Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is this an opening scene?

It's no secret that I've been trying to write a fantasy novel for... I don't know. Several years, now. Longer than that, if you count other fantasy novels that I've also tried to write. Over Christmas, I sat down and sorted out the various opening scenes I'd written for this one project. Doing this was both enlightening, and a little appalling. I have thirteen different approaches that I've tried, each with anywhere from one to eight actual documents. Taken together, it's enough raw text to constitute a novel in its own right, albeit a very weird and somewhat repetitive novel that was basically just variations on a character. On the other hand, it was actually constructive to look at all these different approaches and see how they fit with the characters, how well they did (or didn't) lead into the things I want to do with (and to) the character(s), and why they did (or, almost universally, didn't) work.

Writing, in a lot of cases, seems to be a lot like trouble-shooting. Maybe not for everybody -- I mean, I know not everybody feels compelled to start at the front of the book and write their way onward to the end -- but for me, usually, it does. In this particular case, I have an idea for a character, I have an idea for an overall plot arc for his world, and I have a couple of particular stages or developments (a real writer might call them "scenes") that I want to see him go through. This is where the problem-solving comes in. The basic questions are, "How do we introduce this character so that readers care what happens to him?" and "How do we get from that introduction, whatever it is, to the things that I desperately want to include in this story?"

Which brings me to the following scene. I'm not sure it's the start of the book; I'm not sure it's part of the book at all. But I think it's the start of the book in the sense that I have to write this, just to have the scene and situation clear in my head when I reach the actual start of the book.

Dusk slipped silently into the tiny camp, a dark, armored shadow intruding into the firelight. Somber had chosen the place well: it was a tiny clearing between three large and ancient trees, with the fire tucked down into the hollow at the center, and the bedroll spread out beside it. If she hadn't been following his scent, it might have taken her hours or even days to find it.

Somber was standing on the far side of the clearing, between the trees, looking out into the darkness of the surrounding forest. The nightmare on his shoulder was a dark blur, barely visible even to her beast-sharp eyes. For a moment, Dusk thought she'd arrived unnoticed; then, without turning, Somber whispered: "Be still. There's something out there."

Dusk paused for a moment, scenting the air. Then she twisted, slipping the roll of cloth off her back and dropping it nearly onto the bedroll. She looked warily around the clearing, and picked out three other beasts... only these were dead, immobile and scentless where they crouched in the shadows of the trees. They had to be Somber's work, but none of them were looking at her, either. Their were merely... waiting.

Oh, I do not like this, thought Dusk.

She could smell Somber himself, the slightly musky scent of healthy human male soured slightly by a day or two without bathing; a faint hint of fresh blood that was probably coming from his nightmare; the heavy earth-scent of the soil; a blend of plant-smells, pleasantly mingled, carried on the night air; and nothing else. She couldn't hear any movements, either, though the night wind pushing through the trees overhead might be disguising any number of softer sounds. The only movement she could see was the flicker of the fire, and the twitching dance of the shadows it cast.

Something moved, circling around the edge of the camp. She couldn't see it, or smell it, or hear it, but Dusk knew it was there all the same. The scales rippled on her back, and her claws gripped the soil. Somber stepped back into the camp. raising his arms defensively.

Darkness gathered where he'd been standing a moment earlier, coalescing into something that might have been a human shadow, except there was nobody to cast it and nothing but empty air for it to fall on. It gained depth, became solid, and before Dusk could even begin to react it became an almost-human figure, looking at them.

It would have been a man, tall, slim, and broad-shouldered, much like Somber himself; but it was built of blacks and grays, untouched by the orange-and-yellow light of the fire.

Somber spat a quick phrase and gestured, and a line of fire flared from the ground in front of the shadow's feet. "No further," he said.

At last... The thought drifted through the clearing. It was soundless, but Dusk heard it anyway. I apologize for the intrusion, and for what I must do to you--

That must have been enough, because Somber whispered a single word and the three dead beasts lunged towards the intruding shadow-man. They were quick and fierce: two wolves, and a tiny thing that had probably been some sort of rodent. Dusk had a brief moment to think that she might have survived that attack, but she knew the dead things were there, and in her bestial form she was armored and--

The intruder moved, almost blurring as something dark swirled around him, whiplike arms reaching out to smash the reanimated beasts. Very good, it acknowledged as the bones fell, and stepped across the line of fire. Dusk caught a hint of unfamiliar clothing as it moved: a sleeveless robe, a wide belt, loose pants, boots...

