The White City Devil: How To See Through Nonsense


Read this and tell me what’s wrong with it:

“Born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first serial murderers. He took over a Chicago pharmacy and built it into an elaborate maze of death traps to which he lured numerous victims during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He was eventually captured and hanged in 1896.” link

I have a thing for wanting to know things other people don’t know…I want to really know nonsense when I see it, especially if the crowds are stampeding in the other direction. Not sure why that is. It’s just how I think. I read The True History Of The White City Devil recently; and it got me thinking about this side of me again. I’ll get back to the Holmes thing in a bit. Stick with me.

A few years ago, after reading a book about the Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story Of The Mary Celeste And Her Missing Crew, I compiled a few rules for how modern myths develop, which I’ll share below. At the time, it struck me how so many of the “unsolved mysteries” I grew up fascinated by were probably benign and dull in fact, but made salacious by people with agendas and a need for good gossip to spread. In this Mary Celeste book, the traditional view is a ship’s crew disappeared with warm food on the table and no log explanation or damage to the ship. Gone – into thin air. Google it; and you’ll read about black holes and aliens and teleportation. I’m not sure you’d buy and read anything that just suggested fumes from burst barrels of alcohol drove people to the lifeboat and subsequently got them separated from the ship in a storm.

Arthur Machen’s introduction to his story “The Bowmen” captures this myth development process in its tracks. Go read that – it will blow your mind.

Have a look at the convoluted history of the Voynich Manuscript and see if you don’t agree this thing is just a hoax. People see what they want to see. The 2016-2017 political climate should make that point as loudly as anything I can tell you here.

Here are the rules I’ve distilled regarding myth development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

Back to the book about H. H. Holmes, the problem with the statement I provided above is it’s basically not true. The reviews for “The True History Of The White City Devil” said in a big way that the book is bland at times because it’s so well researched. In fact, I adored this book because of that. No junk here – the author cuts through the noise and has spent countless hours dredging through microfiche and dusty library stacks to bring us truth. It’s a lot less sexy of a story than the traditional view of a lusty villain in his murder hotel luring innocent visitors to the World’s Fair into their dooms. It’s the story of a pathological liar and con man who got himself stuck in his schemes and wound up doing away with a small handful of people to clean up the mess. In fact, no one at all may have even rented a room in what has come to history as the “Murder Castle”. Fascinating.

I put this myth development concern at the heart of my first novel, envisioning a mystic who manipulated myth development to guide history.

There’s a TV show on now presenting a relatively popular theory that Holmes was in fact also Jack The Ripper. It’s a theory being propounded by a great-great-grandson of Holmes himself. What’s presented as evidence is actually just crackpot talking heads in a lot of cases. Anything working against the theme is waved off as an obstruction to the truth. It’s absolute nonsense; and I’m not even going to give you a link to it.

Anyway, if you’re into truth and can appreciate a well-researched study done by someone who cares about cutting through the noise, pick up a copy. It’s worth your time.


‘The Dark Tower’: We’re gonna need more dunce caps…


Don’t go see it. Please.

Go ahead and nod knowingly, and tell yourself here’s just another fanboy with his diaper full because the movie wasn’t just like the precious book. You need to know specific reasons first – why the new ‘Dark Tower’ movie with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey is a steaming pile of it. I can do that for you…if you promise me you’ll skip it. Skip it so the lack of box office revenue will force the rights back to someone who can think beyond making diluted nonsense in hopes of creating their own Marvel-style connected universe. Please, God, stop with the connected universes!

Full disclosure – I am a fanboy, though. Those books are amazing. Seriously. But I digress.

There are probably spoilers here; but unless I can make them more interesting than the movie did, you’ll forget them as soon as you read them anyway. I wouldn’t worry about it.

The movie: A bad guy with cardboard back story who’s got superpowers and a ridiculous agenda of destroying the universe is kidnapping kids to do so. He’s awful and kills people so you’ll think he’s scary, and struts like a rooster afraid of nothing. Wide-eyed kid convinces battle-weary reluctant warrior to go to battle one more time and defeat the evildoer. You even get a scene where he teaches the kid how to shoot. Special effects. Special effects. Minor jokes. Climax. Victory. Open ending for sequels. The end.

It’s absolutely impossible for you to get confused because they outdid themselves with narration all throughout like you have no imagination whatsoever. Characters say things just to make the next scene make sense, or to explain the last scene. I’m not exaggerating here – it’s brutal to watch. The dialogue may as well have been stage directions.

“That’s how the demon died, a psychic could override it”

“Didn’t they lose a kid the other day? Maybe it’s the same kid!”

The plot is so eye-rolling plain vanilla that you could easily substitute the Power Rangers for Roland and have basically the same movie. If you just guessed at some scenes and some dialogue that the movie probably has, you’re almost certain to be right. I finished several lines in my head before the characters spoke them.

“Your shine is your weapon. The guns are mine.” That’s one of the lines I saw coming.

