When Murder is the Name of the Game

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Lying, trickery, murder. With up to 11 of your friends talking past each other, trying to hint and push each other to incriminate someone else. Dramatic accusations and hilarious denials. Loose logic and double-takes.

All in less than 30 minutes, most of the time.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a grand way to rope in some of your friends who may be a bit reticent about board games and get them to sit down at the table. It’s also perfect for larger groups – simple to learn and with plenty of social interaction. Turns are fluid, so you’re never waiting or pulling out the cellphone to kill time as someone draws their way through a deck or ponders a 12-move masterpiece to pick up another victory point.

Instead, Deception slaps all of you with roles, has one poor soul lay out some clues and guide the game through to its mysterious conclusion, and then backs away and lets you argue it out. Cards in front of each player give the means of the murder and hints as to what was found at the scene, like board-less version of Clue. Most of the players are innocent investigators, but one is the murderer, only nobody knows who. The murderer, therefore, must keep accusations pointing in other directions, deriving plausible explanations for other’s cards while denying his or her own guilt. If you’re skittish about playing poker with your friends, this game is a great way to learn whether they can bluff worth a damn.

The player tasked with laying out the clues must use general hints, such as a list of conditions of the victim’s clothes (“neat”, “shabby”, “bizarre”, for example) to try and point parties to the murderer’s tools. For example, if the killing was done through poison and a rolex was found at the scene, they might choose “nice”. There’s almost always several options that could fit the crime, and thus the game becomes as much about reading your friend’s faces, their words and reactions as it is about the cards in front of them.

I mentioned the length of the game above, but I’m going to come back to it here – this game can be short. You can complete games in 10-15 minutes or less, depending on the clues and the ability of the murderer to keep themselves hidden. The speed of these playthroughs, and that they’re still entertaining despite the brevity, gives everyone a chance at different roles. The setup time is minuscule. You break this game out and you’ll play it three or more times before people get bored. And if you ever tire of the core game, Deception comes with plenty of variants too.

If there’s a note of caution, it’s that this is a social game, and that anyone who isn’t fond of making things up, presenting arguments, or bluffing could find themselves uncomfortable. Thankfully, the short play time means they won’t be sad for long. Deception also, when played with a Witness character (an optional variant suggested for larger groups), makes it very easy for the murderer to be identified. While without a witness, we guessed wrong or really had to work to identify the suspect, a witness put the murderer on their heels immediately. So I’d try it without the witness, at least at first, if you can.

Overall, though, Deception is a light, fun game that’s playable by just about anyone in your group or family. It’s inexpensive, with tons of replayability. If you’re looking for something new to burn through some holiday afternoons, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Coco and the non-essential villain

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Yes, Coco is a good movie. It’s fun, it takes on a unique culture and history with reverence, seeking to entertain and inform and succeeding on both counts. You walk away with a better idea (if you didn’t know already) of why the Day of the Dead is such an important holiday. It’s a movie about a young boy who discovers his family is much more than he thinks it is. It’s a story about those same family members realizing that, perhaps, their own grudges aren’t worth keeping.

Coco also keeps up taut tension without ever having a single, primary villain until the very end (and even then, this isn’t a villain that’ll have you quaking in fear). In fact, for most of the movie, there’s not a whole lot of risk involved to the boy, Miguel, himself. Yet, despite the lack of a hard antagonist, Coco doesn’t let you get bored. Coco succeeds despite its missing antagonist for a couple of main reasons, both of which are worth looking at incorporating into my (or your) own works:

  1. Plenty of shifting, minor threats – rather than one big enemy, Coco presents a number of smaller dangers throughout the movie. None of these have the deadly possibilities of most antagonists, but any and all, if successful, would cause significant setbacks to our hero. And because Coco never lingers on any of these too long, mostly because Miguel has overcome the threat in some fashion, we never have the chance to get bored by the lack of doom. Coco keeps up the tension through a shuffling cup game – never quite letting us know where the next conflict will come from, which keeps us from caring about a core villain.
  2. A vibrant world we want to explore – Miguel takes the viewers on an exploration through the world of the dead, and it’s a fascinating, colorful place to visit. The wide shots, teases and tastes of how this magical place works are simply too much fun – there’s no time to worry about where the danger’s coming from because we’re too busy taking it all in. This, I think, plays better in film than in the written word, where pages and pages of description, no matter how wonderful, can leave readers falling asleep or thumbing ahead to the next gunfight.
  3. Compelling B Characters  – Coco has a brilliant cast of side characters. Miguel’s family, who make up the stars of Coco, along with Miguel himself, all have personality. They have goals, problems, and arcs. They aren’t talking exposition dumps, or one-note caricatures (for the most part), and they expand to fill the space a villain would otherwise occupy. By the time the actual evildoer is revealed, I almost didn’t care. I wanted more time with the goofy collection of characters we’d already met.
  4. A central mystery that isn’t tied to a villain – Coco‘s core plot revolves around a mystery, and while the resolution of that mystery eventually brings Miguel to encounter the villain, his journey to answer the question serves in place of a direct counter. I’d put this down as essential whether or not you have a hard, active villain, and while Coco‘s mystery isn’t exactly original, it’s compelling enough to keep the story moving forward.

