You Ain’t -Punk

I missed my opportunity to go to Cleveland ConCoction last weekend due to a teensy little surgical procedure to reconstruct my ACL. Considering my mobility depends on a pair of crutches, and how my leg gets painfully swollen if I stand too long, I reluctantly relinquished my hotel reservation.

In fact, much of my year is kind of shot. ConFluence in Pittsburgh is up in the air. And in truth, I’ve kind of reached a break point in my job. I believe I’ve mentioned I was promoted to team lead, but the workload was vast. The goal post for our project kept shifting and work weeks inflated to 50 or 60 hours long. While we met the minimum viable product standards Friday before last, but I am getting more optimistic that the next release will not be so demanding.

The prior week however, was devoted to rest and recovery. Hours were spent catching up on television, including the second season of The Expanse, the final season of The StrainAltered Carbon and several episodes of the original Star Trek. I also made significant headway into Black Lightning and the second season of Jessica Jones. Movies weren’t ignored either as I finally caught Black PantherCocoThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I did not enjoy) and Moana (which I did). I also found time to wrap up Stephen King’s It and Into the Blight by my friend and first-time novelist Jonathan Ward. I recommend you read it and keep an eye on Ward as a promising new author as it was very well told.

With something to do besides just work all the time, I’ve felt a hungering to write again unlike any other. There’s a part of me who covets something that isn’t out there. Something that isn’t totally like everything I’ve read or watched before. Much of my bibliography has been to distinctly please someone else; a publisher, an editor, a franchise, a fan base. Very little has been for me.

This idea of writing for myself reminded me of the anger I bear towards the current direction of the indie publishing industry. In the last few years, a couple of publishers had ripped me and my friends off. Yet we’ve seen interest dying among readers from too many titles. Anyone foolish enough to ask writer corners for suggestions gets buried in 60 or so self-published sales pitches.

And maybe there’s a hint of paranoia in the mix. I find myself a bit guarded on the occasions when I’m asked about the process of writing for Banner Saga. Kind of like the Oscars, where those celebrities’ faces dropped when they were asked, “What would you tell the younger generation of actors who are trying to make it?” It’s this sensation of knowing that someone nakedly wants something that makes one feel a little apprehensive.

Honesty keeps a blog from being boring.

That’s the cynicism talking. The same bitterness that found itself into a short story embracing it. A story that was good enough to inspire Manuel to work on a comic for it, and he’s hard at work learning the ropes about this first time endeavor. I really wish I could tell you that it’s right around the corner, that it’ll be published in a month or so. But it won’t be. It sucks but art takes time.

More so because I really want Manuel to learn the ropes about every aspect of making a comic. I am not helping to raise an artist (Manuel was long already that), I’m helping to train a full fledged art director. And to do that, he has to have a solid, hands-on understanding of every aspect of the process, even if he eventually delegates others to take charge of lettering or layout, etc. I think a solid leader is a jack-of-all-trades who, at the very least, has a good grasp of each element of whatever makes the product in question.

But this comic and the bitterness that surrounds it… I worry sometimes that cutting off larger chunks of myself for the witch’s ink brew can backlash. New marketing ideas I’ve considered seem sarcastic and even combative. We talked genre labels and one idea kept coming up that we found hysterical: calling out the -punk suffix cause most of it isn’t really punk.

It isn’t.

All these names began as a twist on cyberpunk, which usually is punk— stories that mix low life and high tech, and usually revel around sticking it to the man. But with all the -punk genres, the anti-authoritarian attitudes died down, and the punk themes were set aside for exploratory tales, alternate histories (like Iron Harvest, which I’ve backed and if you’re into RTS games, you should too) and ideas more in the proto-science fiction vein.

I haven’t been studying marketing as hard as I should, but I’m fairly certain that calling a motherfucker out is not considered sound practice. Yet there is something attractive about the idea, given that indie publishing inevitably has an anti-establishment streak to it, or at least should. Therein lies the point: if you succeed, Disney will buy it and make a mint. If you’re semi-successful, Disney will loot the concept. Hell is the only asylum, full of the despicable and the incorrigible that they will never touch.

Back to work.


Lean, Mean 2018

2018 certainly started right.

Late last year, Manuel, Andrew and I were talking about new projects for Thunderbird Studios. I pitched a few ideas, but also sent them the first half of a short story I’ve been struggling with. Yet Andrew and Manuel were excited enough for the tale that we swept almost all other projects off the table to work on a comic book for it.

Yesterday, a few hours of New Year’s Eve were spent finishing a 16-page long script. And today, the second draft. Manuel, our artist, received it this afternoon with the intention of printing, reading and returning revisions.

It might sound strange for an artist to do this, but here’s the thing. Writing a comic book script can be anything between writing and writing/graphic design. Pages have to be written with an idea of how many panels they’ll involve. We have to consider how much space is needed not just to show (rather than tell) the story, but also for speech balloons, sound effects and narration.

