Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

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The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

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Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.

Writing in Spite of the End of the World

Right now, my country stands at a crossroads.

I do not write this lightly—every nation, it seems, is destined to face such trials.

As a writer, that puts me in a curious position. There are a hundred things I could write about the important concerns of today: the election, racism, fascism, climate change. Yet I also empathize with a question many fiction writers are asking in the wake of such events: why?

Right now, our country has had the last remnants of journalistic capability broken apart and shredded for good measure. Their ability to act remains, for the moment, unfettered, but their ability to act successfully has been eviscerated. We find ourselves in a culture that has actually embraced the stance that truth is whatever we want it to be.

I have friends—strong, fierce, creative friends—who have been unable to cope. Events have left their pens dry and their word documents blank. How can we feel inspired by a world that has voted for fear and rage? A world where hate trumped love? They look at fiction as a luxury that can be ill-afforded in a world facing such dire straits as ours.

Around me, the streets are filled with division. Enmity at best becomes apathy, at worst becomes violent. Hate crimes are on the rise, lives and livelihoods are threatened, and no one knows how to react.

Americans are curious creatures. We like to have things set in clear cut text. Everything comes down to the notion of Axis and Allies—Evil and Good, War and Peace. We are righteous, or at least, desperate to believe we are on the side of righteousness. We don’t pass laws on drugs; we fight a war on drugs. Communism isn’t a different social structure, it’s the great atheistic evil. We don’t even support education: we fight wars against illiteracy. The world over, the running joke is that we are and have always been a bunch of cowboys running around. I can’t say they’re wrong. We face the world on strict terms: our terms, with all others to be defeated.

Ours is a rather aggressive culture, truth be told. The current villains on the stage have tapped rather effectively into that aggression.

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V for Vendetta

But even now, stories matter, the same as activism matters, and community service, and everything else that needs doing. Good people need to make themselves heard at every level of the spectrum. We need people to wield the power invested in them by the people, but we also need people there to inspire people to reach for that power and wield it for good. If you can help by hitting the streets with Black Lives Matter or providing water to the protesters at Standing Rock, by all means do so. But at the heart of all these things is the spark of an idea, for while they can be corrupted, ideas are, in the end, as V from V for Vendetta declares: “Bulletproof.”

As both a journalist and a fiction writer I have been told by both sides I am for and sides I am against that my opinion does not matter. That my perceived inaction in the battle between light and dark means I am unable to have voice. Aggressors will always posit such means to discredit opposition or to build themselves up, and truth be told, they are right in a way. Writers are not fighting battles. Their writings are a refusal to meet violence with violence, but instead to channel their opposition or their ideas to positive means. They are not fighting, but to say they are not engaging the issue, or that their opinion is somehow lessened by a lack of blood on their hands? Absurdist.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every story is a seed. Writers water them. Readers reap the fruits of that labor. Hopefully, the seeds will spread, and with them, the fruits…

Writers can entertain, they can charm and judge and analyze, but at their hearts, all writers have a story to tell, a story made up of ideas and ideals. Whether they believe it or not—whether it means anything to us or not—they are committed to the struggle which is making something heard.

For my part? That includes defending the progress we as a civilization have made and beating back with vast verbosity those forces which would tear that work down for their own benefit. We have forgotten so much over the centuries, even as we have learned so much more. I will never allow people to forget what zealotry, greed and bigotry look like, nor the damage they wreak.

My message is not everyone else’s. For some, abolishing poverty is all. For others, defending the freedom of speech. Still more might have the ability to capture the essence of agony which resonates through society with every hate crime against the LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims…

But if that’s the case, why fiction? Nonfiction is necessary. It might lack flavor or texture, but it is to the point. Fiction, on the other hand, works through subtler means. It may not always have the ability to enlighten, but it teaches through metaphor and simile, allows us to  spawn our “what-ifs” into whole other realities so that we might never have to live such terrors in ours—or, alternatively, so we have something hopeful to reach for. You will never find yourself inside a book of nonfiction the way you do in fiction. The seed buries deeper. Its roots come at problems sidewise, exploring paths we otherwise might not have considered.

In all honesty, I don’t know what peace looks like. I’ve seen the shape of it, caught its silhouette in the back of crowds cheering certain moments and decisions, but I’ve never looked at it head on. This country, as I’ve said, has a real thing for violence—and a lot of problems inside. But just because I have not held peace in my hand does not mean I do not want it, or will do what I can to help others attain it.

