gondolier

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Gondolier

Underground in the basement,
three young men plug in.

No roadies carried their amps.
They are lean and strong.

No one else wrote their music.
It came from inside,

from a place you never see
below the surface.

Friends arrive, descending stairs.
Conversations. Drinks.

Reunions and shared laughter.
The band greets them all.

Then in unison: a chord.
Not just any chord.

It’s a harmony of light,
shining in the dark.

This poem is a variation on Japanese poetic forms that often use groupings of five and seven syllables. It is named after my favorite local band in Ann Arbor in the mid-1990s. Bassist Geoff Streadwick was previously a member of the locally legendary Morsel, created 40 oz. Sound studio to record local talent, and sadly passed away many years ago while still a young, creatively brilliant man.

The vinyl single.

You can still find Gondolier’s music online thanks to their drummer, Jayson, on his Soundcloud page. Although those recordings remain amongst my favorite things, they pale in comparison to the jaw-dropping majesty of experiencing Gondolier in concert in a friend’s basement or Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig or the bar formerly known as Ypsilanti’s Cross Street Station.

The flip side of the single.

For many years, I had a Gondolier t-shirt silkscreen-printed with the first single’s cover art by the company founded by Morsel’s bassist Brian Hussey. I wore it through seven kinds of hell until the damn thing nearly fell off my body. I still miss it.

The only surviving picture of me in my Gondolier shirt from 1997, and you can’t even see it.

Gondolier was three young men from Michigan who made music that inspired me and continues to inspire me to this day. I had the pleasure of interviewing them once, for a music review in a local publication. But nothing has ever compared to being right against the stage when they belted out the greatest sounds I’d ever heard.

This poem now appears in the book Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales.

Saga of the Hello Kitty Ice Pack

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I don’t recall what injury I’d suffered when my girlfriend at the time gave me her Hello Kitty Ice Pack, because it must have been about fifteen years ago now. It’s been so long that no one even manufactures the ice pack anymore—and that is tragic, because my Kitty was taken from me this year.

Let’s take a moment to memorialize the world’s cutest healthcare item.

Hello Kitty was always there for me when I burned myself cooking, or when I jammed a finger or toe like some kind of clueless monkey. She was there for me around 2015 when I pulled out a kitchen drawer too quickly and it fell on my toe. The corner of the wooden drawer just about crushed my toe, and the pain was so awful that I couldn’t even sleep for a week unless I kept my toe entirely encased in ice like Captain America. The toenail turned black from all the blood gathering under it, and the damage to the cuticle was so severe that for a while I actually had a second toenail growing out on top of the old, dead nail. It took nearly a year before my toe was right again.

Another agonizing time Hello Kitty helped me survive was in 2016 when I had some inexplicably excruciating pain in my mouth and jaw that was so intense I gave serious consideration to going out like Kurt Cobain just to make it stop.

It turns out the pain was most likely caused by a sinus infection which also laid me low for months and was impinging on the roots of one of my molars. The mystery wasn’t solved until a dentist removed that molar for unrelated reasons and we saw the root of the tooth was covered with infection.

Let that be a lesson to you.

Last year, Hello Kitty came to the rescue for one of my neighbors. I was outside smoking on the balcony of the apartment complex when the neighbor’s daughter fell through their front window. She had been playing all rowdy and fell against a screen that couldn’t support her, and out she tumbled. I saw it happen.

The poor girl’s head hit the pavement so hard that I heard the sickening crunch from the other side of the complex. I hope I never hear that sound again. I grabbed Hello Kitty and a second ice pack from my freezer and ran down to their apartment.

The girl went to the hospital that night, and it turns out she had fractured her skull. I find that particularly horrifying because one of my earliest memories is from when I was about five and staying with my grandparents during the summer. This neighborhood kid I played with all the time fell off a wall and cracked open his head on the concrete below. Blood spilled everywhere. Years later, because the scene kept popping up in my dreams until I wasn’t sure if it was a real memory or not, I asked my grandmother about it. She was surprised I remembered it, but she said the boy survived.

So did the neighbor girl. Kids are so resilient sometimes. Not long afterward, she was back to raising hell on the property, running around and shouting and banging on the metal fence around the pool like it was a percussion instrument. She’ll probably grow up to become a drummer. Anyway, her mom eventually stopped by to return Hello Kitty and fill me in on the saga.

A few months later, an adult neighbor injured herself, so I let her borrow Hello Kitty and my backup ice pack. Sadly, that was the last I ever saw of Kitty. That neighbor moved out this year, and she took my bloody ice pack with her. Bitch, give me back my Kitty!

I can’t find anywhere that sells Hello Kitty Ice Pack anymore, so I’d be grateful if you can find one for me. Kitty and I survived the depths of hell together many times, and she was the cutest thing who always made me smile regardless of the horrors we confronted. I have since replaced her with other ice packs, but Kitty can never truly be replaced.

Long may she run.

ocean

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art generated by Midjourney

OCEAN

We are small things
unlike the stars that birthed us

or the Moon who pulls the ocean
without ever touching her,

an infinite depth of azure and obsidian
swallowing dreams

dissolving them for centuries
before setting them on the shore

polished as smooth and featureless
as a mystery without end.

This poem now appears in the book Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent.

Smashing Words Together: Lessons from My Decade with Smashwords

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Shout out to everyone who picked up free copies of my books at Smashwords during this July’s Summer Sale. Giving away hundreds of free copies of printed books can be a major marketing expense for self-publishing authors, but ebook giveaways are a low-cost alternative for those of us whose pockets are not as deep as those of the big boys at Penguin or Random House. This year, Smashwords made a deal to be acquired by another ebook provider, Draft2Digital, but many authors I talk to are not even aware Smashwords exists.

Just to be clear: I don’t work for Smashwords, and they don’t pay me to talk to about them. But I have been using them for years as an additional distribution channel for several reasons. I also want to cover some technical aspects of using Smashwords that authors should know before they dive right in and try it for themselves.

Increasing Your Distribution

First: While I like giving away free books in July and December using Smashwords, you don’t need to make them free. You can also set discount prices at a certain percentage of the list price, and you can use Smashwords to generate “coupon codes” to distribute to anyone you want. Although I don’t, it’s a handy tool for authors with an email marketing list or social media presence. I go with the “totally free” option because it gets dozens or even hundreds of books into the hands of new readers at no cost to me. Some of them write lovely four- and five-star reviews.

Second: While I am a big fan of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they’ve always had gaps in their distribution. Amazon would—for obvious reasons—prefer that ebook readers stay within the Kindle environment rather than spend money elsewhere. Many years ago, I started using Smashwords because my friend in Australia preferred getting ebooks in the Apple/iTunes environment, and she could not get my books there. I did a little research and discovered Smashwords distributed to the Apple bookstore, so I set about learning how to use them. At the time, getting distribution through additional global retail outlets was, to me, icing on the cake. I really just wanted my friend to find the book!

Since then, I’ve realized that while KDP gets my paperback books into the catalogs that libraries can use, they don’t appear to be doing the same with ebooks. Amazon wants sales money for every single copy, and they don’t seem to care about people who check out free ebooks from public libraries and the increasing network of partner sites libraries use. (For example, Hoopla partners with the Pima County library system for ebooks, including graphic novels and comics. It’s just an app you download for free and log into with your library card credentials.)

Smashwords, on the other hand, distributes to ebook outlets such as OverDrive where libraries can buy ebooks. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, now has several of my ebooks available to check out because they buy through OverDrive. While readers can check them out for free, the library does buy them, so I got paid for those sales.

Plus, Smashwords allows you to set a different price for libraries than the retail price. Some authors might feel they should jack up the price for libraries, since a single library purchase can reach a theoretically unlimited number of readers. I take the opposite approach and lower my price for libraries, because not only do I love libraries and want to support them, but I am also a relatively unknown author who wants to make it easy for libraries to take a chance on my books without risking an arm and a leg.

One final bonus is that Smashwords will create an EPUB file that you as the author can download for free. So, if you want an ebook you can send for free to friends, family, reviewers, or contests, you can just get that file and email it to them. Anyone can get a free EPUB reader from Adobe, called Adobe Digital Editions.

Technical Difficulties

While the sales, giveaways, and added distribution are great reasons to use Smashwords, you do need some technical knowledge to work with them. If you are still using Microsoft Word like it’s a fancy electric typewriter, then you don’t yet have the skills required to work with Smashwords—unless you hire someone like me to deal with it for you. Here are some of the major things I’ve encountered and overcome in my years of working with them.

First, Smashwords will accept two kinds of files. One is a completely and properly formatted EPUB file, and if you don’t know how to create EPUBs on your own, that will be a challenge. Programs such as Calibre can help, but most authors I work with lack the technical skills to deal with it—and good luck finding any classes on it. Adobe’s InDesign program can create EPUBs, but it is most often used by professional graphic designers and is about as challenging to master as Photoshop or Illustrator, for which most authors don’t have any training.

For those who aren’t Adobe experts, Smashwords will also accept a .doc file. That’s not the current version of MS Word files, which are .docx, but the backwards-compatible and increasingly outdated version of Word files from a simpler, bygone era. Current versions of Word can absolutely save files as .doc, and that’s how I do it. I work on all my manuscripts in the current version of Word, but when it’s time to make a Smashwords edition, I save them as .doc files. That process causes some changes; for example, if you formatted anything in Small Caps, it will become All Caps in .doc. So, this requires some formatting expertise to make sure everything looks right on the virtual page.

The process becomes more complex if you have images and illustrations in your books. I have run into so many problems with images not being displayed correctly after Smashwords crunches my .doc file through their converter. The only solution that ever reliably works the first time for me is to delete every single image, save the file, then re-insert every image from scratch and make sure all of them are formatted as being positioned “In Line With Text”.

Probably the weirdest image problem I ever encountered—and it only happened once—was when the converter robots kept renaming embedded image files in a .doc to something even they didn’t recognize, so then they couldn’t find them in the converted file. Eventually, I fixed it by downloading Smashwords’ resultant EPUB file, opening it in Calibre, and using a repair function in Calibre to fix the EPUB. Then I uploaded that version instead of my .doc file and, magically, it solved the problem. I’ve never seen that happen before or since.

But there are even more time-consuming design challenges with .doc files for Smashwords. I think they boil down to the fact that the robotic Smashwords converter has even stricter demands than Kindle, because you can get away with all kinds of things that make for perfectly readable Kindle ebooks but which are total failures at Smashwords.

A common challenge is the hyperlinked Table of Contents (TOC). If you have an intermediate skill level with MS Word, then you know how to link something in your TOC to a specific place in your document. That’s easy stuff. But what you might not realize is that MS Word has a tendency to fill your document with all kinds of bookmarks you don’t know about. These Hidden Bookmarks confuse the Smashwords robots and wreck your TOC, preventing Premium Distribution to other outlets. (Note: Smashwords will not tell you the TOC is broken, but instead say that the “NCX file” is bad. The NCX file is, in simplest terms, a separate TOC generated for EPUB files. But in all cases where my NCX was broken, my own TOC links got corrupted, too.)

I am not a noob when it comes to Word. I have been working with it at an expert level for more than twenty years, taken advanced college classes and corporate training on it, and taught other people how to use it. I have done things with Word that professional graphic designers have assured me are impossible—until I showed them how it was done. So, hidden bookmarks were not a mystery to me, and whenever I work with bookmarks, I make sure there is a checkmark in the little box that says, “Show Hidden Bookmarks”.

