Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Burning Anticipation

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When I was a kid, I read Dragon Magazine.

I read it a lot.

One of my favorite parts of Dragon Magazine was the fiction. For years - and possibly up until the magazine finally bit the bucket, and was resurrected, and bit the bucket again (I think?) - Dragon featured Dungeons & Dragons-esque short stories. Some of them were explicitly set in D&D universes, others were set in universes that could be D&D, but weren't. Some of them were stand-alones, some of them were parts of serialized epics.

My favorites were a series by Greg Keyes. Fool Wolf was a thief, a liar, and a ne'er-do-well saddled with a dangerous spirit bound into his ribcage by is irresponsible, drunken father. Cast out from his people for crimes committed by the spirit, Fool Wolf wanders a Sword & Sorcery world, looking for adventure, women, money, and the opportunity to rid himself of his unwelcome guest.

For a long time, the tales of Fool Wolf lived in the basement of my brain, occasionally twitching, winking, and throwing iterations up into my higher brain. Certain phrases - "tattoos of singular blackness," "mansion of bone" - stuck in my head.

Then I discovered the collection: Hounds of Ash and Other Tales of Fool Wolf. Time passed, and eventually I made it mine.

I can't wait to read this book. I'll definitely post a review when I have.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Burning Myths, Flying Knives

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Check it out: Escape Pod's blog has just published a post exploding the myth of the deadly flying knife.

I'll admit it - I don't know enough about physics to judge this particular post on the merits of its accuracy. However, I do know enough about the modern fantastic cannon to recall Vlad Taltos's entertaining description of thrown knives as a diversionary tactic; they flinch at the flying bit of pointy steel and miss the larger and more dangerous piece of not-so-flying steel headed for their guts. Or, more frequently, the fact that Vlad is headed for the hills.

Now, I'm much more of a creator of fantasies than speculation, even when I write in a science fictional mode, so I'm quite likely to give my heroes an explicitly magical "get out of physics free" card (I'm looking at you Exalted). I'm about as likely to set up my setting with an alternate physics - Heroic Physics, let's call it - in which throwing knives, swinging off chandeliers, or, say, running on the tops of trees are all possible for anyone.

That said, I like to be specific about where and when I depart from reality. I'd rather sit down to write a story thinking "this story will be set in a setting with general background of Heroic Physics, in which this, that, and the other thing are possible, and characters possessed of certain abilities will depart further in these specific ways" than just make mistakes. In that way, articles like this one are very useful.

However, I also have no problems with departing from reality in this way, when it's done clearly, consistently, and carefully. This is a sentiment it doesn't seem like the author of this article shares with me - she calls throwing knives in general "silly" and "cliched." Different strokes and all that. I can bring my throwing knives along when we visit a world that features Heroic Physics and leave them at home when we visit a world with Conventional Physics. It's all good.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

NoNoWriMo

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I don't really want to dwell on it, but I didn't win NaNo this year. Rat and Starling made it to about 36k, and that's where I died.

Did I say died? I meant came down with the first (and therefore, by definition, worst) sinus infection of my entire pitiful life. I'm still blowing horrifying crap out of my nose once in a while. But I certainly wished I was dead, for a while there.

In the end, despite being very nearly out of commission for a week, I might have been able to finish NaNo. Unfortunately, for the last three days, there has been time to do any three of the following things: go to work, finish my grading - which I didn't get to while I was dying of General NIoD (Nose Infection of Doom) - sleep, and NaNo. Sleep has to happen - whenever I don't sleep the Abigail gets really weird and for some reason and we fight all the time - as does going to work and finishing my grading if I want to stay employed. Something had to give, and what gave was NaNo.

I still didn't get more than three hours of sleep last night. Fucking grading.

Anyway, as I wrote above, I don't want to dwell on the negatives. There's always next year, after all. For now, I will content myself with another year of effort and the fact that there are now thirty-six thousand more words in the world, written by me, that I may someday come back to and make less sucky.

And that, 50k or no 50k, is still an achievement.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Broken Robots, Burning Zeppelins

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A... year ago, was it? A year agoish, I played a silly free flash game online. K.O.L.M. Recently, I played the sequel, K.O.L.M. 2. Both games are short, powerful, and incredibly atmospheric, and I recommend them to anyone and everyone, even people who don't normally go in for silly free flash games online.

The premise of K.O.L.M. is that you are a broken robot in a system of underground caves. After an unknown period of time, the voice of your mother prods you into action. You begin by crawling across the floor, the screen a blurry mess, until you find a pair of replacement eyes. Soon you also acquire replacement legs, a gun, the ability to jump, a more powerful gun, the ability to jump even higher, the ability to swim in water, and then in acid, and so on. K.O.L.M. 2 builds on its predecessor with sad little robot's quest to reunite with his father and his sister.

Gameplay focuses on the acquisition of new bits for the little robot. Often you are presented with a puzzle that you just can't solve until you find something that adds some new functionality to the robot. The overall effect is very satisfying - there's nothing quite like watching a puzzle that previously stumped you fall before the awesome might of your new laser or swimming capability - though there are a few moments of frustration.

The game very quickly establishes that something is a bit... off-kilter. I know from passive-agressive mothers, and this mother definitely fits the bill. Definitely much more GLaDOS than Ma Ingalls. The format of the game is classic side-scroller, but instead of the usual smooth transition from frame to frame, each "zone" is a view from a security camera. In addition to being, frankly, just a bit weird, it allows the game to zoom unexpectedly in and out. Trust me - it's hard to explain, but the effect is extremely creepy. Between the mother's creepy dialogue and the weird atmosphere, the game sucks you in very effectively. For best results, play at night. Alone.

I will concede that K.O.L.M. 2 is somewhat weaker than its predecessor. The gameplay introduces two new wrinkles: sunlight pouring in from holes in the ceiling which can harm or even destroy the little robot and, later, the robot and his human sister (now now, that would be telling) cooperating to solve puzzles that the robot couldn't solve on his own. However, the game is much shorter and much more... is linear the right word? Both games are linear, but the first game seemed to have a lot more problem solving and atmospheric wandering, while the second game seemed much more straightforward. Both games - and the third game that I fervently hope for - are certainly worth playing.

I believe that video games are fiction, but I don't normally talk about them because I don't normally play them. The K.O.L.M.s would make a great introduction for someone who doesn't believe. Both games tell a beautiful, sad, and creepy tale that I was very pleased to be a part of.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Myth They Tell in Vandakar

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This is the myth they tell in Vandakar – called the Godless City – that ancient and mist-shrouded place where the streets turn in upon themselves and spiral down into the earth, where wicked secrets can be bought and sold for coin and deed:

Five gods stood together at the dawn of time. Four of them were content to divide the world between them, but one stood apart. He declared himself the king of all the gods, and his name was MAN.

The gods strove against each other, and though MAN was stronger than the others, they combined their might against him and defeated him. They decided to sunder MAN into many parts and scatter him across the face of the earth so that could never again seek to set himself above his siblings. Thus were the races of men born.

Each of the gods cursed the new race in turn.

SHA, who is worshipped in the East as Miryama of the Dawn and the Lady of Spring, cursed mankind with Lust. She divided us into male and female and set out hearts and loins to long for each other. She clouded our thoughts with desire and gave us Jealousy, Gluttony, and Greed

ZAR, who is worshipped in the North as the Summerlord and the Burning Eye of Heaven, cursed mankind with rage. He set our hearts against each other, fanning the flames of Ambition and Revenge.

NOR, who is worshipped in the West as Unuyanu and the Shining One, cursed mankind with Pride. He whispers to us of what we were, and what we might one day be, and so we rise above ourselves so that our hopes are always dashed, and we destroy what we love most.

Last, and most terrible, was KAI, who is worshipped in the South as the Pale Lady, the Queen of Ravens, and the Nameless One. She cursed mankind with death, striking us down before we could come into the fullness of our power and challenge the dominion of the gods.

The discerning know that the gods hate mankind for the arrogance of MAN. They hate us, and so they have crafted the world to destroy us. They fear us, for each of us could one day rise to the power that was once MAN's.

Some chose to worship the gods, hoping that by prayer and sacrifice they can prove their submission. They want to convince the gods that we have learned our lesson, and thus earn MAN’s restoration. Others dedicate themselves to one god, hoping to cast off their birthright as part of MAN and pass totally into that god’s power, becoming a part of that god after death.

Others chose to defy the gods.

Those who defy SHA are the Ascetics. They deny the desires of the flesh, and so achieve mastery of it. They are powerful warriors, striding across the field of battle with skin like plates of iron and muscles like the roots of trees. They are mighty, but they are not the most mighty.

