Notes from the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con

Written By: Paul Toth - Aug• 16•14

With the 2014 Comic-Con firmly in the rearview mirror, and thought I’d jot down a few impressions. Don’t expect a detailed rundown on the con, or a comprehensive photo gallery. There are plenty of blogs that provide such fare, and I’m way too lazy to do in depth reporting.

Costumes: What Was “In” for 2014

The most popular women’s costume by far was Daenerys Targaryen, from Game of Thrones. A platinum blond wig, rough-cut skirt, and a v-top that shows a bit of tummy, and a lady is ready rock the con. A medieval-ish dress in solids works too, since the character wears these later in the series. Wonder Woman continues to be a favorite.

As for the dudes—lots of Wolverines this year, and at least a half dozen Deadpools. Not as many videogame based characters as in years past. I suppose these things go in cycles.

Hall H

This isn’t really specific to 2014, but I thought I’d write a few words about the myth, the horror, the forbidden golden chalice that is Hall H. The most star-studded panels (such as the one for The Avengers) convene in Hall H—a mammoth space that seats somewhere around five thousand people. Despite its size, demand exceeds supply, resulting in a line that’s the stuff of legend. It starts out at the main entrance to the hall, winds around one of the major thoroughfares, and then extends outside the convention center. About a half mile worth of the queue curls back and forth beneath canvas awnings to the south of the convention center, and then snakes all the way down to the marina. How much of the shoreline it covers, I don’t know. It’s like one of those bottomless pits, with dimensions beyond human ken.

People often get in the line the night before, and are issued a limited number of bathroom passes. I assume there are porta-potties somewhere nearby, though I’m not sure where. Those that show up earliest come prepared to camp out, with provisions, ponchos, and folding furniture. Maybe illicit pee-jugs, too—it wouldn’t surprise me. There are probably rules that prohibit bringing your own generator.

No wonder one of the prominent t-shirt shops on the main floor sells garb emblazoned with various “I Survived Hall H” designs.

Writer’s Panels

Comic-con isn’t just for fans. Many pros and would-be pros attend, and there’s a slice of the con that caters to them. Panels featuring prominent artists (I attended one with Jim Lee, one of the giants) draw the biggest crowds, but there are also quite a few that focus on writing. I found one entitled “The Writer’s Room” particularly interesting. A half dozen television writers talked about the nature of writing for TV, and did so in startling depth. The stuff I learned really deserves its own blog article, and if there’s enough interest, I’ll write it. For now, it’ll suffice to say that the old system, which depended largely on freelancers, is largely dead, with a rigid, hierarchical, guild-like system in its place. Not at all what I would have imagined, and disappointing on some level.

Most Entertaining

The most entertaining panel was probably the one for Grimm. The interplay between the actors and creators was amusing, and at one point we were treated to the screening of an exclusive short that showed the show’s character’s reacting to the aftermath of the previous season closer. It was clever, and tongue-and-cheek—a great fit for the tone of the panel as a whole. As is often the case with Comic-con panels, the talent seemed genuinely pleased to be there, and eager to answer questions from members of the audience.

Kiefer Sutherland was there to promote the latest 24 DVDs, and the panel consisted entirely of him and the latest season’s director. Sutherland dove into a number of anecdotes, and they proved interesting and occasionally hilarious. Some television stars seem to lack charisma and presence in person, but Sutherland certainly doesn’t have this problem.

While waiting for Mythbusters (another terrifically entertaining panel, and probably deserving of its own article), we attended Person of Interest. I don’t watch the show (found the pilot asinine) but enjoyed the panel interesting nonetheless. I happened to be seated near the end of the riser occupied by Jewel Staite (of Firefly, along with Stargate Atlantis, and, more recently, The Killing). For anyone who’s wondering if she’s as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you might think… um, yes. Lots of eye candy for the ladies as well, but for details you’ll have to read someone else’s blog. Sorry, my reporting is not balanced.

Entrepreneurs

The majority of the booths on the con’s immense ground floor are occupied by small businesses. They sell collectibles, memorabilia, costumes, wigs, miniatures (including incredible hand crafted pieces), magazines, comics (of course) and a thousand other items of interest to the geekazoid convention goer. The booths that really caught my eye were run by independent creators hawking their own comics. In most cases, these were modern, slickly produced products with high quality art—comics that would have looked right at home on the shelves of a heavily trafficked shop in midtown Manhattan. These people invested serious time, money, and effort in their creations.

Because there are some many well-known attractions, it’s difficult for these indies to get attention—there are usually only a handful of people at these booths, if that. I think the goal isn’t really to move product, it’s to draw the attention of established professionals that attend the con. These fledgling creators are out to woo the gatekeepers. I admire them a great. They’re hoping to find toeholds in an industry that is very, very difficult to break into (unless you’re connected) and are willing to bust their asses to do it. Kudos.

Now that I think of, this subject really requires its own article as well. Sadly, there are only so many hours in the day.

 

Autographs

Sadly, the way autographs are signed at Comic-Con has changed, and not for the better. In fact, I fear that the change in autographing may be a veritable canary in the coal mine, presaging a serious decline in the quality of the con.

I should probably start by saying that I’m not much for autographs. When I picked up a copy of the first Walking Dead compendium, Robert Kirkman was signing the books, but think that’s pretty much the only autograph I’ve ever asked for. I just never saw the point. That said, I think the way the con treats people who are into such things is important, because it’s emblematic of the organizational philosophy.

In years past, celebrity autographs were given out in a fairly ad-hoc manner. For instance, the stars of a TV show might take seats at a booth—typically just after their panel—and fans would cluster around the booth and form a sort of sloppy line. I never braved these clusters—I’m not really fond of being hip-to-hip in a sweaty mass of humanity, and, as I mentioned, not really into autographs anyway—but I found the joyous, frenetic mood infectious. When the Chuck cast gathered for one such session, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the unbearably sexy Yvonne Strahovski—IMHO, one of the most luscious actresses ever to grace the small screen.

Now, things are different. There’s a single, large booth on the main floor where all autographs are signed, and pictures are taken. A schedule with the names of participating celebrities is posted ahead of time, along with a pricelist. X dollars for an autograph, Y for an autograph and a pic, etc. with the biggest celebs costing the most to access.

Yuck.

Not to be hating on the MBAs, but the whole thing stinks of business school short term profit optimization logic. Bowing to this sort of reasoning is a good way to cripple an organization, event, company, or brand, because it involves painfully simplistic thinking that ignores the nuances of cultural phenomena and human behavior. It ignores cool. Shame on you, Comic-Com organizers, for going down this path. By maximizing the monetization of access to celebrities, by erecting additional tollbooths that customers must traverse, the con is robbed of the egalitarian appeal at its core. What if every aspect of the con worked like this? Right now, access to hall H is, frankly, a matter of fanaticism, which makes sense, because Comic-Con is all about the fans (fanaticism, get it?) and that’s cool. Pathetically geeky, perhaps, but cool nonetheless. Comic-Con could easily improve Hall H monetization by charging people to get in line. There would be plenty of takers. Organizers could optimize further by selling very expensive VIP passes that let rich or especially fanatical individuals bypass the line altogether, and by adding another pricing tier above that for assigned seating in the front row. Don’t think that some MBA hasn’t already proposed this, and patted himself on the back for his “genius”.

Imagine, if you will, a perfectly monetized Comic-Con milieu, with the plum experiences carefully parceled out the wealthy, and to crazed celebrity worshippers willing to empty their 401Ks for a moment next to their idols. The con would go from epic cool to epic fail very, very quickly.

The X-Box Pavilion

Comic-con is ostensibly based in the San Diego convention center, but despite the SDCC’s impressive size, the convention long ago overflowed its banks. The con’s events and attractions have spilled out onto the acres of grassy fields across the train tracks and occupy many of the conference rooms in neighboring hotels such as the Marriott and Hyatt. This year, Microsoft took over a 20,000ish square foot space in the Marriott and dedicated it to promoting the X-Box, with dozens of consoles set up in comfortably spaced booths, a large stage, and a cushy lounge. Basically a con within a con. The whole space was redefined to suit the gamer persona—massive Halo wall decorations, custom lighting, actors in costume, you name it.

Pat, one of my long-time buds, was at the con with his thirteen year old son, Shawn. They spent much of their time in X-Box Land, checking out all the new games MS is promoting for the upcoming year. One of them is a dungeon crawl in which several players control adventurers in search of loot, and one controls the dungeon, trying to slay the adventurers by deploying tricks, traps, and monsters. The game was just out beta, which means the version being played was probably very close to the one that will eventually be released in stores. It was developed by a crew in the UK who had been flown out for the con. They were there both to promote the game and watch it being played by groups of likely customers.

Pat and Shawn turned out to be dungeon crawling virtuosos. Pat managed to wipe out an entire party of adventurers on the game’s first level, something the designers hand never seen done, and hadn’t believed possible. Shawn exposed a bug in the game, something that might have cost the company a huge amount of money to deal with if the product had gone to market without a fix. He was made an honorary member of the development team, given an exhibitor badge, and invited to work for them as an intern next summer (What are the child labor laws like in the UK? I have no idea.) Logistically, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as might be expected, as Shawn mother lives in England, not far from where the game development team is based (Surrey, I think).

I’ve included this anecdote to illustrate how wide-ranging the effect of Comic-con can be. It’s not just a place to ogle celebrities and purchase nerdy goods. Crazy, unexpected shit can and does happen, when enough geekiness is concentrated in one place. A critical mass is achieved, I think, and a sort of weapon of mass creation (WMC?) comes into being.

Will we be attending Comic-con next year? I’ll consult my Elven-language magic eight ball and let you know.

As soon as I learn Elven.

First Light – Chapter 3

Written By: Paul Toth - Jun• 28•14

 

This is the third chapter of my fantasy novella First Light. I’m posted each chapter to my blog, with accompanying art depicting a scene from the chapter. So far, Nick Deligaris has been kind enough to pen three of the illustrations. Though First Light features a young protagonist, it is not YA.

 

Prilya hated crutches. She hated the way they dug into her armpits. She hated the weird, uneven gait they imposed. But she reserved her heartiest, deep-down-in-the gut species of spite for the way they made her feel like a burden. Even Chancellor Benis, who looked old enough to have dandled the gods themselves on his knees, moved at a pace she couldn’t match.

He halted a half dozen paces in front of Prilya, peering at her with rheumy eyes. “Take your time.” The priest’s voice possessed smooth, resonant depths that belied both his age and his diminutive stature. “They aren’t expecting us for a bit. Getting there sooner will only mean waiting there longer.” He stood at the junction of the priory’s residential wing and the covered walkway connecting it to the cathedral. Polished stone arches soared overhead, making him look even shorter than he already did—a midget burglar at large in the home of a giant.

The muscles behind her knee cramped, and Prilya slowed, then stopped. She trembled as epoúlo magiks racked her limbs, and bit her lip to keep from crying out. It was the fifth—no, sixth—time the spasms had struck since she broke her fast. Each throe carried more pain than the one before, but when it passed, she found herself able to stand straighter and put more weight on her legs.

Benis made an annoying tutting sound that reminded Prilya of her first nanny—a snippy De’Sulto tribeswoman with skin the color of old teak. “I know it hurts, Lady Prilya. We had to heal you fast. To mend so many wounds in such a short time, one must marshal unforgiving forces.”

She shrugged—no easy task for someone wobbling atop knobby sticks. “Don’t care.” It wasn’t quite true. In private, she cursed the cadre of monks who hovered over her for several hours a day, uttering incantations so complex she couldn’t begin to fathom them. She’d been in plenty of discomfort to begin with, and everything they did made it worse. Sometimes she ended up writhing on her cot, a rawhide strap between her teeth, and at one point a crooked rib snapped into place with so much vigor that she’d screamed herself hoarse. Still, if the monks could get her back on her feet in days instead of months, she wouldn’t hold a grudge.

Bring me the pain. Bring it by the cartload, the wagon load, the barge load, for all I care. Just get me out of bed and off these thrice-damned crutches.

By the time she and Benis reached the High Sanctum, her wish had come true. She found herself able to put the crutches aside. A half hour passed before an attendant called them in, and when Prilya entered the chamber, she managed to set a normal pace. She smiled, reveling in the knowledge that her status as one of Alhennha’s Favored meant the goddess’s majiks worked twice as well on her as they did on others. A familiar swell of pride transformed her smile into a broad grin. Favored. Prilya attempted to put the emotion aside—hubris was a sin, after all—but didn’t try very hard. Why shouldn’t she enjoy being special? Perhaps those most eager to counsel against feelings of self-worth had little reason to experience them.

The sanctum extended around them like the interior of some enormous, gilded egg. Seamless layers of plaster hid every corner and edge, and the room’s walls reached for one another as they rose, congregating in the form of a dome blooming with ivory and gold. Elaborate pilasters separated portraits of saints—Grenich of Woolbaum, Gil the Learned, and more. The place had a freshly-scrubbed smell—lye with a touch of chalk dust—and its dome reflected so much light from the surrounding candelabras that it was difficult to look at head-on. Tiers of curved benches dominated the sanctum, rising along its far wall. Except where they parted to make space for a lectern, their edges flowed along the chamber’s contours in an eerily precise manner, as if the room and everything in it had been carved from a single stone.

Nearly a dozen clerics awaited her. When she noticed that several wore bishop’s raiments, her jaw dropped. A crimson biretta perched atop one woman’s head, and the sight of it almost stopped Prilya in her tracks.

A cardinal! Why’s she here? What could someone like that want with me?

Prilya had come to the city prepared to meet personages such as these, but had expected to do so at her mistress’s side—anonymous, at first. She would have treated with them on increasingly equal footing as her stature grew. Her heart stuttered like a maiden being invited to dance by a prince, and her breath came in shallow, forced gulps.

Benis’s hand settled on the back of Prilya’s arm. As he led her to the seven-pointed star at the Sanctum’s center, his head inclined, and he spoke to her in personal tones. “Still your heart. They don their robes one arm at a time, just like you or I. If it helps, imagine them sitting on their chamber pots.”

She stifled an amused snort. I did help, a little.

A balding, hawk-nosed man approached the lectern. Prilya recognized him as Bishop Malda, the priest who coordinated the church’s activities throughout the imperial seat. He set down a sheet of vellum, sniffed, and eyed her. “Prilya of House Inferness.”

A pinch from Benis roused her from her stupor. “Um, yes. Your… um, your honor. That’s me.” Her voice came out a wobbly squeak, and heat spread across her cheeks.

Malda smiled—a small turning of the lips that appeared kind rather than sardonic—and some of the gravity left his voice. “You’re not on trial, Lady Prilya. This is just an audience, albeit one focused on matters of some importance. Think of this as a conversation about your immediate future.”

Prilya nodded. “I understand, sirrah.”

“‘Bishop’ will be fine. I’ve no noble blood.”

A thin priestess with a harelip rose, and Malda nodded in her direction.

The priestess peered at Prilya. She had a sad, gentle look. “Our hearts, they weep for your loss. High Priestess Laszis was an extraordinary woman. Well-loved, and possessing blinding power and generosity of spirit in equal measure. Because of her travels, we rarely saw the great lady, but when her presence graced these halls, it enriched us to no end.” She looked around the room, meeting the gaze of one cleric after another, and her lips pursed. “I think you all know, as well as I, that harsh words have circulated, over the years—rumors and half-truths about Laszis, and self-serving predictions that her passions would prove her downfall. As if someone like her could have come into being without developing a passionate nature. I thank the gods for every aspect of who she was, and what she gave us, and urge everyone here to do the same.” As she returned to her seat, the woman’s eyes locked on Prilya’s, and she declined her upper body in the tiniest of bows.

This brought on nods and murmurs of assent, and Prilya felt her lip tremble. She tightened her mouth, refusing to let her eyes grow moist. She’d only known the high priestess for a few months, after all, and an outpouring of grief would look absurd. Most of those present had probably known Laszis far better than she. Still, she looked away, afraid that doing otherwise would give tears permission to flow.

Benis squeezed her shoulder. “No need to be prideful. We all understand.”

The priestess returned to her seat, and Malda nodded again—this time in Prilya’s direction. “Councilwoman Alsidis of Mandropoor speaks for us all. Laszis will be missed.”

Prilya laced her fingers together in front of her, doing her best to address the group in a clear, dignified voice. “I thank you. When she took me into her service, the high priestess did me an honor beyond what I ever could have imagined.”

Malda yielded the lectern to Bishop Fullbrace de’ Lena—the man representing the Entrienne Order in imperial councils. Despite failing health, de’ Lena wielded more influence with the senate than any other clergyman. When conversations turned to politics, Prilya’s parents mentioned him often.

“Lady Prilya.” His voice had a subdued, halting quality, with each word preceded by a tiny breath.

Prilya cocked her head, straining to hear.

“I’m sure the situation has been explained. The one. That lead. To Laszis challenging our foe by imperial writ. In the arena.” He coughed, and traces of blood appeared on his lips.

She straightened, rolling her shoulders back. Perhaps an improved posture would lend her voice additional weight. “Yes, bishop. My mistress told me what’s going on. The coastal duchies are about to go to war, and settling things in the arena is the only way to stop them. She wasn’t afraid of Fit’tak-noir!”

De’ Lena expelled a phlegmy sigh. “Young lady, we’re all afraid of the man. We’d be. Fools. Otherwise.” He staggered, but when the nun at his side reached for his arm, de’ Lena shook her off. “You understand, then. How Laszis’s death. Puts us in a precarious. Position.”

“There’s going to be war. It’s too late to pick someone else to fight in the arena, so we can’t settle things that way. Pretty soon, news of my mistress’s murder will get to the coast. Then they’ll go and muster their armies.” Prilya had often neglected her studies, running off to spar with the Tavori children or visit the Skyborne, but she knew enough of politics to understand how bad things might get. A half-dozen kingdoms would be drawn into the conflict, along with scores of city states and principalities. “It’ll be awful.”

De’Lena bent toward her, putting his weight on the lectern, and coughed. He wasn’t all that old, but deep lines crisscrossed the bishop’s face, and the skin at the base of his jaws hung loose. “Well said. Awful. Diplomacy is the only way, now. And we must purchase time. Time for it to work.”

Prilya’s brow knotted. Buy time, how? And what did it have to do with her? As a member of a minor house, one with little influence on the affairs of far-flung realms, her involvement made no sense. And if anyone from the family were to take on a diplomatic role, it would be her father. “I’m very sorry, Bishop. I’m afraid I don’t understand.” She made a small bow. “Forgive my ignorance.”

“Not at all, young lady. It is why. We are here. To help you understand, after all.”

He sagged, clinging to the lectern’s supporting column, and a heavyset woman replaced him. Prilya didn’t recognize her.

“Lady Prilya, you’ll be knowin’ me as Priestess Dutta. I serve as the order’s envoy to King Bartholomew’s court. I’ll be explainin’ what we have planned, and tellin’ you about yer place in those plans.” The woman’s voice carried brusque Ettin Islander inflections—an accent Prilya hadn’t heard before leaving home a few weeks before.

“Thank-you for letting me play a role, priestess. I’m at your service.” Prilya’s features continued to portray attentiveness and respect—she hoped so, anyway—but behind the façade, she recoiled. Plans? She already had a plan: Enter the Order as an Acolyte, train as a priestess, and work her way up, garnering accolades and glory as she went. With her apprenticeship over, things would be more difficult, but the same ambitions smoldered in Prilya’s breast. As word of her might spread, she would be feted by the great houses and accepted into the confidences of kings and senators alike. How many times had she imagined the way her success would make Father beam with pride, and—even more satisfying—cause her snide, inexplicably bitter harridan of a mother to seethe with envy?

The plan is to show them. To show them all!

Dutta’s face creased. “I’m appreciating the sentiment, I am. But after ye’ ken a bit more, you might be findin’ yer’self a wee bit less thankful.”

Prilya fought the urge to bite her nails. She didn’t like the sound of that. Not one bit.

“As I think ye’ right well understand, this’d be a terrible war, it would. Everyone this side o’ the Gulls’d be pulled in. Hundreds of thousands’d die. Millions, mayhap. We canna allow it.”

Prilya eyed the priestess. The Entrienne was one of the most powerful religious orders in the empire. Worshippers of a dozen well-loved gods flocked to its cathedrals, and its influence extended to any number of the great houses. Still, the church had little hope of stopping a war the coastal duchies were determined to wage. Might as well try to heat the ocean by pissing in it, father might have said. If mother wasn’t around to chide him, anyway. Had the order taken leave of its collective senses?

Dutta’s face tightened, and fleshy cheeks bunched below her eyes. “Like Bishop de’Lena said, we’ve one hope, we have, and that’s to play for time. For now, the world canna learn of your mistress’s death. We in this room, those who witnessed it, and some who we need to keep close. Until such time as we be choosin’, no others can know.”

Prilya frowned, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Their “plan” smelled like dog farts. Her mistress had been one of the most visible members of the order, and the arena challenge had only served to heighten her fame. The idea that she could disappear without anyone discovering the truth was absurd.

“Ye’r doubtful, and ye’ve a right to be. Tongues are already wagging about Laszis not bein’ seen in days. Questions’re bein’ asked, they are. And that’s why ye’ be needed.”

Prilya’s hands spread before her. “Priestess Dutta? I, I don’t—”

“You’re to impersonate the great lady, plain as that. We’ll cancel what meetings we can, and ready you for the rest, explainin’ what’s expected, and makin’ sure you’re familiar with those you’ll need to speak to.” She held up a bulky stack of vellum. “Ye’r to confer with the imperial officials who administer the arena, first thing t’morrow. Don’ worry. We’ll make sure ye’r ready.”

The chamber dissolved into brightly colored smears, and Prilya wobbled on her feet.

What? WHAT?

Had they all gone mad? She thought, hoped, she’d misunderstood. That thick accent…

Benis’s arm wrapped Prilya’s waist, steadying her. He muttered in her ear. “Be strong! Otherwise, they’ve no use for you. Be stone and steel, girl.”

She blinked, and her surroundings came back into focus. Stone and steel. It was something Dol’ might have said, and the thought made her stand a little straighter. “Priestess Dutta, I fear I’m still adrift.” Make them understand it can never work. “I’m not some dramatist, and I even if I was, how could anyone believe—”

“Ye’ve not been lookin’ in the mirror if ye’ have to ask that, Lady Prilya.” Dutta’s voice cooled. “Do ye’ think we’ve not thought this through, with all that’s at stake? We’ll use a glamer. It’s cost us dear, but a master illusionist from Ki’et Mountain has agreed to help, he has. He’ll be castin’ the spells on you each mornin’, before ye’ go out and about.”

“But, priestess… I’m so sorry for being contrary, but the glamers, they’re—”

“Yes, they’re bein’ the weakest and most unreliable of all enchantments, as ev’ry studen’t o’ the Art knows. But girl, people’ll look at you and expect to see her. That’s the kind’a glamer that’ll fool most anyone. We’ll make ye’ look a tad older and soften yer voice a bit. That’s all that needs done.”

