My Very Personal Reaction to THE LAST JEDI (with spoilers!)

December 19th, 2017

Lots of spoilers in this post. Stop reading if you don’t want to see them.

There came a point, fairly early in the promotional campaign for THE LAST JEDI, when I realized something shocking: I didn’t care. The trailers looked great, the action looked exciting, the characters looked interesting, but something about it just couldn’t get my engine to turn over. It was the porgs that really hit this home for me: I wasn’t upset about cute little animals in a Star Wars movie–I’m a long-time defender of Ewoks–but I just didn’t care about them. I had no interest. I’d still take my kids to see it, because I wasn’t angry or anything, I just wasn’t excited. And that was kind of a weird, sad realization for me.

Had I “grown out” of Star Wars? That makes me sound more elitist than it should, because I am still a raging geek: as I sit here typing this I have half-painted toy soldiers on desk, a post-apocalypse nerf gun in easy reach, and two shelves right over my head displaying Spider-man, the Enterprise D, a Dalek, a Rancor, a dragon, a Klingon teddy bear, and an AT-AT the size of a pet dog. I literally grew up with Star Wars–I’m 40 years old, born in 1977 just like Star Wars was; it was the first movie I ever saw in a theater, at the tender age of three months old, and I’ve built my life and career around the passions that Star Wars and stories like it have given me. And yet there I was, feeling kind of meh about a Star Wars movie. That was not a pleasant position to be in, and as melodramatic as this sounds I had to really look at myself and try to figure out what was going on. The conclusion I came to is one that I came to a lot this year, to the point that it kind of defined 2017 for me: I realized that not everything was for me, and that that’s okay. Not everything has to be. Not everything should. I had Star Wars when I was kid, and it gave me something amazing that I needed, and now that I didn’t need it anymore it could go and give that something to someone else.

So I showed up at the theater with five of my six children on Saturday night (the baby stayed at home), thinking that it would be a fun way to pass a couple of hours, and my kids would adore it, and all would be well. And, yes, in some ways it was a very meh experience. On one hand, I love the new characters, and this movie even made me love Kylo Ren, who I thought was pretty boring in THE FORCE AWAKENS. On the other hand, I called almost every single twist and development in the entire plot, sometimes as long as two years ago. The only one that took me by surprise was Luke being a force projection from one planet to the other, which was awesome. Now, to be fair, I predicted those things because it’s how I would have done it, given a crack at the script, so I’m not complaining so much as saying “yes, this is the movie I wanted it to be.” Even knowing that Luke was going to go full Jedi Master in the final act, actually watching it happen was fantastic. But being what I wanted meant that it was never *more* than I wanted. I sat there thinking “Okay now they’re doing Empire Strikes Back. Now they’re doing Return of the Jedi. Now they’re doing Empire again. Ooh, now they’re doing Avatar: The Last Airbender.” And I enjoyed all of those things, but I wasn’t moved by them, if that makes sense. And I was fine with that, because I’d already resigned myself to not being moved by them. Because I’d somehow shifted from being a Star Wars guy to not being a Star Wars guy anymore. This movie was made for my kids, not for me, and that was how it should be.

Except then there was a scene that was made exactly, perfectly for me, and it moved me very much.

Several times I took Flagyl from before I had an operation to remove part of my large intestine. It was quickly effective every time I took it. I did not have any side effects. The worst was a bad taste in my mouth. If necessary, it will take again.

The scene came around the end of the second act, when Luke was ready to burn down the force tree and all the Jedi records within it. Yoda appeared to him, as a force ghost, and they had a little conversation about the past and the future and the Force and the Jedi, and it was really starting to resonate with me. Luke had spent his life trying to be the person he thought others needed him to be, and he’d failed, and now the galaxy was out of his hands and he didn’t know what to do. And then Yoda said: “We are what they move beyond. That is the burden of all masters.” And that’s one of the single greatest statements on adulthood and parenthood and generational change that I have ever heard. It addressed my feelings about the movie itself–that it wasn’t for me, and that’s okay–while also addressing my larger feelings about my life and my family. I have six kids, like I said, and the two oldest are teens (and the third might as well be), and I’ve spent their whole lives watching them learn and change and grow and I knew it was coming but now I can see, as clear as day, that they are growing beyond their need for me. I’m confronting, not academically but right here in my actual life, the fact that my greatest goal as a parent is to make myself obsolete. To raise children so smart and capable and powerful that they can not only survive in the world without me, but excel in it to levels I’ve never been able to reach. We look at little babies and we say “She’s so cute, I wish she could stay like this forever!” but we don’t actually mean that. We want our children to get out of the nest, out of our shadow, and surpass their potential in incredible ways. And the terrible paradox of parenting is that this glorious triumph is also an ending, and a loss, and a letting-go.