Those who defy ZAR are the Menders. They cast out rage and fill their hearts with peace, learning to accept the world they see. In the power of their peace, they can still violence in the hearts of others and unmake the consequences of violence. They can heal even the most grievous wounds with a touch. Many dismiss them, for peace does not lend itself to rash and overt action, but the Menders are mighty. And yet, they are not the most mighty. 

Those who defy NOR are the Adepts. They break their own minds with humiliation and service and until they cast out the poison of pride within themselves, and thus they achieve mastery of the mind. They can pick secrets from the minds of their enemies and plant false thoughts. They can walk unseen among crowds, hiding themselves from the pride-addled minds of the masses. Though they are mighty, they are not the most mighty.

Those who defy KAI are those who defy death. They are the Necromancers, practitioners of the Dark Art. The dead rise to serve them and the living flee before them. They craft eternal bodies to house their spirits and persist forever, growing more powerful with every passing century. They are the Necromancers and they are the most mighty of those who defy the gods.

That is the myth they tell in Vandakar, the City of the Dead.

• • •

And now, back to NaNo.

Now THAT Was a NaNo Post

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Sweet mother of lizards, that was a NaNo post. Was that even mildly coherent? Does it actually mean anything?

I'm tempted to take it down, but... nah. Let's just leave it there. It will stand as a testament of what NaNo does to a body.

For those of you who read it - and maybe even gleaned some meaning out of it? Maybe? - I offer sincere apologies. Hopefully you at least had a laugh.

Watch this space for a review of my latest literary conquest, The Curse of Chalion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy Accidents

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I am happy to report that at the end of yesterday (Day 14) of National Novel Writing Month I had 23,945 words - a little more than six hundred words ahead of schedule. Over the course of Day 14, I came up from a significant deficit, writing a little more than four thousand words in a single day. As a result, the last thing I want to do is write - which is why I'm blogging - and the last thing I want to blog about is writing.

So, instead, I'll blog about minis.

But when I blog about minis, I'm really blogging about writing.

When I first got into wargames, I was disappointed to discover that most games use plastic minis instead of metal. There is something deeply satisfying about metal minis. They have a powerful 'clunk' when they hit the table. It's kind of like Go - in ancient Japan, Go boards were designed to produce a satisfying sound when pieces were placed, making the game a full audiovisual experience - but with more death.

Later, after I started playing Warmachine and Hordes and actually had a chance to work with metal, I was happy to discover that most games use plastic minis. Metal is a pain in the ass to work with. It's heavy, so glue isn't enough and you have to pin stuff in place. Pinning stuff in place means drilling holes, in metal, which is also, unfortunately, hard to drill in.

Because, you know, it's metal.

As a result, if you're inexperienced - like I am - the result is often a little hit-or-miss. You aren't quite sure what a model is going to look like until you're done. If a pin settles in oddly, or a piece doesn't quite fit right, you could end up with nearly any kind of pose, from the totally awesome to the... kind of strange. Sometimes you need to work with what you've got, adapting a weirdly assembled model so it will turn out as well as possible.

Plastic, by the way, is much easier to work with. Glue usually does the trick. On the rare occasion that you have to pin it or adjust the shape of a piece, plastic cuts and drills like a dream.

The trick is to be open to happy accidents. A happy accident, as my 6th grade teacher taught me, is when something in art turns out differently than you expected, but in a way you can still work with. You don't see a lot of happy accidents in writing, but in visual art - including, yes, making minis - you see them a lot more often. I've got a metal Ravagore (horrible flame-spitting monster) that will end up in a really awesome pose, all because I was willing to change my plans after a series of drastic failures.


Anyway, it seems to me that NaNo is a lot like a metal model - oddly shaped chunks of narrative falling out of your brain as fast as you can squeeze them out of your fingers (wow, I'm sorry for that metaphor already). Later, when you have time, you can go back over your creation with a more critical, discerning eye, fitting the pieces together into something beautiful.

So be open to happy accidents. Look out for the weird bits of beauty your brain spits out when you aren't looking.

Speaking of which, I'd probably better get back to writing. Tell then...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Na Na NaNo, Na Na NaNo

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Yeah yeah yeah, go write.

In other words, it's November, and November means National Novel Writing Month. That means that I won't be blogging a lot this month, but I will be writing like the shit. If you still want to hang out, find me on the NaNoWriMo site. I go by Burning Zeppelin. Friend me. We'll chat. We'll bug each other about wordcount. We'll meet up and slave over hot computers together.

Yeah yeah yeah, go write.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

So Sick of Sad, Special Sorcerers

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I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with me. No normal person should like alliteration this much.

In the world of things that I'm getting kind of sick of, I'm starting to develop a mad-on for, as the title says, sad, special, and oppressed magic users. They're a common - and, I will admit, sometimes incredibly well-written - trope. The most recent stand-out example is Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses series, but the subgenre is full of a wealth of excellent and not-so excellent works.

Before I continue, let me explain exactly what I'm talking about.

A lot of modern fantasy takes an approach to magic that mirrors the X-Men. Magic is (usually) an inborn trait, something that either can't  be repressed forever or can't be repressed without serious consequences for the mage. Mages are not a ruling class - rather, they are a hated minority. Their magical powers are only enough to help them survive, sometimes, with effort and great sacrifice.

I have a problem with this scenario. If you have a world where people periodically arise with special powers, I can't think of any reason that they would not ascend to roles of leadership. I mean, a lot of people hate fat-cat bankers born with silver spoons in their mouth, but these folks have been unseated in precious few parts of the world. Power (and talent, skill, and luck) may attract envy and animosity, but it also tends to attract more power. The best stories (The Twelve Houses again, is a good example of this) provide a good explanation: magic has limitations that its enemies know how to exploit, magicians have nemeses with their own, less objectionable power, ancient magician-kings were overthrown (which explains why they are so hated and no one will work for them), or whatever. A lot of the rank-and-file of this trope, however, never bothers with a justification.

Beyond that problem, though, I'm getting a little sick of it.

Perhaps it's over-exposure. This trope seems to have become very popular in fantasy since I was first exposed to it. Perhaps, though, it's something else. I wonder if I haven't grown out of it. As an adolescent, I was very caught up in being special. I worried that I wasn't special enough. I wanted to be assured of my uniqueness and value. I felt that the people who didn't recognize how wonderful I was were either right - which would have been terrible - or wrong, in which case they were oppressing me.

As an adult, I've realized that I don't really care about being special anymore. I'm content to be pretty average in a lot of ways. I have a purpose in life - several, in fact - and I'm happy to be used by them. I don't need to stand out in the eyes of any but the people who know me and appreciate what I bring to them and the world. Perhaps that's why the shine has worn off the story of the magic few.

Finally - and this is probably also part of my growing up - I think that there's something distressing elitist about the myth of the magic few. Let's look at this critically. Imagine that you actually lived in this world: there are a class of people, chosen at random, with magic powers. They can burn you alive with a gesture, invade your memories by looking at you hard, or bend your mind with a glance. There's nothing you can do to stop these people from taking what you own, coercing your obedience, engineering your humiliation, or ending your life. Remember that these people weren't chosen by a higher power with your best interests at heart. They aren't the best, the kindest, or the wisest. Some of them are great people and some of them are jerks. Their power is inherent, so there's nothing you can do to join them, ever.

You can't stop them, you can't compare to them, you can't join them, they don't deserve what they have, and they could be anyone.

Scary? Depressing? Both? Remind you too much of the real world?

Yeah, me too.

I feel that the story of the oppressed sorcerer is founded in the assumption that you are one of the special ones. But special has to equal rare, or it wouldn't be special anymore. Assume that you're a farmer caught in arcane crossfire, watching her home burn; assume that you're a merchant who just gave away goods worth a year of overhead thanks to a magician's charm; assume that you're a twelve year old girl who just caught a magician's eye - the equation changes. You start to think that maybe there needs to be some way to control these people. Maybe you even think that if the best solution you can think of is to put them in the ground, then maybe it's ok. Maybe it's the least of all available evils.

Now, all of this isn't to say that I don't ever want to read this kind of story again. What I'm looking for is a story that takes a more nuanced approach. I want the story to have a is well-built setting, of course, one that answers all the questions I raised above, but I also want it to provide multiple points of view on the problem of magic. Let's have the usual rag-tag band of heroic magicians and their hangers-on, but let's also have mage-hunters with legitimate grievances, people who have suffered at the hands of the "special few." Let's have a resolution that amounts to more than "the magic people should be free to do whatever they want, but don't worry - all the magic people who have been main characters are great."

