I Live. The Writing Moves Forward.

Where have I been, you ask?  Why, braving the skirling autumn seas in search of adventure, grasping the elusive MacGuffin Beast by its shaggy throat and wringing from it the bones of story.  I’ve been ’round the Horn and back again, questing with my small, hearty band of ruffians through the dense jungles of Practicality, our spirits united in yearning for the legendary Sensawunda.

I’ve been working, in other words, doing the necessary stuff, getting shit done, laying down a steady beat of responsibility, being all adult AF.  But here’s what’s happening on the writing front.

I’m finishing up The Doktor’s Spyglass, slowly but steadily, and after that I’ll be moving on, both to give myself time away from it before editing the bastard and to relieve my overtaxed brain by writing something totally stupid.  I’ve got a couple of rollicking tales in mind, one of which is started, the other of which is only an idea, but both promise to be a good time in the writing.  I hope they’ll be good for the reading, too.November is almost upon us, believe it or not, and with it NaNoWriMo, which I’ve never properly participated in.  I won’t be starting this year, not officially, but I’ll be doing something similar–something related.  Due to the aforementioned SERIOUS ADULT SHIT, there’s been a relative dearth of writing here, and I aim to change that.  So for the month of November, I will pledge to write every single day.  I’ll set no specific goals as far as word- or page-count.  Rather, I’ll focus on returning to a daily writing schedule and focus simply on the task of putting some amount of words on the page every single day of the week.  Some days that might be a few hundred, others a few thousand, but the end result is that it all adds up and hopefully by the end of the month (stretch goal), Spyglass will be done and I can move on to newer, fresher things.

Stay tuned.  I’ll be using this blog as a journal, so I hope you enjoy it.

8 Great Resources for Writing Medieval Fantasy

I’ve had an epic fantasy series brewing in the back of my head for over a decade now.  I’ve got about 70,000 of a first draft of the first novel written, and though I’ve put it aside temporarily, I plan on returning to it after I’ve completed a few other projects I’m working on (three current works in progress, and counting).

I originally imagined it as a fairly straightforward “medieval”-style fantasy–knights on horseback, lords and ladies, etc.  While over the years it evolved into something much more unique (or so I like to think), much of the world’s social and political dynamics are rooted in my understanding of our world’s Middle Ages.

Much of that understanding can be attributed to two distinct but related sources: my wife, who studied the Middle Ages in college, and her substantial library of books on the subject, to which we have both added over the years.

As I’ve often seen writers and aspiring writers seeking guidance online for good research materials on this subject, I thought I’d share some of my own go-to resources.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1.  European Arms & Armour, by Charles Henry Ashdown

IG29969-1New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1967.

Sadly out of print, European Arms & Armour is an excellent survey of the subject of Western armament, ranging from the prehistoric to the advent of gunpowder (and slightly beyond).  It spends most of its time, though, discussing the Middle Ages proper and the weapons and armor that served the fighting men and women of Europe during this often-tumultuous period.  The New York Times, in 1967, called the book a “magnificent volume” with “much of the charge which belongs to historical romances[.]”

I was lucky enough to come across this tome, quite well preserved, in a second-hand book shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  It looks and smells like it may have spent the intervening decades between its publication and now in a dry but dusty basement, before falling into the hands of the bookshop owner from whom I happily acquired it.

Ashdown’s discussion of the development of arms and armor is simply and expertly presented, giving the reader a sense of the organic evolution from leather and bronze to mail and plate.  But perhaps most useful are the hundreds of engravings and photographs (black and white, unfortunately), complete with labels and terminology, that litter almost every other page of the book.

You should be able to find it used on Amazon, or perhaps in your local independent bookstore.

2.  The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Ewart Oakeshott

910q5zw1TNSRochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

Whereas Ashdown attempts to give a history of all European arms and armor, Oakeshott focuses on the most famous and pervasive of medieval weapons: the sword.

Originally published contemporarily with Ashdown in 1964, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry has found new life in digital printing and is still readily available through Amazon.

With photographs and hundreds of detailed illustrations by the author, this is the quintessential reference on the Western sword.  Indeed, Albion Swords uses Oakeshott as their primary reference guide for their functional, museum-quality recreations.  Invaluable for those who love the art of it, and want to make the sword a part of their story.

If you’re wondering what type of sword a person from a particular place and time might have used, this is the book for you.

3.  The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, by Shulamith Shahar

0415308518New York: Routledge, 1994.

