Wednesday, June 24, 2020

It's Time to Lay Perfect Attendance Awards to Rest

An empty classroom.

There are a lot of discussions of "our new normal" going on — be it our position until These Uncertain Times™ have passed, or what we'll do afterwards based on what we've learned. There's a near endless selection of hills to die on, if that's your ideal of a good time: political, social, economic, you name it. My personal standard is to die on one hill at a time, because most of the others are admirably covered and there's only one of me. Selective commentary doesn't mean I don't care about other things; it just means I know where I'm best qualified to speak as compared to other people. And by God, I've been training all my life to speak on this particular issue.

School ended early in the United States, which made sense considering our summer holidays start in June anyway. In the case of my home state of Virginia, the goal appears to be careful monitoring and roll-out over the summer with an eye to a safe return to school in the autumn. And when that happens, I hope — probably fruitlessly — that Perfect Attendance Awards will also have burned off.

An empty school hallway.

I nearly didn't write this post because I thought, there's surely no way these awards are still a thing. Between an uptick in distance learning and the knowledge that illnesses really can be devastating, I thought 2020 would be above that. I assumed it was left behind in my 80s and 90s schooldays, along with pinching our waists with plastic pincers to see how fat we were. But a quick search shows that not only do they still exist, there are free ones to print online and handy little guides on how to upsell them to your students.

To some extent, I understand the thinking — especially if you assume that, like participation trophies, perfect attendance awards are really for the parents. (And they are, aren't they?) Susie may not be valedictorian or a track star, but at least she never missed a day of school. And for that you get a piece of paper, maybe a pencil if your school has them to spare.

But I swear. I do swear. If we haven't gotten past being horny for Perfect Attendance after this year, I'm going to be distressed. There's literally no reason for it, there's no merit, and if anything it encourages the same sort of flippant attitude toward contagious illness that has businesses scrambling to learn what disinfectant is as we speak.


From the Desk Bed of a Sick Girl

Hiding under the covers on yet another sick day.

A good portion of my school memories involve staying home sick. I got the flu. I got bronchitis. I got strep throat and every single cold and stomach bug that came anywhere near me. Plus I had the bonus of endometriosis from an early age, meaning every period was potentially a three-day bout of excruciating pain. I bounced back from all of them, but I spent my fair share of days laid up on the sofa watching The Price Is Right and hydrating with a bowl of crushed ice.

The Internet as we know it was only making its way into homes in the last part of my high school career. You still had to hang up the phone to get online and vice-versa. The idea of online classes was still fairly far off, so missing classes was a bit more of, as they say in scholarly circles, a bitch. I did suffer whenever I missed a day, so I hated staying home, no matter how bad I felt.

Also I wanted that pointless Perfect Attendance award, because I was an overachiever. I can only think of one time I stayed home for any reason other than actual illness, but that's another story for another time (if indeed any time). I didn't like being sick. I didn't want to not be there. And I do think that's true of a lot more students than we like to believe.

Much as with my constant C's in PE because I couldn't run a mile as fast as the other kids, my only thought was "I'm failing because I'm not as healthy as the other kids." And even with my multiple hidden illnesses that wouldn't be diagnosed until college or later, I was closer to "Healthy" on the continuum than many many people. In retrospect, not getting that little piece of paper was a whiff in the wind compared to other students whose failure came in the form of actual grades dropping, who had even worse immune systems than mine.


A Grown-Up Perspective

man looking at the window

As adults, we spend a lot of time piecing apart and rebuilding thoughts we had as kids. My primary one is the idea that not everything that happens to me is something warranted — a consideration I afford others, but not myself. You know how it is. Logic applies to everyone except ourselves because, you know, reasons.

The point is, a lot of kids struggle with this on a regular basis. It can be a lot harder to differentiate between actual judgment from an authoritative source and Just Plain Unfairness as a kid. Teachers are an authority. Schools are an authority. So if school rewards always having your butt in the seat no matter what, then what does that tell us?

It tells us — and teachers and other school faculty, please absorb this — it tells us that our health and the health of others are secondary to appearances. It means that even if we have the flu, our physical presence is of more value than our wellness or the wellness of anyone else in that classroom.

That's a mentality that's damaged a lot of how we work as adults. It's "walk it off" on steroids, and it's bled into our personal psyches and managerial level psyches. I have been the person who was convinced that faux invulnerability is ideal. I have worked and volunteered in environments where running yourself ragged got you praise — to the point that nowadays, if an editor or overseer puts my health ahead of my deadline, I'm actually confused.