When you find it, let me know.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zeppelin Therapy

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So, as you know, I have a wife, the Abigail. You may also know that my wife is a drama therapist. What you probably don't know is that the Abigail is involved in planning this year's National Association of Drama Therapists conference.

Awesome, I know.

Anyway, I wrote a guest post on their blog talking about Five Things Drama Therapists Might Not Know About Being Partnered to a Drama Therapist. If you think drama therapy sounds interesting - it's really neat, take it from me - you might find the post interesting.

Till next time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Only the Tiny Plastic Dead...

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Have seen the end of tiny plastic war.

A powerful quote from tiny plastic George Santayana.

At the end of the last school year I finally did it, something I've been tempted to do ever since high school.

I finally started playing wargames; specifically, Warhammer 40k and Warmachine.

I know, I know. I'm a story nerd - a filthy narrativist - who writes novels and plays sensitive, character-focused roleplaying games. What am I doing leading tiny plastic soldiers to their tiny plastic deaths on a not-so-tiny plastic battlefield?

The appeal is threefold.

Firstly, I need more hobbies that help me make friends. I've been quite isolated and lonely ever since I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Don't get all stressed at me, non-wargaming-friends-what-read-this, I know you exist. I just don't have very many of you. I agree that the old saw that writing is a "solitary art" is simply wrong, especially in the era of crit groups, web forums, the Internet, and NaNoWriM. Believe it nor not, some really high quality nerds play wargames, smart guys who like to think tactically and blend compassionate sportsmanship with a competitive edge. Nerds who like to shoot the shit, drink a beer, slaughter their foes, and talk about the newest Star Trek movie.

In other words - more casual friends, exactly what I need.

Secondly, there's a really fantastic secret world of art and creativity associated with these games. Seriously - you have no idea how awesome some of these things are until you've seen them. You'd never guess that some of the most hardened, beardiest nerds are creating tiny plastic masterpieces on their tiny plastic canvases. I'm nowhere near an expert in the art of modifying and painting soldiers, but I'm enjoying the process.

Finally, a lot of wargame worlds are very well-developed, with fascinating visual and thematic bits that I now have the opportunity to steal and transform. I've already had some good ideas that were inspired by the fiction and "fluff" of the games I've started to play.

Anyway, I'm having a good time. If you play 40k or Warmahordes and are in (or visit) the San Francisco Bay Area, drop me a line. I'd love to hear from you and meet up to play a game or three.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Subtle, Sinister Side of Sexism in Speculative Stories

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Six S's sequentially! Seventy supplemental... uh... points!

First of all, have a fascinating article about sexual dimorphism in the world of WoW from Wired.

Also, check out this picture from the oft-hillarious, sometimes disturbing, and rarely safe for work Boobs Don't Work That Way:


Arguing about the portrayal of men and women in fantasy (especially on the internet) is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, I've gotten a little sick of discussing this, so I'm writing this post in part so whenever this comes up I can simply post a link and say "see this - this is what I think."

First of all, I will the first, second, third, and last to admit that I appreciate fantasy chicks. The Chainmail Bikini has a place of honor in my heart, alongside the Naked Powerful Evil Queen (the Abigail loves to mock me about this one), Swords of Unusual Size, and Extremely Flash Magic.

That said, you need to watch what you're doing. Fill your story (or video game, or movie, or RPG book, or whatever) with half-naked women and you are sending an extremely powerful message: this work is intended to excite and titillate the men in the audience. Women who like women may glean some enjoyment if they can get past the discomfort of seeing their own gender blatantly and unfairly sexualized. Women (and men) who like men need not apply.

This is not a message that I intend to send with anything I create. It's also not a message I like to see in anything I consume.

"But Mark," I hear you say, "you just said that you're a fan of chainmail bikinis and wicked sorceress-queens lounging nakedly on thrones of skulls!" I hear you say it through the Internet. It's a new app I just bought, and it's awesome.

Ahem.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with sexualized fiction. Mighty thews and heaving bosoms have been with us for as long as there has been writing; check out an accurate translation of the Song of Solomon if you don't believe me. The trick is to consider what message you are sending with your work. Are you excluding someone? Are you only giving eye-candy to a segment of your audience? If the answer is yes, you need to deal with it.

This is where the chart I posted at the start of this post comes in. It may be intended as a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary, but I think it's actually useful as a guide for balanced titillation. What you need to do is this:

  1. Decide where on the X-Axis your story is going to fall. Is your work Realistic? Heroically Idealized? Sexualized? A combination of the two (for example: largely Heroically Idealized but with a few sexy bits that slip over into Sexualized or largely Realistic but with a Heroically Idealized climax scene).
  2. Keep yourself in that category for both male and female characters. Period.

I mean it with step two. That's where the magic happens. Balance between the depiction of the sexes is what sends the message "this work is for everyone to enjoy!" For every man covered in grime and sweat I want to see a woman who hasn't had a bath since she set out from Caer Amithar a fortnight ago. For every heaving bosom I want to see a mighty thew. For every levitating breast I want to see a buttock of a tautness that defies the durability of human flesh. And no fair skimping on the narration - you must describe everything with an equal degree of loving, sexy, titillating detail. If you aren't up for appealing to everyone in your audience, aim for the left side of the diagram and leave the sexy stuff to the professionals.

And by the way, you should probably take some of those examples with a grain of salt. I'm not into guys, so I'm not sure what actually qualifies as the equivalent of a heaving bosom or levitating breast. Do some research with your female-favoring friends of the male and female persuasion.

There is one more objection I hear a lot, usually from people who make more of their money in one or another artistic industry. "Mark," I hear them say (through the app), "the thing is, people who like to look at guys are used to this sort of thing and they'll buy our art anyway; people who like to look at girls (specifically, male people who like to look at girls) won't."

To this I say: grow the hell up.

Artists - quit being lazy wimps. You want to change the world with your work? Take a stand. The days of fantastic fiction being the purview of men and men alone are long gone - and good riddance to them. Don't hide behind the need to make money. I guarantee you that you can find a way to make a statement you can actually be proud of and also make a buck, if you try.

And all the girl-looking-at-male-people out there - guys, we can do better. I guarantee you that photons bouncing off words describing buff guys (or even - and I know this can be hard to believe - pictures) won't do you any harm. They don't cause eczema, hair loss, or cancer. Everybody else has had to look at what you like for centuries, and they're all fine. You'll live.

Before I go, I want to hear from you. Who does a good job of balancing appeal for those who like boys and those who like girls? What are some works of fantastic fiction that pass the Zeppelin Test?

For You, a Token of My Esteem

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With this, I'd like to thank all of you who wrote such wonderful, supportive things on my last post. If only I'd been more able/willing to reach out over the summer, when terrible things were actually happening, as opposed to now, in the winter, when it's all gradually receding into the past.

Nevertheless, it's comforting to read your good wishes. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alas, Poor Audience

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So, from the rather... arctic response to my last post, I guess that I have lost whatever audience I once had. I suppose that it's only fair. I did disappear for an entire summer.

So, update time.

Obviously, the summer was not the orgy of writing and blogging that I hoped it would be. I was rather put off my game in the last week, after school ended. You might have read about it in the news - remember how an airplane crashed on the East Coast, killing the pilot, his wife, their teenage daughter, and her friend?

Those were my aunt, uncle, and cousin.

My grandfather - the husband of the woman whose daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter were killed - died a much less remarkable death three weeks later.

Nothing about the catastrophes that befell my family actually prevented me from writing, but it made it a lot easier to retreat into somewhat less complicated pass-times like sleeping, hanging out with the Abigail, and painting tiny plastic spacemen (TPSMs for short). The fact that I ended up flying back and forth between here and the East Coast four times (half of them for funerals), getting a DVT in my leg in the process, didn't help any.

I wish I could report that I eventually rose to the challenge, like one of those guys who wins a Double NaNo despite having twins, losing his job, and being hit by a bicycle messenger carrying a duffel bag full of contraband weasels.

But, nah, I painted TPSMs and slept.

The Abigail tells me that it was ok - that I had the grieving process that I had to have - but I still feel like I dropped the ball. Or, to be somewhat more fair to myself, there was this totally awesome ball that I could have picked up, but instead I let it lie there. Is that ok? Sure. But it's not exceptional, and exceptional is what I want to be.

What am I working on right now?

