10/5/18

New York Writer’s Digest 2018

Yesterday I talked about Worldcon 2018 and how I was a bit exhausted going into it.  Now I’m going to talk about the event that tired me out in the first place, New York Writer’s Digest.

Before I start talking about that conference, I need to talk about my current favorite online community, #WriteFightGIFClub.  You can find us on Twitter via the hashtag, or look for @WFGHeadquarters.  It’s a good group of writers that are extremely supportive, silly, and talented.  Before I found them, I kind of hated Twitter.  Now I spend way too much time there.

One of the leaders of the group, Kelly Dowling, was telling us about this conference in New York that we should try to go to.  It has Pitch Slam attached to it, and it’s an amazing opportunity to network as well as find representation.  Ashley Reisinger committed to going, I committed to going, and before long, the whole conference became an unofficial WFGC meetup.

Melissa had been to New York City with Bryanna, and I’d been to New York City with Chris, but we hadn’t been there together.  Also, when we were there with our kids, we were there as chaperones.  It didn’t really let us explore the city on our own very much.  This conference offered us a unique opportunity to go have a little vacation and enjoy the city together.

And so we did.  The first night we were there, we had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, then went and saw Hamilton.  I could honestly spend a whole post talking about the show, from the writing to the performance.  We had a wonderful time, and it was only the first night.

Then came the conference.  I’ve attended quite a few conventions.  Writer’s Digest was a little bit different than all of them.  While it was difficult to judge, I don’t think there were more than a thousand people.  If it were a convention, this would put it at the tiny end of the scale.  But this was a conference, so everything operated just a little bit differently than I was used to.

For starters, the programming was narrower.  At any given point in time, attendees could go to one of four or five presentations.  Comparing that to other conventions I’ve attended, that makes the offering seem exceedingly sparse.  While the choices were fewer, the quality of any individual presentation was higher.  Most were lead by one individual standing behind a podium and using a screen to provide slides and images that went along with what they were teaching.  Many of them had handouts.

The rooms where the presentations were held were much larger.  A panel at Worldcon this year would have been overfull with around 40 people.  In New York, the main room held several hundred people at once, and the smaller rooms held over 50.

The material itself wasn’t much different than what I’d heard at a half dozen other conventions.  Once again, I had the feeling I was attending the same college course, listening and taking notes, with no sign of ever graduating.  One thing that distinguished this conference from all of the conventions I’ve attended to this point is that this one didn’t stick to just genre fiction.

Towards the end of the conference, I attended Pitch Slam.  This is like speed dating, where I got to rotate through a large room, pitching my stories to agents and acquiring editors.  I’m going to talk more about this in a few days, but I’ll just say now that Pitch Slam went far better for me than I could have expected.

There’s quite a bit I could say about the nuts and bolts of the conference.  I enjoyed it, and I took lots of notes.  However, the thing about this trip that made it extra special was getting to hang out with my Twitter friends.  We ate together, we laughed together.  These truly are friends, and I can’t wait to see them again.

I don’t know yet if Melissa and I will attend the 2019 Writer’s Digest conference.  We might, since we had such a good time.  We had a wonderful time, and it seemed worth the money.  Soon, I’m going to have to schedule out my vacation time for next year.  We’ll see if going to New York again is in the cards.

10/4/18

Worldcon 2018

I meant to have this post up earlier this evening, but my laptop ran out of juice and I wasn’t anywhere near an outlet.  I was out of power and I just couldn’t do the writing I wanted to do.

Looking ahead at what I’m about to write, that’s actually a pretty good segue into talking about Worldcon 2018.

As I’ve said before, Worldcon is special to me.  When I went to the Worldcon in Reno a few years ago with Michael Gallowglas, my life was changed.  Going to that event was like breaking the surface of a the water, coming up for air after so much time drowning.  I will always have a sentimental attachment to Worldcon, and I’ve tried to go to all of them since Reno.

This year, I attended Worldcon in San Jose one week after Melissa and I attended the New York Writer’s Digest conference.  I went to New York, had a fantastic time, but then came home and went right back to work, and kept working until we drove to San Jose.

Getting into the event, it felt more like Day 5 than Day 1, for me.  I was tired and cranky, the weather was hot, and it felt like a long walk between our hotel and the conference center.

Like my night writing tonight, I went in with the best of intentions, but I just didn’t have enough power to be effective.

This isn’t to say that Worldcon 2018 was terrible.  It was fine, I think.  I just had a hard time enjoying it, and it was my fault.  I spread myself a little too thin going into it.

There’d been some drama regarding the programming before Worldcon even started, and Mary Robinette Kowal had helped straighten things out.  The programming seemed fine, but I thought the panels were a little too short and the rooms too crowded.

I think I only attempted to attend four panels.  Half of those, my work called me and I had to step outside and take the calls.  Again, I think the event itself was fine, but external factors pulled me out of it.

That pretty much sums up the whole experience for me.  My body was there, but my mind off somewhere else most of the time.

This was also the first convention my kids have ever attended.  They’re 20 and 22, and I wanted to share this part of my life with them.

Bryanna had a great time.  There were several dancing events that she bravely attended.  She loves swing dancing, so she fit in perfectly.  Later, we found a steampunk hat in the dealer’s room that she loved.  We got it for her, and she received compliments on her hat the rest of the weekend.  She also attended a panel that was on contracts and said that she really enjoyed it.  Bryanna had a great Worlcon experience.

Chris didn’t have as great a time.  He tried to attend a couple of game related or craft related panels, but either the material didn’t work or the instructor wasn’t as prepared as they needed to be for the number of people attending.  Two days in a row, Chris went off to have fun and get into his element, only to return a short while later disappointed.  That was a little frustrating.  He didn’t complain, though.  I think he enjoyed what he was able to get into.  There just wasn’t much there for him.

