In Which I Give Worried Introverts Something to Do

Once upon a time, I was not very political. Those times, naturally, are over.

In 2016, I volunteered my time to do some phone banking. It did not go well. They were probably the most ineffectual hours spent by anyone with a phone, ever, and I’m including that time I left a message on an answering machine asking a girl to the junior prom. (Yeah, I had game. Why do you ask?)

The phone banking consisted of calling people of my preferred political party in swing states. And in 2016, people in swing states were absolutely deluged in calls. I heard answering machine messages saying “We’re not at home right now. If this is a political call, hang up and cross us off your list.” Every voter I reached said “I’m already ready to vote, our family has a plan,” with the exception of one person who went Green Party. I changed no minds. The best thing I did was update the registry so that no one else on the team wasted their time calling a dead number.

This year, I’m trying something different. I signed up with Vote Forward to see if I could get some use out of this writing thing I’m supposed to be good at. Their theory is that since no one gets hand-written letters any more, the average voter would be curious to see one in the mail and open it. Inside is a handwritten letter encouraging the reader to have a plan to vote.

I should be clear that there’s some hard data on this from previous elections. The best way to get someone to vote, bar none, is to volunteer to knock on doors, talk to someone, and leave literature: it’s got a conversion rate of about 20%. But if you don’t live in a swing state, that option’s not going to score your team many voters where it matters. Letter-writing like this has about a 3% rate — which is much higher than ads for clicks.

The process is pretty simple. You log in to the database of voters, click “Adopt Voters” from swingable states in batches of 5 or 20. (The “adoption” process is so nobody duplicates your work.) Then, you download and print the names, and write your letters. Vote Forward gives you a return address that matches their in-state field offices, so you aren’t telling complete strangers where you live. Download the form letters, add your personal message (no issues, no specific candidates, just encourage them to vote), and fold it up in the hand-written envelope. Then you add a stamp that you bought (think of it as supporting the Postal Service).

Then you hold on to the letters and send them on the date that’s optimized for voter action and retention.

It takes about two hours for me to bust through 20 letters from download to final product. I did 20 a day, and at the end of my first week… behold!

That’s a hundred envelopes, or, if the ratio is about right, three voters in swing states. It doesn’t sound like much, but before this, my vote would have zero influence on the election. That’s just how my state works in the Electoral College. When people on Facebook say “Vote!” after whatever bad news comes their way, I can say “Not only did I vote, I brought three friends!”

Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But I feel a hell of a lot less helpless. And maybe, if enough of us more-than-triple our impact like this, we can get better leaders. The site says they have more than 100,000 volunteers, and their goal for letters is in the millions.

Vote Forward is at https://www.votefwd.org.

Game on.

In Which I Make All Your Dreams Come True… Eventually

I don’t get a lot of fan mail, but I did get one particular fan recently who had some very nice compliments about the Mass Effect trilogy. The fan then asked for advice on how to break into the video game industry. I wrote back a long letter, because 1) I write better than I talk, and 2) getting a new job in the industry has been at the forefront of my mind for the last two months. In today’s blog post, I’ll go over what I’ve got.

A disclaimer — I’m not exactly a big wheel as game writers go. But I have worked in video games for 15 years now, so I’ve done some things right. Possibly the most valuable thing about what I say is that I don’t subscribe to Dogbert’s famous advice from 1995. I’ve seen some writers that do, telling the new fish to “never let them change your vision,” and other gems that will, more often than not, get you fired or labeled difficult. There’s also the old saw of “keep trying, keep applying, follow your dreams,” which is very true, but it’s sort of like telling a football player to “go out there and play hard.” It’s not really a game plan worthy of the name.

My points are mostly common sense, but sometimes it’s good to reiterate the basics. Professionals may want tips more advanced than these, but the world is full of amateurs.

So Here’s the Advice…

The key thing about getting a foot in the door in the entertainment industry in general is that you should aim to be the strongest candidate possible for the job. Ideally, not only can you charm the person interviewing you, the interviewer can point at your resume/CV and give an argument so the manager in charge of hiring will say “Yeah, hiring this person makes a lot of sense.” That means you tick off a lot of boxes. In no particular order, the boxes include:

1) Your Writing Sample(s)
The rubber meets the road here. Prove that you’d be good at writing the game they’re hiring for, which is not necessarily the same thing as their last game. Demonstrate your skill in writing narrative, dialogue, ten thousand variants on barks saying “He’s over there!”, all that stuff.

I can’t teach this all here, but my wife Jennifer Hepler wrote a book called “The Game Narrative Toolbox,” and there’s lots of screenwriting manuals out there to help practice structure, text, subtext, themes, and other literary goodness. You should be able to point at your work and when the writers on staff ask, “why did you make the decisions you did?” your answer will not be, “um, I felt like it.”

Also note that when writing this sample, you should study and imitate the target game’s structure, because there are probably many good reasons why they built the levels the way they did. Your overall impression of a game as “talky” or “terse” may not be accurate. It could have an actual word count that’s a lot larger or smaller than you think. Get out a piece of paper and write down when the characters talk, for how many lines, and how often other characters speak. You should have hard answers to these questions, or else the writers on staff will say, “Eh, it’s not in our voice.”