This is something that's bred into you early: the idea that being ill is shameful, and the only penance is pretending you're not. In some cases the upshot of that is well out of our hands, depending on where we work or attend school. But if nothing else, we can at least look inward, and maybe speak up.


Going Forward

woman in black long sleeve shirt holding white smartphone

I'm not fool enough to believe that phasing out Perfect Attendance Awards would singlehandedly resolve our unhealthy fixation with productivity over health. This is a widespread thing, present in a lot of venues, to the point that it's seeped into our mindset. I still struggle with listening to my body when it's telling me to lie down or sleep.

The world is turbulent right now, and we're learning a lot of things suddenly and by necessity. One good thing we've learned is that in 2020, we have a phenomenal capacity for continuing on via the Internet. We're making entertainment, uniting over fandoms, restructuring classrooms, making political moves... and all of the things we're learning and discovering will still have a place in the world post-lockdown. There is, quite honestly, no merit to an antiquated non-honor that does nothing to combat truancy and everything to break down a child's impression of the value of their health.

Once the masks are off and the schools are open, we should be just as vehement about protecting each other and availing ourselves of online resources to make it possible. And that starts in the classroom.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Actual Work-from-Home Tips That Don't Suck

person sitting on sofa resting its feet on top of coffee table while using laptop

I've worked from home for the last several years, so the only real change in my life is that there's no toilet paper at the story and I can't go to D&D nights with my friends. For those people currently doing their jobs from home... well, I think a lot of them are finally realizing that their perceptions of the work-from-home life aren't quite on track.

"It must be nice to work from home, you can set your own schedule!"... is not a sentiment I've heard in the last handful of weeks, as many people in my sphere finally discover the distraction, the waxing and waning motivation, and overall "why does my head feel like it's full of cotton batting"-ness of a work life conducted entirely from home. It's not something I take for granted; it is something I understand both the good and the bad of.

While my plan is to remain working from home for the long haul, for the rest of you this is a temporary arrangement to be braved until normality returns at some point. Some of you will be "over it" soon. Others already are. And I don't know, some of you may discover you prefer this and work better this way. There are all sorts out there.

In the interim, you're going to see a lot of very informative articles on how to master the work-from-home grind. One of these might work for you — but as a long-term home-office type, I can confirm that there is no one-size-fits all solution. Even the most common, broadly accepted advice you'll see comes with caveats; and half the people offering this advice want to sell you something. 

So rather than giving you tips on mastering working from home, I'm here to offer tips on figuring out your personal vibe. Firstly, and most importantly:


Don't buy a course from a life coach.

MacBook Air beside gold-colored study lamp and spiral books

I mean, this is life advice I stand by in general. Never, ever, ever, ever trust anyone who promises to to "turn your life around" or "give you the one tool you need to succeed" or whatever it is. Any human being selling you a way to realize your potential is already undercutting your potential. Whatever they're selling is advice you can find somewhere else online, repackaged with their brand on it. I see these ads all the time, as I'm a thirtysomething female freelancer and thus in their target demographic. These same people will come around and target confused work-from-home types until things fall back into place.

Now, if you know someone who teaches good organizational skills, who'll work with you one-on-one, who has a good track record, and who doesn't paint themselves as your one gateway to success, then you may have some luck there. But even then, a lot of the things you'll get from those people can be found on YouTube or Skillshare. You almost certainly don't need a course; but if you feel you do, shop around intelligently, and look at your free options first.


Make a morning routine, even if it sucks.

white ceramic mug on table

You've probably read about the morning routines of successful entrepreneurs — people who get up at 5 am, go to the gym, have a green smoothie while reading an improving book, spend 20 minutes meditating, what have you. And it's true, having a Morning Routine is good for you. But honestly, it can suck, just as long as it exists.

If you have a day job that requires you (usually) to go out in the morning, you have a morning routine already. It might be splashing water on your face, getting dressed, and choking down coffee and a Pop Tart, but that's still a routine. It's still something that draws the line between sleeping and functioning. And as much as starting your day like a billionaire genius would probably be hugely self-improving, all you really need to do is tell your brain it's meant to be on.

