New Covers, because I like fire, apparently

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Branding is a toxic word for me. It comes loaded with connotations, with expectations of corporatized life where the creativity has been sucked away by a vacuum, taken outside, and beaten into oblivion by a bunch of faceless goons.

This, of course, is stupid.

Branding (I tell myself), is better thought of as the way in which you help your audience find you.

Branding is the scattered bread crumbs in the vast forest of content that help your readers find their way to your newest book, article, latte foam art, etc. And it can take pretty much any form you want it to. Trademarked logos are popular with big companies (or companies that wish they were big). Ad jingles worked back when more people watched TV with commercials (or listened to broadcast radio) – you’d hear a few notes and immediately know just what was going to be talked about.

For authors, our best shot at branding comes from the book covers we get to display on store shelves or, more likely, in little thumbnails on the internet. Which means we don’t have a lot of real estate to use to capture eyeballs. Now, I bet if you look at your favorite authors, you’ll see that they (or their cover designers) tend to compose their books the same way. James Patterson jams his name in with huge fonts. On many Stephen King covers, the KING is enlarged and looks clear even at a distance. You know who wrote that one in a single glance.

With all of mine, I endeavor to slot my name towards the top. It’s not that large, though readable from a thumbnail if you try. That’s mostly because my name, alone, isn’t the point of the covers. I’m not a celebrity (I wish. Or do I?), so blowing my name up on the cover might not be the best tactic. A reader seeing that wouldn’t really know what to make of it (again, yet. this strategy might twist around if I ever achieve some modicum of fame).

The title is another “written” part of a cover and, odd as it may seem, does more with how it’s presented than with what it actually says. Take my cover up there. “Riven”, in and of itself, doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s a somewhat obscure way to say that something’s split in half, but that doesn’t really convey genre or setting. Put it in a bold sans serif font, at a slant, like this: RIVEN – and you’ve got something that could work as a sci-fi or thriller novel. Presented as it is above, with the etched, somewhat “pen and ink” letters, and it conveys a more archaic, fantasy vibe (at least, I hope so). Point being: when it comes to branding, the words of the title are often second to how they’re presented in telling the reader just what they’re getting.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the cover image. If you look at N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, you’ll see that each book has a somewhat indecipherable close up of some intricate ruins. There’s no clear relationship between those photographs and anything happening in the book, but they convey solid rock, and with the carvings, an old fantasy. Each one also, easily, relates to the others in the same trilogy. If you glanced at the three of them next to each other on a book shelf or web page, just by their covers, you would be able to tell they’re related. With the Riven Trilogy, I’m doing something similar with the new covers – each has a different color flame, a different center image, but the organization is the same. It’s easy to tell that they belong together.

With the end goal being, of course, that the reader can find their way easily from one to the next.

House Rules

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You’ve been there. We all have. You’re sitting around the table with six people instead of five and all the games you brought only work for five instead of six and you want to panic. Chills, the sweats. You start to mumble up things like maybe if you can just find a deck of playing cards some game that everyone can play will materialize from your childhood memories. Or maybe, you suggest, someone might want to sit by the fire. There has to be one person doesn’t like or games anyway. Or maybe you just hope for something to come in over the news, like a missile alert, say.

Of course, there’s something else. Something you haven’t thought of, that doesn’t appear in the rule books or in the little figures on the box that tell you, with unbending finality, how many people are allowed to play. It’s a cheat code. A hack. And it can save you from the most terrible of situations –  where someone feels left out.

House rules. Changing something about your activity to make a more inclusive, dangerous, or downright more entertaining for the situation that you’re in.

Let’s walk ourselves back to Sunday. It’s brunch. We’re circling the coffee table with the aforementioned too many players and too few spots situation. Thankfully, we’ve chosen a flexible game. The Mountains of Madness. Some games, when you have too many players, slow to a crawl and everyone proceeds to check out their phones to see who’s popping what pictures on Instafacebookgramchat. In Mountains of Madness, everyone plays at the same time. A party game gimmick mixed with serious game strategy. Ideal for unorthodox expansion.

So we play with six. I deal an extra hand. We get off the mountain alive, though, granted it was probably easier than the game’s creators intended. Even so, the experience comes with smiles and laughter. People are able to dash away fro a mimosa refill, or take care of kids, and there’s plenty around to keep the game moving.

