Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

October Nights

They say as an author you should never read the reviews of your own work. As an author I can say with authority you can and inevitably will read reviews of your work, especially when it’s your first novel. The good news is Magicians Impossible has been relatively well-received especially for a debut. It received multiple starred reviews, it made some top ten lists, it made some Best of 2017 lists.

I got some great fan mail too. People telling me Magicians broke them out of a reading rut.Some even saying it was one of the best books they ever read.

But of course not everybody liked it. And I’m not going to address any of that because why would I? Not everything is going to be someone’s cup of tea. A book, like any work of art, is what it is; it never changes. And how a person responds to it is 100% on them.

That said there is one recurring criticism of Magicians Impossible that I would like to address.

For some readers it all has to do with how quickly Jason seems to master his levels of magic. Some seem to feel it all happens in a couple of days. Some say a week. Those who paid attention would guess correctly that it more or less takes a month.

Here’s the correct answer. Spoilers lurk within so if you haven’t read Magicians Impossible why on earth are you visiting my website?

Anyway …

I mapped out the events of the book before I put words to paper, just to get it straight in my mind. Using October 2018 (the year after the book’s 2017 release) as a guideline I made a calendar of events so I’d know what happened and when.

Damon’s opening mission takes place on Friday September 28th. His funeral is Monday October 1st. The events that transpire up to the climactic events of Murder Hill happen between October 1st and October 29th – so four weeks total.

The bulk of Part One – everything from Damon’s Funeral through Jason’s visit to the Oracle takes place between October 1st and 5th. After the Oracle, Jason is on lock-down with no further training, and spends the next two weeks honing his Adept and Archmage skills. He doesn’t next advance in levels until the Louvre mission, which takes place on October 23rd when he “blinks” on his own for the first time, showing him he has the abilities of a War Seer (Level 4). He later wields an Enchantment spell (Level 3) on the Paris metro. Since it’s established that levels of magic are cumulative, it’s not out of the ordinary for you to leap ahead a level then backtrack to master the previous one. All told that’s a span of 19 days.

The rest of the story – the Temple of Bones, Jason’s visit with Damon, his throwing in his lot with the Golden Dawn, the Battle of the Citadel and Murder Hill takes place between October 24th and the 30th. There’s a three day (October 25-28) span between Jason deciding to join the Golden Dawn and his theft of the Sphere of Destiny. In that time he hones his newly acquired skills as an Enchanter and War Seer. He crosses over to the Diabolist Level on Murder Hill.

Now some would argue a month is too quickly to learn these skills let alone master them. But those people ignore the events at Murder Hill on July 4, 1999 when Jason was 12 years old and first exhibited the abilities of a Mage. But as he never got his Hogwarts letter or was recruited into the Invisible Hand those skills lay dormant until he crossed the threshold into the Citadel, where those powers began to be unlocked, by passing through the many doors and chambers of the Invisible Hand’s fortress.

So if you yourself was questioning how someone with no training could and advance so quickly, I hope the above clarifies it. And if not, maybe the below will. This is the calendar I put together three years ago when I was just drafting Magicians Impossible. Some details may have changed but I pretty much adhered to this breakdown.

There are other criticisms I’m sure and I take no issue with any of them, not even the ones that accused me of ripping off books or video games or TV shows I’ve never read, played, or watched. I wasn’t even completely sure I should even address the timeline, but for people who surfed on in looking for answers, maybe this will do that.

B

[As a follow-up that’s not to say Magicians Impossible definitively takes place in 2018 or 2017, just that in my mind it takes place later this year]

All Is Well As 2017 Dies

On November 11th I had my final author event of the fall. My hometown (or as close to a hometown as I’ll ever have). It was the best attended event yet, owing to the friends, family, and colleagues who came out. I didn’t have time to talk with everyone or to thank them for coming out to support me and Magicians Impossible, but I appreciate each and every one of them.

So, what’s next? For Magicians? For me?

I just finished the first draft of what will hopefully be my next novel a week ago. It was a challenge – maybe even more difficult a book than Magicians was to write – but I’m pleased with how that first draft came together. Right now it’s sitting in the drawer until 2018 when I plan to open that drawer up, pull it out, and start going over it with the red pen.

In the meantime I’m beginning development on a new TV project with some producers I have a long-standing relationship with. That was another reason for the trip; to sign the paperwork and make the deal real. It too will have to remain on the down-low for now, but it’s a project I’m very much looking forward to doing. It’s based, in part, on my own life, which is probably saying too much already. Rest assured once it’s made public a lot more about what it is will be much more clear, and may even delight some long-time fans of me and my work.

