Monday, November 5, 2012

Super Hero Laundry List: Chapter One

This is my new project's first chapter. Earlier I had the first page, but the first chapter gets more into the social scene for a kid who finds he no longer has the credentials for the nerd niche and doesn't have the swag for anything else. I think of this as a working title, so feel free to add suggestions. 

Super Hero Laundry List

Chapter 1

Miss Farr was getting kind of animated. She’s got this red frizzy hair that shakes when she’s making a point and right then it was vibrating. We all watched her, even if we weren’t really paying attention, because her green eyes dart around the room lighting on math textbooks, cell phones and closed eyes. Her energy that day came for the You-Can-Be-Who-You-Want-To-Be-topic. She was going on about it. 
I usually did the eye contact, head-nodding, fake listen for this speech. Every adult in my life gave it at some point. I figured out that it’s a big lie. If it was true, how come there were janitors, and McDonald’s employees? Did they say to themselves when they were kids, “Hey, my dream is mopping up all the urine that misses the target?” Personally, I had a few dreams already that hadn’t worked out. I wanted to be on the soccer team, but the coach cut me the third day of try-outs. I also wanted to be a superhero since I was six. I wanted to be able to shoot webs like Spider-Man swinging through skyscrapers, delivering justice for beautiful girls. 
My parents were living proof that it was a lie. My mom wanted to work at a daycare, wiping snot off three-year-olds upper lips? My dad liked roofing? (This is rhetorical, but I realize you haven’t been up on a roof in the Philly summer. You sweat so much, carrying everything up a ladder, working with a torch, melting rubber on one hundred degree days.) Even Miss Farr, who we could all tell is really into her job, talked about how she was going to become a lawyer someday.
So like I said, I usually don’t listen to the You-Can-Be-Anything-You-Want-To-Be Speech. That day I listened because Miss Farr was talking about Hamlet. For some reason she thought that freshmen could understand Shakespeare, not to mention Hamlet, which she was always telling us was one of his hardest plays. She had these elaborate assignments were we interpreted scenes for homework and had other kids acted them out. At first I was mad, because it was really hard to understand, but then after a couple of weeks, I got into his story. He was basically like any other kid, caught in the middle of his parents’ dysfunctional relationship and weighted expectations. Imagine how heavy that shit is, “Revenge, Hamlet!” It sure makes getting As and Bs seem easy.  
Miss Farr said, “You know, Hamlet is an gifted young person. He could have done anything. He is respected by commoners like the guards, and also the nobles, like Horatio. Imagine a student at Central who’s cool with the jocks, the nerds, the white kids, the black kids, everyone. That’s the kind of guy Hamlet is. 
“Every speech he makes shows that he is quicker witted than those around him. He’s an athlete; we learn about that later. So, I think when he says, “To be, or not to be” he’s not just contemplating existence, but whether it’s worth pursuing his dreams. He wanted to go back to school, but his mother asked him not to. 
“I should say that I think saying you can live your dreams doesn’t mean you can be anyone, but it means you can be the best possible you and live the life you want to live. You are free, young Americans, to pursue your happiness. It’s going to take some courage. You’re going to have to decide to be, to be you.”
That sounded nice. The idea that I could be the next soccer superstar or president pissed me off. The idea that I could work and live the life I wanted, well, that’s a little better (like the super-hero option is out, but at least I can be happy). I’d like to live a good life. To me that’s doing a job that’s not roofing, something where it’s not just a hurting body. I’ve got a brain, right? I also would like to be spending more intimate time with girls. 
Miss Farr went on, “Why isn’t Hamlet pursuing his dream, here, in Act II?”
Alexandra, next to me, raised her hand. Alexandra was hot with long brown hair and a thin French looking face. She wore nice clothes and she was very developed in the chestal area if you know what I mean. Mike and I, two weeks into the school year, were glad we knew each other. I walked behind Alexandra on the way to class, and everyone we passed said hi to her, including upperclassmen. When she spoke in class everyone, except Miss Farr (who listened equally to everyone) perked up.
Miss Farr looked for another hand, then called on her, “Alexandra?”
“Well, his mom wants him to stay home and the ghost wants him to get revenge.”
Mike said, “Good answer.” Alexandra ignored him.
“EXACTLY.” Miss Farr always greeted our right answers with great energy. Her frizzy red hair seemed to crackle with electric current. “Is this following his dream, living his life, BEING himself? What do you think?”
Mike raised his hand. 
“Well, no. Alexandra pointed out that he’s staying for his parents. He actually wants to go to school.”
“VERY GOOD, Mike. I would like to say that this is Hamlet’s tragic flaw. He tries to fulfill expectations, rather than be himself. He chooses, in effect, not to be himself but to be who his parents want him to be. This makes his story a parallel to Ophelia’s.”
In case you haven’t figured this out yet, Mike was pretty into Alexandra. I felt bad for him. He had dumb taste, and he was my friend. Really, he was my only friend. The first day of school at the end of Miss Farr’s class, Mike leaned over to me and said, “Do you know where the lunch room is? I’ve got lunch next.”
I had lunch next too, and being a freshman in a new school, the thing I was most scared of was sitting alone. I said, “I don’t know. I’ve got lunch too. We can look together.” 
There was relief on his face. He said, “I’m Mike.”
“I’m Douglas, but everyone calls me Doogie.”