2) Your Experience

I see this pop up in many different ways. Dave Gaider (lead writer on Dragon Age 1 & 2) used to say “I can’t recommend that you get a job in the way I got a job, because that way no longer exists.” There isn’t one path into writing video games, but many. This box should be checked with “yes, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make stuff like yours work for an audience.”

Generally, you’re going to be competing with people who have experience in video games or in closely related fields. Bioware hired people who used to be:

* Video game writers who worked elsewhere in the industry
* Playwrights with an ear for dialogue and what actors want in a role
* Screenwriters with produced films, TV episodes, or short indie films
* Writers who professionally reviewed games for game industry publications or websites, so they had a great knowledge of the competition
* (less often) Writers with comic book or novel credits.
* (less often) Modders who know the games inside and out.

If you have no experience in any of these yet, you may want to decorate your web page with samples that show you can write for interactive media using free writing engines like Twine or Inkle.

Winning awards for any of this work is, of course, a nice feather in the cap. Recent work is better than old work. Shipped games or products are better than ones that never came to fruition. And similar work beats extrapolation. For example, Chris L’Etoile, a Bioware writer who wrote the Aliens homage level with rachni in Mass Effect 1, is now, to no one’s surprise, working on an Aliens game for Cold Iron Studios. There’s a pretty high percentage chance that someone there had played his previous work and knew he could do the job because he proved he’s done it before.

Sometimes, extra bits in your bio can help out, like lived experiences. For example, knowing some of the history of martial arts (specifically a Chinese martial art that I practiced at the time) helped me win over some of the Jade Empire writing staff in an interview. I go over a little of this in my GDC talk on writer research skills (not really a shameless plug, ’cause it’s available free).

3) Knowing the Company’s Games

This helps in a myriad of ways. Sometimes a writer will be perfectly good, but they just don’t “get” what the company is looking for. If Bioware says, “Okay, write a scene with Morrigan, the swamp witch,” and the writer has never played Dragon Age, they might make Morrigan’s lines sound like a screeching harridan, referencing her green skin and the wart on her nose. Those writers who have played Dragon Age will know her voice, and have her sound sultry and evil and use the word “’tis” when appropriate. Note that there are more video games in the world than there are hours in the day, so pick a subgenre and aim there. Knowing all of one particular company’s games when you’re targeting that company is, of course, a plus. Knowing some of their competition doesn’t hurt either — for example, if you think Mass Effect and Bioware RPGs are awesome, it’s also good to come into an interview being able to talk about Obsidian’s games, Bethesda’s, or CD Projekt Red’s.

4) Having No Warning Signs

There were a few people on the Bioware forums who knew the games backwards and forwards, and made 4-hour videos saying that the most critically successful Mass Effect game that won over millions of fans (ME2) actually sucked. The posters then exhaustively went over how they’d fix them, and stated Bioware should hire them to make amends for their terrible mess.

Those people are never going to get hired.

Interviewers want to see people with some ideas for improvement, yes, and confidence in their abilities, but they also want team players, not someone who thinks they’re king of the video game universe. It is not possible to write a game the size of Mass Effect alone. I mean, you could literally write it yourself over the course of six years or so, but not on a company’s dime. Levels in AAA games are written simultaneously by other writers for the sake of speed, because time is money, and a big team full of world-class game devs are waiting for the writers to be done to start their work. That’s a lot of man-hours and that means millions of dollars of money. So the writers, editors, combat designers, testing staff, everybody needs to know when to speak up and when to shut up. What would you rather have if you’re making games for a living: a game that ships and is 80% good, or 80% of a perfect game that never ships?

Right.

Sometimes the people at the top will think everything they do is genius… but they usually are able to win arguments because they have years of experience and shipped titles under their belt.

Conversely, while keeping your head down is often helpful, you do need to actually do what Marines call “covering your own damn sector.” No one wants someone who can’t make a decision on their own, otherwise why’d they hire extra manpower if it’s not speeding up the team’s progress?

5) Knowing People

This is a useful factor, but it doesn’t outweigh the others. Generally, even if your Person On The Inside makes a recommendation, at a big company, five or six people are going to have to sign off on the decision, and that decision is part of their job performance. At smaller companies, it works better. All that said, big companies have big Rolodexes, and it is sometimes nice to have your resume go to the top of the pile if the pile is 100 people thick. It helps to have the people in the hiring meeting be able to say “Oh, I know who that person is, they’re not a serial killer.”

Often, if you have no contacts to start with, meeting company representatives at conventions and such is how you get yourself visible. Don’t be a creep, bond over your shared love of video games at the booth, and don’t step on the gas too hard.

“Crap,” you say, “with COVID-19, nobody’s going to conventions any more.” That’s right. Like Dave said a few paragraphs back, the way I got my first big video game job no longer exists.

