Thursday, December 31, 2015

The (Gym) Apocalypse is Upon Us!

I thought a humorous post might be in order on New Year's Eve. The video on the bottom of this post made me snort. Happy New Year's, folks!

So it's that time of year. My second favourite holiday after Christmas. New Year's is a time we look past all the garbage of the previous year and look ahead to new things. For me, that's a novel or three, that maybe, just maybe, I've mentioned here on this blog. For others, it will be a new house. A new business partner. A new job. Whatever it is, New Year's is a time to look ahead and set new goals for who we are and what we want to be.

That includes the gym. I've been working out since I was seventeen, which means I've spent more than a quarter of century sitting on the edge of a bench between sets. I still remember my first year in the gym as a skinny seventeen year old. The gym, Galaxy 2000, was mostly comprised of old-school body builders and filled with rotting black mats. The washrooms were dirty. The only women there were twice my size. Mostly I ducked my head and tried to stay out of the way of the big guys, watching in awe as they moved mountains of steel.

Galaxy was no meat market. And as a young guy, weighing in at a slight 175lbs,  I learned gym etiquette quickly. There was no track at Galaxy. No sauna or steam room. If you ventured into the bathroom, which I rarely did, you'd more than likely find someone shooting steroids into their ass.

That isn't to say I didn't appreciate my education there. I did. And it has served me well the past twenty-five years. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the gym did not have the benefit of my education. In fact, there are many days I wish that some of the people in my gym would be forced to go to Galaxy for a few months.

And for my fellow workout pals, as bad it can be sometimes, this is the time of year when it gets REALLY bad. New Years is upon us, which means the gym will be flooded by a bunch of newbies. Most regulars hate this time of year, because the gym gets so busy, but I like it. Yes, I'm a professional writer, but I'm also a professional trainer. I love seeing new people come into the gym!

Oddly enough, it isn't the new people who break these basic rules, but ones who have been going for a while and who still don't get it. here then, are my top pet peeves and some free advice for the newbies about gym etiquette.

1) People who insist on working out next to the dumbbell rack.

Listen, take two steps back. You're in the way! Yes, I know you like looking at your 135lb body in the mirror, but you can do that from farther than three feet away.

2) People who leave their weights on the floor. 

When you're done, put your weights back in the right spot on the rack. Don't just leave them there. Your mother, whom you clearly treated horribly, isn't around to pick up after you. Put those 10lbs away!

3) Skinny males taking up two or more pieces of equipment. 

Big guys and women rarely do this. Mostly it's the male college students who weigh about as much as my right calf. And yet they insist that you need 3 sets of dumbbells plus one of the machines. And for heaven's sake, stop barking at one another. We can see and hear you! We just choose not to embarrass you. We're all glad you're working out, it's a gym, not the mall.

4) Males staring at females

My wife and female friends know all about this. And usually it's done by guys who don't even know what they're doing, like jerking up far too much weight by swinging their whole body into a bicep curl. Listen, if a hot girl is working out, by all means, take a peek, but don't be a creep. Don't stare. And whatever you do, don't engage a woman who's wearing headphones. She's wearing them for a reason.

5) Men and Women who wear cologne/perfume

Look, I know the gym can be a nice place to meet people. But when you wear a scent strong enough to cause mass gagging, you're overdoing it. Nothing wrong with trying to meet someone at the gym. But don't subject the rest of us to an Axe commercial.

6) Braying

Again, this falls into the hands of those teenagers twenty-somethings talking on their cell phones, taking pictures, and talking loud enough for everyone to listen to their inane conversation  The video addresses this perfectly. WE ALL SEE YOU! Now then, simmer down.

7) Don't Play Music on Your Cell

This is a new one. About a month ago, I was in the gym and two skinny guys left their cell out and were playing music from it like it was a ghetto blaster. (look it up, kids) It was loud. I told them to turn it off. If everyone played their damn music the gym would be unpleasant. They looked at me blankly, because they didn't get it, but they did shut it off. (Yes, size matters.) Listen, there's music over the sound system. Don't like it? Listen to your Ipod. But put your headphones in.

Feel free to document a few of your own pet peeves in the comments. Haha The gym is a great place, a sanctuary of sorts, and once you get used to it, it's a really great place to drop some stress and relax. I highly encourage it! I spend 10-12 hours a day staring at a computer screen, so the gym does wonders for me in helping me get out of my head. Now all we need is for some of these pet peeves to be addressed!

I was originally just going to share this hilarious video on Fbook, but decided to make a post out of it. Enjoy. (There is some language in it.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Last Angel Is Here!

At last!

After twenty years, my first novel officially hit the shelves this past week. It has been a whirlwind these past two months, and I can't decide if I'm excited or exhausted or both. Phew! And the work has just begun. I've spent most of the day working on the latest newsletter, which should be done by tonight. (If you're interested in signing up for it, just shoot me your email in the top right part of this page. I only send one out every two months or so, so I won't spam your email.) I have three more novels, already completed (all in the Desolate Kingdom Series) due out this coming year. (April 6th, September 2nd, and December 4th) And I'm currently at work on the first draft of WINTER, which is due for release in the Spring of 2017.

Click this cover for Kindle e-book.

                             Click this cover for the Trade Paperback.

