Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Beginning of an Era

A friend pointed out, and it finally sunk in, that the end of 2009 isn't just a much needed clean slate—it's the end of a decade. I look back over the past ten years, and I'm so grateful. Rendered somewhat speechless. I have done and accomplished so much.

As I graduated high school in 1999, one could say I spent the decade after trying to find what it was that I wanted to do with my life. I went to college. Switched majors. Taught English in Japan. Graduated from college. Moved to Los Angeles. Lived three different lives there. Learned how to grieve. Got published. Learned how to celebrate. Saw Paris. Spent time in England. Returned to Japan. Got discovered via blogging. Got an agent. Completed my first work-for-hire. Got paid to write. Saw not one, but two different manuscripts go out on submission. Learned how to deal with 'No Thank You.' Moved back to Canada. Became a barista. Learned how to make jewelry. Did book-signings and readings. Went to author events—including meeting Aunty Melissa and Neil. Became a bookseller. Started a teen book club. Met the CEO of Chapters/Indigo and hand-sold her Beautiful Creatures.

And the truth is, I did get what I needed. Always. Even if what I needed was what I didn't want. I've learned what makes me happy and leaves me feeling fulfilled. I know what I can't tolorate—and what I actually can.

Maybe I don't quite know what I want to do when I grow up, but I know what will help me be a healthy and productive adult. There is always more to do. More to see and experience. Life is really just getting started as this decade pulls into its destination.

Part of what draws me to speculative fiction is an optomstic hope that we can make a better future. I firmly believe we have the ingenuity to solve our present problems. We'll never have a utopia, because I don't think human beings are built to be happy on a plateau. We're climbers. Survivors.

I suppose what I mean is that I look at my life and I choose hope. You can remind me of that if I seem to forget. (I know I do sometimes.)

Hello 2010, come on in. Sit down and make yourself at home. I can't wait to see what you've brought your hosts.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Tale

Being that I have to work on the Solstice, I am unable to participate in lighting the candles and playing music to frighten away the darkness. I do trust the sun is going to return, but the gesture is what's important, isn't it?

So here it is. I have a gift. It's a story, of course, because that is what I do. I tell tales. If you'd like one to keep you company this holiday season, it's yours. The story is about 5000 words. It is connected to a world I'm developing, but it's one separate from the manuscripts that are out on submission.

Drop a comment with your email address before December 25th (2009), and I'll send the tale to you. All I ask in return is that you respect it's being given for your personal use. It is a typeset PDF that you can read onscreen or print with Acrobat. If you need—or want—to reformat it for use with an e-reader, consider this your written permission to do so.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2009 Top Ten Teen Reads

Notes before we begin:
(1) Trilogies (proper ones) count as a single item if all books were available.
(2) This is complied from all the teen books I've read this year, not the ones released this year.
(3) I will tell you why the book got on the list—which may or may not tell you what it was about.
(4) The number ranking correlates to the order I thought of them in, not necessarily meant as a reflection of quality.

1) Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This book, for me, came out of nowhere. Grabbed me and refused to let me go. It made a home in my heart—as all of these books have. It did this by being refreshing: Set in a small town; narrated by a boy; great concept, and so much fun.

Most importantly: the romantic relationship in this novel betters the characters. They treat each other with respect. They are braver for each other. They have a realistic and healthy relationship. "Cursed love" in this novel is shown for what it is, a fear and intolerance of those who are different.

2) Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev

This book is amazing because, again, it's different. It's written in third person! A sweet, funny, light-hearted story that is still dramatic and emotionally moving. When I read this book, I feel proud to be a writer.

3) Going Bovine by Libba Bray

This is the closest thing I've seen to the ambition of American Gods in years. Going Bovine is one of those insanely brilliant books that should have fallen apart and been absolutely terrible. It isn't. It's magnificent. Cameron's voice is so, so real. The book is hilarious. It stands apart from the rest of the books on the shelf.

4) The Mortal Instruments Trilogy by Cassandra Clare

The only reason this isn't the best thing I've read this year, is because I really didn't care if Clary and Jace got to make kissy faces and have babies. That was the least interesting part of the trilogy to me. (And most of what City of Bones was surface-level about.) But it still is so much fun. Like Buffy fun. Most teens probably don't understand what a compliment that is. TMI is Good and Clever. A complex, wonderful story that seeds clues well and rewards a close read.

5) Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I am pissed off Cory did not win an Aurora—or was even nominated—for this teen novel. It's one of the most important books on the teen shelves. In the years to come, people are going be required to read this novel in school (on their eReaders.) Privacy, Civil Liberties, and Alternate Reality Games? Come on, this is real science fiction. Both terrifying and inspiring.

6) My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent

Proving books don't always have to have explosions to get my attention, this paranormal romance is so sweet and delightfully grounded in reality. Rachel has really accomplished something in this novel. It's well written, I care about the characters, and it's suspenseful and conflicted without being melodramatic.

7) The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray

I was so thrilled to read Victorian-era novels that did not bore me. Quite the opposite, I found this trilogy empowering. I liked the characters. I adored the voice. It's first person present tense done well—and not a romance. Anyone who pulls off the ending that Libba Bray did in The Sweet Far Thing deserves epic recognition.

8) Liar by Justine Larbalestier

This book is incredible. An unrelaible first person narrator in the teen department? Shut up! Fabulous. Wonderfully written, expertly crafted, and you can choose which book-reality is the truth. I love a great psychological thriller, and this is best one I've read all year.

9) The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

I don't like zombies. I don't like post-apocalyptic. Yet, this hauntingly beautiful and deceptively bleak book is so amazing. Oh the voice of this novel! It was heart-wrenching to read. You want to know why Hunger Games isn't on this list? Read The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Its cliffhanger ending still gets under my skin.

10) Fragile Eternity by Melissa Marr

Not matter what my feelings on Ash or the ending of this book, I still love Seth and Sorcha. I love them and their character arcs enough to happily put Aunty Melissa's third novel on this list. (Now give me RADIANT SHADOWS.)

Honorable mention that aren't found on the teen shelves:

1) Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & The Olympians: A 9–12/MG series that combines Greek mythology, mayhem, and heroic quests. Way too much fun. I was so sad to say goodbye at the end of The Last Olympian.

2) Robert J Sawyer's Wake: Accessable to teens, but found in the adult sci fi section. This combines the internet, a blind girl undergoing an operation that allows her to see in an unexpected way, and the evolution of human consciousness. Easily my favorite of Sawyer's novels and the start of a promising new trilogy.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Two press bits

The interviews I did earlier this fall have been turned into articles.

This is a profile piece, mostly about The Tarot Cafe Novel.

This is a larger article about Banned Book Week, Challenged Books, and Censorship in children's fiction.

The second one was a bit easier to do, as the interview was conducted via email. In the first, the journalism student was trying to write as we spoke. (Her recorder decided not to work.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Magicians & Hush Hush review

Here are the next two of my borrowed from work reads. I would have been happy if I had bought Hunger Games and Beautiful Creatures. This time around, I'm feeling happy to see the following books go back on the shelf.

Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

I liked a lot of things about this book. I loved Fitzpatrick's take on angel mythology. Plus, I laughed out loud at parts where I was supposed to. Hush Hush is a fast, easy read. (I finished it in a single sitting.)

But I never quite got over the bad taste the relationship dynamic between Patch and Nora left in my mouth. Patch is a complete asshat. Now, you can argue that's the kind of character he has to be. Ok. I'm not asking for a debate about whether bad people deserve to be loved. My concern is what their relationship dynamic in this novel idealizes. Especially to readers still formulating their models of what a healthy relationship is.

Verdict: If you want to date Edward Cullen, you'll love Hush Hush. (But you shouldn't want to date Edward Cullen.)

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman

I am certain this is a good book. It's certainly well-written. I, however, am not in the right headspace to read it at this time. It's a great "what if" for an adult version of Harry Potter, but I grew impatient and flipped to see if it was going anywhere. From the bits and bobs and I scanned, that where was Narnia.

I could have kept reading to find out the how and the why, but I decided I was more interested in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.

Verdict: Didn't get past Chapter 5, but would still recommend it for someone looking for a well-written, slower-paced fantasy standalone. Or an older teen seeking a potential entry point for the general fiction section.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What family is for

Still no Dante. Still no Avalon. I guess they’re having trouble reporting a former city missing.

“Where were they going?” Maria asks.

“I guess they went to find a city guardian.” I rub my ear. “Not sure who else you’d report a former city missing to.”

“These guardians are like Enforcers?”

“In a way.”

I suppose we could have involved my brother instead of the guardians, but I’ve got a feeling that’s what Not-Stellina wants. She—whoever she actually is—is obviously keeping us distracted. Probably from something she’s doing in you world.

It’s risky going to her people about what she’s done. Draws attention to what we’ve done. We could all be in a world of trouble. But that’s exactly what Not-Stellina is counting on. Us being afraid of trouble. Handling this on our own to avoid it. She obviously doesn’t know Avalon very well.

“A Guardian would be the fastest and safest way to get a message to the Far Reaches,” I tell Maria. “That’s where Andy’s from.”

“That’s seriously what it’s called?” She giggles. “The ‘far reaches’?”

I shrug. “It’s what we call it.”

“And these people in the Far Reaches can do something to help us?”


