Why I love Ghostbusters as a writer.

Let me preface this entry with the following statement: I love both the original films and the new one (Kate McKinnon as Holtzman is brilliant) as well as the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Every incarnation brought something different to the table and all are equally good and equally valid so you won’t find any argument to support your ‘complaints’*.

When I was a little kid, one of my older cousins, who worked for a cinema magazine gave me a copy of their latest issue, that was entirely dedicated to promoting the original  Ghostbusters film. He thought that magazine would be a good help for me to practice my reading. Which it did. The magazine was mostly composed by interviews with the main cast, the set and FX designers (which I guess was a sign for me to study design) and how they came about with the concept. Later on, my dad managed to procure a copy of the film in one of those rental places and I think I watched the film like 4 times before returning the tape. Then a local channel kept it in the rotation for years, until the cartoon and the sequel appeared (I got to watch the sequel at the cinema). Since then, I try to watch it at least on Halloween every year -now is a marathon of the three films-. I have played the video games, have a couple of toys, comics, and books. I can say that I know the story like the back of my hand. And probably quote the first film most of the time in random conversations.

“Ray, When Someone Asks If You’re a God, You Say YES.”- Winston

Like now. Yeah, I’m that guy. As for the record, I think that one is the best line of the whole movie.

So as you can surmise, this is one of my favorite films (only topped by the 90’s TMNT film). I wanted to work as Ghostbuster, which explains the eclectic part book collection of physics and the occult. For me the whole explanation of how high energy physics could be used to explain and deal with the paranormal in a very coherent way (within the movie’s universe) made perfect sense. Having an engineer dad that was also a Star Trek fan helped, as he explained to me (or simply gave me the books, like A Brief History of Time) some of the basic concepts of what Ray, Egon -and years later Jillian, Abby, and Erin- were saying.

“Well, let’s say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. According to this morning’s sample it would be a Twinkie…thirty-five feet long weighing approximately six-hundred pounds.” -Egon.

Knowing that the quote was part of a longer explanation of the inflationary universe theory and how it made our reality prone to paranormal incursions, more or less, makes have even more respect for the whole concept of mixing science with magic. This is where my inspiration to make my own mix of science and magic for my stories comes from. The cartoon really expanded onto it, courtesy of the always super work of JMS.

However, the lesson I take from the first Ghostbusters film (a lesson more or less repeated in the 2016 film) is the economy of narrative to present complex worldbuilding and detailed characters, all around a pretty basic simple premise: a pest removal service where the pest is the paranormal.

The original film has a surprisingly short runtime of 1 hour and 45 minutes. Compared to more modern films, it’s at least 15-30 minutes shorter. It might look like too little, but in film 15 minutes is an eternity. So in such a relatively short amount of time, the movie does a lot. Once I read a column by Charlie Jane Anders at io9, about how the way ‘Back to the Future’ was filmed makes it a perfect movie and one of the reasons is how the film efficiently uses its runtime to set up the world, the characters, the conflict, and resolution. I want to believe that the same applies to the first Ghostbuster film.

We’re Ready To Believe You.

The opening, the library scene before the title card -which I consider one of the bonafide great jump scare scenes ever made- sets up nicely half of the premise: ghosts are real and are scary. The following minutes set up the other half: a trio of unconventional scientist that not only believe ghosts are real but are applying the scientific method to prove their existence. Not only they succeed but realize that a) they are ill-equipped for dealing with ghosts and b) there is a business opportunity here (it’s the 80’s, greed was good… for a few).

The following scenes go to introducing Peter, Ray, and Egon as actual characters. Each line they spout is full with meaning: Ray is a dutiful son with the heart of a child (which becomes a key plot point at the end). Egon is, for the most part, the stereotypical aloof genius that comes with the technobabble and equipment… except that he does have a sense of humor, social skills and can explain the most complex topic with ease and /or a twinkie.

Egon Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Peter Venkman: What?
Egon Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter Venkman: Why?
Egon Spengler: It would be bad.
Peter Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Egon Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

And Peter… oh Peter. He is a sleazebag, a rascal, a loveable rogue and beneath the jerkass attitude, the most heroic of the three. Watch the movie, I can’t recall a single challenge he doesn’t want to tackle with dry humor and a can-do attitude.

The movie then introduces Dana and her neighbor Louis Tully, romantic interest and comic relief, apparently. While their roles are not that large, every scene where they appear is full of meaning, both at the character level and as part of the plot, foreshadowing included. They are vital parts of the plot later on.

You then move to the growth of the business, the addition of sassy Janine and the fourth musketeer Winston. I want to stop here for a bit. At the outset, the addition of Winston seems like an afterthought, the kind of stuff you could expect from the 80’s where certain unsavory stereotypes about minorities were still in vogue, especially PoC background as a blue collar worker surrounded by white scientists, just to fill a quota. It doesn’t help that the role was originally meant for Eddie Murphy and when he rejected it, probably was considered to be dropped. It is certainly problematic.

As a side note: this is something I believe the 2016 film improves on just a bit, as making Patty not only part of the team right away, but also a vital part given her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the city and somewhat of a leader to keep the rest of the team focused on the tasks at hand.

However, with all its warts -and this is not an apology, that part of the film has not aged entirely well- the role Winston goes to play becomes one of big importance in current narratives: the common person point of view. At some point in the story, if you kept only the three founders of the GB around, you would have faced a wall with all the technobabble, after all, they all know what they are talking about, but not the audience, which would be confused or would have lost the suspension of disbelief. But Winston helps to ground the story, not by dumbing it down, but by providing the shady commentary that complements the technobabble and lampshades the ridiculousness of the film’s premise with well-delivered zingers. That makes the story more relatable and the insufferable geniuses more palatable. He is us in the film, the regular person thrown into a wider, incredible and mysterious new world and has to learn to navigate it fast. Those characters help a lot to create world building without using info dumps.

