Archive for November, 2011

Wrestling with Death

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I apologize for failing to post anything last week: no blog posts (despite my goal of two per week), very few emails, and not even any facebook updates or twitter posts–I retweeted a few interesting things when I got the chance, but I didn’t really say anything new. This is because, as my Cheerfully Flexible post two weeks ago may have suggested to you, I was attending a funeral.

The funeral was for my sister-in-law, Natalie, who fought long and hard and eventually succumbed to cancer. I didn’t post anything last week in part because I was busy (5-day trip to Sacramento with all five kids), but mostly because I did not then and still don’t know now exactly how to talk about it. This feels especially odd for me because I’m rarely ever at a loss for words: not only do I write for a living, I write about death. You’d think I’d be better at this. But the things I write about are either goofy, or sensationalized, or at the very least imaginary. Natalie was real. What do you say about a real person who’s there one minute, and then isn’t there the next? I saw the body at the viewing, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit like John Cleaver, staring and wondering what all the fuss was about, while the other half of me knew exactly what all the fuss was about. There is a cognitive disconnect with death, as if our minds rebel at the concept of it. People do not cease to exist, and our spirits know this even as our eyes are telling us something different. It’s like a form of psychic carsickness, your eyes telling you you’re sitting still while your inner ear screams that you’re moving. It disorients you, and your brain can’t quite express itself through the dissonance.

I’ve dealt with death before–I’ve spoken at both of my grandparents’ funerals, for one thing–but this was different. Maybe it’s because she was so young, and because of how she left and who she left behind. My grandparents were old and their minds were failing them; it was “their time to go,” if that’s the way you want to think of it. My grandfather in particular, one of the foundational influences of my life, was healthy as a horse but deeply scarred by Alzheimers, and it hits a point where it isn’t really your grandfather in there anymore anyway, just a semi-coherent shell. A car without a driver. He died (on Thanksgiving, ironically) of a heart attack, and while we were sad–perhaps devastated–to see him go, we were more or less okay with it because we’d already lost him months before. Natalie, on the other hand, was 24 years old, with a young husband and a two-year-old son. You can’t say that it was “her time to go” without straining the definition of what that even means, and you can’t give a speech looking back on a life of accomplishment and legacy when there are only 24 years to look back on. Natalie’s eulogy–a joyful, powerful speech given by her sister–was full of memories and laughs, but they were memories of potential. She was a wonderful baker and decorator, among other things, and tried to start a cake business just a few weeks before she died. This was a woman who never gave up, who always strived to do and be more. From a certain point of view, doesn’t that make it even worse that she’s not here anymore to do or be anything?

The hardest part for me was her son, a happy little boy who only kind of understood what was going on. My wife will tell you that she’s only seen me cry three times: at my Grandma’s funeral, at my Grandpa’s funeral, and while watching a movie about Alzheimers that reminded me of my Grandpa. I’m not heartless, I just have a very male tendency to keep my emotions well below the surface (though this is changing as I age). I was fine all through the preparations for Natalie’s funeral, and all through the viewing, and then when it came time to close the casket my brother-in-law lifted up his son to say goodbye, and the boy started crying, and it just tore us apart. It’s getting to me again right now as I write about it. She wrote him a letter before she died, and imagine it will be one his most prized possessions as he grows up and remembers her. I hope it will.

I try not to get very religious on this blog, because my religion is not a part of why most of you read my work, but it is a very big part of who I am, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment here. I’m a Mormon, which means that not only do I believe in life after death, I believe that families will be reunited and will live together forever. This is the single most wonderful thing that I can think of, even when I’m not preoccupied with death. I love my wife, my children, my parents and siblings, my grandparents and my vast extended family, and it comforts me more than words can tell to know that no matter what happens, no matter how bleak the situation may look, I will see them again. I’ll see Natalie again, and more importantly her husband and son will see her again. Death is sad and cancer sucks and life is sometimes a brutal kick in the face, but life is not everything and death is not the end. It will be a while before we’re all together again, but meanwhile we’ve got important things to do on Earth, and I’m sure God can find a lot of uses for a woman so eager to work she tries to start a bakery while half comatose from cancer and painkillers. We’ll all stay busy, and by the time we’re reunited we’ll see if maybe we can make the world a little better than it was when we parted.

