Monthly Archives: August 2013

Madness? THIS IS…ATHENS!

It’s no secret − I’m a nerd as well as a geek. It’s not all about Optimus Prime and marathons of Doctor Who episodes…no, no! For a guy who spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating worlds other than our own, I do have an interest in real-life stuff. Take history, for example. I’ve been a history buff since I was very young. In fact, I can pretty much trace what initially sparked my interest in the subject down to one incident.

I was born in Athens, a small town out in the piney woods of East Texas. One Sunday morning when I was about four or five, I was sitting in church, listening to the story of the Apostle Paul’s famous sermon on the Areopagus, or the Hill of Ares, in Athens, Greece.

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Tonight we dine at Mazzio’s!

Not realizing that there were, in fact, many cities with that name, my mind lit up with the possibilities. I was sitting on the lap of my godmother, or “Nanny,” and the conversation went something like this:

Me: So, Paul went to Athens?

Nanny: Yes, that’s right.

Me:  Wow! I didn’t know he came here. Athens is that old?

Nanny: (With a knowing smile) No, honey, he went to Athens, Greece.

Me: You mean there’s more than one?

Nanny:  Yes.

Me:  (Processing this new information) So…why did they name their city after us?

Nanny: (Another knowing smile) They didn’t. We named our city after them.

It was a whole new world for me. There was another Athens that I had never even heard of before, and it was apparently so cool and awesome that we were merely a reflection of it. It planted the seed of curiosity. I wanted to know just what this ‘super’ Athens had done to warrant such a thing. It made me want to know about them.

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Wait, what are you doing? Stop singing!

As soon as I could, I started reading about Greece. Democracy, theatre, philosophy and the Socratic Method, astronomy, sculpture, marathons, the Olympics, the foundations of the Roman alphabet, classical architecture (most notably the Parthenon), strides forward in mathematics and music, the Hippocratic Oath of Doctors, concepts of social justice, civic duty and community, epic poetry, military strategy, and on, and on. The Greeks either gave us those things outright, or made huge leaps in existing fields. Athens played a big part in all of that.

Makes me proud to be an Athenian. Of a sort…

So, big surprise, that era of history is one my favorites.  I just can’t read enough about it. Western civilization owes much to the ancient Greeks. So remember that next time you play Stratego, eat a gyro, or bust out your copy of Clash of the Titans.

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Tragic.

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Backwards Compatible – Part 4: Cave Aculem

So, there I was…with the idea for a novel burning in my brain. Unlike the dozens of other concepts I had come up with and discarded previously, this one satisfied all the conditions of the existing universe, the previous two novels, and was a story that made me excited.  The starship central to the story was the RCS Hornet, which carried the Latin motto: “Cave Aculem.” Beware the sting. Too late, I had already been bitten by the bug. I couldn’t wait to get started.

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Okay, hum the Mission Impossible theme. Ready? Go!

I had a three-day weekend coming up, so I cleared my schedule so I could concentrate on lighting the fuse on this thing. I sat down at my keyboard and let loose.  The opening scene with August Delpero and his ex-wife, Dr. Orit Takagawa, flowed from my fingers.

In it, Delpero is the former CEO of a megacorporation, imprisoned for his attempted genocide on the Reformation Coalition’s alien benefactors, the Hivers. Orit has come to visit in the hopes of sorting out her complicated feelings surrounding him. She loved him, truly loved him, but Delpero used her as an unwitting pawn in his scheme, which resulted both in their divorce and the agonizing death of her Hiver friend, Cicero.

I was almost to the point where something unexpected happens when my phone rang. It was a friend of mine who needed help moving out of her apartment.  She had until midnight the next day to be out. Even though I was on fire at the keyboard, I stopped in mid-sentence and went to help her move. Being Texas, it was boiling hot, of course, with near 100% humidity. We worked until almost 3:00 in the morning, but finally we got the last load out. Whew…

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African or European?

Even though I had lost a day, I didn’t let that deter me. During the routine of carrying boxes down two flights of stairs and up three, my mind was still chomping at the bit to get on with the story. I got up early the next day and picked up right where I had left off. Pretty soon the epilogue was done and I was on to Chapter 1. There I introduced the two main characters and gave them their marching orders. Before they can get to it, however, they receive a frantic message from Orit telling them about that unexpected turn of events at the prison.

This kicked off the first action sequence of the book, so my pace increased. I was constantly blasting the first Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, particularly “Will and Elizabeth” and “He’s a Pirate.” To this day when I look at those sections, those are the songs that go through my head.

In all, I wrote more than 20,000 words in two days, which is approaching ‘ludicrous speed’ for a slowpoke like me.  It was rough to be sure, but the emotion that I wanted was there. It just all sort of clicked.

So, just like that I had the prologue and the first two chapters on file. A naïve part of me believed that this level of speed and productivity might endure, or that it would be smooth sailing from there on out.

Silly, silly me.

Little did I know that soon after I would hit a creative brick wall.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]

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Iceberg, dead ahead!


