Violence In Context

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I’ve been really into the street level superheroes: Daredevil, Black Canary, Green Arrow, etc. Watching the television shows built around them has me thinking a lot about violence as a storytelling device, how it permeates pop culture, when it’s an effective storytelling device, and when it’s not.

Violence is so very different on the page. Seeing a scene in a Charlaine Harris novel brought to life on True Blood could make a bloody moment unbearable for me to watch. Unnecessary gore can detract, particularly when it arises out of context. The street level heroes are working the same way, especially Netflix’s take on Daredevil.

The fight choreography is brilliant, definitely a driving point for why I kept watching. The excessive violence was the counter: it made it hard to stick with the series. The question I kept asking myself, as my writer brain kicked in (like it always does, pesky obsession), is whether or not the violence is essential to the story?

In some cases, I’d say no, but for Daredevil, I squeaked out a yes, even as I recoiled from the gore. Daredevil’s world is a violent one. He deals with street level crime and high level corruption. His villains range from stereotypical thugs to suited racketeers willing to get their hands dirty or worse, flip from calm to murderous, which makes them terrifying. The series infused each character with violence, with one or two noted exceptions, and where it touched a “good guy” that character is changed by their actions. Even romantic scenes keep you on the edge, awaiting the terror.

So much violence in fiction washes away the consequences, the physical and emotional impacts it leaves on the characters. Daredevil did an excellent job of letting the wounds linger, both in the form of bandages and stitches, but also in the characters’ psyches. Inflicting violence is portrayed as being as weighty as suffering it.

What I’m Watching – Gotham

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Been catching up on Gotham over the last week. I’ll admit I wasn’t interested when they announced it for various reasons: mostly because a adolescent Bruce Wayne didn’t sound very compelling. Gotham, as a city, has always held a fascination for me, but I wasn’t sure a show about Batman without Batman would hold my interest. I tried the first episode a while back, and wasn’t hooked enough to return, but a friend told me to stick with it, and the show has improved over time.

One thing I’ve noted is how Jim Gordon is slowly making a difference. Here and there, his altruism is shining a bit of light into a dully lit space. Characters I’d given up on as fully corrupt are responding to him a bit, showing some good under the blanket of gloom.

The sets are excellently chosen, just the right mix of modern and classic New York. There also seems a dedication to rolling the technology back just a little: about fifteen to twenty years. Cell phones are common, but the televisions are CRTs, not flatscreens. Computers don’t play a very big role in research.

The show’s true strength is in the characters, in the ways they entangle across the city’s map, and in the way those threads get jerked along. The creators are smart to have a broad ensemble to call on, and it helps that they’ve picked talented leads. I also can’t say I’m unhappy to see Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, characters I loved from the Gotham Central comic, included. I’ll give the show the rest of the season, if only to see how they handle the main, mob war plotline.

What I’m Playing – Bloodborne, a Lesson in Gothic Defeat

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Played a little Bloodborne this weekend, a brutal game in the Dark Souls model (and on that same engine). Like any Dark Souls game, I died. A lot. Repeatedly. The repetition is rewarded however when you learn, get smarter, and fight smarter. Bloodborne teaches you. I learned pretty quickly that werewolves aren’t to be fought in pairs.

More than the combat, the style of the game, a gothic setting, a downright creepy soundtrack (that I bought for playing during dnd), and the just overall look of it on the PS4 has me captivated.

Like any Dark Souls game, the exploration is fairly open. There are nooks and bits of landscape off the beaten path, which is one of my favorite features. It reminds me classic RPGs like Ultima or modern ones like Skyrim, where you can pick a direction and just wander (albeit while swinging an axe or firing quicksilver bullets).

Not much time for video games lately, but I’m excited to give this a deeper look.