Winston Zeddemore: Hey, wait a minute! Hold it! Now, are we actually gonna go before a federal judge, and tell him that some moldy Babylonian god is gonna drop in on Central Park West and start tearing up the city?!
Egon Spengler: Sumerian, not Babylonian.
Peter Venkman: Yeah. Big difference.
Winston Zeddemore: No offense, but I gotta get my own lawyer.

The movie never wastes a minute waxing lyrical about the world they are or with not-so-necessary setups for jokes -a problem the sequel does have-. No, it moves at a neck-breaking speed introducing a complex world full of ancient cults, crazy architects,  Babylonian… Sumerian deities and spiritist guides that can describe pretty much anything paranormal in the world (which makes you wonder who or better say WHAT wrote the Tobin’s Spirit Guide). All with tight packed dialogue that takes you to the ‘End of the World’ Scenario where the heroes, in order to beat a god, use guile rather than blunt force and explosions. Kinda…

Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways. We could reverse the particle flow through the gate.
Ray Stantz: How?
Egon Spengler: We’ll cross the streams.
Peter Venkman: Excuse me, Egon, you said crossing the streams was bad.
Ray Stantz: Cross the streams…
Peter Venkman: You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client. The nice lady who paid us in advance before she became a dog.
Egon Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.

What is most interesting of the Ghostbuster film is how the climax and the end pay off every single bit of foreshadowing from the beginning, ties all loose ends -Slimer notwithstanding- and at the same time leaves the door open for potential sequels without leaving anything hanging out. If there were not a film/video game combo sequel or an animated series (both with different canons), the original GB film would have been a perfect stand alone movie.

The animated series and the 2nd film/video game took different directions with the plot. The animation went for the ‘monster of the week’ approach, featuring every corner of the paranormal -including, yes Cthulhu-, strange episodes like the Agatha Christie inspired one or even heartbreaking ones like the ghost dog of the circus that helped them to beat a bigger monster while sacrificing itself (I cried when I watched it as a kid). The 2nd movie and the film tried to create a more coherent narrative where the video game -seriously, play it, especially the PS3 version- ties every plot from the first two films to create a mytharc.

Both are nice, but they don’t surpass the excellent narrative execution of the first film. In a world full of interconnected franchises and multiple sequels, the fact that you can pack so much story in so little space and deliver a satisfying ending that can be as closed or as open as the audience wants is the biggest lesson to take from the 1984 film as a writer.

For me, it’s one of the ways you could approach writing your novel, no matter if it will be a stand-alone or a series or a series of stand-alone movies interconnected -which is what I’m trying to do-. Give the reader a conclusion to that particular arc, with well-defined characters and great dialogue, leaving yourself the door open for a continuation, but without leaving the reader hanging up. I don’t know if I’m making sense or if I might achieve it with my novel. But I think as a writer is an interesting challenge. I undertook it because one of my best friends, who is an avid reader told me once that she yearned for a fantasy book where she didn’t have to wait for the next book to know how the story of the first book ends and yet be part of a series. And also don’t be a doorstopper. In my opinion, it’s a healthy way to do things, self-contained arcs that can work as parts of a bigger arc but can be read independently.

That’s why I’m using the GB films as a guide for writing my novels because I believe -especially the first one- its a good template for an interesting arc based in a simple premise, efficient pacing, world building, a mashup of genres (in this case horror, comedy, science fiction and a bit of fantasy), good character development and sly, quotable dialogue. The materials for a classic story are there. The trick, like in cooking, is in the execution as to achieve balance rather than get one of the elements to overcome the other. I sincerely hope I achieved it in my novel.

Rarely has a movie this expensive provided so many quotable lines.
Roger Ebert, Review of Ghostbusters (1 January 1984)

I agree. And they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

 

*I also liked The Last Jedi. It is the best deconstruction of the fallacy of the ‘happily ever after’ ending in a setting that thrives in conflict and a reality check to many people about managing our expectations as we grow old. So take that.

 

The Trickster Goddess.

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The Trickster Goddess from the Tempest Blades universe is an odd creature. Yes I know, is a deity and is bound to be inscrutable. But as the author, I’m privy to what goes behind the curtain regarding my characters. And yet, she does honor her sobriquet in a way, because no matter the story I write in that setting, she finds a way to get in it. She doesn’t appear that much in my novel or related stories… yet. But the very question of how to create a somewhat relatable deity without resorting in a deus ex machina was on my mind when I created the backstory of my setting and the character of the Trickster Goddess. While her character doesn’t appear per se, she has a considerable impact on the world.

I won’t reveal the name she goes by these days as it would be a spoiler for the novel, (I’m still working on publishing it). But I can reveal a few tidbits on her and if you read the novel you will understand who she is right away.

-She is a deity (obviously), but not a creator deity. She works for one and is related in a way that’s not entirely clear.

-Time runs differently for her than for a mortal. Not necessarily at an accelerated pace (e.g. a year for us is a day for her), nor she can see what’s in the future (she has visions of multiple futures though).

-She is older than THIS universe (the Tempest Blades ones) but not necessarily older than the entire creation.

-She was part of an ancient civilization of deities.

-Being as old as the universe (even if time works differently for her kind) tends to make one a tad unhinged so she (or at least her avatar that is the one doing the rounds in the novel) relies on a few tricks to remain relatable to the mortals she is watching over

-She likes technology, but prefer to do things by hand.

She keeps a library with the records of all that happens in the world and replicas of all inventions, but instead of a highly advanced computational system to keep track of everything (which she could create with ease), she likes to do it by hand, painstakingly classifying every bit on her own. After all, she has all the time in the world.