That’s the thing about Worldcon.  It’s a fannish convention, but it doesn’t appear to offer that much for the younger crowd to draw them in and make them permanent fans.  Bryanna will happily come with me again, because she’s a writer, a voracious reader, and there were enough quirky things at this convention to please her.  Chris, who is more into video games and movies than books, isn’t going to want to go to another convention with me.

I enjoyed the kaffeeklatches.  I mostly enjoyed Barcon, though I had trouble socializing.  I would have liked to have bought Lee Harris a drink, but I didn’t see him much.  I met Sam Sykes, completing my Sam Sykes/Myke Cole/Chuck Wendig bingo card for the year.  I thought I learned what I needed to know about querying one of my stories, but in practice, probably picked up the wrong information.

Worldcon this year was just okay, for me, and I don’t blame the organizers.  One of the lessons I learned is to give myself a break between events when they’re scheduled so close together.

One of the best things that happened for me was that I got to meet my friend Michael Roberts (@inkandmagic on Twitter).  He’s a great guy!  I’m looking forward to meeting him again without the distraction of Worlcon around us.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the New York Writer’s Digest conference, and the next night, I’ll write about the Writing Excuses Cruise.  I wanted to talk about Worldcon first because of the three writing-related events, it was the one that gave me the most underwhelming experience.

10/2/18

The Slashed Tires

I want to write about the Writing Excuses Cruise or the New York Writer’s Digest conference, or a half dozen other nice writing related things.  Before I can get to any of that, I need to write about the slashed tires and get it out of my system.  Hopefully it’ll be the last time I ever have to talk about it.

On Friday, September 21st, Melissa and I woke up and got ready to go to our last day of work before the cruise.  We were scheduled to take a red-eye through Dallas and on to Houston that night.  All we had to do was get through one last day of work, and then we’d be on vacation.  We’d been looking forward to going on this cruise for most of a year.

Melissa went out to her car, then came back in.

“Brian, you’re going to need to take me to work.  All of my tires are slashed.”

Upon further inspection, I couldn’t take her to work either.  Three out of four of my tires were also slashed.

The kids’ cars were parked on the street and they were untouched.  Looking around the neighborhood, it didn’t look like anyone else had flat tires.  Just Melissa’s C-Max and my Mustang.

Bryanna and Chris were great.  Bryanna took Melissa to work in the morning and Chris picked her up in the evening.  I wrote in to the office and told them about the situation, and that I’d need to work from home.  I tried calling the police, and they directed me to file a report online, which I did.  There wasn’t much else we could do at that point.  We didn’t have time to get the tires fixed.  We didn’t have time to deal with the insurance.  The kids dropped us off at the airport, and Melissa and I went on our adventure.

I’ll write about the cruise later.  For now, I’ll just say that it was amazing, and for the most part, I was able to forget about the drama of the tires waiting for me back home.  We smiled more than we frowned.

On Friday, September 28th, shortly before Melissa and I were to return, we got a message from the kids saying that their tires had been hit, too.  The dirty lowlife made a return visit and slashed two of Chris’s tires and one of Bryanna’s.

Melissa and I landed in Sacramento on Sunday, just before midnight.  We were tired, a little bit sick, and we just wanted to rest and recover.  Unfortunately, we had a bunch of inconveniences to wade through.  As much as I wanted to take Monday off to recover, I had to put everything in order.

I contacted the police again.  They were not helpful.  In fact, the unsympathetic dispatch officer told me in a dispassionate tone that we were “the lowest priority” and that we shouldn’t expect anyone to come to our home.  That warmed my blood, and it was only my first call of the day.  When I got off the phone with her, I felt a headache begin to pulse at my temples and behind my eyes.

The next calls went out to the dealership where we bought the tires for the Mustang and C-Max.  Then I called CostCo where we bought the tires for the Mini Cooper and the Scion.  The C-Max is a brand new car, purchased last year.  The tires had been replaced on the Mustang in March of this year.  The tires on the Mini Cooper had been replaced in June.  The tires on the Scion had been replaced about three weeks ago.  All of the destroyed tires had been new, and none of them were covered under any warranty.

Finally, I called my insurance.  I’ve had some pretty good experiences with my insurance in the past.  This time, it could have been better.  There’s a thousand dollar deductible that has to be met for each car.  Replacement tires and installation for the C-Max was going to cost around $800.  The Mustang around $500.  The Mini Cooper and the Scion were less than that, and the insurance couldn’t really help us with any of the costs.  They were able to provide tow services, however.

At the end of the day, all of the vehicles were operational.  The Scion is still running on a doughnut because CostCo had to special order the tire, and it won’t be in until later this week.  My headache pounded all day and into the night, but we got through it.

I’ve given a fairly comprehensive rundown of the damage done and what I’ve had to do to set things right.  But I haven’t really touched on the important stuff yet.  The stuff that has really tested me.

The kids are pretty sure they know who did this.  It turns out that there have been other tires slashed recently.  Our neighbor to our immediate left had at least one tire slashed.  The kids are friends with a young man named Kyle, and Kyle’s mother had her tires slashed twice.  The kids are friends with another young woman named Daria, and Daria had her tires slashed two or three times.  This has all been within the last two or three weeks.  The vandalism has taken place in the middle of the night, around 2AM.  And in the case of Daria’s slashed tires, there’s video of the guy doing it.  We’ve seen his face and he has been recognized.

When I was much younger, I got into a lot of fights.  I’ve always had a bit of a temper, but since my teens, I’ve managed to channel that rage into other, non-physical areas.  I’ve grown up, and I try to value love and forgiveness.  I want to be a better person.  I want to be more like the man I see when I look at my son.