6) Be Willing to Relocate

This matters a little less in the age of COVID, but a good 50% of companies still want someone they can supervise just by walking down a hall, and they think things will be back to normal soon. In my part of the world, things are emphatically not going to be normal for a while, but there are game companies scattered all over the world, so you never know. You could be in North Carolina for Red Storm, speaking French with Gameloft Montreal, visiting Seasun’s offices in Shenzhen (that’s the photo at the top of the post), or anywhere else on the globe. Game development is sometimes an adventure.

Conclusion:

Hopefully, you can tick off at least some of these boxes when you’re applying. Tick off all of these boxes when your competition doesn’t, and a company would have to be crazy not to hire you. That’s the position you want to be in.

If you think it’s easy to get there, you’re probably not thinking clearly. There are a lot of video game writers out there, all clamoring for work, and your journey may take years. If that doesn’t scare you, then good hunting, and godspeed.

In Which Superheroes Punch River Gods in the Face

Those of you who’ve been following my progress over the past few months may know that I’m back to doing freelance writing, which is another way of saying “I’m unemployed… except when I’m not.”

Looking for work is, of course, a full-time job for a writer. My days are spent Googling “narrative designer,” and typing up customized cover letters for submission along with my resume. Every now and then I’ll get a bite and they’ll ask me to do a writing test, which takes anywhere from one to seven days of work. Sometimes, I’m familiar with the game company, and have played all their games. Sometimes, I have to jump in with both feet and learn on the fly. While I like to think I can learn a new franchise in a very short amount of time, the reality of this renaissance of nerd-dom we live in is that there are too many properties to keep up with simultaneously.

For example, like many nerds, I played tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. But if a job opportunity pops up at Wizards of the Coast, the interview questions will be more like “What are your opinions on how to improve the Eberron campaign setting, and where do you see it going in the next five years?” Then I’ll switch gears to mobile games, where the test will be about Stardew Valley or maybe an interactive romance novel like Choices, and the next day it’ll be back to a real-time strategy series, asking me to write in the voice of generals of the Napoleonic Wars.

I can do these things. The sticking point is, can I do them faster, cheaper, or with more panache than whoever else is applying? Can I Skype with the employer at 11:00 at night because they’re on Beijing time? Am I disabled or a veteran? Can I speak Korean?

So that’s my day-to-day now. In between job applications, I play games to try to keep current on them. At night, I polish short stories, because, like I said elsewhere in this blog, I’m trying to sell them to fund a sequel to Civil Blood. I’ve polished the I.T.-expert-to-the-superheroes story (“The Needs of the Client”) and submitted it. The next in line, “Give a Little, Get a Little,” is in the queue for critiques through my writing workshop. Progress is slow, but measurable.

And then… there’s the game I love the most. The one that’s back from the dead.

The thing that really was the cherry on top to the old MMO City of Heroes was the fact that you could write up a biography of your hero and other players would see it. It was totally optional, but if you wanted to say you’re a time-traveling hawk-man wielding Excalibur, teaming up with a sapient crash test dummy, you could do it. And after around four or five years into the game, they came up with the Mission Architect, where players could create their own adventures, and have other players run through them.

I actually never got super into the Mission Architect when the game was live, because it was a rabbit hole you could be inside forever. I was writing for Bioware, getting my kiddo through toilet training, and the other players were cranking out great content already. There was one arc where you battled the Phantom of the Opera in the sewers beneath the Paris opera house. Another had archvillains inspired by the major arcana of tarot cards. And of course there was the “Visit from the Fashion Police” adventure, where you fought the Fashion Victims gang, wearing the ugliest, most clashing clothes that the costume creator could possibly make.

 My contribution was a humorous single-episode mission called “Economic Recovery Through Fisticuffs,” in which you find the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis as they escape on a cargo liner bound for Antigua, and punch them in the face. The minions had names like “Short Seller” (they were 4′ tall), “Economic Shock Doctor” (electricity powers), and bikini-clad socialites called “Somebody Else’s Wife,” because, in the words of a CIA agent I once met, “who sells out their country and jets off to an island with their OWN wife?”

Now that I’m revisiting the game (it came back in 2019), I decided to put in some time designing a story arc. I figured it’d be good for my game design skills, though honestly, it’s unlikely an employer would ever see it. While a core group of fans love the game, the chance that a particular dev has sought out the new version, downloaded it, has an appropriate-level character, and would play all the way through the 5-mission arc is ridiculously low. But it’s a fun challenge, and I’m happy to share the story.

The arc is called “Dr. Aeon and the Wrath of Achilles.” I created it because there’s a ton of players who make Greek and Roman superheroes now, and there’s a lot of good costume and powerset combos for them. And, of course, as readers of Mythkillers know, I’ve got an obsession with the Trojan War. So I thought a little time travel could be fun.

The players are summoned by Mender Lazarus, one of the guardians of the time stream, who says the balance of power in the player’s timeline is, was, or will be upset. Dr. Aeon, the chrononaut mad scientist for City of Heroes‘ premier villains, Arachnos, has broken into Paragon City University. There, he kidnapped a classics professor, and went back in time to the Bronze Age, to interfere in the course of the Trojan War. Why is he siding with the Trojans and assailing the Greeks with his high-tech weaponry? Therein lies the mystery.

