Monday, July 23, 2018

She-Ra: It's Not About Power or Beauty. It's About Fear.

Discussion of the upcoming Netflix reboot She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has been fast and furious in all directions. There are people who love it. There are people who hate it. There are artists cranking out fanart, either for their own fun or to spite the haters. There are takes of all temperatures concerning how this is the "end of femininity," how the new Adora looks like a butch lesbian, and the general expected reactions.

Up front, I was a She-Ra fan as a kid. Of course. I was the target audience. I had the toys and everything. I was more into He-Man and kind of viewed She-Ra as "my girly He-Man alternative because for some reason no one wants me watching the Boy Cartoon," but I still enjoyed it. I've not been a hardcore enough fan to follow the nostalgia over the years. But I'll be watching the Netflix reboot because I'm always interested to see what my generation does when handed the reins to the shows they love.

Also, new Princess Adora straight-up looks like a PreCure so I'm down to clown.

That said, I can totally understand why a fan of the original might genuinely feel a bit odd about the new art. The original series had that sort of rock'n'roll fairy tale Heavy Metal feel to it that a lot of fantasy and action cartoons did at the time. I think honestly it'd be a bit ridiculous to expect every She-Ra fan, or every 80s cartoon fan, to immediately embrace this huge stylistic change that is (literally and artistically) decades removed from its original.

That doesn't mean it's not good or that I don't like it personally or that I think anyone who liked it immediately is being disingenuous. It just means I can completely see why being handed this would make some people need a minute. You can't slap someone in the face with the Fish of Change and expect them to immediately thank you for it.

It grew on some people. Awesome. Some still don't like it. Also awesome. Did you know there are modern cartoons I don't watch because I can't jam with the art style? It's true. Me, an entertainment journalist, can be turned off by art styles. Welcome to the world of subjective opinion and free will.

I'm sure there are people out there not jamming with the new style for reasons that aren't even remotely misogyny- or socially-motivated, but they don't wanna say anything because they're terrified they'll be called sexist or some shit. If you don't dig it for no reason other than you just don't, that's fine. Rock on. Watch what you like.

Y'all aren't who I wanna talk about anyway.

What we are seeing is an influx of hitherto un-self-identified male She-Ra fans of my era, angry as all get-out because the new Adora is "ugly" or "unfeminine." To which I say two things:

1. She looks just like a friend of mine's kid so don't go calling her ugly.

2. You and I both know that's not what's bothering you.

My Law of 7 Billion doesn't permit me to state that none of the guys complaining about the reboot has ever watched the original She-Ra. (For those who don't know: I have a law, which I use to call out mostly myself, saying it's more likely that at least one person in 7 billion has done something than that 0 in 7 billion have. Thus I can't say "None of the people saying this has ever done this" because the odds are against me.) So it is possible, even probable, that at least one guy mourning the existence of the reboot actually does have that deep a childhood connection to the show. It's improbable, though, that all of them do.

What's more probable is that these guys are invoking the exact language that they know will get responses: talk of the "death of femininity," referring to the new Adora as a "butch lesbian," or basically anything else that's going to get the Woke Patrol up in arms. It's to a tee. It's too to a tee. And it's working.

In conjunction with my previously stated Law of 7 Billion, I'm absolutely sure that there are people out there who believe that the teenage Adora now looks like a teenager is indeed the Death of Strong Womanhood as we know it. I'm sure there are some people who, when they say it, really do believe it inside and out. But again, I feel that's just scratching the surface of what's going on here. Because we're looking at people who, in large part, only now are taking an active interest in the IP.

This has zero to do with the show. It has zero to do with strength, beauty, femininity, or (thank God) sex appeal. Across the board, this is about fear. And I'm not talking "weak men scared of strong girls." I'm talking about fear of erasure and irrelevance because of just how strongly many people equate fandom and identity.