“We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.”

The greatest accomplishment of THE LAST JEDI is that it opens Star Wars back up again. Everyone who’s played the video games and the RPGs knows that there are a million billion stories to tell in that galaxy, and then the prequels dug their heels in on the Skywalker saga, and even THE FORCE AWAKENS couldn’t quite break out of it. THE LAST JEDI does. The new generation has finally left the shadow of the old and claimed its own identity, and that’s awesome. It’s going to be its own thing and takes its own risks and find its own glories.

And somehow, in doing so, it got me interested again. THE LAST JEDI managed to be for my kids but also for me, in a completely different way, and it’s not the Star Wars I grew up with but that’s a good thing. It’s probably the very best thing about it.

I wrote for a TV show called Extinct, and you can watch it!

September 30th, 2017

On October 1, you’ll have the chance to watch a cool science fiction show I worked on called Extinct. It’s produced by BYUtv, and it’s the story of what happens 400 years after an alien war destroys human civilation; someone is bringing people back, one by one, but why? And how? And why these people, specifically? It’s a great ahow, and I think you’ll dig it.extinct 1

The first eight episodes will be available on Sunday, October 1, through the streaming service of your choice: just get on Roku, or whatever else you use, and download the totally free BYUtv app, and you’re good to go. Can’t bring yourself to pay for CBS All Access to watch the new Star Trek? Our show is free! You can also watch the weekly broadcasts throuh the BYUtv cable channel, if that’s how you roll. After the first 8 have aired one by one, sometime in November, the final two episodes will be available for streaming, and you’ll have all ten.

I worked as a “staff writer” for the show, which is different than a “writer.” The breakdown is kind of like this:

Staff Writer: Sits in the writer’s room meetings to help brainstorm what should happen in each episode.
Writer: Also sits in the writer’s room, and then takes that information and writes a script.
Head Writer: Runs the writer’s room, and assigns episodes to writers, and guides the direction of the show overall.

In the case of Extinct, our Head Writer was Aaron Johnston, who also wrote all of the scripts. There were a five or six staff writers overall, though not all of us worked on every episode.

Television is way more collaborative than I’m used to. When I’m writing a novel, I can do anything I want–there’s no budget to limit the number of characters or the size of the sets, and there are no other writers to say “okay, but what if we do it THIS way instead?” And then, of course, you’ve got a cast and crew and hundreds of other people who come in after the scripts are done and add their own talent and vision to it. There’s actually very little that I can point to in the final product and say “That’s mine!” because everyone played with everyone else’s ideas and built them up and took them in new directions. What I can tell you is that I’ve seen the first two episodes, and they’re great.

Give it a shot. I really think you’ll like it.extinct 2

A quick FAQ:
Q: If this is produced by BYUtv, does that mean it’s Mormon?
A: It means that a lot of the crew were Mormon, but that’s about it. BYUtv is specifically trying to produce shows that can appeal to a wide audience, guided by the central value “See the Good in the World.” So it’s pretty clean, and you can show it to your kids, but no one’s going to be shoving any religion down your throat, Mormon or otherwise.

Q: Will there be a second season?
A: If enough people watch it, probably yes. So everybody watch it.

Q: Did you have any involvement in the casting?
A: Not one tiny bit.

Q: Did you get to go on set?
A: I probably could have, but most of the filming happened during times I was traveling. I travel a lot.

Q: Who’s the voice of Red Drone? He sounds super familiar.
A: That’s Kirby Heyborne, who narrated the audiobooks for the John Cleaver series! He’s awesome. My apologies if you ever feel like Red Drone is secretly planning how to murder you.

Best Music Cues in a TV Show

September 11th, 2017

Last week I saw a tweet asking “What do you think is the best use of a song on a TV show?” It’s a simple enough question, but me being me I have been OBSESSED with it ever since–remember, I used to do a whole podcast with my brother specifically designed for us to endlessly debate pop culture minutae rankings. This is right in my wheelhouse.

