Here's why 2020 has been so wonderful
OK. So, yeah. It's been generally pretty crappy. I can run off a long list of reasons, and your list might be more generous. However, the world spins, the sun rises, and people laugh. Seems to me that's a recipe for hope.
Here then are a few reasons (personally and globally) why 2020 has been, on balance, a positive experience.
1/ We aren't complacent anymore. All those years of warnings from epidemiologists about the dangers of a lethal new virus? Mostly, they went unheard and unheeded. Most of us now know much more about viral contagions and public health issues. (Ignore the conspiracy theorists. All societies have a vocal contingent of village idiots.)
2/ Even in the darkest of times, money can be made. Lots of it, apparently. Just ask all the billionaires who have fattened their wallets.
3/ The written word is more powerful than ever (and I'm not referring to presidential tweets). I'm heartened that important, mainstream media sources (New York Times, Washington Post, and others where quality journalism matters) have seen huge growth in their subscription numbers. Moreover, people are reading books at a fantastic rate. I'm thrilled that I was able to finish The Impossible Series this year and see steady growth in readership. I'm excited about what's next.
4/ Amid all the challenges, this nation rose up and voted like never before (more than 20 million more voters than four years ago). Best yet, they voted for a hopeful future. (Again, ignore the conspiracy theorists. Some people stop growing up after they turn thirteen.)
And for the sake of argument, here are some other nifty developments: "The Mandalorian"; sports without fans (not as bad as I expected); the rise of Sarah Cooper (YouTube her, peeps!); toilet paper hoarding (pathetic but funny); "The Queen's Gambit"; Microsoft Teams and Zoom (how else to do remote school?); Baby Yoda toys (nothing says "awww" like a dose of the baby); and a new sink in Casa Kennedy (no, really - this is a big deal).
The saga ends, new saga begins
The last couple of years have been a haze at time, as I pushed through books two through four of The Impossible Future in between work hours of my day job. Writing the final pages of the final chapter, The Promised Few, in early August was strangely bittersweet. I spent so much time focusing on reaching the summit that by the time I planted the flag, I realized I might not have appreciated the journey to the extent I should have.
Nonetheless, launch month is here, and now it's time to turn to the world of marketing and advertising. The final week of the month will be a telling sign of the future, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the reading public responds. I'm cheering for a big boost, but that also puts the pressure on to get back to work building the next saga.
The next few months will bring new stories - large and small - and a slew of new characters, but all within the Collectorate universe of The Impossible Future. If things go well, I'm aiming to produce one short story per month. Maybe they will motivate me to write this blog more than once a season!
A super-quick "journey"
I'm not sure a quarterly blog is a particularly effective style of communication. I must (and will) do better. Sometimes, the journey (as a writer, a teacher, a gardener, and a bewildered observer of this utterly surreal world) can be taxing, to say the least. Every day I see countless topics worthy of commentary, but far too many seem like a poor fit for a site featuring a writer of fiction. Plus, I must bite my tongue every time I want to delve into a political rant. However, here are a couple of observations that seem relevant:
1/ I suspect the sub-genre for pandemic thrillers is probably going to go bust. I doubt the fear factor inherit in those books will seem quite as, oh, FEARFUL anymore. Those writers might as well do their research and switch over to non-fiction. Think of it like this: Folks who write tales of alien first contact had best hope that's not the next epic headline. Yikes. On the other hand, if the aliens are hostile, they'll blow us to silly little bits and none of it will matter a wit.
2/ I think we all know that as technological conveniences have ramped up our ability to do more work in less time, to get where we want to go in less time, and to deliver products we bought online to our doorstep within a day or two, we have a tendency to become impatient with aspects of life's journey that maybe we used to take in stride. There's an old saw that says life is about the journey, not the destination; but we have clearly become destination-centric. Gotta have it, gotta have it now. I think about this because, as I write Book 4 in The Impossible Future series, humanity (in another universe) stands on the brink of a huge technological leap that might allow instantaneous transportation between any two designated points in the galaxy. Gotta be there, gotta be there now! On the surface, the idea seems cool. Want to take a trip to the third planet of Proxima Centauri? Step inside the machine, my friend, and you'll be there in all of thirty seconds.
But would it be cool? Aside from all those dumb Earthers spreading their (name your virus) to the fine folks of Proxima III (and eventually wiping them out), imagine the military potential here. Anytime, anywhere. No warning whatsoever. Frightening, to say the least. But from a dramatic standpoint, very cool indeed.
A satisfying conclusion (?)
In the interest of avoiding the current topic which is dominating global headlines and is something of a buzzkill, let's have a little fun. My last post (a whole three months ago) was Star Wars-related, so let's keep the joy going.
I have previously mentioned my affection for the series and my anticipation for the conclusion, The Rise of Skywalker. Seems like that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Doesn't it, though? Disney rolled out the digital release sooner than expected, which has allowed me to revisit the film and put it into perspective vis a vis the previous eight. In short, I'm pleased with where we ended up 42 years after the saga began. NOTE: Huge spoilers ahead. But if you're reading this, and you care, you've already seen this flick multiple times.
