The 2017 Diversity Report

For the past few years, I’ve taken a look at my own writing to see how I’m doing in the realm of diversity and representation. I check out my major character rosters and break them down to see whether I’m not falling into the trap of writing primarily straight white cis people.

This year I’m not going to engage in that practice because it’s come to feel rather smug and self-congratulatory. Oh, hey, look at me, the straight white cis man writing characters not like me. I’m so progressive. Go me. All I’ll say about that is I remain dedicated to maintaining a strong sense of diversity in my work.

But I’m not enough. Literature, especially genre fiction, needs more women, more people of color, more writers from the LGBTQ community to tell stories I can’t, represent perspectives I will never fully understand and appreciate, and relate experiences I will never have. We need more diverse voices in fiction.

Further, writers like me need to be more diligent about presenting diverse characters in their own work — and if they can’t see fit to do that, they at least need to stop actively trying to oppose diversity, and yes, this is a problem. Over the past few years two organized groups of genre fiction authors, the so-called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, have tried to game the Hugo Awards to undermine efforts to acknowledge diverse authors and works (it failed spectacularly, by the way).

Why would they do this? you might wonder. I’ve wondered that myself, for quite some time. Why would any author be so vigorous in his or her efforts to snuff out representation?

Because that author fears obsolescence.

Genre fiction has long been the domain of straight white cis men, both on the writing and the reading side of things. People like me are the default. But over the last several years there has been an increase in diversity — among authors, among characters, and among readers who have shown that there is a powerful appetite for such material. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, they all want to read stories about people like themselves written by people like themselves.

So where does that leave the traditional straight white cis male genre writer?

Well, really, it doesn’t leave him any worse off than before. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has since 1985 charted the presence of authors of color and children’s books featuring lead characters of color, and the statistics show a steady increase over time — steady, but the increases are incremental and there is still plenty of material out there written by and for white people.

If that’s any indicator — and I’ve been unable to find a similar source for YA or adult publishing to confirm or refute the hypothesis — it’s not like white guys are getting muscled out of the game. There is still a demand for their stories, and it’s not like we’re all playing in a zero sum game in which one writer loses sales every time another writer gains sales. Readers are not, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource.

But that’s not the way the old-school genre writer sees it. In his mind, if readers are buying books with diverse casts written by diverse authors, they’re not reading his books. That means he’s becoming irrelevant.

Faced with that prospect, the “endangered” author has a few choices. He can accept his fate and be content to continue practicing his art, knowing that there are still plenty of people out there who want it. He can adapt and start injecting diversity into his own work to capture readers outside his standard demographic.

Or he can pitch a fit, blame the success of others for his own real or imagined failure, and dedicate time and energy to fighting against diversity — and that is what happens far too often. You see that pointless, fruitless resistance every time a writer makes a disingenuous comment about the evils of “pandering” to an audience — and I call it disingenuous because those writers are not acting in anyone’s best interests but their own. They might say, “Pandering to diverse audiences is nothing but a transparent cash grab! Publishers just want your money! I’m trying to protect you from these exploitative capitalists!” but what they mean is, “I view your buying habits as a threat to my livelihood and I’d like you to go away now.”

You’ll of course note that straight white cis male authors who churn out nothing but the same-old same-old are, somehow, not pandering to their demographic.

I take it as a powerful indicator of a writer’s skill if something as relatively simple as injecting more diversity into their work is such a daunting challenge they feel compelled to shut the whole concept down. As storytellers, our whole job is creating characters unlike us. If a science fiction writer can create realistic alien races and sentient robots with no problem but finds the challenge of writing a lead character who is a woman or black or gay or — gasp! — all of the above too great, he’s failing at his job.

And if you can’t do your job anymore, it’s time to step aside and let those who are capable of doing it take over.

Constructing a Fight

This is an essay I’ve wanted to write for a while, but past efforts have always wound up feeling rambling and pointless — and then I was named fight director of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s upcoming Robin Hood Springtime Festival and found myself building fights from the ground up, which means I had a way to illustrate some of the techniques I use when crafting fight scenes in my books.

I’ve always prided myself on writing action sequences that were not just exciting and well-paced, but had substance to them, substance that’s often missing from other prose-based fight scenes because so many writers really don’t understand that a good fight is more than just a series of cool moves; it’s a story in and of itself — and that’s where I’ll start.

Getting Inspired

I often refer to certain movies to find inspiration for creating a fight scene, something that captures the nature of the fight, the style, the tone, etc. For example, when I was getting ready to work on the climactic third act of The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl (cheap plug), I watched a lot of siege movies, such as The Two Towers for the Helm’s Deep sequence, Dredd, The Raid: Redemption, and Assault on Precinct 13.

One of my all-time go-to fight scenes is the Paris/Menelaus duel from Troy. To me, that sequence, choreographed by Simon Crane, is the gold standard for incorporating the situation and the characters into the action.

I know, it isn’t the most dynamic fight or the flashiest, but it tells a story better than most such sequences.

For those unfamiliar with the movie or the original epic poem: Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals away Menelaus’s wife Helen, essentially cuckolding the man in front of two nations. Menelaus (Brendan Gleason), naturally, wants to kill Paris for this offense, and do so in a public and humiliating manner, which leads to this duel.