Yes, it hurts to write when the world around us is burning.

It hurts to think you’re just escaping into a story when the walls are caving in.

But even the lightest of escapism is necessary, at the least, for sanity—no one under attack at all times, unable to catch a breather, will last long. Life is cruel. Life is hard. Life is a struggle. Stories give us hope for change and the ability to step outside our own heads.

Don’t discount or discredit that.

There is a reason I write fiction in addition to journalistic prattle. Good old Gandalf probably sums it up:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

When Our Heroes Go Astray

gandalf_the_white_returnsThe dawn of the fifth day has come and passed. I looked to the east, but Gandalf never came.

Commander Shepard, I suspect, is still endorsing stores on the Citadel.

Mario went down the wrong pipe.

We have a fascination with heroes in our culture. Books, comics, movies, stories in general—they entrance, largely through the adventure of assailed figures fighting for salvation. Heroes can be born and bred to the part, or could be ordinary people who have greatness thrust upon them. They might hem and haw, or try to pass the mantle on, but in the end, they get the job done. We eat these stories up with fervor, often picturing ourselves there beside them, headed off to become a wizard or blast clear villains out of the vast nothingness between us and our dreams.

Escapism, it’s a beautiful thing.

But is it just that?  Who among us wouldn’t want to be whisked away from their routine lives, pointed at the big bad, and told: YOU’VE GOT THIS?

There are those who call such beliefs childish and lazy and, in adults, downright irresponsible distractions. Fact is, though, many of us feel helpless in the day to day. We watch things slip through our fingers and good people get constantly, irrevocably hurt, and unlike in the stories, we possess little if any recourse, because more often than not, the law is on the side of the people doing the hurting. We are restless and frustrated, and afraid above all, and all our media is designed around the notion that when evil seems set to triumph, a hero will rise to set us free…

The truth is harder to deal with. What heroes we have are often suppressed, marginalized, or killed. At best they become martyrs, at worst they live long enough to see themselves become the villains, or to see their good works perverted by still craftier villains. We know no one is coming to save us. But we’ve been trained to expect it, and people keep perverting that expectation to their own ends.

I’m rather sick of it. I write, in part, because it allows me to process the world and where I see it headed, what I’ve seen it do before. I read, because I want to find ways among others’ dreams to impact and change our own hell.

And I’m sick to death of villains reading the same, and thinking, “God, if I just play the part for a while, they’ll eat it up.” So I’m left here to wonder: if even our ideas of heroes have gone astray, how do we fight in a way that will actually make a difference?

The Brewed Awakenings Anthology!

Get ready to dive into a Michigan brewed collection of fiction! Brewed Awakenings 2, an anthology of fifteen tales, has been released in print by the good people at Caffeinated Press. No one theme binds these stories, save a dedication to genre—my own bit of historical fiction shares pages with Sci-fi, Mysteries, Horror and even Romance—and a devotion to depth of story.

20161021_090349My own contributor copies arrived in the mail today, and I can’t begin to express the excitement. Beautifully bound, lovingly organized—like caffeine, it certainly jolted mind and body to life. And the sheer wealth and diversity of other authors I have the honor of being featured with—some local like me, some from further abroad, and much better published—is inspiring.

Here’s a bit from the blurb:

“How should you respond when your neighbors aren’t quite what they seem? How far must you travel to escape the pull of your heart? How much of a barrier does the “digital divide” really present—or, for that matter, the line between life and death? What chaos results when the aggrieved turn the tables?”

My own work therein is called “Furniture City,” a tale with roots planted firmly in the history of this mitten-happy state of mine. For traditional readers of my sci-fi and fantasy, yes, I know it’s not my usual, but I hope you’ll give it a look see—our world has no lesser fair of dark plots afoot. Here’s the blurb to catch your fancy:

“In the seductively serene woods of logging-era Michigan, secrets congeal like spilling sap.”

The book has already launched, so there’s no party, save the little dances I throw when one of you shows me your copy.

It’s a bit surreal and hopefully a goodly bit thought-provoking…but then again, what possible connection could power-hungry logger barons of days past have with our serene, modern markets?

The world may never know.