Despite the creatively lame summer, I did manage to produce several short story ideas that I am currently attempting to realize in a rather slow and lazy way. I am also gearing up for National Novel Writing Month; I've picked my novel and am currently gathering my notes and preparing for war. I have decided to take advantage of the somewhat less formal NaNoEdMo to complete one of this summer's neglected projects: getting Knights of the Land fully re-written and ready to shop around with agents.

As for this blog, well, I plant to pick up where I left off. The blogging will commence anew, with new and better posts, more frequent and more interesting links, and cooler creative prompts! The universe is the limit at the new and improved (read: same thing, just more enthusiastic) Burning Zeppelin Experience!

*Cue fireworks; a teenage demon appears, prods me with her pitchfork and says "back to grading you heinous slacker!"*

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Question

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What would have happened if someone had buried a dead pet - say a dog or a lizard - in Narnia at the moments when the Lion's song still reverberated in the earth?

Also, I'm baaa-aaack.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No More Teachers!

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In honor of today being the last day of school, have a creative prompt. Tell me the story of a character with an imaginary and unlikely academic specialty - an ethnomycologist or a cryptomusicologist or something. Bonus points for convincing me that the specialty is actually real.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I Yet Live

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It's been a while and I want to throw up a post to let you all know that I - and the Burning Zeppelin Experience, and the Abigail, and Jabberwock the lizard - am still alive. The school year is ending - my last day is Friday - and as a result I'm exhausted, burned out, and singularly uncreative. Thank the Gods of Chaos for my new Warhammer 40k hobby; if I wasn't painting minis right now, I'd probably have become completely uncreative. If last year's pattern repeats itself, I will be back to my writing, posting, novel-editing, rejection-letter-collecting, the Abigail-referencing self in the second week after the school year ends.

Until then, have some links:


Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Resurrection!

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My Donors Choose page is live. It lives!

Our turtles are awaiting your largesse.

Until next time, the Burning Zeppelin is wondering if anyone else thinks that "largesse" sounds like it should mean a female large.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Afterlife

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So, yesterday I posted asking for dollars to help fund my class turtles.

It turns out that the project hasn't gone live yet. Apparently it takes a day or two for my project to get past the review process.

I'll throw up another post when the project does go live. Many apologies.

Monday, May 23, 2011

In Another Life

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In my other life, I'm a science teacher. I teach seventh grade science in an Oakland middle school. Whenever I'm not posting, writing, or sleeping, that's pretty much why. It's rough, living two professional lives, but I think it's worth it.

Anyway, I have classroom turtles, but their habitat is less than ideal. One particular problem: it stinks. I need a better filter to keep their water clean. Unfortunately, I don't have the three hundred dollars it takes to buy a better filter. If you know anything about California schools - and Oakland in particular - you won't be surprised when I tell you that my school hasn't got the money, either.

However, you do.

Not you individually (probably), but all of you - all my readers - probably have three hundred dollars to spare. I wrote in an earlier post that I probably have between twenty and thirty readers. That means that if all of you donate a little more than ten dollars, that's my filter. That's my turtles. My students get to have living creatures in their life sciences classroom, rather than just dead things.

If you're interested in donating, here's my Donor's Choose page. You can also use that page to keep track of my other projects, which you can continue to donate to, if you are so inclined.

Thanks from me, and all my kids, and Benjamin and Shelley (the turtles), too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In a Hole in the Ground, There Lived a Neanderthal

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So, I've been watching Walking with Cavemen with my kids as a way to keep some science learning going, despite the disruptions of the testing weeks. We finally made it to the section about Neanderthal Man, the much maligned failed evolutionary offshoot of humanity (though, interestingly enough, there are signs that even as it was dying out, Neanderthal man was mating into the lines that would eventually produce modern humans). As we were watching, something occurred to me:

Neanderthals are hobbits.


  • Short? Check.
  • Stocky? Check.
  • Omnivorous? Check.
  • Tough as all hell? Check.
  • Cave-dwelling? Check.
  • Essentially human in the ways they think and act? Check.


I can easily see how, if Neanderthal Man had not died out, they might have cleaned up in much the same way as the humans they coexisted with. Their musculoskeletal system would have slimmed down and their brains continued to advance as their ecological niche increasingly selected for smarts rather than brawn. They could easily have stayed short and tough when compared to humans. Why develop an easy-going disposition? Why not?

Anyway, just a weird little thought that occured to me, and I'm eager to hear what you think of it (hence the creative prompt tag).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Awesomesauce or Avoid-at-all-costs?

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So, first of all, I am reviewing all the comments and rebuttals to my assertions about self-publishing - as well as a great conversation with friends Gavin and Kindli (and their adorable son, who didn't say much) - and... I'm gradually revising my opinion. There is a longer post in the works, certainly, but today is not the day for that.

Today is the day for this.

The Abigail sent me the link. Rosebud: the Magazine for People who Enjoy Good Writing is holding a contest. The Fourth Biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction. The winner gets $1k and publication in Rosebud. Four runners-up get $100 and publication in Rosebud. The losers get squat, but are considered for publication. There's also a determined lack of funny business when it comes to the contract, which is nice.

That's the upside. The downside is that there is a $10 reading fee. The downside is also that, as I am given to believe, most contests - especially those that require a reading fee - are, well, scams.

So where am I on this one? On the one hand, one hundred to one thousand dollars (well, $90 to $990, really), publication, and a feather in my cap. If I lose the contest but win publication, I still stand to net $20. On the other hand, Yog's Law.

I'm probably going to enter. After all, it's only $10, and the potential rewards are quite solid. There is, however, a matter of principle to consider; I'm not going to put my name - and therefore, my tiny professional endorsement - in a crooked hat, even if it's a cheap crooked hat. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Is the Fourth Biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction a scam? I'll also be emailing the illustrious, august, inimitable Mur Lafferty on this matter. In case you don't listen to I Should Be Writing, I'll let you know what she says.

Incidentally, Rosebud Magazine also charges a one dollar "handling fee" for ordinary submissions. I haven't been doing this for very long, but I have yet to encounter another magazine that charges money to submit work. This seems like a strike against Rosebud. Again, however, it's only one dollar, so it's a very small strike.

Until next time, remember that money flows towards the Zeppelin... or at least, it should.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Not Self Publish?

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In the comments to a recent post, a gentleman named Greg Christopher said:

"You are a fool for not self publishing. You would have money by now.
Sorry for the tough love, but you seem to be needlessly hurting yourself."
Now, we are not enemies of tough love here at the Zeppelin, and I'm not writing this post to shame or criticize anyone, but when I started to respond in the comments I ended up writing a post, so here it goes.

The thing is is that self-publishing a novel is basically a full-time job. Once you're done writing the novel, you need to do all the work of editing - and that includes finding people who are qualified to help you who are not yourself, since by the time you are done with your novel, you're going to need an outside perspective. Then you're going to need cover art and layout, which you probably don't know how to do yourself. Editors cost money, artists cost money, and layout experts cost money.

Then, you're going to need to settle down to some serious self-promotion. As a self-published author, you need to do everything yourself. If you want to get your book into a bookstore, you are going to need to go to that bookstore, get a meeting with that buyer, talk up your book, and hope she buys it. And if she doesn't, you just wasted time and gas money that you may or may not have to spare. Forget about getting your book into stores in another part of your state, let alone another part of the country.

On the other hand, with an agent and publisher backing you up, you've got somebody to do all that for you, and you don't pay for any of it, at least not directly. You pay in a cut of what your novel makes; if your novel doesn't sell, you don't pay.

On the third hand, e-publication is always a possibility. The self-promotion here is a bit less travel-intensive, since you can use the internet, but still takes a lot of time and energy. You need to email, post, pimp, and produce free content like a demon if you want to get anywhere. You need to do all the work of a publishing agency's marketing machine, all by your lonesome. Abigail Hilton, among others, has managed it, but I'm not sure how.

Now, that said, I'm mostly talking about short stories here, not novels. So, where is the benefit in traditionally publishing short stories?

Blogs (like this one) are good for building a base of fans. I suppose I could start releasing my stories for free here to build up a base for the eventual self-release of my novel. Again, though, we're talking a lot of work. I've been keeping this blog fairly regularly for about two years now, and I've got maybe thirty readers - probably more like twenty. The thing is, I don't need to reach you already - unless I lose you, I've got you. If I posted tomorrow with a sample chapter of my self-published e-reader friendly novel, I predict that most of you would read it.

