Spring is sprung. Maybe the last one in the US with Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time, depending on how things shake out. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that. I love getting the extra hour of sunlight in the evening during the spring, summer, and early fall. I don’t like losing the hour, but it doesn’t bug me as much as other folks.
I will almost certainly dislike having standard time the whole year if we go that route. And parents will assuredly dislike sending kids to school in the dark if we keep daylight saving time year round. Someone is sure to be vexed. If I’m among them, I’ll suck it up. Because what else can you do? Maybe I’ll even grow to enjoy parts of it. Time will tell.
That’s right. I went there.
Players of the Game Works in Progress
I have reached page 165 with 46,500 words on the Game War’s rough draft. Last month, I was at page 105 with 30,000 words. That’s pretty decent for my typical output. With persistence and a little luck, I can hopefully reach at least page 200 by next month’s update. I’m enjoying laying down the groundwork for some big events later in the novel. I’m guessing it’ll clock in around 500-650 pages once I’m done with the first draft.
The Expanse (The Books and the Amazon Prime Series)
I first discovered the Expanse a few years back on the television/streaming series first two seasons. I then listened to the audio books, and opted to wait until the series was done to watch the rest of it. It’s an interesting premise of soft sci-fi alien, physics-defying technology/biology invading a solar system of hard sci-fi where humanity is still limited to the confines of the solar system. Some have called it Game of Thrones in space, but I think it’s better than GOT. The crew of the Rocinante are the focal points of the series, but other stand out characters like Detective Miller, Gunnery Sergeant Bobbi Draper, and Under Secretary Avasarala really round out the politics of the books and show. I haven’t gotten to the end of the show yet, but the books’ finale stuck the landing. Good stuff.
This Steam game draws heavily on other turn based tactics games like Shining Force, of which I am a big fan. The story is full of typical anime goofiness. There are a ton of characters, and you’ll end up not using about half of them, which is a slight demerit. However, the game play is incredibly fun for anyone who likes tactics games with each attack getting a little zoom in cut scene. It’s like comfort food for my brain, and I’m totally up for a little of that right now.
Let me open by saying I’m praying for peace in Ukraine and very much praying that things don’t escalate. This situation is good for no one. War is acid on stability and relationships among and between people within the conflicting countries. Donate to relief charities if you are blessed enough to be in such a position.
A century ago, the nickname for its third decade was the “Roaring 20’s”. After the first two years of this century’s third decade, I was wanting to it to ultimately become the “Boring 20’s”. Sadly, between the pandemic, ludicrous political divisions in the US, and now a land war in eastern Europe, I’ve landed on a non-rhyming, but at least alliterative, moniker: The “Trying 20’s”.
I was initially going to go with something more negative and flippant, but I think “trying” in two senses of the word aptly apply. This decade has both called us to endeavor to be better and to endure through its adversity. The Trying 20’s are here, and we all must move through them as best we can.
Players of the Game Works in Progress
I’m starting a new section mostly to ensure that I keep up the momentum and productivity with my latest novel, the Game War. I’m up to page 105, right around 30,000 words. Last time I was at page 56 with 15,500 words. So I’ve added a reasonable chunk to this WIP. Not awesome output, but not bad either. As I’ve said in the past, I write carefully, not quickly.
Chronophage by Tim Seeley and Ilias Kyriazis
I ordered this Humanoids graphic novel from my local comic shop without knowing a whole lot about it, save that I like lots of Tim Seeley’s other comic series, especially The Revival. This was such an outstanding surprise. It centers on a single mom named Chloe who meets an intriguing stranger named Heath, and they quickly click. It’s then revealed that Heath is consuming parts of the past from Chole and the people around her, editing her personal history, seemingly for the better. It’s a horror book, so there’s plenty of graphic scenes, well illustrated by Ilias Kyriazis. A fantastic story that has a lot to say about how threads of our pasts overlap and some bigger questions about how all moments might exist at once. Pick it up on Comixology or in print!
Valiant Hearts: The Great War on Steam or Switch
In light of the events in Ukraine, I’m calling out an older game that I played a few years back. I bought Valiant Hearts on a Steam sale, but then never got around to it until my cousin (Hey, Nick!) recommended that I fire it up. It focuses on a cast of characters on both sides of the Great War (WWI) from the beginning while it was mobile and its eventual descent into trench warfare. It has puzzles to solve and you team up with a likable dog to help with them. It also tricks you into learning about the Great War through the game’s events and factoids that pop up. It does a great job of showing the tragedy of that conflict and all others like it.