-She can’t enter directly into the mortal world or Realspace in her full form as the mere presence of her kind in that form is liable to break things: glasses, mountains, planets. The Wolrd’s Scar is the prime example of her doing that. I took her a few planets to learn not doing it. So now she uses an avatar -a female girl-, that’s part of her but not entirely her. The avatar has most of her memories (the rest are tucked in her library which is an avatar of sorts too) and a decent chunk of her power, but most of it and her true conscience is kept at the Overspace. That doesn’t mean the avatar is independent. It’s actually her without being her. You know, metaphysics. It also means that the avatar is indestructible.

-She likes to take the form of a red and black Raven. Mostly because the feeling of the wind caressing her feathers feels nice. Also because she likes to gossip and a raven used to go unnoticed.

-She likes to make the same pilgrimage that a whole of the Freefolk does from one point of the planet to another once in their lives (it was her idea originally). But she does in her avatar form and on foot every decade or so.

-She likes the company of mortals, mostly Freefolk.

-Once she fell in love with a human, during the Dawn Age of Theia. From that love she had two children, twins that are the ones forging the Tempest Blades from their hideout, so she is trying to emulate a family. They are still alive (they are demigods) but no one has seen them and have to follow some strict rules. Nothing is known about her partner.

-She finds mortals inspiring in a way. That’s why she aids those that become heroes. In a way.

-She doesn’t like to intervene. She can fight, but won’t do it. Don’t ask her for miracles. She expects mortals to be able to do their thing and only helps in indirect ways. And only when she is in the mood. She is a Trickster after all.

-Which means that her aid will be indirect and in the form of a pep talk, or scolding someone. Only a universal level of threat might compel her to act directly. And any favor she does to you will have to be paid back with interest. She is the strict teacher of the school.

-She likes to take on a student of the magical arts from time to time, mostly to have someone to talk about and go to the cinema. The said student might know the true identity of her avatar, but that won’t help him/her. There is a reason behind their selection.

-And she likes to annoy the hell out of a hero or two (mainly Fionn these days) under her several disguises, living different lives through her avatar.

-She had one mortal friend once, Asherah of the Freefolk, the First Magi and the first DragonQueen (that was back then when the Freefolk were still humanoid shapeshifters without a defined appearance).

-She has at least six other known siblings, but she doesn’t see eye to eye with them since she is the one taking a bigger interest in mortals and the Realspace. The rest are usually busy keeping eldritch beings (such as the Golden Emperor and the Crawling Chaos) away from creation.

-However, she argues that their duty would be better fulfilled if her siblings took the time actually know what they are fighting for rather than just following an ancient order. The point she makes to her siblings is this: how can you claim to be a guardian of the mortal world if you don’t experience it to understand it. So far the only one that has followed her advice is her older brother the Jailer.*

-As result of the above, the Jailer is, ironically and given their opposite functions, purviews, and points of view, the sibling she actually gets along. In a way. Their arguments about philosophy can be epic and last for centuries.

-She doesn’t demand worship. She doesn’t care and certainly doesn’t need it. In reality, finds it embarrassing. And yet she is the patron of Freefolk, magi, rogues, babies, and heroes. She is the one having faith in mortals.

-Used to play the bagpipe, but she lost hers.

-She hates being called a Goddess because she doesn’t feel she is divine, just is what she is. It’s complicated. But most mortals will call her that way rather than her one of her actual names, so after a while, it doesn’t bother her as much. She just ignores it.

-And she likes candies.

*Only when he can escape his job of keeping the evilest beings trapped in Hell, known as the Infinity Pits. He is the equivalent to Lucifer in the sense of being a punisher of evildoers, rather than the source of evil.

The Strange Ship (free flash story)

(From time to time I participate in an activity at the  Sci-Fi Roundtable Facebook group, where we write flash fiction. This a sample of what I’ve been doing there. As an exercise, it is helpful to keep the imagination strong).

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The Strange Ship

By Ricardo Victoria

When the Strange Ship appeared in their solar system, the untested early warning systems blared off. It threw the population of the blue planet into chaos, except for the Guard, as they had been ready for decades. The invaders transmitted a message, asking for surrender. But if the invaders expected an easy ride with this seemingly primitive planet, they were in for a nasty surprise. For its inhabitants had created a warrior culture and the idea of a planetary invasion was a theme explored by their media to the point it became part of their collective psyche. They were prepared for this and the Guard was their hope. Their smaller ships launched into space and intercepted the Black Ship.

The battle raged for hours, the damages to the outer planet’s colonies were many, the death toll too high. But they prevailed. The smaller ships damaged so bad the humongous invader that it barely escaped into hyperspace, leaving behind debris and dead corpses floating on the outer planets’ orbits.

When two pilots maneuvered their ships closer to the debris for better examination of the bodies of the dead, one couldn’t but wonder about the nature of their enemies with his fellow pilot.

“What the hell are these monsters?”

“If the translations of their message are right, I think they call themselves ‘humans’.”

Random Chat #2

Here is the latest in the mayhem of thoughts that’s my head:

-I had planned to write a lengthy entry on why I liked The Last Jedi, why is a good way to break with the fan pandering and a possible reason of why the detractors hated it -which reminds me of the vitriol spewed online after the prequels. But so much has been written that I would hardly add anything meaningful to the conversation. I will just say that this is not a movie for my generation but a Star Wars for the new one and that the thing that weighs heavily in fans minds is that is a movie that, for us that grew up with Luke Skywalker, confronts is with our mortality and with what legacy we are leaving behind. I suspect that some detractors are having troubles to come to terms with that.

-I got a new rejection, this time for a short story that mixes alternate history and fantasy. I did get a personalised letter explaining what they liked and what not. I resubmitted it to another market.