After having our cars vandalized twice by this known individual, after shelling out close to two thousand dollars for damages that will not be recovered in any way, shadows of the old me colored my thoughts.  I want to confront this coward and put an end to any further attacks on my property.  I want justice.

When it looks like the police don’t care and aren’t going to do anything about this, I feel like I’m being tested.  The devil on my shoulder has some very convincing arguments, loud ones that make it hard to hear my shoulder angel’s voice.

I’m going to wind up shelling out more money for a camera.  I already need to have an electrician install a charger at my house.  I might as well have them install a camera at the same time and fix the flood light that’s mounted above my garage door.  A chorus of voices have rang out, singing the praises of security cameras.  I will listen to the village wisdom, and installations will happen.

This is a proactive steps towards catching the guy the next time he decides to destroy my property.  It might help, if the police are even interested in the video.  And of course, I’d have more slashed tires to lose time and money to.

It doesn’t feel like a solution, and it feels like I’m having to compromise an ideal that I alone seem to hold.  But what else can I do, really?  If I’m really trying to be a non-violent man that values love and forgiveness, there’s not much else I can do.  And that is the kind of man I strive to be.

It’s just not very satisfying.

10/1/18

Blogtober 2018

Hello friends and family!  It is October 1st, and that means it’s time to get back to blogging.

The idea behind Blogtober is simple: Write 31 blog posts in 31 days.  They don’t have to be particularly long entries but they must be unique, and they must actually say something.

I’m not well prepared for Blogtober this year.  For 2017, I came up with a pretty good list of topics to cover in advance.  This year, I’m kicking off October right after coming back from the Writing Excuses Cruise.  Melissa and I landed in Sacramento around midnight last night, and I’ve spent all day dealing with slashed car tires.

Here are a few of the things I think I’m going to write about over the next few days:

  • New York City Writer’s Digest Conference 2018
  • WorldCon 2018
  • Writing Excuses Cruise
  • Pitching and Querying
  • Timezones and daylight savings
  • Some politics
  • The recent slashing of all my tires

Also, I’m going to make my second VLOG post, probably this weekend.

Most people are probably reading this on Oct 2nd.  If you’d like to jump into this challenge with me, it’s not too late.  Just pick a day and write two entries for that day.  That’s what I had to do the first time I did this challenge.  It still counts as far as I’m concerned.

If you do decide to do the blog challenge along with me, let me know and I’ll link to your blog as I go along.

Recent events, both local and national, are making it difficult for me to remain positive.  It hasn’t been easy today being someone that values love and forgiveness.  That being said, I’m going to try and remain positive and hopeful, and I’m going to try and keep my posts this month upbeat and friendly.  Even when I write about politics this month, I’m going to try and paint pictures with a light brush.

Someone told me earlier today that an individuals can’t change the world anymore.  I borrowed from a cliche and told him something I believe: “Be the change you want to see.  You may not change the whole world, but you’ll change your world.”

That’s what I’m going to aim for this month.

Welcome to October!

07/4/18

A Few Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson

Happy 4th of July everyone!

When I’m done with this quick post, I’m going to continue work on my current novel and try to bring it across the finish line.  Later, I’ll fire up the barbecue.  Fireworks may be lit today, somewhere.  I’m not sure yet.

Before I can do any of that, I need to get some thoughts out of my head, just to free up some brain cells so I can write something creative.  I’m seeing tons of interesting memes and criticism directed at Scarlett Johansson for taking on the role of a “trans-man” in an upcoming film.  This is after the criticism directed towards her for playing Motoko in Ghost in the Shell.

There’s a lot to talk about here.  Let’s start with some basics.

I put “trans-man” in quotes because the “trans” part is unnecessary.  It doesn’t matter if a person was born female.  If they’re a man now, they’re a man.  I’m going to treat them with respect regardless, using the pronouns that are best for them.  I’m not going to treat them any differently than I would treat any other man or woman.  I think other people should do the same, and not get so hung up on trivial differences.

People wouldn’t care as much if Scarlett Johansson had been cast to play a man in a movie.  It’s an interesting choice, but we wouldn’t be getting out the pitch forks out and lighting torches.  Women have occasionally played male roles for generations.  Look at Peter Pan.

My next point is in regards to her part in Ghost in the Shell.  She received a lot of criticism in the US for taking that part.  There were Asian actors that could have been cast.  What an outrage that Scarlett Johansson should participate in white washing!

The thing is, only the US had a problem with it.  Here is an article talking about Asian audiences and their reaction to the movie.  And anotherAnd anotherAnd another.

Japanese audiences thought the plot was too shallow, and many thought Scarlett Johansson was the best part of the movie.  Many went to see the film specifically because she was in it, and they were fans of her previous work.

That brings me to the most important point: Scarlett Johansson puts butts in theater seats.

I’m betting that without using Google, very few of us can think of a male actor working in Hollywood that used to be female.  The criticism leveraged at Scarlett Johansson for her role in Ghost in the Shell was that she wasn’t Asian.  Is the criticism now that the actor should be a reflection of the character portrayed?

There probably is a male actor that would fit the part.  Let’s say they cast him instead of ScarJo.  What happens to the movie?

The reality is that it goes into obscurity.  Whoever they select isn’t going to have the star power that ScarJo wields.  There would be nothing controversial about the casting, the movie would probably get a small release, and no one would see it.

If the idea is to get people to see the movie and get more people familiar and comfortable with people that were born one gender and transitioned to the one that’s right for them, then ScarJo is a solid choice.

One final thought: Scarlett Johansson is an actor.  That’s her job.  I doubt she’s going out and looking for controversial parts.  If you must be angry at someone, figure out who her agent is and direct your angry thoughts their way.  Just remember that your time is probably better spent finding some other way to make the world a better place.  Maybe there’s a charity you can donate to instead of criticizing an actor for accepting work.

