Of Vikings and PAXes

PAX East began with our jaws on the bus’ floor. I will attempt to explain what we saw with a modicum of justice… and fail miserably to convey the experience.

The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (sized at roughly six city blocks long by four wide) was located at the heart of the city, surrounded on three sides by channels. One could see the flashing demos of various games across a huge screen from the outside, and hordes of colorfully dressed fans lined up, waiting to get in. Between the center and the hotel, several sports cars rested inside the parking circle; Twin Lamborghini of an orange-turned-yellow color, two pink three-wheeled Polaris models and a few massive trucks. All of these wore markings of Blizzard’s Overwatch.

After perhaps 30 minutes of checking in, the skywalk between the hotel and convention center was traversed. I was permitted inside before the opening time thanks to a special Exhibitor’s badge furbished by Versus Evil, and was eager to check in with the booth. But once inside, the scale of the convention made navigation challenging. The upper two floors consisted of a handful of large theaters for hosting the panels, easy enough to understand.

The ground level was something else entirely.

PAX East

This photo captures perhaps 20% tops of the sheer size of the show floor. The aisles were packed to the gills with flashing monitors, colorful displays, merchandise and posters, game demos and videos, manikins and hardware. Within not five minutes of the chimes sounding the show’s opening, the alleys and walkways were flooded with thousands upon thousands of fans, cosplayers, exhibitors, media personae and personnel, staff, crews and enforcers. Human traffic clustered and congested everywhere. Even the merchandise stores required fifteen minute lines to get in, although everyone around was excited and in high spirits so the time went fast. The fans were easy enough to talk to.

The GuardFor Friday, the Versus Evil guys cut me loose to play. The first order of business was to hit up the Bethesda Store and score some gifts for friends and family, followed by the demo for Total War: Warhammer. Sega’s vision proved excellent, truly capturing the feel and appropriate scale of the conflict while remaining true to the themes and aesthetic… perhaps better than anyone else who has ever attempted it. The battle was perhaps twenty minutes long and perfectly eluded the sense of desperation and grimdark that is the hallmark of the Games Workshop’s fantasy universe.

If the treatment of this game is anything to go by, then Dawn of War III will be faith rewarded for long time fans indeed. To probable delight of these guys.

Time was spent trying Zombie Vikings, the game that that Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal helped produce. Guild of Dungeoneering and Let Them Come were also sampled and enjoyed. Still, there was simply too much to see, so the board and card games were briefly toured, the vintage video game vendors browsed and the props and demos admired. Time is the most valuable of currencies and there’s never enough to spend.

For Saturday was the big day.

Arriving at the panel a tad too late to get a front row seat, the opportunity was not wasted to snap several photos of the Stoic Studio guys on stage. In order from left to right was Technical Director John Watson, Art Director Arnie Jorgensen, Technical Designer Matt Rhoades, Lead Writer Drew McGee and Composer Austin Wintory. After a comical trailer by Kris Straub (contains spoilers), they spoke about the challenges and efforts of their latest title.

Stoic Studio

Their conversations sparked intriguing lessons, particularly how Austin wrote music based on Drew’s story, which in turn prompted changes to Austin’s tunes. Considering this, if two elements of a game are “speaking” to each other, then there was probably reactionary work done on the technical and artistic side as well. This could have meant a four-factor (art, music, story, tech) feedback loop of on-going innovations.

Another point of interest was Austin’s discussions regarding the music of series. Not just a composer but a full musical scholar, he explained how there was little historical understanding of exactly what Viking music sounded like exactly. And how this permitted a degree of freedom to craft based around discovered instruments without any clear instructions or reliable knowledge of their application.

After fan questions came the cosplay provided by the talented Danica Rockwood, Lady Devaan and especially the Dredge costume of Jackie Craft.

11 am was my time to shine, and I hurried down to the booth for the first novel signing of my career; 200 printed copies to be given out to promote the game. Waiting at the booth for the set up, I thought back about the few other book signings I attended in the past. Which authors made me feel awesome about reading their stuff? Who were the writers whom I remember the most fondly meeting?

There was Gav Thorpe, who listened to me explain how much I loved his 13th Legion trilogy enough to carry it over the Atlantic Ocean for his autograph. Clint Lee Werner, who had intriguing discussion points about where he gets his ideas. Chris Wraight, who was the nicest guy I had ever met. And Sarah Cawkwell, who encouraged me to keep writing.

