Ever Famous?

Reach for the starrrrrrrs, pardner!Ever Famous?

I overheard an interesting conversation earlier, but it wasn’t really all that interesting for its content. It was interesting because of what it made me think of. Snippets of some other life are like that. A lot of the time they inspire more than they intrigue.

Anyway, the thing I overheard made me think of topic I think about fairly often. I was sitting at a coffee shop, of course, and scrolling through random online media. Also of course. I was lending half-an-ear to the surrounding people. It was busy. Being a payday weekend, everyone was out shopping and perusing the wares of a strip mall I dropped into in search of house wares. I needed an airtight container where I could seal my cereal in defense against stale flakes and bugs.

The people at the coffee shop were also busy and moving fast to stay busy. Most weren’t sticking around long enough to strike up a proper conversation with their companions. They waited for their drinks with an impatiently cocked hip or with the kill-some-time swipes through their phone. Most of the snippets of conversation were about where to go next, the latest political nightmare, or how many calories some drink had.

There was, however, one group of friends that had taken up residence one table over. As friends do, they were making fun of one another for random things.

One didn’t understand the difference between a normal bank and a credit union. They were declared to be ignorant, stupid, and “Haven’t you heard of Google?”

Another was surprised to learn that you were required to have insurance to own a car. That resulted in less insults and more bitter agreement that such a rule was a terrible inconvenience.

But for the most part, whatever they said, as soon as one of them spoke up about something, the others made fun of that something.

One of the friends mentioned a hobby of collecting quarters. For non-Americans, or perhaps those Americans that don’t look at their coins, she was referring to the quarters with specific designs on them. It’s a campaign by the U.S. Mint called “America the Beautiful” that releases new quarters every year for states and notable places throughout the United States. They’ve been in circulation since 2010 and have 54 distinct designs on the backs of quarters.

The response to the young woman’s hobby was mostly negative. There was one friend that offered a generic, “That’s kinda cool.” The remaining reactions ranged between “That’s dumb.” and “That’s useless.”

Useless was the keyword that got me thinking.

Now, granted this is a group of friends that seems to have fun with making fun. They were all smiles as they insulted one another about trivial things. Maybe they don’t even believe what they’re saying. Some people like saying things for the sake of a laugh or to get a rise out of someone. So, the content of their conversation was mostly fluff. Not all that important.

But, it got me thinking.

My hobby, though it’s probably clear in some fashion, is writing. I like to write. I like to create things in general, but in particular I like to write. The main thing I write are fiction stories. That’s fun. One day, maybe, I’d like to publish one of my stories as a book.

Though, I often ask myself a question of little value. At least, I don’t value the question that much because I’ve come to believe that the question doesn’t matter. I only still ask it because part of me frets over stupid things. It’s difficult to stop yourself from fretting over stupid things.

But, how many people read a book? Not like, how many people buy the book. Not even how many people open the book to look at it. But how many people actually read it? The whole thing. The people that turn every page. Whisper every word. Hang on the end of each sentence and rush into the next.

Now, every book has a different audience, and every reader is not necessarily reading for the same reason. But, let’s pretend that we’re talking about those that want to read it. For whatever reason.

There are people, websites, organizations, that analyze this kind of thing. Of course there are. There are a billion sources of data in the world these days. We’re all little bits of someone else’s tracking system, right? And yet that data isn’t so easy to get at most of the time. Or it’s not very easy to digest. And so we often rely on nice bite-sized tidbits that give us the approximation of an idea. As usual, the curse of simplification is that it obscures the truth.

We like narratives. We like a story. We like an idea that’s been honed and sharpened and whittled down to something clever and pretty. Even if it is a repeat of a repeat.

For instance. Physical books are continually declared dead, alive, reborn, or somewhere in between. Zombie books seem to be doing well.

But what about the data? Well take some American Pew Research for one data point. Reading is declining! There are people that haven’t read a book all year! Well. Yeah. Not surprised. But what does this measure? How do we measure reading anymore in a world of content? These studies focus on the term “book” in a way that doesn’t account for other things that involve reading. What about online serials? What about in-game content for MMORPGs and games in general? Does it count if people only read screenplays? Or if they read magazines, or comics, or pamphlets, or zines, or whatever else by the dozens?

Data is meaningless, after all.

And The Long Tail continues to lengthen. Niches can forever get more specific. And that isn’t any kind of surprise. Between self-made bubbles, social media bubbles, and good ol’ cognitive bias, the easiest path is selectivity.

We do tend to focus on the things that interest us. Fortunately, now we can actually find more of whatever interests us with minimal effort. We’re not trapped to some localized version of the world. The town we live in no longer controls our information flow. Gone are the days of monoculturism and all hail the rise of globalization! Now everyone will be the same!

Right? Well. Maybe not.

Really, our neighborhoods, our communities, have moved to the cloud. The borders and walls between cultures have gone digital. Now we can just ignore the pieces of the world that we don’t care for.

We can each be uniquely more individual than ever before.

So. Collecting quarters. Useless? I dunno. What’s useful? A skill that brings about profit and a livelihood? Since when has that mattered when it comes to hobbies? Does something have to bring an eventual goal of wealth to be pursued? That doesn’t seem very fun.

I mean, don’t we all do something as a “day job” that’s useful so we can do the useless thing at night?

So, how many people read a book? How many people will read my book? My stories? One?

Zero?

And if it is zero, should I care?

Nah. After all. I wrote it to fill my own special personal niche space of preference.

Review: Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl

Black Pearl Cover
Cover for the Black Pearl

“Will it be dangerous?”
“It is not for the faint of heart, and there are no refunds.”