I set a goal for myself to memorize a poem every week this summer, as longtime readers of the blog will be aware, and one of those poems has been prominent in my mind ever since we got the news that Natalie was nearing the end. It played in my mind during her funeral, and when her son cried and my heart started to break it came back again, comforting me and inspiring me. I think it’s the perfect note to end on:

Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Cheerfully Flexible

Friday, November 11th, 2011

I did a lot of theater when I was younger, and one of our directors started the first day of rehearsals by teaching us the phrase “Cheerfully Flexible:” stuff will happen, plans will change, and you can either be a pill about it or take it in stride. I’ve tried to keep that as a mantra ever since, and I’m teaching it to my children now. Sometimes thing have to change, so you may as well be cheerful about it.

I’ve had to keep myself cheerfully flexible several times lately, as different circumstances both good and bad have cropped up to smack me in the head. Some of them are pretty much all upside, like the news on my ebook, A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS. I launched this ebook back in August, and while it didn’t make me a ton of money it still made me some, and I’m pretty happy with it, and people continue to buy it at a pretty steady trickle so hooray. One of the big things that happened was that an audio company bought the rights to turn it into an audiobook, which is totally awesome. Their contract included a six month exclusivity deal, meaning that for the first six months in which the audiobook was available, it got to be the only version available, and since the audiobook is now ready to go I took the ebook down on Tuesday. What I was not expecting was the deluge of questions saying “what happened to your ebook? I want to buy it.” I’m delighted there’s so much interest, and I assure you that the ebook will return in six months. Until then, please enjoy the audiobook, which will launch sometime next week–I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it’s available. I wish I could offer you both, but…cheerfully flexible.

Some of the circumstances in which I find myself are harder to be cheerful about. I’ve known since the Summer that I would need to start working full time on the second PARTIALS novel (tentatively titled FRAGMENTS) in early November, which meant that I had to finish EXTREME MAKEOVER before Halloween. I did my best, but I didn’t get it done. FRAGMENTS easily wins the competition here–it’s a bigger project, which I’ve already sold, and which is under a tight deadline, whereas MAKEOVER is just a goofy thing I want to write–but that doesn’t make it any easier to set down one book and move on to the next. I can’t help but feel a little depressed about failing to finish MAKEOVER in time, despite the fact that it was a pretty optimistic deadline to begin with. FRAGMENTS is going to be a really fun project, though, and you guys are going to love PARTIALS when it debuts in February, so I’m very excited to work on it. And I do intend to go back and finish MAKEOVER eventually. For now, though…cheerfully flexible.

My brother had the chance to flex his cheerfulness recently as well, when he got laid off from his job last week. He’s been struggling for a long time with Severe Panic Disorder, which is kind of like always being terrified of everything: his brain chemistry is literally telling him that he’s in horrible danger all day, every day, and as you can imagine that gets very old very fast. He’s had a terrible time trying to finish his new book (the sequel to VARIANT, which came out last month), and it’s been all but impossible to do his real job as a Marketing Director. His company hung on to him valiantly, honestly much longer than any company I’ve ever worked for would have hung on to an employee who couldn’t work, but last week they just couldn’t anymore, and they had to let him go. Rob buckled down and tried to be cheerfully flexible, and meanwhile Larry Correia and I decided to flex an entirely different kind of muscle: the awesome might of the Internet. We organized a Book Bomb for yesterday (November 10), and tried to get as many people as possible to buy his book all at once, thus boosting its Amazon ranking, thus raising its visibility, thus creating (we hope) a bunch of extra sales from people who’d never known about it before. Success, as they say, breeds success. We spread the word and were stunned by the response: by the end of the day VARIANT had gone from #6847 to #51, reaching the top ten of Teen SF (#7, right behind the Hunger Games trilogy), and gaining notoriety as the #1 “Mover and Shaker” (ie, the biggest percentage of change) on all of Amazon. It was such a crazy jump in ranking that his friend who works at Amazon actually called to ask what the frack was going on. I spent most of the day watching Twitter and Facebook and Amazon, pushing the book and spreading the word, and it was a little like the finale of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” watching a whole community come together for George Bailey. My brother’s a great guy, and it was awesome to see so many people leaping up to help him out; today, long after we’ve stopped the book bomb, he’s still #128 overall and hasn’t left the top ten in Teen SF. Sometimes (most of the time) being cheerfully flexible means working extra hard to roll with the punches and make the best of your new situation. We worked hard for Rob, and it paid off.

