New York 2016 (Part 2)

old-brooklyn-bagel-shoppeSaturday brought with it colder temperatures. While such chill might have called for a warmer meal, we decided to begin our day with a traditional N.Y. bagel. Courtesy the recommendation of family friend Kathryn, we stopped at the Old Brooklyn Bagel Shoppe.

Suffice to say, I was not expecting to have the best bagel of my adult life.

It’s difficult to explain exactly why the bread was so good. It was soft, but it also had a kind of heartiness that is difficult to replicate even among master bakers. But when I inquired, I was told it was just a regular New York bagel.

“It’s something about the water,” Cassie said.

I got curious enough to take a quick look around about the secret. According to an article from NPR, the calcium and magnesium in the water is a factor, but the primary reason they’re so good is by boiling the bagel before baking it in the oven. I have doubts however. The quality of these bagels would decimate rival businesses in the south. And although I’ve witnessed the bakers at Einstein Brother’s in D.C. boiling their bagels in a large vat, they still weren’t nearly as good as this.

A change in manufacturing techniques is easy enough to apply. Shipping large quantities of hard water akin to that of New York? Not so much. Geography and economics, man. There’s a reason you don’t grow bananas in the north.

Another subway trip sent us over the East River and into Manhattan. My words, the ones I did not know at the time would initiate this trip, were how much I’ve always wanted to see the city during Christmas. And although I desire to tour more of Brooklyn and the Bronx someday, Manhattan was undoubtedly the place to be for the seasonal festivities.

The nearby department stores held arrays of knick knacks and household items that were oddly unique compared to the wares in Washington. We wandered not one but two separate market spaces, where holiday gifts were acquired and sights beheld. During a search for a restroom, I accidentally blundered into Eataly (pictured above on the right), a vast space of Italian restaurants and stores, where we procured specialty olive oils and salts as presents for the people in our life who usually have everything.

When we returned to the streets, a thought crossed my mind. I couldn’t help but ponder what condition the soil and earth was like, far below the many layers of of cement and asphalt. I don’t know why I considered this. Perhaps it was simply from looking at Manhattan both on a map and the street. While the district is technically an island, the city has developed over the northern bodies of water that make it so. Thus the metropolis itself could be considered a peninsula, while the topographic location is not.

I pondered the economic realities of this. The cost of living here, the price paid for every truck delivering food, medical supplies, clothing. The infrastructure for providing potable water, fuel, electricity and high-speed cable. The every day needs of approximately 1,626,000 people. People divorced from the simple mundanities of grass, hills and fields. Far from forests and greenery, mountains and deserts. And employment. How could they all possibly find jobs here? Could there truly be that many opportunities in this jungle of concrete and steel? With so many occupations being automated more and more often, it seemed… unfathomable.

This line of thought was lost over a later lunch at 5 Napkin Burger on 9th. Cassie had dined at the restaurant some years ago, and since then it has expanded to the cusp of becoming a full chain, with four locations across New York and a fifth in Boston. Sitting down I could see why. The burgers were thick and the ingredients (gruyere and French onions) savory and memorable, satisfying in the way only a fine hamburger can. The service was lightning fast too, a relief for Cassie who was eager to secure our seats at the Westside Theatre.

Seats to see Othello: The Remix, the highlight of the day. If not the entire trip.

Now I freely admit that I’ve never read the tale of Othello, though I did have a basic understanding of its premise. That and the fact it had long given us the phrase, “the beast with two backs.” But the performance dazzled and entertained. The eponymous role was handled by Postell Pringle while Jackson Doran flipped between Cassio and Emilia, all to beats provided by DJ Supernova. And the Q Brothers, who wore many hats as directors, writers and performers; GQ juggling between Rodrigo, Loco Vito and Bianca, while JQ brilliantly portrayed main antagonist Iago.

othello-remixThe timelessness of Shakespeare’s work stems from utterly human themes. You could dial the setting to any time and place and still find the story as meaningful as the day it was written. In this case, Othello is the star of his day: a DJ who rose in the music scene to become the golden man of his record label. But the recruitment of his new best man Cassio enrages front man Iago. And when Othello meets, falls in love and marries off-stage Desdemona, Iago turns his jealousy into an arsenal of lies to undo all Othello has made.