Dante’s people have been here longer than mine. But there’s no love between our two territories. One of their people posing as one of ours wouldn’t be enough to raise an alarm. London would have to invade Over There. Or they’d have to feel threatened by the idea of one of your former cities roaming the Twilight Lands.

But telling the Far Reaches what happened isn’t about getting help. It’s about scaring Not-Stellina. Doing something she thinks we won’t. Making her reevaluate how to predict us now that Avalon’s involved. We can work silence to our advantage, too.

“Hmm.” Maria stands. “I think this is the first time you’ve sounded unsure.”

Sounds right. Even when your people have learned not to trust I’m telling the truth, they still believe that I am completely certain of what I’m doing.

I shrug. It’s safest. “I’m not really myself right now.”

“I noticed.” She dusts herself off. “You’re actually talking to me.”

She smiles as she says it, but it’s one meant to keep you from seeing how serious her eyes are.

I choose to see the smile instead and wonder if there’s anything to the theory that being connected to Creation makes me chatty. Matt isn’t overly talkative. Neither is Stellina. I don’t remember my father being verbose. I remember him laughing a lot. He was a good Twilight King. Would have never let us go to war among ourselves. Would have found a way to resolve things without violence.

Matt knows he isn’t the king our father was. I’m not sure my brother even thinks it’s worth trying to be.

“And now you’re staring off into space again,” Maria says.

“I’m not.” I blink. “I’m remembering.”

“Is that way your eyes are such a sad blue?”

“Must be.” I force a smile. It’s easy. I’ve had a lot of practice. “We should get you some shoes.”

“And clothes.” She works at the tangles in her curls. “And a shower. Do they have showers here?”

“Probably not. It’s a museum.”

She looks like she might push me or punch me lightly the way Girl Val does. Fondness expressed through mild violence. Odd. Maria’s not a Valor fragment.

She puts her hands on her hips instead. “You know what I mean, Ethan.”

“Are you bothering the young lady, cousin?”

I almost fall down the steps. Not telling you this to be funny. Telling you to fully express how WTF it was to hear that voice.

Maria turns. Squeaks a little. From surprise. Not a need for lubricants. It’s a natural response when it seems like someone’s father has sneaked up on you.

This someone’s father is tall. Not as tall as Avalon. Not even as tall as me. (Dante’s shorter than us, too.) But way taller than Maria. Height is not what makes our visitor frightening. Crazy hair is. Those of you who know Val are aware that he can get some decent height on the fauxhawk. Well, just imagine if that hair was curly. It can’t be directed. It just does whatever it wants. Unaccountable hair. Super irritating to someone who’s an accountant.

“Oh, hey Neill,” I say. Real causal-like. Like I didn’t almost fall down the steps a few heartbeats ago.

His black jacket is zipped up tight, but I know beneath it he’s wearing a highly saturated shade of something. Probably turquoise. A love of bright colors is how you know we’re related. My cousin and I don’t share much of a family resemblance. As I said, he looks like someone’s dad. I don’t.

Did I neglect to mention that Dante’s Dad and I are cousins? We are. Removed a few degrees, but still related. He’s much older than I am. Which takes a little bit of doing. I have, after all, sort of been around for a while. (More or less of a while depending on when you’re reading this.) Sometimes, to reinforce how old he is, I call him Uncle Neill. He doesn’t seem to mind.

“Do you know everyone, Ethan?” Maria asks, careful to stay behind me.

Neill has scared her. He doesn’t even have his scythe with him. Seeing someone who looks so much like one of your people must be spooky after she’d finally just gotten used to me. Or she’s decided his hair means he’s a mad scientist.

“Not everyone,” I tell her. “I didn’t know the barista. If you’re looking for Andy—”

“No, I’m looking for Avalon.” Neill doesn’t comment on Maria. “He claimed he wished to speak with me, then he didn’t show. It’s a wee bit irritating.”

“He’s with Andy,” I say. “They’re reporting the former city of London missing.”

“London’s been missing for some time, and—did you say former city?”

I nod. “It’s not one anymore.”

“Dare I ask?” Neill asks, which means that he does dare. He’s just leaving himself an exit strategy.

“It’s probably best if you don’t.”

“Then I must.” He climbs the steps. “What is it now?”

“The master of talking pancakes and exploding scones sent to torment me out of the mistaken belief that its transformation is the fault of the Twilight King.”

Neill raises both eyebrows. “Are you having me on?”

I can see Maria’s puzzled look.

They all talk like that in the Far Reaches. You probably thought Avalon had the accent from being human. You’d be wrong. We’re not really sure where Val and Chio got theirs. I suspect it’s put on for the sake of convincing girls to make kissy faces with them.

Go on. Laugh. You haven’t witnessed the power Val’s accent has on females. He can say anything and they seem to think he’s being charming and clever.

“No, Sir,” Maria says. “It’s true. I was there when the scone exploded.”

Neill finally looks at her. Gives her a gentle smile. “That was rather unkind of it. Most fortunately, you appear unharmed.”

Her tension eases. He must be using the Hope on her. He’s better at directing it, even though his connection to it is less than Dante’s.

“So.” Neill looks at me. I can see trouble glinting in his violet eyes. “Would this lass be your girlfriend?”

“No,” she says. “He and Andy are just finding me a place. To, um, stay.”

He clicks his tongue. “That’s unusually kind of you, cousin.”

“What do you want, cousin?” I say it so it sounds more like get bent, Neill.

“As I previously mentioned, I’m looking for my brother. You tend to know where to find him when he’s gone a-wandering.”

“As I previously mentioned—” I am very good at mocking Neill’s accent— “I don’t know where he is. Just what he’s supposed to be a-doing.”

Maria grins. Win goes to me.

Neill takes the steps between us in quick, smooth strides and smacks me upside the head. The world spins a little, despite that I’m sure both of my feet are safely planted on cement. Music pounces. Loud and overlapping. Every song of power invading my ears. I wobble.

“There.” Neill snaps my headphones over my ears. “Better?”

Music muffles to a volume where I can filter through individual harmonies and measures. The universe ceases to feel like such a lonely place.

“Thanks,” I mumble.

“Don’t mention it, cousin.” He clamps an arm around my shoulders. “Knocking the sense back into you is a service I’m more than happy to provide. I trust you’ve finished moping and we can get on with finding those missing from your party?”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The difference between a good book and a great book

Me working at a bookstore is a bit like a bartender who's alcoholic. Oh sure, customers benefit from our addictions making us something like experts, but it's not exactly healthy for us to be constantly surrounded by the things we crave most.

I have to stop buying books, because I'm not reading the ones I've bought. I get terribly excited about a book, purchase it, and then never actually get around to opening the cover. Fiscal responsibility, I has none. They should put me in charge of a major American bank.

There are things I "need" to read for Teen Book Club (although I had read all but two of our choices.) There are also other books I'm curious about, but not willing to let sit on a shelf for a year. So I take advantage of the employee borrowing option. If I have to read the book by a certain date, then I do.

This is how I came to take out both Beautiful Creatures and Hunger Games. Reading them one after the other enlightened me as to what makes the difference between a good book and a great book for me.

These are both good books. Potentially they could both be great books. Both are written in first person. Both are the first book of a set. Both are fantasy. To an extent, they're both distopian fantasies as neither world is the ideal world for the characters who inhabit it. (Sorry, in order for Hunger Games to be science fiction, there would have to be SCIENCE in it to explain the technology.)

Beautiful Creatures is set in contemporary South Carolina, a gorgeously magical novel about a boy who loves a girl from the "wrong" family. It has a rich setting. The town and the houses are as much characters as the people who dwell there. It is a story based on history, tracing the effects of the past on the present. It is just familiar enough to orient you, and different enough to keep you from being bored.

And, if you sit back and analyze what happens, it should be a very uninteresting novel. Going to the library or attending the Winter Formal is a big deal in Beautiful Creatures. Yet it is fascinating. It is a novel you cannot put down or walk away from. As my manager put it, it is one of those books where you spend your time while you aren't reading it wondering about the characters in it.

Hunger Games is—at its simplest—a survivalist narrative. An example of the ugliness of humanity played out through a general detachment from any sense of morality or compassion. It is a poignant comment on our society's obsession with "reality television" and the frightening way we have become desensitized to violence.

But the world is secondary, never really given an opportunity to become a fully realized member of the cast. Primarily because the Games take place in a human-controlled environment where the protagonist versus nature is just there for plot purposes.

That's the difference. That's what keeps Hunger Games from being a great book. It relies largely on the tension created by placing its main protagonist in mortal peril. Feel suspense in whether or not she lives. Feel sympathy for the horrid situation she's in. Like her because of how she manages to deal with it.

I read Hunger Games fully aware of whether or not the character lives, as will most of us who read it with the knowledge that there's a second novel. You know the answer, so there's no tension to the non-romance parts of the book. The major, driving conflict of the novel loses its bite. Maybe a couple twists happen, but I'm not on the edge of my seat needing to keep reading.

Hunger Games is a good book—based on its thematic content and social commentary. But it's not a great book, because it hinges on a single unknown to compel you to read it. It wants you to identify with a character through shared horror for the circumstances that she's been placed in rather than because you genuinely care about her. You don't really know enough about her to really care for her other than some "she's a good person, she had this terribly sad thing happen in her life" basics that come standard with the majority of protagonists. Furthermore, her very circumstances work against the novel, because they're completely fantastical and alien to most of the people I know.