We have a good time. I cheated, and nobody cared.

So next time you’re in an awkward player situation, see if you can’t bend or break your favorite game to accommodate your party. It might work. And sure, it might not, but you’ll probably have fun anyway.

Bob Ross and the Art of Chill – A Boardgame that Actually Exists

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Gag gifts. Those things given for laughs that, often, become nothing more than Goodwill fodder after the mirth has fallen away. Bob Ross: The Art of Chill Game, given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas, is not a gag gift.

Or rather, it is, but one with substance. Not a lot, but even a small bit of something makes it an outlier in the world of cheap, one-time laughs.

I’m not going to go into Bob Ross here (he’s a painter with a fascinating history – google him). I will go into the game, which is both simple and better than it has any right to be.

I can also say that the Art of Chill game is best experienced while actually watching Bob Ross. In this game, you gradually complete paintings, and doing that while Bob Ross actually paints a very similar landscape on the TV nearby is both surreal and comforting. You achieve a sort of painting zen. One that quickly vanishes when you realize the Bob in the game is speeding his way through the painting far faster than the Bob on TV, and you’ve just rolled his face on the die for the third turn in a row and now all your colors are worthless because the scene just switched from a wintery forest to a tropical island.

So yeah. You’re all painting, more or less. You collect colors of paint in Ticket-to-Ride style – namely by choosing a number of cards each turn, and when you have enough of the ones you want, completing a “feature” part of the painting, such as trees or clouds, for points. First one with a bunch of points becomes the “most chill” and wins the game. You could argue that the person who’s collecting the most points is working the hardest and is, therefore, the “least chill”, but we don’t have time for your logic here.

Every painting offers 3 of these features to complete, and you’re incentivized to complete those features before other players to get bonus points. Usually, however, the bigger obstacle is the master of chill himself: Bob Ross. See, he’s trying to complete every painting along with you. Each turn, before drawing and playing cards, the players roll a special dice. Half of the six sides are pasted over with Bob Ross’s face, and that face quickly becomes the Mark of Doom. Not only are you, the player, robbed of a potential bonus action via the other dice sides, Bob happily whisks another space forward on the current painting. This may “complete” a feature for Bob, robbing the group of bonus points, or even complete the painting entirely, rendering prepped paints useless. Kinda like if your Ticket to Ride routes occasionally shortened or vanished entirely.

Anyway, this lends a decidedly un-chill anxiety to the game as everyone adjusts their tactics based on the rolls of the dice. One of us, and she eventually won the game, earned her last third of points by forgoing the painting entirely (and, by extension, Bob’s sabotage) by buying up “Technique” cards. These grant a small, one-time blast of chill points and additional bonuses over the long term. However, by grabbing one or two of these every turn, she outpaced the painting points we chumps were making, and thus became the chillest of us all. Essentially, she “knew” how to paint everything, but actually did no painting. So, perhaps that’s actually chill?

So it’s a workable game with mechanisms and everything. Is it good? Meh. I’d pull it out over something like Candyland, because there’s some strategy. The paintings you complete are pretty (and are reprints of actual Bob Ross paintings), and the color/brush combo might play well with young kids, even if they wouldn’t have a clue as to why this strange man is racing them to paint things. Whomever goes first gets a significant advantage, because they’ll get one more turn than everyone else (our winner went first, and players one and two led the whole game) and can generally complete features first for the most points.

Still, it’s hard to hate on a licensed property that actually tries. So if you give this as a gag gift, be happy that what you’ve given (or received) isn’t the worst thing in the world. But if you’re looking at it for yourself?

Chill, man. And get something better.

Ben Bradlee and character depth

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There’s a movie out now, The Post, that acts as a sort of prequel to the 1976 film All the President’s Men. Both of these concern The Washington Post and, in major and supporting roles (respectively), the newspaper’s editor at the time, Ben Bradlee. Played by Tom Hanks in the newer one and Jason Robards in the older (in an Oscar-winning turn), the editor certainly received his due from Hollywood. He’s a hero in both stories, and pushes the protagonists towards their eventual goals. That’s fine. That’s swell.