I mentioned this in my newsletter, but the lifeblood of any authour is a book review. The more you collect, the more prominent your book becomes for the search engines. If you've read one of my ARC's (Advanced Reader Copies) or if you are interested in reading it in the future (Goodreads, mark as "to-Read") please take five minutes and write a couple sentences for me at Goodreads and Amazon. I cannot overstate the importance of reviews. Thank you SO MUCH for doing that!

The next step will be three book signings in the next two months. I'll be honest, I'm a bit nervous about that, having heard some horror stories from my fellow writers. But hey, it's an adventure, right? And even if no one stops to talk to me, I'll be in a bookstore for a few hours, and that's NEVER a bad thing.

There will be more news to come, and I'll keep everyone posted as it happens. Eventually there will be a new website as well. (Though you'll still be able to access it through Thanks again for all your support this past year. It's been a wild ride, and the journey has just begun!


Sunday, December 27, 2015

An Unlikely Road to a Dream

I read the viability report three times before I showed it to my wife. I’d worked with Erin Healy, my editor and now best-selling author, in the past. But that had been more than a decade ago. Back when becoming an accomplished writer had seemed so much more attainable. The years had passed, and I was no closer to accomplishing my dream. I’d written three books and spent five years working on a failed fantasy novel, believing I needed to spend years working on a single project for it to be worthwhile.
The three books I’d sent to Erin to review, however, had been written over the course of a single year. I’d accepted a writing challenge, and the result was a new fantasy series, one I was very excited about. I’d hired Erin to look at the prospects for the series, a birthday gift from my wife. Erin had gone miles beyond in her review of my books, and I struggled with her final suggestion.
“I don’t think she likes my stuff,” I said, involuntarily wincing as I grabbed my stomach.
“Is it bad today?” My wife asked.
I smiled and sighed. “Like every day. I’m okay.”
I’d experienced chronic stomach pain the past year. Most days I ate only once. I’d finally gone to see the doctor a month earlier. She was convinced my ailments were a product of anxiety. As were most of the other symptoms, all of which had worsened after I’d lost my job back in May. My stomach hurt constantly, but there were also days when my hands refused to stop shaking. And for nearly three months after I was fired, I’d been battered by hives.  
            Bethany took her time reading Erin’s notes. When she was finished, she shook her head. “She likes them. You just have to make some adjustments.”
            “It feels like a lot of work.”
            My wife laughed. “It’s not. You can do it.”
            As she moved to walk away, I cleared my throat. “Erin also thinks I should self-publish. She says that the publishing world has changed.”
            Bethany smiled. “Yes. And she also says that you produce a high volume of quality work. That you’re ideal for it.”
            “It’s not the dream.”
            She leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. “Times change. Dreams change, too.”
            I grunted as she walked away. I’d dreamed my entire life of “the call.” Of the agent phoning me to tell me that they’d sold my book to a publisher. A great part of this, obviously, was about acceptance. About becoming part of an exclusive club. If I published the books myself, was I not simply saying that I wasn’t good enough to be part of the club? Or was that simply my pride talking? I understood that the publishing industry was at a crossroads. Self-publishing was smashing old barriers. Technology had splintered everything from TV shows to movies to music. Nothing was at it once was.
            With some reluctance, I decided to take my editor’s advice. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing. I was suddenly being asked to start my own publishing company and figure out not only how to publish my novel, but do everything else that came with it.
            It was, in a word, overwhelming. So I started in the place I knew best; my manuscripts. I attacked the holes and questions that Erin had addressed. And before I could change my mind, asked some friends if they’d be willing to critique my work. To my surprise, people jumped in, willing to help. Within a short time, my manuscript changed. It became more polished. The holes filled. And still, I was nervous.
            Even those published traditionally were required to do their own promotions, but what did I know about that? And what about the cover? I was artistic, but visually, I had the skills of a first grader. It wasn’t going to work.

Old Ways Made New

            THE LAST ANGEL had arisen from a challenge. I’d been writing for twenty years, but when I’d discovered the NaNoWriMo (National Novelist Writing Month) challenge to write fifty thousand words in thirty days, I decided to give it a try. For the first time in years, I didn’t worry about censors or what people would think. I didn’t have time for that. All I had time for was to complete the challenge. And so I did. THE LAST ANGEL was unlike anything I’d ever written, but even though I recognized its need for serious editing, I felt the beat of something special in it, something different.
            I’d written two sequels by the time I sent it to Erin, and when she told me what I needed to do, I was ready. Even now, I find it staggering how many people volunteered to help. Emily Thiessen volunteered to design the cover, something that was beyond me, and created a work that captured the world perfectly. Others read advanced copies of the book, and their response and suggestions made it even better. At some point, THE LAST ANGEL ceased being a solo effort and began to feel collaborative.
            That was the moment I realized that Erin was right.

