At The Star Wars… Dive Bar?

More Star Wars neepery, so beware.

Saw something on Facebook trying to describe TLJ and TRoS as an extended metaphor.

Imagine you’re in a nasty dive bar. You’ve got one friend who’s says he loves the place and the bikers, but is going around to all of the bikers there and gleefully pointing out, in excruciating detail, every scar and and wart and ugly thing on their face. He insults them over and over.

Then, you get his other friend, who comes in, puts the first guy in a headlock and knocks him out while telling the bikers, “Hey. Didn’t mean it! He’s crazy when he’s drunk. Sorry about that. Let me get your beer.”

Rian Johnson is the ‘crazy friend’ who picks fights with the bikers. JJ Abrams is the other friend. Which leads me to a few questions:

So – Star Wars is a dive bar? Star Wars fans are rowdy, ugly bikers? And Rian Johnson, the guy who made something as sweet as The Brothers Bloom and put a Hardware Wars reference into his Star Wars movie is insulting folks? And is JJ Abrams trying to be nice to a bunch of bikers who – by implication, seem to be nasty Aryan Nation types instead of just motorcycle enthusiasts?

The metaphor is deliberatly insulting but got me thinking. If I was to describe Star Wars, would it be a dive bar.

No, in my head, Star Wars is a CBGB like venue where the owner also had a band. Bare with me while I tell you the story of SWGB:

Back in 1977, this guy opened up a place called SWGB and his punk band was the headlining act. Now, they weren’t the most original punk band out there – you could hear echoes of other bands, even other punk bands, in the music – but he caught a lot of people’s ears.  The place sold out regularly. Lot of folks working in the background went on to start other bands. It had a huge ripple effect, especially to the kids who had their first punk experience there, and wanted to be the folks on stage, or in the songs.

By 1983, things had changed: a lot of the old band members got kicked out by the owner/band leader. By now, he was mostly concerned with producing and engineering for other bands, and getting a cut of the royalties from the last few albums, and all the swag there.  But – he kept the place alive by letting cover bands play, and giving a few folks the floor now and again. Some of it worked, and some didn’t, but it kept the place open while the band leader raked in the royalties.

Then, in the early 90’s, a friend turned him on to some new digital production techniques. Suddenly, the band leader/club owner started putting on shows again. They were the original shows, but with a lot of extra stuff added in. Special Editions of his earlier works, polished the way he wanted.  His original bandmates had long gone off to other things, so they didn’t get much of a say as he edited their work. But, it brought people back into the club – folks from the old days, and new folks, who got second and third hand stories.

By 1999 he announced he was getting the band back together and re-opening SWGB for real. Everyone went crazy, holding onto their old records, hoping to hear new music. But when he got back on stage… well, he’d gone into this weird digital experience, where it was more about diving into his desire to see what the production could do than actually making good music.

Still – club was open again! New people were listening to the music. He even let some new bands in and they got the message from the original teams. You could hear the old songs, but they added in their own new mixes. They did what the owner did back when: listened to older things, added in new things, and created something new.

Unfortunately, they started getting some new punks in the joint. Ones who were all about the look, but less about the ethos. They would go after new band members, harass them, drive them into depression and suicide all because the guy running the joint wasn’t making exactly the music they wanted to hear. And some of the older punks had gotten conservative. “We want to hear something just like the old days! Or else!” 

The mosh pit was getting ugly, and outside the club, more fights were starting. Lots of the people in the band leader’s crew started dropping away because of the abuse.  Eventually, the band leader got tired. He sold everything off to a big media company and left one of his few remaining bandmates in charge.  After a while, they announced they’d be bringing the club back in the old style: new music from new bands working with the owner’s original band-mates.

Opening night and they had their first big new band in. The band – We’ll call them TFA – was run by a fan and remix artist. He came in and gave them music which sounded like the original, 1977 work. No sign of the weird math rock stuff here, though there were callbacks to the fans of that work.   The idea was to bring in other newer artists and producers, to get their take on the materials.

But nothing works exactly as planned. The fans had split, again, and were loudly fighting over where the venue should go. They liked some of the bands there, like R1, but saw production issues in SLO’s work and didn’t really come in for it. Then, they brought in TLJ. The band were big fans of the original group’s second album, but went in different ways. They added in influences, took some of the things from other performances, and went in new directions. Critics loved it – but it split the audience.

