Toasters of Tomorrow

In chapter two of Yesterday’s Demons, Fritz describes the ludicrous amount of technology planet Verde once had before the cataclysmic Blackout tossed the world into the Dark Ages:

Well having chips inside everything was great for when you just had to turn on the toaster with your mobile, which I guess people must have needed to do back then. … [But the] excessiveness of it all is really a bit embarrassing.

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Photo by Frank Oschatz

Pre-Blackout Verde is not too far from where we are today. We have smartphones, smart homes, and smart appliances. When I wrote the lines above, I tried to think of the most absurd “smart device” I could imagine. To succinctly describe a complete technological overdose, what’s something that, at least in our world, would almost certainly never be “smart”?

I thought toasters were a pretty safe bet, because how is your phone ever going to put a piece of bread into one? But it turns out I was oh so wrong.

A “smart” toaster, complete with an app for your phone that communicates with the toaster over Bluetooth, is on its way. It is a nifty solution to the problem of burning your bread to a crisp because you toasted it without realizing the previous hungry person to use the device had set it to 11. But… it’s a toaster! Are we really so lazy we now have a toasting app?

The point: I clearly stink at trying to dream up the ridiculous.

2016 in Review: Reading

Last year I read 52 books, a very DC Comics-esque number that averages to one book a week. This year I didn’t read nearly that many, but I’ll go into why after the list.

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

Books (listed in the order in which I read them)

  1. The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine
  2. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
  3. Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
  4. Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George
  5. Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George
  6. Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Fridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George
  8. Bluescreen by Dan Wells
  9. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (DNF)
  10. Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 2 by Ridley Pearson
  11. A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  12. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  13. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  14. The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala
  15. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
  16. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling
  17. The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

As is standard for me, most of my reading is fiction. The only non-fiction title on the list is the highly-recommended The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala. I recommend it not just to INFJ writers, but to all writers and all introverts.

The book I liked best was Tuesdays at the Castle and the rest of the Castle Glower series by Jessica Day George. It’s kind of surprising that I only first read those books less than a year ago. The tales of Princess Celie and her magical castle already feel like classics to me.

The runner-up has to be Bluescreen by Dan Wells. I also liked the heck out of Calamity by Brandon Sanderson, and it was the book I read the fastest this year (two days), but the finale of the Reckoners series just wasn’t as satisfying to me as the freshman offering in the Mirador series. Bluescreen was just awesome — cool tech, great characters, and lots of question arcs to keep me turning pages.

52 to 17 books is a pretty steep year-to-year drop, and there are a few reasons for the plunge:

  • I spent nearly two months trying my hardest to enjoy The Blue Sword but I just couldn’t. I like Robin McKinley’s work, and I wanted to read The Blue Sword because I enjoyed its prequel The Hero and the Crown. But I eventually had to throw in the towel. (Though it bears noting that The Blue Sword was the only dead tree book I picked up last year. The media may have been part of the problem, as I exclusively read ebooks these days.)
  • In early August I started The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I’m enjoying it, but it’s long (especially for me), and it’s not on this list because I haven’t finished it yet.
  • I spent the second half of the year catching up on some TV shows I’d always wanted to try but long neglected.

That last item is a good transition to a new category in my 2016 Year in Reading Review:

TV shows (listed in the order in which I watched them)

  1. Voltron: Legendary Defender
  2. Stranger Things
  3. The Flash (Season 1)
  4. Supergirl (Season 1)
  5. The Flash (Season 2)

I loved all of these shows, but there’s no question about it: The Flash (season 1) was the best TV I watched all year and one of my favorite television stories ever. The Flash has been my favorite super-hero for a while now due to all of the amazing and creative applications of his lone super power. Season 1 of his TV show was masterful. The way the show’s mysteries (who is the Reverse Flash? what happened the night Barry’s mother died?) played out over the course of the season kept me glued to my TV, tablet, phone, or whatever device I could watch Netflix on.