Even if She-Ra is not a person's show of choice, it is (theoretically) representative of an era. It is very Eighties. It was never, until now, reimagined in any significant official form, so we don't have the benefit of regular reboots to loosen us up about the idea that the characters could look any different. So for someone who has banked the majority -- if not the entirety -- of their identity in being an Eightes Kid and a Cartoon Fan, the mere existence of the new version is an affront to their literal personality. And that's... gonna make 'em fighty.

Now, He-Man and She-Ra were made to be fun and sell toys. And the art style was made to match the standard art style of its genre. In other words, both shows were very standard. Look at the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and -- no offense, just speaking objectively -- it is very standard. It looks like a 2018 Netflix cartoon, just as much as the original looked like an 80s fantasy cartoon. In other words, nothing's really changed. The story still exists in its moment, in the style most accessible to present-day viewers of its chosen demo.

tl;dr on that last paragraph, so far She-Ra is what it always was: a cartoon in the standard present-day animation style, made to appeal to a specific age range and maybe shift some molded plastic.

But the fact that it still functions as it did 30 years ago, even though it doesn't look like it did 30 years ago, is not going to make a difference when someone's primary concern is "they're destroying what makes me me."

Being a fan of something -- even being a huge fan of something -- is fine. God, look at me. But the danger comes when it becomes your primary, or even sole, identifier. Because now you've built your house on sand, and if a wave comes along, there's nothing left.

And I'm not talking, like, shorthanding your personality via a Hogwarts house or something. (Slytherin, BTW.) I'm talking situations where, if you extract the object of the person's fandom from the equation, there's really nothing left. The show, the team, the band, the era, whatever, is their literal everything. It's how they identify themselves, it's how they measure their worth.

This is the real face of gatekeeping: over-dedicated fans so terrified of their primary identifier being corrupted that they need to check any and every change. To them, a show like the new She-Ra is the equivalent of having a stranger's fingers stuck in their DNA. That's the fear. Not the decline of womanhood, not the value of the original product, but their own sense of self-worth.

But they don't say that -- either because it's frankly embarrassing, or because they themselves don't connect the dots that this is why these negative feelings won't process and go away. So, deliberately or subconsciously, they grab the modern keywords. Then people will debate them. Then they'll know they've been heard, even if (or because) they're being deluged with disagreements.

That's their problem. That's their baggage. It's not ours to solve or step around. But it does behoove us to understand this, and to place our energy in other things. Yelling that they're wrong won't fix their hecked-up self image. Only they can do that. In their own time.

I can't speak for the quality of the new She-Ra because it's not out yet. I've only seen pictures, which I'm cool with. But I haven't read scripts, heard voices, or been told about story arcs. I've not seen these images in motion. It would be disingenuous of me to say I will love it (or anything) no matter what, because frankly I learned the hard way that it's called "ride-or-die" for a reason.

But as a fan of the original She-Ra, as a fan of fantasy-action and magical girls, and as an active writer and reviewer of fiction, I am interested enough in what I've seen to give it an enthusiastic chance. I really think that's more than fair to say.

For those who dislike it or aren't sure: that's fair. You do you. Netflix is full to the brim of things that need watching. There's so much entertainment in the world that focusing on what we don't like is just taking time away from discovering things we do like.

And for those actively protesting the existence of the reboot, as well as those engaging them long-term: thing about why this protest exists. Remember that people only fight when they're scared. And be happy to detach and let people unpack their own baggage. This time could be better used engaging in what you love.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Five Things I Wish I'd Done Before Going Freelance

First off, I still don't regret choosing to go freelance.

It has its own unique sets of challenges, it alters your concept of "weekends" pretty much beyond repair, and it does change how and when you have contact with people. (Not to mention how much you want contact with people.) But even with that, and even with the fact that I end up working on "sick days" or messing up my own deadlines or accidentally inverting my sleep schedule, I still love it and what it affords me.

Even so, I will admit that I dropped my job and moved along a bit hastily. This was largely because I'd started having panic attacks and wasn't sure I'd last to the end of my initial plan. In retrospect it was the right choice to make, but I would have benefited from some earlier planning.

