Friday, March 28, 2014

RIP Dave Trampier

RIP Dave Trampier.

I feel like a piece of me has died. I'm more saddened by this than by the passing away of any of the other "old guard," as sad as I have been to see them go. Tramp's story is bittersweet, to say the least. His art informed so much of my imagination as a child of the late '70s and teen of the '80s. Truly mourning his passing . . .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I Ran Last Friday

The Ruleset: Lamentations of the Flame Princess, house ruled by your's truly, to allow for dual class players and half-elves. Yes, an abomination in LotFP, but what is LotFP without abominations?

The Cast: 2 specialists (one we will call TS for "Tinker Specialist," one we will call "SS" for "Stealth Specialist"), 1 cleric (Serbian Orthodox), 1 mage, 1 1/2 elf fighter-magic user (the abomination), 1 fighter. Each character was at 3rd level (or a combined 3 levels for the fighter-mage). Also, a linkboy descended from a dispossessed knight of yore (see "The History").

The Setup: SS (known also as Friedlich) has a rich uncle who owns property in a Serbian-speaking area on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire. The uncle's servants have discovered two doors, previously covered by grass overgrowths, in the side of a hill on the family property. The uncle has asked his weird nephew and his strange friends to investigate. He offers them 50 SP each, plus anything they find *if* said objects don't hold any value for the estate.

The History: Back in 1522, a nearby castle was laid siege to by Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan. The outlying population actually found this a relief, given that the petty noble who held the castle was rumored to be harboring a sect of anti-religious heretics who felt that magic and science were the surest way to elevate mankind, rather than religion. A group of warrior-monks of the Serbian Orthodox church had earlier tried to infiltrate the castle in order to kill off the heretics, but the noble's knights, though few, were able to hold them off. But they were unable to resist the Sultan's efforts and the castle fell after a several months of deprivations. The many staked bodies lining the road to the castle attested to the fact that Suleiman's men had found and disposed of many of these heretics. But historical accounts contradicted each other on both the number of heretics that were holed up in the castle initially and were unclear on exactly how many were killed. The castle was soon burned, then torn to the ground, but some of the nobleman's surviving knights (who were soon stripped of their rank and wealth) attest that some of the heretics were ushered out in disguise and survived the Ottoman purge. (A special shout-out to +David Blethen for leading me to the actual historical events that I cribbed off of for this scenario).

What the Players Don't Know: Yes, some of the heretics did make it out. They then established this dungeon laboratory hidden beneath the hill. But they aren't at home. Still, that doesn't mean they haven't left the alarm system on.

Causes for Concern?: Doors covered in spider silk, a four-armed adamantine-skulled skeleton, a room full of dead adventurers, a skeleton dressed in a robe and sleeping cap on a silken bed, an almost-finished flesh golem in a lavishly-equipped laboratory.

The Rewards of Valor:  A little silver, an ant encased in amber, a number of valuable books (including a copy of the mystical work Heraclix & Pomp), an adamantium-coated skull large enough to be worn as a helm, a vial of hydrochloric acid (among other potentially-entertaining chemicals), and an elegantly-carved dragon mouth flintlock musket with a rifled barrel.

Priceless: Ledgers and legal documents saved from the archives of the knights who protected the Serbian heretics, all of them proving that our faithful linkboy still holds the rights to the hill under which the present dungeon lies. The uncle will not be pleased.

Best Moments for the DM: Watching players squirm and worry over such harmless things as a room that had been melted and clawed by a no-longer-present dragon, a non-functioning flesh golem, and a corpse on a silk bed. "I think that's a lich, let's get out of here." "Maybe we should shoot it before it gets out of bed." (players proceed to pepper the corpse with scattershot). "Um, we just shot all these nice silk sheets full of holes". Also, having the cleric discover a book written by one "Acererak" and learning that this name was a key word used for diffusing traps. Unfortunately, the cleric didn't discover that this name was also a key word that would have awakened the flesh golem in the laboratory. Oh well. Win some, lose some.