I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but they had taught me how to handle visitors of book signings. I did my absolute best to keep smiling and finding points to engage people, and to always start with asking their names and writing it down in order to remember and use it when parting. This made it easier to remember people, like the friendly PAX Enforcer Malachi who dropped by again on Sunday to shake my hand.

Whenever possible, points of shared interest were discovered; the recent season of Daredevil, the games we enjoy, our favorite things about the Banner Saga. I knew there was a line of waiting people, but I also really wanted to try and give anyone kind enough to drop by an experience that would (hopefully) keep them coming back.

Signing

Whenever there was nothing to go by, discussion arouse regarding the book (“It’s a prequel– No spoilers. You don’t have to have played the first game but I highly recommend you do!”), or encourage them to play the demo (“It’s around the corner, try it! You’ll get a free pin!”) If nothing else, there was PAX East itself and what we hoped to see. Whenever met, encouragement was given to other writers, artists and hoping-to-be game creators to keep at their craft. And keeping tabs on KickStarter video for the Banner Saga: Warbands board game proved wise, as answers were rendered basic questions about it. It helped to be as excited for the game as anyone else who inquired.

Although four hours were set aside for the signing, I decided to remain an additional 30 minutes so any last minute folks could have a chance to grab a copy. By the end of Saturday, more than half of the books were gone. Checking back the following morning to see how well we did, there were perhaps 40 or so copies left to hand out before 11 am.

In the end, the event was a real taste of what it was to promote and market side of the writing business. The experience was actually fun and something I’d relish doing again someday.

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“The Gift of Hadrborg” Out Now!

The Gift of Hadrborg

The big day has arrived. The Gift of Hadrborg is finally available for eBooks on Amazon.

Based on the best selling game from Stoic Studio and published by the hardworking folks over at Versus Evil, the novel is a prequel tale that takes place before the events of the first Banner Saga. The story follows the efforts of Eirik, an undercover agent in service to the Governor, as he sabotages the gang-epidemic across the crime-riddled city of Strand. However his successes only stop the lowest tier of thugs and lowlifes, treating the symptoms but never the cause as the most organized elements manage from afar. But when a trio of strangers arrive followed by a known felon, Eirik is embroiled in an all-encompassing conspiracy that threatens to topple the city itself.

Packed with political intrigue, action, a pulsing plot and complex characters, The Gift of Hadrborg is an great starting point for uninitiated fantasy readers as well as an awesome supplement for fans of the games.

And if you happen to be heading to PAX East this year in Boston, be sure to checkout the panel for The Banner Saga 2 which will host game directors Arnie Jorgensen, John Watson, Drew McGee, Matt Rhoades and composer Austin Wintory. I’ll be signing physical copies on Saturday at the Versus Evil Photobooth before and after the panel– if you don’t download a copy for the flight to Boston, be sure to get the book for the return home!

Available now for eBooks on Amazon. Print edition coming soon. For more information be sure to follow Stoic Studio and Versus Evil on Twitter.

Fox Pockets: In An Unknown Country Out Now!

Unknown CountryAt long last, my favorite contribution to Fox Spirit’s micro-anthology series is available now! Fox Pockets: In An Unknown Country contains “Stroppendrager,” a historical fiction piece by yours truly.

I love writing historic fiction. Based on information on hand, I do my best to try and concoct a story around the facts rather than try and warp facts to fit my story. This particular yarn tells the origin of the “Noose Bearers,” whom are celebrated every summer by their respective guild. The reenactors dress up in white undershirts, ropes hanging from their necks as they are escorted down Gent’s streets by pike-wielding guards. This act by the Guild of Noose Bearers recounts the Revolt of Ghent in 1539, when the entire city refused to pay the increased taxes following the Italian Wars. Unfortunately for the city’s guilds, the revolt came to an end once Charles V showed up with 5,000 soldiers under his command.

Since the manuscript was finished, more translated research material has become available. The new information would have peppered the story with more insight of the times, such as the guilds strong involvement in the uprising and the political maneuvering to try and maintain Ghent’s independence. However, I believe the story personal elements of “Stroppendrager” remain unscathed. The central themes function independently of these new facts and do not invalidate the plot. The main character’s patriotic views and his counterfoils theological concerns still serve a thematically satisfying tale that could adapt to the facts rather than the other way around.

Ginger Nuts, Specters and TPS Reports

“In a way, we were robbed thrice.”

Earlier today, the review site The Ginger Nuts of Horror released an update regarding the situation at Spectral Press. As usual, I advise anyone of interest (particularly fellow writers) to read the original post before continuing with my observations on the matter.