“Listen to Dutta,” said Malda, stepping forward. “Your mistress was remarkably young, given her accomplishments, and looked younger yet. The years barely seem to touch some lucky individuals, and we should all be grateful the high priestess was one of them. The likeness was profound. You and she looked more like sisters than—” He gulped, then swallowed. “Anyway, you looked like sisters, almost. It’s the one advantage we have, and make no mistake, we intend to use it.”

Prilya ran her fingers through her hair, trying to ignore how girlish and absent-minded it made her look. Could it work? If the illusionist they’d hired was really that good, it might. She was a quick study. All her tutors said so. When she bothered to show up for lessons, anyway. With Dutta’s help, she might be able to bluff her way through her mistress’s engagements.

Before she could say, Priestess Dutta, I’m sorry I doubted you, something twisted in her gut. A monstrous black knot, whispering promises of an endless night. Fear. “But priestess, they tried to kill her.” Prilya’s voice shook with a thousand tiny tremors. “Not tried. They did it. Murdered her in the middle of the cathedral. In the middle of her strength. And if they think she’s still alive, they’ll come after her—me—again.” She edged backward. “And again!” Memories enveloped her: of lying, beaten, on the floor; of being covered in burns; of wanting to shriek, but being too broken to even mewl.

No.

She backed toward the double doors through which she’d come, eyeing the council members as if she’d they’d transformed into slavering wolves who padded toward her, yellow eyes aglow. Her eyes widened. Every part of her trembled. Benis’s mouth moved, but she had no idea what he said.

“You want to sacrifice me!” She shouted the words at the top of her lungs. “Well, I won’t let you.” Her sight blurred, and moisture coated her cheeks.

“Acolyte Prilya,” said Malda, his voice cold. “You will do your duty, just like the rest of us. And let me assure you, precautions of every sort have been taken. Now that we understand our enemy’s plans, we stand ready. Steady yourself and return to center of the chamber, where you may properly address this council.”

Prilya shook her head so hard it made her neck hurt. “But I’m not an acolyte. The attack happened before the induction ceremony—before I could say the words. I haven’t been sworn to service, so you can’t tell me what to do.” She backed against the doors.

The cardinal rose, glaring at Prilya. Everything about the woman bespoke firmness and certainty. She was the kind of person no one considered gainsaying. The woman’s jaw clenched, and her eyes smoldered. “Lady Inferness. Return to your place before us.” She snarled, staring daggers. “Now!”

A wave of panic swept over Prilya, and she grabbed for the door handles. Her hot, wet eyes could barely see, and her movements became so wild that her hands skidded along the door’s surface, finding nothing. She swiped moisture from her face and tried again, but continued to flail. Her mind filled with images of the charred goats that tribesmen sacrificed to Belak, god of the feast.

Burnt offerings.

The cardinal began to chant, spitting out one angry, contemptuous word after another.

It took a moment, but Prilya recognized the form: dictum. Even as her resolve sagged beneath the weight of the spell, she found a handle. She yanked it and flung herself into the hall.

Prilya ran toward the priory, dizzy and tottering. One passageway swept by, then another. Broad stone tiles slapped her feet. Her first thought was to retrieve her belongings from the quarters that served as her sickroom, but did she dare? How far would the Sanhedrin go to bend her to their will? A curse escaped her lips—a foul denigration she’d never used before. Fear and fury and the terrible certainty that all of her dreams were gone, gone, gone welled up inside.

Before she could reach the priory, Prilya turned back, convinced she had no choice but to head for the nearest exit. If her belongings were forfeit, so be it. Every moment she spent on the Order’s wretched grounds was one moment too many. She fled down a wood-paneled corridor, sure it would lead her to the main cathedral entrance. It dead-ended in a classroom, and she backtracked, hoping to find a side entrance that opened onto the gardens. From there, it would be easy to sprint around the main building, round the curtain wall, and reach the street. The boulevard bustled at all hours, and a girl in a simple white dress ought to have little trouble losing herself among merchants and tradesmen.

A few minutes later, Prilya leaned against the wall of a windowless passage, panting. Drafts skittered by, and guttering torches filled the air with an inconstant orange glow. They smelled like tar.

Lost. I’m lost.

She cursed herself for a fool, and tasted salt on her lips. A fresh sheen of tears coated her cheeks.

“Wipe your face, young lady. It’s a mess.”

Prilya let out a tiny shriek and leapt a foot in the air. Benis. He’d caught her unawares, though she didn’t see how; the old man slumped, red-faced, a stride away, fighting to catch his breath. The tether on one of his sandals hung loose, and the thing flopped around, half on and half off. He extended a hand holding a rumpled linen. She supposed he normally used it for blowing his nose, but it looked clean enough.

Prilya nodded, too weary and discouraged to do anything else. “Well, I guess you’re going to drag me back to the cardinal.” She dabbed at her chin, and the cloth came away sopping and filthy.

“May I escort you to the root cellar? You do realize that’s where you’re headed, yes?”

Sobs threatened to erupt from Prilya’s chest, but she managed to hold them in. “I just want to get out. Help me get out. Unless you want me dead, like the rest of them.”

He straightened. “We’ll stop by your quarters and gather your things. Then we’ll leave by a little-known route. It won’t do to have you seen, even though you’ve decided you won’t be staying.”

She gave her face another wipe, clearing grit from her eyes, and curled her hand around the chancellor’s arm. “Fine. Lead the way.” Maybe she could trust him, and maybe not, but trying to puzzle out the man’s motivations struck her as an exhausting and probably futile chore. “They won’t try to stop me? Not even the cardinal?”

“You mean Merthevis? I left the chamber just after you did, and she was already voicing regret. Attempting to compel you wouldn’t just be impractical, it’d go against everything the order stands for. And most of the gods we embrace, for that matter.”

Prilya pursed her lips. “She frightens me.”

“Merthevis frightens a good many people, but she’s no inquisitor. She’s used to being obeyed, that’s all. When you didn’t bend to her will, it shocked her, I think, and she acted in an untoward manner. If the cardinal gets a chance, I think she’ll apologize.”

“Really?” The idea struck Prilya as preposterous, but neither Benis’s voice nor expression held a hint of sarcasm.

“Before you leave, may I show you something?”

She stopped, eyeing the chancellor. As much as she couldn’t wait to escape the church grounds, the idea of denying the man’s request didn’t sit well. He’d treated her with kindness since the moment she arrived, and been at her side during the long, grueling hours the monks spent knitting her back together. “Is it far?”

“As it happens, your explorations have brought us close. Smell that?” He sniffed the air, and Prilya followed suit.

Solid, earthy aromas, with a hint of yeast. “Potatoes.”

“Very good. Between the meat locker and the potato bins, there’s an old man-door—forgotten by most—that will take us outside. From there, it’s hardly pissing distance.” Prilya felt her eyebrows rise, and Benis blanched. “You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve spent much of my life ministering to scoundrels. One acquires the argot.”

A minute later, Prilya followed Benis through a thick gray door with hinges so rusty it refused to open until the chancellor chastised it—first with a curse, then with a kick. To get there, they’d climbed over crates of turnips drying in the ill-lit bowels of the cathedral’s southern storage cellar. Cracked slate stairs led to a lawn crisscrossed with pathways and fences. Benis led her down a path marked by flagstones so worn they looked swaybacked.

“There’s hardly anyone out here,” said Prilya. A practice yard used by the chapel guards stretched to one side. It lay empty. Racks of practice weapons leaned against an outbuilding housing archery supplies. She’d taken note of its comically steep roof while touring the grounds with her mistress.

“Everyone’s been called to matins. The students and teachers from the school. The clergy, laborers, and soldiers. Even the Sanhedrin are there by now. Only the guards who are on duty are out. And us, of course.” He pointed to the south. “If it wasn’t for this fog, you’d be able to see the men walking the wall.”

Prilya squinted, trying to make out the fortifications that separated the church grounds from the rest of the city. She caught a glimpse of mortared river rock, but nothing more. “Is it always so bad, this time of year?”

“Nay. Usually the rising sun burns off the worst of it. But for the last couple of days, the fog’s been thicker than flies on a camel’s rump, if you’ll pardon the unseemly comparison.”

As they moved deeper into the church’s southern yard, the visibility grew poorer yet. She looked from side to side, surprised at how little time it took the mist to encroach. Walking through the stuff was like floating in the belly of a cloud. A tombstone appeared to one side—basalt, speckled equal parts light and dark, with angular letters chiseled into its midsection. Moments later, another slab loomed, and then a picket of holy symbols that marked the approach to a mausoleum.

“This is it, then?” said Prilya. “This is what I’m supposed to see?” She huffed. “I’ve been in cemeteries before, you know. This is where I’d probably end up if went along with the Sanhendrin’s stupid ideas.”

Here lies a girl who did what she was told.

A rock lay before of her, and Prilya gave it a kick, bouncing it off the top of a scalloped alabaster cross. “I guess you’re trying to tell me I’m doing the right thing. I already knew that. If I have to leave the order and give up my dreams, fine. I’m not going to wander around like a dumb little lamb, waiting to get slaughtered.”

“You’ve made yourself clear.” His words had a muffled feel to them, as if they could barely reach her through the sodden air. “I wish you could see the knights patrolling the wall, though—if only to know that the cardinal spoke the truth. We petitioned King Loris for help, and his archers perch atop the outbuildings. Cavaliers defend the church’s borders so our guardsmen can patrol the buildings in twos.”

He reached for Prilya’s hand, and she let him give it a squeeze. His skin felt like old parchment—fragile, wrinkled, and dry. She said nothing.

“We want to keep you safe, Prilya. I want to keep you safe.”

They drew up in front of a newly turned grave. A sandstone block squatted at its head. She leaned closer and read the engraving.

Father Theus. Teacher, master healer, and faithful servant of the gods. He gave his life for Peace.

Prilya’s brows knotted, and she scratched her chin, trying to remember… Father Theus. The name’s familiar, somehow. One of father’s guests, when I was little? “I think I know why you really brought me here. I can’t figure out where I heard the name, but I know of him, somehow.”

“No.” Benis shook his head. “I don’t think so, anyway.”

“Why, then?”

The old chancellor rubbed gnarled fingers along his forearms, as if he’d grown cold. “You were hurt quite badly, you know.”

“How could I forget?” She took a deep breath, counseling herself to patience. One couldn’t expect an administrator with seventy summers in his wake to be swift about anything, including making a point.

“We acted right away, and were able to stop the bleeding and knit some of your wounds. But your insides were too badly torn for you to ingest a healing draught, and there was no time for one of the lengthier rituals, such as Saint Felicia’s Hymn. Your life’s light dimmed, and the elders chose to recite the Deep Cant.”

She stared at Benis, searching his face for signs of deception. He returned her look with a calm, level gaze. A few moment later, he blinked, lids descending into mottled skin and stark white lashes.

He’s a good liar, or he’s telling the truth.

“But…” Her voice thickened. How was it possible? How could men callous enough to make her into bait, dangling before the most vicious of enemies, have done such a thing? “The Deep Cant, it’s—”

“The most dangerous of all the mystic liturgies. Yes. The priests were veteran mages. They knew the risks.”

Prilya knelt before the headstone and ran her fingertips across its surface. Her shins sank into loose, fragrant soil. “And Father Theus—it was too much for him.” Her throat grew tight, and she blinked twice in quick succession.

“It was too much for all them, really. Bishop Kelway’s mind is gone. He’s been taken to the convent at Aven-Laey, where the sisters will feed him infant’s mash and change his soiled linens until he passes. Kal Thaen, the deputy chancellor, is now lame—a good man, who spent a decade at my side. He can continue to minister, but with both legs withered, he’ll never be able to take my place.”

Wave after wave of humiliation washed over Prilya, and she sagged.

How stupid I am. Stupid and selfish and vain.

She reached to either side, shoving her fingers into the sod. Could she pull it over her head like a blanket and hide from the world? Down in the ground with grubs and the worms—it was where she belonged. Tears came again, spilling of their own accord, and she pressed her face into the sleeves of her dress, hiding her shame.

Benis approached. He set his hands on her shoulders. “It’s right for you to weep, and water his grave with your sorrow. I did.”

Sobs rose from deep in her chest, and for a time Prilya lost herself in regret. The suffering of the priests saddened her, but her own unworthiness was more troubling by far. They had done as duty dictated, after all, giving everything for the cause. But when presented with the opportunity to follow their example, she let cowardice rule her soul.

Flee! It’s all could I think to do. Run, and cry, and run some more.

She reached for the bare ground just below the gravestone. The tip of her index finger dipped into cool, moist dirt. She drew a short line from left to right, continuing straight and arcing down, then right, then up in a sharp swoop. A moment later, she lifted her finger, moving it to a spot just below where she’d started. She drew the mirror image of the first shape, sweeping up, across, and down. The two curves ended in the same place, coming to a point. Finally, she joined the points at which the lines began, connecting them with a single stroke.

Benis stooped beside her. “What have we here?”

Her crying ceased, and Prilya shook her head. “I don’t know. What you said about him made me think of this. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“It’s an old symbol. Very old. From one of the first orders. Its adherents used it as a secret pict, to identify one another. It’s a fish.” He edged closer, peering into Prilya’s eyes. “Why this, specifically?”

Just beyond Benis, something caught her eye. Dull, grainy crystals lined the edge of an adjoining grave. A faint smell laced the air, like vinegar turned foul. “Piss,” she said.

Benis blinked. “I don’t follow. And I believe I’ve been a bad influence.”

“No.” She pointed at the plot behind him. “There’s something strange about that grave. Look.” Her nose wrinkled. “Something’s wrong.” The word wrong sounded like it’d been stuffed in a sack.” Everything sounded muffled, for that matter, reminding her of the times she’d dived into lakes and landed poorly, jamming her ears full of water.

Benis gave her a nod and stepped over to the odd-looking grave. He bent, running his fingers along the discolored stretch of ground, and then turned to her, eyes wide. “Run,” he said, making shooing gestures. “Run!”

Prilya moved to Benis’s side, wondering if she might have misunderstood. Why in the gods’ green lands should she leave without him? In any case, she’d had enough of fleeing. Enough of cowardice.

As she began to form a question, Benis’s face contorted. He leapt to his feet, punched her square in the chest, and yelled, “For once, mind your elders, you stubborn ass of a girl!”

She gasped, clutching her hands to her breast. For the second time in as many hours, her head swam in a sea of confusion. “What?” she said, backing away. “Why?”

Benis continued to shout. “Run, damn your hide! Vermin shit, sulfur, and rock salt. This ground is no longer consecrated. I can feel dark majiks lingering here. Vevilosi, and something else.”

Prilya stared at the chancellor. An act of desecration, performed on well-guarded church grounds? Who would dare?

The same scum who blasted their way into a cathedral, murdered a dozen holy men, and loosed a demon from the nether-hells. The ones who stole my mistress from me.

Her legs trembled, racked by a turgid mixture of fury and fear. She ought to do as she’d been told—sprint back to cathedral and call for help. Benis would follow as best he could.

Help.

Best summon it sooner rather than later. The knights Benis mentioned couldn’t be far. She screamed at the top of her lungs, but the mist swallowed her words whole.

Benis contorted his hands, sweeping them around one another, and they filled with light. He spun on his heels, remarkably spry, and glowing streamers trailed behind—radiant arcs that sliced the gloom like resplendent knives. Prilya knew the spell, though she couldn’t cast it half as well. Avillica-Ti-Fen. A rite of warding.

The path described by the streamers—seemingly random, at first—developed a flowing symmetry, crossing itself at regular intervals. Even though no one responded to Prilya’s calls, she felt a glimmer of hope; two more turns, and Benis would complete the protective pattern.

He dropped to the ground, and Prilya fell silent, gaping. It would have been easy to blame the infirmities of old age for his collapse, but she put the notion aside. The man’s joints might pop and ache, but he moved with the precision of a falcon.

Benis struggled, legs jerking. She ran toward him. Perhaps those who befouled the grave had also prepared a trap—a snare, or netting.

No. As Prilya neared the chancellor, she caught sight of what held him.

“Caus-kot!” she said, clucking the first syllable and chirping the second. The Skyborne expression translated roughly as the world has gone mad, and taken me with it. A pair of gnarled, filthy hands protruded from the grave, gripping Benis’s ankles. Not true hands, but blood-slicked bones in the shape of extremities—structures swaddled in translucent flesh as insubstantial as the fog that licked her skin. Dark veins pulsed within that flesh, and their branching channels bulged with ichor. The tissues they traversed stretched and flexed—a profane jest that mocked life rather than imitating it.

As the uncompleted ward sparked and faded, Benis continued to struggle. Prilya stepped behind him, hooked her hands beneath his armpits, and strained. He kicked his way free, but the freakish appendages remained. They rose above the grave, fingers wriggling at the end of thick, ropy arms.

A black pall of fear settled over Prilya, followed by disgust at her own weakness. It seemed that denouncing cowardice did little to keep it at bay. She’d heard of animated corpses rising from the grave, but watching a dead body claw its way out of the ground was like drowning in a sea of despair. She strained, dragging Benis further from the creature.

A grotesque head burst into view, spitting dirt as a rose, and a moment later the monster’s chest appeared.

“A shade,” said Benis, his voice a distant hum. He waved for Prilya to leave. “Go! Get the guards. I have to keep it from getting the rest of the way out.”

The undead thing continued to rise, pressing its palms against the ground, and belly crisscrossed with scars became visible. Benis gained his feet and shuffled toward the monster, weaving long, spotted fingers into a crosshatch. Holy words fell from his lips: prayers that chided the darkness, naming it a small, petty thing with no true hold on the human heart. A coppery light radiated from a point just in front of his chest, and the shade recoiled, features twisting with hatred and dismay.

Prilya began to retreat. Maybe Benis was right. He might be able to keep the thing at bay until she returned with guardsmen.

The shade roared, face elongating into a hideous masque a stride long. It leaned toward Benis and swiped at him with cracked, curved nails as thick as tent stakes. They tore into the priest’s forearm, splattering his face with crimson streamers, and the man screamed. He scrambled away, but when the shade continued to free itself, he moved back within reach.

Prilya froze in mid-stride. The skin around Benis’s wound had begun to blacken.

If he backs up, it’ll pull itself all the way out and run him down. If he stays, it’ll slash him to ribbons.

Prilya gulped, swallowing her fear, and turned. She charged. After taking a few quick steps she lowered her shoulder, ready to plow into the shade. It terrified her, but the creature wasn’t all that big. No larger than a man.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Benis gesture. No. Get away! Pain, fury, and exasperation warred for control of his features. But she’d built up considerable speed as one long, hard stride followed another, and couldn’t stop if she wanted to. Prilya locked her jaw and leaned into the attack.

The shade’s neck and back grew near—parchment-white vertebrae surrounding by pulsating, not-quite-there flesh. She flinched, ready for impact, but instead of slamming into the creature she passed through it. After a sickening instant spent swimming in the thing’s innards, she hit the ground on the other side and tumbled to a bruising halt.

Prilya convulsed as a deep chill suffused her body. She shivered, trying to inhale.

Gods, I can’t breathe!

Her lungs refused to work. They’d become useless, frozen bags of air. She clawed at her throat. Ice crystals formed on her lips, and she felt her eyes bulge.

As she struggled for breath, Benis drew a dirk from some hidden fold within his raiments, slashing at the monster. When he caught the creature in the face or chest, the blade failed to find purchase, sliding through amorphous meat to little effect. But when the chancellor struck at the shade’s hands or wrists just as it reached for him, the knife opened jagged, oozing wounds and the undead thing cried out. Despite the fog, its howls pierced her skull like a mountain man’s pick.

Prilya’s lungs came back to life. Her chest heaved and her back arched. The first breath was raw and ragged and desperate, and the second nearly as bad. Moments later, she struggled to her feet, wiping frosty crusts from her eyes. Prilya still shook with cold, but she ignored her body’s protests, pressing her hands against her knees, groaning, and forcing herself upright. She looked toward Benis and whispered a word of thanks that he still stood.

Several chains hung around the chancellor’s neck. One of them held Saint Rentha’s Sphere, a bronze globe worn by many members of the order. The others descended inside his robe, and he tugged at one, revealing a sunburst medallion formed from wrought gold and purple gems. He yanked the chain over his head and curled his fingers around the edges of the medallion.

“Ettithis vina-thi’ Toh!” he shouted. “Ekittah feh.” The shade snarled, clawing wildly, but Benis stepped aside, intoning until he finished the incantation. The medallion blazed with white fire, and for an instant the creature became more substantial, more human. Benis lurched toward it, slamming the holy symbol into the shade’s eye, and the side of its head crumpled and smoked.

The shade cried out in a dozen voices at once—men and women, waifs and ruffians, slatterns and babes—all wailing in torment. It thrashed about and knocked Benis away. The thing seized the medallion, pulling the device from its head with an audible pop that made Prilya’s stomach heave. The side of its face—gruesome to begin with—was a gutted ruin. Tiny white flames danced within a hollowed eye socket. When the shade hurled the medallion aside, one of its fingers went with it, evaporating in a pillar of smoke.

Benis rose in stages, one heaving grunt at a time. His arm hung lank at his side. Black trails began to wend their way up the man’s neck, and Prilya fought off a wave of panic. The thing’s touch was death itself. Benis held his dirk at the ready, but moved with the slow, flat-footed gait of a man with little left to give.

She cast about, wishing she had her etti, and then cursed herself for a fool.

If wants and wishes were sweets and fishes, we’d all have a merry feast!

It was one of her father’s silly, oft-repeated sayings. The whole family groaned when he said it, which only made him grin and repeat it at the top of his lungs.

Off to one side, a tomb marked with a crusader’s sigil caught her eye. The symbol sat at the intersection of a narrow stone upright and a crosspiece the size of a trowel. Four feet tall. Five, at most. Perfect. She sprinted toward it.

With her back to Benis, Prilya could no longer see him, but a stream of curses worthy of a drunken corsair let her know he fought on. His knife sung a sweet tune, crooning snik
snik snik, my love, I’ll snik all day for you, as it sliced unliving flesh.

Prilya ran toward the sigil. Once she closed to within a dozen paces, she jumped, throwing her right foot out in front of her—knee slightly bent—and tucking her left leg beneath her bottom. When her heel struck home, she kicked for all she was worth. Pain flared in her foot, and the sigil’s upright snapped a hands-breadth above the ground, just as she’d planned.

She rolled to her feet and picked up the sigil. It had a decent heft—heavy, but not too heavy. She held it like a spear, with the broken butt before her, and bent toward it. After rattling off a prayer to the goddess Alseine, she mouthed a spell: a simple blessing. Just before reaching the litany’s end, Prilya closed her eyes and took a breath, filling every corner of her lungs. When she exhaled, she imagined giving that breath to the goddess—all of it and more.

Prilya shouted the last line of the recitation, binding each word to her will. “Ivven la, ivven fo, ivven th’ee.” A gust of wind made her dress ripple and snap, and a feeling of dislocation, of loss, throbbed within her. She’d just shortened her life by a year or more, but all she could hear was the rage-blood pounding in her ears. Nothing but crushing the enemy mattered.