“Show don’t tell” is generally good advice for novice writers of novels and short stories, yet there are limits. For example, the difference between telling and showing could be the difference of one or two narrative sentences versus three to five additional paragraphs, pages… or even entire chapters.

So the question becomes whether or not the information conveyed in those brief sentences is worth:

  1. The extra time for the writer to produce the new content.
  2. The cost for the editor to check the extra material.
  3. The increased price of formatting the expanded manuscript.
  4. The expenses of printing them (physical copy only).
  5. The reader’s time to read it.

That last point is actually the most important. If that new content entertains readers, the combined effort of all the prior steps is likely validated. If not, then everyone’s time and money was wasted. If you need proof to believe me, try reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson. Or even just reading the comments and reviews.

Pedanticism can be a writer’s sin.

With comics, the problem can actually be reversed. The “show” aspect is naturally handled through the art. You can even tell a tale that intrigues readers’ speculations by removing all dialogue and narration. The Darkest Dungeon comics (online and free) are really good about this.

But when you want to confirm needed details or convey aspects of the world that are beyond the scope of the story, actually telling the story can be the way to go. It would be quite the challenge (not to mention expense) to draw everything.

As I’m finally getting back into the swing of writing, I’m hoping to be able to handle all revisions on the script, then fire and forget it. This may sound optimistic but part of my problem is that things keep “bubbling back” and grabbing my ankle. I end up getting pulled into many small issues that need work, affecting other projects.

Lately I’m trying to solve these issues by focusing on shorter works. While comics take about the same amount of time as short stories, novellas are considerably faster than novels. They’re also easier. Usually I find myself staring at a novel synopsis and scratching out entire sections that are nothing but “filler.” Or if they don’t fulfill two of the following three needs:

  1. Developing characters
  2. Advancing plot
  3. Expanding the world

I actually sat down and took a hard look at the math on novellas on Amazon’s sites. With e-books, it actually makes great sense. In print, it’s certainly possible although the extended distribution options can force prices above what I feel comfortable charging. But after taking a quick look at my well-selling novel, I noticed that extremely few of my sales come from those channels.

Let’s see what the new year brings…

Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.


…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.


Random Thoughts

It’s Friday so I thought I would unwind with a few off-the-cuff thoughts on events as of late.

First, I’ve been getting started on the new novels I’ve always wanted to write. There is something new in the works for The Banner Saga. I can’t talk about it too much— the ink’s not dry and I’m leaving room for changes, but it is about 20% complete. This particular work isn’t a sequel to The Gift of Hadrborg, but that door isn’t close either.

I’ve also gotten started on the research for another, original title… it has no name, but it is a horror novel with a unique setting. It’s been years since I’ve written in the genre, and my approach pretty offbeat. Less gore, zombies, and bodily horror. More existentialism, psychology and ghosts.

Still, I must admit to being apprehensive: there’s a great section in Writer’s Digest that outlines dozens of potential literary agents. The problem is that the majority of them flat out say that they’re just not interested in horror.

Genre fiction is generally stiff-armed, but horror is singled out. I imagine it has the same problems other genres do: rehashing of old tropes, the same recycled ideas. Likewise, there’s also the risk that a submitted novel is just “murder porn” or a thinly veiled revenge piece (which can open the door to some real problems).

And then there’s misunderstanding about what attracts people to horror. The fans do tend to congregate around particular communities, and they have their own views about what’s good and not. The problem is it can be hard to tell what’s good-good and what’s so-bad-it’s-good. Is a line truly terrible or is it purple prose? Is it unreadable, or by some occult hand would it become celebrated and cherished? That’s a heavy question for an agent.

Agent hunting is a sign that I’m really starting to “get serious” about publishing. Sure, many small and medium sized publishers are happy to host the open door submissions policy. But lately there seems to be backtracking from the practice, likely as they discovered the deluge wasn’t worth it. Convincing one person your book can sell is often the right first step.



Thunderbird Studios Now Live

thunderbird-bg_04You may have noticed my drop of output here. That’s because I’ve divided my personal blog from all semi-professional efforts like reviews and articles. Where have they gone?

Thunderbird Studios.

I’ve been dreaming about this for a few years now. Growing frustrated with the small press market, I wanted to do something bigger, something greater. But I also realized that we don’t need another company pumping out half a dozen titles a year. They needed more of a marketing answer.

I highly recommend you follow Thunderbird on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re a reader, check out the interviews and expect more in the next few months, or take a gander at the various reviews to look into something you like. And if you’re a writer, keep an eye out for the upcoming submissions window.

But yeah, I’m not giving up the blog just yet. But it would just be for my personal thoughts or the occasional book announcements these days.


Post Mayan Apocalypse, Year 4


Plotting a sequel, a worthy sequel, is far from an easy thing. In my case, very little of the first book is being kept. Sure, three of the protagonists make a return, as does a valuable plot device and a few villains.