A Very Merry Christmas 

            “How’s your stomach?” Bethany said.
            It was a week before Christmas. Two months had passed, and I was waiting for the first physical copies of my novel. I’d managed to sort through the maze with the help of friends like best-selling author Steena Holmes, who had forged an ultra-successful career in self-publishing. She was, in every way, a star, and yet she took time to walk me through the path, again and again, even when my questions must have surely become irritating.
            “Good. Well, better,” I said. “Just anxious about the book. What if it looks amateurish? What if people don’t like it?”
            My wife kissed me. She’d read the first two books in the series. “They’re good. Erin likes them. So do your other readers. Trust the process.”
            I nodded, grateful for the reassurance, but still unsure. The person you love is supposed to support you. It was true that my beta-readers had nothing but high praise for it, but even that felt slippery. I’d been writing for more than two decades, and this was the first time I’d exposed my work to the public. It was difficult to accept that perhaps I’d accomplished something. That people might enjoy my work.
            On Christmas Eve, shortly before my wife and I left to do some last minute shopping, a UPS truck stopped outside our house. The man handed me two small boxes. I hustled inside and tore them open.
            As much as I’d always waited for that phone call from an agent, I choked up as I flipped through the pages. It was everything I’d ever imagined and more. By the time we left to do our shopping, I could hardly speak.
            Things hadn’t happened the way I’d imagined them so many years ago. And yet, the force of what I‘d gone through, and what was happening now, was still overwhelming. The dream had become a reality.
            “Are you okay?” Bethany said.
            “I’m good.” I paused, trying to find the right words. “I just… I just never imagined it would be like this. I know there’s a lot to do, but…”
            My wife smiled and kissed me when we pulled into the mall. “You did it, love. You did it.”
            I shook my head, felt tears crowd my eyes. Felt the weight of twenty years of writing in solitude. Felt the weight of my depression and anxiety and pain and everything else I’d fought through to write the story I’d always wanted to write. I thought about all of my friends who’d supported me, encouraged me. And I thought about all those who had volunteered to help me do the things that needed to be done. The people who had not only helped me with my writing, but helped me continue when the dream seemed so far.
            “Yeah,” I said, smiling, thinking about my friends and the people who had invested, without hesitation, in changing my life. It wasn’t a solo effort, and I guessed it never would be, “Yeah,” I said again. “We did it.”


Friday, December 18, 2015

Artists Are Neither Politicians or Propagandists

I probably shouldn't be writing this post. Not with my debut novel about to break and three more in the series due out next year. I shouldn't be writing this because there's a very good chance I'm going to upset some people, people who might be potential readers. It might hurt my sales and someone who might have enjoyed my work will never give it a chance.

What I should do is shut my mouth and post something that won't offend anyone, something that will get eyeballs and clicks and possibly entice someone to check out my other work.

Except, I'm not going to do that. I'm an artist, not a politician. And when artists decide that sales are more important than what they're trying to say, they aren't artists any more. That's not to say that everything an artist writes or paints or creates needs to deal with serious political or societal issues. Hey, that's the same kind of bourgeois attitude I ripped the other day in my post about Star Wars. Writing coaches suggest that every writer will explore two or three themes in their life, and that all of their work will revolve around those themes, whatever they are. Sure, they could be things like class issues or equality or religious bigotry, but they could also be themes like the importance of family, certain political issues, or sibling relationships. It could be any number of things that an artist feels passionately about, whatever it is that draws them back to the empty canvas.

The choice of theme is not important. What's important that we never censor our opinion on that which gives our work life. As soon as we do that, we might as well print ads for a car company, because we aren't acting as artists anymore. As soon we allow our concern about our sales figures to edit our work even a little, we've taken our first step to becoming a politician. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a politician or believing that you could make a difference in you ran for city council, but you can't be both.


I grew up in a small, white town circa. the 1980's, and the only thing I knew about the gay community was that they were sinners, perverts and gross. That's what I'd been taught. Don't get me wrong, my parents are extraordinarily kind, so were the people in my church, but as I didn't know anyone who was gay, and as there were no positive representations in the media (Ellen "Degenerate" Degeneres, remember that, ugh!) was still years away from getting her first sitcom on ABC), so I believed them. My stance tempered into my twenties, though I still believed it was sin. Still a perversion. Until I met Mr. Parker.

Well, I didn't meet him in person (That would have been great!), but I met him through his Spenser detective series, still my favourite all these years later. In his series, there was a minor recurring character, Lee Farrell, who was gay. He was tough and kind, a good cop. I'd never even fathomed that someone gay could be a tough cop. (Gay people were "fairies.") That didn't make sense. But it was my favourite series, and so the more I read, the more I started to question what I'd been taught.

That's right, my first positive gay role model was a fictional character.

I learned, years later, that Parker had two sons and that both were gay. Farrell was a secondary character, but for a diehard conservative like me, he was the first to crack open the door to my worldview and offer me a different look at the world. That single character would lead to further reading, and as I got older, I rejected my earlier notions about homosexuality. In fact, equality (a rejection of my misunderstanding of feminism as well) with regards to sexuality and gender and race is one of the prominent themes in my books.

But a theme is not a story. As strongly as I feel about equality and class and serving the less fortunate (I'm pretty much a weight-lifting hippy), I write action-packed dystopian fantasy novels with a lot of violence and weapons. The themes originate organically from my story. Sure, idiots like Trump drive me crazy, and the Republican party in the US, as it stands now, makes me gasp in disbelief. That said, but I have a number of conservative friends who've read THE LAST ANGEL (Advanced Reader Copies) and loved it. I know a number of conservatives who loved Parker's books, too.

When theme dominates your story, you've sold out in the other direction. Instead of becoming a politician, you become a propagandist. Ken Follett has become guilty of this the past decade. After writing the brilliant PILLARS OF THE EARTH (1989), he wrote the sequel 18 years later, WORLD WITHOUT END (2007). It was completely unreadable. Essentially it was an essay on why he was right, and anyone who disagreed with him was an idiot. There was nothing organic about it. Understand, Follett is a leftist Atheist. Aside from not being an Atheist, I generally agree with his worldview and I was still massively offended. I've been known to say a time or two on Facebook that "you're an idiot if you think this way"(Trump, yup), but never in my stories.