A thorough and scholarly investigation into a subject much ignored in the study of the period, Shahar’s book is the first to look specifically at the role of women in medieval society.  She does so with a view toward a general and comprehensive discussion of all women, and in fact deliberately avoids discussing the ones that may spring immediately to mind: Joan of Arc, Matilda, etc.

She does so not only because, as she explains in the introduction, much has already been said of these singular and exceptional women, but because her intention was to shed light on women whose lives and positions had not been discussed.

Shahar herself is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Tel Aviv.  The book was translated into English by Chaya Galai.  The narrative approaches the subject rigorously, making no assumptions, and as such uncovers a wealth of contributions by, realities of, and life choices for women in the Middle Ages that is rivaled only by the insidiousness of their persecution by the Church as the centuries progressed.

An absolute must for anyone trying to write women in a medieval society (or its fantasy analog).

4.  Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, by Nichola Fletcher

9781466864405New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Nichola Fletcher, a goldsmith, deer farmer, and food writer, bookends her history of feasting with an anecdote about Charlemagne.  He had an asbestos tablecloth, or so the story (almost certainly apocryphal) goes, which he would dramatically throw into the fire at the end of a feast.  The fire would burn off the crumbs, leaving the impervious asbestos intact, a magic trick sure to impress the majesty of the Emperor upon his guests.

What this book does quite well, with a joyful, engaged tone, is describe the food and festivities involved in history’s most extravagant and legendary meals.  The “golden age” of feasting, as she calls it, is of course the Middle Ages, and Fletcher’s description of dishes and entertainments from this age would make even George R. R. Martin blush.  Great fodder for descriptive passages and general scene setting.

5.  The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, by Stephen O’Shea

314653New York: Walker & Company, 2000.

The history of the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a history of Christian heresies, the greatest of which was the Cathar heresy, which led to a series of crusades called by Pope Innocent III.

The Cathars were an ascetic heretical sect most active in Northern Italy and Southern France.  They were dualists and Gnostic revivalists, believing in a binary godhead with good and evil gods.  The good god, the god of the New Testament, created the spiritual realm, while the evil god of the Old Testament created the physical.  Hence, physical was bad.  Hence ascetism.  The Catholic Church didn’t like this, so much, particularly the part about the evil force–who they interpreted as Satan–being equal in power to God.  You can guess where this is going.

O’Shea makes it riveting, however, and by focusing on this central conflict within Christendom, identifies a defining theme of the Middle Ages: dogmatic strife.

6.  The First Crusade: A New History, by Thomas Asbridge

81YzsRePgnLNew York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

No conflict–perhaps no event–encapsulates the medieval mind so well as the First Crusade.  Those who took up the cross, a diverse and only tentatively allied force led by five great princes, did so in response to a call by Urban II that stood in the face of a thousand years of Christian dogma: to launch an unprovoked war to reclaim the Holy Land by blood.

The First Crusade has always been the most interesting to me, and I particularly enjoy Asbridge’s discussion of the philosophies and cultural and religious values that led to what amounted to a craze among the nobility of Europe: to take penitent vows and seek their fortune in the foreign east.

Combining a loose interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory and the incitement of racial and religious hatred of Muslims who held the Holy City of Jerusalem in their “unclean” hands, Urban ushered in an era of Church-sanctified violence that would not end for centuries.  This book is a fascinating exploration of medieval thought and the desperation with which the Latins pursued their salvation–both physical and spiritual.

7.  The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

a1eobexixl-_sl1500_New York: Viking Penguin, 2009.

The subtitle says it all: illuminating the dark ages.

Referring to the years between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne as the “dark ages” has long been frowned upon by medieval scholars, and Wickham’s thesis runs with that idea.  Rather than a long period of barbarity and intellectual darkness, the early middle ages were “critical to the formation of the European identity.”

This one is a particularly relevant read for fantasy authors, I think, because it deals with the real world history behind one of the more common fantasy tropes: life in the aftermath of empire; people living in the ruins, physical and societal, of a greater, more accomplished civilization.

Wickham’s thesis goes a long way toward demonstrating that rather than the abrupt, dramatic cataclysm that exists in the public imagination, the fall of the Western Empire and the underrated survival of Byzantium were in fact part of a more gradual shift from a purely Roman identity to the beginnings of what would eventually become modern Europe.

8.  The Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman

9780816030217-usNew York: Fall River Press, 2007.