The first thing we need to do, as always, is establish some ground rules, though I think the only one we really need is “no theme songs allowed”–not because I don’t like theme songs, but because they’re a different animal. I might need to do an entire blog post about TV opening sequences sometime, because some of them are absolute works of art (I will mention The Wire, The Sopranos, and Patriot; note that I can’t find the actual opening sequence for Patriot anywhere online, so that link is just the song without the visuals). Today we’re going to focus on songs that are used in the story itself, as part of the storytelling.

Here are my picks for some of the very best:

1) My gut reaction to the question was “Walking in Memphis,” by Cher, as used at the end of the X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Cher’s music plays a vital role throughout the episode, both in setting the surreal tone (it’s a comedic episode, filmed in black and white, telling a bizarre tale of genetic experimentation, monster sightings, and loneliness) and in the plot itself (the lonely monster, The Great Mutato, is a huge Cher fan, thanks to her role in the movie “Mask”). Two horror sequences are incongruously set to the songs “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” and a Cher version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” but it’s not until the end, when Mulder and Scully finally leave the city with The Great Mutato in custody, that “Walking in Memphis” kicks in, and the final sequence changes from sad to dizzyingly joyful in a single shot: we see the agents in the car with the boy, and the music plays, and then the camera focuses on Mulder’s shoe, tapping along to the beat. The music isn’t just playing over the show, it’s playing inside of it, and the characters are listening, and they’re not arresting him, they’re taking him to a Cher concert. The show ramps up the joy another ten notches or so with a perfectly timed zoom: Cher sings the line “Down in the Jungle Room,” and steps to the side, and there’s The Great Mutato himself rocking out in the middle of the floor. And then somehow, impossibly, they ramp up the joy AGAIN with possibly the most charming single thing to ever happen in the entire run of the show: Mulder stands up, extends his hand, and invites Scully to dance. Every single drop of this entire sequence is perfect.

2) Spoilers ahead in this one. Another show with a fantastic theme song is Justified, which uses “Long Hard Times to Come” by Gangstagrass, but Justified also has an unofficial second theme song, which they use as an ending to every season, and it’s hauntingly tragic and beautiful: “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The original version was written and recorded by Darrell Scott, though the show used different covers almost every time. My personal favorite combination of music and story came at the end of season 2, as the capstone to one of the most powerful performances on television: Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett. She’s been a towering villain, mixing love and vulnerability with a ruthless plan and vicious methods, and her exit is one of the high water marks of the entire six seasons of the show. Whereas the first season ended with a shootout, the second ends in a quiet, solitary reverence, with Mags and Raylan sitting down to a drink of apple pie moonshine. We think she’s going to poison him, but she chooses to poison herself instead, and her final scene becomes a heartbreaking bookend to her first one. Her last words are exquisitely chosen, and Martindale’s performance is flawless, and then Brad Paisley’s cover of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” comes in like a funeral wail.

3) We’ve done a joyful song and we’ve done a sad one, so let’s do one that’s both: Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” as wildly reinterpreted by Glee. You need some setup for this one: teenage Rachel has never known her birth mother, but has always wanted to find her. Near the end of the first season she finally does, and it’s a perfectly cast Idina Menzel; Rachel is overjoyed to learn that her birth mother shares her love of singing, but almost immediately crushed to learn that her mother does not intend to stick around and be a part of her life. Rachel proposes a parting duet–one last song before they never see each other again–and passes her mother the sheet music for a peppy piano version of Poker Face. It’s a bouncy, happy, and yes, gleeful arrangement of the song, completely recontextualized from the pop radio version, but it somehow also manages to draw out the deep pain of the lyrics in a way you’ve probably never thought about before. On one hand, it’s a song about doing what you want, and not letting anything bother you; on the other hand, it’s a song about hiding your emotions and pretending your heart isn’t breaking. Watch the way they sing it, and the way they move so fluidly between the happiness of singing together, and the tragedy of knowing that this will be the last time. Watch them struggle not to cry every time they repeat the line “She’s got to love nobody.” It’s a tour de force by two incredible singers, backed up by some phenomal acting, and together they create an almost alchemical mix of joy and despair.

