert E. Howard books, I read all of Stephen King's "Cycle of the Werewolf," got a great idea for a novella, and got about forty pages into Bradley Denton's excellent book, "Lunatics" and was reminded once again how good all of these authors are. And Berni Wrightson is no slouch in the art department, either. There were four more books I didn't even crack, because I knew what would happen. So, I'm begging off of this assignment because (A) my library is too big, and (B) I don't have the willpower and focus to NOT re-read all of the books with lunar descriptions in them. Note that changing the object of description wouldn't help. It would only create a new stack.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Working Through WONDERBOOK, Part 2

Author's Note: Reading over this post, I realize that it may not make a lot of sense to the casual reader who doesn't have a copy of Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. So, if you click on that link, you can go get yourself a copy.  Or, don't. It's up to you. But I'm going to be transcribing my handwritten notes for myself (and others who have the book) and I won't be using a lot of context to back it up.

CHAPTER 1: Inspiration and the Creative Life
 This first chapter starts with a good opening sentence:
 “The most miraculous aspect of creativity is the ability to conjure up images, characters, and narrative out of seemingly nothing: to be inspired and for that inspiration to lead to words on a page.”

I knew that, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded. Over time, one starts to take it for granted.

The Importance of Imaginative Play
 I try to do this as often as I can. Kids are great fun for this. There is no doubt that I will be the guy who is always filling kid’s head with stories of roller skating ducks, treasure in the back yard, and the famous former careers of their parents. This was done for me at an early age and I never forgot it.

Sometimes, I can look at a pattern in a floor and still remember what it was like when the spaces between the dark squares suddenly turned into lava.

Rikki Ducornet’s handwritten essay, “The Muse,” is interesting. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. She does make a good point when she says, “the beautiful paradox of art is that what is a private journey is released into the world where it enters into the fabric of other lives.”

I would add the word “private” before lives, because we all bring our own headspace to a text and our reaction to publically released art is always a private one.

Jeff goes on to talk about some writers devaluing their own imaginations and I find that a little strange and alien. But then again, he’s run a lot more writer’s workshops than me, so maybe that really is a thing. I think even the writer who eschews “imagination” for “plot points” and a hard-coded outline of events is still utilizing his creativity, but maybe he or she is simply accessing it differently.

Imaginative Outputs
 If this was a Dungeons and Dragons character, these would be your “stats.” I said that, not Jeff:

Curiosity—I’m still pretty good at this. I tend to react with delight when I learn new things, or find little biographies of folks who were unique in their time, and I’m always throwing that stuff into the Bingo hopper that is my brain and trying to figure out how to use X or Y in a story.

Receptivity—I need to work on this. I tend to close off emotions because I’m, well, a man. Living in Texas. Borne prior to 1970. In America.

It’s not that I don’t “feel” things. I do. I feel them quite intensely. My first defense or reaction is to close off before something gets in and reduces me to tears. I used to not be this way. Over time, it’s become more of a thing. Maybe that’s what Jeff is talking about I need to not be afraid to access that pool.

Passion—not a problem for me. I have it. I’ve had it before, a lot more intensely than I do now. That’s why I’m taking this “workshop.”

Immediacy—you mean, I get to turn off my phone and connect with the people around me? DONE! Okay! Any chance I get to unplug, I usually take it. I’ve been working on this for a while now.

The Scar
 I really like this concept. An old wound that still irritates. This would apply to so many creative people for a variety of reasons. I have two scars. I’ll share one.

My father was largely absent from my life for my first ten years. He didn’t get interested in me until my parents got divorced.

In addition to creating a need for approval from older men my whole life, I sought attention through being entertaining. My father’s side of the family was a handful of tall-tale-telling, affable alcoholics who loved to crack each other up. Consequently, I learned the value of a well-told story, the funnier the better, at an early age.

That’s a big motivator for me, to this day.

More art by Jeremy Zerfoss. That guy
is a beast. A painting beast.
Inputs for Inspiration
 1. Write What Interests You: yes I like this better than “write what you know” too. I do a lot more research and reading for things that interest me. For stuff I know, not so much. Less chances to discover new thing.

