Attack of the Prequels

This is a cross-post of an article which appeared on a different site, a long, long time ago. But with the release of X-Men Apocalypse, I still think it’s relevant. Enjoy!
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, “prequel” is a dirty word. Or if not a dirty word, at least a signal that the reader should be wary about what comes next. For me, no phrase other than “upcoming prequel” evokes as much dread laced with illogical optimism. No phrase other than, perhaps, “directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” Nearly every summer since the release of The Phantom Menace has given us our fair share of prequels. X-Men: First Class. Revenge of the Return of the Planet of the Apes. Even the original Captain America, while not really a prequel in the general sense, relies on a few of the same storytelling tropes through its use of the character Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father. And it’s not limited to movies — plenty of video game prequels have hit the shelves in recent years, expanding on the stories of popular franchises such as Halo and Kingdom Hearts.

What makes these types of stories attractive? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. For the audience, we get more of the world and characters we love. For the creators, you’ve got a built-in audience, and much of the time, a pre-written story. But as we know from looking at the Star Wars fiasco, these things don’t always work out so peachy.
The main problem is that creating a prequel — a story before the story we already know — forces the author to fight the audience’s imagination. Sequels do this too, but in a much less violent way. Sequels can fail to satisfy our hopes — look at the Matrix sequels for examples of this — but they rarely crush our dreams. Prequels are another matter. Ever since the first time I saw A New Hope, I dreamed about the Clone Wars. Was it some sort of Dark Side plan that cloned Jedi and turned them evil? Was it an uprising from the clones in the galaxy, used as slave labor, that eventually led to cloning technology being banned? I had notebooks full of this stuff, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And then came Attack of the Clones. The less said about the disappointing reality of the Clone Wars, the better.
So are all prequels doomed to this sort of failure? No, of course not. The aforementioned X-Men: First Class received mostly positive reviews. The Godfather: Part II, while not 100% prequel, is told through heavy use of flashbacks, and is generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Metal Gear Solid 3 was an unexpected prequel, and many count it as the best of the series. So there’s a way to do this right. In fact, I think there are a couple of guidelines that the most successful prequels follow:
If you’re making a prequel to “answer questions,” you’re doing it wrong
One of the major problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that it was created to answer questions that never needed answering. No one really needed to know precisely how Anakin became Darth Vader — if that was a fundamentally important bit of information, it would have been answered in the original trilogy.
Now, to be sure, there will likely be questions answered. For instance, First Class, in the process of telling its story, shows us how Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs. This is fine, and it ends up adding an interesting twist on the character. But the reason why it works is because the story isn’t based around telling us this information. The writers didn’t start by saying “Okay, let’s make a prequel that tells the story of how Professor X lost his ability to walk.” They said “Let’s make a story that explores the history of the X-Men,” and the mysteries solved were incidental.
Don’t subvert the inevitability — embrace it
The common wisdom about why most prequels suck is that we already know what’s going to happen; why would we be interested? Why would we want to watch a movie about Anakin if we know he’s going to become Darth Vader?
Some prequels try to get around this by slyly changing what you thought you knew was going to happen. This rarely works, and often just creates a lack of cohesion between the two stories. A good example is Padme’s death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, Leia specifically says she remembers her mother, but this actually proves not to be the case. Instead of creating an interesting moment where our expectations are subverted, it instead just leads to confusion. And even those who accept the logic that Leia’s feelings were metaphorical, or that she was speaking about her adopted mother, are in the position of having to wrangle up convoluted explanations instead of enjoying natural story tie-ins.
Problem is, the whole “we can’t know what’s going to happen” excuse doesn’t cut it. Plenty of stories tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and still manage to be entertaining. We know Ahab’s sense of vengeance is going to lead to his downfall. In Oedipus Rex, like almost all of Greek tragedy, the audience is specifically told the ending of the play in the form of prophecy — and yet, this doesn’t rob the story of its power.
Generally, the stories that do it best are the ones that consciously play with the idea of destiny through the eyes of the reader/player. The best example of this concept that I can think of is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. For those not familiar with the series, Crisis Core is a prequel starring a young soldier named Zack. Zack factors strongly into the story of Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually dead by the time the main story starts. For most of the game, Crisis Core is not really a masterpiece. It’s very anime-ish, and the new characters the game introduces fail to inspire much interest. However, as the game moves toward its end, we, as players, start to feel a tad of dread. Zack is going to die; we know this, and we’ve known this from the start. But as we move closer to it, that inevitability starts to become more and more real, until we get to the final battle of the game, with enemies closing in all around. We know this is where Zack dies — the original game shows us as much. But we can’t help but try to fight against the inevitable. We can’t help but try to down each soldier, one by one, even as they lay into Zack beyond any hope of success. This desire of the audience to strive against what they know must happen (what has already happened, in some sense) is something that prequels excel at. It’s a feeling, actually, that I don’t think good old traditionally temporal stories can evoke. The best prequels make use of it.
A prequel needs to be a good story in its own right
This is a “rule” that obviously needs to be true of any story: standalone, sequel, prequel, whatever. And it shouldn’t need to be said. A story needs to be good and complete regardless of what comes before or after, right? Sadly, a lot of producers don’t seem to understand this.
I don’t mean to pick on the Star Wars prequels, but I think I’m going to have to call out Attack of the Clones again. It’s just such a monumental failure when it comes to the idea that each part of a saga needs to be an interesting story by itself. What, if anything, happens? Really, there seems to be some sort of mystery involving who commissioned the clone army, but really, it’s not a mystery at all. Shocker: it was the Jedi that turned evil and is now fighting against the Republic! I know, you never saw it coming! Aside from that, there’s nothing. There’s no story arc. There’s really no character arc; Anakin and Padme’s love story comes apropos of absolutely nothing and is given no time to develop. The one exception I’ll make is for the scene where Anakin returns to his childhood home, finds his mother and slays the Tuskens. It’s a good plot point, but even that is only good because of what it foreshadows for future installments. It does not make a complete story.
It’s easy to say “Well, that’s a middle entry, so of course it’s going to feel less complete.” And that’s a cop out. Look at The Empire Strikes Back. While it’s not a prequel, it is a middle entry, and it absolutely plays its role well. It expands on the world of the first film while giving us a open ending to make way for the third. However, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete story with a satisfying arc (multiple arcs, actually). The easiest one to focus on is Luke’s: he starts out as an accomplished pilot, gets instructed to seek out Jedi training, ultimately quits his training before he’s finished to go rescue his friends, despite the warnings of his teachers … and his overconfidence leads to his failure. It’s not a happy arc, and without Return of the Jedi as a bookend, it would be pretty depressing. But it’s still a story.
Creating a satisfying, standalone tale is what many prequels fail to accomplish. You can’t necessarily write a prequel story to cater to the tastes of people who have never experienced the original, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain the interest of people who do know what’s coming next.
Or say screw it, and jettison continuity
The Indiana Jones series (well, before the fourth one) cares very little for continuity. Some characters appear from previous movies, but for the most part, each film is a self-contained vignette. What happens in Temple of Doom matters very little to the overall franchise. Nintendo games, especially Zelda and Metroid, take a similar view. Hardcore fans may obsess over discovering an exact timeline, but it’s not the main point of the experience.
I’d almost argue that these works fall out of the scope of “prequel.” Sure, sometimes they may technically take place earlier than the original work, but if they aren’t making use of that backward shift in time, then it hardly matters.
Now you know what to look for

Other films aren’t quite so adept, though. Next time you see an ad for that hot upcoming prequel — and I assure you, you’ll see that ad sooner than later — remind yourself of what the artists are trying to create. Yes, promotional material lies, but it’s still easier to categorize a movie or a game than you may think. Does the movie seem to downplay a perceived lack of control while answering silly questions like “Want to find out how Bob got his giant sword?!” Does a tagline for a book proclaim “The story behind the story … is not what you thought!” If that’s the case, shy away … or at least check your brain at the door and enjoy the explosions and gratuitous sex. That’s usually the best you can hope for.