4) I love it when TV shows recontextualize songs in this way, making them mean something different than they used to, or shining a light on a meaning we hadn’t seen before. The flip side of this is to use a song that recontextualizes the show itself, turning a scene or a character or a relationship on its head. One of the very best instances of this I’ve ever seen was Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town,” in a cover version by Tony Lucca created specifically for the first season finale of Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights is a show about a small-town high school football program, showcasing in equal parts the way that football is both a saving grace and a dangerous obsession. In a lot these towns football is elevated and idolized to a degree that warps the entire community. The first season of the show follows the team as they train and focus and fight and eventually win the championship, culminating in a triumphant parade with the entire town cheering for them. But even though it’s a victory–even though the entire season has led to this moment–the show undercuts the whole sequence, blanking out all of the sound and the cheering and the applause and everything else, and instead just playing this haunting, almost shocking song instead. There is no joy, and there is no triumph. In context, it’s like being punched in the gut, and it was so vital to the plan of the show that they actually commissioned their own cover version to make sure they got it exactly right.

5) Let’s do another one that embraces cognitive dissonance: “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” by Tommy James and the Shondells, in the final season of Breaking Bad. In a show about blue crystal meth, you know this song had to turn up sooner or later, and I can only imagine Vince Gilligan the showrunner sitting on this one for season after season, biding his time and waiting for the perfect moment; you don’t want to squander a music cue this good. And boy, did they ever find the perfect moment. “Meth-making montages” had become a hallmark of the show, and Breaking Bad used “Crystal Blue Persuasion” as the soundtrack for the very last meth montage we ever get–though it’s more than just meth, it’s a seamless dance connecting every step at what is, by this point in the story, a worldwide drug empire. We watch them make the meth, package it, ship it, pass money, count money, make more meth, weigh it, smuggle it, count more money, make more meth, hide in the shower, make more meth, move more money, on and on and back and forth. Breaking Bad was always brilliant with its cinematography and its editing, and this sequnce is one of their greatest achievements, cutting from one scene to the next in ways that connect movements and colors and visuals until the entire process seems unified and whole, and the song has such a laid-back, groovy, comfortable vibe, and everything is working smoothly, and yet it becomes painfully obvious that no one involved is happy. A lot of people pick Breaking Bad’s final song, “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, as the best in the show, and it’s a good one, but “Crystal Blue Persuasion” from a few episodes earlier absolutely takes the crown.

Breakin Bad "Crystal Blue Persuasion" from Nonnie on Vimeo.

6) We’ve done a lot of dark songs, and a lot of dark shows, and that probably says more about my viewing habits than anything else, but let’s end on a high note. Let’s look at one of the best depictions of drive and hard work and determination I’ve ever seen in a TV show: Kim from Better Call Saul, trying to secure a new client for her law firm to get back in their good graces. She spends every spare minute on it, in stairwells and parking garages and restrooms, and it all happens to the sound of “A Mi Manera,” better known as “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, as performed in Spanish by the Gipsy Kings. Yes, I’m doing another Vince Gilligan show, but what can I say? The man knows how to use music. Kim is one of the unsung heroes of Better Call Saul, a show that is primarily about two feuding brothers but wouldn’t work even half as well as it does without Kim as both a counter-example and a humanizing element on main character Jimmy McGill. To be fair, Jimmy is one of the hardest-workin’ men in the law game, but his methods are loose and wacky and so far outside of the box most people just assume he’s a criminal, even when he’s not; Kim works just as hard, but she does it from inside the system, and this sequence shows her with her nose to the grindstone, at all hours of the day and night, shmoozing old friends and calling in forgotten favors and pulling every string she can think of. Choosing the Gipsy Kings version of “My Way” is the perfect choice, not just because it’s in Spanish (which is beautifully on-point for a show set in Albuquerque), but because the flamenco guitar underneath it sets a tone that’s playful and frantic at the same time. The music is every bit as busy as Kim is, and yet hopeful and excited and inspiring.

This isn’t a remotely comprehensive list–it isn’t even a ranked list–but it was on my mind. Now it’s on yours. Any suggestions?

I want to talk about Mrs. Romney for a minute

June 23rd, 2017

Mrs. Romney was one of my teachers; I went to a six-year program, grades 7-12, and she was my 7th grade English teacher and my Senior thesis advisor. She was endlessly kind, helpful, joyous, and brilliant, in that special way that teachers have of imparting their brilliance to others. Last week she passed away from complications of Alzheimers.

I can’t really enumerate the many ways Kathryn Romney changed and affected my life, but I will tell one story. I’ve told this story before, so you may have heard it, but it’s a defining moment for me, and one of the touchstones that made me who I am, so it’s worth repeating.