If you're in a phase where going freelance is a greater than 50% probability, that's enough reason to start planning to do so. You'll be ready to go if you do... and if you ultimately don't, you've lost nothing and possibly given yourself a few emergency buffers.

1. Bank up 3 months' worth of rent (if possible).

Nope, this isn't where I tell you to give up your morning Starbucks or stop spending on "unnecessary things," because I have no idea how hand-to-mouth you are. How you approach this is your call.

But I will say that when you first start freelancing (and even occasionally when you've been at it a while), you will get severely dry months. Knowing that if your main client goes AWOL during the holidays you can still get by is one of the best safety nets you can give yourself.

That said... saving money isn't easy. Some of us are in jobs where we can. Some of us are just barely scraping by. But if this is a life change you are somewhat set on making, put aside what you can, when you can. Even if it's only a little, even if you don't feel like it'll make a hell of a lot of difference in the long run. Every little bit helps, and the closer you can get to surviving a little while without clients contacting you, the better your run will be.

2. Start scoping out opportunities.

This is kind of like how you should start job-hunting before you give your notice. Except in the world of freelancing, diversification is key. If you work for multiple clients, you won't hurt as hard if you need to leave one for some reason.

Unlike a job hunt, though, this doesn't necessarily have to be all in. Remember those content mills a while back that I said are a good stop-gap in the short run? This is the time for that. If you're a writer, start taking the tests on those sites and getting rated so you can be ready to make a few bucks as soon as you're ready. If you're actively approaching leaving, you're safer to start sniffing out committed clients -- but if you're still on the fence, there are other jobs out there you can express interest in without signing a contract.

I recommend about three of these. (Notice a pattern? There's nothing magic to it; three is just "a little more than one or two, but not too much to be a setback pulling everything together.") Get them lined up, make sure you'll be able to jump onto them as soon as you're ready, and you can worry about something tidier later. Just as long as there's work waiting for you when you've left.

3. Set up your work space.

The work-from-home life is an odd one to get used to. We all think we'll want it and that it'll be great, and the times we've done it for our real job, it is. But when it's your daily life, it's a little different. You get lonely. You get disorganized. It can feel easier to slack off or wander away.

Take a time when you need to do something productive but don't want to pay bills or go shopping, and choose where you'll be working from once you work from home. Then start setting up that spot. Make it comfortable, but conducive to business. Don't feel weird about making it "yours" even if you're the only one who will see it.

Having a dedicated, comfortable work space is one of the biggest things I currently have going for me, and how it looks and how it's kept have a huge influence on my productivity. Plus, if you're still on the fence about taking the leap, walking by your cozy little personal work space every day, just waiting for you to use it, might inspire you to get going.

4. Actually use your LinkedIn.

When you're in more creative fields, using LinkedIn can feel like a waste. I don't get a lot of traction from mine, I'll admit. But keeping it up-to-date and posting on the daily (when I can) actually does get me more eyeballs. And if nothing else, that spreads things around for me.

Plus, jazzing up your LinkedIn is an easy way to keep your resume up-to-date, and keep track of everything you've been up to. Online jobs will likely require you to cut-n-paste your resume and attach it, so you might as well learn to love it.

5. Stop reading freelancing horror stories.

Just like you shouldn't Google whatever surgery you're getting before you have it, you shouldn't spend too much time reading about the horrors of your next life choice. This was one of my bigger mistakes.

Any job you do -- retail, teaching, parenting, freelancing, whatever -- will have bad points. It will also (with the possible exception of retail) have good points. Looking up listicles on bad experiences in careers, though, will all have one thing in common: they'll be bad.

I've had some awful experiences as a freelancer. I've also had some wonderful ones. Reading about the awful ones beforehand, like non-paying clients or customers with weird requests, never prepared me for actually dealing with them. It only made me paranoid about when I'd eventually have to.