This is not to say it's impossible to relate to Katniss. It's just really difficult to like her. I don't have time to read novels about characters I don't like.

Whereas Beautiful Creatures is a great book, because it isn't dependent on a single conflict to keep you interested. It employs both likable characters and a rich well-developed setting that can you could reach out and touch.

It is a perfect novel? No, I have issues with technical aspects of it. But they don't get in the way of me being able to enjoy the novel. There's enough going on in the narrative to keep me from being disinterested to the point where I'm conscious of its execution.

Beautiful Creatures is by far one of the loveliest books I've read this year, but Hunger Games left me feeling like I'd gone to a 5 star restaurant to be served a 3 star meal.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't Think, Just Write

Today's guestblog is from @countmystars, with a little hope for what you may all learn from the NaNoWriMo/IndiWriMo experience.

Don't Think, Just Write

“Now the good times have begun, that's not a fire, it's just the sun, it's like the old man said, take the money and run – but what's the rush? Let's take the One.” – The Old 97's, “The One”

One of the pieces of advice writers hear most often is to edit, edit, edit. “Kill your darlings”, we're told. Cut out everything that isn't strictly necessary. Which is good advice, generally speaking, but how often do we internalize it to the point where we start editing before we should? How often do we self-censor during the drafting process, because we know we're not supposed to over-write – or stick too strictly to an outline because we've already decided what's important to the story, and nothing else is allowed in? Being able to edit is an essential skill in rewriting, but it can be deadly in the drafting process.

Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in the “should”s and forget that a first draft is just that – a first draft. Space to play and experiment and figure out exactly what your story is. To over-write, if you want, just to follow an idea and see where it takes you. To ramble on about the characters' favorite bands and how much they hate their landlord and everything except the plot, when the ideas won't come and you don't know what the next scene is. So what if you're not “supposed to”... just because the scene won't end up in the finished draft doesn't mean it lacks value. Over and above the fact that it can be fun to just write without feeling the need to get through a scene as quickly as you can, the pages you write and eventually cut may turn out to be good for your story.

NaNoWriMo participants often get a bad rap for padding their word counts, babbling on and on just to meet their daily quota or reach 50,000 words faster. But this approach to the first draft has many hidden benefits. Those conversations between characters that run on for three pages can reveal who the characters are outside their function in advancing the plot. Florid paragraphs of description may hide unexpected phrases that make your story sing. There will be time enough to identify and polish these jewels in the revision process – right now, for your first draft, just switch off your inner editor and see what happens. We've all heard of those moments of great inspiration that happen while a writer is “in the flow”... it's much easier to achieve that flow when we quit worrying about whether the scene we're writing will end up in the finished story or not.

Another benefit of the “don't think, just write” approach is that it makes writing feel less like work. Most of us started traveling this path because we love to write, but it's all too easy to lose sight of this when we're overwhelmed with advice from all sides and trying too hard to follow it all. When we focus too much on our destination and lose sight of the journey. So, whether you're charging ahead towards 50,000 this November, or noodling around with a new short story, try taking the scenic route. Stop along the way and explore. Have fun. Play. Experiment. Discover what your story really is. Whether you reach the destination you originally intended or somewhere else altogether, it will be well worth the trip.

Elizabeth M. Thurmond lives in, and often writes about, Los Angeles. She can be found on the internet at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ensuring the Future of Creativity

Today we have a guestblog from (our long-time friend) @kilotango. If you've seen Ethanael's profile picture, you've encountered Katy's artistic talent. Now, read on to see her wordsmithiness...

Ensuring the Future of Creativity

Ever since I was little, I've been surrounded by creative culture of some kind, and a lot of it has—in some way—been stories. Even aside from having a mother who devours books like candy, the traditional music scene I grew up in is rich in storytelling in both songs and spoken word. So, the idea of creating characters and worlds and plots has always been pretty close to my heart. Even though what I've published so far has been non-fiction and focused on art rather than writing, it's still been engaged with that love, hopefully empowering kids to express some of the stories that live inside their own heads.

As I've been teaching workshops over the last year or so, the importance of this idea keeps growing for me. With the swelling focus on exam results, targets and vocational skills, the joy of just indulging your own ideas seems to be getting more and more undervalued in schools. It's simultaneously wonderful and a little heartbreaking when you have to explain to a child that the character they are creating is theirs, and so of course they can give it long hair or wings or a big coat or whatever detail they want to add. Seeing the realisation click that their creation really can be however they like is great, but that they don't already know this and are instead so worried about getting things wrong seems more than a little sad.

It's not just the kids either. If the children have a parent in tow, I usually try to make them join in. More often than not, getting them to pick up a pencil will take more encouragement and more insistence that I'm starting right from the basics than I have to give to the kids. It takes hard work to be really good at anything, but that doesn't mean there's anything shameful in trying to do something new. Or in being really bad at that new thing. I hear a lot of sentences that start with "Oh, but I can't—" from adults sat in on my workshops. And maybe they're right, but really... that sentence should psychologically end with the word 'yet.'

Especially when we're dealing with something as low risk as making some marks on a sheet of paper, or spending five or ten minutes thinking up an imaginary person.

If you have that time to spare, there's not really any risk in following up on that potential skill either, especially as a child. No, not everyone who picks up a pencil or throws around words will be able to make a living from it. But creativity has a worth way beyond making you some cash. If it doesn't go anywhere... oh no. You've used some time using your brain and making something fun that you could have spent watching the X-factor. How very tragic.

Thankfully kids tend to be more willing to take that 'risk', but when school often fails to give them the outlet, that hurdle is far from as easy to jump over as it could be. Young people are much smarter and much more creative than people give them credit for, and they live in a world where they're looked on as fragile things made of glass that must be kept away from sunlight and experience at all costs, or horrible hoodie-wearing happy-slapping blights on society—and often not much in-between. Throw on the pressure to grow up in double time with plenty of shiny bits of paper to use as proof they've learned stuff, and that doesn't always leave a lot of space for healthy, imaginative expression. And that's a huge loss. A friend once told me that if you want to cut down youth crime, install a skate park and a graffiti wall in every town. I don't dissagree. I've spoken to youth workers with just the same view. Kids want to express themselves, and if we don't give them a constructive way to do it, we can't really be surprised when it explodes in other ways.

Back on the 'mercenary' note, all this talk about the Harlequin Horizons drama-storm took me a little personally as well. Not because I've had any experience with vanity publishers myself, but because a kid at one of my workshops got caught up with one. While I understand that everyone needs to make money somehow, the vanity method of preying on creators borders on the disgusting. Sure, if you were horribly cynical you could claim it was a tax on people not doing their research. But, when you're talking about convincing a young person to pay £5000 to 'publish' something they could have printed themselves for £200, with only limited editing, marketing and minimal distribution for their money, that steps into 'how do you sleep at night?' territory for me.

Unfortunately the kid that came to me for advice about what it's like to publish something had already signed the contract. They sent it to me to look at, and after how both enthusiastic and anxious they had been in our conversation, having to explain to them the nature of the company that had given them the offer was probably one of the most difficult emails I have ever written. All this would have been bad enough a few years ago, but with the amount of solid Print On Demand services out there, the fact it's not hard to get an ISBN and that some of these services will even throw your work up on Amazon for you... frankly, there's no excuse for this. Especially not when you're landing impressionable young people 5k in debt, taking a huge cut of the profit and then on top of that, taking their intellectual property rights with it.

This is not how we should be treating the people who are writing our future.

For all that anger though, there has probably never been a better time for just getting your stuff out into the public view, and in ways completely accessible for young people. No, you might not make a living out of it, but that doesn't always have to be the point. You can set up a print on demand shop for pretty much no overhead other than your own hard work on your book or comic. If you don't care about selling, you can start a blog, for free, in less time than it takes to make yourself a brew. From what I've seen, the small press scene is still thriving in comics, with new talent rising all the time, some of it from people not even out of their teens.

And this is with a large amount of the population convinced they're not creative, that they can't make things, that there's no point even trying to learn or trying to improve. Which is why when I get to teach, it's one of the most fulfilling experiences in the world. It might only be with a few people, and what they produce might not always be polished... yet. That takes work and practice and development. But potential is potential, and it's a great honour to help open that door. You never know what somebody has in their head.

Just imagine what we could see if they were all given the confidence and opportunity to share it.

Katy Coope is an author, illustrator and web designer based in the UK. She had her first book published at age 16, and her most recent, 'Making Manga Characters', came out last year as part of Collins' Big Cat series. She has a BA and an MA and runs on concentrated geekery, caffeine and spiral power.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lessons of Game Design: Social Contracts and End-User Creativity

Today we have a guestblog from John Evans, please enjoy it!

For those of you who might not know me, my name is John Evans. My father is a computer programmer, and my mother a writer and former English teacher; being raised by them gave me the benefit of several different perspectives on everything. While I've exercised my creativity through both fiction writing (not seriously enough to have anything published) and software development (seriously enough to be paid for it), the one field that has truly captured my imagination is game design.

People have spent thousands of words debating "What is a game and how do you design it?", but I'll just lay out a couple simple working definitions (along with references, for those intrigued!).

A game can consist of a whole bunch of related materials; a game can consist of artwork, scenarios, levels, prose, all sorts of auxiliary assets to improve the experience. The most important aspect, however, are the rules. Rules are instructions to the player(s). In a sense they lay out a social contract; The game designer is saying to the player, "If you follow these rules, you will have a valuable experience." Even 'valuable' could mean many different things, from 'fun' to 'engaging' to 'educational' to 'tragic' to 'cathartic.'