What follows is a lot of fighting, because hey, it’s an MMO. You beat up everything from Trojan soldiers and Amazon princesses to a river god and super-soldiers with mechanical spider legs coming off their back like Doctor Octopus’s tentacles. I’m not actually allowed to post video from COH to YouTube, because you’re not allowed to make ad revenue on the game for legal reasons. But I will post some relatively-spoiler-free screenshots.

This is the university hallway for the first mission:

Enemies in the basement:

The second adventure has you rescue Greek heroes from Arachnos in the plain of the Troad:

(Nothing like a good foot sweep to knock down a Trojan archer.)
(Menelaos, Great Ajax, and Odysseus, as well as our hero in white.)

And there’s more! I recreated Achilles’ rampage, with you as the star.

While I won’t reveal the end, I can show off the neatest part of the game, the character creator. There’s about six good power sets for the rank and file soldiers: single sword, single axe, single mace, archery, staff fighting with a two-handed spear, and double blades (either swords or axes). Only the single weapons can be used with a shield, or they can be left alone and paired with more supernatural powers, like flames, regeneration, or Achilles-style invulnerability. So while I can’t get a spear-and-shield combo, I can get a lot of others.

(Rank-and-file Trojan archers.)
(Memnon, son of the Dawn, king of Aethiopia)
(Hector, prince of Troy. The spear looks more like a naginata, but it’s the closest I could get.)
(Xanthos, a.k.a. the Scamander River God. The blue slime is water animated to drip.)
(Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and sea foam. The sparkles animate.)
(Penthesilea, princess of the Amazons, with double labrys axes.)
(Achilles, with his famous shield.)

If you’ve made it this far and actually have a City of Heroes (Homecoming) account, the arc is #31899. Just enter that into the search bar at the Architect Entertainment interface, and the arc should be playable.

Now I think I’ll get back to the prose writing, since I’m all burned out on Greeks for the moment. Take care, and let’s save the world this year!

In Which I Review Books Because All Else Is Vagueposting

Well, it’s been forever since I’ve updated the site, which was actually for the best of reasons. Shortly after my last post, I got a temporary gig as a lead writer for an Amazon Alexa project. So for the last three months or so, I worked on a voice-operated game.

It was a blast. The game has yet to be announced, but I can probably say it is a contemporary game with a heavy comedy element. And it came at exactly the right time. May and June at Casa de Hepler was, like in many parts of the country, an exercise in stress tolerance. The kids needed their distance learning, the wife was holding down a job and holding us together, and I had to manage a team of three writers in an entirely new video game format. Had I been working on something Big and Dark and Serious, I might have slipped into depression.

But laughing at work every day was exactly what the doctor ordered. I got to meet three very cool writers and plenty of design, programming, and art staff. And I got to throw myself into a new project. It sucked up a lot of my time, but there were free moments, too.

To while away the hours in lockdown, I managed to finish reading two novels off my to-be-read pile, both full of magic and beautiful language. I highly recommend them both, and I’ll tell you all about them, because the gods know that we can all use more books while we’re sheltering in place.

The first is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Gods of Jade and Shadow.”

The short pitch for this is “The ancient Mayan gods feud against the backdrop of Mexico in the Jazz Age,” though I wasn’t 100% sure of what that would look like when I picked up the book. The short, spoiler-free version is that it follows Casiopea Tun, a young Mexican woman with indigenous roots who toils miserably at her family’s orders. Through accident and magic, she falls in with Hun-Kame, one of the death gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, who had been temporarily killed by his brother Vucub-Kame. With her life bound to Hun-Kame, Casiopea tries to restore his throne to him in a series of magical adventures.

The language is vivid, the characters sparkle, and the whole thing has a feel highly reminiscent of American Gods or The Sandman, but with a refreshing insider’s grasp of Mexico and Mayan mythology. I did a little research into Mayan mythology for my old graphic novel M.I.T.H., and seeing the lords of Xibalba elegantly portrayed here was like letting a NASCAR driver take the wheel on my beat-up old hoopty car. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Gods of Jade and Shadow can be found here.

The second book I managed to finish off was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which is a novelization of the hero of the Iliad as told by his companion Patroclus. Miller is well-qualified to write this story, having both taught Greek and, according to her Acknowledgements section, worked on the novel for ten years.

The result is a well-polished story that remains about as faithful as one can be to contradictory myths. Having written an Achilles-based screenplay as well as revisiting the subject matter for the Diomedes-heavy story Mythkillers, I found the book beautiful and engaging, never taking too many liberties with Homer’s work. I really dig it in comparison to something like Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos, or the movie Troy, both of which picked some favorite characters and discarded the rest. Miller’s work is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles, in that it retains the presence of gods and mythical creatures, but it paints a richer tapestry by virtue of being a few hundred pages longer and adding a narrative conceit.