You'll have people who don't pay. You'll have people who don't understand why you're "so expensive." You'll have some absolute maniacs requesting some weird shit from you. But just as romanticizing the freelance life doesn't help us, driving ourselves the complete other way doesn't, either.

Unless what you're reading comes packaged with solutions for dealing with these situations, you're far better off giving them a miss and looking forward with confidence.

Some of these are just little things I realized would have been a help. Others were proper mistakes. And no move to freelancing is ever going to be smooth or perfect. I don't think that kind of situation exists. But if it's what you're looking to do, giving yourself as stable a landing pad beforehand will help you stick the landing when you take the jump... even if it's a bit terrifying.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Horror Goes Interactive: Nick Nocture vs. Jack Torrance

I am a big old sucker for creepypasta and weird horror -- and of late, my big source for that has been the Night Mind YouTube channel, hosted by Nick Nocturne. Nick kicked off his channel doing full-blown analyses of the big three Slenderman series... and then just kept going. Nowadays, his channel is a mix of previews and reviews of indie horror and ARGs, advice for up-and-coming creators, and Wham City Comedy love (which, let's be real, is completely warranted).

Regular viewers will note a few things about Nick's recent releases. For one thing, he's upgraded his "office" (a digital depiction thereof). For another, he's talked here and there about how he's looking for another series that fills him with as much intrigue and excitement as those original Big Three did. And, for a third, he started having late-night livestreams, inviting viewers to come together to piece apart the latest episodes of Tribe Twelve and EverymanHYBRID.

And now the madman is out in the field, chasing after a YouTube series/ARG on his own.

Nick covered the YouTube channel Jack Torrance a while back on his channel. The fiction of the piece seems to be a mix of Super 8 vids found in a pile of old boxes, combined with a series of modern videos depicting home repairs and a potential abduction (or worse). If you want the whole breakdown, you can see Nick's video on it here. And before you ask, no, there don't seem to be any solid links to the channels' namesake from The Shining at this point.

Jack Torrance eventually went dark, with seemingly no sign of following up on the story threads it had laid out. Then, a few days ago, it did a livestream, titled "Find me." While many horror series and ARGs actually do thrive on viewer interaction (see EverymanHYBRID, later stages of BEN Drowned, and the currently active @TheSunVanished), Jack Torrance never went this direction before.

And suddenly, Nick perked right up.

Here's Jack Torrance's livestream.

Here's Nick Nocturne's throwdown.

And here (in the description) is Jack Torrance's acceptance.

The crazy cat has gone down to Texas in response, leaving a Night Mind calling card at three of the five relevant locations he found (two were private residences, thus he left them alone and undocumented). Here's his first in-the-field report.

Since then, things have gotten even wilder, with Nick and Jack just missing crossing paths, some taunting, and even a few "birthday presents" popping up in a dead drop. Banking this story early turned out to be both good and bad... the good behind that I've had it waiting, the bad being that most of the big developments happened after I wrote this piece and I'm sliding in the night before it goes up to update.

What kind of updates?

Here's Nick's second report, covering the first real contact between the two, including signs that Jack is watching Nick as much as Nick is watching Jack. And then there's Nick's own piece of found footage, which is turning the whole concept of engagement for Jack Torrance's channel on its head.

So why is this a thing? Why am I bringing this up? Because this is some next-level shit, and it's also a good high-sign of one of my favorite new branches of the indie horror genre.

Thomas Dolby and Nine Inch Nails both played with ARG concepts before they were popular ("Map of the Floating City" and "Year Zero," respectively), and a few films in the late 90s and early naughties toyed with the idea of viewer interaction to boost hype. So the idea of audience involvement isn't new or revolutionary. What is new and revolutionary is the idea of creating mysteries, horror, and psychological drama where the audience is a character.

And with Nick's involvement in the Jack Torrance side of things -- which is looking more and more like it's the channel owner's anniversary present to the Night Mind community -- we're seeing it evolve yet again. Now we have someone who's devoted himself to both analysis of dark media and bringing people together with it indulging in the fan interaction side of things. And that's a degree of positive mobilization that I don't believe we've yet encountered.