This is a fun one: a glossary of words of medieval origin and/or importance.  Etymology nerds won’t be pleased by the lack of sources or derivation, but given that Ms. Cosman was a professor and director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College of New York, I think we can trust her.

I’ve found this one useful for general inspiration and worldbuilding.  A great coffee table book just to pick up and read at random, the subjects range from the quotidian to the serious to the downright lascivious.

Here are a few favorites (with cross-references in small caps):

fabliaux
Lewd tales depicting ebullient philanderers, bed-hopping with exuberance.  Stock characters in dramatic situations include the senex amans (old lover) cuckolded by his lusty young wife and her sexually athletic lover; the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) whose boasting undoes him; lascivious clerical lovers with willing women congregants; and bold bawdy wives of sexually senescent men. fabliaux women oppose the idealized domna of the eva-ave antithesis.

stew
A fishpond, bath, spa, or whorehouse.  “The Stews” was a name for fourteenth-century London’s red light district, coexisting with the title cock’s lane.

yale
A mythic heraldic beast, gracing the coat of arms of England and many a bestiary.  An animal the size of a horse with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jowls, each of the yale’s extravagantly long horns can adjust as battle requires; at need, one horn can point forward, the other behind.

These are only a few of the books my wife and I have on our Middle Ages shelves, and for everyone I selected to talk about here there were three I considered in its stead.  But these eight are books that have proved helpful and enlightening to me.  I hope you find them so.


TDS New 3My current novel, The Doktor’s Spyglass, is a fantasy noir adventure being serialized for free on Wattpad.  Check it out and vote if you like what you read!

Why I Design My Own Book Covers

TDS New 3I design a lot of book covers, for someone who doesn’t do it full-time.  Being responsible for the design of your books, inside and out, is part and parcel of being a self-published author.  That responsibility usually amounts to a choice between designing the books yourself, or contracting the work out to a freelance designer.

Deciding whether to do something yourself or outsource it is a decision that will be familiar to anyone who has run a small business.  When I worked as a private attorney, I faced this question everyday.  Do I pay for someone to design my website, or do it myself, since I have that skillset?  Do I do all the bookkeeping, or hire someone to man Quickbooks for me?  The only way to make these choices is to apply a cost-benefit analysis.  First and foremost, do you have the ability to do this task yourself?  If  yes, what’s more valuable to you, your time or your money?  If no, is it something you can learn?  And if you spend time learning how to do accomplish an ancillary task, are you spending your time wisely?

When you sit down to take care of the myriad tasks that make up the logistical and business side of being a full-time writer, you always have to ask yourself whether you’d be better off skipping this part and just doing some writing.  Usually, the answer is yes.  You should probably be writing.  Sometimes, the answer is an uncomfortable no: getting this shit accomplished is vital to the success of your career.  Other times, and these are the times I’m getting at here, the answer is a confident no: this is important, and it’s okay that I’m focusing on this for the moment instead of doing what I actually do, which is write fiction.

Exile AMZN-EPUBWhen my wife and I started Evil Toad Press, the imprint under which we publish our books, one thing we decided very quickly was that we would outsource all of our interior formatting/typesetting.  Neither of us had any significant experience doing this kind of work, and a day or two spent reading distributors’ formatting requirements and fooling around with Calibre and Adobe InDesign was enough to make up my mind.  I was confident that I could format the text of my book by myself if I had to, but it would require a significant investment of time and effort that I felt would be better put toward writing the actual books.  Most importantly, I figured out relatively quickly that I had no desire to do that work: it didn’t speak to me.  It felt dry and repetitive and boring.  I wanted to pay someone to do it for me, so I did.  We’ve never looked back.

On the other hand, I did have some experience with graphic design.  I’ve got some background in art and web design, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit teaching myself Adobe Photoshop.  I felt confident that I could at least take a crack at designing a few book covers, and to my surprise I found that not only did I have something of a knack for it, I really enjoyed doing it.

BOS CoverTo date, I’ve designed the cover for every book released by Evil Toad Press.  Even if you factor in the (small) cost of the tools required–subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud and Shutterstock, the odd font license–as well as a reasonable rate for the man-hours I put in designing them, we’ve certainly saved money doing it this way.  Even “pre-made” book covers, which are predesigned templates with your name and book title added, usually run anywhere from seventy-five to several hundred dollars.  If you want a completely custom design by a professional designer or illustrator, the cost may run into the thousands.