The point of all this, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to craft a compelling narrative without a strong villain, especially if you have a protagonist or setting that doesn’t encourage an active antagonist. Coco could have made itself into a frenetic action movie, with plenty of cartoon violence and chase sequences throughout the land of the dead. Instead, through Miguel, we experience the setting slowly, let its wonder seep into us, and when the plot eventually catches up, it’s almost disappointing. Would that more movies did as much with their worlds as Coco does.


The Best Part of Vegas – Red Rock Canyon

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In early November, I spent a few days at a writing conference in Las Vegas (which I’ll write about at some point, probably). Because my flight home, due to prices and whatnot, didn’t depart till late Monday afternoon and the conference closed on Sunday, I had a lot of time to wander around. Casinos, even the nice ones, get old and after spending days around them I wanted something different. Red Rock, not far outside Vegas, offers a distinctly non-glitzy experience. It’s a back-to-nature park that, with a scenic drive and plenty of trails across all length spectrums, holds no barriers for anyone sick of neon lights.

On the day I went, the weather was pleasantly cool – low 70s and windy – and while there were people around, I didn’t feel crowded. Benches abounded at trail heads and overlooks, giving plenty of opportunities to take out the journal and do some scribbling underneath the tall rock faces. The breeze runs through your hair and there’s not a single blare of a horn, no music bouncing around or calls for this or that special. It’s a moment of peace in a town dedicated to anything but.

You’ll see plenty of cacti. Valleys cut through majestic and odd stone. Rock art carved on those same stones. And, unlike some larger parks, the whole experience can be as long or short as you want it to be. Getting through the scenic drive with a stop or two from the strip should only take a couple of hours. Plenty of time to get some fresh air before heading back to the tables. It certainly made the long flights back home easier.

So next time you find yourself in Vegas, if you have a car or access to one, consider taking the jaunt out west. Go on a hike for a few hours. Cure that hangover with something other than more alcohol.

Who knows, you might even see a bighorn sheep.

Ignoring the Work

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There aren’t many jobs that let you take a vacation as easily as this one. There’s no boss approving days off, and, aside from some questions about when the next book’s coming, nobody really holding you accountable for your time spent wandering off in your own mind. So when events yank you away from the keyboard and fill your days with high stress activities like walking on the beach, going snorkeling, and enjoying all-inclusive amenities, well, it’s easy to keep the hands away from the keyboard.

That’s been life for my November, and at times it’s been a struggle. Just like you might get the urge to check your email when you ought to be with your family, or call into the weekly touchbase from the waterfront, I’ll have that same niggling concern that I’m missing something. That I’m falling behind.

The main problem with this line of thought, of course, is that it takes you away from what you’re supposed to be enjoying. Not going to have much fun swimming in the waves if you’re obsessing over that report. Not going to want a mimosa with breakfast if you’re twitching about a coming deadline (or maybe you would – everyone copes differently).

I don’t have any super solutions to this accept, perhaps, to acknowledge what you’re feeling and why. To go through the reasoning, understand the tasks that are making you anxious, and put a plan in place to deal with them after the vacation is over. Ideally you’ll do this even before your time off starts, so you won’t have anything to freak out about, but if you haven’t, or if something pops to mind that you forgot about, take five minutes (with mimosa in hand) and grab some time on the calendar for after you get back to handle it. In my experience, the process of laying out what I was worried about calmed me down. I saw that I had a plan to keep myself on track, and so I could lay back and treat the trip more like the vacation it was.