Art needs to be prismatic, and the only way that happens if we explore our deep seated passions, the ones that will become our themes, and allow the story to bloom from them. As soon as we allow the other voices into our heads ("this will hurt your sales," or "people should believe this!") we lose the very thing that not only gives our work power, but the thing that defines us as artists.

It probably wasn't smart for me to tell you that I'm a hippy. Or that I dislike xenophobes like the popular Trump. Or that I'm a feminist who features minority characters in their stories. It probably wasn't the smart thing to do, and I imagine it can only hurt my sales this year. That's okay. The only reason I was able to write this series (four written in the past eighteen months) is that after many years I finally stopped worrying about what others might say. As soon as I stopped listening to those voices, my work took shape in a way I hadn't expected.


Because I'm an artist, not a politician.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Not All Critics Loved Star Wars

One of the reasons the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert, and his original partner, Gene Siskel, were so popular, is that they understood that their job wasn't to judge all films the same. That the art was supposed to be judged on what it intended as much as the result. Both refused to hold"popcorn" movies to the same standard as serious foreign films, and for good reason.

Because they weren't idiots.

Not to be harsh, but when a critic, either a film critic or book critic, uses the same standard for John Grisham as they do for Ian McEwan, it's clear they're in the wrong business.

As a novelist who writes genre fiction, (in my case, dystopian urban fantasy) my goals as an artist are very different than someone like Donna Tartt or Ann-Marie McDonald. Now I would not put myself in their class as a writer, but someone like Brandon Sanderson, for example, who is probably the most popular epic fantasist working today, along with George RR Martin, are every bit their equal in terms of art.

One will sell millions of books. The other may win a Pulitzer. And both should be considered great novelists.

In the video below, taken in 1983, crusty theatre and movie critic (for the National Review, shocking) John Simon rips Return of The Jedi and any critic who enjoyed the movie. What's problematic here isn't that he didn't like ROTJ, probably the weakest of the first three films, but that he applies the same standard to all films, as if every artist is trying to achieve the same goal. This is the kind of snobbery that drives arrists crazy, because it suggests there is only one worthwhile form of a certain art. It suggests purity.

And it's perfectly ridiculous.

That's not to say that we can't criticize genre fiction, in whatever form. Sure we can. There is great blockbuster film making, like The Dark Knight, and bad blockbuster film making, like The Postman. But in the very least, a critic should have the sense to judge the art, at least partly, on what the artists is attempting to do, not some invisible ceiling where there is only one form of acceptable artistry.

Here's the clip. And if you ever wondered why Roger Ebert was so popular, here's a hint. Because he got it.

Yeah, I miss him, too.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Donald Trump and the Phony Middle

In his book, Writing The Breakout Novel, super-agent Donald Maas insists that what drives story is conflict, be it external or internal, and that a novelist should have it on every page.

Other writers agree with him, though some are less bullish about the "every page" part of his statement. Novels are long stories, and like films, build to a climax after a series of "skirmishes." There are, however, many other parts to a novel.

Character development. Theme. The arc of the plot. Description. Cohesion. Added value. It's a long list, but ultimately, he's right. If there's no conflict, there's no story.

And so, in an age of twenty-four news coverage, the media is desperate to grab our attention by providing as much conflict as possible. Coverage, on everything, rarely makes it to long form reporting these days. Everything is breathlessly reported, and always, always, there is conflict, one side pitted against the other.

Unfortunately, this creates a "phony" middle, in that it accepts that there is a happy medium between two sides, a moderate answer. Unfortunately, Donald Trump is pushing these boundaries, but they are boundaries that no educated person should accept.

Where Did Right and Left Come From?

Have you ever wondered why we use the terms "Right" and "Left" when dealing with political issues? Why is a program for single moms deemed "leftist" and shutting down abortion clinics or denying climate change considered "right wing?" Well, the terms come from the Enlightenment, a philosophical age that led to modernism and the idea that humans could be completely objective. The idea was that there was always a center to be reached.

Postmodernism long ago exposed this lie. No one can be objective, because we are all shaped by our experiences and our learning, so to use the phrase "left" and "right" is not only disingenuous but wrong. What it does, however, is allow an ad hungry media to create false dichotomies and pit one idea against another as if both are equally deserving. This creates conflict, the shadow of a story, and drives interest and emotion.

But in this presidential election, that false dichotomy is creating an excuse for bigotry and racism of the highest order.

Think about it. Donald Trump, who has a twenty point lead in the polls as the next perspective candidate to represent the Republican Party in the presidential election, has called for Muslims to be banned from the country. He's called for them to register, exactly what Hitler did with Jews in Germany. And he's done this while exploiting the fear and xenophobia of an uneducated and vindictive segment of the population.

Historically, this isn't new. It happens everywhere. But the media's insistence on the false middle is creating a space for racism and bigotry, so long as its muted. Ted Cruz, Trump's biggest challenger, actually stands to the "right" of the venal plutocrat and former TV star, if such a thing is possible. He is smoother than the first time politician, and will more than likely end up as the Republican candidate. But he has done nothing in the way of insisting that his running mate is a bigot. If anything, he's basically intimated that Trump is an amateur with a big mouth. (And a lot of money)

Many progressives (and conservatives, it should be said) are appalled by Trump's comments. But because we insist on this debate style of reporting ( I left, you right) it gives credence, if unwillingly, to the bullshit racism that Trump is promoting. And let's be clear, he's leading the race because of it. His numbers shot up after his demand that we "register Muslims."