But what I did not initially realize is that the checkbox is useless if you don’t uncheck it first, then check it again. MS Word apparently needs to reset its brain with the uncheck/check process before it displays all the actual bookmarks so you can delete the garbage bookmarks one-by-one. My failure to realize this resulted in many of my more complex books being rejected for Premium Distribution, which is how you get into places like Apple and library platforms. After struggling, I contacted Smashwords support, and they helped me get a clue. These days, I know about the problem and how to eliminate it, and my books are all approved for Premium Distribution on the first try.

Bookmarks in Word are also crucially important if your book has footnotes. When I upload a compressed HTML file with footnotes to KDP, their robots automatically convert them to hyperlinked endnotes that appear at the end of the book. It’s super convenient. (How I make compressed HTML files for KDP would require its own tutorial.)

But the robots at Smashwords hate footnotes. If you’re pretty good with MS Word, then you already know that it only takes a couple of clicks to convert all your footnotes to endnotes using the References tool bar. But guess what? Smashwords’ robots don’t like that either.

It took me years to figure out a solution—even after reading all of Smashwords’ formatting documentation and watching multiple, useless YouTube tutorials about it. The solution to getting workable endnotes with Smashwords is—in the simplest terms I can put it—to create a bookmark at every place where you have a numbered note in the text, then create a bookmark at every specific endnote, then create individual hyperlinks from the note number in the text to the specific endnote, and finally create another link from the note itself back to the place in the text.

The bookmarks also need to be named with the prefix “ref_”. (Don’t ask me why; it just keeps the robots from getting confused.) So, my first note in the text is named “ref_001”, and the corresponding endnote is named “ref_ftn_001”. If you only have a couple of notes, this is child’s play. If you have, like I sometimes do, upwards of 100 notes, it’s a time-consuming, brain-numbing clerical task—especially since the pop-up window MS Word gives you to work in is roughly the size of a couple of postage stamps.

Anyway, this four-step process of bookmarking and hyperlinking will allow readers to click on a note in the text so they can see the endnote, then click on that to get back to the original spot in the text.

But what if your document already has linked endnotes because you made it in Word? Sorry, but it’s now full of junk that will confuse the robots. The actual first step that I discovered is to remove every single hyperlink in the document.

I started out doing that manually. But when I got to books with copious notes, I suspected there must be an easier way, and I searched for it online. The “easy” way turns out to be running a Visual Basic script to remove all hyperlinks. Even as a Word expert, I don’t find writing Visual Basic to be easy. Fortunately, I copied the script from someone else who was kind enough to post it on their blog. It was a lifesaver.

Now, you might not need to get that technical to remove a handful of links and insert a couple of bookmarks manually. As far as I’m concerned, that is simple stuff. But one of my books had more than 200 footnotes, and doing this manually just to get approved by Smashwords and have a viable ebook that readers could use reliably was a massive project that took hours of my time, research, and so much mouse-clicking that I’ll probably end up with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The things we do for art.

Conclusion

Do I love Smashwords? Absolutely. They got me into libraries, ebook outlets around the world, and the hands of many readers who would have never discovered me otherwise. But because I often publish books with massive amounts of images, footnotes, and complex Tables of Contents, I had serious technical challenges to overcome to achieve my vision.

Fortunately, I solved those problems. Now, I can help other authors get past them and distribute their ebooks on a global scale through channels that KDP alone cannot or will not handle.

Tomorrow, the world.

Rationality, Religion, and Art

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One of the unaddressed, human problems for atheists is the concept of irrationality. While I feel that Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science are a good example of the intellectual trend that needs to become more widespread in America and across the globe, an appeal to humans to be completely rational faces an intractable problem. Despite our capacity for reason and rationality, we also experience life in non-rational ways.

While the scientific method often reveals an underlying order to the chaos we experience, we cannot say the universe itself is rational. Everyone knows what it is like to confront events in life that seem totally absurd. Entire movements in the world of art have sprung up to address this. No matter how much we want to believe that we could be completely rational beings, the human mind is a playground for irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

My observations of the behaviors of others and myself in my five decades on this planet lead me to conclude that a purely rational approach to life leaves out some important aspects of human experience. I believe this contributes to the persistence of religion, even in eras such as ours where organized religion, zealotry, and extremist fundamentalism produce or justify violence, suffering, misogyny, racism, and abuse. The evils committed in the name of religious good or faith remain unshakable to this day, and those of us who have opted out of our religious backgrounds find this both sad and perplexing. How, we ask, can people continue to cling to primitive, Bronze-Age ideas that breed hate and intolerance and prevent society from progressing towards more humane and inclusive goals?

Many before me have attempted to answer this question, so let’s consider the four most common evaluations. First, humans fear death. Religion offers comfort in the face of a universe that in no way cares about any individual, by creating deities who do care. Religion offers comfort in a universe where everything we are is guaranteed to end, by creating an artificial afterlife where we can live on.

This afterlife is often posited as a form of justice which is absent from the actual universe, an afterlife where “good” people are rewarded and “bad” people are punished. In real life, horrible people get away with horrible things while kind and decent people suffer. Imaginary concepts such as heaven and hell give comfort that there is a form of cosmic justice that exists beyond this world.

Second, humans crave order. Disorder is frightening. The unpredictability of life is frightening, and humans are not alone in this fear. Consider how stressed a pet dog or cat can become if their routine is disrupted, or if forces beyond their comprehension appear to threaten them. If you’ve ever seen a pet hide under a bed during a thunderstorm, or develop oddly unhealthy habits around grooming and eating to deal with stress, then you know what I mean.

In the face of this fear of the disorderly and unknown, religion grants the illusion of cosmic order and also creates an imaginary ruler of that order, one who can set things right or who has a master plan in which we can place our trust. This non-existent cosmic ruler also imposes a moral authority that sweeps away the supremely challenging ethical task of deciding for oneself what is right and wrong—a task plagued by the same disorder and incomprehensible complexity of the world we experience. Deciding for oneself is hard. Having an authority hand you the answers is easy.

Third, humans look for agency. Part of progressing from an infant to a socially mature adult is the realization that other humans and even animals are like oneself in that they have agency. Others can make decisions and choices, have feelings and thoughts, and presumably have some kind of experience of life that is conscious in the same way that we are conscious. Empathy is when we come to consider that the experience of others is something to be respected, understood, and treated with kindness, because we can imagine that we know what that other person or animal feels. Their pain is like our pain. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their joy is like our joy. Their problems are like our problems.

But as important as this empathy toward other agents is to social cohesion in groups—from the smallest tribe to the largest nation—the human mind also seeks to find conscious agency in objects and events which simply have none. A rock or a bolt of lightning or a gust of wind has no agency, but the human mind naturally wants to believe it does. On one end of the religious spectrum, this results in pantheism where every object possesses some form of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, it results in monotheism where every action of every object is guided by the conscious choices of some cosmic ruler.

In the middle of the spectrum lie various gradients of these ideas. Though none of them are true or even remotely provable, their allure is the comfort that we do not live in an unfeeling and unconscious universe, but one where we might affect the outcomes of events by supplicating these non-existent agents through prayer, sacrifice, good deeds, wars against non-believers, and many other actions which do not affect the physical behavior of the universe.

Our attempts to appease the gods might make us feel better, or they might lead to atrocities, or both. They might lead us to create monuments or overcome addictions. But they do not at all affect the underpinnings of the universe. We have been fooled by our own propensity to seek out agency in all things.

The fourth and final most common reason given for the continuation of religion is that humans seek power. The first three reasons all deal with feeling powerless against the workings of the universe and circumstance: death, impermanence, disorder, moral doubt, and non-conscious objects and events. But the fourth reason deals specifically with obtaining power over other humans.

There is no greater threat to man than man himself, and no greater source of fear. Religion offers a means to control those others whom we fear, and a means to mobilize or enslave others so that we might gain more power over them and pursue more power for ourselves. Religion empowers us to tell other people what they should be doing and justifies our violence against them when they do not comply. It empowers people in leadership positions to consolidate their social power not only by telling people what to do but by setting themselves up as the authority on what constitutes right behavior for all other people—usually in some bid to expand their personal or political empire.

In other words, because the first three reasons for religion meet basic emotional needs that cannot be met by a purely rational approach to life, the fourth reason allows those needs to be exploited for personal gain and a feeling of control in a universe over which we truly have no control.

While I respect and empathize with intellectual movements that embrace rationality, I doubt we can move forward as a species until we admit that a purely rational approach will never completely meet our psychological and emotional needs. Not until we accept that some kinds of non-rational experience are necessary to our well-being will we reach a more holistic, all-encompassing way of dealing with the lives we are born into.

Fortunately, we have those means within our grasp. In my life since abandoning the religious indoctrination I endured as a child, I have found ways to give free rein to the non-rational parts of my mind through various forms of art. Through poetry, music, and painting, I have found ways to express, confront, and integrate my irrational thoughts and feelings and the absurdity of human experience so I could feel like a complete human being. I often make art more through intuition and emotion than some kind of logical process.

But I have also found there is a balance between the rational and irrational. Music involves the study of scales and chords and rhythms, and it can often resemble mathematics. Painting involves analysis of techniques and the relationships between colors. Poetry involves studying language and what it takes to convey emotional meaning through words. Every art form has some rational component.

But there are stages in the process of creating art and appreciating art where you need to get into a non-verbal state of mind and allow yourself to be swept up in and overcome by the feeling. A mathematical analysis of a concerto will never completely capture the subjective experience of being moved to tears by hearing the music.

For the past eight years, I have also been writing fiction, and it is much the same. I have spent countless hours as a writer and editor analyzing things such as character arcs, story arcs, prose style, post-modern approaches to storytelling, nuances of punctuation and paragraphs, and how to say the most in the fewest words. But at some point, you need to stop analyzing and just write, to tap into some indefinable place in your imagination and go with the feeling so that the reader can also get swept up in that feeling and experience a story from the inside.

Of all the art forms I’ve explored, fiction might be the one most like religion because it makes order out of a disorderly universe. In fiction, unlike life, everything on the page should happen for a reason. In fiction, every detail matters and is relevant. In fiction, we can create a world in which justice prevails, death is overcome, and everything that happens is imbued with meaning—a world that is not at all like the one we were born into.

Granted, many authors like to subvert those goals to make a point about reality, and I appreciate why they do it. I often do it myself. A dose of reality and unexpected tragedy still makes for a compelling story that says something meaningful about our lives. But overall, I see fiction as imposing a meaningful order on life. Life itself is often pointless beyond the biological imperative to reproduce more life. But fiction can advance any point it wants to communicate. Like religion, it takes the incomprehensibly complex unknown and makes it knowable.

And unless we admit that not everything we humans need is met by rationality and find ways to meet those needs through art, the social progress desired by the rationalism movements will not be achieved.

Eulogy for Sabrina

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This weekend, I got the sad news that a friend of mine took her life. I don’t want to bare the details of her life, but she was struggling with some heavy shit. You’d probably never guess that if you casually hung out with her, because she was sassy and took great pleasure in putting obnoxious jerks in their place, and she was quite creative.

Despite her boisterous persona, she was often bullied, and I suspect her tough-girl attitude was a shield, a way to cope with how people can be so cruel to those who are different. She was transgender, and American society has become increasingly cruel in recent years toward people like her. But like all of the people in my life who fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum—from casual friends, colleagues, and clients, to people I have loved and artists I admire—she deserved none of the hate.