For those of us who are into the grim and psychological, ARGs scratch the itch of wishing we could safely engage with the creepy plots we witness in our entertainment. And with one of the genre's leading analysts diving right in and bringing us along with him, I'm hoping for a wild ride.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Flee the Content Mills: Why Bloggers and Businesspeople Need Each Other

When I was between gigs, working the content mill helped me get a little money in here and there. It was grueling and largely un-fun, but it was money. And it was a chance to write more, thus improving my writing for when I got to a point when there was a job opening.

But for all the hole-patching it did, the content mill life was... not awesome? Not awesome. Because for all the help it offers both businesses in need of content and writers in need of work, the fact that it's a third-party system means the setup isn't particularly ideal. And you don't necessarily realize that until you find yourself in particular situations covered in the fine print.

As an up-front -- content mills are a wonderful short-term solution. This goes for both businesses and writers. Sometimes there's literally nothing else, because finding and hiring a writer is a luxury. And sadly, finding a job as a writer is also a luxury in this day and age. (Believe me, I know.) But for long-term blog content, or for long-term writing work, it's worth it to start moving toward interfacing with each other directly.

Mills Don't Let You Talk One-on-One

One of the major points of content mills in general -- and one we all agree to because we rarely see a situation where we'd want to go against it -- is the idea that we are all numbers. The businesses are numbers, you are a number, and we all interface via the mill's website. If you're spending eight hours a day shooting out 300-word SEO-optimized pieces on how to use boat cushions for arts and crafts, this probably won't bother you.

But once in a while, a business and a writer make a good connection. This happened to me with a legal firm setting up a new department, and I handled a couple of press releases for them. They tipped me extra for my work, and they liked me specifically. And I was pretty cool with them. In a different scenario, I'd happily have stayed on board with them.

Remember, though: you cannot talk outside the mill's website. And that's because the mill gets a cut of the transaction.

That's simultaneously one of the most understandable business moves they could make, and one of the biggest deal-breakers for me. Basically if a writer and a business mesh, they can't take it outside. If they want to work together, it has to be through the mill or you've broken their Terms Of Service and God knows what happens then.

To be fair, as you're swimming through ghost-writing for mommy blogs and Russian mail-order bride sites, you're not entirely likely to make a match. But it can happen.

Writing for Someone Means Knowing Them

I do news and features for a bunch of websites, and amongst the news are things I've never encountered. Like, say, shows I'm not into. Shows that aren't even out yet. Bands I'm unfamiliar with. But I still write about them, and I write about them well, because that's a writer's job.

However. If you're looking at consistently updating blog posts for your business, you need more than people doing a quick read on what you do, plugging in the keywords, and hitting word count. Will that do the trick? Sure, it's fine. It's adequate.

But the best and most attractive business blogs radiate a love for the business itself... and that's something that's hard to get when you're sending out a dozen work orders to a dozen strangers churning out a dozen other work orders.

Ten or 20 years ago, this scene would have been extremely different. Even owning a .com back then was such a big deal that you got noticed. But nowadays, that's nothing. My family bought a .com just so they could have reliable email addresses. Ten businesses doing the same thing can exist at the same time.

What sets you apart when you're creating content for your company's site is personality. And yeah, you can set "personality keywords," ask for a faceless writer to write in a certain style. But you're much more likely to get what you want sitting across from them, telling them about your business.

And writers, you know it's a lot easier to write for someone's site once you've heard/seen them talk. You can get a better feel for their personality and the personality of the business (which can very much be its own entity), whereas with a numbered work order you can do your best but there's still a degree of guess work.

Businesses and Bloggers Grow Together

In my experience, the hardest part of setting up a content and social media campaign for a business is figuring out what they even want to do. How often do they want to blog? What kind of blogs are they going to write? How central will that be to the site? To their social media? It's rare, and understandably so, that a business owner comes in with a set image in their head of how things will run.