Rin and Alexander (Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl)

The right book can take you to a faraway place, where the people are familiar in a hundred different ways. The characters become friends, and even after a journey they’ll keep constant company.

The Black Pearl series, by Jennifer Flath, is one of those stories that I began to breathe and look forward to visiting. I still do. It’s like finding an overgrown stone cottage out in a wild spot of forest. It’s one of those places that feels ancient and mystical and timeless. It feels real and unreal at the same time. It’s lovely.

This review covers two completed books in the series: The Black Pearl and The Memory Spell. A third book, The Destiny Detour is currently being published as a chapter-by-chapter web serial. But these tales are focused on a young woman with mysterious presence named Rin. The epic follows her struggles to save existence from dangerous forces. Along the way, she meets friends and enemies that are crucial to her development as a person and key to her success in restoring order to the world.

Alexander could not decide how this news made him feel. If anyone was brazen enough to attack a camp full of Malum, it would be his sister. Should he be hopeful or terrified?

Characters

Flath focuses almost entirely on her characters, and the result is wonderful. I care about every person, good or evil, ambivalent or invisible, in this series. I want to know all of their stories, past present, and future. They’re all distinct and interesting and have little conflicting bits of personality that become engaging and intriguing. How will this group of people react to this situation, or the next one? I began to read as a way to hang out with these people just as much as I did to follow the plot. And there was never conflict just for the sake of inciting drama. Everyone seems very rational in their irrational outbursts or stupid decisions.

A useful writing exercise for characters is to describe them without referring to how they look. Describe them with motivations and personality and non-physical character traits. Rin is kind and curious and forgiving; she is a nurturing soul with a strength of will to resist anyone’s hope to break the Good within. Alexander is a restless scholar that wants to know everything and share that knowledge with someone he cares about; he is the embodiment of progress and growing beyond past mistakes after coming to new understandings. And Shrilynda is a woman grown distant from humanity through her quest for power and the ability to control her every situation; she is self-serving indifference and the callous disregard of ends-justifies-the-means.

The actions of these characters define them. They are strong representations of character and ideals. It takes some time to get to know some of their motivations, but it is wholly worthwhile. And Flath introduces each of the main players over careful spaces of time and action. Many begin as the embodiment of one specific archetype or set of traits, but they are gradually given depth and flaws.

But this is no Game of Thrones or Dark Knight. There are no major figures of gray ambiguity. For the most part, this story paints groups and people in swathes of light and dark, one side or the other. And that is refreshing. To me, it is more than welcome. Plus, this only adds to the fantastical mythological feeling of the story. I like the stark good and evil presented in these books. Hints at philosophical gray areas are there at the edge of the narrative, and that’s enough.

Rin smiled slightly. “Does your sword often send books or fire flying at you?”
“Not even once.” Alexander shook his head.

Setting

The Black Pearl series takes place on a different planet somewhere. Perhaps it is an alternate universe. Maybe it’s some kind of experimental hologram. It could be a different galaxy. There’s never any concrete explanation, but there are hints. That doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that the stories just scratch the surface of a living world that stands on its own with created elements while borrowing the best parts of comfortable fantastical elements. There are unicorns and giant scorpions and overly-educated panthers. There’s a great crystal palace and orc-like tribes fighting over scraps of riverside real-estate. This is the world many stories have inhabited, but it’s not just some lifeless carbon copy pasted over from Tolkien or Lewis. It’s an incarnation that shows a vivid imagination willing to take ideas and blend them and grow them into something stronger.

And it’s done with careful brush strokes of meaningful detail. There are no long passages describing places or things in this series, and instead Flath chooses to lace world building into conversation and immediacy. This can leave the world feeling somewhat like a blank canvas, but with these stories it’s executed carefully and works well. I always knew where I was and never felt like the story was a series of talking heads, and I was never glancing to the end of the paragraph in want of action. Of course, I’d love to get more info on the world and its cultures, but it really wouldn’t fit with the narrative style or pacing of the story. I’d rather wait for a reader’s companion out there in the future and enjoy the story without infodumps.

Plot

The Black Pearl starts quickly, lingers around in the middle as everyone gets to know one another, and then it rushes forward to a conclusion. The Memory Spell starts out with slow deliberate steps, gradually picks up speed, and then it shudders a little before snapping into its ending. Both are stories of great evils and the fight against catastrophic calamity. Black Pearl’s situation is definitely more dire, but with Memory Spell I cared more and knew more, so there was a feeling of more danger.

As mentioned earlier, the characters are the focus of these books. Their experiences, thoughts, goals, and reactions to the events are what I enjoyed. Sometimes, the focus is entirely on these individuals and their relationships. That slows the pacing, but it deeply enhances the impact of what happens to everyone.

Perhaps because of that focus on characters, neither of these are direct A-to-B novels. They’re winding roads of related events, though the character are always pursuing their goals. Sometimes their goalposts are moved, sometimes the goal is misunderstood, or maybe they have a hard time remembering what they were doing. These are good things. It keeps the reader guessing and nothing feels over-scripted or forced. The progressions of accomplishment are fought for and natural. It feels like Flath writes to share an adventure that happened, and adventures should never be drawn with a straight line.

Now, of the two books, The Black Pearl definitely has more of a straight line. It’s arc, though well drafted and expertly executed, is the bread and butter of Fantasy novels. A powerless, downtrodden, and unknown individual finds something / someone that sparks a change in their life and leads them to power and glory. They had the power within them the whole time. These are fantastic story elements that are fun and a delight to experience when done well. Fortunately, Flath uses tropes as they should be used: They are tools with which she conveys thought and emotion. Once again, the depth of character development pulls everything together.

