Creativity Thrives on Limitations

I wrote this blog a head of time because I’m at Gen-Con 50 this weekend. Come visit me at my table in Authors Avenue!

Wise words.

Reboots are all the rage now, especially at the cinema. I’ve heard it said that the biggest reason for this is because it allows creators the “freedom” do something new without the constraints of continuity; they don’t have to be limited by what has come before. In other words, they can do whatever they want.

But is that such a bad thing?

Case in point: the infamous Spider-Man storyline One More Day. The creators at Marvel Comics (the supposed “House of Ideas”) had complained for years that they wished Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) hadn’t married Mary Jane Watson back in the mid-1980s. Why? Because they claimed they couldn’t think of enough good stories for a married Spider-Man. Seriously. Did they think all of life’s excitement was gone after getting married? Must stories always include sexual tension and unrequited love? Anyway, to “remedy” this, they didn’t just have them get a divorce. No, that meant they didn’t love each other. Instead, Peter and MJ made a literal deal with the Devil to erase their marriage from continuity. To save Aunt May’s life because she was dying from a gunshot meant for Peter.

Dumbest. Idea. Ever!         

I quit reading Spider-Man comics after that. From what I’ve heard, Peter Parker, now a 30-year-old single, spends a lot of his time whining about being alone. (Cue eye roll).

Most fans hated this story, and rightfully so. It was a character assassination done by the creators to serve themselves and not the readers. All because they didn’t want the constraints of writing a married Spider-Man.

Recently at a Children of the Wells creative meeting, my friend/collaborator Nick Hayden mentioned that writing for our serial, with all its continuity and parameters, forced him to be a better writer. It required that he keep consistent with what was written before and follow the rules we’d set down for the world. In many ways, since not all of the characters he created and since the ones he did create had changed since he last wrote them, he was a caretaker for these story and characters. They weren’t entirely his, so he had to be more careful with them. Beyond that, though, it required that he dream up ideas that worked with what had been written before as opposed to going with whatever came into his head.

There are constraints in most creative endeavors. Even improv comedy has to have parameters. It gives the performers a framework from which to work, a way to focus their creativity. If they were sent on stage with no direction, they’d either come up with nothing or not say anything funny, most likely.

Are there times when creators should start fresh? Yes. But that should be done in such a way that respects what came before, respects the characters, and respects the readers.

Do you think creativity thrives within restrictions? Why or why not?

In Anticipation of Gen-Con 50

Image courtesy of DDO Players.

Next week is the biggest convention I attend as an author: Gen-Con. The show is celebrating its 50th anniversary. That’s an incredible run! The show gets bigger every year even without having huge celebrity guests all the time. They sold out of four-day badges a month ago!

As usual, though, the show snuck up on me. Yes, I paid for my table months ago, but since I have this crazy habit of keeping myself constantly busy, I don’t think about what else I could do at the show until it’s nearly upon me. I like to enjoy the cons I table at, so I try to attend some of the events at the show. The problem is Gen-Con is so huge, many of the events sell out months ahead of time. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of other events to attend, but it is a bit disappointing to see some of the more interesting things sell out that far in advance.

Another bummer is the fact that I won’t be staying at one of the adjacent hotels to the Indiana Convention Center like I’ve been doing for several years. Let’s just say things didn’t work out for that to happen. So, I had to get a room at a hotel seven miles away, which means making a potentially long commute every day to the convention. I’m not looking forward to that.

I won’t have any “new” books with me, but not because I haven’t been writing. No, my next book, Zorsam and the God Who Devours, which I co-authored with Nick Hayden and Aaron Brosman, just won’t be published in time for the convention. It’s still a few months away. (More on that later).

On the bright side, I’m happy to announce that I’ve been invited to be on a panel! (G-Fest must’ve been the start of some good luck for me). Specifically, it’s the Christianity and Gaming panel put on by the Christian Gamers Guild. I’ve attended that panel most years I’ve gone to Gen-Con, so it was a surprise and an honor to be asked to be on it. I’m not sure what to expect. It’s only the third time I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m excited.

