Category Archives: Writing

REVIEW: Empty Quiver: Tales of the Crimson Son

emptyquiver

“Empty Quiver (n) – A U.S. Military reporting term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon.”

Following up his initial success with the YA/superhero mashup, Crimson Son, writer Russ Linton (www.russlinton.com) has achieved a remarkable hat trick with his follow-up novella, Empty Quiver, a quintet of tales that span from the dawn of the Augment age, long before the events of his prior novel, to near modern days, complete with sly references to Central American politics that still ring true.

Straddling the line between comic book heroics and dark revisionist history, Linton imagines a world where the Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on the cities of Japan were not nuclear devices, but Augmented beings, created to end the war.  But, like the events of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, not all Augments are welcome, and most are forced underground to continue doing their work at the behest of a government that is losing control of their creations.

But, Linton’s strength doesn’t come from the great tableau he’s building up in these tales.  It’s the small brush strokes that make these stories sing.  In an inspired twist, he’s managed to make his world do much bigger by going smaller.  A Hiroshima survivor tells what really happened on that day in August.  A ghetto child grown-up returns home to confront the secret his family hides.  A young girl’s idolization of a female Augment has deeper significance than she knows.  Linton has drawn his epic world best in the reflections of those impacted by it, be they Augment or human. Like an origami creation, he builds his tales in subtle layers, crisp folds of storytelling that make a shape far different than first expected.

You don’t have to have read Crimson Son to enjoy these tales, but the “guest appearances” and subtle hints of the darker future to come make it that much richer, and you’re probably gonna wanna pony up the couple of buck to get that, too.  And, you know what?

You won’t regret it.

“A damn kid, like Little Boy had been.  But, this one was scared s–tless, unlike Little Boy.  Joy had burned in that pint-sized monster’s eyes as the city burned to ash around them.  A terrible fire consuming something inside of him, fueling him, eating him alive.  Eldon understood the hate and anger.  The kid had been God’s own righteous fire that night, whipped into a frenzy by Hurricane’s winds, but Eldon had always felt that kid would have scorched every inch of the planet if given the go-ahead.”

Available now at Amazon.com.

VERDICT:       FIVE Crimson Mask Alpha Injections out of FIVE

This review was first published at Fanboycomics.net. Check out their site and if you like it, check out their podcasts or sign up for their newsletter (a daily highlight of the best in geek news). 


Childhood’s End – Part I

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

I blame Maurice Sendak.  It’s all his fault.  And when he died last month at the age of 83, it all came back.

This is about the things we carry from childhood into the rest of our lives.

There are stories that shape us, stories that teach us new ways to look at the world.  If you’re lucky, you read one of those when you were young.  If you’re very lucky, you might write one of those.  And if you’re truly blessed, you might write more than one.

I learned to read very early on.  Until high school, I was usually the most widely read person in my class.  I read everything.  I never got beat up, because I always asked bullies to let me finish this chapter first, and they lost interest.  A teacher later called me an “omnivorous” reader.  Since I didn’t recognize that word, I went and looked it up.  And it was true.

Luckily for me, my mother recognized this early on, and always kept the shelved stocked with books.  I tore through Dr. Seuss in the summer before 1st grade.  By third grade, I had moved to Jack London and Lewis Carroll.  Because she never censored or forbid me from reading anything in the house, I raided her Harold Robbins novels, and in 4th grade, I may not have understood why things were “turgid” or “heaving” but I knew it must be good.   A 4-volume set called the Life Cycle Library taught me about reproduction in 3rd grade, so I didn’t understand why it was such a hush-hush thing to talk about it in 6th grade Sex Ed.  You want to talk about where babies come from?  Sure, what do you wanna know?

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.

But the first book I ever bought with my own money was a slim little volume, maybe 48 pages, that was more picture than word.  That book was “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak.  I remember seeing the blurb in my schools book club flyer and liking the art.  So I carefully gathered my nickels and dimes together and placed my order, and when I got it, I took it home and devoured it.  It’s slight in terms of verbiage, running just over 330 words.