IMG_0985It begins, as so many formative moments do, with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Seventh grade is the year when reading classes stop being “fun” and start being “academic.” It’s the year when your teacher says “Now, this book is a great read, but don’t just breeze through it. Try to look deeper. Try to see what’s going on under the surface.” Many students balk at this, and I was definitely one of them; by seventh grade I was already an avid reader, a voracious reader, reading books well above my grade level but, like she said, only paying attention to the surface.

The day we started TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD she handed out a huge packet of stapled papers with the header “Critical Analysis,” and told us that as we read we needed to keep an eye out for themes, archetypes, metaphors, and more. We needed to look for hidden meanings, and hidden connections, and capital-s Significance, and we were ruthless in fighting back against it. “It’s just a story!” we shouted. “It’s telling us that racism is bad, and why does it need any deeper meaning than that? Why are you trying to suck the fun–nay, the very LIFE–out of one of the greatest novels of all time?” (We were an accelerated class, so I’m pretty sure we literally said “nay.”) (We were insufferable.) Mrs. Romney was patient–in hindsight, immeasurably patient–and let us read, and kept asking questions.

I remember the key moment very clearly. We were in class, in what was called West High’s “Old Gym”–which isn’t even there anymore–having just read the scene when Scout’s neighbor is trying to kill crabgrass. She watches her lawn like a hawk all Spring and Summer, looking for any sign of crabgrass, and when she finds it she races over with shovels and chemicals and everything else she needs to root it out and kill it. Okay, whatever. But Mrs. Romney wouldn’t let it go.

“Why is this scene in the book?”

“Because…the neighbor hates crabgrass?”

“Obviously, but why is that in the book? The author can choose what she does and doesn’t want in her book, and she chose this. Why?”

“Because…it’s a detail that brings the characters to life.”

“Look deeper. Harper Lee filled a whole page of her novel with a description of a lady killing crabgrass, so the least we can do is pay attention to it. Why is it there? Why is it important to the story? What does it tell you about the rest of the book?”

I don’t remember who finally said it, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Somebody raised his or her hand and said: “Is it…the gossip? Like, is she trying to show that crabgrass can ruin a lawn in the same way that gossip has been ruining the town all book long? And that the only way to stop it is to find the gossip early and put a stop to it before it can spread?”

I don’t want to you to mistake this next point, so let me be perfectly clear: this was a revelation. The roof of the school opened up, and rays of pure intelligence shone down from heaven, and angels with heavy books and thick-rimmed glasses flew down out of the sky and sang “Critical Analysis!” in tones so sweet and perfect that literature itself seemed to weep in answer. Suddenly I GOT IT. Suddenly it all made sense–all the questions, all the themes and archetypes and metaphors and more. It seems so simple in hindsight–“kill the crabgrass before it spreads” is, as metaphors go, a pretty blunt instrument–but it’s what I needed, and it was when I needed it, and there’s a very good reason that we read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in seventh grade because it is unerringly effective at teaching these basic lessons. I am not exaggerating when I say that this changed my life in the best way possible. Reading was already my favorite thing in the world, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Mrs. Romney had taught me how to do it and experience it and love it on a whole new level. She wasn’t sucking out the life and the joy of books, she was showing us how to find more.

I know that some people, even after their seventh grade English classes, continue to object to this kind of reading. “If the curtains are blue that just means the curtains are blue” is an entire Facebook meme, and if that’s how you want to read that’s fine. That’s awesome, in fact: as long as you’re reading, I don’t care how you do it. For me, the ability to find depth beneath the surface brings a life and vitality to stories and literature that makes everything a hundred times–even a thousand times–more vibrant. It is everything I love about reading. It is why I am an author today.

A few years ago, on a baseless whim, I went to a certain restaurant in Salt Lake City where I have never been before or since. On that same day, and at that same hour, Mrs. Romney and her husband happened to make the same seemingly aimless decision, and thus fate gave me the chance to see her again, and to talk with her about our lives, and to tell her how grateful I was for the magic she had brought into my mine. I got to tell her that, thank in part to her inspiration, I was now an author; the second PARTIALS book, FRAGMENTS, was about to launch just a few days later, and I invited her to the signing, and she came and got some books. She had Alzheimers by that time, so I can’t be sure how much she actually remembered about who I was or how she knew me, but the joy practically shone from her face. In some ways it didn’t matter who I was: another human had written another book, and isn’t that reason enough to be happy? She took her books, and we hugged, and I’m grateful to this day because not everybody gets the chance to thank their heroes like that. I got to thank mine, and now I’ll do it again:

Thank you, Mrs. Romney. You changed my life.