Other than that, I’m eager to meet all my Gen-Con friends in Authors Avenue again, and, of course, all of you wonderful readers!

See you in Indy!

Do Fans Always Know What’s Best?

Image courtesy of Lean Pathways.

In 2015, my friends Nick Hayden and Tim Deal produced an episode of their podcast, Derailed Trains of Thought, about who “owns” a story. This included the writer, the audience, and the publisher. That planted a kernel in my head that has recently bloomed. It has to do with whether the fans of something—particularly in the creative fields—know what’s best for what they like.

The most immediate example I can think of is taken from this video on Linkin Park (produced before the sad death of frontman Chester Bennington). The host mentions that the band, which has experimented with different sounds in all of their albums, was constantly being asked by their fans if they’d make something like their first album, “Hybrid Theory,” again. This prompted an angry response from Bennington, who more or less said that was a great album but that the band was working on new things now.

Honestly, I sympathized with Bennington. It can be annoying when you’re trying new things but your fanbase just wants you to keep making all the same stuff. If I had readers coming up to me, saying, “Why don’t you write more books like Pandora’s Box?” I’d be vexed. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to be a writer who got pigeonholed, as many have been. It’s why, believe it or not, many authors use pseudonyms if they write something outside their usual genre. The publisher thinks that readers won’t buy the book because it isn’t the same stuff they’re used to seeing from that author. Now, some authors are such huge names they can get away with it now (like, say, Stephen King), but they’re exceptions. It is something I’ve considered doing, though. I have some ideas so divergent, seeing my name on the cover might disinterest readers.

The problem is fans can like something so much they just want to keep getting more of the same. But no matter how much an artist tries to refine it, it gets stale. Instead of branching out and taking risks, they play it safe. That might bring them money, but it won’t help them grow as artists. Changing things up, though, could scare their fans away because it isn’t the same. People like familiarity and often oppose something new. Just talk to any Whovian (Doctor Who fan) whenever a new Doctor or Companion is introduced. Many won’t like them at first, if at all.

Am I saying artists shouldn’t listen to their fans? No, not at all. There are times when an artist could stray so far off the beaten path he produces something that ceases to resemble what he created that made his fans like him in the first place. Or it’s just plain bad. Believe me, I’ve often said that I could write a better script than most people in Hollywood when lamenting the dumb decisions made in films and TV shows I like.

The other problem, though, is the creator may hear what fans want and try to give it to them, but they end up not liking it. Now, this could be because the creators misunderstood what the fans wanted (i.e. the demand that DC/Warner Bros. make a Superman movie where he “fights” a villain, which resulted in the oft-criticized Man of Steel), but more often, I think, fans realize that what they wanted wasn’t what was best.

In the end (hey, an unintentional Linkin Park reference!), it boils down to trust. Fans need to trust creators to know what they’re doing and that the creators are taking their thoughts/ideas into consideration. Creators need to trust their storytelling instincts and abilities and not be people pleasers. It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Even the best-reviewed films have detractors. Even literary classics have readers who don’t like them. That’s why my mantra has always been, “Story is king.” Whatever is the right thing to do for the story, whether that’s what the fans or creator want, is what’s best.

Do you think fans or creators know what’s best for stories? Why? What are some good and bad examples of both?

Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who, and Double Standards

It’s been nearly two weeks since Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who (one of my favorite shows), and the Internet has been on fire ever since.

I added my voice to this fire by speaking out against this casting and declaring that I was done watching the show. This led to arguments online and offline full of ad hominems aimed at me. As far as I care, if someone has to resort to such tactics, they automatically lose the debate regardless of how good their points are. I was accused of sexism and misogyny and told I would scare away any and all potential dates by saying what I was saying (in other words, I’d never get a girlfriend).