You can order a copy here: https://squareup.com/market/cafpress/item/brewed-awakenings

The Killing Joke: a Joke which simply should not have been told

61NIV+TvhbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The month’s only halfway over, and when it comes to movies, one company’s in the crosshairs of public worry: DC. Between Suicide Squad and The Killing Joke, they were set to sweep the stage and dominate the summer’s end—but unfortunately, neither has quite lived up to expectation. I’ll explain my feelings on Suicide Squad at a later date, but today I’ve a few things to say about The Killing Joke, in all its problematic animated flailing.

For those familiar with the source material (rather than those simply enthused to see Mark Hamill returning as the Joker), this was already set to be a controversial piece—it’s certainly one of the Dark Knight’s grimmer outings, and it’s a train wreck beat down of Batgirl and her father from start to finish. That, at least, holds true. Unfortunately, the film makes it even MORE of a Batgirl beat down, with a first act that is quite simply insulting for anyone in the modern age.

The Killing Joke is a short story by any definition—as such, DC added around 30 minutes worth of material to the story for what they thought of as helping us “get to know” Batgirl.

Huzzah! Character development! A character abused as a set piece getting to be human!

Tragically, whoever set that train ride in motion rapidly wheeled it off the tracks.

Yes, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) is our narrator. She comes across like a whining teen lamenting to a diary about the man she has bizarrely decided to sidekick beside (sorry Robin, you’re out of this picture). Rather than adopt the father-child or big brother role for which Batman’s most characteristically known with his sidekicks, however, Batman maintains a sort of ice and fire thing with Barbara.

He’s purposefully cold-shouldering and aloof, but that only seems to make Barb more attached. She exists for him. She is focused on him. She talks about him in not-so-specific terms to a bff when maintaining her normie job. If this is character development, all I’m seeing is a message that women build their lives around the strong men in them. Gross, DC. Gross.

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Cue Paris Franz! Mafia fellow and as obsessed with Barb as Barb is with Batman. Alright, a bit more obsessed—he tries to drug her and stalk her, and genuinely exists so Batman can give Batgirl stern lectures about how crime works and why she, despite having no doubt been at this a while, is not cut out for the life. Leave him to his tortured martyrdom—little girls trying to play superhero shouldn’t be in this part of the playground. She screams, but not in a way that gives her any feeling—she screams like a child denied a cookie, made to look petulant and illogical despite the fact that this is the woman who LATER BECOMES ORACLE AND KNOWS ALL AND SEES ALL.

And after all this yelling, the plot is propelled forward through…sex. Because yelling and shouting and violence is all but foreplay, don’t you know? They strip. Camera pans away. Bat nookie is made on a rooftop. Public indecency is apparently not one of the things vigilante-bats police.

Holy crap, I thought at this point, what is going on in this script?

Batman smart. Batgirl dumb. Sex for everybody.

After she causes Batman to get jumped by Franz, and after Barbara overcomes Franz, she comes to the conclusion that—wait for it—Batman was right all along. This just isn’t the life for her; time to call it quits. Naturally, this comes after showing her wailing on Franz and displaying her full feminine madness, her overly emotional nature, and—

Wait, did they just make a Time of the Month joke? Seriously?

Okay. Maybe she SHOULD have killed the gangster.

Please note the “emotional instability” also comes to head after Batman doesn’t call her back after their less than sexy dance in the moonlight, and there is general whining about said less than sexy times.

Essentially, DC worked very hard to take Batgirl from a victim working to move set pieces between a duel of Batman and Joker and turned her into an emotionally unstable, petulant every-teen trope who dreamed beyond her ken.

And still is a set piece. Because obviously the actual Killing Joke story still has to happen. Which makes the two acts seem more than a bit…disjointed.

Batman, now operating solo, finds evidence of a crime in the city with all the hallmarks of the Joker—who’s supposed to be locked up. When he goes to lecture Joker (he really likes to lecture, it turns out), he goes on for a bit before he discovers an old friend and not the Joker. Cue Joker appearing in Gotham, cackling with mad Mark Hamill glee, shooting Barbara in front of her dad and making off with the addled policeman.

Then come the flashbacks from a flawed narrator—the Joker’s not even sure if the origin story he’s peddling is true. Don’t get me wrong: this whole section is true to comic, almost painfully so. However, what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work in another, and in this case, the pacing becomes sluggish and dialogue heavy, and the tempo heaves to a crawl. Yet here is where DC might have considered making some of its additions—we don’t see what the Joker saw, we don’t experience any personability to his origins; we find out everything from him heaving more dialogue onto his criminal partners. It’s like reading flavor text in an RPG—it comes, we process it, the story trudges onward. It has little impact.