Although the tale is a tragedy, we found ourselves laughing hard and often at the gentle and natural humor. Each performer handled some pinnacle virtue on the stage: if Pringle was the soul and JQ the brains, then Doran and GQ were the humorous heart and swift hands that held the performance high. I could see Disney someday trying to poach this, especially Iago’s villainous musical number which, just like the greatest Disney films, was the best of the performance.

Now when life hits, it hits hardest following triumphs, when we’re on a pillar to knock down. Following the play we ventured to Starbucks for some coffee. And soon after, I realized my wallet was gone.

In all my years, I have been very careful not to lose something so important. And the optimistic half of me, the part that still has faith in humanity, refuses to say it was stolen. Regardless, I took the most prudent measures. After backtracking and confirming we couldn’t find it, I cancelled the credit cards, ordered new ones and had a warning put out. I tried to file a police report on the phone about my license but it proved to be a real pain: you have to go into the precinct station of which the property was lost to fill out a report.

A little research revealed that a lost driver’s license can cause interesting problems. While my credit was fairly secured, the real problem happens if someone presents my driver’s license in case of a ticket or accident. The damages go to my name and the problems compound if ignored. Other than that, the more likely possibility is that some 16 year old is probably making bank buying and reselling liquor to his friends with my ID. If so then kudos to you, you little bastard/entrepreneur.

Anyway, I had done all I could at the time. Back to our travels.

It was getting dark, and was the prime time to go tour the Christmas decorations. Macy’s and other such department stores create wonderful displays in their windows and showcases each year. Although my mood was soured by my misfortune, it was hard not to be moved by the sights. The picture of the mannequin above drew my eye because of its whimsical and creative nature, some mix of innovative madness that I’d expect from Stanley Kubrick in his prime.

I must admit that I lacked foresight regarding one tiny detail of our trip. Perhaps it was all the holiday movies over the years, confusing my sense of how the world really works, but Manhattan’s sidewalks and streets are never so barren and without people. Least of all during what maybe the pinnacle tourist season, and we found ourselves struggling through hundreds of warm bodies just to get a meaningful glimpse of the Rockefeller Center.

treeBut… we succeeded.

We carefully passed the masses, surprised by the number of parents who bothered to bring babies in strollers. But the people there were good-natured and patient, taking moments to gather photos of themselves and loved ones, and then politely moving to allow others to do the same. Or even taking the pictures for them. Below us, crowds whisked across the ice, and we knew better than to entertain the three hour wait to go skating ourselves.

Some clever use of the tunnels allowed us to bypass bustling crosswalks. As we briefly went underground, I quietly wondered just how vertical New York would become in the coming decades. If entire underground plazas would someday be constructed under the surface, making way for more and more people at the cost of sunlight.

I suspect concerns for security would stop such a possibility. If architecture is an enduring physical manifestation of culture, there are those who would turn it against us.

Our final meal for the night was at Oiji in East Village. We managed to sit down earlier than our reservation and pondered the menu for a while. Most of my prior experiences with Korean dishes tended towards the easier lunch affair, especially my favorite: daeji bulgogi, a spicy pulled pork. I would describe Korean food as something between Chinese and Japanese in its main ingredients, but with spice combinations that tend to appeal more to the typical American palette. It can be hot, and many have underestimated the flare of kimchi.

But there’s a lot of familiar flavors under the surface of their dishes.

We began with smoked mackerel and a plate of their signature honey butter chips. The fish was good if a little strong on the nose with the flavors of the sea. I do not normally eat white fish, and dining upon it made me hunger from something tropical and red, such mahi-mahi or ahi tuna. The chips (yes, potato chips) were sweet and I found myself wishing we heeded our waiter and eaten it as a dessert.