The camp was small, they were all too close together, and the intruder was fast. Before either of them could do anything, he had reached up to place the palm of his hand against Somber's forehead. Somber reacted automatically, with two-handed deflection that should have broken a man's arm, but his hands passed through the intruder. He jerked back at the shadow-man's touch, his body suddenly stiff.

Then the nightmare on his shoulder threw itself at the intruder. For a moment, it was visible: an inchoate darkness full of claws and teeth, something spreading out behind it that might be wings and a whiplike tail. It fastened onto the shadow-man's face, ripping and tearing, and he wrenched back. For a moment, his body almost mirrored Somber's, but his hand never left Somber's forehead.

Then his other hand came across, tendrils of darkness swirling around it, and tore the nightmare away. The intruder straightened, struggling to hold the nightmare at arm's length, and turned its attention back to Somber. Dusk tensed. Whatever this thing was, whether or not it was solid or even truly there, this was her best chance to take it down: now, while it was completely distracted.

She sprang, touched down, and then came up for its throat. If there was anything like flesh there, she was going to rip it out.

The world disappeared in an expanding ball of darkness.

There's another scene that comes after this, before what I think will be the actual opening scene. If it works the way I think it does, I'll post that on the blog as well.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Real Adults

First, some background: Secondborn is in Kindergarten. He's been having some trouble with his Sight Words (I suspect mainly because he's been having some trouble sitting still), so the other night the Beautiful Woman (my wife, his mother) took some note cards and made labels for some of the common items in our kitchen: sink, refrigerator, oven, cabinet, step stool, drawer, etc.

Then, a couple of days later, we decided to have Thai food for dinner. Among the items we ordered were some curry puffs. In the dipping sauce for the curry puffs was a bit of jalapeño. Upon finding this in her mouth, the Beautiful Woman remarked: "Wow, I just got a bit of jalapeño. A year ago, I wouldn't have liked it, but that was really good. I feel like a real adult now!"

So I got up from the table, found a note card, and made a little sign. I taped it on her back while she was busy getting a cup for one of the boys. "What does it say?" she asked suspiciously. "'Kick me'?"

I gestured for Firstborn to read it to her. "It says, 'Real Adult'," he told her.

"I thought you needed a label," I added, gesturing vaguely at the various note cards scattered around the kitchen.

The Beautiful Woman laughed, Firstborn laughed, Secondborn laughed, I laughed... and then Firstborn got a gleam in his eye.

He went and found the note cards, wrote something (without letting me see it), then came around and taped it on my back.

"I think I should be worried," I observed.

"What does it say?" asked the Beautiful Woman.

Firstborn just walked back to his seat, looking smug.

I stood up and turned around. The Beautiful Woman looked at it, then had Secondborn spell it out. "R-E-A-L N-E-R-D... Is that a dash? ...U-L-T." There was a brief pause. "Real Nerdult?"

Firstborn nodded. I broke up laughing. We congratulated Firstborn for coming up with a joke of his own that was hilariously funny, utterly appropriate to its target (me), and not in any way mean.

This prompted Secondborn to get up, collect a note card, and write his own note, which he also taped on my back.

The Beautiful Woman read this one with a slightly puzzled expression. "K-O-L-R?" she asked. "Koler?"

Secondborn nodded, grinning happily. "It's because you play Infamous so much," he told me. "And the character you play is Cole."

"So I'm a Cole-er," I elaborated. He nodded, pleased that I got it.

So we laughed and congratulated him on coming up with his own species of joke, which again was funny, appropriate, and not mean.

On a related note, if I ever write an autobiography, I may very well have to entitle it, Memoir of a Real Nerdult.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Kids in Bars

It's late -- a bit after Lights Out. Firstborn, however, is very stuffy, so the Beautiful Woman (my wife, for anyone coming in late) has taken him out to the living room to run the deep-tissue massager over his back and hopefully shake loose some of his mucus. Secondborn, of course, has come out to watch... and then come to the dining room to pry me away from the computer, because apparently I need to watch, too.

When I arrive in the living room, I find that Secondborn has pulled out the long, narrow gymnastics mat and set three child-sized chairs on it, all in a row, all facing the same way. Secondborn immediately seats himself in the front chair. I take the seat behind him, but I'm too late to watch; the Beautiful Woman has just switched off the massager, and Firstborn has just gotten up from the couch. He stops beside the row of chairs on the gymnastics mat, so I say: "Sit back there," and point to the seat behind me.

"You sit back there," replies Firstborn.

I stand up. "What, I'm all back-of-the-bus now?" Then I move to the rear chair and sit down again.