The broken base of the upright glowed yellow, then white, and for a moment, the upright vibrated with so much force that Prilya struggled to avoid dropping it. She swiveled toward the shade.

Now.

Grass bent beneath her feet as she took one step, then another. Prilya’s strides lengthened, and she gathered speed until headstones raced by on both sides. She sped along an arcing path that put her behind the enemy. A raised stone sarcophagus lie between her and the creature, and she leapt atop it without missing a step. A moment later, she reached the catafalque’s opposite end. She howled wordless fury and cast herself into the air, legs churning.

As she descended toward the shade, the creature met her gaze, but with its hips still in the ground, it couldn’t turn. Prilya slammed the sigil downward, and the jagged end of its upright pierced the creature’s skull. Dark green plasm splattered everywhere.

Even with most of its head gone, the monster flailed with a mad strength, claws rending the air. One filthy nail ripped Prilya’s sleeve from her dress. She planted her feet and grunted, placing both hands atop the sigil’s crossbar and thrusting for all she was worth. The butt of the makeshift weapon sank into the shade’s neck, then its chest. A moment later, the monster disappeared, replaced by curling fumes and a pool of black ooze with a stench so formidable she collapsed to the ground, vomiting.

Once her stomach could empty itself no more, Prilya crawled toward Benis. She threw her arms around him. He felt light and fragile and nearly gone. A breeze whirled about them, dispersing the fog. Shouts and footfalls filled the air as a cadre of priests, monks, and guardsmen approached. More cries came from the wall, and knights clambered toward the ground.

“Don’t die,” she said. Her voice filled with desperate, pleading tones. Un-dig-nified, her mother would have said, with a sniff. Prilya didn’t care. “Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.” She cradled Benis’s head in her lap, and her hips rocked as she chanted. Her words carried no magic—no holiness or power. Just sadness and guilt and dread at the thought of being left alone.

The chancellor’s eyes slid open, and he muttered, “Didn’t plan on dying, young lady. But if you don’t stop bobbing my head about, I may damnably well insist.”

For the third time that day, she burst into tears.

Film, Television, and the Begats (How One Media Franchise Gives Rise to Another)

Written By: Paul Toth - May• 22•14

In the Beginning, There Was Twilight

(Well, not “the beginning,” exactly, but you get the drift)

A few years back, a little novel called Twilight burst on the scene, capturing the undivided attention of millions of thirteen year old girls and thirteen year old girls at heart. At Comic-Con, a screening of the film adaptation—hosted by some of the movie’s stars—had to take place outside the San Diego convention center. If it had been shown inside the complex, the enormous, snaking lines would have fouled foot traffic from one end of the place to the other. Sheer numbers would have made the mobs of besotted Twilight fans nigh impossible to herd. The book’s success spawned endless imitation, and an entire segment, YA supernatural romance, that grew so large that many book stores gave the category its own section.

So, if boundless success and legions of mimics were what came after Twilight, what came before? The answer is simple: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. For, as surely as Twilight attracted droves of me-to-ers hankering for a ride on the franchise’s ample coattails, it drew from Joss Whendon’s famed series, and did so in a fairly flagrant fashion. I’m not saying Twilight is actually based on Buffy—the characters and storyline are quite different—but key plot elements underlying Twilight definitely appear to have been borrowed from a prominent Buffy arc.

To see how this works, let’s boil Twilight down to its nitty-gritty essence and compare it to Buffy:

  1. Girl meets vampire.
  2. Practically speaking, they’re both young—the girl is a teen, and the boy-vamp at least appears youthful. They’re both also attractive (of course).
  3. The vampire isn’t just any blood-sucking undead, he’s a decent, soulful (in Buffy‘s case, that’s a pun, son) sort, who wouldn’t be caught dead (yes, again with the puns, sorry about that) harming an innocent.
  4. Girl and undead creature-of-the-night are attracted to one another. Huzzah! It’s forbidden romance. Can a beautiful, brooding boy-vamp with really good hair find true love with a (gasp!) mortal? Inquiring thirteen-year-old girls really want to know.
  5. Most of the vamps out there aren’t as nice as our dreamy hero, so he has to protect his mortal paramour. This makes him even dreamier.

Each one of these plot points exists in the Angel arc that dominates the first couple of seasons of Buffy. What are the odds that Meyer came up with all this independently? I’m sure some people think it’s possible—even likely—that this is a case of parallel evolution, but I’m not on board with the theory. Perhaps Twilight’s plotmeister didn’t consciously set out to rip off Whedon, but it’s exactly what she did. If Meyer didn’t watch the Angel arc unfold (multiple times, probably) on DVD and think, sigh, now that’s the kind of story I want to tell, I’ll eat my fuzzy beige fedora. Or, I would if I had one, anyway.

All of this begs the question, so what? Why does it matter that Twilight is a derivative work? Most modern fiction is derivative to some degree, after all. I look at it like this: Noting that Twilight is a derivative work, and pinning down the specific things that make it derivative, is interesting. It’s interesting to me as a writer because I care about the ways in which stories are born, and perhaps it’s interesting to you for the same reason. If not, by all means stop reading, because I’m going to be trundling down this path for the next thousand words or so.

Fans Get Hungry

(For speculative YA, that is)

One thing that makes stuff is intriguing is the multiplicity of ways in which derivations can take shape. As long as we’re on the subject of YA, let’s take a look at another blockbuster franchise: The Hunger Games. The first book’s derivative streak is both more and less apparent than that of Twilight. Instead of borrowing key aspects of its plot, The Hunger Games recycles the premise its plot is built around: A group of children are placed in an isolated setting and forced to kill one another for sport. As it happens, this is the premise of an obscure Japanese novel (also developed as an action film) named Battle Royale. Google the subject, and you’ll see that any number of observers have noted the similarity. Again, it’s not really possible to prove that one work is based on the other, but the similarity is striking.

Even the legendary Harry Potter series appears to have appropriated the central element of an earlier tale. When I read the first book (with my then ten year old daughter) I thought the idea of a wizarding college, geographically isolated and structured along the lines of a classic English boarding school, felt familiar. As it turns out, this feeling was spot on. Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic Earthsea Trilogy
includes a book built around the same notion. Again, I doubt the similarity is coincidental, as the sort of writer who would pen Harry Potter would have been exactly the kind of reader who would pick up Earthsea. The derivation is a good deal more superficial than that connecting The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, though, and nowhere near as flagrant as Twilight‘s copycatting of Buffy/Angel, but it’s clear nonetheless. As we’ll continue to see, the copycat is a creature that exists in a wide variety forms: Some are timid, mewling creatures that might be figments of our imagination, while other are ravenous carnivores ready to swallow any beast unlucky enough to get separated from the herd.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Something

(Just ask Charles Dickens)

Some of the most interesting cases of derivation are also the most tenuous. Take Mud, for instance, a film about a fugitive from the law who’s befriended by a troubled boy. It’s a finely wrought film starring Matthew McConaughey that seems to have been seen by exactly three people. No, wait. I saw it. Four people. Thankfully, Netflix offers the movie, so it might, in time, find a wider audience.

So, what is Mud derived from? My theory, and it may be wildly off the mark, is that Mud is essentially Great Expectations, Dickens’s class conscious tale about an escaped convict who is befriended by a troubled boy. In both stories, the kid has a miserable home life and coming-of-age, wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl problems—though the chronologies are significantly dissimilar. Also, in both stories, the fugitive proves his loyalty to the youngster who gave him succor, though the protagonist in Great Expectations realizes more concrete benefits from the relationship. Mostly, the plots feel similar. This is probably due to the fact that both include scenes, very early on, in which the boy provides the starving criminal with food.    

To my mind, derivations such as that underlying Mud‘s plot are a good deal more interesting than ones with a more straightforward nature. Let’s contrast Mud and Twilight. The one filters elements of a classic tale to form a story that is largely original in nature, while the other appears to be a fairly simple rip-off of a more imaginative work. The former is almost rendered more enjoyable by its literary lineage—which serves as a sort of “in joke” between writer and viewer—while the latter takes advantage of the fact that its primary demographic doesn’t know any better.

Chronicle, Josh Trank’s 2012 found-footage scifi thriller,
is another film that manages to include derivative elements in a relatively artful manner. In it, three teenage boys come across a weird alien thingie that gives them telekinetic abilities. Over time, the kid’s power grows, and they become godlike. They can levitate, fly, hurl huge objects, and unleash bursts of destructive force—all with the power of their minds.

For a while, everything goes swimmingly, as the teens dazzle their friends with increasingly elaborate feats and zip through the sky under their own power. But things get a tad dicey when one of the guys—the least stable of the bunch—has a sexual mishap and goes off the deep end. And by “off the deep end,” I mean he becomes a murderous psycho. A murderous psycho with godlike powers. Ouch.

Just for a moment, boy and girls, let’s bid the world of contemporary film a fond farewell. We’re going to travel to a wondrous, faraway land called “The Eighties.” It’s a silly, yet charming place, where women wear dress jackets with hulking shoulder pads and people read quaint things called “news-papers.” In this odd, herky-jerky corner of the space-time continuum, a young, obscenely talented writer named Alan Moore is cranking out a comic book called Miracleman. In a few years, one of the Miracleman stories will be collected into a graphic novel called A Dream of Flying, and it’ll be hailed as one of the best works in the medium.

Like Chronicle, A Dream of Flying is about a small group of superhumans whose powers have a common, mysterious origin. The similarities between the two stories are numerous. I’ll call out a few of them:

  1. All of the major superhuman characters are male.
  2. The superhumans band together in a tightknit group and come to enjoy using their bizarre abilities, both as individuals and as a sort of team.
  3. Their powers are mental in nature, but manifest physically. In A Dream of Flying the manifestation imitates physical strength, and in Chronicle it takes the form of telekinesis. In both cases, the characters can fly (superman style, with no wings, jet packs, etc.)
  4. The least mature of the group becomes mentally imbalanced, and then bloodthirsty. Finally, full-on psychosis sets in.
  5. The deranged super-man is responsible for the death of one of the others in the group.
  6. The remaining non-evil member of the group must risk his life in battle against the one who’s lost his marbles. The crazy super-man has an edge in raw power, so his opponent must find a way to win despite this disadvantage—which he eventually does, but only after a considerable body count accrues.

The two works aren’t just similar in terms of plot points, they’re similar visually. Check it out:

 

On the left, we have a panel from A Dream of Flyging, and on the right, a frame from Chronicle. If not for the low-def, found-footage style of Chronicle, the images would be even more similar. Since we’re supposed to be seeing the Chronicle baddie through a home video camera that’s suspended in midair, much of the detail is lost, rendering the individual frames blob-ish. The juxtaposition is actually much more striking if you hold up the graphic novel next to the video as it plays.

In both cases, the deranged member of the super group is suspended in midair through the power of his mind, and in both cases, they’re surrounded by a coruscation of unnatural electrical power. The Chronicle nemesis has just blown the top off the Space Needle, and it looks like severed power lines are sending arcs through clouds of dust raised by the destruction. The Miracleman villain actually emanates electrical bolts, but the effect is essentially the same—a very scary, very powerful bad guy who’s hovering in midair and seething with energy. Check out the relative positions of their legs—the similarity in the postures of the two figures is almost eerie.

While Chronicle doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out rip-off of Miracleman, I wouldn’t blame Alan Moore for being a tad miffed about the level of similarity. I suppose the indignity of kind-of-sort-of having his story stolen is blunted by the fact that several of his graphic novels have been directly adapted for the big screen, and he’s no doubt benefitted handsomely. As a viewer, I rather enjoyed seeing Miracleman serve as the basis for film possessing a flavor that was very much distinct from Moore’s work. I imagine that A Dream of Flying will someday be directly adapted, and the movie will prove entertaining in its own right. Few will realize that an adaptation of sorts has already been produced, and those who do notice probably won’t care. Like many forms of derivation, the Micracleman/A Dream of Flying relationship appears to be benign.

The Begats

(Or, Why I Almost Named My First-Born “Zara of Thamar”)

So far, we’ve looked at the simplest kind of connection a set of related works can have—the one-to-one relationship. A is derived from B. B->A. Or, as I like to say, B begat A. For those unfamiliar with biblical lore, the archaic term “begat” is well known for its use in Genesis, where it dominates what is possibly the most boring stretch of material in the Old Testament. The genealogy of a bunch of noteworthy Hebrews is related, one birth at a time. Here’s some similar verses from the Book of Matthew:

    Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob beat Judas and his brethren.

    And Judas began Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom began Aram.

    And Aram began Aminidab; and Aminidab begat Naasson; and Naasson began Salmon;

And on, and on, and on. For a really long time. Now, aside from containing some killer names like “Zara of Thamar,” this passage is interesting for another reason: its brevity. I mean, sure, it seems to go forever, but imagine how long it would be without the silly-sounding but imminently useful “begat.”

    “Abraham had a son named Isaac.”

    Ick. “Fathered,” is an option, but even “Abraham fathered Isaac” is a relative mouthful.

    So, let’s try expressing the derivations we’ve looked at so far in terms of begats:

    Buffy begat Twilight

    Battle Royale begat The Hunger Games

    Earthsea begat Harry Potter

    Great Expectations begat Mud

    A Dream of Flying begat Chronicle

It’s handy to use “begat” as a catchall, letting it capture both tightly coupled relationships (Buffy/Twilight) and very loose ones (Earthsea/Harry Potter).

As I implied a few paragraphs back, we’re going to look at some relationships that include multiple members: things begetting things that beget other things. Here’s an example that includes a number of well-known (and not so well-known) TV series and movies:

Way back in the seventies (it seems they had TV by then, who knew?) there was a show about an investigative reporter who kept running afoul of supernatural menaces. In the pilot, his nose for news leads him to tribe of vampires who are preying on the good people of Los Angeles. The name of the program was Kolchak, the Night Stalker, and Chris Carter (creator of the X-Files) has admitted that Kolchak served as a major source of inspiration. And the creators of Fringe have come out and said that the show draws heavily from the X-Files (it came up during a panel I attended at Comic-Con).

So, our urban supernatural television lineage looks like this:

    Kolchak begat X-Files; X-Files begat Fringe.

I’ve included a number of other derivations in the diagram, some of which are unquestionably real, such as the Altered States/Fringe relationship, and others that are more of a judgment call, like Torchwood. I’ve left out the obvious Torchwood/Dr. Who tie-in, as the spinoff derivation is a bit different than the types we’ve discussed so far (and perhaps a bit less interesting).

When you consider the fact that both TV series and individual TV episodes can employ derivation relationships, things get kooky. Begats within begats, and so on. Let’s expand our diagram to include a bit of this:

Since rendering this hierarchy, I’ve come up with a bunch of other X-Files begats, but the diagram is already getting a tad cluttered, so I’ve omitted them.

Now that you’ve seen how it’s done, I’m challenging you to come up with some begats of your own. Go ahead. I dare ya!

Next up, we have a “bonus feature”—a scene from a novel I messed around with a couple of years back. In it, the characters come up with the diagrams shown above. It’s in first person, narrated by TED SZABO, a college senior. The other guys in the scene are his roommates, and the young ladies who pay them a visit are KATE ENFIELD, Ted’s girlfriend, and YOLANDA EVANS, the significant other of one of Ted’s roomies. ADVISORY: The scene has a lot foul language.

 

Excerpt: Brick House (warning—foul language!)

I stared at my astro homework, trying to make sense of a proof involving cosmological expansion and inevitable heat death. I’d been over the same page repeatedly, and each time, my head throbbed a little harder. Five hours of sitting in an apartment with my roommates, a stack of textbooks, and an ancient, overheating radiator was about four hours too many.

Aspirin. Must get aspirin. Or beer.

Al and Dean were locked in an intense debate that involved saying begat a lot. They’d pulled up a diagram on Dean’s beefy old plasma TV, and kept poking it with their index fingers. I grimaced. Something about people leaving smudges with their fingertips when all they really had to do was point at a screen bugged me. A lot.

“Fine, look at what happens if we invert the relationship,” said Dean. He reached for the TV, gesturing, and somehow managed to leave a wide, greasy track with two fingers at once. I grit my teeth. If not for the fact that Dean was my best bud, I’d have to kill him. Slowly.

I grunted beneath my breath. And then growled. And then combined the two into a sort of bestial growl-grunt. No one noticed. Astrophysics 451 always put me in foul mood.

Dean soldiered on, oblivious to my pain. “Also, check this out. We should use dashed lines where the relationship is more tenuous.”

Al shook his head, and the weird-ass goatee he claimed to be growing for Halloween wagged in counterpoint. “No… no… on that basis you could drag in just about anything with a supernatural theme, and you’d end up with a genealogy that was meaningless. I mean, do you show third cousins once removed on your family tree?”

Sam, Dean, and I had been cooped up in the apartment all day, working through our respective piles of homework. None of us had any classes scheduled, except for an evening lecture I’d have to hit, leaving us free to hang around the place and get on each other’s nerves. Al, as usual, was a freakish vision of multitasking mojo, noodling away at an assignment while watching television and listening to the radio. Old fashioned cup headphones covered just one ear, so he could still hear the TV. Sometimes he jammed a Bluetooth nib in the “free” ear so he could shoot the shit with some random girl at the same time. As doing homework. And watching TV. And annoying the hell out of us.

I sighed. Time for the voice of reason to intervene and put an end to the screen-soiling madness. “What are you dumbasses bickering about?”

Sam, who had been hunched over his laptop for the last couple of hours, cut loose with a groan. I had to give it to the guy, he was a world-class groaner. The weariness of a thousand soot-blackened coal miners lived in those throaty rumblings. “Oh, not you too. I know how it goes. Once all three of you jump into some dorkfest there’s no way to make it stop. It’ll go the full fifteen rounds.”

I gave Sam a knowing look. An I feel your pain look. “I’m going to hear them out, decide which one is right, and cast the deciding vote.” After scooting a bit closer to the TV, I turned to Dean. “Just give me the Cliff Notes.”

Once again, Sam groaned. A World War Two soldier dying of malaria and jungle rot in the middle of some stinking tropical cesspool might have made that sound. “Yolanda is coming over with some wine her mom shipped from Provence or Florence or some shit. The classy stuff. You need to wind it up before she gets here. I’m not asking for romantic ambience here, or I’d have told her I wanted to hook up somewhere else. I just need to you guys to not drive her off with your geeky BS.”

“Fine, we’ll make it quick,” said Al. “Ted, we’re talking about genealogies. Media genealogies. You know how it’s really obvious when some TV show or movie is inspired by another work—or maybe just rips it off? Dean and I were talking about which franchises are based on what, and started coming up with ways to express the relationships graphically.”

“Right, that’s it,” said Dean. “Except for the part about how Al keeps messing up the whole project ’cause he’s an ass-wipe.”

Al gave Dean a more-or-less good natured punch in the shoulder. “Douche.”

Dean winced, rubbed the injured joint, and punched Al back. “Don’t call me a fucking douche, douche.”

I gave them simultaneous open-handed whacks to the backs of their heads, putting just enough force into the blows to prevent an escalation of the douchery. “Come on! Show me what you’ve got so far. Let’s settle this so Sam and Yolanda can drink some classy shit in peace.”

Dean gave me a mild, slightly glazed look, and turned back to the TV. “Okay, here’s a piece of the Fringe genealogy we’ve been working on.” He picked up his iPad and gave it a tap, causing the cluttered diagram to be replaced with something simpler. Probably an earlier version of whatever they’d been arguing about. “Look, we can settle on the parentage for Fringe. Clearly, it’s The X-Files and Altered States. We have that much from the words of the series creators.”

“Sure, makes sense.” This was typical of the conversational bellybutton lint Dean and Al messed around with. Me too, sometimes, if you must know. If you went about it with the proper gusto, there was really no subject too trite to build an impassioned debate around.

Al nodded, pointing at a labeled rectangle connected to a bunch of other boxes. “The paternity of the X-Files is also pretty well understood—it’s derived directly from Kolchak the Night Stalker. And here we have dotted lines where there’s general inspiration that’s not tied to any specific media property.”

I looked at the connections between the boxes and some cloudy little poofs representing classic Hollywood monster movies, medieval European folk lore, and alien abduction mythology. “Whatever. I guess that all makes sense. Not sure what you guys have to bicker about.”

“Well, we were trying to figure out Fringe’s siblings—the other direct X-Files descendants. And that’s when Dean started getting stupid.”

Stan cut loose with a snort, and I looked back at him. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, just then?”

Al continued. “We agree about Torchwood and Supernatural—they both clearly belong there—but then Dean wanted to drag in all of these other shows with totally goddamn superficial similarities, like Bones.”

Dean gave me what, for him, was a pretty impassioned look. Meaning that his eyes opened wide enough for you to be certain he was actually awake, and his brow rose about an eighth of an inch. “Hey, the X-Files influence cuts a wide swath. Look at how many times the essential Mulder/Scully dynamic has been imitated. That’s a core part of the show, and when other shows put it at their core, I say that indicates inheritance.”

“Oh, give me a break. Do you want to include the Channel Five news because they aired some UFO sighting story?”

The three of us continued in this vein for a hell of a lot longer than I care to admit. Sam was right, pretty much. Once Dean, Al, and I staked out positions, we tended to defend them to the bitter end. And when I say “bitter,” I’m speaking both figuratively and literally. Settling things usually involved the consumption of alcohol, such as Vodka Bitters, and recriminations of the emotionally bitter sort.

I tried to avoid taking sides, positioning myself in the middle ground, but Dean and Al wouldn’t let me. They kept badgering me like, well, some kind of fucking badgers.

“Come on,” said Al, “are you in or out on Area 57? Stop it with the damn waffling.”

 

I mulled things over. I saw both, equally ridiculous, sides, and couldn’t seem to come up with a good reason for going either way. But maybe I could shift the subject a little. “Okay, Evolution is in, right?”

Dean and Al moaned.

“We covered that like fifteen minutes ago,” said Dean. “Yes, of course it’s in. It even has some of the same on-screen talent, so it’s obviously included. What we’re trying to do now is address the more controversial stuff.” He gave me a wry look, nose wrinkling until his weird little glasses went askew. “Comma, dumbass.”

Footsteps echoed in the stairwell, and Sam barked a single word. “Finally.”

He rose from his desk and stretched, raising thick, veiny arms above his head. He gave each armpit a quick sniff. “Yolanda’s going to come save me from you freaks.”

I nodded, relieved. Finding a diplomatic solution to the guys’ ludicrous row had taken on a weird urgency, and I wanted a break. A chance to think.

The girls entered—girls, plural—and I gulped. Yolanda had Kate in tow. I hadn’t expected to see her until the weekend. She wore jeans that looked like they’d been chemically bonded to her like auto paint. I tried to take a deep breath, but it ended up stillborn—a stunted, fucked-up parody of a breath.

“Howdy, male men,” said Yolanda. “Look who I found wandering around on Northwestern. It took a little doing, but I finally convinced this gorgeous babe to come take a study break with us.” She gave me a sly wink that oozed unintentional sexuality. Or maybe not so unintentional. “You can thank me later, Ted.”

I rose, greeting Kate with a peck on the lips before Yolanda could say anything more suggestive. “Hey, hon. I thought you were going to be stuck studying all day.”

