Rakers Week 5 – Taking Leaps

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One of the crazy beautiful things about writing fiction is that you can literally go anywhere with your words. It’s something movies, paintings, and most other forms of art can’t do. There’s nothing stopping you from writing a novel about a talking plant, or a series of mysteries as solved through the eyes of a particularly swarthy squirrel. You can take your characters to the Moon or Dimension Z. Flip gravity on its head or remove it entirely.

The challenge, of course, is taking the bizarre ideas that come to mind and placing a plausible story around them. Characters that still resemble, to some degree, humanity. Or, at least, have a system of values that allows us as readers to go with them to wherever the author chooses to take us. Rakers, at a certain point, takes a leap. It’s a challenging moment that twists the novel around and changes the stakes for the characters by turning the world and reality they know and understand into something else entirely. As the writer, my task is to build up a cast deserving enough of your attention that you’re willing to follow the story through those moments that, taken apart from themselves, would have you wondering… what?

Take a look at Men In Black. Assuming you haven’t seen any trailers and walked into the movie cold without any idea of what was coming (a far-fetched setup, but stick with me) – there’s a scene with Will Smith’s character chasing down a fleeing man who starts doing some physically impossible stunts. Still, they’re not so implausible that you couldn’t imagine, somehow, someone being able to pull them off. Yet, that niggling bit of “this isn’t entirely real” plays about in the back of our minds, so when the man’s alien origins are revealed, we’re not so shocked. Many other parts of Men in Black, from the font choices, soundtrack, and other things, convey the information that this isn’t a normal cop movie and all of those set us up to play along with the shift when it happens. We’re willing to leave the world of ordinary police work behind and jump in with the aliens and their coffee obsessions.

Point being, getting readers to follow you along into the most feverish of your fever dreams takes real effort. It does, of course, come with a side benefit – odds are, if you put in the work, if you add the flourishes and asides to add subtle expectations to make your readers believe in your setting, your characters will too. And when you have a career cop buying into the idea of a body-stealing cockroach menacing his home planet, then you’ve got a fun story on your hands.

Rakers Week 4 – Thrillers Vs. Space Opera

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So I’m labeling Rakers as a “thriller” as opposed to a “space opera”, which is the genre for Wild Nines and its sequels. There are obvious reasons for this, namely that Rakers doesn’t take place in space. But also more subtle ones – namely, Rakers has more suspense. More mysteries. There are points of view on both sides, as in Wild Nines, but the stakes are different, the people involved have different ends, and the question of who is going to live is central to the story. Wild Nines, in contrast, is more about adventure. A crew running amok through a dangerous solar system and taking all comers with weapons drawn.

From a writing standpoint, the most important conscious change I made was in how to present information to the reader. In Rakers, knowledge of the world comes in drip-fed bits and pieces. Need-to-know basis. Motivations are kept on the mum because the characters at play aren’t all that interested in sharing their goals for a variety of reasons. This creates a tense conflict in scenes because people are less trusting of one another. Think about it – if you’re in a crowded room with a bunch of friends, you’re going to be more relaxed. Open. Change most of those friends to strangers and you’ll be more reserved. See someone look at you from across the room and if it’s someone you know, you react one way. A total stranger, you’ll react differently.

In Space Opera and more traditional fantasy, there’s not as much ambiguity. In Star Wars, for instance, Han Solo doesn’t hide the fact that he values cash (at the start) more than helping out wayward heroes. Darth Vader doesn’t hide that he wants the plans, nor does the Empire disguise the ultimate objective of the Death Star. You’ve got evil, and people out to fight that evil. It’s fun because it’s more clear-cut, because it’s a ride from start to finish with characters you love to get to know.

Not everyone in Rakers is good, though they don’t necessarily know that. Part of the fun in writing a story like this is that your characters keep so many secrets; from themselves, from each other, and from the writer. I don’t necessarily know how they plan on accomplishing their goals, or if those goals will change based on things that happen. It’s a fluid environment, and that edge of unpredictability keeps the writing fun and the story fresh.