This conceit is the narrator, Patroclus. Miller’s major departure from Homer is that Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, is a sensitive boy who doesn’t like the skills of war, and as such is an embarrassment to his father. Sent to Phthia as an exile, Patroclus falls in love with the prince who will become the greatest warrior of his generation. Miller jumps in with both feet to the relationship between the two boys as they become men. In answer to your next question, the sex scenes are tastefully handled and are more about the emotional life of the characters rather than any romance-novel erotica.

As for the rest of the myths as we know them, Miller cleaves closely. No, Achilles’ skin isn’t iron-hard — a decision that almost all modern writers make, since it’s not in the Homer and it makes his fight with Hector the act of a bully rather than a hero. But pretty much everything else is intact. Achilles isn’t the brute of Troilus and Cressida. His tutelage with Chiron, his dressing as a girl to avoid recruitment, his skill with a lyre, the fathering of Neoptolemos, and the prophecy regarding his own death are all used to illustrate his life in loving detail. Patroclus makes a fine narrator, even after the fateful moment which Iliad fans know is coming, and Miller uses the events to place the final capstone on the story.

You can find the Song of Achilles here.

“Anything Else,” You Ask?

I don’t have any personal writing that’s ready for publication yet. On the bright side, I finally reattacked my attempt at a cli-fi short story, “The Message,” and got to the end of a rough draft. I polished a bit of my superhero IT department story “Needs of the Client” and have submitted it to my writing workshop — it’ll get some feedback two weeks from now. So things are proceeding, even if it’s slower than I would like.

That’s the news from the Hepler household. Stay safe out there.

In Which I Announce Something New For a Change

After about six months of unemployment and about seven months of no new writing-related news, I felt like I was hitting a wall. I fully expected my wife to break into that song from the School of Rock musical, “Give Up Your Dreams,” but of course she stayed super supportive. Then, finally, in the same week, I got two bits of good news.

The first bit of news is that I have another video game gig. It’s slated to take 8-10 weeks, so by the time you read this, I will hopefully be shaved, dressed, and reporting in to a source of gainful employment. I don’t think I’m free to talk about the details yet, but hey, maybe this game will go somewhere, and take us along for the ride.

The second bit of news has been cleared by the publisher as good to go for social media announcement. I’ve got a short story accepted by the comedy science fiction and fantasy anthology series “Unidentified Funny Objects.”

UFO is an anthology with a nice pedigree. Apparently it has had stories from George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and (to my complete lack of surprise) the Hamster Queen herself, Esther Friesner. I don’t know if any of those three are in this year’s volume (the submissions are still being edited), but I’m stoked about it nonetheless.

The story that got accepted was “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration,” which is a brief look into one story at the hero equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, because frankly there’s so many of them nowadays that they can take a number. It makes a strong argument why regeneration is the worst superpower to have… and also, the best.

Unidentified Funny Objects #8 has a theoretical launch date of sometime in October. When I know more, I’ll tell you.

Until then… up, up, and away.

In Which I Give You Something Free to Read

When I posted this on the 19th, it was day #3 of my county sheltering in place. By the time I promote this post and you see it, it’s probably #8. We’ve got a little routine down: I take the kids in the morning so my wife can do her work from home, and in the afternoon I search for a day job. The kids are in contact with their schools online, and we’ve got a bunch of educational workbooks picked up from Office Depot. We’ve made sure to take them out in the sun once a day for a little running around, and Sunday we packaged up some meals to give to a food bank.

I was going to write some stuff about how you should glove up, wash your hands often, and stay informed, but if I’ve learned anything from the quarantine, it’s that there are times when your brain wants to take a break. Through this all, movies, video games, and books have been a lifeline for my family. And it’s made me think about how little and how much I can do for others without leaving the house.

So here’s the deal: I’m making the Kindle version of my vampire novel Civil Blood free, all this week, Monday March 23rd to Friday March 28th. (It’s also free on Kindle Unlimited.) I’d do it for the paperback version, too, but Amazon doesn’t make that anywhere near as easy. Besides, right now, who wants to touch a book that might have been handled by a stranger?

I’m not pretending my writing is what the world needs. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, and it could help a little, so I might as well.

In case you somehow navigated here without hearing Civil Blood‘s pitch, I usually sum up the story as “the class-action vampire rights trial to determine who gets to be called human, as told by the people assigned to kill its plaintiff.” There’s a bat virus in it, but it’s a lyssavirus rather than a coronavirus, so my application to be the next prescient prophet is firmly rejected. The book is a 400-pager, so it’s a decent time sink. Here’s the link.

Stay safe out there. Or if you can, in there.

In Which I Succumb to Capitalism but Not Despair

I’ve been holding off on this announcement for a while, but it’s really past time. My employer, Seasun Inc., had a bad quarter with one of its flagship products not doing as well as expected. That meant that upper management had to cut costs to show they were doing something, and that meant layoffs. I am now out on the street and looking for a day job.

It hasn’t been too rough a ride so far. I managed to score a contract gig for about a week with Otherside Entertainment, which took the edge off. I’ve also had lots of interviews and writing tests. This has led me to revise my Writing Tour page to include samples, since I’ve applied to everything from RPGs to interactive romance novels to trivia quiz games.

