It’s been another long dearth of posts, but I assure you, it’s for a good reason. When we last left our intrepid writer, he was modifying Civil Blood‘s sequel to match up with real-world molecular biology. What’s been going on since then?
Writing. Lots of it. By day, I’m working away on Wayfinder for Airship Syndicate. I recently graduated from contract writer to full-time senior writer, and the game is closing in on its Early Access date. Therefore, for the first time in a few years, you might be able to play a game and see my dialogue and text, out in the wild.
By evening, I’m writing the second installment of the Skia Project, the technical name for the world of Civil Blood. I’m not a fast writer, but I’ve gotten up to about 38,000 words, with a target goal of 100,000 to 130,000. That’s about the same size as Civil Blood, which clocked in around 129,000 and fit into just under 400 pages. Naturally, just because I reach the end of the novel doesn’t mean I click on Amazon’s buttons and hit “upload” right away. I put Civil Blood through about ten drafts before I felt it had the punch it needed: pacing, stakes, beautiful turns of phrase. The sequel might not take quite as many drafts, but I don’t want to skimp on quality. The “too long, didn’t read” here is that I’m making good progress, and I’m committed to it.
But oh, are there other projects percolating in my brain. I’ve had not one, but two dreams — literal dreams — about Shadowrun projects that made me wake up and say, “Huh. Could I write that?” It turns out independent authors have been invited to contribute to the game’s universe with a profit-sharing deal, and the temptation is strong. I will probably focus on my own universe for the foreseeable future… but never say never.
And then there’s my daily shot glass of nostalgia. This year has hit me hard with good memories of tabletop roleplaying games. Let me break down just how much TTRPGs have meant to me this year:
1) I play an MMO in which I run into TTRPG gamers all the time. On the Everlasting server in City of Heroes: Homecoming I met up with the players who play Vampire: The Masquerade and Legend of the Five Rings characters. This got me telling stories of the best V:TM tabletop campaign I was ever in, and I thought, “You know, that’d make for an okay series of blog posts, both to amuse the players and help Storytellers with some basic principles.” So I’m posting that ASAP.
2) The Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves movie came out, and it was everything I wanted the 2000s D&D movie to be. I wish it had been more profitable, but I’ll take what I can get.
3) I ended up following some topics on Quora, Reddit and Twitter, and the trifecta means I end up reading conversations about the TTRPG scene, which I haven’t been in for a long time. Doesn’t matter that most of the talk is about D&D and not my preferred games, I still grok the language, and have nothing against the big dog.
4) My son is getting to be an age where his friends are starting to play. We had a boffer-stick LARP birthday party for him, and it was highly successful — no crying, no excluded kids, the teams were even, a generally great experience. Our family tried Werewolf: The Apocalypse during the pandemic quarantine as a way to pass the time without interacting with other kids, but that’s a distant memory now. He’s going to try D&D later this summer.
5) Some of the Bioware fans have found me on Twitter and they ping me with Codex questions and the like, so I’m not escaping that world any time soon, either.
6) Wayfinder is a fantasy RPG that reminds me of some of the high school AD&D games I used to play in. One of the main writers is Keith Baker of Eberron fame, so fantasy RPGs are in the DNA of everything we do.
So, with all that said, I’m going to walk down memory lane with the Shot Glass of Nostalgia page. Because while I have new stories to tell, there is value in the old ones. And to all those who have never heard them… perhaps they will smile as well.
We will start with a vampire buffalo. Or, at least, a would-be vampire buffalo, and why my wife was Prince of a city and never got deposed.
It’s time for a sequel update! While many, many things have been coming at me (COVID, house problems, new car!), I have indeed been making time for Civil Blood‘s sequel. Of course, I’ve also been de-stressing with my favorite game, City of Heroes. But in a strange coincidence, both converged, in an unexpected and delightful way.