My actual morning routine consists solely of making my bed, washing up, and getting dressed. That's it. No intellectual podcasts, no spin class. If I've actually gotten up with my alarm and am functional, sure, there are other things I do to get my brain working. But all that really matters is being up and put together. And for people not used to working from home, that bare minimum is super important.

If you're feeling jazzed and want to try more, go for it. But if you like the idea of a fancy and elaborate morning routine and not the execution, don't push yourself. Do what you can.


Schedule your day with distractions in mind.

woman sitting on window

We all wanna hit that magical Flow State, find ourselves in that perfect time when we're just cranking out all that work with all the motivation. But you're at home, and there'll be distractions. And I don't mean the desire to watch TV or play video games or just wander off. Those will be there too, sure. But there are others that are far tougher to avoid.

That's the freelancer's big secret: reasonable distractions. A call from a family member. The sudden realization that you are entirely out of shampoo. Going to the kitchen to make lunch, but then something spills or breaks or no longer works, so you have a new task. Throw in a work-from-home partner or homeschooled kids, and even the nicest workspace is going to be prone to interruption.

If you have the ability to close a door and be in an Office Space in your home where you will literally be in the same mindset as an office, that's great. But odds are you're going to be fielding at least one imponderable per day. If you set your day's work goals based on the idea that you will avoid all distractions, you'll feel defeated as soon as the first one kicks in.

How you go about working around this will depend on how you work best. In my case, I add two hours to my projected work day as I'm scheduling it out. Those two hours go toward being stuck on the phone with my insurance company, or running an emergency errand for my grandfather, or getting stranded on my way to the grocery store because of unforeseen car trouble. If nothing happens to me that day, I wrap two hours early and watch a movie or play some video games. That doesn't mean that's how you have to do it... but working in allowance, either time-wise or even just mentally, for imponderables around the house will leave you less frustrated.


Don't work in your jammies... but other than that, do whatever.

child wearing gray and white pajama lying on bed while holding phone

I don't know how you have to dress usually at work. I worked at a news desk before I went freelance, so I rarely dressed up. I needed to look presentable, but I didn't have a massive handbook like I did at my old bank teller job. Now, as a freelancer, I dress down but make it a point to put myself together at least somewhat. I could get up from my desk and go to the store without changing anything.

Just about everyone will tell you that you need to have a "work outfit," and I agree... to a point. I definitely think you need to not be working in your pyjamas. See the above point on morning routines: you need something to delineate sleep time and active time. That's also a reason not to work from your bed (that, and making sure your brain only associates your bed with sleep, so you can sleep better).

For some people, work-ish clothes for work hours followed by casual clothes after may bring structure to the day. For others, comfort is more important. A good guideline is, wear something you'd be okay leaving the house in with no changes (unless you don't wear shoes in the house). The main thing is that suggestion that it's not time for sleep.


Beware Schedule Drift

orange and yellow analog alarm clock at 11:03

In an ideal situation, all that's really changed about your job in the short term is location. In other words, you'll likely be going back to the office. And when that happens — whenever that is — you have to go back to actual normal.

Normally I would tell people in this situation to keep getting up at the time they usually do, lack of commute notwithstanding. But in a time when health and stress levels are major concerns, any sleep you can get is valuable. So if you're usually obligated to roll out at 6 am and you can manage an extra hour, take it while you can. That said.

If you're largely self-monitoring when it comes to your work time, it is important to not let yourself slide too much. This is especially true if your work-from-home situation is not going to be permanent, though it applies overall. Memes aside, it's very easy for your sense of time to get all screwed around when you're doing everything at home. Do that long enough unchecked, and you'll eventually have a noon start time that takes a lot of work to crank back.


white ceramic mug on table

The big secret of work-from-home success, which no one wants to tell you, is that it's extremely individual. There was a time when all I wanted was for someone to hand me a guidebook that explained how to "get it right." But it doesn't work that way, because we aren't all the same person. We thrive differently, and during this time at home I think a lot of people are going to learn what their ideal work environment is.

This is uncharted territory and you're under no obligation to nail it right away. This is an adjustment that, for many people, only comes alongside a significant career change or choice. And here, you kind of had no choice. The good news is, you're under no obligation to find it fun, ace it overnight, or even do it forever. 