Food and Grief: Things That Shape Us

I lost an old friend this week. More specifically, I lost an old friend’s mother, a very sweet woman who I hadn’t seen in a number of years, but who left a lasting impression on me. It’s got me to thinking about how we grieve, the rituals we perform, both public and personal.
Were I Greek, I’d make koliva, which I’ll probably make anyway. The lengthy process gives you something do to, something for your hands while your mind works through what’s happened and what you’ve lost.
Food and grief go hand in hand for me. Sushi, of all things, as far from my heritage as that is, always comes up. It’s one way I have of mitigating sadness.
I’d never had sushi before my grandmother died. She was a remarkable, intelligent woman in a world where being intelligent and shockingly well-read was frowned upon. She liked to hide her brilliance in an affected hick manner. People underestimated her constantly, and I don’t think she really cared. The last memory I have of her is at a family reunion. She walked up to me with a cigarette in one hand and a red Solo cup of box wine in the other and said “Why David Ray, how you doing, you little shit?”
After she died, I had a dream. In it I was at sushi with her and my father. I was aware of other tables in the restaurant, but could not see them. They only made themselves known by the slight chink of wine glasses and silverware on the granite tabletop. We were all elegantly dressed, in a way so different than I’d ever seen Grandma. The waiter would occasionally come, offering us a dish. The last time I saw him he announced, “This is the only fish of this kind in the world. This is the only time you will have this dish.”
Grandma laughed at something dad said and I looked at her, realizing that she was dead, that I was dreaming. I understood instantly I did not want to wake up, because she’d be dead again, and gone from me. The moment I thought it, she winked at me, and I awoke.
I’m a vegetarian these days, but I’ll still eat sushi on occasion. I’ll eat it whenever I’m mourning, when I’m sad, or need a reminder of how rare and beautiful a thing life is.
Here’s a koliva recipe, if you’re interested in trying it sometime:
http://www.foodgeeks.com/recipes/greek-kolyva-koliva-wheat-berry-memorial-food-20746

Photogenic Memory: Thinking the Past Was Better Than it Was


One of the pleasures in having a history degree is getting to look for anachronisms in pop culture, period movies and shows that slip up and use the wrong music, etc. The thing with history, especially ancient history, is that it’s always in flux. We’re always revising what we think we know about a place, people or time – new information comes to light every day. History, like any other science, is prone to bias and should be self-correcting by nature.
Being a fantasy writer, ancient ruins hold a particular fascination for me, and yet they never seem to measure up. I seek out obscure temples and sites, like Brauron near Athens, which was a big inspiration in my latest book. But of course the ruins themselves aren’t very impressive: a few columns, no walls, in a marsh. What’s left barely echoes what was, or might have, been. I spent the brief time I was there watching the school children weave their way across the site as the groundskeepers worked tiredly to keep the green from overwhelming the scant, brown remains ancient of Artemis’s Bear Sanctuary.
Yet even in that, there was inspiration. In fantasy we inflate, make bigger and bolder a character’s experiences. A writer’s job is to reflect reality, but also to manipulate that reflection to tell a better story than what’s happening around us.
Ruins and history work much the same way. We twist and inflate them. Sure, history can inspire fantasy, but it doesn’t have to align. I’m always a bit confused when someone says epic fantasy needs to be “historically accurate.” After all, there’s nothing historically accurate about wizards throwing fireballs or dragons incinerating towns. So there’s clearly a line between being historically accurate and telling a good story and clearly a limitation if you allow historical accuracy to overwhelm a fantasy novel’s potential.
We correct our study of the past to correct our understanding, but also to adjust for biases. We can never truly know what it was like to be one of Artemis’s Bear Maidens. We can imagine, and that imagination can be informed by what we know of the time and place.
It took me a long time to stop writing academically when I wrote creatively. It’s taken even a bit longer to realize that a certain level of historical accuracy can provide verisimilitude, but freeing myself from that constraint and adding bolder elements makes my books better. When we try to force a fantasy novel to conform to a past we don’t fully understand anyway, we’re limiting ourselves. The two things are separate. They can be divorced. Let history inform fantasy but not dictate its laws. You’ll get a more interesting story that way.
Note: the photo above is not Brauron, but from Ephesus. All my Brauron photos are missing from my hard drive.