One last thing – setting is so important no matter what the story, but I’d argue that a “thriller” has one of the widest possible settings you can choose from. Mystery, that threat of violence, and heroes and villains with hidden agendas – all of that can take place just about anywhere. Space opera generally needs, well, space. Epic fantasy needs some sort of fantasy/medival/steampunk-esque setting – otherworldly, I suppose. But a thriller lets you craft the story and fit a setting to it with all the variables at play. It’s a true sandbox.

And, of course, I ran with it.

Rakers Week 3 – The Evolution of an Idea

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There is a question at the heart of Rakers that I won’t spoil here and that, frankly, doesn’t get explicitly answered in the novel. I’m not sure I want to definitively answer it in the series as a whole either, because some queries don’t have clearcut choices.

When I started thinking about the book, this question did not exist in my mind. It did not emerge fully-formed after my morning coffee as something that needed a story to build around. Rather, as I began tinkering with the parts that would become Rakers, the question solidified and became the defining backbone for the story as a whole.

This morphing causes as many problems as it solves.

I think it’s easier to write with a guiding idea, with some central theory that the story is seeking to explore. A question you’re trying to answer or at least poke at with the story. The action provides a bit of narrative focus and allows you to corral characters that might otherwise turn into caricatures or, perhaps worse, become flat because there doesn’t appear to be a reason for them to keep doing what they’re doing outside of “plot”. However, when an idea comes to inform a story organically, you can find yourself scrambling to fix parts that no longer jive with the “vision” for the tale.

Take, for example, this villain: Jerry Fireball. He’s a manic wizard with a penchant for lighting things aflame when he’s bored or frustrated just because he can. As an antagonist, playing a set of heroes against this pyromaniac might be fun, but let’s look at Jerry’s motivations. If he’s simply set on burning the world down, then I think we can all agree that Jerry deserves to be quenched. If the guiding idea for your story is that, say, fire is bad, then writing a tale in which the burning punk gets his due comeuppance would be satisfying. I would hazard a guess, though, that Jerry wouldn’t go down as a particularly memorable villain.

Now, though, what happens if your idea isn’t just “kill the bad guy” but, instead, that fire and/or destruction breed the way for new life? Now, in your story where Jerry runs around wreaking havoc, you might feel compelled to introduce some other dimensions. Like, say, maybe Jerry’s fire is actually a way of bringing things back into another world that’s in serious jeopardy for one reason or another. That Jerry is the sole person able to, by burning objects in our world, bring support to the people trapped in this other place? Suddenly Jerry isn’t just a mindless monster, he’s deliberately choosing targets (bringing a mystery element to our heroes) and, when we find out the real reason these things are happening, Jerry has some potential to be sympathetic. The heroes may even find themselves trying to work with him in some way.

Of course, if you decide on this change of idea later in the writing process, adjusting plot beats and scenes to account for Jerry’s newfound motivations takes work. You’ve gotta massage that character. However, I think the end result is worth it. You’ll have a more memorable narrative, and (hopefully) you’ll have more fun writing it too. Which is what really matters, right?

Rakers Week 2 – Fade Out

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Bond. Bourne. That guy from Kingsman. You know the type – the brutal, no-mercy man. It’s a compelling character type to write because they can convincingly do just about anything. Insane risks don’t take much consideration for these characters because they have so little to lose. If Bourne dies in a fire, who’s going to mourn? My guess is that funeral is pretty lonely.

Bond might have a few more – MI6 friends, perhaps. But family? Nah. That just brings complications.

With Rakers, though, Faden (Fade) Vance is someone different. Someone who can’t leave behind the shadier sides of life no matter how much he might want to because he’s got a daughter to raise. Tuition is expensive. Owning a house costs money. There’s no vast government sponsor with limitless resources fueling his ventures. But Fade isn’t a redux of Liam Neeson’s character in Taken  – this isn’t only about family, but rather how having a family impacts the choices you make every day. Only, rather than deciding what’s for dinner, Fade’s deciding which contract to take. It might be worth his while to take that lucrative deal for a kidnapping, but someone’s still got to pick up dinner for Jaycee. That risky encounter with a group of thugs could pay the mortgage, but can he disappear for another weeknight or take the chance of winding up dead, his daughter getting the worst phone call of her life in the middle of the night?

So Fade’s got problems.