“Well, Yolanda can be pretty convincing,” said Kate. As I returned to my seat she headed for the kitchen. She helped Yolanda unloaded a couple of grocery bags. Cheesy snacks to go with the wine. “She kept talking about how all of this primo vino was going to get slurped by you Neanderthals, with no one but her to properly appreciate it. I took pity. I should be able to stay long enough to have a couple of couple glasses, and my Shelley class is best enjoyed with a moderate buzz anyway.”

Kate peered at the TV, taking in Dean and Al’s stupid ancestry chart. “You guys working on something?”

As I started to explain, she came over, rubbing her hip against my shoulder in that light, brief, tease of way that said, Oh my, that was totally accidental. As far as you know.

A few minutes later, I wrapped up by summarizing the points the Dickweed Brothers couldn’t agree on, and Kate gave us a slow, patient nod.

“You guys… I’m speechless…”

While Al and Dean talked over each other, attempting to sway Kate to their respective points of view, Yolanda started uncorking tall, dark bottles with upscale labels. She pulled them from the kind of cardboard containers I’d seen people carrying as they disembarked flights coming in from California wine country.

“Well,” said Yolanda, “I guess we’re going to have use mugs and shot glasses, since you knuckle-draggers don’t have any wine glasses.” She held a large stein up to the light, turning it this way and that. “Are any of these even clean? Disgusting. Massively.”

Before Dean could launch into his usual exposition on the antiseptic qualities of alcoholic beverages over twenty-four proof, Kate turned to Yolanda and said, “Here, let me help you wash some of those.” She waved away Dean and Al’s arguments. “You guys will have to figure this out without me. I recuse myself on the grounds that I’m a normal person.” She made her way back to the kitchen.

Within a few minutes, we were all sipping a blood-red Paccot. Pretty goddamn tasty, in my opinion.

I threw back my head, draining the glass, and shot Kate a smile. “Hey hon, can you get me some more of the pink one?”

“Oh my God, what swine,” she said, smiling back. Kate and Yolanda lounged on the couch, a study in radically contrasting varieties of hotness. Tan, tall, and taut on the left, cappuccino curves on the right. A pair of near-empty wine bottles rested on the battered coffee table in front them.

Sam had taken a seat next to Yolanda, but wandered off a little while later. Now he paced the kitchen, muttering into his cell. The phone rested against one ear, and he had a finger jammed in the other. His face had that tight, furtive look that told me he was probably talking to his bookie.

Dean, Al, and I sat in a shallow arc of desk chairs in front of the TV. Each of us held a tablet that we periodically tapped and swiped, adding segments or annotations to the diagram. The introduction of alcohol seemed to have made our conversation more free-flowing, but even less coherent.

“Hey, how about this,” I said. “What if we, you know, focus less on the overarching genealogy?” I burped—a great, windy blast that made my lips flutter. “And look at some of the episodic derivations.”

“Like?” said Dean.

I stretched the oval representing The X-Files horizontally until it covered about a quarter of the screen. Having given myself some room to work, I sketched some rectangles inside the resized ellipse, labeling them with names of individual episodes. “Look, we’ve got parentage going in both directions. The Goldberg Variation begets Final Destination. And Citizen Kate begets Sons of Katie Elder, which begets Bad Blood.”

“Yeah, good,” said Dean. “I’ve got another one. The Philadelphia Experiment begets Dod Kalm.”

Al leapt from his seat. “Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve got one too. Groundhog Day begets Monday.”

All three of us stood for a while, wine sloshing about in the mugs we held in our free hands. A flurry of suggestions took flight, most of them asinine, as we started hashing out the more questionable ancestral connections.

“Actually, I think Sons of Kate Elder is based on a book,” said Al. “So wouldn’t that be real parent?”

I shook my head. “No. Totally fucking different class of derivation. Look! We can use a different color for direct adaptations from one media form to another.” I felt focused, certain. I knew I’d been sucked into Al and Dean’s whirlpool of frivolous bullshit, but couldn’t bring myself to care. Seduced by geekery. Again.

Kate and Yolanda ignored us, leaning toward one another and speaking in low, giggly tones. Kate glanced in my direction, and Yolanda grinned at something she said.

My jaw clenched. Were they talking shit about me? Probably. A knot of irritation gathered in my gut, but the quart or so of wine I’d just downed gave the emotion a distant, gauzy feel. Clucking hens. Couldn’t they see that modern thought was evolving right before their eyes?

I followed a second lively belch was with a pair of hiccups. “Man, that bubbly yellow one packs a punch!”

“You mean the sparkling cider?” said Kate. She and Yolanda turned back to one another, and Yolanda whispered something in Kate’s ear that caused her to erupt into laughter. Kate doubled over, covering her mouth with a daintily positioned hand. A few seconds later, a hefty burp came from behind it. Not as hefty as mine, but in the same league.

“Oh shit,” said Kate, and then proceeded to laugh even harder, with Yolanda joining in.

Al punched me in the chest. “Pay attention! Which is the one that cribbed from Poltergeist?”

I turned backed to the widescreen. “I’m not sure where you’re going with that. Poltergeist cribbed from some old Twilight Zone episode. The interdimensional rescue part of it, anyway.”

Al and Dean peered at the revised diagram, mulling it in silence.

After a quick trip to the little boy’s room I returned to my seat, energized. I felt a burst of fresh inspiration coming on. “Shit, we haven’t even looked at the paternity of the Fringe episodes yet. Okay… okay… how about, Once More with Feeling begets Brown Betty?”

“Ooo, I like it” said Dean. “The relationship is structural instead of thematic. But now we need to put Buffy on the diagram too.

Al nodded. “Yeah, good one.” He squatted on his chair, a shot glass of wine in each hand. He tried to drink from both simultaneously—a goddamn anatomical improbability at best. “Now, if we’re going to going to put Buffy up there, then we need to figure out whether or not she had any children with the other nodes. I say… X-Files and Buffy begat Grimm.”

This drew a boatload of emotional comments from Dean and I, though we eventually decided we to go along with idea.

“Right, right…” I said, “… son of Buffy.”

 

 

“Okay, you guys,” said Yolanda. She waved her hands until she had our attention. “Kate and I just figured out the rules to a drinking game. Only she and I are allowed to play, or know the rules.”

Kate poured a brightly-hued blush into parallel rows of shot glasses—one in front her, and another in front of Yolanda. We gave them a quizzical look. I had a sneaking suspicion I was once again being made fun of.

“Carry on, carry on…” said Kate, making dismissive gestures. “The game is based on what you guys are saying and doing, so you have to keep going. There you go. Eyes front. No eyeballing the hot chicks.”

Yolanda hissed something to Kate about “balling,” and they both snickered.

“How ’bout we start a fresh one, and come back to this great hairy turd of a diagram later?” I said, looking at Al, then Dean.

“I’m game,” said Al. “What do you have in mind?”

“James Bond?”

“Ooo, ooo, I’ve got it,” said Dean. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. begat James Bond begat Alias begat 24.”

“Holy crap,” said Kate, chuckling. I heard the clink of shot glasses as she and Yolanda began to down their contents, one after another.

“Hmm, I ‘m not so sure,” said Al. “I think the first James Bond movies were direct adaptations of the Ian Fleming novels, and some of the more recent films, too.”

“All right, granted,” said Dean. He nodded, and then drew a long swig from his mug.

I scratched my chin, noting the stubble.

Probably look like shit. Why didn’t Yolanda give me a head’s up? Kate’s as smoking as always, and I look like the bum the other bums call Stink-ass.

“The tie to 24 is kind of lame,” I said. “Not really getting my head around it.”

“That’s because you’re a pinhead,” said Dean, sounding a little boozy. “Look, it’s not a direct derivation, but the similarities are significant. Consider the way the main characters behave as operatives, being in this constant dialog with a handler who feeds them information from a bunch of real-time resources. If you think about it, that’s a crucial, defining characteristic, because the shows all have dramatic peaks that take place during covert operations. It’s core.”

I nodded. A sharp, exaggerated bob of my head that gave me a twinge in the back of my neck. “Right! Well, in that case, James Bond begat Alias begat 24 begat Chuck.”

A fresh firestorm of controversy tore through the room. Was Chuck a direct descendent of 24, a child of both Alias and 24, or a descendent of some other sort?

Our impromptu party lasted well into the evening. Whether or not Kate ever made it to class, I’m not sure. Something else did stick with me, though, and I still think about it now and then, all these years later. Just after we undressed for bed, stretching beneath, cool, fresh sheets she’d found in some forgotten drawer, Kate whispered to me. She brought her lips within a hair’s breadth of my ear, and her breath rippled across my jaw and neck. Warm air. Minty, and freshly scrubbed.

“Ted, I know you’re too wasted to remember what I’m about to say.” Another breath, tender as early morning, third-time’s-the-charm sex. “And that’s why I’m going to say it.”

She paused, and that’s when I went from ninety percent passed out to full-on comatociousness. All I can recall are the first two words of what Kate whispered next.

“Ted, I’m…”

 

First Light – Chapter 2

Written By: Paul Toth - May• 11•14

Prilya blinked against the mid-morning sun. Even when filtered through dense sheaves of greenery, sunshine in the High Wright Pierce stung like a footman’s dart. She stood astride a dirt path that wound eastward—a dusty, gray-brown intruder skulking beneath verdant boughs. Cypress and baobab clustered around her, and sparrow hawks chirped overhead.

A-ye-ch-chi. A-ye-ch-chi.

She flexed bare toes, and loam seeped between them, warm and loose. Prilya wore neither hat nor shoes. Nothing but a rough linen dress, interrupted just below the knees, stood between her and an intermittent breeze. It was the sort of peasant garb she’d worn as little girl. With a loose fit and durable fabric, the garment had been perfect for exploring, and she’d spent a half-dozen summers darting amongst the groves, ridges, and soaring buttes that formed the borders of her ancestral hold.

Prilya smiled, basking in memories.

How mother hated those dresses. “Let her wear the clothing of a common girl, and run wild like a common girl, and she’ll grow up common.”

To mother, common was the worst of all epithets.

Father, lord of home and hearth, had laughed when she said this sort of thing, pressing his lips against mother’s forehead and giving her bottom a pinch when he thought Prilya wasn’t looking. “We can’t cage the wind, my love. And would we truly want to? We’ve two proper daughters to play the harp and dance the gavotte. Let that be enough.”

A creek burbled to one side, and Prilya strode toward it. The canopy in this part of the Pierce was too thick for undergrowth to thrive, so the going was easy. Mossy froths bunched about her ankles, and she advanced at a steady pace, pausing every once in a while to pat the gnarled trunk of a cypress.

A few minutes later, she stepped into a glade—a narrow oval of greenery clustered around a pond the size of a village inn. A natural granite redoubt hunched to the south, and the creek tumbled over its shoulders, feeding the basin below. A clean, light spray bathed the air, wetting Prilya’s cheek.

“Greetings, poppet.” The words took the form of abrupt sing-song tones decorated with tweets and clicks.

Skyborne.

Prilya swiveled toward the voice, smiling. A great feathered figure, more man than hawk, crouched atop a baobab. At the end of his wings were long, black, gracefully articulated talons that flexed and gripped like hands. A blue woolen band encircled his head, and a bandolier—host to a brace of daggers—hugged his chest.

Dol’en-sey. War chief of the Pierce Skyborne, first of his name.

She called out. “Wind-pater, it’s you!” Prilya followed up with a rapid succession of warbles and chirps. I thank the tides of the sky that swept you toward me, and the forbearance of the Lord of Storms, who allowed you passage. Blessed be.

Dol loosed a low, huffing laugh-squawk. “Only three months in the lowlands, and your chir grows rusty. You sound like a water buffalo, earth-daughter.”

She snorted, and her smile widened. “Buffalo? Well, your chir sounds really tired. How many grandchicks are swarming around your aerie now, anyway? Twenty? Thirty? I bet they never leave you alone.” She spread her arms. “Now, will you swoop down and give your earth-daughter a hug, or do I have to shimmy up to you like an ape?” Prilya bent, letting her arms swing loose from the elbows. She scratched her armpits with her fingers and made hooting sounds.

Dol’s tail feathers drooped, and his voice became somber. “All in good time. Do you remember how you came to be here?”

Prilya ran her front teeth across her lower lip. She felt her forehead crinkle. How had she come home? Just that morning, she’d entered the imperial seat, riding through the city gates beside her mistress. The high priestess had been in a fine mood, pointing out one landmark after another. When they drew up next to the manse in which the priestess had spent her childhood, the oddest look had come across the great lady’s face. She leaned toward Prilya and gave her a peck on the cheek, and Prilya grew flush with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. It was the sort of affectionate gesture one bestowed on a toddling child.

After that…

She shook her head. They’d gone to the cathedral, hadn’t they? Her head filled with fog.

“I… I’m not sure, wind-pater. I broke my morning fast a thousand leagues from here.” Her voice trailed off, becoming a mumble, then a whisper.

“It’s not important, earth-daughter. It is enough to know that you’re in a peaceful place, far from fear and pain. I come here often and think of you. This glade was one of your favorite places, for a time.”

Prilya’s smile returned. “After you went and banned me from Hell’s Platter, I had to find other places to quest. Bouncing around down Guillemot’s Gullet wasn’t quite as fun as climbing the Spires. Good enough, though! I used to imagine slaying pirates in the Gullet. Then I’d take all their treasure, of course.”

Dol shook his head, beak crooked in way that signified a both resignation and pride. “That gorge is nearly as good a place for an earth child to fall to her death as the Spires. And had you slipped, I wouldn’t have been there to catch you.”

She walked over to the pond, dipping a foot into a gentle back-eddy. The water sloshing her ankle felt cold, but not unpleasantly so. A pair of bluegills swam just a few strides away. Their tails rippled idly, moving just enough to keep them in place. They faced one another, and the oddest sounds came from the fish, as if they were speaking.

“Well,” said Prilya, “I didn’t actually slip from the platter, you know. A gust of wind way too strong for midsummer lifted me right off the edge.” Prilya closed her eyes, once again allowing herself to become lost in the past.

The full sweep of the High Wright stretched before her—dense copses slashed by ravines jagged enough to have been torn by a mad god. Beyond them, the basalt towers flanking her father’s keep stewed in the summer heat. Dust rising from the practice yard told her the men-at-arms were practicing maneuvers, but at such a great distance, she couldn’t make out individual soldiers.

She edged closer to the precipice, running her eyes along the scarp that stretched beneath the mesa on which she stood. The next several minutes were spent trying to spot the approach she’d used to round the backend of the Spires, but mounds of scree blocked the view. Some of the handholds had been no larger than a wine goblet, and at times she’d been left with no place at all to put her feet. She’d been forced to move from one ledge to the next, sinking her fingernails into crevices and hoisting herself aloft. How the cliff monkeys had chattered!

A blast of air scoured the rock face below, knocking birds from their nests and filling the air with grit and pebbles. She tried to draw back, but the updraft caught her anyway, surging beneath her dress and carrying her aloft. A moment of exuberance (I’m flying!) was immediately followed by terror, and a scream burst from her lungs.

She sailed out over the edge of the Platter, limbs churning. Gullies strewn with rows of crooked, sun-blackened boulders yawned far below, ready to maul and tear and grind. She heard a raven’s excited utterance, and for one wild moment, Prilya wondered the bird had laid the eggs she’d sucked dry for her midmorning meal.

The sky gods, they give us her bones, caw caw. The sky gods give us her bones!

Something powerful seized her shoulders, clamping them both in front and behind, and she shrieked again. It felt as if pitchforks were being driven into her flesh. The fall ceased, followed by a halt so abrupt her bones creaked, and then a dizzying ascent began. She thrashed, howling, and her feet danced a wild jig.

“Still yourself, hatchling.” A masculine, strangely pitched voice came from just above her head. It was full of clucks and chirps—almost impossible to understand. “If you free yourself from my talons, it will be the last battle you ever win. I’ll let the rocks have you, blood-and-bone, and they’ll laugh their stony laugh.”

Prilya did as the voice commanded, even though the pain in her shoulders was terrible. The wounds would take weeks to heal, and leave her with six teardrop scars—a trio to each side of her breastbone—she’d wear to the end of her days. Prilya had been too heavy for Dol to carry without bringing the full strength of his hind claws to bear.

A breeze, warm with the smell of gentle woodland decay, caressed her face, and Prilya returned to the present. She reached for the side of her neck and ran her fingertips along the slope of her collarbone. They passed beneath the collar of her dress, and she found the scars—reassuring, almost, in their familiarity.

A moment later, she withdrew her hand, and her attention returned to her surroundings. The glade seemed too perfect, somehow. More like a gorgeous painting than the real world. All the harsh bits—the thorns and biting insects and half-eaten prey—seemed to have been drained away and discarded, like the soupy glop at the bottom of pot of noodles.

She peered at Dol. “Sky-pater, where am I? Truly.”

The powerfully built Skyborne gave her a long look before speaking, twitching from side to side so he could look at her with one eye, then the other. “Between the land into which are born and the one to which we must someday go, there is another place. A bright shadow we visit in dreams. A place of stillness and respite. It has no name—not one I know, anyway.”

She lifted her hands, peering at the backs, then the front. They looked real enough, right down to the bits of soil beneath her fingernails. “So I’m asleep.”

“No. I’m sorry, earth-daughter. Your body lies broken, and the tethers binding your spirit grow loose. You will linger here until the time comes for you to pass to your final rest. I sensed your distress, and had our shaman brew the draught that would take me here. My first-wives will care for my form until I return to it.”

Prilya nodded. She knew she ought to rage and cry and curse Dol for a liar, but the anger faded before it could fully form. She supposed it could no more exist in this place than a soap bubble could endure in a roaring fire. “Oh. Um, how long am I going to be here? Before. Before, you know—“

“Hours. Days, perhaps. But time flows differently here, and a moment can stretch until it feels like a lifetime. I will be with you as long as you wish. We will wander the dales, and chase larks across the hillsides, and speak of whatever we will.”

Prilya started to respond, but found herself distracted by the odd, burbling word-sounds rising from the pond. She looked over at the fish. The bluegills had been joined by a pike. The three fish faced one another, seeming to converse, and the tips of their tails formed a neat triangle. She took a step toward them, and tiny waves lapped her calves. If she leaned close, she thought she might be able to tell what they were saying.

A loud creak came from branch that bore Dol’s weight, drawing her attention back to him. Even in this place, it seemed, his broad, heavily muscled frame was a heavy load to bear. Prilya gave him a long look.

“I can’t get out of here any other way?”

“If you are not too close to death, you might be able to find your way back. The pain would be terrible, though, and returning would not save you. The end would come, just the same, but with a good deal more suffering. I would not have that for you, Poppet.”

Prilya gave her chin an idle scratch. Spend her last moments with sweet old Dol, who she loved more than anyone, or spend them thrashing about in agony. Not much of choice, really.

One of the fish cursed—a word she’d heard her father use a few times, when speaking to recalcitrant peasants—and she kneeled, bending an ear.

“This is about more than a few coastal duchies, you fools,” said the pike. “The High Priestess was the only one who stood a chance against Fit’tak-noir. Once the outlander princes find out she’s dead, they’ll realize there’s no chance of settling things according to imperial law, in the arena. They won’t wait around for diplomatic measures to bear fruit. Ithin and Mattock Isle are spoiling for war, and the others will follow their lead.”

One of the bluegills splashed about, wetting Prilya’s thigh, before responding. “You don’t know that. No, no, you surely don’t. Calmer heads may yet prevail. And in any case, the trial-by-combat laws are as archaic as can be. Barbaric, really. That we should rely on them to keep the peace it’s… well, it’s absurd! Absurd and profane, I say.”

The other bluegill spoke. “No. By Saint Lannit’s scepter, he’s right. Think about it, Father Theus. The Pilaetan Hegemony’s fishing fleet—you’ve heard the news. It now plies the shoals of Ithin’s coastal waters. Blatant provocation. And the Hegemon’s navy lies in wait. Word is, his son has a cooler head. But the old man still rules. Hrumph. Rules, and blusters, and aches for war.” The fish’s next words came out in a bubbly whisper, and Prilya almost had to dip her ear in the water to make them out. “They say he has a disease of the loins. And they say it’s driven him mad. And that he’s profaned the gods so many times the holy magiks are of no use.”

“So where does that leave us, eh? We can delay acknowledging her death, we can, but the truth will be discovered in short order. You know it will! The high priestess, she’s expected to appear at any number of public functions. Oh, and how about the plans—known by all—that she was to make a great show of preparing for the arena. Striding about in that imperious way of hers.  Gathering the greatest knights in the land to fight at her side. Oh, it all sounded grand a week ago, but we were just building ourselves a gilded box. A box to bury ourselves in!”

Prilya squatted beside the fish, admiring the way the sun glinted from their scales. It seemed like they were talking about some rather important things, but it was hard to care, somehow. What had Dol said about chasing larks? He could be wonderfully playful, when he didn’t insist on acting like surly old poop.

“If there is any hope at all, it lies with this poor girl.” The fish’s tail twitched.

She felt a ghostly hand brush her brow, and let out a yip. “What?”

“Some sensations,” said Dol, “can still reach from there to here. Those that aren’t too unpleasant. Eventually, this will cease.”

Prilya rubbed her forehead, frowning. “I’ve been doing magic since I was burping up breast milk, you know that. I’m used to strange. But that was strange.”

She looked back at the bluegills, whose fishy little faces were somehow managing to look perturbed. One shouted at the other.

“What, do you think I don’t know the cost? By saints and sires, of course I know the cost. How do think my leg withered? Hrumph It happened—recall, if you will—when I prayed the Deep Cant to save Prince Leopold. Surely you haven’t forgotten. If the gods take us… well, if they take us, so be it. The girl must live.”

“Enough!” said the pike, his voice a watery boom. “Until the cardinal arrives, I hold the deciding vote, and I’m casting it now. If we don’t start immediately, the girl may die no matter what we do. Her inner humours have poisoned her blood, and we all know how little time that leaves.”

The fish began to chant. They started out with the standard sacramental harmonies, but were soon weaving vocalizations far more complex than anything she’d heard. Supplications wrapped around words of power layered amongst deep chords that reminded her of watching shooting stars light the night sky. The fish shuddered and bobbed as the force of the cant wracked them from nose to tail, but they never faltered.

Prilya lost interest in the fish. Why did they have to sound like boring old men? Chanting and magic and beseeching the gods no longer mattered, anyway. She wanted to chase larks. The sun now rode low enough in the sky to dapple the water, and the spray from the waterfall took on a vibrant golden glow.

“Oooh,” she said, breathing softly. “Look, wind-pater. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“You need to decide,” said Dol. He sounded sad. “If you wish to stay here, you can, but it will take a conscious effort.”

Prilya waded further in, and her dress floated about her hips like a jellyfish. She dragged her fingertips across the surface of the water, drawing rows of parallel ripples that the sun turned to bright runnels. “The fish want to make me go back, don’t they?”

“They do. But for now, the decision lies with you. If you wait much longer, though, there will be no stopping them.”