The Memory Spell has a lot more surprises, but does very nearly veer into a wandering aimlessness. This may be intentional, or it might just be a byproduct of the character focus. Character progress from the first book is lost, everyone is split apart, and the cohesive team of before is shattered. So, aimlessness feels right. In fact, events of the book almost demand a lack of certainty. There was a real feeling of hopelessness and dark times that made the resolution all the more satisfying.

She had conjured a flying sheepskin rug.
At least it seemed harmless and was not currently breathing fire.

Overall

This review likely makes it plain that I am a fan of these stories. My objectivity toward the books is understandably questionable. So, for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly recommend Jennifer Flath’s series, and I will continue to read her work. She creates satisfying stories that are epic and heartwarming and fun. 4.5 stars.

Clarity and Readability – A star for rating stuff.
Originality and Interest – ratingStarHalf
Cohesiveness and Setting – A star for rating stuff.
Characters and Development – A star for rating stuff.
Enjoyability – A star for rating stuff.

Tropes: Everything is Done Did

Take it on down to Troperville.

No really. Take it down.

Oh man, don’t do the Tropes! Except, do the tropes, because not doing them is such a trope. And make sure you don’t do any subverting of tropes, because that’s getting old and I’m so tired and bored that I’m yawning already just thinking about it. But dang. Tropes! What the heck are they? Don’t write them, but do. Keep them in mind so you can understand the reasons they were used! Write them in a new way! Go to TVTropes and die from starvation and dehydration as you click the next rabbit-hole link.

But yeah. Tropes are a thing. Like, they are a noun that means something. The ol’ online dictionary describes them as literary or rhetorical devices, and yeah, that’s what they are. But I guess they mean more now, or at least they have connotations surrounding them with the gravitas of dark and stormy nights.

And really, that makes sense because culture is ever evolving. And in our global society of sharing everything its easier to transmit ideas in condensed form. Its like powdered milk in a box that needs a little added water. Or Ikea furniture where you see the display model and then you go find the boxes that make the thing you want. Some of those parts are interchangeable and can be used for multiple final forms. It’s an adult form of Lego except there’s a lot more screwing involved.

The greatest part of assemble-it-yourself furniture is that you could make it however you want. Do you want to paint all the stuff before you put it together? Sure, go ahead! Maybe you don’t like that headboard that the assembly guide suggested. Get another one instead and somehow make it work. Customize and reshape, reimagine and carefully build. The end product becomes something special and you’ve also got something to sit on. Yet, you don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want. Maybe you really do just need a decent chair. Get the parts, align the holes, and tighten the nuts and bolts. That’s perfectly fine. It’s functional. It’s nothing pretty or unique, but it works.

Weirdly enough, there’s an odd shifting perspective on what’s cool to customize. Cars are well-known art projects, and custom woodworking is pretty nicely received. Yet, some hobbies are seen as somewhat useless or maybe only for the highly trained. Like, model rocketry is fun. Plenty of people try it once or twice. They go to a store and buy a box and put together some kind of kit. Then sometimes people feel a hook sink deep into their skin. Then the kit isn’t enough. There are modifications that must be made.

At some point any hobby can become a sometimes negatively-associated word: obsession. Except, often enough, for those that are highly accepted like sports or cars or money. Isn’t that strange? Why is it so easy to point and laugh at someone’s drive? Why do we get to pick and choose what gives joy to someone’s life? Shouldn’t we just let people find their niche? Well, except murder and sexual assault and other types of violence. Those are bad and I don’t care if it gives someone a surge of excitement.

Seriously though to find a niche is a meaning of life itself. We all want to find the place we specifically fit. No general purpose user cares what computer they use. But, the gamers and the coders and the developers want a special machine at their fingertips. And to them there’s a purpose to that selection. There’s a reason for the choices they make. A hammer is a hammer if you just need something heavy to swing. But delicate taps to shape metal need a ball pein’s specific hit.

Speaking of smashing and hitting. Now’a’days tropes have started colliding and combining with memes. Ideas are fun to exploit and explore. It’s a pleasure to express that ideal version of a repeated dream. To me that raises the question of whether or not that will dull the senses. Will people get so used to blunt concentrated thought that subtlety will be a novelty?

Nah. We’re too adaptable. And instead of adaptable it’d probably be okay to say forgetful. The things we find popular today and tomorrow will be the next generations cool new thing. That’s the way of history. Cyclical thinking is… well. It keeps coming around.

So, certainly, everything’s been done before, but that’s probably just fine. Because, really, the creation of something new shouldn’t be the goal. The creation of something that speaks to you or to a reader is more important. Remember that book you read as a child? Or that movie or cartoon? Whatever it was, at whatever the age, it affected you deeply. It changed your life.

Someone out there hates your favorite thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a show, a story, a comic book, or a cake. Your tastes are not the same. The stuff you think is dumb or pointless? Someone else loves that too.

I guess, then? Do the tropes. Do whatever you want. But do it well.

-J.A.

Cliques: The Importance of a Writing Circle

Clique to Continue

Double-Clique to ???

The Lost Generation found each other to create their own popularity.

Aw but that’s a bit of an over-simplification isn’t it? Alright. Accepted. Generalizing anything into one distinct statement is Bad. Capital B. Intricacies are lost in simplicity. But then again, maybe that’s Good? Capital G. Are intricacies really all that important?