ROS was not without its glaring flaws (anyone with a discerning eye or brain can pick apart all nine, truth be told), and J.J. Abrams packed a wallop of a story into less than 2.5 hours, which did make it feel a bit rushed at times. But three elements stay with me that call to the success of the final episode.
1/ We end where we began (i.e. with A New Hope), and the Skywalker name permeates to the final line. Rey can carry on the mantle if she desires, but even if this story means peace for the galaxy and an opportunity for the last Jedi to take early retirement, the great spiritual and political challenges of the saga have been resolved.
2/ I love how J.J. managed to bring us Luke, Leia, and Han in meaningful roles (even if cameos) in a way that felt right. Seriously, did anyone truly believe the big three were going to survive this latest trilogy (with or without Carrie Fisher's passing)? Each made a sacrifice for the greater good to move the galaxy forward. Purpose served.
3/ Rey as the granddaughter of Palpatine and as a Force Dyad with Ben Solo works for me. It explains her mysterious origin story from The Force Awakens and her staggering (and stunning) ability to use the Force. Like with Luke, she was pushed to her limits in order to avoid the dark side of her nature.
Only wee little complaint that I wish were answered (and I'm not alone here): How did Palpatine and his creepy Siths-in-shadow build that massive fleet with planet-killing ability without anyone in the New Republic finding out? This is where space opera requires a wink and a nod and shouldn't be taken so damn seriously. Also, revealing that Palpatine was actually a clone (the movie novelization tells us this) would have helped answer the question of how he "survived" the destruction of the second Death Star.
Quibbles. No more. I'm satisfied.
This is the way ...
My last blog focused on my long history with Star Wars, and how the original film sparked my imagination. I talked of my anticipation for Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. While I did enjoy the conclusion of the saga (it had pacing issues but packed many great emotional beats), something else happened since that last blog. Specifically, a little project on Disney+ called The Mandalorian.
I must admit I went into this with trepidation, not even sure it would be worth my time. Now, several weeks later, with the eight-episode first season concluded, I can say that I have watched every episode at least three times. (Nerd alert!) The finale received a fourth viewing this morning. Very simply, I haven't been this excited about the franchise in a long, long time. Judging from the reaction across the internet, apparently many people agree.
I could go on and on about Baby Yoda, a character so adorable he'll melt even the most hardened hearts. Instead, I think what excites me about this series (returning in fall 2020) is that it brings the Star Wars universe back to the basics. A compelling story with a few characters who we are given time to know and love (or hate), vivid worlds that take us beyond the familiar sites of the Skywalker saga, and a sharp-witted sense of humor that reminds us we are supposed to be having A GOOD TIME watching these stories. And the production values are top-notch cinema quality.
The Star Wars universe is populated by thousands of worlds with infinite story possibilities. We'll soon be seeing other live-action series featuring Obi-Wan Kenobi and a prequel series to Rogue One featuring Cassian Andor. Is it possible that it's time for the movies to end? I'm thinking ... maybe.
42 years in the making
Where do my ideas come from? Perhaps that's not the best question.
When did my imagination take flight? Now, that's more appropriate.
I can tell you the month and year when my flights of fancy were triggered: June 1977. I lived in New Bern, North Carolina, a nice little town along the Neuse and Trent Rivers. The Sun-Journal newspaper (still in operation but probably as doomed as most local papers) was a critical outlet to what was happening in the world. One of my favorite pages was the entertainment page, which included a daily TV grid and the ads for movies playing and coming soon.
The movie in question: Star Wars. (At the time, no episode title.) The movie had been out a few weeks and seemed to be taking the country by storm (as much as anyone might have noticed such things pre-Internet). Our little town, which had two movie theaters for a total of three screens, didn't pick up the big-tent films right away. Then life changed. Forever.
The antiquated Tryon Theater, a relic built in the early 20th century (I'm sure it was around before talkies arrived) was playing Star Wars exclusively. I arrived as a 14-year-old with no expectations. A woman with one foot in the grave and a cigarette butt an inch long took my ticket. The Tryon was almost as old as her.
Armed with soda and popcorn, I took a seat near the rear. What happened next etched itself in my memory. I'm still there today. The music, the crawl, the Imperial star destroyer chasing the blockade runner above Tatooine. And away we went, jaw displaced on the floor.
I went back five more times. I know every line, every beat of that film. I've taught it in ELA classes as examples of the heroes journey. And on December 20, I will be watching Episode IX: The Rise of SkyWalker with two teacher friends who have a shared experience from childhood. The saga will end. Forty-two years of one story. OK, so not every film has been great, and only The Empire Strikes Back matches of exceeds the original. But that's beside the point.
The boy is still there. And the boy hasn't lost his imagination. The boy is still telling stories and has no plans to stop these petty pursuits.
The bigger, the better?
Forty. That's how many worlds exist in the Collectorate, which is featured in my Impossible Future series and in The Father Unbound. Earth is at the center, thirty-nine colonies under her dominion. Until recently, I didn't know most of them even by name. Then I got thinking: What's life like on all those worlds where I haven't yet told stories? What amazing possibilities rest on those worlds for all manner of adventures once the current series is complete?