He also has dreams. Ambitions beyond the next assignment. Yes, he wants Jaycee to be able to afford whatever school or career she wants. Yes, he wants to have a house. Yes, he wants to be able to get absurd amounts of gin even when happy hour’s over. But Fade also wants to see those moments. He wants to enjoy the house. He wants to see his daughter walk across that stage. He wants to sip mai tais on an island without worrying about a loaded gun pointed at the back of his head.

In a just world, those dreams would be his by now. Fade’s old enough, definitely. Made his share of sacrifices. He’s been good enough to stay alive this long, good enough to cultivate a list of clients willing to pay large amounts of dough for his services. By rights, Fade should be able to walk off the stage into a happy twilight.

Except the bills keep coming. Just because he’s lived out more than nine lives, doesn’t mean Fade gets a free pass on his tenth. So, in Rakers, Fade is still hustling. Still pulling contracts and taking the cash he can get. Hoping that he’s not going to wind up in over his own head.

Only, if Fade was being honest with himself, he could’ve retired. Could’ve shipped the two of them out to some small town and coasted. But he doesn’t. Hasn’t.

Because, not-so-deep-down, Fade knows he likes it. The thrill, the adventure, knowing that every second matters.

There’s more than one way to die, after all.

Rakers Week 1 – A Modern Setting

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You might think that there’s something easy about choosing a “current day” setting. After all, it’s the world in which we live, right? If you, the writer, are in it every day, then naturally you know it, don’t you?

Rakers takes place right around now. Maybe a little bit in the future, but not far enough to have drastic changes (the vague date serves a story purpose – which is to remove real-life current events from the scope of the books). This gives the characters a lot of toys to place with – things like modern smartphones, cars and weapons. All sorts of fun. These, of course, are also things the reader will know about and have expectations for.

Ever watch a horror movie and laugh about how a cell phone would ruin the plot (or watch modern ones and shake your head at how they convolute things to make ever-present connections to the outside world go away – isolated cabins are so popular these days)? It’s the same thing with Rakers – these are “real” people who would react and communicate in real-time with one another. Every bit of information, including the locations of friends and family, is readily available and in their hands. Rather than run away from the complications this could introduce, in Rakers, those kinds of elements play a part in the story.

Take, for example, Jaycee. As Fade’s daughter and a sophomore in high school, she’s the sort of character that could get sidelined by other settings. Either not old enough to fight dragons or trained enough to pilot a starfighter, it’s a gray area reserved for stories where the kids are often exceptional (Hunger Games, Divergent, Harry Potter, etc.). In Rakers, though, Jaycee is able to both be herself and be effective simply because our current world gives a wealth of possibilities to people at almost any age. That Jaycee is able to have an impact is almost as surprising to her as it was to me when I was writing it up.

And that, I think, is one of the better gifts a setting can provide: agency for characters that might otherwise have none. Jaycee’s arc is driven, to a large degree, by the setting and the natural skills a person like her would have in our current environment.

So, while it can be easy to choose a fantastical setting for the benefits it offers (spells, light speed travel), I found that by putting Rakers right around today that there was so much to do, so many neat twists and turns that could come about thanks to the magic we live with every day. And even without lasers or giant swords, Rakers was still a blast to write.

Rakers is Launching

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Yep – the title pretty much says it all on this one. Rakers, my next novel, is launching. It’ll be available in all the places in ebook and some of the places in print. I’ll have a link up for it shortly and all that jazz.

Rakers is about a pair of ex-special forces members who have turned to using their special set of skills in rough ways to make ends meet. We’re talking kidnappings, beatdowns-with-a-message, and various other illicit deeds. They command a good price.

However, Fade (that’s our hero) is interrupted during a routine kidnapping by a pair of odd-looking people who insist that he’s the biggest risk humanity’s got. As in, Fade is a direct arrow to the apocalypse, according to them. When Fade objects to this interpretation, things get messy and people get hurt.

Now Fade has to figure out how he became the target, and, more importantly, how to get these people, who have weapons and ways he’s never seen before, off his back. If he doesn’t, he won’t have long to live.

Rakers plays the action-adventure card to the fullest, while introducing a new universe and characters that will continue through more stories to come. If you’re interested in a fast-paced thrill with characters who are more than talking plot points, Rakers ought to be fun.

Plus, it contains tacos.