The Man In Black is intriguing in the books because he was part of the end of an age that led to the end to the gunslingers, a weird-western type of knight with supernatural six-shooter skills that defended Mid-World. He’s afraid of the lead character, and runs when he has to. He is a schemer and seducer, hiding and manipulating, and not necessarily up to his schemes because it’s his idea. Yeah, you get none of that here. McConaughey’s just the little Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoon that wants his Iridium 238 Space Modulator so he can blow up the universe or whatever.

Roland is intriguing in the books because he’s a vestige of a fascinating old order. People step aside and respect him; and he helps when he has to as long as he can get back to his quest as soon as possible. He’s not afraid to sacrifice even his friends, and in fact lets Jake die when he first comes across him. He’s going to get to the tower no matter what. The movie version is your Hollywood archetype dude who’s amazing in battle but tired of it, and has a paper-thin motivation served up to you in a tight, 3 minute package with the guy from the All-State commercials.

I’ll stop, because you’re losing patience with my bitterness.

If Sony had paid closer attention to what works in the series, what is truly unique and inventive, this movie could have been paradigm-shattering. There hasn’t been a blockbuster ‘Star Wars’ for the weird-western genre yet. This could have been it! There’s a world of people out there pretending to be jedi to more deeply immerse themselves in their entertainment – this movie could have launched something similar for gunslingers.

There’s a body of Stephen King movies out there already that actually get tied together in the series – almost everything the man ever wrote comes together in these books. If they wanted a connected universe, what a twist it would have been to buy and show spiffed-up scenes from some of those already-existing movies? The rights would have been pennies compared to the interest drummed up by such a novelty. I’d rather have been marveling over how they pulled that off than spending time watching a male Rita Repulsa fire the deathstar beam from ‘The Force Awakens’ at a bland lego tower.

If you do go see it, please let me know your thoughts. If you never read the books, I’m particularly interested in what you thought of the movie. It’s hard to separate from what I’d hoped to see, so I could be completely wrong about all this.

But I doubt it.


Brain-hacking And The Glass Bead Game

Digital StillCamera

“…a mode of playing with the total content and values of our culture. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced…the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has obtained an almost unimaginable perfection. Theoretically, this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.” -Herman Hesse

I think I ran across The Glass Bead Game in a list somewhere of books favored by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges makes me jealous because even footnotes in his stories are interesting. If you’re not yet into this guy, go get this. It’s not really my point today that you should go read either of these books, although you of course should; but it is absolutely my launching point.

But so you know, in the case that you haven’t come across The Glass Bead Game, the idea is there’s a game in the future where the players link up themes or hidden associations between ideas and expressions and build massive intellectual edifices as they go. Not sure how you win or even how you play because it’s like chasing fog as you read that maddening book what the rules are. Worth it, though. If you’re at all into mind-expanding originality and chin-scratching genius…it’s worth the read. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the James Burke show from back in the day, Connections. Except maybe with more coffee and on another level.

Again though, not my point today. Let me tell you about synergy and neuroplasticity, then I’ll drop you back off here with Hesse. It was just a weird thing that started happening to me that connected a lot of things and opened up some of my writing. Maybe it’s happened to you too.

A few summers back, I went on a history binge and read these:

  1. A biography of Billy The Kid emphasizing his rise as folk hero by way of dime novels
  2. A book about 19th century political schemer, Boss Tweed and the role cartoonist Thomas Nast played in bringing public opinion down on him
  3. Fawn Brodie’s scathing biography of Mormon Church founder, Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History

These books aren’t related to each other in any way, apart from just my weird, scattered interests; but something glared back at me so obvious and bright when I finished the third of them that it really struck me. All three of these (forgive me if you feel differently about Smith) swelled into larger-than-life, mythical figures and in some cases shattered against the rise of literacy in 19th century America. As more people could read and as newspapers and dime novels grew in popularity, these three came to power (and fell); and they couldn’t have done so beforehand. It was a unifying theme, entirely unexpected.

I’ll hit you with another one. Happened over this past Christmas holiday:

  1. Practical Object-Oriented Design In Ruby (don’t judge me, I only understood half of it – just curious). This one did a nice job showing how object-oriented programming languages set up little balls of usefulness that act on their own, waiting on signals, and do only the stuff they’re asked but generate emergent behavior. Just a way of programming computers, but super satisfying when you think about it.
  2. The Cell: A Visual Tour Of The Building Block Of Life, which does a nice grand tour of the little balls of usefulness acting inside our cells – organelles and proteins, cytoskeletons building and unraveling, walking proteins…all acting on their own, waiting on signals, and doing only the stuff they’re asked but still generating emergent behavior.

You get me, yeah? Cells work like object-oriented programming languages. Whatever that implies. Somebody should write something about that.

Since our brains are neuroplastic, they rewire themselves as we try to think differently or encounter dramatically new types of information. If you start trying to learn to read music, for example, over time it will get a lot easier as you learn to think that way. You can actually see the brain doing this, by the way, making new connections. My overall point here is that if you get in the habit of looking for hidden connections like I happened across, like a Glass Bead Game player might, over time you’ll get better at doing so.

Seeing crazy connections and themes between things you run across or read or watch, expands your thoughts and makes you more creative. If you’ve spent any time at all hanging around this blog, you’ll know that’s kind of my thing.