But for those who just need a recap, Spectral Press has declared itself in financial straits. Owner Simon Marshall-Jones also mentioned health problems, to which I wish him health and speedy recovery. But with regard to the former issue, The Ginger Nuts of Horror will be altering its policies.

  1. They will no longer review works that offer only exposure.
  2. They will firmly vet small press publishers to prevent abuse.
  3. They have shown concerns regarding fair payment.

I applaud points one and two with alacrity. The third point I’d like to discuss because of vagueness in need of redress. Particularly on the subject of the token payment system (ah yes, TPS reports) and business growth.

My friends and I have all made erroneous steps once or twice in the (mine)field of the small press industry; tiny businesses who exist thanks to the ease of Amazon’s print-on-demand and eBook publishing services. We know better than to submit for “exposure.” And any publisher who too readily accepts our work likely has a quality problem. Despite our cautions, we still made mistakes.

print pressWe have been victim of at least one publishing company who failed to make the promised royalty payments when it formally closed its doors. Not only did they fail to deliver the meager earnings owed, but the returned stories could not be published anywhere without the less valuable “reprint” status.

These stories were some of our best work too, now reduced in value. And worse, because these anthologies were on-and-off the market in a mere four months, even the promised exposure failed to really materialize.

In a way, we were robbed thrice.

It’s nothing new however. The problem of troubled publishers failing to pay their authors is far older than Amazon. Even legends like Robert E. Howard suffered. When the author died in 1936, Weird Tales still owed him at least $800. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $13,800 by today’s standard. A serious chunk of change.

In an ideal world, we would be paid the professional rate of $.05 a word, at the very least. But as book sales drive compensation, it’s not uncommon to settle for something less if only to get both companies’ and authors’ feet in the door. As I read and reread The Ginger Nuts’ statement, I began to wonder what and how they defined fair payment.

Payments from small press generally come in two forms: royalties and token, both with boons and burdens.

Royalties cost the company little up front, as they instead divide and deliver percentages of the sales to the authors for as long as the book remains on the market. If the book does well and the percentages fair, the authors will probably make better than a token payment. For the companies, royalties also encourage authors to get out there and sell the books direct, as they have an on-going incentive. The downsides? Royalties can be nil if the book doesn’t sell, and the author and company could end with nothing. Plus, royalties have to be paid periodically.

Token payments come with a whole different set of pros and cons, an upfront payment for temporary publishing rights. The downside is that it’s an upfront cost to the company, while the authors gain the benefit of immediate pay. The authors have less incentive to promote their work– they’ve already been paid. On the flip side, once the book surmounts those costs, the company begins earning pure passive-profit that the authors never see.

commercial revolutionI can tell you from experience that capital-intensive token payments are much easier for all parties. After the Bolthole anthologies were released, I had to hound a couple of authors every few quarters, telling them to update their rejected PayPal contact information. Calculating totals wasn’t fun.

I also learned to set aside capital from my pocket to pay authors as on-time as possible– PayPal can have delays three to five day long when transferring funds. Geez. I almost forgot I have to do that this week for Far Worlds.

But I digress.

Still, there is a potential problem with the token payment system. When a publisher is young, a low token payment is probably fine– If authors don’t like it, they shouldn’t submit. But persistently low payments are telling. If a publisher opens in 2012 and offers $10 for short stories, and in 2016 they’re still offering only $10 for submissions, then either:

  • A) Check with the prior authors and see if they’ve been paid. If they haven’t been, there’s a good chance the publisher is hoping the next release will be a strong enough ROI to cover all debts. In which case, don’t trust them.
  • B) The publisher is barely breaking even, which is neither good nor damning.
  • C) The publisher is making bank from the difference of cost against profit.

A is the worst case scenario. Obviously an author shouldn’t submit to them, as the publisher is outright gambling that book sales will turn around their situation. B (if you can prove it) is not great either, and should lead authors to question the publisher’s direction.

But of these options, C is the most complicated. It means that the publisher is actually growing, but is milking the situation instead of upping payments for the benefit of their authors. Admittedly, publishers need capital to grow; to pay for site improvements and better art, to launch bigger projects and so forth. Yet they’re not helping their authors grow with them. If evidence suggests C, quality authors could and should go elsewhere.