Especially the angry ones. Mostly guys, mostly ones who thought they should be the star of the show, and everything should be done their way. They’d taken ownership of the music and instead of starting their own band, wanted to control who could come into the venue, what music was played, and would beat up anyone who didn’t match their standards.  So when ladies, or folk of color, or queerpunk bands showed up – they rioted. The fans of the ladies, folk of color, and queerpunk bands fought back, but the bitter punks were louder. And when TLJ ended its last set with “Fuck Off, Nazi Punks” it was all over.  There were lines in the sand now.

And then –  band they’d planned on going next completely hashed up their last show AND pissed off the person running the club. Money was threatened. The new owners demanded a return on their investment and they had to bring people back in who had proven they could get boots on the floor.  So, the band TFA was brought in again, renamed TRoS.  They worked really hard to ride the nostalgia like before – they wanted to please everyone, since they were the last band in the old venue.

Some folks loved it. Some folks were disappointed because they liked where TLJ was going. Some people bailed to go check out a new side project on the smaller stage called MANDO. And some decided to quit the scene all together, because they couldn’t enjoy the music without someone yelling at them.

Oh, and then there are the few – the ones you actually want to keep an eye out on. They took all of this and said, “You know, I think I want to make my own band. Something with the things l liked from old and new SWGB, and a few other things.”  Watch what they do from here and support them. And if you find yourself calling them ‘abominations’ and demanding they never play again ask yourself ‘What would the original SWGB punks do? The ones who were called all those names back in the day?’

If it’s something cruel – don’t do it. Because no matter what, everyone who went into SWGB wanted to create something in 1977. What do you want to do?

***

I’ll leave you with a quote from an author I admire:

 

In Defense of Canto Bight

If what’s happening with recent Star Wars discussion can be called “The Skywalker Schism” – as posited by author Bill Bridges – I’m about to go full on Heresy here.

I think the Canto Bight sequences in TLJ are necessary because they not only fed into Finn’s journey from focused survivalist to declaring himself “rebel scum” but also shows us exactly why the New Republic failed. Let me talk about Finn, first.

Remember Finn from TFA was a focused survivalist. Once Poe apparently died, his mission was to get out of dodge and away from the oncoming storm of the First Order and it’s system killer. Only Rey gave him pause. By the end of TFA, his survival sphere expanded to Rey and Poe, but not to the Resistance as a whole. As far as he was concerned, the resistance was a futile effort. Even with Starkiller base gone, there was no way the Resistance would escape.

When he tried to jump ship, it was to make sure Rey didn’t fly back into a bloodbath. He told Poe and Rose to get out while they could. He accepted the mission with Rose because it provided a path for him to keep Rey safe. He was never in for the rebellion.

Then, Canto Bight. Canto Bight provided a vision of a world outside the First Order and the Resistance. To a soldier who’d never seen the outside of a Star Destroyer unless on deployment, this must have been heaven. But it’s heaven built on slavery, and torture (they shocked the farthiers!) and an Ayn Rand level of mercenary thinking. Everyone in Canto Bight used money to insulate themselves from the wars around them, and the suffering of others. They sat from the balconies and watched races, ignoring who tended to those farthiers.

DJ (Benicio Del Torro’s character) is a perfect example. He is not Han Solo 2.0. He’s a mercenary pure and simple, and sells out everyone for more money to buy a nice safe place while the wars go down. He takes advantage of folks with ‘true beliefs’ just as the First Order takes advantage of his skills.

But, during that trip, seeing Canto Bight through Rose’s eyes, seeing kids like he him – pressed into servitude – and the sacrifices others were willing to make, changed Finn. When he confronted Phasma, he proudly declared himself Rebel Scum (TM). And he went back to Crait, despite the desperate situation, when they could have gone most anywhere else. Now in, he’d sacrifice himself to keep the Resistance alive. That’s not the Finn we saw trying to get away from a fight. He confronted the First Order head on.

The second thing Canto Bight taught us is how the New Republic failed. From the Prequels (and especially the Clone Wars TV series) we saw how corrupt the Republic and the Jedi order became. The latter was so focused on maintaining their dogma, they violated the spirit upon which it was based. The former let slavery, private armies, bribery and other crimes go unchecked. They relied on the Jedi as peacekeepers and locals when Jedi couldn’t be there. There was no Republic agency fighting corruption and slavery, as far as I could see. When the Republic became the Empire, they just leaned into the corruption: Don’t rock the boat, and we’ll ensure you and yours don’t get touched.

When the New Republic came around, did they go after the collaborators? Apparently not. The same folks who were bankrolling the First Order were also supplying arms and services to the New Republic. My current screen crush, Cara Dune, noted the NR went from taking down Imperial warlords to making political concessions. Anyone expecting the folks who provided the Empire with Super Star Destroyers and profited handsomely to take a perp walk when the New Republic came in to power was surprised.