We Need Diverse . . . Everything Really, But Let’s Start with Comic Books


Diversity in fiction gives a reader the chance to see themselves in a character. It opens more readers, more consumers, to the work. Simultaneously, a diverse work reflects the actual world. None of us live in a state of white, straight, non-disabled people, all alike, no differences.
Reading about characters and lives that are unlike your own experience is important to growth, but when you’re considered outside the norm, and there’s no representation, that’s all you get. You’re given an experience that while different, never aligns to your own.
As someone who writes YA with diverse characters, I’ve been thinking about my own experiences with representation, so I want to talk about the Flash. Specifically, I want to talk about what the Flash meant to me when I was fifteen, when DC ran the Pied Piper’s coming out story.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, with parents who shielded me from anything that they thought might increase my likelihood of self-acceptance. And while they did their best to inject my world with BB guns and tackle boxes, they overlooked the books, and I grew up surrounded by them.
While the stories I lost myself in provided escape and perspective, they also left me lonely. There was no representation, just hints, just subtext. I parsed Tolkien for signs that maybe Merry and Pippin were more than just friends. I ripped through Tad Williams’ the Dragonbone Chair, hoping without evidence that maybe the protagonist and the elf prince had a bit more going on than just companions in an adventure. There were hints, always hints, but I needed more.
I was happy and disappointed to read Gene Rodenberry’s novelization of Star Trek the Motion Picture where Kirk states clearly that he has no problem with homosexuality, but that he’s strictly heterosexual. On one hand, it validated me. One of my heroes accepted me. And yet it also left me still alone: one more person accepted, but did not understand me.
When I could find a gay character as a teen, they were usually evil, deviants or serial killers. Yes, I was missing a support system (this was a world before PFLAG or the Internet), but I was also missing representation and that crucial character to whom I could relate.
When Pied Piper came out to the Flash as he’s discussing rumors of the Joker’s sexual orientation, it was a very big deal. This wasn’t a time period when outing yourself was a casual thing, and more telling is the gossip Wally’s engaging in about the Joker. He’s a crazy villain, so let’s throw gay on top of his faults. It’s a trope that still persists in fantasy, that gay = deviant or evil.
For DC, Piper’s outing was a major step. He was taking a risk, that he might lose his friend by telling Wally he was gay. It was something I struggled with. Something I still feel (even if I couldn’t care less now). 

Hartley, the Piper, wasn’t the first. Marvel already had Northstar, and DC had Extraño, years prior, but neither were characters I could relate to. Northstar was an asshole. Extraño was a flamboyant stereotype. Neither was a character I could see myself in. Piper isn’t a hero. He’s not an A-lister, but he’s there, and I clung to even that like a life raft.

As for the Flash, he faced his homophobia, and wasn’t afraid to put his arm around Hartley and call him a friend. It was acceptance from a major hero, and it was also representation. It helped that Hartley was reformed, that his orientation wasn’t tied to his villainy. Reading that issue made my tiny Oklahoma world just a little bit bigger. I felt a less isolated, I got to see that being gay didn’t have to make me fit a stereotype or cost me friends. I could be someone other and still be a part of the world and comics fandom. It gave me a place to run to when my real life squeezed too hard. That representation enriched my world, diversified the DC universe, and solidified at least one lifelong fan.
Piper makes his television debut soon. I’m anxious to watch, hoping they get him right. Comics are about big dreams, heroes running through a fantastic world. It’s always great to know there’s room in that world for someone like me.

A Little Halloween Nostalgia: Mexican Moon


Concrete Blonde was one of those bands I discovered on my own. They had a sound like nothing I’d heard until then, and it resonated with a lonely proto-goth in Oklahoma. I was absolutely thrilled when Bloodletting was re-released a few years ago with the French chorus version of the title song.
Now it’s twenty-five years since I discovered the band, and I’m letting them play while I prep the house for the Trick or Read book event. I had to stop and write this, wanted to share what their music meant to me and how it’s changed for and with me.
Mexican Moon was their last album that I recalled (barring a greatest hits and B-sides compilation a few years later), and it came out when things with my first love were really coming to an explosive end ( I was nineteen, half redneck and half drama queen, there was no other possible outcome),so the CD always held some slices of bitterness for me.
It got a nice redemption a few years ago, when I heard it in Greece. We were in Dimitsana, having breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning and for some reason they were playing Mexican Moon at a low background level. I realized I had outgrown so much of my anger, so much of the frustration I’d felt when the album first came out. And though many of the songs themselves are angry, I was able to just enjoy the music.
Now that day in Greece is a memory, and a good one. I’ve moved past it, and even past the relationship that took me to Dimitsana in the first place.
I’m not that kid anymore, that broken ghost of a boy, but I still enjoy his music from time to time.