We even managed to get the Christmas decorations down. Granted, it was a just two days ago. But we got ’em put away, by thunder. Now, it is on to the, uh, cat days of winter? That stretch of time where my part of the world usual gets a least one or two polar vortices of insanely cold air. The year also usually starts to take shape with the various irons in my various fires.
My way of keeping all that proverbial metal hot involves a whole lot of to-do notes to myself. In the case of the latest work in progress, The Game War, I just write a sticky note with the page number goal that I intend to reach by the beginning of the next week. I’m sure I’ll falter during some weeks. But so far, I’m doing pretty decent for my usual output. I’m up to page 56 with about 15,500 words. I’m sure others have more copious output, but these incremental weekly goals help me to keep my head in the game.
What kind of techniques do you use to keep on task? Or if procrastinating is your thing, what’s your favorite way of wasting time? Mine is watching educational Youtube videos or playing indie video games. All things in moderation, right? Right?
Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive By Philipp Dettmer
This book is thoroughly interesting. It goes in detail, but not too much detail, on the inner workings of the immune system from the innate system (first responders), the complement systems (a bunch of bio chemicals that get activated like a security system), and the adaptive system (the parts that either studies the infection and puts together a tailored immune response with antibodies, or gets a massive assist from a vaccine doing all of the hard work first). Most everyone has heard of the spleen, but how about the thymus? It’s the organ in your chest that makes T cells, among many other things, and slowly withers as you age, which is why elderly folks are more prone to disease. This book really illustrates the unbelievable complexity of how a bunch of mindless immune system cells act quite smart in concert. I didn’t even touch on how stuff can go wrong with parasites, cancers, bacteria, and viruses. Highly recommended.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
My wife and I braved the theater a few weeks back to catch the new Spidey flick after the crowds had thinned a bit. I won’t spoil anything on this, but this had everything I hoped to see, and few surprises too. It’s the best Spidey movie so far, even better than Into the Spider Verse. Totally catch it in the theater if that’s right for you. And for the record: Dr. Strange was right.
I hope the holiday season has gone as well as it can. This one was little choppy for me and my family. It wasn’t all turbulence thankfully, so I’ll count my blessings where I can.
On the smoother end of the spectrum, I finished the latest draft of Players of the Game Book 4.5: The Breakers: Jagged Pieces. It was originally a novella, but it ended up expanding into a full sized bonus novel. I’ve started writing Book 5: The Game War. The blank page didn’t really bug me on this one. I pretty much jumped right in.
I also did a deep dive on the series’s timeline with a codex I put together on an Excel sheet. I tweaked a few minor details and fleshed out more details that I intentionally kept a bit hazy. I’ll likely put some version of the timeline up on the stelfire.com website at some point.
And I plan to release Book 3.5 The New Players: Origins sometime in the first half of the year. More to details to come in future emails.
Billy Summers by Stephen King:
This was much more of a thriller than a horror novel. the title character, Billy, is a highly skilled assassin who specializes in sniper kill shots. He plays dumb in order to keep the people with whom he works at arms length. It also allows him to repeatedly indicate that he only kills bad people. When he embeds in a community with a novel writing cover story, he starts to wonder if this job is as simple as his crime family handlers would have him believe. Things complicate from there. It’s a very compelling read and even has a few little call backs to the Shining in parts of it.
The Witcher Season 2 on Netflix:
Last time I recommended the Wheel of Time series. And while that was quite good, the Witcher is better. I think the story is tighter and the characters are little more fleshed out. Geralt and Ciri’s relationship is very endearing as a surrogate father and daughter. Yennifer’s own struggles with losing her magic is also well done (though I really dislike that name). And Jaskier/Dandelion has another good song where he laments his falling out with Geralt from last season. Give it a watch if you enjoy grim-dark fantasy.
“Everyone makes mistakes, that’s why they put erasers on pencils.”
The sage Lenny once said this on a memorable Simpsons episode with Frank Grimes.
And oh, my. When one writes hundreds of thousands of words in a series of novels, the mistakes will add up. I swear I know the difference between their, there, and they’re. But the wrong words, the wrong grammar, and the wrong style will indeed sneak in.
I usually make several edit runs through my novels as I write them. I read them in a weekly writers workshop group on Zoom, which is totally great because you can share your screen while you’re reading aloud. Additionally, I make use of an editor for my novels who finds all kinds of oops items. (Hi, Sarah.)