She didn’t deserve to be treated as less than a person or targeted by mean-spirited politicians and state legislatures who are passing laws to further marginalize a group that already has enough problems to deal with. Rates of clinical depression and suicide are significantly higher among trans people. It’s no wonder, given how much hate they must deal with just to get through their lives on a daily basis.

I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, and being a part of a marginalized group doesn’t make a person a saint. But what the fascist right-wing in America refuses to understand is that LGBT people are people—just like anyone else. They have feelings, and hopes, and dreams—just like anyone else. They aren’t trying to deprive anyone of a way of life, or bring America to its knees. They’re just trying to get through the day, and our country’s treating them like punching bags isn’t helping anyone except for groups that thrive on hate.

As I rapidly approach age 50, I’ve had the misfortune to see much of the social progress our nation has made become undone. I was born on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe Vs. Wade, and I never thought I would live to see it trashed. The only thing that gives me hope is when I see young people standing up for social progress and working for a future where simple human decency and respect is given to women, people of color, and all the people whose sexuality or gender orientation falls outside of our cultural norms.

Maybe it’s too late for America. I don’t know. But it is certainly too late for my friend.

Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent – now in print and ebook

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For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also for sale on Smashwords and other major ebook retailers.

After the events of The Second Omnibus, Meteor Mags and her hard-rocking space-pirate crew confront new enemies, old rivals, and the final fate of the interspecies band, Small Flowers. Permanent Crescent and Other Tales continues Mags’ evolution from a rogue pirate to a leader with far-reaching plans, and her choices will have major consequences for the future of the solar system. This collection contains six all-new episodes totaling 57,000 words.

Permanent Crescent: The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take vengeance on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.

Odonata’s Revenge: Mags faces double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.

Infinite Spaces: Mags and her crew discover signals emanating from the depths of the subterranean ocean on Ceres and risk their lives in uncharted waters to find the source. What they find makes Mags reconsider her role in humanity’s evolution and the final fate of her universe.

Farewell Tour: A band of telepathic octopuses and their interspecies friends bring a message of liberation to the solar system one last time. Mags and Patches fight to rescue them from the forces of law and order.

One Last Night on Death World: On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.

Pieces of Eight: Mags and her friends in Small Flowers return to Earth to seek a new home for the dying octopuses, but what they find is not at all what they expected.

Might be unsuitable for children and other forms of carbon-based life.

reflections on writing: One Last Night on Death World

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On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.

July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.

About seven years ago, I started compiling notes for a Meteor Mags story that would take place on the last night of Gramma’s life and, through flashbacks, fill in a lot of details about Gramma’s history and how they relate to the main narrative in the series. While the series is ostensibly science-fiction, this tale was more like historical fiction.

If you’ve ever written historical fiction, you know it takes an incredible amount of research into historical fact. Otherwise, you end up with unintended anachronisms, inaccuracies, and all kinds of things any expert in your chosen time period will absolutely tear apart.

This problem almost killed my story.

Since it involves the history of billiards, I got involved in the history of France and a man named Francois Mingaud. He invented the leather tip we all now take for granted on a cue stick.

The first indication that I had serious problems was that my research turned out to be contradictory about when and where Mingaud was held prisoner, and the inaccuracy of him being imprisoned at the Bastille years after it was demolished was repeated in dozens of billiards-related websites where I sought information about his life.

I solved the discrepancy by emailing Mike Shamos, author of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards (an excellent resource rivaled only by the work of his friends Victor Stein and Paul Rubino in the massive Billiard Encyclopedia). Dr. Shamos was kind enough to provide historical documents that set the record straight about Mingaud’s imprisonment. I am such a Wikipedia nerd that I corrected the mistakes in Mingaud’s article and included a note about why the widespread inaccuracy about his imprisonment was impossible.

That’s just one of the complications of the history I was trying to construct. Eventually, it all became so overwhelming that I relegated my story to being one of those ideas I would never get around to writing.

But last month, one of the authors from my old workshop group was kind enough to listen for a few minutes to all the reasons I had never written the story I wanted to. In the days that followed, I thought about those reasons; the chief of which was that I simply did not want to invest another year of my life researching the time period to write the novella I had planned.

As I have said many times before, being able to articulate our problems often leads to them solving themselves. I’m indebted to the author who took a few minutes to listen, because thinking about my so-called “reasons” led me to trying some narrative solutions to those problems.

I played with a few ideas, cut some scenes that were too involved and slowed the pacing, engaged a few characters to summarize events that could have filled a novel, and ended up with a short, fast-paced tale that accomplished damn near everything I ever wanted from the “sweeping historical epic” I would never get around to writing.

You can judge for yourself whether it succeeds or not.

I’ve written before about my love for various games of pool, so I have only one more thing to say about the title of this story. Years ago, I saw an infographic about the most-used words in book titles. People online ripped this thing apart as an example of the most cliché and crappy book titles.

So I came up with several fun titles based on that silly infographic and decided to use “One Last Night on Death World” as the name of a pinball/videogame Mags would have distributed on the west coast of the USA in the 1990s as a cover for her smuggling operations. (It’s introduced in a flashback in the previous story, Farewell Tour, which fills in the early years of the friendship between Mags and Alonso.) The name also fit the idea of Gramma Margareta’s last night on Earth, so I ran with it.

What did I learn from all this? First, it helps to have other writers to talk to when you are having problems with a story. Second, you can get a lot of mileage from emailing an expert on a subject. Third, the problems you encounter when telling a story can often be solved by taking a different approach to narration and engaging the characters to solve your problems for you.

I’m tempted to add a fourth lesson about “Stop making excuses and write the damn thing”, but I can’t help but feel that compiling notes for all these years until I had a chance to bend a sympathetic ear was the right decision. It was like I had been dissolving minerals in a solution for seven years and then all of a sudden—Boom! All it took was one little grain for them to gather around and become a crystal.

In addition to borrowing Francois Mingaud from real life, this tale guest-stars Scott Safran, a young man history also remembers for his accomplishments in a game. Both of their lives play out a bit differently due to meeting Mags and her ancestors. The hotelier Jonathan Hathaway is a complete fabrication.

The DIY Man of Steel Cover: Superman vs. Lobo Stickers

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The 1990s were a time of gimmicky covers for comic cooks. My favorites are the X-Men Holograms from the Fatal Attractions crossovers, and the skeletal madness of Wolverine #100. But 1994’s Man of Steel #30 takes the award for the most ridicuously creative. DC polybagged this relic with a sheet of “vinyl clings”, which are like the ColorForms I played with as a kid. Through some arcane magic, they cling to the surface but are easily peeled off and re-arranged. Man of Steel‘s character-less, wraparound cover invites you to create your own fight between Superman and Lobo, who spend most of the issue hitting each other before shaking hands at the end. Enjoy this gallery of scans of the front and back of the polybag, the front and back cover, and the vinyl clings.

My scan of the “stickers” is 600 dpi resolution, because I am thinking of getting it enlarged and printed on a t-shirt. My one-of-a-kind parasaurolophus t-shirt arrived last week, printed with a scan of one of the stickers from the Dinosaurs Attack! trading cards.

My version of the cover features eight-limbed octo-versions of the characters:

For being almost thirty years old, the vinyl clings adhere okay, but not great. They were somewhat unenthused about sticking to each other when piled on in layers. And they are much thinner than I recall Colorforms being. Still, they are a bit of nostalgic geek fun. (Update: Redditor /u/bloodfist converted these scans to a web-based version you can play with! If you want something more advanced, check out their digital version at the Photopea site, which is a free alternative to Photoshop.)

Man of Steel #30 went for the gimmick-cover trifecta by also being a variant. The other edition was printed with a face-bashing cover by Jon Bogdanove, who penciled the interior pages of Louise Simonson’s story. I am sure some speculators bought this issue with a $2.50 cover price thinking it would someday pay for their kids’ college funds. Sorry, 90s Boom Buyers! I got it last week for $2.70 in Near Mint, sealed condition. And since it actually cost me nothing with some store credit I earned thanks to this blog’s readers, it deserves a place in the Big Box of Comics!

Collector’s Guide: From Superman: The Man of Steel #30; DC Comics, 1994. DC also produced a vinyl clings cover for 1994’s Worlds Collide #1, which also features Superman.

my childhood spider-man drawing

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Spidey was my jam as a young Martian. I must have crafted this masterpiece near the end of the 1970s, when I was five to seven years old. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about architecture and anatomy. Feel free to mock me now for those ridiculous hands!

Well into my early adolescence, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, “A comic-book artist.” I designed different characters and drew them poorly, no matter how many drawing tutorials I attempted to follow. Eventually, I became reasonably okay-ish in various visual, musical, and literary art forms, but I still can’t draw sequential art to save my life — unless it’s stick figures!

Someone on Reddit suggested this could be a super-rare variant cover, so I ordered a five-dollar copy of the blank version of Non-Stop Spider-man #1 using some of the store credit I earned at MyComicShop in the last couple of months thanks to this blog’s readers. I’ll see if I can get this image printed on it.

In other news, I finished drafting episode 34 in the ongoing Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches this week, and I had a blast writing it. It’s really two stories in one. In the “present day” of February 2032, the interspecies telepathic band Small Flowers performs their final concert in the asteroid belt. That story is spliced with flashbacks about the musical friendship between Mags and Alonso, who is the only human in Small Flowers and one of the people Mags loves most in all the solar system.

July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and coming soon to other major retailers.

Bonus points to anyone who gets my silly Spider-man drawing printed on a t-shirt before I do. Until then, Cadet Stimpy and I remain stranded on the planet Ballknob. We had to eat what was left of the ship.

At least the voices have stopped for a while.

All the Stickers from Dinosaurs Attack!

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Scans of the cards from this series are on the web already, but I have yet to see anyone post a complete set of the stickers that came with them. So here they are, in all their gory glory!

In 2021, I bought a set of these vintage cards on Ebay for about $20. The set included all the cards plus all the stickers, and a few opened but well-preserved wrappers from individual packs. When read in numerical order, the backs of the cards tell the story of how some incompetent scientists screwed up a time-travel experiment and brought an onslaught of rampaging dinosaurs to the present day. Mayhem and carnage ensue, served with a generous helping of humor.

The complete Topps set includes eleven stickers, and the backs of the stickers provide more factual accounts of the dinosaurs than the main narrative. But keep in mind that these “facts” might be outdated, considering they were printed in the late 1980s. Trachodon, for example, is a species of hadrosaur that has fallen out of favor with current paleontologists, and you won’t find any feathers on this tyrannosaur.

But don’t let that stop you from enjoying these vintage beauties. Below is a gallery of my personal scans of the fronts and backs of all eleven stickers from Dinosaurs Attack!

Have you ever wondered who was the artist for the cards and stickers? Wonder no more! The informative excerpt below comes from the second issue of IDW’s five-issue Dinosaurs Attack comic book from 2013. I was shocked to learn that Herb Trimpe penciled the cards and Paul Mavrides co-created the sticker art — and even more surprised that Art Spiegelman was involved in this insanity!

Ten More Top Ten Favorite Single Issues!

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Welcome to the third installment of the Top Ten Lists of my favorite single comic-book issues. The first Top Ten came out in 2011 when this blog was fairly new, but it left out all kinds of great stuff – a problem addressed with an “expansion pack” of even more awesomeness in 2014. But now in 2022, the list seems increasingly incomplete, so let’s go for round three.