The Hugo Nominations Are Again Filled With Garbage

Well, boys and girls, the Hugo nods are out again. And they’re slightly less fucked than last year! I don’t want to recap the situation too much, but here’s a short primer. The Hugos are the most prestigious speculative fiction awards. Last year, some gross, conservative bigots found out they could manipulate the system to get their garbage nominated. These are the Sad Puppies. Some even grosser, fascist bigots latched on to this, and got their barely-literate screeds nominated. These are the Rabid Puppies. All the nominees (most of which are terrible, some of which are innocent bystanders placed on the list without their consent) placed below “No Award Given,” which is basically the equivalent of the Leonardo DiCaprio presenting at the Oscars and saying, “You know what? All the acting this year sucked. I’m not going to give this to anybody.”

Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash … It’s called Poisoning the Well.

I was really hoping the Puppies would have gotten bored of ruining someone else’s party to make some sort of point, but they’re back again and show no signs of quitting. As Mike Glyer outlines, 64 of the 81 recommendations on the Rabid Puppy slate made it to the ballot. As Donald Trump would say–sad!

The biggest problem with this mess is I’m genuinely unsure which nominees are deserving, and which are simply there because they were on a slate (or a “recommended reading list” which is just a broader fucking slate), or because they were sticking it to the ess jay double-yous. Vox Day’s submissions are obvious, but the rest are up in the air to anyone who isn’t following this catastrophe on a daily basis.

For instance, let’s look at the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Four out of the five nominees appeared on the Sad Puppy list, which makes me immediately skeptical of their talent and really hesitant to read, let alone actually purchase, anything they’ve written. But! Let’s just take one example: Alyssa Wong. By all accounts, she seems to be a talented writer who has been published in multiple prestigious magazines and who seems to be generally supportive of diversity in fiction (which is something the puppies vehemently oppose). So, a false positive! I’m looking forward to reading her stuff.

But are we expected to do this for every single nominee? Will the casual Hugo voter? Probably not. Which is entirely the point of this year’s insidious campaign. Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash like “Safe Space as Rape Room,” an offensively inaccurate piece of work that appeared on both Puppy slates. It’s called Poisoning the Well. The thought is that, since the nominees aren’t all hateful, self-published nonsense this year, people either won’t notice or care about the trash that did make the list. The truth is, of course, that these nominations will utterly fail to place in the actual awards. My only hope is that writers like Ms. Wong aren’t unduly punished in the wake of it.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that a rules change set to take effect next year may mitigate some of this in the future. The bigger problem, though, is that several of the Puppies themselves make the circuit within the speculative fiction convention fandom, despite being actively toxic. Saying ‘Hugo nominated’ puts you quite far ahead of most panelists, so there’s plenty of damage done that will be hard to repair. We will continue to fight against this, but it’s clear this is a hissy fit that’s not going away any time soon.

A Quick Interlude

Hey y’all! Sorry for the lack of updates — I’m head-down focused on finishing up Chanter and whipping it into a presentable form right now, so I haven’t been blogging all the much. I’ll make it up in a few weeks, I promise! My Oscar writeups are coming, and I’ve still got to finish my Feast for Crows character sketches. It will happen.

For now, though, I’m over at Sirens Call’s blog talking about my Internet inspiration for The Bridesmaid, my story included in the “Legends of Urban Horror” anthology. Check it out, then stick around and check out the other posts for more author inspiration!

ArmadilloCon 34

This weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, a writers’ convention in Austin, the heart of Texas and my current home. It was pretty laid back, but I still met a lot of interesting people and attended a lot of intriguing panels, so I thought I’d post a short writeup on the talks I listened to. Hope this is useful for the people who weren’t able to make it out!

Writing in Multiple Genres
Panelists: Frank Summers, Bill Crider, Urania Fung, Alexis Glynn Latner, Kenneth Mark Hoover, C.J. Mills

Some of my compatriots weren’t enamoured with this panel, especially as an opening to the convention, but I found it pretty enjoyable. It was less a pragmatic “should you/shouldn’t you” or “should you have a pseudonym” discussion, and more of a philosophical one. The consensus essentially came down to the idea that the story is paramount; genre, if it exists as an inherent part of storytelling, is secondary. Though Ms. Fung made a good point that genre exists for your readers to find something they might like, but they also exist for writers to find readers. Some assorted topics of discussion:

  • Crossing genres, even within the same story, is much more accepted now than it was even 5-10 years ago
  • Some other mediums, such as comic books, were trailblazers in helping readers become more comfortable with crossing genres.
  • Names thrown out of authors that do this particularly well: Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Isaac Asmiov, and even Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 
  • Motivations included listening to the needs of a story, writing for a specific market you’re interested in, and simply wanting to be defiant toward the publishing industry. 

Trends in eBook Publishing
Panelists: Rhiannon Frater, Bill Crider, Liz Burton (Zumaya Publications), Gloria Oliver 

Anyone with a passing interest in writing or publishing knows that eBook publishing is the way of the future (way of the future…), so I had to hit this one. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of discussion on the panel. Excuse my French, but Ms. Burton of Zumaya Publications knows her shit. I can’t hope to do any of the comments justice, but here’s a quick rundown:

  • eBook publishing has obviously exploded lately, but it started back in 1996. Which is, like, woah.
  • One of the biggest misconceptions is that it doesn’t count any money to make an eBook, which is false (or at least, false for good eBooks). That still doesn’t mean $13 is a good price (it’s not). And it doesn’t mean that $1 is a good price either (leaves no room for sales, makes it very hard to raise price for future works). Consensus hovered somewhere around $4-$8.
  • Amazon and B&N provide the majority of sales. This isn’t really news.
  • NO DRM. All the panelists and the audience seemed in agreement about this. It provides no benefit to stopping piracy and just annoys reader. Ms. Frater also made a good point on this topic. She told a story of a friend who found her book on thepiratebay and was flat out ready to quit writing because of it. Frater did an experiment where she tracked downloads on the file, only to find that, even though it was available, it had somewhere around 5-10 downloads in nearly a year. So essentially meaningless.
  • Some worries about the new marketplace: ease of plagiarism (copying and publishing under a different name) and buying and reading a book, and then returning. Ms. Burton said there are continuing discussions with Amazon on this issue.
  • Mr. Crider pointed out that he made more money in on an eBook of an older title than he ever did when it was published in hardcopy. His electronic sales outpace his previous paper sales by a vast majority.
  • At least in Ms. Frater’s case, her agent and publisher (TOR) doesn’t mind her self-publishing work on the side, especially when it’s used to promote her traditionally published novels.
  • Big 6 is learning how to deal with all this, but it’s slow. They’re used to dealing with retailers, not direct customers.
  • E-ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), blog tours and cover reveals can be fairly useful to build buzz.

Writing a Strong Female Protagonist
Panelists: Rhiannon Frater, Chloe Neill, Patrice Sarath, Michael Bracken, Jaime Lee Moyer, Katharine Kimbriel 

As someone who writes a lot of female protagonists (that I hope are strong), this was one of the panels I was really interested in. Unfortunately, though the panelists were all eager and helpful, with a nice body of work, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Jim Reader pointed out that it should have just been a panel on strong female characters, and while I don’t necessarily agree (a panel focusing on female characters, and why there are so few of them compared to male characters, absolutely can and should be done), I do think that the panelists sort of went this way. There wasn’t a whole lot of advice about female characters specifically; instead, there were a lot of tips on strong characters in general. Again, great info. Just not what I was looking for.

