On loss of love

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted in such quick succession without announcing a new book or short story, but I feel it’s warranted. Bear with me, because this is personal, the same as the other day.

Ending a relationship is, in a sense, little different from losing a loved one. In both cases, there’s a hole left in your heart, one that can never truly be filled again. It’s one more person you won’t get a chance to see, to talk to, to listen to. One more person you can’t share with. Your feelings, your experiences, your doubts and fears and hopes and dreams, they all have to remain unsaid, at least as far as that person is concerned.

To go through both sorts of loss in such a short span might be too much for one man to take. Especially if that man is me.

For the first time in my life, I could admit to a woman that I loved her. For the first time in many years, I felt happy, at peace, like the dark clouds that had shadowed my life for so long were lifting, letting the sun shine down upon me once again. And then the moment ended.

Oh, it lasted for a few glorious months, but the signs of strain started to show back in October. A mere two days after my birthday, in fact. From then until the week of Christmas, I feel we drifted apart, but I just wasn’t ready to state what was becoming increasingly obvious. And then I did, in the first letter (okay, it was an email, but you get the idea) I’d sent in a very long time. In it, I laid it all bare, or I tried to.

I…was in love. I think I still am. Over the last three weeks or so, we started talking again, but the strain was still there. “Confusion” was the word she used, and I was indeed confused. I knew what I wanted, and I thought I had a chance to get it, if only I tried hard enough, if only things worked out in just the right way.

For me, they never do.

I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or karma in the cosmic sense. With everything I’ve suffered throughout my life, I just can’t. All that pain, trauma, loneliness, and despair, if there were any justice in this world, should have been balanced out by something decent by now, something more than a few months of joy. As for the idea that all this was preordained, well, I don’t fancy the idea of being cast in a tragedy of unrequited love and a crippling depression that drives me to ever increasing lengths to find “the one” I’m meant to find. Save that for the stories.

I love Avantasia’s The Scarecrow. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. And I can’t help but feel sympathy for the main character of this metal opera. He’s been broken by the world; so have I. He wants nothing more than to find happiness; so do I. The opening line of the title track is such an apt description of me that it almost brings me to tears just to type it here: “I’m just a loser in a game of love.” That line rings so true it’s scary.

This time, I thought I had won something. And I guess you could say I did, in the sense that I won a reprieve, a temporary respite from the heartache. But now it’s back, because she’s gone.

I don’t blame her. I only blame myself. I couldn’t improve myself to the point I needed to reach in the time allotted to me. I couldn’t overcome all the obstacles in my path. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. My mother, for one, believes that I shouldn’t shoulder all the burden or blame. But…I can’t see any other logical explanation. True, things like love, romance, passion, and desire aren’t logical. They aren’t rational. But the man I am can only look at them through such a lens, and here I am lost.

I’m proud of a lot of moments in what I’m calling my second ever relationship. Thanks to her, I grew as a person, as a man, and even as a writer. I had someone to offer the emotional support I needed, and that improved my disposition greatly. I won’t say she cured my depression, but she certainly alleviated it to the point where I could feel something other than angst or emptiness. For that, I can only thank her, because her affection and attention may have even saved my life. (That may be an exaggeration. At my age, though, and in the mental state I’ve occupied for the past few years, I never know what, if anything, will finally tip me over the edge.)

So I have now loved and lost, as the saying goes. Right now, I can’t say that’s better than having never loved at all. The wound is still too fresh, too raw. In time, it will heal, I know. Tonight, I want nothing more than to send her a text or voice message or even a video full of apologies and pleas. Tomorrow, I may feel differently. But I’ll never forget. How can I? How can anyone forget their first love, even if it doesn’t come until the age of 36?

A long time ago, I calculated that I had, at most, three chances at finding a lasting relationship in my lifetime. I thought this based on a few factors. One, I don’t consider myself physically attractive; I’d rate myself a 3 or 4, and you can’t chalk all of that up to insecurity. Two, I’m a self-described geek, which I, thanks to years of bullying in school, would call another mark against me. Three, I’m not rich, and (barring an almost miraculous occurrence) I never will be. At my age, the pool of potential partners is already low. Who I am only drains it further. Add in the fact that I’m not interested in casual hookups, I don’t want to be a friend “with benefits”, and I would never (due to personal preference) enter into a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t biologically female, and there are only so many possibilities.

Well, I feel I’ve racked up two strikes thus far. Maybe the third time’s a charm. Maybe I’ll get a do-over on this one. Or maybe fate really is a thing, and I’m destined to be alone forever. I can’t say for sure. All I can do is keep working, keep trying to make myself the best I can be, and hope I’m good enough.

No hard feelings, because it’s not her fault. No, I must instead thank her, if only because so many songs now make so much sense. I’ll close with an appropriate lyric from one of them, Shinedown’s “Call Me”:

Call me a sinner, call me a saint
Tell me it’s over, I’ll still love you the same
Call me your favorite, call me the worst
Tell me it’s over, I don’t want you to hurt
It’s all that I can say
So I’ll be on my way

On love and loss

My uncle passed away earlier this week, a mere two days after his 68th birthday. Some knew him as a musical prodigy, a legend in the behind-the-scenes world of Nashville country. Others knew him as the guitarist sitting there after church, telling stories for hours. Or the friendly and helpful truck driver with the perfect safety record. Or something more notorious, which I’m not yet ready to discuss.

To me, however, he was just Uncle Eddy.

I knew him in a way few others did. I was his nephew, but he often treated me like his own son, as well as his friend and confidant. We lived in the same house (rather, mobile home) for three years. After that, I still saw him often, though my visits necessarily grew less frequent. As his health worsened, I would only see him about once a month, and that was for two reasons. First, a lack of transportation meant that I didn’t always have a way to get to him. Even if I wanted to see him, to talk to him in person, I didn’t have that opportunity as often as I would have liked.

The second (and more important, in my opinion) reason is that, well, I just couldn’t stand to see him that way. It was frustrating, because I share his generous spirit, his empathy for all. To see my uncle lying in a bed, unable to stand, to walk, and eventually to eat or speak, broke my heart. Combining with that were my repeated attempts to cajole him into action, recuperation, or even just to finish what was on his plate.

All of those inevitably failed. He grew sicker, frailer, weaker, and…that took its toll on me, too. As I watched my uncle’s physical health decline, my mental health followed the same trajectory. How could it not? I gave advice; it was ignored. With my preexisting lack of self-esteem, I could only see it in one light: I failed him. And I won’t deny that I lashed out a few times. I did because I love my family, and I want only the best for all of them. But I sometimes feel as though they don’t understand that I’m only trying to help, which just makes me angry. You spend decades telling me that I’m the smartest person you’ve ever known, yet you won’t listen when I explain what’s wrong and give you a way to fix it? More than anything, I think that contributed to my deepening depression.

But it really wasn’t my uncle’s fault. I recognize that now. At many points during his decline, he was not in his right mind. At other times, those who cared for him, whether family and friends or professionals, interfered. Understanding that, making myself realize that I did the best I could, is part of the healing process.

That process has only just begun, and I can’t say how long it will take, where it will end. I cope by writing, so I’ll be doing that for a couple of weeks, at least. And maybe what comes out of it won’t be the best story I’ve ever created, but it will help. It will help me get over this loss that strikes so close to my heart. It will give me an outlet for my grief, so I won’t take it out on those I love. Because they don’t need any further pain. They’ve been through enough already.


Thank you for reading. Before I go, I want to share a couple of links with you.

As always, you can also support me (and, by extension, my family) by joining my Patreon or purchasing my books on Amazon. Again, I thank you.

A decade in review

Wow. We’re just hours away from the year 2020. In my childhood, that was always the future. I knew I’d see 2000 before I became an adult, so my eyes were set on a more distant goal. One that is now upon us.

Back then, I had a pretty good idea of how things would be in this coming decade, and…not one of them has come true. I don’t have a flying car, or a personal spacecraft, or a wife and kids. People don’t live on the moon, there hasn’t been a manned mission to Mars. There’s no cure for cancer or AIDS or even the common cold.