2. Write What’s Personal: I find that, unless I’m willfully trying otherwise, I can’t not do that. I go back into my head a lot and find things that resonate from my life, my experiences, etc.

3. Write What’s Uncomfortable: I’m trying to think of a couple of instances where I did this. Maybe one or two stories qualify. I know I have some ideas for stories, as yet undeveloped, that I haven’t written because of how uncomfortable the subject matter is.

4. Write What’s Random: I can’t sustain this for very long. It’s useful to me for a warm-up exercise, but it rarely leads anywhere.

5. Write From External Prompts: I’m doing it right now!

What Is/What If by Karen Lord
This essay really resonated with me. I like knowing that there are still blank spots on the map. I’m very comfortable with mystery, both in practicum and also in my process.

The Strangeness of Imagination
I don’t really have anything to add, here. Jeff’s anecdotes are a lot like mine. Who knows what is going to trigger the imagination? It’s random and mysterious. I’m always content to let it happen. Cathy calls it my “little vacation” when she finds me staring off into space, working something out.

Writer’s Block
Good advice and also practical. There are some fascinating examples, here. Now I want to read Joe Gould’s Secret. It’s probably terrible. Or, worse, horrible, like when you watch the VHS tape in “The Ring” and then five days later, you die. Or in this case, can’t ever write again. Hmm. Now I don’t want to read the book.

Writing Challenge
There's an interesting picture in the book, about which we are asked to write a story. Here's mine.
The Hubris Fish spread his leathern wings, a dazzling display of presenting behavior. Despite my stoic demeanor, I was somewhat impressed.
            “You see,” the fish continued, “I’m not the kind of Whimsical with nothing to offer, save my appearance. I possess a variety of useful—nay, essential!—skills that would greatly enhance your burgeoning enterprise.”
            “Whimsicals” was the somewhat disingenuous catch-all term for the multitude of strange and curiously amalgamated life forms that cam came swimming, flopping, and flying out of the gateway that opened over Dover five years ago. The Forteans were the first to use that term during the Tenniel Hearings and the public liked it enough to fold it into their daily patois. The phantasmagoria of unusual creatures that fell under that aegis didn’t seem to mind being grouped together thusly, even as the term was beginning to take on a slight pejorative tinge.
            The Hubris Fish’s coral-colored spots seemed to intensify against his pale orange fish flesh as he explained to me in great detail is penchant for storytelling, engaging in mesmerizing conversation and relating witty anecdotes. This was all true, provided you were fascinated with the life and times of a Hubris Fish.
            “I’m really keen to talk about our side of the gate,” he said. “After all, no one really understands what or where it is we cam from. But I can explain it to your readers as such...”
            “I’m sorry,” I said, cutting him off. “But the gateway is old news. Five years hence, I’m afraid. I’m more interested in capturing the stories of our day—today—what’s happening out there, right now. The East Dover Examiner stands as a mirror to the times we live in.” I paused, seeing that the Hubris Fish’s color had now dimmed considerably. “Surely you understand.”
            The Hubris Fish folded his wings. “Of course,” he said, hopping on his tail towards the door, his expression unreadable. “Best of luck filling he position. I’ll collect my hat and see myself out.”
            He shut the door behind him. “Whimsicals,” I muttered, wondering who or what the next interview would bring.
            “Whimsicals,” Lord Barleycorn, the bright red parrot who lived on my shoulder, repeated in his croaky parrot voice.
            “Yes. Rather.” I gave Lord Barleycorn a biscuit from the dish on my desk. He ate it quickly, messily, forcing me to stand up and brush the crumbs from my jacket. “Next!” I bellowed, sitting back down.
            “This’ll be good,” croaked Lord Barleycorn.
            “Quiet, you,” I said.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Working Through WONDERBOOK part 1

If you're thinking of buying this book,
be sure to lift with your knees.
This year is the year I reclaim my fiction career. In addition to committing to writing 500 thousand words in a year’s time, I’m making a conscious effort to broaden and expand my scope. Since I no longer live in an area of Texas that allows me access to regular workshops, writer’s groups, and a literary “scene,” I’m going to create my own. This is my first step in that direction.

