Tomorrow’s Shepherd available for pre-order

I’m thrilled to announce Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the second book in my fantasy trilogy, The Verdant Revival, is now available for pre-order and will be officially released on Tuesday, December 11, 2018.

eBook Cover Tomorrow’s Shepherd shifts the focus of the series to Fritz Reinhardt, a young man with hyper-intuition who figured out how to fix all of planet Verde’s technology lost two centuries prior in the Blackout. Fritz now dreams of a worldwide restoration making daily life easier all over the world. It was a big deal for quiet and socially awkward Fritz to make his dream public, but the benefits of repairing pre-Blackout relics are too enormous to ignore: more education, better communication, and longer life expectancy.

But it could be over sooner than he thinks. Some see his dream as a nightmare, and these critics have a powerful ally in Lady Verde. The spirit of the planet remembers the environmental damage chipware did to her in the past, and she demands an end to the restoration. She’s even willing to resurrect the worst chipware the planet has ever seen, the giant Steelterrors, to prove her point. How can Fritz build a better tomorrow if the planet itself fights against him?

Tomorrow’s Shepherd will be available in both paperback and eBook, and the eBook version is available for pre-order now from the retailer of your choice:

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

This book has been a labor of love for almost three years. I wrote the first word of the first draft on Sunday, November 22, 2015, and finished it late last month, on Monday, October 29, 2018. I’ll be sharing a lot more information about it with you in the weeks ahead. I cannot wait for you to read it.

Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

JRPG Tropes I Love

(Theme song — sung to the tune of “The Daves I Know” by Kids in the Hall):
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love

Welcome to the debut installment of The JRPG Tropes I Love, a series in which I celebrate my favorite recurring themes, elements, and outright cliches from Japanese role-playing games. Today’s trope:

Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

Before there even were Japanese role-playing video games, there was Dungeons and Dragons, and its worlds were decidedly lo-tech. Like the works of Tolkien which inspired it, the development level of D&D’s worlds was medieval at best. In the early days of computer adventure games, you had lo-tech King’s Quest and hi-tech Space Quest, but the two tech levels remained strictly segregated.

phantasy_star_boxAnd then Sega released Phantasy Star. An 8-bit masterpiece — soon to be re-released on the Nintendo Switch — the American box art made it seem the game was pure sword-and-sorcery. It sported heroes clad in medieval armor, brandishing swords, and fighting bats and skeletons and wizards. But turn the box over and read a little more about the game:

  • The story takes place across all three planets of a distant star system
  • Spaceships will take you between those worlds, and you’ll cruise over them in a futuristic SUV
  • You’ll be fighting robots and aliens along the way
  • And if you’d prefer to put down your ax, you can pick up a laser gun

Phantasy Star wasn’t the first story in the world to combine medieval fantasy and science fiction — see the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs for a much earlier example — but it was one of the first JRPGs to do it. And after it paved the way, the floodgates were opened.

Phantasy Star II went all-in on hi-tech with a storyline featuring an artificial intelligence Big Bad. Final Fantasy VI broke with that series’s medieval traditions and featured a steampunk environment. The image of Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife armed with a giant Buster Sword and riding a motorcycle is practically an icon for this trope. And back in the analog realm, even the original RPG — Dungeons and Dragons — got in on the lo-tech/hi-tech marriage with 1989’s Spelljammer campaign.

My first fantasy novel, Yesterday’s Demons, is part of a trilogy I’ve often said is my love letter to JRPGs and their epic, unforgettable stories and characters. Yesterday’s Demons is set on the planet Verde, a world with a technology level and society much like that of the American Wild West. However, two hundred years before, it was a hi-tech wonderland only a few decades ahead of where we are now. Verde lost all of its technology in the Blackout, but some relics have been restored and repaired. Siv McCaig will need all of it he can find, plus a healthy dose of magic, to save Verde from destruction.

“Trope” doesn’t have to be a bad word. While there are certainly some that should never again see the light of day (I’m looking at you, women in refrigerators), others are like good friends whose presence never grows wearisome. I like Middle-Earth, and I like the Matrix. But give me both at the same time, and I’m in love.