Having a professional writer there, someone who's worked for a variety of different sites in a variety of different styles, can help narrow down what this particular businessperson needs when it comes to an Internet presence. Or if nothing else, having that avid listener there serves as a good "rubber duck" scenario for the businessperson actually figuring it out.

Plus, when a blogger and a business work together, they can watch what works and what doesn't as it happens. And then they can discuss what will work going forward, using their personal experiences to tweak and create something useful together. When you go into a content mill, you need to know what you need, no (or few) questions asked. And for a business just dipping their toe into the Internet, that's rough.

If you are in need of quick and dirty SEO (if you're a business) or quick and dirty cash (if you're a writer), then content mills are absolutely the way to go. But if you're a business looking for a sustainable, friendly Internet presence, reach out to writers. Having someone who knows you and what you do is infinitely more beneficial. And there are tons of wonderful, trained, professional writers out there who could do just that for you.

Like me — at the risk of being tacky right here at the end. I've worked as a journalist for ten years, writing for everything from family news sites to geek entertainment sites, and creating original content for streaming sites, live events, and more. I price by the word and I'd love to hear about what you've devoted your life to. Get in touch using any of my happy little social media buttons... or, if you prefer, look through your own circle of friends and associates and make connections with one of the talented writers in your area. You won't be sorry.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sing Your Song: The Sounds of "One Hand Clapping"

I watch a handful of Let's Play-type channels on YouTube because, as I've said before, my gaming abilities are not particularly top-notch and my brain sucks for vertigo. But once in a while, I'll be watching a video and feel the need to stop everything, grab the game myself, and play.

That was exactly what happened with One Hand Clapping, a USC-produced demo/experience where your primary tool is your voice.

You play as a sad, nondescript little blob-person who first appears in a grey cityscape filled with shadowy people. You have two sets of controls: arrows (or WASD if you prefer) and the space bar, and your microphone. The keyboard helps you with basic navigation. But to influence the environment and solve puzzles, you have to sing.

Well, sing or hum or whistle. They've made sure the game isn't inaccessible to non-singers. And while there's some pitch-matching in later puzzles, it's not going to shut you out based on ability. Your "lowest comfortable note" (and "comfortable" makes a difference here -- more on that later) is calibrated at the beginning of the game, and can be recalibrated at any point if you feel like things are a little off.

Early puzzles involve just making sounds at all to make things move, then pitching higher and lower to raise and lower elements of the landscape. Once you've moved into the second phase of the game, you're met by a cheerful little green critter who is leading you to... wherever you're going. It's largely pitch-matching from here, but you have infinite chances and onscreen cues to help you along. Plus, it goes at a relaxed pace, so you have time to self-correct.

My absolute favorite part of the game was, without question, a sequence in which you self-harmonize. You're led through a series of concentric circles, guided to hit and hold certain notes, and then hear the resulting harmonies played back to you in your own voice as you move to the next scene. This sequence doesn't sport the vast pastel landscapes of the rest of the game's back half, but there's something really joyful about hearing your own voice integrated into the game. And as it's a slow build of the soundtrack's leitmotif, it makes you feel even more like a part of the game itself.

I hesitate to talk about "spoilers" in the traditional sense because this is a game of scenes and experiences. There's something of a plot to be had, but it's subtle and sweet and works more as a conveyance for the overall experience. Still, I don't want to talk too much about the very end. As simple and pretty as it is, I was happy I stopped the video I was watching and saw it for the first time as I was interacting with it.

A quick note on calibrating the game to your voice. I played it through twice in one day (and will likely do it again and again whenever I need a lift and want an excuse to make noise), calibrating it slightly differently each time. The first time, I did exactly as I was told, which was singing my lowest comfortable note -- that is, what I could reach for certain without straining.

The second time through, I calibrated it to... how to explain this? To the first "tone" I hit when I'm speaking. Basically if I'm not thinking and I open my mouth and go "Ah," that tone. That's about... maybe two steps above my "lowest comfortable note." And, for me at least, that actually made a big difference in the voice controls when it came to lifting and lowering things. But I'm also a soprano, so I have a lot of upward range.