David’s Timeline of Marvel Comics Must Reads


I put this together for Lisa and Jenn. It’s my timeline of Marvel must reads for anyone trying to catch up modern Marvel History who wants to augment the movies. A few notes: I left out some great series that while I loved, didn’t really fit in. I also left out the Hulk crossovers because I don’t really follow the character. Also, I labeled all the Cosmic crossovers as “Guardians” since that’s where that team came from. I may edit this as I go. Where I’ve mentioned a specific writer, that means I highly recommend their work.
New X-Men by Grant Morrison (X-Men): Read all of this first.
Captain America by Ed Brubaker*
Madrox by Peter David
Avengers Disassembled (Avengers)
-          Young Avengers: (Two Volumes, Sidekicks and Family Matters)
House of M (Avengers/X-Men)
-          X Factor by Peter David*
-          Ms. Marvel*
Decimation: House of M’s Aftermath (X-Men)
Uncanny X-Men by Ed Brubaker: Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire**
Annihilation (Guardians)
 Civil War (Avengers)
                    –            The Death of Captain America
Annihilation: Conquest (Guardians)
-          Guardians of the Galaxy by Abnett and Lanning*
Messiah Complex (X-Men)
Manifest Destiny (X-Men)
Secret Invasion (Avengers)
Dark Reign (Avengers)
-          Invincible Iron Man*
War of Kings (Guardians)
Utopia (Avengers/X-Men)
Siege (Avengers)
-          Journey into Mystery*
Realm of Kings (Guardians)
Second Coming (X-Men)
The Thanos Imperative (Guardians)
Fear Itself (Avengers/Thor)
Schism (X-Men)
-          Wolverine and the X-Men*
Young Avengers: Children’s Crusade
Avengers vs. X-Men (Avengers/X-Men)
* Indicates a series that runs on through several of the subsequent crossovers so should be read in chunks, not in consecutive order.
** Indicates a limited run within an ongoing series.

For Jenn in regards to loaning:
Blue – Indicates Trade I Own
Green – I own some or most
Red – I don’t own, recommend digital

Yoga and Writing: Go Deeper, Smell Your Kneecap

I imagine my stress like a meter inside me, a rising tide in my body. When it reaches the level of my heart, that’s usually the point where it impairs my writing. One trick I have to reduce it, to re-center, is to get my inflexible butt to a yoga class.
I suck at yoga because I don’t practice it enough to be good at it. I fall over when I try to do tree poses. I’m self-conscious about watching the expert students, worried they’ll think I’m checking them out. Yoga is messy, but welcoming. It’s very hard to walk out of a good class and still feel stressed out. I love Anusara best, because it’s about alignment and usually comes with a mini therapy lesson, something to think about while you’ll also pondering what your kneecap smells like.
I was editing last night, taking the red pen to double spaced printed pages that I’m reading aloud (I’ve thoroughly embraced this as the best way to edit and ensure no one sits near me in coffee shops), when I found a connection between yoga, where the instructor is always encouraging you to “go deeper” into the pose and my writing.
It was one of those strange little light bulb moments – A micro-epiphany about the craft. I found a decent little bit of description that while well written, was also a tell not show (something I am really hammering on in my writing). I marked the paragraph as “go deeper,” and this morning, when making the changes on the computer, that’s what I did – I took that paragraph and converted it to dialogue, used it to show one character’s insight and hint at the other one’s secrets. I turned a good bit of writing into something better.
Editing in this fashion, killing trees, paying close attention as you read aloud, is time consuming. Yet it’s a path to going deeper, to focusing your eye and ear where you can find little places to improve and polish. If you’re struggling, if you’ve hit a plateau, give the print and pen technique a try. And when writing stresses you out, try a yoga class. Say hi. I’ll be the guy in the back, falling over during tree pose.