The bottom line is actually very simple: preserve a basic line of consistency and responsibility that will allow you to focus on work, while still making allowances for what your presence in the home entails. You don't have to have a Pinterest-perfect home office and a killer morning ritual. You just have to have something sustainable — the trimming can come later if you want it. If you're getting up, eating breakfast, and working somewhere in your house that isn't your bedroom wearing something that isn't your pyjamas, congrats: you're already doing better than a lot of us who do this long-term.

Most of all, be nice to yourself during this time. You're going to have days where you mess it up. That's fine. No one actually knows what they're doing right now. Anyone who says differently is probably selling something.


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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Dear Hollywood: It's Time to Bring Back Serials

Image result for mandalorian

I recently finished the first season of The Mandalorian, and it will surprise no one to find out I had a damn good time watching it. Potentially more fun than I've had at an actual Star Wars movie in... a while. The core cast was solid. The guest stars were well chosen. And I'm so used to hour-long episodes of genre entertainment these days that I didn't realize it was functioning in 30-40 minute bursts. I thought time was just flying.

Apparently I'm not alone in this feeling, either. People really dig it. It's surpassed Stranger Things as the most in-demand show on a streaming platform. And my favorite part? It feels like an old Hollywood adventure serial. In mood, in pacing, in cliffhangers.

It made me realize that, with the bloat of cinematic universes, we're in need of serials again.

Image result for flash gordon serials

Serials were such a good thing in their time. You show up for a movie, you get short adventures of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon beforehand. Action, adventure, cliffhangers, all packaged up in weekly doses before your main (or double) feature. Nowadays it feels like television is our catch-all for serialized entertainment, but I feel like — maybe — there is precedent for bringing back the pre-feature adventure shorts.

Let me just. Give you an example. Using a franchise I feel could benefit from this tactic pretty much immediately.

Image result for marvel phase 4

Okay. Sweet Jesus.

So I'm not touching Disney+ because I'm not ready to tell the Mouse it's possible to triage their streaming output. But let's look. Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi, Doctor Strange, Thor, Blade, and another swipe at Fantastic 4, all in spitting distance. Not seen are Guardians III, the next Ant-Man, Spidey 3, etc. Even if we take out their streaming content, there's a lot.

Imagine another schedule. Black Widow comes out, and for every week it's in theatres, it's fronted by a new 15-minute installment of an Eternals serial. (Or swap them: front Eternals with a Black Widow serial.) Maybe that installment shows in front of a couple other action/sci-fi projects in the same span from Disney or a partner. At the end of its week, the episode goes up ad-supported on Marvel's YouTube channel. So if you want to see every episode full-sized, you need to go to a movie once a week. If you can't, you can catch what you missed online. And once it's run its course, a home video release. Rinse and repeat — put, say, an installment of Guardians III before Thor: Love and Thunder.

What are the merits of this?

First off, you de-bloat the cinematic universe without cutting titles. It would involve triage, and likely the mentality that the studio would be "demoting" titles rather than simply offering them in a slightly different medium. Let's face it: there is some fan exhaustion. I felt ready to give up the MCU post-Endgame not because I was no longer invested, but because the movie made me realize just how many movies there had been, and how many more there would be.

Secondly, some titles would benefit from a serialized format. As much as I love the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, I feel like their setting — regularly jumping from world to world — could thrive episodically. As a pre-film serial, they get to keep their cinematic look, and they keep going.

Speaking of keeping going, serialized titles stay relevant longer. Whichever characters get the serial treatment, they're going to be the equivalent of "water cooler TV." After the first night of a film release, the hardcore fans have seen it, and the fandom is now the "have seens" and the "have not seens." But as with television (and streaming shows that aren't dropped all at once), you've now got something always advancing. You've got a cinematic presence that advances every week, in addition to the ones you hit at one go.

Finally, the obvious: it encourages repeat moviegoing. People who can't go every week aren't blocked out provided you get a digital rerun. But for people who want the big screen experience, there's a reason to go back multiple weeks in a row — either to rewatch a film, or to see something else in a similar vein.

But what about studios not assembling cinematic universes? It works there, too.

Image result for mib international

Consider reboots, reboots of reboots, sequels, midquels, what have you. Some of these come from IPs that could have some staying power (and perhaps do in comic books or other media). Men in Black and Ghostbusters come to mind. Rather than full-blown films, could they survive as episodic, expanded universe stories? Short runs (or even single episodes) would be a way to test concepts while bringing new content.