That "lowest comfortable note" is gonna be your baseline. Anything significantly above it is going to be how you lift rocks and build stairs. So mainly, calibrate the sound in such a way that you have a lot of "head space."

I'm an absolute sucker for innovative sound design in games (see Ookibloks for another example of this) and for new ways to interface with the story. One Hand Clapping is a simple half-hour play, but you become so much a part of the world of the game in that time. By the time you get to the end, it's not so much a game as a duet. And it's one you'll find yourself wanting to come back to, just to test the interactions of your voice and the world of the game.

One Hand Clapping is available for download on a pay-what-you-want system. But I'd encourage anyone who grabs it to give the creators at least a couple of bucks. Imagine what else they could make with our support.

>> One Hand Clapping Website

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Editing Light Novels: Getting Myself in Gear

I don't have enough to do with my time, so now I edit light novels. And my first one is Full. Of. Gears. So I hope you steampunkers are happy.

A bit back, I was contacted by J-Novel Club about editing light novels for them. JNC is basically, like, Netflix for light novels. I'd heard a lot about them, have a couple friends who work with them, so I was on board.

The thing is, even though I co-write a light novel series, I'm not on board with every single title out there. I really wish I was, but there are only so many hours in a day. On the bright side, that means that (for the most part) any new job I take on will involve me discovering a totally new story. And I love discovering totally new stories.

My first project is Gear Drive (Haguruma Drive), and... yep, a completely new one to me. But I really love the look of it so far, and what I've edited is super entertaining.

Antikythera Is Now a Name.

Our heroine is Anti Kythera -- named after the Antikythera Mechanism, widely believed to be history's first "computer." Considering it ran heavily on gears, that's a good reference.

Anti is basically her world's equivalent of a squib, unable to use even the most basic of magic skills. We kick off with her fifteenth birthday trip to get her Skill Bestowal — basically a rite that reads out your stats and tells you what you can do.

And Anti doesn't get Water Magic or Fire Magic or Dark Magic or anything... she gets Frickin Gears. She can create them, modify them, and move them. She also gets a sentient tiara named Crown Gear: equal parts control panel, data readout, Bag of Holding, mascot character, and comic relief.

So what does that mean? Well, first of all, it means she's alone in learning how to use her new powers, since there are literally no other Gearcraft users in her world. But... and this is the bit I love... it also means she gets to be super creative.

What can gears do?

I don't want to give away the events of the book, but... let's just say if you're super creative, the ability to create and move gears around is hugely useful.

What I'm liking about Anti's powers most so far is that they're treated as very Green Lantern in nature. It's all about quick thinking and imagination. So sometimes her ideas work, sometimes they don't, and sometimes a mess-up can lead to a later good idea.

I'm still working along, so I haven't read all of it, but Anti's a fun kid and the Gearcraft magic system seems pretty neat so far.

If you're interested in reading it, check out its page on J-Novel Club. Bag a subscription and you can read Gear Drive, plus lots more titles constantly updating.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

So You Want to Read The Black Archive

As of my installment this month, Obverse Books' Black Archive series is 21 installments strong, with more already being worked away at for the coming months and even years. What started as a quarterly publication has now gone monthly, and turned out some seriously impressive stuff. (Check out that hero image, for instance... a Marco Polo write-up by someone who actually got to see it!)

I'm really excited that people are interested in reading my Heaven Sent installment, but I'm also noticing a few questions coming in about how to approach the series. Which is... understandable, because for a lot of you this is your first time hearing about it, and when I say "Hey, I write book #21" that sounds kind of daunting.

So, for the sake of anyone who sees anything interesting in their line-up, I figured I'd give a fast-run-down of How To Black Archive.

What even is the Black Archive?

The Black Archive is a series of book-length studies of Doctor Who episodes of all eras. Save for a very few exceptions, these are all main TV series airings.