Any crazy connections you’ve come across? Drop me a note, I’d like to hear about it. Some folks have told me they’ve actually played recreations of Hesse’s game – details, man! If you’ve done that, send me details!

Less whining. More Inspiring. Have a great rest of July!

What Is It With You And Science Fiction?

Disney's TOMORROWLAND Tomorrowland Ph: Film Frame ©Disney 2015

You see that title up there, right? My dad asked me that once.  Maybe you know somebody – maybe you are somebody – that relates to the question. What on earth does the sort of thing those people dream about have to do with real life? I mean, you can find bajillions of romance and self-help titles, no end of action movies and romantic comedies. A better life. A way out. Love. Who couldn’t relate to those things? But when a stranger stands there with a cocktail in their hand asking what your “sci fi” book is about, just go ahead and watch that look on her face.

I did a fanboy thing the other day that I want to tell you about, then I’ll come back to this question. They’re related, believe it or not.

A while back, I read Lady Of Mazes by Karl Schroeder and thought it was meh. Then I read another one of his called Sun Of Suns and wrote about it, a little more impressed. Then I read the sequel. Not even kidding – a year went by; and the ideas from that first book are still kicking around in my head, simmering like vegetable soup.  I just finished Ventus; and I’m sold on this guy’s brain. He thinks big. I really like people that think big. Here’s how he describes his job:

“…both an analyst of future trends and a communicator, using articles, fiction, presentations and even games to show what might be possible, and where we might be headed.”

I don’t get much value out of Twitter but it’s there, so…you know…I found him there. Dropped him a note saying his book was getting me through some boring flights. And he answered, said something plain vanilla like, “Glad you liked it. I loved writing that book!” And I thought that was maybe a little more awesome than you do. Still, this idea of a guy who churns away all day, trying to extrapolate where blockchain technology or future forms of government may go…with the wild ideas Schroeder has…that’s exciting to me. He got me thinking about the power of science fiction to warn us and to inspire us, and its highest mission – to lay out the vision so we know which way to go.

Somewhere in my stacks, I’ve got a dorky book written by William Shatner where he traveled around and interviewed a bunch of cutting edge scientists working on the latest technology and innovations, and found a bunch of starry-eyed swooners who told him Star Trek was the reason they got into what they did. And yes, I went for the pun.  Something very much like that is what I told my dad, by the way.

Anyway, I noticed that Schroeder has been invited to participate in something called the Science Fiction Advisory Council. You can read a little more about it here. And that is what’s right with the world. The point is to bring these smart, imaginative thinkers together and generate content to inform and project what may happen in different sectors like government, energy production & distribution, health and technology, and the environment. They’ll be meeting quarterly either in person or virtually.

Here are the folks joining up with him – see if you can find your favorite:

CaptureThe first project will be stories launching from a Tokyo-San Francisco flight that mysteriously appears 20 years in the future.

So go read Karl Schroeder and mull over the gargantuan ‘archipelago’ he dreamed up, figure out what “thalience” means, and imagine a world where people access augmented reality and personal scenario simulations at will or even send simulations of themselves off to deal with life while they fritter away sipping pina colada or whatever. He’s worth your time if you’re into dreaming big.

And drop me a note with what area you’d focus on if you were to join this council. Tell me about your future.

Comic Cons And Your Faith In Humanity


Hey, have you ever been stuck in a silly disorganized line somewhere full of pissed-off people, waiting on something you know is going to be awesome? Attendants ignore you and shoot the face-palm to maybe remind you they’re not getting paid enough for this. Then people start cutting in line in front of you. Then a guy recognizes that and starts yelling. If there’s alcohol, it goes downhill quickly, right? And of course if there’s rain or it’s cold, fuhgedaboudit – right?

So I guess it should have been that way yesterday at Kansas City’s ‘Planet Comicon’, but it wasn’t. Because people of my tribe know better; and that is what’s right in the world.

Let me back up. I found this recently. Back in the day, ‘Starlog’ magazine was a place where you could find things like whether Han Solo was going to get out of the carbonite while waiting on the next movie, or where you could see a casual letter addressed from Sri Lanka written in by Arthur C. Clarke. It was a science fiction dude’s treasure trove. That link is the archive for all the issues. God bless whoever put that together because yay. I was interested in the science fiction world immediately prior to 1977’s release of ‘Star Wars’ and what it was like immediately afterwards because that was very much a pivot point.

What you’ll find should you follow in my footsteps is nerd culture was desperately clinging to decade-old episodes of ‘Star Trek’ and the relatively crappy ‘Space 1999’. They wanted so much more and were hungry for something to get lost in. It comes across on every page. They wanted somewhere to belong without catching crap from anyone about it. Strangely, it reflected exactly what I found in the letters pages of old sci-fi pulps from the 1930’s .