On top of that, short subjects have a lower "threat level" to hardcore fans. Even if a remake or reboot isn't erasure of the film before it, it can give off that air. Something more accessible would have a greater chance of winning over both the curious and the long-term fans... and provide a proof of concept before dropping a hundred mil on a potential flop.

Plus, we live in an age of bonus content. Think of Doctor Who's "Night of the Doctor," or any number of bonus short films included as DVD/Blu-ray extras. We already love it; we've just not put it on the big screen much, save for bonus content at Fathom Events screenings. Besides, it's in the DNA of speculative fiction. It was how we watched a lot of our first superheroes and spacemen. There was absolutely something to it.

Image result for mandalorian

Do I see this coming to fruition? Of course not. It would take a lot of reworking of business plans, a lot of reconsidering how content for the big screen is made, and an admission from Hollywood that three-hour-epics aren't all that's out there. If anything of the sort were to happen, it's more likely that studios like Disney would stack even more titles on top of what's already coming out, rather than reassessing their current titles.

It's a shame. A lot of our sci-fi heroes would benefit from serialized content with weekly cliffhangers. And languishing IPs in search of a revival could potentially stick around longer in this format, instead of crashing and burning after one film that didn't live up to the hype. Were it ever to come about, I'd be living for it. And probably at the movies a lot more than usual.

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Thanks to Ginger Hoesly for helping me sort my thoughts on this blog post — which would originally have been much more of a winding lament. Check out her store and buy some cool stuff from her, or check out our book series!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Gabriel's Trumpet


It isn't often that I open a book with little to no idea what I'm in for. I received a review copy of Jon Black's Gabriel's Trumpet and, other than a vague idea of the story, I had no idea what the true genre was. Was it paranormal? Murder mystery? The simple answer is — to reveal the genre beyond "historical fiction" would be, in a way, to reveal the ending. And Gabriel's Trumpet benefits from the reader being in the same seat of curiosity as its protagonist, Dr. Marcus Roads.

Marcus is here to find out exactly what the reader is: what the hell is going on, and can it be classified as otherworldly? He's a researcher for the Boston Society for Psychical Research, sniffing out hokum alongside the best and worst of them. The physician is both valuable and contentious in his field for the same reason: he doesn't fudge results. His current case? Find out whether a jazz trumpeter really has come back from the dead to play his way to stardom, accompanied by his iconic silver trumpet.

Marcus's journey is a retrospective of the life of Gabriel "Resurrection" Gibbs, from his youth in the church to his dubious business ventures, his death and (apparently) new life lighting up New York's Harlem Renaissance. And, it seems, you can't follow Gibbs without becoming a part of his story. What starts as a few wagon rides to reticent family members turns into life-or-death scrapes, spiritual battles, and mysterious encounters.

The path following Gabriel Gibbs is, as it happens, a path through African-American culture of the early 20th century. His story winds through Christian life, takes a detour through New Orleans mysticism, and emerges in the midst of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Expect look-ins from notable names and faces — some you'll know instantly, others buried by time and virtue of not making it into your high school reading curriculum.

A goodly portion of the book is, in fact, real; though unless you're already well informed about the period (and paranormal research in particular), only illusionist/mythbuster Harry Houdini and a few others are likely to occur to the reader. This doesn't take away from the experience at all: if anything, there's something delightful about discovering that most of the strange characters you've been encountering were quite real, after all.

Gabriel's Trumpet, given its subject matter, shies away from very little. However, it approaches the issues it touches in a surprisingly open way. Matters of politics, the ethics of certain occupations, and the intersection of racial identity and the arts are raised, debated in front of Marcus, and laid to rest as he observes them. No attempt is made to pass judgment on either stance — we're simply shown that stances exist. It's almost Charles Fort-esque (another historical figure present in the narrative) in its presentation: Black and Marcus aren't here to tell you what to think, they're only here to present you with the different pieces of the puzzle and leave the rest to you.

In fact, there's only one part of the story that has any real "right" answer: the ending. Because despite this being a very "about the journey" story, we aren't going to be left empty-handed for our troubles. A very few people get to learn the full truth of Gabriel Gibbs and his miraculous resurrection. They can be counted on one hand, and the reader is one of those fingers.