There are other problems with self-publishing short stories on my blog. Let's say I just up and posted The Dead of Tetra Manna, a story I've been having a hard time finding a market for. For that post to net me new readers - which is what I'd need to do to use this blog as a platform to build my writing career - someone would need to read that story, like it, and then pass it along to a friend. That friend would then need to read the story and not only like it, but like it well enough to become a regular reader him or herself. This could happen - it probably has happened - but it isn't likely. There are too many intermediary steps between post and follower during which the signal can be lost. How many times have you heard, read, or heard of something interesting, thought to yourself "I should follow that dude's blog," and then failed to follow through? That's why after two years of fairly steady blogging, I'm still at only about thirty readers.

Compare this to The Dead of Tetra Manna finding a place in a traditional, online, or podcast magazine. Nearly every reader or listener is not already someone who follows my blog. Let's say Podcastle bought The Dead of Tetra Manna. Podcastle has at least several thousand listeners (possibly more), almost none of which already know who I am. If even one percent of them become followers of my blog, I'm golden.

I have data to back this up. When the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine bought The Invisible Kingdom, my blog experienced the single largest boost since the Abigail started reading and my readership went from "zero" to "one." I started with about ten readers and ended with the thirty or so I have today, a 300% increase.

Add to this the fact that most magazines won't take a short story that has been posted for free, but you can always post something for free after it's been published, after a suitable delay, and you see why it's important to pursue external publication for short pieces. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that seeking external publication for short fiction is an important step in building the base for successful self-publishing.

Finally, podcasts.

Well done podcast magazines, braided anthologies, and novels attract a lot of attention very quickly. I could, in theory, begin a series of podcast stories or create a podcast version of Knights of the Land. I have frequently mention the excellent Guild of the Cowry Catchers, and I have listened to, enjoyed (and in some cases, posted about and reviewed, many others). I have great reverence for podcasters. I am not ready to be one.

In my other life (note that I didn't write "day job") I am a middle school science teacher. Teaching middle school isn't a job. It isn't even a career. Three jobs, two careers, and membership in a secret assassin clan just barely begins to scrape the surface of how much physical, mental, and emotional work this is. Physical, mental, and emotional giants like Chris Lester of Metamor City can manage teaching and podcasting at the same time - and even he's trailed off lately - but I know my limits. Perhaps there will be a day that I can teach all day, podcast all night, sleep while I drive, and write while I sleep. Until I figure out how to do that and not die (or, alternately, get better at teaching so it takes less of my time), though, podcasting is not for me.

So, where does all that leave me?

Hopefully, right where I am.

I know who I am and what I want. I am not a Mur Lafferty or an Abigail Hilton. I don't, at this point in my life, have that kind of drive or organization, and I don't want to be a full time writer. I have a more than full time career that I love. What I want is to keep slogging away, working on novels, writing short stories, and building my base. Some day, when I attract the attention of an agent and a publisher, I can pare off some of the time I already have for writing - weekends, vacations, the entire freakin' summer - for book tours and hardcore marketing. The rest of the time I can balance between the work I love and the work I also love.

I hope this post isn't too long or too vehement, but I spend a lot of time consuming I Should Be Writing, Dave Thompson's livejournal, and other writerly outlets. Being an loud opinionated person, I can't help but want to comment. And what is the Internet for if not conversation?

Well, porn. Conversation and porn.

Until next time, the Zeppelin lives and lets live, and you should, too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Progress?

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I am singularly ill-suited to proctoring tests. If I'm not totally engaged with a cerebral task, I hate sitting still - I'm probably more than a little ADHD - and proctoring isn't engaging or cerebral, and it barely counts as a task. It's the worst and most "bastard-love-child-of-babysitting-and-being-a-prison-guard" part of teaching. It doesn't help that I was out sick yesterday, my sub was apparently awful, and one of the power sockets died in the night, causing the turtle tank to be without filtration for about eight hours. Anyone who has ever kept red-eared sliders can tell you how much of a problem that is.

Seriously, if there are creatures that produce more poop than red-eared sliders, I don't want to know about it.

Anyway, the combination of state tests, whining children, and pooping turtles puts me in a mind to talk about rejection letters, so that's what I'm going to do.

Right before I began my teaching career, I began a project to see if I could acquire fifty (or more!) rejection letters over the course of a year. The logic is that I can't make them buy my story, but I can make them give me a rejection letter, and as long as I'm getting rejections, I'm sending out stories, and as long as I'm sending out stories, I'm working on my craft, putting myself out there, and making a sale more likely. Abruptly developing a career put a serious crimp in this plan, and I've only managed to net one acceptance and ten rejections, but that's eleven brand new steps into writing, so I'm not complaining.

For a while there, I was also posting the rejection letters with the serial numbers filed off. I stopped doing that when I read some horror stories about publishers taking offense. It was harmless, fun post fodder - I wasn't offended by the rejection letters; in fact, I only ever commented about how polite and helpful my rejectors were - but it wasn't worth risking my writing career over.

I recently got an incredibly classy rejection letter - my tenth! - from Abyss & Apex. The jist of it was this: "your story is well written and made it all the way through the slush process to reach my desk, but it isn't to my liking; good luck placing it elsewhere and do try again with something new."

Over the course of my...

[Time to walk around the room and gaze balefully - but also encouragingly? - at students]

Over the course of my writing career so far, I've noticed an overall pattern to my rejection letters. There are fits and starts, leaps forward and leaps back, but the story goes something like this:


  1. Form rejection, signed by the editor but with no indication that it is from an actual editor, or even an actual human being.
  2. Rejection with encouragement and commentary, signed by an editor.
  3. The "good story, but not to my taste" rejection, from an editor.

I wonder, is this progress? I have the feeling that it is.

In step one, I was clearly getting rejected by slush readers.  In step two, I was reaching editors, who rejected my stories because of quality issues. Now, in step three, I'm reaching editors who can't find anything "wrong" with my writing - they just didn't like the story.

This means that instead of writing mediocre stories, I'm writing good stories and sending them to the wrong magazines, or the right magazines on the wrong days, or the right magazines at the same day as someone whose stories was even better.

Clearly, even if this means something it doesn't mean a heck of a lot.

I also shouldn't take this to mean that I'm entitled to any particular kind of...

[Stop whispering to each other! This is a state test - do you want to get your butt suspended?]

I also shouldn't take this to mean that I'm entitled to any particular kind of rejection letter. Just because I feel like I'm mostly in step three doesn't mean that I'm not going to get a form rejection once in a while. If I get all discouraged (or worse, grumpy) when I do, then it's going to crimp my style.

What it does mean is that I'm making progress, and that's never a bad thing.

That's a pretty positive conclusion for a post that started with turtle poop, don't you think?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Varmints

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Just a quick post today. I recently stumbled (I was googling "lizard men" for no discernable reason, if you must know) upon Creaturespot, a blog full of pictures of creatures, contributed by a large and (I believe) shifting cast of fantasy concept artists. There are computer generated images, scanned artwork, and photographs of sculptures. Some artists post works in progress as well. Here and there are even images you might recognize from video games and the covers of books.

I just finished reading the back-posts, and it's great fun. I can recommend the site without reservation, and it might even appear on our blogroll soon.

Until next time, watch out for the rare Zeppelinsaurus.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Viva Las Zeppelin

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So, if you're wondering why I fell off the grid this weekend, this is why. Recently (as referenced previously), I completed the PACT, an extremely big deal teacher assessment that determines my fate as a teacher forever. The Abigail was incredibly supportive throughout this process. Friday, however, was her crowning achievement. I rushed home, believing that I was going to take the Abigail to a doctor's appointment (since the untimely death of her car, we've had to do that a lot). Almost as soon as I arrived, the Abigail gave me this:

Once upon a time there was a young wizard. And this young wizard wanted very badly to teach children how to be wizards too. He knew that very often, the children of the gnomes, the dwarves and other unpopular races weren’t taught how to use magic very well, or sometimes not at all. He was passionate about making sure that everyone got to learn magic. 
The young wizard spent nearly two years teaching children how to use magic. He inspired them daily with the wonder of it. But perhaps the most important wonder of all was how much the young wizard loved the children he taught. Whether they were humans, gnomes, or even elves, the magic of the young wizard’s love made them greater than they had been before.
But one day the young wizard was confronted by an old, grouchy wizard.