Until then I’m taking a couple of weeks off – now through Thanksgiving. 2017 has been a very busy, sometimes punishing year. between fatherhood, writing this new novel, doing Magicians promo, and inking the TV deal I’m absolutely exhausted. But I won’t be sitting idle during my Stay-cation; I have books to read, movies and TV to catch up on … and ideas to put to paper. The writer’s brain is never completely at rest, and I routinely find my best ideas when I’m not at my desk, working.

It’s been a strange journey, being an author. It’s a side of the writing biz I’ve never experienced before, but it’s been fun having the chance to step out from behind my desk to meet people, to read from my work publicly, to sign copies of a thing that sprung solely from my mind. So much of writing is solitary; even more so when you’ve largely worked in the film and television fields. Just knowing that my book is sitting on bookstore and library shelves continues to amaze me.

And I’m just getting started.

Impossible Song

This is it.

As of this writing there should be copies of Magicians Impossible sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore. If they don’t have it they’ll be more than happy to order you a copy. As of today it’s no longer my book; it belongs to the people who read it. They may like it, they may love it, and some will probably hate it because a book is its own thing and can’t be everything to everybody.

I’ve been quite busy in the lead-up to release. Interviews, podcasts, blog posts current and forthcoming. Check the new News/Media section for the latest updates to that effect.I’ll be adding them as they appear.

Magicians Impossible has a page at Goodreads as well where you can post your rating and review (and read other reviews). I’m trying not to obsessively check in to see how it’s doing, but overall people seem to be enjoying it (and the ones that are hot-and-cold still seem to like it). Regardless of how it’s received I’m proud of it. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written that feels 100% mine and mine alone. Every storytelling decision, every edit, every revision was mine to make, and I made them.

My book tour kicks off this Thursday at Turn of the Corkscrew Books in Rockville Centre, NY. I’ll be in LA the week of September 24th, with events at Book Soup, Book Carnival, and Mysterious Galaxy.

There will also be another NYC event sometime in October, date and location TBA.

Magicians Impossible has been a very long road. I started working on it in April 2014. It’s now September 2017. Despite the release it’s not really over either; there will be lots of promotion over the weeks and months to come. but for now I’m celebrating the release. I hope you all get a chance to read it.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

B

Why We Write

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I wrote five years ago, about the writing process, or at least “my” writing process. As we near the release of Magicians Impossible I wanted to revisit this piece, and add some additional flavor. 

I’m not much for talking about my “process”. There are plenty of places you can look to read about “process”, and there are plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you. That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you. Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go. Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done. Some say you need to write every day; others say weekends are fine. They’re all right … and they’re all wrong.

So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.

For me it all starts with the idea. Sometimes it’s a detailed idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:

Pictured: What happens when you don’t plug leaks, or when your manuscript/screenplay hits an iceberg.

But before I do any of the above … I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.

Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.

My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on. This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads. I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.

Pictured: my soundtrack

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because some days you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing.

You have lousy sleep or a lousy day. You’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot. You want to do anything but write. Every writer has days like this. But since I started creating playlists those days are fewer and come further between.

That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you’re able to write it down.

Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in; in fact I’d strongly advise against that. The reason you create a playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level. So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive). Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, and their troubles. See them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Once they become “real” to you, they will be to the reader.

Some examples: my first (unpublished) novel was a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year-old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.

Squadron, a TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment, was largely written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of WWI flyers, all young twenty-somethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the story deals with the after effects of being the most famous killers in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter moments.

There are other examples. A suspense thriller I wrote some years back (also unsold – see the pattern?) was scored to a lot of Madchester-era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble. It made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager, like she never grew past 2000. A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.

And there’s Magicians Impossible.

The Magicians Mixtape (which will be released on Spotify September 12) is pretty eclectic, featuring Metric, The Kills, The Dread Weather, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Jam, The Vaselines, XTC, The Human league … the list goes on. That playlist is distilled from about seven separate ones I created, each focusing on a major character or moment in the story. Because a novel has more working parts than a screenplay or comic book, I needed to go into greater musical depth. The end-result 50 track mix loosely follows the plot of the book and is a great accompaniment (though I recommend you listen to it after reading the book).

That all being said if your particular project is of a period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. The novel I’m drafting right now features music as a major plot point; specifically one-hit wonders of the 80s and 90s. The music the main characters – all teenagers – would have grown up listening to because that was the music of their parents’ generation.

So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. If you can’t figure out where your character goes next, why not think about the music they would enjoy and the memories that would be associated with it?

In the end, you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you. As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.

Because they can already do that. Your job is to write like you.