Unfortunately, it sent a very specific messages to the Canto Bight privileged: It doesn’t matter who’s in authority, because as long as you have money, you can buy safety. You control the guns and butter? You can dictate your terms. Seinar Fleet Systems produced ships for the Republic, then the Empire, then the New Republic and the First Order. All it needed to do was change it’s name to Seinar-Jaemus Fleet Systems.

So, the slavery continues. The war continues. And the people who profit from it continue to order small kids around, forcing them to clean up after their horses. In the shadows, though, the kids tell stories. Stories of someone who stood up and kept hope alive under impossible odds.

My only hope is after TRoS, the first thing they do is send Rose and Finn back to Canto Bight. With shock troopers, arrest warrants, and social teams to care for the slave families. Oh, and the kid? Someone get him a light saber.

End of Heresy.

Not-So-Cyberpunk 2020

The end of the year. Normally a time for reflection on the year. Honestly, though, my accomplishments can be boiled down to the following:

  • Published in two anthologies this year.
  • Completed draft of a full-length novel
  • Attended two (smaller scale) workshops
  • Kept my job for a full year
  • Kept my personal life relatively intact
  • Continued to appreciate how damn lucky I am to have found my wife

Things I did not get to do and wanted to included:

  • Drop a test podcast/video
  • Take more photographs
  • Promote myself more on social media

What is in store for 2020? Normally, I’d talk about our down-market, low-budget Cyberpunk future here but I’ve done a lot of that this year. Let’s just say any timeline which forces William Gibson to go back and rewrite a novel-in-progress because the current ‘fucked up’ factor in the real world outstrips his fictional one fairly gritty one.

I can only plan for myself. In addition to the three missed items above, I have the following on my list:

  • Read and revise novel
  • Find and attend more writing workshops, hopefully local.
  • Contacts, submissions, and other outreach attempts.

And the big one:

  • Revise that short story.

I wrote a draft last year for an on-line class. It drew from personal experience. Bad personal experience. After sending it about, and getting an editor to take a look at it (Birthday present thoughts for writers: hire an editor to read their short story), I knew I had to revise it.

The protagonist needed to take the lead, go to the forefront. They needed to be front and center. And the story had to be told from first person. Not the comfortable, distant third of the current draft. Which means walking down ugly roads in my head all over again.

I wasn’t ready, until PAX Unplugged. I was at the convention center, 8:15am to sign up for a miniature painting class. Turns out – they’d already gone to waitlist. Which was odd, as registration wasn’t supposed to begin for another 45 minutes. But that left me alone in the con, waiting for my wife to wake up and the expo hall to open.

I had my backpack. My notebook. My pen. And I had a short story to revise from word one.

The word count was unimportant; I wrote. I wrote and stepped back into an ugly, ugly memory. The rest of the story will probably be just as rough. But that’s how you know it’ll impact someone, yes? If it bleeds, it leads.

Or, to put it in true 2020 terms –

Got a bunch of small jobs, mostly routine, but there’s a big op staring me down right now. Wetwork, with legions of CyberPsychos and Black ICE between me and the prize. But there’s no room for winging, sabe? Got my rippers sharpened, smart-link tuned, and enough combat medication in my system for a tour in the last corp war. I’m chipping in…

Not So SMART Goals

SMART Goals: The holy grail of getting things done. Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely goals. It’s a corporate mantra, spoken at every HR review. We want to set goals which can be achieved – vague language is for mission statements.

For writing, a SMART goal sounds like this:

  • Complete second draft of three (3), 5000-word short stories by November 28, 2019
  • Submit three (3) short stories to top markets by December 31, 2019
  • Finish planning revision structure for novel by January 31, 2020

Each is very specific and measurable. They are achievable and realistic (notice it says nothing about getting any of the works published) and it does have a timely deadline. That’s great. But it’s also about the mechanics of the process. Deadlines. What to get done when. None of it touches on the why.

This is where writing deviates from other businesses in quite a few ways. One of my favorite YouTube channels features a carpenter who demonstrates different Chinese, Japanese, and Western style joinery. You can see the how behind it all right there – you watch him measure and mark the wood, scoring and penciling in every cut. And then he picks out specific tools to build the joints – chisels, drills, planes so sharp they create long wispy films of shaved wood when run down the length of a plank.

I’ve never seen him address why he does it – why does he take so much time and effort to do what some would do with machine tools and CAD programs? I can only imagine, but I think it would lie between “I do this because I enjoy creating something from a simple blank of wood” or “I enjoy the process, the use of the plane and saw to build something” or “I get a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done.”