Thus was an alliance formed against the dread dragon of appearing friendless on the first day of the school year. 
On the surface, you wouldn’t think Mike and I would be friends. He’s a black kid from North Philly; I’m a white kid from Mayfair. Mike and I both had been the smart kids at our old schools. Being the smart kid at Fitzsimons or Mayfair was an alright identity. You helped people with homework, they respected your smarts and treated you like a normal human. You were the teacher’s favorite kid. The teacher tried to hide it, but you knew they loved you for answering questions when no-one else could or would. You weren’t going to be super cool, but you weren’t the biggest dork either. 
Then we came to Central, which is an academic magnet school. The smartest kids from the whole city were there. Mike and I weren’t the smart kids anymore. We were just somewhere in the middle. Neither of us were jocks. I got cut from the soccer team , and Mike was built like a Lego man, thick around the middle with short square legs. Mike could make me laugh, but he didn’t have the confidence to go around making friends. We were intimidated by the pretty girls and loud upperclass boys. 
Still, the friendship wasn’t instant. We knew nothing about one another that first day, except that we both didn’t have an friend for lunch. I ate the PB&J and chips my mom packed, while he ate a cafeteria sandwich. 
I said, “You like it here?”
“It’s alright,” he said. 
Yeah,” I said. Silence once again. We sat, our meals consumed, as serious and sad as Eastern Island Heads. “You play soccer,” I asked, hoping to find a fellow failed athlete. 
“Man, I’m from North Philly. I don’t even know what that is.” North Philly is the hood, all black, and famed for basketball talent. As Mike explained, nobody there cared about soccer. 
The silence returned, yawning out in front of us as vast as the Pacific Ocean that surrounds the Eastern Island heads. 
“You play videogames,” Mike asked.
“Yeah, all the time.”
“Definitely. I love RPGs.” 
Role Playing Games. The game for the kid with imagination set in fantastic worlds. In RPGs you start a little loser, and go on quests to gain skills, knowledge and treasure. By the end, you march through the landscape, monsters fleeing before you, peasants running up and thanking you. By confessing we played such games we had an instant link. Soon we were lost in a trip down memory lane. We had, in separate places, We had gotten the same silver bow and shot the same arrow in the same  battle against Gannon. We had saved the same land and princess. 
That Friday we walked up the hill together. I was planning my weekend in my head, the games I would play and how I would get my mom to leave me alone, while Mike fished in his bag for something. Loose crumpled papers flew out, and it seemed like fifty dirty t-shirts were in there too. “How’d your bag get so messy after one day?”
We were passing the other kids who were taking their time walking to the subway, hanging out. The girls, black, white, Puerto Rican, Asian, all looked hot in their tank tops and skirts. The boys yelled too loud, excited by the presence of the girls. 
Mike, at my side, was not going to help me get to know any of these girls. His hair was a little ungroomed. His glasses were awkward and a little too heavy, his shirt a generic, worn, hoodless sweatshirt. His jeans were neither skinny, nor boot cut. They sagged around his butt, and bunched at his ankles like old man jeans. 
He looked up at me from amidst the chaos of his bag and saw my look. “I’m not going to win any cool contests. Who cares?”
I felt stupid. I liked this kid and didn’t know anyone else and not being his friend just because I hoped to be cool later was foolish and mean. I didn’t have any options. I wasn’t about to be one of the other kids with or without Mike. 
“What you looking for,” I asked.
“You got to check out this game.” He hooked a box from the half sheets and tee-shirts and handed it to me. On the cover four black kids stood battle ready, armed alternately with a blue fireball, a club, a bow, and a knife. Around them circled soldiers, monsters, and wizards. It was a game that promised the chance to play hero in a field of magic, an escape from getting cut in the first round during try-outs, from looking around and learning how far we were from cool. 
“Can I borrow it?”
“No man. I love it too much.”
“Want to come to my house and play it?”
“You think that would be okay?”
“Yeah, just lemme call my mom.” 
I called my mom; he called his, and we got on the 26 headed for Mayfair. My mom was super happy to see Mike, mostly because he was polite, “Hello, Mrs. Foley, thanks for having me,” but also because Mike meant that I had a friend at my new school. There were cookies, Famous Amos, out on the table with milk. I ate some and listened as Mike chatted to my mom about Central, our teachers, and how much he enjoyed the cookies. 
I dragged him upstairs so we could start playing. The game was fun and I got pretty into it. We stopped for dinner (pizza), got permission for Mike to stay the night, and kept playing. My dad came home and shouted some stuff around one. “What I got to do to get some respect!” But that didn’t last long, and Mike pretended not to hear, and for that I was grateful. At two I went down to the kitchen and came back with a couple of cokes. Mike challenged me to drink the whole can without stopping or burping. I did, then unleashed a long, pleasantly horrid string of belches. We cracked up. 
We kept playing the game- we had it on multi-player, and set at Clurikin, or easy, level. Mike said he was tired a couple of time, but I kept saying one more level. He wouldn’t let me skip the videos between levels, and at first this annoyed me but then I got into the story and wanted it to unravel all the way. We unfurled blue fire balls, charged and lanced the enemy, and in the end saved the kingdom. When we beat the game, daylight was showing through the window.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