But in those 330 or so words…

My first inspiration

If you haven’t read it, then your childhood was for naught.  Telling the story of a wild child named Max, who goes on a fantastical journey to a lush island to become King of the Wild Things, “Where the Wild Things Are” opened my eyes to what was possible… how powerful we children were.  Because of our imaginations.  Our wonderful, terrible imaginations.  This was special secret knowledge, and it must have slipped through the barrier of “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Knowing this, I hid the book under my mattress, because if my parents ever found out about this, there must be terrible repercussions.  They couldn’t know anything about this.  So I hid it away and read it in secret, my wonderful private piece of truth.  They first thing I ever remember hiding from my mother.

But one day, I accidentally left the book out, and my mother walked in, and the book was right there, right in the middle of the floor.  I held my breath, not listening to a word she said, making acknowledging sounds.  Chores?  Uh-huh.  Homework?  Sure.  Feed the dishes, eat the dog?  OK, fine. Yeah, mom, I feel great, why?

And when she left without commenting on the book, I realized something…

Oh my god, my parents are blind!!  They must be, to ignore something ticking like a time bomb right in front of them!!  How could she not see it?  Or maybe something more…. Maybe the force of my will was so great that I made her not see it.

Or maybe… maybe it was something else.  Something darker.

Maybe when you grew up, you forgot the power in words, in images.  The sense of wonder.  The limitlessness of your mind.  Maybe it got shrunk by bills, and work, and daily mundane chores, and even by us kids themselves.  Maybe it grew dim and faded under the weight of numbers and calendars and books without pictures.

Or maybe you chose to let it go, because it was easier to lead a simple, unimagined life than to live with the weight of what you had lost.  Peter Pan took Wendy and the boys to Neverland, but when she grew old, she lost the strength of her Happy Thoughts.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents.

“Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.”

Max’s mother sent him to his room, and he ended up in another place completely, but was still home in time for a warm supper.  Because that’s what parents do.  They give us roots and wings.  I look forward to the day when I can share this book with my children.

Or even better, pretend I don’t notice it on their floor.   And see where their imaginations take them.

I write not because I want to be rich and famous (though I do), or because I want to leave a legacy of some kind (also true), but because I want someone to feel the same things I felt when I first read that books.  I want a reader to realize how great and complex and beautiful and tragic and emotional and ordinary and extraordinary the world is.  And it all started with “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Like I said, I blame Maurice Sendak.  And bless his every breath.

What book did it for you?

“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
As quoted in “Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author : A Conversation between Maurice Sendak and Virginia Haviland (1972) by Virginia Haviland”
Maurice Sendak


The Ascension of Joss

The Master at work
”Joss Whedon is My Master Now”

That was one of the more popular shirts at San Diego Comic-Con in recent years.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it should. He’s kind of been in the news lately. You might have heard of a little movie called “The Avengers.” Or maybe “Cabin in The Woods?” Two of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies released in the last month. He co-wrote and produced “Cabin…” and co-wrote and directed “The Avengers” and in between production and post-production on that one, in his spare time, he gathered a few friends and filmed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Let me repeat that…. in his spare time…

He’s only been responsible for some of the most culturally influential genre works in the last 15 years.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel. Firefly and Serenity. Dollhouse. When he premiered his online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” demand was so high that servers crashed and critics accused him of breaking the Internet. And then it went on to win a People’s Choice award, a Hugo, seven Streamy Awards, an Emmy, and was named one of Time magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2008.

And until now, he’s been one of Hollywood’s best-kept open secrets. They knew what he could do and seemed hellbent through either incompetence or malicious intent (because nobody could be that willingly stupid, could they?) on keeping him from doing what he does best. But after the last few months, the world knows just what he is capable of.

So why am I going on about this guy on a blog that’s supposed to be about writing? Simple.