But the debate is ultimately phony. There is no "middle." There is bigotry and xenophobia and the example of Hitler. And there is equality for everyone, regardless of race or colour or sexuality or religion.

Those are the two sides.

Those are the choices.

One fits our Western morality. The other is an offense to it.

And while conflict is important to any story, and may indeed drive up sales and ratings, we better be careful. If we don't realize what bigots like Trump and his cronies are doing, we may be responsible for ushering in a new wave of tragedy, simply because we were too caught up in the phony argument to pay attention to what was really happening.

Writing a breakout novel, whether it's a book or our life as a politician or the sales of a TV network, is an accomplishment. But when it comes at the expense of people's lives and the best in humanity, maybe it's better that we forget about page clicks and eyeballs and votes and tell the damn truth.

There ain't no middle.


Friday, December 11, 2015

STORMS: A Teaser

STORMS, the fourth book in my Desolate Kingdom series, is a prequel. Set one hundred years before THE LAST ANGEL, it tells the story of Tommy's (the main character in THE LAST ANGEL) grandfather, who as a young college student, helped save a remnant of humans. Here is a tease from the introduction.

(THE LAST ANGEL is due out this month on Amazon.)


...“Charlie. I’m serious.” Spenser’s voice shook slightly. “Y-you need to see this.”
He moved over to the window. “What?”
A ball of fire appeared on the horizon, still small, but marked in the clear blue summer sky. It was moving slowly, but steadily, towards them.
“What is it, man?” Spenser asked. “It has to be something. But it freaks me out. Like one of those bad B movies or something.”
Charlie moved to the window, then hurried over to his laptop and began typing furiously. C’mon, Leah. Answer me! He only had to wait ten seconds before his friend in China responded. A one-word answer that made him swallow.
“What do we do?” Spenser said, his voice rising.
Charlie did not answer. Minutes passed, and slowly the ball of fire passing over the city grew bigger.
His roommate started laughing hysterically. “This is it, man! The end of the world!”
Suddenly the ball of fire dipped, and a great explosion, though silent, rippled into view. Within seconds, a mushroom cloud appeared over the city of San Diego.
She was right.
“Get your things. We’re going to the Hole,” Charlie said.
“Get your things! Now!”
Charlie started packing whatever necessities he could find in his room. Extra clothes. His cell and charger. A few packages of dried soup.
“What are you doing?”
“You were right,” Charlie said, calming his voice. “The world is ending. Do as I say and you may make it out alive. We have three minutes.”
Spenser stared at him, grinning like a fool, until he realized that his roommate wasn’t joking. He jammed a bunch of things into a garbage bag and followed Charlie out the door.
“Hey! Where are you guys going?” Rusty called, standing in the hallway in his boxer’s. “Party at Karen’s tonight!”
“We’re going—”
“Shut up!” Charlie said. “Be quiet or we die. Got it?”
Spenser, his drug addled brain not comprehending anything but the seriousness of his roommate, nodded.
A few others called out to them, but Charlie ignored them. As much as he’d enjoyed his time at Cole, he felt no special attachment to the rest of the student body, with the exception of Spenser, who was like a lovable dog without a brain. He was offensive, but only because he was stupid. He was also very kind.
They took the rusty stairwell down five flights of stairs. When they got to the ground floor, Spenser began to run.
“Where are you going?” Charlie yelled.
“I have to get Mae!”
Spenser had dated Mae last year, and though she’d broken up with him, he’d remained smitten with her.
Charlie’s mind flashed to the image he’d seen. He’d only seen such a picture once in his life, a photograph of Hiroshima after they’d dropped the bomb. Judging from the sketchy news regarding the other parts of the world – news that most major media outlets had ignored – it wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together. Leah had confirmed this.
He checked his phone as Spenser burst through the doors fifty seven seconds later with a lanky, black-haired Latino trying to extract herself from his grasp.
“You idiot!” she shouted. “I told you to stop doing weed. Let go!”
“We have two minutes,” Charlie said calmly. “Maybe less.”
Mae stared at him. “What are you talking about,” she said.
Charlie knew Mae from the track team, though they’d never spoken. “A nuclear blast blew up San Diego a few moments ago. If we do not get underground, we will suffer from the effects of the fallout. Come or don’t come. We need to be in the Hole very shortly.”
“C’mon, Mae!” Spenser said. “It’s Charlie! Do you think he’s joking?”
Mae fingered her eyebrows. Unlike most of the blue-blood girls at Cole, she had olive colored skin and black hair that fell across her shoulders in waves. She had a prominent nose and deep set eyes. She was wearing a blue knit skirt and a white blouse opened at the neck with a pearl necklace.
“Mae, you gotta come!” Spenser said.
She glanced over at Charlie, and for a moment, his look held her.
“Yes. I’m coming.”
They hurried down three flights of stairs into the “Hole.” The student lounge had a battered fifty inch TV, as well as a number of couches that were either shedding or sharing pieces of foam. During the hot months, the Hole was a welcome respite from the heat.
Charlie didn’t stay in the room. He led them into a tight closet that smelled of liniment. Through the closet, he opened another door hidden behind pails and brooms.
“Quiet, now,” he said to them. “You must not lose your wits. If you do, we die. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Mae said.
“Yeah! Sure! Whatever, man!” Spenser stared over his shoulder at the open doorway. “Where are we going?”
Charlie led them into a darkened tunnel. The sound of moisture dripped from a pipe somewhere, but otherwise the silence was startling. It reminded him of his trips as a child off the reservation with his grandfather. Away from the music. Away from the technology. Away from the noise.
‘Life begins in silence,’ his grandfather would say. ‘We yell when we come into this world, but when we are conceived, we are birthed in silence. And for the rest of our lives, we long for such silence, though we never again experience it quite so beautifully as we do in our mother’s womb.’
Charlie pointed to a rusty ladder attached to the stone wall. It was far too late for them to turn back, even if they thought he was crazy. They followed after him, his hands firm on the slick metal.
About twenty feet down the ladder ended, and Charlie leaped to the ground. It was a smallish room, perhaps ten feet by ten feet. In the middle was a battery powered grill. Two old sleeping bags covered the floor like a raggedy carpet. In the corner was a small refrigerator that had been hooked up to a battery powered generator. A lamp glowed dimly in the corner.
Mae dropped lightly to her feet beside him, her eyes wide but sharp. “What is this place?”
“Dude!” Spenser said. “Dude!”
Charlie allowed a slight smile to cross his sharp features. “Be grateful for the benefits of racism.” The smile disappeared. “And now we wait.”
Mae turned. Touches of grease and dirt smudged her expensive blouse. The intelligence in her eyes was unmistakable. “How long?”
“In a few moments, you are going to hear screaming. Whatever happens, you must not go up that ladder. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Mae said.
Spenser was too freaked out to answer.
“How long?” she said again.
“Until the end.”
Charlie checked his cell, but it was no longer working. He started counting. Forty seven seconds later the screams started to reverberate through their hiding place.