Prilya gazed at her old friend. “On the one hand, it’s lovely here. And being with you is wonderful. I almost forgot how much I missed you.” She lifted wet fingers, running them through her hair. “But on the other, I might have important things to do. It’s getting harder and harder to remember, though.” She frowned, searching her memories, and then brightened as a few fragments tumbled into view. “I’m the Favored of seven gods, Dol. Seven. Isn’t it amazing? Everyone is so jealous.”

Dol gave her a long, even look. “Yes. I know, child. It is rare, but not unprecedented. Every individual so Favored has lived a short, unhappy life full of terrible burdens and unrelenting strife.” He blinked. “Except one or two unfortunate enough to live a long life filled with such miseries. But for you, now, it need not be so.”

He extended wings that stretched nearly twelve feet, tip to tip, and leapt into the air. Moments later, he came to rest at Prilya’s side. He extended one of his huge black foreclaws. “If you wish to stay, grasp my talon. You must decide, Poppet. Now.”

Prilya nodded, and it was as if an immense weight rose from her shoulders. “I’m going to stay. I know it’s right thing. I know it. Those fish don’t care about me. They just want to yank me around like one of those puppets with strings. The ones in the street carnivals.” She took a deep breath. “Dol, have I told you how much I love you? You’re the most wonderful, wise old bird ever to save a little girl who got blown off a mesa.”

Dol gave her a curt nod. “I suppose that may be true. And I love you as dearly as my own hatchlings. But Prilya, there is no time.”

He grew closer, and long, brown wing feathers caressed her arm.

She grinned, reaching for her friend, but the fishes’ cant built to roaring climax that shook the whole glade. Most humans couldn’t read Skyborne expressions—the feathers and stiff facial structures made it difficult—but Prilya had more practice than most. When a wave of remorse swept across Dol’s face, she saw it for what it was, and her heart fell.

“Goodbye, Poppet.” Dol’s voice shook, and his eyes grew moist. “I will find you if I can.”

And she was gone.

 

First Light

Written By: Paul Toth - Apr• 11•14

First Light is Mage Wars fan fiction By Paul Toth

Mage Wars is a product of Arcane Wonders, and was created by Bryan Pope.

 

 


 

Chapter One

 

Prilya had spent the last five minutes staring at dragons. Not the sort that pounced on maidens and spat fire—a lucky thing, since she was a maiden—but dragons wrought from polished gold. They stretched across a bas relief decorating the famed dome of Thaddin-ka Cathedral, an edifice that dwarfed the roughhewn tabernacles of her homeland. She smiled. After five dusty weeks on the road, it felt wonderful to be standing in one of most prestigious churches in the land. An honored house of worship in a great, teeming city. The perfect place for her apprenticeship to begin in earnest.

“It’s wondrous, is it not?” One of the deacons tasked with greeting the faithful beamed at Prilya. “Is this your first time in Thaddin-ka, Lady Marimet?” He and several other close-shaven young men stood in the vestibule Prilya had traversed a few minutes before. They awaited the throng that would be arriving for afternoon mass.

Prilya nodded, but before she could answer, she heard something that gave her pause. A voice, throaty and resonant, just beyond the doors. Truncated monosyllables punctuated with clicks made by snapping the front teeth together. An ignis chant.

By the time she cried out, ordering the deacons to flatten themselves against the vestibule floor, it was too late. Ornate double doors splintered, bursting inward, and gouts of roiling red-orange flame engulfed the men. They howled—a wordless, warbling lament—and fell to the floor, writhing like worms on a hook. For the briefest of moments, Prilya she whether she would live long enough to mourn them, and then gasped and stumbled as a blast of searing air nearly knocked her off her feet.

Pain, more than she’d ever felt.

Scorched skin, blistering, on her face and arms.

Her eyes hurt so badly she could barely blink, and singed strands of hair raked her neck. Parishioners shrieked behind her. She glimpsed flurries of activity to both sides, but for a time she could pay attention to little except how much she hurt. She grit her teeth and whispered a prayer to Illinyana-Toh-Vidyas, foremost goddess of the Skyborne, and felt the coil of panic writhing in her gut grow still.

Perilya’s first instinct was to run—to flee to the temple’s ruined antechamber—but instead she stooped, unslung her weathered oxskin carryall, and loosed its ties in a rush. Those attacking the temple would be hampered by the flames filling its entrance. She hoped so, anyway. She ought to have time enough to arm herself. If not, she would soon be praying for a quick death.

Three men appeared, bulling their way through the splintered, still-burning remnants of the temple door. At first, they were barely visible in the haze surrounding the ruined vestibule, but Prilya could see them well enough to tell their clothing lacked emblem, sigil, or heraldic device. They had come to deal deaths that no one would claim. No lord, or king, or nation, would ever be called to account for the veins these warriors opened, or the widows they made. They were assassins without allegiance or greater purpose, men who struck from the shadows and then faded away, nameless. Gray Men.

By the time they emerged from the smoke, coughing through wetted rag masks, Prilya had her etti-ya—a long, narrow rod clad in Ettilene silver—in hand. She held it behind her back, clasped in one hand, fingers curled around the device’s leather grip.

The men drew within a half dozen paces of Prilya, their scorched rawhide boots dark with ash.

“Entilyet eh-ya yay,” she whispered. “Miyaspih toh.” Forgive me, goddess, for the harm I do in your name. A prayer in a dead language. Words never meant to be formed by a human tongue.

Five paces.

Prilya cowered before the men, trembling. She spoke in wavering, fearful tones and made placating gestures with her free hand. “Don’t hurt me, I pray of you. Please. Please. I’m just an acolyte.”

Three paces.

The Gray Men hesitated for half a breath, gazing at her wordlessly, and then one stepped forward. The point of his sword arced toward Prilya’s gut. He moved languidly, as if skewering a tasty bit of venison floating in his stew, and the other two barely seemed to have noticed her. Their dead-fish eyes scanned the nave, and she supposed they sought more formidable opponents than a singed, tow-headed girl in soiled travel robes.

Spinning on the balls of her feet, Prilya let the sword pass to her left, staying close enough to its path for the flat of the weapon’s blade to brush her belly. At the same time, she swung her etti in a tight, sidelong arc that came to a halt when its lip impacted the attacking Gray Man’s face. She ululated as the rod struck home, and the uppermost symbol on the device flared to life.

The shock of impact traveled down Prilya’s arm, partially numbing it, and light filled the hall. For an instant, she peered through the clothing and flesh of the interloper she’d struck, gazing at the pale bones beneath. His skull clove in two, with a crack the width of a baby’s finger opening from nose to crest. As the light faded, passing out of the world in less time than it took to blink, her victim crumpled like an abandoned marionette. His body twisted, slumping, between his companions, whose hands had risen to shield their eyes.

Prilya slid to one side, rising onto her toes. Thankful she’d braved the disdain of the elder Sisters by dressing in soft doeskin scoe, she executed the tight, energetic spin of a peasant girl dancing—skirts a-flouncing—at her first Festival.

Breathe in. Her hip brushed a Gray Man’s grimy vambrace as she rotated past him.

And out. As she pirouetted into position behind the assassin, she bent her knees and dropped into a deep crouch, still spinning.

In again, and hold, silent. She swung the etti wide, spinning it end-over-end. It gathered speed like a falcon nosing into a deep dive. When she barked a single word of power—a vengeful supplication addressed to a vengeful goddess—an engraving halfway up the rod flashed. At that moment, she drove the etti into the lightly armored flesh behind the Gray Man’s knees.

Her target straightened, turning toward her, and for a moment Prilya grew cold, afraid the Goddess had ignored her entreaty. But then his eyes widened. The killer’s legs bent, and then bent some more. He slid to the ground in a contorted heap. The man grunted, struggling to gain his feet. Prilya knew he would never walk again.

The last of the interlopers—a hulking fellow with a harelip—peered at each of his fallen comrades in turn. His eyes widened and his jaw worked, and for a moment Prilya wondered if the man might flee. She whispered a quick prayer to the Venna-Ja, the foremost Departed of her order. Each blow Prilya struck diminished her. Better by far that the man should surrender to the temple guard than force her to take him down or perish in the attempt.

“Fivven ka-taro,” said the man she had just struck. She recognized the curse, an Ilander tem used to deride women who didn’t know their place. The words spewed from between grit teeth. He scrabbled, still trying to rise, rage and despair contorting pale, close-set features. “Vaun ya ti-fothen. Ya. Finnit-tuh.” His legs wobbled sickeningly, like sticks broken in half and reconnected with soggy strings. Prilya wasn’t sure what the words meant. His violent intent was clear, though. Kill the girl. And hurt her bad while you’re doing it.

Harelip’s eyes narrowed and his jaw snapped shut. He turned to face her, holding his weapon—a longsword with a row of cruel serrations halfway between hilt and tip—at the ready. He advanced with the precise, angular steps of a man who was no stranger to the battlefield.

Prilya gave ground. If the Gray Man got close enough, he could simply grapple her, snapping her neck or crushing her beneath his weight. She made a quick feint with the etti, breathing an activation that caused it to glow with an enough intensity to convince her attacker she meant business.

He took a single long stride, striking so quickly he nearly parted her arm at the wrist, and Prilya hopped back.

She shivered.

He’s deadly up close, and almost as dangerous from a stride-and-a-half away.

Prilya followed up with another feint, and then another, barking activations that lit this symbol or that.

Again, the Gray Man responded, working his way forward with a series of narrow sweeps and overhand jabs. To her eyes, his balance and focus appeared impeccable. A combat instructor’s dream. “It’s almost a shame I have to slay you,” she hissed, meeting the killer’s gaze.

Prilya licked her lips, which tasted of cinders and blood. She had the measure her opponent. The big man continued to exhibit perfect technique, but appeared predictable in the extreme. The Ilander practice of honing elite warriors by tasking them with thousands of hours of drills had its drawbacks. Any attack she made would elicit an easily anticipated response.

She bent at the knees and grunted, pretending to aim a blow at the man’s thighs, and when he tried to cleave her elbow she straightened, jerking the etti back and up, into the path of his cut. She spat three sounds in rapid succession, “thogh—fen—ouh,” coughing out the last of them at the moment her etti met the Gray Man’s weapon. A triangular etching in the silvery rod’s trunk seemed to leap from the weapon, forming a widening, evanescent projection, and the man’s blade shattered.

Shards flew in all directions. Just as Prilya intended, the largest piece—a jagged, glittering awl—drove its way up through her opponent’s gorget. Blood spewed from the wound, forming a frothy inverted fountain that made her want to gag.

As the Gray Man staggered in one direction, Prilya lurched in another, gasping. She reached for her side, and her hand came away wet. She allowed herself a pained cry. One of the sword fragments had pierced the flesh between armpit and hip. A reminder from the Goddess, perhaps, that speaking Her words in anger would have consequences.

“Or perhaps I just have bat leavings for luck,” Prilya muttered. At least she’d managed to injure herself in a building full of healers. Though it seemed unlikely the wound would prove fatal, the pain in her side was beginning to rival that emanating from her blistering extremities. She gulped, blinking away tears.

As Harlip sagged, gurgling his last breath, Prilya took a moment to gaze around the nave. Beams of light descended through broad, rose-tinted windows and then disappeared among streamers of gray-black smoke and ash. Most of the parishioners had fled. She assumed they huddled, praying, in the transept chapels. A few braver souls made their way toward her: a pair of sacramental guardsmen in their distinctive brown woolens; bald, bent-backed Chancellor Benis; and (thanks be to the Holies!) High Priestess Emmera Van Laszis, Prilya’s mistress. The woman’s jaw was set, mouth little more than a pinched pink line, and the fleur de lis atop her golden scepter shone so brightly the onrushing guards were forced to avert their eyes.

Prilya sighed, releasing a hot, shuddering breath. Mistress Laszis would set things right, with the injured given care and the guilty punished. And she would make sense of things, somehow, so that Prilya might come to understand how clerics in a great temple—one within the walls of an imperial capital—could be slaughtered beneath the midday sun.

The sound of impossibly sharp, heavy footfalls filled the air—sharp impacts more like those of hooves than boots—and Prilya turned toward the burning antechamber. Something was coming, following in the Gray Men’s wake, but she couldn’t make out anything through the smoke. Several heartbeats separated each step, as if whatever had entered the chapel was either very large, moving slowly, or both.

Gulping, Prilya took a step back, raising her etti. She tried to ignore the wet warmth flowing across her belly and thigh. Her hand shook, and when she commanded it to cease, it went on shaking anyway. Insubordinate wretch.

A figure emerged. While it stood on two legs, and a pair of arms hung from its shoulders, it bore little resemblance to a man. It was thing hewn from the stuff of nightmares. Twelve feet of hoof, scale, and curling, fluted horn. A chest the size of a mountain pony expanded, and when the demon expelled its breath, Prilya choked on the smell of flyblown entrails. The beast took another step, bringing it within a wagon-length of Prilya, and its sickly yellow eyes found her.

“I’ve come to rend the flesh of a high priestess,” said the demon, its voice a scabrous growl. “You hew to the likeness I was shown, but you’re little more than a child.” He took another step, leaning in, and opened a mouth writhing with black, eyeless eels. “It’s hard to tell, with you fleshy, short-lived warts, though. Are you a high priestess, little verruca?”

Her whole body shook, and Prilya barely resisted the temptation to hurl herself to the floor and beg the unclean thing for mercy. While she had read of such creatures—inimica from the innermost halls of the damned—she’d never seen one, or known anyone who claimed to have done so. The varieties of demons summoned to do battle in the arena were little more than malevolent lapdogs next to this creature. How could she fight such a thing? How could anyone—

“It’s me you’ve come for, puss-bag.” Laszis strode into view, scepter held high, a wagon-length to Prilya’s left. The priestess descended the last of the broad stairs separating Narthex from elevated Nave.

Prilya felt a little of the numbing, ice-water-down-the-back fear drain from her. Her benefactor’s determination and battlefield savvy were legendary. If anyone could face down a profane nightmare like the one standing before them…

The high priestess closed on the demon. Her cornsilk tresses flashed with reflected radiance, framing fierce patrician features. “You must be the clown prince of Hell, for only a fool in motley would challenge me here, amongst the shrines of the martyrs. In this place, I am suffused with god-borne purity. Nay, monster, I breathe it.”

The demon chortled—a low, grinding sound like bone meal being milled. “Purity.” He smiled, revealing incisors like recurved pachyderm tusks. “Really, now. We know a thing or two about sin in the lands from which I hail, priestess. And I have it on good authority that the word ‘pure’ hasn’t been on friendly terms with you for some time. I believe you and it are… how can I put this… estranged. Apparently you aren’t quite as favored by the self-righteous prigs who rule the higher realms as you used to be.”

Prilya shook her head. Lies. The denizens of the underworld were known for that, more than anything. Surely the woman who had plucked Prilya from obscurity, rescuing her from the banal life of a plowshare lordling’s daughter, wouldn’t breach the holy covenants.

She waited for her Mistress to repudiate the demon’s accusations.

The tall, straight-backed woman stood stock still, mute, and grew red in the face. The light bathing her countenance seemed to dim, if only a little.

Guardsmen appeared, gathering in a knot around Prilya’s mistress. As one, they turned to her. From the unsteadiness in the men’s stances, Prilya could tell they were as frightened as she. Nonetheless, their expressions bespoke grim determination. Command us, was the unspoken missive. If we perish at your side, our lives will have been well-lived. Chancellor Benis, who lagged a dozen strides behind, looked equally ready to defend the faith.

Shamed by their bravery, Prilya drew a deep breath and lunged at the demon. Words of righteous power gathered on her lips, and holy symbols inscribed on the etti hovered before her mind’s eye. Minith. Litti-atrackan. Moiy. She’d once cracked a limestone boulder with moiy.

The voice of the high priestess rose behind Prilya. “No! I order you to stop, you little idiot.”

“I can’t hear you,” Prilya whispered, speaking to no one in particular. “Ears must have been injured in the explosion.” She dove forward, picking up speed despite the waning strength in her legs.

“Me!” The priestess was screaming now, voice hoarse. “You came for me beast, not this babe.”

Again, the demon eyed Prilya, and his smile made her guts crawl. “Now then, children, don’t bicker. Your mother and I love you both.” He lifted a scaly paw. “You, though…” The paw hurtled toward Prilya, and an instant later she could see nothing else. “You, I will show my love later.”

The world blurred around her as her feet left the floor. She was dimly aware of her etti taking wing, hurtling through the air like a silvery canyon-eagle. Then she was kissing a marble pillar, which struck her as strange because she had yet to kiss a boy, and why ought she kiss an architectural feature, however nicely formed, before bestowing her affections on a young man? In any event, the pillar didn’t appear to appreciate being kissed, because it broke her nose.

Everything spun, and Prilya found herself lying on a wall (how odd!) that tore her shoulder from its socket. A moment later, she came to rest on the floor, which seemed friendlier than the rest of the nave, because it didn’t insist on punishing any of her other parts. Prilya could barely move. She stretched out her arms, resting cracked, bleeding palms on the surrounding floor tiles. They felt cool.

Nice floor. Good floor. We’ll be friends always.

Prilya felt consciousness begin to depart, slithering from her grasp like one of the clever trout that plied the streams near her parents’ ancestral hold. Her eyelids sagged, and she barely managed to stay alert long enough to watch the battle commence.

Laszis drew streamers of shimmering power from the domed Altar of Altheigh, shaping them into bolts that skewered the demon, passing all the way through him and bursting from his scaly back. Gaping wounds bathed the floor in blue-back ichor, but still he stood.

Prilya’s eyes closed, and for a time her surroundings took their leave. When they returned, she managed to lift her eyelids just enough to see that guardsmen lay scattered about the hall, backs broken. Her attention turned from them to Laszis, who etched the air with a clatch of runes that—incredibly—drove the demon back, hooves screeching against ancient flagstones.

The last thing Prilya would remember of that day were horrid eyeless eels sliding from the demon’s mouth. They tore at her mistress’s limbs even as the High Priestess slew the demon, parting torso from head. She’d managed to drive the flaring crest of her scepter through the creature’s barrel-thick neck.

Later on, Prilya would be glad she hadn’t seen her mistress die.

 

 

… To be continued …

Deconstructing the Jeff Daniels “Newsroom” Rant

Written By: Paul Toth - Apr• 07•14

In the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom, Will McAvoy—a character played by Jeff Daniels—embarks a wide-ranging rant. The monologue is triggered by a doe eyed twenty-something’s assumption that America is the greatest country in the world. McAvoy tears into her in front of a packed lecture hall, making it clear that he considers her a naïve idiot whose adherence to jingoist patriotism is emblematic of the American public as a whole, who prefer to spout kneejerk feel-good sound bites rather than of embark on critical examination of their homeland’s faults.

The monologue is significant in that it introduces the viewer to several aspects of McAvoy’s persona, and because the furor raised by his rant makes it one of the key events defining the show’s overarching milieu. In my opinion, most of the claims made by McAvoy are either poorly reasoned or provably wrong, and I’ll be taking a look at them one by one.

Why Bother?

Who cares whether or not some tirade by a fictional character makes sense?

Glad you asked. I suppose most people don’t care, but for those of us interested in writing as a craft, I think there are lessons to be learned. And the Daniels rant is of particular interest to me—and others, perhaps—because it’s an example of a particularly successful, talented pro (Alan Sorkin, who created the series) diving down a rabbit hole and bringing back a goodly pile of bunny turds. To my mind, the fact that someone like Sorkin can fall victim to the sort of fuzzy thinking that pollutes the Daniels monologue makes the scene that includes it a cautionary tale. If Sorkin can screw up in this manner, so can anyone who writes professionally, or aspires to do so.

Says Who?

Even if McAvoy is wrong, who’s to say that constitutes bad writing? Characters are wrong about things all the time, just like real people. There’s no reason for characters to be right about everything.

Good point! It often makes sense for a character to be irrational or express poorly supported opinions.

In this case, however, it doesn’t make sense, and the monologue is so blatantly at odds with the way McAvoy is otherwise portrayed that it serves to water down the character. McAvoy becomes less believable, less human, and less vivid. It weakens the character, and thereby weakens the show. And it’s not just the rant per se that’s problematic, it’s the reaction of other characters to the rant, which is as thoroughly inconsistent with their personalities as the rant itself is with McAvoy’s.

Don’t Be Hatin’

I’m actually a fan of Sorkin’s. While I never cared for The West Wing, I thought Sports Night was a great little show, and consider his Oscar for The Social Network to be well-deserved. I even liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and was befuddled when it was cancelled while the similar and vastly inferior 30 Rock soldiered on. But a harvest as vast as Sorkin’s is bound to contain a few wormy turnips, and I contend that the monologue in question is one of them.

Apparently Jeff Daniels contributed a lot of the material in the monologue, so I’d like to make it clear I’m not a Daniels hater either. I think most of his work is excellent, and believe he was pretty much born to play McAvoy.

For the most impart, I enjoy The Newsroom. It has its faults, some of which plague Sorkin’s work in general and others which are specific to the series, but I consider it a consistently outstanding show in most respects. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to do so.

Who is Will McAvoy?

Since I’m claiming McAvoy’s rant is grossly out of character, it’s important to understand what kind of guy he is. He’s a complex character, so I’m going to stick to those facets relevant to my thesis:

  1. He’s well-informed. The character is a long-time news anchor, and is portrayed as being a dedicated journalist with in-depth knowledge of history, politics, and current affairs.
  2. He’s highly intelligent. We, as viewers, know this not just because McAvoy is portrayed doing and saying intelligent things, but because of the way other characters treat him. They’re clearly very smart people who consider McAvoy to be one of the smartest among them. And while (like many of the show’s characters) he’s a complete idiot when it comes to his personal life, he’s repeatedly shown to be astute and perceptive when it comes to appraising world at large.
  3. He’s a big fan of reason. When the character explain his take on an issue, or argues in favor of a particular course of action, there’s almost always a logical thread binding his beliefs to a well-understood set of facts.

Deconstruction Junction

Okay, I’ve established myself as a slanderous wretch, intent on maligning the work of my betters. Time to get on with it.

Assertion #1: “It’s not the greatest country in the world…”

McAvoy is responding to the question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” He’s beginning to get his rant on.

His response, that America isn’t the greatest in the world, is perfectly reasonable. Remember, though, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to make a sweeping statement like this, we should expect him to back it up. And, as we’ll see, McAvoy’s attempts to do so fail miserably—both in terms of drawing on supporting facts and stitching together underlying assertions in a coherent manner.

For starters, naysaying anyone’s claim that country X is the greatest in the world seems like a tricky affair. If someone told me they thought Belgium (or Zimbabwe, or Chile, or whatever) was the greatest country in the world, I’d politely ask them why and mull the response. Perhaps the fellow touting Belgium (we’ll call him Zack) thinks that linguistic diversity and great chocolate are the measures of greatness. So be it. I might have different criteria than Zack, and come to a different conclusion, but I’m certainly not going to crap all over his opinion, because greatness is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say chocolate and languages aren’t the proper criteria?