How do you prove B versus C? Well, it would help if publishers were more forthright about their sales data. If not, you can try to make estimates against the book’s sales rankings on Amazon. You can also watch their website. Did they suddenly get way better looking banners and artwork? Are they obtaining costly features and plugins? Did they just procure an author you’ve actually heard of for a novel?

But before you jump to conclusions, dig deeper. Make sure that one of their staff isn’t an experienced web developer or artist. Or that they weren’t already friends with the author long before the company came into existence. Or perhaps they’re infusing their own, private money into improvements (in which case, they’re bloody awesome). If they’re using available resources and skills to get out of option B, you can’t blame them.

But if you are one of those C optioned publishers reading this, I’d advise you to raise your rates. If your response is that it’s a hobby and not a business… well, you’re going to have a bad time. Because for authors and writers out there, it is a business. It’s our business.

Treat it with respect or walk on. 

Golden Bowie Land

DBBSI’m frustrated and angry. Not a single word of literary concern was written this weekend. Instead, a heavy chunk of my time was invested trying to deploy a new website. The efforts left me too mentally exhausted to really write, although I did go through and accept a number of edits for a completed novella. And what I learned about Linux administration will be valuable for my career, despite my intentions to apply these skills in a publishing capacity.

These late night efforts have left me in the surreal half-asleep trance even while I sit at work, listening to “Blackstar” by David Bowie. Likely due to my sleepless state, my mind simply rejected news of Bowie’s death this morning. I don’t mean skeptical, wait-until-the-internet-corrects-itself stoicism, but firm refusal to believe the facts. My obstinate reaction shocked me.

I considered why I felt as I did. In my twenties, I purchased his album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Yet after listening, I did not understand him. His music and art were always unique and comprehension wasn’t always automatic. So many bands and singers try to find a particular sound that takes them to success, reproducing it with appealing variations for consumer consumption. But Bowie seemed impossible to emulate, even by himself. For all the music he concocted over the years, how often did any piece sound like the others?

The realization stopped me cold in my words. Even when unrecognized, David Bowie was always there.

Always.

subterreaneanThere were the overt hits and singles. In ’69 came “Space Oddity.” The year before I was born, Bowie teamed up with Queen to sing “Under Pressure.” And he changed and evolved over the years, such as when he teamed up with Trent Reznor for “I’m Afraid of Americans.” These are merely examples that readily come to mind, but the sheer body of work is staggering; 27 studio albums, 111 singles, 46 compilation albums.

When future generations of musical scholars study his discography, “Where should I begin?” is a philosophical debate of which few, if any, could be prepared.

But even when not present in body or voice, his music was felt, such as the acoustic versions sung in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His influences trickling into the acts and lyrics of dozens of artists, perhaps Lady Gaga the most. It all illustrates the sheer importance of the departed; David Bowie was not so much a person as he was, and still is, a pillar of human civilization. A column upon which rests our perceptions of the modern world.

Guys like me took him for granted.

And Bowie’s influence was never limited to music. While most people best remember him for his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, I was more attuned to his unique portrayal of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Christopher Nolan was so determined to have Bowie for that role, the director flew out to New York to pitch it to him in person. The act moved the singer to accept Nolan’s offer, even after initially declining.

ZiggyStardustThere are very, very few who could claim to know all the phases and periods of the Bowie era, from his beginnings in the early 60’s to Blackstar, his final album. The shifting costumes, various masks and rotating personas required listeners of the most eclectic tastes and hunger for the nouveau. Yet simultaneously, it is impossible to be oblivious of his importance, nor to admire at least one decade of his time. Some have called him a chameleon and the comparison fits… at least until one examines the sheer scope of what he accomplished. Then you know he was more than that.

He was elemental.

Like water, always taking new shape. The rain that makes the storm, the flurries of the blizzard and the endurance of the ocean. Beneath the madness of garish colors and the ripples of his psychological depths was something ever evolving, ever growing for 54 years. There will be no acts that are quite what he is — not was, for he has earned an immortality reserved solely for the artist.

After him comes only the note of silence, for none could fill his spot. And his death conjures chagrin, for the world he sold is now a far less interesting place.

Things in the Dark, Out Now!

Things in the DarkAnother short by yours truly is available in Fox Spirit’s latest release, Things in the Dark, now available in print at Amazon.

There’s a bit of history behind “Selachiamorpha Caesar,” my addition to this anthology. Originally, I wrote a fairly different story to submit to Fox Spirit’s Under the Waves. That tale was a simple one about a boy who enjoys diving, having learned from his now-missing aunt. Originally I envisioned a two or three part mystery for inclusion in a few of the themed Fox Pocket anthologies.