“What are you doing teaching those children? You don’t have a permit!” said the old wizard. The old wizard went on to tell him that he thought there should be a law against wizards without permits teaching magic to children. 
The young wizard had known that a permit was required, but such was his passion and his love that he had not cared. He wanted to teach right now. But he understood that people like the old wizard cared about things like permits, and that it might someday affect his ability to teach magic to children. So, he decided to get a permit. 
The young wizard spent months trying to get his permit. It was an absurd process. He was forced to demonstrate how he could use his magic to jump through a series of flaming hoops in the sky. 
“What does this have to do with teaching magic to children?” asked the young wizard. 
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” the old wizard replied.
Next, the young wizard had to write in great detail about how he had jumped through these hoops. He had to cite his sources in enormous, yellowing books of ancient magic theory that had nothing to do with what he was teaching the children.

“What does this have to do with teaching magic to children?” asked the young wizard.

“Be quiet if you want to pass the test,” the old wizard replied.

Finally, the young wizard had to teach the children how to do a special magic task, determining what was inside a chicken with their powers. Then, he showed the other wizards how he did it.

“But I’ve been doing this for two years!” the young wizard complained.

“They shouldn’t let young wizards teach until they know how to write about it!” the old wizard replied.

Finally, after months and months of work, the young wizard sent his work off to be graded by the magic examiners. And he was able to rest.

But now the young wizard was tired. He had no energy to teach the children anymore. While he still loved them very much, his passion was diminished by his difficult, absurd task. The young wizard was afraid that the magic of his love was weakened by his exhaustion, and by all the magic he had used to jump through those burning hoops.

Now, the young wizard had a wife, who was also very wise. His wife knew a different kind of magic. She saw that the young wizard was suffering, and she knew what she had to do. While the young wizard was at work, his wife prepared a special spell. One day when he came home, she was ready.

“I’ve packed you a bag,” she told him. “Make sure I have all the right robes and supplies. We’re flying away tonight, in about half an hour. We’ll be back in plenty of time for you to teach your children on Monday.”

And the young wizard fed his pet dragon, packed his books and papers, and prepared for his mysterious journey. 
When the young wizard and his wife were preparing to fly away, the young wizard asked his wife again: “Where are we going?” 
Then she smiled. “We’re going to a magic land where no matter what you do, nobody but but me will ever find out. We’re going to the magic land of Vegas.”

So, that's where I was this weekend. There was no doctor's appointment; there was, however, a supershuttle. And tickets. To Vegas.

The Abigail is the best wife ever.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Latin name: Unicornis

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You know what doesn't get enough attention? Unicorns.

Maybe it's just me - I watched The Last Unicorn so many times I'm surprised I can't recite the thing from memory - but I remember when unicorns were all over the place. The wicked and selfish hunted for them, the virtuous basked in their presence. I read short stories about unicorns and books that featured unicorns, and I generally thought they were pretty awesome.

Then, it all seemed to dry up.

The problem seems to be twofold. Firstly, along with talking horses and magical soulmates, unicorns have been relegated to "girl" books. This is silly, because like talking horses and magical soulmates there is nothing inherently gendered about unicorns.

Unless you're talking about a given unicorn's particular gender, or something. I mean, I guess there are boy unicorns and girl unicorns - otherwise where would baby unicorns come from? Unless unicorns reproduce parthenogenetically. Do you think they reproduce through spores? Budding? Ew. Or do they just get pregnant? And if so, do they have to have mock sex, like the so-called lesbian lizards (link is safe, I swear)?

Right. Back on topic.

So half the problem is clearly sexism. If unicorns are girl stuff, and girl stuff is unworthy, then unicorns are unworthy and don't get into mainstream fantasy. This is clearly bullshit, but it explains more than it doesn't.

Before I explain the second thing that seems to me to have driven unicorns out of modern fantasy (and, obviously, into the sea), I need to explain what it is that makes unicorns quite so cool.

In addition to being great big horses with horns (because almost everything is cooler with horns), unicorns represent virtue and purity as active, almost aggressive. This is not virtue that gets despoiled - this is virtue that stabs you in the face if you mess with it. This is virtue as a force of nature. This is why Dan Lacey's paintings of a naked Barack Obama astride a unicorn made perfect sense to me, and were such an internet sensation.

It sometimes seems to me that modern fantasy has lost interest in virtue. We like antiheroes, non-heroes, villains, and complications. We like to watch our heroes suffer, compromise, and fail. We don't want Frodo and Sam, whose love and friendship saved the world while armies clashed needlessly outside the Black Gate. We don't want Thomas Covenant, who laughed god's evil brother to death. Or, at least, we don't want them quite as much as I do. We want things more like the work of Brandon Sanderson (which I like, by the way), in which cleverness, alliance, and skill at arms (or magic, or geometry, or whatever) win the day.

Though, as the Abigail pointed out in conversation, this may also be a gendered issue. The Abigail was able to list several recent fantasy novels marketed for women and girls in which virtue (or love, or some other positive passion) is the defining engine of victory.

Anyway, I want more unicorns, more friendship, and more evil gods laughed to death in my fantasy. I like it when virtue lifts up its head (or lowers its horn) and takes action. If you do, too, let me know in the comments.

And by the way, if you agree that there isn't enough about unicorns out there, then the Abigail tells me to recommend Rampant by Diana Peterfreund and Zombies vs Unicorns, an anthology. I have read neither of these (yet), but the Abigail has and I trust her judgement.

Until next time, the Zeppelin is hoping that if it's careful enough when talking about books it hasn't read yet Diane Duane might someday forgive it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Arise and Go Get McDonalds

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I the comments to this failed creative prompt post, one of my new readers requested something related to the content of earlier editions of D&D. While I'm still failing to think of anything related to 3.5e and earlier D&D, here's something spinning of the D&D franchise as a whole:

Tell me about resurrection.

The rules are (or at least seem to be) exactly the same as D&D. For the right price, a sufficiently powerful spellcaster (and there is no shortage of those) can bring the dead back to life. The dead person must agree to be brought back, which means that good people who lived full lives and have gone on to whatever reward awaits them are usually fine with staying dead, bad people are eager to escape, and heroes usually come back, but might take death as an excuse to retire from the whole painful, messy business. Being brought back to life costs you something, but it's something you can regain with time and rest.

I want to hear about the deeper consequences of this idea. What kinds of cultural and artistic quirks would develop, given this "technology?" Basically, I want to hear what you come up with when you attack the idea of fantasy resurrection with the rigor usually reserved for science fiction. Bonus points for truly original ideas. You get docked points for falling back on tired old standbies, though if the idea has legs it'll still walk.

Go.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Direction of the Zeppelin

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After the some of the discussion of blogs on the latest I Should be Writing podcast, I've been thinking about making a minor course correction for the Burning Zeppelin, and I wanted to give my reader(s) a chance to comment.

In her podcast, the inestimable Mur Lafferty comments that, in that they are a platform, blogs should be about the author as well as her work. In other words, I shouldn't just post about stories, ideas, my takes on writing, and so on, but also about my life, my day, and the thousands of small victories and challenges that make me (and my writing) who (and what) I (and it) am (are?).

On the other hand, the Burning Zeppelin Experience was founded to explore a certain kind of fiction in literary, visual, and experiential (that is, roleplaying) form. I don't want to stray too far from my roots here.

Full disclosure here: in my other existence, I have what I think is a pretty interesting life. I'm a teacher in an inner city school and my wife, the Abigail, is a counselor who specializes in trauma, especially bullied and traumatized kids. I have strong, and in some cases iconoclastic, opinions about widely varied issues, and I'm not afraid to speak my mind about them (or, get up at a ridiculous hour and campaign about them). If I open the Burning Zeppelin Experience up to posts about my real life, you aren't going to be deluged by "my sandwich was great today; how about yours?" posts.

I don't eat many sandwiches, anyway.

So, what do you think? Do you want to read about my other life as a teacher, husband, friend, and dude? Or shall we keep it strictly professional here on the Burning Zeppelin Experience? Your comments have the power to influence me this way or that, so don't be shy. Comment away!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

INS of the Father

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As you probably already know, my friend Nathan has his own bog, Mirrorshards, where he posts a daily 100 word story.

If you don't already read Mirrorshards (dude, what's wrong with you?) you don't know that today's piece is particularly clever. Check it out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dugger

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Back when he lived in Palo Alto, my friend Ben (originally a high school friend of the Abigail's) used to throw awesome cheese parties. These parties were so named (by me) because Ben has excellent taste in cheese. He loved to share his expertise, and would bring excellent cheeses to all parties, making them all into awesome cheese parties.

Ben moved to DC and took his cheese with him. I miss Ben.

Incidentally, you can find Ben here, doing surreal photocomics that I can't recommend heartily enough.

But I digress.