What’s interesting is that Bradlee, in both films, bursts onto the scene and chews it up whenever he’s on camera. Crass dialogue, gruff demeanor, burns through a pack a day. Bradlee takes no prisoners in the name of journalistic excellence. And yet, in neither film do we get much insight into how he became who he was. Neither film follows Bradlee as an origin story. He just is.

I wish it was that easy. That a character could jump fully-formed into the picture and be true to him or herself in every situation. Could act authentic and all that. In my experience, that’s rare. Your newest creation, Deidre Jenkins, might break through the door with a pair of knitting needles and demand her stolen ball of yarn, and the sheer awesomness of that scene might keep the readers around for another few pages, but when Deidre blows off your young knitting hero, telling him that his dream of knitting the perfect scarf is a fool’s errand, you’d better have a reason for her to think that. An experience from her past, perhaps. Maybe Deidre knitted a scarf for her friend, and, when leaving a train, the scarf caught in the doors and… you get the idea.

Point being, Deidre has to have enough of a past, enough real to make her actions plausible. Even if none of this detail (and, in most cases, it shouldn’t) reaches the reader, your work will come through in how the character behaves. In their consistency. In the subtle maneuvers they make, like meeting another person’s eyes or hovering at the edge of a room.

We don’t know a lot about Ben Bradlee from the two movies he’s been in, but he’s still a fully-realized character. We understand why he takes the actions he does, and they fall in line with his character. There’s a great scene in The Post, towards the beginning, where Bradlee asks an intern to help figure out whether the New York Times is getting a scoop. He doesn’t ask the intern to commit a crime, and he’s not advocating the intern bribe or steal things. It establishes immediately that Bradlee is both competitive and, to some degree, honorable.

Now, it’s one thing to say this about a living, breathing person who literally has a history to track and a character defined by what they actually did. Watch the HBO documentary on Ben Bradlee and you’ll get a better picture of what made the editor such a force in the newsroom. Still, taking a few minutes to establish a baseline for your side characters can lend them real authenticity. You’ll keep their actions consistent, and their goals will match (hopefully) with their own reality. That way, you won’t wind up with people randomly changing their minds, pursuing objectives that don’t align with their ultimate desires, or (worst) that seem to do nothing and are there only as foils to help the heroes/villains develop.

Every character, even Deidre and her knitting needles, deserves to be, even just a little bit, real.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisen

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For Christmas, for my father, I purchased the Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemison. It’s a fantasy, but with a fair bit of steampunky-sci-fi stuff in there too. Floating obelisks and post-apocalyptic societies and whatnot. The blend of settings works, though, and if you can make two disparate concepts mesh together, well, I’ll pay attention.

The title of the trilogy aptly describes the setting – a continent constantly broken apart by aggressively shifting earth beneath. People who can touch that rock manipulate it to further their own ends, and everyone else hates them for it.

I didn’t know much about the trilogy before I bought the books, wrapped them up and put them under the tree. Partly, I do things like this as an excuse to get books that I know my father, or others, will read that I can then borrow. And my father did exactly as I hoped. In the five days that we were there, he tore through the first two books, allowing me to snag them on the ride home. I’ll be back for the finale shortly.

Jemison does something neat with these books, something that always stands out to me when I see it, and then I haven’t yet tried myself. She uses present tense, and it makes you feel as though you are in the events as they occur. Rather a narrator looking back to the past and reciting what happened. Her writing has immediacy. A character talking about their movement as it occurs brings you into the scene, though it can sometimes feel little as though you’re reading stage direction.

And yet, skillfully done, as it is here, present tense possesses a verve that past tense can’t quite capture. You know when you read it. Since you’re moving around with the characters in live action. Makes it easy to get in the scene, to hear the thoughts as they happen. It doesn’t hurt that Jemison does a wonderful job of blending description and back story with the perspectives of the characters, including one written entirely in second person which is a feat in and of itself. Second person present tense? How often have you seen that one?

I’m not yetthrough the first book, though I’m making fast progress and hope to finish it soon. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to check it out. It’s a great, mysterious story thus far and, if nothing else, it will expose you to a form of writing seldom seen.

Pottersville: Finally the Furries get some Respect

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There’s a Netflix movie, at least I recently saw it on Netflix though I don’t know that it’s actually their own, called Pottersville. It concerns, among other things, furries.