As we’ll see, though, crapping all over people—in particular, the young lady who asked the question—is exactly what McAvoy does here:

“You, sorority girl, just in case you ever wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is, there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

McAvoy doesn’t just declare a difference of opinion, he says the young lady is flat-out wrong, and implies she’s foolish for believing as she does. Remember, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to claim someone is full of it, he ought to be able to back that up. If he doesn’t, then its patently out of character for him to make the claim in the first case.

So, how would someone go about demonstrating that when Zack makes Belgium #1 on his “greatest countries” list, he’s barking up the wrong tree? I can think of two ways. First, you could point out that some other country is a better fit for the criteria Zack’s established. You could also declare that some other country is best (any will do). If a country other than Belgium is the greatest, then clearly Belgium cannot be the greatest.

McAvoy never does this. He never tells the audience which country is the greatest, and he never calls out what criteria a country ought to meet to be considered great. He just barks a list of complaints—things he doesn’t like about the direction the U.S. has taken. Since every nation has flaws, the greatest nation (whichever one it is) will naturally have flaws, and pointing them out does nothing to support McAvoy’s claim regarding America’s greatness or lack thereof.

 

Assertion #2: “We lead the world in only three categories. Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults to believe angels are real, and defense spending.”

False. The U.S. leads the world in a number of categories. Here are a few:

  1. GDP. The U.S. has the largest economy in the world.
  2. Military capability. As McAvoy points out, the U.S. spends a lot of money on its military. What he fails to mention is that those dollars haven’t been completed wasted, and that the country does possess considerable military might. One can easily argue that this isn’t a measure of a nation’s greatness (it’s obviously not on Zack’s list of criteria) but this isn’t what McAvoy is claiming. He’s asserting that the U.S. is only number one in those categories he lists. Now, if Sorkin wanted us to look upon McAvoy as a moron, it would be fine for the character to make a claim that’s so obviously false, but this doesn’t seem to be the intent.
  3. Nobel laureates. The U.S. has the greatest number of Nobel laureates by far (350). Only a few countries mage to break the 100 mark.
  4. Number of patents. At nearly 160,000, the U.S. leads the pack. It has almost as many patents as the #2 and #3 countries (Japan and Germany) put together.
  5. Number of immigrants. At 46 million, the U.S. has almost four times as many foreign-born citizens as the next country on the list (Russia).
  6. Number of Olympic medals. The U.S. has twice as many (about 2700) as the runner-up (Russia).
  7. Foreign aid donations. The U.S. gives $24 billion, almost twice as much as the runner-up (the UK).

I could go on. And on. And on.

Now, you could argue that none of this stuff matters—that the measure of a nation’s greatness lies elsewhere—but this is beside the point. McAvoy, a supposedly well-informed, intelligent character is making a claim, and that claim is false. He, like Zack, might establish criteria for greatness that don’t involve economic might, scientific achievements, etc. but this simply isn’t what the character is doing.

 

Assertion #3: We No Longer Build Great Big Things

I’m paraphrasing here. McAvoy says “We used to be (great). We used to build great big things.” His next few claims are all in this vein. He’s listing things that supposedly used to be great about America, but no longer are. By “build great things,” the character seems to be referring to megaprojects like the Hoover Dam and bemoaning the fact that such accomplishments are in our collective rear window.

Except they aren’t. Not even close.

Here are a few megaprojects that have either been completed in recent decades, or are in progress:

  • The Freedom Tower
  • The Tevatron 2 TeV particle accelerator
  • The Very Large Array massive radio astronomy observatory
  • The Global Positioning System
  • The Hubble Space Telescope
  • The Alaska Way Viaduct replacement tunnel
  • Boston’s “Big Dig”
  • Birmingham’s Big City Plan
  • Tesla’s planned “gigafactory”
  • The 350,000 mirror Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station

All of these projects are huge in scope, and several of them required or led to engineering breakthroughs, scientific breakthroughs, or some mixture of the two. The notion that the U.S. no longer embraces ambitious projects that produce tangible results is just wrong.

 

Assertion #4: We No Longer Explore the Universe

This part of McAvoy’s rant is perhaps the most nonsensical. The character seems to hearkening to the day when millions of Americans spent the evening glued to their TV sets, watching U.S. astronauts set foot on terrain never before traversed by humankind. While it’s true that those days are gone—for the time being, anyway—the country continues to explore the universe as aggressively as ever. A few examples:

  • Mars. Of the nine successful Mars missions this century, seven were launched by the U.S. Several are ongoing.
  • The Solar System. The NEAR spacecraft explored the asteroid Eros. The Cassini-Huygens mission has performed over one hundred flybys of Saturn and Titan, returning specular photos and massive amounts of data.
  • The Universe. The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, will be able to observe the formation of the first galaxies.

The fact that the general public knows little of these accomplishments makes them no less remarkable, and the notion of McAvoy being ignorant of them—given the manner in which the character is otherwise portrayed—simply makes no sense. He’s behaving like an ignoramus, which is insulting to the viewer, insulting to the character, or both.

 

Assertion #5: We No Longer Make Extraordinary Technological Advances

 

McAvoy’s specific wording is “ungodly” technological advances, but you get the idea. And while quite a few countries are now capable of making technological leaps (a good thing, to be sure) it’s not like the U.S. is standing still. Anyone who’s been to Silicon Valley recently can tell you the region is booming—and not just in terms of real estate prices. It’s as dynamic today as it was back in the nineties, when I lived and worked there, and some of the world’s most famous tech companies were born.

In the last twenty years, American companies have taken the lead in e-commerce (Amazon, eBay), online advertising and search (Google), and social media (Facebook, Twitter). In the Enterprise space—computing systems for large companies—U.S. companies lead the way in esoteric but critical areas like virtualization, SOA, and cloud computing. A U.S. company revolutionized both the smartphone and tablet categories (Apple). All three popular smartphone operating systems were invented, and continue to be honed, in this country.

IT isn’t the only domain in which American tech companies continue to make major strides. In the world of aerospace, the Boeing 787 and the Lockheed f-35 both faced (and continue to face) major teething problems, but this does nothing to change the fact that both platforms are technological tour-de-forces. Talk all you want about the gross mismanagement of the f-35 program—I’ll probably agree with you on most counts—the tech is extraordinary.

A few other areas in which U.S. companies have made huge technological strides: 3-D printing (Stratasys), private space exploration (Bigelow, Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, SpaceX), and automotive engineering (Tesla).

Assertion #6: We No longer Cure Diseases

In recent years, U.S. pharma has created treatments for Hepatitis-C that are so effective they essentially cure the. And while the costs can be prohibitive, this does nothing to change the fact that major breakthroughs have been made. I could present additional examples, only one is required to demonstrate that McAvoy’s implicit assertion is wrong.

The Aftermath

McAvoy is generally portrayed as smart and well-informed, and so are his co-workers. The various producers, assistants, and anchors are—almost without exception—nearly as savvy as he is. And this is what makes their reaction to The Rant so perplexing. He’s chastised, but only for being a big meanie and telling America the hard truths it doesn’t want to hear. No one bothers to point out that he’s—you know—wrong.

It would have been great to see at least one character come up McAvoy and challenge him on the facts. This happens in many other episodes, for many other reasons, but in the pilot McAvoy gets a pass. This is not at all in keeping with the bold, intelligent nature of at least a half dozen characters on the show, and the lack of such a confrontation gives the episode a trite, phony feel.

In Conclusion

Toward the end of his diatribe, McAvoy compares modern America to the country as it existed in some golden age of yore. He says stuff like, “We weren’t scared so easily,” presumably in reference to the outsize influence of 9/11 on public policy.

Not scared so easily? Really? Has he forgotten about the Red Scare, the Domino Theory, Reefer Madness, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast imbroglio, and World War II Japanese-American internment camps?

Please.

“The rant” led me to believe that Jeff Daniels was playing an egotistical moron who had somehow weaseled his way into a major news organizations (not that major news organizations don’t habitually employ such individuals). Not quite sure whether I wanted to watch such a series, I considered knocking it off my DVR’s to-do list—which would have been a shame, because the show is so good, in so many ways.

As a writer, my takeaway is this: It’s easy to have a passionate, well-acted character say things that have the feel of rightness about them, but statements that feel true don’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, because characters are allowed to be wrong, but sometimes it’s important to have a character say things that actually make sense. I try to make sure I get my work in front of as many beta readers as possible, and review their input with the dangers of “truthiness” (to crib from Steven Colbert) in mind.

Children of a Lesser Blog

Written By: Paul Toth - Apr• 01•14

Or: Secrets of Blog Promotion Everyone but Me May Have Learned Long Ago

This is an article about the things we writers do to promote ourselves, our books, and books-yet-to-be. More specifically, it’s about using social media to promote the blogs of “developing” authors. What do I mean by “developing?” It’s simple: the world of writers is divided into two populations—those who have realized some significant measure of success, and those who have (putting it kindly) yet to do so. Of course, there’s a gray area here in that “significant” is in the eye of the beholder. Generally speaking, if someone has a deal with a mainstream publisher, or has sold at least five digits worth of books, I would regard that as significant. That’s setting the bar lower than many, higher than some, your mileage may vary, blah blah blah. Set your own bar where you will.


So, why frame blog promotion in such binary terms? Isn’t promotion via social media a concern of writers in general?

Well, yes and no.

For the “developed” (vs. “developing”) author, the promotional challenge is very different, and considerably less, well, challenging. The reason is simple: the developed author already has a notable body of work to leverage, and a readership—perhaps including ardent fans—who may be willing to lend support. In other words, the developed writer already has what the developing author is striving for. This means that the two populations are dealing with decidedly differently challenges. The developed author uses the blog as an instrument to address his fans and promote his work, while the developing has to reach out to the world at large and show a great deal more ingenuity in selecting subject matter.

In other words, the developed author is tuning up the engine on his sports car, while the developing author is trying to jerry rig a go-cart using rubber bands, spit wads, and the rusty oil pan he cribbed from grandma’s Yugo.

So, Why Bother?

It’s a reasonable question. If author-blogging is such a pain in the ass for the uninitiated, why not just wait until one becomes, well, initiated?

 

 

Because We Say So

Like many developing authors, I’ve sought advice on pursuing the profession from a variety of sources. Writer’s conferences. Books and articles by those seemingly in the know. Various online resources. Any body of advice constructed within the last half-decade includes the following: Build. Your. Platform. Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably well aware of this aphorism, but, just in case, I’ll provide a brief rundown of what “platform” means in this context.

A writer’s platform is his means of presenting himself to the world. It’s the collection of activities, mechanisms, and memes that provide him with a presence in the collective consciousness. In more concrete terms, it provides an (albeit extremely indirect) means of achieving one or more of the following:

  • Wooing agents, and eventually rising from the ranks of the hoi polloi to become one of the few, the chosen, the agented
  • Convincing prospective readers to buy one’s not-yet-bestselling book, usually a self-pub
  • Getting positive visibility among industry potentates such as acquisition editors, which will in turn improve the odds of making a conventional sale
  • Disseminating information that’s useful to other writers, and perhaps receive helpful advice in kind

Back in ye olde days, building one’s platform consisted largely of hitting the road, Jack, and speaking to anyone willing to hear one speak. Local writer’s circles, libraries, and the occasional writer’s conferences were all fair game. All of face-to-face work continues to be important—to some, at least—but much of the game has moved online. Advice regarding e-platform-building usually includes social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), online writer’s groups, and blogs. Of these, blogs are perhaps the most interesting—and demanding—in that they involve the writer presenting his work.

Thy Shalt Not Write This

I’ve never been at a writer’s conference where the various to-dos of author promotion were presented as a set of commandments, which is strange to me because the utter certainty with which this advice is dispensed seems akin to the purveyors of religious dogma. I guess it isn’t done for fear of offending the religious, or the non-religious, or something. If, however, some brave/crazy individual did choose write up such a set of commandments, and the first ones on the list would probably look something like this:

  1. Thy shalt build thy platform
  2. Thy shalt not give away thy writing

The reasons for rule #2 are often glossed over or simply left unsaid, but there’s a general fear in the writerly community that having authors give away the fruit of their labor will end up devaluing that labor—not just for the individual who does it, but for community at large. After all, why should readers both to spend their hard-earned dough on books when there’s plenty of sufficiently entertaining stuff that’s available for free? Clearly, depressing the monetary value of the written word is bad for anyone who’s trying to make a living by cranking the stuff out.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t the first two commandments of writerly blogging in direct opposition?”

Yep. Nice shootin’, Tex. You plum well scored a rhetorical bulls-eye there. Those who dispense advice on such subjects address this conflict by urging bloggers to create a certain kind of post. Here are some examples I’ve personally heard mentioned:

  • Interviews with successful writers
  • Links to books reviews (and, to a lesser extent, critiques of other sorts, like movie reviews)
  • Links to fun and/or interesting stuff from around the web—typically, stuff that other prospective writers will find interesting

Now, I ask you, does this sound like the kind of blog you’d want to visit?

Take a minute.

Think about it…. Think about it.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. It sounds like we (that’s the grand we, the royal we, the we that encompasses developing writers as a whole) are being advised to write blogs that suck. The “interviews with successful writers” part might not sound so bad until you slice open the patient and take a gander at the gory details. Generally speaking, the best thing a member of the unwashed masses might expect in terms of an interview with a well-known author will be a brief exchange of written queries: you write down some questions, and they (or their agent, or their intern, or their hyperintelligent, functionally literate basset hound) get back to you with written responses. Unless you’re very lucky, or well-connected, or possess some variety of allure that’s intensely interesting to the interviewee, there will be none of the adaptive, interpersonal back-and-forth that make an interview worth reading.

Yes, chances are that following conventional wisdom will result in a blog that sucks. One that will attract no attention except that of the NSA, whose agents will become certain that posts so bland and unappealing must mask communiques of a nefarious sort. And the utter, dog-fart-stinky badness of the advice is enough to make one wonder if the writerly powers that be want us (and that’s the royal us) to fail.

I don’t believe this is the case. Rather, this advice is being general being given by those who have enjoyed some measure of success (as an author, editor, or whatever) that their advice is framed in those terms. If you already have a legion of fans, you don’t really need compelling content to get people to visit your blog—they’ll show up because they’re entertaining by your work and are curious about what you have to say. It’s a forgiving audience made up of people who won’t be inclined to judge a blog’s content too harshly. They’re just happy to have a means of interacting with the author.

This means that well-known authors can get away with writing blogs (or tweets, or Facebook posts, or whatever) that aren’t necessarily all that compelling in their own right, because people are drawn to the platform for other reasons.

For the developing writer, it’s a very different story. Our content has to stand on its own merits, and attempting to follow #2 isn’t like to get you there. To some extent, #2 doesn’t work because of the very nature of modern online life, and this is something I’ll explore in a little while.

Obviously I’ve concluded that successfully complying with commandment #1 requires ignoring #2—at least to some degree. You may feel differently, and if you do, by all means post some comments and let me know why.

Now What?

Okay, you’ve written some handsome original copy, you’ve posted it online, and it’s time to watch the page-views roll in. Problem is, there are thousands of developing writers who have just done the same thing, and you’re competing with them for eyeballs. Actually, it’s worse than that, because you’re not just competing with other authors, you’re competing with entire cacophonous multimedia hydra that is the modern online world. Ugly cat videos, anyone?

To some extent, drawing people to your article is just a matter of telling people it’s out there. You mention it in conversations and tweets, harangue friends and family to get the word out, and send bulletins to fellow online work-shoppers. Maybe you can convince some other bloggers to post links. There’s only time for so many promotional activities, though (especially if you have a day job and kids consuming the lion’s share of your day), so prioritizing is critical.

So, which strategies are most likely to bear fruit?

To answer this question, we’ll need to do a bit of pondering about the sort of things that affect the flow of traffic on the web. Those coveted eyeballs aren’t just wandering the internet randomly, as if under the control of some mystical Brownian motion—they go where they go for concrete reasons, and if we’re to be successful bloggers, we need to understand what those reasons are.

Here’s are few of the ways the masses are likely to find their way to your blog and mine:

  1. Word of mouth (bro, check out my rad blog post, it’ll blow your freakin’ mind)
  2. Direct social media (spent all day on new article: “Fueling the Imagination: What is the Optimal Number of Whiskey Shots?” and now I’m done! Read it!)
  3. Indirect social media (retweet, external blog links)
  4. Online search (Google, Bing)

For most of us, #1 has limited value, because we only know a small proportion of the sentient beings in existence. It’s a big universe. The second item is less juicy than it might at first seem, because of what I call “distancing.”

Distancing is a phenomenon that becomes evident as someone who lacks celebrity or notoriety grows the number of online connections. It boils down to this: As you add connections in a particular social medium, the value of each new connection tends to decline.

Why should this happen? Aren’t two thousand Twitter follows twice as good as one thousand?

Not really. The first ten or twenty people you connection with on a particular site are likely to be people you already knew—those who are genuinely interested in your perspective and have a personal stake in listening to what you have to say. They’re the ones who are likely to read your tweets, look at your photos, and follow the links you post.

Now think about what happens as the number of connections grow. Many of those who connect with you don’t give a crap about what you have to say, they’re just looking to grow their own network. Maybe they want bragging rights, maybe they like the attention (and delude themselves into thinking more connections = more attention), and maybe they—like you—are trying to build a platform. Many of these platform-builders will be people who connect with very large numbers of net-denizens. This sounds good, but is it?

Consider the example of a typical tweet-monger. Sure, they’re followed by 20,000 Twitter users, but they also follow 15,000 fellow tweetmeisters. If someone has tweets from 15K people flowing across their screen, how much attention do you think they’ll pay when you sound off about you hot-of-the-presses whiskey article? And what are the odds they’ll retweet?

It’s called diminishing returns, folks. Believing that a vast number of connections necessarily signals the presence of an effective platform is simple-minded at best and outright delusional at worst. Spending a lot of time and effort in search of raw connection numbers probably isn’t a good use of your time or mine.

Number three on the list, the indirect effect of social media connections, is tricky. Cultivating link-sharing relationships with popular sites is a fine thing, but there’s limit to how much can be done in terms of encouraging re-shares, retweets, etc. for specific posts. This is primarily a matter of cultivating high quality online relationships (vs. vast numbers of pointless connections) and composing decent material to post. Since this sort of relationship-building has been already been discussed extensively by everybody, his brother, and the bacillus living his brother’s digestive tract, I’m not going to explore this further.

The Tao of Search

That takes us to #4 on our please-visit-my-blog list, search. Make online search work in your favor is important for a couple of reasons. First, it will help you reach people are both outside your immediate circle of worthies, and second, it will drive traffic from a demographic likely to be interested in what you have to say. These are much higher-quality eyeballs than the ones that barely register the presence of your latest tweet, which has to share the screen with an endless cascade of tedious ads and clichés disguised as new age wisdom. The most important reason for doing your damndest to drive search traffic to your blog, though, is this: The kind of activities that effect search are the same kind of activities that will drive traffic in general. So, even you don’t actually drive anyone from the Google home page to your site, the effort is apt to prove fruitful in other respects.

So, how does this “search” stuff work? It’s simple in theory and hideously complex in practice. The first thing you need to know about search is that it’s all about page rank. This is a number Google assigns your site (other engines work much the same way) that reflects its theoretical appeal. So, Apple.com has a sky-high page rank, and that Gumby tribute page you just threw together does not. The better this number, the better the chance it will be prominently placed in search results.

People care about Page rank. A lot. And they care about because page rank = money. Cold, hard cash, that is. It’s so important for retailers that when Google makes changes that result in a reordering of page ranks, they sometimes get hammered by lawsuits. For those that advertise using Adwords (those ads that appear in the left margin of the search result page), the impact of page rank is direct—the better your page rank, the less you pay for your ad campaign.

Let’s review.

Better page rank = better search placement.

Better search placement = more blog traffic.

More blog traffic = stronger writer’s platform.

Stronger writer’s platform = better chance of achieving your goals as an author.

So, how do we get a better page rank? Reams have been written on the subject (because, as I mentioned, higher page rank = mo better money), but let’s cut to the quick. It’s mostly a matter of two things:

  1. Content: quality and quantity of original content.
  2. Incoming links.

So, we’re back to content. And, once again, we’ve established that adhering to the second commandment of Building They Platform is a bad idea. Posting quality original content means making goodly chunks of writing available gratis—there’s just no way around it.

Number #2 works like this: Every link from another site that points to your site improves its page rank. Sites with high page ranks add a lot when they link to yours, and sites with low ranks and less. So, getting your buddy’s blogs to point to yours probably won’t achieve much (not that’s it’s a bad idea). Links from social media posts add very little to your page rank (though there seem to be caveats). So, while having Facebook link to your blog would in theory be a huge coup, having a Facebook post point to your site probably won’t achieve much—in terms of boosting page rank, anyway.

Improving page rank is so important that there are companies with no purpose other than attempting to game the system. They do things like throw up a bunch of bogus sites with garbage content and then plaster them with links to their clients’ pages. This is called SEO (search engine optimization). Google (and the other search providers) naturally take a dim view of this practice, and engage in a running war against those who practice SEO, with both sides constantly tweaking their tactics and techniques. Google obviously brings the big guns to this battle, and engaging in SEO can get your site banned from Google search altogether. To my mind, it’s not worth the bother—though there’s a gaggle of SEO scammers ready to convince you otherwise.


So, other than generating quality content and cultivating relationships with high-profile site owners—platform-building activities we already knew were important—what can be done? When I mentioned the minimal impact social media link have on page rank, I also mentioned there was caveat. And it’s this: Google has its own social network, Google+. While an Instagram post that links to your blog isn’t apt to do much for your page rank, is the same true of G+? Keep in mind, Google defines the rules of the game. A link is worth exactly what they say its worth, and the Google leadership has made it clear that promoting G+ is a huge priority.

Again, let’s review:

  1. Google wants to get you to use G+. Bad. “Yo. Everyone. Use our social network. We swear, it’s not just a Facebook clone. Really. P.S. Facebook sucks.”
  2. Page rank is really, really important.
  3. Google controls page rank.

While I can’t prove it, I have no doubt that G+ links, likes, shares, and comments, have a profound influence on page rank. So, at the risk of sounding like a G+ shill, I have to say, get thy ass onto G+. In fact, let’s replace our original second commandment of platform-building with the one just stated. Our new list of commandments looks like this:

  1. Thy shalt build thy platform
  2. Get thy ass onto G+.

Of course, we really should have eight more commandments, but two is all I’ve got. For now. Hell, since #2 is just part of #1, you could argue I don’t even have two proper commandments. Others more knowledgeable (or more arrogant) than I will no doubt be happy to give you more.

In my particular case, G+ appears to have made a significant different in my blog traffic—though how much of this is due to page rank shenanigans is unclear. Keep in mind, Google’s power to promote G+ goes well beyond search, and other aspects of G+ promotion may have an equally significant effect. For instance, G+ generates alerts that show up, by default, in the heavily used Chrome browser, YouTube—the whole range of Google properties. The cumulative effect is striking. There was one blog post I promoted—with equal fervor—on Twitter, Facebook, Scribophile, and G+, staggering the various posts so I could gauge the effectiveness of each. The first three yielded almost nothing in the way of results, while G+ yielded a noticeable traffic increase in a matter of minutes. I’ve also experimented with promoting posts on different combinations of venues. This yielded the same conclusion: G+ is much, much more effective at driving blog traffic than the alternatives.