The point of this story was that it was at one such awesome cheese party that I first saw Digger on someone else's computer. That was back at the dawn of Digger when it was still a paysite, which is probably why it took me five more years to start reading the comic for myself. I did, however, eventually start reading Digger, and I've never regretted it.

Digger, by Ursula Vernon (whose other work can be found at the eponymously named ursulavernon.com), tells the story of an extremely lost wombat named (oddly enough) Digger who finds herself embroiled in an epochs-old conflict between god and demon, priest and hyena, oracular slug and fierce shrew highwaywoman.

Everything about comic is excellent: the art is creepy and fantastical, the setting is deeply weird and subtly explicated, and all of its inhabitants are wonderfully eccentric and fully realized people (even if some of them are hyena people). The character of Digger herself is really what carries the comic, however. In this brave little wombat, Vernon combines cynicism and idealism, compassion and pragmatism, and genre-savvy and dimensionality in a way that is uniquely endearing and compelling.

I'm also partial to hyena people, myself.

Despite being a webcomic about talking animal people, Digger is also surprisingly deep. It deals with issues of culture and ethics as well as even larger issues of fate, faith, and freedom, with surprising depth. And that's not "surprising for a comic about talking animal people," that's "surprising, period." I've had shallower from philosophy courses in college.

You may have noticed the past tense in this post's title. Not only is that because I am scorchingly, unbearably clever; it's also because Digger is over. Like all good things, it finally came to its conclusion. It's sad, sweet, and strange conclusion.

The entirety of Digger is still up for you to read, however, and I recommend you do it. Now.

Until next time, remember tunnel 17, and remember Ed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This Just Zeppelin!

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AKA: Blatant Zeppelin-Mongering

You may recall that some time ago I posted my review of Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn series? You may have also heard that Sanderson is working with Crafty Games to produce a Mistborn roleplaying game. However, if you aren't listening to the excellent (relatively) new Ace of Geeks podcast, you probably haven't heard this (the news is also available at Crafty Games' website, along with other information, I'm sure).

If you've ever wondered how many links I can fit into a single paragraph, now you know.

Anyway, if you don't want to follow the link and listen to the entire episode (which is understandable, since Ace of Geeks follows the "meander at length about awesome stuff" model of podcasting, so if what you're after is the news I'm talking about you'll probably be frustrated), the news is this: the Mistborn RPG will use the FATE system originally popularized by Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century.

And you thought I was done with links.

This is excellent news. I don't know anything about Crafty Games, except that they are the makers of SpyCraft and FantasyCraft, both games I know absolutely nothing about. What I do know a lot about is FATE. I've read and loved a lot of games based on FATE, including Legends of Anglerre, for which I've written my own setting. FATE is an excellent system, one I think is particularly suited to the world of Mistborn.

In any case, my level of anticipation for this game just, ah, gained a level. I'm really eager to get my paws on this thing and run the heck out of it.

Before I depart for the evening, I'd like to throw a shout-out at Ace of Geeks. This is an extremely solid podcast, full of cleverness and fun. The hosts are both my kind of people: clever, smart, open-minded, socially conscious, and extremely nerdy. They have the most important quality of all podcasts: fun. Not that they're fun to listen to - which they are - but that they're clearly having so much fun podcasting. It really rubs off. One of the hosts, Mike, also plays D&D with me at the local Borders. I really enjoy Ace of Geeks, and I'm willing to bet you will, too.

If you are an obsessive archive-trawler (like me), be warned: the early episodes, before the Aces bought new microphones, are a bit... rough. I found some of them very hard to listen to. If you are less deaf - or less commuting in an increasingly loud car that probably needs a tune-up - than I, you might very well have no difficulties. Anyway, the most recent episode is completely audible at all times. I look forward to watching this podcast continue to grow and improve, as all things do.

And that's it for tonight. Until next time, folks, how exactly does one mong a zeppelin?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Creative Prompt, Take II

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Ok, I guess the D&D fans aren't out there.

Instead, give me this, somewhat more generically fantastic thing:

Tell me the story of a world in which a god associated with a generally malevolent phenomenon is viewed as a benevolent force. The more negative the phenomenon, the more genuine the god's benevolence, the more points you win. The who, what, where, when, why, and how are entirely up to you.

Go?

Please?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Creative Prompt, 4th Edition

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To all my D&D fans (I know you're out there):

Tell me about the Astral Chaos.

Tell me about the Elemental Sea.

Go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A-NO-nymous

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It's common wisdom - as I understand it - that what every writer needs is a good crit group, full of people who don't know you, don't care about you, and are perfectly willing to tear your work to shreds, sparing not a thought for your feelings. The internet is great for this sort of thing, as are groups that meet in coffee shops. Don't show your work to your friends and family, because they'll be too kind to you. Presumably, also, be wary of becoming friends with your anonymous crit group, lest they start to love you and also begin sparing your feelings.

Honestly, I call bullshit.

First of all, there are stories like the one mentioned in a recent episode of I Should Be Writing: crit groups turned mutual appreciation societies. I've heard of this happening again and again, both online and in real life. It seems to me that there is a powerful tendency in writer's groups to develop toxic social norms. Real criticism is unsafe and frowned upon; only bland positive feedback is permitted.

Secondly, there's my personal experience. My alpha reader is the Abigail, a former English major and avid consumer of short and long science fiction and fantasy (well, mostly fantasy). My alpha and a half reader (in that he lives across the Internet and usually doesn't get to my work until after the Abigail has had a crack at it) is Nathaniel Lee, of Mirrorshards. My beta readers are the aspiring writers of the Escape Artists' writer's forum (it's hidden on their regular forum - you need to message a moderator to join). Of the three, only the folks at EA even resemble an anonymous and disinterested group. Most importantly, I have had no difficulty getting cutting negative feedback from the Abigail and Nathan when it's appropriate.

I know that single exceptions don't actually disprove established rules, so I'm going to provide the mechanism by which my system works:
  1. Because most people are basically nice, only someone who really cares about you will tell you when you suck. Getting someone to tell you when you suck is even harder when they know that you are going to get a turn telling them that they suck. This is how mutual appreciation societies form - everyone is afraid to be the one to give negative feedback because they don't want to be the first to receive negative feedback. Norms form (as they will) until negativity is outlawed.
  2. Not all feedback is created equal. With all due respect to my beta readers, I usually get the best and most useful feedback from Nathan and the Abigail. They are both intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful (well, the Abigail anyway) (Nathan - imagine me sticking my tongue out at you). I know them, I trust them, and they tend to have more useful and specific things to say.
  3. I've found it especially true that people who get me get my work and people who don't, don't. When the point of a story is obscure or poorly communicated, people who understand me are more likely to understand what I'm going for and help me draw it out. People who don't understand me are more likely to completely miss the point and give me feedback that sends me in the wrong direction. I'll concede that an audience who can miss the point this way is important, because I need to know if my point is that hard to get... but when it comes to getting me back on track, it's the people who know me who can lead the way.
  4. Finally, and relatedly, relationship is key. Readers who know me and know what I find interesting can make much more cutting and perceptive comments. The Abigail knows when I'm shying away from a decision I'm excited about but afraid my audience won't get. Nathan isn't afraid to point out when I'm being too nice to my characters. In my experience, this insight is priceless.

Now is the time on the Burning Zeppelin Experience when I undermine my own point with concessions to the very thing I'm railing against.

Firstly, I do believe that there is a time and a place for an anonymous crit group. It is incredibly useful to have a group of people, hooked in to some kind of feedback mechanism, who can let you know what an audience is going to make of your work. After all, not everyone is going to be as intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful as the Abigail (and Nathan). Not everyone is going to know me as well, either.

Secondly, I also know that I have lucked the heck out. I'm married to a former English major, with whom I share a love of fantastic fiction and roleplaying games (in fact, I'd better wrap this post up so I can finish planning our next Exalted session...). I have a college buddy who is a talented writer, but in such a way that he is my complementary inverse (rather than being so different we have nothing to say to each other or so similar we share all the same foibles). Not everyone is going to be so fortunate.

That said...

I can't help but set myself up against the common wisdom. I think that alpha and beta readers who understand you, care about you, and relate to your work are absolutely indispensable, much more so than an anonymous or distant crit group.

Until next time, remember, that Zeppelin stands alone.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Funk Over?

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So, I was going to post last night, but I hadn't had a chance to work on anything for Trump III: The High Priestess. I was too busy working on The Corpse-Eater in Love, the first of two story ideas I've had in the last two days (the second hasn't got a title yet, or I'd tease you with that, too).

Yeah.