Notice how they each fight. Menelaus — who is bigger, stronger, more experienced, supremely pissed off, and not at all intimidated by his opponent — comes right at Paris and pummels him with big windmilling sledgehammer blows. He is mostly on the offensive. Paris, in contrast, is mostly on the defensive, and you get a sense of his inexperience, his desperation, and his fear in the way he hides behind his shield; by his wild, desperate attacks and defensive parries; and by his mistakes, such as getting too close to his opponent and by trying to match Menelaus’s raw strength.

To get in the right mood to choreograph a Robin Hood fight, I re-watched the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, which very much informs the rollicking, swashbuckling tone of the Robin Hood Faire.

Once I’m in the right headspace, it’s time to start thinking about the fight I want to write — not plotting it out, mind you; thinking about it. I have some groundwork to lay before I start choreographing anything.

The Situation

One of the things that drives a fight is the situation. You need the context of the setting and the reason behind a fight to help set the tone and determine what’s going on in the characters’ heads. Two adults engaged with each other in a duel to the death are going to fight with a greater degree of aggression and desperation than, say, two little kids scrapping in a playground after school. A man in a drunken barroom brawl is not going to approach a fight the same way a seasoned soldier facing an armed enemy combatant would.

In the Flynn Robin Hood, you see several examples of fights with different attitudes. Robin’s early scraps with Little John and Friar Tuck are lighter affairs. Robin is, to John and Tuck, some obnoxious rando, not a sworn enemy, and the only thing at stake for anyone is personal pride. No one is out for blood, as opposed to the Robin/Sir Guy duel, which has two longtime enemies fighting to the death — and even then, their motivations are slightly different. Guy wants Robin dead dead dead, whereas Robin is ready to kill Guy but out of self-defense rather than anger or hatred.

The script I’m working off calls for a training fight between Robin Hood and some of his Merry Men. I’m setting the intensity level at about a five, max; Robin and his men are training to keep their skills sharp for when they’re fighting for their lives against Prince John’s soldiers, so it’s serious business, but they’re not out to hurt each other – they’re close friends, after all — so they’re not going to go all-out.

The Characters

For this sequence, I’m using along with Robin Hood his three key Merry Men: Little John, Friar Tuck, and his cousin Will Scarlett (who, in the faire version of the story, is a woman). That gives me four very distinct characters to work with, which means I have to take into consideration four very different sets of characteristics. Let’s break them down:

Robin Hood is a very experienced swordfighter; he’s been portrayed in some iterations of the legend as a former soldier who fought in the Crusades alongside King Richard the Lionheart. He fights using a one-handed sword (sometimes called an arming sword), which is a lighter, faster weapon than a proper medieval longsword. His attitude toward everything is rather cavalier; he rarely takes anything too seriously.

Little John is a large, powerful man. His weapon of choice is a quarterstaff, which he yields effectively but in a rather basic manner; he is not a nuanced fighter. He tends to be gruff and blustery, and contrasts Robin’s attitude by taking everything a little too seriously.

Friar Tuck is a deceptively skilled swordsman, which is directly inspired by his portrayal in the Flynn Robin Hood. Physically he is no longer in his prime, and attitude-wise, he is similar to John in that he takes things more seriously than his leader.

Will Scarlett is a scrappy, rambunctious tomboy who models herself after Robin, to a fault; she takes things far less seriously and is more reckless than her cousin, and is consequently more likely to get into trouble because of it and less likely to know how to get herself out of it. She’s also quick-tempered and constantly out to prove herself. She fights with twin daggers.

A further note on Will, which warrants emphasis: her gender has NO bearing on her ability to fight whatsoever. None. Arguing that her gender makes her weaker or less capable is bullshit sexism, period, so basing any character’s capacity as a fighter solely on his or her gender is weak writing with no basis in reality.

Added note: in an ideal world I’d know exactly who the actors in these roles are so I could incorporate their physicality into the fights, but I only know for certain who will be playing Robin. The others are question marks, so I had to proceed under the assumption that the actors who will play these roles will be approximate matches for the characters’ physical natures. When writing a fight for fictional characters, this is of course a non-issue, but I wanted to mention it nevertheless.

The Weapons

Let’s take a closer look at the weapons being used in this fight.

Little John is using a quarterstaff, a six-foot length of hard wood that is a surprisingly versatile and effective weapon. It inflicts blunt force trauma, but as one of my instructors likes to say, it’s still trauma. A staff is unlikely to cause any cut-based wound but it can break bones and wreck joints easily. Its greatest advantage is its reach, and reach can make a huge difference in a fight, but of our four weapons, it’s the slowest — which, I’ll note, is not to say it’s a slow weapon in real life. An expert can generate a lot of speed with a staff, and thus a lot of power, but for dramatic purposes I’m treating this as a slower weapon than its real-life counterpart.

Tuck is using a proper longsword, a cutting and slashing weapon that has a blade ranging about 30 to 40 inches long. A standard longsword can be used one-handed but is designed to be held with two. It doesn’t have the reach of a quarterstaff but is better in that regard than the other weapons. At 2.5 to four pounds, it can be moved with considerable speed, but again, I’m slowing it down for dramatic and stylistic purposes.