I’ve got a little routine going — during the day I search for a main job, and at night I write and submit short stories. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve got a few I’m sending out, with the intention being that the proceeds get put in a separate pot dedicated to financing the self-publishing of Civil Blood‘s sequel. Great plan, right?

Well, as with all plans, this one hasn’t really survived first contact with the enemy.

Selling short stories, to misquote Han Solo, ain’t like dusting crops. Many markets are closed to submissions except for certain times of the year. Then there’s the matter of taste, and the fact that I’m not bringing a bajillion readers to the table like some of my competition is. The long and short of it is, the stories haven’t sold yet.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, the first step is to keep writing. I’ve got that down. Besides the three pieces I wrote about last time, I’m working on a story called “The Needs of the Client” which is meant to be more lighthearted superhero fare in the vein of “The 10:40 Appointment.” I could use some positivity about now, and I bet you could, too.

For the second step, I’m finally joining all the other pro freelancers who have set up a Ko-Fi button on their webpage. Ko-Fi is a service where a reader can effectively buy a writer a coffee via PayPal. It takes small donations of about $3.00 each. And since the website offers a spot to create goals, I hit upon the idea of trying to use Ko-Fi to finance my short story habit.

If I can raise enough money — not much, say, $50, a token payment of about $0.01 a word — through Ko-Fi, I’ll publish one of the short stories here on my website rather than continuing to submit it in the longer, slower process of traditional publishing. You get a story, I get closer to my goal, my website gets more content — everyone wins.

To recap, the stories I have kicking around are:

  • “Stopping the Bleeding,” an election-year story in the Civil Blood universe with a new protagonist.
  • “Infection in Everything,” a Civil Blood universe story about Infinity and the woman who taught her jiujutsu.
  • “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration,” a lighthearted story about a would-be superhero fighting bureaucracy and enduring one heck of a road test.
  • “The Needs of the Client,” a story about what it’s like to work in an IT department when your client is a superhero group similar to the Justice League.

I should emphasize that I’m not on the brink of starvation over here, as many artists are. My immediate family are in decent health so far (knock on wood here until my hand breaks off). Honestly, if anything, I might survive the Coronapocalypse longer than some of the publications I’m submitting stories to, since some of their staff may have day jobs that can’t be done remotely. That’s no slam on them — it’s just part of the scary world we live in now.

But since the plan is to hunker down and never go outside, this seems like an opportune moment to get more writing done. And in case you’re a fan and want to see more of my work, I’ve now made it a bit easier to do so.

That’s all. I’m sure I’ll post more about the Black Plague of the 2000s in detail soon enough. Stay safe out there.

In Which I Talk About Violence a Lot

“Behind the judge’s bench stands an American flag, a Virginian flag and, on the wall, the state seal. A woman with a spear, a helmet, and an unbound breast is trampling a man beneath her, with Latin words meaning ‘thus ever to tyrants.’ John Wilkes Booth said that phrase when he pulled the trigger. Aidan Lawrence echoed those words when he detonated a vest filled with fishing weights and Semtex in the Supreme Court. And yet here the words stay, suggesting bloodshed is not only part of legal proceedings but somehow can give them a blessing.”

Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case That Changed a Nation

Note: This post contains spoilers for Civil Blood‘s ending.

When you have a novel with only a handful of reviews, you have the luxury of reading and thinking about each one. Civil Blood is still in that magical period where nobody who really hates it has given it a review on Amazon, so the people who really love it give it five stars and the people who have reservations go for four stars. Naturally, I’ve mulled over the points of the criticism, because I think it’s good and healthy for a book when its discussion goes beyond “I liked it” vs. “this is trash” and readers spend some time on the ideas presented in the story.

Recently, I read a review that didn’t care for the ending, which made the reader disturbed that all the good guys appear to be bad guys, and the bad guys appear to be good guys. So let’s talk about that!

Civil Blood has a lot of ideas in it, and hopefully they are comprehensible to an audience without me explicating the intention of the text. But since this website allows me to be as self-indulgent as humanly possible, and since no literary critics are beating down my door for an interview, I thought it might be interesting to the reader to illuminate the theme of the novel, which, really, is the road to political violence in the United States.

“Whoa,” you may be saying. “It’s just a novel about vampires.”

Yes, and no. It’s even a little farther afield than that. It’s a novel about a future America with magic and vampires in it. Whenever one creates a vision of the future, it tends to invite comparisons and analysis with the present. I gave it the nonspecific time period of “a generation from now” because I didn’t want the story to be obsolete too quickly. I did use a calendar for a specific date far in the future to get the days of the week straight, but that is not explicitly called out in the text. (First person to name the year gets a gold star.) The idea is, the future is slightly darker than it is now, but the U.S. is, as the back cover copy states, “still recognizable as our own.”