Stepping back for a moment, this description is actually not too different from that of any medium. One could interpret Harry Potter and the Sorc—Philosopher's Stone as being an implicit social contract; J. K. Rowling is saying, "If you read this book from beginning to end, you will have a valuable experience."

The interesting point here is that a game designer does not directly design gameplay; a game designer creates rules that they hope will guide the player into an interesting experience. Think of poker for a moment. The rules define how players assemble hands and how they bet money. But nowhere in the rules is "bluffing" defined; that's an emergent property of the game. Because game designers have to work "at a remove," and for that reason it's sometimes called "second-order design."

But then again, that's not too far off from other media. Any work, like a book, has no meaning if it's not read. One could diagram the sentences and map out the plot, but the true meaning comes when someone gets to the end of the book and says "OMG I never saw that twist coming!" An author is not creating plot twists for the sake of plot twists, an author is designing the experience they wish the reader to have.

Now for another game topic; How are rules enforced? In a computer game, the software is the sole arbiter. It's impossible to fool.

Game: You need a key to get past this gate.
Player: But the fence is only waist-high. Can't I—

Games played with other players are, sometimes, slightly more flexible.

Dungeon Master: You need a key to get past this gate.
Player: But the fence is only waist-high.
Dungeon Master: The fence grows up out of the ground until it is too high to climb. And it's covered with, uh, grease.

Actually, that was a rather silly example. Here's a more serious one:

Black: Okay, I want to move my queen like a knight.
White: That's against the agreed-upon rules. You forfeit your place in this chess tournament and I get the $1000 prize.

The social contract takes on an added meaning in multiplayer games. The players assume that, by entering into the game, they all agree to follow...whatever rules have been agreed upon.

That's not to say that rules are immutable objects. How about this example:

Nought: I move in the top left square. There's only one space left for you to move, and when you do, the game is a draw.
Cross: Okay, instead of moving, I erase one of your earlier moves.
Nought: You can't do that! We didn't agree to it!
Cross: But it might be cool, huh?
Nought: Okay, let's start another game using those rules.

Aha! Two players can play tic-tac-toe with whatever rules they like, because they agree to it. There is nothing that says the rules are completely inviolable. If you break the rules of tic-tac-toe, the world doesn't end, civilization doesn't crumble. You just might have to resolve the issue with your opponent...or you might not have anyone to play with!

Now, remember when I was talking about computer games, and I said a computer is "impossible to fool"? That's a lie. A computer game is defined by a program running on a computer. The information making up that program can always be changed, creating a "modification" (or mod). Some very famous games started out as mods of other games.

Over the years of games being modified, many game developers have started building in facilities to let modders easily change the game assets or code. Modding is often encouraged, as it gives the player community something to talk about and another way to enjoy the game.

Ultimately, I believe that the creativity of the players will become more and more important in computer games. For many games, the experience of playing them is a creative act. And with mods, the players have a growing ability to pursue the type of experience they want to have. Just think of it; soon we might see a Final Fantasy game where you could skip to the end if you wanted to play through it first!

Of course, you can already do that with books.


Recommended Reading

Game Design: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition), Richard Rouse III — Practical and approachable.

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen — For when you want an exhaustive textbook with careful definitions of everything to do with games.

Chaoseed Softward — Free web-based games I designed and coded!

Zombies Need Love Too — A free (but you can pay small bits of money for advantages) Facebook game I designed and coded!

Thanks very much, John. Check out his game design blog, Chaos Garden, or follow him on twitter for more tasty thought-food.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sometimes I get the impression that people believe I seek out ideas that are innovative or different.

I don't. I'm not trying to be different; what I'm doing is familiar—to me.

I've given up working out why it doesn't seem familiar to anyone else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Maria and I bond or something

Dante and Avalon excused themselves to handle the reporting of the former city of London missing. I’m left with Maria to wait for their return. We’ve retraced our route to the steps of the art museum. I can feel the cement through my jeans. Cool like my latte. Only the ceramic mug retains any lingering warmth.

I can’t remember how to make the coffee inside warm again. Stuff just happens because Matt tells it to, so I’m trying that. But the liquid is feeling wholly uncooperative. Means I’m not saying it like I mean it harm if it doesn’t obey. Or the city guardians still have wards up throughout this city to disperse powers before they make things happen. It helps maintain the order of things.

“Fine,” I say. “Don’t be warm. I’ll still drink you.”

Maria looks at me, but it’s not one of fear. Just mild concern. “Is it your fault?”

“Yes. I should have drank it sooner.”

“No.” She almost smiles. I see her mouth twitch. “Whatever happened to London. The scone seems to think you’re to blame.”

“Most people think I’m to blame for most things,” I reply. “I’m the only one of my people who can do what I do. Makes me an easy target.”

“So you can transform cities?”

“No. I can change probabilities.” I frown. “I didn’t have anything to do with what happened to London. At least, I don’t remember having anything to do with it.”

I always do. Remember. Like I’m not capable of forgetting. I didn’t cause whatever happened to London. I know that. What I don’t know is why I’m telling her any of this. She thinks what I can do is relevant. I’m not so convinced.

“So that’s what a Twilight King does.” Maria rubs her feet.

Oh. We have a miscommunication. Failure of understanding. One that should be clarified.

“I’m not the Twilight King.” I try giving the mug a little hug with my hands. Maybe it just needs to feel appreciated. “That’s my brother. I’m the Twilight Prince.”

She blinks. Looks at me like she’s really seeing me. Maybe for the first time. “You’re a prince?”

“It’s not a big deal.” I shrug. “Lots of my people are.”

Vancouver people pass the museum. They’re far enough away that it doesn’t matter. They can’t hear us. Up on the steps is its own place. Part of but not part of what happens on the sidewalk.

We watch them in silence. If the mother or any of her toddler entourage think I stick out, they don’t comment. Probably because the city guardians have trained people to observe but not to notice things. Makes it almost like Vancouver was still on your side of the glass.

Mom and Tots cross the street at the corner. No Art for them. Fine by me. I don’t like young children. They seem unnatural.

“So where are you a prince of?” Maria asks. “Is Twilight the name of a city?”

Depending on when you are, you might think this is a stupid question. You might be wondering how Maria could not know that cities don’t have princes. Kingdoms do. There aren’t any kingdoms when Maria’s from.

“Twilight is the name of our tribe,” I say. “Tribes are like families you’re related to through power instead of genetics.”

She shakes her head. “This is such a weird place.”

“Where you’re from communities are where groups of people live. Here communities are those groups of people.” I abandon my mug on the step between us. “You would say ‘I’m from Emerald.’ Location is what links you and everyone else who lives there together. Mutual geography. Here you would say ‘I’m from the Beauty tribe.’ It’s the power that identifies you.”

Except it isn’t power that identifies her. Her tribe didn’t want her. She doesn’t belong to them. Doesn’t understand why this is such a bad thing. Most of the others like her, the ones who refuse to belong to anyone, are in Vancouver. They had the choice. They could have joined tribes. But, like Maria, they were too used to belonging to a place.

“Each tribe has a prince or a princess. Maybe Both. Maybe more. Depends on the tribe is.” I shrug. “Means your second-in-command to the King and Queen.”

She isn’t following. I can see it in how she’s poised, her mouth slightly open, to argue with me.

“How can you not have cities?” she settles on, finally. “Are you all nomads?”

“No. We have cities. We just don’t use them the same way.”

She’s quiet for a few heartbeats. I watch the family disappear into the distance.

“Do you think that’s what happened to London, Ethan?”

My name has changed. There’s a kindness to the way she says. Not the same as how she says Andy. But she’s finally saying Ethan like it doesn’t frighten her.

“What do you mean, Maria?” I glance at her. “I didn’t have anything to do with that. It got swallowed by the dream fields. Spat out as something else. It happens. No one’s responsible for it.”

“That’s what I mean.” She shifts on the step. Faces me. “What if London isn’t wrong—what if neglect is what caused the city to be eaten by the dream fields?”

She sits back. Crosses her arms. Looks damn pleased with herself. She deserves to. I know that places move without Old Ones and tribes to keep them in place. Never mind we couldn’t find London to keep it from becoming forgotten. History is made by those telling it. Easy-peasey for Stellina to make history include the Twilight King decreeing that the city be abandoned.

“That is exactly what happened.” I lean forward. Slip on my headphones. Listen as hard as I can. Straining for strands of Stellina’s easily recognizable refrain.

Avalon’s not wrong about us needing to speak to London. But he’s not right about us not needing to speak to Stellina. Of course, there’s a trap waiting for us wherever she is. All we can do is be aware and hope the element of surprise will better serve us.

This is twice we’ve been pointed in Stellina’s direction. Got a feeling if we don’t take the hint, we’ll see a third reminder and I’m not risking a waffle showing up.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Interrogation PT 2

“London who?” Maria twists the fork again.

“London, ye cruel beastie!” The scone howls. “Big Ben, Hyde Park, The Tate, Double Decker buses. London.”

Maria eases up on the fork to look at us. “Anyone know what in the Abyss this thing’s talking about?”

Oh. Yeah. I think we do.

