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Change is Coming

Courtesy norebbo.com

Change is never easy. But it is necessary. Growth and change are what make us alive. They are dynamic elements to existence; without them, we stagnate and remain static, which to me is worse than death. I’ve been meaning to make some changes to this webspace for a while, now, and I think the time is near to do just that.

My plan is to do as some of my contemporaries have done, and move the blog you’re currently reading to a location subordinate to the main page. The main page can then feature my products, my services, my broadcasts, my efforts for fundraising, and all of that good stuff. I think it’s a bit more professional to have that sort of thing front and center, and this sort of thing available if you really want it, but not “all up in your grill” as soon as you plug in my address.

If any folks who’ve made this transition have tips, please let me know! Also if there are good themes to download and/or worth an investment, I’m all ears. I’m hoping that making changes to the site, and to what I can do in terms of telling stories and entertaining people, will make 2015 the best year yet.

Flash Fiction: The Gift

It was an anonymous package. Those always raised suspicions. The museum’s security had gone over it several times, and it had been run through all sorts of tests before it landed on the assistant curator’s desk. Amanda came back from Starbucks to find it waiting there, illuminated under the wan light of the lamp that always seemed a little too dim for her tastes. Her requests for stronger lighting continued to fall on deaf ears. She shook her head, put her coffee aside, and turned the package to face her.

Even at that small touch, a chill ran up Amanda’s arm and down her spine. Her hand snapped back from the plain brown wrapping of its own accord. Her mind scrambled for a rational explanation. She stepped away from her desk and towards the thermostat. She found the temperature the same as when she had left.

open it

Slowly, Amanda turned to look at the package. It had not moved, of course, but the chill found her again. Her shaking hand reached out for her coffee, but moved towards the package instead. It took a moment of intense focus for her to pick up the paper cup instead of touching the string tied around the delivery.

open it

It took Amanda a moment to decide on a course of action. She went to the curator’s desk, near her own, and picked up the Rolodex. Frantically, she paged through the notecards, finally finding the right one. Doctor Gibbons often called upon the person in question to discuss more esoteric or obscure fines, always out of the office, always off the record. She didn’t know what else to do, other than obey her lizard-brain instinct to run or the voice telling her to open the package. She shook her head, and used her free hand to pick up the phone.

open it

Amanda drew in a sharp breath. Her hand seized just above the receiver for the phone. She looked up at her desk, at the package under the lamp. Without taking her eyes from it, she picked up the card from the Rolodex, backed away towards the door, and picked up her coat from its hook. She was out the door as quickly as possible, draining the cup in her shaking hand. She tossed it into a garbage can near the exit and looked down at the car. She walked as fast as she was able. The address was a dozen blocks away, but her long legs ate up the distance quickly. She was sweating and her breath was short as she headed up the stairs.

OPEN IT

“How did it follow me?”

As if in response, the door opened in front of her. She was greeted by a man slightly taller than her, with short stylish hair graying at the roots, dressed in a bathrobe and holding a mug of what smelled like tea.

“Um. Can I help you?”

“Yes. I think so. I’m the assistant curator at-”

OPEN IT!

Amanda grabbed hold of her head with both hands and gritted her teeth in pain. The man put his tea aside and put a gentle hand on Amanda’s shoulder. Only slightly aware of what was happening, she let the man lead her into his office. She was eased into a couch or chair. An indeterminate amount of time passed, and Amanda felt her head pounding in an incredibly uncomfortable fashion. Something warm and aromatic was waved under her nose.

“Here. Drink this.”

It took an obscene amount of effort for her to put the mug to her lips and tilt her head so the liquid flowed into her mouth and down her throat. A hand that was not hers eased the mug away from her before she started to choke. The warmth of the tea washed down through the core of her being and the throbbing behind her eyes faded to a dull, distant ache. The voice with its demand began to echo deeper in her mind, still present but nowhere near as overwhelming.

That was when Amanda started crying.

The man took the mug away and returned with a box of tissues. Amanda wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She was horrified when the tissue came away stained red with blood.

“What is happening to me? I don’t understand.”

“You must be Amanda. Doctor Gibbons has mentioned you several times when we’ve had lunch together. Do you know who I am?”

She shook her head. “I know your name. You’re Nathan Deacon. You’re an archaeologist. That’s what the card in Doctor Gibbons’ Rolodex says.”