  • The evolution of female characters in general has been from sidekicks/love interests -> belligerent, bitchy, lone wolf, “man in a skirt” types -> fully formed, well rounded female characters
  • To give you character likability, find their core strength
  • Avoid common tropes and caricatures
  • Motherhood is often thought of as weak; it’s interesting when this is inverted (I loved this, mostly because my novel has a strong motherhood component that I never try to play anything other than a strong and valid role)
  • Good leaders recognized people who can do things they can’t
  • One of the points I strongly disagreed with is the idea that sometimes weak female protagonists are fine because a woman juggling a job and a family, etc, might just want an escape. I, quite frankly, call bullshit. I think creating a weak, blank-slate character is a lazy way to attract readers. I mean, I’ll never bash a writer for writing what will sell (Shakespeare gots to get paid after all), but I believe you can write a strong, relatable character that people will like instead of a mindless puppet who exists to be rescued.

The World After Fossil Fuels
Panelists: Katy Stauber, Alan Porter, Jessica Reisman, Fred Stanton, Adrian Simmons

This one was more an interesting standalone discussion rather than one specifically about applying the ideas to fiction. But still, very enjoyable, with some very smart and experienced people on the panel.

  • Limits of Growth is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic
  • Our current energy use won’t change until we decide to make a change; even if there’s pressure (higher prices, etc) the infrastructure simply doesn’t support anything than fossil fuels.
  • High-speed transit would be nice in the US, but it’s more complicated than just building trains. Would require all new rails to support higher speeds.
  • Blimps, for all their danger, are actually highly efficient as a form of transportation, as hydrogen is one of the one forms of fuel more efficient than gasoline.
  • ITER fusion reactors, thorium fission and renewable diversification were all mentioned as places to research for those interested.

Alternate History
Panelists: Bob Mahoney, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Josh Rountree, Penny Griffin, Howard Waldrop

  • Are alternate histories considered scifi or fantasy? In the end, “speculative fiction” is probably a better category.
  • Classic dilemma that almost all alternate histories need to choose between: are certain historical events and technological advances “inevitable,” or do strong people and circumstances create events? That is, would the printing press have been invented around the same time even without Gutenberg? Both views are valid, but it’s hard to write a story that does both.
  • The main appeal lies in the fact that hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s fun to say “What if?”
  • Writing from the point of view of a character inside the alternate world is usually (but not always) better than an outsider. Throwing an outsider in an alternate history can give the reader someone to relate to, but also creates infordumps.
  • Research till it hurts, leave out 99% of it.
  • Reading list: Man in the High Castle, Joan Aiken, Fatherland, Plot Against America, Celestial Empire, Gate of Worlds, Kingsley Amis “The Reformation”, The Difference Engine, Harry Turtledove, Scott Westerfield, Nabakov “Ada or Ardor”, “The Ugly Chickens” by Howard Waldrop, “Lest Darkness Fall”

Politics and Social Issues of the Future
Panelists: Gabrielle Faust, Adrian Simmons, Chris N. Brown

I loved this one! Another great discussion with some very sharp people about what to expect in the near future.

  • Corporatization of food and war. Ms. Faust had a great point about food giant Monsanto teaming up with Blackwater, the mercenary corporation. Mr. Brown brought up the idea of renegade farmers with urban farms trying to grow in secret, and the police (or hell, mercs) trying to catch them for patent infringement.
  • Disappearance of nation states — Europe already starting to trash the idea of highly separate nations. Look for borders to become more and more porous.
  • Possible end of capitalism, which sounds like the idealistic talk that has always been thrown around, but the panelists made some good inferences regarding this. Essentially, capitalism is addiction to growth, and it’s quickly becoming obvious (especially in a nonscarce economy, more on that below) that this is unsustainable.
  • The end of “race” as a concept. Now, Mr. Brown brought this up specifically talking about the U.S. become more and more of a mixed race country. I agree with him in general, but not on the timeline (he said 25 years; I think 250 years would be optimistic). Brought up the concept that systemic racism exists more because of incentives than human natures. As the incentives (or privileges) fade, so will racism.
  • All of this will lead to amazing instability in the next few decades.
  • 3D printing will become a huge issue, possibly leading to the end of scarcity as a concept (more on this in the “Social Impact” panel below).
  • Distribution is currently strangling production; that is, we can produce a lot, especially since we don’t need a lot people (or jobs) to do it any longer. It’s costlier and less efficient to distribute this. 3D printing might solve this (either a printer in every house, or one for every community).
  • That lack of scarcity might lead to a lack of required jobs for humanity. Pessimistically, it’ll make us bored and violent. Optimistically, it’ll allow us to focus on long term problems like the environment, or even cosmic problems like finding new worlds to inhabit.
  • Look for the blending of rural and urban communities as available land shrinks and people telecommute more. Things like urban farming will be one of the most obvious effects of this.

Social Impacts of New Technology
Panelists: Robert Jackson Brown, Chris N. Brown, Madeleine Dimond, Elizabeth Moon

I consider this a “companion” to the previous panel; it touched on and expanded on some of the same topics.

  • Secrets may become mostly a thing of the past. The power that revolves around keeping and telling secrets will cease to exist. This might lead to more accountability and more forgiveness; when everyone has black marks, no one’s little mistakes really matter all that much.
  • More talk of 3D printing. The ability to print guns could be mighty useful in a revolution. This requires a huge amount of power currently, however, meaning it’s still under the control of the Powers That Be.
  • Speaking of which, all of our technology that supposedly frees us (Internet, mobile web, etc.) is still at the behest of giant corporations, which is worrying.
  • Technology disrupts power structures, which is why governments dislike it. Mentioned was an “Internet Satellite Disruption Kit,” basically a quick-connection kit dropped by the West into unstable countries to document state behavior. Also brought up photographing police. Brought up social media in the Arab Spring, use of twitter/etc. to avoid cartel blockades in Mexico. Also brought up Anonymous’s hacktivisim against cartels to free a blogger.
  • 3D printing has already been prototyped to make biological materials, i.e., organs. Could we make animals? If so, would this be used to make extinct animals, or new, exotic ones?
  • Networks are becoming much more diverse (slowly), which is fantastic. Used to be only the highly privileged could afford Internet access. Is becoming less the case now.
  • The Internet has led to a culture of outrage. While Internet activism has empowered many and will be a huge outlet for direct democracy in the future, we have to be careful that it doesn’t convince us that doing nothing or simply screaming into the void enacts change.

Attracting and Building an Audience
Panelists: Elizabeth Moon, Chloe Neill, Kenneth Mark Hoover, Pauline Baird Jones

How does one build an audience. Well, by doing this: IF YOU ARE READING THIS RIGHT NOW, SEND THIS LINK TO TEN FRIENDS. Seriously, though, there were some decent tips and things to follow up on here. Nothing revelatory, but still interesting.

  • The concept of a “brand” — who are you and what are you selling? Most authors agreed that you are your brand, and you shouldn’t be afraid to be you in most cases. Ms. Neill made a good point, though, that one should know one’s audience. Ms. Moon can get away with talking about controversial topics like politics since she writes for an adult audience about socially aware topics and her readers expect this to a degree. Neill, as a young adult urban fiction writer, has not much to gain and a lot to lose from this, so she holds some opinions back.
  • A series-specific brand/website/blog might be a good idea. If so, start early. Moon, on the relaunch of her PaxWorld series, said she started her blog a year before the rerelease of the first book, and she wished she would have started it at least six months earlier. Building an audience is sloooow.
  • Don’t be afraid to write want you want, but once you’re done, market to people who are likely to like what you’ve written. Don’t market your Fantasy novel to Hard SF fans, even if you also love Hard SF.
  • Keep a positive focus as much as possible — again, depending on audience.
  • Be a nice person, hold off on the snark. This was highlighted as one of the most important things an author can do. You don’t need to be bland, but be friendly and kind to the people you interact with. This makes a difference with readers, but also to editors/agents.
  • Chloe Neill said she dedicates about 50% of her “writing time” (i.e., non dayjob, non-personal) to marketing. Note that this shouldn’t all be shilling your work; things like networking, talking to fans, talking to other writers, etc. are included.
  • Tangible items were highlighted as possible effective. Things like buttons, cafepress merchandising, contests, giveaways, etc. provide readers with a connection and constant reminder of your book.