Now flash forward to yesterday in Kansas City with temps in the 40’s and cold rain, no parking downtown, a credit card reader in the lot not working and no attendant, and formless lines outside the Con snaking this way and that, in and out of the rain, with no one clear on which was ‘Will Call’ and which was ‘Walk-in’. People who had no tickets were going in front of guys that had prepaid. Here, see?IMG_5660Inside, it got nuts on Saturday with the crowds. Lines could take up to an hour for just fries and a drink. Was crazy, man. Crazy. And yet…

A dude in a steampunk hat at the parking lot offered to chant Swahili spells for me to make it work. A lady schlepping her Fairy Queen dress in bundles across the street just smiled. The guy who put together a lifelike Jabba The Hut replica didn’t charge anything for you to take pictures next to it. There was a little tiny kid, no older than 10 I swear, in a stilted Groot costume with a line going around the corner of people waiting to take pictures with him. I saw a dude and his dad dressed like Indiana Jones and Henry Jones from ‘Last Crusade’. Here, look at this:

And then I turned a corner and saw Chris Claremont. I’m not organized, I didn’t know who all was going to be there. But there was the guy that wrote some of the most influential comic books ever. The ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga and ‘Days Of Future Past’ from X-men were his brain-babies. He’s probably the reason you’ve even heard of Wolverine. And he was chatting and laughing, telling jokes and cool anecdotes to everybody in line.

I’m sure somebody from yesterday could tell you how wet and hungry they got and how rude somebody was to them. No doubt. Honestly though, if seeing a dad, mom and tiny daughter posing happily with alien-suckers stuck to their faces or cheerful Deadpool guys handing out fliers saying, ‘Free paper!” doesn’t warm your heart, what on earth will?

If you have any cool comic con stories, I’d love to hear them!

Logan’s Run And The Story DNA Hollywood Needs

Logan's Run

So I re-watched Logan’s Run the other day, for the bajillionth time. I’ve got a serious thing for the uber-creative science fiction material that came out of Hollywood in the seventies and early eighties. Can’t help it. Don’t care what the FX look like, I just appreciate that so much of it was out of absolutely nowhere with the ideas and trappings. Then like any compulsive nut who can’t let things go, I started re-reading the books – the trilogy by William F. Nolan (George Clayton Johnson helped out with the first book). It got me thinking about crappy Hollywood remakes, the Music Genome Project, and a skill that writers (and money jockeys in Hollywood) could use to make the world a better place. Please allow me to expand on that.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil all the story stuff for you here – if you don’t know what Logan’s Run is, I’m pretty jealous. Go watch that and read them and buy the lifeclock and Sandman shirt off eBay or something, then get back to me with pics of you wandering around Houston or Dallas or somewhere looking for where they shot the scenes.

The movie version: “A 1976 American science fiction film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. It depicts a utopian future society on the surface, revealed as a dystopia where the population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by killing everyone who reaches the age of 30. The story follows the actions of Logan 5, a ‘Sandman’ who has terminated others who have attempted to escape death, and is now faced with termination himself.” -Wikipedia

There’s a domed city where people are pleasure-chasing sheep, watched over by paramilitary Sandmen in very cool uniforms who chase and eliminate the runners that don’t believe ‘Carrousel’ (their spelling, not mine) is the reincarnation they’re told it is. Logan discovers an ankh on a dead runner, which draws him into the underground network of runners and eventually in love with one of them and all that sort of thing. For me, it hits all sorts of highlights:

  1. Tough-guy gunslingers, with a buddy story
  2. Gorgeous and mysterious woman involved in intrigue
  3. Domed freaking city with futuristic technology and weird backstory
  4. Authoritarian shadow-government slamming down an unfair ultimatum on the hero with no recourse for him
  5. Cool scenery and high-stakes chase down into the ever-deepening mystery
  6. Post-apocalypse reveal, with burned-out cities

The folks at the Music Genome Project boil songs down to basic elements to allow for comparing and recommending them. Paul Hardcastle’s slow jazz song ‘Lost Summer’, for example, might include:

  • Smooth jazz elements
  • R&B and funk influences
  • Synthetic instrumentation and a melodic alto sax solo
  • Use of call-and-response melodies
  • A groove-oriented approach

Maybe if they were to strip down the Logan’s Run film, it would include some things off my list, or maybe things more basic like:

  1. Rebellion against authority theme
  2. Intrigue and inclusion of underground resistance
  3. Youth versus establishment theme

I imagine when these books first hit, the culture was ready for something that pushed these buttons. That’s kind of my point about crappy Hollywood remakes – that the buttons aren’t bothered to be identified or adhered to. The point is missed. If you read any articles about people wanting to remake this movie, they just want to make Logan a girl or stick some odd bits in that have no purpose other than spectacle. Of course, that goes way back. In Nolan’s introduction to the books, he said this of a meeting with a screenwriter in 1968:

“I recall a lunch with Maibaum in Beverly Hills shortly after the option had been picked up. He was already into the script and full of what I felt were bad ideas, none of which existed in the original novel.

‘There’s this giant surfing god on the shores of Hawaii’, he told me. ‘Big, bronzed guy about ninety feet high. We have all these young studs on flying surfboards fighting like crazy, zooming through the air around their god, ripping each other apart…just think of it as James Bond in Tomorrowland.'”

I mean – what?

