My Two Main Projects

Hi, everyone! If you’re new to my blog, this is a brief announcement to let you know that while it’s still active, much of my writing effort these days is going toward two web serials that will be updated a lot more frequently. They are:

The Clockwork Raven: For ten years, Karla and Kio have known nothing but Nashido, the castle floating thousands of feet in the air that keeps them alive with a combination of unreliable machinery and unfathomable magic. All that keeps them going is a promise that one day they will help each other reach the surface. But when a winged monster attacks their home and Kio discovers the spells that keep Nashido aloft are fading, the two must face how little they know about their home…or each other.

The Clockwork Raven is a story of survival, clockpunk castles, flying continents, skeletal dragons, robots, aircraft engineering, and friendship against all odds that I’ve pitched as Studio Ghibli adapting The Martian. Read from the start here or check out the whole blog here.

Also features intermittent illustrations by Grace Pyles!

The Glass Thief: When Staever and his gang of lobster thieves hijack a land vessel hauling precious glass to the wealthy center of the Eye, they don’t expect to discover an ancient key that could hold the power to save their dying seaside city.

Staever knows the lobsters of the Eye must make a pilgrimage back to the homeland they lost centuries ago, but his only allies are his mother and an out-of-favor governor, and his chances of saving his people are slim at best. Yet if there’s one thing Staever and his gang can do, it’s think on their feet–and although he’s in the crosshairs of a conniving politician and his brutal enforcer, this thief’s day may be about to dawn…

Sweeping from a high desert, across a barren wasteland spanned by graceful bridges, and into the swamps and forests of a land known only to legend, The Glass Thief is a tale of treason, swashbuckling adventure, despicable villains, romance, humor, and the power of history. By the end, a continent—and a world—will be forever changed.

Read the first chapter here, or check out the whole story here.

A new full-length post coming soon! I’m thinking it’ll be about worldbuilding for fun and profit.

Sam’s Guide to Opening Sentences

Hi, everyone! Today’s topic is an important one for writers: it’s my take on how to handle that all-important first sentence.

The opening line of your story or novel carries a staggering amount of weight. If the importance in hooking your reader decays exponentially with each sentence, the first sentence is the asymptote: the point where hook significance leaps so high that the first officer on a sci-fi show would say readings were “off the scale.”

Or “over 9000!” if you prefer. The point is, it’s a big deal, and everyone has a different way of going about writing a first sentence. I’m not claiming this one is the only correct way–just that it’s mine, and since some people have told me I’m good at this, I hope it can help you with your own writing.

Here’s my method. A perfect opening sentence needs to do two things: introduce the mood of your story, and contain a mystery that invites readers into your story. A good opening sentence needs to do at least one of the two.

I’ll start with mystery, since that’s actually the simpler and less important of the two, though its immediate effect on the reader is more noticeable. To explain this, I like an example that I read somewhere else a while ago–I don’t remember where, but if anybody recognizes this, please let me know so I can credit them.

Anyway, take a look at the following first line:

Thirty minutes before the state championship, Johnny, our starting quarterback, walked into the locker room and announced he had quit the team.

The Johnny example has a major flaw, which I’ll discuss when I get to mood. This is by no means a perfect opener–it’s a teaching tool.

For now, take a moment to think about the amount of information crammed into this one sentence. There’s a quarterback, so we know it’s football, a sport played mostly in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a state championship, not a bowl game, so it’s probably high school football, an activity most consequential in rural areas of the American Midwest. Since Johnny is the starter, we know that he’s likely been thrust into a lot of adulation and responsibility at a time when he’s still maturing. And don’t overlook that sneaky pronoun “our,” revealing that this story has a first-person narrator.

Density by way of implication is one method you can use to entice your reader. Lots of people like to illustrate this with the famous six-word story–“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”–attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but I prefer Fredric Brown’s entry for the shortest horror story ever written: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock at the door.”

The main focus here, though, is the question: why has Johnny quit the team? We want to read on just to find that out. The fundamental trick of advertising is to convince somebody they have a need they didn’t have previously, and then fill that need. We as writers can hijack that trick for a less evil purpose. Don’t beg the reader to read on past your first sentence–convince them they would be ill-served not to.

Suppose Johnny’s tale is a short story in a cross-genre anthology, and you have no idea what category his motive will fall into. Has Johnny’s doctor diagnosed him with repetitive concussions, setting up a confrontation with his football-loving father? Is a psychopathic fan of the opposing team holding Johnny’s girlfriend hostage? Has Johnny made a pact with a Faerie Queen to trade away his football skills in exchange for a cure to his rare late-onset genetic disease? How will that affect the playoffs?

The most important part of this first component of a perfect opener is that your mystery be original. There are a lot of cliche opening lines that may have been mysterious once, but now just look stale–unless a new twist is placed on them.

For example, one of my pet peeves of amateur fantasy openings is to start in the middle of a chase scene. Inevitably, the character will be some manner of child, they will be exhausted but have to keep running, and whatever is chasing them will not be shown. A similarly common start is to have a more battle-hardened character fighting a bunch of faceless enemies.

This does not make me want to keep reading because I’ve been given no reason to invest myself. Specifically, there’s no mystery here. The author is expecting me to want to know why their protagonist is being chased, but hasn’t given me anything to grab onto. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix: give the runner a mysterious object they must protect with their life despite being obviously unqualified. Or start a few minutes earlier and make it clear their village was doing something offbeat that caused it to be attacked. Or have them investigating an interesting spot in the woods, but get chased, making them unable to finish…

…you get the idea. Simple additions can make this generic opening scene a hundred times more compelling. And the key element is an interesting, unresolved mystery. It doesn’t even have to be the central mystery of your story, either.

For a more complex example: opening with a character waking up is considered the mortal sin of introductions. It’s extremely hard to improve this, since it’s hard to imagine a note of less tension or interest to begin on. Everyone is at their least interesting right after waking up. Plus, even if they wake up in an unfamiliar situation, we know it will take them several boring pages to figure out what’s going on.

It’s best to go the Metamorphosis route: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s a rule. If you must start the story with your character waking up, make sure he’s a cockroach, or something of similar mysterious weight, by the end of that sentence.

Let’s return briefly to Johnny to introduce the other half of my idea of a perfect opening line. His decision in the example to quit the team raises a lot of questions, but there’s one thing it fails to do: give us an idea of what kind of story we’re about to read. Is it going to be a comedy of errors or a family tragedy, a grounded coming-of-age tale or an urban fantasy saga? This is where relying solely on the mystery falls short–it fails to promise anything to the reader, other than that something good will happen if they read on.

This promise will not carry weight with everyone. Therefore, we need to ensure the perfect opener also conveys a sense of mood.

I’m going to start this one with some examples of real opening lines that I love. Several of these are illustrated in this awesome imgur post you should check out.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984

The idea that clocks can strike thirteen is not all that mysterious to us now, but Orwell’s classic introduction doesn’t hinge on an inviting mystery. Rather, it’s telling us about the world we’ve entered: a dark and bizarre place where everything we’ve come to find comforting and familiar is subverted just enough to be terrifying.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” –Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

Another two examples of openers that are famous because they introduce the world of the story. Note from these that having a “world” does not mean you have built a setting from scratch for a sci-fi or fantasy story, or that you’ve exhaustively researched a bygone setting to write historical fiction. Every story has a world. Austen’s is a claustrophobic nebula of balls and drawing rooms; Fleming’s is a warped take on our own where exotic locales are easily accessible yet filled with danger, and final departure lounges are interesting. You cannot tell a full story without defining the parameters of its world.

Once you’ve defined this, the trick is to illustrate it in the very first sentence. I like to think of opening sentences as an Invocation of the Muse–that first line of an ancient epic poem where the poet would ask for divine aid in telling the story. By doing this, Homer or whoever could immediately signal that he was about to tell a tale so monumentally epic that he literally couldn’t finish it without the intervention of a minor deity.