-I just finished two fantasy stories and I’m working on finishing a science fiction one, this later for an indie publisher planning to release its second anthology. My story has dogs, so you know it will be awesome.

-I’m also working on a horror story aimed to be submitted to a SFWA market before the end of the year.

-There is no current movie me and my wife wanna see this month. We will wait till Black Panther.

-Talking about movies, ‘The Greatest Showman’ is a pretty good musical with a strong cast and good songs. But to enjoy it you have to forget for 105 min what a piece of shit was the real P.T. Barnum and how he mistreated animals (which by the way in the movie are all CGI.

-If I have to recommend a series to binge watch on Netflix is Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. It’s highly addictive and has it all: action, mystery, intrigue, great world building, main characters that fight with their smarts as much as with the fists, secondary and tertiary characters with defined history and a plot where everyone collaborated to save the day. Everyone. And what’s more important and an oddity these days: an ending that feels entirely earned and justified.

-I really need to start writing my novel’s sequel or it will take another decade. G.R.R. Martin I’m not. Sadly something called da job tends to mess with said plan. Bills have to be paid and I’m not a famous author to live from it. J.K. Rowling I’m not.

-My wife got me several action figures I was looking for as Christmas presents. She knows me so well and I love her so much. And this Turtle additional expression is perfect to portray my usual mood with life:

Life is a tower of jenga. It tends to collapse on you. And you have to start anew. You are allowed to yell.

Bone Peyote

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Two years ago I got my first rejection letter. I sent my horror story ‘Bone Peyote’ for a submission call for an anthology of Lovecraftian horror. Me being me, I decided to mix eldritch horrors with the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration of my Mexico. It was easier than I thought, because:

a) I contend that Mexico is one of the most haunted countries in the world and…

b) If you have read anything about Aztec or Mayan mythology or some of the witchcraft rites around here in Mexico, you can see a lot of cosmic horror elements embedded in them.

Alas, the story got rejected.

But that rejection started good things. With some rework and editing, ‘Bone Peyote’ eventually saw the light published through Inklings Press. Technically that rejection letter was the motivation for the creation of Inklings Press. That rejection was as well the kick in the ass I needed to take writing more seriously and finish my novel (currently being edited in order to query agents and publishers). See, when I get rejections on my stories or design projects, I just become more stubborn. It’s a family trait.

But I digress… again.

‘Bone Peyote’, is not only based on the ‘Day of the Dead’ and cosmic horrors, but also in a few experiences I had during college with a good friend, when we talked about the occult and the mystical. As much as two naïve, aspiring comic book writers could get into it safely anyways. The story just takes those late coffee afternoon chats and amps it into a warning tale about messing with the veil that divides the dead from the living and works within the frame of Mexico’s lore and history.

For us in Mexico, the Day of the Dead takes place during the 1st and the 2nd of November. It is even a national holiday (yeah, wrap your head around that for a second). And so my story takes place exactly during those days.

I have to say, writing it was really fun (the first draft took me a day) and I had the wicked fun of ‘killing’ the character based on said friend (the perks of being a writer) while testing my skills at keeping tense atmospheres.

Talking about wicked things… now, this year, a few months ago (when I was still setting up this blog), the good folks at the Wicked Library recorded it as an audiobook a few months ago and put it available on their podcast. It includes an interview, for which I apologize in advance for my awful pronunciation. I’m out of practice. The results of their work on my story, for lack of a better cliche are bewitching.

You can listen to it here:

Wicked Library Website episode 720

I do recommend you to subscribe this podcast. It has countless hours of fun.

 Apple Podcasts | Android | Google Play | Stitcher | TuneIn

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So if you want to a cool story for these spooky days, please consider giving both the anthology and the podcast a chance.

P.S: Don’t carry out any obscure rite these days. It could be awfully dangerous. You never know what’s waiting outside the realms of the living. Bwahahahaha.

 

 

Writing about bioethics in SPACE!

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I recall a time when I was a kid, during the height of the ‘Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles’ craze (of which I’m still part of), that I wanted to study genetics so when I grew up, I could create my own group of mutant turtles. I was a lonely kid back then so I wanted friends. Never came through because I suck at organic chemistry (much to the chagrin of my parents, both chemists). So I became the second best option, a writer (well, technically the third option, as you might know, I’m an industrial designer transformed into lecturer/researcher by trade and writer by passion, but I digress).

Beware, this might end being a rant.

Now that my science fiction story about bioethics in space “What Measure is a Homunculus?” is being published and available on Amazon on the 19th of October, in the Quantum Soul anthology, I can discuss about the topic of the story. No, I won’t tell what’s about beyond the rights of artificial humanoids used as weapons/foot soldiers, you need to buy the anthology.

But I can talk about what inspired me to do so. First, there was this article that talked about how scientists were trying to create a living being from stem cells without a father and mother (in terms of DNA donors whose reproductive cells create an embryo, not actual parents). From there to the creation of synthetic living beings we could a few generations removed, but it is still a possibility. And that made me think about the lack of legislation to protect the rights of such beings (even if it is just an amoeba).

There are few times when I can mix my day job, my Ph.D. and my real job as a writer in the same thing, which is the case of this particular short story.

Most of my sustainable design students know that I loathe Monsanto, as the epitomize most of what’s wrong with our current economic system. And that loathing is supported by the fact that companies like that think is right to patent the DNA of a living being. But it is not. It might be legal, but that doesn’t make it right, even if is the DNA of a mouse or a fly. DNA is what makes a living being it. It shouldn’t be beholden a property of a faceless company. For me, personally is tantamount to creating the precedent for a new form of slavery. Look, I’m not against researchers patenting stuff (I work as one after all), but while I see the case for patenting the technology to create such advances, I still think that is wrong to patent the DNA of a living being just for coins.