The Kevin Feige-era Marvel movies got the tone right, I think, possibly a reason for the ridiculous amount of cash they’re pulling in. A little humor, some spectacle, cool rules like ‘the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets’ and the idea that no one unworthy can lift Thor’s hammer. I remember when I was a kid reading those comics how fantastic I thought it was that all those guys knew each other, that Peter Parker hung out with Johnny Storm and asked Matt Murdock for advice sometimes, and occasionally had uncomfortable conversations with Wolverine in a bar. So Marvel hit those buttons, triggering nostalgia, sure, but also the same chemistry I liked so much when I was a kid.

The idea that prompted me to sit for a while and jot this down for you is this:

What would happen if aspiring wordslingers like myself got really, really good at boiling down the STORY DNA of things, to the point that we know them instinctively when we see them, and could even read what the people are hungry for us to push?

Wouldn’t you say buttons like these would be timely:

  • Distrust of authority and government
  • Nostalgia for the feeling of freedom like a bike in summertime
  • Clear, decisive, and upright moral leadership without the taint of scandal
  • Inspirational stories of disparate people coming together for something bigger than themselves

I don’t know – what buttons do you see waiting out there?

Maybe we need a Literary Genome Project: a society of trusted book reviewers in all major genres and a set of agreed-upon themes and tropes that could be applied like the music folks are doing. Movie-makers could use it as a way of lowering their risk for untested concepts, by knowing what themes need to appear in the movie to avoid disappointing the intended audience. Authors could use it to replicate the feel of the works that inspired them without ripping them off.

Anyway, that’s a shower thought – probably only good while the water’s running. Let me know what you think!





Books We Put Down (And Why)


I know, man. Gene Wolfe is supposed to be amazing. People that dig his stuff go on and on about that. The Book Of The New Sun was supposedly voted the greatest fantasy of all time after Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. Whatever. I’ve tried three separate times to read it. Three times, man. I suppose I’m not smart enough to see the big deal. Anyway, after I tried to read a book by Felix Gilman called Thunderer, it got me thinking about books that look amazing but turn out to be fizzlers.

So I asked around. It can’t just be me that this happens to. And it happens to me a lot. I’m a little too hard on my literary entertainment. If I get a few pages in and there’s too much rambling, inane dialogue, or I see no sign of whatever hook drew me in, I’m bailing. Anyway, I got some answers as I posted or chatted about this very point that formed a pattern. Thought I’d let you in on that.

The Gilman book I mentioned said this in the description:

“Gilman takes his readers on a journey through a world of deep and wondrous impossibilities where marvels lurk around every corner. His infinite city and the lives of its people quickly become an irresistible compulsion— I imagine an evening where Dickens, Miyazaki, and Jules Verne sat down to dream up a metropolis and its wrangling multitudes. Thunderer will leave you wide eyed, breathless and hoping for more.”—David Keck, author of In the Eye of Heaven

Let’s break down what caught my attention, because the cover was an embarrassment. (Go look for yourself, I’m not posting that nonsense here.) The quote describes a teeming city, mentions Dickens (always certain to catch my eye) and the genius from Studio Ghibli behind the greatest anime ever made. I love interesting fantasy cities. One reviewer mentioned it reminded him of Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s the point: because of the reviews and cover description, I was hoping for a city with a supernatural twist to it, with some intriguing imagery, and a storyline- any storyline – that took that idea to some kind of fulfillment. I mean, I couldn’t even have told you when I started reading it what the jacket said that story was going to be. I was just trusting it would fulfill the promise of those influences I’d been promised.

Unfortunately, it’s a boring, dreary, rambling incoherent mess with plain-Jane characters and dull ideas ripped from a cosplay convention. I stuck it out just because, which is very unusual for me.

What I heard from a lot of folks I asked about this – books they had to put down – was that there was in fact a hook that caught their eyes, but they just didn’t deliver on it. Evan at From The Wastes said for him it was Dante’s Inferno, which is why I included that picture on this post. A city in hell is a firecracker of an idea; but if that’s why you’re planning to read Dante, you’re going to be disappointed.

Several folks named bestsellers like Girl On A Train or Gone Girl. The pattern I heard from them was similar – with a bestseller thriller you have specific things you expect to see; and the bestseller apparatus should assure that. Here’s what some folks said:

“I want the book to grab me with characters and plot immediately”

“I need movement and plot…and make them interesting”

“Didn’t get into the plot. Didn’t move along. Just blah blah blah scenery and description”

“Someone said it gets better after the fifth chapter. WTF! I have to wait five chapters!?”

You get the pattern, right? I suppose writers should face the fact that within a few pages, most readers have decided whether they’re pressing ahead or not. Look, most editorial reviews on Amazon are paid for. When other authors are quoted, they’re just doing drudge work their publisher is requiring of them.

Leo Tolstoy said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity” I suppose as writers we ought to listen to him and to our own experiences with books we’ve put down. Pick one where it happened to you and cypher out what it was that drew you in to begin with, and how the book failed to deliver. My guess is the author overcomplicated a cool idea and decorated it with a bunch of style and ambience. That’s ironic if true, because all the reader ever wanted was to just see the cool idea in its simplicity.