But more important, for me, was the unexpected thrill I got designing covers for books I cared about personally.  The challenge of capturing a book’s essence, genre, and tone and expressing them visually was exciting.  It was, and still is, a learning process, to be sure.  It requires a fusion of skillsets, including graphic design, typography, illustration, painting, geometry, and more.  But seeing a book cover come to life and being happy with the end result is incredibly satisfying.

TDODR Cover AMZN-EPUBI’m no professional designer.  I didn’t go to school for this.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn–sometimes it feels like I learn something new with every cover I design.  And not every cover is an immediate hit: some need several mock-ups before I get the concept right, others need to be redesigned entirely.  Sometimes I have to design several alternate covers simultaneously, to see which works the best.  Sometimes it turns out that a book needs a new cover somewhere down the line, because the first version isn’t selling as well as it could.

Some of my covers, to be brutally honest, are better than others.  As I said, it’s a learning process, and sometimes the magic just comes together better than others.

But the point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that designing book covers adds to my enjoyment of being a writer.  It doesn’t detract from it.  The moment it stops being fun, the moment it starts being a drag that I just want to put behind me, I’ll start paying someone else.  There’s no shortage of ways to buy a book cover.

So what’s the lesson, here?  I know.  You’re waiting for the sappy moral.  Well here’s a go at it.

TPS Omnibus CoverAn accountant once cautioned me not to let logistics get in the way my actual business.  At the time, his advice was specific: don’t try to do payroll by yourself, even if you’ve only got one employee.  Pay someone else to do that for you.  “You do what you do,” he said.  At the time, that meant that I should worry less about payroll and more about actually practicing law, so as to make the money that would support said payroll.  But it’s good advice for any business.  And writing, my friends, is a business like any other.

So do what you do: write.  Pay somebody else to worry about the rest.

New York Times: ‘Police Stab Man To Death With Knife!!!’

Not really.  But sort of.

Yesterday the New York Times published a short article about a shooting in Indianapolis.  The online version originally bore the headline “Police Kill Armed Man With Knife in Indianapolis.”  After a flurry of comments alerting them to the obvious ambiguity of this title, the newspaper replaced the headline with the clearer, if clunkier, “Indianapolis Police Kill Man Who Had Knife.”

The actual facts of the situation involved a knife-wielding man who lunged at a police officer after the officer tried to subdue him using nonlethal force.  (Yeesh, that sentence was a mouthful too, wasn’t it?)

This is a teachable moment if there ever was one.  A Strunk & White moment, if you will.  The original headline, as the Times eventually realized, made it sound as if the Indianapolis police had stabbed a man to death with a knife, which was almost the opposite of what really happened.

It’s not that the sentence was technically grammatically incorrect: one could, if one were so inclined, read the prepositional phrase “with knife” as modifying the words “armed man” as opposed to the word “police.”  Which is a funny way of saying that it’s possible, if not plausible, to read that sentence as meaning what the Times intended it to mean: that the police killed a man who was armed with a knife.

We can probably ascribe the editors’ failure to use “Police Kill Man Armed With Knife” to overexposure to the sometimes over-simplistic sentence structure used in newspaper headlines.  One need only read one of those articles explaining a complex scientific concept using only common words to realize that, sometimes, dumbing down your language only makes an idea more obtuse.

That said, it’s a perfect example of why language matters, and why writers must write clearly.

If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that even the New York Times occasionally makes mistakes.

The Story Is Always About the Characters

I’ve been known to defend certain aspects of the Star Wars prequels.  Not because I think that they’re good films overall, but because there are certain parts of them, mostly involving setting, action, or small character quirks, that struck me as belonging in the Star Wars canon.  That is to say, certain aspects of the films, such as parts of Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi Wan, jibe with my own internal vision of the backstory of that character.  They seem to fit.  They seem like glimpses into what the prequels might have been had they been written and directed by someone who actually cared about Star Wars.

io9’s recent look back at Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up my feelings on that movie, in a way I’ve never really been able to express very well myself.  In short, they describe Clones as being, for the most part, just as bad as we all remember, a storytelling failure not redeemed by the one or two good moments of fan service we see on screen.

The message I really take from their review, however, is one I’ve been struggling to elucidate for some time: that the failure of Episode II and, by extension, the Star Wars prequels as a whole, is a failure of character.  The prequels prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that no amount of intriguing world-building, beautiful production design, or stunning action sequences can save a story that fails to bring its characters to life.