We ordered the friend chicken with spicy soy vinaigrette, the jang-jo-rim with buttered rice and a soft boiled egg, and handmade dumplings in white beef broth. With each dish, we found a strange tendency to prefer not the main ingredient, such as the portions of meat, but rather the secondary components. The vinaigrette was more the highlight than the chicken. The buttered rice surpassed the jang-jo-rim’s beef. And while the large dumplings were good it was the broth itself that was great, whose secret ingredient was actually a hint of mussels. I pondered what the chef could do with a vegetarian or pescatarian menu.

As we had one more day ahead of us with a good friend of mine, we decided to call it a night and rest our exhausted feet. Tune in on Monday for the last part.

New York 2016 (Part 1)

Disclaimer: The cityscape pictures are primarily of Manhattan, but are cataloged here as the primary focus is on New York as a whole.  

Until today, I’ve never really talked about my travels. A few drafts were scratched together over the years but stopped each time, due to some notion of it being too much about me. My blogging ethos has tended towards impartiality or “my professional writing life.” But there was an author, whom I will not name, that once said that confessing to being a professional writer scarcely impresses people.

And he was, and is, right. So today, I digress.

new-york

Last Friday we took the train to New York. In terms of raw value, it’s hard to beat a plane because the price is similar and it’s often a couple of hours faster. Still whatever time saved flying is lost going through security, baggage claims and then traveling to the city itself (airports tend to be arm’s distance from any metropolis), while the train deposits you near where you need to be. If the difference is an hour in comfort, then so be it.

The essence of luxury is waste.

Not to mention a plane’s turbulence can be quite jarring; my trip to Miami last year left me one shaken martini. But we smoothly glided into Penn Station shortly after I finished my book (Steel Victory by J.L. Gribble). From there we took the subway heading east, to Franklin Avenue.

One should never judge a city’s public transit, good or ill, based on a weekend experience with its subway. But the service then was good, especially compared to the faded glory of Washington D.C.’s metro system. Tickets were a flat fee of either $2.75 if you purchased a reusable one, or $3 for a single use. The trains’ range was expansive, a web connecting Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx with Manhattan as the primary center point. Despite what Google Maps suggests, it is quite possible to change trains while remaining inside the system (saving you the cost of another ticket).

Fulton Street, the strip nearest our Airbnb, was an eclectic mix of fast food joints, stores and pharmacy chains mingled with local businesses who satisfied any other needs corporations generally do not. We passed street-side vendors trying to sell scarves and pass out literature regarding Islamic faith.

From there we walked west, and I tried to make rhyme or reason of the various city blocks. While the streets took advantage of the grid system, there was little obvious central planning when it came to the various restaurants and businesses. Sometimes we’d pass roads packed with townhouses, sometimes we’d come across a few restaurants and bars at the foot of apartment buildings. As I grew hungrier, it became difficult to try and decide on a place with some meaningful New York appeal.

img_7805It was then we came across Ogliastro Pizza Bar on Washington Avenue. The insides were ritzy and attractive. The Brussels sprout salad was flavorful although I would have appreciated the sprouts slightly charred to impart some bitterness. But we were quite impressed with Coppa pizza: tomato sauce with fior di latte (a type of mozzarella), artichokes that were more mild, red onion slices that were lightly cooked to maintain their pungent aroma. The crowning discovery of capocollo, an improved twist on prosciutto that did not dry out in the oven.

From there, we briefly toured the northern part of Prospect Park before venturing north to handle a little shopping. We toured various shops where I found myself amused by the displays of Hannukah cards, an uncommon novelty in D.C. We sought gifts for a newborn niece in Australia. We sampled delectable chocolates at Cocoa Bar before heading in the direction of our dinner reservation.