Yes! Yes we shout? We must understand the details. Get into the nitty gritty specifics on even the little bitty. Oh. But who has the time? How can you possibly get into the weeds about everything that exists? There’s simply too much, and not enough of me, nor you, to know everything. But of course not. There’s not enough time for anything, so let’s do nothing instead. Anyway, you’re a nerd if you’re really into something. I mean, nerds are cool now, so maybe that’s alright. So go ahead. Get good at something in particular. But not too good, because that’s also bad? Specialize just enough in something that you aren’t a Mary Sue. Except Batman?

Broad sweeping brush strokes are a stylistic choice that some artists use to evoke much through abstraction. Abstraction is an interesting thing to think about. We abstract to understand. And then? Once we understand the abstraction, we abstract the abstraction so that we can understand even more. Programming is great at abstraction. It’s all about taking something and encapsulating that something into something else until you have to do less to get more while hiding the fact that you did anything at all. Ask a programmer what took four hours and watch them cry. I like to think of it like the gas pedal of a car. You press on a pedal and the car moves forward. That is a lie. So is the following: All humans are murderers.

We accept some abstractions, but not others, because some are offensive.

But back on subject, which is that the Lost Generation were a group of creators that interacted to some extent and made beautiful things. How’s the saying go? “Surround yourself with greatness, and you’ll get jealous quickly?” But it’s inspiring. Sure. But it pushes you further. Farther. Sure. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in a while is that you should find someone’s work that you can’t help but imitate, and then try to be better than that. Try to be better than someone else. Yet. We are all equal, and be humble.

Balance. Is boring.

If you have a clique you will be more successful. Active social interaction helps things, and people, do better. Unfortunately, that better may worsen something for someone else. Give here, take there. Either way, you gotta group together to survive. That’s a basic thing. Cavemen did it and so do we. Not that they all really lived in caves, right? But don’t hang out with more than 150 of those people at once. We gotta have meaningful relationships or you’re just being promiscuous. Speaking of meaningful, the articles with meaningful data, meaningful research, and great information are all behind paywalls that require hefty sums. That sucks.

So. What a predicament we’re in as people that all want to be successful. That’s impossible. We can’t all be successful. Plus. In order to be successful you’d need to pool your resources together with a bunch of other people that want to be successful in the same way. And you all probably have to agree on some of the directions you’ll take at the same exact time! At least for a little while.

What’s the tipping point? It’s a myth. There is no tipping point. There is no breaking point where things begin to cascade. Have you ever played one of those quarter machines? Coin pushers? Wait. That’s wrong. There is a tipping point. Things do cascade. Once they’re already cascading? Luck can be made though.

Get enough people together, in one spot, to do one thing, and you will change something. We want to believe that this is a truth. But it is a lie as well. It is an abstraction of what actually happens. It grossly ignores the work and effort that goes into actual change. Unfortunately, we can’t all just spontaneously change.

I remember the day I stopped believing in prayer. I remember lying in bed and wondering about what I wanted to pray for. We should pray for good things to happen to other people, right? Pray for world peace. Pray for that dude over there to get his leg healed. Pray for that lady to get a better job or at least a raise. Give here, take there. Someone else prayed for another dude to get that same job. We can’t all be successful. But prayer is a great placebo. And more.

Certainties are helpful. They help us get along in the world so that we can keep on walking. Doubt is crippling. But, be skeptical. How much so? Should we believe in anything? Absolutely. Just believe in yourself. Be certain that you exist and that you can Do. After all, you’re breathing. But… There’s always a butt.

Join up with a bunch of people and do your damned best to follow a dream. Find a community that’s online, or next door, or down the street, or maybe it’s made up of four houses and a mythical boy with a lightning-bolt scar. Being part of something is crucial to facing loneliness and accepting that maybe loneliness isn’t always bad. Try everything at least once?

Eventually your dream will change, or someone else’s dream will change that you used to depend on to help carry your dream. But that’s not bad. Losing a friend, or a family member, or a dream, is good. It means you are progressing. It hurts. It makes me want to curl up under a blanket and stare at the hidden nothing behind my eyelids. Eventually I’ll start to think again. Perchance to dream.

Dreaming is good. Changing your dream is good as long as you keep dreaming. I want to dream of great things and magnificent achievements and wondrous  journeys that are impossible to ever achieve. And that impossibility is fine.

 

-J.A.

Inspiration to Ramble

Let Your Mind Wander

Or at least pretend you have a choice…

Inspiration is kind of like watching the dust motes in your vision. You know the ones I’m talking about? Those little shadows of nothingness that pass by like ghosts?

They’re a kind of entoptic phenomena called floaters, or muscae volitantes. Wikipedia tells me this, and then I click on another link.

We all know the rabbit holes of the internet, don’t we? There’s Wikipedia, TV Tropes, YouTube, and occasionally Urban Dictionary. These are the places you go for one bit of information, but then you see something else interesting. Then you follow a path that only you can see. It’s a bit like trailblazing through a virgin forest. Every step you take is new and unbroken by previous travelers. No two internet users take the same route.

A digital fingerprint is left by every individual that traverses the web. Large companies use tracking data to determine who you are without getting you to log on. Spend enough time on any machine and you’ll be paired up with an existing data cache that mostly resembles you. I like to imagine that there’s several versions of me out there. Some are small little glimpses of me on my worst days. Others are very-nearly-me, but they haven’t been merged into one thread because of some minor uncertainty.