I kept quiet after a day or two, but now I’ll lay out what I think are nuanced reasons for disliking the BBC’s decision. I won’t repeat what I said in a 2014 blog (which has now garnered me some derision). This isn’t as simple as, “The Doctor is a woman, therefore I hate it!”

Artwork by Zapekanka. (http://zapekanka.deviantart.com/)

Let me begin by asking my female readers this:

If you heard Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games was being transformed into a boy and recast with a male actor, would that upset you?

If you said yes, then you may understand why I don’t like the idea of female Doctor.

It’s perfectly plausible that it could happen. Given the Capital’s penchant for genetic manipulation, vanity, and cruelty, it’s quite reasonable they could force a sex change operation on Katniss. But neither Suzanne Collins (the original author) nor Lionsgate ever did that. It would’ve made things needlessly complicated and messy. If they wanted to tackle gender issues within that universe, they’d have been better off creating a new character.

I say this because that’s the sort of arguments I hear for making the Doctor a woman. Recent additions in the Who mythos—most notably his archenemy, the Master, regenerating into a woman—paved the way for this happening (despite the fact that if Gallifreyans could do this, their society would look vastly different, but I digress). Others say science fiction has always tackled the issues of the day, and issues of gender identity are certainly hot topics now. But as I said above, taking a main character who’s been established as being male (or female) and forcing a gender swap just to make a social commentary isn’t good storytelling. It just makes the character a means to an end and doesn’t do the character or the audience any favors.

What saddens me is I’m pretty sure that if a female character was changed to a male in a similar fashion, there would be huge backlash and it would be considered legitimate. However, most people who criticize the decision to make the Doctor a woman are met with nothing but trolling and accusations. That, True Believers, could be extrapolated to be a double standard.

Would I object to a rebooted Doctor Who with a new continuity and new characters that included a female Doctor? No. That’s worked for other franchises like Battlestar Galactica with a female Starbuck. How about a spin-off with a Doctor-esque Time Lady? That’d be cool. Heck, 5th Doctor actor Peter Davison even suggested that a few years ago while also saying the Doctor shouldn’t be a woman. (His opinion hasn’t changed, and he’s been criticized for it).

Another argument in favor of this decision is it’ll give little girls a Doctor for a role model. While I’ve argued that representation is overrated and people can relate to a well-written character regardless of demographics, the fact remains that people still gravitate toward characters who look like them. But what about the little boys who are about to see their hero morph into a woman? Wouldn’t that be a shock? Might they ask awkward questions of their parents? It’ll already be difficult adjusting to a new Doctor; this’ll only make it harder. They might even stop watching.

Admittedly, this is all pure theory. I have no way of knowing what will happen. Regardless, as much as it pains me, I don’t plan to watch the series beyond the Christmas special. I find this decision to be a desperate gimmick motivated by political correctness aimed to please a vocal group of fans who don’t speak for the whole fanbase.

Do you agree or disagree with me? Why? What do you think of this decision? (Please keep your comments civil).

Drafted for a Panel and Other G-Fest XXIV Stories

You get two blogs this week since I missed last Thursday!

I went to G-Fest for the first time a few weeks ago in Rosemont, Illinois. I was accompanied by my Kaijuvision Radio co-host Brian Scherschel. It’s a convention dedicated to Godzilla, kaiju, and tokusatsu. I’ve heard about it for years but never attended. There are a lot of great stories I could tell about the show, most of which you can read about on the Kaijuvision Radio Twitter feed and in Brian’s latest blog on the podcast’s website, but there are a few writing-related ones I wanted to share with you.

I attended a pair of kaiju writing seminars the Saturday of the con. The first was a session for writers to share their ideas and get feedback. Since I’ve been kicking around ideas for a sequel to Destroyer (mostly because people kept feeding me ideas that I’ve churned in my head), I thought I’d talk about it in this session. However, I realized I was the only one there who’d never been published (except for the moderator), so I decided I would let the other attendees take priority and offered feedback. If there was time, then I would share. There were some great stories and concepts presented, such as a first-person tale told from a kaiju’s perspective, but the one I found most interesting was a story treatment for a fanfilm that included a potentially brilliant meta-commentary on the Godzilla franchise. I told the presenter that it reminded me of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. That was one of several pieces of advice that brought several people to me afterward wanting to add me on Facebook. I gave them my bookmark/business card that directed them to my website and other professional social medias.