The Flash (season 2) might have been my second favorite if not for its ending. Zoom was a frightening villain, a total monster heel who was genuinely scary, especially after he broke Barry’s back and after it had become apparent Barry simply was not faster than him. But that ending. Oh gosh… season 1’s ending brought all the feels. Season 2’s ending just made me want to slap Barry upside the head.

Because of The Flash season 2’s stumble at the finish line, my second favorite show of the year was season 1 of Supergirl. I didn’t think I’d like it nearly as much as I did, but a story mix that was equal parts the story of Supergirl and the story of Kara Danvers won me over. Cat Grant and her dialogue were also highlights.


So that was my 2015 in media consumption. There’s lots of good stuff coming in 2016. I’m especially looking forward to the conclusion of the latest Kingdom Keepers series, the finale of the Castle Glower series, and the next book in the Mirador series. I also want to get to Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s new novel and the first book in Veronica Roth’s new series. Yes, in some ways, I am Henry Bemis. May I never break my glasses.

2016 Year-End Status Update

At this time last year, I posted a 2015 recap of the progress I’d made on that “become a published author” project I’d been working on. With the new year now upon us, it’s a good time for me to reflect back on 2016 and see how similar Plan and Reality ended up. Here’s what I had planned for 2016, followed by when I checked the item off my list… or when I didn’t.

Complete the final draft of Yesterday’s Demons
Done on March 5.

Publish Yesterday’s Demons in ebook
The pre-order went live on March 10, and the book was released on April 12. There’s really nothing else that I can consider my professional highlight of the year. This was a dream come true. If you haven’t bought it yet, check out the shopping links in the sidebar or on this page.

Publish Yesterday’s Demons in paperback
On April 22, newsletter subscribers were the first to learn this was now available. At this point, I exclusively read ebooks. But I learned that plenty of folks still prefer books made out of atoms instead of bits. And as my friend William Munn recently put it, he’s come to see a dead tree copy of a book as a collectible. So this was also a big milestone, and a true highlight of the year. For purchasing links, again see the sidebar or this page.

Complete the first draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd
After releasing Yesterday’s Demons in ebook and paperback, I spent the remainder of 2016 head down writing its sequel. I had hoped to have a near-final draft of that book in the hands of my editor by the end the year, but life got in the way. I transitioned to a new day job, which was great for my mental health but bad (for a while) for my productivity. But the biggest problem I had in finishing by my self-imposed due date was that I struggled with the book for a while. I don’t know if I’d call it “writer’s block” so much as I’d call it “writer’s doubt.” For a while, I just wasn’t certain I was writing something that was Not Crap.

In the end, everything came together into something I’m proud of and excited about. This is the news that newsletter subscribers got earlier this week: on December 31, I completed the first draft of The Verdant Revival, Book 2: Tomorrow’s Shepherd.

As is my tradition whenever I finish a novel draft, I celebrated with a bowl of cereal:

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This time I chose a bowl of Frosted Flakes with some fresh strawberries and blueberries and, because it was Christmas and because my wife is an amazing Italian, I garnished it with some struffoli on top.

SPOILER ALERT: The final word of the book is “ours”! (Gah! Why did I give it away?)

Complete the second draft (with beta reader feedback) of Tomorrow’s Shepherd
and
Submit Tomorrow’s Shepherd to my editor
These are the two items that were on my 2016 checklist that I did not accomplish. At some point last year, I opened my 2016 annual plan notes, found the “finish the first draft” item, and added in red ink: “This seems wildly unrealistic.” Sadly that turned out to be true. But though I didn’t get as far as I hoped, I ended up with a work I’m wildly enthusiastic about. I’m an artist; I’ll take quality over deadlines any day.


So what’s next? I’m still formulating my complete 2017 plan, but I can say my number one goal for the year is to have Tomorrow’s Shepherd on sale by the end of the year. I’m going to work hard on that one, because I can’t wait for you to read it.