So, taking a cue from my imagination and Wikipedia, I have embarked on a months-long (at least) deep-dive into the Collectorate, building a digital catalog tracking every world - its history, culture, environmental and resources, government, economics, and so on. One thing that is becoming clear right off: Creating a world from scratch is a daunting enough effort. Times forty? Yeehaw, I'm truly bonkers.
However, I tell myself this will produce a fountain of story possibilities for years, maybe decades - so long as I don't get tired of it and move on to another universe.
Eventually, I'll add the Worlds of the Collectorate page to the website, but if you're reading here, you can get a sneak peek at what has only just begun (click on Earth). I'm hoping some of my readers will embark on this mission with me. It should be a fascinating ride.
And then there were two
The Risen Gods officially took flight today - August 23. The first reviews to come in have been enthusiastic, and I hope to see more in the coming weeks. In the past, I would have relaxed for a while, contemplating the next book I might eventually get around to. Not this time.
School begins Monday, but I refuse to slow down on the writing. Book 3 is well underway, with a couple of surprising character moments in the opening chapters. My target to finish is December, with release sometime during winter. It's now a business.
However, finishing this second book in a series is only possible because I refused to give up on my childhood dream of writing novels. Of going to the stars. Of deciding that it's OK to remain a child at heart. I was certain this was the path when I was in my teens; but had anyone told me these stories wouldn't see the light of day for forty years, I'm sure I would have packed in those dreams. (Yet another reason for having no knowledge of the future.)
Back to the writing. Sam has just made two new friends. This isn't going to end well.
Time travel, the cop-out
Time travel is fun until it's not. Often, it's a lazy attempt by a writer to unwind a stubborn knot in the story . Outside of Doctor Who, time travel more often than not proves to be an epic fail. Yet I can't think of a sillier rendition of it than what I saw this summer in Avengers: Endgame. If you are a fan of the Marvel universe, You probably cheered and cried for the epic conclusion of what 19 or so movies have been leading toward. You probably also ignored the ridiculous ramifications of this film's central plot device: Time travel. (Note: If you haven't seen the film you probably never will, which is why I'm going to spoil it here. Second note: I'm not an MCU fanatic and am at best a casual watcher).
In short: Big bad Thanos wipes out half of all living things in the universe (that's 3.8 billion humans, give or take). Good guys lose. How to fix it? Go back in time and make sure it never happened. Five years pass. A solution appears. But a few are selfish: I'll help you do this but I get to keep the family I've gained in the past five years. End result: Everyone (and thing) returns five years after vanishing. All of a sudden, half the Earth's population pops back into existence. The film ignores the chaotic, disastrous results of such a reality (did people who vanished while on airplanes reappear in mid-air and plummet to their second deaths?). Imagine all those scenes of: "Hey, honey, I'm home. ... Honey? Who's this woman? Whose baby is that?" Ruh-roh.
I've been tempted to play with time myself, but never to reset a plot. When I have used it (usually altering events by fractions of a second), I don't shy away from showing the disastrous consequences (the end of The Last Everything). If you really want to see the devastating consequences of time travel in action, please binge the stunning, intricate, and incredibly absorbing Dark on Netflix. You'll be glad you did.
Now. I will go back in time and delete this blog entry for something more interesting. (You can do that, too. Just pretend you never read this. No, really. It works.)
Beginnings and endings
How do opening and closing lines make us feel? Does the beginning set unrealistic expectations of what's to come? Does the final line require a level of drama commensurate with what came before? And if it doesn't accomplish this, does it take the wind out of the novel?
You can find lists of the so-called greatest opening and closing lines in history. Just Google them. People qualified (and not) have their own takes. If you're looking for any answers here, look again. I will say this: I do have a tendency (like many writers, I'm sure) to redo the opening lines many times before achieving satisfaction. Really, that's all one can hope. I've stopped trying to find that perfect remedy to hooking a reader. As long as the intrigue on page one is sufficient to push the reader along to page two, then the job is done. Next up is page 2's responsibility to carry the load. As for endings? These I don't tend to beat myself up about. For one, if I got you that far, I must have done something right. Two, I want you to feel satisfied with the total piece. It would be like if you watched a two-hour film and focused all your rage, frustration, or unbridled joy on the final image at the expense of the complete work.
I prefer to think of opening and closings as lines that validate the tone I'm trying to set in the moment, and nothing more. With Book 2 of The Impossible Future series coming out in August, I thought I'd post the first and last lines of books 1 and 2. They are not spoiler-ish, but they do reflect a different tone. And boy, these two books are nothing alike.
From The Last Everything's beginning: Marlena Sheridan brought one son and one monster to this version of Earth because the fool she married sought adventure. The ending: A wash of golden, late-day sunlight cut through the forest. The dust cloud disappeared.
From The Risen Gods' beginning: Jamie Sheridan sensed his humanity peeling away like thin sheets of sun-ravaged skin. The ending: “I’m coming for you, dude. Get my speed?”