Kathryn Romney’s viewing is tonight (June 23, 2017) at 6pm, at Stark’s Funeral parlor in Salt Lake City. Her funeral is tomorrow morning at 11 at the Holladay North Stake Center, 4395 S Albright Drive. I will do my best to go to both. If you or someone you love had Mrs. Romney as a teacher, I encourage you to do the same.

The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The JOHN CLEAVER omnibus is looking super awesome

June 21st, 2017

Last year we announced The Clayton Killer, a gorgeous special edition omnibus of the first John Cleaver trilogy. This will include I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU, plus an exclusive short story not appearing anywhere else. It will also be leather bound, foil embossed, Smyth sewn, and printed on 60# paper, making it one of the prettiest books you will ever see. Top that off with a foreword by Victoria Schwab, and you might think there’s no possible way it could be any better.

Well guess what: it’s also going to have a cover and full-color interior art, but the phenomenal Italian artist Daniele Sera. His dark, grisly, haunting style is a perfect fit for the book, and I’ve got some beautiful preview images to show off.

Pre-order your copy today!

First: the cover!

From Book 1: The death by the lake

From Book 2: The corpse in the water

From Book 2: The eyes in the wall

From Book 3: The mark of the Handyman

Can’t wait to get them? Neither can I. Pre-orders are open and waiting.

NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE book signings

June 6th, 2017

Want me to sign a copy of NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE? Want me to personalize it for you or a loved one? Want to say high, hang out, talk about Wonder Woman, and maybe even watch the I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER movie together?

Dependending on where you live, you’re in luck:

June 9: University Bookstore in Seattle at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 11: Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco at 5pm – Signing and movie Party

June 20: The King’s English Book Shop in Salt Lake City at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

If you can’t make it to one of these events, The King’s English will ship you a signed book! If you call them and ask, I can even personalize one for you!

My Schedule for Phoenix ComiCon

May 23rd, 2017

Thursday, May 25
4-6 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Friday, May 26
10:30-11:30 am – Signing in Room 124AB
12-1 pm – Panel: Option My Book! in Room 126AB
1:30-2:30 – Panel: Apocalypse Now? in Room 126C
3-5 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Saturday, May 27
10:30-11:30 am – Signing in Room 124AB
12-2 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth
3-6 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Two contests for NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE

May 17th, 2017

Nothing Left to Lose comes out in just three weeks, and I’m running a contest to celebrate!

IMG_0772Win the Entire John Cleaver Series Plus the Movie!

We are giving away an autographed set of ALL 6 John Cleaver books in paperback, PLUS the DVD, also autographed, of the I Am Not A Serial Killer movie. How do you win this life changing gift? It’s easy! On June 6, when the book releases, we’ll draw one lucky name out of a hat. Here’s how you get your name in the hat:

One Entry: Sign up for the newsletter.

Extra Entry: For those who want extra credit and really really want to win, you’re going to have to pay attention to social media and answer some questions. Every week Dan will be asking trivia questions about actual serial killers; just write down each answer and save it somewhere. The final question will appear on June 1, at which point you simply send all your answers together to If you got them all right, you get in the hat again!

Newsletter subscribers also know that I’m giving out FREE SECRET stuff at my public appearances this year. Come find me in person and see what it is! Find me in person multiple times and collect multiple things! Hints: they’re limited in number, they’re collectible, and they’re gorgeous.

May 25-28: Phoenix ComiCon

June 6: NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE Release Day

June 9: University Bookstore in Seattle at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 11: Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco at 5pm – Signing and movie Party

June 20: The King’s English Book Shop in Salt Lake City at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 30-July 2: Denver ComiCon

July 28-August 5: Writing Excuses Retreat

August 7-9: Book Events in Hungary (more info coming soon)

August 17-20: GenCon

September 8-10: Rose City ComiCon

September 21-23: Salt Lake City ComiCon

November 25-December 3: Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara

Savage Rifts: A Review

January 12th, 2017

IMG_0783As you may have noticed, I’m kind of a Rifts fanatic. It’s my favorite RPG setting of all time, and I’ve written about it extensively, especially back in the day when I ran a game review website. I’m also a big fan of Savage Worlds, so I was delighted at the prospect of a merge between the two, and I backed the Savage Rifts kickstarter on day one. Possibly hour one. My books arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve read them twice through now (fanatic, remember?), and I have Opinions.