So wait, Jim.  Step back a minute.  What you’re saying here, really, is that character is important to storytelling?  Big reveal, dude.  You’re really jumping the shark, here.

Yes, what I’m saying is that character is important–vital–to storytelling.  But you already knew that.  What I think is interesting is finding such a great example of a story that should have worked, that had everything going for it, every reason to work, but completely screwed the pooch when it came time to deliver.

Sure, George Lucas had the burden of decades of fan expectations to deal with.  Yes, that’s a lot of pressure.  But what people often forget is that Lucas made the movies he wanted to make.  He’s never responded well to criticism of the prequels, and generally speaks dismissively of Star Wars fans.  He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s more concerned with how things look than how things feel.  To him, the saga is a soap opera, and he filmed it like one: a story purportedly about passion and heartbreak and betrayal that nonetheless fails almost completely to deliver the pathos of any of those emotions.

What Lucas wanted is what we got: a throwback to the sci-fi adventure serials of his youth, peppered with just enough superficial emotional motivation to propel the plot of the adventure forward.  It’s something that’s appealing to children, but not to adults, who crave real character arcs.

Had he endeavored to see it from the perspective of the people who enjoyed the original movies, he would have (or should have) realized that the films he was making couldn’t possibly have worked.

-Anakin-and-Padme-anakin-and-padme-31435845-813-1500
These are our passion faces.

Take io9’s example of the romantic relationship between Padme and Anakin:

As forced and muddled as the courtship between Anakin and Padme is, it’s obviously an essential piece of the overall puzzle of Star Wars. It’s a nice thing to see, but it’s just handled so terribly. “You are in my very soul tormenting me?” Really? It just sounds like robots talking. And why are you guys eating pears with forks and knives?

It i handled terribly.  The romantic scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman should be used in film school as an example of a lack of chemistry.  The actors are woodenly delivering lines, having been sapped by the bad writing and the directing of any emotional motivation to make the scene work.

Padme Amidala is supposed to be the entire reason Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.  At the very least, she is the proximate cause: his desire to save her from the death he envisions is the turning point for his character.  In order for that to make sense, for it to play for the audience, we have to believe it.  We have to buy that he loves her so much that he can’t imagine a world without her in it.  That unlike the average person dealing with the idea of loss, Skywalker sees the power to prevent it, and falls into the trap.  He falls to the dark side with the best intentions, but in this case, those intentions never really make any sense, because from the standpoint of the character as he’s portrayed on screen, the audience has absolutely no reason to believe that he actually believes any of it.  The viewer can’t buy what you can’t sell.

Plot and character may be unavoidably intertwined with most stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the plot serve the characters rather than the other way around.

Writing character is a question of empathy: can you, as the writer, put yourself in the shoes of the character you’re writing, so that the character’s emotional responses to the stimuli around them come off as fully realized.  There’s no substitute for running a character through the filter of real human emotion.

There may be some writers out there who can create authentic seeming characters completely dispassionately, but if there are I don’t know of them.  If you can’t see the world through your character’s eyes, at least imaginatively, and feel at least a small flicker of what they must be feeling in the situation you’ve placed them in, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

And that’s where Lucas failed as a writer with the prequels: he couldn’t sell the defining relationship.  As io9 puts it:

Then it happens. The biggest leap in the history of Star Wars. On the brink of death, Padme confesses her love for Anakin. It’s so out of left field, even in the movie the character of Anakin is surprised to hear it. “I truly, deeply, love you,” she says. Too bad we barely get that sense before that. I couldn’t help but laugh that Lucas made the decision to have Anakin act so shocked. It almost feels like an admission he wasn’t sure how to get the characters to this point, but had to, and here it is.

You might be able to get away with the equivalent of “And then something happens” when it comes to plot, but you’ll never get away with it with character.  The beauty of fiction is that you can get the reader, or the viewer, to believe and accept almost anything if you can sell the characters’ responses to those stories.  If the characters clearly believe it, if they act and think and feel in a way that reflects humanity and emotional logic, then your reader won’t have any trouble suspending their disbelief when it comes to interstellar spaceships or unlikely plot developments.  The reverse is not true.

The story is always about the characters.

‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’ Now Updated Every Tuesday and Thursday

The Doktors SpyglassAfter doing a bit of research and reconsidering my writing process, I’ve decided to change the way I’m serializing The Doktor’s Spyglass.