What the Players Would Have Discovered if They Mapped Correctly: The dungeon was built in two "strands" of rooms connected by curved tunnels that alternately snaked above or below the tunnels in the other "strand". This gave the dungeon the overall appearance of a double helix.

Who Made it Through: Surprisingly, all characters made it through, but not without some permanent scarring and dinging of attributes (most notably a permanent loss of dexterity and charisma). There were several near-fatal near-misses, including the "opportunity" to be diseased by a very nasty mold. 

The Dice Rolled: The players' way.

What I Would Do Differently if I Did it All Over Again: Send a specialist in after the party, someone hired by the uncle to ensure that his interests were protected. Next time, next time . , .

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne (Atomic Robo, #1)Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne by Brian Clevinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It must be really tough to be a comic book writer/graphic novelist in this day and age. First, there's the proliferation of comics on the internet, which draws an attention-deficit society away from hard copy books in general, let alone graphic novels. Second, and intimately tied to the first, is the sheer volume of self-published graphic novels (in hard copy form, I mean), which makes it easier for your work to get lost in the crowd. And while there is a lot of dross out there, there is a lot of great material out there, both in the self-published vein and coming from "traditional" publishers. Some recent examples of such stellar work in the latter realm are The Manhattan Projects, Prophet, and the Fatale series.

That's some stiff competition and a not-very-friendly environment in which to find oneself as a graphic novelist.

But you can't blame people for trying. Heck, if I had half the artistic talent of Scott Wegener or the connections with artists enjoyed by Brian Clevinger, I'd take a shot at it myself. I love the graphic novel form, and I'm a decent enough writer. Alas, I am not a great artist. Not even a good artists.

Wegener is a good artist. Behind the front cover, his work is a little sparse and uncluttered for my tastes. I like details and a bit of organic roughness or a sense of aging and decay, if you will, a'la Moebius or Farel Dalrymple, so the artwork in Atomic Robo: Volume One was adequate to the task, but not stunning.

Clevinger is a good writer, too. The narrative stream in this work takes several bends, in the form of flashbacks, each of which adds to the cumulative knowledge about the main character, Robo.

But it's in the character of Robo that I find my greatest disappointment. The premise is very cool, a robotic man, built by Nikol Tesla in 1923, is brought up by scientists who train him to defend the world from psychotic ne'er-do-wells like the pseudo-Nazi Lord Helsingard. We watch Robo in a series of flashbacks as he fights giant ants, dogfights with a Japanese fighter during World War 2, lands on Mars and infiltrates one of the pyramids of Giza, which is moving toward Luxor, causing destruction with a Deathray as it crawls across the desert. Robo, despite being somewhat vulnerable to major explosions (but only somewhat), succeeds in everything he does, and does so with a snarky attitude that . . . well, that's been played a hundred times before in the graphic novel genre. In some ways, he's like a robotic Hellboy, but without the vulnerability that Hellboy shows, from time to time. And Robo's compatriots seem just as cocky. So cocky, in fact, that they lack humanity.

So, while I enjoyed Atomic Robo: Volume One, I feel that it lacks depth. Perhaps Clevinger and Wegener hit another gear with some of the later books. I know that Robo has a fairly loyal following out there. But I can't be counted among them . . . yet.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Authors: "Independence" is Not Freedom to do Whatever You Want!

Lately, there has been an imbroglio in the book world. I don't want to get mired in details, so, in brief, the problem is that several "Indie" authors are claiming that they are being "bullied" by anonymous reviewers of their work. This has led to a petition to and others that, if heeded, would require that all reviewers have to give their full, real name when writing reviews. Anne Rice, among others, has signed on to and supported this position. Others feel that stripping reviewers of anonymity will lead to an overall drop in the number of reviews given as reviewers try to avoid being bullied themselves by authors who disagree with assessments of their books. Apparently, anecdotal evidence suggests that both of these things have happened, though it seems that this is a very limited problem.