Robin is using an arming sword, a one-handed cutting and slashing weapon with a blade in the neighborhood of 30 inches long. Such weapons weighed only two to three pounds, which make them pretty fast. Its reach is only slightly inferior to a proper longsword.

Will is using two daggers, which are primarily thrusting/stabbing weapons. These have the worst reach but the best speed, and give her the benefit of being able to attack two different targets at once, which is significant; it would be very difficult for John and Tuck to guard two targets at once considering they have two-handed weapons. Also, having researched knife fighting, I’ve learned that a trained knife fighter is absolutely terrifying. If they get within your range, you’re screwed. The best defense, aside from running away, is to keep them out of reach.

Putting It Together

Here’s what I came up with. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it.

The notations are based on the Society of American Fight Directors’ stage combat system, which assigns numbers to the a performer’s limbs and head. It’ll make sense in a minute.

Robin is stage center, facing the audience. Will is off to his left, John to his right, Tuck to his right and slightly behind Robin. Robin invites his comrades to attack him as part of the training exercise. They waffle for a moment before John takes the initiative and comes in hard, winding up for a big strike to Robin’s left arm (phrase 1, line 2). Robin blocks the blow, as well as the next two attacks to his right leg and head (lines 3 and 4).

Because the head shot is coming in with a lot of force, Robin reinforces his block by gripping the blade of his sword with his free hand (which is a real thing) so the barrier he’s creating with his sword is nice and solid. His next move is to reverse the momentum of the fight by smacking the end of John’s staff away using his weapon’s crossguard (line 5) — again, a real-life move, as is driving the pommel of his sword into John’s face (line 6), because a trained swordfighter knows how to use all the parts of his sword.

Now, because this is a training exercise, Robin pulls the pommel strike at the last second and doesn’t actually make contact, but it throws a good scare into John, who flinches away instinctively.

Will, seeing an opening, charges in, expecting to tag Robin in the back (line 7). Robin hears her coming and whirls around, sword raised, which causes Will to freeze in a moment of panic (line 8). Robin, scamp that he is, then teases his cousin with a playful boop on the nose — which, of course, irks Will and goads her into attacking. She tries to stab Robin’s left arm (line 10), then his right (line 11), and locks blades with him — something that does not happen in real swordfights as often as Hollywood would have you believe, but I’m throwing it in for a reason.

While they’re locked up and Will’s in close, where she’s the most dangerous, Will goes for a sloppy slash to Robin’s left arm. Robin stops the attack with a forearm block (line 12) and sasses Will again (line 13) before pushing her away to get her out of distance and reclaim the reach advantage (line 14).

He then goes for a cut to her head, again pulling the blow before making contact, thus scoring a symbolic deathblow (line 15). Angry at getting caught like that, Will angrily slaps the sword away with her right dagger (line 16) and rears back for a big double slash to Robin’s midsection — which Robin aborts by bringing his sword up to her belly — another symbolic killing blow (line 17); in a real fight, he could easily drive it right through her. Robin gives his cousin a smug grin and she stalks off to fume.

Robin then glances over to Tuck (line 19, which has a stagecraft note instructing Robin to keep his face toward the audience) and prompts the friar to come at him, bro. Tuck adjusts his position (stagecraft reasons again) and demonstrates his prowess by striking a right ox guard, a real longsword guard in which the sword is brought up to head level — on the right side, in this case — and the blade is held parallel to the ground, with the point aimed at the opponent.

Tuck closes the distance (line 20) and thrusts at Robin’s right arm (line 21). Robin blocks the attack. Tuck brings the sword around in sweeping arc to get over to Robin’s now unguarded left arm (line 22). Robin executes a hanging block, in which the sword points down instead of up.

Robin carries the momentum through and goes for a head cut, which Tuck blocks with his sword (line 23). Robin’s sword skates off Tuck’s, again letting the momentum carry his blade past the friar, who counterattacks with a cut to Robin’s left leg. Robin blocks it (line 24) and goes for the head again. Tuck again deflects the blow (line 25) and once more goes for Robin’s left leg (line 26). That moment creates a brief back-and-forth exchange that changes up the fight’s tempo.

Robin again blocks the shot to his leg, and then reclaims the fight’s momentum by forcing Tuck’s blade up and over to the other side (line 27). Tuck winds up with the point of his sword on the ground — and his ass sticking out as an irresistible target. Robin gives Tuck a playful kick to the rump and sends him sprawling (line 28).

Fun side fact: it took me an hour at the very least to write the original choreography, which I worked out by myself, in my living room, playing the four different roles simultaneously. It took about a half an hour to write the description you just read. It probably took you five minutes or so to read it. In performance, this fight lasts two minutes, tops.

Writing the Fight

The process I just detailed for creating a stage fight is very similar to the process I use when crafting a fight for a story. I work through the situation, the characters, the weapons, and choreograph the action.

The next step is turning all that into prose that is well-paced, exciting, and conveys enough detail to describe the action without turning it into a play-by-play, which is generally neither exciting nor well-paced. I’ve encountered precious few writers who can detail every single step in a fight without compromising the excitement level or pace (Jim Butcher is the only name that immediately comes to mind, and I’m calling him the exception rather than the rule).

One thing I do is figure out which elements of the fight don’t need to be detailed. Take lines 2 through 4 of the training fight. I could easily describe that like this:

“Little John barreled toward Robin, his quarterstaff raised to strike. Robin took a quick flurry of heavy-handed blows on his sword.”