Shew! There’s a lot of information here to digest, but hopefully, like me, you’ve either found something helpful for the business of selling books, or a spark of an idea for your next story. It was a great experience all around (I got my copy of Dark Tales of Lost Civilzations signed by my co-author Joe Lansdale!) and I absolutely plan to return next year.

Story vs. Demographics — What’s Fair?

Dragon Age II’s Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that’s designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist “owe” something to her target audience?

I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don’t lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can’t get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela “exotic,” and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It’s a possibility, and that’s incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she’s not white.

So yeah, there’s also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren’t enough wimmin for his taste; he’s complaining that there aren’t enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don’t approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it’s not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?

Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don’t hate “the others,” they insist. It’s the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation — it’s all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren’t, it may be because you’re thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that’s not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and DA2’s Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever — there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn’t be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he’s not randomly gay

Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn’t force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn’t fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It’s a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character’s profile, and that’s an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it’s likely to be labeled as ‘LGBT Fiction’ and ignored by the mainstream public. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn’t want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn’t have to. If Bioware’s sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say “I don’t like this book, and I’m not going to read it because it doesn’t have magic.” He does NOT have a right to say “How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!”

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say “Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won’t buy your game.” But Bioware has the right to say “This is the story we’re telling. Deal with it.”

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.

I don’t normally comment on video games here. While video games are one of my life’s passions, nearly half the internet is devoted to them (the other half, of course, is porn). But when gaming and writing merge (as they do in the best games, in my opinion), I think it’s a valid topic for discussion here. The newly released Dragon Age 2 exemplifies great video game writing in a couple of ways, so I’m going to talk about that in a couple of different posts. More to come.

A confession

I’ve finished NaNoWriMo (50,000 words, a small novel or novella) something like 4 times. I’ve yet to finish a story. That is about to change.

Of course, even when this story is done and I can write the words The End on the bottom of the page (and then promptly delete them — how cheesy would that be?), the novel is far from finished. Rewriting, adding, cutting (and cutting, and cutting): these are the things that turn mediocre ramblings into something that anyone would have half a mind to read. Take, for example, the first chapter I posted a few days ago. Nothing much has changed with regard to substance. Even when I first wrote it, more than a year ago now, it told the story of Victoria and her young ward, Emma, traveling to her former home of Arden to conscript her nephew. The story is the same. But the structure? The wording? The flow (or, in the case of the initial draft, lack thereof)? Day. And. Night.

So yes, I plan on replicating that process for each and every of the nearly fifty chapters (many of which may, thankfully, disappear entirely). But that’s for later. For now, I can’t stop being excited about the prospect of having a complete manuscript. It’s intoxicating, the idea that I could send this document (.odt, natch) to someone and have them comprehend the complete story the way I do. It would be a chore to read, oh yes, full of plot holes, inconsistent characters, time jumps and plodding description. But it would be a story with a beginning, middle and end.

It has been one of my lifelong dreams to write a book, regardless of whether or not I can send it into the world at large. And though I have many dreams, this one is nearing fruition. I can’t complain about that.

Matt Borgard is almost officially a novelist, I guess?

NaNo winds down — will I make it?

Just thought I’d throw up a quick status: Currently at ~27,000 words, with less than a week to go in NaNoWriMo. Many of those words are high quality. Many of them are not. Some of them are song lyrics and an almost completely unrelated script. But I will finish. I’m determined. Next Monday, I’ve got the whole day to crank out the close to 20,000 words I’ll need to make the 50k target. But it’s going to happen.

In other news, I’ve recently completed a script for the internet show I’m developing with a few friends. It’s short and sweet, and occurs right in the middle of the season, which has yet to be written. But I like it. It made me actually laugh, and I don’t normally laugh at my own writing, so that has to mean something. Here’ s a taste:


OPEN! …on Martin Luther King Jr.


That could work.


He’s been assassinated, and there’s blood everywhere


Jesus Christ, okay, we’re not doing this…


Zoom in to his assassin, chugging a nice, refreshing Pepsi. Fade to the tagline: Pepsi: Not What You’d Expect.


Not only is that the worst advertisement I’ve ever heard, I’m not sure you actually understand the concept of product placement.

Finally, I’m finishing up Star by Star, which is probably the most important book in the New Jedi Order series, if not the entire EU. It’s pretty good so far — incredible by Star Wars novel standards, actually, but merely good by regular book standards. I’ll probably have a review of it up on December 1, after NaNoWriMo is done.

Such A Holy Place To Be

“Your wig’s crooked, dude.”

Even with all the pins and clips stacked on my scalp, I was having a hell of a time keeping my fake hair straight. My long blond locks had slipped to the side during the walk to the Tau Gamma Ro house. I tilted them back the upright position, and checked my eyebrows. Still there. Thank God.

“So you’re gonna have to follow my lead tonight, dude. Keep your mouth shut and I’ll send one of these girls your way.”

I threw up my thumb and gave a half-hearted smile. I hadn’t dated – or done anything of the sort – since I started school earlier in the year. Rex, on the other hand, was out with one of the girls from his classes almost as often as he was out tossing a Frisbee. Female interaction was at the forefront of my mind tonight.

Rex stepped across a rickety porch and I followed, worried only a little that one of the rotten planks would collapse. A large guy in a Spartan uniform stood in front of the open door and looked us over. His top half dripped with some sort of gleaming oil, but his shape was more Milhouse than muscle.

“Rex, Adrian, glad you guys could show up. I like the zombie costume!”

“Zombie hobo,” Rex corrected.

The guy turned to me. “And, uh. What the fuck are you supposed to be?”

I knew this was a mistake. “I’m Jareth, the Goblin King.”


“Bowie. I’m David Bowie.”

“Oh. All right, it’s all good. Food and drinks in the kitchen, chip in if you want any of the hard stuff.”

The party had started without us. Black and orange streamers blocked entry to the stairways. The main floor of the house was filled with vampires, Jedi and ten-dollar Wal-Mart costumes. The characters in the room were disjoint as always. Halloween parties seemed like a sort of pop-culture convention, with attendees linked only by the red plastic cups in their hands.

Every possible variation of liquor lined the countertops in the kitchen, but the promised food left a lot to be desired. I begged Rex to stop somewhere on the way, but he pushed on, insisting that we would be late. My stomach gurgled and sloshed as it began to digest itself; I grabbed a handful of tortilla chips to quiet it.

I met up with Rex in the main room, surrounded by some old friends of his. He introduced me, and we watched as one of them made his way to the center of the room, next to a small karaoke machine, to perform an ear-shattering rendition of “Cold as Ice.” Rex pushed me forward as his friend finished.

“Dude, you have to get up there. Come on, you can’t dress as a rock star and not do karaoke.” Rex placed his hand firmly on my back and shoved me in front of the machine.

No one seemed interested in the spectacle, which calmed my nerves. I motioned to the dinosaur running the machine. “Anything by David Bowie? Space Oddity, maybe?”

He rummaged through the book for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yeah, it’s here. It’s a duet though. Got anyone to join you?”

Rex was already busy chatting up a skanky Navy girl whose uniform had to be against regulations. I tried my luck anyway. “Rex, it’s a duet. You know you want to sing with me.”

He twisted his neck around. “Dude, don’t be gay. I’m not gonna sing a fuckin’ duet with you.”

I tugged my right eyebrow as Rex accompanied his real interest into the kitchen.

“Hey, I’ll sing.” A nurse with long black hair, a short skirt and red cross hat stepped toward me and grabbed the second microphone. “Is that okay with you?” She smiled. As if I would turn her down.

“Fine with me. You want to take the high notes?”

“Of course. Try to keep up.”