New lower price for Yesterday’s Demons

Yesterdays Demons Cover Final (Small)My first book, Yesterday’s Demons, has been on sale for almost two-and-a-half years now. I recently lowered the ebook version’s price to $2.99. At the time of this writing, all sources except Wal-Mart now reflect the lower price. (So much for always low prices — always!)

Yesterday’s Demons is the first book in a fantasy/SF trilogy called The Verdant Revival. It’s the story of Siv McCaig, who has spent his young life in fear after a boyhood encounter with a monster. When that monster inexplicably returns, Siv needs answers. Where did it come from? What is it? And will it ever come back again? His search for answers becomes a journey across the world and a battle for planet Verde’s survival.

If you like anime-inspired role-playing games like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia, or Wild Arms, I think you’ll love Yesterday’s Demons. It’s my love letter to those kinds of games and their immersive, unforgettable stories. It’s appropriate for both adult and teenage audiences.

Finally, now is a great time to pick it up Yesterday’s Demons because its sequel, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, will be out later this year so you won’t have long to wait for the follow-up.

The ebook is available from:
Amazon | Barnes and NobleiBooks | Wal-MartKoboSmashwords

Blame or learn?

man wearing a suit jacket and stripe necktie
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

A lot of folks in my homeowners’ association’s Facebook group are angry. Their electric bills have gone up, and they think they know the culprit — and it’s not the excessive heat wave. No, it’s the new meters our electric company has installed. The new meters make their bills higher. The new meters shorted out their air conditioners. Someone needs to pay damages. Should we consider a class action lawsuit?

Maybe my neighbors are correct, and the new meters are a problem. I don’t know. What the incident made me think about was blame. Anytime something goes wrong, we’re so quick to blame someone. Some are even quick to blame themselves, whether justified or not.

I once gave a presentation on Agile methodologies and Scrum to a group of not software developers. When I was finished and opened the floor to questions, the very first question was from an executive who asked, “What do you do when a squad doesn’t meet their commitment?” His tone made me feel his real question was, “When a squad doesn’t meet their commitment, how are they punished?”

Blame in Complex Systems
I’ve been reading The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, and John Willis. “DevOps” is a software engineering culture in which the people who write the code and the people who run the servers work closely together instead of being siloed into separate divisions.

The authors make some insightful points regarding complex systems, which are defined in part as a system that “defies any single person’s ability to see the system as a whole and understand how all the pieces fit together.” Examples include many major software projects, automobile manufacturing, or, heck, daily life.

Despite all best efforts, things go wrong in complex systems. Accidents occur in factories. Twitter goes down. Peter fails to fill out his TPS reports correctly. Stuff happens. And after it happens, we point the finger, and we blame someone.

What if there was a better way?

An Opportunity for Learning
The authors of The DevOps Handbook write that in a DevOps culture, “When failures and accidents occur, we treat them as opportunities for learning, as opposed to a cause for punishment and blame.”

Opportunities for learning. Not causes for punishment and blame.

The DevOps Handbook is about software engineering culture, and I can think of a lot of times in my career when I wish I’d have worked more in a culture of learning instead of a culture of blame.

But think bigger. Remember: daily life is a complex system.

What if we all stopped pointing the finger? What if we all stopped assigning blame? What if we all started asking, “What can we learn from this?”

We’d all be a lot less afraid to make mistakes. Don’t we idolize folks who fearlessly pursued and attained lofty goals despite a high risk of failure? Wouldn’t society benefit from more of those kinds of people?

We’d learn a lot more about how to prevent future failures if the people responsible had no reason to feel ashamed, and therefore no reason to hide or obfuscate their actions. Instead, they openly shared what happened — successful or not — in the interest of knowledge sharing, knowing their admissions weren’t going to be used against them.

And above all, it’s kind
There are certainly times when punishment is necessary. No one needs me to list them. But there are far more failures in life that should be treated as opportunities for learning than should be treated as causes for punishment and blame.