That gets the point across without telling the reader where each strike was going; that’s unnecessary detail. But what about that head strike and Robin’s counter? That’s a key moment in the fight and could benefit from a little more information, along with a little color.

“John brought his staff around in a high arc, as if to cave in Robin’s skull. Robin brought his blade up, bracing it with both hands in anticipation of the crushing impact. The staff fell, sending a shockwave down Robin’s arms all the way to his feet. Unwilling to defend a second such blow, Robin smacked the staff away with his crossguard. John stumbled. He caught himself and looked up in time to see Robin’s pommel coming straight at his face. He flailed away in a panic.”

There are highs and lows throughout the fight, and one of the keys to turning a literal by-the-numbers piece of choreography is finding those highs and lows and treating them accordingly. To use a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, what you describe in a fight sequence has to add value — to the pace, to the clarity of the narrative, to the emotion of the scene.

If this all sounds too challenging, it might be wise to heed some advice I read recently: if you can’t write a fight in terms of its moves, focus on conveying the emotion and the psychology of the sequence and write more poetically than literally.

Final Advice

This is a lot to digest, and there is so much more to be learned if you want to write solid fight scenes. To wrap things up, here’s a quick-hit list of final bits of advice:

  • Use movies and TV for inspiration, not information. Visual media is generally terrible at accurately portraying how armor and weapons actually work, in which situations they work well (or poorly), or how people respond to injuries, so look for sources that have studied these and related topics. I highly recommend the How to Fight Write blog as a general source of info on all things fighty.
  • Avoid fights that happen for the sake of an action scene. Give them a reason to be there, a reason that supports the story you’re telling and, conversely, is supported by the story.
  • Don’t rely on tropes such as Natural Talent, when a character who has little to no training reveals him/herself as a martial arts prodigy, or Instinct Kicked In, when a stressful situation triggers an adrenaline surge that turns a regular person into an ass-kicking machine, to get a character through a fight scene. Untrained fighters lose fights, period.
  • On a related note, turning an untrained fighter into a skilled combatant takes a lot of time. The old theory that it takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill might not be true, but a person also can’t become a black belt in the space of a few weeks. Let the development be part of the story and don’t gloss over it.
  • Avoid group fights in which the hero stands in the middle of several bad guys, who all politely wait their turn to attack the hero one-on-one (e.g., Bruce Lee vs. Han’s minions in Enter the Dragon, The Bride vs. the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1).

If anyone has any questions or comments, let me hear them!

Weekly Update – November 22, 2016

I’m about to get a bit political here, so anyone who cares to respond I’ll tell you now: I welcome contrasting viewpoints and additional information, but if anyone goes off on a tangent or cannot keep their posts civil and based in verifiable fact, I won’t approve them.

As an independent author who relies on Amazon.com for the vast majority of my book sales, I am naturally concerned that the online retail giant has wound up on a list of businesses Americans are being urged to boycott because of its connections to our president-elect and his family.

What concerns me is why Amazon ended up on this list. It states that the company’s “business” with the Trumps is selling clothing and shoes with the family’s brand on it.

This, to me, seems like a bit of a reach. For starters, Amazon carries EVERYTHING. That it sells stuff with the Trump name attached is hardly surprising and doesn’t to me speak of a formal business partnership between the two entities in the same way Trump and Macy’s had a partnership — and note that I said “had,” because Macy’s dropped the Trump clothing line like a hot rock.

Now, could Amazon also purge all things Trump from its virtual shelves? It could, and there is precedent for Amazon removing items following a public outcry, but it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. A search of the site pulls up nearly 200,000 items with the Trump name attached to it in some way, from books to clothes to some amusing yet disturbing novelty items (the pen holder that allows you to insert your favorite writing implement in Trump’s ass, for example) — and only a tiny fraction of these items are in any way produced by a company with direct ties to the family, so it could take time to find and remove only those products. But I digress.

What I think is worth bearing in mind as you decide whether or not to participate in the boycott is that Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are NOT on friendly terms whatsoever.

The Motley Fool has a lengthy piece about the relationship between the men, and it does not paint a picture of two guys who like each other, much less do business with each other. Trump has chastised Bezos for buying the Washington Post, which was very critical of Trump throughout the campaign, and the president-elect has talked about using the power of the federal government to investigate alleged (or perhaps, imagined) anti-trust law violations by Amazon.

After the election, Bezos tweeted, “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.” Some have interpreted that as at least tepid support for the candidate — Fortune.com called it a “neutral” response — and used it to fire up their anti-Amazon sentiments because it wasn’t outright condemnation.

I’ll make it clear here: I did not support Trump, at all, and still don’t, and I would be delighted if Bezos took a principled stand and purged Amazon of all its Trumpernalia, but I doubt it’s going to happen — not without a powerful display of opposition from the public (I’ll get to that in a minute).

So the question becomes: how do you, the consumer, respond to all this? How do you support indie authors who rely heavily on Amazon’s reach in the American and global marketplace without necessarily supporting Amazon itself?