But everything else is vastly different. The setting has drastically changed, there’s less fighting and more survival and travel. Fewer bits of history and a larger share of myth and lore. The desire for vengeance is now overshadowed by the need to protect loved ones: familial, platonic and romantic. There’s no law to uphold and crime to condemn anymore, just the realpolitik of might makes mine.

The world is no small stage.

When you factor in all these changes, is it really a sequel anymore? I don’t know. My tale is but a gaiden, a side story, that happens on a beach before the storm of a greater epic. My characters are children squabbling over seashells, too preoccupied to notice the tsunami’s crescendo behind them.

Let others write of the work of gods. I deal mostly in men.

And men make many, many small things. The grand, sweeping myths of gods and creation are often strangely simple. But men are more prone to thousands of tiny dots that can be traced together and recognized as some grander shape, a design caused by our very lives. Some interconnected magnum opus that we cannot see until we’re old and cold.

Our own saga.

If this is a sequel, it is the last one. Not because there won’t be more story to tell afterwards, but because that which connected it to previously is fading away. Such is wyrd.

Happy New Years folks.


La La Land and the Winter Blockbuster

la-la-landI decided to hold off on writing up the last of my New York trip to discuss the movies, especially after seeing La La Land last Sunday night.

December is usually a crowded month as many directors pursue an Academy Award. Most of these films aren’t even that memorable; often flawlessly acted but without compelling scripts or interesting cinematography. Anything between science fiction and fantasy, or based on comics or pulp, rarely escape the technical awards category.

The most common winners (or high-reaching nominees) tend to fall into two categories. The first are the period dramas or the “based on true events” winners such as The King’s Speech, SpotlightArgo and 12 Years a Slaveas though Hollywood were trying to do important work by recording their vision of history. 

The second type however, is anything involving the struggling artist. In the last six years: The ArtistHugoBirdmanBlack Swan, and arguably Damien Chazelle’s prior film Whiplash. You can guess under which category this film falls.

Hence there’s little question that La La Land is a contender. Probably even the winner unless Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea are better than we realize (admittedly I’ve yet to see them), or if the academy finally feels this is the year to break ranks and put sci-fi film Arrival forward (unlikely but one can dream).

Like the Now Kiss! meme, producers have seen fit to pair Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling again (prior pairings include Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) in a love letter to the whimsy of old movies, musicals and dance numbers. Gosling is Sebastian, a musician determined to reclaim his Jazz club after his last venture failed. Mia, portrayed by Stone, is a barista and aspiring actress who has yet to find her first big break.

Because it’s determined to pay respects to many facets of these gone-but-not-forgotten era performance pieces, La La Land stays away from any mundane formulas. Sometimes you get a tap dance routine almost out of the blue, sometimes it’s more a solo that tells a/the story in real time, while duet numbers tend to be these flights of fantasy that stretch a few seconds into three minutes of daydreams. As you can imagine, the latter category lends itself to romantic scenes of Venetian waltzes across the stars or fast paced montages through Paris and what could be. Cinematic care was taken to ease the audience into these moments: too long and the film risked going well over its two-hour length, too fast and it risked being jarring or unintentionally hilarious.

The former point about its running time was probably a factor in its somewhat abrupt leap to the ending. The movie would have been ripe to have been split into two parts (not sequels), as I felt somewhat cheated in this investment in the characters as a pair. The storyteller in me wants the whole.

But there’s no denying that this is an exceptional piece of movie making that everyone should see, even if musicals aren’t their normal fare. Damien Chazelle put genuine, hard effort into La La Land where as most other directors feel like they’re just doing the rounds; creating what they think the academy wants, relying heavily on the skills of their actors while crossing their fingers and hoping that the rest of the competition isn’t trying.

But the funny thing is, I’m not certain as many directors and studios followed that formula this year at all, with a dearth of dramatic movies and more “Winter Blockbusters.”

Doctor Strangerogue-one, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Assassin’s Creed and of course Rogue One (no spoilers, I have yet to see it). The strange thing is there were signs that maybe audiences preferred more action and adventure films in the colder months as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I suspect Hollywood dismissed the sign because of the existing popularity of Tolkien’s magnum opus. At least until one Mr. Eastwood made a movie about one American Sniperand Hollywood took notice of both the critical respectability and financial success that was.

And indeed, while most of these movies are franchises, they were still considered moderate risks: no one was exactly clamoring Marvel for Doctor Strange before, but we quickly loved it afterwards. Fantastic Beasts finally escapes the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort to tell its own great story. Assassin’s Creed is based on a video game (and reviews suggest it will fare no better than usual) while Rogue One is the first Star Wars film independent of the regular episodes.

But the numbers certainly suggest we could use hot action in the colder months. Maybe January of 2018 will see more interesting films than the first month of the year often gets.