But the biggest change of all from how my younger self saw the future is that I’m an author. Thirty years ago, I wanted to be a doctor. Twenty, and I thought I could be a scientist. At the start of this decade, I assumed I could make a living off repairing computers. At no point did I ever expect that I would spend so much of my time writing fiction. It wasn’t until 2012 that I seriously considered it. Thanks to depression, a lack of drive, and far too many family problems, I’ve somehow become what I never thought possible, and…I’m content with that. Maybe not happy, but I’ve long since learned that true happiness is not something I’ll ever find. So this will have to do.

Ten years of writing…or more

Technically, my first piece of fiction came in 1992. It was nothing special, just some school assignment where I had to write a two-page story for some kind of Earth Day thing. I hated it, and still somehow got judged one of the best in the class. At the time, I just wanted it to be over.

Later, in high school, I wrote a bit of nonfiction. Again, I had an English assignment where I was singled out for having the highest grade, a situation I still, two decades later, can’t figure out for the life of me. In my free time, however, I actually did begin a couple of extended technical works. One involved teaching assembly language by way of creating a toy operating system, while the other was…something to do with Java, maybe? I was big into Java in the early 2000s, I remember that much.

At the end of the last decade, I started another “popular” technical book, this time on conlangs. Worlds Within Words is its name, and I’ve seriously considered going back and finishing it. Not many people have written a full book-length tutorial on creating a language, after all.

But the past ten years have been, for me, the decade of writing. I tried Nanowrimo for the first time in 2010, but I failed. The story wasn’t too bad, really. Set in 1876, it was a cross between a western and The Walking Dead. Nowadays, I would consider it a part of my paranormal universe, so…yeah, I could see myself returning to it one of these days. Maybe I’ll get more than 3 chapters done, right?

After that failure, I didn’t try my hand again at fiction for a couple of years. My grandfather’s stroke, and the complications that led to his death, stopped me from doing a second Nanowrimo in 2011. Instead, I had to wait another year. But that’s when things got real. For 2012, I had an idea, a plan, a story. The 50,000-word goal for the month went down with some difficulty—I distinctly remember staying in my room on Thanksgiving, struggling to get a chapter done.

The streak

The 16 chapters I wrote in November 2012 became the first quarter of Heirs of Divinity, which I still need to edit, revise, and release one of these days. It’s not exactly my best work (it was my first completed story, so of course it’s unpolished), but I truly believe the setting, plot, and characters all have potential. This one’s a kind of historical fantasy, my first attempt at the genre-bending I’ve made my trademark.

I placed this one in Europe, 1737. The very center of one of my favorite eras, because the Enlightenment, to me, is the most important time in human history. And that shows in the text. Heirs of Divinity is a struggle to understand the world, a fight between the nascent study of the sciences and the old forces of religion that seek to keep their hold on knowledge and power. And lying in the shadows is magic, mostly forgotten, if not repressed, but still lurking in the hearts and minds of some. All in all, this was an epic novel, in both length and scope, and I’ll freely admit that I bit off more than I could chew. But I did it. I wrote a 700-page doorstop over the course of some 9 months.

And that was only the beginning. Since then, I have not failed at either writing 50,000 words or completing a story (or even both!) in the month of November.

Fresh off my success with Heirs, I noticed on the calendar that Nanowrimo 2013 was coming up soon. What would I do for an encore?

My baby

In the summer of 2013, I created a setting. Originally, it was intended to be nothing more than a linguistic playground, a chance to make a set of interrelated conlangs and maybe dabble in some alternate history. “Hardcore” worldbuilding, as I’ve termed it. There just wasn’t a story in there, at least not in my original plans.

That changed as November neared. What if I did write a story in this fantasy-like world? So, as the days ticked down, I polished the setting, removing most of the fantasy elements (but keeping the idea of magic as a cultural aspect), and I searched for a way to make something out of it. Thus was born the Otherworld.

The impetus for the setting was, in fact, the cancellation of Stargate Universe in 2011, after only 2 seasons. I didn’t like the show at first (it was a poor replacement for SG-1 and Atlantis, in my opinion), but it grew on me when its second season became more serious. The episodes “Common Descent” and “Epilogue” profoundly affected me, and stayed in the back of my mind for over 2 years. When I started thinking about languages, and the possibility of a world inhabited by humans that hadn’t been in contact with Earth for centuries, if not millennia, I could only think back to a show killed before its time.

A lot of Otherworld has its origins in what I guess you could call my take on a Stargate setting. The inhabitants of Talac are descended from humans transported there some 10,000 years ago via a wormhole created by an unknown, yet highly advanced, civilization on Earth. But I went overboard. My creation is intended to be scientifically rigorous, from racial evolution to astronomy and even to food. Sure, the mechanism by which the humans arrived in the other world is a handwave, as are the conditions that made it habitable in the first place, but nothing else really is. In fact, I’ve spent years carefully scrutinizing archaeology papers relating to the first inhabitants of the Americas, because I want to know if something breaks my assumptions. As yet, nothing really has. Except for being totally impossible, Otherworld is possible.

The list goes on

I wrote the first Otherworld story for Nanowrimo 2013. It didn’t get a title until years later, when I named it Out of the Past. In early 2014, I even made sequels, because those were intended all along. The book was supposed to be the pilot of a series (another nod to my inspiration). The next two and a half are the only stories I’ve ever scrapped, because they were…bad. Slower than even my usual writing, and they just didn’t feel fun. I’ve always said that I want to write stories I’d like to read, and I didn’t like reading Episodes 2-4. So I threw them out.

Not much else happened until late in 2014. Again, November rolled around. Again, I had an idea. My cousin passed away in January of that year, one of the factors leading to my depression. I often dreamed of him, some of the most vivid dreams of my life, and that eventually gave me the idea of a story about experiencing and controlling dreams. I’ll also give credit to Sword Art Online for this one, because my brother watched it while I played games on his PC. (Mine just wasn’t good enough at the time.)

Before I Wake remains one of the most emotional novels I’ve written. And it was the first one I ever let other people read. Indeed, it was the first I uploaded to Amazon’s KDP service, which gave me the wonderful opportunity to hold a paperback version of a book I wrote. That was almost 3 years ago now, and it still warms my heart to remember the day I opened that box.

After that, my writing became more serious, and much more prolific. “Satellites”, a frankly awful short story, came from a competition between myself and my brother. “Miracles” was a spin-off of Heirs of Divinity. “Either Side of Night” also started out as a kind of throwaway; it was my attempt at crossing fantasy with a zombie apocalypse, and I thought little of it at the time. Then I wrote the sequel, “The Last Captain”, as a personal dare. (Can I write a short story in a week? Apparently, the answer is yes.) Those gave way to four more, the Linear Anthology, which eventually became the Linear Cycle.

By November of 2015, my mind had drifted back to Otherworld. I wanted to try again, to go back and finish the 8-part series I had originally envisioned. Nothing in the Nanowrimo rules says you can’t write a sequel, and I really did start over. The City and the Hill was the result of that one, and the other 6 parts came in the following months: A Matter Settled, Written in Black and White, The Bonds Between Us, Situational Awareness, A Peace Shattered, Long Road’s End.

Around that time, when I needed a break from that setting, I began Lair of the Wizards. I’d originally intended that one as a series of shorter novellas that told the tale of a small group of teens in a Renaissance-era fantasy setting (I prefer these to the traditional High Middle Ages style) finding a secret bunker of an advanced civilization. In a way, it’s almost the reverse of Otherworld, which is probably why I got the idea in the first place.

Anyway, I wrote a few chapters, then realized this was not something that could be wrapped up in a novella or four. So Lair had the dubious distinction of being over 60,000 words long, yet still residing in my “short stories” folder. I never said I was infallible.

Nocturne

It was fun, but I put it on the shelf for a while, because upcoming events had given me a new idea. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was coming up soon, and I started planning for it years in advance. As I’ve said before, I had the good fortune to live in the path of totality, so while some people traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to see the spectacle, I just stepped outside.

But the very notion of eclipses gave me an idea in the closing quarter of 2016. Why not a fantasy novel where magic revolves around the sun and moon? The “moon magic” people would be the bad guys, of course, because they’re the “dark” ones. October 2016 saw me coming up with that idea (in the shower, where all great ideas are born), then fleshing it out into something worthy of the eclipse.