Then he tells you the ending, and it just makes you want to listen more. That’s how well this works.

No matter what your world, you need a signal just like the invocation to the muse–one that implies, but doesn’t necessarily tell, the whole story. If your novel is about fantastic adventure lurking just behind the confines of the everyday, why not do what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and start your story by declaring two characters perfectly normal, thus conveying that many things around them probably aren’t? If your story is about the turmoil within a narrator’s head, why not have him spend the very first page reacting with hostility to the reader’s perceived interest, like J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye?

This is the deft balancing act that a perfect opening line needs to pull off. If the mystery is a hook to be set, the mood is a line to be reeled in (note: the author knows nothing about fishing).

I try to use this method, but I don’t believe in my own ability to be a perfect example of this opinion. That said, I’d like to share the opening line of Rafter’s Rats, and I hope some of my loyal readers can critique how well I’ve managed to practice what I preach.

In the ninetieth summer of Pale, the year of the Green Fever, two women in veils came to put the mark on my door.

I’ve attempted to meld mood and mystery, so hopefully this line can stand as a mechanical example of the technique, if it’s definitely not a paragon.

Also, just for fun, here are my top five favorite opening lines ever, in no particular order:

1. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2. “Speak, Memory –
Of the cunning hero
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.” 
–Homer, Odyssey

3. “All children, except one, grow up.” –J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

4. “In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” –Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

5. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone





5 moments from history that need to made into movies

Just like reading great books whose movie rights just get sat on, history makes me very sad that I don’t get to decide what movies get made. Hollywood loves making movies inspired by history, but doesn’t always seem to grasp the size of the idea pool it gets to work with. Stuck on the same few eras–Romans, Tudors, anything with Nazis–filmmakers neglect a wealth of true stories. Not that those things aren’t great, but I read a lot of history, and I’ve run into several relatively unknown events that demand to be filmed.

Here, for my promised non-political post and in no particular order, are five of the best. Forget stranger than fiction: these stories are absolutely strange enough to make the best fiction.

5. Edwin and Raedwald

The history: The north of England, 604. King Aethelfrith of Bernicia makes clear his intentions to unite his kingdom with neighboring Deira by any means necessary. Edwin, prince of Deira, sees his father and his entire family murdered–all by the work of one man, with a maniacal fixation on his dream of ruling one Northumbria.

Edwin flees first to Gwynedd in modern Wales, where King Cadfan ap Iago marshaled an army to hold off Aethelfrith’s pursuit. This army includes a band of monks to protect Cadfan’s Britons with their prayers–whom Aethelfrith slaughters to a man before smashing Cadfan’s army and forcing Edwin to flee once more. He visits Mercia before finally being chased to the court of the man who will become his greatest ally: King Raedwald of East Anglia.

Raedwald doesn’t see the advantage right away in keeping Edwin around, so when Aethelfrith’s agents offer him a bribe to hand the prince over, he plans a betrayal. However, his wife, whose name has been sadly lost to history, excoriates him for his cowardice, and convinces him to change his mind. The two men become allies, and march off with Raedwald’s son Raegenhere to retake Deira. Aethelfrith, whose obsession with killing Edwin now verges on madness, rides to meet them.

Everything is settled at the bloody battle of the River Idle, where Aethelfrith commits his entire army straight for the flank commanded by Edwin. Too late, he realizes his mistake: instead of Edwin, he’s attacked Raegenhere, who gives his life in the fighting. Edwin and a furious Raedwald trap Aethelfrith against the river, and slay the evil king.

The movie: Seriously, just read that story again. It’s already a major studio script. Edwin’s desperate flight. His thirst for revenge. Aethelfrith’s increasingly despicable acts (Massacring monks at prayer? Come on, man, are you trying to be a Dark Lord?). Raedwald’s struggle over whether to embroil his people in a war he didn’t start. The two leads turning from suspicious allies to friends. And the utterly tense final battle.

Make it a gritty vengeance drama with high production values and a couple of great battle scenes (plus maybe one good two-on-two duel with the guys versus Aethelfrith’s ambassadors), get someone who directed an episode of Game of Thrones,  and I’d throw money at this.

The cast: To highlight the differences between the characters, I’d cast Kit Harrington as brooding, revenge-obsessed Edwin, with Norman Reedus as the older, more worldly, harder-partying pagan king Raedwald. Round out the cast with Emma Watson as Raedwald’s willful wife who maintains his kingdom’s honor when he cannot, and Taran Edgerton as Raegenhere, the heir to East Anglia tragically determined to impress his father. As for the brutal villain Aethelfrith–gotta be Immortan Joe himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne.


4. Menelik II

The history: Ethiopia, 1889. The powers of Europe–Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy–have invaded nearly all of Africa and divided it up between them. Only two nations, Liberia in the west and Ethiopia in the east, remain free. Menelik II, who traces his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, has claimed the Ethiopian throne after a long power struggle. Knowing that only a strong and united empire can resist the colonial ambitions of Europe, Menelik establishes the capital of Addis Ababa and sets out to found modern Ethiopia.

The British have already interfered in the Ethiopian succession, and the French and Italians are on their way. While crushing the slave trade, Menelik finds time to play the colonizers off each other, skillfully letting each of them think they’re expanding their influence while they’re actually just building railroads, providing Addis Ababa with electricity, and selling modern weapons to the Ethiopian empire.

Italian envoys attempt to trick Menelik with a treaty in two languages: its Amharic version merely cedes Eritrea, but its Italian version claims all of Ethiopia as a protectorate. When he finds out, an enraged Menelik denounces the Italian treaty and prepares for war–ramping up his arms stockpiling and forging an unlikely friendship with Russia. At the Battle of Adwa, with the help of his third wife Teytu, Menelik decisively defeats the colonial army and forces Italy to recognize the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

The movie: Menelik II is a figure I greatly admire. He fought his enemies with guile, and was wise and open before his subjects, but when you pushed him he pushed you back. The story of an African empire that resisted colonization in the 19th century would be fascinating enough on its own, even without a protagonist who was a crack shot, befriended Russian poets, detested slavery, founded a national bank (it’s 2016, founding banks is sexy now), got caricatured for Vanity Fair, and may have (may have) used a non-functioning electric chair as his throne. But this one has all those things, wrapped around the battle against impossible odds. And the good guys win!

The cast: I can easily see Denzel Washington winning his third Oscar for the lead role of Menelik. He’s got the range to pull it off–he can be a wise elder, a trickster, and a force of nature all at once. Teytu, the woman Menelik thought he could never love after losing his first two wives, the woman who served as his minister and commanded 5,000 guns at Adwa, could only be Viola Davis.


3. Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The history: Let’s pivot from war and politics to a feat of engineering. In the 1820s, many Londoners are talking about building a tunnel under the Thames to reduce the intolerable congestion of the city’s commerce. Nobody seriously thinks it can be done, though. The work surface is too soft, and every attempt–including a valiant effort by Cornish wrestler-inventor Richard Trevithick–breaches and floods.

Every attempt, that is, until Marc Brunel, a French engineer fleeing the Reign of Terror, notices the way shipworms line the tunnels they dig as they go. He is inspired to design a Great Shield (The Great Shield, possible title idea), an enormous working frame riding on wooden planks that provides a temporary roof, walls, and floor for a tunnel in progress. There’s only one project ambitious enough to test such an idea: finally building the Thames Tunnel.

The Great Shield can stave off collapse–most of the time–but it can’t protect Brunel from the poor ventilation and wildly fluctuating temperatures that in 1826 leave him too sick to work. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, takes over instead, and finds himself embattled on all fronts: dangerous floods are getting more frequent, his enemies in Parliament are trying to shut the project down, and the Shield is approaching the unexpected dip in the riverbed that destroyed Trevithick’s project.

Isambard has ideas. He invites paying tourists to watch the diggers at work. He plunges under the Thames in a diving bell, alone, to hurl bags of clay to fill the depression. In 1827, he barely escapes a disastrous flood that kills six other workers. When financial problems halt the effort for seven years, Marc Brunel steps back into the picture, raising the funds that finally complete the tunnel in 1841.