A little background: one of my characters is Amir al-Madani, also known as the Milk Sheik. He made an appearance in Unidentified Funny Objects 8 (shameless plug!), but before that he was just a character I fooled around with on the live servers. In his biography window, I mention that he’s a microbiologist from the United Arab Emirates, who got his regenerative powers through radiation and can heal any injury as long as he gets to drink milk, sort of like Popeye and his spinach but less macho.
One night I was hanging out before a raid, and a player called “Pulsar Kitty” pinged me and essentially said, “Hey, I read your bio. Are you a molecular biologist in real life?”
I replied “No, I just write a lot and have some friends who are doctors,” and so forth. But what she said next surprised me: “Drat. I’m actually a microbiologist, and I work on viruses all the time, and I was hoping to find someone to talk to.”
“Oh.” I said, my interest piqued. It was time to converse with the catgirl! “Well, I wrote a novel involving a vampire virus, and I’m always willing to blab about it.” I figured since she was playing a superhero MMORPG she’d be cool with fantasy and science fiction.
It turned out, not only had she read about vampire viruses, she’d read a Shadowrun novel featuring HMHVV, the Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus, which of course I knew about because of my time writing Shadowrun. (Long story there.) So we even had a common point of reference. I e-mailed her a copy of Civil Blood, and we got started discussing the sequel. Particularly the worldbuilding surrounding qi-positive European Bat Lyssavirus-4, the cause of Virally Induced Hematophagic Predation Syndrome. Because it’s similar to, but emphatically not HMHVV.
Some writers would just say “it’s magic, it works how I want it to.” That’s their prerogative. But it’s not how I like to do things. So I started kicking the tires on my world and asking the questions I needed to ask. Questions like:
How long would it be before a vampire who had to feed once every 10-14 days or so and had a practically guaranteed infection each time managed to contaminate a serious chunk of the population?
Can a virus provide amazing benefits like super strength and healing to the human body without being tailored to do so? If so, how could it naturally occur?
How could a virus this infective not shape human history in an obvious way, if it existed before qi (magic) was proven to exist?
Is it possible for an accident to release this virus on the world, or does it need some kind of retconned conspiracy and nefarious motives just to be plausible?
Well, Dr. Kitty went to town on the manuscript. And I was pleased to find out that my story held up okay. I thought I’d share some of the answers here, because, well, they’re neat.
Question 1: How Fast is the Vampocalypse?
As some of my beta readers pointed out, in a straight-up 100% rate of infection every 10 days, the numbers create a lot of doubling. First one vampire bites another, then two have to feed in the next 10 days, then four, then eight. You end up in the billions after about 32 weeks. It’s even worse if there are some vipes addicted to blood who become superspreaders.
Fortunately, the situation in Civil Blood allows for a slower pandemic. There are several factors at play.
Imprecise Numbers: Infinity got about eleven days off of one notable bite in Civil Blood, and she might have lasted two full weeks if she pushed it. There’s also a line in the chapter where she reads BRHI’s experimental notes that say “subject went torpid after thirty-two days without blood” indicating that a vipe could survive more than twice as long in extremes, though they would probably be miserable doing so. While that would not be the norm, every day counts in a massive population boom like this.
Bullets: After a month or so (only 4-8 infections) , someone at the Benjamin Rush Health Initiative did the math and started putting together the Forced Protection team to stop the spread. Somewhere around 16-32 vipes, they started nipping them in the bud, first with capture and restraints, then with targeted killings. Though this started in the D.C. area, it expanded eventually to other cities. BRHI has made a lot of bodies by the end of the first novel. Ranath is said to have “dropped the hammer more times than John Henry.”
When the media break the story four years after Patient Zero, police start being able to recognize vipes for what they are and imprison or kill them. Citizens form vigilante gangs for self-protection, which may cut down on feeding or lower the vipes’ numbers through straight-up murder. A very small percentage of vipes might be lost to cases of individual victims defending themselves. An equally small number might be lost to attrition if they take their cues from popular culture, think they’re immortal, and try to survive a jump off a bridge or some similarly stupid stunt. Again, every vipe taken off the board counts.