I’ve mentioned that each of the three books in The Verdant Revival will feature a different main character: first Siv, then Fritz, and finally Cassie. What I haven’t mentioned before is that each book also has a different theological virtue at its core. Yesterday’s Demons was about love, the opposite of fear. The finale will be about faith. And Tomorrow’s Shepherd is about hope. So while I wish I would have finished the book’s first draft sooner, there was something special about completing it during the Christmas season — the ultimate season of hope.

Thank you to all of you who helped make my 2016 so wonderful. A lot went wrong in the world last year, but I’ll always remember 2016 fondly as the year I became a published author. And as the year the Cubs finally won the World Series. #FlyTheW

Merry Christmas! Here’s a new short story

Yesterdays Demons Cover Final (Small)On April 12 of this year, I released Yesterday’s Demons, and all of you have shown me so much support by buying the ebook and the paperback and by leaving reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Y’all have made me feel like George Bailey on Christmas Eve.

So today I have a holiday treat for you: a holiday-themed short story prequel to Yesterday’s Demons. You can read “The First Lenerstelen Without You” on this site right now.

I wrote this story in December 2014. That month, my writing group’s monthly prompt was “holiday story.” I tossed a few ideas back and forth, but I couldn’t find one I really liked. (Although I know I have a Santa Claus story in me, I just haven’t come up with the idea yet.) That December, I’d been listening to a lot of Sixpence None the Richer’s Christmas album, The Dawn of Grace, and I was particularly enamored by “The Last Christmas Without You.” The song is a beautiful letter from a mother to her unborn child in which the mother sings to her baby about this last Christmas she is about to experience before her baby is born.

But its opening guitar riffs have a haunted quality that felt a little out of place with the joyful nature of the rest of the song — and those riffs are the ones I kept humming over and over. Those melancholy melodies and a title idea inspired by the song’s title gave me the seed of a story. I realized I had a chance not just to describe a holiday on planet Verde, but to explore Siv’s youth and some of the choices he made that made him into the man we meet in Yesterday’s Demons.

So Happy Holidays and enjoy! Please be sure to tell me what you think of “The First Lenerstelen Without You.”

I don’t watch the news

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Source: Muppet Wikia

Are you a CNN viewer or a Fox News fan? Or do you prefer another news source like Huffington Post or the Drudge Report or the Daily Kos? My answer: none of the above. A couple of years ago I made the decision to stop watching TV news and stop reading online news sources, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Now you’re probably asking: Michael, why in the world would you do such a thing?

Or: just what kind of “head in the sand” ostrich are you?

I assure you, my decision had nothing to do with a desire to put coton in my ears and shout “la la la la.” It was about two things: sensitivity and productivity.

Try this exercise: look at the list of top headlines from either a major national news source or a local one and categorize them. Just now, I did this with a national news source and here are the results: politics, politics, politics, celebrity sex scandal, politics, politics, mass shooting, politics, politics, politics. Here are the results of the same exercise with a local news source: shooting, car crash death, fire, car crash death, attempted murder, charity event.

I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). My brain processes information in a way that makes me easily overwhelmed by external stimuli. You might be annoyed by a noisy restaurant. The same restaurant will likely drive an HSP like me to a headache, an outburst of anger, or a shutdown. But more relevant to my lack of news watching is that being an HSP also makes me very emotionally reactive. Ask my wife about how I can tear up at a compliment. And please don’t even mention that old Hallmark TV commercial about the woman who mails her lonely, elderly neighbor a card. (Hang on, I have something in my eye…)

When I read news stories about murder and kidnapping and rape and torture, those stories have a profound adverse effect on me. And they should, HSP or not. But a couple of years ago, I noticed that they didn’t anymore. “Another school shooting? Twenty elementary school aged kids dead? That’s awful. Say, how about those Cubs?”