“He’s a good and private man. He hasn’t mentioned my falling-out with the University administration or how long I’ve been looking for another position. I had to sell my car and house, making sure I have the money to fly to digs and locations. Oh, and pay for this.” He gestured at the somewhat run-down office and the basket of blankets on one side of the futon, topped by a rumpled pillow. “The price I pay for being a ‘crackpot’.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

Deacon opened a small first-aid kit, removed a penlight, and used it to study Amanda’s eyes. “When did the voices begin?”

Amanda blinked. “How did you-”

“I’ve seen this before. A former colleague of mine came across an artifact that he claims filled his head with voices. He had nosebleeds and migraines for two weeks solid before he eventually wandered, delirious and screaming, into traffic. City bus hit him. There wasn’t much left.”

Amanda shivered. “That’s terrible. What was the artifact?”

“It was part of an ancient cult.” Deacon stood and walked to step behind a privacy screen set up in a corner of the office near the wardrobe. “They believed that god-like beings were angry with the course of human history and the species’ impact on the planet, and were praying for what they describe as ‘a great cleansing’ to wipe out humanity and let the planet heal itself.”

“Almost every culture has an end-of-the-world scenario.” Amanda felt her mind returning to normal. “We’ve had artifacts from those sorts of things before. This is the first time I’ve had this sort of reaction to such a thing. I mean… voices in my head…”

“It’s disconcerting. I know. I’ve been researching the cult for years.” Deacon reappeared in a rumpled button-down shirt, jeans with a hole at his right knee, and a leather jacket he was shrugging into, an item with quite a few zippered and snap-closure pockets. “Like I said – ‘crackpot’ in the eyes of the university administration.” He handed her a handkerchief. “For your nose.”

“Thank you.” She dabbed at her nostrils. They were clear, for now. “You say your friend…”

He held up his hands. “Don’t panic. The tea I blended works as a stopgap, but we need to deal with the source. We need to destroy the artifact, whatever it is.”

“How? This all started when I touched the package. Just the package.” She looked up at him. “How do we do this?”

Deacon smiled, and offered her his hand. “Trust me.”

They walked back to the museum. Along the way, Amanda felt the voice beginning to get stronger. She told Deacon about what it was saying, how it sounded, and the nature of the pain it caused. The older man nodded as they walked, holding the door open for her and following her through the building back into the offices.

To Amanda, the inner office she shared with Gibbons seemed darker. The light on her desk was a single, weak source of resistance to the encroaching gloom.

“What do we do now?”

She looked to Deacon in order to get her answer, but she saw the man was pulling on a pair of white gloves, with circles and odd symbols embroidered into their backs. He reached into another pocket and handed her a small, crystal vial.

“Repeat after me.” Deacon then said a short phrase in a language Amanda didn’t recognize, but she sounded out the words as best as she was able.

“Good.” He pulled the stopper from the vial and handed it to her “Drip some of the tonic onto my gloves, repeating the phrase as you do it.”

Amanda didn’t say or do anything for moment, then obeyed. Deacon held out his hands, palms up first, then turning them over and holding them under the drops before he nodded.

“Thank you. How do you feel?”

“My head hurts. It still is telling me to open it.”

Deacon knelt by the desk, drawing a circle with a piece of chalk. He gestured for Amanda to approach.

“I want you to put your hands near the circle. Please think about the world you know. Family, friends, good things, bad things. The entirety of the human experience. Fix the image of humanity in your mind. Do NOT break the circle. This is not going to be pleasant.”

Amanda nodded, sitting cross-legged near the chalk and leaning out to lay her hands near it. A low moan began in her mind, and she ground her teeth together, careful not to move. Deacon reached to the desk, pulling the string loose and unwrapping the brown paper. He took a sharp breath, and gently opened the wooden box. The moan became a howl, and Amanda winced.

“What are you thinking about, Amanda?”

“Picnics with my family. A really nice date I had with James.” She winced again. “Breaking up with James. Spending New Years’ alone. Spending New Years’ in the club…”

“Keep going.” Deacon removed the artifact. It was a small stone statue. Amanda couldn’t tell if it was a bust or a full figure, but it was a mass of appendages that were not remotely human, eyes and beaks in odd places. The whole thing turned Amanda’s stomach. But she kept speaking as things came into her mind.

“Getting sideswiped by a bike messenger. Walking with people to protest police corruption after Ferguson. Dropping that vase that I had just dated back to the 3rd century…”

Deacon placed the statue in the middle of the circle. Immediately, the shadows seemed to deepen even further around Amanda. She shrieked, and for a moment, her mind went entirely blank, save for a oily, ineffable feeling of what could only be described as a cold, unfeeling, empty void…

“Don’t stop!”