Wonderbook, the Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, is written by Jeff Vandermeer and profusely illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss. In addition to these guys, there’s a slew of guest writers and artists featured in the book.

My plan is to go through the book at a reasonable pace. I want to read each chapter and then blog my responses or show my work, if I’m asked to do something along those lines. I am hoping that by the end of the project, I’ll have some new tools in my utility belt, and I’m hoping to learn some things, or maybe have a different perspective on writing that I didn’t have before.

You may be asking, “Why this? Why ‘Wonderbook?’” I won’t say that I’m creatively stagnant, per se, but it’s been a while since I’ve workshopped anything, or had a peer review group to keep me honest. I believe in trying to creatively better yourself, especially when it comes to something that requires input and exercise, like writing. I don’t usually like books that tell you how to write, because it messes up my own process, but Jeff’s book is something different in that there’s not a How To component. Instead, it’s more about theory and approaches.  

I’m hoping, then, to have a sort of ongoing conversation with Jeff’s process, because he and I approach writing from very different places. Maybe after it’s all over, I’ll find what Jeff uses won’t, in fact, work for me. That’s okay. Learning about that process may lead me to other insights that neither he, through his book, nor I, through the ongoing conversation, could have possibly predicted. Okay, let’s get this party started.

General Impressions and Introduction

I’m actually proofreading two books right now, and I’m nearing the end, but I really want to jump on this, so I read the introduction and did a cursory inspection of the book itself.

First of all, this is a dense, heavy tome of a book. It’s a doorstop, it really is. That’s good value for a couple of reasons. The full-color interior pages are printed on a nice heavy glossy stock that will stand up to abuse and spine-cracking. And you’re going to want to crack the spine to see all of the amazing artwork contained therein. It’s a gorgeous book, and it’s very inviting.

The introduction is little more than an explanation about what is to come, and an explanation about the picture codes that will be used in the book. Jeff recommends reading the book straight through (done!) and offers up a little advice about what to expect. The artwork that you’re going to want to spend the most time with is the two page arterial map of the History of Science Fiction. It’s stunning. And if this is what the rest of the book holds, it’s going to be a fun ride.

The pictograms that denote extra information, sidebars, and dissenting opinions are named things like “Mister Odd” and the “Distraction Dragon” and are full of whimsy, a Vandermeer specialty. Despite the light tone, one gets the impression that he is very serious about his subject.

This is a good start, and really makes me want to power through to Chapter One. Perhaps this weekend!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What I'm Up to, 2014 Edition: Wonderbook, Bookmaking, and Making Progress

It's been a while, folks, and I'm sorry for the delay. I've been getting my ducks all in a row for this massive, year-long project to reclaim my productivity. I've been working on a bunch of smaller projects, and in the past few years, some things have gotten pushed aside for one reason or another. Mostly it's been my creative writing. Last year, I was all set to start this process again, and I got an offer that I couldn't (at the time) refuse. So I put this aside once again and, well, I kinda backed the wrong horse, in hindsight.

No more. My modest goal this year is to write 500,000 (that's half a million to you and me) words in the service of creative writing. This will mostly be prose; short stories, novels, comics and you know, maybe even a radio script or two. I've got a list of short stories I need to work on, and three novels in various stages of completion. It's time to clear the decks.

This is Jeff, leaning forward to imply action.
One of the tools in my utility belt is a new book by Jeff Vandermeer, called Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. It's not a "how to" book, meaning, Jeff doesn't tell you to "write this way," which is good. I can't read those kinds of books. They mess me up. But I'm very interested in Jeff's thought process, and so I'm going to start going through the book, section by section, and posting the results here. Sometimes, I'll be assignments that grew out of the reading. Other times, I may talk about what he says about certain things. It's going to be a regular thing on the blog, and I'll tag it for you in case you want to follow those posts. If Jeff did his job, I'll come away at the end of the book with a fresh perspective, some new building blocks, and hopefully a finished story or two. Maybe another book. We'll see. I'm open to this and hope you'll find it interesting. I like Jeff a lot and respect him immensely as a writer, and even though his tastes in movies utterly baffles me, when we agree on something, it's usually ironclad. It'll be cool to take this "creative writing class" from him.