Because he knows what he’s doing. And he’s doing it very well. Joss Whedon may be a cruel sadistic bastard who delights in making you care for his characters then dropping them into a meat grinder with a side order of big-eyed puppies and fluffy baby ducks, but that’s only because he’s so good at what he does.

Joss Whedon makes you care about his characters. And none of them are perfect. In fact, far from it. They are well-rounded, deep and fundamentally flawed. Because Joss Whedon knows that in order to make a story good, you need three things:

– A flawed character who wants something.
– Someone who is preventing them from getting it.
– And a mudpit/arena/battlefield for them in which to fight to the death.

Everything else is just window dressing and budget size. In the 200-million dollar epic, “The Avengers,” the team must prevent Loki from unleashing an alien army on they earth. In the micro-budgeted “Dr. Horrible..”, the doc must overcome his nemesis, Captain Hammer, in order to join the Evil League of Evil. In the multi-season TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Buffy must embrace her destiny to be the Slayer, the Chosen One of her generation.

What do these have in common? They are all damaged characters. They all have deep internal flaws they need to overcome in order to defeat the external force opposing them. The thing inside them preventing them from achieving their goal is as powerful as the external force.

The Avengers are all individuals who must learn to come together as a team. Dr. Horrible wants to be more evil than he actually is. Buffy wants to have a typical normal life and boyfriend. In some of these examples, they make a choice. In some, the choice is made for them.

But all of them come at a cost, as most good internal conflicts do. Because if what your character wants isn’t the most important thing in the world to them, then it won’t be to a viewer or reader. And if the lengths to which they go to achieve it (either willingly or unwillingly) aren’t comparable to the ends of the earth for them, then your audience has changed the channel or gone out for popcorn or put down the book and picked up the latest part of the Twilight saga instead.

If you aren’t willing to have your character give up everything they have to get what they want, then they don’t want it very much.

And no, the stakes don’t have to be world-shattering. The fate of the entire universe doesn’t have to hang in the balance for everyone in the universe. It can be as simple as a new bike for a ten-year-old boy, or a Brownie’s desire to sell the most Girl Scout cookies. Pretty inconsequential to the average person on the street.

But to that boy and girl? Let’s take it deeper…

Let’s say that boy is the only healthy child of a mother with tuberculosis, abandoned by her husband, with a younger sibling in need of an operation, and the only way they can afford heat in this worst winter in a hundred years is if he can complete his paper route. But to do that, he needs a new bike.

And our little Brownie? She was the darling only child of her parents… until her new little sister was born. And now the only attention she gets is from the Girl Scout troop that her parents made her join to get her out of the house so they could spend more time with the new baby. So she believes that if she sells enough cookies, she’ll prove her worth and her parents will love her again.

A bike. A Girl Scout cookie sale. The loss of family, the loss of love. It’s a matter of life and death.

Last year, an interviewer asked Joss why he writes such strong female characters. His answer? “Because you still ask questions like that.”

See, he knows it’s not about male or female, gay or straight, black, white, or green, or even human.

It’s about character. What does your character want? What’s keeping them from getting it? What are they willing to give up to get it?

If you can quickly and compellingly answer those three questions, then you have a successful career awaiting you in Hollywood.

But don’t tell anyone. Because it’s a secret. Like Joss Whedon’s omnipotence.

Shhhhhhh…

Oh yeah, if you want more of Joss’ wisdom on writing, check out his top ten writing tips here, originally published on BBC’s channel 4 Talent Magazine.


How Beginnings Work (and other neat tricks)

What a good opening page looks like…

I’m a slow starter, and this is why.  This is a story about beginnings:

Once upon a time…

Now that’s a good opening.  Short.  Simple.  Sets a mood.  Makes you wonder what could come next.  Everything a good opening should do. Those Brothers Grimm knew a good thing when they saw it.

… there was, to a king, a girl born with hair as black as coal, lips as red as roses, and skin as fair as snow…

This is what’s known as your protagonist, your main character.  You can visualize this one pretty easily, and while our interpretations may vary wildly, I’ll bet most of us think of the Disney Snow White (1937) when you hear those words.