I started to respond, but was blotted out by the drum roll. We sang well, even as our styles diverged. I did my best Bowie impression to the point of incoherence, while the nurse opted for a classical performance. It bothered me. There was something wrong about singing Bowie like Rent. Still, there was something interesting about her. I, of course, didn’t need to look at the lyric prompter. It surprised me that the nurse didn’t either. I hadn’t expected to find a glam-rock fan among Rex’s sort of people.

We received a clap or two on our way out of the room, but most of the partygoers were engrossed in other things.

“You want a drink?” I asked her.

“Sure. I left my cup over there, and you know what they say.”

I didn’t, actually, know what they say; but I wasn’t going to argue the point. This girl was pretty, really pretty, and I was going to hang on to any chance to strike up a conversation.

“Amber,” she told me as I filled her cup from the keg. “My name is Amber.”

“I’m Adrian. Thanks for backing me up in there. You sing really well.”

“Sure. You were pretty good yourself. Really, uh, freaky. So, you’re a big David Bowie fan?”

“I guess, yeah. I just watched Labyrinth the other day, I thought this costume would be amazing. I don’t think I pulled it off, though.”

“No, it looks great!” replied Amber. “Especially your blouse, it really completes the ensemble.”

I laughed. It wasn’t very often that a girl could make me laugh. “Just be glad I didn’t go with the bulging pants.”

Amber raised an eyebrow, and I felt my legs cross in front of me.

“What is your major?” I asked her. It was the most inconsequential thing I could think of to say.

“Polisci. You?”

“Molecular Biology.” It was normally a source of pride, but coming out of my mouth now it felt pretentious. Amber laughed, which didn’t help my confidence.

“You’re in a real science. That’s cool.”

“No, political science is admirable. Researching the effects of ‘change’ on the adolescent brain, right?”

“Shut up. I know, though. It’s a notch above business and worth just as much. I’m not going to be a lawyer, so I don’t know why I’m doing it.”

“You could run for office. I’ll vote for you.”

“Definitely. President Amber, I can see it. Let’s hope no one takes any pictures of tonight.” She tugged at her seductively short skirt. “That’ll be the end of my career.”

“So, are you a freshman?”


I choked down a mouthful of beer. “Of course, sorry. You look young.” What?

“Thanks. What about you?”

“I’m a Junior. One more year, God willing.” I crossed my fingers and stared at her face, looking for any sort of tell that she had caught my lie. She gave off nothing more than a calm smile. Either she had bought it, or she had practiced her poker face.

Amber and I chatted in the kitchen, sliding to the side for the occasional patron who needed whatever we were parked in front of. When we could see the smooth white bottoms of our cups, we refilled them. We grabbed one of the main room seats as it emptied. My head had already become misty from the beer; drinking was not my strong suit.

We talked a while longer on the dusty pleather couch. Amber pointed out people as they walked past. That one has dressed like a werewolf for four years straight. Those two have a constant competition to outslut each other. Jim gets sick every year, we’re pretty sure he just fakes it to lie down and look up girls skirts, don’t know why he goes to such lengths at a party like this. There was a long silence between us as Amber ran out of quirky students to describe. She looked at me, suddenly, an odd smile creeping across her face.

“Have you gotten a tour yet?”

“A tour? No, this is my first time here.”

“Here, you have to see the library. Most of these frat guys are the biggest pigs I’ve ever met, but for some reason, they have, like, the coolest library. Really vintage stuff.”

“You realize that the school has a library, right? A pretty big one.”

“They don’t have stuff like this. It’s in the other wing of the house. Here.” She handed me her cup. “Get us another drink and meet me over there.”

I made my way back into the kitchen, and Amber headed in the opposite direction. I filled our cups, awkwardly juggling them, and turned to walk back into the main room. Rex was in the kitchen.

“Hey man, what’s up. Don’t drink too much, you don’t want to end the night with a sack in your face.” Rex clapped me on the back, nearly causing the beer to spill over the rims of the cups.

“It’s for a friend.”

Rex grinned, his perfect white teeth stretching from ear to ear. “Aw, yeah, I saw that. That Amber chick, right? Right on, man. Make sure to bag it, that girl’s with a different dude every year. Don’t get too attached.”


“Don’t get attached. Pop it and drop it, dude. She’s a maneater.” Rex slammed remainder of his drink into his mouth and walked past me to the alcohol.

“Thanks, Oates. I meant the part about … bagging it. About being with a different dude every year. Are you just screwing with me?”

“I’m telling you, that girl is always hooking up at frat parties.”

“Did you ever…?”

“What? No way, bro. I mean, she’s hot and all but I’ve always had other girls. Still, dude, I’d go for it. But be careful.”

Rex finished his concoction and slapped me on the back one more time before walking back outside.

I made my way toward the library. Rex’s warning echoed in my mind, despite what I thought was undeniable chemistry between me and Amber. Had I been conversing with the school whore for the past hour? No. Rex didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maneater? I hadn’t ever seen Rex with the same girl for a whole week. Who was he to talk about anyone?

“Took you long enough. Long line?” Amber sat, legs crossed, in front of a long line of streamers blocking the entrance to the library. She stood out from the Blond Sorority Girls and Depressed Emo Chicks that seemed to populate the campus. There was a perceptible intelligence that penetrated and amplified her appearance. Rex was wrong about Amber – she wasn’t one of them.

“Sorry, I was talking to my roommate. I’m ready to see this amazing library.”

She twisted her head around, slipped under the streamers, and gestured for me to follow her. My stomach twisted; I felt like everyone in the room was staring at me, waiting to see if I’d join Amber in the library. This was not true, of course. A majority of the people in the room were already buzzed, and the rest were too bored to care about anything going on in our part of the house. I took a deep breath and darted under the partition, careful to keep our drinks from spilling. Amber took her cup from my hand as soon as I stood up.

“You make it okay, champ?”

This girl had an uncanny ability to make me feel ridiculous. She led me into the darkened hallway, hitting a switch after we rounded a small corner. Overhead lights flickered on, revealing a large room packed from wall to wall with bookshelves.

“The left shelf is old tests and homework, but I doubt you’re going to find any biology stuff in there.” Amber pointed to the middle row of books. “I’m not sure how this part is organized. I think they stick books in here when they forget to return them to the library.” She moved along to the right side of the room, grabbing my wrist and dragging me along as she did so. My wig slid down my face, covering the slight hue of red that crept into it.

“This is the good stuff.” Amber ran her finger along the spines of the dusty old books, evidently looking for something specific. “Here, look at this.” She inched her fingers between the spines of two large tomes and pried one out. She flipped through it, holding the book open so that I couldn’t see it. Then she laid it open on the table.

“What the fuck?” A naked woman adorned the page. She sat on her knees, her arm stretched out past the top of her head.

“It’s Marilyn Monroe.”

I stared closer at the photograph. “I can see that. She’s naked.”

Amber jabbed a finger into my shoulder. “I figured any guy would recognize this. This is the first issue of Playboy. And it’s not a reprint – this is the actual thing.”

“Is it rare?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not. But that doesn’t stop it from being cool, don’t you think? They have every issue down here, from 1953 on. I think they think that it’s just an awesome porn collection, but it’s actually a pretty interesting look back in time. I like to read the articles and find out what people thought back then. I’m only up to like 1960 …what?”

I had been staring half-conscious at Amber the whole time. I couldn’t help but smile. “They let you in here to look at their porn?”

“Not exactly. They know me here, they let me in.”

“They know you come in to browse their magazines?”

“No, I don’t think so. But they let me in, that’s all I really care about.”

“You’re crazy.”

Amber folded her arms. “Excuse me? I find this stuff fascinating.”

And then, with Amber staring at me, slightly annoyed, I kissed her. I have no idea how I managed it. It was the most utterly bold thing I had ever done in my life. Amber accepted the kiss, and even ran with it, but made no effort to take things further than that. I looked at her after I pulled away. My head spun half with the alcohol, half with the excitement of being so presumptuous.

“Ah,” she muttered. “I guess these pictures affected you more than I thought.”

Jesus Christ. Just when I felt comfortable, she punched me in the gut.