Seven weeks. It took me seven weeks to write Nocturne. Less than fifty days for a novel that clocked in at around 400 pages. And I still consider it my best. It just clicked, in a way nothing else in my life ever has. I won’t call it perfect, but something about the book felt so…right. Words flowed freely. I would wake up each day with something to add. It was great, truly magical, quite possibly my peak as an author in terms of quality.

The year of the writer

But the peak in quantity was yet to come. 2017 sucked. Politics, family troubles, and my deepening depression made me want to do nothing at all. But then I didn’t want to do nothing at all, because that was, and is, anathema to me. So I wrote. And I kept on writing. And I didn’t stop writing in 2017 until 2018 arrived.

I finished Lair of the Wizards, which came in at a hefty 230,000 words. I wrote 10 new stories in the Otherworld setting, including 6 “bridge” novellas (“The Code Breaker”, “The Red Magician”, “The Control Variable”, “The Dark Continent”, “The Lessons Learned”, “The Candle’s Flame”) and the first four novels in the “second” season: The Second Crossing, Alignment Adjustment, Waters Rising, What We Leave Behind. The second half of the Linear Cycle came in this frantic period, including “Beneath the Surface”, which has one of the absolute saddest scenes I’ve ever written.

That did for the first 8 months of the year, but I wasn’t done yet. Three short stories set in the 1920s, revolving around psionic talents, which became the Modern Minds series. A teen space adventure, Innocence Reborn, which has become one of my favorite settings. Thanks to a pitch from my aunt, I wrote a paranormal detective novel, The Shape of Things, which has also spawned a series. In December 2017, I slipped in what I thought was going to be a theological dissertation disguised as a novella. Instead, I ended up with a paranormal romance involving a lonely nerd and a fallen angel. (I’m not above wish fulfillment.)

And then we have Nanowrimo for two years ago. Once again, I had come up with an idea. This time around, what if a gaming group got stuck in a world like that of their favorite RPG? Granted, it’s not the most original of premises, but I thought I could make it my own. Thus was born The Soulstone Sorcerer, and I very nearly died in childbirth. The final word count was somewhere around 150,000, and I wrote it in five weeks. I don’t know what possessed me, but I hope it’s been exorcised, because there were days where I came very close to a mental breakdown. And yet I couldn’t stop writing. There just wasn’t anything else for me to do. It was either write until I dropped, or just drop.

Change of pace

The final tally for 2017 was amazing, in my view. Twenty complete stories written, a 21st finished from its partial state. Over 1.2 million words. The numbers are mind-boggling no matter how you look at them. But I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace. It would kill me.

For 2018, I planned out a much less intensive schedule. Oh, I would finish the second season of Otherworld, and I did, with Falling Into Place, Whence We Came, Point of Origin, and Future in Sight. A sequel in space, Beyond the Horizon, and one for the monsters, The Beast Within. The massive Rise of the Wizards, a follow-on to Lair, which was now the first of the four-part Hidden Hills series (named after, no joke, the trailer park where my parents lived before I was born).

This year, strangely enough, my big inspiration came not in the fall, where I could use it for Nanowrimo, but much earlier. In fact, a dream I had in either late 2016 or early 2017 became a novel I wrote in 2018. In the dream, I saw a young woman walking across a blasted wasteland, the site of a massive battle involving both technological weapons and magic. The last battle, the dream called it, and you can’t tell me that’s not the perfect hook for a novel. So I took it and ran with it, and the end result is Shadows Before the Sun, which I’m holding in reserve on the off chance that a “real” publisher wants it. November paled in comparison, and the story I wrote then, Seasons Change, was nothing more than a kind of Otherworld prequel. (I’ve since released it for free, because I don’t think it’s worth paying for.)

Around this same time, something strange happened, something that had never happened to me before. I entered a relationship. An online relationship, to be fair, and it never advanced beyond that point, but it was new, and it took up much of the time I had previously devoted to writing. She didn’t like the idea of me being an author, so it fell apart after only a few months, but those months changed my whole outlook on life.

Or so I thought.

Darkness and light

At last we come to 2019, the year we’re ending very soon. I won’t lie. It started out bad from any perspective. Barely two weeks in, and I seriously considered ending my life. That wasn’t because of the breakup (or not only that), but because I genuinely felt I had no future, no prospects. I was never going to be anything, so what was the point of even living? Fortunately, my better sense prevailed, but it was close. As in “I know where my brother keeps his gun” close.

This year’s writing hasn’t been anything special. I finished 7 new Otherworld stories in total. Six of those were more bridges: “The Frozen North”, “Alone With Myself”, “Secrets Uncovered”, “A Life Complete”, “Destiny Fulfilled”, and “The Price of Freedom”, while the seventh is the Season 3 premiere: Winds of Change. Another pair of Modern Minds shorts, the two-part “Fortress of Steel”, but I postponed the sixth, “Memory Remains” because I wanted to work on other projects. And this year saw new entries in the Orphans of the Stars and Endless Forms series: Homeward From Afar and Change of Heart, respectively.

Probably the biggest change compared to every other year of the decade, however, is that I will end this one in a nebulous sort of “on again, off again” relationship status. It started in June, and has stayed online-only since, but it got very…intense for a time that was all too brief. In October (two days after my birthday!), it entered the off phase, but she won’t call it over. So I don’t know. Writing characters in this kind of situation did not prepare me for living it.

Looking to the future

So that’s where I stand on the precipice of 2020. In a mere decade, I’ve written close to 60 stories. About 4 million words of fiction, not counting editing and the like. Sometimes, I think I’m done, I feel like taking a break, but I just can’t. There’s still too much to write, too many stories to tell. My ultimate goal is 100 total before my 40th birthday, and I have just short of 4 years to reach that. I still believe I can.

For 2020, I have 11 planned, plus Nanowrimo, which I don’t start thinking about until October. These include 7 for Otherworld, three for Modern Minds, and the fourth Orphans adventure, tentatively titled Time in the Sun. Another few sit on the back burner, waiting for their chance: a sequel to Nocturne which I’ve codenamed Black Sun, Legacy of the Wizards, and new stories to follow up The Soulstone Sorcerer and even Heirs of Divinity. Plus, I want to edit and release some of my back catalog. The Occupation Trilogy, which started with Shadows Before the Sun, still has two more novels, but those will have to wait a bit longer.

And that’s not counting my “seed” list. I have plenty of ideas that have yet to see the light of day, but tomorrow is the start of a new decade. I hope that means I’ll have time to give them a chance.

To share or not to share

Comic books have a long history of being set in a “shared” universe, and that has, in recent years, bled over into the movies and TV series made from them. Witness Marvel’s numerous offerings, how they all interconnect. Characters cross over, as can villains and plotlines. Major story events can reverberate through half a dozen individual series. (DC tried this, too, but they can’t seem to get it right the way their biggest rival does.)

In the world of “real” books, this kind of thing is not too common. That doesn’t mean it’s unknown, however. And there are a couple of ways to go about it. One might say that the Dune setting, for example, is a shared universe, as it has multiple authors working in the same world, under the same general constraints of style, characterization, and overall feel. The (now-defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe is another good example: dozens of books, all able to build off one another, but still able to tell individual, independent stories.

The other option is a single-author universe. In this case, the meta-setting isn’t shared by multiple writers, but by multiple series. For this, the best example has to be Stephen King; The Dark Tower was his way of connecting all these disparate stories. Another example of an author placing lots of stories into the same universe is Brandon Sanderson, with his “Cosmere” setting. Again, the general principle is the same: multiple stories, all acting independent, but with signs that they are, in fact, set in the same world. (Or worlds, in this case.)

Even considering something like this is a massive undertaking, but…that’s just what I’ve been doing lately. And I’m fast coming to the conclusion that I’ve already started creating a shared universe for some of my works.

Let’s start with Otherworld, since it’s my biggest work yet. All along, I did intend it to be a place that could be shared. There’s a lot of worldbuilding and backstory that has absolutely no bearing on the main plot of the lost expedition. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to create a language for a race that won’t even show up in any of the planned 50 novellas and short novels that make up the “primary” Otherworld series. But that’s okay. In my mind, that gives me more room to try other stories. And I don’t even mind others trying their hand at something set in the universe. (Seriously. Just ask, and I’ll tell you all you need to know.)