Cauliflower Rice and Experimental Cooking

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If you handed me a bowl of cauliflower rice without telling me what it was, I’d probably guess some form of cheese. Goat cheese, or maybe a thick Parmesan. However, it lacks the flavor of those two delectable treats. Like normal rice, it takes on the taste of whatever you pair it with, acting as a base to ground in other foods.

Making cauliflower rice requires taking the cauliflower itself, chopping it up, throwing it in a food processor and whittling away at it till it’s been sliced into bits (though not pureed). There’s some science to this bit, science that I haven’t quite nailed down. I still find chunky parts in the end result, though I accept those as casualties and move on with the recipe because to do otherwise would lead to madness.

Then it’s the skillet and a dousing of oil, maybe some spices, and eventually water to simmer the stuff down. And at the end you’ve got a pile of white, sort of fluffy, stuff.

My wife is a culinary experimenter – one who adventures into new recipes with a sort of fearless abandon, like the Lewis and Clarke expedition, only instead of the Pacific Ocean, we’re venturing into new aisles of the grocery store. Then, if she’s busy, it falls to me to carry her grand plans to a delectable conclusion.

And I’ll say this – there’s all sorts of good things to be gained by venturing out into the culinary wilds. I’ve learned about more types of food, and how to prepare them, in the last few years than I had in the 25 years before. I’m more creative in the kitchen, now, on my own than I had been before her.

This, I think (and hope), has a positive effect on the ol’ writing life. Something about how exploring creativity in one field helps bring it into others.

If nothing else, at least, there’s still the cauliflower rice.

Donkey Kong Country – Where Setting Makes All the Difference

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As a child of the 90s, the Super Nintendo played a distinct part in my elementary school life. There was Mario, sure, jumping along on mushrooms and pipes in worlds full of fireballs, turtles, and Bowser. But, when compared with the lush jungles, dark caves, and haunting seas of Donkey Kong, I couldn’t help but change favorites.

Donkey Kong also offered a true competitive mode, wherein each player progresses through their own game, trading off with the other, which made it a natural for a house full of brothers attempting to prove our button-mashing skills to one another.

Anyway, here you are. The player. Controlling a pair of apes (Donkey and Diddy, the younger, baseball-cap wearing one) in a quest to retrieve their stash of bananas on an island that somehow contains every climate zone and massive amounts of barrels (some of which, inexplicably, contain your allies when they’ve been lost).

The setting, taken at face value, offers no sense. You’ve got talking crocodiles, beavers that roll giant stone wheels, and clay creatures that stop and go according to mysterious barrels. Mine carts rocket through crumbling caverns. The monkeys can, apparently, hold their breath for great lengths of time to capture what would surely be rotting bananas at the bottom of various oceans.

However, and this is a lesson worth taking away – the ridiculousness of everything here is easily ignored because the gameplay, the core of the Donkey Kong experience, is so good. In fact, because you’re enjoying playing the game so much, you might find yourself lost in wonder at the world your charges inhabit.

This gets back to a core teaching of story-telling – that if you get the most important part right, people will forgive and enjoy other things, even if they make no sense. Back in the 90s, when we were looking for Saturdays to drown in digital fun, Donkey Kong aced it. Jumping on a swordfish and dodging murderous octopi while grabbing life-giving balloons felt good because the gameplay felt right.

Stories like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and plenty of others have gaping plot holes, leaps in logic, and events that would seem, if explored in isolation, ridiculous. But they don’t matter because the part we care about, the central tale, is executed so well. That idea extends beyond books to movies, games, and just about any sort of creative expression.

Get your central feature straight, and then you can do almost anything you want.

Sidenote: This post was prompted by a pick-up of the SNES Classic, a little version of the Super Nintendo that’s made its way into stores and is well worth a pick-up if you’re at all interested in a nostalgic tour of early 90s adventure.

Conquer the Galaxy – Star Wars Rebellion and a Board Game Feast

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There are board games, just like there are stories, at every level of scale. Some put you in control of a single piece with one ability – often just being able to move in a direction. Others give you mountains of rules, pieces, and options and it’s up to you to parse what to do with them.