Get back to me with your own experiences or thoughts. I’m curious what you’re putting down and why!

Stock Inversion: Thoughts On Paradigm Smashing


“Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho

A few months ago, I posted an article on paradigms that started some interesting conversation; and a recent miserably cold and rainy day in a warm library caused me to revisit the notion with a twist I thought you might find helpful. The gremlin I’m chasing here is lazy writing. If you’re a wordsmith and you’ve caught yourself slamming into your story a dragon or an elf, a robed wizard or a huge command room on a gray spaceship, a two-arm, two leg robot who wants to be a real person, a mysterious prophecy, technology gone bad, wicked corporations,  a protagonist suddenly finding out who they really are, …you know where I’m going with this…then let’s agree there’s possibly more out there.  We don’t have to tweak or to retread old archetypes, it’s a great big world!

The Basho quote above makes my point well. For example, I’m inspired like crazy by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It’s absolute genius, in a million ways. There are a few moments in Wizard And Glass that rank among some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen.  Please join me in hoping Hollywood doesn’t pooch it up with their upcoming version – we’ll talk about that when it comes out in July. King turns the mysterious gunslinging cowboy on its head in those books. He breathes fresh life into a trope we all know and that by all rights should be tired and worn out by now. Basho’s point is it’s cool to be inspired by what he did and to follow the way it made me feel, but that it’s lazy and disappointing to simply tweak a little here and there and otherwise take for my own what he did. It’s the same with Tolkein, the 1930’s pulps, and the standard rogue’s gallery of monsters. The racks at the library, at Barnes & Noble, crap on Netflix, and a lot of what I see on social media profiles unfortunately, are chasing the same tropes. I’m no better, I’m just pointing at it and looking for the stairs.

There used to be a magazine called Wizard. It was about comic books, and was how I kept up with storylines when I was forced to become an adult against my will. They had a feature where an artist would sketch something out and explain the thoughts and creative process that went into it. I recall one where a guy was drawing a library, which may fill your head with the picture of an old white woman peering over her glasses and shushing somebody. In the issue I’m thinking of, the guy said he made his librarian a tall, muscular young guy with spiked hair “because that would make it more interesting”. That really stuck with me and came to mind when my very odd daydreaming suggested the steampunk control panel in the image introducing this article.

The idea is to run a standard stock character or idea through an adjustment process that will make it more interesting, that suggests a novel story idea. LET’S BE CLEAR here – just switching genders on a trope doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. I’m not tweaking, I’m looking for a fresh look that brings something new. We’ll try it with King Arthur in a minute. Stick with me.

The panel offers a few principles, here are examples so you get the drift. Imagine cranking the knobs on these concepts back and forth till you dial into something new and fresh.

Male/Female and Ethnicity  – and all the shades between.

Unborn/Ancient  and Historical/Future – Take an old Tibetan monk (tired and been done) and make him the manifestation of a future incarnation, as yet unborn (there’s a story to tell here!)

Illusion/Reality – (spoiler alert) What you thought was wargaming in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was actually a war being fought – it was reality, not illusion.

None/Many  –  Marvel Comics took the Iron Fist character, which was a stand-alone hero like many others, and made a dynasty of them. Iron Fists through the centuries, passing on the mantle. Oh, and Yoda’s famous quote in Empire: “There is…another…Skywalker…”

Living/Dead –  Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman series has a character who is the personification of a place – Fiddler’s Green. An inanimate place as a person, and all that that entails.

Positive Space/Negative Space – “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” I’m reminded for this one of the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze where the detective’s biggest clue regarding an intruder was that a dog had NOT barked when it should have, because it knew the culprit. It was what was NOT there that was important.

Microscopic/Massive –  Take a gargantuan spaceship that couldn’t possibly be fueled or air conditioned and make it a swarm of connectable pods, ever changing. Greg Bear wrote a book called Blood Music where he turned the alien encounter trope into biological computing cells injected into a person’s bloodstream.

Let’s give it a try and wrap up. I’ll start by listing attributes of King Arthur that I believe give him staying power. Then in bold, I’ll offer suggestions falling out from cranking the dials around, looking for something fresh.

King Arthur: In a devastated land with recollections of a golden age, barbarian marauders invade. While a new and growing religion turns the world upside-down, a prophesied warrior representing the heroic virtues of his day and the new religion comes to power. He’s aided by a mystical and mysterious remnant of the old religion and wages his righteous war with a weapon that is tied to the very land he protects. He sacrifices himself in his victory, but lies waiting for a time of greatest need to return.

Crank the dials:

  • (Negative space)  Maybe it’s the absence of a King Arthur figure that is the story. No one shows up to save the land, so the people write their own fake prophecy and lay artifacts out hoping it will fulfill itself. Then it does.
  • (None/Many)  Maybe the prophecies are real and DO come true, only they do it multiple times. Several King Arthur figures, all legit, all righteous, all working for the same cause and supported by the same mystical doohickeys. But there can be only one.
  • (Historical/Future)   Maybe the King Arthur trope is wired into human instincts, and is supposed to happen every generation by design. Since it hasn’t occurred in so long, the ones that programmed that show up to check why it’s not working
  • (Living/Dead)   Maybe King Arthur wasn’t a person at all, but rather was a place. A place you can still visit.