Psychology: Many vipes feed first on those closest to them when they lose control, and this can be incredibly traumatizing if the victim is a family member or friend. Some vipes will refuse to drink blood again, instinct be damned. This means they might go comatose and starve to death, or commit suicide. I don’t know exact numbers, but the number of people who’d take themselves out would be much higher than the general population, more on par with active shooters or incarcerated felons.
Jessica’sOld Multi-Bite Trick: Jessica introduces Infinity and Morgan to a technique for vipes feeding off of one another. Sure, it has diminishing returns, but it helps greatly. When Infinity came home after feeding, she could lose blood enough to feed about six other vipes without permanent damage. Since they drank from her wound and not a fresh victim, this slows the number of new infections. Morgan and Jessica, who maintained contact with networks of vipes, no doubt publicized this method in the hopes of minimizing harm.
Question 2: Viruses With Benefits
So, can a virus, with a little magical boost, naturally cause bone ossification and muscle growth so a vipe is strong like a human-sized chimpanzee? “Well, heck,” says Dr. Kitty, “Why don’t we take a look at HERV-K?”
Fun fact: there are viruses in your DNA. Yes, yours. Right now. At various points in human evolution, viruses infected us and used something called reverse transcriptase to insert their RNA into the DNA of our genome. But if they don’t kill the host, and they don’t impair them enough to prevent reproduction, and also if the body can’t stop the infection, sometimes the virus gets integrated into us, like a rude guest who gets adopted. This has happened so often throughout human history that about 8% of our genome is virus code. Like HERV-K.
HERV stands for Human Endogenous Retrovirus — the “K” is a label for which one, since there are a lot of them. “Endogenous” means it’s a part of us now. It entered our genome when we were primates about 30 million years ago, before we were even Homo sapiens. In some cells, if HERV-K turns active, it’s very dangerous and can cause problems like testicular cancer. But during reproduction, if it’s working right, it allows a woman to safely grow a placenta. This is naturally occurring… well, natural as of 30 million years ago. It was selected for. No nefarious genius with a laboratory needed.
So… do you think viruses can have complex benefits? Because one made you possible.
Question 3: How Come We Haven’t Seen EBL-4/VIHPS Before?
This was a thorny one, because the world of Civil Blood is not like the tabletop RPG Shadowrun. There is no great cycle of magic that infuses the world, disappears, and comes back. Qi, in Civil Blood, is a supernatural science that had a breakthrough and though it has always been there, humans can now measure it and manipulate it clearly. But… there’s a way for the virus to be old and yet new at the same time.
In prehistory, EBL developed a super-infective strain. But just because something is super-infective doesn’t mean it’s going to spread all around the world. It could have appeared in isolated communities, or spread like wildfire and then burned out, because it comes with a limitation — a vipe needs to drink blood fresh from the wound of another living, squirming human. If they don’t, they get aggressive after a couple of weeks and then their body starts to suffer. By 14 to 32 days, they start getting lethargic and comatose. (Ask me about unstable antitoxins and stable toxins in selfish genetic sequences. G’wan, I dare you.)
So if they don’t have a food supply, the epidemic is going to fizzle out. And in a time period before cities, highways, and even the domestication of horses, a lot of vipes are going to keel over before they find enough prey to keep the cycle going. It’s much more of a supercharged pandemic in the modern day. In prehistory? It might not even show up in the fossil record.
Question 4: So How Did Ulan Release the Plague?
So it’s possible the progenitor to EBL got into humans, and over time, adapted to them. One strain could have mutated into a less infective version but stayed in the human germline, giving resistance to the nastier version until the vipes all died out. With no selective pressure to change, the virus would stay in humans until some could have transferred over to European bats, some of whom could eat trash covered in human saliva. The bats are where Dr. Ulan found European Bat Lyssavirus-4, and she could have, in the process of collecting data on the virus and taking out portions with targeted bombardments of yin qi, recreated the original sequence.