Which isn't to say that stories with absent or unclear endings are inherently bad. But that, plus no through-lines in the text for possible end points, makes an unclear ending seem like a hand-wave to distract from shoddy writing. In the case of Gabriel's Trumpet, we have twice the strength: not only are we given a full debriefing, we're also given enough clues throughout the text to find it for ourselves, should the author have chosen to forego the explanation.

If there is an issue with Gabriel's Trumpet, it's the same issue you'll find with any heavily researched fiction. While the story appears to be constructed specifically to allow us a walk through this point in history, there are times when even that carefully-constructed frame bends under the weight of Black's research. It's understandable. There's a lot to tell, especially in a story that's gamely joining up 20th century black history and 20th century paranormal research in one narrative. Some of these passages were handled well, with Marcus awash in situations he'd never known possible. Others were tonally dissonant and made me come up for air at unexpected times — but these moments were never deal-breakers.

The race to confirm or debunk the resurrection of Gabriel Gibbs is infectious. Gabriel's Trumpet pulls its protagonist — and its reader — through scene after seemingly disparate scene, illuminating an unexpected history along the way. The story of "Resurrection" Gibbs really is the story of the Harlem Renaissance. What that means is this book's true payoff.

Pick up Gabriel's Trumpet from 18th Wall Productions



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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019: A Year in Writing


New year, same nonsense. Probably. I still intend to drink way too much tea, spoil my guinea pigs to the point that it becomes inconvenient for me, and watch tons of anime but still not have time to watch everything somehow. It's a pattern that works.

A lot of people have been doing their writing and art year (and decade) in review, which is always fun to see. I love seeing how creators have evolved, moved through different disciplines, and become even better than they already were.

I doubt I'll be doing a decade review until later this month, in large part because I need to go back and look at when things happened. And I did an actual run-down of the year's publications over here on Twitter, if you want some specifics and links.

But I wanted to break things down a little more here beyond just listing what happened. (Also, I want to honor my Twitter poll where people said they wanted both a blog post and a Twitter thread.) So: 2019 in writing, a bit more verbose this time.


News and Features

Related image

A big part of what I do every day — paying the bills, basically — is news and features writing for different websites. Most prominently, I'm still working daily at Crunchyroll, doing news pieces as well as longer-form features.

As of this year, I'm also doing features and trending posts for Fanbyte, covering anime, video games, and any other weirdnesses I come across. I'm also back at The Sartorial Geek with monthly deep-dives into TV, films, and literature. You can also find me in Otaku USA Magazine and its anime-only specials on your local newsstand.

Make no mistake, this sort of thing is a fair bit of work. And I'll likely be taking on more in 2020 (in fact, I am... watch this space).


Random Thunk's Zine Emporium


Ginger Hoesly just closed out her third zine over on RaThZEm, which has raised several thousand dollars for various charities already. This year featured two new zines: Moon Man, a celebration of the career of Peter Capaldi; and A Pile of Good Things, an Eleventh Doctor retrospective. I'm very happy to have been in both, writing a branching adventure for the former and apparently a scathing take-down of alternative medicine in the latter.

Digital zines are available for a limited time. After that, look forward to her next projects.


Altrix Books


It's been a big year for Altrix, which I co-run with Paul Driscoll. I released my first anthology, the limited-run Unearthed, featuring stories inspired by the black sarcophagus found in Alexandria. In addition to editing the book, I also contributed the Owl's Flower story "Kill the Cat."

Paul currently has Master Pieces on sale, raising funds for the Stroke Association. As you may have seen, I contributed the Missy-centric "Auntie Mary" to this volume. Paul's also announced Master Switches, a sequel anthology raising funds for the same charity.

Plus, we announced the beginning of The Chronosmith Chronicles, which kicks off this year.


More Charity Anthologies


Charity anthos are a decent chunk of what I do, if it hasn't become evident. They're fun, they're a way to write things I love for a good cause, and I meet some great people through them.

Chinbeard Books released Me and the Starman this year: a collection of essays remembering the life and works of David Bowie. I contributed a piece on Labyrinth, in with many many more. This one should be on sale for a long time to come.

In the world of the expired limited-runs are Mild Curiosities, dedicated to Ian and Barbara (for which I wrote "Touch the Stars"); and Defending Earth, dedicated to Sarah Jane Smith (for which I wrote "The Sparks"). There are, naturally, plenty more of these to come in 2020, from some familiar names.