Short version:
Savage Rifts is a fantastic game and you should all buy it. It’s flaws are all little nit-picky things that a non-fanatic is unlikely to notice.

Long version:
Time to pick some nits.

This review is based on the three books that I own: The Tomorrow Legion Player’s Guide, The Gamemaster’s Guide, and Savage Foes of North America. I’ve also read a handful of the pdfs, but in general terms I dislike gaming from pdfs and have ignored them.

IMG_0784Let’s start with the combination of Savage Worlds and Rifts, which is easy to talk about because it feels smooth and perfect. Rifts is a massive game, with an enormous backstory and a ton of character options and more ideas on a single page than most games have in an entire book. It’s always been married to the Palladium ruleset, which is old and clunky and widely disliked; it works well enough, but it’s oppressively detailed in some areas and maddeningly vague in others, and gets in the way of the storytelling as often as it facilitates it. Savage Worlds, in contrast, is a settingless ruleset designed to be fast and cinematic. Take a look at the character sheets and you’ll see the difference: Palladium looks like an actuarial report in comparison. The single greatest triumph of Savage Rifts is that they’ve stripped out all the bloat, streamlined the presentation, and still managed to create a game that FEELS like Rifts. The Ley Line Walker, for example–the game’s main “wizard” class–has half the abilities and barely a fraction of the spells he had before, yet still manages to hit all the same notes. The flavor and the possibilities are all still there. Twelve of the original base game’s twenty-something classes have been translated into Savage Rifts, and they’re all fantastic. Two of them in particular–the Cyber-Knight and the Techno-Wizard–are the best incarnations of those two classes we’ve ever had. The game is slick, playable, and still deeply, intensely “Rifts.” They’ve done an incredible job.

And yet, reading through the books, you get a weird kind of mixed message about it. It’s attributed to a single writer, but it feels like it was co-written by two: one who loves Rifts and knows it intimately, and one who feels embarrased to be there. The gameplay sections all have a distinct undertone of apology. “This classic setting has cool ideas and a ton of incredible stories to tell, but of course I don’t LIKE it. I’m cool, like you.” Look, I get it: Rifts has a complicated history and a lot of people think it’s silly, but I would expect at least the writer to take it seriously. I don’t need to be reminded on every other page that the game is inherently ridiculous–or, to use their favorite word, “gonzo.” One of the things that made the original work so well was that the creator, Kevin Siembieda, always played it straight. Sure, there was some goofy stuff in it, and the power level was hard to control, but it also had high drama and powerful stories and ample opportunities for great roleplaying. A good group can find opportunities in Rifts that you can’t find anywhere else. And you can still find them in Savage Rifts, you just have to ignore the rulebook occasionally snickering at you for playing such a childish game.

IMG_0786And I have other problems, too. One of the iconic classes from the original game, the Shifter, has been left out of the Savage core rules. The Shifter is a magic-user who specializes in the Rifts themselves–a Rift, by the way, is a tear in reality through which words and people and horrifying supernatural monster can pass from world to world. The Shifter used this focus to travel between planes, and to talk to other creatures and beings, sometimes claiming the small ones as servants and sometimes becoming servants to the big ones. It’s a class that exemplified what Rifts was about, and which could not exist in any other setting, and I would suggest that the setting can’t/shouldn’t exist without it. But it was left out: the only core class, I should add, that didn’t make the cut. One can speculate as to why, and the prevailing theory online is that they considered the Shifter an “evil” class, or at the very least not “good” enough to be a hero, and I think there’s something to this theory, but I have another one. They released a pdf supplement about how to translate your favorite Palladium Rifts stuff into Savage Rifts, and used the Shifter as an example. They walk through what they’re doing, and how and why, and seeing their thought process really underlines the idea that they simply don’t understand the class. Gone is the focus on dimensional travel, and gone is the detailed take on supernatural negotiation. The original Shifter really delved into the idea of what it would be like to have a being from another dimension working for you–or a giving you power in exchange for your service–and yet the Savage Rifts version is pretty much just a standard summoner, identical to any old summoner in any old fantasy game. They have a special rule that lets them keep their summoned creature longer than normal, effectively making it a pet class, which is neat but misses the point. Taken with the weird, not-buying-into-it tone, you get the sense that on some level, the people making the game don’t actually “get” the game.