They did not stop for a very long time.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Star Wars Phenomenon (and Fisher a Goddess)

I was eleven when I saw Return of the Jedi. As a kid, I was all things Star Wars, had all the action figures and used to play with them for hours with them with my cousin. We built elaborate sets for using everything from the sandbox to house plants to furniture.

It was awesome.

I was also eleven the first time when I saw Princess Leia in a metal bikini. Raised in a conservative household, and generally behind my classmates when it came to the opposite sex, nonetheless I understood what I'd just witnessed. She was the first goddess I'd ever seen, though thanks to my shyness, I never did mention it or talk about her with my friends. She was beyond talking about.

How amazing, then, to find that years later, Fisher is probably the coolest of the remaining actors from the original series. She's just a bit off (in the right way), doesn't care what anyone thinks, and has a terrific sense of humour. She's brilliant. Truly. (Also, she is nothing like Leia, the character that made her famous.)

Check out this interview with Good Morning America:

Amazing, no? (And that dog!)

Cultural Phenomenon

To call Star Wars iconic is to actually downgrade its importance in the Western zeitgeist. Despite some of the grumblings about the second set of films, particularly the first one, the original trilogy has retained its cultural power forty years later. It is mind boggling. But why? Why does it still hold such sway all these years later. There are a few reasons.

1) When the original trilogy was released, no one had seen anything like it. The equivalent would be the release of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (The novel, not the movie) No one had ever read such a thing, and it immediately tapped into something within the culture that was either waiting for it or needed it or both. Star Wars did the same thing, and changed movie making in the process. It (along with Jaws) gave us the era of the "Blockbuster," an era in which we are still living, and one that shows no sign of slowing. (This hasn't always been a good thing.)

2) The storytelling is both classic and simple, but it's extremely well done. There's a reason this Space Opera holds up after forty years. Let's be clear, Star Wars is not science fiction, it's fantasy in space. As such, it is far more accessible. I re-watched the original trilogy two months ago, and while there is no doubt nostalgia was attached to my viewing pleasure, the stories remain timeless and well executed.

3) The digital revolution has wrought a time where people hunger for fantasy and super heroes, For worlds that take them away from the fifteen second image speed trap we now live in. I wrote about this a few days ago, and within this type of pop culture, where comic book movies make $1 Billion at the box office, a franchise like Star Wars is bound to be popular.

4) It's a great world. My upcoming novels are set within a single world, though I tell many different stories within that setting. I love it, and feel lucky to have found it. Why? Every fantasist knows that even if your story is a bit weak, if you can create a world that people love, you'll find success. Star Wars is a world we know and love, and even if a film within that setting is bad (cough, number one, cough), we'll go back to it anyway.

5) It stands for something. The religion Lucas referenced in Star Wars is Taoism, but the movie isn't preachy, it's about doing the right thing. Caring for others. Diversity. Standing up for the weak. This is a message that all religions can celebrate. It is inclusive, enough that the strictest fundamentalist Christian and the most devout Muslim can both enjoy it. And in an increasingly divisive age, such a thing is welcomed by everyone. Now all stories "stand for something," they all have themes, but that doesn't mean they are all well executed. In particular, how many blockbusters have you seen lately where the hero wins by dropping his weapon and saying that "he won't fight." as Luke does in Return of the Jedi?


I've heard a few criticisms regarding the "lily white" nature of the original series. They aren't wrong, but only to an extent. I always felt like the aliens provided a great deal of diversity, that it was inherent within the world. Obviously, in the new one, they do try to correct that regarding their leads, but I still feel that criticism is disingenuous at best.

