Roleplaying Games with My Kids

March 2nd, 2018

I’m getting older, and more to the point my kids are getting older. I have six kids, and the youngest is 2, which is great, but the oldest is 16 and a high school junior and she is already driving and working and applying for college. As you may already know if you read my kind-of-a-review of THE LAST JEDI, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my kids growing up, and about my dual role as the guy who raises them but also the guy who steps back and lets them move on with their lives. And I was in that state of mind as the year ticked over from 2017 to 2018, thinking that my kids were growing up and growing away from me, and then my two oldest came to me and asked if I could GM a roleplaying game for them.

Children, you have no idea how happy that makes me.

I’ve played RPGs with my kids before, starting with Heroes Unlimited about seven years ago and then again with Marvel Superheroes a couple of years later. The first failed because my kids were too young for the game, and because they still weren’t grasping the concept of rules as a boost to creativity. My son (7 at the time) wanted to be the strongest person in the universe, and built a character strong enough to throw a car into space, and then when we played that was pretty much all he ever did:

“Someone is robbing the bank.”

“I throw their car into space!”

It wasn’t really roleplaying, it was “let’s pretend,” which is still a fun thing for kids to play so we just threw out the rules and played superheroes. Marvel Superheroes worked a little better, because the game encourages you to play actual Marvel superheroes instead of making up your own characters, and that did wonders to help my kids with the actual roleplaying aspect: it was much easier for my 9yo to act like Wolverine than it was for him as a 7yo to imagine himself as anything other than a 7yo with super strength. It was fun, and they developed a taste for it, but the game didn’t last more than a few sessions until they moved on to a new obsession.

Meanwhile, my brother’s oldest was really getting into roleplaying thanks to a club in her school, and we decided in January of 2017 to do a combined game with me, him, her, and my three oldest. My brother picked Rifts as the game, because that’s the one we played a ton of in high school, and we rolled up some characters and dove in. We played every other week, but only twice, and then his schedule became crazy enough that we had to stop. It was fun, but it still had its funny kid-based quirks. Instead of a 7yo throwing cars into space, we had a 13yo who could run at 250mph, and two teenage girls who built two different iterations of what was essentially the same character: a snarky loner who doesn’t care about anything or anyone. This is a common enough character type, but a very hard one to work with in an RPG group, and especially if you have two of them, and ESPECIALLY if your players aren’t sophisticated enough to plan a character arc in which the loner comes to love the others and rely on the team. Every fight and social situation had my brother trying to play, my son advocating murder, and the two girls sitting in the back saying “why should we help? I don’t care what happens to them.” It was funny, but it didn’t advance the story in any way.

So when they came to me this year, I brought in kid number three (now 11) and laid down some ground rules: your characters have to be “good,” and they have to work together. I showed them my vast catalog of RPGs and suggested a few (Pendragon, Star Trek, and Legend of the Five Rings got the most attention), but they wanted to play Rifts again because they already knew it and enjoyed it from the year before. I talked them into Savage Rifts because I love the new ruleset, and then we worked on figuring out a story and style for the campaign: if you don’t put some constraints on Rifts, it gets out of hand really quickly. We eventually settled on a Battle Royale-style game, based on my son’s obsession with PUBG, which in Rifts terms became this: the characters are captured by the Splugorth and forced to survive on an island full of enemies.

Because they are more savvy storytellers now than they used to be, they talked me into one concession on the “everybody’s already friends” rule: Kid 2 and Kid 3 are buddies, having fought together as gladiators for a while, and then Kid 1 would come in as an outsider who would learn to work with them. So far it’s working out pretty well, though Kid 2 (the car-thrower, now 14) was a little disappointed to learn that I was actually planning a story full of people to talk to, instead of just a pure PUBG-style “kill everyone on sight.” It was a rough transition, but it only took a couple of funny NPCs to convince him that talking to these people can be worth the trouble.

Rifts being what it is, the characters are bizarre: Kid 3 is a fairly typical fantasy elf, like a female Legolas, but she relishes her role as the long-range sniper and is usually more than happy to perch in a tree or on a roof and wait for Kid 2 to signal her to put an arrow in something. Kid 2 is still mostly a powergamer, obsessed with being super good at everything, though this time I was able to convince him that it would be more interesting to be an investigator than a heavy combat monster, so he’s a cybernetic cat-man who’s half Indiana Jones and half Bruce Wayne (so, obviously, still uber-competent, but at least he’s starting to find non-violent solutions to problems). Kid 3 is a Mystic, which is a Rifts character with minor psychic and magic powers; because I am weird, I convinced her that all of her magic powers should be based around hair, so for example her Bolt power is just a lock of hair that stretches out and punches somebody int he face, and her Blind power just covers somebody’s eyes with hair.