“London,” Avalon says. It’s not in the thoughtful tone. It’s in a slightly bewildered one. Not doubtful. He’s been here too long to doubt much of anything.

Dante looks at him. “The missing city?”

“Formerly missing from the sounds of it.” Avalon digs around in his pocket. “Also, formerly a city if we can trust what Sconey MacScone has said.”

Depending on when you’re reading this, you’re at varying levels of confusion. Some background: London is a big city in the south of a country called England. At some point in your future—or past—London vanishes. It’s not the only place. One day—possibly a Thursday—several cities around your world just aren’t there anymore. I won’t go into specifics of why or how. There’s a generally agreed upon explanation among my people that places the blame mostly on your people. Doesn’t matter. You just need to know those cities reappeared in the Twilight Lands.

Unlike Vancouver, we never found London. Except for the Chronograph. Given the evidence of mean scones and exclamation-bomb carrying pancakes, I’d say London also left the Chronograph to torment us. Obviously, the former city has transformed into a douchebag.

“Where’d you get the brilliant idea to go after Ethan?” Maria twists the fork again.

“Ow! Master was told by a lass calling herself Stellina that the Twilight King was to blame.” A whimper. “Please, I beg of ye, lassie—stop forking me.”

She looks to us. Waits. Avalon nods. She pulls the fork free and offers it to him. Accepting, he returns it to the table. Whether he wants it or not, she’s handed him the leadership of our little group. Makes sense. He’s the one with seniority. Dante hasn’t picked a vocation yet. (He’s told me there’s pressure for him to be an accountant like his father.)

“Where can we find this Stellina?” Maria asks.

“No, I’ll not tell ye that.” Sconey MacScone shudders. “I fear her far more than I fear ye.”

Maria reaches for the fork. Avalon stops her with a little shake of his head.

“Looking for Stellina doesn’t address the larger problem.” He traces something on the object he’s pulled out of his pocket. “We need to speak with London.”

“I’ll not tell ye where my master is, either.”

“You will, Sconey MacScone.” Avalon displays the small silver circle in his palm. “I’ve named you.”

A single glyph glows on the mirror. Sconey MacScone has been written above.

“Well played,” Dante says.

Yeah. I wish I’d had the resistance to exclamation marks that would’ve allowed me to think of naming the pancake. Dante would have never had to step in to save me from it later. I could have just made it drown itself in syrup.

“I don’t understand,” Maria says. “Why is naming it a big deal? I mean, how do we even know that’s what it’s called?”

“When you name something, you get power over it,” Dante explains. “Well, you do if you do it properly.”

It’s recommended you to go to school and get certified as a mirror mage first. But if you do, your parents might try to convince you to become an accountant.

Avalon indicates the mirror. “You can challenge this, if you like.”

I think the scone is sulking. It’s making discontent noises as it vibrates slightly on its plate.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Dante crosses his arms. “There’s just a little life in you. It’s not enough will to counter a naming. Even the daf—dumb pancake had more.”

The plate rattles violently against the table.

Maria looks at me. “What’s going on?”

I finger my headphones. “I…really have no idea.”

It’s true. I don’t. As exciting as my life is, angry Scottish not-cakes aren’t something I see a lot. My people are a lot less silly when it comes to their means for revenge.

Dante gets a funny look on his face and grabs either of us. Pulls us away from the table. Avalon grabs his mug—it’s one of those big wide ones—and tosses what’s left inside into a nearby plant. Slams the upside down cup over the plate.

Parts of the scone don’t fit inside. They vibrate madly for another few seconds then explode. Like BOOM. Really. The plate goes skidding the table. Takes the fork with it. Maria yells. Dante grabs her. We duck. Shield our eyes. A cranberry scores a trail of gunky red across my hand.

When the crumbs settle, there’s a cranberry splattered against the nearby wall. Shards of a once-plate and crumbs strew the floor like limbs. Another berry-shrapnel is embedded in the counter.

The barista doesn’t meet my eyes as he walks over. He’s got a broom. And the frown of someone doing everything he can to keep his temper so he doesn’t lose his job.

“I think it’s time you left, sir,” he says to Avalon.

Avalon’s turn to frown. Not at the sir. It looks like a cranberry is smeared across his jacket.

“Of course,” he says. I’m not sure if he’s talking to the barista, but the barista nods and looks satisfied. Avalon’s jacket says nothing.

Dante and Maria untangle from each other. There’s a general lack of blushing. My respect for her increases. Not only is she mean with a fork, she knows the difference between survival and snuggling.

“What happened?” she asks, as the barista leaves. “I mean, I get that the scone thing exploded. But why? Because it wouldn’t do what you told it to?”

“No.” Dante picks crumbs out of his hair. “It was destroyed from afar. There must have been a link to his creator. London was using the scone for surveillance.”

She gives him a look that says and you know this how?

“The plate rattling. Power built up. Overloaded the scone.” He flicks the crumb on the floor. “A vassal that simple can’t hold a great deal of power.”

“Should that be possible?” I ask Avalon. “Since when could former places create things?”

He shrugs. “Last I checked, possible didn’t have a lot of sway once the dream fields were involved.”

The barista clears his throat. In that way meant to assert authority. It doesn’t mean anything. If he thinks we’re city guardians, he knows he can’t really make us leave. Not if we don’t want to. But if we were city guardians, we wouldn’t risk making him feel uncomfortable by staying.

Avalon lifts the mug that’s managed to remain upright on the table. Sniffs it. Pushes it into my hands.

“I don’t see any crumbs in it,” he says. “Finish your latte.”

I point to the mug and give the barista an authoritative look. “I’m taking this with me.”

He sighs. “Fine. Whatever.”

“Thanks.” Dante smiles at him. Guides Maria toward the door with a hand. “We’ll be going now.”

“I’m keeping it, too,” I mutter. Sip my lukewarm sweet caffeine.

“You tell him, E,” Avalon says. Real quiet. So the barista doesn’t actually hear. Neither does Dante.

We leave through the glass doors. Go out into the street. I hear bicycle bells in the distance. Talking. The metallic clack of gates opening. Robson’s no longer asleep.

I don’t think Stellina is as involved in this as Sconey MacScone would have us believe. I know she didn’t send the pancake that claimed to be delivering her message. I can’t doubt she’d tell the former city of London to seek vengeance against the Twilight King. It’s absolutely something she would do, but her harmonies didn’t accompany the pancake attack. Someone’s trying to put the blame on her.

A little while ago for me—again, I don’t know when it was for you—Stellina was involved in something sneaky. She had a deal go bad on her. It’s part of what made Maria Not Right. Why Val isn’t here and Avalon is. How Dante knows about Oliver. Now, it appears it’s also the reason why I was assaulted by my breakfast.

All these threads getting tangled together might make you think of words like Fate and Destiny. I get that. Trufax: There’s a wannabe puppet-master at work here. But let’s not flatter her. This isn’t destiny. She’s working probabilities and people same as I do. Maybe I can’t spin right now, but when I get my rhythms back she is going to get a beat smackdown so big she won’t be able to escape its echoes.

Teach her to ruin pancakes for me.

“So.” Dante tucks his hands in his pockets. “How do we find the former city of London?”

“Simple.” Avalon slips on his jacket. “We report it missing.”

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Interrogation PT 1

The scone hesitates. It must be hesitating, because it isn’t talking. Maybe it’s collecting its thoughts. Not that scones have minds to keep thoughts in, but biology isn’t an exact science where I’m from. We’ve got a lot of things here that shouldn’t logically exist. It’s what happens when you let a bunch of people who can create anything they can think of create anything they can think of.

It didn’t used to be this way. When my parents were alive, there were rules. Laws. The Justice tribe enforced those laws. But that was back before the war. And the other war. There aren’t very many of my people left. Those that remain are scattered. My brother might be King, but there’s no real authority to his title.

I drink my latte. It’s sweet. Fake maple trying too hard to taste real. I don’t care. Between the sweet and the caffeine, I have to hope one of them can turn the master volume up on the probabilities.

“If we’re just going to stare at that thing,” Maria says, “can I eat half of it?”

Avalon smiles. “Sure.”

Maria smiles, too, because it’s hard not to smile when Avalon smiles at you. She reaches for the scone and it lurches on its plate.

“Back, lassie, or I’ll bite ye fingers off!” It wobbles in a threatening manner. “You cannae be eatin’ me if ye wants to know the truth of who pursues you.”

“No one pursues me,” she says. “They’re after Ethan.”

Avalon shoots her a cautionary glance. Guess he hasn’t worked out that she’s new to all this. He should be able to feel that there’s something Not Right about her. Or not. If he just woke up, he’ll be a little groggy. It would explain why he’s hiding out in Vancouver.

“Aye,” the scone says. “For the wee Twilight laddie has offended my great master.”

That doesn’t narrow it down. I’ve lost track of how many people consider themselves offended by something I’ve done. It’s a long list. Not as long as the list of people my brother’s offended. But he has a talent for saying things that send tempers flaring. Not so much doing things. He sort of stopped with doing and focused more on the saying after something he did do he really upset Avalon.

“How so?” Dante asks as he slides into a chair next to me. Places a muffin before a grateful Maria.

“My master was gobbled up by those accursed lands,” the scone says. “And awoke as something else.”