The movie: An inspirational story of perseverance starring the engineer action hero we need, not the one we deserve. This seemingly boring story about building an underwater tunnel with turn-of-the-19th-century technology features more hairsbreadth escapes and rapidly changing plans than The Martian. Plus, the narrative of the son stepping in to finish what his father started is too perfect to ignore.

The cast: I just found out two things about Aaron Taylor-Johnson–one, he’s English, and two, his father was a civil engineer. That’s good enough for me to put him in the role of Isambard. As for Brunel Sr., let’s have Vincent Cassel as the inspired, ailing French ex-pat.


2. Castner’s Cutthroats

The history: The other two war stories on this list are about commanders determining the fortunes of entire armies–but here in Alaska, 1942, we’ve got a tale of unconventional battles at the literal edge of the conflict. During the war in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Army invades the Aleutian Islands. Not only does the Alaskan archipelago offer them control of the North Pacific, it could be a staging ground for further incursions onto American soil, even the often-feared direct attack on the west coast.

Colonel Lawrence V. Castner, who the source link literally describes as “a masterful swordsman with a jagged scar running down his chin,” had an idea to take the Aleutians back. Both the Japanese and the Americans struggled against the harsh weather of Alaska, but the native Aleut had thrived there for thousands of years. Castner created an irregular platoon of hunters, trappers, fishermen, prospectors, mushers, and mountain men, with one job: recon the Japanese positions without being detected.

Castner’s Cutthroats disdained all the army’s regulations and discipline. They didn’t wear uniforms. They brought their own weapons. And they argued vigorously against the brass’s determination to wage war in the Alaskan permafrost the same way they did everywhere else. When the infantry committed to the island of Attu arrived in short-sleeved fatigues with only three days of rations, the Cutthroats advised them on how to stay warm, and fed everybody off the land.

At one point, the unit scored a victory by draining a lagoon on Adak Island to use its bottom as a temporary airstrip. In May 1943, they battled for Attu amid ice and fog, and, largely thanks to the scouting, mountaineering, and survival skills of a bunch of punks who didn’t even wear insignia, managed to take the island back. In fact, during the entire war, Castner’s Cutthroats sustained only a single casualty.

The movie: My major M.O. so far has been simple: tell stories that don’t just need to be made into movies, they’re basically already movies that require little to no cinematic punching-up. That’s what we’ve got here. World War II? Check! Action and adventure in a stunning landscape? Double check! A band of unconventional heroes, many of them from a marginalized background, who survive a harrowing fight by just being that good? You better believe that’s a check!

The cast: I’d really like to have an Aleut character at the center of this story, so let’s go with The Magnificent Seven‘s Martin Sensmeier as George Gray, gold prospector, survival expert, and part-time sketch artist who rises from wilderness roots to capture the high ground on Attu. As for Castner himself, read that quote about him again. Did you see Harrison Ford? Yes, you did. Quit lying.


1. Judith and Baldwin

The history: And at last, we head back to Saxon Age Britain, but it’s a very different place from where we left Edwin and Raedwald 200 years ago. The Heptarchy is over, leaving the House of Wessex ascendant, and the English are looking out toward closer ties with their neighbors in France. Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, gives his daughter Judith in marriage to King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He is in his fifties, she no more than fourteen.

The couple have no children before Aethelwulf dies, but no sooner is he cold than his son, Aethelbald, forcibly marries his stepmother. When he dies as well, Judith, who has grown up swiftly to survive for years in a strange court without allies, returns to shelter with her father in France–only to have Charles confiscate her property and lock her in a nunnery until he can marry her off a third time.

However, Judith became a queen in Wessex, and she’s tired of letting old men decide her fate. At the convent, she falls in love with Baldwin, a count and famous warrior in Flanders. Baldwin is no Casanova, either–he loves Judith back, and is ready to fight the whole world so they can be together. When the couple elopes, Charles the Bald excommunicates them both, and sends soldiers to kill them. They escape, perhaps with the assistance of a young Alfred the Great, and embark on a harrowing journey to seek intercession from Pope Nicholas himself.

The pope forces Charles to recognize the marriage only after Baldwin threatens to go to war against France if he does not. Judith and Baldwin live the rest of their days together. Their children become kings and queens, their line eventually culminating in a little-known Norman bastard called William the Conqueror.

The movie: There’s a lot of war in this list, so I wanted to end on a love story. And what a love story! Open on young Judith, a terrified, lonely child bride, who gradually learns to fight for herself. Go through the consequences of her attempt to take a stand, the furtive nighttime meetings at the convent wall with the dashing knight, and finally, a desperate race that tests their true love against the rage not only of the King, but of God. Tell me you wouldn’t rather watch this than another damn Elizabeth I movie.

The only issue, if I had any say in adapting this, was that in learning about this from the British History Podcast I created a headcanon that Alfred was in love with Judith himself and had to give up on his crush so she could be happy. There is no proof that happened and I need to quit pretending it did. (I will not)

The cast: We haven’t used Charles Dance yet, have we? Put him in as Charles the Bald, opposite Natalie Dormer as Judith in the role she was born for. For Baldwin, I need someone like Gerard Butler but less angry, which according the 300 continuum means Sullivan Stapleton. Finally, Asa Butterfield could steal a few scenes as young, not-that-great-yet Alfred.


So there you have it! If studios ever want to go back to making tentpole historical epics with fantastic art direction and the budgets of superhero movies, they could do a lot worse than these five true stories. Also, there’s a lot of history I don’t know–so if you read this far, I’d love to hear your own ideas for real-life dramas overlooked by Hollywood!

My official application to be questioned by Donald Trump’s Un-American Activities Committee

Happy December, readers! As you all may or may not know by now, my home nation is in a spot of trouble. In the immediate aftermath of the election of an evil cyberpunk businessman to the presidency, I responded with a message of unity and hope, which at the time was what I needed and what I thought others might need as well. I’m glad I wrote it, but now, three weeks later, I realize that it can’t tell the whole story. There are people in much more danger from the policies of Lord Business than I am, who won’t be ready for unity and hope for a long while. They have their own voices to make heard, and I’m trying to listen.

Yet, with Martin Niemoller constantly in the back of my mind these days, I need to make sure I am speaking out–however small my platform may be. I want to start by saying this is not, in the end, a post about Donald Trump. Frankly, he’s a backwards little man who isn’t worth my time, and I don’t believe even his cabinet appointments showcase any more “agenda” than a desire to reward his cronies. Why would anybody with a long-term plan seriously consider Ben Carson, the poster child for non-transferable intelligence, for multiple unrelated cabinet positions?

Nor is this a post about the large percentage of his voters who voted so out of a desperation I am unable to understand. They will be severely disappointed, likely soon, but that’s their battle to fight. This is a specific response to the fraction of people who voted for him out of a conscious certainty that pernicious influences–Mexicans, black people, Muslims, homosexuals, feminists, “indecency”–are destroying America in a thousand nebulous ways, and can’t be touched because of political correctness. It is also a response to the movement they emboldened, which goes by “alt-right” because “fascist” is out of style these days. But make no mistake, these people are fascists: subscribers to the most useless, dead-end, reactionary intellectual footnote the 20th century ever had the misfortune to shit out. Stephen Bannon, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopolous, and all their Nazi friends are spineless, pathetic cowards who deserve our contempt, and–if they ever learn to show remorse–our pity.

Why write all this on the internet? Simple: the radicals get persecuted in an authoritarian regime. On the off-chance American Nazism really is enshrined into government policy, I want to align myself with the opposition early, decisively, and publicly, in order to ensure I’m not resisting from my armchair. It’s not the end of resistance, of course, but it is a beginning. To paraphrase Sir Patrick Stewart, if the only currency of public discourse is to be the rage of straight white men, the straight white men have a responsiblity to speak.