… but she was lonely because her mother died birthing her, and the king was busy ruling his Kingdom…

This is known as a sympathetic trait.  Something to invest you in the character.  As a children’s tale, the loss of a parent is one of the most powerful elements to bind a reader to a protagonist.  Think of what you did when Bambi’s mother was shot, or when Simba’s father faced the wildebeest stampede, or when Nemo’s mother met her fate.  There’s a reason Disney is so cruel to parents.

It’s called a profit margin.

OK, not really, they use it because it works.  It’s emotional shorthand.  And while you can say its just a cliché, its a cliché that works.  Because it’s universal.  All of us have parents.  Most of us know who they are.  Issues with parents are things some people never work out.  And when children become parents, it’s a chance to look at the whole thing from the other side.  Kind of like starting over from a taller viewpoint.

So, we have our setting, our protagonist, and our emotional stake.  What else do we need?

… and the King married a Queen, a proud vain woman who longed to be the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, and watched her budding step-daughter with calculating eyes…

Good.  An antagonist.  Just what every solid story needs.  And we can see the set-up of the conflict.  The Queen is feeling her age, seeing faint lines appear on her face that weren’t there before.  And Snow White is a little hottie.  Lush young body, burgeoning sexuality, still that tinge of sweet innocence.  Unaware of the power she’ll have over men.  True, she’s the King’s daughter and the Queen is knocking boots with the old guy whenever he commands, but still…

Yeah, that’s not in the story…  not exactly.  That’s what we call subtext, and I’ll talk about that some other time.

… so each day, the Queen would ask her magic mirror who was the fairest in the land, and the mirror would answer “You are fairest, My Queen” and the Queen would be satisfied.

But one day, she asked the mirror her question and the mirror responded “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.”

And the Queen’s heart hardened.

And with that, we have all the pieces we need to set our story in motion.  A sympathetic hero/heroine, a villain, and a drive.  With that proclamation from the mirror, our story is set in motion.  We have a villain who wants something and a hero that prevents them from getting it.  Everything that follows will spring from that basic story.  All the details that follow are window dressing for that one simple story: Will Snow White escape the jealous Queen and live happily ever after?  The dwarves, the Huntsman, the Prince, the poison apple, the glass coffin… all of that serves the central question.

This is all that good storytelling embodies;  Someone who wants something and someone standing in their way.  How badly they want it and how strongly the other resists, well that’s a mark of how good a story can be.

In a movie, you’ll be somewhere between 14 to 20 minutes in when you see the story.  At that point, you will know who the hero is and what they need to do.  In longer movies, it can occur later, but you’ll still learn pretty early in that Frodo has to take the One Ring to Mordor, that only the Wizard can help Dorothy get back to Kansas (in one of the great movie fake-outs), that Rick Blaine will have to confront his past in Casablanca, that Simba will need to overcome his guilt and return to lead his pride, that Marlin will have to venture into the great unknown world to find Nemo, that Michael will have to join the Corleone family business (no matter how much he denies it).  And so on and so on and so on…

It’s like gymnastics or running or skating.  When done right, it looks effortless.   Yet it is anything but.  Beginnings are easy.  But the easier they look, the more effort usually goes into them.  Each minute on the ice or the balance beam represents 10,000 hours or more of painstaking practice and effort, of sweat and straining to make it just so… to make it appear easy.  Yes, beginnings are easy…

… but Good beginnings are hard, and usually come about only after you’ve written the end, several drafts down the road.  And the more you write, the more you know just how complex and elusive things that look easy can be.

But this is just my quick take on them.  And that’s why I’m a slow starter.

Page Tally:  last week, I wrote 22 pages of audio drama, 2 blog entries, and 6 pages of original script. Most of the audio drama will stay, but the 6 pages may be rewritten if they don’t fit.  For now, they go into the first draft pot.