Right now, I’m having trouble finding reconnecting with what gave me joy in writing before now. Once upon a time, I’d sit behind a word processor and just type away, picturing the story, following the characters through and imagining how people would react while reading the tale. My goals were big hairy ambitions:

  • “I want my reader to feel something after reading my story.”
  • “I want folks who read my stories to think about creating their own, in a positive way! Fanfic or art or deciding they want to write.”
  • “I want my readers to want to read more stories with the characters.”

Those aren’t SMART goals. They’re impossible goals. At no point can I assure some invisible authority that I’ve made an emotional impact on a reader or create milestones to I can meet while getting someone to make fan art. I have to follow another path. A different way of seeing my work.

I have to stop seeing this a well-planned hike, where you know the end point and know the exact paths to get there. There are no GPS markers, or well-maintained paths with signs saying, “Next bathroom, 20 yards.”

This is a rough trek. A wander. This is navigation by trail signs and the sun alone. You walk in the general direction of your destination, work on becoming a better hiker, glean what you can from the folks along the way (and learn when to ignore the ‘ya kant get dere from here’ guys’). All goals you can set are to try and make you a better hiker, a better navigator, and a better trail reader.

You can still fail. You cannot reach the end of your trip. You can be amazing as a hiker, great as a navigator, and yet still run into an obstacle you can’t cross. You can burn out, too, getting sick of the sweat and bugs and people constantly telling you how awful the road is up ahead. Oh, and that town you wanted to visit? Yeah, filled with the worst kind of people.

What do you do, then? When SMART goals don’t get you where you want to be, and the end goal seems so distant, you’re wondering why you’re hiking?

You stop, and take a breath. You try to enjoy just being in the moment. You reconnect with what got you hiking in the first place.

And that’s what I need to do. I need to sit down, close my eyes, and listen to the wind in the trees. Because I’m having a hard time walking any further, and I’m feeling lost.

One Step from The Horror

Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” One of my media professors used to talk about this as dramatic distance. The closer you are to an event, emotionally, the impact of an event changes. Or, put it another way, it’s funny when a moose in heat humps someone else’s car to pieces. But when it happens to you? That’s a $30,000 car that’s been totaled – and who’s betting their insurance covers paint damage from moose semen?

I think that distance is what will help me crack horror writing. Comedy and horror are brothers, after all. They know the value of timing, of setup, and making sure you have just enough skin in the game to make you want to get the punchline.

This all started when I was listening to one of the best weird/horror authors out there, Gemma Files, on the “This is Horror” podcast.

Two things hit me. The first was a sponsorship ad for a book where a deep-voiced narrator described walking on the beach, alone, as darkness sets and seeing a woman in the surf. But when she turns around, she has razor sharp claws and shark teeth and runs at you, looking to devour you! I’ll let you hear it for yourself in the episode.

The second was a weird story idea Gemma threw out there of a man who sticks his hand under his pillow and finds a mouth there, in his bed, in the mattress.

Both cases had me thinking that most of the folks I write about would have had non-standard reactions to both scenarios. The guy on the beach, confronted by the shark mermaid? If he’s alone, wandering at night, he’s probably depressed. Most likely thinking about returning to a soul-crushing corporate job, thinking about his ruined dreams, when he sees something out of myth charging him. His first thought, and likely last, would be how beautiful it was, and how he wouldn’t have to deal with Toby demanding an update on his QBR numbers the next Tuesday…

Or, with the mouth, after yanking the pillows away, our protagonist would stare at the lips and teeth sprouting from the bed and she’d say, “Can you talk? Are there ears anywhere?” After the shock, there would be communications attempt. If it spoke weird languages, she’d try to figure it out so she could speak its language and figure out how it got merged with her mattress, and how to get it home.

That’s not how normal people react. That’s not how horror protagonists react. And part of the horror is the fact it’s a normal person in abnormal situations.

So, I have to step away. My protagonist isn’t the guy smiling as a shark woman rakes her teeth across his naked skin, devouring him. It’s the beach patrol officer, reassigned there after putting seven bullets into a pregnant black lady in her own home, and still believes it was the right thing to do. And the only way to make his beach safe is to take the same attitude to those things coming out of the water.

My protagonist isn’t the lady who finds the mouth, it’s the husband, horrified at the foul thing spouting unwholesome words, seducing his wife to Satan’s bedside. He’d need to get a crucifix, of course, and sharpen it into a knife to cut out it’s foul tongue before his wife went too far astray. The local Baptist pastor is right, after all.