Recreating the original sequence is bad.
Bang. Super-infective qi-positive EBL-4 is back, and the clock starts with her as Patient Zero.
So When’s the Novel Coming Out?
That’s a question I don’t think I’ll answer. There’s going to be a lot more to the sequel than this, but it’s been a long time since I gave a substantive Civil Blood update. Here’s hoping I whetted your appetites.
2023 started off, for me, with some seriously annoying moments. Key among them was my son catching COVID around January 3rd. We tried to isolate him in his room, and started wearing masks even when going from one room to another in the house. But my wife (Jennifer) and my daughter (Beverly) caught it anyway, which really sucked. Beverly’s case was pretty mild — she’s had it before, in the summer of 2022 — but it hit my wife like a truck, and we had to get her on Paxlovid to kill off the brain fog, the body aches, and fever. Some nine days later, the kids started testing negative and so did Jenny… until the rebound hit, which is a known danger with Paxlovid. After 5 more days of feeling like utter garbage and an additional 5 of isolation, she’s still not at 100%. Her job now is to concentrate on getting better.
Well, on day 1 I had a negative test. And day 2 I had another. And then I kind of had a runny nose from breathing the humid inside of a mask on day 3, but still tested negative. Days 4-6 my nose dried up a little, and I developed a headache from the mask straps, but tested negative all three days, and you know what, I lasted through 16 days of straight negative tests despite having 3 other positive people in a pretty small house.
Never caught the dang thing. I don’t know how exactly. I’ve tried to be good about it, but I would be totally unsurprised if I had some level of immunity. Here’s what I did:
I wore masks in the house a LOT.
I tried to limit exposure as much as possible to parts of the house where other people breathe, while still doing the dishes, laundry, and other essentials. Eat food, mask back on, do dishes, retreat upstairs.
I only exercised outside, not anywhere where there might be droplets in the air. Because it’s been raining up a storm here, that’s cut short my regimen quite a lot.
I’m vaxxed and boosted, and have a pretty strong immune system. When I was in 8th grade, chicken pox inconvenienced me for 4 days where it took out other kids for 2 weeks.
I washed my hands whenever I touched anything someone else may have messed with, and dried my hands on disposable paper towels or towels that I knew no one else in the house used.
As much as my immediate family resents my immune system, it was pretty useful for me to be able to run to the pharmacy or supermarket like a hornbill fetching food for the nest.
Now, on another note, 2023 has had a few upsides. First among them: I am employed again. I’m working for Airship Syndicate on their upcoming MMO-esque game Wayfinder.
Wayfinder is a post-apocalyptic fantasy with arcane technology. Most of the world has been lost in a wave of infective chaos called the Gloomfall, and the spiritual echoes of great heroes reappear to battle it. There’s a FAQ here.
The game is doing closed tests now, but they need a lot of words to be written before launch, so I’m signed up and ready to rock. I’m now in my third week of work, and I’m getting really jazzed about the stories we can tell in the game.
As for personal writing time — I got in a little over winter break, and am now about 10,000 words into Civil Blood‘s sequel. Unfortunately, once the Covid hit, the time doing chores kind of killed my morale, and once I was gainfully employed, my spare time started going towards playing the game I’m working on. Now that the house is plague-free once again, I’m looking forward to getting back in the groove. It’s where the music is.
I once flipped through a dictionary (Merriam-Webster Collegiate, I think) and found that in the back, they had a super-cool list of foreign words and phrases that are or were popular. You know, like the Latin “finis coronat opus,” which translates to “the end crowns the work.” If you ever want to whip out the snotty literary criticism, throw that baby in and sound like a scholar, when all you’re really saying is “a story needs to stick the landing, or it doesn’t add up to much.”