What I Miss About The 80s

Okay, let me just lay on the line here – my favorite decade is and was the 80s. Pink legwarmers and parachute pants may be a bit dated now, but there’s a kind of zeitgeist about that time that really resonates with me. There are so many things we had in the 80s that seem sadly extinct today, or at least not nearly as rad as back then.

Like what, you ask? Well, as it happens, I’ve put together a short list of things I miss most about those days.  Funny how that works, eh?

1.) Street Toughs

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You know, back when MTV actually showed music videos.

Bonnie Tyler asks, “Where have all the good men gone, and where all the gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?”  That’s an excellent question, Bonnie. I sense a distinct lack of street toughs these days, too.  It seemed like in the 80s that the bandana-clad denizens of the streets were the coolest, most loyal people you could ever hope to meet.  Sure, you might have demonstrate your street cred or ‘heart’ to with them with an impromptu dance-off or blistering guitar solo, but once you were in good with them, you had nothing to fear.  Luckiest were those street toughs who managed to impress the even rarer street goddess, who had short black hair, wore fingerless gloves and either a suit jacket with padded shoulders and the sleeves rolled up or lots of really bright eye shadow (maybe both).

2.) Uber-Quotable Movies

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Oh yeah, that’s who I’m gonna call.

The 80s were replete with dialogue that was either so incredibly memorable or so over-the-top ridiculous that it left an impression long after seeing in the theatre or watching it on VHS. These are the movies that work their way into your everyday lexicon, the ones you find yourself reciting without even realizing it. While movies before and after this time still have plenty of pithy one-liners, the 80s seems (to me, at least) to have the greatest concentration of movies with start-to-finish quotability. Here are my favorite examples:

Big Trouble in Little China, Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Princess Bride, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial., Airplane!, Back to the Future, Aliens, Terminator, Empire Strikes Back, Labyrinth, The Lost Boys, Say Anything, ¡Three Amigos!, Clue, Spaceballs, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Goonies, Dirty Dancing, Adventures in Babysitting, Legend, The Breakfast Club, Bladerunner…and on…and on…

3.) Toy/Cartoon Tie-Ins

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Heeeey, wait a second…

In this author’s humble opinion, this was the single greatest decade for toys, especially those that had a strategically timed 30-minute commercial playing either before school or just after it. Voltron, Thundercats, Silverhawks, M.A.S.K., Masters of the Universe, Visionaries, G.I. Joe and, of course, my favorite…The Transformers.  These were the cartoons that were the stuff of modern morality plays, teaching us to do what was right, be true to ourselves and stay in school.  They certainly weren’t a ploy to get us to buy more toys, no siree! I mean, if some of the most beloved characters from my childhood were just part of a massive marketing machine to move colored pieces of plastic off the shelves of the local Kmart, that would just be…sad.

4.) Mall Arcades

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That’s more like it.

Arcades in the mall these days are total weak sauce. They might have a DDR knock-off, a multi-player racing game and perhaps that rip-off toy grabber thingie − a far cry from the legendary arcades of yore. As a kid, the local Red Baron Arcade (Later Aladdin’s Castle and Tilt) was the place to go. The air was filled with a cacophony of overlapping, now-familiar video game sounds from Pac-Man, Tron, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Sinistar, Dragon’s Lair and the like. The colorful cabinets and 8-bit graphics were mesmerizing to my young mind. It all came together to create an atmosphere of fun the likes of which I have not seen since. To this day, building an 80s-style arcade is one of my dreams.  Should I ever gain the means to do so, it will be Flynn’s Arcade all over again. Oh yeah…

5.) British New Wave

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Nagle artwork meets Duran Duran…it doesn’t get more 80s than that.

This was the time of the ‘Second British Invasion.’ Where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Moody Blues had crossed the pond in the 60s, the 80s were undeniably the time of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Petshop Boys, Tears For Fears, Dead or Alive, Howard Jones, A Flock of Seagulls, The Human League and so many more. If you could mix a pop beat with some synth keyboard effects, and then have a male singer with an English accent sing over the top of it, you were golden.  Even though it can be hard to differentiate Level 42 from the Thompson Twins at times, there was just something about those bands that seemed to capture the fresh, optimistic spirit of the 80s. There were a few hold-out bands who took this sound into the early 90s (Cause and Effect comes to mind), but this fire of this genre largely died out with the decade itself.

Man, I miss the 80s more than I realized. *Sniff, sniff.*

I really could use a hug right now…or maybe I just need to go play The Legend of Zelda again.


My Pre-Writing Ritual

Authors are a strange lot. Sure, some may be completely normal-looking on the outside, but there’s something about a person who’s willing to spend hours upon hours plinking away on a keyboard (or writing with pen and paper) that makes them…eccentric. Yes, eccentric. That’s a polite way of putting it.

I’m no exception. In fact, I revel in the knowledge that I’m just a little off. Always have been, always will be. Let me give you an example of the madness to my method. What follows is the ritual I go through before a writing session.

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Brace Yourself – Weirdness is Coming.