Now, when I say "book-length," I mean more novella-length. Mine is 92 pages, for example. So you're not settling down for several hundred pages. Books tend to be in the 20k-40k word range.

For the most part, the books aren't in a strictly chronological order, or done era-by-era. Books are published based on which pitches come in that are most interesting. Though I will say this summer is a change from that: the June/July/August releases are a trio of books covering Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, and Hell Bent.

But what are they actually about?

Well, that depends on the author.

While The Black Archive has range editors to make sure everything stays in line, what the books actually tackle is the choice of the actual writer. For example Philip Purser-Hallard's take on Dark Water/Death in Heaven was a collection of several analyses of the story from different angles. Andrew Hickey's The Mind Robber was largely based around the state of children's entertainment (especially television) in the UK in the 1960s, and how that shaped the story. My take on Heaven Sent is largely Jungian, but pulls in several other things to focus in on one specific story point.

Some are critical in the sense that they are analyzing whether the story accomplished what it said out to do. Others are dives into the making of the series in its respective eras, and what the nature of television production at various points in time will do to its output.

A short answer is that they are scholarly takes on each story, where "scholarly" refers to the fact that each work is researched, analyzed, and footnoted.

Do I have to be super brainy to read them?

Big no.

One of the main things we're told when we set out to work on a Black Archive is that these should not be dry or inaccessible. And that while there is (as I mentioned) a range editor, our voices in the work should be obvious.

But they're meant to be interesting reads without huge amounts of prior knowledge. Some will absolutely delve into more academic areas, but by and large you should be able to pick one up about an episode you like and just roll with it.

Do I have to read them all in order?

Absolutely not, though I'd be super impressed if you did.

The books are numbered, but that's not an indication of any sort of reading order. Nor does it mean that you have to read everything that came before to understand the rest. Each one stands alone, so if you see a title addressing a story you'd be interested in reading more about, you can grab and go. No homework required.

Is there a subscription option?

Not last I heard. But I'd love one cuz I'd totally subscribe.

Why should a fan take the time to read them?

Besides the fact that they're really damn good?

Well, in this day and age, critique is pretty borked. Look around online, and you'll see a wide range of issues with how we engage with everything from real-world discourse to fiction. In a lot of circles, we've come to a point where only one person or thing can be right, or there has to be a Good Guy and a Bad Guy with no shades of grey, or you have to Love or Hate something, no questions asked.

One thing I loved about The Black Archive before I even took part was that these books take a method generally reserved for "classics" and uses them on a currently running genre show with a worldwide fandom. That's already something I enjoy doing, because any entertainment we take in is worthy of a deeper look, even if it isn't cerebral or classic or whatever.

At the same time, I like to think it encourages more helpful critique of the show we all love. Instead of "This story was bad and the writer should feel bad" or "I love this character and anyone who doesn't has problematic viewpoints and is therefore bad," the books take time to take the whole thing apart. To say "This was a bad move, but let's take a look at why it happened and how we can keep it from happening again." Or "We tend to take this scene one way, but what if we took it this way?"

Positive, negative, and overall benign statements about the same episodes can all take place in the same book, by the same person, who is in the process of explaining to us why it's worth sitting down to examine this story. There's no attempt to make you like, hate, accept, or deny any story. It's just looking deeper.

And for my part, I can say that the line editors make sure you do your best. I had to fight tooth and nail to back up a theory I had about an element of Heaven Sent -- not because the editor didn't like it, but because he thought it was valid, and needed me to make sure I explored it properly.

It's probably too much to hope that The Black Archive will completely change how we discuss entertainment, and help us shy away from emotional absolutes. But I like to think that exposure to these books -- observing someone who can have multiple simultaneous feelings about one piece of fiction -- will help other fans start to look at healthier ways of approaching criticism.

If all that blabble hasn't scared you off, I hope you'll go pick up a copy of my book on Heaven Sent. It's available now in print and ebook format. And if the idea of the series interests you, be sure to check out the full line for other titles.

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