I wish I could give "Magic for Beginners" both 2 and 5 stars but this is not a goodreads option. It reads likes Jorge Borges teamed up with the Brother's Grimm, (maybe add Joss Whedon in there) and adopted contemporary US, with its vast array of mythologies as their topic. Borges added halls to the labyrinth of metaphysics, leaving the reader with a desire to re-read to actually understand, but also a fear and knowledge that perhaps not understanding was the closest thing to understanding. His work is mostly cerebral though, where Brothers Grimm get at the desire and fears in the pits of our stomaches and the apex of our nethers. 

Kelly Link does both of these, while consisting failing to follow the modern rules of story-telling. Her stories have no established conflict, but follow as many old fairy tales do, a wandering path, switching protagonists, and stories, mid story, multiple times. Symbols are left unexplained, over-used. A search of the interwebs quickly reveals that this medley of Dionysian fairy tale, sci-fi, fantasy interspliced with our time and people is a conscience choice by Link. It is clear from her art that she could do the Raymond Chandler, New Yorker style realism that progresses into epiphany, if she wanted to. 
She says that it is boring. 

But Link's writing also is different from most science fiction and fantasy. She consistently disappoints with her ability to create expectation and then wander off in another direction. The stories have little eternal logic. 

Dionysius, the god or drunk high poets, has found a priestess in Link. Her stories are votives to the unknown, casual attacks on our carefully constructed rules of narrative that we guard so jealously. We would believe, and every story that we allow ourselves to tell reinforces this, that we control our world, that it progresses through logic toward justice. In Link's stories we find a whimsy that if we are honest we must confess is a truth that is other. 

For me a contemporary application of this is the upcoming American election. Both candidates talk about their plan for the economy. They patiently explain how they will fix it, working out their logic in steps, promising progress, a victory through right policy. Nobody says the truth. The economy is a monster we pretend is our pet. When it bites us we make explanations, when it beshitteth all, we explain why, but we cannot teach him not to bite or train him to our household. No-one understands him, but he can destroy us. It is fickle, immensely complex, and gambols through our houses and floats in amongst the clouds. 

Which is just to say, Link is right to roughshod over our stories that insist on control, happy or at least logical endings. We don't know anything. Sometimes that can be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hands, the Pickpocket, Meets the Real World

I wrote a fantasy novel, and I feel like I owe the world an explanation. There's a real world all around us, full of gripping problems in need of compassion, and wisdom, and instead of writing about that, I wrote about a place that only exists inside my head.

I worked in a behavioral facility for a year, back in 2005. The idea of the place was that we'd take kids with self-destructive behavior, show them it was destructive, and that they would change. These kids had seen stuff that made Sandusky seem like Santa Claus. They were untrusting and relentlessly combative. Then I got myself into a North Philly high school, where many of the kids were the same, though a little more resourceful. I watched those kids, ready to curse someone out if they felt something was unfair, ready to fight in response to perceived insult, untrusting, and ready to grab your attention by acting like a fool. I kept asking myself, "How are they going to make it? How are they going to become something beside a drug dealer or addict?"