And just this past week, also I bought an editing program called Pro Writing Aid. It’s caught a lot of errors that hid in plain sight and that I flat out made the wrong choice without knowing it. I’m absolutely sure that errors will make it into my works, which isn’t ideal, but by no means immutable. That’s the glory of indie publishing with ebooks and print on demand. If you find mistakes, you just correct them, and upload an updated version.
The ultimate aim is to get it right the first time, but like the pencil in Lenny’s quote, editing is the eraser to fix that mistake.
Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime:
I had read the first five books in Robert Jordan’s magnum opus about 25 years ago. I liked them a great deal, and I know they influenced my storytelling, but I decided I wanted to wait until Jordan finally finished them. When Brandon Sanderson took them over and finished them, my brother and a couple cousins told me it was all quite good, but I just didn’t have the motivation to dive into them again. I do now. The new streaming series is most engaging after the choppy first episode. It’s like Game of Thrones, except magic is much more of a thing and friendship is valued more than political maneuvers, at least initially. I didn’t care for a particular character’s actions that deviated from the books, but it’s a minor quibble. I’m enjoying it so far.
The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie:
I do love this series despite all the terrible things that happen to some characters and the worse things that others inflict. The Great Change sweeps in a revolution that starts like the American one, then devolves into something worse than the French one. King Orso continues to be my favorite character with his fatalistic good humor. Rikke is also a strong character in this installment. She makes a lot of right choices that still lead to pain. The narration by Steven Pacey is varied for all of the characters on the audio book version. As long as Abercrombie keeps up this level of excellence, I will continue to recommend all the books in this series. Fantastic yarns, one and all.
Several months ago I listened to a Hello Internet podcast where one of the hosts, Grey, spoke of something called “brain crack”, a phenomenon where you imagine how you would handle a personal/public/national/world problem with such competence and imagination that you get addicted to the daydream, rather than taking action toward solving the actual problems, or anything else in your life that needs doing.
This trait is not always useful for dealing with day-to-day life, but it is absolutely critical when I’m outlining out a novel. That brain-crack journey is how I feel out a story before I write it. How I figure out the plot beats and character interactions.
I used to write it down in a spiral note book, but I’ve since started using a free program called yWriter that has a fantastic chapter-by-chapter outlining function. It also allows for writing the actual novel using its application, but I can’t break away from Word, nor do I really want to. More than that, yWriter is the place where I feel more comfortable letting the daydreams of the plot flow through my mind. Sometimes, I’ll go minutes on end with out typing anything, yet feeling very productive with the mental exercise.
And that productivity is bearing out an outline of Players of the Game Book 5. Right now, I think it’s going to be called The Game War, though that may change. The story will likely change substantially from the outline, and that’s totally fine. Having a map makes for a better journey, especially if you try out a few detours.
I recently caught the new movie on HBO Max, and might even venture into the theater to watch it on the big screen. I enjoyed it a great deal. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, which is my favorite outcome of any media I consume. The effects, the cinematography, direction, writing, and acting are all top notch. It is a bit dense, so it’s not for everyone. I will also say that it is truly odd to see Jason Momoa without a beard. I finally pulled out the book and am working my way through the it as well. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, but I think the dialogue in the movie is a bit better. Sacrilege! Give it a watch if you are wanting something that’s a little bit House of Cards and a little bit Fellowship of the Ring.
Recursion by Blake Crouch
This novel is trippy in the best way. It starts with a cop investigating a suicide of someone who was suffering from false memories from a life she did not live. She is not the only one. There are many others suffering from the same false memory syndrome. Imagine the end of Back to the Future, but instead of everyone being fine with the new timeline, everyone also remembers how things were in the original timeline as well as the new timeline. Things spiral out of control from there. Both audio book readers, Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden, do a great job of handling the duties between the two main characters. Good stuff.
“You know, Paul. I don’t know a man, woman, or child alive… who doesn’t enjoy… a lovely beverage.” These are the words David Letterman would occasionally say to Paul Shaffer toward the end of his Late Night run, which would then be followed by the beverage drinking piano jingle as Dave drank water, coffee, and/or booze from a mug.