“I’m just teasing you,” said Amber. “I just wasn’t expecting it.” She leaned in and kissed me again. It was short and sweet; there was no making out. We looked at each other for a short time after it was over. I turned my attention back to the Playboy collection.

“I wonder if you could get these magazines from them. Like, buy them or something. Or get them to donate the collection to the school.”

“I doubt it. These guys are kind of dumb, but they aren’t completely clueless.”

“So you never got with any of them?” Shit. What in the name of God made me say that. Alcohol may help some guys with romance, but not me.

“What? Of course not. I’m sure there are rumors, with me here all the time, but I wouldn’t touch them. I feel weird enough flipping through their books.”

“Yeah, I was just curious. My roommate’s just an idiot.”

Amber looked into my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, nevermind. My roommate was just giving me crap.”

“About me?”

“No, not exactly,” I lied. “He just told to be careful, you know.” I was not a good liar, and the alcohol made it ten times worse. I could feel myself getting drawn into a trap, and I wasn’t having any luck getting out of it. I prayed that Amber would drop the subject. She didn’t.

“Worried you were going to get knocked up?” She grinned at me. “Don’t worry, I’m not that easy.”

“No, I know, I see that now.”


Fuck. This was the last night I would ever drink.

“I mean, now I know you, I know you’re not like that or anything.”

She didn’t buy it. “Like what? Who have you been talking to?”

“I told you, Rex was just giving me crap.”

“Wait, Rex? Rex Wilson? Your roommate is that douchebag? What, he told you I was a slut, and you believed him?”

“No, that’s not what happened. He was just talking out his ass, you know. I’m a little buzzed, I got paranoid.”

“Paranoid, or did you think you were going to get lucky?” Amber closed the book and brushed past me, sliding it back in place. “Jesus Christ, Adrian. Why would you … why would you hang out with him?

“I didn’t pick Rex, he’s my roommate! I didn’t know him before this year. And I didn’t come here … I mean, I’m not …”

“You didn’t come here to get laid?”

“Amber, of course not. I’m not like Rex, I’m not the rest of those guys in there.”

“Really? Adrian, why did you come to this party? You told me you don’t like the guys here. You obviously can’t stand the sorority girls. Was it just the booze and the free food?”

I stared at Amber, running through responses in my mind. I frantically searched for something that wouldn’t run her off. I came up short.

“I don’t know. Rex invited me, I guess I just figured I’d try to meet some people.”

“Listen, Adrian. You’re a cool kid. Don’t let Rex fuck you up, okay? He’s not a good guy.”

“What do you mean, what’s wrong with Rex? He’s not the smartest guy, sure, but … what happened? How do you know him?”

“I know him better than you do. It doesn’t matter. I don’t … I’m not going to talk about it. I think I’m going to go home, all right? I’m sorry.”

Amber pushed past me, oblivious to my protests. I stumbled after her. She walked straight through the streamers, past a few cries of “hey, what the hell,” and out the front door. Rex stopped me from walking after her.

“Shot down?”

“Fuck you. Fuck you.” I struggled to get past him, but he held me there.

“Dude, don’t get beat up over it. There’s another party next week, we’ll hook you up there. I didn’t get any either.”

I snapped, ramming my hands into Rex’s shoulders and pushing him into the door frame. “You asshole. You goddamn fucking asshole. What did you do to with her? What did you do to her?”

In a single quick motion, Rex placed his arm out in front of me and slammed me back into the other side of the doorway. The surprise more than the actual violence knocked the breath out of me, and I struggled to get it back with Rex’s arm pinned across my chest. A few excited “oooooh!”s floated through the room, hoping for a fight to end the night’s festivities.

“Calm down, Bro,” said Rex, inflecting the last word with just a hint of threat. “Why don’t you walk home and get into bed. You’ll forget about this in the morning, I promise.”

An unexpected feeling crept into me as I stared at Rex there in front of me, his massive arm goading me to yield to his strength. It was not a feeling of hatred, or even fear, but overwhelming disgust. Right then, I looked at Rex as every misogynistic quip, unwanted harassment and demeaning joke rolled into one miserable human being.

“What was it?” I asked Rex, raising my voice. “Did you screw her? Did you screw her one night and leave her like the rest of the girls? Was that it?”

Another round of agitating groans hit Rex, and he pushed the hard bone of his forearm further into my lungs. I smelled the acrid liquor on Rex’s breath. He grit his teeth as he spoke. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Go home, Adrian, and we can talk about it later.”

An Indian chief turned sideways and moved through the doorway. He winked at Rex. “Hey man, let the kid have the girl. You had your go with her, right?”

Rex stepped back and glared at him. “Whatever. Fuck it.” Rex spit a glob of something on the ground and walked back into the house, careful not to look at me.

I leaned against the outside wall, catching my breath. “Hold on,” I yelled out to the Indian.

The man, now well off of the porch, turned and looked up at me. He looked to me like an actual Indian – Asian, not Native. Even with my chest pounding, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was intentional.

“You know Rex?” I asked him.

“Sure, he always comes to the Halloween party. Don’t worry about him, it’s just a touchy subject.”

“What is?”

“Well, that girl. I’m surprised he came, actually, if he knew she was going to be here. They hooked up a few years ago.”


“Well, I say ‘they’ hooked up, but she wasn’t completely sober, if you know what I mean.”

The stupid smirk on the guy’s face nearly made me puke. I slid down the wall and landed in a sitting position. “What the fuck. Rex, what the fuck? He’s a player. Why the fuck would he do something like that?”

The Indian shifted his feet, and I could tell he regretted walking into my drama. “Uh, this was a long time ago. He might’ve been a first-year. Look, don’t worry, she got him back. I guess she realized what was happening and started beating the shit out of him.” He started to chuckle as he recounted the memory. “He ran out of one of the back rooms with his pants around his ankles. That girl was right behind him, beating him with a god damn Playstation controller.”

I pushed myself up off the wooden porch and steadied myself. “So that’s it. My roommate is a rapist.”

“No, I don’t think he got that far. He’s just a dick. We always tease him about it. He just says that she was a whore, and she freaked out from some bad mushrooms or something. I don’t know, man, we don’t really pay attention to him. Anyway, I’ve got to get going. Good luck.”

I stared at the chief as he left. Amber was long gone. She hated me. Who could blame her. I defended him. Shit, I stood up for him. I felt sick. I felt alone, looking at the people around me. I didn’t belong here. These people had no idea who I was. They had no idea who I was dressed as (and they probably would have called me a fag if they did). It occurred to me only then to wonder why Amber had come to the party. I wished Amber had stayed so I could ask her that question, along with delivering an endless apology. I decided I wanted the chance.

I halted and turned toward the kitchen. I stormed past some of the half-drunk crowd also making their way home – acting and looking like zombies, now. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing, or if I was wasted, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a napkin and pen from the kitchen. I chewed on the end of the pen, conscious that it wasn’t mine. There were a multitude of things I wanted to write: Rex is a creep, You’re Awesome. It seemed so childish. And then, looking up at myself in the kitchen mirror, staring at my crooked wig and smeared mascara, my hand moved.

I’m floating in a most peculiar way

And the stars look very different today

I don’t remember knowing, in my slightly drunken state, just how corny my note was. But, in hindsight, it was the only thing I could have written that wouldn’t have made me a condescending ass. I scrawled my phone number on the bottom in the most legible writing I could manage.

I strode into the library, apathetic to the big frat guy’s dirty look as I walked past him. I ran straight to the Playboy collection, and began to examine the volumes. A year was scrawled on the spine of each. 1957. 1958. 59. 1960. Yes, I could find her online. I could ask someone else at the party about her. But that was too inelegant, too unimpressive for a victimized girl you’d just implicitly called a whore. I gulped, closed my eyes, and slid the napkin between the books.

Satisfied, I left the house for a second time. I tore off my wig as I walked through the cold air, scratching my short black hair. I looked up at the sky and whispered a small prayer that Rex wouldn’t come home tonight.