06/9/18

VLOG #1 – My Writer’s Journey

I’ve made a VLOG!

My respect for people that do this sort of thing regularly has increased by an order of magnitude.  This was not easy.

As I state in the video, I wanted to celebrate my 1,000 Twitter follower milestone by creating my first VLOG.  I’ve thought about doing it for years but didn’t really see much point in it.  I’m much more eloquent in text.  However, after some friends posted videos of their own, they encouraged me to do this.  Now, for better or worse, it is done.

There’s stuttering in the video because I tried editing out most of the “uhms.” I didn’t eliminate all of them, but to put this into perspective, I recorded about 5:40 worth of video and edited it down to 5:13.  That’s a lot of awkward pauses.

I made the decision to make the VLOG about a week and a half ago.  Since then, I downloaded some software, recorded some test footage, and finally wrote my “script.” When I woke up this morning, I decided today would be the best day to make the recording.  With beautiful, cool weather to support my decision, it just made sense to go outside and find a quiet place with natural lighting.

The weather behaved, but the rest of the world conspired against me.  I walked to the sleepy little park in my neighborhood thinking that I’d find a bench and record the raw footage there.  As soon as I opened my laptop, a truck turned the corner and rumbled down the street hauling a cement mixer.  It parked less than 100 feet from where I planned on doing the recording.  The mixer churned and growled like bottled thunder.  Then one of my neighbors started drilling.  When a handful of friendly dog walkers showed up and started chatting at and around me, I decided I’d move on.

I visited two other parks before walking home and making the recording in my backyard.  I think it worked out.  If I do another one, I’ll start at home.  Maybe I’ll put up something to block some of the wind noise.

Chris lent me his fancy Snowball microphone which helped improve the “production value.” After a couple of hours spent editing and migrating the files to a place where I could upload to YouTube, I feel like it is finally finished and I can relax.  Maybe even get back to writing.

If you enjoyed this, let me know and I’ll see about making another!

05/2/18

The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Infinity War

It’s been a while, but I’m still here!

Recently, I mentioned to some friends and acquaintances that I really liked The Last Jedi.  I received some light abrasions for my unpopular opinion, but that led me to the realization that I have a lot to say about a handful of recent movies.  Tonight, I’m taking a break from my working on my current novel to talk in depth about The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War.  I’m going to get into spoilers for all three movies, so if you haven’t seen them and you don’t want anything spoiled, this is your warning.

Last chance.  Beyond this point, there will be spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi

It’s been long enough that I don’t believe I have much new to contribute to the conversation about this controversial movie, other than my own experiences.  I’m a long term Star Wars fan.  One of my oldest memories involves laying in the back of a car at the drive-in while the original Star Wars played.  I was young enough that the only thing I can remember from that viewing was that the stormtroopers were scary.

I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater.  I remember those movies.  They were bigger than life!  They captured my imagination and expanded what I thought was possible.  The original trilogy became a permanent part of my life, just as they became a permanent part of our culture.

Based on that, it would be easy to assume that as a Star Wars fan, I have an unlimited amount of forgiveness for the movies that came after the original trilogy.  The prequels proved that assumption wrong.  Certainly at first, I looked for ways to justify The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  I wanted those movies to be great.  But they weren’t.

Star Wars movies are flawed.  All of them are.  I expect a certain level of campiness, and maybe a few plot holes large enough to fly an X-Wing through.  That’s part of the experience.  The prequels weren’t that.

Rather than bash on the prequels, let me spell out as succinctly as I can what a Star Wars movie should be.  A Star Wars movie should be a larger than life adventure that touches both the technological and the mystical while centering around a band of heroes that care for each other.

Using that idea as my guide, when I look at the original trilogy, I see Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio as people that I care for, and that care for each other.  The Force is mystical and mysterious and supernatural.  I care most about the original trilogy because I have a strong emotional connection with the characters, above and beyond the spectacle of the special effects.

The prequels don’t do so well under that kind of scrutiny.  There is little chemistry between the main characters, and many of them are not only unlikable, they’re unrelatable.  The prequels attempted to make The Force quantifiable, measured in microscopic organisms.  Here’s a question: if midichlorians exist in the blood and give a person Force ability, wouldn’t Anakin get less powerful as he becomes more and more machine?  Shouldn’t Darth Vader be weak once he becomes more machine than man, twisted and evil?

I think I’ve said enough about my background with Star Wars and what I expect from a Star Wars movie.  Allow me to look briefly at The Force Awakens before talking about what you’ve probably been waiting for, The Last Jedi.

From the beginning of The Force Awakens, I believed that Poe and Finn were friends.  I didn’t go so far as to put them together romantically as many have, but in the first three minutes of their relationship, I believe that there was a bond between them that I didn’t ever see between Anakin and Obiwan.  As the story progressed, I believed Finn and Rey cared for each other, too.  And that BB-8 cared.  And that Han and Rey had a connection.  The Force Awakens established some new characters along with the old, moved the story forward, and gave me a reason to care about all of the characters involved.  At the same time, it made the Force mysterious again.

Finally, let’s talk about The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi expanded on what The Force Awakens established.  The Last Jedi continued to lean on the relationships established in The Force Awakens.  And all of the characters involved grew.  Finn came to embrace The Rebellion, and not just look at it as a way to run away from an enemy he thought too large to face.  Poe learned to get past his ego and to not take for granted the lives of those that have volunteered to serve and die.  And Rey.  While learning the lessons of a binary view of The Force, she was forced to look at the world beyond simple black and white.  I think that’s going to inform her decisions going forward, not just with The Resistance, but with the way she deals with The Force.