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t just stop spending money on Amazon. What I mean by that is, a boycott doesn’t work simply because people stop supporting a business; it works because they let the business know in no uncertain terms that reasons X, Y, and Z and WHY they aren’t spending money there anymore. There needs to be context, so I’d say the first thing to do is go to that boycott list I provided, use the contact information to make your voice heard, and let Amazon know directly and explicitly why you don’t want to give them your money anymore.

I’ll also note that as a rule I do believe in boycotts as a protest tool, but they need to be constructive, productive, focused, and come with two expectations: you might cause unintended collateral damage in the process; and that the entity being boycotted might not accede to your message.

And if the latter happens here and Amazon doesn’t dump all things Trump, what do you do? How do you keep indie authors alive without going through Amazon?

Again, you’ll need to put in some effort here. A lot of authors use Amazon exclusively, but not all of them. There are numerous other retail outlets available to indie authors so you can check them out, and the best way to find them (aside from the almighty Google) is to hit up your favorite authors via their websites, blog, and social media platforms. They’ll be happy to hook you up. Some might even sell directly through their website, such as I do (he said in a shamelessly self-serving way).

I encourage everyone to follow their conscience, regardless of which path it takes you down. If you choose to avoid Amazon like the plague and buy through other retailers, great. If you decide that boycotting Amazon would only hurt indie authors and don’t want to punish them in the process of making a statement? Also great.

Regardless of whatever decision you make, make it an informed decision and make sure your actions are clear in purpose.

WRITING PROJECTS

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins:  Audiobook recording in progress.

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: In the editing process, on-schedule for a winter/spring 2017 release.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: In the editing process, will be included as a bonus story with Power Play.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft in progress. Got a lot of work done on this over the weekend, so it’s safe to say I’m back on the Black End War groove.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: First draft in progress.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

I hope to hear about my Arisia panel assignments soon. If I don’t at least get on the panel I suggested (about writing fight scenes) I’ll be rather unhappy.

Finally, I’ll say this again even though I’ve remarked on it recently, but it’s come up in some of the writing forums I belong to so I think it bears repeating.

If you’re an aspiring author on the hunt for a publisher, remember that money is supposed to flow toward the writer. If an outfit calls itself a publisher but requires you to pay for editing, formatting, distribution, promotions, cover art, etc., they are NOT a true publisher but a self-publishing platform. More specifically, they’re a vanity press — a self-publishing service that masquerades as a true publisher for the purpose of enticing writers to cough up significant sums of money for services that a legit traditional publisher is supposed to cover.

If you decide that’s the route you want to go because you need things like editing and cover art, that’s fine, but do your research first, because some vanity presses claim various rights to the author’s work, and losing control of your own novel is a nightmare you do not want to contend with.

Also bear in mind that many self-publishing platforms such as CreateSpace do charge for support services, but those services are purely optional. CreateSpace also doesn’t claim any rights to the author’s work.

The 2015 – 2016 TV Season In Review

The 2015 – 2016 TV season is done, and the past year felt like such a mixed bag. This was the first season in a while that I felt any excitement about, and in a lot of ways it failed to live up to my expectations. Here are my thoughts about the shows I watched (but don’t expect any deep analysis here. A TV critic I’m not).

BEWARE! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

The Flash

My favorite show of the season. Unlike DC’s cinematic properties, The Flash is optimistic, light, and fun, and the drama never reaches the state of quasi-nihilism that has made the DC movie such downers. Grant Gustin is a highly likable protagonist and he has a great support cast, particularly in Carlos Valdez and Jesse L. Martin. My wife and I have vowed to abandon the show if either of their characters are killed off.

The-Flash2The show also knows how to press the geek button in obvious and subtle ways. A geeked out hard when the show recreated the iconic Flash of Two Worlds cover in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene. Pure nerdvana.

Season two also did a better job with Candice Patton’s character, Iris West. The writers gave her more to do than simply be the hero’s love interest, which is great. The character still had a few moments that made me roll my eyes, but the season as a whole gave me hope she’ll continue to improve.

It’s perhaps ironic that The Flash has a tendency to fall apart at the finish line. The season one finale ended on an abrupt, awkward cliffhanger that set the stage for season two, and similarly, the season two cliffhanger on a “Huh?” note that lines up season three. The creative team needs to be better about putting a button at the end of a season arc.

Supergirl

Supergirl had some first season shakiness, but its issues were minor as far as I’m concerned. As with The Flash, Supergirl  benefited from a brighter tone and a more upbeat, positive lead in Kara Zor-El, played with irresistible charm by Melissa Benoist.

How can you not love this face?
How can you not love this face?

However, Calista Flockhart — as Kara’s boss, Kat Grant — almost stole the show every time she appeared on-screen. She started off as a typical boss-from-hell ice queen but quickly developed depth and texture as a character. By the end of the season, she was as lovable (in her own aloof, prickly way) as Kara, and the two made for a great if unlikely team.

I also have to give the writers credit for a great swerve. In the comics, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) became the Superman villain known simply as the Cyborg Superman (as a result of the overhyped Death of Superman storyline) and I was expecting the TV show to go the same way — and then it blew me away by revealing Henshaw was in fact J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter.