That idea first came about more than two years ago, just before a trip to Australia. During that vacation, I (as an American) had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. The experience was my first time diving, overwhelming as I tried to take pictures, learn the art of breathing carefully, maneuver in a rubber suit and try not to touch anything.

All of this at the same time. It was quite a juggling act.

Before I boarded the plane however, I did a fair amount of research into scuba diving to get a grasp of the basics and the theory. That knowledge formed the basis of “Bottom Dwellers” which I submitted to Under the Waves.

Even as I clicked the send button to deliver that submission to Fox Spirit, I doubted it. Ultimately, there’s a point where knowing a good story from an uninteresting one becomes rather instinctive (although being able to explain why is an incredibly valuable skill). Despite knowing this, I submitted “Bottom Dwellers” anyway, in order to tell myself that I truly tried and failed rather than didn’t try.

The plot of “Bottom Dwellers” started by establishing the boy’s love of diving, then flows into a trip to Sydney to celebrate his birthday. His mother helps him dive in an area his aunt loved to explore, where he finds a long decomposed body. The police autopsy confirms the corpse is not his aunt, but was meant to add an element of mystery to be unraveled later.

Though I trusted that the technical details were there, I suspected the plot just didn’t have as much punch as I’d hope. It was one of those situations where the ending was probably the most interesting part, and everything that led to the climax seemed… perhaps a bit cookie cutter. If I rewrote it, I might have begun with the discovery of the body, filled in the emotions and details after the fact, and concluded by definitively connecting the corpse to the aunt in some way.

However, it was not a wasted exercise. The story itself was excellent practice. And I took the research and combined it with two different ideas into a completely new and unrelated tale which found its way into this anthology.

Spoilers follow. 

Continue reading

Journal, December 10th

Working on a few drafts for posting later this year, non-fiction research pieces of interest.

The first is an article clarifying who Marvel’s Moon Knight is, after I finish reading the first three Essential volumes on the protagonist (I’m roughly halfway.) This is coming in reaction to rumors that MK is getting his own television series courtesy of Netflix. Speaking of, I also started etching out a review of Jessica Jones first season. I have to admit that the further away Marvel gets from the original “core four,” the better their work generally becomes.

BaphometAnother article in the pipe is a research piece on real world magic and its history, including its secular and religious branches. I honestly cannot guess how large this piece may grow and it may be delayed all the way until March of next year, as I’ve been trying to do reading outside of Wikipedia to prepare.

Magic can quickly become a fringe subject because certain topics aren’t really magic per say, or even necessarily religious. After reading Robert Lake-Thom’s Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies, valid questions can be raised as to whether certain views are more philosophical over theological– if not even protoscientific, as he encouraged observation of nature for clues, hints and warnings.

On the fictional writing front, the second novella for Outliers has been dusted off and is back on track at more than 50% complete. And new, original novel is in the planning stages and will be shopped around to literary agents. The words won’t hit the paper until later next year as I’d rather front-load my research to prevent extensive refactoring against later facts. Magic being one needed subject, as well as the histories of certain European countries.

With regard to input, I’ve finished watching the aforementioned Jessica Jones as well as the latest season of The Leftovers. I won’t be doing a review of the latter, but I will say that I sincerely hope HBO agrees to produce more to enjoy the third and final season that was just (and I mean just) announced. I’ve heard the number of viewers is down, but those who do watch have become cultists for the show and the critics who are applauding this season.

the Leftovers

On the reading front, I took a break from my non-fiction to totally absorb Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Despite the power of the first four stories, the themes drifted away from their horror origins to become pure Parisian romance pieces. The cultural importance of the work cannot be denied; aside from the first season of True Detective, there are many other references to the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire and many, many other forms. It’s quite possible that reading the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations” maybe some kind of unspoken litmus test for genre authors.

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to keep going after the fourth or fifth tale, but I felt it necessary to finish it just to ensure there wasn’t something I was missing. Other than Chambers’ love for all things French, it seems I did not. With this classic piece under my belt, I’ve decided to read Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger.

I may also take advantage of the holiday season to go ahead and wrap up several Oscar winning movies from years back. Recently I sat down to watch the rather long Once Upon a Time in the West and still need to sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odysseus. Older movies can be a little tiring because of Hollywood’s tendency to remake them. Thus the ideas are often already familiar and, sometimes, are even better than the original such as Al Pacino’s Scarface over its 1930s forefather.