A great man once put it this way:

“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”

Writers (and everyone else), backup your work!

When I worked in computer repair, a client once asked a colleague of mine, “Should I back up my data?”

“Well, that depends,” my colleague replied. “How valuable is your data?” The client’s eyes widened in horror. He needed to start backing up his data now!

WhereIsMyFile
My file is gone!
(Photo by StartUpStockPhotos, licensed under CC0.)

Last week, I realized I had lost an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel. I was working on chapter 21 in Scrivener, and when I flipped back to chapter 17 to check something, I found the text of chapter 19 where chapter 17 should have been. In chapter 19 was an older, unedited version of chapter 19. Chapter 17 was gone!

I know exactly how the problem happened (it was user error), but this article isn’t about the cause. It’s about the solution. It took me less than five minutes to restore my missing chapter and get back to writing.

My work is valuable. Therefore, I back it up. Here’s how I do it.

(Note: I use Windows-based computers, but these concepts can easily be applied to other computer technologies.)

My Backup
Ignore the “Documents” sub-folder of your home folder. The go-to place to save your important files is the “OneDrive” sub-folder. My essential files — like my novel’s Scrivener files — are saved to the local copy of my Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage account, so every time I save the file, it is backed up to the Internet. Besides an instant backup, this also makes it very easy to start working on either my desktop or my laptop, wherever I happen to be at the time. Alternatives to OneDrive include Dropbox.

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save. Easy to restore all your files to a new computer. Easy to work from anywhere, even via a web browser for certain file types. OneDrive is free for limited space and reasonably priced for additional storage.

Limitations: If you accidentally save a file full of “lorem ipsum” instead of your document, your file full of “lorem ipsum” will be uploaded to the cloud. If you accidentally delete a file, it is deleted from your OneDrive per Microsoft’s retention policies.

The Backup of My Backup
I take a “belt and suspenders” approach to backups. One backup is not enough. My backup needs a backup. A chief reason for this is the limitation mentioned above: an automatic to-the-cloud backup will happily backup your mistakes. What happens when you realize what you need is the version from four saves ago?

 

Carbonite
Carbonite’s Windows Explorer interface for recovery of past file versions.

That’s why I subscribe to Carbonite. All of my desktop computer’s files are automatically backed up to the cloud, including different versions of the same files. This is the line of defense that saved my missing chapter. While OneDrive had the incorrect version of my problem chapter, the version I’d accidentally destroyed was available via Carbonite. I restored it from my cloud-based backup, and my work was back.

 

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save, including past versions of the same file.

Limitations: Carbonite is designed for disaster recovery, not for easy access to the same files between multiple machines. Also, there are retention policies set by Carbonite for both still-existing and deleted files.

(And yes, Carbonite’s name is a Star Wars reference.)

Returning to any past point
If you’ve implemented my suggestions to this point, you have a backup and a backup of your backup. Your data is now extremely well-defended against disaster. You are in the top 1% of data protection. And it might be enough. However, if you need an even more granular way to go back in time to specific versions of files, even the “belt and suspenders” approach might be lacking.

Specific to writing, if you use Scrivener, you ought to be taking snapshots. Snapshots are a feature of Scrivener in which a point-in-time copy of a document is taken and is always available in a read-only state. It’s a no-brainer to take a snapshot of every chapter of your book at the end of each significant draft. You might also want to take a snapshot before making a particularly brutal round of edits, or before revising the entire chapter from the start. I won’t go into the details of how to take a snapshot, but there are plenty of articles on the subject available.

Finally, in the software engineering world, we use version control systems (VCS) to store our code. Every distinct version of a code file is checked into VCS, and therefore any distinct version can be retrieved from it. Different versions from any two time periods can be compared. A version from two years ago can be recovered as quickly as a version from two hours ago (so long as someone deliberately checked in the changes; committing a new version to source control is not an automatic operation).