Savage Rifts’ last big failing, which is more annoying than game-breaking, is the Tomorrow Legion itself. This is their own invention, added as a way of providing direction to the players–you’re not just generic adventurers, you’re members of the Tomorrow Legion!–which sounds like a good idea except it’s so poorly executed you wonder why they bothered. The world of Rifts is overflowing with cool nations and kingdoms and organizations that your characters could be affiliated with, and most of them are varied and interesting and have a lot of complex motivations and story hooks. The Tomorrow Legion, in contrast, is about as vanilla as possible. It’s a group of people who live in a castle and do good things–that’s literally the entire story. Why do they live in a castle? Because some dwarves from a rift built one, and then weren’t using it for anything and decided to let the Tomorrow Legion have it. I’m serious. And why do they do good things? Because they’re good people, I guess? There’s no backstory, no texture, and barely more than a couple of pages of description–and most of that is just stats for some of the leaders, which makes the whole thing smack of “let’s put our player group into the setting” syndrome.

IMG_0787Compare this to some of the original game’s standard starting points: Arzno is a city in the desert beseiged by vampires; MercTown is a hub of dangerous work-for-hire and a criminal house of cards; New Lazlo is a mystic kingdom with a brave new plan to bring all peoples and backgrounds together; the Pecos Empire is a lawless wasteland filled with roving warlords engaged in constant battles for freedom and supremacy. Your group could be a salvage crew hunting for artifacts in the Dinosaur Swamp, or officers gone AWOL from the evil Coalition of Humanity, or refugees struggling to get by in the Burbs of Chi-Town–and that’s just North America. These ideas and countless more offer unique history, cool backgrounds, and compelling reasons to explore and fight and tell great stories, and even a one-page overview of the main ones would offer players something solid to work with. Instead we spend all of that space describing a Tomorrow Legion so thin you wonder how they filled the pages at all, and resulting in a story hook somehow even less interesting than “your characters meet in a bar.”

The good news is, the Tomorrow Lefion is SO underdeveloped that you can ignore it almost without even trying, and set your game in one of the parts of Rifts Earth that, you know, made the game interesting in the first place. I admit that not every player has a giant shelf of 60+ Palladium Rifts books they can draw on for information, but even the three core books for Savage Rifts give you enough ideas, and enough world info, to sketch out a great starting point and run with it. If you really want to dig deeper into the setting, the resources are out there–Rifts Aftermath in particular is a wealth of world and story info, with virtually no stats at all so you don’t even have to translate it to a new system. But at the end of the day, you don’t NEED it. The Savage Rifts core books are more than enough to start with, and new books are already announced.

Like I said, I’m a Rifts fanatic. And yes, that means I get passionate about it problems, but it also means this: when I say that I like what someone new has done with it, that means a lot. Savage Rifts has me more excited about the game than I’ve been in years, and that is a huge compliment. Nit-picks notwithstanding, Savage .rifts is a great game, and I can’t wait to dive in and play it.


November 10th, 2016

I think we all need a movie party, and what was the best movie of the year?


Yeah, baby. Want it watch it together? Me too.

This fine film is and will continue to be streamable through pretty much any VOD platform, but discerning fans will want to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray, which you can pre-order now or purchase directly on December 13.

To make sure you all have time to buy it, and to give it to each other as gifts if you want to, I have scheduled the twitter party for December 30, 2016, at 9:00pm MST. (That’s 11 Eastern, 10 Central, and 8 Pacific.) We’ll all synchronize our watches and press play on the DVD exactly at 9, so we’re all watching the same stuff at the same time, and I will tweet like a maniac the entire time: author commentary, adaptation stories, behind the scenes anecdotes, stuff I like and stuff I love and stuff that maybe I don’t love as much as I wish I did. It will be awesome. I’ve even created a brand new twitter handle for the occasion–@DanTweetsMovies–so that everyone not watching the movie with us doesn’t get flooded with messages they don’t understand. And who knows? If this goes well, maybe I’ll live tweet more movies in the future

So, yes! Mark your calendars, order your DVDs, and join me for this awesome Movie Twitter Party. It’s the best possible way to spend a cold Friday night short of actually embalming a body.