Naturally, individual experiences will vary. If you have a gaggle of Twitter followers who hang on your every word, and they’re part of your target audience, then the right tweet might move mountains. Much the same goes for Facebook, Pinterest, and so on. But if you don’t already have the kind of support—and very few people do—then G+ may prove to be your best bet. You don’t have to take my word for it, of course—by all means, try out the whole range of social networking options the web-o-verse offers. Just make sure you don’t forget G+ (see commandment #2, above).

What it All Means

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t provided much in the way of advice. Post lots of high-quality original content on your blog. Forget about SEO. Try G+. Sorry, that’s all the wisdom I have to impart. Remember, I’m a lowly “developing” author, just like you.

But my puny trove of advice isn’t the end of the story. Article. Whatever. In describing the might of Google—it’s ability to make or break the business owner, the blogger, or the entire SEO industry—it’s fair to ask what might at first glance appear a fairly bombastic question.

Is Google a god?

Yes, yes, I hear you scoffing, see you rolling your eyes, and smell your nasty pad thai burps. Go ahead and get it out of your system. And when you do, think about what the gods (not “God” with a capital G) were to ancient man. A god wasn’t necessarily the creator of the universe—or the creator of anything, for that matter—he or she was just a (usually) unseen presence with the ability to influence events in the way an everyday Joe could not. Maybe the god could make it rain, or make sure the oxen had healthy calves, or help Aunt Groo get over the gout, but omnipotence wasn’t necessarily part of the deal. The most powerful gods were seen as possessing some measure of power over life and death, but others might do little more than enhance (or detract from) an ardent believer’s prosperity and general well-being.

Prosperity. Think about it. Whether or not I’m right about Google’s ability to drive blog traffic, there’s no doubt that the platform as a whole has a huge influence on the relative prosperity of many, many people. Now, some might respond to this by saying that Google the platform is simply a tool that responds to those that wield it—namely, the high muckety-mucks at Google the company. This might have made sense ten years ago, but I contend that it makes little sense now, and that the notion will hold less and less water as time goes by.

Consider.

 

The Google platform is far more than Search and Adwords. It’s a sprawling cosmos of interwoven, mutually reinforcing products.

 

No one person—and no single group of executives—controls the Google platform. There are thousands of coders, managers, and designers involved. In a very real sense, it has a life of its own—a presence and potency independent of those who run the corporation that owns it.

The overall platform consists of tens of millions of lines of code, terabytes of data, and a vast number of complex algorithms. It’s grown far beyond the capacity of any specific mind to comprehend. The platform has become an entity that is very much distinct from its creators. I’m not going to claim it’s sentient, or possesses will, or any such nonsense.

 

But I will claim that it behaves in much the same way it would if it did have those things.

 

Humans give the Google Platform its marching orders, but can no longer predict the exact manner in which those goals will be pursued. When it does the things make you more or less prosperous—like driving traffic to your blog—there is no human in the loop. There’s no committee out there that decides your fate—no humans whose favor you can curry to improve your lot. It’s the Google entity you’ll have to please, by offering up original content it can use to further ensure the obeisance of its followers.

I find this intriguing, and slightly creepy, food for thought.

TV Series That Died Young (and left a beautiful corpse)

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 23•14

Most of us have experienced the dejection, the denial—the outright horror, perhaps—of having a beloved television series cancelled. We rage, we curse the gods, we imagine what sort of things we’d say to the loathsome executives who pulled the trigger on that esteemed bit of entertainment we were looking forward to enjoying—well, forever, really. Sometimes we even take action, blending together into one vast letter-writing, protesting, give-me-back-my-series-or-I’ll-seriously-get-my-pout-on organism. A being that will seethe and stomp and roam convention halls until it either gets its way or disperses in a dark, billowing cloud of exasperation and ennui.

 

But are we always better off having our favorite show renewed for “one more season?” Or is sometimes best for a series to pass away in its prime (or at least a close approximation thereof), dying a dignified, if exasperating, death? I’m going to look at the way a number of shows went to the showbiz boneyard, and I’ll share some thoughts about whether their deaths were untimely, deserved, or sad but ultimately for the best (like putting ol’ Rex out to pasture after his eyes give out and his bladder gives out and he gets too arthritic to trouble the postman).

Star Trek, the First Cause Célèbre

So far as I know, Star Trek was the first television series to raise a furor when it tried to meet its maker (who would be Gene Roddenberry, if you want to get literal about it). When the network tried to pull the plug, incensed fans staged an ultimately successful write-in campaign that bought the broadcast phenom a fresh lease on life. As I’ll be doing for a number most of the series mentioned, I’ll pose a few questions:

  1. Did the series die before its time?
  2. Did it leave a beautiful corpse?
  3. What about loose ends?

Everyone will answer these questions differently—not just for Start Trek, but for pretty much any series you care to name. I’m not going to poll, or try to reach a consensus with fellow TV geeks, I’m just going to give you my take on things and leave you argue amongst yourselves (no fisticuffs, children, play nice!).

To answer question #1, it’s useful to think in terms of a series lifecycle (It’s the Circle of Life… And it moves us all… Through despair and hope… ahem! Sorry, got distracted there).

Every decent show starts out a bouncing baby pilot, all cuddly and lovable, looking out at the world through rose-colored, too-big aviator’s goggles. After a few awkward first steps, it’s off to the races, making us laugh and cry with its charming antics (look, baby’s first monologue!) Somewhere around the last half of season one—season two or three, for the late bloomers—the series reaches sexy early adulthood, getting some swagger and turning some heads. After that, some of them live hard and die a quick death, while others age gracefully, continuing to attract more admirers as the years go by. Eventually, though, the bloom comes off the rose, decrepitude sets in, and the show goes the way of all good things.

But why, you ask? A television series has no bones to ablate and no flesh to become diseased, so why must the devil get his due? Look at this way: A TV show’s long-term potential is like an ovary.

Yes, an ovary.

When the series creators’ complete their work, cranking out character profiles, drawing storyboards, defining the concept, and writing the pilot—they’re creating something that contains the potential to provide a finite number of lives. And by “life,’ I mean high-quality episode. And by “episode” I mean egg. And by “egg” I mean… Well, you get the idea. When the ovary comes into being, it has all the eggs it will ever have. At regular intervals, eggs leave, never to return, and no new ones are ever added. The ovary may, for whatever reasons, fail to disburse all of its eggs, but its maximum output is immutable.

Surely not, you say. Certainly the number of good episodes to be had depends on all sorts of things, like the inventiveness of the writers, the quality of the direction, and the level of ongoing funding a studio receives.

Nope. Not in my cosmology, anyway. And if you believe differently, feel free to write your own damn blog (or harangue me in the comments—as you wish). The best the writers, producers, and actors can do is make sure that ovary coughs up every last egg it started with, and while no one really knows what that number is, be assured: it as fixed as pi and e and any other constant you care to bandy about. And once the life-source is empty, folks, that’s it. The show can endlessly recycle its successful plots, or it can jump the shark, or it can devolve into self-parody and celebrity-worship (Famous guest stars! Yay!) But it will never, ever, be good again.

Better, then, to put it (and us) out of our collective misery.

So, to answer question number one, we must first figure out which stage of life the series was in when took a bullet. Was a winsome pre-teen, gazing up at the stars and wondering what life had in store? Or was it an energetic adult, with lots of living in its past, but lots of living yet to do? Or had the time come to admit it was like Rex—still loved, but no longer able to bring joy to himself or anyone else.

In the case of Star Trek, I think things played out in pretty much the optimal way. Season three had some fine episodes, but there were also a few that looked a lot like earlier ones. That sort of repetition is a pretty good clue that the ovary is getting close to giving up its last egg. I suspect that, if there had been a season four, it would have been less than great, perhaps serving to tarnish fond memories of a great series. The network execs did the right thing when they gave into the show’s most ardent fans and green-lit another season, but they also did the right thing when they pulled the plug a year later.

It also stands to reason, then, that the answer to question #2, “Did the show leave a beautiful corpse?” is “yes.” When Star Trek managed to exit stage left without overstaying its welcome, it earned a place in hearts of scifi geeks everywhere, as the first installment in the most successful television franchise of all time. And as the series was primarily episodic in nature, question #3, “What about loose ends?” is fairly straightforward: there weren’t any—none of note, anyway.

The Growing Power of Fandom

Star Trek aficionados might have been the first to band together and make a concerted effort to save their series, but they certainly weren’t the last. Off hand, I can think of at least four other examples of fandom flexing its collective musculature: Farscape, Jericho, Chuck, and Veronica Mars. There have no doubt been many more. In the cases of Farscape and Jericho, the fans didn’t get their way, while both Chuck and Veronica Mars inspired successful campaigns. The latter two are instructive in that they give us a good idea just how potent a force fandom has become.

Earlier attempts to keep shows on the air consisted primarily of letter-writing, but the Chuck fans took things a step beyond. Several steps, actually. They organized at conventions, circulated online petitions, and got in touch with sponsors. These activities took on a self-reinforcing quality, with high-profile efforts gaining the notice of additional fans, which in turn cranked up the volume even more. This legion of well-organized, passionate Chuckssters got the network’s attention, held it, and eventually convinced the powers-that-be to reverse their original decision. The fans won.

I had the pleasure of attending Comic-Con three years ago, and had the opportunity to watch the Chuck panel. After announcing the show had been renewed—to mighty applause—the producers/co-creators described the manner in which the decision came about. They singled out a specific fan (one of primary organizers of the “Save Chuck” movement) for thanks. She stood, and was rewarded with her own round of applause. The producers’ message was clear: the fans, and this fan in particular, had done what they could not. They had convinced the bean counters to keep the series alive.

Veronica Mars is an even more interesting testament to the escalating potency of fandom. A crowdsourcing campaign was able to raise the considerable pile of cash required to fund a Mars movie. As I write this, the reviews for the film—mostly positive—have begun to roll in. The funding of motion pictures—once the purview of industry executives and the independently wealthy—can now be accomplished by fans. This importance of this tectonic shift in the in industry’s power structure cannot be underestimated. The only event that’s even worthy of comparison is the antitrust ruling that dismantled the big studios’ vertical integration, and it’s a distant second.

One of the interesting things about the Veronica Mars phenomenon is that it makes evaluating the questions surrounding its cancellation a good deal more tricky. Because the movies are essentially an extension of the series, it becomes difficult to tell when a series has truly come to an end. For this reason, I’m going to reserve judgment on the Mars corpse, but it’s not so clear that there is one, just yet. As the power of the mega-fan grows, this may become increasingly common.

Firefly: the James Dean of TV Series

Many fans bemoan the seemingly premature demise of Joss Whedon’s brilliant Firefly, and I’m one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of the best television series ever developed, and it lasted less than two seasons. Why did it die so young, embalmed while it still had nice, full ovaries ready to bring about the birth of an exquisite litter of narrative works? Depends on who you ask, but some mixture of indifference, incompetence, and political infighting at the network seems to have been at fault.

However it happened, Firefly became the archetypal example of the James Dean series. Those episodes that did manage to run the gauntlet of corporate ineptitude and arrogance are extraordinary, and Whedon & Co. even managed to tie up most of the loose ends in Serenity, a not-so-surprisingly good theatrical film.

While Firefly continues to be a fan favorite, such is not the fate of all James Dean-ers. Journeyman was a fascinating series with a great cast, a concept that seemed kind of derivative in theory but felt startlingly fresh in practice, and masterful storytelling. It had a terrific sense of mystique, and watching it felt like plying unknown seas on a quick, skittish clipper with a knavish crew. Its cancellation was just as befuddling as that of Firefly, but it remains largely unknown—an obscure footnote in small-screen history. Hell, it’s not even available on DVD. Unlike, say, every season of Diff’rent Strokes

So, what are some of the other James Dean series? Surely there must be others.

Indeed there are. But not, perhaps, as many as you might expect. Many shows that at first seem like good candidates for such a designation don’t really hold up under scrutiny. Twin Peaks is a good example. Like Firefly, it lasted less than two seasons, and, like Firefly, it was brilliant. It even managed to inspire a climatic theatrical film that brought the various incomplete plot arcs to a head. Beyond this, though, the comparison breaks down. By the time Twin Peaks began its second season, it was already beginning to show its age. With many of the more interesting plot threads already tied off, the show felt like it had been cut adrift. It wasn’t clear that the staff writers had any clear idea where to take it, or that they were even fully engaged. After a single glorious season, the ovaries were already depleted.

Such is the way of things. Some shows have a long, fertile life ahead of them, with the potential for many large litters of cute, squirming babies. Other, equally beautiful, series must be satisfied with small families.

Paging Dr. Reaper

For every James Dean television series, there are a half dozen of what I’ll call “Methuselahs”—unnaturally long-lived beings that outstay their welcome, like Uncle Fredrico with the smelly toupee who likes to pick his toes on the living room couch. Sure, Freddy’s got some amusing anecdotes, and his flaming fart tricks were hilarious the first dozen times, but we’re really ready to send him back to his belly dancing Chilean mistress. Don’t worry about the high price of airfare, Freddy ol’ pal, we’ll take care of it.

One of the best-known Methuselahs is X-Files. Chris Carter originally planned to wrap up the show after its first few seasons, using the theatrical movie to move it toward a dramatic conclusion. But Fox would have not of it. The show’s ratings were still strong—strong enough, in fact, to make cancellation out of the question. So it trundled along for another half-dozen seasons, continuing even after both of its leads left for greener pastures. Unsurprisingly, many of the later episodes were weak, and the last few were complete crap.

I’m not going to claim all of the latter-day X-Files plots were thin. In fact, some of its best episodes came during the show’s gradual decline. Monday, a Groundhog Day-esque tale in which the protagonists must relive a calamity in order to find a way to stop it, is a fine example. The episode has been heavily copied, on both big screen and small, and if imitation is the best form of flattery then Monday has been well flattered indeed.

But a few moments of splendid health won’t change the ultimate prognosis—X-Files had full-on Methuselah syndrome, and pulling the plug would have been a mercy. I would have preferred that Fox let Carter wrap things up in his own way, and many of the show’s fans seem to agree.

Sometimes a network acts to prevent Methuselah syndrome only to have the viewers attempt to intervene. Yes, sometimes we ever-more-powerful and deeply opinionated fans don’t know what’s good for us. Farscape is a prime example. After five good seasons, Sci-Fi decided to pull the plug, and the fans were up in arms. A Star-Trek style write-in campaign ensued, but to no avail. Farscape was no more.

Sort of. While Farscape died just young enough to leave a pretty corpse, it left behind a bevy a big, scary loose ends, flailing around like the disturbing whip-like tentacles in The Thing. Thankfully, a passable multipart cable movie gave the creators a chance to provide grumpy fans with a sense of closure.

In my humble (or not so humble) opinion. Farscape’s cancellation came at an opportune moment. There were already signs of shark-jumping starting to show up in season five, and to me the figurative ovaries were beginning to look decidedly saggy. There were a few good eggs left—enough for a satisfying and action-packed story-within-a-story conclusion—but probably not enough for another full season.

What I Learned From Jericho

The story of Jericho is one of the oddest in the history of the medium, and this is why: mediocre ratings turned out to be a good thing, ultimately allowing the series to leave one of the purtiest corpses this side of the Pecos.

“How can that be?” you ask, with forehead all a-wrinkle. “Certainly not!” you insist, with an accusatory finger pointed straight at my no doubt soon-to-be-lengthening schnoz. Well, gather ’round the campfire, kiddies, and I’ll tell you a tale that’s passing strange.

Jericho focused on the plight of a small town that’s left its own devices after a series of nuclear strikes throw the country into chaos. The survivors have to deal with fundamental questions of survival and governance, and are eventually called upon to face deadly external threats. A conspiracy thread runs through the overarching plot, providing an enhanced sense of anticipation and intrigue. It’s an outstanding series with spot-on casting, cinematic visuals, and writing that hits the mark time after time.

Despite being a damn fine show, Jericho’s ratings weren’t that great, and the network decided to end it after season one, providing funds for just a handful of episodes in season two. I have to believe this completely changed the writing dynamic. Instead of needing to come up with enough material to flesh out twenty-plus episodes, the writers were forced to find a way to wind things up in just seven. This undoubtedly meant careful planning and lean plots that had to make every scene count—each sequence had to move the show’s central arc closer to its conclusion. In short, instead of writing in an open-ended, more-is-more fashion, the writers had to structure the ongoing story like a novel.

And that was a good thing.

Very good.

Though there’s the occasional coarse note or sloppy scene, the truncated second season of Jericho feels taut and fast-paced. It manages an intensity only three four or series have matched, and its denouement is more satisfying than that of the typical feature film. In the end, what we got is a series that feels like a superb thirty episode miniseries. Twenty odd hours of pure viewing pleasure. And it’s all thanks to the miracle of crappy ratings.

As it turns out, many fans didn’t see it this way—at least, not back in 2007 when the show’s cancellation was announced. As with Farscape, furious viewers attempted to convince the network to reverse its decision. “Why,” they collectively asked, “do you empty-suit asshats have to go and cancel the best damned show on network TV?”

In a sense, they were right. Jericho was indeed a fine show, and cancelling it certainly seemed like short-sighted decision for the ages. After all, many series (Seinfeld is an oft-mentioned example) require patience to build a following. Some shows have appeal that doesn’t readily translate to 30-second ad spots or TV guide synopses, and require the slower process of word-of-mouth to grow their audience. It seemed perfectly reasonable to think that Jericho might be just such a series, and that penny-pinching executives were cutting off their pointy noises to spite their treacherous faces.

I respectfully disagree. To my mind, Jericho had a structure that lent itself far better to the miniseries than a traditional open-ended format. Ideally, it would have been designed as a miniseries from the start. Why wasn’t it?

Hard to say. I’m guessing either no one thought far enough ahead to realize Jericho would be more entertaining given a fixed length, or it was just easier to sell the concept as open-ended. I don’t claim to know the mind of the Hollywood decision makers, but it makes sense that a series with an inherently short lifespan would be a harder sell. And while the traditional syndication model is slowly breaking down, it was still going strong in 2007, and syndication generally requires at least three seasons (as syndication occurs after production costs are paid, it often delivers the lion’s share of the profits).

In the end, the series didn’t die before its time. It left an exceedingly lovely corpse, and by design left no messy stringery to trouble its followers. Jericho, in other words, died the perfect death.

Pale Horse, Pale Writer

Jericho‘s unusual journey from cradle to grave begs the following question: Would the industry be better off if it was more open to creating fixed-length series from the git-go?

If the answer is “yes,” then we ought to be able to find some series laying around the boneyard that would have benefitted from such an approach. Are there shows that would have been better off if they hadn’t been produced as open-ended series?

Most definitely.

Flash Forward is probably the best example. Adapted from a novel, the series starts out brimming with suspense and intrigue, and ends up wandering off into an existential hinterland where every path seems to lead somewhere we’ve already been. What if the writers had just adapted the novel? Or perhaps gone the Hobbit route and added some new material, but still built the show around a pre-planned central arc? There seems to be little doubt that a better product would have resulted—perhaps a first-rate series that fully realized the potential that was evident during the first few episodes.

Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

The Event is another show that comes to mind. Like Flash Forward, it shows early promise and then craps out. Craps out in a hurry. The fact that The Event didn’t even manage to get through one season without turning to horse pucky isn’t, as one might expect, the sign of a flawed concept—the series concept is actually pretty damn intriguing. I also don’t believe it was case of fundamentally bad writing. No, I’m pretty sure that the series would have been a failure no matter who ended penning the individual episodes.

So what was problem, then, if we can’t blame the writers?

Bad acting? Low budget? Poorly designed visuals? Did it just end up in a shitty time slot?

No, none of the above. The Event was just a show with small ovaries. Puny ones, in fact. I believe it would have made a good miniseries, coming in somewhere around the five to ten hour mark. If it was written like a novel, with every scene pushing toward a well-understood climax, there’s no reason it couldn’t have been entertaining. Instead, The Event’s round peg got jammed into a square open-ended-series hole, to disastrous effect. Crappy ratings, wasted marketing dollars, and—I imagine—disgruntled advertisers.

The lessons are clear, Hollywood. Keep an open mind, know thy ovaries, and be prepared to ignore the fans. Even the really loud ones.

 

Comic-Con: The Sum of All Media

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 16•14

This is, approximately speaking, the bajillionth article on Comic-Con. People far more informed than I, have written extensively about every imaginable aspect of the esteemed event. It’s history, the luminaries that attend, the cultural incongruities, overtones, and implications, have all been discussed ad nauseum, as have the length of the lines and exalted nature of those invited to speak on its panels. And YouTube’s virtual pipes are overflowing with footage of Comic-Con happenings.

Despite all of this seemingly exhaustive coverage, I’ve found most people don’t actually know what the heck Comic-Con is. They’ve gleaned a thing or two, like the proverbial gaggle of blind men feeling their way around an elephant, but aren’t really sure what sort of creature they’re feeling up. They’re certain it’s large, unfamiliar, and perhaps a bit odd-smelling, but have only the vaguest of notions beyond that. It is for you, inquisitive blind swami, that I’ve written this.

For while you might be able to get the gist of things from the Comic-Con web site or Wikipedia, I promise to provide a more colorful, personal take on the event. One that includes descriptions of the waxy buildup on the elephant’s ears, the smell of its industrial-grade farts, and the mocking expression worn by that annoying little bird that rides around on the pachyderm’s back.

 

Wham! Boff! Pow!

Comic-Con is replete with TV stars, movie stars, star wars fanatics, anime fanatics, animators, directors, producers, videogame promoters, videogame characters (or diehard fans dressed up as them, anyway), and people who wait in line for three hours to see a sneak peek of the next installment of whatever media property has most recently captured the attention of thirteen year old girls and thirteen-year-old-girls-at- heart. So, what, in the name of all this holy, does any of this run-on sentence have to do with comic books? That’s what the “comic” in “Comic-Con” is for, right?

Why, yes. Yes, Padawan, it is.

You see, all of the mad wonder that is Comic-Con started out as an actual comic book convention—and a humble one at that. For the uninitiated, here’s what you typically get at a comic book convention:

  • Vendors, usually selling—you guessed it—comic books. And, of course, related paraphernalia like posters, action figures, and vintage energy drinks.
  • Comic book creators. Sometimes at booths, sometimes on panels.
  • Industry keynote speakers. They are just like the guys sitting at the booths, but famous!
  • Lots of people who like to read comics.

These are things you still find at Comic-Con. One of the mammoth halls at the San Diego venue is primarily devoted to all things comic-bookish. But the convention has moved far beyond its clannish, four-color roots. This is a process that has taken place over the course of multiple decades, and affected the conventioneering (Not a word, you say? Bite me!) industry as a whole. The phenomenon has just had an outsize influence Comic-Con because of well, its outsizedness.