Dante looks at me. I shrug. Avalon rubs a finger against one of his black marks. All three of us trying to find a way to say what should be obvious: I don’t control the dream fields. My brother can when he bothers to make the effort. He doesn’t bother that often anymore. Mostly the fields roam free and do whatever they please. It keeps them happy. Fine by us. When they’re happy, they’re more likely to let us pass through them unharmed.

There used to be people who tended the fields. Dream herders, we called them. I’ve heard that there are still dream herders, but I’ve never met one. Matt and I do a bit of dream tending at the house. We’ve got a little shed that’s bigger on the inside. More than big enough. After all, the dreams kept in it are little ideas. Out in the fields are the big ones. Old enough to have matured into entire worlds. It takes a different kind of person to master their territory. See to their needs.

“And?” I cross my arms. “What does your ‘great master’ want me to do about it?”

“Your neglect caused this transformation.” The scone spits a shriveled little ball of fruit onto the plate.

“Gross.” Maria makes a face and swallows. “Is that blood?”

“I believe it’s a cranberry,” Avalon says. “Which is equally unpleasant.”

“Don’t you mock me,” The scone warns. “I’ll aim the next one at your throat, traitor.”

His fingers move for the fork, but Dante grabs it first. He’s got sisters. He’s used to pre-empting violence.

“Traitor?” Maria reaches for her mocha to wash down the muffin. “Don’t you think you’re over reacting? Way more people than just him eat things like you.”

The scone declines to answer.

It doesn’t escape my notice that she’s very comfortable referring to Avalon as people. Not because we gave her that talking to about calling Old Ones vampires or fairies or Cthulhu. Wait. Maybe we didn’t. Maybe I just told you. Factoring that in, she probably just wants to make kissy faces with Avalon. Looks like the type who likes older guys. Maria. Not Avalon. He likes older women.

Dante gestures for me to lean closer. Maria shouldn’t complain about us whispering. She’s got Avalon to keep her occupied.

“You know what this means?” Dante asks me.

“Maria might have a crush on Avalon?”

“Ha ha.” He doesn’t actually think it’s funny. “Whoever’s manipulating the scone must have sent the pancake. You said the pancake was the me kind of silent, after all, and only one of my people would call my uncle a traitor.”

“Not really, Andy. There are a lot of my people who share that sentiment.”

He looks puzzled. “But he—”

I shake my head. “But nothing. He came from Over There.”

“My master’s been told all about ye,” the scone continues. “How ye abandoned your family. How ye cannae be trusted.”

“Abandoned my family.” Avalon says it in that slow, thoughtful way that reminds me more of the King of Judgment. Like he’s carefully considering the matter. Deciding which way to rule on it. When he does, it’ll be game over. You don’t argue with the King of Judgment. It’s like arguing with Death. No matter what you say, you’re staying dead.

Unless you’re a zombie. Avalon does not like zombies. He says they make a terrible mess.

“Aye.” The scone spits another cranberry on the plate. Maria’s right. It does look like congealed blood. Definitely unpleasant.

“Master,” Dante whispers to me. “That makes it fairly easy. Not a lot of masters back home.”

He’s calm again. I can hear it in how he’s keeping his accent hidden. Good. I’m cranky. The not-cake is spitting cranberries and insults at Avalon. We need someone who’s able to diffuse the situation. Not really fair it always has to be Dante, but that’s what he gets for being so dependably rational for most of today. Tomorrow someone else can take over.

“Well.” Avalon leans against his chair and crosses his arms. “You haven’t told us a bloody thing we didn’t already know. I don’t see a reason not to eat you.”

He looks at Maria.

“I’m not really hungry anymore,” she says. “That muffin took the edge off.”

Obviously it’s her first time at the interrogation rodeo.

“This is a really good mocha,” she adds. “If it sucked, I’d totally let you dunk that scone thingie in it.”

“Thanks.” Avalon reaches for his tea.

The scone makes a threatening noise. Or as threatening of a noise as a scone can make. It sounds mostly like it’s about to huck another cranberry.

Dante surprises us all when he casually breaks off one of the scone’s corners. I had no idea coffee had that effect on him. Must remember this for later. Caffeine + Dante = Kick-starting the Revolution. Or possibly just violence. Either probability is good to know about.

The scone is so stunned it takes it a few seconds to realize what’s happened. Then it lets out a little war cry and spits a cranberry at Dante. Hits him in the cheek hard enough to leave a mark. Or at least part of the mushy berry.

Maria spears the scone with the fork. Jabs it right into the center of the pastry. The plate rattling and howling stops.

“That was not cool,” she says. “We had a deal. You told us who sent you, and we only ate half of you. You weren’t telling anything we didn’t already know.”

Ok, I take it back. Maria catches on fast. She’ll fit in great with my people.

“Now.” Maria twists the fork a little. “You tell us a name. Or I’m going to start breaking you into bite-size pieces so we can all eat you.”

The scone whimpers in pain.

Avalon meets my gaze. His definitely says bloody hell, Ethan, where did you find this psycho? I shrug. We tend to forget the lesson of those serrated flower petals: Beauty is often hiding something bloodthirsty.

“All right! All right!” The scone somehow looks defeated. It could be the way little pieces are crumbling off its broken end. “I’ll give ye a name: London.”

Sunday, November 01, 2009

NaNo Traveling Tips

For the past few months (or year) my life has felt a lot like this picture. Sitting at a red light, waiting to cross from Hope to something more tangible. Fuel in the tank, the road clear ahead, but unable to get there because of a traffic signal.

That’s the frustrating thing about red lights. Why we dislike them. Why some of us would rather run them and risk an accident than have to sit and wait for the light to change. Change is fickle. It comes uninvited, when we’re least prepared to host it—yet we hate waiting for it to arrive.

All this time, my thoughts were filled with where I planned to be. Peace is hard to come by when all you hear is a voice whispering that you’re late. You should have been at this point by now. You would have been if you’d done this or not done that.

What does this have to do with NaNoWriMo? Everything. You see, NaNoWriMo focuses on the notion that 1667 (or 1666.66666666... to be exact) words a day for 30 days can produce a manuscript. It is when those of us who say I could do that, put it to the test. For a month, we all become novelists. Alchemists turning ideas into stories. Kings and Queens of Inspiration.

Why not? November, my friends, is a time for grand gestures. A month when the Great War ended. When it seems possible for our little wars against lack of motivation, fear, doubt, and excuses to end, too. In November, through our grand gestures, we can create peace. We can stop focusing on the red light, and instead see that this is a one way street. The only way to change direction is to turn off. Give up. Take ourselves out of the game.

Sure, there are more lights ahead. But they’re ahead. We’re here. Now. This moment.

People always say I’m having a moment like it’s a bad thing. Really, it’s not. I hope you all have moments this month where you find yourself smiling for no reason other than you love what you’re doing. Moments of brilliance, clarity and accomplishment. Moments when time ceases to exist and the “magic” happens.

I hope you have those every month.

Even if you never arrive at 50,000 words, you’ll still learn how make time for the words you do write. You may even come to realize where you are is more important than where you’ve been or where you’re going.

Enjoy the ride. Keep your eyes open. As our Ethanael is fond of saying: There is no getting lost. There are only unscheduled side trips.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Blenz Pt 2

“Oh there be the wee Twilight laddie,” a cranky voice says.

I am not turning around. We will just go find another coffee shop. This is Robson. There are many.

“Look, I don’t know what you two are on,” Barista says, “but we’ve got other customers and you can’t be bothering them, ok?”

I glance toward the only other customer. He’s lifted his gaze from whatever had his attention and gives me one of those O RLY? looks. Then his violet gaze moves from me to the counter. He raises an eyebrow. Reaches for his hood.

“Don’t be ignoring me, laddie.” The scone rattles on its plate. I’m slightly disturbed by the fact that it doesn’t even have a mouth. It’s got a voice that comes from somewhere inside. Food shouldn’t have talky faces, but food definitely shouldn’t talk without a face.

“Stop that,” the barista says.

“He’s not doing it,” Maria says. “I mean, I don’t think he is.”

Her faith in me is so comforting.

A chair pushes back softly, as the only other customer stands. “Ventriloquism isn’t one of Ethan’s skills.”

Maria looks at him. Interested. Maybe even trusting. Until her eyes land on those black facial markings. She doesn’t even know what they mean. She can’t. Doesn’t matter. There’s some lizard-monkey-bird-deep-old part of her brain that has some inkling of what he is. I know, because her frozen oh of surprise is the same expression she gave when Dante took off his goggles.

There are things you see without your eyes. Longer you spend in the Twilight Lands, the more obvious those things become.

Avalon is a perfect example. He disarms people. He has less Hope in him than Dante does, but more than enough to be dangerous. Avalon smiles not like you can trust him, not like you should trust him, but like you’d be stupid not to trust him. You do trust him. You just can’t shake the feeling that doing so is going to get you in trouble.

If you’ve heard of my friend Valentine, this all probably sounds familiar. But it’s not Val in the coffee shop. He’s the namesake. This is the original. The first. Valentine Avalon.

I’d like a moment of privacy with Avalon to express our mutual delight in seeing each other again in a manly fashion. Fist-bumps and appropriate exchanges of dude and maybe a one-armed hug. Like brothers who aren’t really brothers greet each other. You know. But you were probably thinking something else. Something naughty.

Howev, there will be no reunion ritual of not-really-brothers-brotherhood. Maria and the barista and an angry-sounding scone are sort of in the way. So I’ll just tell you: I am glad to see Avalon. Mostly because I’ve gotten to see him first. Before Dante did. Ha.