(So, if you’re one of those people: Hello and welcome!)

Later in the day, I arrived early for a writing advice panel. I overheard the moderator say he wanted to add one more panelist (they brought on a new one thinking one panelist wouldn’t make it, but he did and they decided to add one more). I jokingly said I was a published writer with some kaiju credentials. “Oh?” he said. I flashed him the Amazon page for Destroyer and mentioned my kaiju short story in The Worlds of Nathan Marchand, among others, and he replied, “Get behind the table!”

Yes, True Believers, I got myself “drafted” onto the panel! It was only the second time in my life I’ve been on one.

Once more, the advice I offered impressed attendees and panelists so much, they came to me afterward for more advice and contact info. The moderator even said he would keep my name in mind when planning the same panel for next year’s G-Fest.

I know I sound like I’m bragging, but to be honest, I was surprised by all of this. Weird, right? The shameless self-promotor is surprised when people actually like him. Maybe it’s because I’ve yet to make it big or because I hang out with brilliant writers like Nick Hayden (I haven’t name-dropped him in a while, haven’t I? 😛 ). I suppose I take those as signs that I’m not as talented as I want to think I am. But success isn’t always a marker of ability. Plenty of gifted people (including Mr. Hayden) haven’t become huge successes and many untalented people are big stars. And just because someone is better than me doesn’t mean my talent is worthless. It’s hard to live among giants, though.

I guess what I’m saying is I haven’t been “discovered” yet.

Did you attend G-Fest this year? What did you think of it? Are do you deal with feelings of inadequacy as an artist?

Worshipping Work

Overworking turns you into Vishnu? Who knew? (That rhymed!)

While I don’t often get political here on my website, I’ve made it no secret that I’m a conservative. However, my loyalties are to ideas and not to, say, Republicans or President Trump. I want to say that upfront since some people simply assume when I say I’m a conservative that it automatically makes me either of the latter.

I bring this up because there’s been something about conservatives that kinda bugs me, but I’m not sure any of them realize what they’re saying. Conservatives are always railing against entitlement programs, insisting that they do nothing but encourage laziness. While I would say there are those who genuinely do need the help (though I’d prefer that help come from people and not the government), I mostly agree with conservatives on this. However, I’ve often heard callers on the local conservative radio show tell the host—almost like they were bragging—about all the many, many hours they put into their jobs/businesses, often with little or no sleep. They always seemed like the kind of people I talked about in a previous blog.

As often happens, to countermand one extreme, people succumb to the opposite extreme. In this case, from laziness to overworking. In fact, some conservatives almost seem to worship work. It’s as if those copious hours being productive are the noblest of sacrifices offered to some sort of ethereal god. What they don’t mention, though, is what those sacrifices probably included: their health, their family, and perhaps even their sanity. They live their lives making money and chasing prosperity.

Yet what they don’t realize is it makes them vulnerable to the sins of greed and pride. They accumulate wealth to provide for themselves and perhaps a family, but what good is riches if they have no time to enjoy it? What good is providing for a family they rarely, if ever, see? They won’t be a person to them, but a bank. Meanwhile, the wealth they piled up becomes a means by which they can brag about themselves. They’re better than the “lazy” people on welfare because they earned what they have. It makes them feel superior, perhaps even pompous.

I’m not saying hard work, money, or prosperity are evil things. Far from it. But in the end, wealth is only a resource humans can use to make a difference in the world around them. What’s important, what has long-lasting and eternal significance, is what we do for each other. Life is about investing in people, not things. Money, possessions, businesses—they’re all fleeting.