I’m happy the CW has picked up Supergirl for season two, and I trust it’ll have a good home there alongside the other DC series. Now, if only someone would pick up my other favorite new series from the past season…

The Muppets

Deadly Boy ToyABC canceled The Muppets after a full (if short) season and I hate them so much for it. Like a lot of new shows, it was a bit rocky for a while as it tried to find its tone (early eps were a little too cynical for the Muppets) and a lot of people didn’t like the more adult edge or the mockumentary style of storytelling, but I thought those were minor points. The gags landed far more often than not and were legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Anytime Uncle Deadly was on screen was pure comedic gold.

It only got better as the season went along, and a change of showrunners mid-season shored up the lingering weak spots. By the end, The Muppets was running on all cylinders. Unfortunately, it seems that the ratings damage was already done. and the show got axed. Bah. BAH, I say!

Galavant

I never expected to love Galavant. When my wife and I checked it out last year, we were expecting a light, fluffy, kid-friendly program, not a sharp, witty, edgy musical-comedy with some surprisingly catchy tunes. Season one ended on a cliffhanger, and I was worried I’d never see a resolution due to the show’s tepid ratings.

The producers knew better for season two and ended things decisively, thought they left an opening or two to continue the story in case season three got the green light — which it didn’t. I can’t complain, though. I feel a show like this could too easily get stale if it went on too long, so I’ll take two solid seasons and a high note conclusion and be happy for it.

Agent Carter

Conversely, I’m unhappy that Agent Carter is also over after two good seasons. In so many ways the series is superior to Agents of SHIELD and has one of the best protagonists on TV in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), as well as one of the best partners in her totally platonic buddy/sidekick Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Their chemistry and crack comedic timing were on full display in the second story arc, which took Peggy to California where she crossed paths with Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), who is known to comic fans as the super-villain Madame Masque.

Alas, we didn’t get to see Frost in full-on Madame Masque mode, and probably never will thanks to so-so ratings. Fortunately for Atwell and her fans, she’ll be returning to TV next year in a new series, but she should have been coming back for a third go-round as Peggy.

iZombie

While it bears little resemblance to the Vertigo title, iZombie is entertaining nevertheless. It’s basically a procedural, but the gimmick here is that the heroine, a medical examiner, is a zombie who, after consuming someone’s brain, takes on the subject’s personality and has flashes of their memories.

The writing in spots is cheesy, as evidenced right up front with the main character, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver) — aka Liv Moore, ha ha — but the jokes fire off consistently and the characters are likable, and when it comes to procedurals, that’s all I really need. I don’t expect deep drama and compelling plots.

However, the show could be getting more ambitious in that regard next season. The finale was a major game-changer and I’m curious to see where they take it.

Arrow

I plan to stick with Arrow into season four, mostly because I’m jazzed at the prospect of a massive four-show crossover that the producers have been teasing, but season three had some serious frayed edges.

RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in "Arrow."
RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in “Arrow.”

The show’s worst sin was killing off Laurel Lance/Black Canary (Katie Cassidy). One producer said the decision was born of the fact that “It kind of feels like Laurel’s story has come to a very organic… if not ‘conclusion,’ certainly a ‘plateau.'” But apparently finding a new story for her was too much of a hassle.

The season also felt too familiar in spots: Oliver’s grating, self-centered brooding and constant need to push people away; the traditional springtime threat to Star City; the increasingly pointless flashbacks that feel more and more disconnected from the main storyline…

And then there was the finale, which traded a logical story for some cheap feels. One guy shouting “Stop!” atop a car before delivering a poor man’s St. Crispin’s Day speech quells a raging riot within seconds? And Oliver uses magic that he barely learned a few weeks earlier to stop a demi-godlike bad guy? Yeesh.

I hope Arrow takes a few steps back next season and goes for something a little smaller and more personal rather than yet another overblown “villain plots to destroy the city” story.

Agents of SHIELD

Agents of SHIELD has improved considerably since its tepid first season (specifically the first two-thirds of the first season, prior to the events of Captain America – The Winter Soldier) and is entertaining, but it has yet to become truly awesome. The season finale had some good twists and emotional depth, but it felt like too little too late for this particular season.

The show has a great cast, likable characters, maybe the best fight scenes on TV, and has finally found a consistent sense of low-key humor. What it lacks is strong season arcs (the Inhumans storyline is getting old and feels like it’s not going anywhere significant) and a real sense of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel could decide tomorrow that the events in Agents of SHIELD never happened, retcon the show out of existence, and it would have absolutely no impact on anything that’s happened in the movies.

Marvel could also learn a lesson from DC when it comes to appeasing the geek audience. The DC shows constantly mine the DC Universe’s deep vault of characters, but Marvel barely scratches the surface of its available roster.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

The weakest of the DC/CW shows, and the fault for that is all on the creative team. I like the cast and the mix of characters, and there were some damn cool action sequences throughout the season, but the “Hunt for Vandal Savage” storyline felt sloppy and disjointed, and too often the episodes relied on this plot point:

RIP HUNTER: All right, people, don’t go screwing around with the timeline.

TEAM: We won’t!

TEAM then proceeds the screw around with the timeline.

RIP HUNTER: What did I tell you?!

TEAM: Well, what were we supposed to do? I mean, we’re not big picture people here.