So far, all they’ve done is meet each other, land on the island, and explore a couple of buildings. They’ve faced a couple of enemies, and made a couple of friends, and they’ve received a secret message from one of the people who captured them who may or may not be trying to help them. They don’t yet know why they’re here or how to escape, but they’re having fun and they’re actually playing as characters, and it’s a blast. Kid 1, who has an active social life, only wanted to play every second or third week because she didn’t want to be stuck at home every Sunday night, but so far we’ve played every week because they love it so much.

Roleplaying is one of my favorite things, and if you want to make me happy, “Hey dad, please GM a game for us” is one of the easiest ways to do it. I’ll post updates as the campaign continues, and we’ll see what shenanigans they get up to.

Sexual Harrassment

February 15th, 2018

Like many industries, publishing is going through a massive reckoning over serial sexual assault and harrassment. Articles, forums, and comments sections are filling up with women who are finding the courage and support to step forward and call out the creepy, awful behavior they have experienced from other authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, convention organizers, and more. I have always believed that you should believe a woman who says she’s been harassed, so I believe these women, too.

And then I was accused of being a harasser.

And then the same woman recanted her accusation.

I do not know who this woman is, as she posted anonymously both times, but I want to take this opportunity to pubicly accept her apology, and to thank her for coming forward.

But here’s the thing: I believed her. Obviously I didn’t believe that I had assaulted someone and then forgotten about it, or anything ridiculous like that. But I was–and am–willing to believe that without intending to and without noticing I had done something to make a woman feel uncomfortable or unwelcome or unsafe. I always try to do my best, but what if I made an off-color joke, or an accidental insinuation? My position as a podcaster and instructor puts me in a lot of conversations with aspiring authors asking for help and advice–what if I implied, even without realizing it, that my help and advice was contingent on some kind of unsavory quid pro quo? This woman claimed to have quit writing because of me, and I never want to be the reason that someone leaves this industry or community. I could have raged against the injustice of this comment–and to be perfectly honest, a part of me did–but the more useful, more helpful response was to sit down and take a good hard look at myself and my actions. What have I been doing, and what can I do in the future, to make the conventions I attend and the spaces I inhabit safer for other people?

Recanted accusation or not, I found some stuff I need to work on. Not a long history of abusive behavior, but a tune-up on boundaries, and on thinking before I speak.

I want to urge everyone to take the same look. We live in a society where aggressive, uncomfortable behavior is so commonplace that it can often be invisible–at least to the perpetrators. The #MeToo movement is shining a light on the many ways in which people are mistreated, and I hope that the women and men with sincere issues continue to come forward, but their actions are not going to create the necessary changes on their own; the onus is on us–mostly men in positions of power–to do our part as well. We need to examine the ways we act in public spaces. We need to think about other people, and the impact we can have on them, before we speak and act. And we need to use our positions of authority and power to lift people up instead of keeping them down. I’m going to try to be better. Who’s with me?

I also want to address the #ImOut movement very quickly before I finish. There is a growing group of people declaring that #MeToo has gotten out of hand, and turned into a witch hunt, and that no one should be able to point an anonymous finger and end a person’s career. I have two things to say about that:
1) Somebody pointed an anonymous finger at me, and I’m fine. The careers that are being destroyed are doing so under an avalanche of specific details and corroborating witnesses–people are definitely eager to punish misconduct right now, but most of them are smart enough to see the difference between one anonymous comment and a massive group of staunch accusers. Most of the authors going down right now were considered “open secrets” in the kidlit community, with dozens if not hundreds of testimonies against them. The organizations who are rescinding memberships and speaking engagements, and the publishers who are rescinding contracts, are not doing it lightly, and they are not pulling out those big guns for unconfirmed and unsubstantiated claims.
2) On the other hand, this is a clear opportunity to acknowledge, again, my position of power. I’m an established author with a strong career and firm allies, and I can weather this storm better than others. Charlie Pulsipher, the other author falsely accused along with me, hasn’t yet had time to build the same foundation, and may well be suffering more than I am. With him, and with me, and with any creator you see being accused of harassment, I urge you to do the same thing that the publishing bigwigs are doing: believe the women, take them seriously, and look for corroborating opinions and evidence. If the accusation is real, you will find them. If it’s not, you’ll find that, too. A history of trying to do the right thing will speak just as loudly as a history of misconduct you thought was kept hidden.

And it goes without saying, but: don’t accuse people falsely. For crying out loud. It hurts innocent people, and it makes it harder for the true problems to be identified and dealt with, which, in turn, hurts more innocent people.