I supposed I could keep at this, though I’ll never write any of these. My idea was just to offer a slick visual that may help me (or hopefully you) when you worry you’re being lazy and want to contort something around and make it new and shiny. To say something that hasn’t been said, at least in that way.

Let me know your thoughts. If there are any particular tropes that bug you most, I’d be curious to hear them. Good luck with the wordslinging!



The Well Of Ideas: My 2nd Century Crazy Uncle


“You are truly home only when you find your tribe.” Srividya Srinivasan

What if I told you there’s a book I go back and read in random places, not even straight through, that doesn’t have a plot, written by a guy who lived 1,800 years ago that wasn’t that great a writer? But I go back over and over because he’s just interesting to me…he liked the same sorts of things I like. He saw things I can’t because they’re long gone. When somebody at a market said there was a cool statue up on the mountain hidden in a grove that you had to climb to see, this guy was up for it. He collected stories. He thrilled at history and listened for hours to old people chatting up about gods and sea monsters and miracles. His name was Pausanius. He has some things to teach wordslingers; but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Let’s back up. When I was in the Navy, me and a couple of other guys had a day in Spain to do whatever we wanted. One of us had spent a semester there and thought he knew some cool places to see, so early morning in a train station we were squatting over a map pointing at things and waiting on him – his name was Keith – to make his pitch on how we should spend this one day we had. One day, get that. Then we’re back to sea for months. Kind of a big deal to get this right.

He said Antequera was the place. Had to go there. Was awesome. When we asked what was awesome, he got vague and lost our confidence. Sounded like he was drawing a big blank and had drunk his way through that semester. But we hopped on the train anyway, with big dreams of seeing something we could tell stories about later. As the train passed a gorgeous valley and some amazing hiking trails and cityscapes I, at least, was really feeling down about the call we’d made. What in Antequera could compete with this?

So the train dumped us off at a desolate wooden platform with a dusty road leading up an empty hill like an old western movie, with a sign saying the next train back would be back at the end of the day. So we’re pissed at Keith, but trudged up the dirt road anyway. And it was one of the best days of my life. Jaw-gaping cathedrals, unearthly Catholic processions, Moorish ruins, some beautiful stone university, probably the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten, and the most amazing view of a harbor from a hillside I’ve ever seen. Pausanius did stuff like that; but he wrote what he saw in excruciating detail to capture fully the ruins and statues and art of his day. He was just always interested.

An example: “A road goes from here to a Sanctuary Of Asklepios. In the colonnade they keep an enormous sea-monster’s skull, with a statue of the Dream-god behind it and Generous Sleep lulling a lion.”

Another: “On the brow over the theater is a cave in the rocks under the acropolis, it has a tripod on it and inside Apollo and Artemis are slaughtering the children of Niobe. I myself have seen Niobe when I was climbing the mountains to Sipylos. Niobe from close up is a rock and a stream, but if you go further off you seem to see a woman downcast and in tears.”

At Cerynea describing a sanctuary of the Euminedes, the furies so terrible to look at that murderers or impious people were said to go mad from terror if even allowed to see the images, Pausanius said he had a look; and the images were made of wood and weren’t that big or scary to him. I think that’s funny.

At Phigalia, he described a sanctuary of Euronyme that wasn’t easily accessible and in a thick grove of cypress trees. Once per year the villagers would open the sanctuary for sacrifices to Artemis. The image was wooden, bound with golden chains, and showed a ‘woman to the hips but below that of a fish’. Some dude carved a mermaid; and these people worshiped it as the goddess of the hunt.

Pausanius is just full of cool sights and stories about all the great stuff he’d seen; and he was always on a journey somewhere. A freaking free spirit, man! I stole at least three locations or ideas from him for my first book, but just recast them in a science fiction setting. The guy’s writings are my muse sometimes; and I really enjoy letting him riff on whatever crazy Greek myth or absurd intrigue tale he feels like spinning. Like a crazy uncle.

What he’s telling aspiring writers is to chase down vague hints of wonders when they show up. Go see something if it sounds inspirational. Let the sights breathe and soak into you. For me, the real lesson of all this – the reason I honestly wanted to sit down and write this out for you – is you should find your own crazy uncle. Is there a book you go back to over and over, to wash over you and that brings the ideas running like a stampede?

I could say the same thing of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. No idea what those are about, though I’ve spent hours wandering around inside them. They make me happy; and they put pictures in my head. What on earth more could you ask from crazy uncles? Go find one.


Chance Favors The Prepared Mind: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?


Louis Pasteur said that ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’; and that’s a fantastic quote. His point, I’m assuming, is that your mind is your instrument or your weapon, whichever metaphor does it for you. Whatever you’re up to in life, bathe yourself in stuff that will help you get better at it. Let cool, helpful things soak in. Then you’ll be luckier because you’ll notice opportunities you might not have otherwise.

So what does the hot warrior goddess picture I’ve attached here have to do with that? I’ll get to her in a little while. Go with me here.