This makes me think that there is a need right now in literature and other media, one asking for more stories that put in the collective consciousness, on the debate table the discussion about bioethics. We need to sit down and discuss what we are doing, if we should be doing it, who should be doing it and for what reasons, instead of just using economic excuses. I think it is the time we redefine what we consider life and its intrinsical rights.

This whole rant, if you want to call it that, makes me recall what Michael Crichton wrote in the first pages of Jurassic Park, how the technological development moved from governmental labs into private sector labs and moving at such pace that there is virtually no oversight about what we are doing with this technological might. We don’t stop to consider that the question is not ‘can we do it?’ but ‘should we be doing it?’.

It’s not a discussion on technological progress. I think that progress is needed if we aim for a better world. But progress for the sake of it or the sake of the purses of people that don’t give a damn about the state of the world is madness. Science Fiction has always been a window to our potential futures, good or bad. Just like there is a recent wave of climate fiction, there is a need for a resurgence in bioethics fiction. Let’s as writers raise awareness of the topic because it relies upon society to do the changes needed. Let’s bring bioethics to the debate table before it is too late.

Upsss. I think I went into lecture mode. Sorry for that. My point was to explain from where it came to the inspiration for this story, so when you read it you know where I’m coming from. In any case, I invite you to acquire this new anthology by the fine folks of the SciFi Roundtable: Eric Michael Craig and Ducky Smith. I had the opportunity of reading several of these stories and I can assure you they are a good option for the science fiction fans looking for new voices in the genre. So go, give it a chance and read it.

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Buried Sins: of regrets and lost memories

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This week is the official launch of the sixth anthology from Inklings Press (disclaimer: I’m a founding member and I usually do the cover design for their anthologies). This one is entitled ‘Tales from the Underground’, already available on Amazon. Unlike the previous anthologies were the theme was dictated by the genre (fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on), the theme dictated the stories and their genres. This time it was ‘Underground’ as if it wasn’t already obvious by the title. That kind of stories that take place in the worlds beneath ours, be it stories of adventure and exploration, or stories of space sirens, ghosts, and fairies. Or as in the case of my featured story, ‘Buried Sins’, of the titular sins buried both in ruined cities and inside the soul of the main character.

I don’t know if this is my darkest story yet (Bone Peyote might want to debate that), but I think it fits within the ‘dark fantasy’ subgenre. That said, this story has a special meaning for me, so let me tell you why.

For starters, it takes place in the same world of my WIP novel ‘Tempest Blades’, roughly during the time of the first chapter of the said novel, but in a different continent, with different characters. I know I have previous stories set in the same world (‘Silver Fang’, ‘Cosmic Egg’) but they take place in the past or the future. ‘Buried Sins’ is the first one that takes place at the same time of my novel. Second, it gave me the chance to recover and I would say, rediscover a character (or two) that I had liked from my very earlier drafts from ten years ago and who got cut from the latest iteration of the Tempest Blades story. I thought that character had got lost from that universe, but in writing this story, he got a new lease on life and also helped me to bring back another character that had suffered the same fate (such character doesn’t appear in the story per se, rather it is an ancestor). Why? Because of he will appear in the sequel of the novel as one of the main characters (so yeah, that’s a bit of a spoiler I guess).

Third, this story helped me to give him his own personality, backstory (which this story is) and unique abilities, rather than the generic expy of a vampire he was when I started writing in college. Now he has a really interesting take, I believe, on the ‘demon’ inside as weapon and means of protection. And he has as well a personality, several lost memories and a proper backstory, key ingredients for a good character I think. Even if he falls into the ‘broody’ side.

Joshua, the main character of ‘Buried Sins’, is a man with blurred memories. He doesn’t know when he was born or who he was before he was used in experiments that make him the ‘monster’ he thinks he is. But he does know where he was born and the dangers lurking in a buried city full of nasty things. And he has to return there if he wants to save a friend of his, coaxed by unsavory people, even if that means unearthing the sins that are hidden within the thing that makes him a monster.

And finally and fourth: this is the first story where I truly explore, in a subtle way my battles with depression. I’m by no means an expert on depression. I can only talk about my own struggles with it since I was a teenager.

I started writing as a mean to deal with my depression. It was my way to explore and deal with many of those feelings in a healthier way.  Depression, contrary to what many people believe, never truly goes away. It lurks, buried deep down in your psyche, waiting for the proper moment to spring a flood of memories, regrets, and anxieties to hit you back. It is the ‘beast’ that you learn to live with. Pretty much like Joshua.

Nowadays, thanks to my wife, a support network of friends and family, writing and some therapy back in the day I’m feeling a bit better these days. That doesn’t mean I don’t get depressed (and with the current status of the world no one could blame anyone for getting depressed and anxious), but now at least I have options to deal with it. Joshua is on his way to start that path and that experience in this story will color his interactions with one of the main characters of Tempest Blades that is going under his own struggles with depression.

So as you can see, this is a very personal story for me and I’m glad I have the chance to get it out into the wider world. I truly hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed it writing it. And if you think about it, it is a sample of what you can expect from my novel once I get the chance to publish it.

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P.S: If you want the full experience when you read it, I recommend listening ‘Hurt’ by Johny Cash for three-quarters of the story and the Theme of One Punch Man during the finale. Yes, it’s quite the mood whiplash, but I like the combo because it ends on a more hopeful note than intended. Joshua, like any of us that suffer from regrets, is a person in search of redemption. The story is just the first part of that journey.

What playing Dungeons & Dragons taught me about writing.