It’s not perfect – here and there I’d have a sudden thought about a task I needed to handle – but by giving myself the tools to schedule away the solution, and giving myself the permission to take the couple of minutes to do so, I was able to save a whole bunch of stress and actually enjoy those waves. And that mimosa.


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How many times have you taken a closer look at something you initially thought was simple only to discover a web of complexities so vast that you are left astounded, amazed that, somehow, society left you so bereft of even a hint at the full extent of the topic?

Tequila has blown my mind over the last few months, and not only by drinking it.

I, like most of the people I know up here in the frozen north, find the extent of our tequila knowledge encapsulated in shots, principally of Patron (when we’re feeling fancy) or Jose Cuervo (when we’re reconnecting with our college days). Lime and salt and up and down and move on. Sipping spirits consisted of scotch and bourbon, gin, rum, and vodka were cocktail fodder. Tequila had margaritas, but those were often so sweet or loaded with flavored mix that you could have thrown just about any booze in there and it wouldn’t have mattered.

However, thanks to Nicole’s recent dive into the depths of tequila, and a Mexico honeymoon spent generally avoiding well-known tequila brands, I can say that the agave-based spirit is puts up a good fight against its darker brethren for complexity and style. We’d have blancos, occasionally with a bit of tomato juice on the side, as refreshing cleansers in warm afternoons or on the beach. Anejos and reposados carried more intense flavors, brushing awful close to their Kentucky cousins, and bid a fond Buenos Noches to our days. We have at least five different bottles at home, which we’re sipping through.

If the thought of trying tequila without a filler is daunting, try cutting a bit of lime to suck on after a taste – it’ll help kill the burn, but you’ll still get a general idea of the tequila’s flavor. But don’t shoot the stuff (unless, of course, that’s your goal) – enjoy it, the same as you would wine, or a single malt. Who knows, you might find a new staple in your boozy rotation. We did.

Get Out and See the Stars

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There are plenty of grand things about living in a swarming metropolis (not that Madison is a metropolis, exactly, but we have more than one streetlight), but a washed-out night sky isn’t one of them. Sure, the brightest stars might shine through, giving the impression of a blank and empty universe. Take a trip a few dozen miles outside of town, though, and you’ll find a wondrous canopy where black nothing existed before. As experiences go, seeing a real starry sky isn’t an expensive one, and it’s worth doing every once in a while just to give you a reminder of how small we are in terms of the grand cosmos.

But if you’re looking to get the best of the best, the true cornucopia of night light, then here’s what I’d suggest (based on personal experience):

  1. A ship in the middle of the empty ocean – Going out into the middle of the ocean on a ship is going to get you a majestic viewing of the Milky Way, especially if that pesky Moon isn’t around to ruin things. Of course, you’ll have to make sure the ship is willing to shut off it’s lights for a bit, which can be a toss-up. Get that to happen, though, and you’re going to be in for a show.
  2. The top of Mauna Kea – On the big island of Hawaii, you’re able to get to the top of this volcano and hang out among some truly gigantic telescopes. It gets frigid up there at night, but there’s a reason the instruments are built up there – the clarity, aided by the majesty of being on a mountaintop, elevates you to a celestial experience. Bring a jacket, rent a jeep or join a tour, and head higher up than you thought you’d ever go on an island. Sidenote: Hawaii’s big island uses different lights for their streets designed to create less light pollution, so you’ll have better views of the sky just about anywhere on the island than you would back home.
  3. On a kayak in the middle of a quiet lagoon – The inspiration for this article and a honeymoon activity, we slapped our paddles through some crocodile waters and saw the Milky Way from a calm lagoon in the Yucatan. You’re so far from established civilization that the only sounds you’ll hear are the jungle and your own breathing. And above, all you’ll see are stars. Unlike the first two, this can be a uniquely personal experience – even in a tandem kayak, you have some space from those around you and can have your own reverie right there in the water.
  4. A frozen lake  – Be sure the ice is thick enough, of course, and then take a slow walk out onto it, preferably in the absolute dead of night. You don’t want nearby campfires or lakefront parties spoiling the moment. Beneath your feet, under the ice, you’ll feel and hear the shifting, freezing water. It’s like a thunderstorm, only under you rather than overhead. Above, of course, you have the stars. It’s a combination that brings out a unique side of nature, that reminds you of all the forces going on constantly that you can’t control, which, depending on who you are, can be terrifying or (because you have to let go) a relief. Worth a try, anyway.