Lovely beverages do indeed make the day better, especially warm ones. I do enjoy cocoa, apple cider, or coffee from time to time, but the one I drink on a daily basis each morning is black tea. It’s got a little caffeine, but is more mellow than coffee, which will make me feel too wired if I partake in it too often. I’ve tried the green and white teas, and they’re not my bag. Earl and Lady Grey are the one’s I usually enjoy on weekdays.
However, there is another. One that creeps up to the level of a coffee kick, but maintaining the smooth feel of a tea. It’s one that I discovered on a tea of the month club that my wife set up for me several years ago. Roasted Mate (pronounced mah-tay), a caffeine-infused drink from South America. I loved a blend called My Morning Mate that tasted absolutely fantastic, a bit coffee, a bit cocoa. Then the fiends stopped making it.
I found others that were quite good, like South of the Border black tea with chocolate and chili pepper. It’s not too spicy, but there’s some zing for sure. But I was always pining for that lost flavor.
And I have at last found a suitable replacement from Fusion Teas called Good Morning Yerba Mate. Oh, my. I had it the other morning, and the feeling and taste of it was pure liquid love. Just like the lost flavor of old. The taste sensation has returned. In a way, I’m glad I was bereft for a few years. I found new flavors I enjoyed. And I’ll cherish my reunited flavor all the more now.
The lesson here is to take pleasure in the little things, like a lovely beverage. And be more diligent with your Google searches.
Dug Days on Disney+
This is not the first Pixar recommendation I’ve given, nor will it be the last. The series of ten minute shorts focuses on Carl and Dug the dog from Up. They have moved into a new house where Carl reestablishes his peaceful environment following his balloon-based adventures from the feature film. Dug, of course, sows chaos by being a lovable id. Plus, he actually has a squirrel frenemy to chase or get bonked by tossed nuts. “Squirrel!” I think has become a universal shorthand for distraction by something interesting. The show is really sweet and might be the last work of Ed Asner before his passing. Give it a watch.
Out of Body by Peter Milligan and Inaki Miranda
This comic book from Aftershock focuses on a psychologist who gets attacked and left in a coma. A psychic freelancer encounters him on the astral plane as another group of psychics try to harvest his soul for their own dark appetites. The psychologist can’t remember how or why he ended up in the coma, and as he and the psychic delve into the surrounding events of the other people in his life, they learn that his relationships were less ideal than he supposed. It’s a cool concept mixing fantasy with a thriller.
It will likely be no surprise that role playing games both of the video game variety and pen-and-paper variety are big influences on my writing style. In high school and college, I primarily played Dungeons and Dragons as a player character and I ran a couple campaigns of a lesser known RPG from Palladium Books called Rifts, which was more prolific in the 90’s. As I devoted more time to writing, something had to give, and regrettably pen-and-paper RPGs needed to be set aside.
Video games RPGs have ebbed and flowed for me over this time, depending on my mood and time constraints with writing time and other activities. The Super NES version of Ogre Battle, the Mass Effect Trilogy, Final Fantasy Tactics, Dragon Age: Origins, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are classics in my all-time top ten. I have two more recent faves that I’ll discuss more in recommendation corner below.
If you have any current or classic pen-and-paper or video game RPGs that trip your wire, I’d love to hear what they are.
This RPG leans heavily into the Lovecraftian grim-dark setting. The game has an initial disclaimer indicating that playing it is about making the best of a bad situation. You play an inheritor of a haunted estate that is overrun with bandits, mutated horrors, and demonic fiends. The characters you recruit must not only contend with difficult combat as they trudge through dungeons shown from a side-scrolling perspective, but they also must face disease and insanity. The stylized artwork reminds me of Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame, and the music is dark, moody, and superb. The ancestor who bequeathed the estate narrates the battles and the down time in the base at the nearby town. It’s difficult, but so very fun. Give it a try if such types of things are up your alley.
Path of Exile
This game is for fans of Diablo and Gauntlet. It’s presented from an overhead isometric perspective. You start of as one of various character classes who are all banished to an island by a corrupt regime. You slowly pull yourself together and go on quests to make things better and save the world from a multitude of demons and dark gods. It is more action oriented and the skills and powers encourage experimentation. It’s free-to-play, but not the pay-to-win variety. The game makes its money through skin customization, but you can choose to use the intentionally boring looking equipment appearances. It’s very bloody and incredibly violent. And it is more fun played with a party than alone. To channel Jim Carrey: I like it a lot.