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I was planning to write this post a while ago, but work got in the middle (it still does, but I just ignored it for a bit). Then, that dastardly Leo McBride got his take out first at his blog Altered Instinct *shakes fist*. I recommend reading his entry as well *shakes fist once more*.

Unlike Leo, I have played fewer systems, basically just D&D 3erd Ed. BESM, Bureau 13 and Exalted. Of those, most of my gaming hours were dedicated to D&D or a homebrew modification my best friend, our local GM, concocted before passing away a few years ago. It was actually his main D&D campaign that taught me how to play and in a fun twist of fate, taught me a few lessons on writing, lessons I’m sharing now, in no order of importance. For context, my friend had the patience of a saint as most of the party was composed of unruly players (we came to blows at least once) and liked to bounce ideas with me as it was around the time I wrote my first story ‘Silver Horn’ (that, *shameless plug* you can read here) and I was plotting the first iterations of Tempest Blades.

Said that and without further ado, here is my take.

Characters are people.

It sounds obvious but it makes a whole world of difference to understanding it. See, each Playing Characters (PC) was in some way a reflection of who we were at the time of playing. Fionn, my main character in Tempest Blades had his origins in that game. However, the version of Fionn on the game is widely different from the version of the novel (even if they share similarities) because there is a decade of my personal experiences between them. Each player, knowingly or not put their emotional and psychological baggage in their character and that colored their interactions within the game. The fact that our GM asked us before playing and creating our characters to write detailed background history of our PCs added to that in-game personality as to play in character all the time. In a story or a book, we meet the characters at a particular point in their lives, but, if they are well written, had a life before the story’s plot. Understanding that allows you as a reader and even more as the writer to create the motivations and possible reactions of a character to a determined plot point. Not everyone reacts the same to an event, but every character reacts accordingly to their life story up to that point. Getting that is what helps you to develop fully fleshed characters instead of serviceable pawns for moving the plot. When you write your characters, create a small bio of them, so you learn to see them as persons rather than just words and thus their actions will become organic within your plot.

The story is about the characters, not the plot.

Many people focus on the plot of a story, like many players focus on just hacking and slashing their way to epic levels. But what makes a D&D campaign, or any RPG game for that matter, satisfactory is the character’s growth. And I’m not referring to stats. I’m talking about who they are as a person. Have they overcome their fears? Their need for vengeance? Have they found their place in the world? Let’s be honest, most plots in most novels are serviceable. Even ASOIAF has a pretty straightforward plot, split in two (the Game of Thrones and the Long Night, good vs. evil) that is a simple as the one in LOTR. What makes ASOIAF so enthralling to fans is the layers of complexity and nuisance the smaller plots bring to those larger ones thanks to each individuals character’s story. You may have a serviceable plot, but what will make or break your story is the characters. You might have the best plot of the world with unexpected twists and subversions, but if your characters are two-dimensional, your plot will be boring.

No one knows everything, Jon Snow.

This is a temptation many writers, including me, fall for frequently: who knows what. When you play an RPG, you as a player might know the stats of each weapon in the land, every bit of lore of the world, every nook of the rules to get ahead. GM frown at that and readers as well for one reason: your character is not you and it is inside the world, so they shouldn’t know everything because they take the magic away, derail the plot and breaks suspension of disbelief. As writers, we tend to find a character that knows everything and acts as Mr. Expository. Every writer falls into that trap at some point: Yoda, Bran Stark, that random lady of the corner store. However and unless your character is a deity (and even then there must be some restraint). Aside from the fact that know-it-all characters are annoying as hell, we experience the world where our characters dwell through their eyes and like in real life, no one can know everything. Part of any respectable quest is to find the piece of lore that solves the quest, even if the world is large enough to have more lore lying around. You as the writer might know how everything fits, and from time to time a bit of infodump can be useful. But remember, characters know only what they have learned, nothing more. Keeping them in the dark helps the reader to relate to them and share their struggles wonder with the world you have created (which incidentally explains as well why 3rd. person omniscient narration has fallen into disuse. Brent A. Harris will mock me when he reads this admission).

Each act has a consequence.

As I mentioned, my party members were unruly and that was a source of frustration for our GM (I was the min-maxer, another guy was so annoying that I punched him in the face because he derailed the plot to do really stupid things just for the lulz, etc). Our GM then found the way to reign over us: each stupid thing we as a player did, had a dire consequence for our characters. My character? Lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back (I will talk about this point later). The annoying rogue? Got tortured for pissing off the wrong person, to the point his stats were permanently reduced. Our paladin that had become way too violent? Lost his paladin powers and had to retire from the party to regain them (this one, in particular, was a way our GM found to help a player that had grown bored with the restrictions of the paladin class, he retired the character and created a new one that later joined the party, without killing the paladin). Unlike certain video games and as in real life, each character’s action must have a consequence logical to their action and personality and that has to mesh with the overall plot: did they saved the world in front of thousands of people? Now they are famous, which hinder their abilities to help others and put a target on their backs for the bad guys to use them. Killed someone in battle? Maybe a family member of the deceased has sworn vengeance. A character lost a limb during the fight? Show him/her learning how to overcome that (see Jaime Lannister).

Each character’s improvement must be earned.

I mentioned in the point before how my PC lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back. Well, aside from the fact that he had to do most of that naked (he lost his clothes as well), he never recovered said sword, it was destroyed. However, the experience helped me to make my character learn how to fight bare fisted and after all ended, found a more powerful sword. But the quest, more importantly, changed his personality, making him more mature and thoughtful, it helped him to become a better hero (and me a better player). Even if your character is born with special powers, he must learn how to use them effectively. Every ability that your character has, every weapon he possesses and used must feel earned. Otherwise, he or she becomes a Gary Stu/ Mary Sue and loses any depth might have had before. Like in real life, things cost money, effort, practice. You don’t need to show in detail all of that, but you need to mention at some point how the character learned what he knows or who taught him. Otherwise becomes Batman in bat-god mode, and no one likes bat-god mode (I say this as a Batman fan).