Firstborn takes the middle seat. "No," he tells me. "We're measuring the WiFi signal." He points at his younger brother, sitting in front of him. "The tiny bar's WiFi is weak!" Then he turns back and points at me: "The tall bar means WiFi is strong!"

And that's it. I lose it completely. I am laughing too hard to breathe. I thought we were making a bus, but no: Firstborn has arranged us into a signal strength meter.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Churchy Links

I've been seeing another run of "Share The Gospel" billboards recently, so I thought I'd go check out their websites and see what they have to say.

First up: Wake Up World.
Their website is surprisingly minimal for a group that "exists to bring spiritual awakening, awareness, and curiosity to our world by having a presence online, on billboards, and in newspapers." There's the homepage, the About Us page (which doesn't actually say much of anything about them), the Contact Us page (which at least gives an address -- in Snyder, TX, which is a bit west of Fort Worth), and the Free Gift page. The Free Gift page is the most substantial thing on the site, and it isn't much; it's a slideshow that looks like any number of "Have You Been Born Again?" pamphlets from back in the eighties. You probably know the sequence already: We are all sinners, sin separates us from God, God provided Jesus' death on the cross to bridge the gap, now say the Sinner's Prayer so you're covered. The About Us page says, "Even if you do not believe in god, we hope that you will explore him further," but if you are going to do that, you won't find much to explore here. Maybe they expect people to contact them, or interact on their Facebook page (they have a bunch of links to their social media sites), but the website itself is strangely barren. Possibly the most interesting thing about it was their background image:
I assume that the implication here is that the earthquakes spoken of in Matthew 24 won't be regular tectonic activity, but rather a planet-sized alarm clock finally going off.

Next up: Jesus Cares.
This website opens with a video that seems determined to depress you (or, if you're already depressed, to depress you further). Be warned: it autoplays, and there's audio. And about halfway through, it becomes apparent that the benighted thing is supposed to be narrated by the Almighty. I am... as a former Christian, I find this rather appalling. ("Are you feeling trapped and hopeless? Come to our website, where we presume to speak for Jesus!" Gahhhhh...) I don't think it's just the video, either; the billboard seems to imply that the site has a 2,000 year old resurrected Nazarene manning the chat windows, and I'm pretty sure that isn't the case.

The main focus -- aside from the videos, which are plentiful and slickly produced -- is on talking to their "coaches", either by email or online chat. That's not an entirely bad approach; at least there's some potential for genuine human interaction there. I do wonder how well-equipped those coaches are to deal with someone who's, say, clinically depressed or actively suicidal, since jesuscares.com is pretty up front about the fact that their setup is designed to point people to Jesus and/or get them into churches. (They do have a section to help you locate a nearby affiliated church, too.)

Overall, it's a much more developed site than Wake Up World; there's more to look at, more information to explore, videos to watch, an actual statement of faith, etc. That said, it's still basically the same old message repackaged: whatever your problems might be, Jesus is the answer. (I don't think they'd take that as a criticism, either; they're pretty up-front about saying that they aren't really trying to do anything theologically new.) I admit to being a bit curious about whether much of anybody really finds this sort of thing helpful. It seems like the sort of people who would be most receptive to this sort of message are the ones who believe it already, and therefore don't much need to hear it repeated.

Finally: I'll be back... Jesus
This last site is the least professional-looking of the three. The homepage is basically just a bunch of Bible verses followed by the Sinner's Prayer, but... well, first of all, somebody has no idea how to use ellipses correctly. Instead, they've used a row of dots going halfway across the page... and that's in their title graphic. Second, they've divided the page text into two columns (why?) and used a background image that's much too dark and has too much texture. Combined with a relatively small font, this makes the homepage annoyingly difficult to read; the text keeps fading into the background. There's a row of menu buttons at the top, which are mostly repeated as text links at the very bottom of the page. The whole thing is kind of muddy, and looks like it was built around 1992.

Their About Us page states that the people behind the site are "a group of interdenominational Christians who want to remind the world that Jesus Christ will return as he said" and omits to mention that they are desperately in need of someone capable of proofreading. (The Contact Us form on the same page includes the instruction, "Tye message here." I'm not sure who Tye is, but hopefully he's not the only one who can submit a message there.) The rest of the site... eh, there's not much else to say about it, except that it's equally odd and amateur.

So, there you go. My curiosity is satisfied. I suppose something on these sites might be new and different to some young seeker somewhere (though as I've said before, I kind of doubt it; Christianity is ubiquitous enough that even people raised in other religions get exposed to the broad outlines of Christian belief). For someone like me, it's the same old mess of presuppositions and unsupported assertions, approaches that would have made me uncomfortable even back when I was a Christian.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Snappy Answers to Pop Songs

Locked Away:
If I got locked away
And we lost it all today
Tell me honestly, would you still love me the same?
Answer: Honey, what exactly have you just done? What did you do?