Star Wars: Rebellion sits on the latter end of that scale – you pick a side from the movie series and play against the other (Empire or Rebellion – no prequels here). Rebellion chases after that most compelling of goals: the asynchronous victory condition: the Rebels win by staying alive long enough to get sympathy from the galaxy, the Empire wins by destroying the rebel base.

This conflict plays out through all sorts of movements, missions, die rolls and recruiting. You have a galaxy spread out, on a board befitting it, and you’ll use most of its planets in every game. I’ve played most of mine as the Rebels and I’ve always felt, at first, like there are a thousand places to hide. By the end, I’m scattered to a few defunct systems hoping against hope that the Empire will send its fleet in the wrong direction and, thereby, allow me to win.

It’s rare, though, that victory by waiting out the clock feels satisfying. Think about it – if, in a novel or a movie, the protagonist sat around and the villains failed to find them, that isn’t in itself all that interesting. The protagonist doesn’t do anything in that scenario.

Now, twist it. Instead, the villains outnumber the hero and they’re running around, crafting traps and disappearing. Leading the villains in wrong directions. Harassing them without warning. Playing as the Rebels feels like being the kid in Home Alone – every chance you get, you’re trying to simultaneously slow the Empire down and run like hell. It’s a tense blast to play.

As the Empire, meanwhile, it can feel like there are dozens of insects to crush. The Rebels would be ground to dust if only you could catch them. Sometimes you manage Princess Leia to the dark side and she helps lead your fleets to the base and you detonate it with your Death Star, laughing at the elaborate Rebel defenses that have proved so useless.

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve sent your ships far and wide only to have the Rebels sneak behind you and sabotage your factories. Entice planets you thought were loyally yours to turn sides. Or even bait Darth Vader into a battle he can’t win and, when the Empire loses, strike Vader down permanently.

Rebellion, for better and for worse, is not a short game. These stories take time to tell. With experience, the average game would likely take 3 hours (including setup). Newer playthroughs are going to approach 4 or more as players get adjusted to all the parts. Still, it’s never boring. Combat, the worst part of the base game due to a lot of repetitive die rolls, is made much better with the Rogue One-inspired Rise of the Rebellion expansion.

Ultimately, what gets this game off the shelf more than anything else is the potential for unique moments. For those hilarious or crushing times, like a do-or-die attempt to blow up the Death Star that succeeds, or the capture of Luke Skywalker and subsequent corruption of the same. This game tells stories, and if you’re a Star Wars fan with a passion for the table-top side of life, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

Kubo and the Two Strings – The Folktale Made Visual

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Every so often, usually when busied with some sort of mundane task, the wife and I will wander the vast labyrinths of video streaming services in search of some gem we’ve previously neglected. I’d seen Kubo and the Two Strings before, but Nicole hasn’t, and if there’s one thing that makes tedium easier to endure without sacrificing quality, it’s a movie you’ve seen and enjoyed.

Kubo revels in its personality. The animation style is stop-motion, but with a level of detail and a distinct Japanese style that separate it from more familiar fare. This, by itself, would be cause for curiosity, if not much else. Instead, the visual feast comes spiced with a story that makes for pleasant popcorn fare. We’re not talking Kafka levels of intrigue, here, but Kubo hits its emotional notes and throws its characters into a number of fun sequences. Giant skeletons, paper bird swarms, and sea monsters all make appearances.

What, I think, I like most about this movie is its ability to hold fast to its plot without asking questions, without adding in complications, and, most of all, without spoiling the entertainment on offer by taking a harder look at the brutality of the story. People die in this one, kids. Good guys, bad guys. Often in medieval ways.

Still, the carnage is earned. Unlike some children’s tales where the “evil” only plays at the name, in Kubo the designation is warranted. The people chasing after the titular kid won’t hesitate to slice him and all his friends up, or, if it’s easier, to corrupt him against everything his friends stand for. Point being – it’s good vs. evil and the evil earns its keep.

So yes, if you’re believing this movie looks too kid-friendly for you, don’t make the mistake. It’s a magical adventure and a visual treat. You won’t have to think too hard to enjoy it either, because Kubo doesn’t cloud its intentions in layers of obfuscating plot.

Which, I suppose, is a lesson – once you know what you want to do with your story, do that. Don’t get distracted. Don’t get fancy. Find your story and tell it.