One series does not a universe make, of course, but that’s where it starts getting bigger. My Endless Forms series of paranormal thrillers will soon see its second full release (next month in paperback and ebook formats), and I have slipped in a vague reference to one of the Otherworld “bridge” stories, specifically “The Control Variable”. It’s not overt, and it could easily be explained away as a chance coincidence, but I know the truth. And I know I should probably regret it. Now that I’m writing the third entry in Endless Forms, Change of Heart, I may end up adding more nods to Otherworld.

So that’s two, but not all. In November 2017 I wrote The Soulstone Sorcerer, the first entry in a series I’ve codenamed Gateway. The timing doesn’t work for it to reference either of the two above—it’s set in 2018, the others after—but I have gone the other way. The Second Crossing and Point of Origin, two of the 2nd season Otherworld novels you’ll see this year, both have oblique references to The Soulstone Sorcerer. Again, it’s not so obvious that you can’t miss it. No, this is nothing more than a mention. But it may grow into something more.

Shared universes don’t have to be connected through direct links like this, though. Thus, if I’m going to be doing this, then I have no problem saying that, for instance, Heirs of Divinity is set in the same world. There’s about 300 years of difference between it and any of the others, but it concerns essentially the same idea as Otherworld, Endless Forms, and Gateway: things on this planet are not as they seem.

That one’s a decision for later. The same could be said for “Fallen”, the novella I released for free last year. And “Miracles”, since it’s a direct spin-off of Heirs. Some others I have on my to-do list might also end up being in this shared setting, but we’ll see.

Obviously, not everything I write can fit this mold. Nocturne and The Linear Cycle quite obviously aren’t set on our planet. They’re fantasy stories in fantasy worlds. Orphans of the Stars is meant to be “harder”, so it’s out, too. The same goes for Before I Wake, although I may have made it a book that exists in the shared setting.

Hidden Hills is a tough one, though. On its face, it fits the fantasy theme the same as Nocturne. If you look at it the right way, however, it might actually be a far-future sequel to Orphans of the Stars. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but if you read the two, you can see how they could, in theory, be connected.

In other words, even the notion of a shared setting can lead to false friends, stories that look like they’re linked, but really aren’t. Also, I have to resist the temptation of drawing stories closer together when they’re meant to remain separate. I’m not ready for crossovers. I don’t think they’d fit my writing style at all, and they feel a little too…campy for my tastes.

Still, it’s something to think about.

Milestone

Sometimes, I wonder if I should even be alive today.

Those aren’t the words of someone who has lived through tragedy, who overcame adversity he initially thought too much to bear. No, they’re the common refrain of survivors’ guilt, and they stem from a very pivotal moment in my life.

A little over five years ago, my cousin died. Joey was 35, and I saw him as a big brother. And I do mean big. He was 6’5″, and he weighed over 400 pounds—the latter most certainly contributed to his death in the opening days of 2014. Today, March 15, is the day when my current age will match that which he attained, and the last years (coinciding with my best writing output) have often seen me question whether I am worthy of that. He was the better man, in my opinion, so why should I be the one who keeps on living?

I know that’s the wrong way to think about it. I really do. Deep in my mind, I recognize the fallacy, yet my emotional side comes out, and…well, that’s my problem. Depression, as J.K. Rowling so eloquently said it, is the “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope.” A “very deadened feeling.” And I understand those words perfectly.

A lot has happened to me over the past year. Some things I never imagined, some places my mind has never truly explored. I don’t like all of them, and there are a few thoughts, a few words, a few actions I wish I could take back. My mental state has taken a toll on my own health, as well as my relationship with my family. That, for me, is the worst. As I state in the acknowledgments of all my books, family comes first. In my opinion, that is the only right way to look at the world. If we forsake our family, then who are we?

They don’t make it easy, I’ll admit. Too many members of my family are Trump fanatics. Not merely Republicans, or conservatives, but the kind who see through glasses tinted by one man’s verbal wanderings. While I’m far from liberal on many issues, I have been tarred with that brush on repeated occasions. Here in the South, in a rural part of Tennessee, “liberal” is a dirty word. A political slur, rather than a racial one. Like any epithet spoken in anger, it hurts, and that hurt piles on top of the ones I already endure. But I can forgive. I must, to be the man I want to be. Family comes first.

One of my larger problems is that, in a lot of cases, there’s nobody else on the list after them. Since last May, I’ve managed to come out of my shell a bit, but I remain incredibly introverted. Nearly 800 posts on the fediverse (@mikey@toot.love, if you’re wondering) don’t change that. The three and a half months I spent trading texts with a woman I met online don’t change that. It’s part of my nature, as surely as my intelligence, rationality, and, apparently, depression.

To keep the darkness at bay, I write. Since I first reached the deepest depths, I’ve become a bit of a machine. Five stories done in 2015, eight (I think) in ’16. Twenty completed in 2017. I’ve written about three million words since my cousin’s passing, because I really don’t have any other creative outlets. Nor do I have a vent for my frustrations, my rage at the injustice of a world that would take away one of the most important people in my life.

I write. And in that writing, I tell my own story. Not for nothing are some of my favorite characters like me. Shade, protagonist of Nocturne, embodies my idealism, my personal disdain for extremism. Lucas, the character from my free novella “Fallen”, is my inner skeptic. And it seems like all my works have an intelligent, insecure man who really just wants to get away from it all. Alex in the Otherworld series, Asho in the Hidden Hills books, Porter in The Linear Cycle…the list goes on, and it probably will as long as I continue down this path. “Write what you know,” the advice goes, and I have taken that lesson to heart.

Can I change? I honestly don’t know. I’ve tried, and I’ve seen rays of sunlight pierce the darkness. For the second half of last year, I wrote far less than in the prior six months; this I owe to the influence of the woman I mentioned earlier. At no other time in my adult life had anyone ever confessed genuine interest in me, and…that made me feel good. It blew away the dark clouds for a time.

But the end of that time left me sinking further. Barely two months ago, I seriously questioned the purpose of continuing in this world. In the end, though, I did find one: family. Because family comes first.

If this stream of consciousness is hard to read, don’t worry. It was hard to write, too. But I needed to get these words out there, if only so there would be a record outside my own mind of what I’m going through. It’s why I write. It’s why I keep going. At this point, I don’t care if anyone ever reads my stories, or subscribes to my Patreon, or buys the books I submit to Amazon. The stories exist. They’re my escape, my salvation. When I’m writing, I can forget all the bad things in my life. I forget the good, too, but there’s never enough of that.

My hope, though, is that today will mark a change, in outlook if not in fortune. I have reached a milestone, and now I enter an uncharted phase of my life. The past is the past, the future unknown. For now, I look to the present, to each new day as it comes. Maybe that’ll work.

Thank you.

On diversity in fiction, part 2: Case study

In this second part of my brief exploration of diversity in media, I put my money where my mouth is, examining my own works as proof that I live up to my own standard. For each of my “major” settings (which have—or will have—multiple books), I look at the characters through the lens of the diverse, and I explain why I made the choices I did.

Obviously, as this post concerns deep introspection of my writing, it will have spoilers. If you want to read any of the works I describe, check out my Patreon for more information.

Otherworld

Otherworld is my most developed setting. Its premise is that a team of archaeologists take their students to Mexico on a dig in the summer of 2019. They uncover a lost pyramid deep in the middle of nowhere, and it is conveniently aligned so that a hole in the domed top allows the sun to shine directly down on the summer solstice. After a storm drives them away, a subset of the dig team returns to watch the astronomical event, and they are transported to another planet populated by the descendants of a group of Paleo-Indians who left the Americas near the end of the Ice Age. The following 22 stories (so far!) describe the world, its inhabitants, and the unique challenges it creates for the protagonists.