The changes in our society right now are painful, but they are important, and I believe that we will be stronger on the other side. Believe women. Be better. Do better. Try harder. A community full of safe and happy people of all genders is far more important than whatever long-standing habits you might need to change to make others feel welcome. We can do this, and our community–and the world–will be better for it.

Margaret Hamilton

February 12th, 2018

The second book in the Mirador series, ONES AND ZEROES, is dedicated to Margaret Hamilton. You may know her from this photo, which gets passed around the Internet a lot:

That’s Hamilton standing next to the source code for the Apollo mission, which she coded herself, and which is credited not only with landing the astronauts on the moon but saving their lives in the process. Along the way, she invented modern software, coined the term “software engineering,” and in 2016 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor: the highest award a civilian can receive from the American government. In short, she’s amazing.

This morning I got an email from a “70-year-old retired computer guy.” With his permission, I share portions of that email here, because it shines an even brighter light on one of the heroes of modern technology:

I am just starting ONES AND ZEROES and I read your wonderful dedication. I am in a position to provide some additional information. Here goes –

The first computer I wrote code for was an IBM 7094. It is a slightly souped up version of the 7090 that was featured in the movie and book [editor’s note: Hidden Figures]. Let me acquaint you with some of its technical specifications.

It had 32,768 words of “ferrite core” memory. A word was 36 bits long and could be divided into 6 6-bit characters. (The machine also supported “integer” and “floating point” arithmetic.) This is the bit-for-bit equivalent of 144 KB of RAM. On a character-for-character basis, it is equivalent to 192 KB. The original Apple II and the Commodore 64 each had 64 KB of RAM. So it had more RAM than those boxes. But when I bought my first IBM PC in 1981 I opted to add something called an AST “6-pack” card. This allowed me to have 256 KB of RAM. So my first PC had more memory than did a 7090/7094.

Ferrite core memory (tiny magnetic donuts with wires strung through them by hand) was quite slow. The clock time was typically quoted as 2,000 microseconds (1/500th of a second). That is memory speed but processor speed was comparable. And when IBM announced the first “System 360” computers in 1964 for delivery in 1965 the price they quoted for memory was a dollar per byte. So the stuff was frightfully expensive back then.

The machine came with a nice “FORTRAN 4” compiler. FORTRAN is still the go to language for engineering/scientific work. So NASA is still running a lot of FORTRAN and I’m sure Ms. Hamilton cranked out quite a bit of it her day. You could also write programs in “machine language” or “machine code” (the same thing). In that case you used a program called MAP (Macro-Assembly Program).

My point in all this is to give you even more of a flavor of how hard it was for her to do what she did. She had to write tight (not much memory to deal with) fast (the machine was probably slower than your first home computer) code with very little in the way of tools and aids. And she couldn’t write just one program. It would have been too big to fit. She probably had to write dozens, perhaps hundreds of programs. And, as you said, they HAD to work. Lives (and the prestige of the U. S.) depended on it.

So I applaud your choice. And I too have a soft spot for the other Margaret Hamilton.

And if you are interested in women in computing, especially in the early days, check out Grace Murray Hopper. She is every bit as interesting as Margaret Hamilton. Here’s just one of dozens of Hopper stories –

She was working with a team of people back in the vacuum tube days of computers. As I said, vacuum tubes are essentially high tech light bulbs. And computers of the time used thousands of them. And like light bulbs they occasionally burn out. With so many, “occasionally” turned out to be something like once per day. So a necessary tool back in the day was a dental mirror. It would be used to poke into tight spaces looking for dark tubes. One day Hopper was using a dental mirror to hunt down a problem. She found not a dark tube but a moth. The moth had died of electrocution brought on by bridging the gap between two contacts. Hopper removed the moth thus restoring the computer to health. She then pasted the moth into the log book kept to document the operation of the machine and added an explanation of what had happened. And that’s why software errors are now called “bugs”.

The Mirador series is about girls who are gamers, coders, and hackers, so I’ve taken the opportunity with each book to dedicate them to some of the amazing women in tech. The first book was Hedy Lamar, the second was Hamilton, and now for the third I really wracked my brain, trying to come up with the perfect choice. I considered Grace Hopper, as mentioned above; I considered Katherine Johnson, newly famous thanks to HIDDEN FIGURES; I considered all kinds of women in all kinds of fields. Eventually, though, I went back to the beginning: not just the first woman to write a computer program, but the first human being to write one. She was so far ahead of the game that computers didn’t even technically exist yet–she wrote a full program for a hypothetical device theorized by Charles Babbage.

Ada Lovelace, this one’s for you.

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.

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