Recently, I was thinking about where writers get their ideas. People ask that literally all the time. I bought a book years ago called, ‘It Came From Schenectady’ by a science fiction writer plagued by the question so often he started giving that answer when people asked him. Schenectady. That’s maybe a little funny. If you’ve read even a few articles on this blog, in fact, or the philosophy, it hopefully shines through that breaking ground in speculative fiction is kind of a big deal to me. I want to do whatever I can for myself and for other aspiring writers to BRING NEW THINGS INTO THE WORLD.

So I was turning that over in my head while coincidentally making my way through a book on the ancient city of Ugarit. This was a cosmopolitan city full of diverse folks and multiple languages, flourishing in 1500-1200 BC even though it was sandwiched between two superpowers of the day: Egypt and the Hittite Empire. My aim was to learn about the city and what life was like there; but the notion of finding story ideas was buzzing louder, so I was finding them on almost every page.

The theme in my head was very helpful to the writer in me; and it was this: just look for the strain on people. When there is some kind of tension set up, pulling on a person, there is a story to tell. I saw it in the tension between the two superpowers tugging on Ugarit. I saw it in the 1930’s race of archaeologists and linguists trying to be first to decipher the newly found script. I saw it in the very architecture of the city itself.

For example, the main city itself had two massive temples, one to Dagon (head honcho) and one to Baal (fertility guy, had sex with a cow while hiding from the god of death), with a library in between. The palace was on the other side of town and was bigger than the temples. There was a very rich guy named Rapanou whose house had thirty four rooms and his own library. I went dark for a few paragraphs as my mind wandered to the image of a teenage priest in training, leaned against one of the big temple statues and staring up at Rapanou’s house jealously, maybe wondering about one of the daughters who lived there. Maybe one of the statues would start speaking to him one full-moon night…

A few pages later, I came across this bit:

“Priests also had a military function, as is clear from references to them in administrative texts describing auxiliary military personnel; they are also listed in an army payroll text. Their role was that of support personnel, providing advice of a religious or oracular nature to military commanders. They were, in other words, an intelligence corps, purporting to provide divine counsel with respect to strategy and military operations.” -‘Ugarit And The Old Testament’ by Peter C. Craigie

That got me going on my little guy, because I saw him caught up in a rebellion against the Hittites, when all he wanted was to be left to his stone tablets and dreaming. I could see war-ragged army generals desperately shouting for divine insight into a hairy battle when the little priest was coming to doubt his own beliefs. Maybe because of something the statues had said. Maybe because of something Rapanou’s wild daughter had said.

You see how this just kind of gets going, right? Spitballing. Weaving together stuff from everywhere like a jazz riff on whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m doing. That’s how it works for me. The book had just described the little port towns on the sea as having no more than maybe a hundred people in them. I know what little rinky dink towns are like; and so, probably, do you. Then I read this:

“It’s possible that naval conscripts were drawn from the coastal towns where men would already have seagoing experience in merchant and fishing vessels”

I saw a new guy, then, who’ll probably meet up with the other guy. This dude loved his quiet little foggy port-village, though he maybe dreamed of adventures…then he got pulled into this same conflict the priest was in. Now I had a couple of folks stirring into the soup, and the possibility  of massive naval battles, which I love, and talking statues that had offered a mystery of some kind. I’m also reading Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle Master” trilogy, so probably the statues had offered a riddle.

But it was still kind of plain, needed to go crazy. Needed something with pep. Riddles have been done. So I totally lost whatever I was reading and just put it down to ponder…what is REALLY going on with this mysterious riddle?

Ahhh…I had watched a couple of Harry Potter movies over Christmas, so Voldemort’s horcrux dealie-o was in my head too. The riddle was not given to the priest to help him at all, it was given him to become alive…to be spread among the minds of men enough to form a vessel for something to enter into. Something, obviously, terrible.

The warrior goddess up there was to represent Anat, the terrible war goddess of the Ugaritic Mythology who used to storm the throne room of the all-father so angry he would hide from her, and who would tear off so many soldiers’ heads and gut them with such glee she should laugh as she waded through all the blood. You should read some of Baal’s cycle of stories where she appears. She’s fantastic. Maybe it’s her that started all this riddle business, just because she’d be fun to write.

Like a late Christmas present, I realized then that history handed me a nice finish for all this. Around 1200 BC, Ugarit got blasted from history by a mystery invasion of people from the sea. We know almost nothing about all that. Fantastic. It writes itself.

Look, I’m never going to write this story. If you’d like to, have at it. Be my guest. It’s fun to dip into it, though, and make my overall point for today.

If you’re stuck looking for ideas…or if you’re interested in where (at least some) writers get their ideas, remember I said this: look for the strain on people, the forces tugging a person in more than one direction. Bathe yourself in fiction or non-fiction, or travel, or talk to people, or whatever information you can get lost in, and dig up things that shine. Then string them together and turn up the gas.

What I’m hoping…what I aspire to do…is not to forget that last part. Be original. Turn it up to crazy and do something new.

Louis Pasteur changed everything about disease and healing when he did what he did. His quote is a sound one. Let’s live it.