It’s really difficult not to argue that those kinds of algorithms, the ones that determine who is who and the ones that make stock choices and the ones that figure out which thing you’ll buy on Amazon, aren’t actual intelligence. The field of AI loves to move the goalpost. A hundred years ago, people (probably, I’m making some leaping connections here) thought things that wiggled a little too much were alive. Fifty years ago, anything that could pass a Turing test might’ve been thought as Alive.

Alive?

What are we, us humans, if not a collection of tricks to get by from one situation to the next? There are plenty of things I do that are a required set of operations rather than willful intent. I don’t really want to go to work. I don’t really want to nod and say “Good Morning” to most people. I’m not good at those things because I don’t quite grasp the need behind them. I understand, but I don’t understand. But, it’s the norm. It is what has been demonstrated as expected. Therefore, I do. Inspiration is just a connection formed when I make enough data points in the line. We’re just fancy learning machines, aren’t we?

Processing a hundred different things together and then coming up with some new and valuable outcome is the definition of creativity. Well, the stark, literal, boring definition is: ‘a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.‘ I just looked it up as I wrote this. By that definition, robots, physical or digital, are some rather creative individuals.

Yet, I feel like that’s a hard thing for most to accept. Conversations in my head go like this, ‘You can’t call that creativity! It’s just programming!’ and ‘There’s something innate about creating! It takes innovation and great leaps of intuition!’ and ‘Inspiration is a byproduct of conscious thought!’

I disagree.

Most of the things that we find clever and interesting are the product of careful self-made algorithms. Humans are great at training themselves into patterns of thought. We go to school to learn new patterns of thought. Really Successful People study several varied patterns of thought and then mash them together into some Frankenstein’s monster of idea and concept.

Learn a bunch of stuff about solar panels. Now, learn a bunch of stuff about knitting. Maybe you’ll come up with a machine that knits together fibers that make better solar panels for cheaper. I don’t know. I had trouble thinking of two ideas far enough apart that they couldn’t be mashed together into some useful mix. Maybe I didn’t look far enough. Maybe all things are inherently useful to the understanding of all other things.

Some say you have to step back from a problem to find an answer. I don’t know who “they” are. I just did some searching to try and figure that out. There are a lot of articles and webpages out there that describe stepping back to figure things out. They’re named stuff like, “Why stepping back is the best way to move forward.”

Wikipedia has eight different problem solving methods included on their page about problem solving. I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb to say there’s likely hundreds more than those eight. One of them, from a book titled How to Solve It by George Pólya, has four steps: Understand the Problem. Make a plan. Carry out the plan. Look back on your work and consider how it could be better.

I’m frustrated every time I read about varying methods to do the same thing. This is a silly thing for me to do. Everyone understands life in different ways. Everyone has a past that forms and coerces them into who they will become. As Life progresses forward, the plural All-Encompassing version of that noun, the means to understand changes. That fuzzy repository of “global knowledge” gets larger and wiser with each passing day.

And yet, the myth of the singular genius still exists. We grasp the idea of exceptionalism so readily despite moving further from that capability with each breath. The only genius is in the collective mass that is teamwork and cooperation. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Sure. Sure. Whole sci-fi cultures are formed around the idea that committees are a terrible idea. A thousand movies champion the singular as a lone hero rushes into the war room with the Fantastic Idea, Daring Do, and Gumption to redirect a bickering group of stuffy old men. Anyone without a concrete goal will founder.

New Years resolutions are silly.

Getting somewhere is easy though. Like, let’s say I want to drive to Kansas. Why? I don’t know. The why is so rarely important to the future. I’m in Germany right now, so driving poses some difficulties grounded in physics. I could do this Thing that is suddenly so important that it must be Done. First, I’d sell some stuff. Second, I’d buy some tickets. Third, I’d drive to, and then on, a boat. Fourth, I’d drive off that boat and all the way to Kansas. Isn’t that boring?

A direct path from A to B is usually dull. It’s a way to pass time, or to fulfill an obligation, or to get to what you really want. It fulfills the requirement. There’s nothing wrong with that. In most cases, it’s necessary.

But? When you can? When you have the chance? When there isn’t some ticking bomb with red LED numbers counting away your fate? An indirect route allows you to gather a lot more experiences, good and bad, that can be entertaining.

So, maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t stare directly at the little eye floaters. Since I can never see what they really look like, I spend a lot more time imagining what their shapes could be.

-J.A.

Review: Laura Morrison – How to Break an Evil Curse

How to Break an Evil Curse Cover Image
The cover image for How to Break an Evil Curse.

The old lady shifted her gaze from Warren to somewhere off down the street as she launched into a monologue about the impending hunt, and how kids these days weren’t the same as they used to be, and neither were parents, and neither was society, and the whole of Fritillary was going down the tubes. Except Fritillary didn’t have plumbing, so that expression didn’t make sense. But the siblings weren’t listening anyway, so they weren’t confused.

Look, do you like to have fun? Yes? You too? You? Everyone? We’re all in agreement? Fun is good? Great. So start reading “How to Break an Evil Curse.” Lovely.

Oh, some of you believe that fun must be earned? Well, let’s see.

Summary

How to Break an Evil Curse is a ridiculous (good ridiculous) tromp through the land of Fritillary where things happen for no good reason and magic works for no good reason and the king is ruling badly for no good reason. So, essentially this is a world that perfectly mimics reality. And don’t worry, this is the good kind of ridiculous. It’s the same ridiculous found in Rodents Of Unusual Size, 42 being the meaning of life, and turtles going all the way down.