New End Banner
This new end banner is just plain awesome. The characters from left to right are: Xax, Avril Enzali, Ed Burnhelt, Ashe Stelfire, Tamona of Mune, Harry Mang (in different armor), and Candice Quentra. All of them will appear in their own spotlights as time goes on.
So much of our lives involves stories. Not just the fictional ones we consume in various media, but the non-fictional ones that we’ve each lived. The ones that we recount when we gather with friends and family at happy occasions, and also sad ones.
I recently attended the funeral of my grandfather. While he had been in decline over the last few years, he passed away somewhat quickly and it was thankfully non-Covid related. One thing that really heartened me was all the stories that recounted his wry and stoic personality. A quintessential cowboy who lived 93 years, who could recite poetry he learned in school, and still had a hankerin’ to ride a horse, though he wisely stopped a few years back. He also had a sweet tooth for off-brand lemon Oreo’s, which grand kids and great grand kids also greatly enjoyed.
He’ll certainly be missed. And I’m glad the good stories of his life will be told for years to come. Next time,you wander down memory lane with those you care about, take a moment to appreciate everyone who’s telling the tales and listening to them. They won’t be there forever.
The Suicide Squad (2021 Movie)
I’m part of the problem with this movie’s box office under performance. I watched it on HBO Max without guilt, and I loved it. This movie lived up to it’s name much better than the 2016 version. It involves a large team of conscripted villains who must carry out a mission in a fictional Latin American country in exchange for reduced sentences, or get their heads exploded. Despite the ridiculous characters, you actually come to care for them. King Shark is sure to be many people’s favorite with his line: “Num num?” My favorite was Polka Dot Man and his mom. Hilarious and awesome. Check it out.
Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tcalkovsky
This book has a cool twist on the typical fantasy race fare. They are all human with insect “kinden” sub groups. Flies are short and can conjure wings, Beetles are stocky and persistant, Wasps are flying, stinging @ssholes just like their insect counterparts, and so on. The story revolves around an over-the-hill Beetle spymaster/professor who must recruit some of his brightest students for a secret mission against the encroaching Wasp empire. It also has an interesting debuff for a lot of the characters where some cannot figure out how to use any form of technology, while others cannot acknowledge magic even when its effects are used in plain view. There are many more books in this series, so I’ll likely be recommending other parts of the series in future installments.
I have been enjoying a bit more fun in the sun with friends and family. I’ve also been returning to get some take out from some favorite restaurants. The Central Great Plains and Colorado have a regional outfit called Old Chicago. They make deep dish pizzas that are fantastic. The Thai Chicken pizza is my favorite. It has sweet Thai sauce instead of pizza sauce, so it’s more specialty than traditional, but oh my do I love it. So good.
Backyard barbecues have also been something I’ve sorely missed this past year. My wife and I hung out with some friends recently on their patio where they made us some A+ burgers and Polish sausages. I announced that I would eat the h*** out that grilled foodage. And eat the h*** out of it I most certainly did.
I’m also marinating some steaks with a mixture of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and brown sugar. I’ll be searing them and then using the trusty sous vide. It shall be epic.
These are all summer treats for me. I usually skew more on the herbivore end of my omnivore diet. I enjoy making black bean rice bowls and a soup concoction that I call chili veggie soupy.
Do you have any fave foods that you recommend either from restaurants or that you make?
Reckless by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
I’m a a big fan of this creative team’s crime comics. This hardcover trade focuses on a man named Ethan Reckless in the early 1980’s. He’s sort of a low-grade, sloppy, one-man A-Team. He was once an FBI undercover agent that infiltrated a violent anti-war group in the late years of the Vietnam War. It ended badly, leaving him with a scar. He now makes ends meet by working out of a closed movie theater and hiring himself out to people who need help with a non-advertised 800 number. People who are often shady with conflicting agendas. Things start going sideways when a woman from his undercover past reaches out to him. Great dialogue, gritty art, and realistic violence. Check it out.
The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie
The First Law series is always fun for a grim-dark fantasy world. It’s a mix of steampunk colliding with a more savage land of Norse vikings. The wry humor in the narrative and dialogue is my favorite part. The POV characters all think they’re in the right, but almost always do the wrong thing that achieves the exact opposite result of their intentions. This is most true for Leo, a heroic idiot who is easy to manipulate, especially by the ambitious Savine. The foppish Prince Orso emerges as the most likable character as civil war creeps closer and closer. Steven Pacey does a great job with the audio book reading with many distinct voices. Give it a read or listen.