I start smiling. Forming the words of hey long time no see when the scone throws itself against my head. Let me tell you something about scones. They are dense. The kind of dense that hurts. I’m not proud of it, but I wobbled a little after it hit me.

The barista reacted in a very professional manner by screaming “Ahh! What the fu—” as he dived behind the counter. Maria just stared. Apparently self-animated bread products aren’t as worrying as rolling changes. Or she thinks I’m not as fragile as Dante. Maybe. Maybe not. What I am is wobbling away from the counter, clutching my head and trying not to tell the scone just what I think of being hit by a loudmouth Scottish not-cake.

Avalon handles it. He’s very good at handling things. The scone does another lunge and Avalon seizes it. Just grabs it like everyone should know how to grab baked goods in mid-flight. Swiping a fork from a bin on the counter, he jabs the scone.

The scone screams a yeast-less shriek of pain and says something extremely unkind and very presupposing about Avalon’s mother. Avalon doesn’t so much as flinch. The dude’s hunted werewolves and vampires and all sorts of things that aren’t supposed to exist. A foul-mouthed scone doesn’t even register on his threat-o-meter. Trust me.

He just gives the barista a very calm look. “I don’t suppose you have any jam?”

The scone goes very still. “You wouldn’t.”

“Aye, I would.”

“He totally would,” I add. “Wouldn’t he, Maria?”

“Probably. I don’t know.” She shakes her head then looks at the barista. “Can I get that mocha?”

“Obviously it wants to be eaten.” Avalon smiles. “Why else would it be throwing itself at us?”

“I’m so hungry I would eat it without any jam,” I say. My stomach growls. I’m not sure it’s in agreement.

“No, you cannae eat me!” The scone shakes in Avalon’s grip. “We can make a deal.”

“I’m not in the habit of bargaining with baked goods.” Avalon glances at me. “If it’s going to be so rude, we ought to just throw it in the bin.”

“I will tell ye who sent me!” The scone says.

“That would be rather helpful.”

“If I tell ye, will ye only eat half o’ me?”

“We’ll consider it,” I say.

The scone shudders again. “Ye drive a hard bargain, laddie.”

Avalon smiles like it’s just like before. It kind of is. Except we never fought pastries before. The vicious food items is definitely a now thing.

“Is this—it is—” The barista peeks up from behind the counter at Avalon. “You know. One of those things I’m supposed to report to the guardians.”

“No need,” Avalon says. “We’ve got this.”

The barista swallows. Studies Avalon. Draws some sort of conclusion. Nods.

“They had drinks.” Avalon smiles at the barista. “A very large mocha and a maple latte macchiato, I believe.”

Having been to Vancouver with Avalon before, I know this is going to go one of two ways. Way One: Mr. Barista decides we’re with the city guardians and he should be business as if a scone didn’t just attack one of us. Way Two: Mr. Barista decides we’re exactly the kind of things he needs to report to the guardians.

I’m hoping it’s Way One. I need the caffeine.

“Right.” The barista gets to his feet. “Any chance those could be to go, sir?”

Here’s some more advice for if you ever find yourself in the Twilight Lands: Don’t address Avalon as sir. There are people who you can. Dante’s dad, for example. You call him sir. He might insist that you do. Not Avalon. Sir makes him feel old.

“No.” Avalon doesn’t lose his smile. “We’ll be staying.”

I think the barista swears. Not out loud. Not under his breath. With his inside voice. Avalon ignores him. Keeps the scone tight in one fist. Goes over to the window and knocks the knuckles of his free hand against the glass.

It must be to get Dante’s attention. Avalon waves a little. Gestures for Dante to join us inside.

“I’ve got a table.” Avalon nods his head to where he’d been sitting.

The scone has been strangely silent. I’d like to think it’s scared into behaving like a normal breakfast item. I’m not so sure. Because hungry as I am—and my head really hurts—I’m not sure how I feel about eating any portion of something that’s talking. Jam or no jam.

Maria’s watching me rub my head.

“You ok?” she asks.

“Yeah. Sorry,” I mumble. Make my way to Avalon’s table. “This is a stranger than usual Thursday.”

Maria shrugs and follows. “I sort of gave up on things being normal.”

“Probably for the best, that,” Avalon says.

“This is your friend.” Maria lowers her voice. “The one who’s supposed to be able to help.”

I nod.

“Is he related to Andy?” she asks. “There’s sort of a resemblance.”

I nod again.

She gives me a frustrated look. “Does he have a name?”

“Avalon,” I say.

“Avalon?” She looks like she might laugh. “What kind of name is that?”

I don’t tell her: The kind that makes even the most valiant of my people lower their voices and look over their shoulders. I just shrug. Let her assign meaning to it.

Cool air moves through the coffee shop as Dante opens the door and joins us. He pockets the compass as the barista places our drinks on the hand off. The disturbance with the scone distracted from the fact that I didn’t pay for anything. Hopefully Dante doesn’t remind anyone.

We sit at the table. Dante delivers our drinks with a smile to Maria and a nod to his auburn-haired uncle. Avalon returns the nod. Then Dante’s gone again—probably to fetch Maria’s forgotten muffin and get his own cup of coffee.

Avalon carefully places the scone on the table before us. He removes the fork but keeps it close at hand.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s have us that wee chat, yeah?”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blenz Pt 1

Decisions. Decisions. We fight throughout childhood to assert we’re adults and that means we get to make our own. When you’re the last child of a dying people, you fight that much harder for that much longer. Because once I’m widely accepted as an adult then it really is all over for us.

Dante hasn’t noticed Maria’s gone. Compass has him enthralled. His people are very big on how things work. Especially him. He’s got a need to fix things. Loves to take them apart and try to put them back together better. Gets it from his Dad. Yeah. The accountant. That Dante’s so thrilled by a new tool is a good sign. He might be balancing. Fading out the Hope. If he’s resyncing…

I slide my headphones on. Listen. I know. Maria doesn’t sound right. Finding her would be hard even if I was back to how I should be—and I’m not. Nope. But Vancouver is a city of songs. A city filled with people who do sound like they should. Finding discord among all that harmony is so much easier than finding it among the wilds of the dream fields. Just like it should be easier to find Avalon’s familiar rhythm of silence.

Oh. So that’s what Dante was getting at. Sometimes I wonder where his insights come from. One of these times I’ll ask him. Just not this one.

Maria’s incomplete scales are lost among all the complete ones. I think I hear her echoes, but it’s too faint and… Well, it’s sort of unnecessary. I can see her distinctly green dress through a window behind us. She may not have fled. Or maybe she did and she’s just really bad at it.

A cup with little wavy lines to indicate its contents are hot is in a circular emblem on the doors of the shop. I was wrong. Not everything is closed. Maria’s just found one of the few things that would have a reason to be open when it’s early.

“You want a coffee?” I ask Dante. Maria slips behind the part of the shop’s exterior that’s stacked blocks of grey something.

“Depends.” He takes a step toward crossing Bute. “Is it really coffee? Or is it one of those mostly milk and flavor things you drink?”

“I’m hungry. I need caffeine.” I jerk my thumb at the shop. “I’ll be inside.”

“Ethan.” He looks up from the compass. “Do you have any money?”

He has to be resyncing. Only Normal Dante would think to ask if I had a way to pay for coffee and not notice that Maria isn’t beside me.

“Find Avalon.” I roll my shoulders. My headphones knock against my collarbones. “Don’t worry about me.”

He nods. Goes back to frowning over the compass. Avalon shouldn’t be this hard to find. There must be a guardian nearby. They’d be the only thing that might throw Dante off. Confuse the signals. Or whatever it is he picks up on. Unless he’s having as much trouble as I am.

I hope Avalon knows how to get us back to normal. He is, after all, a wealth of obscure information. Sometimes obscure useless information.

I shove against the door. Pointlessly. Did Maria secure it behind her? Oh no. Wait. It just pulls open. Like it says on that little sign there. Stupid non-intuitive door.

Inside the shop smells of coffee. Warmth presses against my neck and face. Tries to seep in between my sleeves and gloves. I didn’t think it was “cold” outside, but interior temperatures must be how Vancouver tracks seasons.

Someone in a black polo shirt starts to call hello, but the word cuts off halfway. Brown eyes widened a little, as the blood drains from his face. Still, even faded he has more color than me. Leaving me to wonder if I’ve been to this coffee place before. Avalon has warned me that I make quite the impression. Apparently.

I pretend to study the menu as I scan the place. A guy in a hooded sweatshirt, his hood up, is bent over something at a table at the far end of the shop. Something sits in a cup beside him. A blazer-style jacket hangs off the back of his chair.

Maria is nowhere to be seen. But I hear the sound of flushing from the direction of the bathrooms. Ok. So she may not have been making an escape. She might have just had to pee.

“I’d like a Maple Latte Macchiato,” I tell the barista with Wide Brown Eyes. “Please.”

Avalon has expressed it’s important to say please and thank you. Like my being polite somehow makes me easier for people to handle. Oh noes, don’t let the purple hair worry you—I’m really gosh darn nice if you get to know me.

You know better. I’ve been honest with you. I’m rarely nice. It’s not a dominant trait of my genetics.

The barista nods and rings this up, as the door to the bathroom opens. Maria steps cautiously out.