Deacon’s voice felt like a whipcrack. She repeated herself, her voice rising, adding memories from her childhood and things she hoped for, opening her eyes to see Deacon raising a claw hammer. The statue had begun to glow, emitting seething violet light from somewhere within it. Her eyes widened but, in spite of her fear, did not stop talking.

The archaeologist brought the hammer down hard on the statue. It shattered into stone shards that flew throughout the office, sizzling and spitting as they dissolved. The shadow of the creature rose over the humans, violet points of light reaching for Amanda. Deacon quickly pulled out a handkerchief embroidered with a design similar to those on the back of his gloves. After applying some tonic, he dropped it into the circle on top of something Amanda couldn’t see.

The shadows and noise immediately ceased. Deacon knelt, gathering up the cloth in his hands.

“What was that?”

“An idol to a being that pre-dates mankind and was worshipped by that cult I mentioned. This is a drop of its blood.”

What?” Amanda blinked at Deacon as he removed his gloves, which were still around the cloth. “That thing was real?”

“Not was, is. And it’s looking for for a way into our world to destroy the humanity it sees as a plague.”

Amanda felt another chill slide through her body. “It would have used me.”

“Yes. But now we have its blood.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Are you saying ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it’?”

Nate Deacon shrugged. “I’ve seen movies before. But yes. We can, in fact, kill this thing.”

From The Vault: Why Take This Matters

I’m still shaking off the doldrums and getting myself back on track. While I make more steps towards that, please feel free to read over this post about one of the best initiatives I’ve ever had the pleasure of helping with, even as a source of moral and financial support. It’s important.


Courtesy Take This

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Some of the earliest, most indelible memories some of my generation has when it comes to video games involve taking a sword from an old man who just spoke those fateful words. “It’s dangerous to go alone.” The world is going to try and kill you. Monsters prowl in the shadows, ready to destroy your body and devour your dreams. Perils you won’t see coming are fully prepared to swallow you whole. You need to defend yourself. You must be prepared to combat your challenges and overcome your obstacles. “Take this.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but this wasn’t just advice that applied to the world of Hyrule. It applies to our world, too.

We may not have to deal with the extant threats in many video games, but the world is still going to try and kill you, spiritually if not physically. I’m not talking about religion specifically, but rather in terms of the human spirit. The singular and the extraordinary are far, far too often pushed and held down by society at large, and it’s easy to fall into a pattern of conformity and ‘normal’ behavior, just to get by. But not everyone can pull off acting ‘normal’. For some, it’s a daily challenge, and some days, it’s an hourly one.

I’ve both faced this struggle myself, and done my utmost to help others cope with it. It’s easy to think, in our darkest hours, that we’re facing these challenges alone. And it’s dangerous to go alone.

The fact is, however, that we are not.

Take This is, according to their site, “a charitable organization founded to increase awareness, education and empathy for those suffering from emotional issues, their families and greater institutions with the goal to eradicate the stigma of mental illness.” While not exclusively dealing with the gaming community, the founders work within that community, as journalists and organizers, and so focus a great deal of their outreach to gamers, through sharing stories via their website and holding panels at events like PAX.

I’m a little lucky, when you get right down to it. I share my stories all the time. I have some skill at articulating myself and the means to do it. I let myself take the time to breathe, to contemplate, and to share. Not everybody is so lucky. Not everybody feels they have a safe place to unburden themselves of the pain and anxiety and uncertainty and loneliness they feel.

And the fact is, everybody should have that.

That’s why Take This matters. They’re just getting started, and I want to see them grow. Their first PAX Prime panel last year was a great success, as was their first ever at PAX East 2014, and they’re returning to Boston next month (EDIT: it was another AMAZING panel). Their site is full of stories that have needed to be heard, they’re going to be looking to grow as much as possible, and they can’t do it alone. None of us should be alone in this fight. Our chances of survival are much greater if we face our challenges together.

The world is a dangerous and cold place. Emotions and mental imbalance can topple even the best of ideas when the world gets involved. It’s dangerous to go alone.

But you don’t have to be alone.

Take this.

Making Words Happen

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

Writers are a curious breed, by and large. They can be very difficult to live with. They have a tendency to live inside their own heads. Over and above anything else, they are richly imaginative creatures that bring whole new worlds to life.