Real quick though, this is actually a review of two books. There’s Morrison’s How to Break an Evil Curse (HtBaEC) and then there’s HtBaEC 2, so called because it appears to be otherwise unnamed. The second of the series picks up fairly directly after the first book, and follows the same characters, and is also part of a larger arc that will lead into a third book. That said, the two have a distinct separation and can be read as completely standalone to one another.

Characters

An image of a raven, wings outstretched.
An image from the book’s insides.

HtBaEC starts with an introduction to a terrible person that is soulless, has way too much time on their hands, and constantly seems to pester everyone in the story. I’m of course talking about the narrator. I lied about the soulless part. This is a voice of humor and idle comments conveying a story with some pretty clear opinions on the world around it. This can be make or break it for some readers, but the narrator is a distinct character that comes off as a jolly family member telling the story to amuse children. I found the narrator’s whimsical storytelling to add a pleasant absurdity to the story, especially in some of its anachronisms and moments skipping boring parts of events.

From there we meet a truly soulless person, Mirabella, and her doting accomplice Farland Phelps. One’s a prisoner in the Forest of Looming death, and the other is a wizard. She’s plotting to get revenge on the king, and he seems half-intent on that but also half-intent on plotting to stay near Mirabella. The first chapter works great to intro these two central villains of the story and an overall conflict, but also connects the audience to these two “villains” in such a way that you kind of root for them. After all, it’s hard not to root for them when the king is pretty much an asshole.

Because that’s who the reader meets next. The royal family in HtBaEC come off as the greater evil for a lot of reasons, and the monarchy becomes a great way for the story to consider ideas of democracy, feminism, wealth distribution, and privilege, all within the hilarious confines of smart remarks and witty retorts. Add in Princess Julianna, a fish-out-of-water heroine, and there are some great examinations of why people aren’t nice and how easy it is to forget what you don’t know.

But the cast doesn’t stop there, oh no. It expands quite a bit in fact, but it never becomes a problem to keep up with the different characters. There are pirates, band members, revolutionaries, ghosts, doctors, and a pool of raven’s blood. Each and every one of them is a unique soul with their own wants, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and other words that mean they come to life. Because they do. I could write a significantly longer review if I went into why I like every character in this story, so to shorten it up I’ll just say they’re all super fun to read about and I’d want to hang out with most of them. I say most only because being killed is not cool.

By the end of book one you’ve been introduced to all of these characters and you’ve also seen many of them undergo pretty significant transformations of understanding or fate. Heck, its the first time a guy named Warren steps foot on land. Additionally, the plot unwinds with some nice twists and wraps things up neatly but not too neatly. It leaves plenty of room open for the sequel, but doesn’t frustrate the reader with “well what about THIS!?” questions.

Plot and Setting

And then everything wonderful about the first book is repeated in the second book, but now it’s even more solid. Throughout the first story the characters still felt like they were developing, but in the second HtBaEC everyone seems more fleshed out and more intent on their goals. Even the villians, the King, Farland, and Mirabella, have new goals and new changes in perspective that increase sympathy all the way around. Except the king, because ugh, asshole.

Most, if not all, of Morrison’s plot lines and ideas from the first book carry through to the second, and they make good progress toward being fulfilled. Some are still left in the air, like the rebellion, but others are quietly (or with a strangled cry at least) put to rest so that focus can shift elsewhere. I was continually impressed with how Morrison juggled so many plots and varied themes without losing the comedic tone or the hinted trails.

Book Construction

A swirl of color
Paper on the inside covers

As a slight detour, let me mention that this book was custom-bound by Morrison herself. It’s lovingly done with a nice hard back and pretty paper used on the inside of each cover. Each page is a nice paper quality and the text came out nice and sharp. It’s always a pleasure to get a book that doesn’t feel mass-produced, so this quality certainly adds to the reading experience.

Overall

Morrison’s two stories that I sped through because they were just downright enjoyable. Nearly every sentence gave me a reason to laugh, chuckle, or at least grin.

Is it perfect? Well, nothing is, but there wasn’t anything that pulled me out of the stories at all. There are some slight editing issues throughout, notably changes in tense earlier on and then some small homophone typos here and there, but definitely nothing jarring. I could see some readers getting hung up on the anachronisms thing and the tone varying between serious and flippant, but like I’ve mentioned I enjoyed that myself. Some of the writing could probably be tightened up / reworded, but that goes for any story.

I suppose it’s hard for me to be tough on these books because I did enjoy them so much, so take that for what it’s worth.

Get it from here:
The Author – Laura Morrison

Score: ratingStarHalfA star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.
Half a star for clarity and readability, one for originality and interest, one for setting and cohesiveness, one for character development, and one star for enjoyability.

Oceans of Shelter

Story Preview

Oceans of Shelter

Hello, internet! I recently wrote the last chapter of my first full-length novel on the world of Nalan. To celebrate that accomplishment, I’m going to post the first chapter of my next full-length novel on the world of Nalan. The next story is tentatively called Oceans of Shelter and will follow a young girl named Nuette. This is an early draft, so there’s no doubt that this will change a billion times from now. Following, you’ll find the first draft of that story’s intro.

Chapter One:

“Nuette, my Nuette, you’ve shown you knew it. Your answer is right, but now you must prove it!”

The young girl giggled. She often did so at her father’s silly rhymes, especially when they included her name. “No, Daddy!” Her voice squeaked the title. “I’m tired of rithmatec!”

He tapped her on the nose with a scarred brick-red hand. “Arithmetic! You must speak properly as well as show your work.” Smiling, his well-worn fingers set the slate back in his daughter’s lap. “Now, quickly, quick, show me the trick!”