And then sometimes, being cheerfully flexible means you just have to grit your teeth and deal with it. In the midst of yesterday’s book bomb I got the word that my sister-in-law had all but lost her years-long battle with adrenal cancer. She’s gone non-responsive, and we expect her to pass away within the week. She’s an incredible woman with a wonderful personality who never stopped fighting, and now she’s lying comatose in bed, 24 years old, with a devastated husband and a 2-year-old son. And all I could think was: I can’t Book Bomb cancer. I can be as helpful as I want, and as cheerful and as flexible as I can, and it’s not going to turn this around. Sometimes you can beat the bad stuff, and sometimes all you can do is hope there’s enough pieces left to pick up and move on. But even when life sucks, there’s still so many things you can do. We can help her family. We can help her son. And we can learn from her example and fight back against our own problems, which completely pale in comparison.

Cheerfully flexible.

Cool PARTIALS news plus Game Review: Rune Age

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

First of all, I’m pleased to finally be able to announce that there is an exclusive 3-chapter preview of my new books, PARTIALS, available on Facebook. Assuming you have a Facebook account, just “like” the page and you’ll get to read chapters 12, 13, and 14. They’re pretty cool. We’re getting closer and closer to the release of this thing, and I can’t even tell you how excited I am. It’s going to be huge and awesome and you’ll love it.

Now, on to the game review. A month or so ago I posted a review of Nightfall, one of my favorite deck building games. Rune Age is not yet, but has the potential to be, even better, and it does this by breaking some of the traditional rules of the genre. Why should you have to win the same way every time? Why should you only have one resource to buy new cards? Why can’t a deck-building game be directly confrontational? Why not indeed.

Rune Age is set in the world of Terrinoth, Fantasy Flight Games’ go-to setting for sword and sorcery-style fantasy; their other games Runewars, Runebound, and Descent are all set there as well, along with some others that I’m probably forgetting. The land is divided into four main factions–humans, elves, demons, and undead–and each player picks a faction which thus determines his or her starting card pool. The factions are one of the most interesting aspects of the game, because they’re carefully designed and play very differently from each other. Three of them are fairly well-balanced against each other, with no runaway leader, but the elves are a bit of a letdown, turning an interesting subtheme (the “get lots of influence” race) into an unfortunate disappointment (by the time the elves get their influence running, everyone has used their military to conquer a bunch of cities and has just as much or more influence anyway). I’m sure some more experienced player will hop into the comments and tell me how strong the elves are, but no one in my play group has ever been able to make them work. It’s a problem we hope gets fixed in the inevitable expansion.

In addition to your faction cards there are a bunch of neutral cards that any player can acquire for their deck, based on the scenario: cities you can conquer with military might, monsters and other neutral units you can recruit to your team, and of course extra gold to get access to the biggest and most powerful tactics. The scenarios are where it really gets interesting, because depending on which one you pick the entire flavor of the game can change drastically. The basic scenario is simple: you win by attacking a giant dragon, and thus have to craft your deck such that it can produce an enormous amount of power in a single turn; the first player to kill the monster wins. The scenarios come with a deck of event cards, and in this scenario they will either hurt or help you on your quest. Other scenarios are different: one asks you to build a monument, causing you to focus more on gold production than military, but the event deck is full of smaller monsters you can fight for extra treasure. One scenario is fully cooperative, pitting all the players together against a demonic invasion, and this one’s event deck is a brutal slap in the face–it takes a shocking amount of planning and coordination (and luck) to live through this one. Last of all is the full-on PvP scenario, which is just an outright war between the players. This is what really separates Rune Age from any other deck builder, because the player-vs-player combat system is tight and tense and incredibly tactical: you choose targets, you play cards back and forth, you go up and down, and finally one of you wins and actually takes something from the loser. In a multiplayer setting this takes on an added political tone as you try to form and break alliances. It’s loads of fun, and unlike any other deck-builder you’ve played.

That said, like I foreshadowed in the beginning, the game does have some problems. The Elves, for example, are grossly underpowered in comparison to the other factions. Worse yet, the factional nature of the card pool cuts down on the replayability a lot–in most games you play your deck will turn out more or less the same, because the eight card types available to you (four determined by your faction, and four by the scenario) will be identical. Far from the huge, varied card pool you get in something like Dominion or Nightfall, there are literally only sixteen combinations of cards possible in the entire game, and only four of those (the factions) really matter; playing the human nation in one scenario is essentially the same as playing them in any other. “This needs an expansion” is pretty much the rallying cry of the deck-building genre, but that has never applied more fully than it does with Rune Age.

So in short, the game engine itself is stunningly brilliant and very fun, but the card pool is shallow and you’ll be wanting more after just a few plays. Honestly, though, this is a great example of why I love games, because your “money to entertainment” ratio is still enormous. Think of “dinner and a movie” as the standard unit of entertainment value: that’s about three hours long, and costs about $20 per person (assuming you eat at a mid-range place and don’t go 3D). (And don’t get me started on the cost of a babysitter.) Four people can spend $80 total on three hours of entertainment with dinner and a movie, and for two of those hours they won’t even talk to each other, or they can spend $35 total on Rune Age and get ten or twelve hours of engaging, interactive entertainment spread out over several nights. When you look at it like that, you can’t afford NOT to buy a board game.