The rules for inclusion are simple. First, only one book per series. This adds variety and avoids filling the list with, for example, ten issues of Nexus. Second, entrants must come from a work with individual issues, not something published as a complete, self-contained graphic novel. (Those really deserve their own list.) Third, every issue has survived numerous re-readings without losing its appeal. These are issues I’d happily share with anyone who wants a sense of everything I love about the medium.

The previous lists were in no particular order, but this one follows the order of when I first read the books — from some of my oldest, most nostalgic reads from childhood, to books I discovered in the last couple of years. Let’s go!

1. Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #245.

“Mordru: Master of Earth” from 1978 was of my most-read issues as a wee Martian. I’m fairly certain I had the Whitman variant. Despite the goofy names of the teen heroes in LOSH, this issue captured my imagination with its characterizations and camaraderie between the young Superboy and his futuristic friends. When kid Kal-El succumbs to the villain’s magical summons, one of his pals restrains him with martial arts until the spell is over. All is quickly forgiven, because these friends look out for each other. We also get a detailed look at just how blazingly fast the boy of steel can move as he races against a bolt of mystic energy to carry out a daring rescue of his comrades in a slow-motion scene that even a film would be hard-pressed to match. Add in high stakes where the fate of galactic civilization is on the line, and this is a stand-out slab of 70s superhero superbness.

2. Marvel Treasury Edition #28: Superman and Spider-man.

This is the second time these two classic heroes met in the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition, but I never cared for the first one. The second, however, is the comic I probably read the most times in my life. From the spot-on, evil-yet-tormented characterization of Doctor Doom to an epic confrontation between Supes and the Hulk, from the spectacular action drawn by John Buscema to the fulfillment of my geek fantasy of Spidey meeting Wonder Woman, there’s so much to love here that I can’t even describe it all. Oddly enough, I never owned the original, oversized Treasury Edition until I was in my forties. Instead, I had a small, trade-paperback reprint of it that I basically memorized from reading it so much. This one never gets old and has stood the test of time, and it’s even more glorious at full-size.

3. The Avengers #266.

I’ve written about my love for this issue before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate that it is a stand-out issue from one of the stand-out runs on The Avengers. Combining excellent characterizations with breathtaking visuals and high stakes that rival any modern disaster movie, this issue has a lot to say about the power of mutual trust and fearless vulnerability when people set aside their differences and work together to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also the third appearance of artist John Buscema in my list of favorite issues.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10.

Shout out to my high-school buddy Brian who introduced me to punk rock and indie comics. If not for him, I might still be listening to Bon Jovi and reading only mainstream super-heroes. I’ve written before about my love for this issue, so I will just say that with its wraparound cover, the massive fold-out triple-splash page shown above, and adventurous layouts of relentless action sequences, this issue delivers one of the best of the best depictions of our sewer-dwelling heroes.

5. Watchmen #4.

There’s no sense in reviewing one of the most-analyzed comic-book series of all time, but this issue (along with the issue recounting Rorschach’s origin) remains among my personal favorites. In a series of flashbacks, it tells the history of Jon Osterman’s tragic transformation into a godlike being who sees the past and future all at once, and its nonlinear storytelling perfectly captures his unique perspective on life. The intimacy with which we view Jon’s life is contrasted with the remote detachment from the human condition that it brings him. The fractured narrative is more than just a storytelling gimmick; it’s integral to understanding the character.

6. Animal Man #5.

I’ve shared this issue with you before, but it breaks my heart every time I read it. This tragic take on gratuitous cartoon violence transported to the “real”, physical world is a pivotal issue for a series that blatantly broke the fourth wall and culminated in a meta-commentary on fiction. Author Grant Morrison’s choosing the plight of Wile E. Coyote to subvert our laughter at his absurd fate and lead us to see that fate from the character’s point of view speaks a lot to me as a fiction writer who loves his characters but must do awful things to them to create dramatic stories.

7. The Authority #12.

Jenny Sparks is one of my all-time favorite characters and a huge influence on Meteor Mags. This issue concludes a four-part story where her team goes up against a massive alien who is basically god. After unleashing horrific destruction on Earth to purge it of humans, god returns from outer space to wipe it completely clean. Jenny – the embodiment of the twentieth century and a goddess of electricity in her own right — enters his massive body with her team and seeks out his brain for a final showdown. God’s about to find out why you don’t mess with Jenny Sparks, and her unequivocal claim that Earth belongs to her is both reinforced by her triumph and underscored by the tragedy that follows.

8. The Manhattan Projects #19.

This issue is the culmination of a sub-plot within a series that explores the idea that the people working on the atomic bomb in the 1940s were a bunch of utterly sick sociopaths. Oppenheimer is revealed to be his twin brother who murdered and ate him, and the consciousness of the original Oppenheimer lives on inside the mind of his evil twin. A psychic war breaks out between the bad Oppenheimer (depicted in red) and the good Oppenheimer (colored in blue).  The resolution is one of the most over-the-top battles in all of comics, and the tragedy which follows is one of the most stunning surprises. Relentlessly weird, often disturbing, and masterful in its brutal execution, this series is like a massive highway pile-up you can’t take your eyes off – and this issue encapsulates all those qualities.

9. Godzilla in Hell #5.

My all-time favorite Godzilla story drops the radioactive reptile into the ever-descending pits of hell to face a series of challenges I’ve shared with you before. Like an irresistible force of nature, he triumphs over every horror hell can throw his way. But in the final issue, he encounters a monster (and the monster’s swarm of smaller evils) that even he is powerless to overcome. Told entirely in wordless pictures, this issue perhaps more than any other Godzilla book, comic, or movie captures the unquenchable fire at the heart of the King of Monsters: his fearsome will to survive, to destroy all obstacles in his path, and emerge triumphant.     

10. We3 #2.

Grant Morrison makes his second appearance in my lists with the second issue of a story I’ve discussed in greater detail before. Showcasing the masterful art of Frank Quitely who pulls out all the creative stops in his action-packed pages, this issue depicts three animals who have been converted into horrifying war machines and have gone on the run to escape being “decommissioned” by their creators. The cat, Tinker, proves herself with a display of brutal ferocity in some of the most inventive panel layouts you’ll find in comics. We3 is also a heart-rending tale that has been known to reduce adults to tears, and it’s a solid example of just how much emotional power can be conveyed through comics.

Indie Box: Gail Simone’s Red Sonja Omnibus

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The Complete Gail Simone Red Sonja Omnibus collects all nineteen of the author’s issues for Dynamite on the title, and it’s a great read. Simone and the art team created my all-time favorite adventures for the leading lady of metal bikinis, and one of the best things they did was finding her a few more sensible outfits.

The she-devil with a sword looks smashing in her bikini, but it never made much practical sense. One unrelated, non-Simone story from Dynamite shows Sonja leading a pack of male warriors though a snowy wasteland, constantly complaining about the cold while garbed in only her metal bikini and a single animal skin draped around her shoulders. No shit, Sonja. Put on some clothes. Somehow, all the men chose warm clothing, but she didn’t get the memo? Idiotic choices about combat gear make Sonja look stupid rather than tough and fearsome.

Simone gives Sonja her proper due as a warrior who doesn’t make frivolous clothing decisions when she wanders into snowy wastelands, muck-filled swamps, and other inhospitable environments.

Simone also revamped Sonja’s origin story into something far more appealing than the dusty old Roy Thomas version from 1970s Marvel Comics. Both Simone and Thomas have Sonja’s entire village and family murdered by marauders, but there the similarity ends. Thomas inexplicably included Sonja being raped right before the reader’s eyes, as if every female hero needs a good helping of rape to get started. Note to guys writing female leads: THEY DON’T.

Then, Thomas had Sonja gain her fierce warrior “power” as a semi-divine, mystical boon. That always bothered me, because it meant Sonja had no intrinsic skill or ferocity or admirable warrior qualities. They only came to her as a gift, because in her natural state she was a weakling. Compare that to a guy character like Reed Richards, who was a bloody genius before he ever got stretchy powers, or Hal Jordan who had a relentless will before he got his Green Lantern powers. Thanks, Roy Thomas, for reminding us that women are basically useless on their own.

To add insult to injury, Thomas tacked on a condition to Sonja’s warrior powers. To gain them, she needed to vow that she would never have sex with a dude unless he first defeated her in combat. What? Linking Sonja’s warrior skill to some sex thing is stupid, and it just plays into an awful idea that you need to physically beat a woman before bedding her. As a result, Sonja’s Marvel adventures never captured my imagination.

Oddly enough, Simone became a Sonja fan back in the 70s when she discovered the Marvel stories drawn by Frank Thorne. Something about the barbaric she-devil on a constant quest for drink, destruction, and dollars fired the young Simone’s imagination. When Gail had an opportunity to write Sonja for Dynamite, she cranked up the volume on all the things she loved while sweeping away the detritus Thomas left behind.

Simone’s Red Sonja origin still includes the murder of her entire family and village, but this Sonja has the skills to pay the bills. Simone’s young Sonja puts her keen mind and hunting ability to use in a bid to exact bloody revenge on the marauders, and she doesn’t need some mystical gift to accomplish it. She doesn’t need to be sexually assaulted for us to feel the horror she experienced, nor to take pleasure in seeing her adversaries die by the score and regret the day they ever met her.

Beyond correcting the origin, Simone delivers the best characterization I’ve ever read of Red Sonja as a brutal but relatable barbarian. Sonja makes mistakes and must deal with the consequences, often going to great lengths and incurring painful, personal loss to make things right. Sonja is admirable but rough around the edges. Fine cuisine is lost on this hell-beast who prefers plain and honest meat.

Sonja also has a major aversion to bathing and, despite her good looks, usually stinks so bad that she can’t even get laid—a fate that is often played for laughs, because this Red Sonja is a bit like Jenny Sparks from The Authority in that she isn’t ashamed of craving a good shag.

Sonja is so relentlessly barbaric that when she encounters traditional “girl time” of putting on makeup, doing her hair, and wearing pretty clothes, the whole thing is utterly alien to her and awakens emotions she doesn’t know how to process. By contrasting Sonja’s rough-edged rowdiness with softer and more traditionally feminine characters, Simone gives us a well-rounded and complex portrayal of the red-headed warrior.

Don’t worry, bikini lovers. The gorgeous covers have you covered.

On top of all that, Simone absolutely nails Sonja’s voice. Where the old Marvel stories narrated using captions full of third-person exposition, Simone lets Sonja narrate many scenes in her own first-person voice, and it’s a joy to read. There were plenty of places in this run where the plotting and the villains’ motivations seemed weak to me, but the strength of Sonja’s voice carried the story, and her force of character kept me engaged.

Simone transformed the savage she-devil from an embarrassing character trapped in Marvel’s vintage boys’ club into a fully realized sword-slinger, and my only real complaint is that she didn’t do it for a few more years.

Collector’s Guide: The physical omnibus currently sells for $100 or more, but you can get it in digital format for Kindle for $30. It’s a lot easier than trying to collect the original issues and trade paperbacks. You can also find Dynamite’s reprints of the original 1970s series in three Adventures of Red Sonja volumes in digital or paperback for about $20 each.

The Final Issues of the Walt Disney Black Hole Comic – from Germany!

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This beauty was purchased on eBay and scanned by reader Demeted Derek, who kindly agreed to let me share some pages with you. Derek first contacted Mars Will Send No More back in 2018 nearly six years after I shared the original four issues of the Walt Disney Black Hole comic published by Whitman. Issue four is extremely rare because, as far as I can tell, it was recalled.

Look! The Robots have collapsed!