Brave New World-Builders


If you’ve got a book written and want to sell it or if you’re working towards it, strongly consider attending the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I hadn’t done it before. I went to Backspace once. I’ve attended workshops and classes, but this is the first time I’ve been steeped in such company for four days straight and you know what? I found my tribe.
I spent those days surrounded by talented people who commute to their imaginary worlds as often as I do. It was amazing, comical, and incredibly inspiring. I have always been wary of writers in large groups (stupidly, it turns out). The comical aspect is from the sheer introverted nature of many of us. I’ve developed a decent extrovert shell over the years, but it was well cracked by Saturday and fully broken by Sunday. What emerged was my actual self, all gay and nerdy, and nobody cared.
Turns out writers are a wacky, accepting bunch. I had the pleasure of sitting at lunch next to one of my top three favorite authors, Gail Carriger. I met award winning writers I deeply respect like Carol Berg, amazing agents like Michelle L. Johnson, and incredible editors; but aside from the industry exposure, I had the privilege of meeting writers who write speculative fiction. What struck me first, deeply, was how social we could all be despite how distinct we are. The complete lack of competitiveness and the willingness to cheer each other on was inspiring. The drive and talent of these people is uplifting, and the sense that we’re all in it together, whether published or striving, gave me a sense of wonder.

If you take my advice, and attend in 2015, which I hope you will, here are my tips:

  1. Bring business cards. Bring a lot of them. They don’t need to be fancy or expensive. Just make sure they’ve got your name, contact information including any social media sites, and your genre(s). I printed mine at home. 
  2. Give your card to anyone you talk to. Take their card. Stay in touch after the conference.
  3. Talk to people. Ask them what they write. Tell them what you write. When you see someone you don’t know, speak to them, even if they’re not someone you’d never normally speak to. They’re probably a writer.
  4. Participate. Workshops are great and they’re often taught by amazing people. Before you go, read the program. Know what you need to bring. Buy or print the handouts. Read the instructions. Getting my first chapter beat up in front of 50 people sucked. You know what sucks more? Not being a better writer.
  5. Unplug as much as you can. I live on the Internet, but when you’ve got Gail Carriger teaching a master workshop on the history of steampunk, do you really need to know what’s going on with Facebook? You paid to be here. Engage. Like any program, it only works for you if you work for it.
  6.  Drink lots of water and take vitamins. This altitude can be brutal on newbies. It’s rare I don’t have a cup of coffee in hand, but I counter each cup with two glasses of water to balance out the dehydration. Take a ton of vitamin C (to boost your immune system) and fish oil (for the dryer air). Wash your hands thoroughly and don’t touch your face. You’re going to be shaking a lot of hands, and should, but try to avoid getting sick.
  7. Relax, but not too much. These people are just like you. They are in the same place. Chances are they are feeling what you’re feeling. That said, it’s still a business you’re trying to break into. Dress in jeans, but jeans without holes. Have a glass of wine at dinner, but don’t get drunk. If in doubt what to wear, I’ll give you the same advice I give someone flying for the first time: dress like you’re having lunch with your future in laws. No need to wear a dress or suit, but you don’t want to be covered in food or in my case, wads of cat hair.
  8. Thank the volunteers and people who put it together. These people work very hard at this, usually for free. They’re also sometimes good for a hug when you really need one (just ask first cause personal space and everything).
  9. Read the books of the authors before you go. I hadn’t read Chuck Wendig before the conference. That made me feel like I wasn’t getting a lot of what the others who had were. It also meant I felt weird bumping into him.
  10. Similar to #9, research the attendees. Look up the agents, authors, and editors in advance. Follow them on twitter. Find out which house or agency they’re with. Know what they’ve published.
  11. Talk to the authors, even the ones outside your genre. If you’ve read this blog you know I think we need to stretch ourselves. Two of my friends are award-winning crime writers. I learn a lot from them about pacing and technique, even if their books don’t have any orcs.
  12. Be organized. Print the pages you’ll need for the workshops well in advance (the hotel printers are often taxed). Put the pages in a manila folder so they don’t get crunched (you’ll be given a lot of stuff each day and it will all swish around in your bag). A few extra pens are always wise. I divide my days into folders for each day and make backups but I’m clumsy and kind of forgetful. I need backups.
  13. Use that badge thingy. Wear it. Own it. If you think it’s geeky, well it is, but we’re all wearing one. And it’s got all these great secret little pockets for cards and pens and the bat-breath mints. Plus your meal tickets and pitch cards are in there. Lose those and you’re screwed.
  14. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be in them all day.
  15. Wear layers. The hotel’s temperature can vary room to room. Having a jacket meant I could lose it, zip it, or loan it when the AC went wonky.
  16. Say hi when you see me there.