The Last Jedi delivered what I wanted from a Star Wars movie.  Beyond that, it advanced the story.  It upset expectations.  It expanded the depth of Kylo Ren, a Star Wars villain more complex and with more depth than any other Star Wars villain we’ve ever seen.  That’s a hill I’ll die on, by the way.  As much as I want to overlay Anakin/Darth Vader on top of a Macbeth story structure, I know that Kylo Ren is a deeper, more complex character, and I sympathize more with Kylo more than I ever did Anakin or Vader.

Honesty time.  When I first walked out of the theater, I didn’t think I’d liked The Last Jedi.  On second viewing, I still wasn’t completely sure.  It took me three viewings before I could appreciate the story, and it all had to do with grief.

Luke Skywalker, my childhood hero, died.  I could not get over my feelings of grief the first two times I watched the movie.  I understood him fleeing the pressure of living as a legend.  All the things that Luke did or didn’t do, I understood.  I just had trouble letting him go, because I wanted to be him.

The Last Jedi humanized Luke Skywalker at the same time remaining true to previous stories.  He followed in the footsteps of the only Jedi masters he knew.  Obiwan exiled in the deserts of Tatooine, Yoda exiled to the swamps of Dagobah.  Of course Luke would exile himself, especially after his blunder with Kylo Ren.  He had touched the dark side, and as Yoda had warned, it dominated his destiny.

Once I was emotionally able to deal with the death of Luke Skywalker, I was able to appreciate The Last Jedi.  The movie works for me.  It’s a Star Wars movie.  It had its flaws, its campiness.  I could probably nitpick some of the details around the long chase with the ships, or Finn’s trip to the casino planet.  But I could nitpick any Star Wars movie in the exact same way.  It’s okay.  It’s a Star Wars movie, and I loved it.

 

Ready Player One

Compared to The Last Jedi, I only have a few things to say about this movie.

It was… fine.

Ready Player One could have been great.  It should have been great.  But it wasn’t.  It was just fine.  Popcorn fluff with heavy pop culture references.  Kind of forgettable after just a couple of months.

It should have been more than that.  I listened to Wil Wheaton read the book to me, and I know how good the movie should have been.

The problem is that the people that made the movie didn’t understand why the book was so good.  It wasn’t the pop culture references that plumbed the depths of nostalgia like an army of dwarves descending on a rich mine.  What made the book so great was the emotional punch delivered with each event Wade endured.

When The Stacks were destroyed in the book, we felt for Wade.  He lost his home.  When he met Aech, Wade took us through a whirlwind of emotions.  Relief, betrayal, confusion.  Very human emotions, and understandable.  All of the events of the book further connected us to this character that was flawed in all of the most human ways.  The pop culture references were just icing on a cake made from the ingredients that go into good storytelling.

Maybe I’m just taking the long way to say that the book is better than the movie, but I don’t think that’s it.  Spielberg has told powerful stories in his movies.  Movies with emotional impact.  He should have been able to do that with Ready Player One, because the material was there.  Instead, we got a movie that was just… fine.  Forgettable.  A little bit empty.

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The latest Marvel movie delivered on everything I just described in the previous movies.  Like The Last Jedi, Infinity War is part of a larger franchise, full of characters that feel real, with human emotion and motivations that are understandable, if not relatable.

Infinity War is not forgettable.  It advanced the story in unexpected directions, with real consequences.  I went in thinking that Captain America or Ironman might die.  Instead, bunches of other characters I thought somewhat safe turned to dust.

The Russo brothers took chances with this film.  In fact, it took the same kind of chances that The Last Jedi took.  So far, I’m not seeing Infinity War receive the same kind of backlash that The Last Jedi did, and I wonder why.

Every new Star Wars movie is compared to The Empire Strikes back.  Empire is held in high regard now, but when it first came out, it didn’t receive the same level of praise.  We didn’t live in a social media feeding frenzy back then, which helped to reduce the level of backlash.  But it did interesting things.  It fundamentally changed the story.  It effectively killed Han.  The good guys lost.  It ended on a down note, much the way The Last Jedi ended.  Much the way Infinity War ended.

I’ve talked to a few people about this.  Infinity War gave me an Empire Strikes Back moment.  Where are things going to go from here?  I’m excited to see the next movie.  So many characters I care about appeared to be destroyed.  How will they be brought back?

 

A good story should involve the consumer emotionally.  Spectacle can entertain for the short term, but a story that survives the test of time does so by grabbing the hearts and imaginations of the people receiving it.  Once it has you, refuses to let go.  It’s the lesson that I’m trying to take away from all of the movies I’ve talked about tonight.

I hope the stories I’m writing succeed in reaching people.  More than anything else, that’s what I want to accomplish.

03/3/18

A Writer on Jury Duty

Last week, I completed my obligation as a member of a jury.  I participated in the case of The People versus Demetrius Marcus.  My summons came on January 31st.  I wound up spending the better part of a month in the jury box.  Maybe I could have gotten out of it.  But as a writer participating in the process, I think I got more out of it than I gave.

The Case

The People charged that Demetrius Marcus entered The Pollard residence on March 27th, 2017.  He was armed, threatened violence on the eldest Pollard (Charles), threatened and pistol whipped the middle Pollard (Keith Sr), stole the Playstation 4 from the youngest Pollard (Keith Jr) along with a wallet and some marijuana.  While escaping the gated complex, Demetrius Marcus turned and shot Keith Sr.

Marcus was charged with 2 counts of robbery, 1 count of assault with a deadly weapon, and 1 count of felony in possession of a weapon.

The Ceremony of the Court

Before I get into the details, I want to take a moment to appreciate how the court functions and how it differs from what pop culture would have us believe.  For example, in the movies and on TV, court always starts the same way.  The judge enters the room from his chambers, often with a brisk step and a stern look on his face.  The bailiff intones, “All rise!” Everyone stands up.  The judge says, “You may be seated.” Maybe he bangs a gavel.