With an hour to kill, we stopped by Soda Bar in Brooklyn, and I felt more of the spirit of D.C.’s night life there. There was a whiff of claustrophobia, chalk board signs, holiday decorations… the familiarity was palpable. If I ever found myself a resident of Brooklyn, it would be my watering hole.

As we walked to dinner, I found myself appreciating some Neoyorquinos’ philosophies on life, starting with their preparations for the winter. Being seated near the door was seldom an inconvenience thanks to glass patios installed before most entrances, thus sheltering those by the exit from windows and chill. And, aside from Soda Bar, the city’s peculiar spaciousness, certainly wider than D.C. at times. It was as though the city had tried living in a sardine can decades ago and finally had enough to do something about it.

park-horizontal

Dinner was at Olmsted, a few doors down from the bar. The inside was elegant and we found ourselves seated at the bar. ordered the lamb porchetta and scallops. From our dishes, I gathered that the restaurant’s culinary philosophy revolved around trying to bring out the flavors of individual ingredients to concoct a fulfilling meal. There are those who would love it; the lamb was certainly fresh and the scallops flavorful with umami. I have personally always preferred a more heterogeneous approach to foods, a desire for ingredient combinations to provide a balance.

But that is a topic of conversation to for the second part, during our time in Manhattan on Saturday… when we toured the city’s Christmas decorations.

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.

“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.

Golden Bowie Land

I’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.

There 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.

There 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.

Another 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 proto-scientific, 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.

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 1930’s forefather.

“The Gift of Hadrborg”

TBSW

Today marks the launch of the Banner Saga: Warbands Kickstarter! Based on the hit game created by Stoic Studio, the board game continues combining tactical skirmishes with long term resource management to survive. And the even more incredible news is that, within about 30 minutes, the KickStarter has already been entirely funded.

Of interest to readers out there is that my first novel, The Gift of Hadrborg, is an add-on available to anyone who joins the funding. Inspired by The Banner Saga: Factions, the story takes place before the events of the first game and tells the tale of Eirik and the woes of a city suffering from crime and strife.

The Gift of Hadrborg

In the troubled city of Strand, the City Watch and Governor’s Guard struggle to fend off the criminal empires who rule their streets. Between the corruption, smuggling, underground slaving, mass larceny and a rebellious group attempting to usurp the throne, Guardsman Eirik’s life shows no signs of getting any easier.

Yet the arrival of group seeking a stolen artifact heralds a coming disaster for the already rotten city. Uncertain if he can trust his own people, Eirik has little choice but to throw in his lot with two enigmatic varl and a country boy. Toss in a conman seeking vengeance and a slave-turned-bodyguard with an elusive agenda, and Eirik has his work cut out for him.

But even if his questionable allies and the hordes of eager thugs don’t kill him, the plot they discover threatens to rip Strand apart. And may destroy the fragile varl-human alliance that maintains the peace with their giant neighbors in the north…

The Gift of Hadrborg is an action-packed prequel novel to Stoic Studio’s critically acclaimed The Banner Saga Part 1, which was funded through Kickstarter to wild success.

A viking-fantasy meets crime thriller, The Gift of Hadrborg will help satiate story-lovers whether or not they’re salivating for the next installment of The Banner Saga series! But no matter what, check out the KickStarter. Whether you love great games or stories (or both), Stoic Studio, VS Evil and Megacon Games have got you covered!

Open Source Thinking: Author Pay Rates

The Good Fight

Super Hero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press is now available in print as well as for Kindle. Check it out for several amazing stories by yours truly and many other great authors! It’s the start of something big.

So in light of the post yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about how much we would be paying our authors for their work. But I’ve been thinking more and more about the slog to earn our stripes as a professional publishing company.

As I’ve noted before, being a professional author is harder than ever. And the joy and joke is that publishers need to pay off their starting cost debts and return to black on top of the need for authors to get paid. Granted, the debt isn’t much to surmount and people often supplement themselves with another career.