The Certainty of Chance

Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time. That was the lesson of the day. Evolution was a theory — so was gravity. Technically, nothing about physics was certain. Mrs. Miller told the class that, theoretically, it was possible that one of the students could shove a pencil through a desk. Nora spent the rest of the period testing that hypothesis.

Nora’s English teacher was sick, so she got a free period. Nora “freed” herself from the school and headed home. The day wasn’t over, and “expect the unexpected” wasn’t confined to physics. She learned that when she got home and found her brother and his girlfriend having sex on the couch. They sprinted to his room before Nora could say anything, and the girl left soon afterward.

The incident made dinner even more awkward than normal. Her mom was absent, as usual. Thursday was surgery day, which meant all the doctors and nurses in the center had to stay until the anesthesia had worn off in the last patient. Her dad started eating as soon as he got home, without changing out of his suit. They had the rest of the lasagna from the night before. The cottage cheese standing in for ricotta always tasted like dry lumps of dirt after a trip through the microwave.

“How was school?” Her dad asked.

“Fine,” Nora replied. “I got an A on my first calc homework.”

“Good.” He turned to Mark, her brother. “What about you? Did you find a job?”

Mark shook his head. “No, not yet.”

“Why not? Did you just sit on your ass all day like always?”

Mark looked at Nora, but she kept my mouth shut. “No. I talked to John. They might have an opening for a painter. Part-time at first, but…”

“Great, part time. Fuck. I swear to God, if you don’t find a real job in a month, we’re going to start charging you rent. I’m sick and tired of you freeloading.”

“Wonderful,” said Mark, trying his best to appear unfazed.

“Look at your sister. She works hard in school, she knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. She’s going to be a CEO while you’re still living with your God damn parents.”

Mark didn’t speak, so Nora chimed in. “I made an appointment with a counselor for tomorrow. We’re going to go over college stuff, I guess. I think it’s pointless, but the school requires it.” Nora’s father seemed to accept that, and went back to eating his dinner.

Nora volunteered to do the dishes, in hopes that her brother would mellow out a little. No such luck.

“A perfect student, a hard worker. Really working Dad today, aren’t you.”

“Shut up. If you want to wash these, you’re more than welcome.”

“No thanks. I’ll let it slide since you’re keeping our little secret.”

She smiled as politely as she could. “No problem. Speaking of which, I’ll need a ride to Sarah’s tomorrow afternoon. And probably again this week. It’s not like you have anything better to do.” Other than your slut girlfriend, she thought to myself.

“Fine,” he said. “But if I see this on your Livejournal, you’re fucking dead.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll change the names to protect the innocent. Namely me.”

He sneered and stomped off.

“I’ll say hi to your girlfriend at school tomorrow!” she yelled after him. She found it both perverted and hilarious that her long graduated brother continued to lust after high school girls.

* * *

Nora’s eyes cracked open after she heard Mrs. Miller utter the absolute worst words a teacher could say: “Partner assignments.” There was nothing worse than being pitted with a stranger in the first few weeks of school. She listened as the teacher ticked off pairs of names. Sarah shrugged at her when “Sarah Jones, Nate Wilson.” More and more of her known friends fell off the list, before Nora’s partner was finally announced. “Nora Nelson, Rachel Baker.” Rachel Baker. Nora looked behind her with a stare of half-apathy, half-horror. It was her. Murphy’s Law.

Rachel rolled her eyes as their gazes met, and Nora turned ahead to look at Mrs. Miller.

All right, everyone, please meet up with your group member and start talking out your first project. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have.”

Nora leaped to the teacher’s desk before she finished the sentence. “Mrs. Miller, I don’t think I can work Rachel. We have some… personal issues.”

Mrs. Miller raised an eyebrow. “What kind of issues, Ms. Nelson?”

She and my brother are …” Nora paused slightly, but caught herself. “Dating. I don’t really feel comfortable working with her.”

Ms. Nelson, you are a senior. You’ll be graduating this year. You’ll need to learn to be professional and work with people you don’t like if you want to succeed in college next year. If you two have problems, come and talk to me again, but I want you two to give it a shot. I think that’s fair.”

Nora, defeated, sulked back to the empty seat next to Rachel and plopped down.

Couldn’t get yourself reassigned?” Rachel flipped her springy, dyed-blonde hair behind her ear.

Let’s just finish this and be done with it. You don’t like me, I don’t like you, but let’s do this and get a good grade out of it.”

The sides of Rachel’s mouth lifted up into a grin. “Who said I don’t like you? We’ve never even met.”

Nora stared at her partner, lips parted, not sure how to reply. Being stuck with an airhead blonde in physics class when she needed an A was bad enough. But getting stuck with her brother’s high school love bunny was almost more than she could handle.

Look, I’m dating your brother, big deal.”

More than dating.” Nora hid her surprise at Rachel’s cavalier identification of the elephant in the room. Nora was not the most comfortable person in the world when it came to sex, and she certainly didn’t feel like discussing it now, with Rachel.

Fine, whatever. We’re not breaking the law. If you want it to be this way, that’s fine with me.”

Nora did want it this way. The less contact she had with this girl, the better.

* * *

University of Wyoming. Good job, Nora.” Mara, the senior guidance counselor, poured over the folder containing Nora’s ACT score, personal statement, resume, and acceptance letter. “Very impressive. I can see you’ve worked hard these past few years.”

Nora nodded, gluing the best fake modest smile onto her face. “Thanks. I’ve just made college my goal for the past four years, I’m excited to finally get there.”

Mara (who preferred to be called by her first name, she had told Nora) nodded silently, turning over the pages in the folder. “Where else did you apply?”

Nora stared. “What do you mean?”

What other schools have you applied to?”

Well, none. UW is offering me a scholarship, and it’s close to home.”

The counselor closed the folder and handed it back to Nora. She removed her reading glasses and placed them on the desk. “What are you planning in majoring in?”

I’m not quite sure,” replied Nora. “I like math and science – maybe biology. But I like literature too, so I’ve thought about English.”

You seem very smart and well-rounded, Nora. I’d like to know what you’d think about applying to a few more schools.”

Nora felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She had been expecting a quick chat, a pat on the back and an ego boost; she hadn’t been prepared for any conflict.

“Well, I mean, I don’t know. My family doesn’t have a lot money, I’m kind of relying on that scholarship. And UW is a good school, and it’s close to home. I mean, some people are going to Colorado and stuff, but I don’t really see a reason to move out there.”

“Of course, Wyoming is a great school. But Nora, you’re one of the smartest students we have, you’re at the top of your class, you have clubs, NHS, volunteer work, AP credit … I’d really like to see you apply to some upper tier colleges. Yale, Vanderbilt. You can worry about money later. If you need money for applications, there are fee deferment programs I can help you with.”

Nora sat speechless. From the day she entered high school, she had planned to go to college with her friends, an hour away from home. Her mind and actions had always been focused on that singular goal. She felt blindsided – offended, even – that this woman had the gall to smash that, to imply that her plans weren’t good enough. Mara slid some paperwork out of a file cabinet and handed it to Nora. Nora took them without saying a word and placed them into her folder.

“There are some applications and information packets in there. I think it would be healthy if you looked over them and picked one to apply to. Even if you get accepted, there is no pressure to have to go. But having options is always beneficial.”

Nora let out her best emo sigh. “Is this required?”

“No, Nora, this is not required. But I am sure a student like you knows how important it is to strive for something more than the required, and shoot for the exceptional.”

The motivational-phrase-of-the-day did very little to encourage Nora.

* * *

Rachel took the mechanical pencil out of her mouth long enough to send a question down to Nora. “What did you get for d equals five?”

Nora clicked the button on the stopwatch as her the ball hit the floor and marked down the time. “1.24. And 1.58 for d equals ten. Here, let me do the calculations for g, and you can write them down.”