The political system has changed, to be sure. At some point in this future history, the Democratic and Republican parties imploded at the same time. At that point, the first-past-the-post system of counting electoral votes was chucked, allowing for more proportionate representation in Presidential elections. I think this is the only way you’d get new, viable parties, because currently the hyper-partisanship means if either party has a substantial defection to a third party, the opposing party gets rewarded with electoral victory. And the reason they both imploded is because they started using violence to get what they want. In my imaginary world, this was a bridge too far, and both the red and blue parties paid at the ballot box, spawning the Solar Citizens party (liberals with an emphasis on environmentalism) and the Great Nation party (conservatives who embraced big government).

But the world-building bits aren’t quite as important as the theme expressed through the characters, that “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Violence, or the threat of violence, underpins our system of laws. If you violate the law, you have reason to fear that the state will punish you. If you resist sufficiently, the state will use violence to ensure the punishment is enacted. We’re supposed to elect our politicians with the consent of the governed, but unsurprisingly, we don’t trust them much any more. Conditioned by movies, games, and books as well as our preferred brand of political propaganda, we want a leader who is not just a civil servant, but a hero.

The book offers up many point-of-view characters who are the hero of their own story. But to others, they aren’t. And this is where the reviewer didn’t really like the way I executed the climax and resolution. Most of the characters are morally gray — there is, in fact, something to dislike in all of them. There’s plenty of bloody hands to go around.

Morgan expects the justice system to save him: it does not. It is flawed, and the vipes resort to criminal means in their attempt to rescue him. In the process, Infinity and the gang are, to varying degrees, willing to use violence. While the average reader may think Infinity is justified in striking back against a corrupt system, and is heroic for standing up to the forces that murder vipes, she is a protagonist, not a paragon. And I don’t mean this in a 2016-era “you shouldn’t punch Nazis or you’re as bad as them” way. Infinity’s tools include heist-like tricks to get her inside the BRHI facility, but they also include Cass, who covers the vipes by gunning down private security and committing suicide by cop.

“So,” one might ask… “are you portraying that as permissible, or not?” A lot of the language in the climax shows that Infinity is growing into her role as a hero. However, the picture is much more complex than “evil megacorporation = bad, heroes who break the law and shoot them = good.” I was not interested in making a vampiric superhero with an upstanding moral code, as there are plenty of those already available at the local bookstore or theater.

Infinity performs at least one heroic action. When she’s getting Morgan out of the facility and has a clear path to freedom, she chooses to run back into danger, armed only with a disguise, to save Ranath’s life. She sees this as necessary to redeem herself from her habit of running from trouble. Even so, she and her friends don’t succeed in their rescue mission the way they intend. Three out of five of the vipes pay the ultimate price, leaving Morgan and Ferrero grief-stricken. Infinity is numbed by the human cost as well, but her heroism has left her with a direct, tangible accomplishment: Ranath is present to console her, and he gives her a little hope. So despite her early protestations that she is not a hero, she has some reasons to call herself that at the end. Ranath would probably call her that too.

But one of the reasons I went with multiple first-person points of view is to show that when it comes to the events of the climax — the incarceration and murder of vipes and the bloody shootout that exposes it to the world — you can’t just look at just one character. Pretty much everyone tries to do what they perceive as right and it leads to an unholy mess.

  • Cass thinks that because he’s just shooting hardasses with guns, he’s more like a soldier and less like a maniac with a high-capacity magazine.
  • Jessica and Ferrero try to avoid violence personally, but they are in on the plan.
  • Kern thinks because he can “cure more diseases than penicillin” with VIHPS, incarcerating and murdering vipes is worth it in the final analysis.
  • Morgan abhors violence, but realizes he can’t escape without it and raises a hand in an attempt to save Jessica.
  • Deborah takes it one step further, using a pistol only in a gambit to become a martyr rather than face capture.

This last was important to me because it’s easy for an action writer to get caught up in the bloodshed and portray noncombatants as timid, or ineffective, or dependent upon the violent types to effect meaningful change for the people they care about. The most important blow against BRHI is Deborah’s, bringing out the truth and harming its public status as a savior. In this way, I wanted to return the reader’s perception of the future not as one that is unremittingly dark, but one that ranges back and forth with victories and losses as does our political system in the real world.

As for the idea that Kern is a hero because he wants to cure VIHPS and get stinking rich by alleviating untold suffering — no. Kern is directly responsible for the F-prot program, which is kidnapping, killing, and experimenting on vipes. He set up a system to glean as much biological data as he can out of the vipes because “they’re going to die anyway,” which is only true because he’s laid the groundwork to make it true.

Besides violating the Hippocratic Oath, Kern’s excuses were based on the justifications Nazi doctors used for their experiments in concentration camps — data that was then largely thrown out by the Americans because it was always done with a political agenda in mind, making for bad science. He’s literally got a plasma furnace to cremate rooms full of bodies en masse, echoing the extermination camps. Also, he ordered a hit on Ranath when he was afraid Ranath might talk to the law, so he’s not particularly loyal to his friends, either. He shows no mercy to anyone who is perceived to be an enemy, and the simple act of getting infected makes you an instant enemy. (This “othering” occurs in our political process, albeit more slowly, as we come to think of our political opponents as villains, a process that will lead to violence if left unchecked.)