Chandelier:
I'm going to swing from the chandelier...
Answer: Really? You may look like only weigh about as much as my cat, but I still don't think it'll hold you.

Uma Thurman:
She wants to dance like Uma Thurman...
Answer: Go for it. Not seeing a problem here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Who needs to walk?

I've... done something to my toe. Or my foot. The left one.

I think it came from napping on the couch back on Friday; I had my toes tucked into the cushions, and I think I just slept on them wrong. Whatever caused it, the base of my left big toe -- right where the toe meets the foot -- is swollen and extremely painful. Like, I-am-seriously-limping-here painful. Considering-a-walking-stick painful.

Back on Sunday, I was able to rest for about two hours with the foot elevated and some ibuprofen in my system, and that was a huge help; but apparently I kept tangling the toe in my blanket while I was sleeping Sunday night, because it was just as painful as ever when I woke up Monday morning.

It's not crippling, but I'd have to take a break from running, fencing, or martial arts if I were doing any of those things. And it's distracting and, well, painful, which is kind of wearing me out. I think if I can just get it to settle down it'll be fine, but until then... Ouch.

Friday, January 15, 2016

YouTube

I'm beginning to understand how and why people might just... watch things on YouTube.

This seems to be the first bit of a longer series, but it's... interesting.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

No, apparently not...

This week is kicking my butt. I have two little things that I've glanced at, but neither one is actually written. Beautiful Wife's job seems determined to make itself as stressful as possible -- and we're just starting the semester. It's too early for that. Firstborn is doing well in his return to school after the Christmas holidays; Secondborn seems to have hit a point where if anything is wrong, then everything is wrong... and I'm not entirely sure what to do about that. Some of it is probably just that he's not feeling entirely well, and we're working on that, but... I don't know.

There may be an update tomorrow, or it may be next week. We'll see.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Life Without Video Games

With the holidays over, we have re-instituted the "no videos or video games on school nights" rule. The boys have been playing with the cat for the last half an hour...

...By which I mean running madly around the house playing "hide the cat" with each other, like some demented game of Capture The Flag...

...And scattered cat treats everywhere....

...And started throwing pillows at each other...

...And trying to figure out where the cat has hidden...

...And shutting off the lights to try and scare each other...

...And there goes the cat again, with Secondborn in hot pursuit, yelling, "Astrophe! You shall be mine! You shall be mine! Astrophe, you shall be mine!"

..."Daddy, I need a little help fixing the light."
..."What do you mean, 'fixing'?"

..."Not quite done hiding the cat!"

..."Why are the blankets all over the floor?"
..."I was hiding the cat."
...
..."Wait, what?"

...Gods above, what have we unleashed? WHAT HAVE WE UNLEASHED? It is only by an enormous act of will that I haven't started doing shots. ALL. THE. SHOTS. And still the madness continues...

...Now they're standing in front of the cat and yelling "You shall not pass!" while blocking the doorway...

...Is there such a thing as lampshade parkour? Because I think I'm seeing lampshade parkour...

...What were we thinking? A full evening of the boys entertaining themselves??? We were fools -- Fools! -- to think that such things might be endured...

...I no longer hear shouting...

...The house is quiet...

...One boy has retreated to his bed to read. The other still runs loose, but he appears to be slowing...

...No, no. They were only gathering their pillows for the grand battle...

...Will this ever end? I cannot see how...

...I should have let them play the video games. I should have let them watch the videos. I should have moved to Guatemala before turning them loose...

...They're slowing down again.

...Could it be? It seems impossible...

...They might be...

...They might actually be...

...They might actually be settling down...

...I believe it is true. The storm has passed. The house still stands. And I...

...I yet live.

I swear, these boys are going to be the death of me. It's inevitable. When that day comes, let my tombstone read: "He brought it on himself, really."

Music: David Bowie

Bedtime

The boys... don't go to sleep. Not easily. I'm wondering if showing them this might help:

What do you think?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Secondborn Narrates

So I'm lying on the couch, having chased Secondborn off the PS3. Secondborn has taken this pretty well; he's playing a game in his room. And through the doorway, I can hear the dramatic monologue:
"Inside the portal is a mystewious world. It is full of evil, evil bad guys."