The dig is organized by an American university (Arizona, to be specific) in modern times. Thus, it is diverse out of necessity: political pressure ensures that women are well-represented. Thus, of the 11 who travel to the Otherworld, 5 are women. Two are non-white. Ramón is a Mexican freshman who was offered a place on the team in exchange for being an extra translator. Damonte, I’ll admit, did begin in my mind as the “token black character”. But then, as I delved deeper into the story, I reimagined him as aware of that. He cultivated the image, if only because he thought it was funny when he didn’t act like he “should”.

In a way, Otherworld shows both sides of what I’ve been saying. The diversity is by force, but within the context of the story; for me, it developed mostly naturally. The characters from Earth are normal people. They live in our world. Ashley is a feminist, and she comes out as bi in the sixth story (Situational Awareness). But that’s not because I was pressured by the LGBT community, or because a producer told me I had to include a non-straight character. No, I thought that was the best direction to go. And while she does let it begin to overpower her thoughts, that’s her reaction to finally being among people who let her express her true self.

On the other side of the galaxy, things are a bit different. The Otherworld’s people are not like us, except insofar as they are human. They have different views, and much of the conflict comes from this kind of cultural impedance mismatch. The natives are descended from indigenous Americans of millennia ago, long before the Conquest. They see race in a different light. Those who look the most unlike themselves (Jeff, Ayla, Jenn, and, to a lesser extent, Sara) are viewed as something else. As the natives only have their own histories for guidance, they interpret blond and red hair on white skin the only way they know how, which becomes another main source of trouble.

Nocturne

Nocturne continues to by, in my opinion, the best novel I’ve ever written. I do have ideas for a sequel or two, but those won’t come for a few years. Until then, I only have a single book to extrapolate from, but here goes.

Basically, Nocturne is an allegory for race relations in the US in 2016. That was the backdrop for its writing, and it was largely my intent from the start. The story’s kingdom of Velin is home to three races: the fairly normal skyborn; the almost Aryan dayborn; and the pale-skinned, black-haired nightborn. These subdivisions, however, are not hereditary. In that, they more closely match other intrinsic factors such as orientation. The nightborn are most reviled, owing to their inherent magical abilities of stealth and secrecy.

The protagonist of the story, Shade, is unique in possessing both the abilities and appearance of the nightborn, but also the magics of the dayborn, all of which are associated with light, life, and heat. Thus, he is a kind of fulcrum character, a center point on the spectrum, and his mission is one of moderation. He wants to stop the endless strife of the races by showing that they can unite. (This, by the way, mirrors my own belief in the folly of partisan polarization.)

Beyond his realm, however, others exist, and these offer more “traditional” concepts of race. The southern land of Duravi, for instance, is well-known to Shade’s people; it’s a kind of Africa analogue. Distant Fernicia is a fairly generic Orient mostly based on China. The Northlands are home to, in essence, Vikings. But none of these play much of a role.

Nor do sex and gender. Velin is mostly blind to those by design—I wanted to focus most on the race aspect. So Kellis, the secondary protagonist, is a female police investigator, and she is not special for that. She is treated no differently, for good or ill, than her male counterparts. Others she meets do remark that she is a woman, because that’s what they see, but even the most radical feminist shouldn’t find fault in my portrayal of her. Her worst sin might be using a dinner date to lure a suspect into an interrogation.

Endless Forms

The Endless Forms series is my paranormal detective thriller playground. It’s got Bigfoot, werewolves, and all sorts of unnatural phenomena. (The second entry, the forthcoming The Beast Within, even has an oblique reference to Otherworld, one of the few times I’ve done that.) Our star here is Cam Weir, who just so happens to be a straight, white man from just outside Atlanta.

Nothing about the premise requires that. Indeed, for the first half of the initial novel, The Shape of Things, he’s almost the only white character in evidence. Investigating the paranormal in Atlanta requires being in Atlanta, and the inner city is very diverse. It was when I spent a summer night in 1996 riding around as my mom tried to find an all-night tattoo parlor (don’t ask), and everything I’ve seen points to it only becoming more so in the decades since.

Thus, I see Endless Forms as a good illustration of what I mean by “natural” diversity, at least as far as race is concerned. Cam’s white, but his neighbor Darrell isn’t, and neither really cares. They’ll joke about it, but that’s as far as it goes, because they’re friends. The psychic he goes to for advice has a mixed ancestry he can’t place (Cajun and Caribbean, mostly), but that’s his problem, and he doesn’t hold it against her. If anything, the biggest culture clash comes from this Southern boy traveling to Boston.

Men and women alike see the spooky ghosts and other creatures Cam hunts. The friends he meets on his Bigfoot chase are all men, but that’s because they’re bros. It happens. Other applications of diversity haven’t come up yet, but I’ll take them as they come.

Orphans of the Stars

My child-focused sci-fi/space opera series Orphans of the Stars again follows this rule. Sixteen young people are stranded on a ship, and 9 of them are boys. Random samples can be like that. Most are white or Asian, while one is of Middle Eastern descent, but the story takes place about 500 years in the future, where race just isn’t that big a deal. (That’s basically what I was referring to in the last post: space colonies in this setting, while still horrendously expensive, are cheap enough that a sufficiently motivated group can create their own.)

Issues of sexuality are also background information, but that comes from the characters. They’re children. With only a few exceptions, they’re not even that old. (Their ages range from 9-16 at the start of the story.) Some of them have all the hormonal problems of teens, but it just isn’t important for them, not when survival is at stake. Whether you like that boy on the bridge or the girl down in engineering doesn’t matter much when you just learned your parents are dead. Hanna, the oldest and most mature of the girls onboard the ship, is bicurious, but that’s about as far as the story needs to go.

Then again, these are children. The difference between boys and girls is stark in their eyes. As their eyes are the ones through which the story unfolds, that means I write about their feelings on the matter—Tori, for instance, has an irrational dislike of boys, and she lets that show. But they all recognize the difficult situation they face, so such distinctions naturally fade into the background. Nobody is chauvinist enough to say Mika, a 14-year-old girl, isn’t fit to be an engineer. And if the command crew is largely male, that’s only because they were the ones who took the seats. Except for those just mentioned, most of the girls are younger, or they just don’t like being in space to begin with.

Occupation Trilogy

The Occupation Trilogy is a newer, more epic fantasy series I’ve been working on this year. The first novel, Shadows Before the Sun, is about two-thirds done, so I’ll probably release it sometime in 2019. But I can already say a little about the world from a diversity standpoint.

Mostly, the premise is thus: a colonial power similar to 18th-century Britain has taken over a distant land, and some of the locals are not too happy about it. A generation ago, the kingdom of Laurea invaded their home; the war of conquest lasted six years. They imposed their politics, government, religion, and very way of life on the natives of Ihnet. Most of all, they outlawed magic, because the religious teachings of Laurea forbid it.

This, then, has all the hallmarks of colonialism, and you probably know what that means for diversity. The series has two main races, the invaders and the natives. They view the world through different lenses. Ihnet’s women fought with magic alongside the men; Laurea sees the martial solely as the domain of men. Racial politics are vital to the story, and I choose each character’s race (and ancestry, as there are many of mixed descent) with care.

But this isn’t a series meant to make progressives happy. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and not all of them are guys. Men are overrepresented among the characters of Laurea, but that is because of the nature of colonization: many are ex-soldiers who settled down in this new land, took native brides (not always willingly), and started their lives anew.

On the contrary, the Occupation Trilogy mostly concerns itself with the very real factors of society. Whose side are you on? Are you with us, or against us? Both the occupying force of Laurea and the resistance of Ihnet believe there can be no middle ground, no compromise. All other problems are secondary to that, though this may change as the series progresses.

Others

My other works either aren’t as fleshed out, or just don’t offer the same depth of worldbuilding. Thus, I’ll treat them here in much less detail.

  • Hidden Hills: This series, beginning with Lair of the Wizards, is set in a generic quasi-Renaissance fantasy land. As it is fairly small in scope at present, issues of diversity aren’t really important to the narrative. The culture is late feudal, so the treatment and disposition of women can come up, but really not.

  • The Linear Cycle: This one’s post-apocalyptic. One of the premises of the genre is that the traditional divisions of society break down out of necessity. Other than that, there’s not a lot of room to delve into such matters, if only because the action is first and foremost.