Let me get this out of the way: In the name of authors and reviewers whose names are being sullied by attacks from either side, STOP IT! I'm an author and a reviewer and, frankly, I'm getting sick and tired of the drama. Grow up, people!

Yes, your livelihood as an author (ha, ha) or reviewer (chortle, snicker) is at risk. Right. Get over it. No one starts a business venture without risk. That doesn't mean that you just get to lord it over anyone who disagrees with your opinion. In fact, if you're not willing to receive criticism as a writer or a reviewer, you are simply not cut out for this business. I've been lambasted for my writing and chided for my reviews (especially when I give bad ones to books that I felt deserved them - as a warning to other readers). This has happened several times. I've been pegged as overly baroque in my writing, then too sparse, been told that my plots are too simple, then too complex, my reviews have received ranting comments from people who have liked books I've panned and who panned books I liked.

I'm over it. You should be too.

Most of the stink seems to be coming from the "Indie" crowd. Now, I've self-published a few pieces of my own, mostly novellas, but also a short fiction collection. The reason is that most publishers don't take novellas unless your name rhymes with Reevin' Ring. Same with short story collections. There is simply no money in these two forms. So I decided to self-publish them. One of the novellas had already been published in trade paperback form by a now sadly-quiet publisher. The rights had reverted back to me and I asked for permission to do an e-book version, which the publisher agreed to. All of the short stories in the collection but one had been published in juried venues such as Diagram, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, American Letters & Commentary, and others. These stories had been rejected many times, some of them were reworked, all of them that had been submitted eventually found a home in a magazine (print or online) after having been critically examined by an editor or (usually) multiple editors.

In other words, I submitted (most) of these for critical review to another human being or human beings who judged that they were worthy of publication. Or not. I have a short novel (as yet un-reviewed!) that my agent thought was in good enough shape to send out to publishers, but it's not a good fit in *any* genre category, so it's been a tough sell. In fact, one publisher told us that "it's written too well". But I wasn't about to dumb down the writing for them. So after a long line of "we don't know how to market this" rejections, I self-published it.

I'll admit that two of my other self-published novellas had not been submitted and critically reviewed by an outside judge. Again, I published these because no one seems to be publishing the novella form unless you are a Very Big Name Author. Still, I've received reviews on these two novellas, some of them great, some not-so-flattering.

And I appreciate every one of them.

Here's the deal: There is no such thing as a bad review. If you don't understand this, you don't understand the craft of writing. Oh, you might have written a book and put it online for the world to see and force-fed tweets to people all day long about how marvelous your book is, but until you've received a bad review and dealt with it gracefully, you're not a writer. I've been there. I can think of at least one review that I responded to and should not have. If you dig around on the interwebs, I'm sure you'll find my response in some dusty corner of some server that hasn't fired up in the last ten years or so.

But I learned, and I repeat: There is no such thing as a bad review. The only bad review is the one you respond to badly. Think about it: You've got a bad review; you've just gotten free writing advice. Now, like any other advice, you ought not to take it all and apply it. But that reviewer might just have pointed out something you've missed or maybe a bad habit or two you've fallen into as a writer. Heaven knows I've had these things pointed out to me from time to time. Would it have been better to catch these things in an earlier editorial pass? Sure. But you're not going to catch everything. And if you can't afford a good editor, you're not going to catch every one of your errors. You're not. It's a pretty good idea to submit the piece to your writing group or at least have a friend who can be critical and honest in their reading of your work do a close reading for you. Even then, even with professional editing, you are likely to have an error or two creep in unawares. This happens in almost every book on the shelf. So if someone points it out to you, great! If it's in your power, go fix it!

Here's another thing: Controversy sells. Don't think it's true? Have you watched reality TV lately? Case closed. You want to generate interest in your work? Get disparate reviews, watch the sparks fly, watch potential readers shake their heads at the reviewers (both positive and negative) and buy the book so that they can read it and decide for themselves.