Those kids, in some form, show up in my book. Hands, the neighborhood thief, insults the dead father of another kid, then gets beat up, and keeps talking trash. When Hands gets caught up in kingdom level drama, his toughness helps him but his pugnacious attitude keeps getting him in trouble.

As I was writing, there were a couple of take-aways I worked in. Kids make it cause they find people they can trust; basically it takes one person caring. Also, I believe that there is higher power who cares about these kids, even if society ignores them. We ought to care, and we will be judged based on our compassion. Sometimes, that part of the story that seems the most fantastical is not the imaginary creatures, or magical powers, but that there will be justice in the end, that the forgotten will be remembered. I love that part of the story.

Today one of my neighbors, a former student of mine, knocked on my door, and asked me to tie his tie. He's been out of school for a couple of years, living the trap life, and is trying to get back into school. I help him with the tie; I pray that he finds the a school were his humanness is honored, and his mind respected. There aren't a lot of places with the people, the money, or the heart for it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Genre Writing vs. Literary Fiction

Having recently published a fantasy novel, I scroll through the covers of the titles that amazon groups with mine. Some sell well, some not so much, but they all have covers whose sense of style is a bit 1970s. Their covers also tell a lot of story. Mine is reserved. I realize it probably won't grab the fantasy nerds who might browse here for titles. As I look at the many genres and sub genres of fantasy, I have to use wikipedia to figure out what mine is- you've got urban fantasy, high fantasy, paranormal, epic fantasy, young adult, and sword and sorcery. Turns out my lil' opus is young adult high fantasy with a dash of urban.

These readers are voracious (since I graduated college I have not read so much). They are willing, to satisfy their appetite, to risk buying, and reading, what could by nothing but the blather of some egotist. I do not read this way. I wait on recommendations from friends, or, the NY Times Book Section. I figure a book is an investment of three to ten hours, and I'm not wasting time on risk. What it all comes down to is that I've just written a novel in a genre that I don't know the ins and outs of, like I know literary fiction.

Why write fantasy and science-fiction, mystery, and paranormal when plain old literary fiction is the genre of masters? James Joyce and Virginnia Woolf stayed away from dragons and spaceships. My favorite living authors are Marilynne Robinson, who may not know of the existence of genre fiction, Cormac McCarthy, who writes only literary fiction.

One thing that has always made novels worthwhile to me is the story-telling. Story telling, going back to Homer, has two prized social purposes. One, after a long day, it gives you something to enjoy while drinking your evening beverage of choice. Story-telling doesn't lie, it reduces life to the essential moments, the moments out of which defeat and triumph grow- and this magical reduction makes it better than life, while still being life.

Secondly, story telling instructs. It gives meaning to life. Now, story-telling is a popularly beloved art. Shakespeare and Homer shared this appeal with J. K. Rowling. Some authors that I love and admire now write for a small portion of our population. Marilynne Robinson is not read by anyone not an intellectual. I always believed that great books could be for everybody. That's not completely true, but it is something authors can work toward. Genre writing does tell stories. It doesn't let art overrun the entertainment value of the work.

That's why I'm writing genre stuff.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I interview me

I was filling out an author interview at a website, the Mad Ones,, and figured I'd post my thoughts here. It's sort of amazing when you talk about where a book came from, how much there is to say.

I'm a teacher in Philly's public schools. You can see that in the "Illumen's Children" and how it focuses on young people and the challenges that they face. I've always loved books, especially those with strong story, good characters, and truth. Beyond that, I love my wife and the game of soccer.

TMO: What genera do you write and why?
That's a hard one. I love reading literary fiction, but it bothers me that it reaches such a small audience. I've written a literary thriller, a hard boiled mystery, a sci-fi novel, and now this is a fantasy novel. I love fantasy's exuberant world building. I admire Ursula Le Guin's ability to create cultures. I admire Tolkien's vast world and his characters. He mixes  humor, human weakness, and honor into almost every character.

TMO: Tell us about your book….

In the fantastical kingdom of Regna, a pickpocket learns of a plot to kill his king. He lives in an outer ring, Subagora District, of the city, separated from Citans like the king by two walls and class laws, so how will he warn his leader? In his efforts he enlists the help of two Citans, one of whom is actually the princess, daughter to the king. The Citans demand the respect that is their due, but the orphan pickpocket respects no-one. An antagonist relationship develops, and the princess is intrigued by the street-wise, fight-ready attitude of the Subagoran.

Meanwhile, a cleric acquaintance of the pickpocket comes to wield Illumen’s fire for the forest people he once hated. Will he be the next manusignis, prophet of legend whose blue fire protects the weak and mistreated? Another friend from Subagora District learns the ways of the wendigo, the forest people. He runs with the forest creatures, and wields a bow that was wrestled from the grove of the fearsome forest spirit.