So, 500,000 words is a lot to generate, but why stop there? I've got several books that's I've had published, or nearly so, just laying fallow. It's time to dust them off, and reprint them in an ebook format. Specifically, I've got six books that I'm going to turn out in small batch paperbacks, followed by ebooks. This is mostly stuff from the Clockwork Storybook years, but in the case of the "Con-Dorks" novels, the final chapter was published online just last year. Putting them all out is going to feel so good. I'm really excited about getting all of this stuff back into print. I've even cleaned up my Amazon Author's Page.

Why am I doing all of this? It's real simple. I've got newer projects that I want to get to, and this old stuff is holding me back. I don't mean that in a negative way; rather, I want to clean house, finish up these things that are still in my head, and in general, get back to writing daily, producing weekly, and selling stories--and maybe even a book or two. I have people ask me all the time when I'm going to finish X or come out with Y or publish another Z.

The answer is now. This year. 2014. Stick around. I'll share what I can, when I can, with you guys, and I'll let you know about new and upcoming projects.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Elvis Movies, And Why

Look at this travesty. Elvis looks bored in the poster! And it's painted art!

On Elvis Presley’s Birthday, I like to celebrate it as if it’s my New Year’s Day. You probably already know this. So instead of rehashing my rationale, I’m going to drop a little pop culture knowledge on your head and tell you my Top 5 Favorite Elvis Movies, and Why.

I want to make it very clear that there are three categories of Elvis movies. There are the handful of movies where he was trying, really hard, to be a good actor. Most of them are listed below. Then there are the chunk of movies where he was going through the motions, and maybe he was having a good time, and maybe he wasn’t, but they are all of middling quality. A great example of this type of Elvis movie is Blue Hawaii. It was his first time to visit, and he was, if nothing else, excited about the locale. Then there’s the handful of movies where he’s either doped up, mad at the Colonel, exhausted, or some combination of the three. The best example of this is Clambake. It’s just bad all around, and you can tell Elvis doesn’t want to be there. Another great example: anytime after G.I. Blues that we see Elvis singing or dancing or acting with kids. Dead giveaway.

It’s a sad bell curve, to be sure, but let’s talk about why my Top 5 are in my Top 5. Your Top 5 will undoubtedly look different in you’re any kind of Elvis fan, but what I most like to see in an Elvis movie is either (A) Elvis in his full, charismatic glory, or (B) Elvis trying to leverage that charisma into his acting. Either/or is fine with me, provided we get what we came for—that trademark snarl, the cheerful but kinda dangerous charm, the voice, and sometimes, a great delivery on that dialogue.

He's made worse movies. See above.
Roustabout (1964)
This was the second film Elvis made in 1964, right in the middle of his two movies a year contract that Colonel Parker had him locked into. Right away, a big chunk of what’s missing here is Ann-Margaret, and it shows. Elvis is tense, irritable, and basically the opposite of the guy he played earlier that year in Viva Las Vegas. In fact, the movie is a weird throw-back to the earliest Elvis movies, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. He’s the guy who uses his music to pick a fight with the local toughs, and dispatches them with—wait for it—karate chops! Oh, yeah. He’s that guy.

He ends up working for a traveling carnival (as a roustabout, see?) but the kind-hearted carnival owner sees something in him and gives him a shot at becoming an act for the show. Like I said, very by the numbers, but Elvis plays the part with some genuine anger he didn’t have in the 1950s and that makes this one of the most watchable of the middling movies.

“Poison Ivy League” is one of the songs on the soundtrack, and it’s one of the last hits Lieber and Stoller wrote for him. It’s quaint, and not quite as good as other songs they wrote for him, but the lyrics are clever, and there’s no cutesey music for Elvis to get through, which is always a plus.

Some folks like Charro better. Not me.
Flaming Star (1960)
Everyone agrees the only reason to see Love Me Tender is because it’s Elvis’ first movie. A great western, it ain’t. And Elvis was disappointed that the movie had his music in it, because he wanted to take the acting seriously. Studio heads intervened, and one of the most iconic Elvis songs was created to prop up the movie.