Blindspot

I had higher hopes for this show. I love Jaimie Alexander, the concept was intriguing, and it was good, but it somehow never rose to greatness for me. The supporting characters, with the exception of techie Patterson (Ashley Johnson, who you might know as the waitress from the closing scenes of The Avengers), are as boring as a beige room, and as the season progressed the plot relied too much on the trope of characters keeping secrets from one another.

The finale shook things up considerably and is poised to send season two in a whole new direction, buy I don’t think I’ll be sticking around for it. The big plot twists were predictable and so they didn’t excite me enough to make me want to see how things play out. For Alexander’s sake I hope the show has a healthy run, but in the end it just wasn’t my thing.

Castle

This show was never high art, but that’s not a criticism. It was meant to be a fun procedural that featured a likable cast headed up by Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic engaging in lighthearted shenanigans, and for eight seasons that’s what it was. The last season or two were a bit shaky but they were generally satisfying.

The series finale was mostly satisfying. It had action, tension, and it didn’t end as many speculated it would, with Beckett (Katic) dying — but that’s only because the show didn’t get renewed. Take out that clumsy, tacked-on coda and it’s obvious that season eight was supposed to end on a cliffhanger and season nine would have opened with the reveal that Beckett had died. That would have been an insult to the viewers, so at least I’m glad the series ended on an upbeat note.

Sleepy Hollow

Ugh. This show used to be such fun…back in season one. Its Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills versus the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse storyline was gleefully off-the-wall, but with each season the show veered away from its core concept — ostensibly to make it more accessible by doing away with its heavy focus on the mythology and going a little more threat-of-the-week. It also grossly mishandled its female characters and watered down a diverse cast with bland white people. In this most recent season we watched two flat, dull villains stand around delivering stiff dialog badly episode after episode while Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, who deserved so much better) did nothing of consequence until finally sacrificing herself in the season finale.

As of this writing, the show could be renewed, in which case Crane would receive a new partner, but who cares? Like Castle, the dynamic between Sleepy Hollow‘s two principle characters fueled the show through its weakest episodes and made its strongest episodes truly memorable. When you kill one of them off, what’s the point in going on? Did no one learn any lessons from The X-Files?

On that note…

The X-Files

Scully FacepalmI’m an old-school X-Phile. I watched the original series religiously and to this day I have a huge crush on Gillian Anderson. I awaited the revival with cautious optimism but low expectations — which, I’m sad to say, were met.

The series returned to its classic form to a fault. Chris Carter made the show’s already convoluted, ill-planned-out mythology even more confusing in the first episode, which set up a plotline that went ignored until the last episode, which not only failed to resolve the arc, it ended on a cliffhanger. The episodes along the way were hit and miss, and when they missed they missed HARD. The revival was so crushingly bad, if I watch the next season (which is in the works) it’ll be with the same sort of perverse curiosity with which one checks out the aftermath of a car crash.

Weekly Update – April 26, 2016

WRITING PROJECTS

 

The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl: Draft one is done! I finished it up last Friday, took the rest of the day and Saturday to relax a little and let my brain clear itself so I could begin draft two work on Sunday — which I did.

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: About a quarter of the way through the first draft.

Steampunk OtherWhereAPPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

I was considering a whole separate post about this, but instead I’ll use this space to discuss an aspect of being an independent author that newbies often aren’t ready for, and that’s the chore of promoting themselves and their book.

What inspired this was an author brought to my attention by fellow indie author Pete Kahle (The Specimen), a writer who engaged in an absolutely staggering amount of deception and flam-flammery to generate hype for her debut (and so far only) novel. I won’t name names because I’m not out to shame anyone, and because it’s not necessary to make the points I’m going to make.

Some of the things this writer did are tactics I’ve seen a lot of other indie authors use to draw attention, like giving herself a bombastic title (“the queen of [genre]”) and boasting that her book was “an international best-seller,” but others were brazen lies, such as the completely fake New York City publishing firm backing her book (complete with website, Facebook page, and Twitter account); pull quotes from that were actually taken from the writer’s own press releases and passed off as excerpts from book reviews; pull quotes from completely fictional book reviews; a resume that claims ghostwriting credits for several unnamed major motion pictures; and the most outrageous of all, a fake top ten listicle naming her as the seventh greatest author in her genre, placing her not only in the company of some HUGE literary names, but above two well-established authors and one modern master who would need a pick-up truck to carry all the awards he’s amassed over the past quarter-century.

And remember: she has only put out one book.

I fully understand how frustrating it can be establishing yourself. There are hundreds of thousands of indie authors out there all jockeying for readers’ attention, and it can be a major challenge to get your work noticed, but there are what I’ll call, perhaps simplistically, right and wrong ways to promote yourself.

The wrongest of the wrong ways is lying outright to potential readers, whether that lie takes the form of fake reviews or false accolades or fraudulent credentials. These may get you some early attention, but the lies will come back to bite you. Remember, people talk, especially within the indie author community. People who play fair get talked up and supported by their peers, and con artists are quick to get called out and exposed. Readers will find out and they’ll avoid the book and the author, and tell their friends to do the same.

There are many right ways to go about it, and they’re so much easier than manufacturing a cult of personality around yourself. Options include paid advertising through BookBub, The Fussy Librarian, Author Shout, and more (but I’d advise against ever paying for a Facebook ad); conducting free giveaways; diligently cultivating an online presence through a website, blog, and/or social media; connecting with other indie authors to support and promote each other; seek out local events at which to sell books and meet people; writing new books so people know you’re not a one-title wonder; having faith in yourself as a writer and in the quality of your work; and simply being patient.