With that in mind, let’s rewind the clock: back to the Golden Age of Athens, where Plato authored the dialogue Gorgias, starring Socrates.

In this scene, Socrates debates strength, weakness, rhetoric, and tyranny with a man of the world named Callicles, a positive Disney villain who that Project Gutenberg link describes as “the spirit of evil against which Socrates is contending, the spirit of the world, the spirit of the many contending against the one wise man.” Callicles believes philosophy is useless, and extends that opinion to all of human law, stating that justice is expressed by the strong taking what they want from the weak.

Socrates disagrees. In a parable, he tells Callicles of two men, one with an intact jar and one with a leaky jar. Once the first man fills his jar, however great the difficulty, he will have it full, but the second man, even if he has streams of milk and honey and wine running right through his house, will be engaged in filling his jars “night and day…and if he pauses for a moment, he is in an agony of pain.” Callicles claims that the first man no longer has any pleasure left in his life, but Socrates argues that pleasure is different from good. Sooner or later, he declares, a person must cease attempting to win out over others and must instead conform his life to some sort of design that does not require constant violence–whether physical, rhetorical, or spiritual.

Socrates and Callicles were arguing about individuals, not nations or races, but the argument is easy to transfer. Look no further than pungent sack of crap Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to replace “Nazism” because he took a long hard look at Hitler’s ideology and decided the main problem was the title. His recent speech in D.C. described white Europeans as the “children of the sun,” the destined conquerors of the world who have been unfairly maligned and oppressed by…somebody. My best guess is that “somebody” refers to Democratic politicians and college professors proposing settled designs exactly like the ones Socrates requires for a person to live a good life. These are simple designs–educate yourself, seek order and harmony in your soul, practice a reflexive respect for others–but they’re evidently too difficult for puerile grubs like Spencer and his audience.

Just to hammer this point home, let’s look at a few other examples of quotes from modern American fascists:

“What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.” —Steven Bannon

What if they didn’t? What if the world has passed you by and you’re desperate to reduce millions of people to a single statistic you can feel superior to?

“Is Trump likely to cancel the constitution, declare martial law, declare himself emperor to be succeeded by his children, nationalize the banks and media, hang some of the worst criminal bankers, send the Israelis back to Israel, call the National Guard to roll tanks into Harvard Yard, place all communists and other anti-American elements under house arrest, retire all government employees, replace the USG with the Trump Organization, and begin actually rebuilding America and western civilization?

Short of that, he is simply another phenomenon within the arcane workings of the system, as worthy of support as the ebb and flow of the tides.” —Michael Perilloux

I’d say “there are no words” but there are always words. This guy seems to be one of those people who insist the Roman Empire saved all the other peoples of Europe from themselves. Perilloux’s “rebuilding” of Western civilization takes the form of the fascist’s desperation for his country to be able to compete militarily–if we don’t get them, they’re gonna get us. This is what I mean when I say fascism is a historical footnote. Not only does the United States spend more on its military than the next seven countries, but the era of total war is over. And how have autocratic strongmen worked out throughout history?

The Roman Empire, which a lot of these human mouse droppings hold up as the epitome of strength, was an utter disaster for longer than it was stable. It’s always Augustus with these fascists, never Caligula.

“NO MORE WHITE GUILT! The Alt-right is growing because people are sick of being emotionally manipulated based on them being white.” –r/altright user TopDecking

“And the sickest thing is we are the STRONGEST. We literally built and designed everything you see.” –reply from Americanfight

Let me just get a few things straight here, Americanfight, TopDecking. You two are white, yes? A race category that does not even exist in any genetic sense, yet still gets to be the Chosen People? And you claim that white Europeans are the strongest, smartest, most creative group of people to ever exist? And yet you are both susceptible to emotional manipulation from…who, exactly? If you’re so mighty, why don’t you laugh off whoever is manipulating you and go drink? Or better yet, engage in self-examination to decide whether the charge against you has merits?

Oh, right. Because those would be mature, responsible reactions that would render your default response–gathering together to throw tantrums about how everybody except you is emotionally fragile–kind of nonsensical.

No, the people in that restaurant meeting, on those websites, in those militias, don’t want to live a just, ordered life like Socrates. They want to be Callicles. The color of their skin is their competitive unit, and they feel like their team hasn’t scored enough points recently. It’s easy to see how fascism and racism become entangled: they’re almost identical. The only difference is that the former privileges the state, while the latter privileges the race. In the ideal “nation-state” of the white nationalist, the “almost” is gone. The race is the state, and the state wants to start flexing its muscles.

There are many people who voted for Trump that I don’t want to call stupid or evil–because I haven’t experienced the hardships of the rural poor, because a college degree is not the only indicator of intelligence, and because it’s mostly unhelpful to label people as enemies. But I will say this with certainty: if you believe a nation that had a massive population of enslaved Africans from the moment of its birth can somehow become the flagship of global whiteness, you are stupid. If you believe global whiteness requires a renewed power to exert over its enemies, you are evil. The modern fascist chooses his alignment freely, and I may freely ridicule a person for their choices.

And let’s apply the Socrates argument to these white nationalists: what’s the endgame, exactly? A council of white people ruling the entire world, enslaving everyone browner? All non-whites exterminated? How will you keep slaking your desire for victory once all those others are destroyed, except by redefining your “children of the sun” to an ever-smaller circle of people, until you’re fighting like dogs over the destroyed scraps of a civilization that once aspired to decency? Did Spencer and Bannon and their fascist friends all watch Mad Max: Fury Road, see Immortan Joe come onto the screen, and think, “Finally, leadership I can get behind!”?

Jesus Christ. Witness me, you bloodbags. I think you’re a mob of blubbering cowards desperate for a strongman to come give purpose to your pathetic lives. I think you were the kind of children who picked four-on-one fights and wailed “no fair!” when that one bloodied your nose. I think you lack responsibility, honesty, and basic decency, and if you gain even the slightest influence over the White House, I dare you to drag me or anyone who thinks like me onto the witness stand. We’ve read books. You all don’t appear to have made it through Harry Potter.

If you want proof of what I’m saying, look no further than the new trend of Trump voters throwing public tantrums because they don’t get special treatment for having voted for him. These people joined a white nationalist movement because they wanted victories, but suddenly, the winning has abruptly stopped. It’s all downhill from here. This is the precise moment that anyone who voted for Lord Business because they expected a white uprising starts to learn how much you have to sacrifice to keep that jar filled.

*deep breath* OK. My next post will be about something utterly apolitical. But not before I tweet this at everybody whose name came up (except the Ancient Greeks). They might not see it, but at least it’s evidence they could use against me later.

There is a way to live now

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” –Franklin Roosevelt, Speech before the Democratic Convention, 1936

In 1968, the world watched as the inspirational dreams of a generation seemed to be driven repeatedly to their knees. First Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy had their flames snuffed out in shockingly brief moments of violence. At the end of the year, out of the ashes of a dream, the American people decided they wanted Richard Nixon to lead them–law and order, so the thinking went, was what we needed in those dark days. A victory, in other words, of fear.

In 1968, the world mostly ignored a shipyard in Maine where a shipbuilder named Harvey Gamage was laying a new keel. He was working for a group of friends of the musician and activist Pete Seeger, who had come up with a plan to clean pollution out of the Hudson River by building a ship to campaign for its rights. That ship, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater where I worked so recently, was successful in drastically improving the condition of the Hudson estuary. A victory, in other words, of love.

I mention these events in conjunction not just because they took place in the same year, or even because the events of that year seem to be repeating themselves. I mention them to illustrate the mechanics of the only war that has ever been waged in human history: the war between fear and love. I do not think it is reductionist to view the human progress this way. Each of us bears both, and can feed both, but must choose which one we grant supremacy.