In the real life court room, the judge was usually seated when we came in.  They’d bring in the jury all at once.  We’d make our way to our designated seat in the box.  In the afternoon, the court secretary would give us a bowl of candy to pass around.  When things were about to start, the bailiff would say, “Remain seated, the court is now in session.”

After we had finished with deliberations, handing in the verdict proceeded much like it does on TV.  The bailiff took an envelope from the foreman, passed it to the court secretary, and she read out each count and jury’s judgement.  The defense exercised their right to have the jurors individually polled.  That whole procedure had the weight of ceremony.  I felt the responsibility resting on my shoulders.  There was enough ritual to the process that it seemed like we might summon the blind avatar of justice herself.

The Witnesses

Each member of the jury is given a binder which contains all of the instructions and descriptions for the charges.  In addition, the binders contained notebook paper and a pen.  I took so many notes that I needed to ask for more paper.  Most of my notes were about the witnesses and their testimonies.

I’m not going to write about all of the witnesses that took the stand.  There were over a dozen individuals and I don’t remember all of the details.  Also, I didn’t get to keep my notes.  The binder had to stay in the courtroom the whole time, and when we were done with deliberations, we were told to leave the binders in the deliberation room, to be destroyed later.  Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory.

The first witness, Teron, was a neighbor of the Pollards.  He lived in the apartment across the way, and he heard the commotion when the robbery was going down.  After shots were fired, he called 911.  Teron wore glasses, spoke with a quiet voice, and tried to cooperate as best he could.  After he gave his testimony, we were able to hear the recording from the 911 call.

Teron left me with the impression that the witness testimonies were going to be straight forward.  The reality is that the DA started with Teron because he was the most reliable and the most credible of the non-police witnesses.  If the witnesses for this case were part of a multi-course meal, Teron was the appetizer.

The next witness called was Officer Tippets.  I’m not trying to fat shame, but Tippets was a big boy.  He had a hard time fitting in the witness stand.  He squinted and pursed his lips before answering most questions.  When he spoke, his eyebrows would raise, like a child asking his parent, “Did I do good?”

Again, I’m not trying to judge or berate Tippets.  He seemed like a good guy.  But as a writer, I kept noting all of these interesting details about him.  The details that would make a character stand out in a story.

Tippets was one of the first officers on the scene after the 911 call.  He talked to all three Pollard men.  His account of what the Pollards had to say gave us the first hint of what was to come.  That the story of what happened in this case wasn’t going to come easy, and it wasn’t going to be clear.

I believe Keith Pollard Sr was the next witness called.  This is the middle Pollard, the one that was shot.  For reasons that became obvious, Keith Sr’s testimony was the most important, and not only because he was the victim.  The whole case centered around Keith Sr, his relationship with a woman named Shawana, and his tax returns.

When Keith Sr took the stand, I knew we were in for a wild ride.  For starters, he was brought in against his will.  He’d tried to flee the city when the trial began.  He’d been captured and incarcerated and brought in against his will.  He said on the stand that he was cooperating, but he only cooperated to a point.

Keith Sr couldn’t give his account straight.  He kept jumping around, not quite answering the questions given to him.  Chronologically challenged.  He was a short man with a hard edge and a little bit of swagger.  I remember noting that he had a lot of pride, and that the way he presented himself was important to him.  Not vanity.  It was more that he wanted people to know that he was tough and brave.

The district attorney kept asking Keith Sr questions and expecting certain answers.  Keith Sr’s answers consistently disappointed the DA.  For example, the DA asked about where Keith Sr’s bullet wound and where he was shot.  The DA was convinced that the bullet entered the front of Keith Sr’s shoulder and went out the back.  Keith Sr kept saying that he had his back to the shooter.  That he didn’t see who shot him, and that the bullet went in his back and out the front.

I could go on and on about Keith Sr.  He was quite the character.  He had messed up teeth, big eyes, and a hot temper.  He was clearly upset about losing a job because of the case.  The reason he’d been at his parent’s apartment that night was to take care of his Mom, who has some health issues.  I remember noting that I liked Keith Sr.  I also remember noting that I didn’t think he was very credible, and I had a hard time believing his testimony.

While they had Keith Sr on the stand all of one day and part of the next, they only had Keith Jr on the stand for about ten minutes.  Keith Jr was a punk.  He did not want to participate or answer any questions.  At one point, the DA asked, “If you had any information that would help my case, would you share it?” And Keith Jr said without hesitation, “No.” That sums up Keith Jr’s testimony, and every account of what Keith Jr had to say throughout the investigation.  He seemed more interested in street justice, and would rather die than help the police.

The last witness I’ll talk about is Charles Pollard, Keith Sr’s father.  Charles walked and talked slow, a lazy, deliberate pace.  He smiled and genuinely tried to help, but he didn’t seem to have much information to offer.  He wasn’t able to identify the defendant as one of the two men that entered his apartment that night.  He wanted to be helpful, but he didn’t have much he could contribute.

There were many other witnesses.  So many.  There was Trujillo, the hot detective in training that took Keith Sr’s account in the hospital a couple of hours after the incident took place.  There was Burgquist, the detective assigned to the case that was just a few months from retirement.  There was a forensics expert that specialized in finger prints.  Other police officers.  All of them interesting characters in their own right.

But the jury’s job isn’t just to listen to the witnesses and take notes.  Their job is to take all of this evidence and discern the truth of what happened.  And that’s what we did.

What Actually Happened

I want to talk about the deliberation process and some of the drama that came out of that.  But before I do, let me walk you through what I think happened in this case.  I’ve already talked about some of the key players.  Let me paint for you a picture of what really transpired based on the evidence that was presented.