Instead of a whole chapter every two weeks to a month, I’ll be updating it biweekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays with smaller sections of writing.

This way you’ll get more story, more often, which is how Wattpad readers in particular seem to like it.

You can read The Doktor’s Spyglass for free on Wattpad.com.

Religion in ‘The Book of Ever’

Richard Wright, the author of Native Sononce said:

The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life.

Where does the writer end and the writing begin?  To some extent every artist puts some of himself, of his or her own life, into his work.  Sometimes this is intentional.  More often, it is an unavoidable side effect of living and being an artist.  It’s certainly true for me.  I’ve discovered that writing is an intensely personal process for me: my ability to write successfully, such as it is, is intimately tied to my own life experience.  As Wright says, imagination serves as a glue and emotion as a designer, but the stuff of writing is memory and observation.  I suspect this is true of most writers.

It goes without saying, therefore, that there is much of me in my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever.  In some ways, that reflection is literal: the book is set in New England, where I grew up and still live.  In other ways–in most ways, really–that reflection is thematic.  And one of the major themes of the novel is the question of faith.

The main character, Ever, is a young woman who grew up in a deeply religious community, one who managed to survive the apocalypse by remaining insular and holding true to a firm set of beliefs.  During her journey through the story, she often relies heavily on her faith in God to make decisions and maintain hope and determination.

More than a few readers of Exile have commented (with uniform courtesy and general acceptance) that they were surprised by the religious elements of the novel.  The simple presence of a religious theme seemed unexpected to them.  This isn’t surprising to me, and in fact is comforting in a way: I didn’t write the book for a religious audience, and as I’m currently not religious myself, I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a Christian writer.  I was pleased and flattered to see that my intent had, for the most part, succeeded: readers seem to see Ever’s faith as a part of her character, a driving force and a motivation.

Another theme of the book, and one I hope I conveyed adequately, is that all is not as it seems: that our reality is, in the end, defined primarily by our current perception and understanding, and that these things naturally change as we go through life.  Ever has faith, but by the end of the novel, hopefully it is clear that her exposure to the larger world and her experiences in it have begun to change her.

Faith is a journey that has no end except death, at which point, hopefully, our questions are answered one way or the other.  I was raised Roman Catholic.  I went to Catholic school for 13 years.  For most of my young adult life, I identified as an atheist.  Over the last few years, that atheism grew into something I like to call, tongue firmly in cheek, spiritual agnosticism.

I’m in the process of writing up an account of my long, strange, spiritual trip, but here’s the punchline: about a year and a half ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to join the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  I was baptized, attended for over a year, and went through their temple ordinances.

I am no longer a Mormon (thank all of the many, many Mormon gods, thank Krishna, thank Christ).

Why?  The short answer is because, at the end of the day, I couldn’t force myself to knowingly participate in a cultish church whose doctrines are not only intolerant but batshit insane.

Religious belief for me is a bit like an electron: hard to pin down, and changed innately by the act of observation.  If you asked me what my religious beliefs were, I’d say that the most accurate description of me would probably be that I’m an atheist.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and as soon as I define it the questions return to swirling around in their cloud.  Suffice it to say for now, however, that my long-held, shortly-retired, recently-reacquired viewpoint on organized religion is generally negative.

I think my readers are going to be very surprised by the direction Ever’s spiritual journey takes in The Book of Ever.

Write a Letter.

Poetry and Potatoes

It’s hard to talk about liking poetry without coming off as an affected douchebag.  Unless, that is, you hang out at the type of parties I don’t get invited to.  But the truth is, there’s not a lot of love for poetry in the modern United States, an assertion I feel comfortable making given the evidence that it’s next to impossible to support yourself as a working poet.  Ask your average person what poetry is and you’ll likely get an answer lying somewhere on a spectrum between dirty limericks and the one Shakespearean sonnet their English teacher made them read in high school.

Mark Lawrence had some interesting things to say recently about the allegation (from a fan) that his writing was not poetic:

A well-known blogger who liked Prince of Thorns very much told me that he didn’t think my prose was at all poetic. It turns out that to him poetic prose is prose with lots of curls and twiddles, prose with endless description, flowers and clouds a la Wordsworth’s famous daffodils.

I do write poetic prose. No question about it. But I’m more of the Philip Larkin school. I also write actual poetry, but poetic prose is a different beast, it’s poetry diluted to taste.