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Back to the present day, we get to observe Jim Gordon’s awful, terrible, really bad day. He’s stripped and collared and haunted by pictures of his naked and gunned down daughter, though the passage of time is somewhat unclear here as opposed to the long, torturous procession demonstrated in the comic. This section feels oddly rushed—but still, Batman inevitably comes, plucks his old friend from a cage, and finds the father figure unbroken by Joker’s plea to madness. It gives him strength to find and subdue Joker.

Throughout, what we are greeted with is a movie of uneven pacing but dedicated delivery. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are, by now, masters of their characters and on point with delivery—even if the lines themselves can, at points, seem rather off. Some animation hiccups arise here and there which are definitely distracting and a bit odd, while the acts of the movie feel as if two separate teams sat down at the end of the day and handed in their respective homework.

The first act is a mess that leaves us stumbling into the actual story—and, in truth, seems to have no effect on that story at all. The second act suffers from stop-and-go momentum, at times barreling forward out of control and at some points drifting lazily down a river of monologue. For all that, the second act is at least faithful to its source material, with some truly killer lines and marvelous interactions between Batman and Joker, but adds nothing to the tale—though it’s the part that certainly could have stood to have bits added, played around with, adopted to modern times.

One thing that does stand out and stand up to the test of time, though: that ending scene. It really showcases the acting power Hamill and Conroy bring to the table and the dialogue gleams like a polished knife. It captivates and makes perfect its final thrust—the joke on which the whole story rests.

Yet as much as I dislike the opening act, I should have liked to see it given some sort of connection and resolution here, before the show wraps. Batman saves Gordon from his bad day and offers to save the Joker from his perpetual one, but he doesn’t mention all that has happened to Barbara. For all that they apparently shared and his harshness to her throughout, he doesn’t make things right between them or take all that she has suffered and make an effort to atone. She ceases to exist—making the whole point of examining her character, playing up the emotional quality between them, leveling her human playing field…absolutely moot. It’s a baffling oversight that should leave more than merely casual watchers scratching their heads.

My conclusion? This one should’ve been left to the pages, even if it would’ve deprived us of one more chance to bask in voice acting perfection.

Book Review: The Great Ordeal

The Great OrdealAs much as I have adored R. Scott Bakker’s style throughout this slog of slogs: The Great Ordeal does not feel like the payoff worth the weight of years behind it. The book seethes with intellect, with possibility and dense worldbuilding, but in the end, I’m sad to say, it suffers from a sense of too much set up and not enough time on the actual journey—which, in one half of a grand finale, is far from what one would desire.

Don’t get me wrong: there are parts of this book which sing with the classic Bakker of the “Prince of Nothing” saga—5-stars in writing, in action, in incising philosophic madness. There are others, though, that suffer from a sense of being simply too abstract, plummeting deeper and deeper into the layers of the mind, as Inception fans would put it, without giving us anything to set our feet on. What’s more, as deep as it can get, the book seems to suffer from a spring-stop pacing, where a great deal happens in very little spans, but the majority of the book feels like it lacks momentum.

Even reading the books as religiously as I have, there were points I had to stop and reread, just to get a grasp of what, exactly, was happening. It’s not entirely impenetrable, but it is overbearingly close to it. The story itself remains intact—the direction and meat behind it remains immensely enjoyable. Yet the narrative, at this point, seems to have lost something of its finality to the depths of Bakker’s formidable mind; I fear it lacks some of language’s base attempts to relate it to us and give us space to find our footing.

Which is to say, it stumbles in its flow.

Bakker continues to have his own unmatched style. The layers he has achieved in worldbuilding cannot be matched, nor can the complexity of his characters—but so much of this book is steeped in characters’ contemplation and reflection on things coming or things gone before, and not enough time spent actually achieving anything.

Detail is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It makes a story breathe. It carries us within. The Great Ordeal, however, is description heaped upon description, on a story that has already drawn us so many layers in deep—it simply didn’t need the build up at this point. I can only hope that it has set us up for a killer (genuine) finale, and I believe Bakker has that within him—I just hope it comes  back around to the monumental tale that put the complex “adult” in “adult fantasy”.

3/5 Angry Magi