Sometime in 2016, Keith Sr and Shawana Lynn entered into a relationship.  They went to Reno and married in June of that year.  It sounded like it was a spur of the moment thing.  Much of what happened with them was spur of the moment.  This was not a great union, and their relationship was rocky at best.

They often stayed at the apartment where Charles Pollard lived.  Keith Sr was his Mom’s caretaker, but I think they stayed there most of the time because they didn’t have any money.  Keith Sr was often employed, but Shawana herself did not work.

In early 2017, when it came time for Keith Sr to do his taxes, Shawana suggested that he claim her daughter.  That would ensure that they’d get a big tax return.  They went in together, and the people that did their taxes gave Keith Sr a prepaid credit card with about $500 on it, an advance on the larger return to come.

With the promise of thousands of dollars of tax money, Keith Sr and Shawana went to Matador Motors to purchase a 2016 Nissan Altima.  Keith Sr didn’t have a driver’s license so Shawana drove off with the car.

Shortly after that, Keith Sr discovered that the prepaid didn’t work.  Shawana had stole the real card and replaced it with an empty one.  Keith Sr went to his tax people made a change so that instead of the rest of the money going to the card, Keith Sr would be sent a paper check.

Keith Sr cashed the check and gave the money to his father for safekeeping.  He and Shawana exchanged some heated text messages concerning the car and the tax money.  Neither of them were particularly nice to each other, but in one of the last messages, Shawana sent “I’m sending you the life insurance forms. You’re worth more dead than alive.”

On March 27th, just before midnight, Marcus and another individual stormed into the apartment where Charles Pollard lived.  Charles Pollard was near the door, sitting on the floor while he went through some mail.  Keith Jr was in the back room on a couch, playing his Playstation.  Keith Sr’s mother was also in that room, sitting on a bed.  She’d been sick, soiled herself, and Keith Sr had just cleaned her up.  Keith Sr was in the bathroom cleaning up the mess.

The first assailant stepped immediately up to Charles and pistol whipped him.  Charles moved, and the assailant hit him again.  The injuries were severe enough that he would later need to be taken to the hospital.  A laceration behind his ear bled for days after the event.

While Charles was getting pistol whipped, Marcus went to the back of the apartment, gun drawn.  He saw Keith Jr and made him get down on the floor.  Keith Jr complied.

Keith Sr heard the commotion.  He started out of the bathroom and saw his son getting down on the floor, bug eyed.  He came out, rounded the corner, and immediately ran into Marcus.  They fought over the gun.  Marcus won, throwing Keith Sr to the ground.  Marcus kept saying, “Where’s the shit at?  Where’s the shit at?”

Marcus pistol whipped Keith Sr.  Keith Sr offered his wallet as well as a small container of weed that was sitting on the counter.

The first assailant came to the back of the apartment to help Marcus.  He reached past Marcus and hit Keith Sr with his gun.

When the first assailant went to the back of the apartment, Charles got up and bolted out the door.  He went to a neighbor’s apartment to call 911.

Marcus and the assailant tried to cut their losses.  Marcus grabbed the Playstation, the wallet, and the weed.  He and the first assailant then both fled the apartment.

It’s a little bit unclear as to what happened next.  There are some conflicting stories.  Keith Jr may have pursued the first assailant.  There’s a lot of speculation as to what Keith Jr did.  It’s clear, however, that the Playstation, wallet, and weed were dropped along the way.  It’s also clear that Keith Sr got up and chased after the robbers.

The apartment complex is a gated, retirement community.  There was only one way in and out of the complex.  Regardless of what transpired between the Pollard apartment and the gate, it was at the gate that Keith Sr saw Marcus and the first assailant get into a white Nissan Altima.  The same Altima that he and Shawana had purchased together just a couple of weeks before.  It was at the gate where Keith Sr was shot.

I believe that Keith Sr saw Marcus turn and shoot him at that time.  Marcus fired the gun twice — pop pop — and one of those bullets went into his shoulder.  The Altima sped off and Keith Sr went back to his apartment.  His neighbor Teron had called 911 after the shots were fired.  A little while later, the police arrived and Keith Sr was taken to the hospital to be treated for his wounds.

At the hospital, Officer Trujillo and her partner took pictures of Keith Sr and took his full statement.  He spoke for over an hour.  Trujillo didn’t have any equipment to record the conversation, but she took several pages of notes.  Important details came through in that account.  I believe that the most accurate account we received of what happened that night came from Keith Sr talking to Trujillo.

Deliberation

Going into deliberation, I wasn’t really sure yet what happened on the night of March 27th.  There’d been lots of testimonies, but much of it was contradictory.  Especially the accounts given by Keith Sr.  Every time he told the story of what happened, and he told it a lot, there were details that didn’t line up.  I didn’t think Keith Sr was credible enough to find anyone guilty.

But there was other evidence.  While Demetrius Marcus was being held prison before the trial, he’d called Shawana.  He didn’t think he was being recorded, and they talked about threatening and intimidating Keith Sr to get to change his testimony, or not testify at all.

The most painful part of deliberation for me was putting up with one of the other jurors.  He could not follow the instructions we were given, and he kept making up stories and taking the entire discussion down flights of fancy.  He asked for the court recorder to come and read back an hour and a half of testimony that we didn’t have any questions about.  He was a complete jackass.

If we had any questions or requests during deliberation, we needed to write it down.  The foreman would contact the bailiff, pass the note along, and a little bit later we’d receive a response.  I passed a note to the foreman, and she nodded and sent it on to the bailiff.  The note was, “What do we do if one of the jurors is unable to follow the instructions?”