One of the reasons I liked fantasy as a kid, and ended up writing it, was because it was so different from the white world I grew up in. Even now, I still feel that fantasy is more inclusive than any other genre. And that includes Star Wars.

Once A Kid...

Star Wars has ruled pop culture for nearly forty years, and in the trusted hands of JJ Abrams, it is about to remind us just how much it matters. I'm excited for the new film. Excited to see the new characters and to hang out with some old favourites. I still remember playing with my action figures, still remember how much the story filled my life as a child. I may not play with action figures any more, but the story still fills my life, and I can't wait to see what happens next.


Monday, December 07, 2015

Why Fantasy?

As the momentum builds towards the latest Stars Wars movie (and sucks all the air out of every other film this month), I thought I'd address the question as to why certain people, including writers like myself, are drawn to fantasy. By any measurable standard, especially when you consider the way Marvel has dominated the box-office this past decade, along with Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones, it is clear that there has been a shift in our culture. Fantasy, once something of a fringe genre reserved for geeks has gone mainstream. Star Wars, which is more space opera than science fiction, is a great example of this. Anyone doubt the new film will break $1 billion at the box office?

But why? Why has fantasy become such a popular genre, and why are writers like myself drawn to it?

Fantasy, more than any other type of fiction, is based on theology and philosophy. Tolkien was the first to explore philosophical ideas like "the ring of invisibility," within a removed society that echoed humanity. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy provides a translucent barrier for the reader. This barrier (another world, different creatures) allows us to approach these ideas with a measure of safety. Fantasy has its base in fables of centuries past, and the best of it provides great storytelling with strong themes about the nature of humanity. All fiction does this to some extent, but because of its versatility, those who write fantasy can comment on a variety of sensitive subjects in a way that a thriller writer would find difficult, if not impossible, to do so.

So why the popularity? Why is it that, as our technological capabilities have grown at an astounding rate the past twenty or thirty years, the rise in comics and fantasy and "the geek life" have risen with it. Twenty five years ago, no one on my high school football team would have been interested in a show like Game of Thrones. Now? It's must-see-TV. Part of that is the terrific storytelling of the books/ series, but the other part is pretty simple: it's cool to like fantasy. It isn't merely something for "nerds," but something for everyone to enjoy. This has been echoed by the sales of graphic novels, which are essentially hardcover comic books, as an accepted literary form

Again, however, the question is why. Why did fantasy become such a force in the marketplace? What happened within culture to create such a different dynamic? 

The answer is simple: the digital revolution.

As we have become more reliant on technology, as our world has become faster and faster, a world of soundbites and memes and short attention spans, there has developed a deep thirst for an older kind of storytelling. One that recalls different ages. One that asks us questions about who we are and why we are, the questions that you won't find answered on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. We are becoming an increasingly illiterate society, but the same questions that have nagged humanity since our inception remain. And those questions are best answered by the artists producing fantasy and science fiction.

I'm not suggesting that all fantasy and comic book stuff is particularly deep (hello, Ant Man), but a book like The Hunger Games, which addresses class issues  in stark terms, is a perfect example of current blockbuster storytelling. Game of Thrones does the same thing. They are all echoes of authours like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who understood they were writing fables.

I have a degree in theology, but well before I went to university, I was drawn to fantasy. I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I loved comics. For me, there was something beneath the world I lived in, something beyond my senses that I could not explain. As much as I appreciated my faith, most of the older Christians in my circle were more intent on providing (unknowable) answers than asking questions. But why? I wanted the questions! I hungered for them to at least be acknowledged. A priest or a pastor could reassure me all they wanted that there was a very specific way to define the supernatural world, but they could never provide proof. Worse, many of them took offense to the questions I had, as if I was supposed to simply accept what they said because of their title or because of tradition or whatever other lame reason they offered, none of which could be proven.

Even as a kid, I was okay with questions without answers. I was okay with not understanding everything and knowing that, as a human, I would never understand anything. But I still wanted the questions to be asked. It was, I thought, the only way to unite humanity. Everyone had their own ideas, religious or otherwise, as to our nature. Instead of allowing those questions to unite us, most people used them as a construct to divide us.

That has not changed. Anti-Muslim. Anti-gay. Anti-Christian. Anti-black. Anti- whatever. We still use division to unite ourselves within our tiny circles so we don't have to face the most difficult truth of them all: we don't have the answers. We're all just making it up as we go along.

Oh, sure, we can believe things. I'm a Christian. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. It's not rational, but the story rings true for me. The same way Moses rings true for Jews and Mohammed rings true for my Muslim friends. But that doesn't (and shouldn't) eliminate the questions. If anything, it creates more.

And it's here, right here, where I like to dig. Where I like to write and read and watch. As a society, we are blitzed with commercials and advertising and faux-needs, all thirty seconds or less. Because of that, when I sit down to write or read or watch a movie, I want to explore the limits of our imagination. I want to ask the big questions and do it in a way that holds no limitations. (And is terribly entertaining.)

I'm not interested in another serial killer novel. I'm not interested in another true-crime piece. I want to go to a world that makes me catch my breath, one that makes me smile and think. Every day, we have the hum-drum beat into us. Our lives are routinized, even when we don't want them to be. For a few hours, I want that to change. I want to be taken away from the digital clock and see what it's like to live in another place. Another world. I want someone to ask questions that matter to me while I'm living this dream, and see what happens when I wake up.