Did I mention that any mention of your book, good or bad, is a mention? No. I don't have the data easily at hand, but I *think* (I could be horribly wrong here) that in order to effectively stick in someone's memory, that person needs to be exposed to your product six times. That's why twitter is so cluttered with indie authors advertising their work (yes, I'm part of the problem). How much more pleasant for your "mention" to come in the form of a review, where a reader can make a judgement on the review on their own time, rather than seeing it flip past them at light speed on twitter.

You see, readers are smart consumers (after all, they're choosing to look at books rather than, say, tabloids or TV reality shows, at least for a little while). If they read a bad review, they'll consider it and carry on an internal debate about whether or not they should add your book to their wishlist or not. If the reviewer is someone they know and respect, someone with very similar tastes to their own, then, yes, they might not read your book as a result of that review. But how many readers (I'm not talking about author-readers or professional reviewers here, I'm talking about people who just read for the sheer enjoyment of it all) personally know reviewers or follow certain reviewers or even agree with everything a given reviewer posts? That number is very, very small. It's more likely that the reader will take the bad review into consideration, read the "blurb" copy, stare at the cover a while, maybe look up other pieces of your fiction (What? You haven't had a short story published online somewhere? You're not trying hard enough!), consider the price, then make a decision to walk away, put your work on their wishlist, or purchase your book. And if there is a bad review and a good review, the reader will weigh both. In fact, if there are ten bad reviews and one good review, the reader is likely to consider them all. The long and short of it is that no single bad review will condemn your book to ignominy. And if you have a plethora of bad reviews for your book, maybe it's time you pull it down (if it's an e-book), heavily revise that sucker, and re-publish. In other words, do the work you should have done the first time through. I know. I've been there.

Now a question for which I don't have an answer: What *EXACTLY* does "Indie" mean? I've heard the term bandied about a lot online lately. Some reviewers refuse to review anything that is not written by an "indie" author, while others refuse to review anything "indie". I've been told that I'm "hybrid," because I have books that are self-published, but I was published in the traditional manner before I ever self-published and I my newest novel is being published in the traditional manner. So am I indie? Would the reviewers who only review work by "indie" authors review my traditionally published work, only my self-published work, or none of it at all? Same with those who refuse to review "indie" work at all. Do you mean me, or just my self-published books?

On second thought, scratch all that.

I don't care.


I've written work that I love. I've published using whatever method seemed to work best for me, as the author, at the time. I love my work, warts and all. Yes, there are flaws, some of them still needing to be fixed. Readers and reviewers have made that known to me, for the most part, or publishers/slushpile readers/editors/my agent.

But just because I don't choose to become embroiled in the whole "he said, she said" BS that is peppering the internet at the moment, that doesn't mean I just get to do whatever I want to do. I get to publish how I want to, but once the deed is done, I'll let readers decide whether or not the work is worthy of further consideration. Of course, I'll try to reach out to new readers via whatever marketing tools I have available. But I refuse to ever get suckered in again to snapping on reviewers, like some authors who are behaving badly in the current environment.

Frankly, I'm just sick of the whining.

Give it a rest. I don't want to hear about how you are being bullied by reviewers anymore. Just shut up. If your work warrants it, it will eventually make it into my to-be-read pile. Or not. Why should you care? You wrote the book. Let me know about it however you like. Then, when I read it, get out of my way. Don't try to railroad my opinion by crying about the bad reviews you've been getting. That will make it much less likely that I even consider reading your book. I'm either going to like your work or I'm not. Either way, I'm going to let people know what I think about it. Get used to it.

And get used to letting readers decide whether your book is or was good enough for primetime.

Meandering . . . rant . . . done!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My, Robot

I'm a writer, not an artist. I can draw humans along the lines of the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder," but that's about as accurate as I get. One step better than stick figures, I suppose. Still, every once in a while I'll sketch something, usually to help me visualize something about the novel or short story I'm working on. I'm a kinesthetic and visual learner, so it helps me to use my hands and to see what it is I want to write about. It's a great way to work through writer's block (for me - your mileage may vary).