Issues five and six were printed by a German company as part of the series Das Schwarze Loch. From what little information I can find, it seems the original art was hand-lettered in English, but the German edition replaced that with typed German. Below is an example page of the original art, followed by the full-color German version.

Shout out to user bellerules on the CGCComics board for posting, in 2010, the two original pages he purchased, one of which is featured above. Shout out to user HugoDeVries for starting that forum thread in 2009 with information about the German issues.

As Hugo explained, all the issues of the German series were double-length, combining pairs of the English issues into one. That’s why you see “Heft 3” on the cover shown above: “Issue 3”.

Heft 1 combined issues 1 and 2—the full movie adaptation that was also printed as the single-volume trade paperback I read a million times as a kid. Heft 2 combined issues 3 and 4, and Heft 3 combines the two unreleased and final issues (5 and 6). You can tell the final issue is intended as a true conclusion to the series—even if, like me, you don’t speak German.

Let’s have a look.

The first story is called Retter des Universums, or Savior of the Universe. (Thank you, Google Translate.) I have no idea what is happening most of the time. But after a tour to see an alien sloth, a glowing crystal, and a gnarly old woman who is really intense about her scroll collection, we go for a ride on space unicorns!

We are not allowed to continue here, Kate! The Mountain of Unity is holy!

Suddenly, a robot battle breaks out—and what a time to be wearing a toga and sandals.

It works great with ours. Out of the way, Aran!

Then things get really sinister. An elderly dude explains what horrible mischief our old enemy Reinhardt is up to. Reinhardt was the evil space captain who died in the movie, but here he is again, causing trouble. He excels at looking like a raging psycho while his robots do bad things to people.

Most of us were killed by the robots.

The next story is Reinhardts Rückkehr, or Reinhardt’s Return. It opens with a ton of discussion, but then we get another unicorn ride.

All afternoon I practiced Aran’s signature for the surrender document.

The equestrian journey ends with Kate meeting a random robot in a space coffin. Why is he the world’s saddest robot? I assume it has something to with Reinhardt being a jerk to him. Who knows?

A robot that feels love and cries real tears! Not even Vincent can do that.

Our heroes do what anyone would do in that situation. They visit Reinhardt to give him a scroll.

It seems like a nice gift to me, but Reinhardt is livid about the scroll. There’s just no pleasing some people! He captures our heroes and makes them watch while he verbally abuses old people in the middle of their Shakespeare performance.

This roll is mine now, and I am… the ruler of the universe!

Alright, I admit it. I am just making up what I think the plot might be. I warned you I don’t speak German! The following panel from one of the original English pages suggests that our heroes were not captured by Reinhardt but invited him to the alien toga party. Close enough.

Here’s the coolest part. Max, the big red robot, freaks out and destroys Reinhardt—who also turns out to be a robot!

I don’t need you anymore! Max!

Off with his head! Another robot battle breaks out, and things get pretty intense.

Max! No! Release me! Help! Uaaaaahhh!

In the end, our heroes bust up all the evil robots, get on their old ship, and peacefully sail through another black hole. Their intended destination is their original home planet — but wouldn’t it be fun if they ended up someplace even weirder?

The destination is called Earth… and it is their home!

And there you have it! If you want physical copies of this German edition, you probably need to go to eBay for them. I have never seen them listed anywhere else. A big Thank You to Derek for sharing this rare treasure and completing a quest that began so many years ago. You are truly Das Retter des Universums!

Book Review: The Reasoning Voter

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Here in Arizona, we have some current and upcoming opportunities to vote this year. In the U.S.A., our political climate has become extremely polarized, and it seems common for people to assume that anyone who doesn’t vote the way they do must be stupid, thoughtless, or evil. It’s not a healthy climate, so I’d like to share the following book review from my graduate-level Campaign Management course in 2018. While The Reasoning Voter is aimed at people working on campaigns, its concepts and conclusions would help a wider, general audience understand how voters of all political stripes process information and attempt to make rational decisions about complex topics and candidates.

The Reasoning Voter analyzes U.S. presidential elections and primaries in the 1970s and 1980s. The second edition has a chapter on the 1992 election. Samuel L. Popkin, who studied campaigns at MIT and worked in campaigns, addresses how voters form opinions about politicians, how they evaluate information, and how campaigns deliver information that influences opinions and votes. Popkin’s theories about reasoning are essentially cognitive psychology, providing a framework for understanding historical events and data. He contends that voters have limited information about government, so they use shortcuts to develop ideas about government, and campaigns provide information interpreted via these shortcuts.

Theory and application are deftly interwoven, with early chapters being more theoretical to lay the foundation for the final chapters which apply theories. Chapter One introduces “low-information rationality” and “information shortcuts”. Popkin doesn’t believe voters are thoughtless and easily manipulated; they are thoughtful but confronted with a government so expansive and complex that getting a full picture is impossible. So, they draw conclusions from “past experience, daily life, the media, and political campaigns” (p. 7). The shortcuts interpret cues for extrapolating a big picture from a small one, such as using impressions about a candidate’s persona to predict his potential behavior in office.

Chapter Two explores these cues and shows campaigns need to connect issues to a specific office. If voters don’t perceive a president can do anything about an issue, it makes no sense to argue the issue in the campaign. Popkin tears down conventional ideas about a more educated constituency; education broadens awareness of the number of issues but does not lead to increased turnout and does not change how voters make decisions.

Chapters Three through Five explain how voters evaluate campaign messages and fill in the blanks. What constitutes relevant evidence? How do voters relate a candidate’s actions to specific policy and social results? How do evaluations of other people’s positions affect the voter? While answering these questions, Popkin demonstrates that campaigns don’t change voter positions on an issue; they change the relative importance (“salience”) of the issue to bring it to the forefront of voter awareness.

Chapter Six covers why candidates see surges and declines during primaries. Popkin argues that voters do not simply climb on the bandwagon of the front-runner. Preferences change as new information is revealed and concerns about personal character are supplanted by conceptions about political character. Chapters Seven through Eleven provide case studies.

Popkin backs up theories with history and polling data, comparing what really happened to expected outcomes based on traditional conceptions. Sometimes, Popkin approaches the trap of placing too much weight on a single, dramatic event, a fallacy he warns against. He sidesteps it by relating other events that came before and after. His suggestion to have longer primaries seems contradicted by his assertion that most voters don’t pay attention to primaries until they involve the voters’ state. Insisting that voters are rational is undermined by Popkin’s explanation of thought processes based on fallacies, incomplete information, or jumping to conclusions. If voters are reasoning, they are apparently not reasoning well, nor from solid premises.

This book gives campaign staff insights into how voters perceive campaign messages, and which messages matter most and when (such as moving from the personal to the political at different stages). It illustrates the need to differentiate a candidate’s position on an issue and connect it with the office. It will rescue campaigners from wasted time on information cues voters don’t respond to. For policy makers, this book highlights the importance of connecting an issue to the office through news stories and campaigns, and framing it as a social problem, not an individual one. Popkin’s cognitive psychology will enlighten anyone interested in how we evaluate information. Low-information rationality applies to decision-making on any subject, and The Reasoning Voter illuminates how we make sense out of information we encounter.

Collector’s Guide: The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, Second Edition by Samuel L. Popkin. 1994, The University of Chicago Press.

Chaotic Notes on Chaos

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The new short story I drafted this month has a brief description of something that resembles the “strange attractors” from Chaos theory, so I spent a little time refreshing my memory about Chaos. In the most general and oversimplified terms, Chaos theory is a study of how apparently orderly systems give rise to apparent disorder, and vice versa. It also involves fractals, which are fun, and they give insights into how very simple sets of rules can create enormous complexity.

The cover of the first edition.

My introduction to Chaos was the 1988 book Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which came out the same year, I read it in 1989 or 90 when I was still in high school, and it blew my mind. It isn’t a mathematical textbook but a history of the pioneers in the field and their discoveries. It lays out the basic concepts in layman’s terms and how they apply to a vast array of disciplines that study dynamic systems, from the weather and animal populations to the human body and your heartbeats. It also has a lot to say about how a revolutionary, interdisciplinary field at first met with apathy or outright resistance from the scientific establishment.

If you don’t have the time to read the whole book, you can get a brief but engaging introduction to some of the concepts in the following video from Veritasium.

A few years after Gleick’s book made inroads into popularizing the topic with general audiences, Chaos reached the masses through the first Jurassic Park film, based on Michael Crichton’s exceptionally entertaining 1990 novel. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone from my generation who isn’t familiar with Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Ian Malcom and his famous line, “Life, uh, finds a way.” On the other hand, the film didn’t do much to explain real concepts of Chaos, and probably left people with the impression that it just means “Things can and will go very wrong, very quickly.”

Little did he know he would still be a meme in the 2020s!

That’s not so much Chaos theory as it is Murphy’s Law, but whatever. Science-fiction stories are notorious for latching on to the smallest shred of a “sciencey” concept and turning it into a fantastical plot device. I’ve written before about how the term “science fantasy” seems more accurate to me, despite being outdated. From piloting spaceships through wormholes, to nanobots that can magically do anything, sci-fi is mostly bunk science: a fantasy about something science-related.

I’m as guilty as any SF author in that regard, but I did want my current story to do justice to this one bit of Chaos. The characters encounter a phenomenon that at first seems wildly unpredictable; but upon closer examination, a type of order appears. While movement is unpredictable at any individual moment, the totality of the movement falls within certain boundaries or parameters.

That’s the oversimplified idea behind strange attractors such as the Lorenz attractor, which is usually shown as a two- or three-dimensional graph that helps us visualize the possibilities for a set of three non-linear equations developed by Edward Lorenz, one of the Chaos pioneers who was originally trying to use computers to model weather systems. While the solutions (or iterations) never repeat themselves exactly, the graph helps us see that they all take place within a certain “shape”.

Anyway, there isn’t much of a point to this post, except that Chaos is fun to learn about! For engaging introductions to the Chaos-related concepts of fractals, see the following two videos.

Benoit Mandelbrot briefly discusses fractals and the art of roughness:

Dr. Holly Krieger explains the math of the Mandelbrot Set pretty simply:

Why I Am Not an Atheist

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If you were to ask me, as many people have in the past three decades, if I believe in god, I would say, “No.” When I was a little younger and edgier, I would have said, “Which one?” But if you followed up with, “So you’re an atheist?” I would again say, “No.”

That contradiction might lead you to assume I am agnostic. That would miss the point, because there are all sorts of things I don’t believe in. I do not believe in leprechauns, Santa Claus, or werewolves. But it would be ridiculous to label myself an aleprechaunist, an asantaclausist, or an awerewolfist.

Why would I define and label myself by one singular thing I do not believe? What matters to me is what people do stand for, or believe, or are simply interested in. Classifying myself as an atheist would be defining myself in negative terms, but it would give zero information about what I find important.

I am uninterested in defining people in negative ways about things that are irrelevant to them. I’m interested in knowing what does matter to them, in a positive sense. Telling me you don’t believe in Santa Claus would establish there is one form of nonsense neither of us has an interest in. But it does nothing to identify what common interests we share.

Most people over the age of seven agree with me that Santa Claus does not exist, but many disagree with me on everything from what makes good prose to what makes good government and a good society. The fact that we are all asantaclausists doesn’t matter.

The term “atheist” might do non-believers a disservice. It assumes that a belief in a god is so important that we need to identify those who do not have it. But from my perspective, it is no more important than not believing in the tooth fairy. No fully grown, sane adults define themselves and form social groups based on the fact that they share a disbelief in the tooth fairy. That would be silly and fail to establish any meaningful common ground.