If you’re like me, you spent last night, and this morning, and probably some hours in between wondering if the American experiment has failed at last. The short answer is no. This nation survived multiple ground invasions, many economic depressions, a civil war, enough awful presidents to field a basketball team and enough mediocre ones to keep them going into baseball season. The real question is twofold: how will we survive? And who will suffer while we wait?

The answer to the first is simple. Cast off the idea of America for now and understand that this has always been a battle between love and fear. Understand that our generation has been called to carry the standard of love, and that the way in which we do it will determine the answer to the question of who suffers.

A nationwide demand for law and order. A man with a guitar sitting on a boat. How can they relate?

In the end, I truly believe that love always wins. But it doesn’t win battles. Love’s victories are not flashy: it is not a superhero punching a monster off a building, a wrestler landing a finishing move. The act of love is guerrilla warfare. When fear wins a spectacular triumph, as it did last night, love must begin working in quiet, relentless ways. It is easier to destroy things than to build them. That’s basic thermodynamics. This generation has witnessed destruction, and we’ve been called upon to build.

Our ability to love will determine, over the next four years, whether the groups most in danger from Trumpism are able to find a home in this country. The first thing I’ll do is what I always advise: do what you’re good at and do it well. Of course I’m not going to stop writing and trying to increase the net empathy of the world. But that’s no longer quite enough.

Around 3 AM this morning I thought about that young woman I described in a previous post, who I kept writing for in the hopes that she might find some strength from my stories. Well, that story is complicated now. Add another layer of adversity. Say that she is undocumented, wears a hijab, isn’t sure she likes boys. Books might save her when her classmates shout “faggot!” or “ISIS!” but they won’t do a thing if someone decides it’s OK to hurt her as she walks home at night, or deport her, because–you know, she’s not like us. She’s one of those people. We have to keep them in their place or they’ll be calling the shots next, and then where will we be?

No, books alone won’t save her. Fear is ever-vigilant, and love is prone to sloth. She needs a nation, a world, of clear-eyed people. Last night wrote into the stars our rendezvous with destiny. It is up to us to decide whether the Trump administration is the new normal or the last gasp of a pathetic, lost army of the footsoldiers of fear. I believe love has the numbers–Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all–but that only counts if our side shares a goal and a message and doesn’t give in to the lure of despair.

Now is not the time to look backward, to wonder what went wrong or whether Bernie Sanders could have won. The will of the people is too powerful a weapon to burn it off that way. Our job now is to be constantly on the lookout for concretely fascist policy decisions and ways we can counteract them, and constantly open to the people who need help. I don’t have much, but what I do have, I have to share with all potential victims of the policies of the next four years. I promise right now to volunteer in some way that counteracts each new awful decree. And to tell the people I love that I love them, early, and often, and not just in the way I would if we were on a crashing plane.

Because fear is what Donald Trump wants. As long as we stay afraid, he rules, even if our fears are legitimate. Our work is to love–to dance above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

It’s not fair that we were tasked this way. Who in their right mind would choose to be one of the generations of whom much is asked? But perhaps being given so much is the true danger. Perhaps complacency is the greatest ally of fear, since it produces that nagging suspicion that all your gifts could be revoked at any time.

Now a great deal has been revoked from us. The fascists say that hard times create strong men, but they have no idea what strength really means, since they only know strength when it serves the side of fear. We will show them the strength of our love. It may not look like anything when we do; love will not win in a burst of light or to the sound of an angelic choir. But if we refuse to surrender, it may be enough.

“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.”

–Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

Vikings Raid New York! Or, Topics in Non-Euclidean Marlinspiking

Hello from Yonkers, everyone! I’m excited to be based for a few days in Walla Walla’s East Coast sister city in being more famous for having a goofy name than for being a city. I sailed here aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, where against all odds, I am treated as a member of the crew. In the last month I have seen, done, and learned so many things that if I tried to just vomit them out this post would be a bigger mess than my SAT essay (side note for any high-school-aged readers: the SAT essay is graded using the reverse of Godwin’s Law. Hitler it up, even if the topic is cell biology). So I’m going to organize this update on my maritime activities via the time-tested method of the Good, the Bad, and the Environmental Humanities.

What? That’s a real movie. Clint Eastwood as Henry David Thoreau is a cultural icon. Who can forget that famous scene where he mows down the huckleberry collectors while Emerson quips one-liners? Classic stuff.

Anyhow, I’m about to get kicked out of a library, so let’s get started.

The Good: I should probably explain that title. It’s referring to Draken Harald Harfagre, a replica Viking ship that made a transatlantic journey from Norway through conditions so hazardous the crew were ordered to sleep in their survival suits. For reference, these are the poofy full-body flotation devices you wear to stay alive until somebody’s Coast Guard notices you. Draken (as we call it) has a checkered reputation on Clearwater, as having only one square sail, and a 9th-century steering mechanism largely dependent on a large Swede probably named Gunnar, is objectively funny. That said, I did volunteer to crew for them before landing the Clearwater gig, largely out of my love for replica voyages kicked off by Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage. And it was thrilling to throw up our full sail and try to photobomb their press junket off the Manhattan coast, as we did a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if we actually made it into any of their publicity, but I got some fantastic pictures.


This is my favorite, with the Freedom Tower in the background. I like it as a reminder that history never leaves us: that 800s ships look over the same Atlantic as 2000s skyscrapers.

As for the other part of the title, it came up as part of a discussion of how many coils of line should be hung from certain parts of the rigging, but honestly, I don’t quite know what it means. I think I’m just going to let it exist as an inside joke with just me. Everyone should have at least one of those.

The Bad: It’s been a long road to dredging up my old knowledge from my Corwith Cramer trip around the Lesser Antilles back in 2013, and honestly, I overestimated the strength of that foundation from the beginning. Before boarding Clearwater, I may have known what a ballantine and a beam reach were, and why it’s important to swab the deck with saltwater. But knowing the steps for an arrest in countertime doesn’t mean you can pull one off in a pitched battle against a deranged clown with a weed whacker. It’s all in the muscle memory, the ability to act without thinking, and I have never been good at that.

Nor am I great at details. The fact is that the ideal sailor is an extremely meticulous, detail-oriented person, who can’t look at something without thinking of a way to make it better, prettier, more functional. And I’m…not. I can be a details person when it comes to my writing–no way around it if I want to be able to pick my crutch words out of a manuscript–but it’s not my strong suit in other areas. Just look at my attitude toward cleanliness. Past a certain reasonable point when all the big blemishes are gone, I’m constitutionally incapable of being dissatisfied with an object’s cleanliness. I am like the man from a groaningly dated stand-up act. I cannot see dirt.

(I also frequently leave the toilet seat up. This is another mistake that’s worse if you make it on a boat.)

In the long run, being forced to learn the processes of sail-raising and striking, to practice the skill of moving onto the next step as the previous one wraps up, is going to be good for me. Especially if I plan to skipper my own small boat someday. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t taken a toll. For a week or two, it seemed like I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without making some obvious mistake. When I got a handle on those, more things cropped up. Honestly, the only thing that kept me from despairing about ever being a real sailor was getting to know some of the “real sailors” and discovering they have the same problems. Sailing is like anything else in life: anybody who claims to have all the answers is lying. Even the mates forget things, and no captain can demand the current change course.

Good: Working with students has been the best part of the job, other than the astounding views, which I’ll get to in a bit. Clearwater spends the majority of its time on the water taking students out sailing to teach them lessons about the Hudson River–students from 4th grade to college, but mostly on the younger side. The lessons take the form of stations, usually five to a sail, preceded by all the kids helping us raise the 3,000-pound mainsail together. The passengers get to touch a fish and help steer the boat, but my favorite station to teach is often history, which happens belowdecks with the aid of a box of artifacts and a stained-glass history of the river valley. There are so many great stories, from George Washington’s enormous Tyrion Lannister chain to the English leveraging their dubious territorial claim to turn New Amsterdam into New York without firing a shot. Runner-up stations are water quality, which allows me to explain that the murky waters of the Hudson are actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and art, because in internet parlance I am Hudson River School trash.