Do not wear yourself out to get rich;
    do not trust your own cleverness.
Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone,
    for they will surely sprout wings
    and fly off to the sky like an eagle.
(Proverbs 23:4-5)

What we do for people, though, will outlive us. Using our money to donate to charity that help inner-city kids or feed starving people; buying thoughtful gifts for those we love; employing our neighbors at our businesses. All of these give us chances to show love and teach lessons.

Besides that, God didn’t design human beings to work constantly. Some argue that the Sabbath—a weekly day of rest—isn’t relevant anymore, but I disagree. We all need to stop working and let ourselves recharge. If we don’t, we won’t have as much, if anything, to offer others. Plus, it forces us to trust God more. Instead of working to provide for ourselves, a Sabbath requires us to trust God to provide for anything we might be able to get for ourselves if we worked. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Balance is key. Put in your 40 hours a week, but try to avoid overtime. Why? So you have the margin to invest in the lives of your loved ones. Work eight hours, play for eight hours, and sleep for eight hours. That comes to a 24-hour day. Equilibrium.

What do you think? Do some people “worship” work? Do you? What can be done to countermand this? Should it?

Dancing with the Heel

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This flash fiction was written during a writers group meeting I attended. I was given a postcard with a photo and told to write a story inspired by it. I scanned the image and included it below. I thought at first it looked like a woman’s foot wearing a dance shoe, but then I thought it looked like a foot wearing a Greek sandal. That brought about this little tale. Enjoy!)

The image that inspired this flash fiction.

Achilles, clad in his best chiton, tapped into his warrior’s training as he rose onto his tiptoes and spun. His partner, Helen of Troy, whose face was ready to launch another thousand ships, spun with him, the skirt of her gold-trimmed white peplos billowing. But as Achilles descended, he stumbled and fell, nearly dragging Helen down with him.

“That’s the tenth time you tried that turn!” exclaimed Helen. “I’m going to need a new dance partner at this rate! The Greek Gala is only a few days from now!”

“I’m sorry,” replied Achilles, cradling his left foot. “I’ve not been the same since that heel injury during the Trojan War.”

Helen sighed. “Good thing I know an excellent podiatrist.”

My Upcoming Book Signings/Convention Appearances

My blog this week is a simple one. First, I need to update this info. Second, I need time for my “real” writing. 😛

Anyway…

Convention season is in full swing, and if you’ve been following my social media, I’ve already been to several shows, though not as a vendor. Regardless, I’ll be attending several conventions as either a vendor or an attendee between now and the end of the year. What follows are my currently scheduled appearances. I will probably add and subtract appearances as time goes on.

“Official” Appearances

Gen-Con 5 in Indianapolis, Indiana (Aug. 17-20) – I return to the “best four days in gaming” for the sixth year in a row. The show will be held at the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium. I’ll be in the massive vendor hall in Authors Avenue, which next door to Artist Alley and near other literary-themed vendors and guests. I’ll hopefully have a preview chapter and cover art for my next book (that’s something I should blog about soon…). I’ll also have a new story in the annual anthology Missing Pieces, which compiles stories written by Gen-Con authors.

You can learn more about the convention here.

 Fantasticon Fort Wayne in Fort Wayne, Indiana (Oct. 28-29) – Last year was so fun, I had to return to my new “hometown” comic-con. The traveling show will once again be held at the Grand Wayne Center. I’ll be joined by my writer friend/collaborator Nick Hayden and possibly my Kaijuvision Radio co-host Brian Scherschel. By then, my new book should be out, so this might be your first chance to get signed copies from me.

Learn more about this show here.

Stay tuned about possibly signings at a bookstore in Goshen, Indiana, and author fairs at libraries in Fort Wayne and Kendallville, Indiana!