To make those worlds viable and accessible for an audience, a writer must put their imagination into words and assemble those words into a coherent narrative. Believe it or not, the words are the easy part. They exist in the writer’s brain like precious metal in the veins of a mine’s rock. They’re already there. They just have to get from the veins to the page.

This requires more than imagination. Making words happen requires perseverance. Crafting new stories and populating them with vibrant, believable characters is not a once-and-done sort of thing, except in the case of flash fiction. To hammer out a long narrative that will stick with audiences and have them coming back for more, a writer has to commit time, focus, and energy to the project every day, at least in some measure. Every word counts, and every letter matters.

Keep at it, writers. Don’t give up. Making words happen is what we do, and it’s something we need to do. Our stories are worth completion, because the world needs more stories that come from unique perspectives and bring entertainment and inspiration into the lives of others. Your stories are worth telling. Take the time and energy to tell them.

Keeping It Real

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Writers: remember that you are writing about people.

Unless you are telling your story from the perspective of an entirely alien race (and good on you for taking on that challenge), you will be portraying events for your audience from the perspective of human beings. More often than not, even animal stories have human points of view: anthropomorphous protagonists are nothing new, from Orwell’s Animal Farm to The Adventures of Milo and Otis. And with that perspective comes the need for thought processes and authentic emotion.

I know there is a lot of entertainment out there that suggests, through one way or another, that the audience turn off their brains. And in some instances, this is fine. When you’re playing DOOM, you’re not necessarily contemplating the greater ramifications of blasting demons in the face with a shotgun. But when the entertainment has human beings, usually capable of higher thought processes, doing things that make no logical sense or have little tangible connection to one another, it can be difficult not to scratch your head in bewilderment. A great number of movies do this: they pace their action in such a way and frame it with such bombast that coherent thought gets overshadowed or lost altogether.

For example, compare Star Trek Into Darkness with Guardians of the Galaxy. Both are relatively light, free-flowing sci-fi action-adventures. Putting aside that the former is a far departure from its original source material, it is serviceable in what it does, and as I said in my review, does enough things right that it rises above the usual level of shallow tripe on which a great deal of in-name-only franchise movies can operate. However, it also sees characters with familiar names acting in ways that defy logical thought and reasoning. Meanwhile, in the latter film, characters operate in consistent ways, following their goals and motivations in what, to them, is a logical chain of reasoning. Their reactions and plans may seem unreasonable to others, but to them, it makes perfect sense. This is because the writers took the time to see things from those perspectives and conveyed their characters in ways that made us believe in them. It can be difficult, at times, to believe that Chris Pine is actually Captain Kirk; it is never a doubt that Chris Pratt is Peter Quill. Oh, excuse me, “Star-Lord”.

The emotional aspect, too, is something that sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart, in that the writing and acting work together so that we feel, rather than are told, what the characters are feeling. Good writing tends to be subtle in that way. Another potential example comes from one of the biggest buzz-worthy events of recent memory.

Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd

For a brief moment, we see John Boyega in the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is, in fact, the first human we see, and in the moment we see his face, there’s already a lot going on. And I’m not just talking about a new black character in Star Wars (Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) or a black stormtrooper (or just a protagonist in stormtrooper armor like his possible spiritual ancestors Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – again, Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) being on screen. I’m talking about his face, his manner, the mood of the shot.

Say what you like about JJ Abrams (goodness knows, I have), he has always drawn out great performances from his actors. And in this shot, it looks to me like he’s bringing his A game to Star Wars. For this tiny sliver of time, John gives us a wealth of emotions just from his look and movements. He’s shocked. He’s desperate. He’s scared. He’s covered in sweat, moves with quick, furtive motions, and doesn’t stay in one place very long. As both a moment from the film and an invitation for the audience to become intrigued, it works very well.

What I’m driving at is that, even in science fiction and fantasy, the onus falls on the writers to keep the emotions and motivations real. Let your characters think rationally, provided they aren’t mad for one reason or another. And even then, spend some time in their shoes. Get to know what makes them tick, what makes sense from their perspective, and how they justify their actions. Villains are rarely, if ever, villainous for the sake of villainy. Hell, even the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger had something to prove, even if he went about it in a villainous way and something was said about his true villainy coming out through one thing or another. Giving all of your characters the time and forethought required to have them convey true processes of thought and genuine moments of emotion is essential to writing a story that people will enjoy, and want to read more about. And if you want to be a successful writer, you’re going to want to have your readers coming back for more.