Sockhops & Seances


In the realm of original fiction, I showed up in 18th Wall's Sockhops & Seances, a collection of 1950s-era paranormal tales. My short story "Son of the Wolf" is among the stories featured, and is one of a few currently up for an award! If you'd consider voting for me and other 18th Wall types (provided you like our stuff, obviously), it would be much appreciated.


Vanishing Tales of the City

Vanishing Tales of the City

Last but not least is one that's coming this year, but has been available for pre-order for a bit. Vanishing Tales of the City is my contribution to the Obverse Books Anniversary Sextet, which also features books by Nick Campbell, Blair Bidmead, Nick Wallace, Simon Bucher-Jones, and Jonathan Dennis. Each is devoted to a different Obverse property: Iris Wildthyme, SeƱor 105, the Manleigh Halt Irregulars, and so on. I was give the City of the Saved to work with, but you'll find the others (especially Iris!) present.


What's Coming in 2020?

MacBook Pro near white open book

The Chronosmith Chronicles!

More Owl's Flower!

Charity anthologies for days!

A couple things I can't tell you about yet!

Thanks for all your support so far. 2019 was a lot of fun, a lot of learning, a lot of discoveries, and kind of a lot of work — but worth it. I look forward to what this year will bring and hope to create things you'll enjoy. And maybe occasionally take a nap.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

NOW AVAILABLE: A New Missy Story in "Master Pieces"


I'd say it's been a busy time, but it's never not busy over my way. Between work for Crunchyroll and Fanbyte, front- and back-burner book projects, working on collaborations, and family responsibilities, there's always something on. But it has been something of a busy time in a good way... which is why I'm a little late yelling at you (from this venue, at least) about my work on Master Pieces.

Master Pieces is the third book from Altrix Books, which I co-run with Paul Driscoll. Some of you may know we initially started it as an imprint under which to publish Seasons of War: Gallifrey, but we've gone the extra distance with it. Unearthed came out under the Altrix heading, and this latest — edited by Paul — is now up for grabs.

The anthology was originally conceived of by Scott Claringbold, whom I wrote for in both Nine Lives (a Shalka Doctor charity anthology) and Relics (a more open-ended anthology for which I contributed an Owl's Flower short piece). Altrix took it on to see it to completion, with Paul at the forefront as editor. It's turned out lovely, I think, with a cover by Ginger. Whom I think you all know by now.


The conceit of this Doctor Who charity anthology is that it's Master-led... but with no Doctor. The idea was to see what the Master gets up to when not countered, and it's ended up being a wonderful broad range of topics. There are some revisited stories and settings, some entirely new incarnations of the character, and a few surprises along the way.

I wanted to write about Missy for my story, as I've only ever touched on her in passing elsewhere. She's a tough one to write for (at least for me — I'm sure others breeze straight through, and more power to them), as there a mix of propriety and borderline cannibalism that turns out absolutely wrong if you don't balance them right. I personally feel I may still be chasing down that perfect mixture, but I'm pleased at a chance to attempt it.


In particular, I wanted to look at what happens when the Master bends to the Doctor's most common habit: befriending humans. Does it work? How does it play out? Is it a beneficial relationship for anyone? Could any of the Masters really support a "companion" in their schemes?

Removing the Doctor from the equation was an interesting way of going about the anthology, as it (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) removes a lot of the Master's motivation for big crazy schemes. Of course, the Doctor is "nothing without an audience," either, so fair's fair in that respect. As for what happens when the Master's favorite audience is absent... well, not to be that guy, but you can find out by reading the book. Or at least, you can find out a few potential examples.

Master Pieces is raising funds for the Stroke Association. So not only are you getting a good read, you're also benefiting a good cause.

What that also means is that — as an unofficial charity anthology — it won't be around forever. So you'll want to grab this sooner than later. If you want to read my take on Missy, plus the many many takes on Masters throughout the series, head over to Altrix. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook at your convenience. And if you enjoy it, please leave a review!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Harry Styles Punked the Entire ARG Community

Image result for eroda

ARGs are the webcomics of the 2010s, and potentially the 2020s: they've been around for longer than people realize, they gained notoriety via a handful of prestigious titles, and now anyone who knows the term wants to make one. (Including me, really; I'm not above such things.) There are entire communities, messageboards, subreddits, Discords, and YouTube channels built around deciphering them. Some have run for years, some for weeks, and others are simply a well-meaning flash in the pan.

They're also (whether you like it or not) very effective marketing.

