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?”

“Possibly.”

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 www.countmystars.com

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—
Game: YOU NEED A KEY TO GET PAST THIS GATE

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.

Hmmm...

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.

Godspeed.