  • Heirs of Divinity: One of these days, I’ll release this one. Until then, know that it’s set in 1737, and I endeavored to make that time as realistic as possible. It’s a little more liberal than the real thing, but the story otherwise follows real history, with all its attendant foibles, wherever it can.

  • Gateway: This one starts with The Soulstone Sorcerer, which I’ll put out next year. It’s a typical RPG fantasy world combined with modern Colorado. Much like Otherworld, the diversity comes from the Earth characters, while the secondary world follows its own rules.

  • Before I Wake, Fallen, Modern Minds: These don’t have enough characterization to even worry about diversity. In most cases, the characters of any specific story are just about interchangeable.

Conclusion

In this post, I hope I have explained my reasoning, my argument for a more natural sort of diversity in fiction. In every case, I strive to write what feels right. I don’t set out to solve the world’s problems, or empower a generation, or anything of the sort. My characters, I believe, should be those who best fit the story, the world, they inhabit. Whether or not that matches another person’s idea of diversity never plays into my decision. The story is bigger than me, bigger than my prejudices. I would like to believe that others feel the same about both my works and their own.

On diversity in fiction, part 1: Opinions

No matter where you go in the world today, diversity is a word on everyone’s lips. Love it or hate it, the concept has, thanks to a particularly vocal segment of society, become a fact of modern life. And that has spilled over into fiction of all sorts. After all, stories are ever a reflection of an author’s worldview, so it stands to reason that something so prominent finds its way into anything we write.

In this two-part post, I’d like to offer my opinions on diversity as it pertains to fiction in various sorts of media. That includes the written word, video games, movies, television, and even theater. Anywhere a story must be written, it seems that the writer must take diversity into account, and I feel there are right and wrong ways to go about that.

For this part, I merely want to speak what I believe. In the following entry, which I will post next week, I will then look at my own efforts as a kind of case study for what I feel to be the most appropriate method of dealing with the concept.

Definitions

First off, let me define what I mean by diversity. In this context, I refer to people, or rather characters, who show visible differences in what might be termed intrinsic factors. These are the divisions we’re most familiar with, the ones most evident in appearance or association, and those that are hardest—if not entirely impossible—to change. Race, sex, religion, national origin, culture, and sexual orientation are some of the most common. (Gender, as it exists in a social context, has become a bit more involved, but it works essentially the same way for our purposes here.)

Nothing in a fictional work should, in my opinion, give a reader, viewer, or player the impression that the author sees those who vary from the norm in a negative light. (Unless, of course, that is the true purpose of the work, as in extremist literature of all sorts.) The purpose of fiction is to create a story. Thus, the best authors leave their biases at the door, so to speak.

The fictional world—the secondary world, as some call it—can have its own biases, and those may be different from our primary world. In that case, it is the writer’s responsibility to explain those differences, those biases, in a way the is both entertaining and enlightening. If there is to be a message, then let it stand on its own merit. That goes for diversity as well as its lack.

The use of force

And this, I feel, is where so much modern media has gone astray. Too often, we see authors and screenwriters “force” diversity where it detracts from the story being told. As Hollywood has become far too fond of reboots and reimaginings, we can watch this unfold on a daily basis. In only the past year, I’ve seen reboots and story concepts that, for diversity’s sake, promise to change a character’s race (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), sex (the oft-rumored “female James Bond”), gender (Supergirl), and orientation (Star Trek).

My question is a simple one, yet one that would likely lead to my firing if I worked at one of these studios: who wins? If the object is to show that women/people of color/LGBT/whoever can be protagonists, then shoving them into roles defined by someone who is one of straight, white, or male can only be considered a failure. If your argument is that marginalized groups deserve their own heroes, then make them some heroes. Don’t try to remold preexisting heroes into a more diverse image for the sake of diversity. That, to use a term these people like, is no different from cultural appropriation.

The problem, as I see it, boils down to polarization. One side wants to see more diversity, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal. But those who don’t seek diversity in and of itself are then pushed to the other side, lumped in with white supremacists, homophobes, etc., for no reason other than they are not sufficiently progressive. Conversely, they then become shunned by those same elements for being too progressive. And the gap only continues to widen.

A better approach

Instead of this increasing bifurcation of society, I think a far better approach, at least regarding the creation of fiction, can be had by writing in a natural, organic fashion. Instead of forcing diversity, keeping quotas of minorities and the like, look at the story as a whole, the world it creates.

For fiction set in the real world of the present, this is almost too easy. We have demographics at our fingertips, so it’s not too hard to make a story that is both diverse and true to life. Historical fiction needs a little bit more work, but some common sense can tell you that it’d be silly for, say, Thor or Achilles to be black, or Guan Yu to be white. (Sexuality, especially in ancient times, is a whole different ballgame, particularly once you leave the familiar Christian West.)

Constructed worlds bring their own rules. In fantasy, you can make a case for just about anything. The men of Middle-Earth are white, if only because they are explicitly contrasted with the southern Haradrim. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series has a race of “savages” that, upon further inspection, are not African in appearance, but…ginger. Female warriors abound in literature—Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) is the example most pertinent for TV audiences. Non-heterosexual relationships aren’t at all uncommon. And a good author lets all that fade into the background unless it’s absolutely pivotal to the story.

That doesn’t even get into the possibility that other races might have differing notions of what constitutes diversity, or different intrinsic factors. One can easily imagine polyamorous elves, matriarchal orcs, or shapeshifters to whom the very concepts of race and gender are nonsensical. A fictional world with multiple races and sub-races might have an incredibly complex system of lineage and rights, but equally plausible is the idea that diversity plays by different rules. If there are beast-men living in the next country over, then why are we so worried about skin color?

Science fiction set in the future brings its own baggage. Although I do love The Expanse (except for the very depressing Persepolis Rising), this is a case where I feel it breaks the rule of organic diversity. As far as I can tell, seven books have produced one stable, monogamous, straight couple for a major character: Duarte, the current villain! Race is also hopelessly muddled (one of the series’ main points, to be fair), and the whole thing sometimes comes off as an experiment in throwing as many diversity-friendly adjectives as possible into a character. “Oh,” I can imagine the authors saying, “we don’t have a half-Asian transgender character yet. Let’s get right on that.”

In the future, we can imagine the boundaries of the present falling down. But it’s no less a stretch to imagine them rising back up. As humanity expands its reach—and especially if it expands into space—communities might become more monolithic, rather than more diverse. If anyone can found a space colony, why wouldn’t a group experiment with a “pure” society? Human nature tends towards mild xenophobia. We like being with people who look like us, talk like us, believe the way we do. That’s why we’ve created echo chambers on the Internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t feel bad positing, say, a Nazi colony on Mars. (Now, I wouldn’t want to read about that, much less write about it, but you do you.) On the other hand, liberalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are on the upswing right now, and projecting that into the future seems like the safer bet.

Conclusion

Whatever your genre, whatever your medium, diversity should not be a goal in itself. Instead, natural storytelling should create diversity where it is needed, where it is expected. New York City and San Francisco today don’t have the same demographics as 13th-century London or 1st-century Palestine. Rather than attempt to check all the boxes, think about what characters would be where. Put them where they belong, rather than where society wants them to be.

Now, if the purpose of the story is to tell of a character or group’s struggle against adversity because of their intrinsic properties, then that’s okay. Slaves in the antebellum South are going to be black, no question. Medieval women will have a harder time than their modern counterparts, and a story focusing on them can certainly have a higher female:male ratio. A story that focuses on the X% doesn’t have to follow statistics.

Really, a story for the general populace doesn’t, either. Diversity is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a master spy who happens to be a woman. There’s no reason why a superhero can’t be black, or trans, or whatever descriptor you want to give them. But you shouldn’t tout that as an accomplishment. Because it’s not.

It’s just who they are.

From the memory vault: Atlanta 2012

Growing up, I never really “got” gaming, not in the RPG sense. That only started to click in my head once I began looking into D&D and other games like it, which wasn’t until the early to mid 2000s. The first time I bought an RPG book was in 2006: d20 Modern. I saw it at the bookstore, thought it looked interesting (it had stats for modern weapons, among other things), and had the extra money, so why not? Although I didn’t buy it there; I instead ordered it from Amazon, because that was quite a bit cheaper, and not nearly as socially awkward.