For those not in the know, "ARG" is short for Alternate-Reality Game: interactive fiction that encourages (and occasionally requires) audience interaction, either to move the story forward or to understand it fully. The YouTube channel everymanHYBRID, one of the Slenderman Big Three, is a good example. To get the whole story, fans had to decode messages and follow multiple social media accounts, and participants out in the real world received clues that they then had to feed back into the narrative. Nick Nocturne's search for Jack Torrance is a good example of an ARG ticking over with rarely-seen efficiency.

ARGs also work best when approached with a heaping helping of suspension of disbelief. We all know it's fictional (either by admission or because we're familiar with the creators' other projects), but we play along for the fun of it. It's understood (usually, at least) to avoid "game-jacking" — that is, jumping in and pretending to be part of the core narrative without the creators' consent — or breaking immersion by telling people to "calm down, it's just a game" or the like.

Image result for eroda

Recently, a new potential ARG floated to the surface, centering around an island called Eroda. It was picked up quickly by the usual suspects (including the aforementioned Night Mind), and the ARG community was on top of it immediately. It had all the earmarks of a good mystery: a tourism website about an as-yet-unknown island with strange legends around it. Their tourism videos featured voice-overs that hovered between calming and Slightly Weird. There was a YouTube account, an Instagram, and a Twitter. And it looked like there would be some sort of strange story to piece apart.

A lot of theories flew. Was it completely original? Was it tied to a new video game? A new land in Dungeons & Dragons? Heck, was there a real Eroda trying to gain notoriety by presenting itself as strange and unearthly?

Then, suddenly, a lead from an unexpected quarter: the Harry Styles fandom.

As a not-Harry-Styles-fan (nothing against him, I'm just more into alternative and J-rock), I'm not sure what tipped them toward the realization. But someone pointed out that "Eroda" backwards is "Adore," and Styles's new single "Adore You" had an impending release. There were a few awkward moments in the ARG community as the possibility was weighed. Like. How would we all feel if we'd busted out our magnifying glasses for a guy from One Direction?

And then. Yep. It happened. The entire Eroda ARG was a lead-up to a short film-style music video for the song in question.

And, look. It was pretty good, y'all.


The video tells the story of a boy with a bright (literally) smile on Eroda, a tiny isle off the coast of England where everything is always gloomy and sad. One day, the boy meets a fish separated from its school, takes it in to look after... and things get weird for everyone.

All that said, this was a really well-run campaign. Billboard talked to the team behind the stunt, and the lengths they went to were impressive. They used broken links and awkward wording to make the tiny world of Eroda (where social media would likely not be well understood) as realistic as possible. They frequented ARG hotspots online to gather and react to theories. They responded to engaged followers more and more frequently in the time leading up to the video's release — more personal replies and retweets than I had time to go through. This team was all-in.

Like I mentioned, ARGs as advertising are fairly common and can often be good. 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence was an early example, with Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 rolling out the "Tender" app more recently to bust its game world open. Thomas Dolby played with the idea in 2011 with what I guess you'd call an MMOARG(?) for his album A Map of the Floating City. And so on.

Image result for eroda

Eroda may not have been a slow-burn YouTube series or a mixed media juggernaut involving half a dozen social media accounts sending each other cryptic messages, but damned if it didn't work. The music video it led up to contained a complete story, it looked good, and heck, the song was kind of a bop. It's also encouraging to see that the team building it has taken cues from successful ARG creators, delving into their spaces online to interact with them.

That's the main thing about this, the thing that earns a "fine, Harry Styles, ya got me" out of this whole thing: they cared. They decided to use the Internet's love of alternate reality and weird fiction to draw eyes to the new single, but then they actually went and did it well. As long as the mystery is compelling and engaging, and everything is handled with care and thought, it shouldn't — and probably won't — matter that the end game is a product rather than a finale video.

It also probably makes a difference whether the product actually is something that would warrant an ARG. A music video that takes place on a strange island? Warrants it. One last mystery for Gravity Falls? Warrants it. A new cheesesteak sub or a facial serum? Probably does not warrant it. I'm sure we'll see attempts made, though.

So yeah. You get me this time, Eroda team. Well played.

If you're interested in finding more ARGs to follow, check out the Night Mind YouTube channel. Some of my faves of late are Echo Rose and the recently wrapped CatGhost, both by indie creators.


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