Bad: Really really am not going to miss sharing a cabin with between seven and twelve other unwashed people, one of whom has to climb over my bunk to get into his. Or having people literally underfoot when I’m doing the dishes. Or being that people. Or having to keep my backpacks on my bunk when I’m not sleeping in it. By now you’ve probably gathered that I enjoy having my own space. While this is nothing I didn’t expect, it’s not exactly a perk of the job. Granted, though, it’s not hard to find moments to myself–whether on my days off, which each take place in a different river town, or on the transits, when nothing immediately needs to be done.

Good: This is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. Just like Cape Cod, I’m pretty good at winding up in these places. Just a shot I took recently off of Poughkeepsie:


And one of Beacon, current home port of the Black Squirrel, a little south:


It’s not hard to see why this estuary inspired so many people to take up arms in its defense. Even though this isn’t my native land, I’m proud to be one of them.

The Environmental Humanities: On that note, though, one last complicating thought. It’s critical to educate the younger generation early, so they learn why it’s not acceptable to use a river as a garbage can for sinister acronyms like PCBs. That said, I can’t help but feel like we’re taking something from the Hudson in our fight to defend it. Lots of the rhetoric aboard Clearwater treats the river like a babe in the woods, helpless without the altruism of humans. I myself talk like this to students all the time. But in the old days of the Lenape Algonquins, when the Hudson was called Muhheakantuck (loosely, “the river that flows two ways”), it might have been a god. The body and presence of a divine, not just its metaphorical home.

How do I respect something like this in the modern era? Does it make any sense to treat the Hudson as an object of as much respect and even fear as love? After all, it’s no grandfatherly Old Man River, delighted when its children come to visit–its currents and winds have as much power over human life as in the old days.

Like with sailing skills, or non-Euclidean deck arrangements, I have no easy answers here. Perhaps I’m working too hard to drag consciousness out of the landscape, and I should sit back and let it develop in its own time. In all things I ask for patience.

King Lear and the Two Strings: Lotta eye-gouging in this one

Spoilers for both works in the title. Assuming “all but two people die” even counts as a spoiler when it comes to Shakespearean tragedy.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook noting that I had seen two disparate shows two weekend nights in a row: the new stop-motion movie Kubo and the Two Strings on Saturday, and a production of King Lear on Sunday. The latter was in doubt: I waited too long to get the tickets, and saw it on the last night, from an obstructed-view seat. It didn’t matter much, as longtime readers will know I’m enough of a Shakespeare groupie that I’d have seen it if I had to wear a gorilla suit the whole three hours.

Both amazed me. Kubo cemented Laika’s serious claim to being the American Studio Ghibli–not only do their original stories, characters, and visuals shine, but they are funded by the CEO of Nike, who has given creative control to his son, Travis Knight. This means they’ll never have to be saddled with a parent company who will force them to churn out endless sequels to properties that were once charming and original (not that this has happened to any other animation studios we know whose names rhyme with “Blixar”). One could call this blatant nepotism, but I really want few things more than for all the most talented artists in the world to inherit huge sums of money so they can do whatever they want. I’m glad it happened at least once.

(Seriously, though, if Pixar tries to make WALL-E 2, I will…not see it and move on with my life like an adult. But I won’t be happy.)

As for Lear, it was performed in an actual real convent, staged with a pre-Christian Celtic aesthetic–stone tables, furs and leather, knots, and selection from Adrian von Ziegler’s celtic YouTube videos, which have been pretty constant writing companions for me. Lear himself talked a little fast, but Edmund was a timelessly sardonic nihilist, and Goneril was surprisingly sympathetic. Really, I was lucky. Nobody ever seems to do Lear. Not that I wouldn’t rather have been in Walla Walla for Whitman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this was a close second.

As great as both were, they couldn’t be more different…or so I thought at first. Is this more than just a random confluence? Is it actually possible to link a modern fairy tale about a boy coming to terms with loss to a bloody tragedy where everyone murders everyone and achieves pretty much nothing?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try! I love being able to talk about this stuff without having to follow MLA format or really cite anything or avoid using contractions.

I noticed the one strong connection fairly quickly: eyes. Both the movie and the play feature the gouging out of a character’s eyes as prominent plot points. Kubo wears a patch to cover the eye stolen by his grandfather, the Moon King, who seeks to steal the other one. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes torn out by the brutal Cornwall, when he’s discovered to be still loyal to Lear. So let’s use eye removal as our basis.

What does the loss of eyes symbolize in each of these works? In King Lear, Gloucester is vulnerable to deception while he still has his sight: he falls for Edmund’s tricks and banishes his non-evil son Edgar. Only once he loses his eyes does he see the truth, even though he’s now dependent on others to survive. His blindness is retribution, a symbolic punishment for accepting Edmund’s blinkers–but it also makes him more complete, Tiresias-style. The only problem with this is that Lear doesn’t present a world of karmic justice. Bad things happen to good people, and also to bad people, but not soon enough. And his new knowledge isn’t enough to keep him from dying of grief when Cordelia’s French army is destroyed.

Then what does it accomplish to take Gloucester’s eyes? “Nothing” is a reasonable answer. Shakespeare has a lot to say about “nothing” in Lear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about vaginas this time. But it’s not totally accurate. Blindness serves one function: separating the Earl from his earthly concerns. He’s not trying that hard to rectify his mistake in disowning Edgar. He’s more interested in dying.

This meshes well with Kubo, where the Moon King’s dialogue reveals why he wants Kubo’s eyes so badly: he wants his grandson to take his rightful place in the sky beside him, as an immortal celestial being. In other words, he wants to free Kubo of his humanity, but Kubo will never consent to this. He’s a storyteller, who makes his living being human. This informs a central concern of the movie–why do we need stories so badly? Why do we keep telling them after they’ve all been told?

If Kubo became perfect, he would lose his identity. Because of his job as a street performer, he’s acutely aware that stories are how we interact with the world: we can’t find objective truth through our senses, so everything must be, in a way, composed.

And this works on a larger scale than the senses, as well. Kubo, like I said above, is about dealing with loss. At the beginning of the movie, he can’t move on from losing his father because the story isn’t finished. Completing the tale completes him as well, and it’s for that reason that he will never move beyond stories. Any one of us who has grieved will know that “closure” is as important in our lives as it is in our movies.

Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragic theater is to grant the viewer catharsis, a cleansing of the emotions. King Lear, despite the way we keep revisiting it in the hope that Cordelia maybe won’t die this time, is a finished story for the same reason. It sucks, but it’s over, and now something new can take its place. Edgar probably will be a decent king.

Now we’ve got two stories where the loss of the eyes represents the failure of something to end the way it should. But here’s the kicker: while it doesn’t end well for Gloucester, it does for us. He doesn’t get to repent his mistakes, but isn’t there something redemptive in the way we keep telling these peoples’ stories? Gloucester, and Regan and Goneril and for that matter Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard II (yep, I like Richard II, because I am a filthy hipster) die without quite understanding why. But we know. And we save them by allowing them to save us.

The real kicker for me is that we could reverse these stories and the cumulative effect would still be the same. If Lear ended happily, as it did for several centuries, and Kubo ended up forcibly turned into a moon spirit without recognizing his Monkey and Beetle as his parents, we could still learn from the pairing about how stories can save us. But only–only–if the story was respected. In my eyes (heh) Edgar is the most important character in King Lear because he survives to bear witness. He alone makes it all not futile. A tragic Kubo would require a survivor: some other child stepping into the village square, proclaiming: if you must blink, do it now.

Gods, I love that phrase. Keep your eyes open, you who watch. Don’t pretend this story isn’t about you. It is. Everything is.

Well, there’s a few pages of rambling for you, but I had fun. Good luck to all the Whitties (and Kaeldra) starting school this week. I miss you all, and think of you often.

Darth Vader is Not a Squid: Writing lessons from a truly awful Star Wars novelization

George Lucas, why do you frustrate me so? Why must you be so good at imagining things but so bad at writing them?