Attacking weird concepts is a great strength of comedy. If you inserted, say, characters who like to dress up as costumed animals into a serious drama, you would feel compelled to make being a furry something of relevance. Something of, perhaps, metaphorical importance. A drastic personality trait with layers upon layers of meaning. A furrie cake, if you will.

Instead, in Pottersville, it’s simply something people like to do. Just as you might enjoy a morning jog, or I might enjoy going to the play at the theater. These people go to the middle of the woods, light a few fires, and dance around while dressed like bunnies and wolves and foxes. It’s all good.

Pottersville does a great job of giving this the same treatment as any other odd hobby. In general, the film does a great job presenting the quirks of a small town without judgment. Characters within the movie have personalities, goals and dreams that seem just as real and relevant as those in steamy New York romances, and gritty crime dramas. They’re just as desperate to find the lives they want. Just the stuff is desperate to find a story to be a part of. And that’s cool. It is, in fact, funny and engaging.

One of the beautiful things about being creative is that you can take your story, your vision and make it whatever you want. My laptop, right now, has as its background girl writing a flying sea turtle over some sort of urban coast. This eternal has wings instead of fins. Does it make any sense? Of course not. But then, to whom ever created, and must’ve presented itself. A vision to be made something more.

That’s a Pottersville is. Someone came up with the story, wrote it down in a number of other folks banded together to film and. It’s pretty neat that they can take something so small and weird and turn it into something, well, slightly larger and still weird.

Sidenote: It’s often funny to me to look up a movie after I’ve seen it (particularly one I didn’t know existed till it showed up on Netflix and we chose it at random) and find out that critics generally thought Pottersville was boring and unoriginal. In this case, I’m glad I saw the film before reading the reviews, or I’m sure we wouldn’t have watched it. Differing opinions are par for the course in a subjective medium, I suppose.

Thoughts from Holiday Travel

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There are so many costs to travel: Long plane flights and shifting time zones kill sleep. The lack of one’s usual spaces in which to do things like, you know, spin wild stories about adventures through time and space and magical worlds. Turns out those are easier to come by when staring out your own window rather than scribbling in a cramped airplane seat with a large man next to you snoring his day away.

There are benefits too: All the (friendly) people. The laughter. New places, foods, sights and sounds. Fodder that twines its way into the next story without you really realizing it.

And there are, of course, the things beneath the surface. I think travel represents an opportunity to get back in touch with yourself. You’re removed from your routine, so it’s easier to look back what you were doing and address inconsistencies, flaws and the parts that you’ve proceeded to ignore. To come to epiphanies. To form hypotheses that, far away from your home where you can test them, flourish and morph and refine themselves into something that you’re actually excited to implement upon your return.

Of course, that does mean you can set yourself up to fail. You can come up with some sort of grand idea on the road that, when actually executed, proves far beyond what one can normally handle. What you want to handle.

So I suggest this, based off of my own myriad experiences stopping and starting any of a 1000 different lifestyles:

Go forth with malleability.

Leave things flexible.

Allow your goals to bend, if not break.

This isn’t to say give yourself excuses, but rather to allow those things you have no control over, those moments that demand your time even if it’s unscheduled, to occur and not feel bad about them. Spend one night in an airport due to an airline’s mishaps, and you’ll see the value of this kind of zen attitude.

Life is going to change. All the time, whether you want it to or not. Accepting that gives you the greatest chance of moving towards where you want to go.

A Letter to Our Cats

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Dear Anna and Elsa (our cats):

You are the best winter day blankets we have ever had. Your presence on our laps makes for warmth better than the thickest blanket, and your constant, deep purring brings about some sort of contentment we didn’t know existed prior to your furry place in our lives.

Somehow, despite all of our holiday travels, you two haven’t destroyed everything in the house. We can forgive the nutcracker you massacred and whose body, separated from its head, you scattered across the floor. The ornaments you have taken off the tree and, in some ritual we don’t understand, proceeded to shatter one by one in the precise spots we’re most likely to step on them.

If, though, we could make one recommendation: when commencing your cuddles, your head-smashes and chin-nips… perhaps choose an hour later than 2 A.M.? Like Six? Seven?


Your warm, exhausted cat parents.

A brief, late word on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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There’s not really much to say that hasn’t been said about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film has been talked about to death by just about every media outlet, twitter feed, and squawking parrot out there.