Curriculum Vitae

This is a chronicle about the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is the place you find yourself in when you lose your way in the night.

I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer and have the degrees (and accompanying student loan debt) to prove it. Since I was young, I’ve loved stories. I’d read anything. One teacher called me an omnivorous reader. As a child, my mother would yell at me to stop reading the back of the cereal box (”It hasn’t changed since yesterday!”) or I’d be late to school . And she knew that with a good book, she could keep me busy and placated for hours.

And then at some point, I realized something… Someone wrote all those great stories I was reading over and over and over. And if someone else could do it, why couldn’t I?

So I began to write…

Well, mainly I began to talk about writing. And talk. And talk.

And people began to talk about me. ”That Tony,” they’d say, ”he’s gonna be a good little writer!” And my teachers would overlook the hastily-written last-minute essays, the carelessly scrawled homework and awkwardly organized drafts because, hey, I was a writer, right? And after a while, even I began to believe it.

But like every good story, there’s a dark side to it. Every hero needs a villain, and the best villains live inside you, masquerading as your fatal flaw.

I was casually acquainted with my fatal flaw, but not on a first-name basis until much later. But he knew me. He knew me better than I knew myself. He’d buy me a drink and say, ”hey, let’s sit down and catch up! Tell me what’s going on. And talking is just like writing, so you don’t have to feel guilty!”

And don’t even get me started on girls! My fatal flaw could find a cute girl and direct my gaze to her in any environment! I could get a crush on the cutest nun in the convent! And thinking about them? My fatal flaw was in heaven over that. Because that could divert me from writing for hours! Weeks! Months!!

My fatal flaw was Fear. Like a lot of other writers. Hell, like a lot of non-writers. Sure, it looked like Laziness, but Laziness is Fear’s ornery little brother.

Fear goes deeper. Fear takes your hand and leads you into labyrinth, where hope is lost. Fear is the voice in your ear, saying ”You know you’re not really a writer, right?”. Fear is the tug at your mind that pulls you back from sleep, telling you they’re going to find out you’re really a fraud. Fear is the constant unwanted ally that finds something else, anything else for you to do other than writing. Fear is the gut-churning possibility that… you’re not really good enough. That your words will never make it to the page as vibrant and alive as they are inside your head.

Fear is a mean little pr*ck. And takes great joy in stopping you. In turning your dreams into a lost cause.

Over the last decade, lots of things have taken the place of writing. I directed theatre. I did publicity for a fan site. I volunteered on political campaigns. I developed a taste for architecture (my second passion). I still wrote, and (despite some small success) I still found myself dreading it. I was lost in the labyrinth, not even seeking a way back to the daylight. It was comfortable and safe in the twisty turning darkness. No one bothered you in the darkness.

And if I occasionally remembered how the light felt on my face in the summer sun, or the electricity in the words that poured out of my fingers when I knew it was working…? Well, that was the past, wasn’t it? And the past should stay the past, right, because people who tried to escape the labyrinth were seldom heard from again by those good and proper souls who kept their heads down and didn’t listen to the dreams that whispered to them in their waking hours. And you try not to think of all those wasted years in the darkness, because that only leads to Regret. And if Laziness is Fear’s bratty kid brother, then Regret is his sad-eyed spinster aunt.

Clarence Darrow is rumored to have said, ”Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

Last year, someone I valued very highly came back into my life after a long absence, and she began to ask me the questions that illuminated the labyrinth I had built for myself. She began to gently nudge me towards the light again. She reminded me of what I had once been. She reminded me that I was a writer… and that I still am, no matter how deeply hidden in the shadows it is.

But as much as those who love you want to help, the only one who can get you out of the labyrinth is you… the one who got you there in the first place.

So that’s what this blog is for. My fight to find again what I lost sight of, to cut my way though the jungle and find Cibola. My personal sandbox about writing and hopes and dreams and fighting for lost causes. And if you want to… come along and we’ll see what we can discover.

And hopefully bulldoze that freakin’ labyrinth to dust.