Best of all, when combined with the “belt and suspenders” approach, the database containing all your version history can exist in multiple places and with multiple backups — or can be stored in a cloud-based VCS provider (like GitHub) that can handle redundant backups for you. And there really is no retention policy, so long as you have enough storage to hold all the past versions you wish to keep.

The limitation of this system is its complexity. If you’re not already familiar with it, there is a learning curve, and it could be steep. Also, VCS may be overkill for most writers. But if you absolutely need to be able to go back to any daily (or hourly!) version of your work from now until forever, storing your writing in Git or another VCS is probably your most flexible option.

No backup isn’t an option
Stop and ask yourself: if your laptop’s hard drive died right now, how much work would you lose? What would be your next step? Would you just need to sign in to a different computer and resume typing? Or would it be time to drink, cry, and bargain with God?

It’s easy to ignore creating a backup strategy because, much like life insurance, it’s something that can be a bit of a hassle to get setup, especially for something you hope you’ll never have to use. But someday, when Future You needs that backup, they’ll be really happy you took the time. Your work is valuable. Make sure it’s resilient to disaster.

(Note: I received no compensation of any kind from Microsoft, Carbonite, or any other company for mentioning their product in this article.)

2017 in Review: Reading, Movies, and TV

HenryBemis
Time enough at last!

Welcome to the 2017 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, in which I reflect on the media I consumed over the last 365 days.

Books
I read 23 books last year.

  1. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
  2. Arena Mode by Blake Northcott
  3. The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
  4. Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George
  5. Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson
  6. Ones and Zeroes by Dan Wells
  7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  8. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  9. Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo
  10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle
  11. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  12. Railsea by China Mieville
  13. A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
  14. The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  15. Prototype D by Jason D. Morrow
  16. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  18. Between the Shadow and Lo by Lauren Sapala
  19. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  20. Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders by Raymond Arroyo
  21. Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson
  22. Fairy Keeper (World of Aluvia Book 1) by Amy Bearce
  23. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The list would be longer, except near the end of November, I began reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. And it is a Very Long Book.

Going into the year, I was especially excited for Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson and Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George, as each is the conclusion of a series I’ve much enjoyed. And I liked both of those books, too, but neither one was my favorite in its series.

My two favorites were The Night Circus and When You Reach Me. Both are really unique takes on common fantasy elements — magic and time travel, respectively — and I thoroughly enjoyed both.

Ones and Zeroes and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre were reminders of why Dan Wells and Gail Carson Levine are two of my favorite authors. I’m at the point where I’ll buy any new book from either of them based solely on the byline.

Perhaps the most unlikely-for-me book on the list is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, but it is one of the books that has stuck with me the longest. It might be the only one on the list this year that caused me to stay up way past my bedtime reading. Months later, I still remember specific scenes, and I’ve adopted some of Cather Avery’s phrases into my personal vocabulary. I adored that book.

Movies
I made it to a movie theater four times this year! That might be the most in-theater movies I’ve seen in a year since I was a teenager. Of the four, my favorites were Justice League and Wonder Woman. I really couldn’t pick one favorite between the two of them. Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the tighter, better-focused story, but the sheer fun factor of Justice League makes it equal. Plus, Justice League featured Superman giving The Flash a super-speed side-eye:

SupermanSeesTheFlash

The other two movies I saw were Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t leave the theater dissatisfied a single time.

TV
I wasn’t crazy about The Flash season 3, which I watched on Netflix. Savitar, Killer Frost, Doctor Alchemy… all of those aspects of the show were just OK or boring to me. But HR Wells was a gift to humanity. By far, he was the best Wells the show has featured yet. And the first half of season 4, which I’ve been watching every week on The CW? Amazing. The Thinker is the best villain the show has had since Reverse-Flash, and maybe better. This could be the best season yet.

Supergirl season 2 was good, but nothing like season 1. We finally got to see Superman, but we lost Cat Grant, at least for much of the season. And while Guardian is pretty cool, I think the writers have no idea what to do with Jimmy Olson anymore. I like Lena Luthor, though, and I’m glad she’s gotten a bigger role in season 3. But that’s about all the good I can say about the first half of season 3. It’s been OK. But Reign just doesn’t do much for me as a Big Bad. And why does Kara have to spend the season all mopey? Living Ray of Sunshine Kara is always the best part of Supergirl, along with the Danvers sisterhood.