“I’ve got them. Hold on a second, and I can finish.”

“Great,” Nora said, failing to hide the sarcasm from her voice. She stared at Rachel’s sheet of paper as the girl worked through equations, stopping ever now and then to punch a few numbers into her bulky graphing calculator.

“Hurry up,” Nora said. “I’ve got some other homework to work on. I was hoping we could finish this early.”

“Just do it then,” said Rachel.. “I can handle this.”

Nora sighed, but continued to watch Rachel work. She didn’t feel comfortable moving on to something else until this was done. She peered over at Rachel’s equation and noticed a mistake.

“X should be positive there, the way you set that up.”

Rachel looked up to where Nora had pointed, and nodded. “You’re right. Thanks.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to do it?”

“That’s it,” said Rachel, slamming her pencil on to the black lab table. “What is your problem? I’ve been nothing but cooperative, and you’ve been treating me like a idiot for the past month.”

“Calm down,” whispered Nora, hoping to fend off the few other students who had turned to look at them. “I told you before, I just want to get through this class. We don’t owe each other anything else.”

“You owe me some fucking respect!”

That did it. Mrs. Miller appeared at the side of the desk. “You ladies need to leave the room and work this out. I won’t have you disrupting my class. I was hoping you two could manage to be professional. I’m disappointed. We will talk about this after class.”

Nora, humiliated, sulked into the hallway and sat against the wall. Sitting in the hallway against the wall like … like a goddamn delinquent junior high student. Rachel leaned on the opposite wall and slid down into a sitting position.

“Nice job,” Nora said.

“Are you kidding me? You can’t manage to be civil for an hour a day, and this is what happened.”

Nora’s heart pounded, anger surging through her veins and sending her to her feet. “You’re screwing my brother. How the hell am I supposed to act. I walked in on you screwing my brother! That’s not something that you just forget.”

“So what?” Rachel replied. “I’m dating your brother. Get over it. Sometimes people have sex. We were idiots, and did it in the living room. You don’t need to throw a giant fit over it.”

Cat noises and hisses came from across the hall. A student, with a backwards baseball cap, baggy pants and visible underwear, had wandered by and seen them fighting. He guffawed and kept walking. The distraction allowed Nora to hold back a reply, so she sat back down and turned her head.

“You know, I work just as hard as you. You’re not the only one with senioritis.”

Nora puffed air through her nose. “Whatever. I’m getting through this, and then I’m done.”

Rachel sat mute for a few moments, and then continued. “Your brother told me you got a scholarship from UW, right? That’s pretty cool.”

Nora said nothing.

“Your brother is pretty jealous of you, you know. He dicked around in school, but I can tell he’s envious. I think he figures you would of gone to some amazing school. Harvard, or something.”

“Why are you talking to me?” Nora muttered.

“I don’t know. Nevermind.”

The fifteen minutes waiting for the bell to ring were the longest fifteen minutes of Nora’s life. That wonderful sound couldn’t come soon enough. She closed her eyes for an eternity, then opened them to look at her watch. Still five minutes to go. Rachel had been completely successful in making her feel like shit, a feeling far worse than the humiliation she had felt in the classroom. Nora held the top rank in her class. She had been elected as the president of Astronomy Club and treasurer of Key Club. She had taken more AP tests than any other senior in her class. She could do this.

“Sorry.” Nora felt the words escape from her mouth, but didn’t remember forming them. It was like a band-aid that had been ripped off. Unfortunately, Nora had made far more than one cut. “I’m sorry. It’s just … it’s my brother. It was just sort of a shock, you know.”

Rachel turned and looked her in the eye. Nora had a hard time maintaining the apology, and looked down at the floor. “I should have been able to get past that, but … I don’t know. I guess I don’t like to mix school and home.”


Nora hadn’t been expecting the question. She had been expecting Rachel to act equally standoffish to her, but the girl had defied her again. “I … don’t know. I like school, I like working, you know. Home life is sort of just … there.”

“I know what you mean. I’ve been working my ass off studying for the SATs. I’m going to try to get a higher score. I really want to get into a good school, get out of this state. It drives you crazy. Know what I mean?”

Nora didn’t, really. But she nodded and smiled. “Where are you thinking about.”

“Well, UW, CU, of course. That would be great. I really want to get in Stanford, but I think I’ll need better test scores to be really competitive there.”

Stanford? Really, I wouldn’t have … uh, that’s cool.”

“You wouldn’t have expected it?”

“Sorry,” came Nora’s sheepish reply.

The bell rang and the horde of students piled out of the doorway. Sarah waved at Nora as she passed, and Nora waved back, her face bunched up into a worried smile. Mrs. Miller walked out as soon as the room had emptied.

“I wish you girls would have come to talk to me before it came to this. I wish you could have worked things out, but I know it doesn’t always happen that way. I’m going to allow you girls to work alone for this project, and we will rotate partners afterward.”

Rachel rose, seemingly content to leave it at that, but Nora spoke up. “It’s okay, Mrs. Miller. It’s my fault. I’ve been having some family problems, and I took it out on Rachel. I think we worked it out. I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Miller raised her eyebrow in her signature interested-but-skeptical face. “Are you two going to be able to work together, then?”

Nora nodded. “If that’s okay with Rachel.”

It was.

* * *

It was late when Nora got home. Mrs. Miller had another class after theirs, and had required them to come in after school to finish their experiment. Nora had talked to Rachel for a little while after they had finished. Nora ended up inviting her to her house – she told Rachel that her father was worried about this unknown girl dating Mark. It would be awkward, at first, that Rachel was in high school – but Nora felt confident that she would be able to make a good impression. And she figured she owed the girl enough to help her to that end. At the very least, Rachel would be a good influence on Mark, and Nora’s father was sure to see that.

Nora ate some of the leftover pasta her family had saved for her. She told her parents she stayed late to finish a project, but she didn’t reveal the whole story. She supposed that the rest of it should be left untold, and it wasn’t like she was lying – not exactly.

After her shower, Nora felt completely ready to collapse into bed. The day had been emotionally draining, if not physically so. But before she could pass out onto her mattress, the corner of her eye caught a small manila smear. That folder. That damned stupid folder. She hadn’t even looked at it since her meeting with Mara, but there it sat, as it sat every night. Today, though, it seemed particularly ornery. Taunting her. She couldn’t help herself. Nora grabbed the folder and dropped to the floor.

Mara had included a large amount of information in the folder. Princeton, Yale, Brown… standard Ivy League fare. They didn’t appeal to her. Too snooty, it seemed like. Nora though about giving up, admiting defeat to the yellow bastard of a folder, but the last pamphlet and application stopped her. Stanford. Not Ivy League … but not state. California – a far cry from the windy Wyoming plains. It seemed poetic. How could she not go for it? She opened the application, and saw the standard requests for information. Name, GPA, test scores. And then the essay. She grabbed a pencil before even looking at it, determined to do this before she lost her nerve.

Nora looked at the question. Write a short (500-1000) word essay about a specific obstacle you overcame to achieve academic success. She stared at the ceiling in thought. These questions were always pointless, and Nora had never been sure exactly what the readers would be looking for. But in a divine moment of realization, it came to her. She put her pencil to the paper, and began to write: “Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time.

The Lives of Stars, Abridged

I see the light, and toward the source I run

with you beside, and spirits on our heels,

into the glimmer of a dying sun

Against the men and women we did shun:

they block our way, the only exit seals.

I see the light, and toward the source I run

And on our path, until our time is done,

we cast away our ever-loved ideals

into the glimmer of a dying sun

A mirror on the wall, our faces shown

I view myself, and what my life reveals

I see the light, and toward the source I run

The starlight breaks; our hiding spot undone.

The dark recedes, the shadow fades and peels

into the glimmer of a dying sun

And when you’ve made it through, I’ll strive, alone,

uncovering the half-truths we’ve concealed.

I see a light, and toward the source I run

into the glimmer of the dying sun