I think my favorite, though, is “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus,” which is “Mountains will go into labor, and a silly little mouse will be born.” That one’s about overpromising and underdelivering. You know, like the game that’s been delayed ten years that better be the Second Coming of Almighty Zeus when it comes out, or else all that expense and hard work will be met with a resounding “meh.” (It’s kind of telling that there’s a few games out there this could apply to.)
Me, I try not to overpromise. But it has been a long time since I posted, so I hope you weren’t betting on me giving birth to a mountain. There’s been good news and bad news in my life, my career, and my personal writing. So let’s take a tour.
I Got (More) Political This Year
As I posted in 2020’s “In Which I Give Worried Introverts Something to Do,” I decided to use a not-insignificant amount of my spare time to volunteer for a get-out-the-vote campaign. This year, I started earlier than I did in 2020 because historically Democrats don’t turn out in midterms, and if past was prologue, they were going to get pasted.
I wrote 20 letters a week to get voters to turn out in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. By the time of the big send-off in late October, I finished 580 letters, about 100 more than I managed in 2020 if you include the Georgia runoff. It would have been nice to do an even 600, but in that last week I was crunching at work and totally out of brain fuel. Then, the next week, when it became clear Georgia was going to another runoff for its Senate seat, I burned all my free time and got an additional 100 letters out.
I don’t regret the time spent — the Democrats snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat and broke a pattern 20+ years long of getting routed in midterm elections. However, I am quite happy campaign season is over for the moment. I have a little more time on the weekends, and the ability to find other topics to talk about on Twitter.
I Tried To Be an Involved Dad
Just a minor note here from a proud pops: I helped teach my daughter how to drive and I wrangled my son through a frustrating season of soccer. Both kids’ grades are pretty great, and they seem to be thriving. Couldn’t be happier with them.
Some other obstacles came our way: my daughter got COVID for about 10 days. She was vaxxed and wasn’t in much danger, but it hit her like a truck. The rest of the family masked up and sanitized religiously and all somehow avoided it, even including a 3-hour car trip (shout-out to my wife for doing the driving, windows down the whole way).
I Kept Submitting Stories
I wrote and rewrote a few more short stories, but they have yet to find a home anywhere. As with martial arts, where you are only as good as your next move, a writer can have great experience and skill and still, the story may not resonate with whoever’s at the editing desk. So that was disappointing and consumed a bit of time.
Then There’s Civil Blood‘s Sequel
When I last posted about the sequel, I was reviewing its outline, trying to turn it into the book I really wanted to read. Rather than write by the seat of my pants, I spent a month or so planning it out and adding notes for a direction in which to take a third book. This all took time, but I’ve managed to get started on the manuscript itself. As of this writing, I have one chapter down and a pretty good grip on the second, so I really want to make this happen sooner rather than later. It’s been “later” long enough.
I Crunched Like the Captain
This one is kind of bittersweet. After months of work that sucked up weekends and evenings, my job with Mattel163 came to a close. The project is in soft launch now (it’s not in the US or China yet) and the prognosis is good for it being able to ship. I’ll tell you all about it when it goes wide, but right now I need to set my sights elsewhere.
…and We Lost Some Good Ones
Lastly, some things happened on a vastly more serious note. Some of my life had to be put on hold to grieve.
Since I last posted, three people I knew died. The first, Jerome Joaquin Mabrey, was a gamer I met at San Diego Comic Con in 2012. He was on the first team to beat the Mass Effect multiplayer’s fancy new Platinum difficulty, he ran a great Facebook group called Nerd Alert, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of space opera. The second was Kevin Barrett, who was director of design at BioWare and was responsible for giving myself and my wife our most significant video game industry job. We used to love arguing with him in a BioWare dev book club. We disagreed all the freaking time, but we never had a negative experience with him. The third was Ferret Baudoin, who worked with my wife on Dragon Age, ran a killer Roman-themed D&D campaign for us, and after the BioWare diaspora, wound up at Bethesda. I had mad respect for all three of these men, and the world is smaller for not having them in it.