She puffed out a cheek and stared at her problem. The small board had the gray cast of years of chalk scribblings. Her finger tapped the number she’d written as her answer. “But I know it’s right! 64 goes into 1024 just 16 times.”

He winked. “Prove it.”

Pursing her lips, she squinted at him with scrunched eyebrows and golden-yellow eyes. “Prove math? That’s silly! You don’t gotta prove the truth.”

Rumbing laughter made his chest heave and shake. “Oh, clever daughter, how I wish that were true.” He took her piece of chalk and started writing. “64 and 64?”

Rolling her eyes, Nuette went along with the lesson. “128.” They continued and slowly added sums until the multiplication was matched.

“So you see, my little sweetheart?”

She stuck out her tongue. “But it took so much time.”

“But Mrs. Vumon would not accept the partial answer, yes?”

Her grumbled words were agreement enough. “She’s just a mean old lady.”

“Breakfast!” The sing-song voice carried up the stairway.

“Coming!” He stood with a careful slowness and pointed a thumb at his back. “Alright, hop aboard!”

Nuette grinned and set aside her slate. She jumped up and grabbed hold of her father’s shoulders and then hooked her legs around his waist. “Ready!”

Holding her hands as he walked, his head tilted as he spoke, “So, you think Mrs. Vumon is old? Then what does that make me?” The stairs creaked from step to step.

“Um. You’re daddy!” She giggled again. They ducked down under the doorframe into the lower level of the apartment.

“Well! Good morning you two! I see that your lessons were as entertaining as ever!”

“Nope! We were doing ah-rith-muh-tick!”

The man chuckled, “Oh, what pronunciation! Very good, Nuette.” Her father let the girl drop from his back, “Now up we go!”

Nuette squeaked, “Eep!” But then she laughed and pretended she was flying as her father swung her toward a chair. Her arms mimed the wings of a bird’s while he swung her about for an extra turn.

“And now she lands, soft as a feather!” He set her down with a grin, but a hand rubbed at his lower back.

“Beetro, you must be careful! Our daughter has grown far too much for your tired arms. She is thirteen! Let her jump if she wants to fly!”

He kissed his wife on both cheeks. “Ah, Mrs. Syimga, these tired arms are still quite strong! They have years yet of helping Nuette float!”

“Ah huh! Daddy’s real strong! He breaks clay pipes with his bare hands!”

“Hmph! And a silly thing that is to do! He cuts and bruises his hands instead of using the right tools! How is this not a foolish act?”

Beetro dropped back onto a chair and it gave a creaking complaint. “Ah, but sometimes the tools do not fit! Plumbing is not often in a place of great space!”

Nuette laughed and earned a mussing of her silvery-gray hair. “That’s why he likes my hands to help!” She wiggled her fingers. “They’re so small!”

“Mr. Syimga! She is supposed to watch, and to hand you supplies! Will you let a spider nibble at her fingers?” She untied her apron and set it on a glazed clay hook. Her arms were then carefully loaded with three plates of eggs and toast. “Hire a new assistant already! Jotel has been gone for months!”

He waggled his finger at her. “Peyla! Our Nuette will be my new assistant. She is very clever, and has caught on to the profession quite well!”

“Well. It seems that we have much to discuss after she leaves to school.” Peyla set the food on the table. “But no more talk of work. Let us eat and finish our morning.”

“Aw! But school’s so boring! Can’t I stay and learn with dad?”

Beetro narrowed his eyes and shook his head with a mouthful of food. “Mmmnng!” He swallowed. “How can you say something so terrible!? Nuette! School is wonderful! You learn so much!”

She poked at her food with a fork. “But the kids are dumb. They make fun of my gloves.”

Wife and husband exchanged a glance. He reached across the table and pushed aside Nuette’s plate of food. He beckoned with his fingertips. “Give me your hands.”

Her lips tightened together as she followed his instruction.

Taking her hands in his, he turned them palm-up and opened his own for comparison. The scarring on his hand had grown soft and faint, but the branded eye was still visible. Nuette’s mark was still bright and pink. “Darling, these marks are important to bear with pride. With strength. They show our commitment to Kalshen.”

“Then why do we always cover them? You and mama dip your hands in wet clay. I saw it.”

Peyla sighed. “Nuette, the world is ever changing and we must be cautious. To have the marks is necessary, but we cannot always expect acceptance from those who see them.”

Beetro closed her hands into little fists. “And so sometimes we must put away that which makes us most proud. But! You still feel the scars, yes?”

She nodded carefully. “Ah huh.”

“And covering them does not lessen what they mean. You still know they are there. We still know.”

“You cannot change your skin, Nuette.” Her mother smiled. “But different situations alter how it must be covered. Otherwise, why do you put on clothes?”

The hints of a smile touched the girl’s lips. “Well I can’t go out naked!”

Her father chortled, “Exactly!” He drew his hands away and picked up his fork. “Sometimes, we must put on armor against the world! Our clothing protects us, and your gloves protect you.”

Peyla tapped the table. “Now eat up! You have to be ready for helping your father!”

Nuette grinned wide. “You mean I can skip school today!?”

“Well,” said her mother, “If you are to be his assistant, we will have to alter your schedule.”

Beetro laughed, “Oh hoh! Mrs. Syimga! I respect the wisdom of your decision.”

The adults exchanged tight-lipped smiles as Nuette shoveled down her food.

JukePop Serial Review: Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky

Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky is a story written by Joan Albright that introduces the reader to a kid named Silas that’s afraid of heights. This would be a mild inconvenience to the average person but in this world it becomes slightly more horrible. You see, Silas lives on a floating island.