It’s hard to believe that this happened when I was 22, and I’m now closing in on 35. It’s even harder to believe that the first idea I had for a campaign of my own, inspired by what I read in the d20 Modern handbook, is set in a time closer to then than now.

I’m bored and not very inspired, so that’s what this post is for. This is my chance to throw out an idea that came to me before I ever started writing fiction. I called it “Atlanta 2012”, and you’re about to see why.

The premise

Back in those halcyon days of 2006, we didn’t have to worry about the polarization of discourse, or social media privacy, or ISIS, or anything like that. We had the political turmoil of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, and the violations of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, but nothing like today. Thus, such troubles hadn’t seeped down into fiction yet, or into the mind of a young man whose head was already too full.

One thing that did interest me then was all the hubbub about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. If you’ll recall, the world didn’t end in December 2012, but far too many people thought it did, because they couldn’t fathom the idea of a calendar running out. Never mind that we were only a few years removed from the Y2K hysteria, which boiled down to the exact same problem. No, they were convinced the apocalypse was coming, and that the Mayans knew it down to the day.

The d20 Modern system, for those who don’t know, was an attempt at making a present-day adaptation of 3rd Edition D&D. (This was before 4E and Pathfinder, when everyone was making supplements, thanks to the OGL.) It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was pretty close. I don’t remember all the specifics now, but some that stick out are the wealth system—skill checks instead of tracking currency—and the horribly low damage that most guns did. If I did a game set in the present now, I’d probably use GURPS or something like that, but I was young, and I didn’t have the same resources at my disposal. This was what I had to work with.

These two threads tie in together, because they form the two sides of my campaign idea. The setting would be 2012, starting a few months before the presumed doomsday. I chose Atlanta as the “base” city because it was close enough that I knew a little about it, but far enough away that it wouldn’t be obvious I was doing a “hometown” RPG. Plus, it’s big, really big. There’s a lot of places to hide, a lot of gaps where stories can go. (For the same reason, I’ve used it as the main character’s effective base camp in my Endless Forms paranormal novel series.) The six years between play time and game time would give my players—my brother and a couple of my stepdad’s nephews were who I originally intended, as I would be the GM—the chance to play as either upgraded versions of themselves or fictitious contemporaries. And such a short time gap meant that technology wouldn’t change too much…except that I didn’t predict Facebook and ubiquitous smartphones, but you can’t win ’em all.

So, the game would take place in Atlanta, starting mere months before the end of the world. And that would be the first big storyline. My imagination had the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalyptic event, culminating in a trip into the jungles of Guatamala and the Yucatan. Since you can’t very well stop time, the big day would come and go, so Act I was a bit of a forced Bad Ending. But my idea was that the players wouldn’t know that yet. The effects would only show up later.

In the d20 Modern handbook, there are a few setting sketches. The authors never went into any great detail, because they expected you to buy worldbooks to fill those in. (I don’t think they ever wrote them, though.) Basically, you had a generic “real world” setting, one where psionic stuff was prevalent, and “Urban Arcana”. That last was the key, because it was described as not much more than “D&D in our world”. You could have orcs on a subway, or trolls walking down Peachtree (or Broadway, but I was using Atlanta, remember). You could have magic, even. There weren’t fixed ways of using it, but the leveling system of 3E meant that your modern-day hero could take a wizard level if he wanted—and if you had the book—and there’s your spells.

Putting it all together, that was the outline I devised. Part 1 was a detective mystery, with the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalypse, then coming into contact with a shadowy organization that wanted to bring it about. Then, when the designated day arrived, Bad Things would happen. The superficial victory hides the greater threat emerging: magic, fantasy, mythology. The world would slowly open up to the supernatural, in all its myriad forms. The latter half of the campaign, then, is all about that. I don’t go in for horror, but I thought I might be able to mix it in a little, especially when the players first confronted something obviously inhuman. My plans never got to mind flayers and beholders and the like, but that’s because I eventually gave up on the whole thing.

In a sense, however, I didn’t. A lot of what made Atlanta 2012 actually went into Endless Forms. The same city is the focus. Instead of a team of investigators, I’ve just got one, but he is still investigating. There’s no overt magic, but supernatural creatures lurk everywhere. So, while I did abandon the RPG campaign, the story seed went into hibernation, sprouting a decade later. Funny how that works.

The Shape of Things: Postmortem

A while back, I did a postmortem piece about my novel Nocturne. Well, it’s been awhile, and now I’ve got another book out. This one is The Shape of Things, and it’s another story that I feel needs a bit of explanation. Or venting, if you prefer. Either way, here are my thoughts, and beware of spoilers.

The seed

Every good story grows from a seed. So do the bad ones, like mine. In this case, the idea that spawned The Shape of Things came from my aunt. She’s a loyal reader, and she’s been there pretty much since the beginning of my writing not-quite-career. Most of all, she listens, and she responds with positive feedback and constructive criticism. (When she can get past “when’s the next one coming out?” and “what happens next?”, at least.) While I’m writing, I’m mostly in my own little world, insulated from everything around me. Great for focus, not so good for creating stories that appeal to, you know, other people.

Anyway, I was talking with my aunt one day, and she said something to the effect of, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for your next book.” Now, I’m not usually one for submissions, but there is nothing in this world more important to me than my family, so I’ll always give them a shot. And that’s what I did. She pitched the idea: What if all those monsters like Bigfoot are really people, but they change into the monsters?

At the time, I was thinking that, yeah, it might work. I put it in the queue along with a few of my own ideas, but I kept it in the back of my head. As I said, this is family we’re talking about here. And I did think it had potential. Couldn’t be much worse than some of the things I come up with, right?

The more I considered it, the bigger it became in my mind. I’ll gladly admit that the Dresden Files books are a huge influence on this one, and that series was very prominent in my thoughts as I ran through a few scenarios that might work out for my own paranormal story. I didn’t want exactly that, of course. No, mine has more in common with Sanctuary or Warehouse 13 or shows like those. We’re not dealing with actual magic, just the paranormal.

On a lighter note, since my aunt was the one who gave me the inspiration for The Shape of Things, she got a kind of cameo role. In fact, she’s basically the one who keeps the main story moving. And I made sure to give her character some of the same mannerisms and quirks. (She hates even the mention of zombies, for example. You wouldn’t believe the grumbling when I had her read Either Side of Night!)

The process

I didn’t want this to be fantasy. I wanted a story firmly grounded in the real world, but with the knowledge that our world might not be quite as real as we want to believe. Thus, the setting is here and now. Not so much a “mythic” America, but modern America, just with extra monsters.

The key here is the nature of the monster. In The Shape of Things (and the series that has spawned from it), the creatures themselves don’t exist per se. Oh, they’re there, but it’s much more of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Some people have this…thing inside them. They don’t necessarily know it until something draws it out. Usually, that’s a traumatic, life-changing, and possibly humiliating experience. In general, the idea is that something challenges their notion of their own humanity, which becomes the cause of their transformation into a being other than human. The forms they take are varied, and they don’t always align perfectly with our familiar monsters of legend, but there can be some similarities. (As for why this is happening, and why it’s happening so much in the present, I’m getting to that in the sequel, The Beast Within, which I’m currently writing.)

The novel itself is about 94,000 words, so not all that long. Call it tight, because there’s not much extraneous information in there. I started it at the beginning of May 2017, and the first draft was done on June 13. But here’s where it gets interesting. Writing Chapter 7 (of 16, plus a prologue and epilogue), I got bored. Seriously bored, and just plain tired of writing. So I stopped for about a week, long enough to switch over to another story I’d been working on. That was the first time in about 4 years that I’ve ever felt that way about a book. I won’t say it was my proudest moment. (It happened again in November, when I was working on The Soulstone Sorcerer, but I pushed through that. And I still hate myself for it.)

Despite that hiccup, I do think the book turned out good. Better than I thought when I finished it, definitely. I hope you’ll feel the same, but I’ve got more to say before I go.

The setting

As I mentioned above, The Shape of Things is set in our world. It’s not a fantasy version of it, but the real thing, just slightly dramatized. The protagonist, Cam, lives in Georgia, because I wanted him to be Southern, though far enough away from where I live that I could plausibly say he isn’t supposed to be me. He’s a little younger, maybe a bit smarter, and definitely a lot more successful, but he’s still a good old Southern boy at heart. And he’s mostly normal, apart from his odd hobby of hunting the paranormal for hire.