…and that’s all, he wrote.
So, all told, this summer and fall were pretty busy. I don’t have a lot to show you just yet, but I hope you’ll understand that sometimes, life isn’t a performance, or all about your next gig. Quite often, it’s day-to-day progress, or even just holding the line when that progress tries to disappear.
Festina lente. (In English idiom, “More haste, less speed.”)
How things change in a year. The last time I got a short story accepted, it was a goofy tale of some poor sap in the superhero equivalent of the DMV, getting beaten up to test if he really had regeneration powers.
This time around, it’s a grimdark high fantasy story of Camelot after Arthur’s death, where all the good he did died with him. An unscrupulous king, Constantine, has sent a would-be knight to find Arthur’s legendary spear, the Rhongomyniad. It was last seen in the hands of Mordred’s court torturer, and no one should bat an eye about putting a torturer in pain to get what they want… right?
That’s the premise of “The Torturer of Camelot,” a story about disobeying orders, the limits of forgiveness, and if we are more than our worst deeds. I wrote it last year for the FantaSci writing contest. The theme was “magical relics,” so all the stories had to have items of legend, and the anthology was in the Books of Valor series, so they had to have some valorous deeds in them as well.
I burned some midnight oil in order to get it written, critiqued, revised, and submitted before the deadline… and it all paid off.
The anthology, Keen Edge of Valor, was released at the FantaSci 2022 convention in North Carolina this March. Four finalists from the contest were published in the 14 stories of the anthology, and first place went to…
I haven’t really been in this position before. I’ve entered a few writing contests, but the last one I placed in was more than two decades ago. I tried for an Isaac Asimov Award for undergraduates, and got an honorable mention for a cyberpunk story. So as you may surmise, I’m kind of pleased at this turn of events.
I also haven’t really mentally absorbed the whole situation yet. The week of its publication, I was in a frenzy trying to finish off some work at my day job so I could go on a vacation with a clean conscience. Then it was a week in Hawai’i, where my attention was taken up by all the lovely things there (volcanoes, dolphins, geckos, swimming, you name it) and when I found the urge to write, I made some progress on another humorous short story which may or may not ever see the light of day. Its deadline could be soon in the grand scheme of things, and I still need to find the funny, so that’s where my nighttime writing focus is.
Once that’s sorted out, I promise, it’s back to Civil Blood‘s sequel planning, which is what this whole short story detour was originally intended to bring about.
But here it is, short and sweet: If you want to check out the anthology, Keen Edge of Valor is here. It’s the third anthology put out by New Mythology Press/Chris Kennedy Publishing, so if you like it, don’t forget the other two might be up your alley, too.
Bring some steel arrowheads. I heard iron is proof against the fay. Even that one.
Longtime readers may remember my novel Civil Blood, and particularly attentive readers may remember the reasons I hadn’t started working on a sequel yet. Long story short, I promised my family I’d only begin work once I had accumulated a nest egg big enough to pay for a cover and editor(s), assuming costs in the same neighborhood as my previous self-publishing venture. The catch was, this nest egg would solely be financed by my other personal writing, and my path to that was A) novel sales, and B) short story sales. Since I have little in the way of advertising budget and thus a very meagre novel-based income, I ended up relying on “B.”
Well… with a final anthology sale coming out in 2022, approach “B” has finally put the numbers over the top. So now I have a little news: I’m finally working on a sequel to Civil Blood. Here’s what I can say:
I am currently in the outlining stage. It will take me a few months before I start the rough draft. I should warn the reader that it takes me years to write a novel.
I have tentatively titled it with another blood-related Shakespearian phrase (again, with echoes of the play, but the specific title may give away some of the parallelism in the plot, so I’ll be mum on that for now).
The story will deal with an American presidential election in the time of VIHPS. Though I hesitate to use the word “pandemic,” the vampire virus is the top issue on the minds of the electorate. It is not, however, the only issue, and part of the political dealings is that Infinity and Ranath will have to choose whom to support despite the candidates not matching up with their every ideal.