The response came quickly.  We were brought out of the deliberations room, taken back to the hall outside the courtroom, and the foreman was brought in and questioned by the judge for a few minutes.  Then the problematic juror was brought in,.  He was questioned for almost twenty minutes while we waited in the hall.  Once they were done with him, they brought us all in.  The judge reiterated some of the instructions then sent us back to continue our deliberations.

After that, the juror behaved a little bit better.  He was still a jackass, though.  I’m pretty sure he was trying to stretch out the trial because he was getting paid the whole time we were on jury duty.  It was like a vacation for him that he didn’t want to end.

The Verdict

In the end, we found Marcus guilty of robbery in the first degree, guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, and guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.  There were two enhancements on the first count that we found him not guilty.  Because there were two people with guns, most of the jury couldn’t agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Marcus was the one that shot Keith Sr.  Myself and two other jurors were sure Marcus had done it, but we found that we could live with finding him innocent on those enhancements.

The Importance of Jury Duty

As a writer, I came away with a treasure trove of information that will influence the subject matter of future stories.  Did you know that it is rare to get usable fingerprints, and that if your hands are particularly dry, you might not leave fingerprints at all?  That’s just one little nugget I picked up from this experience that flies in the face of what pop culture would have us believe.

But jury duty is important whether you’re a writer or not.  It’s an inconvenience, but it’s also an important part of our society.  If good people of integrity do their best to avoid jury duty, who is left to sit and judge the evidence?  To listen to testimony with an open mind?

Whatever faults our criminal justice system may have, the jury system is one of the things we got right.  But it only works as long as good people of conscience participate.

11/5/17

#NaNoWriMo check in!

It’s Sunday night, and it’s time for me to go to bed.  I’ve finished another 1700 words, and I’m feeling pretty good about this story.  It’s the end of day 5, and I’ve been maintaining the 1700 words-a-day pace.  If I can keep this up, I will reach my goal.

I really like this story!  This one might have some potential.  A few of my oldest friends and my family will probably remember my old Arthur Kane stories.  This retelling is taking the best parts that I can remember, and injecting a whole bunch of other sci-fi ideas I’ve had over the years, mixing it into something fresh and new.

This is a lot of fun.  And just for fun, I’ll share the first two paragraphs.  I think it sets the tone pretty well.

 

The stench of stale beer and old cigar smoke rolled over me as I ducked into the bar. Broken lights and motionless ceiling fans made shadows that pooled at the feet of empty tables. A mechanical server stood behind a counter, its single optic directed towards me like an accusation. A perfect place to meet a client that wanted discretion. Also not a bad place to get drunk alone.
I walked deeper into the establishment, my eyes still adjusting to the dim light. A couple of regulars sat at the bar. Not close enough to each other to be friends. Not far enough away to be strangers. They looked like hard men, grizzled and work weary. They bent over their glasses like their salvation rested at the bottom. One had darker skin than the other. One had more gray in their hair near their temple. Neither turned to look at me. They wrapped themselves in disinterest, a kind of apathy that could shield them from anything that might drag them out of their drink. I didn’t have to study them long to know what kind of men they were. And to know that they weren’t the ones I’d come to see.

I’m having a lot of fun with this story.  I’m a little worried I’m going to fall behind tomorrow, since I have band in the evening.  But if so, I’ll catch up.

10/31/17

Halloween 2017 and the End of Blogtober

Happy Halloween, everyone!  We did it!  We made it through October!

This is the third year in a row where I’ve stayed home on Halloween and handed out candy.  And, it’s the third year in a row where we gave out full sized candy bars and cans of soda or bags of Capri Sun, depending on the age of the trick-or-treater.  I also made sure that the parents walking their kids got a soda and a candy bar, too.

When you were of trick-or-treating age, did you ever have a friend tell you about one of those houses that was giving out “the good stuff?” Cans of soda, full sized candy bars, maybe handfuls of the non-generic?  Or maybe you were lucky enough to find those houses yourself.  I determined a long time ago that I wanted to BE that house.

Three years in a row, and it’s paying off.  We don’t do much in the way of decorating.  We didn’t have a jack-o-lantern outside.  I went outside once or twice and played my sax a little (my costume this year was Phantom of the Opera).  Other than that, the only thing to distinguish our house from any other is the memory from previous years.  And it worked.  We had a bunch of trick-or-treaters, and they were all great.

Halloween was a success this year, but I can’t say the same for Blogtober 2017.  I had been doing great until that kidney stone hit me up for five straight days of torture.  I pushed through the pain the first four days, but by the fifth day, I didn’t have it in me.  I let it go.

It only takes one bad day to break a goal like Blogtober.  My task was to write one blog post every day, and I did not complete that task.  I haven’t figured out how to go back in time yet.

But, I did learn some things from the experience.  I found the places in my schedule where I can sneak in writing time.  Even though I didn’t write a blog post every day, I did write close to 30,000 words in blog posts.  That’s not too shabby.

In a couple of hours, I’m going to start a new novel for NaNoWriMo.  I probably won’t stay up too late writing tonight, since I still have to work tomorrow.  But I’m committed.  I’m excited!  I haven’t written an Arthur Kane story in a couple of decades.  I’m curious to see how much he’s changed.

I know the world is going to be interesting.  A spinning city on the moon, with vicious robot dogs, emerging artificial intelligences, a seedy underbelly, and corrupt cops.  A place where the gravity is as false as the lies that hold the place together.  A place of fog and deep shadows.  A place where it’s never quite day, never quite night, and nothing ever stops moving.

I’m going to have fun with this story.  When I can, I’ll post updates here.  Other than that, I’ll probably be pretty quiet, with my head down trying to reach the 50,000 word goal.  Unlike Blogtober, one bad day won’t ruin me.