And you know what? That’s good. It’s supposed to happen to a cultural phenomenon. It’s something that, I think, any creator would love to have happened to their project.


I looked at it, as I look at all of the new Star Wars films as they come out, as some sort of culmination of a childhood spent wishing I could fly among the stars. It’s a condition from which I can’t be cured. Dashing between the planets with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the rest held a prime place in the pantheon of childhood dreams.

George Lucas’ vision represented an escape that my life, relatively easy as it was, certainly didn’t merit, but that I pined after anyway. Action, adventure, galactic consequences with, seemingly, a perfect ending (for the original trilogy, anyway).

So part of me expects, when I see those big bold yellow letters splash across the screen, is the infinite possibilities of childhood. Which is why I’ve enjoyed The Last Jedi more every time I’ve seen it. As if my adult self is gradually filtering those impossible childhood dreams and letting me enjoy the movie for what it is.

The takeaway, I think, is that we will always see pieces of our past in new movies, books, and TV. When those new works inevitably fail to measure up to the rose-colored history, stop.

Take a breath.

Then watch it again. Preferably with popcorn. Or a loved one/friend that doesn’t have the same baggage you do.

Now here’s the real trick – after it’s over, argue for it. Be a fan. See the film in a positive way (this can be difficult if the thing is actually terrible, but maybe that makes it more fun?).

And you might find it’s better the second time. You might find that, in fact, it’s not your childhood at all but is, instead, its own story and you’ve just made new memories.

And yet…

I’m sure I’ll forget all this when the next one comes out.

Cool facts can ruin stories

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It’s the truth, darn it, and there’s no way getting around it.

Readers should be treated like people without security clearance – information on a need to know basis, only.

I’m working on this story that involves Aztecs and Mayans and all sorts of awesomeness about, well, Aztecs and Mayans. Unfortunately, for all the pages of random knowledge I’ve assembled in my quest to become acquainted enough with these civilizations to write a character living in them, I’ve yet to find facts that aren’t awesome. This sucks, because now I want to work all of the things into the story.

But that would make the story suck.

This is because, not being the writers of the story, most people won’t care that much about what the Mayans ate for breakfast, or how many prisoners an Aztec had to take captive to move up in rank. With tidbits like these, I’ve essentially got two choices, which apply to just about any “fact” that you want to drop into a story (and this includes world-building things, like spaceships and magic systems):

1. Massage the fact into the narrative

This is the most effective, but also the most difficult way of dealing with information that you want the readers to know but that isn’t plot or character-essential. To use the above example about breakfast, rather than dropping a line in a paragraph that the Mayans ate fruit for breakfast, you could instead include a scene set at breakfast. If you’ve already got a scene in mind that doesn’t have a set time, then make it happen in the morning. That way, your characters can discuss all the juicy conflicts while having their juicy, fact-based meal. Your readers will enjoy the authenticity without wondering why you’ve bothered to include these food descriptions.

Another way of doing this, depending on the fact in question, is to slot the fact in as a bridge for a particular plot element. Say, for example, that your hero needs to sneak inside the Mayan palace. Having the character come up with various breakfast foods and use the delivery of same as an excuse to get into the palace can work. Again, you’re imparting facts and color to the readers without throwing it out there for them.

2. Burn it

Is this a choice? Why yes, it is. If you can’t find a way to fit information into the narrative in a way that’s relevant… then perhaps it’s not relevant. If a given tidbit doesn’t help the reader learn about the characters or understand a particular scene, then you’re probably better off not touching on it. Readers aren’t generally reading fiction for facts (though working facts into the narrative is often fun for this reason – readers don’t always expect it). Don’t lambast them with pages and pages about how your world works, what various societies are like, or what the current toy fad is unless those things are critical to an understanding of the story.

But here’s something I also keep in mind, and that might help you too – when writing a draft, if you’ve got a cool fact that you want your characters to drop, put it in there. Move on. Don’t debate.

Then, when the editing pass comes around, you’ll spot that passage again. Or you won’t. If it seems out of place to you, if you’re asking “what does that have to do with anything?” or “I’m really bored right here”, then that’s a sign your story hasn’t earned or doesn’t need that particular nonfiction nugget.

By the way, did you know many Aztecs wore capes? How cool is that?