So yes, he’s an antagonist with a compelling motivation and a set of ideals — but everybody has ideals. What he’s done, rather than what he’s said, sets him in the villain camp, despite all the good that a vaccine or modified VIHPS strain could do. Illustrating this, Ranath takes his work and literally gives it to someone else less compromised, the Centers for Disease Control.

I could probably go on about this theme for a long time — it’s something I intend to explore in future stories, and America’s relationship with violence can fill quite a few shelves. But I think for the moment, I will stop here. There’s only so much illumination you can give before the light starts to get annoying.

Click.

In Which I Plug My Latest & Greatest

I’m happy to announce that my work with Seasun Comics has at last gone to press with Mythkillers, the urban fantasy comic I’ve been working on for the last year. Mythkillers is the story of a teenage demigoddess, her clay golem best friend, a snarky Zulu fairy and an immortal Greek warrior teaming up to stop a dark god from wrecking the afterlife in his bid for power.

We’ve had Mythkillers #1 printed for a while, but now all six issues are up on Amazon Kindle. Here’s the link.

Issues 1 and 2 are available through ComiXology, but as of this writing, they are still processing Issues 3-6.

“But wait,” you may say, “What’s going on with your other projects?”

(Narrator: No one says that.)

The Civil Blood universe is still kicking, and I’m still revising “Infection in Everything,” a short story involving Infinity and her jiujutsu teacher. And I’m still submitting “Stopping the Bleeding” (a post-Civil Blood story about a new character) and the original humorous piece “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration.” To make a long story short, there are a whole lot of short story markets out there and they’re all closed to submissions for the immediate future.

Okay, not all. But seriously, it’s a thing.

That’s the latest. I’ll post more when I know more.

Stay cool.

In Which I Come Back from Faraway Lands

Those of you just joining me may look at my last blog post and say, “Egads! It’s been three months since the last update! Where has Chris been?” And the answer, of course, lies in the text of the last update — I’ve been doing my day job, which has, like most hazardous gases, expanded to fill the size of its container.

The good news is, the job is pretty cool. When we last left our intrepid hero, I was Kickstarting Mythkillers. In short, Mythkillers is an urban fantasy that is sort of like if you took the ancient bloody-minded gods from Sandman and gave them to the goofy motherf***ers writing Guardians of the Galaxy.

We were successfully funded on Kickstarter, hit two stretch goals, and have been busily making the comics ever since. Since my last post on this blog, I added somewhere around 37 articles on the Seasun Comics news page, which explains a part of my conspicuous absence. If you’re looking to check out Mythkillers, we’re currently using Indiegogo’s InDemand as our online store. I posted a general FAQ for people new to the comic here.

But like any good act of magic, the reasons for my disappearing act here comes in threes.

The second reason I’ve been absent is more related to an old, long-held vice. From 2005 to 2012 or so, I played a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game called City of Heroes. The game shut down in 2012… officially. In May or so, it was revealed that a secret cabal of reverse engineers had actually managed to illegally keep the game’s source code and played it on a private server for the last six or seven years. And then they reopened it for public play, free of charge, with the game company tacitly agreeing not to prosecute anyone for literally saving Paragon City.

It is difficult for me to express how much I loved City of Heroes… okay, it’s not difficult, but most of you wouldn’t understand me if I said “I got the Isolator badge the hard way in Recluse’s Victory and Disruptor on my empathy defender.” I’ve toned my fanaticism down a bit this time around, but I can now play it with my son, who enjoys creating characters just as much or more than he actually likes playing the game. So the game is a factor as well — it sucks up time I would have spent writing.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stuck with my plan to write short stories and sell them to try and finance a Civil Blood sequel. Far from it, in fact. The third thing I’ve been doing in the evenings rather than post updates to the blog is the actual writing of short stories. I finished two recently and sent them off to a writer’s workshop.

The first, “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Office of Superhero Registration,” humorously imagines what the superhero equivalent of the DMV is like. It highlights the down side of being a regenerating hero, which is that to register your superheroic abilities, you have to demonstrate them, i.e. get the mess beaten out of you by a big dude in power armor who doesn’t know what a safe word is.

The second story is from the Civil Blood universe and is, of course, much darker and more serious. It deals with Infinity returning to Los Angeles after the events of the novel and meeting up with Katie, the martial arts instructor who was like a mother to her. Infinity chooses to “come out” to Katie as a vampire, but she can’t go home again the way she’d like to. The story’s title, “Infection in Everything,” refers to the vampire virus VIHPS as well as a passage in Musashi’s famous martial arts manual The Book of Five Rings.

So hopefully, both these stories will see the light of day sometime. I suspect “The 10:40” will be an easier sell, since SF magazines perpetually say they’re starved for humorous content. I think it hits a good mix of slapstick and poignancy, and it’s high time someone wrote a story about the super-saturation point of comic book crime-fighters.

They do say, “write what you know,” right?