The main characters of Civil Blood will be the main characters in this story as well. There will be many familiar faces, and a few names only hinted at in Civil Blood will have some stage time in this one.
I might be able to make this story comprehensible if you haven’t read Civil Blood, but I’m not betting on it. As I work on the outline, I realize that trying to sum up why a character is not only a doctor but also a hitman and also has his hands on potentially world-changing research that he didn’t actually do just stretches credulity. I may have to highlight that it’s “The Skia Project, Book 2” and just roll with that.
Ideally it will not have a cliffhanger ending, because at this moment I don’t know the chances of making a third installment. Also, I like books to have enough of a satisfying thematic resolution that they can stand on their own. So, less The Empire Strikes Back and more Terminator 2.
To all the fans of CB that have stuck with me this far… thank you. I hope to make you happy once more.
One of the “problems” with my writing career trajectory is that I’m not a specialist. If you really want to be a household name as a writer, you create a series and you get fans devoted to it. There are a lot of examples I could pick from, but let’s go with Agatha Christie.
“Why?” you ask? Because according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. She’s sold more than two billion (with a “b”) books. Her name is synonymous with detective mysteries, having written 66 of the things. She wrote a few plays, some of them record-breakingly popular in their own right — they were mysteries, too. And her branding was helped by the fact that when she wrote a handful of non-detective novels, she did so under a pen name. She specialized, and it paid off.
Me? I’m the opposite. You never know what the hell I’m writing next, and sometimes neither do I. Since my last blog post about My Loft, I’ve been working on:
1) A visual novel (romance genre). It is now complete but not public yet. 2) Lore for a fantasy RPG video game. It’s in pre-production, totally not public. 3) A metric ton of writing tests for various companies. 4) Submitting short stories to various online magazines, some in the Civil Blood universe, some humorous superhero stories, and one cli-fi piece.
The first two are both gigs that ended recently, which meant I had to throw myself into #3 with a vengeance. #3 and #4 were the most discouraging, as my hit-to-miss ratio is typical of freelance writers — in other words, there were a lot of rejections. But, as of today, things are looking up.
I have been so fortunate as to accept a position with Mattel163, a mobile game developer and subsidiary of the famous toy company. I am working on an unannounced project as a full-time employee, and I want to make it sing.
What does that mean for you, the audience? I don’t know yet. All indications are that I will be up late at night on this job, since many of my co-workers are in Shanghai, 15 time zones away from me. On the other hand, a lot of my mental energy was taxed during my job hunt, so I may end up feeling happier and healthier, with a little security in my life once more.
That means I could end up able to do more personal writing, and submit more stories to more outlets.
One question that has come up regards Amazon’s Kindle Vella. In case you haven’t heard, Kindle Vella is essentially a platform for monetizing short stories and serial works on a Kindle, which naturally made my ears perk up. As always, a little more personal writing income means I can afford a second indie-publishing venture — a full-fledged sequel to Civil Blood. There’s two drawbacks to Kindle Vella: the first is that it’s got a limit of 6,000 words per installment, which is a little short for my taste. The more difficult hurdle for me to get over is that you have to build your brand — it takes a lot of 99-cent stories to add up to a single traditionally-published short story in a magazine, which could net $500 or so. That’s the reality. I’m working on building an e-mail list, an important step in the whole author ecosystem, but I don’t have any illusions about indie-pub sales.
So, will I die before my dream goal is achieved and leave you all in the lurch? Well, I’m happy to say I’m fully vaccinated as of today. It’s not proof against being hit by a bus, but as Bill Murray said, “I got that going for me, which is nice.”
“Um, do you have room for one adult, one locking trash can, and about forty-one Tupperwares that need to stay warm?”