Surefire ways to hook a reader include giving them a flash of action, introducing them to interesting characters, and creating a world that’s easy to fall into. Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky did all three and made me fall right away. It’s incredibly engaging with its quick pace and a good sense of adventure from the start.

It begins with two distinct characters taking on an everyday task that is anything but ordinary: checking the links of chains that tether floating islands. That alone is a lovely idea: Floating islands in a world without a bottom or top? Chains that somehow keep everything knitted together? Sky-skiffs and magnet guns that allow this world’s people to zoom through the air? I love the ideas and the mental images that come with this story and the two characters that first inhabit its lofty islands. Silas and the intractable Windy are at odds since the first page yet seem destined to crash together repeatedly.

Solid writing makes for an easy read through succinct descriptions and entertaining banter, providing a story that really feeds the imagination without bogging down a reader. At times I do wish there was something more in the way of description. I end up wanting to know more about the world than is offered. Understandably you want the reader to be hooked into learning more, but then it has to be a balance with gradual sips of the setting’s Kool-Aid. Though caught up to the serial I have yet to get as many answers as I’d like, but maybe that’s just me being impatient.

Additionally, the story tends toward character development in a way that makes me think of cartoons and Disney sitcoms. Reading Silas makes me picture something like a Ghibli film where the people are all characters in their own right, not just people but unique textures in themselves. That’s not always a bad thing but I do end up wanting more from the people as I don’t have the rich visuals to complete the narrative for me. Instead of feeling real the inhabitants come off as just a tad shallow. Some of the adults especially remind me of stereotypes rather than parts of the world and that makes it harder for me to care what they think or say. Their weakness reduces the main characters a bit and reduces their struggles as well.

That said, it’s still a really enjoyable read and there weren’t even any typos or errors that I had noticed.

One star for clarity and readability, one for originality and interest, half for setting and cohesiveness, half for character development, and one star for enjoyability.

 

Any thoughts or disputes? Please let me know!

-J.A.

A Musical Interlude: Working in Tune

Working in Tune

Turn on the Inspiration Station?

When I draw, or work on visual works, I usually put on music. To some that’s something of an impossibility for their creative process. To them there’s a need for silence and a severe focus.

For me I want to lose myself in a good rhythm or let a type of sound amp me up into the right emotional state. For me, graphical works require a process of rushing through my mind and scattering the memories and thoughts to find a good mix. I’m one of those artists that has a clenched jaw when my character does. The moment overwhelms me and my heart beats faster as the action ratchets higher.

What’s great about using music, for me, is that you can feel things and hear ideas that you may not have been on the path toward that day. Maybe you had a beautiful day, maybe you’re feeling happy, but you really want to express someone’s disgruntled arc of pain and displeasure. Slap on some angsty music or something mellow and slow and I’m transporting myself to past moments of unease.

Except, with writing, it’s different. I have trouble writing to music. Especially lately. The music gets in the way. Or tugs me in the wrong direction. And lyrics? Oh no. I can’t even begin to work with lyrics involved. Then the words mix with the ones I’m trying to find. Yet, I want to use music. I find it so useful for my creative process.

You always hear ‘write what you know‘, and I like to think that means taking your experiences and dissecting them into useful pieces. Tear out the components of your life, love, hate, disgust, enjoyment, and hook those parts up into a situation with flying cars and drug-dealing fiends. When I’m listening to a song with the right energy, finding past emotions becomes easier. I can float through mentalities of emotion. It can make creating incredibly draining, but it also feels incredibly rewarding once complete. So, hopefully I can find some balance there. Maybe I just need to find the right music.

Cheers,

– J.A.

Writer Tools: Accents in the Written Form

Accents: How and Where and Why?

Also: What’d they just say?

He growled, “Whar be th’ rules ‘n regulatin’ bawtey ‘at dah-sighds ‘oo wrahts like wut?”

“I’m, sorry. Eh, excuse me even, but what did you just say? You see, your accent is very thick.”

His voice rumbled, “Where be the rules and regulating body that decides who writes like what?” The words tumbled out and melted together, every sound soft and smooth like softened butter. He had an accent like a pirate mixed with a bucket of gravel.

“Oh yes! I see, er, hear what you mean now. Much better.”

So, when writing dialogue there seem to be a couple of schools of thought. There are those that want the words written visually as they sound, and there are those that would rather have things written for clarity. Both schools of thought seem eager to yell at the other that there’s is the One True Way.

Preferences aside, there can be reasons to partake in both of the practices. If you’re writing for a wider readership then it’s best to leave out the weird spellings. The stranger you write a word, the more effort it will take to read. Reading is a process of identifying words as symbols, not individual letters. Mixing up the order of a word will interrupt that natural process. However, sometimes you’re writing for a specific audience or have a very particular speech mannerism that is key to the story or character. That would be the primary case for adding complexity.

Overall you should consider the message you’re trying to convey. Is it really important to emphasize that character’s vocal patterns? If not, it’s probably best to keep away from non-standard spelling. One possible mix I’ve seen is the following:

“Hello my beauty, what ails you?” His words were a high-pitched lilt touched with a lisp. The words came out sounding much more like, “‘Ello mah byooteh, hut aisleth ya’?”

Much like a physical description, an occasional description of the vocal patterns may be enough to set the character. Providing an example of how you imagine the words to sound may help as well.

That said, a larger consensus seems to be that general audiences would prefer clear, well-written sentences over a phonetically spelled verbal mannerism. Write for yourself first, but keep your readers in mind. Understanding your audience preferences is a key part to any decision for creative work.

-J.A.