In recent years, I have noticed a tendency among atheists—especially in the younger ones who have only recently liberated themselves from whatever mythology they were indoctrinated with as children—to make two tragic mistakes I often made in my early twenties.

The first mistake is to become as evangelical about atheism as the obnoxious and often dangerously fanatical christians who think they have been tasked with a holy mission to convert other people to their way of thinking. Some people cannot keep their beliefs to themselves and need to wedge them into every conversation. They are often so judgmental about everyone else that only other zealots can enjoy their company. But many young atheists become just as abrasive as the “christian soldiers, marching as to war” that they quite rightly want no part of.

The second and more insidious mistake happens when people who have been raised as devoutly religious abandon their religious beliefs but not their religious way of thinking. I struggled with this in my late teens and early twenties, much to my regret, and I see it all too often in other people. When you are indoctrinated from childhood to be religious, you will often behave in religious ways about new concepts and ideologies you discover, even when the external trappings of your original religion have been discarded.

It’s like the religion has disappeared, but the religious way of being has not. In that state of mind, one can easily get attached to all sorts of other nonsense such as healing crystals or extremist political causes, magical nonsense such as the Carlos Castaneda novels or the Law of Attraction, or even zealotry about certain lifestyle choices.

When a person is raised in extremely religious circumstances but makes the intellectual and moral leap to reject that upbringing, they are left with a void. A significant part of their identity has been erased. What will fill that empty space? Nature abhors a vacuum, so other nonsensical ideas often rush to fill that space. I know it from firsthand experience, and I have no easy solution to overcome it. All I can do is offer a word of caution to those who abandon any religion: You can take the boy out of the church, but it is much more difficult to take the church out of the boy.

I advise young atheists to consider how their popular role models will be remembered in a positive way. Richard Dawkins? An accomplished scientist, brilliant author, and public speaker. Penn Jillette? A stellar magician, speaker, and entertainer. John Cleese and Douglas Adams? Outstanding humorists and writers. Neil deGrasse Tyson? An influential astrophysicist and lecturer. The list goes on. But it’s a positive list, defined not by things these people did not believe in, but by the legacies of their contributions to our lives and culture.

If someone else wants to call themselves an atheist, I don’t mind. But I’ve never felt the label was a good fit for me. Remember me as a writer, editor, poet, musician, or painter. Remember me as the party animal who stripped down to his Jack Daniels boxers and a feathered mask for Mardi Gras. Remember me as a massive geek for comic books and dinosaurs. I don’t care, just so long as my life is defined more by what I cared about and found meaningful, fun, and interesting instead of by things I found irrelevant.

A Few Thoughts on Mortality and Legacy

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This week, I got the sad news that an author I worked with two years ago passed away. I helped her edit, design, and publish her memoir about how she transitioned out of a life of prostitution, domestic violence, and incarceration to create a non-profit organization that supports women in similar circumstances to make the same transition and build new lives for themselves.

At times, the memoir was absolutely heartbreaking to work on due to the severity of the abuse and trauma it described. But it was also an amazingly hopeful and positive book due to what she and her organization eventually accomplished in terms of helping other women in the community.

The author was also a joy to work with. I always enjoyed our conversations, and she had an unconquerable sense of humor. Even when we discussed the saddest topics or events, she always found a way to make us both laugh.

I am sad to hear of her passing, but I am glad I had the chance to help preserve her story in a book. I don’t know if other artists, authors, and musicians think about this as much as I do, but there is something satisfying about the idea that what we create will outlive us. Whether we have an important message to share with the world, or we are just making something entertaining to enjoy, we leave our mark on our society and culture. It isn’t necessarily immortality, but it is a kind of afterlife.

Years ago, another author I work with included a piece of advice in one of her books: “Focus on what you want to create.” That idea has carried me through many times of difficulty and doubt. Obstacles pile up, and it can be easy to lose sight of long-term goals when you get bogged down in dealing with the challenges of the day. But if you can raise your head above the floodwaters and focus on the legacy you want to leave behind, it puts today in a different perspective.

So, I intend to keep on writing, editing, and helping others make books. Those legacies will last long after we pass, and I am proud to have played a part in them.

Collector’s Guide: It’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It: From the Streets to Survival by Kathleen Mitchell is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Kathleen founded DIGNITY House in Phoenix, Arizona.

reflections on writing: Odonata’s Revenge

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art generated by Midjourney.

Mags faces double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.

July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.

Episode 32 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was intended to be 33, but I got bogged down in the original story for 32 and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because you can always write something. So, I re-directed my energy into what was speaking to me at the time, and I also worked to articulate exactly what my problem was.

My recent post on why Finishing Matters resulted from gathering my thoughts on why it is important to power through completing a draft. My post on the difference between Active Versus Passive Characters arose from trying to articulate why I wasn’t happy with the original thirty-second episode.

I realized that the episode’s problem was, at its root, that I had originally conceived the middle of the story as a plot that needed to happen to my characters, instead of a plot driven by character choices. I knew where the story started and ended, but I felt like I was enforcing a plot on my characters in the middle, and that was causing friction.

So, I set it aside and focused on something that’s been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years: introducing a new rival for Mags. It’s an idea I kept returning to despite numerous attempts and thousands of words that failed to excite me. But gathering my thoughts on active characters proved to be the key. Last month, I added to my massive pile of notes on this rival by asking questions and answering them, then dropping her into situations and letting her choose the outcome. I let go of the idea that I needed her to fit into some mold, and I let her choose her own adventure.

Several scenes I wrote for her ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read them. But the process of going beyond notes and writing actual scenes for her revealed what really captured my imagination about her, and I enjoyed getting to know her and anticipating what kind of choices she would make. She stopped being a thing I wanted to force into a plot and became a person who could drive a plot through active choices.

Once I began letting her choices take an active role in determining the plot, she became not just easy to write but an absolute joy. In the end, it only took me about a month to write the episode featuring her, even though defining who she was had been frustrating me for a couple of years. The breakthrough came when I started treating her the way I do Mags: not as someone who life happens to, but someone who happens to life.

Also, I wrote thousands of words you will never see about her childhood, her appearance, and her motivations. We might explore those things later in the text of the series, but the important thing was that I really needed to get to know her.

I don’t need to necessarily publish words about those things, but I needed to be able to confidently write from those things. The difference between the two is the subtext an author needs to have a firm grasp on a character. Not every detail about a character’s history needs to be explained through exposition to a reader, but the author needs to know those unpublished details to create someone who feels real, consistent, and grounded. You can judge for yourself how well I did.

On a more personal note, the episode briefly includes a billiards game called nine-ball. The game will always be dear to my heart because in 2006, I joined a nine-ball league at a local pub/pool hall. I had always enjoyed shooting pool, but I was terrible at it. When I joined the league, I started practicing regularly, using an amazing book called Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool and Billiards. It had great, practical exercises and showed how to make shots from the most simple to the increasingly complex.

A few mementos from my league days.

But learning pool from a book can only do so much, and it was through the generous instruction from other people on the league that I advanced enough to not be awesome but to at least not embarrass myself, and to win enough matches to feel a sense of accomplishment. When I played against casual players at other bars outside of league, I won more often than I lost.

The people in my league who guided me and showed me how to correct what I was doing wrong were not just my teammates but sometimes my competition from other teams I played against in matches. Despite our friendly rivalry, we were not enemies but people who enjoyed the same game and wanted to help each other improve, have fun together, and generally raise the quality of every player’s ability. For years, nine-ball league was my primary social group where I formed many friendships, some of which remain to this day. We often gathered for house parties, bar crawls, road trips, concerts, and other events.

It’s a good thing we rented a van and a driver for this pub crawl.

In many ways, it was like the writer’s workshop I founded in 2017: a somewhat random assortment of people gathering around a shared enthusiasm with the aims of both helping each other improve and having some fun along the way. In both cases, my years with the groups helped me grow in ways that would not have been possible on my own.

These days, my billiards game is rusty from a lack of practice, but I still love to play. The same is true of my guitar skills. But if you ever wonder why I write so many billiards and concert or jam scenes into my stories, it’s because they are hobbies I have loved for many years, and I can’t imagine writing about a fictional world where they don’t play a role.

Finishing Matters

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One of the greatest struggles I see aspiring authors encounter is with finishing a first draft. Finishing is an important part of the craft of writing, but maybe it doesn’t get enough attention. Let’s take a closer look.

Although I will offer advice and observations, there is no big secret. The key to finishing pieces is to finish more pieces. That might sound like an obvious tautology, but it runs deeper than that. Like everything else about writing, completing a work takes practice. If you aren’t seeing your pieces through to the end, then you aren’t getting enough practice to strengthen this particular muscle.

It’s a bit like going to the gym. Imagine your workout involves doing three sets of an exercise, with some number of repetitions per set. What would happen if every time you decided to work out, you got dressed in your workout clothes, went to the gym, and did a couple of repetitions—then stopped? Maybe completing the workout seemed too challenging or boring, or maybe something else distracted you. Either way, you would get a lot of practice at getting dressed, but not the practice of completing a full workout. You’d be great at getting started, but you would not build any staying power.

Writing is like that. It’s important to keep going beyond the initial excitement of getting started so you can practice completion.

My writing-intensive courses in public policy were a huge help in this area. Every week, my classes required me to do a ton of reading then crank out several thousands of words before the week was up. I put a lot of time and energy into those papers, but I did not have the luxury of pondering them for months or years, agonizing over every word, or getting halfway done then deciding to do something entirely different. Even when I felt what I sent to my professor wasn’t my best work, I got a lot of practice going from start to finish in a very short time. Dawdling was not an option.

That being said, when a paper was on something that mattered to me personally, I reviewed my professor’s comments and criticisms and did a final round of revisions for my own benefit. Integrating feedback and critique was an important part of improving.

Finishing a draft even when it is challenging and you aren’t entirely happy with the result is still an important step because it gives you raw material to revise. It is always easier to start with something rather than start from scratch with nothing. When you have nothing, it’s easy to get bogged down in considering all the possibilities, spinning your wheels and not producing anything. But when you have something on the page, you can look at it and say, “Okay, I like this part, but this other part doesn’t work. Now I can see why, so let me work on fixing that problem.” You’ve narrowed down the infinite possibilities to a manageable revision checklist.

A friend who produces articles related to his artistic endeavors takes an interesting approach. He hires a copywriter to produce a first draft, then he completely re-writes it. He says it saves him a lot of time and effort in the early conceptual phases, and even when he is unhappy with what the copywriter produced, it’s a lot easier for him to start from a draft and be critical of it. If he sees something that isn’t said the way he would say it, that makes it easier for him to decide what he does want to say.

As a freelance editor, I often work on the flip side of that process. People might come to me with an essay or story they’ve drafted, but it has conceptual, grammatical, or structural problems and doesn’t feel professionally written. It’s up to me to “get” what they are trying to communicate, then rewrite the piece with clarity and concision. If I were assigned to draft a piece on the same subject from scratch, it would take a lot longer than the relatively short time it takes me to pull apart an existing draft and fix it.

I treat my own stories and essays the same way: Pound out a first draft, even if it’s a mess, then step back and look at it critically. If, for example, I feel daunted by the infinite possibilities of a scene in fiction, I just pick one and start banging away at the keyboard. Sometimes I get lucky and come up with something I love that simply needs tuned up and polished. Other times, I get something I don’t like at all or doesn’t quite fit, but I can articulate what about it doesn’t work. The process helps me conceptualize what would work so I can take a second crack at it.