99 percent of the time, I prefer a mediocre writer with a great imagination to a beautiful prose stylist with nothing to say. This is why I became one of the few people to unironically enjoy the Star Wars prequels. But this prose is beyond mediocre–it is, in fact, so bad I think we can learn something from it. Ordinarily, I would feel bad about spending an entire post trashing someone else’s writing; that’s why I took down my review of The Book of Strange New Things (though it’s still available on request, if you feel like 2,000 words of mostly unfunny vitriol would brighten your day).

But Mr. Lucas is a Kennedy Center honoree, so I feel like he can take the hits. Without further ado, I’ll start.

Not everyone knows that Lucas wrote companion novels to all three original trilogy films. I didn’t until a few weeks ago, when A. brought this Amazon page for the Episode IV novel to my attention and told me to read the sample pages until the introduction of Darth Vader. I did, and was not disappointed. In the name of being constructive, I’d like to offer up some of the early mistakes of this book, along with the lessons they can teach writers–and genre writers in particular.

I apologize–that was definitely another paragraph of ado. There really won’t be any more this time, I promise. Let’s begin…

It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz

…and let’s stop right there. Pack it up. Good run, blog post.

Seriously, lambent topaz? Why would you put that in the first line of your book, when reader attachment is most tenuous? To be fair, it means what it’s supposed to mean–glowing yellow–but it’s such an unnecessary complication of that simple idea. Now, I don’t believe words need to always be the simplest possible, but there’s a time and a place for saying “lambent” instead of “bright” and it’s not the exposition.

Yet both massive G1 and G2 stars orbited a common center with peculiar regularity

Amazingly, we haven’t made it through the next paragraph before George runs into the opposite problem. Having started too literary, he’s now not literary enough. When you’re writing genre fiction, it’s never a good idea to use too many words your reader won’t have an immediate mental picture for: this is why people get exasperated with fantasy novels that lard on too many made-up words right at the start. Unless it’s crucial to the plot that we know the designations of Tatooine’s suns, don’t bother naming them.

And it’s not crucial to the plot. Remember that famous scene where Luke Skywalker outwits the stormtroopers by correctly naming the categories of his home stars? Yeah, neither do I.

Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host.

After a pretty good introduction to the rebel cruiser, Lucas demonstrates another rule: when employing a simile, make sure the thing you’re comparing the event to actually resembles it somehow. I’m trying to play this scene out using sea creatures instead of spaceships, and I can’t find any way it makes sense. Are the remoras getting…fired from somewhere? If they miss the whale, why can’t they turn around? This is not the kind of thing I should be thinking on the first page. Any literary device should involve me more deeply in the action, not forcibly jerk me out of it.

Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic

What’s the deal with gems, George? You sound like Christopher Paolini. You do not wanna sound like Christopher Paolini.

a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapons emplacements.

Fear the Imperial Space Cactus!

In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.

Fear the Imperial Snuggle Cruiser!

All gods, this paragraph just keeps topping itself. Seriously, this is crucial for all writers to remember: words have connotations. I posted more than a year ago about the magic that occurs when you describe aid to the poor as “welfare”–the listener’s mental image changes completely. “Snuggle” is another such word. If you employ it, I am going to think of a kitten curling around a consenting teddy bear, not the forcible capture of a spaceship.

Artoo Deetoo or See Threepio

Wait, what? Has anybody else in the history of Star Wars ever written these names this way? Are they like this all the way through the screenplay, too? No writing lesson here, I’m just confused.

while Threepio might have sniffed disdainfully at the suggestion, they were in fact equal in everything save loquacity.

The writing advice “show, don’t tell” is thrown about a lot, and it’s often misunderstood. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out, her students are often so intent on following this “rule” that they become terrified of all exposition. There is absolutely a place for telling, and it doesn’t need to stop your readers in their tracks–I love writing exposition, and I know a lot of people who love reading it.

Right here, however, we have a textbook case of when “show, don’t tell” should be followed. The information here would be conveyed in short order if Lucas had just let C3P0 and R2-D2 (because those are their names, god damn it) act, and I’d be much more invested. When characters do things, I get a starting point to identify with them. This just sounds like a case study.

Accompanying the last attack was a persistent deep hum which even the loudest explosion had not been able to drown out. Then for no apparent reason, the basso thrumming abruptly ceased

The basso thrum is introduced, and then immediately cancelled in the next sentence. Right here, I’m beginning to see the common thread that unites all these complaints: so much is unnecessary. The adverbs, the weird similes, the hamfisted characterization. The solution for all is so simple–cut the crap and tell the story. It’s as though the fact that the tale is on paper means it has to take three times as long to tell. If you were telling a funny story to your friends at a party, would you stop every three words to compare something to a cactus?

A small band of humans suddenly appeared, rifles held at the ready.

There are exceptions to Lucas’s habit of always saying too much–namely, these weird moments where he doesn’t say enough. I have no idea where these people came from. Since it’s a sci-fi setting, it’s not impossible they teleported into the corridor. Call that your lesson from this sentence: even if you’re not writing a play, direction matters. Always be mindful of space.

“Quick–this way!” Threepio ordered, intending to retreat from the Imperials.

Oh, really? He intended to retreat? He wasn’t planning to, I don’t know, snuggle them? It might work.

Screams of injured and dying humans–a peculiarly unrobotic sound, Threepio thought

Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you’ll have the pleasure of knowing C3P0 is constantly thinking the most obvious thought possible. “Master Luke, this sand on Tatooine is nothing like water!” “Oh, dear! Obi-Wan Kenobi, now dead, is very much not alive!”

Two meters tall. Bipedal. Flowing black robes trailing from the figure and a face forever masked by a functional if bizarre black metal breath screen

There you have it, folks. Straight from the horse’s mouth: Darth Vader is bipedal.

Now, I’m aware there’s a substantial fan community that contests Darth Vader is a squid, and always has been, even in his days as Anakin Skywalker. I hate to disappoint the folks over at the r/squidvader subreddit, but it’s time to pack it in. He’s bipedal. Not a squid.

This provides a chance to talk about an important concept in genre fiction. It goes by a few names, but I keep it simple: it’s the like-earth-but-different rule. Basically, when reading about a constructed world, people will assume that everything there is like the real world unless the author explicitly tells them something is not. If George Lucas had started things off by explaining everyone was a quadriped, then it would make sense for him to highlight Darth Vader walking upright, because it deviates from the new baseline he’d have established. But everyone’s pretty much been bipedal so far (except R2-D2, but kinda him, even) so saying it just sounds goofy.

Much more of this book is available in the Amazon preview, but I’m going to stop here, because I fear I’ll start repeating myself. Instead, I want to end with this video, which demonstrates how much clearer everything could have been. It’s the same scene, but I guarantee any one of you watching could retell it without all the extra words and frippery its own creator found necessary.

The tale comes first. Then the telling. See for yourself.

Why I Keep Writing

At my age, when I begin making decisions that could affect the rest of my life, I spend a lot of time thinking about how vast the world’s problems are. Maybe people are naturally good, but I have to ignore an awful lot just to get through my day. How can one person make an unjust world just? How can we live when even the elites we demand action from seem just as powerless as us sometimes? People have dedicated their entire lives to one issue or another, and still died with problems unsolved.

What do we do? What can I do? Is there anything more selfish than chasing after a dream, in troubled times like these?

I’m a firm believer that the best way to help the world is to do the thing you’re good at. Some people are natural organizers, or persuasive speakers, so they become activists and attack the problem directly.

But my skill is writing. I’ve got naturally good English and I really enjoy making things up, so I write. I’ve never wondered whether it’s what I’m meant to do, and I know I’m very lucky to be so certain.

I’ve discussed before why J.R.R. Tolkien was right to scribble notes on fairy tales while Hitler menaced Europe, and there are plenty of studies demonstrating how reading fiction makes you more empathetic. So it’s true that fiction can make the world a better place.