Hey, here’s a game I play when watching Supergirl. See if you can spot all the times some kind of lame excuse is used to explain why Martian Manhunter can’t use one of his powers when that power would solve the current problem in seconds. “Darn, I can’t read their minds — they must have some kind of psychic shield!” “Would you look at that, I can’t phase through that wall for some reason. We’ll have to find another way in.”

The Crown season 1 was really great. Every episode left me eager to discuss it and to read Wikipedia articles about the real-life subjects. What I’ve seen so far of season 2 is equally good. Voltron seasons 3 and 4 were both excellent, but I wish they’d just kept them a single season. I especially loved the flashbacks to the creation of the lions and the original Alfor-led Voltron Force.

Stranger Things 2 is not on this list because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it yet.

Looking Ahead
In 2018, the novel I’m most looking forward to is book 3 in Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory. In TV, I can’t get enough of The Flash season 4. I can’t wait to see how Barry’s fight against The Thinker ends… and at this point, The Thinker’s ultimate goal hasn’t even been revealed yet!

There is no movie I am more looking forward to than Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.

It’s going to be a great year for people who like stories. Lord, please don’t let me break my glasses.

The season of hope

 

garrett-anderson-327835
Photo by Garrett Anderson on Unsplash

It’s the Christmas season, the season of hope. Around this time last year, when I finished the first draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, I mentioned how grateful I was to finish it at this time of year because hope is the book’s theme. It’s now one year and one draft later. I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about hope, and I have some observations.

 

The three theological virtues, famously mentioned by St. Paul in the beautiful 1 Corinthians 13, are faith, hope, and love. “Everybody, everybody wants to love, and everybody, everybody wants to be loved,” as Ingrid Michaelson sings. I think faith is equally well understood. But I consider hope to be the most often confused theological virtue.

The Christian definition of faith is the belief in the truths God has revealed based solely on a personal decision to believe them. In a wider, more casual sense, it’s the belief in something despite a lack of physical evidence. The theological meaning of hope, on the other hand, is confidence in eternal life; its “pop culture” definition is, “I have no proof XYZ will happen, but I believe it will.”

Hope is sometimes incorrectly labeled as faith. “I have faith my team will win the championship!” No, you don’t. You hope your team will win the championship. This is a common confusion. Faith is a belief in past things you can’t see. Hope is the belief a certain future event will occur.

The most romantic of the three theological virtues is… well, it’s love, of course. But hope is a close second! Hope is at the very core of a lot of epic stories. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is a living embodiment of Middle-earth’s hope for peace. Luke Skywalker is the embodiment of hope in Star Wars, and Rogue One teaches us rebellions are built on hope.

One of my favorite hopeful moments from any story is the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Wish.” Cordelia’s wish for a Buffy-free world takes her to an alternate Sunnydale overrun with vampires. When Giles discovers Anya’s necklace is the talisman responsible for that dark world, he prepares to smash it.

Anya: “You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this?”
Giles: “Because it has to be.”

The opposite of hope is despair. And that brings me to my final observation. This world needs a lot more hope. We seem far more inclined to despair than to hope, and that’s sad.

I see this all the time in politics. I remember a co-worker in the early 2000s declared George W. Bush to be the worst President ever – “the worst!” I haven’t talked to that guy in some time, but I reckon since November 2016, he has a new candidate in mind for the “worst President ever” award, if you know what I mean. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who despair. Look at how many Republicans didn’t simply consider Barack Obama a President they disagreed with, but a President who was actively trying to destroy America.

Living in despair is no way to live. I’m not saying the injustices and challenges of the world should be ignored, but we should never see them as permanent or insurmountable. We should not despair, especially in this final week of the year.

This is the season of Christmas. This is the season of hope.