In My Life As an Armadillo, I discussed the benefits of drafting an ending long before a story is anywhere near finished. I will just briefly reiterate here that knowing where you are headed with a story helps reduce the time you waste feeling stuck in the middle of it. When people are having trouble completing a draft, it’s often because they lack a sense of where the finish line is. It’s like trying to run a race without knowing what direction to run. You might end up running into the middle of the field, or into the stands, or into the toilets. That’s how it feels to be lost in the middle of a writing project. Do yourself a favor: Get clear on where the finish line is.

Finishing a draft, whether you love it or hate it, also positions you to get more practice in all the stages that come after: getting feedback, doing rewrites, making revisions, editing, and proofreading. You don’t get to practice those important skills if you don’t finish many drafts, and lacking practice in those areas will stunt your growth.

I have a ton of writings other people will never see, because either I feel they aren’t very good, or they ended up being something I didn’t feel was appropriate to share with the world. But finishing them gave me practice for producing the good stuff. Sometimes, people are trapped by the idea that everything they write needs to be brilliant, and they feel that if they write something unappealing, then they have failed.

That attitude is counter-productive. For comparison, consider what counts as an awesome batting average in baseball. Ty Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .366. That means he connected with the ball about a third of the time. It also means he failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time! Do we look at that hit rate as a failure? Not at all. It’s a damn fine batting average—the highest in major-league history!

So if you write three things and two of them suck but one is a solid hit—not necessarily a home run, but something that gets you to first base—I’d say you’re doing well. Failure isn’t missing a lot of swings. Failure is not taking a swing at all.

Finally, consider that as your skills improve, nothing is stopping you from revisiting an earlier piece and improving or expanding it. I often return to something I wrote years ago and examine it in light of everything I’ve learned since I finished it. Maybe I now have a better grasp of what a failed poem was trying to say, so I rewrite it. Maybe I edit an old article to improve the quality of the prose. Some writers will even take an old novella and expand it into a novel, such as Orson Scott Card did with Ender’s Game, eight years after the short version was first published.

So, take a swing at completing a first draft. If you’re working in a longer form such as a novel, break it into smaller chunks: finish drafting a scene, then another, then a whole chapter, then the next. Keep going! The more you finish, the more practice you get with the entire process and seeing things through to completion. Over time, that practice will make you a stronger writer.

Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees: A Memoir

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My high-school buddy Brian turned me on to Screaming Trees. I didn’t get them at first. They sounded unlike any of the hair-metal, teeny-bopper bands I was into in the mid-1980s, or the more straight-forward punk bands I was beginning to appreciate, such as Minor Threat. In hindsight, I realize that opening my ears to the Trees was the beginning of my love for genres such as garage, psychedelia, and a lot of what gets called shoegaze or stoner rock these days, and maybe even jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and music from around the world.

I caught the Trees in concert twice. On the Buzz Factory tour, they played the club Mississippi Nights on the waterfront in downtown St. Louis. I loved that album and still do, but hearing songs from it in-person blew me away. The sound quality of Trees albums was pretty bad in the early years, like they had been recorded on a wax cylinder or something. The songs were energetic, fun, and brilliant, but something got lost in the low-budget recordings. In concert, the Trees sounded MASSIVE.

At Mississippi Nights, guitarist and main songwriter Gary Lee Conner launched into one of his wah-pedal-drenched solos then apparently lost his mind. He rolled around on the stage with his SG, then tumbled off the elevated stage to land on the floor. He writhed on the floor and kept shredding. The guy was like a force of nature that fell into the crowd.

This venue was all-ages, with a rule that underage kids like me could be in the general area right in front of the stage, but not in the areas that served alcohol. It’s the same place I caught Nirvana and lots of other great acts when the so-called Seattle sound was on the cusp of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

The all-ages venue meant my buddies Dan, Brian, Dave, Chris, Amy, and many more could rock the hell out and be right up in the action. I stood in a circle of teenagers who were absolutely stunned by Gary’s electric performance on the floor in front of us.

A few years later, when singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. By that point, I’d been learning to play guitar for a few years and was attempting to write and sing my own songs. To say The Winding Sheet influenced me is an understatement. It was everything I aspired to.

So in 2020, when I read Mark’s brutal memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, it came as a shock to me that he basically hated the Screaming Trees and hated his first album. That’s an oversimplification, so let me expand that thought.

Mark’s version of his life with the Trees begins with being blown away by the young Gary Lee Conner’s songwriting and demo recordings. It wasn’t until later that he came to feel the lyrics of the composer’s neo-psychedelic songs were hippy-dippy nonsense Mark just couldn’t feel. I think more mature adults would have realized they simply had creative differences and went their separate ways. But I say that now at age forty-nine, and I remember what my twenties were like.

In Mark’s recollections of early Trees tours, personality conflicts replaced their initial camaraderie. We’re talking about a bunch of kids here. If you pack a van with any group of guys barely into their twenties, you’ll get conflict. Hell, I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was that age would tell you I was an abrasive jerk. Creative? Absolutely. Easy to get along with? Fuck no. It’s just part of being young, artistic, broke, and stupid.

Mark was right about one thing about the early records: The sound quality was crap. It’s easy to understand his frustration with albums that changed the way I heard music, such as Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. (You can hear twenty-one of their best songs from this era in the collection, SST Years.) The Change Has Come EP is awesome—one of my all-time musical favorites—and almost captured the live intensity of the Trees’ sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Oblivion that the recordings started to sound as killer as the concerts.

The second time I caught the Trees in concert was at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit around the time Sweet Oblivion came out and the single Shadow of the Season was getting airplay on corporate alt-rock stations across the nation. They opened with Before We Arise from Uncle Anesthesia, an album produced by another of my musical heroes, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with a better recording budget and sound quality than previous albums.

But from the first dark, droning notes of the tune at St. Andrew’s, it was once again clear that no album had quite captured how HUGE the Trees sounded in concert. If I were to rank the top-ten sonic experiences of my life, that concert undoubtedly would be on the list. And I’ve been at shows from Swans, Crash Worship, and Kodo. The album version of Before We Arise is a pale shadow of what I experienced in Detroit. In that brilliant set, they also performed Julie Paradise, an awesome song that came close to capturing in the studio just how stellar the Trees sounded in concert.

In Mark’s memoir, he was notably happier with how Sweet Oblivion turned out, and also its successor, Dust. Besides improved sound quality, Mark felt the songs were more of something he could believe in—songs that more closely matched his personal vision of the music he wanted to create. Dust sounds amazing, and the first thing I did after buying it on cassette the day it came out and listening to it was listen to it three more times in a row. The raw, noisy solos of Gary Lee Conner’s youthful recordings had become melodic masterpieces, and the entire band sounded tighter, more focused, and more in control of the same youthful energy that made them one of my favorite bands in the first place.

But I warn you to proceed into Marks’ memoir with caution. Sing Backwards and Weep is one of the most crushing stories of misery I have ever read, only equaled perhaps by Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a tale of growing up in starvation, neglect, and dehumanizing poverty in twentieth-century Ireland. Sing Backwards and Weep includes graphic scenes of drug abuse and self-abuse, such as when Mark is simultaneously shooting heroin, choking himself, and smoking crack. It’s clear that he went way beyond partying and “getting high” for fun or inspiration. He had devolved into an extremely dark state of self-loathing where no one should ever venture.

Reading that book broke my heart. There was one of my rock’n’roll heroes who had made so much music that was meaningful to me and influenced my musical development, but he spent those decades miserable and, by his own admission, being a horrible person.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that Courtney Love, wife of one of Mark’s best friends, Kurt Cobain, helped get him into rehab. Mark maintained his sobriety until his death this year in 2022. Along the way, he recorded brilliant solo albums and contributed to great recordings by his friends in Queens of the Stone Age. My favorite Lanegan solo albums are Blues Funeral and Bubblegum, but they are all worth a listen.

I don’t think a cause of his death has yet been released, but Mark almost died of COVID-19 a couple years ago and published a book about it, and the disease is known to cause lasting health problems even if you are lucky enough to survive.

Recently, Gary Lee Conner released a video of a solo performance of his song Low Life, which never appeared on a Trees album until Last Words: The Final Recordings, after the band had broken up. It is basically the Trees’ next full album, and I enjoy hearing Gary belt this one out. It reminds me of the rebellious joy I found in early Trees recordings and their concerts, and that despite whatever internal conflicts the band struggled though, their music has been rocking my world for more than three decades.

Gary Lee Conner has released several albums under his own name. They hearken back to the psychedelic garage vibe of early Trees, and I love them. Ether Trippers, The Microdot Gnome, and Unicorn Curry are like what early Trees albums would have been if they had a bigger recording budget.

Another member of the Screaming Trees, drummer Barrett Martin, has released a number of albums that go beyond rock into a more jazz-influenced and world-music vein. Trading with the Enemy by Tuatara showcases his drumming in a band whose influences span cultures across the globe.

More recently, The Barrett Martin Group has expanded this global influence on albums such as Scattered Diamonds.

The many musical guests on Scattered Diamonds include an amazing Iraqi oud player named Rahim Al Haj, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a solo concert in Phoenix about a decade ago. My saxophone player and I chatted with him at length after the incredible performance.

Rahim was a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and he has since released many incredible albums of oud music. My favorite is When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, a collection of taqsims based on Arabic musical modes, sort of like Indian raga where soloists perform within a limited collection of notes and basic melodic ideas, but have the freedom to improvise.

So much of my love for music can be traced back to Screaming Trees and related projects. From garage rock to jazz fusion, from psychedelia to musical cultures around the world, the Trees are at the nexus of many things I love.

I don’t think those kids from Washington were on a mission to change the world. But they sure as hell rocked mine.

Indie Box: two mini stories from Age of Reptiles

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I was chatting with some fellow dinosaur geeks about Age of Reptiles and discovered that artist Ricardo Delgado might be working on a new volume of the series to amaze and astound us. Along the way, I realized I was missing one of the short stories: “The Baby Turtles”. I have now rectified that omission!

Between the epic awesomeness of 2009’s four-issue The Journey and 2015’s stunning Spinosaurus series Ancient Egyptians, Delgado produced two mini-stories that each appear in a different volume of the anthology title Dark Horse Presents.

In 2011, “The Body” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #4 (Volume Two). The story begins with a kill, and its eight pages are essentially a prehistoric nature documentary about what happens to the body of the prey. First, large predators squabble over the meat until they’ve eaten their fill, then smaller scavenging predators arrive, followed by even smaller insects and at last, flowering plants and the elements themselves.

Filled with detail and expressive animals, this wordless poem speaks volumes about both the impermanence and interconnectedness of all life.

In 2014, “The Baby Turtles” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #3 (Volume Three). This story begins not with death but with birth, and the newly hatched sea turtles must make their way from their sandy nests to the ocean where they will spend their lives. A variety of voracious predators await them in the sky, on land, and in the water in a danger-filled expedition that remains largely unchanged for today’s modern sea turtles.

This mini-story is also eight pages long in print, but six of those eight pages are gloriously detailed two-page spreads, each a single image filled with conflict between numerous species.

On a personal note, these pages remind me of what I often drew in elementary school to alleviate the boredom. I spent hours drawing insanely detailed doodles of warfare between different races of aliens with all kinds of weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. I was no Ricardo Delgado by any stretch of the imagination. My aliens would be simple shapes such as triangles with arms and legs, or ovals with multiple appendages like paramecia—just so long as they were easy to draw and easily identifiable as different factions. Every square centimeter of my alien war scenes were covered with detail, slaughter, and simplistic characters who each had their own story in my mind. My mother would sometimes see these pages and really not know what to make of them.