Will be trying this out and seeing how it goes. Wish me luck.

That Voice – No, not that one. The other one!


Do you hear that voice? Just over your shoulder, at the edge of your hearing. No, not the one yelling about a Meat Bicycle! Or the one saying, “You’re the crunch, and I’m the Captain!” That voice we’re used to dealing with, because it’s the engineer on the Poop Train. Or Hamlet.

And I’m not talking about the Internal Editor. That bastard has been written about far too much.

No, this is the Inner Marketer.

This voice is looking at your first draft short story and saying, “Wait? You’re nearly at 4K words?? And you have two scenes left? You’ll never be able to market that! Shorter gives you a better chance of slipping in!”

Or, “So, this story about the android – where do you think that will get published? What’s your target market?”

Or, “When is the last time you did a blog post?”

“What was the last thing you put on twitter?”

“Have you tried to get your name out there more?”

“You need to work on that novel. No one will ever pay attention if you just keep writing short stories that only one market publishes!”

Notice one thing about this particular beast. Unlike the Inner Editor, the Inner Marketer doesn’t care about the quality of your story. It’s focused on the hustle. The sale. Everything except the quality of the story itself. In that way, it’s way worse than the Inner Editor.

When the two of them combine, they can completely tear your concentration apart.

Did writers of the past deal with the Inner Marketer? The Inner Editor was a bad enough. Adding this new psycho on the shoulder can be a bit much. It almost makes you want to go a little bonkers and say to both of them:

And play hopscotch on their rib cages.

Where’s Andrija? Or How to Get My Stuff

My third appearance in a ZNB anthology has been out in the world for quite a bit.  PORTALS features my story, “Hard Times in the Vancouver Continuum,” alongside an amazing array of authors.  The ZNB team specializes in making great theme anthologies and the next set of themes has been announced. I’ve got two stories I think will fit with their upcoming anthologies. You can learn more here.

With August gone, and September pretty much out, I’m working on a few more blog posts and also getting ready to start some structural edits to the novel I just finished.  So I figure this is a perfect time to answer my two most commonly asked questions:

“How can I get your stories?” or “What’s the best way to support you?”

The answer comes down to three things: Buy, Review, and Recommend. Buy the book – preferably a physical copy so if you bump into me, or another author, we can sign it. Review the book on, especially on Amazon. Do you know it takes 50 reviews for a book to get noticed by the great Amazon algorithm? If it’s not noticed, it won’t be spotted and recommended to others.  And that last R – Recommend – is key. Tell at least two others about the book. Encourage them to buy.

“How can I get your stories?”

Well, you can go to the link behind the amazing cover for PORTALS to the Amazon order page. But I recommend you go straight to the source: ZNB LLC.  You can get the Ebook edition, the limited Kickstarter mass-market paperback, or the trade paperback edition.   When you do get a copy, read it, review it on Amazon (even if you hate it – a review is a review and gets us noticed), and recommend it to a friend. Again, if you like it. And given the folks in the table of content, you’re bound to find something you like.

Then, do the same for the other anthologies.

 

You can still get copies of THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS from these sources: Trade PaperbackKindleNookKickstarter Edition (limited)

and you can also get my first appearance in the anthology ALIEN ARTIFACTS from here as well: Trade PaperbackKindleNookKickstarter Edition (limited).  And while you’re at it, if you are admiring some of the absolutely amazing artwork here, you can get the covers as prints!  All three covers are by the amazing Justin Adams.  You can get art prints. You can find the cover for PORTALS, THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, and ALIEN ARTIFACTS right on the ZNB page, along with the other amazing work for anthologies which, alas, do not feature my writing.

Oh, and for those  who are interested, my story under the name A.J. Harris in the STRANDED anthology is still available. Watching all the authors come together to help write the back copy and log-lines for their stories is a cherished memory.

 

“What’s the best way to support you?”

 

Buy, Review, and Recommend.  Buy is the easy concept. I do get a cut of every copy sold. Review intimidates folks but don’t worry – even just adding in some stars on Amazon or Goodreads will help. If we get 50 reviews on an anthology, Amazon’s algorithms (all hail the algorithm) will start recommending the book to others. And, one star reviews count to that as well. Feel free to slag off on my stories, and tell your friends that the best way to ‘own the libs’ is to buy a copy, burn it, and then give it a one star rating on Amazon. It all helps me.

 

Last, but not least, recommend. If you actually like the work put in by all the authors in the anthology, recommend it to at least two new folks.  Keep the cycle going, and we thank you for your support.

 

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