The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

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What if you forgot most of your life? If your past only came to you in flickers, rather than memories?

In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro explores the many ways we interact with our pasts, but does so in an Arthurian fantasy landscape. There are knights, dragons, ogres and malevolent magic, but there is also love – though less of the ardent variety and more of the deeper, softer stuff that, while less flashy, makes up the great benefit of finding a partner in the first place. In fact, in this world, the love that the two main protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, share for each other is one of the few things that transcends the strange mist that seems to be ridding the people of their memories.

A premise like this seems like there’s only one way it could go – find the cause of the memory-erasing mist and get rid of it, post-haste!

But nobody seems to be in such a hurry to do so. In fact, there seem to be plenty of good things that come from a slippery mind – namely, grudges aren’t held. Ancient enemies forget their causes for war. Daily consternations are ignored because, unlike our commutes, our ever present tasks, for the denizens of this world things tend to refresh themselves. Not everything is whisked away, but enough goes to leave the present pleasantly ethereal.

Ishiguro tells the story in myth-making prose – a stately assemblage of imagery, character, and dialogue that reflects a more refined age than likely ever existed. Occasionally, the conversations contain so many introspective twists and turns as to stretch credulity, but then, we are in a world where Gawain the Green Knight features, so perhaps it’s fair game to give casual back-and-forths the same heavy sentences as would befit a speech.

What unravels, though, is an enjoyable tale with an unusual cast of characters. There’s a warrior, yes, and a knight, sure. But they are a far cry from your usual stereotypes. Axl and Beatrice, meanwhile, have a loving rapport that, through deft use of dialogue, keeps us curious as to how they really feel towards one another. There are all the hints, the subtle tones, the questions left unanswered as in a real relationship, and as a result, they both feel real. They feel like two people whose only crutch left in the world is each other.

The Buried Giant is a novel not meant to be devoured. It’s slow, it’s steady, and its characters grow on you over time. There aren’t overwhelming personalities, and the plot itself is not the stuff of heroic battles or larger-than-life episodes. Instead, it’s an exploration of what might happen to society, and to ourselves, if who we are faded away with the end of the day.

All in all, The Buried Giant is a journey worth taking if you want a break from your standard fantasy fare. Don’t expect frenetic action and ferocious battle. Go hunting for characters and questions, and you’ll like what you find.

Blade Runner 2049 and the beautifully slow

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There was a certain moment while I sat there in the comfy recliners (most main theaters in Madison have swapped to this style of bigger chairs and reserved seating – I don’t mind) and recalled, with technical wonder zipping by in front of me, that Harrison Ford was supposed to be in this movie. The film had been playing for a while by this point, longer than some entire movies and far more than most go before introducing their main plot twist, let alone a major character.

What’s more important, though – I didn’t care.

There’s a phrase, coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “suspension of disbelief”.

Often, we use those words to describe how we have to silence our niggling inner selves when watching, reading, or taking in most stories of any kind. Looking for fallacies in entertainment is likely to ruin it. However, the entertainment must also make its contract with the audience – namely, it’s not going to waste your time with one implausible event after another. It’s going to earn that suspension.

Blade Runner 2049 earns it. And it does so by not rushing you through its universe. There’s audacity behind the shots, the scenes, the methodical introduction to all the various facets that have made this story’s world what it is. You feel the dystopia. The constant rain and haze, the prevalence of things both real and virtual designed to take you away from the dreary place. Little touches jar you ever so slightly – a farmer describing garlic to someone who hasn’t experienced it, the people hanging in an apartment stairwell with nothing better to do, the massive corporate ads blasting through windows – all of these act as helping hands to get you to buy into the Blade Runner universe.

So when the action picks up, though Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, is more about moments of heavy action than long sequences of violence, you’re invested. You understand the world, the stakes, and why those within it do what they do.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t weaknesses – the villains, especially, lack much depth. They’re blandly characterized in techno-villain style; crusaders with an ends-justify-the-means ethos. It’s never really explained why they have to be so brutal in their pursuit, but then, they’re not the stars of the show.

Gosling’s character acts as the lens for us, and it’s a reserved one. A character that rarely lets emotion come to the surface, much like the world he inhabits. At first, it feels similar to his character in Drive – a person more often quiet than not, willing to do what needs doing and damn the consequences. But there are cracks in that facade that widen as the story gets told. Cracks that ultimately bring their own power to the central question of the Blade Runner films – are replicants and humans truly different?