Flaming Star is Elvis’ second attempt at a western. Again, he’s not singing, aside from the opening number, because he’s too busy being a half-breed caught between his adopted family and the Kiowa uprisings. Again, we’ve got surly Elvis emoting and really trying to brood, and when you consider that the movie and his role was initially offered to a young Marlon Brando, well, it makes good sense.

Flaming Star is a much better western than it has a right to be, and Elvis does a bang-up job in it. However, the real problem is that it’s so hard to take Elvis seriously in a western. No matter how serious Elvis is taking himself. Fans (meaning young girls) didn’t like the movie because Elvis wasn’t singing, and the Colonel had a fit because Elvis wasn’t selling records with the movie, but that actually makes the movie better in my opinion.

Look at that hairdo. How much pomade did he sell?
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Here’s the King of Rock and Roll, as he was christened by the press, in all his youthful, feral glory. His third movie, and one with a bite, it’s technically no better than the first two films, Love Me Tender and Loving You, except for one thing: the soundtrack is genius, and the song and dance number for “Jailhouse Rock” is the stuff of legend.

MGM was known for lavish musicals, and they sent their choreographer to work with Elvis during the big production number. He showed Elvis his routine, with all of these sweeps and glides, and Elvis told him flat-out, “That ain’t me, man.” The choreographer, Alex Romero, took it upon himself to actually watch Elvis perform a few songs, and when he came back the next day, the dance routine had a distinctly Elvisian feel to it. Romero never got a lot of credit for making Elvis look so good.

And what’s not to love about the name, Vince Everett? Pure rock and roll, man.

Did that popular lingo, Daddy-O. Who were they kidding?
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
By the mid-1960s, Elvis had become a movie-making machine. Two films a year, quick turn-around, and an album to bolster the box office. It was a slot machine for the Colonel, and Elvis was sick and tired of it. Maybe that’s why they decided to pair him up with Ann-Margaret, who was basically a female version of Elvis. When they met, the sparks were instant, and their on screen chemistry (and most likely their off-screen shenanigans) make Viva Las Vegas a fresh oasis in a desert of mediocre Elvis films.

Elvis is a race car driver, and Ann-Margaret teaches swim lessons at the big hotel. Honestly, you don’t need to know anything more about the plot than that. Just revel in the amazing duets, the palpable sexual tension between the two stars, and the genuinely fun soundtrack. One of the most suggestive songs they recorded, “You’re the Boss,” didn’t make the album originally because it would have been a dead giveaway that they were shacking up. It’s that suggestive. On purpose. Think I’m exaggerating about those two? Ann-Margaret had a code name amongst the members of the Memphis Mafia for the purpose of running Elvis’ security. They called her “Thumper.” You know, the rabbit?

I watch this movie at least once a year.

Elvis is still a force of nature in this movie, but they were
already working on him to tone it down.
King Creole (1958)
King Creole is proof that Elvis had enough creative intelligence to do whatever he wanted to do. By that I mean, if he had been able to break away from the Colonel and become a serious actor, he would have been as big as James Dean and Marlon Brando in their heyday.

The movie is based on the Harold Robbins book, A Stone For Danny Fisher, and like how Hollywood always does, they bought the book, and then messed it up. Danny Fisher the boxer became Danny Fisher the...cabaret singer? Really? Um, okay, because as we’ve previously established, the people in control of Elvis wanted their singing and dancing monkey to sing and dance.

By this time, Elvis had already gotten his draft notice, and he got an extension to make the movie. Since they didn’t know what the future would bring—he could have been killed during active duty!—they decided to make King Creole as good as they could. That meant putting veteran director Michael Curtiz on the picture. This is the man who made Errol Flynn a star and gave us Casablanca. If anyone could make Elvis into an actor, he could. And he did.

The cast is solid, too: Walter Matheau plays the heavy, along with Caroline Jones, and Victor Morrow has a supporting role. It’s Elvis as an actor; sometimes he’s understated (well, as understated as Elvis is capable of being), and he displays an emotional range that was clearly missing in the first three movies. If you routinely scoff at Girl Happy because of how inane the movie is, and you’ve never seen King Creole, move it to the top of your cue and marvel at an Elvis career choice that might have been.