Not all fantasy is good, we know that. But the core of it seeks to do something that isn't being done elsewhere in our world. Most religion is still intent on providing answers. But what most people want is questions. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. But if it was all about answers, people wouldn't bother with Lord of the Rings. As it is, they are. And in record numbers.

Maybe it's time for our religious leaders to learn a lesson from their secular, storytelling counterparts. Fewer answers. More questions. More imagination.

To embrace the mystery of humanity is to understand it. And when we understand it, people will be drawn it to it. If only because we had the guts to ask the question.


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

What's the Bechdel Test?

I wasn't actually aware of this site, or this test, until a few years ago. It's changed the way I not watch film, but the way I write and how I draw my female characters, though, as i mentioned earlier today, I still get it wrong sometimes.

Take a listen. (It's only 80 seconds long.)

The rules are so simple, and yet so many movies fail them, especially blockbuster films. (Lord of the Rings should get a pass, seeing as how it actually enhances and creates new roles for a couple of the female characters. Tolkien's book has almost no women in it at all, and Jackson took quite a bit heat for enhancing the role of the female characters.)

What's sad is that this test doesn't even indicate how women are being portrayed, and STILL movies fail it.

When I was young, and I mean, like, 28, I conceived of women as how they were portrayed in these shitty action movies, as either being shrewish and cruel or beautiful and dumb. (The whole Whore/Madonna thing.) It took me a long time (and some serious pushing from a few of my female friends) to realize that I was buying something that these Hollywood writers were selling me. (And not just male writers. Nancy Meyers anyone? Ugh.)

But it's difficult to see that kind of prejudice until someone shows you.

So here it is.


I'm Sorry, Did I Offend You?

As we enter the silly season, my twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with people who are "offended" for one reason or another. This happens every year, of course. And every year, common sense thinking people have to deal with the faux-outrage about "the war on Christmas" and putting "Christ" back in Christmas, as if saying "Happy Holidays" is somehow offensive. This year, we had a new twist when a private company (Starbucks) decided to use red cups instead, hell, I'm not sure, putting a nativity scene on them? We even had a presidential candidate, Adolph Hitler, err, Donald Trump, suggesting we boycott Starbucks for this great sin. Okay, it's Trump, and he's the prince clown of fools, but he's still the leading Republican candidate for president.

To be "offended" by the likes of cups and holiday greetings in nonsensical, But it happens every year, which leads to the question; when should I be offended? As a novelist, I'm forced to ask myself that question not only as a human, but as a writer. When should my characters be offended? And what am I revealing about who they are when I show that kind of reaction?

When Should I be Offended?

Novelists are, by nature, observers of human behaviour. But that observation needs to start in the mirror. Always. An un-self-aware writer is not an artist. And someone who doesn't understand why people respond to their art in a certain way probably haven't spent enough time staring into the looking glass.

For example, I get upset when people (non-scientists) use the word "retarded." As someone who has spent their life working with developmentally disabled students, that word is offensive because it's representing a group of humans in a condescending way. The same is true for "faggot" and "gay."

It also offends me when people use misogynistic language. This week, on one of my Facebook threads, these two white "bros" told me not to "get my panties in a bunch." If you can't understand why that's offensive, then again, that un-self-awareness is going to hurt you, both as an empathetic human and an artist. Particularly as an artist.

That's not to say you can't have characters who use those terms, but if you do, then make sure they're doing it for a reason. We see it a lot in film. Blockbusters especially tend to portray women as shrewish idiots, which again, is acceptable if the artist is aware of it and they're doing it purposely within the context of the work. But most, like Jurassic World, don't even know what the Bechdel Test is, and quite frankly, don't care.

This is problematic, because even the most well meaning artists have blind spots. I certainly do. I consider myself a pretty strong feminist, and yet, after my editor looked at the first three books in my upcoming Desolate Kingdom Series, she noted that my female characters weren't nearly as complex as my male leads. They were all kick ass heroines, which was fine, but because of my desire to write strong women, they came off like fan-boy art, and not the good kind. And two of my beta-readers, both women, made a number of suggestions regarding certain scenes in which I was guilty of tainting my female characters with one-size-fits-all brush. It took me a number of edits to fix, but I was happy to do it.

As a man, I can't know the experience of being a woman. As someone straight, I can't know the experience of being gay. I don't know what it's like to be black or Asian or trans-gender, and if I'm not careful, I can offend people unintentionally, which is exactly what I do not want to do.

It's one thing if my characters offend my readers. It's something else altogether if I do it unintentionally.

Good art should always challenge the way people think, but bad art offends people for all the wrong reasons. A book can sell five million copies, but that means little. In fact, a lot of so-called artists make a lot of money because they refuse to challenge societal conventions, whether it's the portrayal of women or minorities or whatever, for that very reason.

I'll be honest, it can be really frustrating. But there's nothing for us to do except help balance the scales a little. That doesn't mean we have it all figured out, of course not. I'm certain I'll need my bet-readers' eyes as my series progresses. If I'm going to offend someone, I want to make sure that I'm doing it for the right reasons. Not because I'm trying to be "Politically Correct," (a term I despise, since most people who complain about "political correctness" are only upset because they want to say hateful things about minorities) but because I want to be -- and need to be -- self-aware as an artist.

Whatever my creation is saying, I need to hear it first. I need everything within it to be purposeful. So long as that happens, I don't care who I offend.

And neither should you.