But let’s do some quick math here. E-books typically sell for either 35% or 70% royalties. Some may rush to point out the changes to Amazon’s royalties, but I would counter that it only applies to Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the listed price is $5. Thus, at best we’re earning $3.50 and at worst, $1.75, and none of this includes printed royalties.

On the costs side, let’s focus strictly on what we’re paying the authors. In the past, the anthologies we’ve released have used pure profit sharing. This “nonprofit” (no entity keeps the money, just the creators) approach gave authors incentive to keep pushing the book after the release, and we had no real start up costs to worry about—we used the “free” ISBN from Amazon, and everything worked via a private contract rather than officially starting a company. There was no reason to preserve income because the project was never in the red.

This time around, we would have a minor debt to pay off and need additional capital to grow.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will.

The usual approach for small press publishers is to compensate authors with token payments, exposure and a free copy of the book. Overall, not a bad package in lieu of professional pay for a fledgling writer. Let’s say that a publisher pays its authors $15 per a short story. A twelve story anthology costs $180 for the authors alone. And this doesn’t include cover art or editing (for which the business owners will probably be responsible.) If the sales are fifty-fifty on the 70% versus 35% royalty rates, that’s around $2.62 per sold copy.

That means to cover the authors alone, the book has to sell 69 copies. If you optimistically sell just 70% royalty stories, you can actually earn that cost back in 48 sold copies. If just the 35% rate, 103 copies.

So that is the most basic model. Lower the price of the book and you’ll have to increase sales. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the cover art, which one can technically do if they use a public domain image (possibly acceptable) or no cover (not recommended).

Now here’s the secret about artists. The average price of cover art is roughly $500. This is a stiff price to beat in the sales, but there’s actually some economic flexibility if people don’t mind paying for the difference in time.

Explained, a professional artist might have a back list of interested clients willing to pay $500 or more around the clock during the best of times. But on occasion, there maybe a lull in the number of demanding jobs, during which time it makes sense for an artist to take a lesser paying job as long as there is a very distant deadline and a patient customer.

So if you go to an artist and ask them, “I have a limited budget for this, but I’m also in no rush. Can we work out a lesser rate with expected delivery in 9 months? I understand if higher priority jobs come along in the mean time.”

And chances are, you can probably work something out depending on the artist’s schedule and professional philosophy. It helps if the artist is interested in the work you’re doing, because their muse needs inspiration too. But if you go rushing to them, exclaiming that you need this image and you need it now, now, now… well, have five Franklins ready at the very least. Because exposure doesn’t fill the pantry.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yeah, cover art will add more to the cost although as I said, there maybe room for some flexibility on that. Yet here’s what I suspect a lot of small press companies face—costs (should) inevitably grow.

Why are they growing? Well, the biggest reason would be author pay rates. If you find a good author who is willing to work for $15 a pop, they’ll probably be ecstatic to be published for the very first time. After a few more stories, they’ll start to wonder if maybe they could earn a bit more, so they start searching. Are their short stories worth $25? Yes, so what about $50? Sometimes? Can they get 1 cent a word? 2 cents? Always hunting for that professional rate of 5 cents a word.

At a 5,000 words pay cap at 5 cents a word, that same twelve story anthology suddenly costs $3,000. Chances are, that cover artist cut you a deal before because you were a small company. But if the authors are earning that kind of money, then the artist will probably want the average professional rate of $500. That means a game of professional ball costs you a minimum of $3,500. And there are bound to be additional costs I haven’t factored into the equation.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will. If your readership base isn’t large enough to support higher rates, then your writers will start seeking a company who pays better and has a larger audience. If you’re not paying attention to the market, it’ll kick your ass.

A blog post I once read mentioned that large publishing companies seldom cultivate writers anymore. It took me less than a minute to realize that major publishers really don’t need to, not when you have hundreds of small companies willing to gold pan for them. Even if the little guys don’t realize it until they back a winner who brings in the readers… and then gets poached.

It’s a ceiling that stops many small press companies. And something every publisher has to bust through to join the major leagues.