Each arc must have a payoff.

In an age where franchises are the rage and people write multiple book sagas, trying to go for a trilogy like LOTR (which for starters was never a trilogy, it was just printed that way due the limitations of the time), it’s easy to leave the payoff for the next book and keep postponing it till the reader loses interest and there are so many plots ends that you get strangled with them (which is what I think is happening to G.R.R. Martin). It is what kills franchise movies and it is what kills your books.

I have a friend that reads on average 30 books per year, but she never, ever buys, with the exception of ASOIAF, sagas that are not finished. She hates having to wait for years for a resolution that may never come. If she buys a book of a saga, odds are she will buy and read the whole saga. It is like an RPG campaign, you can string the players along for your overall arc, but if you don’t give them some sense of closure and achievement now and then, they will lose motivation to keep playing. Split your story in arcs that can get a payoff that impacts on the overall plot. Terry Pratchett was a master of this. He wrote 40+ books of Discworld, each one can be read individually (with the exception of the very first two) and each book has a conclusion. And yet they are part of the same continuity and when read all together you can see the overall arcs in each individual group, be it the Night’s Watch, Death, and Susan, The Witches or the Wizards. I’m actually following this scheme: each one of the proposed Tempest Blades books will be an adventure with a conclusion, but that conclusion impacts the overall plot and there is a progression. However, the reader will get a payoff to that particular story.

Escalation is a problem.

Things escalate powers, wars, abilities. But unless you are prepared to write or play an epic campaign where the characters challenge deities, keep their powers in check, make that escalation slow, earned. Don’t make your character to physically powerful, keep them grounded so when they let loose all their powers it feels epic and not another Tuesday. Otherwise, it will become as ridiculous as Dragon Ball or the old EU of Star Wars.

Good dialogues.

This is short, the best memories of a gaming session I have are not limited to badass fighting scenes, they include the banter, the jokes, the sarcasm and the ‘drop the mic’ moments that made us laugh or clap. Good, fast paced, fun dialogue can make wonders for your characterization and your plot pace. It can even be used to drop key pieces of information and even lampshade the situation. Good dialogue is what keeps a reader engaged.

World building vs. monocultures.

The world is a large place. Each place has a distinct culture, different religions (and approaches to them), different myths, different legendary weapons, social mores, taboos, geography. The best sessions I had playing where with homebrew worlds that allowed for that world building diversity. I rarely play in official settings because of the monoculture pitfall -like in Star Trek- gets boring and is very limited. Have fun creating, have fun to develop seemingly contradictory facts. In ASOIAF, there are like 6 different legends regarding the Long Night that contradict each other (Azor Ahai, The Prince that was Promised, The Last Hero, The lady with the monkey tail, etc). Not all of them have to make total sense, they just need to feel coherent with the culture and the world the characters live in. Like in the real world. Think how many creation myths the ancient cultures had. They had similarities, but they had as well contradictory facts. What is a weapon of mass destruction for a culture, can be an object of worship for another.

Diversity is good, it is a fact of the universe. Don’t fall into the trap of the monocultures because not even modern societies are the same all over the planet. Embrace the wackiness of diversity, for there are hidden treasures that may come into play with your overall plot and make it richer.

As long as every element seems to be coherent (when it comes to myths there is some leeway) and adds to the sense of wonder and mystery of your world, the more the reader will be hooked into the story. I mean in ASOIAF I want to know what the hell lies in Sothoryos even if I know Martin will never explore that piece of his world. But the fact that it has been referenced means that it exists and thus makes the world more solid.

A mixed approach to writing, to keep your sanity intact.

If I learned something of my GM was to plan on the fly. He worked diligently in his plot for weeks and when the session came, the players ruined everything. However, he came always prepared with a menu of options (think those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books) that helped move his plot, while taking into account what his players might do, leaving him leeway. And even when something came out of the field, he learned to incorporate that into the tapestry of the story he was weaving. This takes me to the often heard dichotomy of a writer of being a ‘more pants’ or a ‘planner’. Personally, and based on my own experience, this is a false dichotomy. You can be both. Like my GM what I do when I’m plotting a story is that I create the overall arc, with the key scenes I need to get things done, but no more than that. The in-betweens of those key scenes are ideas I write on the fly, letting my characters guide me through them. I tried to be a ‘pantser’ and I lost a decade of writing, I tried to be a planner and got bored easily due to my lack of attention span. But being both, while having the end game of the story at hand and the characters well developed has helped me to write faster and better.

Keep it Simple. Have fun.

RPGs are meant to be fun, social experiences. The same should apply to writing a book or a short story. If you are not having fun with the overall process, then the story will suffer and your reader will notice. Granted, we all have bad days, bad gaming sessions and tough-to-write scenes and chapters, but they shouldn’t detract from the general experience. Play the games you want to play. My advice for this is: write the book you would like to buy and read. The one that brings you the most fun. Then you will be proud of it. And with some work, even create your own RPG rulebook.

Musical themes for Tempest Blades. Pt. 1

As I’m finishing the 7th draft of Tempest Blades to hopefully get it ready for querying agents, I got to reflect what kind of music would fit my book. Truth be told, I have used certain songs to write certain scenes or to develop characters. Let’s say I have a soundtrack list of songs I would like to use for the hypothetical film feature. Now, this is not the final list, as there are themes that are still missing. But these songs really helped me nail particular bits of the story. Most of my main cast has two themes (or will have). And this is an eclectic list so bear with me.