Poetic prose, done right, is about wringing more out of a single line.

The idea that the adjective “poetic,” when referring to prose, might be meant as a criticism is enough to cork most English professors’ merlot.  But in the aforementioned blogger’s defense, that’s probably a common enough viewpoint these days.

I think the discord comes not from a genuine dislike of poetry, but from a popular misunderstanding of what good poetry is.  (Here’s where the affected douchebag bit comes in; as if I know better, right?)  I’m no expert, but speaking as someone who does occasionally read and write poetry, I feel like the major disconnect is due to the fact that those who don’t read or strongly dislike poetry think of poetry in terms of the worst Romantic frippery.  If you think of poetry in terms of Wordsworth and Shelley, it’s understandable why you’d think of “poetic prose” as being something purple and overdone.  You might not think of the sparseness of Hemingway or the bold economy of words in a Mark Lawrence novel as being poetic, but they are–in the best way.

One of my favorite poems is The Simple Truth by Philip Levine, written in 1995:

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

The irony is that the simple way of saying things has become poetry over the last century.  Upon first reading, a poem like the above might irk you–its simplicity is blatant, like an abstract expressionist painting.  But the power of the words and the story it tells, the feelings it evokes, stay with you.  That’s what art is, isn’t it?  Something that produces an emotional response?  If Levine had used flowery language and ornate metaphor, the impact would have been lost.  As it is we have a simple truth: beauty lies most often in restraint.

Agent Coulson and Tragic Irony

Joss Whedon’s comments on the difficulty of bringing Agent Coulson back from the dead for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but not having him appear in The Avengers: Age of Ultron have been big news in the geekosphere for the past few days.

We could talk for hours about the difficulties with continuity in an ever-expanding shared universe the size of the MCU, not to mention the fact that Whedon himself was involved in the decision to bring Coulson back and now seems to regret it, but what really interests me is this: is it really such a bad thing?

Here’s what Whedon had to say:

“As far as I’m concerned, in this movie, Coulson’s dead. If you come back in the sequel and say Coulson’s alive, it’s like putting f***ing John Gielgud in the sequel to ‘Arthur.’ It mattered that he’s gone. It’s a different world now. And you have to run with that.”

I get what he’s saying.  It makes sense.  The whole point of killing off Coulson, who had been a vital character throughout all of the Phase One MCU movies, was to unite the Avengers.  His death motivated them to put aside their differences and work as a team to solve the problems of the day.  Bringing him back from the dead creates problems within the world and outside of it.  In-world, the Avengers discovering that Coulson’s death was faked undermines team spirit that the event helped create.  And from an external, story-teller’s perspective, suddenly bringing him back to life cheapens his sacrifice for the audience.

But given that this bell has been rung, why not see if we can’t make the best of the situation.  The idea that Coulson’s death was faked does work, given the established nature of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole–they’re spooks.  They manipulate people to get what they want.  Staging a tragedy just to get a bunch of superhumans to band together and save the earth is just what Nick Fury would do if he had to.  So it makes sense for the universe.

But I feel cheated, you say.  They told me he was dead.  They made my transparent aluminum nerd eyes shine with misty feels.  I feel betrayed that it was all a sham.  They will suffer.  Whedon must suffer.  I will blog the shit out of my discontent.

Isn’t just as tragic, albeit in a different way, if Coulson did live, but all of the heroes he helped create remain unaware of it?  Whedon’s obviously put the kibosh on revealing Coulson’s survival to the Avengers, at least in Age of Ultron.  So Thor, Iron Man, Cap and friends aren’t going to see their buddy Phil again anytime soon.  As far as they know, he died with Loki’s scepter through his chest just before the Battle of New York.  How much more nagging is that sense of loss for the viewer if they know the whole time, having watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that Phil’s hale and hearty and going about business as usual?

How does that feel for Coulson?  He’s not as cynical as Fury; he’s Captain America, not Tony Stark.  How heartbreaking would it be to know that a group of people that by this point you’d have to consider friends think you’re dead, and that your death hit them so hard they put aside some pretty ingrained differences to avenge your ass?  Wouldn’t you, as the viewer, feel both sides of that loss?  Wouldn’t the Avengers’ ignorance, and Coulson’s regret, come off as kind of a twisted, tragic joke?

I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s an angle that I haven’t seen anyone else consider as of yet.  What do you think?  Does this make sense, or am I grasping at straws?