The short version: as of today, Amazon Game Studios is launching My Loft, a little voice-controlled game for the Amazon Echo. I served as lead writer on the project, heading up a team of three other writers. I believe it’s rated E-10, meaning E for Everyone over 10 years old.
You are the owner of a loft you rent out. You use the money to decorate the loft to increase its comfort, coolness, and weirdness ratings, and you interact with the guests to raise their happiness scores. More happiness equals more money you can spend on tricking out your loft. The gameplay happens in real time, so you can check in once or twice a day and not have a big time commitment to it.
The fun part is that it’s a comedy game, so when you say, “Alexa, check on my guest,” sometimes what comes out of their mouth is freakin’ hilarious.
There’s about 28 guests total, ranging from drag queens to venomous snake enthusiasts to boy detectives to Zen masters to Masivo the Human Wall. (Trust me, you’ll know who he is when you meet him.) There’s also a certain guest who only shows up if you play the game after midnight, and references to holidays if you’re playing on that particular day.
It’s not a super-slick AAA production, nor did I have complete creative control. But it was a great dose of laughter in my life during the first dark days of the pandemic, and I’ll always be thankful for that. After the writers’ contracts ended, we stepped back and let the design team do their thing, so there are still many surprises for me when I play. I seriously haven’t seen this thing in about six months.
To play it, tell your Echo, “Alexa, launch My Loft.” You can’t say “play My Loft,” because then Alexa will think you’re trying to play music. It’s “launch.” Make sure you’ve updated to the most recent Echo operating system or Alexa will say “the game is not supported.” It works on Fire 220.127.116.11.. The Echo sometimes says it’s done updating after a few minutes, when in fact it takes about two hours to process everything.
Hope you enjoy it… and forgive the tutorial character not being the most fascinating dude on the planet. He means well, and if I recall, he comes in handy when you run afoul of the absinthe smugglers.
In May, I had a short story accepted to the annual science fiction and fantasy humor anthology, Unidentified Funny Objects. Currently in its eighth year, UFO has featured a lot of famous writers, and this year it features such luminaries as David Gerrold (he created the Tribbles for Star Trek) Jodie Lynn Nye (who’s published more than 50 books) and of course Esther Friesner, who has probably written more humorous short stories than Alexander Hamilton wrote essays.
When I submitted the story, I wasn’t expecting to have my story be the first one in the book. But there it is, doing its duty to make a first impression. “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration” starts the volume off, followed by 23 more lighthearted romps. There’s grandmotherly golems, cybernetic cats, a daring quest inside the living room couch, and more.
The book is now available in print and Kindle, and it seems to be getting a bit of acclaim on Goodreads (for some reason, there aren’t nearly as many Amazon reviews as of this writing).
“The 10:40 Appointment” follows the hapless Dr. Amir al-Madani, a newly-empowered vigilante who gave up his job in the United Arab Emirates and moved to New York to fight crime. Problem is, New York is full of superheroes, so the Department of Superhero Registration is basically that cantina in Star Wars except with more teenage deities and nuclear-powered mutants. Amir’s only superpower is regeneration, which is really the worst power to bring to the heroic equivalent of the DMV.
Why? Because to register his super-ness, he’s got to demonstrate its capabilities in a road test… which, for regeneration, means a proctor in power armor beats the living snot out of him.
Amir triumphs… but not in the way you might expect. The story is goofy, but it also tries to encapsulate a lesson about what makes a real hero. I’m pretty proud of the story, so by all means, check it out here:
“The 10:40 Appointment” is not my only light-and-fluffy superhero short story. Keen-eyed observers of this site may note that I’ve had heroes on the brain for a few months. I’ve actually got five or six stories in the works, all in the same universe as “The 10:40 Appointment.” None are quite ready for prime time yet: they’re all in various stages of creation, editing, and submission to various magazines and markets. If any of them score a bullseye, I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, check out the book for a laugh, and if you like it, feel free to leave a review. And kids, remember to drink your milk, because someday your superpowers might depend on it.
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.