Character themes:

Fionn’s 1st Theme:

Gaby’s 1st theme:

Alex’s 1st theme:

Sam’s 1st theme:

Sid’s 1st theme / The Figaro:

Harland’s 1st Theme:

Scene themes:

Opening Chapter / Heroic Resolve (I’m gonna kick your sorry ass):

The Freefolk theme (for anything related to them, the Maze or magic in general)

Training Scenes:

Big Damn Heroes:

The Final Duel:

Closing moments / Credits:

 

Moana’s Quest and the ethereal villain

 

Let me preface this entry by explaining that this is not a review of Moana. I’m too late for that train. It is more of a reflection upon some comments my wife made me the other day about Moana. For better context: my wife and I grew up with a steady diet of Disney movies, so we are basically Disney children. However where things differ is that my wife is really into Dinsey animated movies, especially the Princess ones to the point that she and my sister in law can recite, word for word, songs included, most of the classics f the om top of their heads. Her all time favorite is the Little Mermaid by the way (and she knows ALL songs by heart. ALL). She tends to watch them with a critical eye I only use for comic related things or my own writing. She didn’t like Frozen and is warm luke to Moana, whilst for me, Moana is my second favorite Disney movie (the first one being the Lion King). Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, it’s a sustainability parable  is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

So it was a shock for me a few days ago, when I finally had money to buy the blu-ray edition, that my wife said that while she liked Moana enough, it wasn’t a good movie for her. I was aghast so I asked her to explain herself and in summary, her biggest complaint is that Moana, unlike other Disney Princess movies (or Disney movies in general) lacks a clear villain, taking away some of the conflicts from the plot. And that left me thinking about what I’m gonna write right now.

Moana, for the most part, is a kid-friendly approach to the Hero of Thousand Faces heroic journey or monomyth as author Joseph Campbell called it (which by the way, if you are planning to write fantasy, it would be a good idea to check that book). From the refusal of the call to the visit to the underground, Moana checks many of the items of the monomyth. However, my wife is right. It doesn’t have a proper villain.

Teka is more a force of nature created by the actions of men (this is important later for the sake of the post), looking for the heart of Te Fiti for spoilery reasons. Other than that it doesn’t have more motivation that just exists. The Kokomora and Tamatoa are not the main villains, they act more as obstacles. But they are not the main antagonist of the movie. And none of them spend time on screen beyond a few minutes to explain their real motivations. They are just there. Compare that to other classic villains like Ursula, Scar, and Jaffar, who are antagonistc villains and you can see that my wife has a point there.

Now the movie does have a few antagonists, but not in the traditional good-bad dichotomy. One of them, in particular, is vital for the story. This antagonist is there to counter Moana’s views and help her with her personal growth. Notice that I’m not calling him a villain because he is not. He is for most of the movie an anti-hero at a crossroads and goes by the name of Maui. You will say: ‘hey he is the deuteragonist, the other hero of the story’. And for the last third of the movie he is. But on the first part of the movie he is there messing with Moana’s plans for his selfish/not-so-selfish reasons and is on a personal growth journey as well. It’s only when he realizes that both journeys share the same ultimate objective that he goes from anti-hero to bonafide hero. To put it simply, he is the Han Solo to Moana’s Luke/Leia, down to the last minute rescue in a falcon shape.

So if Moana apparently doesn’t has an antagonistic villain, where is the conflict? Well, I think that it does has a villain, but is not a physical one.

Stories like Game of Thrones have got us used to the idea that even villains have proper motivations, that deep inside, they believe they are right and that they are the true heroes of the story. Cersei, for example, does at first most things for the sake of her children. Only the Others/White Walkers haven’t shown a real motivation so far, acting more like a boogeyman or a force of nature. Long gone are the days of evil for the sake of evil villains, like Palpatine. But even so, we are still used to think of villains in terms of an actual guy opposing the heroes for nefarious purposes. And this is where Moana deviates from the norm in a clever way.

Remember when I mentioned the ‘acts of men’ as the cause of the crisis in the story of Moana? Well, it was their constant abusing of Maui’s desire for approval (the guy is still hurting from being abandoned as a baby) that pushed too far the balance, making him steal the heart of Te Fiti and creating Tekai as result. The ‘acts of men’ are also seen in the way of thinking uphold by Moana’s father about not venturing away form the island, forgetting completely his culture’s tradition of wayfinding. This is where Moana becomes a sustainability parable: the actions of our predecessors have caused a disruption on the futures of our descendants. I see Tekai as a symbol of Mother Earth lashing out against humankind for their excess, as a representation of climate change for example, or pollution, that withers the land and deprive us of nurturing elements.

It’s only when Moana understands this, that the ‘acts of men’, the loss of their traditional communion with nature, the close minded way of thinking and greed has caused this crisis that she is capable of reaching an agreement with Tekai to return the heart to its proper place and restore the balance. Of all the people of her island she was chosen  by the Ocean, that allied force of nature, because she is not only smart enough to realize this but compassionate and brave enough to raise up to the challenge of breaking with the societal conventions, the popular wisdom of her context to find a new way of life. In this case, the villain is not a physical one, is an ethereal one composed by many negative thoughts that mired her, her family and even Maui and take a final embodiment in Tekai.

Sometimes, the villains of a story, the real ones, are not the guys in black robes trying to conquer the world, but the inner demons, the preconceptions, the baggage that drags the main character down. Those are villains of equal importance if not more and only when the hero realizes that and is willing to overcome them is that they become able to solve the crisis at hand. So I contend that Moana does have a villain and a central conflict, but not in the shape we are used to from other Disney movies.  And for that,  and for having such a kickass female hero that breaks from the traditional role of a Disney Princess (that’s a topic for another post), I think Moana is superb.