I think the funk might be over. Rather than depress myself anew over this, I'm going to suspend this little blog project until the next time I need an artificial creativity structure. Don't worry, I won't forget.

This brief interlude is brought to you by love-struck ghouls, magical brain parasites, and the color zeppelin.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Zeppelin Bureau

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Last night, despite PACTing, teaching, job and budget woes, the Abigail and I went to see a movie. Specifically, we went to see "The Adjustment Bureau", a new film featuring the talents of Matt Damon and a wide variety of other entertainment industry personalities that I, philistine that I am, don't know from Adam. The movie tells that story of David Norris, a Senate hopeful whose chances are dashed by a single bad choice coming home to roost. The Adjustment Team is also a short story by Phillip K. Dick (the full text of the original story is available here).

I don't want to write too much. So much of this story rests in the suspense, in the starts and stops of the central unlikely and ill-fated romance that I'm genuinely afraid of spoiling it for you. I will tease you by saying that "The Adjustment Bureau" reminded me of In Nomine, Demon: the Fallen, and Exalted's Sidereals, all of which it added to and compared to favorably.

I will say this: I recommend this movie without reservation.

I will also say this: The creators of this movie do things with the use of space, light, color, and camera angle that make me keenly aware of the limitations of the written word. They literally took my breath away. I got it back, but it was close there.

I will finally say this: "The Adjustment Bureau" defines and redefines the idea of a Burning Zeppelin Experience.

So, go see "The Adjustment Bureau."

Until next time, folks, the Zeppelin would like to remind you that everything is going according to plan.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Presenting: Thetis

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As part of my continued efforts to turn off the funk, I now bring you Thetis, a world of nautical high fantasy. Based on part on some ideas provided by the Abigail and partly on some ideas of my own creation, Thetis is a world of ancient mysteries, seafaring mutants, and crazy alchemists. I think you'll enjoy it.

Oh, and the Abigail - follow that link! It leads to an improved and updated version of the document I emailed you last night.

Also, a pdf. Thanks Google Docs!

Anyway, I can hear you saying: "dude, why are you giving us an RPG setting for Trump One: the Magician?" You sound annoyed, confused, and a little congested. You might be coming down with something, and should try to get some sleep tonight to see if you can kick it.

I have two reasons.

Firstly, Thetis has several themes in common with the Magician: mystery, exploration, and the struggle to balance (or conquer) the occult with the rational. Of course, Thetis also has the aforementioned seafaring mutants. I'm pretty sure there aren't any seafaring mutants in the Magician.

Secondly, Thetis uses an adaptation of Cubicle 7's Legends of Anglerre (itself an adaptation of Evil Hat's FATE system, which first hit the market as Spirit of the Century), making it a drift rather than a purely original creation. There is something about the art of drifting and hacking that has always reminded me of the Magician, a kind of arcane virtuosity. To drift and hack, you manipulate obscure variables, pulling some themes forward into the light and pushing others back into the shadow.

As above, so below; as the themes, so the dice.

I'm going to take that as my cue to wish you adieu. Until next time, folks, sing it with me: "hey, ho, the wind and the Zeppelin!"

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We Wished You a Merry Zeppelin

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The day before yesterday I wrote to recommend Chris Lester's wonderful Metamor City. Today - it must be karma - Lester posted the final chapters of his A Lightbringer Carol. The novella ended as powerfully as it began, and then some, with a conclusion that I won't spoil for you (not even you, Jon - long story).

Before I move on, I wanted to pass on to you something that occurred to me this morning: if you're new to Metamor City, it's my opinion that you should not begin with A Lightbringer Carol. The novella is wonderful, but full effect depends on prior knowledge of the main character and his relationships. I recommend that you go back and listent to the earlier episodes - especially those tagged "Janus" - to really get the impact of the events of this story.

Of course, once you've done that, you'll probably end up listening to the rest of the series. That's my evil plan.

Anyway, that's enough of me for now. Until next time, always remember to look both ways before you cross the zeppelin.

Actually, you know what? Just don't cross the zeppelin. It's safer that way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Turn Off the Funk, Part One: The Fool

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As I promised last week, content! This week's card is The Fool, and this week's content is a little flash, by me, for you.

The Fool’s Errand
By Mark L.S. Stone

“This is ridiculous,” Jeff said.

Frank shrugged. They both heard what might have been low laughter, but might have been the sound of pigeons taking wing.

“Seriously, what the fuck?

Frank shrugged again and gulped down the last of his coffee. He tossed the empty paper cup aside and started dragging the two unconscious, tied-together men into the back of the police car.

“You gonna help out or what?”

Jeff put his own cup on top of the squad car end grabbed one end of the bundled perps.

“Since when,” Jeff huffed, “do we have a superhero?”

“He’s not a superhero,” Frank replied. “He’s a masked vigilante.”

“Same fucking difference.”

Somewhere in the distance, a little dog yapped.

The two cops finished wrestling the unconscious men into the back of the squad car.

“It’s not going to do any good, anyway. These guys will wake up and deny everything.”

Frank shook his head. “Nope. They’ll confess. Always do.”

Frank slid into the squad car and turned the ignition. As the engine hummed to life, Jeff paused to retrieve his coffee. For a moment Jeff thought he saw someone standing across the street.
He was tall and slender, with wind-tossed blond hair and a long-nosed harlequin mask covering the upper part of his face He had a rose in one hand. A small white dog crouched at his side.

Jeff blinked, and the man was gone. Jeff shook his head and got into the passenger seat.

“What are they calling this guy?” Jeff asked.

“The Fool,” Frank replied.

“The Fool, huh? Well, fuck me.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Metamor City (Belatedly) Takes on Christmas...

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... and the Burning Zeppelin Experience (belatedly) reviews it.

First of all, what is Metamor City? A braided anthology podcast of short stories, novellas, and full-on novels set in a post-industrial fantasy, a world of sword and sorcery all grown up. From the very first episode we are introduced to a universe where vampires, elves, communist psychics, and people transformed by an ancient curse that still lingers on the city live side by side, and become embroiled in corporate intrigues, police dramas, and occult investigations. Some of the stories are produced in the traditional single-reader style, but many of the stories and all of the novels are full-cast audio productions, complete with sound effects and music. The production values are incredibly high, on par with anything else I've heard on the internet and better than most.

Metamor City's writing is also very good. In my highly amateur opinion, Chris Lester is a promising up-and-comer; like yours truly, he's got some work to do to hone his craft to professional levels, but he's definitely fun to listen to in the meantime. His stories are fun, his characters are compelling, and the world they live in is incredibly deep, dense, and dynamic (as well as other good words beginning with the letter "d").

Another interesting thing to consider about Metamor City is the "braided" in "braided anthology." Not all the stories here are by Chris Lester! So far, the podcast has run at least one story by others in the podcast community - as well as a story that Chris Lester wrote for another podcast - and promises to run more stories set in Metamor City (in fact, I've got an idea I've been kicking around my head and might eventually get to writing down and sending to Lester... eventually). It isn't that a Metamor City listener needs or wants a break from Lester's writing, but the change of style and perspective is definitely refreshing, and brings a lot to the podcast.

One warning: Metamor City is not for the faint of earbuds. There's a definite adult spin to many of the stories. The inhabitants of Metamor City have sex, use foul language, and end up in some extremely unpleasant and disturbing situations. There are scenes that some people will call pornographic, and at least two stories (one a Metamor City story written by a contributor) are openly fantasy erotica. Lester does a very good job of making the degree of explicit content clear in the intro, so the self-censoring can go to town. Nonetheless, I don't recommend Metamor City to anyone who would be bothered by writers getting sex in their fantasy, or fantasy in their sex.

I was going somewhere with all this: the recent production of Chris Lester's A Lightbringer Carol, a Metamor City novella that began shortly after Christmas and continues to this day (alas, due to slow release rather than length). I'm singling A Lightbringer Carol out for special attention because it showcases Lester's talent for making the old and tired new and fresh. I had begun to think that A Christmas Carol - never the closest to my heart, Jew that I am - had lost all power to effect me. I've seen the movie version(s), and the muppet movie version, and listened to the Escape Pod version, and all in all, it was beginning to yawn me. But Chris Lester, with his modern fantasy tale of a hard-bitten and hard-boiled inter-dimensional priest-cop learning the true meaning of Christmas has managed to really touch me. I've listened to Stave One, Stave Two, Stave Three, and I'm eagerly awaiting Stave Four.

And you should be, as well.

Until next time, folks, watch out for vampire street gangs and remember that implantable amulets are definitely the way to go.