Every once in a very long while, though, I like to "blow the tubes" and undertake a "truly" artistic project. Because writing is my priority, I can't put as much time into such a project as one who makes his or her living with art. I'd starve if I had to make my living through art. But I think I'd starve emotionally if I didn't do something artistic now and then.

So I had this idea a couple of years ago and I'm actually making some headway on it. I have a great admiration for vinyl artists, those who take a "munny" and turn it into a little idol to the gods of cool pop-art. I won't even try to compete with that crowd. There are some seriously great artists doing spectacular things with vinyl toys that just leaves me in utter awe. I only wish I could afford to buy some! But I did have this idea that I think just *might* be original.

I've always loved tin wind-up robots. I have a relative (husband of a 2nd cousin once removed, if I remember correctly) who collected tin robots and other tin toys and gadgets well into his old age. Now, I'm not quite so enamored of them as he was, but there is a certain nostalgic tic that flickers up in me whenever I see a tin robot. As a kid in the '70s, I was always jealous of the kids who had those cool walking plastic robots that would shoot sparks out of barrels in their chests. I even had one for a while. Not sure what happened to it, but I'm guessing that mom tossed it out when we moved from Italy to Minnesota (she also gave away all my comic books to the thrift store that move - GRRR!!!). You can't even buy toys like that nowadays because . . . well, something to do with Homeland Security, I'm sure.

So here's my idea: remember the nose art that they used to put on WW II bombers? And remember the old lowbrow hot rod art of the 1950's - 1970's, flames and racing stripes and stuff? Well, what if you took that stuff and put it onto tin robots? Wouldn't that be cool?!?

Granted, I"m not really the guy to do it. But I'm going to give it a shot anyway. If anyone steals my idea, please send me some royalties, OK? I take payment in expensive Dark Chocolate (and, no, Lindt doesn't count - I want the *real* stuff)!

So here is my work in process. I bought this guy on Ebay, sanded him down (which was hours of work), came up with a scheme, and outlined the . . . well, the outline. Still have a lot of work to do on this, and I have no idea how it's going to turn out. Hopefully this will be better than that first time I tried painting Dungeons & Dragons figurines out as a kid. Those turned into something like the melting Nazis from Indiana Jones, or maybe Shmoo.

Here's to hoping that this guy turns out a little lot better! Front view first (sorry for the low-res):

Rear view (note the eyeball/rising sun motif):

Needs some work, to say the least. But at least I'm getting started. If I can get it done up quickly enough, maybe I'll display it at Wiscon. If not this year, next, which might be a better option because then I could have a couple of them done up. We'll see. New creative adventures!

Good Grief! 32%? Really?!?

OK, I honestly didn't think I would "plug" Heraclix & Pomp for a while since my last announcement regarding the book, but they've just dropped the preorder price to 32% off. That's $17.77 for the hardcover. So if you're into hardcovers, and like . . . well, the cover . . . you know what I mean . . . you could do worse than preordering it now. Apparently if the price drops any more (really?) you get the lowest price guaranteed. I won't pretend to understand why or under what circumstances they sell soooo low on a preorder, but if you want the hardcover, get it now! Please let your readerly friends know, as well. Reblog, repost, retweet, rewhatever, and let your friends know, lest they hate you for not having told them! Or, if you have a readerly enemy, buy the book now, don't tell them, then, when they have to pay full price, flash the receipt and laugh maniacally. 

Preorder it here!

Oh, and did I mention that Heraclix & Pomp will also be coming out as an audiobook? I'm hoping they can get Ron Perlman for Heraclix's voice. Or maybe James Earl Jones. Or Morgan Freeman. Or Patrick Warburton.

I have no idea who could do Pomp's voice best. I'll have to give that one some thought.

Thanks for your patience with this plug. Now I'm back to reading. This Hofstadter book is going to break me, I swear!

And as a reminder, here's the cover!