MONSTERS & MORMONS is here!

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Remember last year when I wrote a short story (that turned into a novella) and cataloged the entire process on my blog? That was for an anthology called Monsters & Mormons, which later accepted the story, and last week the final anthology is now available! I would have written about it earlier but I’ve spent so much dang time reading the thing, and guys, it is awesome.

The idea is to take pulp-style horror and fantasy tropes, in the style of old masters like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and the two-fisted Hollywood serials and radio shows, and then add Mormons. Why? Because it’s awesome, and because no one had ever done it before. The Catholic church, for example, is hugely prevalent in genre fiction: it’s been around so long, and has such amazing cultural penetration, that it shows up in SF (A Canticle for Leibowitz, Warhammer 40,000), comic books (Magdalena), thrillers (Dan Brown), and of course horror and all its various subgenres (The Exorcist, every vampire story ever told, etc.). Mormonism is smaller and newer and therefore far less well-known, but couldn’t some of the same tropes be used with it? How would some of our classic horror stories change and grow when seen through the lens of Mormonism? It’s a fascinating idea.

Consider one of my favorite tropes, mentioned briefly above with the comic book Magdalena: the idea that the Catholic church has a Black Ops division somewhere in the depths of the Vatican, trained from birth and armed with deadly weapons and holy weapons blessed by the priests and Pope. After all, if demons are real, a religion with the power of God should be uniquely equipped to deal with them, right? The first story in the Mormons & Monsters anthology, “Other Duties” by Nathan Shumate, takes this Catholic standby and warps it through the a Mormon lens, crafting a story that’s not only exciting and creepy but deeply hilarious to anyone versed in Mormon culture. First of all, Mormons use a lay clergy–rather than lifelong, professional priests we use members of the local congregation, called and set apart for a short time to hold a particular position as a teacher or administrator. This means, of course, that the Mormon demon hunters are not finely honed super-soldiers but friendly neighborhood volunteers; the hero of the story is a Mormon bishop simply taking his turn as the “Agent Bishop” in charge of demon hunting. There’s an agent Bishop for physical facilities (making sure the buildings are maintained, etc.), so why not for demon hunting as well? This brings up another distinctly Mormon quirk, which is our hilariously banal bureaucracy: the hunter learns about the demon via a phone tree, no doubt originating with a home teacher, and calls his counselors to accompany him on the mission; one is visiting Idaho for a baby blessing so they have to fill in with the Elders’ Quorum President, who hasn’t really been trained yet. They start with a prayer, load up on sacred weapons, and finish up with some paperwork and a phone call to the Relief Society. Like I said: Mormon culture insiders are going to find this anthology hilarious, but there’s just as much fun for those who are only familiar with the other half of the equation, the elements of the story before it was Mormonized. Watching these authors play with the tropes, and discovering how each trope gets altered by the Mormon theme, is like a delicious little cultural/literary treasure hunt. I can’t get enough it.

My own story, the last in the very large anthology, is called “The Mountain of the Lord,” and follows the adventures of a young Mormon pioneer seemingly cursed with a tendency to turn into a giant rock monster. It’s a Mormon Horror Wild West Superhero story, essentially, which makes me doubly grateful for this anthology because there’s literally no other venue in which I could possibly have published it. Many of the contributing authors I’ve talked to have told similar stories: they wrote something, thought it was fun, but put it away because where can you sell a story about a Mormon missionary fighting monsters on the Amazon river? This anthology has discovered a bizarre yet wonderful seam of material far richer than any of the participants may have realized when they started last year. I can only hope we’ll see a Monsters & Mormons 2 sometime in the future.

If you want a copy, you can have one in seconds: the book is available as an ebook here for only $4.99, which is a steal for a collection this big and varied and interesting. Buy it now, and let me know what you think. If you want an actual paperback, they’re a lot harder to come by, but I can still hook you up–you can pre-order them on the same website, plus I’ll have some at every convention and signing I go to next year, so you can pick one up from me then. The paperbacks are more expensive ($23.99), but I’ll be selling them at cost to keep them as available as possible.

This was a fun project to write for, and even more fun to read. If you’re Mormon and love genre fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick this up; if you’re not Mormon, I think you’ll still probably dig it.