Friday, January 8, 2016

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Attenuated Plague

As of three days ago, everyone in the lab is sick. That includes myself, my two assistants, the crypto-zookeeper, and five support personnel. Symptoms included all the usual "flu-like" qualities, and then some: high fever, nausea, mucus, headaches, muscular weakness, lack of energy, diarrhea, swollen joints, hair loss, dizziness, and in one case (the janitor) even stigmata.

This... shouldn't be possible. Not only is this unlike any known disease, you would not believe the precautions we take against viral and bacterial threats. No, something like this would have to be introduced deliberately.

I was making a list of my enemies peers, and considering which of them might have been responsible, when another possibility occurred to me. Even with the cerebral edema, I couldn't believe I didn't think of it earlier. But we came down with this, all of us, all at once, about three days after my son came by for his scheduled visitation. My fifteen-year-old son, who had just spent the last month getting over a particularly nasty case of the flu. My son, who likes to play with the gene sequencer.

Sure enough, when I checked the logs on the sequencer, I found that he'd been tinkering with a virus. He must have introduced it to all of us, deliberately.

So I called him up and asked him why he was trying to kill us.

Unsurprisingly, he said he wasn't actually trying to kill us. "If my calculations are correct," he told me, "there's only about a four percent chance of death, if you have proper medical care. It's an attenuated strain."

An attenuated strain of what, exactly? "Everything," he told me. "Measles, polio, West Nile, influenza, HIV, strep, Ebola, mono, herpes... it has pieces of all the heavy hitters."

"So it's a super-plague?"

"An attenuated super-plague," he said. I waited, and he explained: "I mean, yeah, it's still pretty horrible, but once you get over it you should be highly resistant to just about everything."

So... fine. My son has inoculated us, and he probably hasn't killed us. And he said he wouldn't release it into the general population; a four percent mortality rate would cause a lot of chaos. So everything is probably fine.

Probably.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Lovecraftian Deities

I'm involved in a discussion group that centers on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. (This should surprise exactly nobody.) In the group, someone devoted a thread to discussing the dark and uncaring deities of the Universe. Well... you know where my mind went, right?
Children. Children are the dark and uncaring deities that rule my Universe. Though they drain away my time, my money, my health, and my sanity, I return to them with new offerings and new incantations: "Zil'thub mo nthrish," [1] "Efalghar b'thwineth sha lemmlun," [2] and "Kazurath ib alkin xu, wan korda vobas ikthrish." [3] For me, there is no hope, no life. There is only my unending servitude to their dark and awful glories.

[1] "I beg your dark majesty to eat your green beans."
[2] "I will sacrifice my feet upon these Legos if you will just go to sleep."
[3] "By what fell rites did you conjure that horror into the toilet? My soul weeps in agony and despair."

Monday, January 4, 2016

Are we done with Christmas yet?

Holidays are great. I get a nice little break in my routine, a chance to stop and see the extended family, an opportunity to stop and assess how I'm doing, and maybe even a little extra rest. Then I go back to my daily life, a little refreshed and with maybe a bit of extra perspective on things.

Or anyway, that's the way it's supposed to work. At least, I assume that the people who claim to really love the holidays have that sort of experience. I don't know, maybe they're just making the whole thing up.

But we just finished the last round of Christmas get-together and present-exchanging yesterday. Counting the family vacation (which started back on the 18th of December), we've been doing Christmas for a full three weeks and then some.

I am officially done with it. I mean yes, in terms of scheduling and finishing all the required activities, we're done. But emotionally, I'm done. I have had enough Christmas to last me the next three years.

That's not to say that it hasn't been enjoyable. A lot of it was completely awesome -- we got to do some really neat things, and had a lot of fun doing them. The boys have gotten to spend a lot of time with their cousins; they've visited other countries; they've seen a real, live magic show. They've been to a beach. Firstborn, who's been developing his Mad Origami Skills for several years, is now fascinated by the idea of folding towels into animal shapes. There were fancy meals and presents from Santa.

It's just that it was the sort of fun that takes a lot of work, and it just kept going. Even fun becomes a sort of ordeal if you don't get a chance to stop and rest. Plus, we could have used some of those vacation days to do other things -- cleaning up the house, for example, or writing, or in my wife's case creating syllabi for this semester's classes -- only it all got eaten up by family visits. Our sleep schedules are completely off; I wound up going to bed an hour and a half later than I'd planned last night, despite the fact that I have work today, because I couldn't get the boys to go to sleep. And that means that tomorrow, when they start school again and we have to get up hideously early, is going to be horrible.

That doesn't mean that I don't want to see the family or that I wish they weren't here. It's been great to see everyone, and watching the cousins play together has been awesome. But, ye gods am I worn out from it.