To see how a nichy, comic convention good metastasize into something else, let us consider the humble oyster. A hunk of grit lodges in the critter’s innards and becomes an irritant. To isolate the offending particle, said oyster secretes a substance that creates a smooth later around it. The secretions build up over time, and before you know it, wham, bam, thank-you clam, you’ve got a pearl. Later on, a comely diver named Jessa scoops up the mollusk, pries it open, and claims its prize. Not so good for the oyster, which is due for some stew, but Jessa’s doing the happy dance.

So, what’s the first layer of pearl-stuff that built up around that original chunk of comic-loving grit? It consisted of someone (probably quite a few someones) asking the rather obvious question:

What if convention wasn’t just about comics? The guys that show up are into a lot of the same things. Fantasy. Scifi. Horror. They watch a lot of the same movies and TV, and read a lot of the same books. Bet we could improve our draw if we added a few scifi panels to the mix.

And the someones who held the purse strings scratched their collective chins, nodded their collective heads, and said, “Make it so.”

So authors, screenwriters, producers, and sci-fi series creators began to make their way toward booths, onto panels, and into the collective consciousness of the comic-convention-going public—many of whom were no doubt used to such fare from attending Star Trek conferences and the like. Most importantly, the new influx brought actors. When Comic-Con and its brethren began to include on-screen personalities they dramatically broadened their appeal. For every enthusiast that wants to know how mo-cap was used to make The Incredible Hulk’s expressions appear lifelike, there are a hundred who are willing to pay the price of admission on the off chance they might score an autograph from someone who struts their stuff on-screen. Broader appeal meant larger crowds, which in turn meant mo’ money, which gave the organizers greater incentive to broaden the convention’s scope. A classic virtuous cycle, with self-reinforcing feedback loops galore. “Virtuous,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Not all convention goers appreciate sharing the floor with gushing, starry-eyed Twilight fan-girls (What’s the female version of “fanboi?” Not sure).

 

Who Invited Kevin Bacon to This Thing?

So, now our shiny, increasingly voluminous pearl has come to represent more than scruffy comic book artists with their ink-stained fingers and half-empty bottles of lukewarm Red Bull. It shines with collective brilliance of movie producers and special effect gurus, curvaceous starlets and steely-eyed leading men. Simple booths have metamorphorsed into towering plaster-and-neon brand building edifices. Is this the end of the journey, then? Is the transformation complete?

Nay, grasshopper, it is not.

Enter Kevin Bacon. Stage left.

We can look at something like a panel of fantasy novelists as being one degree of separation of the original vision of what constitutes a core comic book convention. People who like comic books are likely to enjoy fantasy novels as well, so those who write fantasy novels are two degrees away from the fan.

Comic book fan -> comic book writer – one degree of separation.

Comic book fan -> fantasy fan -> fantasy author – two degrees of separation.

After convention organizer witnessed the wondrous profit margins that one two degree of separation had brought, it was only natural for them to ask:

 

Can we broaden the appeal of our event even more? We started out with comic books, and drew decent crowds. We added other stuff that comic book fans like, and got bigger crowds. Well, what if we add even MORE stuff—the things liked by people who like the things that comic book fans like?

Umm, what?

Look at it this way:

Bert likes comic books. Bert also likes Lost, because Bert grew up on X-Files and Lost is X-Files‘ younger, hotter cousin. He’s likely to go to Comic-Con, both for the comics, and that Lost panel he’ll have to wait three hours to watch, even though the show’s been off the air for years.

Ernie has never read a comic book in his life. He likes Lost, though. Because it has this freaky smoke monster and time travel and smoke serious smokin’ babes. Ernie also likes Glee, because some of the kids on the show are geeky like Ernie, the music is kind of catchy, and its babe quotient is high. Heck, it even has a few characters who are female, geeky, and hot, and that most certainly floats Ernie’s boat. He’d enjoy Lost and Glee panels. Like Bert, Ernie is likely to go to Comic-Con.

Elmo doesn’t read comic books, and he didn’t like Lost (confusing!) but he belts out a mean falsetto during practice sessions with his high school a capella team. He and some of his teammates will most definitely skip school, skateboard down to the convention center, and hop in line to see the Glee panel. They might even dress up as their favorite Black Butler characters and enter one of the costume contests.

Now, Bert thinks Glee is completely retarded, which you might think is bad, since he’s a member of the core Comic-Con demographic. But he’s still probably heading to the convention, Glee or no Glee, and Elmo, who wouldn’t have attended the conventions of yore, will be picking up tickets as well. The Glee panel will be well-attended, because both the Ernies and Elmoes of the world will be present. For the organizers, it’s a win.

Let’s revisit our degrees-of-separation table.

Comic book fan -> comic book writer – one degree

Comic book fan -> scifi TV fan -> scifi TV panel – two degrees

Comic book fan -> scifi fan -> geek musical fan -> g-pop panel – three degrees

BTW, this particular scenario draws from personal experience. When I attended Comic-Con three years ago, there was a Lost panel with mind-bogglingly long lines, and an event promoting the Glee pilot, which was months away from airing. The Glee thing was a huge hit, despite it having no obvious relevance to the world of comics.

In pure economic terms, the message is clear. As long as you can keep your core fans satisfied, there’s no downside to increasing the degrees of separation. Comic-Con has, and will probably continue to, embrace an increasingly broad array of genres, mediums, categories, and activities.

So, You Want to Go to Comic-Con

Whoa. Easy there, broheme. It’s not that simple.

Let’s cogitate for a nonce: We have an event with steadily escalating mass appeal (thanks to its increasing degrees of separation), a static venue (it’s always at the San Diego convention center) that’s already packed to the gills, and a once-niche category (geek culture) that’s increasingly mainstream (consider Big Bang Theory and a steady stream of hit superhero movies). Given what our high econ teacher with the poofy eyebrows and the handlebar mustache told us about supply and demand, something’s got to give. Either prices go up, or a substantial, and increasingly large, proportion of the aggregate demand will go unmet.

The Comic-Con International organization has done a pretty good job of keeping a lid on prices. They keep the per-ticket price fairly flat from year to year, and keep the scalping to a minimum by associating each badge with a specific identity at point of sale. Since prices aren’t rising with demand, demand goes unmet. In other words, you can’t necessarily get a ticket, any more than you necessarily make that wacky Flintstones scratcher pay off.

Here’s how it works:

  1. If you get a badge on year X, you can buy one for year X + 1 right after the year X convention. Congratulations! You’re one of the elite, ready to ascend to Olympus and lord it over the scrubs fighting over scraps down below.
  2. Everyone needs to enter the open registration process. First, you pre-register, providing your name and receiving a membership ID and Comic-Con online account in return. This happens about nine months before the convention.
  3. About four months before the convention, sales commence. You must be pre-registered to have a chance. It is for a specified time (8 AM on the day this was written, as it so happens) all prospective ticket buyers log on using their membership ID and are placed in a virtual “waiting room.”
  4. After two hours, no one else is allowed in the waiting room. Everyone that was in the waiting room at this point is placed in line. Your place in line is random (yes, it’s essentially a lottery).
  5. Over the course of the next few hours, people are taken from the line, in order, and allowed to buy badges (up to three, but only for pre-registered individuals). If you didn’t end up getting a spot toward the front of the line, tough noogies. No badge for you!

So, what are the odds of getting a badge, if you’re one of the great unwashed? It’s hard to say for certain. This is purely anecdotal, but of the five friends and family members I know who tried to get a badge, only one succeeded. The odds are slim, which is just what your bald, chain smoking, NHL washout out of a high school econ teacher would have told you, if you’d known to ask.

Hey, the biggest, shiniest, most lustrous of pearls are hard to come by. What did you expect?

Enter, the Dragoon

So, what’s it like at the ‘con? Crowded, for starters, especially in the main hall, and especially on Saturday. It’s like one of those preposterously hip nightclubs where you’re not actually allowed to stand in one place, and guys on stepladders keep everyone moving by waving flashlights, making sure that the human mass stays in motion so as not to be crushed under its own weight. The most popular events—panels featuring celebrities—have lines that wend around outside the convention hall structure. You have to show up an hour or more in advance to have a shot at getting into one these (there are tactics to avoid this, but getting into that would require a whole other article).

One of the most remarkable, and coolest (well, cool, in an uber-geeky sort of way) aspects of the environment is the effect you get from having so many people in costume. Probably around 10% of the convention-goers dress up, but it feels like a lot more than that. Because all of the people dressed in boring, everyday attire (like boring old yours truly) just sort of fade into the background, optically drowned out by multihued tights, glinting armor, and weaponry of such startling ornamental complexity it could make actual military gear crumple in shame.

Some of those in costume wear run of the mill, off the rack costumes, but because of the sheer numbers involved, even these make a real impression. A half-dozen brunettes dressed as Wonder Woman, striding arm-in-arm down the concourse, can make quite an impression—even if there’s nothing special about the garb itself. Others go all-out, preparing for months beforehand and constructing multiple prototypes. There are entire online sites dedicated to the art of constructing solid costume parts out of resin, allowing people to make custom suits of armor and show up as convincing versions of storm troopers, Halo soldiers, and the like. A convincing Iron Man outfit is well within the realm of possibility (though I didn’t see any the last time I attended).

Many of those attending the con clearly have mad skills (or are willing to hire the skilled). Expert seamstresses, talented dyers, and imaginative designers abound. I saw one guy dressed in what looked to be the remnants of an early modern European soldier’s uniform, torn, tattered and partially burned. The dude had also decorated himself with all sorts of simulated wounds and scorch marks, as if he was a 17nth century revenant, risen from a mass grave to take vengeance on the grenadiers who took his life.

I won’t go into the actual events at Comic-Con, as descriptions and video of these abound. It’s easy to get each year’s schedule from the organizers, if you’re curious. I think it’s a blast, though, despite the crowds, and lines, and overflowing garbage cans, and the lack of any place to sit when you want to take a load off. And most that attend seem to agree.

The Sum of All Media

David Farland’s excellent fantasy series features a form of magic that allows nobles to drain attributes from commoners—their strength, agility, keenness of sight, and so on. This allows the privileged few to become mystical supermen of a sort, wielding enormous power at the expense of those they rule (who become crippled in a variety of ways). The characters in Farland’s books speak of a legendary figure, the “Sum of All Men,” who has become so powerful that he’s sloughed off mortality altogether, becoming an eternal, nigh-invincible warrior.

As Comic-Con gathers momentum, encompassing more and more of what the entertainment world has to offer, will it too gain a sort of invincibility, with its unattainability imbuing a mythical status far outstripping the value of the event itself? Or will it move to a massive venue in Las Vegas and lose its mojo, like CES?

I wish I knew, grasshopper. I wish I knew.

Online Critique Groups

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 10•14

 

A critique group (also known as “writer’s circle”) is a sort of writer’s club that exists to improve the work of all involved. The idea is simple: each member of the group passes a page, chapter, or entire novel to one or more other members, who then provide feedback on the material. Imagine a half-dozen authors sitting around a table. Each one passes a page they’ve written to the person on their left, who marks it up and then passes it on to the next guy. After a while, each page is decorated with a mass of (hopefully useful) scribbles the author can incorporate into their next draft. Of course, there are endless variations on this theme, with notes compiled between meetings, varying amounts of discussion and in-person interaction, and different approaches to providing feedback and follow-up. Ideally, the quality of each writer’s work is improved by incorporating and/or reacting to a variety of perspectives.

If all this sounds like it could be the basis for an online community, you’re right. A number of sites have been created to take the critique group experience online, and some have done a passable job of it. The advantages are obvious. Instead of being limiting oneself to interacting with writers who happen to be in the same geographical area, it’s possible to form groups with a global basis, where who critiques whom is a matter of common interests rather than physical and schedule-based limitations. Writers can avail themselves of advice from hundreds, even thousands, of different members, and the basic critique mechanics can be enhancing by forums, messaging, and a variety of social networking mechanics.

If you’re anything like me, this all sounds awesome, and under the right circumstances, it can be.

But What if Someone Steals My Work?

Yes, it happens, and yes, it sucks. Plagiarism is rarer than you might think, though—exceedingly rare, as far as I can tell—and for many, the risk is more than balanced by the rewards. For me, the “tipping point” came when I listened to a successful romance speak at last year’s San Francisco Writer’s Conference. She claimed that everyone, including pros, needed to be involved with these groups. They were that valuable.

Now, when I say she’s successful, I mean she’s seriously, ridiculously, two-books-on-the-New-York Times-bestseller-list-at-the-same-time successful. Net seven figures on one self-published novel successful. A writerly goddess, in financial terms.

I joined an online critique group the next day, and haven’t looked back. If I managed to corral an agent, and my work sees the light of day in the mainstream publishing world, these sites will have played a significant part in making that happen.

There’s a Bunch of These Things. Which One Should I Join?

I could tell you that:

  • They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a matter of individual preference.
  • There’s no reason you have to choose just one. Many writers are members of multiple groups.
  • You don’t need to commit right off the bat. Try a few and see which one floats your boat.

And all of this would be true to some degree, but it would be a cop-out. Not all critique sites are created equal, and the underlying philosophy and goals vary significantly. I’m going to try to tell you enough about my own perspective and experiences to help you figure out which are worth looking an initial look.

To my knowledge, there are three sites that stand out, based on the quality and size of their membership, the usefulness of their feature set, and their overall effectiveness. Of course, mileage may vary, and you may find that groups I haven’t bothered to include here are more useful to you than any of the ones I’ve selected. C’est la vie, caveat emptor and all that.

Critique Circle

This site seems to have been around for quite a while (since the 90s, if had to guess, which is what I’m going to do, since I’m too lazy to do the research). This has plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the community is huge. Its membership is probably the largest of the groups I’ve encountered, with what appears to be thousands of active members. This means that it’s easy to recruit a large, diverse set of fellow authors to review one’s work, and there’s a seemingly endless variety of stories to explore. Pretty much every genre, category, and subcategory I can think of is represented.

Unfortunately, the site also looks and feels like it was designed in the 90s—albeit with the occasional technological upgrade. It’s perfectly usable, but after using some of the more functional sites out there, working with Critique Circle feels like trying to text while caught in a Chinese finger trap. Sure, you can do it, but you might not want to.

Inline critiquing is best example of this. You can just pick an arbitrary place in the text you’re reviewing and type in a note, you have to insert the note as a separate block of text that sits between the lines (usually between the paragraphs) of the story being critiqued. It might not sound that bad, but if you want to do something very precise like suggest that the author change a few specific words in a specific sentence, it can be a pain. You’re essentially forced to re-type a good-sized portion of the text you want to focus on. For people like me who like to provide extremely fine-grained commentary, this is not a great way to do things.

Mechanics

The mechanics of Critique Circle are simple. It’s essentially a “do unto others” approach based on a point system. You start with enough points to post a piece of work (a chapter, short story, or whatever). After that you earn points for each review you do, and spend points to post more work. The system is straightforward, easy to understand, and works nicely. When you receive a critique, you rate it based on a variety of criteria, and those rating accumulate into point scores that are displayed when members view your profile. This is useful in that helps identify those who are trying to game the system. If someone has exceedingly low scores, you may not want to review their stuff, knowing they aren’t likely to put much effort into a thank-you crit.

One of things I really like about Critique Circle is the fact that its members aren’t squirmy about reviewing longer works. You can post ten or fifteen thousand words at a time and get several cogent critiques within a matter of days. This makes it great place to workshop novelettes and novellas, since you aren’t forced to organize them into bite-sized pieces and reviewers will will work through the story as a whole, rather than looking at a fragment.

The Lowdown

It’s a good site. Thousands of writers find it useful, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But it’s not my personal favorite.

Full Disclosure

I’ve posted a couple of stories on the site, and contributed a dozen or critiques.

 

www.critiquecircle.com

Authonomy

The most interesting about this site is the fact that it’s owned by a major publisher—Harper Collins. Verbiage on the site claims acquisition editors look at some of work posted there, though, as you might expect, working toward this goal is a difficult and highly political proposition. As near as I can tell, the effort is about thirty percent competitive brownnosing, thirty percent hard work, and thirty percent dumb luck. Somewhere in that other ten percent is the actual quality and marketability of the work being posted. If it seems like I’m being critical of Harper Collins staff who run the site, I suppose I am, but creating a site that does what this one purports to do (finding talent) is an inherently difficult task, and they’ve probably done about as well as can be expected.

Mechanics

Mechanically, Authonomy is an iPod. At first glance, it’s sleek and functional, but bust the thing open and you find yourself trying to make sense of some very messy guts. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that site has multiple goals, obscured by marketing lingo (“We’re more than community of book lovers!”) and nested within one another like brightly colored Matryoshka dolls. This, in a nutshell, seems to be what Authonomy is trying to do:

  • Enable a critiquing community much like that provided by Critique Circle.
  • Provide a collection of free online work—novels, mostly—that Harper Collins can use to promote the larger business.
  • Outsource the slush pile, and do it at a near-zero cost.

The fact that site is designed to do several semi-overlapping, semi-contradictory things leads to some oddities. First, anyone can post as much work as they want to, without any expectation or obligation to write critiques, or indeed to anything that’s of use to other members of the site. This would seem to violate the spirit of a critique group, and in a way it does, but there’s still plenty of incentive to review other members’ work.

Namely, good old fashioned scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours politics. Unlike other sites I’ve seen, Authonomy assigns precise numeric rankings to both books and members. You might, for instance, be the #8 (eighth-highest-ranked) author, with the #5 (fifth-highest-ranked) book. The highest-ranked books are the ones that Harper Collins looks at, so in one sense the site is essentially a big, never-ending competition to have the highest-ranked book.

Of course in the spirit of social media, the judges of the novels—the ones who actually determine the rankings—aren’t a group of external judges, but the site members (contestants) themselves. It’s like a horse race in which the jockeys all vote to determine which horse was the fastest. This means that members are constantly trying convince one another to review one another’s work, and give them high marks. The whole “craft” aspect of things, in which authors attempt to approve one another’s work, is secondary, and this is reflected in the design of the site. Don’t go to Authonomy in the hopes of honing your manuscript or sharpening your skills—that’s not (primarily) what it’s for.

The example method used for ranking novels is somewhat mysterious, but rating assigned by site members appear to play a significant part. Any member can rate any work on the site, by give it one to six “stars.” Note that you don’t necessarily have to read the book, much less form an objective opinion—anyone who wants to can click on the desired stars. If this sounds like a system that’s open to all manner of abuse—well, I’m sure it is—but bemoaning this isn’t particularly productive.

Authonomy doesn’t provide the ability to do full-fledged critiques, but you can leave comments, and the more conscientious members attempt to provide the sort of feedback you’d see in a critique. Remember, though, the ultimate goal is pump up the ranking of your own novel, and everything revolves around that, and this is a system that doesn’t exactly encourage honest criticism. One obvious strategy is to jump from novel to novel, telling every author that their work is “frikkin awesome!” in an attempt to garner their support, and this seems to be more or less what a lot of members do. Some don’t even pretend to read other members’ books, they just blast out a bunch messages asking everyone to plump their work. Sometimes these messages take the form of outright begging (“PLEASE save my book!!!”).

 

The Lowdown

If you’re willing to put some money on a long shot, Authonomy may be worthwhile. Just be ready to deal with the site for what it is—part of the Harper Collins marketing machine. It’s meant to serve the purposes of the publisher, not the author, and the two may or may not intersect. And while site looks sharp, it’s neither terribly functional nor particularly reliable. I’ve seen the thing barf out random programming error messages on at least a dozen occasions.

The site has forums, but they’re nigh-useless. Authonomy is about competition, not community.

Full Disclosure

I currently have part of one my novels on the site, and am participating on a regular basis. At the time this was written, my member ranking was somewhere around #500 (Woo hoo! I’m number five hundred! I’m number five hundred!). Because of Authonomy’s competitive nature, I spent almost a year work shopping my novel on other sites before posting it here.

www.authonomy.com

Scribophile

Superficially, Scribophile is a lot like Critique Circle. That is, it hews pretty close to the classical concept of a critique group: authors reinforcing one another’s efforts by providing notes on each other’s stuff. As you’d expect, the core of the site is critiquing: post your work, and post reviews of other people’s work. A variety of features compliment the core capabilities—forums, groups, and detailed member profiles among them.

The design, functionality, and overall quality of the site are remarkable. I wouldn’t just rank it among the best sites for writer’s, I’d rank it among the best sites period—right up there with Apple.com, Twitter, and other highly touted destinations. Navigating amongst the various areas is quick and intuitive, and the inline critiquing feature is amazingly good. In some ways, it’s superior to Microsoft’s Word’s “Review” feature set. You can suggest edits by adding and deleting text from the original manuscript, with deleted segments highlighted in red, and suggested additions highlighted in green. This means that it’s possible to place a comment regarding a particular word or phrase right next to that word or phrase. To someone like me, who likes to leave detailed feedback, this is a godsend.

The Scribophile forums invite a lot of impassioned discussion, and are moderated by a capable group of volunteers. Writers are an opinionated lot, and just about every perspective imaginable shows up in forum posts. Things can contentious, and for this reason both religion and politics are verboten (though these subjects can be discussed in the groups, each of which essentially has its own forum).

Mechanics

The Scribophile economy is based on karma. You earn points of karma by writing critiques. If this sounds similar to Critique Circle it is, but there are a few additional wrinkles:

  • You don’t start out with much karma, so you can’t post your work on the site until you’ve posted some critiques (usually two or three of them will do the trick). Some new members find this annoying, but I think it’s a reasonable approach.
  • The amount of karma you earn for each critique varies. You get a base amount, plus a bonus based on the length of the critique, plus an additional (small) bonus based on how much the recipient of the review liked it. This is good in that encourages members to be thorough and constructive, and though the system is obviously open to abuse, I’ve found it’s rare in practice.
  • Shorter posts are encouraged (3K words or less), and if you follow this guidance, it can cost a great deal of karma to post longer works. This isn’t unfair, but it is painful when you have a novelette or chapter that doesn’t have scene breaks in places that readily accommodate this sort of parsing.

Members are assigned a numeric “reputation” score based on Facebook-style “likes,” but it’s purely for purposes of amusement and isn’t hooked into any of the site’s other mechanics. Profiles include a writerly “title” such as “Ink-Slinger” that correspond to the score, which helps contribute to the site’s whimsical don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously vibe—something I personally find appealling.

The Lowdown

Scribophile is great if you’re looking to give or receive in-depth feedback on your work. As is the case with other the sites I’ve mentioned, what you get out of it is going to be proportionate to the work you put in. So if you want to be considered a serious writer by others on the site, be prepared to build up some sweat equity. While not every crit you receive will be insightful, or even useful, it’s worth sticking with it for those that really open your eyes. I make revisions (though they’re often minor) in response to about twenty percent of the crits I’ve received, and three or four percent have prompted me to make major changes—sometimes across an entire chapter or scene.

Full Disclosure

I’ve been active, on and off, on Scribophile for about a year. I’ve written a lot of crits (around a quarter million words worth of them), and doing so has been a major learning experience. My involvement on the site is currently minimal, as my attention has turned elsewhere.

www.scribophile.com