“Is that everything?” The barista asks.

“No.” I point to the pastry case. “I’d like one of those scone thingies, too, and whatever she’s having.”

Maria freezes at the she. Like she thought I hadn’t noticed her and she could just slip out the door behind me. The barista looks at her then at me. Shrugs. Normally people with me get more of a WTF no really why? kind of look, but Maria is dressed like the kind of individual who belongs with someone like me.

“What are you doing, Ethan?” she hisses.

“Breakfast,” I reply. “Andy wasn’t hungry, remember?”

She gives me a suspicious look then glances at the menu. “A mocha. A big one. And one of those muffins.”

I disapprove of muffins. They’re tricksters. Make you think you’re going to get a cake, but you get something that isn’t cake instead. Mean mean muffins. No point telling Maria this. She obviously disagrees.

The barista puts my scone on a plate. Goes to get a muffin for Maria. To her credit, she hasn’t asked how I intend to pay for this. Doubt it’s faith in me holding her tongue. She probably hasn’t considered that I wouldn’t have money. Your people rarely go anywhere without it.

“Thanks,” she mumbles to me.

“You’re welcome,” I say. “We can talk shoes after I get caffeine in me.”

Creation is not a simple wiggle your nose, snap your fingers kind of task. It takes concentration. Focus. Visualization. Caffeine helps the process. Really. Matt swears by it. He also tends to swear at people before he’s gotten it. I completely understand why now. Creation is a total bitch.

Maria’s eyes widen. “Did you see that?”

No. I was looking at her. “See what?”

She points to the counter. “Your cake thingie moved.”

I sigh. Breakfast has been cursed. Again. Fan-freakin-tastic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cotton and China

Dear Agent M,

Like half of most couples, I forgot our anniversary. Sorry, I didn't write it down. I did send you that outline for the steampunk manuscript, which you may or may not have received. Mercury Retrograde and all that. (This also explains why I spent the majority of last week thinking that there was some significant milestone that I was forgetting.)

We've both been busy. It's true. In the past year:

• We've gone out on submission with THE TALE OF ARIAKE, my first adult manuscript.
• We've revised and gone on submission with FRAGMENTS, my first young adult manuscript.
• We're revising SHARDS, the second of that YA series.
• We've talked about a third project—and you didn't treat me like I was crazy when I pitched it, despite that it is a somewhat crazy proposal.
• We've seen the release of the title from our first negotiated contract The Tarot Cafe Novel: The Wild Hunt.

That's just what you've been doing with me. Your other clients have been working hard, too.

Of course, these aren't the only reasons that I adore working with you, Dear M. There are all those little things, like how you can translate the dialect of English I write into things other people can understand. Or how you can sound optimistic when I can't. How when I answer how I'm doing with "Neil Gaiman signed my book!" you understand it means "I'm fan-freakin-tastic." How you just laugh when I nick things from am inspired by Doctor Who. Oh, and you recommended Cory Doctorow's Little Brother to me, which resulted in some serious book love. (Did I tell you I met him at WorldCon? He is so cool.)

Plus, you've been doing this for free for the past year. It hasn't been easy on me, and I appreciate that you've stuck it out through the passes and the silence. It means so much to have someone else consenting to my reality.

So here's to another year and everything that it'll bring to us.
xo xo

PS Is it Barbara who always seems to answer the agency's phone? I should really send her a holiday card, too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Robson and Bute

Robson is shops, neon, steel and glass. Cuts through the visible heart of Vancouver. A Known street, a street that burns brightest in the fading memories of the people here. Like Stanley Park. Which isn't a street, but you know what I mean. If you don't, just smile and nod. We've got places to go. Avalons to find.

Before the city vanished, before it was dream field property, film crews and location scouts dressed Vancouver up as other places. Had it play a game of make-believe. Stay still and be Kansas. Boston. An undisclosed American future. Beneath it all, Vancouver remained Vancouver. We have a lot in common, this city and I. We're both gamers.

When you get gamers together, you get a game. I don't know yet which one Vancouver is playing with me.

Downtown is soaring modern among solid stone history. Reminds me of the Lost District in Emerald. Maybe Maria's thinking the same thing. Maybe not. She doesn't seem the type to spend time there. Have spent.

Dante's right: I think about her like she's a temporary visitor.

Didn't have that problem with Avalon. Soon as he went silent, I knew he wasn't going anywhere. Except Over There. Which he did. For a while. Until he came back to us. When he did, we made him sleep. He's not sleeping anymore. He's here. Well, not with me. Not yet. But he is somewhere in the city. Dante's sure of it, and Dante's someone you can trust. He doesn't game. Doesn't frame his words to suit what he wants you to see. Or he just doesn't do it as deliberately as I do.

So he leads. We follow.

I can't see the glass cage of the shopping center anymore. I can't even see the grey stone building of columns and steps that obscured the way we came. It was some kind of art museum. We're blocks past it and the other illusions of open space. Shops crowd us. They line the street expectantly. Waiting. Like they know something we don't.

I can guess they know we shouldn't be here. Not now in the slumbering quiet. The kind not so easily broken. This isn't your world’s city quiet. Not fragile like snowflake and spun glass. This silence dreams. Shapeless ones that press against me as they pass. I itch. The part of me that's Creation longs to form things. Give substance to thought. Ideas. Nightmares.

Creation is restless. It paces. It doesn't like being caged. Wants to run. So do I. Instead I play follow the leader. Ignore the urge to provide a reason for Dante to move his feet faster.

"We're close." He searches the street. "Anything, Ethan?"

I shake my head. It's pointless trying. The music's almost gone—smothered by my Creation side. Headphones hanging around my neck, I'm hearing all sorts of other things I don't usually. Our shoes against the sidewalk. Maria sucking air in through her teeth. The restless pounding of my pulse.

I always wondered what I'd be like without the music. No harmonies or auditory cues. If I'd learn humility and kindness and all those things your people sing the praises of. I don't think so. With the music quiet, with Creation in control, I'm just as self-absorbed. Maybe the likes of me isn't meant for kindness.

All I know is if I don't get the music back soon, I'll lose my mind to this silence. I'd ask you how you function surrounded by it, but you probably wonder how I function exposed to constant sound. It's easy: I read lips. When I can't see mouths, I just listen for what is most probable response.

Another street called Bute slices across Robson. Everything is divided into neat little blocks. Bites for easy consumption.

This used to be a High Street, as Avalon would call it. Lots of shopping for tourists. Vancouver doesn't get many tourists anymore. There are still shops. Some of them cater to the designated wealthy. Some are specialty. All of them are currently closed. It must be early.

Odd that we haven't seen a chronograph yet. From what I can remember, this place was strangled by them. You couldn't get more than a few blocks without seeing one. They were like those green coffee places. You know. Where the people were always wearing green. The coffee wasn’t.

"Do we know where we're going?" Maria asks.

This knowing is a very big deal for her. It's how I know she doesn't know anything at all. I'm not being fair to her. Not being kind. Not even attempting to make it sound like she's someone who deserves kindness. I'm not good at sympathy. Better at empathy. Usually. Dante is more the sympathetic one. I guess he's suffered more of the little sufferings that make pity an easier reaction.

"Yeah." He runs a hand through his hair. "We're close."

"So you said." She picks at the ribbons around her ankles. "But that doesn't answer my question."

He doesn't scowl at her like he'd scowl at me if I'd said it. He just looks apologetic.

"Wherever we need to go is close," he says.

She shakes her head.

"You don't have any shoes." I point to her feet. "That doesn't seem hygienic at all."

If you want to stop people from arguing when they're arguing to avoid admitting they want to make kissy faces with one another, you should change the subject. Say something that makes them think about something else. Like that one of them doesn't have any shoes.

"One of you finally noticed." Maria sticks her hands on her hips. "That's right, Ethan, I don't have shoes. Are you offering to carry me?"

"No, I'm offering an observation. Maybe if you were a little nicer to me I'd offer a solution."

Maybe you think saying that makes me sound like my brother. You'd be wrong. Matt would have vocalized his disdain for her as soon as they met.

"If I was nicer to you?" Her voice rises. Those city dreams scatter. Dispersed by the pitch.

"One of us has to be the adult." I shrug. "Thought girls matured faster than boys."

Her eyes go wide then narrow. Her lips press together. I can't hear her anger, but I know her expression's striking those chords.

"Enough." Dante says it in that perfectly crisp way Avalon would. It means Dante's annoyed. To the point where he's forgetting to hide his accent.

Maria and I aren't enough to push him into that territory. He must be having trouble finding Avalon. I guess asking me if I could sense anything wasn't just for conversation's sake.

"You are so self-involved, Ethan," Maria says. "We're lost in some forgotten utopia and you're just noticing that I don't have any shoes."

Nowhere in the Twilight Lands is a utopia. It's all just places. Good. Bad. Missing. I don't tell her this. Just like I don't tell her that her telling me I'm self-involved wasn't necessary. Instead, I dig in my pocket. Pull out the compass. Offer it to Dante. It's not doing me any good.

"Ta." He takes it. Lowers his voice. "Do you reckon it can pinpoint Avalon?"

"Figure out how to make it find him," I reply. "I'll be working on shoes for her."

"That'd be rather kind of you." He swings the compass this way and that. Watches the needle respond. "Oh, I see. It moves."

With that taken care of, it's my turn to mollify Maria. Only she isn't there.