That said, after the 80th rejection, it’s hard for facts and figures to make me want to keep going. I wonder if I’m chasing rainbows, maybe even wasting my life–and when I have those thoughts, there’s a different vision that sustains me.

In this vision, there’s a girl, maybe 12 or 13 years old (I don’t know why she’s female, it’s just how I thought of this). She’s in middle school, and being bullied relentlessly. Maybe she doesn’t have cool clothes, or crushed on the wrong boy, or she just likes to sit on her own and read books during lunch. People vandalize her locker, trip her in the hallways, steal her backpack.

Whenever she opens up her Facebook, she’s bombarded with messages telling her to kill herself. She doesn’t have any friends–she’s become social poison. Her teachers can’t do anything. Her parents mean well, but they don’t know how to help either. She sits at the front of the bus so she can get off as fast as possible, and once she’s home, all she wants to do is shut herself in her room.

In there, she’s reading one of my books. Maybe The Valley of Steel: her parents got it for her for her birthday, but she’s just now gotten around to reading it. She likes the way Lauren takes charge of her own destiny, even though she makes mistakes. She likes the descriptions of all the things she sees on her journey in the alternate America. And while she’s reading, something happens: her problems seem farther away. She’s caught up in what’s happening. Just for a moment, even though I’ve never met her, I’ve been able to invite her into shelter.

It’ll be all right, I want to tell her. I made this place for you. Stay as long as you need. The story I wrote might remind her what it’s like to feel happy. It might be enough to get her to school again tomorrow. If I lived five lifetimes, it wouldn’t be enough to make her a world where the strong didn’t bully the weak–but I can do what I can for her in this life.

My cousin has described feeling this way when he was trapped at an awful summer camp with only two books from The Edge Chronicles to sustain him. I think this happens with every writer, from bestselling novelists to people who post free fiction online. I don’t know exactly how many people are alive today because J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman gave them the strength to carry on, but I bet it’s in the thousands.

I keep trying, because even if there’s only one of these girls in the world, it’s worth it if I can help her. So I’ll do what I can.

In defense of idealism

“Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” –John Galsworthy

Galsworthy, you are wrong. You may have a Nobel prize in literature, and you may have written The Forsyte Saga, a milestone of morally complex fiction, but you are wrong. But take heart: your wrongness is about the be the subject of a Sam Chapman blog post, so I guess you can stop feeling like a fraud when you look at that Nobel, eh?

I encountered this wrong quote when I made the recent mistake of attempting to debate politics on Twitter–in fact, I’m going to go off on a tangent before I even get to the point of this rant: political debates on Twitter are awful. I go back to them every few months because of the cheap rush from posting a 140-character barb that will push someone’s buttons, but quit every time, soon after I realize that the format discourages any kind of nuance. There’s no room to empathize with your opponent, or see things from their perspective, so anybody who disagrees with you immediately becomes a rube or a lunatic–and the society-wide problem of the worst people being the loudest is amplified.

This is why I get so frustrated when I see those clickbait articles about one tweet that “brilliantly sums up” an issue. No, it doesn’t. By definition, if we’re still talking about an issue, it is impossible to sum up that quickly. I can think of breakfast orders one tweet would be incapable of summing up.

*deep breath* Anyway. The Galsworthy quote was lobbed at me because I suggested I might be casting my second vote in a row for Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president. I voted for her in 2012 because I was dissatisfied with President Obama’s half-hearted environmental policies, and his refusal to own up to the collateral damage caused by his drone strikes. Now, I might vote for her because I am not convinced Hillary Clinton will be able to turn her back on the special interests that have funded her career. Then, and now, I have been accused of throwing away my vote, of voting for the Republican, of being an idealist. I was, I am, not behaving pragmatically. I am not being rational.

Rational. Realistic. Pragmatic. Practical. It’s hard to imagine any of those words ever being insults. It’s almost irrational how good the word “rational” makes us feel. And yet, somehow, idealism, which should express the highest goals of humanity, has become an insult. What gives?

Now, complaining about the culture’s fixation on gloomy outlooks is nothing new for me, but this is the first time I’ve turned away from entertainment and toward politics. It feels natural, because this election, particularly on the Democratic side, has had such a strong idealism vs. pragmatism divide. Should I, a young person gravely concerned about the direction of the country, fall in line behind somebody I don’t believe can solve our problems–all to stop somebody hateful from gaining office? At what point did “the other guy is worse” become the foundation of democracy?

According to the Galsworthy quote, it is my privilege that allows me to claim I’m not obligated to vote for anyone but the candidate I think would be the best president. It is apparently likewise privilege that allows Bernie Sanders to fear Hillary Clinton will soften her progressive message to win swing states. Now, I’m not denying I have privilege–despite cutting it a little close with my bank account this month, my middle-class upbringing, whiteness, and maleness do allow me to be academically detached from some problems that are visceral to other members of the population. But even taking that into account, this is where the popular and insulting image of detached idealism comes crashing down.

Rosa Parks was idealistic to think she could challenge Jim Crow laws by sitting on a bus. Does that mean she was detached from the problem? Of course not–that would make her, well, not a black woman in the 1960s south, which there is photographic evidence she was.  Muhammad Ali was idealistic to think his refusal to accept the draft could end the Vietnam war, and while he didn’t manage that, his protests had enough of an impact to be talked about still at the time of his recent death. But Ali was a member of two abused populations–black, and from the generation sent to fight in a meaningless war staged by the pragmatic people. Once again, not exactly distant from the problem.

Recently, we have Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. I’m not comparing Murphy’s impact to that of Parks and Ali, but his motives–a man close to a problem who could not bear the wait-and-see dealmaking approach any more. He has repeatedly mentioned his shame at having to tell the parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims that no gun control measures have passed, four years after their children died. Now, it’s possible his filibuster arose from realpolitik, perhaps a long shot to become vice president under Clinton. But–well, at a certain point, one has to make a decision about how they’ll view humans. I choose to view Senator Murphy not as a grasping social climber, but as an idealist, who refused to let his country spend another four years tacitly condoning the murder of children.

Do you see how wrong you are yet, Galsworthy? Murphy could only have been closer to the problem if he himself had lost a loved one in Newtown. He had a front-row seat to senate gridlock, was probably no stranger to making compromises in back rooms, but decided he was done behaving the way he was supposed to.

Idealism does not represent a cushy distance from problems. It is the only solution to problems. People bandy about pragmatism as though it were anything other than idealism that built this country. While the poor, while prison inmates and detained immigrants, while campus rape survivors and marginalized minorities manage to dream of better lives, the practical politicians buoyed to the top by superPACs continue to bray that we all must wait our turn, dears. After all, change is hard. Reforms are scary. Want them faster? Maybe you should have tried being rich.

Pragmatism has its place, of course, but it’s a position of servitude. Plans come after ideals; this idea that you have to act practically before you have time to dream is back-asswards. If I want to vote for a Green Party candidate, I’m taking on the responsibility of figuring out how to make a third (and hopefully even a fourth, fifth, sixth) party viable in the United States. But I have that goal. I’m not going to throw up my hands and waste my vote on the thing that seems to keep me out of the fire right now.

Because I am affected. I’m going to inherit this country, and I don’t have the luxury of not believing we can be better. We are stuck with systems we cannot afford to leave in place.

I don’t believe it’s possible to run anything–a life, a country, a gods-damned bowling alley–without some kind of guiding vision. Groping forward a step at a time will only lead us in endless circles. So, everyone who might read this, I’m begging you: have a crazy idea. Imagine what this country you’ll inherit could look like. Plant some trees you’ll never sit under. Learn about the undercard races in your area, because that’s the level at which real political change is made. Keep putting the screws to Aaron Persky–if nothing else, that simpering prick of a Stanford alumni booster doesn’t deserve to have his career saved by a mass shooting.

Oh, and don’t debate on Twitter. It’s just messed up.