“Unofficial” Appearances

G-Fest XXIV in Rosemont, Illinois (July 14-16) – I’ve been a Godzilla/kaiju fan for a long time, but this will be my first time attending this show, which is essentially the San Diego Comic-Con of the giant monster fandom. It’ll be at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare. Brian Scherschel and I will be there promoting Kaijuvision Radio, although we won’t be behind a table in the vendor hall. No, we’ll be mingling with our fellow fans and attending film screenings and events.

You can learn more about this show here.

I may also attend Indy Pop-Con, Grand Rapids Comic-Con, and Grand-Con. I’ll keep you posted if I do.

See you around, True Believers!

Predicting the Future…in My Books

Cover art by Tomislav Tikulin.

Science fiction writers have always tried to predict the future with their stories. Something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long, long time is how my books have done that. Or at the very least been a little ahead of the curve. No, I haven’t seen any giant cyborg dragons attacking Moscow or been whisked away to another world via a port-a-potty. However, I started to notice a few years ago that some of the concepts I used in Pandora’s Box and its companion short stories (“Suicide Soldier,” in particular) began to appear in current events. It was a bit frightening, honestly.

Back in 2014, Ebola was all over the news. An outbreak started in West Africa, but it also popped up in several developed countries, including the United States. It was brought over by travelers who had no idea they were infected. Once it was discovered they carried the virus, they were isolated to be treated. As you would expect, many people were scared by this. They feared an unstoppable outbreak in their own country. The thing of it was they didn’t understand how the virus was spread (it’s through bodily fluids) or have faith in the CDC to contain those infected.

Regardless, that fear was aggravated by some who said ISIS could use Ebola as a bio-weapon—by intentionally infecting operatives and having them interact with as many people as possible to spread it. This could be done because it would be difficult to smuggle out the infected bodily fluids. Considering ISIS was known for using suicide bombers, it seemed to be a natural progression that they would start infecting operatives with deadly diseases in order to spread them. They could potentially kill far more people that way.

Around this same time was when the Syrian refugee crisis became a bigger hot-button issue for several reasons, in particular because ISIS was smuggling operatives into other countries amid those refugees. Given the severity of the crisis, the compassionate response from rest of the world, and the difficulty of vetting refugees, it was a prime means of infiltration.

So, there’s an outmanned and outgunned terrorist organization that, at least at one point, was considering infecting suicide operatives with a deadly disease in order to spread it and was already infiltrating other countries with operatives disguised as refugees.

Like I said, I was a bit scared when I put two and two together.

Cover Art by Zach Hayden

For those who don’t know, I first conceived my novel Pandora’s Box back in 2002, but it wasn’t published until 2010. A key component of the story is a would-be world dictator beginning a non-nuclear world war by unleashing a horrific genetically-engineered virus in the most powerful nations on Earth, thereby forcing a two-prong crisis. The disease is essentially rabies on steroids (think the Rage virus from the movie 28 Days Later), which not only demoralizes the dictator’s enemies, the infected serve as cannon fodder, which presents a moral crisis (is it right to kill the infected on the battlefield?). I had this backstory in my head as I was writing the book, but I could never find a place to include it. That was until several of my writer friends put together the anthology The Day After, for which I submitted my story “Suicide Soldier.” The main character in that is one of the dictator’s operatives, a young woman with nothing to live for, who is sent to the United States as a tourist in order to spread the virus, which she is carrying.

As you can see, my stories actually became more relevant as time went on. I’d originally been inspired to write Pandora’s Box by all the gun control talk in the news (the book addresses this on a macro scale by using nuclear disarmament), and while that’s still a huge issue to this day, I was shocked to see how ahead of things my imagination was when these other issues started hitting the news. While the Ebola outbreak has faded from the public eye, the refugee crisis remains a point of contention, especially as terrorism increases in Europe.

I won’t pretend that I (or my stories) have any answers for how to deal with these problems. At least not any big answers. What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll have to read my stories to find out.

Have you ever written a story that ended up becoming “prophetic”? What was it about? What real-life events did it “predict”?

A Man from Another Time Exploring Another Universe