I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve a decent measure of success, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took a few months for people outside my circle of friends to find my first book, and months after that to realize a halfway decent royalty check from book sales, and while I consider writing my primary source of income, I’m not doing so well that I could make a comfortable living off of just my writing — but I remain hopeful that with more time, more books, and additional effort to promote myself (ethically), things will continue to improve.

The Action Figures Diversity Report

I’ve been a cautiously optimistic fanboy this week, due to the news that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is in development as a series. American Gods is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’m curious to see how it translates to the screen — even more so after reading that Neil has asked the producers not to whitewash any of his characters of color.

That got me to thinking about the diversity of the Action Figures cast of characters, and whether I was doing a good job of representing a variety of genders, sexual orientations and identities, and races. As a bit of an internal exercise, I went through the main and prominent secondary characters and tagged them, and here’s the result:

  • Carrie/Lightstorm: white female
  • Matt/Captain Trenchcoat: white male
  • Sara/Psyche: white female
  • Stuart/Superbeast: male, quarter African-American
  • Missy/Kunoichi: female, half-Japanese
  • Concorde: male
  • Mindforce: white male
  • Nina Nitro: Hispanic female
  • Dr. Enigma: white female, bisexual
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: male
  • Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: female
  • Meg Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male

You’ll notice that only one character, Dr. Enigma, has a distinct sexual orientation. Three other people on the list are homo- or bi-sexual, but their respective reveals are tied to story and forthcoming (if not in book three, definitely in book four).

You’ll also notice that the cast is primarily white. Eight characters are explicitly described as white, nine if you assume at least Rockjaw or Doc Quantum are white (which is a natural assumption, considering the kids are described as pale-skinned with very light blond hair).

If I start adding prominent tertiary cast members (the kids’ parents, recurring supporting characters), things don’t necessarily get more colorful, so to speak. Missy has a Japanese father, Stuart has one half-African-American parent, but the rest of the parents are white (implicitly if not explicitly). Much of the supporting cast is of unspecified ethnicity, which can be good or bad; readers can fill in the blanks and assume these characters are people of color if they like, but I could also take a bolder stance and say “Character A is a person of color.”

My concern with establishing as canon that a character is someone of color is that it would wind up as little more than paying lip service to diversity. I realize it could be argued that simply having a person of color present is enough, that it makes them a presence in the story, but I want the character’s ethnicity to matter, to the character or the story, and not become a throwaway element — but, as the writer, it’s incumbent on me to do just that, isn’t it?

I am pleased with the gender balance. Of the above-listed characters, half are women, and two are in leadership roles (Carrie and Doc Quantum). Additionally, the male characters are portrayed as comfortable with that, and I’d like to think that sends a good message all around.

If I were to give myself a grade for diversity in my novels, I’d give myself a solid B-minus, at best. I could definitely do better, and hope to as the series progresses.

Anatomy Of A Bad Cover

cover-lowrestrimCover art has been on my mind a lot lately. As previously mentioned in this blog, I rather agonized over the cover concept for Action Figures – Issue Two: Black Magic Women; I noted the conceptual similarities between the covers of Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins (by my artist Tricia Lupien) and the forthcoming issue of Ms. Marvel (by Annie Wu); and my buddy J.M Aucoin recently unveiled the cover art for his upcoming Jake Hawking omnibus (which, I add, I am looking forward to, since I am not a big e-book reader).

Cover art is a pretty critical element of the final novel package, and an element that a lot of novice authors overlook or ignore. Pop over to Lousy Book Covers and you’ll see how wrong covers can go, and I think that will serve as enough of an explanation as to why good covers are important. I mean, would you pick up any of those books?

Comic Book Resources recently posted a harsh, but dead-on, analysis of the cover for the newest relaunch of DC Comics’ Teen Titans. At first glance, the artwork (by Kenneth Rocafort) looks pretty damn cool, but CBR delves into its flaws in terms of concept, composition, and how it presents its characters — in particular Wonder Girl, who CBR maintains is sexualized to a ridiculous degree. It’s hard to disagree.

Teen Titans CoverThe background clearly suggests a high school setting is involved, and the book is called Teen Titans, so it’s not unreasonable to assume we’re looking at a teenage girl — and teenage girls do not look like that (not without the benefit of no small amount of plastic surgery).

It’s easy to dismiss criticism of Wonder Girl’s look as pointless fretting over sexed-up comic book females because that’s what comic book females look like, they’re idealized versions of real women, so shut up already and enjoy the book for what it is, but chances are, the people saying that are all guys who like their super-heroines to look like Victoria’s Secret models, but that’s one reason why such representations are so subversive: they send a message to readers that this is the norm for female characters.

This cover is the latest misstep for DC Comics’ “New 52” relaunch, which also shrank Starfire’s already skimpy costume, reimagined Harley Quinn as a pole dancer, and turned Amanda Waller, one of DC’s best characters, period, from a big, middle-aged African-American woman into a young, skinny, sexy African-American woman, because reasons.

Someone needs to show DC the memo that girls and women read comics too. Better yet, they need to show them Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel and show them how to do a character redesign right.