Diverging roads lead each one to confront the evil of the world, and their own weakness, but will they be able to fight against the armies of the Citans?

TMO: What was your inspiration for this book?

I taught in North Philly, a really tough neighborhood, for four years. I was amazed at the kids there, how much they wanted attention, how angry they were, how hard they found it to trust anyone. All of that goes into the character of Hands, an orphan pickpocket in this fantasy world.

Another inspiration is growing up from someone who was self-righteously religious and prudish, into being challenged by faith to be more compassionate. That is evident in the Shyheem subplot. A young cleric thinks he's better than everyone, until a heretic kidnaps him, and treats him to endless harangues and takes him among the people whom Shyheem judged.

The last inspiration is the American wilderness, its greenness, its life. I also love Hiyao Miyazaki's portrayal of the forest spirit, and I think any reader familiar with that will see parts of it in Mishipeshu, the terrifying and beautiful forest creature that runs the woods.

TMO: Do you have a favorite character and why that one?

I'd say it's Hands. I want him to succeed so much, but he makes everyone so angry with his attitude; he keeps pushing away people when they try to help him.

TMO: What project(s) are you currently working on?

The sequel, tenatively entitled, "Subagoran Rising", and a book called "Super Hero Laundry List, in which a nerd uses newly acquired super powers to gain popularity and the attention of girls. It's whimsical and fun.

TMO: Do you have any advice for writers out there?

The obvious stuff. Work hard, finish what you start- even when you fear it's worthless, make it the best you can, before moving on. The discipline will make the next project successful. Less obvious, but still important is pursue truth, wrestle for it. We all now when we're reading something that a writer's soul worked for, and we appreciate that.

TMO: Where can we find you? (facebook, twitter, blog, website, etc)

Well, I water-color and used it to represent some of my ideas. I used those skills to make a book trailer. I know people say these are a dumb idea, and I don't think I'm reading any books based on them, but it was fun to make and you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Make Obsession Fruitful-

My last blog I talked about releasing my e-book and how awesome I felt. I've gotten some small reward now, hearing from one reader how much he enjoyed certain parts, and he was kind enough to also give me a few to-be-incorporated tips on zipline mechanics. We also discussed the carrying capacity of the Golden Eagle (it was carrying rope, not coconuts).

But mostly it involves me checking how it's selling (slowly, and to folks I know mostly) once a day. I could check more often, but that's sort of like watching the water not boil. I've also spent a little time googling the book, and this is clearly a waste of time- so I've been searching for ways to make all the time I spend obsessing about how many folks are getting a look at the adventure actually work.

Along the way, I've discovered some things. First, there are these amazing and voracious readers who read self-published ebooks and review them all over this vast internets of ours. Many of them have received complimentary copies of "Illumen's Children". Lucky folks, I know. Second, people make little teaser/preview videos for their books. This is crazy. I mean, I read reviews, and mostly listen to friends to find out what I should read. By the way, friends, have I got a recommendation for you!

Anyway, I'm going to continue trolling these interwebs for reviewers, but I'm going to make a preview video. Or try. I'll post it here at some point. Yoda said do or do not, there is no try. 

A picture from the novel (not actually in it- that's for later)

Saturday, July 28, 2012


I've just published a fantasy novel, Illumen's Children, for Kindle. It's pretty exciting be able to do this in such a democratic way- the readers decide! If you have a Kindle, check it out. It will be available for other platforms soon.

The book is cool in that in doesn't use sentient species as an unconscious metaphor for race. While at times this has been an apt way to explain how different culture can make us, it has also been a vehicle for racist stereotypes.

In my book the main characters are dark skinned, and live on the outskirts of their city. They are generally poor. They interact with fantastical sentient species but also humans who look different and have more money. In some ways, the world in the book mirrors ours, and in others, it is a new place to discover. Above I've posted a water color map that appears in the Kindle version. The city is stratified by class- other species and foreigners may not enter past the first ring, Agora, while the dark skinned may not enter beyond Subagora (low market) District, the second outermost ring. Alturba (derived from latin- alta urbis, high city) is for the largely wealthy and light skinned, and the innermost ring, Citadel, is where the eight noble families live. The main characters, Subagorans, face the problem of alerting the king of an assassination plot, and they're not allowed anywhere near him.

It also has a range of characters, from a heretic who speaks the truth, to a half man, half monster, who passes for human among those who once ostracized him, and a hero of the wendigo people, who makes an improbable alliance with our protagonists.