1.) The Encounter Suit

Do you know someone (or are someone) who has a game-day jersey, lucky hat or something similar? You know, it’s that article of clothing that can magically make the difference between victory and defeat for a favorite team? Well, I have a similar deal with what I put on before I settle in at my keyboard.

I’ve been known to wear pajama pants when I’m writing, the really eye-blistering plaid kind that look like golf pants gone horribly wrong. Or, it could be jeans or cargos, just so long as they’re comfortable. The real focal point of the garb, however, is the shirt. Most often it’s a printed T-shirt from a band, movie, TV show or something else that I really enjoy. It could be themed after Superman, House Baratheon, or the Official Stirlingites – just so long as it’s a physical representation of something that inspires me.

At times I even don what I refer to as my lumberjack shirt. It’s a black, beige and brick-red plaid shirt with a corduroy collar (yes, you heard that right) that I wear unbuttoned like a labcoat.  It’s a hideous throw-back to the coffee house culture of the 90s, but it also happens to be one of the most comfortable and durable shirts I’ve ever owned. It is, however, quite warm, so it doesn’t come out as much in the warmer months of Texas.

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Remember, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.

Once I’m properly attired, I look sufficiently bizarre to ensure that I spend my time writing and don’t pop out to the grocery store. Although, even in that state, I’m sure I could get away with a trip to Walmart.

2.) Downstairs Pre-flight Checklist

Once I’m ‘in garb,’ it’s time to get all my stuff together for the trip up to my office upstairs. I may grab a light snack just to tide me over or something for an in-flight treat. Generally this takes the form of sliced apples, bananas and perhaps even a few of those individually wrapped wheels of cheese. If I have any reference books downstairs that I might need, I gather them up as well.

That’s when I reach for my cobalt blue U.S.S. Constitution mug, which I bought when I went to go see Old Ironsides in Boston.  I fill it with something hot to drink, either hot chocolate or Earl Grey (the drink of choice for all the best French starship captains!).  I then stir the drink with my TuxedoSam spoon from Yogurtland.  Don’t ask me why I do that; it is simply the way of things.  Iced drinks can sometimes replace this in the mug during the Summer months.

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Onwards and upwards, Mr. Carson. Carry on.

If it sounds like I’m packing for a journey, you’re not far off. My writing sessions run about 3 to 5 hours at a stretch, so I need to make sure that I have everything I’ll need along the way. This is a non-stop flight.

So, once I have all that, I’m ready to make the walk upstairs – balancing all this stuff. I use that slow progression to mentally prepare myself for the scenes I’m about to write. I play them out across the movie screen in my head, trying to get inside the hearts and minds of the characters.

At this point I’m almost ready.

3.) Taking My Station

My office is sometimes known as “The Museum of Matt.” It has a host of my model ships, my reference library and a bunch of toys that somehow survived my childhood mixed in with the new ones I’ve picked up along the way. On my desk alone I have such things as: a model of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, a replica of the famous Egyptian sphinx, the Adam West-era Batmobile and a Warthog from Halo manned by the robots from Real Steel. (Long story). On one side of my monitor I have my autographed copy of Lindsey Stirling’s self-titled album. On the other side, I have my Masterpiece Optimus Prime holding up the Matrix of Leadership.

So, I set everything I’m carrying down on my desk, and I close the door. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you’ll recognize the significance of that last act. Unless the house catches fire or there’s an alien invasion, the next few hours will be spent in service to the story. Closing the door is a symbolic gesture as well as a practical one.

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You’ve got the touch! You’ve got the power!

I sit down and boot up my computer, then remove anything in my line of sight that doesn’t need to be there. Bill stubs, printouts, past edits – all of that goes away. When I’m nicely settled in, I switch on a brass banker’s lamp. Aside from the light from the monitor, this will be the only light in the office. Like closing the door, pulling the lamp chain is a signal that I’m getting down to the business.

Next, I pull up my playlists and select some appropriate music for what I’m about to write. The lists have names such as “Fleet Action”, “Loss and Sorrow”, “Heroes in Uniform” and so on. Sometimes it’s a single song that really calls to me. Just like a movie soundtrack, my musical selection sets the mood for the emotional states I will attempt to capture.

I take a few minutes to let the music soak in while I continue to visualize the scenes to come. At this point, I’ve taken my station as surely as Sulu sits at the helm or Uhura at the comm panel of the Enterprise. Everything’s in place.

My hands settle on the keyboard. It’s time to write.

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Epilogue:

Do I follow this regimen each and every time I sit down to write? No, of course not. Sometimes there isn’t time to do it all. I’ve found, however, that the closer I get to what I’ve described here, the better and more productive the results. I don’t know why it works, but it does.

I’m not sure what, exactly, this says about me, but I’d like to think it means that I’m a sentimentalist  in my heart of hearts, that I like to surround myself from every angle with those things which hold special significance to me. At that moment, when I’m in my own little microcosm, I can more easily enter the worlds of my imagination.

I guess I’m just weird that way.

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What a strange person.