Cam is a skeptic, though. Not necessarily in the religious sense, but when it comes to the things he’s searching for. His default assumption is that whoever called him must be mistaken, because he knows these things aren’t real. Everybody sees ghosts, and every one of them, he believes, has some other explanation. And he feels the same about aliens, crop circles, demons, Sasquatch, and whatever else you can think of.

When the monsters really do show up, that puts him out of his league, and suddenly I found myself writing a horror thriller. Not at all what I expected, but I had some fun with it. A lot of his “backstory” sightings are based on things that actually happened to me, my family, or people I know. Others are references, but also from my personal experience. A group of “demons” in Marietta are actually Smite cosplayers, because my brother played that game constantly while I was writing. My mother really was scared by a hanger rattling from the air coming out of the vent under it. As this series progresses, I plan on adding in more of these, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m doing it.

The conflict

Cam doesn’t really have to fight his monsters. He barely even chases them. Instead, this book is about the hunt. It’s about him learning the truth of the world, then conquering the fears that knowledge creates. And it’s about solving problems. He absolutely has to run from some of the creatures he finds, but there aren’t opposing forces trying to stop him. (Maybe not yet…)

In that sense, the monsters fill the role of villain, such as it is, but in the same way they would in a horror movie. I don’t mind that. I’m not great at writing fight scenes or cloak-and-dagger trickery. The Shape of Things is more about a man against a force of nature, that’s all. Sometimes, that even comes out literally, but it’s more often the nature of the beast.

The end

I wrapped up the novel fairly neatly. There aren’t a lot of loose ends left to pick up. Instead, the biggest question remaining is what happens next. Where do we go from here? Cam solves the case. He saves a man from a monster—the monster that man had become.

This was never going to be a standalone work. I knew that from the start. So the future of the series hinges on that part of the ending. The world is stranger than we think, and Cam now knows this. He’s seen it with his own eyes. Now, he has to learn just how strange it can be, and that is where we go. Future installments are going to look into that core mystery, even as they continue to follow our humble hunter on his investigations. Some of those close to him may be affected, but one thing is certain: his life will never be the same.

Otherworld talk 8

And so it ends. Well, the first season, at least. I’ll be revisiting the Otherworld for some time to come. But today, in the aftermath of Long Road’s End, let’s see how far we’ve come, and maybe where we’ll be going.

Trajectories

Each of the 7 main characters of the story grew. They learned, they improved—or so they like to think. The experience of the Otherworld was life-changing in most cases. In a few, it was instead life-affirming, but the principle is the same. After eighty days of living in a different world, a different culture, each takes something away.

Amy was the first character we saw, all the way back in Chapter 1 of Out of the Past. She spent most of her first morning in the Otherworld hiding in a corner, and she often had to be dragged or cajoled into helping with the overarching mission of survival. But that all changed with her first visit to the village of Alwan. The tiny town fit her like a glove, to the point where she learned to love her strange surroundings, and she most definitely went out on a high note. Now, she wants nothing more than to go back.

Jeff doesn’t have to go back; he’s already there. That’s a complete turnaround from the timid, nerdy linguist having nightmares of being left behind, but he’s got a very good reason. Okay, two reasons, the second being that he’s a young man who’s been snared by a borderline nymphomaniac. At least he realizes that much, and he does remember his goal in the coming months: to learn everything he can about the locals and their history, so the next group won’t have to go in blind.

Jenn doesn’t want to stay in the Otherworld, but she doesn’t mind visiting every year—but only if she’s in charge. Her biggest discoveries about herself were that yearning to be a leader and her faith. Put the two together, and she’s the most like the last group of people to find a whole new world full of Indians. But she did prove herself, and she wants the chance to do so again. Whether that’s as a leader, explorer, or missionary, she doesn’t really care.

Ryan was his own sort of leader. He had the charisma Jenn lacked, and he used that to immerse himself more in the local culture. That, in essence, was his plan all along, but he was really the only one out of the group who could pull it off. Maybe he spent two months on a summer construction job, but he feels those were productive months. Even his injury didn’t stop him; in reality, it gave him a new respect for the abilities of the natives. And now he sees the Otherworld as an opportunity to prove himself to, well, himself.

Lee, of course, had the most dramatic time of it. He sprained his ankle while falling into a lake, got married to a thief, saw her get abducted, rescued her, and made an enemy in his new home. His most important aspect remains his race—he’s the closest to the locals of anyone—but he spun that into an advantage. Now, he’s among people like those he always to meet, and he’s becoming one of them. In a way, his story is almost done, but those around him will have their tales to tell.

Alex started out as the geek of the squad, and so he remains. But he was able to take that and run with it, because the natives don’t see him as a nerd, but a wise, intelligent man. A teacher. One of them hopes to see him as much more, which leaves him baffled, but his experience in the Otherworld is all about learning and teaching. It may not be his kind of adventure, and he went through a rough middle portion of the journey. Since that didn’t kill him, he hopes it will make him stronger. It certainly made him thinner.

Ashley, last of our original seven, began her stay in the Otherworld as the feminist outraged at being stuck in a society dominated by men. She made friends—almost all women—because that’s how she is. And her specialty was sociology, so she felt it her duty to learn as much about the local culture as possible. That brought about her two most surprising revelations. For the native culture does, in its own way, like women just as much as men…and so does she. For Ashley, the hardest part will be dealing with these discoveries without letting them consume her.

Still to come

The remaining four members of the expedition didn’t get as much screen time, but they’re not forgotten, and that leads us into the plan for the future. There will be a Season 2. Right now, it’s titled Return to the Otherworld, though that may change.

Before that, however, I have a series of 6 shorter novellas, A Bridge Between Worlds. These cover the intervening time, because, if you’ll recall, there’s still nine months to go before the next time anybody can go through the gateway in Mexico. I didn’t want to pick things up then, as I’m not really a fan of skipping ahead like that, so this was my solution.

First up is “The Code Breaker”, centered around Lee and Nimiesa as they deal with troubles in their home and their potentially growing family. This one builds on some of the storylines first introduced in Episodes 7 and 8, as well as setting the stage for the rest of the “bridge” stories and Season 2.

That’s followed by “The Red Magician”, which, as you may expect, is Ayla’s story; Niel, the native student first met in Episode 6, has a supporting role as he tries to figure her out while she’s figuring out how best to bring science to a world that doesn’t really want it.

Next up is “The Control Variable”. This one’s a bit out of place, as it’s set on Earth. Following Amy and Alex, it’s almost a bit of a travelogue. They’re coming to terms with their journey, but also going around the country in search of the other Altea sites. Do they find them? You’ll see.

Fourth on the list is “The Dark Continent”, which only has a single point of view: Damonte. Except for that brief interlude at the end of Episode 8, he’s been missing for quite a while now. This is his story, almost completely apart from the others, and it’s our first real chance to get into his mind. As it turns out, that place can be darker than his skin, as he’s haunted by his last real encounter with the rest of the expedition.

Following that is “The Lessons Learned”. That one is Jeff’s story, as he delves into the history of the natives, hoping to find references to the even older Altea. But it’s also a story for Irai, because she has a tale to tell. Her chapters are a marked contrast to, say, Nimiesa’s; though they’re essentially in the same situation (in love with an Earthling), they treat it in two very different ways.

And last we come to “The Candle’s Flame”. The final bridge between Seasons 1 and 2 remains set in Mexico, following the other interplanetary couple: Ramón and Etanya. He brought her back with him for a reason, and this story is that reason. It’s also the only one of the set where it’s the native who’s the main character, but there’s a good reason for that: she’s the one out of place. She’s learning about a whole new world, and doesn’t that sound familiar?

This set of stories will come out through 2018. Hopefully, they’ll tide you over until I can finish Season 2. I’m hard at work on that, though, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey of mine. It’s had its highs and lows, its ups and downs, but I like to think I’ve created something great. No, I want to think I’m still creating it, because there are many more stories to be told in the Otherworld.