I think Delgado would have understood. I enjoy seeing him take that kind of intensity and deliver it with actual skill and draftsmanship based on extensive research. The detail-rich pages can be daunting to explore, but like some kind of Mesozoic Where’s Waldo, they reveal expressive, individual characters doing unique things within the scenes, all captured in one brief instant of their struggle to survive.

Here’s hoping the rumors about a new, upcoming Age of Reptiles series are true. I’ll buy two copies!

If you’re new to Age of Reptiles and want to get started, I recommend the digital edition of the Age of Reptiles Omnibus for about USD $13. It will be a lot more cost-effective than trying to buy the print versions, and it includes the first, second, and third series.

Active Versus Passive Characters

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My favorite characters to read about and write about are active characters, especially when it comes to the leading protagonist and antagonist. I’m a bit more forgiving of passivity in minor supporting characters, but even they are greatly improved by giving them some active choices. The difference between active and passive characters is simple, but perhaps it doesn’t get enough attention.

With a passive character, the plot just happens to him. He’s going about his daily life when suddenly—BOOM! Plot events arrive and sweep him up in the narrative. When the main character or hero is passive, events are largely beyond his ability to affect. I often see this in stories that are plot-driven rather than character-driven, where the author has a potentially brilliant plot that needs to happen, and the characters are forced into it.

Active characters are ones whose choices drive the story. Active characters might make smart choices or foolish ones, selfish choices or altruistic ones. Those choices carry consequences that determine the events of the narrative. As I like to say about Meteor Mags, life doesn’t happen to her; she happens to life.

That isn’t to say that active characters are always in control. One of the most fun things about active characters is when they make choices that lead to their losing control. Take Dwight in Frank Miller’s Sin City story A Dame to Kill For. Every step of the way, Dwight makes choices that determine what happens next. But he is being manipulated by a femme fatale, and we as readers know that he really should know better. He is a delusional fool, but he is an active fool, and his foolish decisions lead to events spiraling out of his control and getting the ever-loving crap beat out of him several times.

Active characters can also be subjected to unexpected events. I don’t think anyone would accuse Meteor Mags of being passive, but the super-tornado that arrives in the middle of a heist gone wrong in Blind Alley Blues is an example of unexpected plot elements showing up to mess with her. Mags’ active nature leads her to see what opportunities the disaster presents, and she makes choices that bend the situation to her advantage. Plus, the reasons the heist goes wrong in the first place all relate to conscious, intentional choices made by her and other characters. They don’t sit around waiting for the plot; they are actively driving it by pressing forward with their agenda.

I’m a fan of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and its protagonist Llewelyn Moss and its antagonist Anton Chigurh are great examples of highly active characters. Moss chooses to examine the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, then he makes one of the stupidest decisions I have ever read. Later that night, he decides to take some water to the last survivor of the deal, and that foolish decision leads to all the pain and suffering which follows. I have always found this choice a bit suspect and possibly out of character for Moss, but the fact remains that he makes it and must deal with the consequences.

On the other side of things, Chigurh is a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who makes choices every step of the way. In his famous scene with a gas station attendant, Chigurh uses a coin toss to determine whether he will kill the attendant—a conceit that appeals to blind chance as driving his actions, even though he is the one actively initiating the situation. Near the end of the story, Moss’ young wife calls out Chigurh on this bullshit, telling him “It’s just you.” And it is just him, making choices that drive the plot.

No Country is one of my favorite novels because both Chigurh and Moss make active choices while trying to achieve conflicting goals, and nearly every event in the book is the result of these two characters working at cross-purposes.

Besides being characters who can create the dramatic intensity of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and intensifying our emotional investment in seeing how such brutal conflict plays out, active characters earn our empathy and respect.

In comparison, passive characters seem like people who say, “Woe is me,” and blame anyone and everyone except themselves for their problems. Sure, we might feel sympathy for these downtrodden folks, but we can just as easily feel contempt for those who don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. And if they passively succumb to their fate, they lack the initiative we expect from heroes. They might as well be the beach being pounded by the ocean with no true agency of its own for us to get involved with.

But when an active character makes choices, we respect her for doing something besides lying on her back and thinking of England while life has its way with her. We can respect her for, at the very least, trying to do something about her situation. We might not agree with her choices, and we might even see them as foolish, but we can feel invested in her attempts to achieve her goals—even when she fails.

When those choices arise from deeply held conviction, we are more likely to empathize. Peter Parker’s active choice to continue trying to make the world better as Spider-man is a good example, because being Spider-man tends to have nothing but painful consequences for his personal life. Parker’s choices often lead him to more suffering than many of us would be willing to endure, but he remains committed to trying to do good things, to protecting people less powerful than he, and standing firm as a force for good in a world threatened by evil. We not only respect Parker; we empathize with his struggle. We don’t just feel sorry for him; we feel sorrow with him. When he succeeds, we feel that success, too. We become emotionally invested.

None of what I have said should be taken as advice to abandon tight, compelling plots and write by the seat of your pants. The important point is that rather than designing plots that simply happen to passive characters, construct plots that are driven by the choices the characters make.

Characters need goals, and they need to make decisions they believe will take them closer to those goals. They also need obstacles in their path—both the external obstacles of circumstance, and the internal obstacles of personal shortcomings they need to overcome. What lies do they tell themselves? What misconceptions do they have? Even the most active character can harbor beliefs that keep her distant from her goal, even as she tries to move forward.

In my years as a workshop leader, I saw some stories about passive characters who had no clear, primal, compelling goal they were so intent on reaching that they would have died for it. They were just people trotted on stage so the plot could happen to them, and I found that I simply didn’t care. But even when presented with a story in a genre or style I didn’t prefer, I could easily get swept up in the adventures of an active character whose choices—whether right or wrong—defined and drove events. Those were the characters I came to care about and whose fates I became personally invested in.

So whether you see your stories as more plot-driven or more character-driven, realize the best stories are both: where the character choices drive the plot forward, so readers become emotionally invested in the outcome.

Piper’s Tale: In Memory of the World’s Loudest Cat

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One night, around sixteen years ago in Phoenix, I was walking home from a local bar called Shady’s, which was a nice place to meet friendly people and strike up casual conversations or a game of pool on the single bar-box table by the booths. Shady’s also had a cute fireplace filled with candles, a fun jukebox with loads of alt-rock, and a cozy outdoor patio for smokers. The bar had closed, and I had more than a few pints in me, but the house my girlfriend and I were renting at the time was only a leisurely twenty- or thirty-minute walk away.

I was just north of Los Olivos Park when I encountered a kittycat wandering the suburban streets. She was quite talkative but seemed to be in good health: no apparent injuries, no visible infestations or wounds, a shiny coat, and a friendly, perky attitude. I pet her for a bit and chatted with her, assuming she was someone’s cat who had gotten outside and was exploring the hood. Then I said good-bye.

She followed me.

Normally, I would have waved her off and told her to go home, but I was feeling super relaxed, and she was cute. So, I just talked to her as we went on our merry way. I figured any cat who meowed to the high heavens like she was doing must be hungry, and my girlfriend and I had plenty of cat food at home. (We had two male cats at the time.)

The house was on the corner of the rather busy 32nd Street, and as I approached home, the cat wandered into the middle of the street. I admonished her with thoughtful, drunken guidance such as, “What the fuck are you doing, kitty?! Get the hell out of the street!” She didn’t seem to care.

That turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing about what a reckless, rowdy hell-beast was following me. Eventually, I made it home, and the cat was right behind me. I went inside and got a bowl and some food for her, accidentally waking up my girlfriend who was like, “What are you doing?”

When I told her a kitten had followed me home and I was going to feed it, she was totally on board. The cat continued to meow at the top of her lungs until she shoved her face in the food bowl and chowed down. We all hung out for a bit until kitty seemed to have eaten her fill. I went inside and went to bed.

This all happened the night before I left for the weekend on a solo trip up to Flagstaff with my acoustic guitar in search of some nature inspiration for new compositions. I had a great weekend and was happy with many of the ideas I came up with while jamming in scenic areas such as Midgely Bridge. I eventually recorded the songs Midgely Bridge and Tadpoles based on that trip.

But when I came home, I discovered the lost kittycat had, in the span of a few short days, moved into our attic, been coaxed out by my girlfriend and one of her friends, and was now living in the house! Despite being well-fed, she still meowed as loudly as an air-raid siren, and my girlfriend had named her Piper—due to having quite a set of pipes on her.

I was, at first, unhappy about adding a third cat to our household, but what could I say about it? It was my drunk ass who picked her up in the streets in the first place!

So, Piper joined our feline family and proceeded to raise almighty hell. Don’t get me wrong: Piper was an absolutely adorable kitty who loved to snuggle and cuddle and play. But she was also apparently unaware of her mortality and her volume. Sometimes I had to shut her in one of the bedrooms for my own sanity when she would not be quiet, and sometimes she created absolute chaos with zero regard for her own safety.

I think if Piper had been born human, she would have been a stunt woman and put the illustrious Zoë Bell to shame. One of her more memorable stunts in recent years was jumping on a dinner table to attack a cooked turkey. She didn’t land on the table. She landed in a bowl of mashed potatoes, freaked out, grabbed a huge portion of turkey, and launched her potato-covered self off the table to feast on her prize.

Other times, she would just go into total destruction mode and maul a piece of art or furniture. But it was hard to stay mad at Piper for long, because she was just trying to have fun, and she was so damn cute. She was, in her own way, a little hell-raising anarchist with a punk-rock attitude, but she was also incredibly loving and apparently unaware of the damage she inflicted. Piper wasn’t trying to be a bad kitty; she just had a rowdy fire that could not be quenched.

Piper Kitty passed away last week. In her final days, she refused to take food or water and was quite disoriented. But she took a sedative that calmed her down, and she died comfortably cradled in the arms of the woman who loved her and adopted her.

I don’t believe in the afterlife, but if there was one, Piper would be there right now tearing the ever-loving shit out of it and raising all kinds of unholy hell. Then she would act like nothing had ever happened and come looking for a snuggle. And who could resist?

Big hugs and cuddles go out to the cat who followed me home one night and screamed her way into our hearts. Long may she run.

sketchbook sundays: hammerhead shark

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Sketchbook Sundays used to be a regular event here at Mars Will Send No More, but then I got into writing fiction. Recently, I’ve missed drawing, and I always wanted to be better at drawing animals. So I picked up a few inexpensive books by Lee J. Ames. Each page has a different animal to draw, guiding you through the process in six stages, from outlining the basic shapes to the final shading and detail. It’s a bit limited by only having one pose per animal, so it isn’t like a master class in anatomy. But it’s fun to learn some of the basics and quickly produce a decent sketch.

When I was a kid, I used to get these books from the library, but I could never get the proportions right. Results were disastrous and crushed my youthful aspirations of illustrating comics. Decades later, I better understand what Ames is trying to tell me about basic underlying shapes, and I’ve learned that it’s okay to be loose and even sloppy in the early stages — kind of like pounding out a rough draft of a scene without worrying about whether it’s perfect. Later, you come back and revise, smooth out the rough edges, and put the final editorial polish to it.

Anyway, I practiced on a bunch of sharks and cats lately. Birds and bugs are next in line.

Collector’s Guide: There’s a whole series of Lee J. Ames books in paperback and Kindle edition that cost around $10 each.