Whatever the answer , Blade Runner 2049 is worth your time. Preferably in a dark room or theater, where the atmosphere can build over its nearly 3 hour runtime and you find yourself utterly within the grips of its world.


Rakers Week 7 – The Seventh Novel

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It’s strange to type this, but Rakers is my seventh novel.

Going back, to college, high school and before, there’s always been (as I feel most people would say about their dreams) this outward belief that I’d write a novel “someday”. That belief would be accompanied by a silent, smaller, infinitely more honest voice expressing doubt. Stating that, let’s be real, it wasn’t going to happen.

That voice hasn’t gone away either. Again, I think many people would say similarly that their doubting selves don’t go away no matter the accomplishment. That’s why we keep chasing after what we want – why we see millionaires go for billions, why we see actors continue to chase Oscars even after they’ve earned one, why marathoners keep on running after their 26 miles. It’s that drive to keep on keepin’ on, no matter what you’ve done before.

Now, speaking of seventh novels: Plenty of people have written more, and plenty have written less but in far more difficult circumstances. I’ve had the benefit of a year off from a full-time job that’s given me the opportunity to pursue writing for hours every day with minimal interruption. I’ve had the benefit of a job prior to this that allowed me the funds to get equipment, books, and time to jump into this with both eyes open.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’ll make plenty more. I’ve learned a lot, and in the 500,000+ words of fiction I’ve written this year there have been typos, mismatched metaphors, plot holes, and characters that didn’t come off as well as I’d hoped. But I’ve told a lot of stories. I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun.

I’m not quite sure how I’ve got this far, but I’m quite sure the stories are going to keep going. They’re too much fun to tell, and I have too many banging around inside my head, trying to be the next in line.

This is a wonderful job, and I’m so grateful to so many that I get to do this.

And if you’re wondering if this is for you – give it a try. Spin a story. There’s nothing to lose, and an infinity to gain.

Rakers 6 – The Open Ending

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There’s a certain advantage to setting out when you want a story to conclude – namely, you know the space you have to tell it. The number of side plots you can include. The number of characters and where they’re going to go. So on and so forth.

There are, of course, disadvantages. Maybe your characters don’t want to go where you need them to be, and suddenly you’re finding convoluted reasons to get them around so your trilogy doesn’t become a seven book saga. Or you’re realizing the universe you’ve created is so much more than you thought it was, and your five-book series ought to be an endless march through your sandbox.

One of the things that I don’t see mentioned as often is writer exhaustion – namely, you’re going to get tired of writing in the same setting all the time. Meaning it’s going to take you longer between books, and it’ll be harder to work up the energy to start the next one. People like new, shiny things and writers are no different.

Rakers is a loose way of playing with the series type – the setting is constructed as such to produce side stories. It’s a world teeming with possibilities and narratives ripe for construction. I have a planned central arc, sure, but there could be plenty of other stories alongside that one. That being said, if I get distracted by something new, the core events are ready to be described with a three-book set. It should still be a lot of fun, and have a definitive ending, without closing off the door to future stories.

As for how I’m putting that together, what I’m doing is putting a lot of effort into a setting that generates story ideas. What does that entail? It means creating organizations or societies, parts of your world that naturally drive plots. Take, for example, James Bond. The setting that produces all of these movies and stories is, essentially, “a British secret agent with a license to kill and a limitless budget”. It doesn’t take a lot of abstract thought to come up with a scenario that falls in that setting and that would be engaging to see through to a conclusion. Same thing with Star Wars, which operates under something like “Good and evil manifest as a power harnessed by warring factions in a future society”. Not too hard to think up new tales in that kind of universe.

I don’t want to spoil Rakers, but it’s designed with something similar in mind. A base from which any number of entertaining tales can spawn.

Is there a downside to this sort of thing? Potentially. As we can see with the litany of sequels pestering book shelves and movie theaters these days, there’s always a chance that the setting will become stale. If nothing ever seems to change, then readers will eventually get bored, prompting either a reset (like the comic book companies periodically do, or what’s happened with Star Trek) or a sideways shift, where the setting adjusts slightly but the players are different (like when Bond changes actors, or horror movies that keep the same plot idea but with new casts).

But the best thing about being a creative is that you’re not stuck. When you want to play in another world, you’re free to go do it.

It’s a pretty nice perk.