I’d become desensitized to the worst deeds of humanity. It all had become routine to me. I asked myself: Self, if I avoid the news for some length of time, can I resensitize myself to the plight of humanity?

Turns out I could, and avoiding the news for “some length of time” became “basically forever.” Today, I can’t read terrible news stories. I can’t read about a murder and keep a detached, emotionless perspective. When I read such stories, I can only imagine the plight of the victim and the feelings of his or her loved ones. And it is overwhelming.

However, there are things in this world that are both unpleasant and important to know about. I want to know if a serial killer has targeted my neighborhood, for example. By not reading the news, don’t I shelter myself from these important things?

No, because the world will make sure you don’t miss the important stuff.

Watching programmer and teacher Scott Hanselman’s one-hour productivity tips video, It’s Not What You Read, It’s What You Ignore, was life changing. His thesis is that to increase the amount of time you have available to work on and do the things you really want to do, you should flat-out ignore the things that don’t matter, like that stack of magazines you know you’ll never read, or the 100 CC emails in your inbox. And he insists that if you do this, you will you will not miss the important stuff. Why? Because if work is on fire, your boss is not going to tell you via an email you’re CC’ed on. She’s going to call on the phone! So why are you checking your email every five minutes on nights and weekends?

This principle also applies to the news. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but in the video, Hanselman says that he gets his news from the Subway sandwich artist who makes his lunch. “Whitney Houston died?” Hanselman says. “That sucks! Can I get a Diet Coke with that?”

Hanselman is right. I haven’t watched a cable news channel, a local news broadcast, or read any online news source for several years, yet I am aware of who won the recent Presidential election. I know that the UK voted to leave the EU. I know we lost Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Prince, and too many others this year. But I didn’t learn any of this from YourFavoriteNewsSite.com.

Avoiding the news increases my productivity. I have more time to spend on things I enjoy and things that don’t bring me down, like reading or watching stories, or writing my own, or keeping up with what’s going on at Disneyland. And I don’t at all feel like Luke Skywalker standing all by his lonesome on Anch-To waiting for Rey to arrive.

I feel more meaningfully connected to people than ever before.

#My5: The Verdant Revival

my5logo_blackWhen you become a Goodreads author, a few “Ask the Author” questions are automatically placed in your queue. Two of them are “How do you get inspired to write?” and “Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?” I think this is because people are fascinated with writers’ imaginations. Everyone wants to know if that character is based on a real person, or what prompted the author to make the story take place in the 1700s, or OMG how in the world could you have let that happen to my hero?!

You can read my answers to the questions above on Goodreads.com, but I’d like to go more in-depth on this topic because I love talking about it… and because a friend and writing group colleague of mine, KM Alexander, has started #My5 — a familiar format for authors to share their inspirations.

So without further ado, here are five influences on my first novel, book 1 of The Verdant RevivalYesterday’s Demons.


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Phantasy Star

Before Phantasy Star, I liked fantasy, and I liked science fiction, but there was a line between the two. To my 13 or 14-year-old self, fantasy was about swords and sorcery and medieval times, while science fiction was about laser guns and spaceships and the future.

Phantasy Star destroyed that line. It featured heroes who wielded both swords and laser guns. In it, I traveled to castles in the sky and to distant planets. Some obstacles were overcome with magic keys; others with high-powered, high-tech ice diggers.

It might not have been the first story to blend these worlds. It might not have even been the first console RPG to do it. But Phantasy Star was the first time I experienced this kind of mash-up. That innovative mix didn’t just hook me from the start, it became my favorite kind of world to escape into. It is no mistake at all that Yesterday’s Demons takes place in a world with a similar mix of genres.


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Wild Arms

Final Fantasy VII is rightfully remembered as the most popular RPG of the late 1990s, and I liked it a lot. It probably would have been the sixth item on this list if this were My6 instead of My5. But it wasn’t my favorite RPG of that era. That honor goes to Wild Arms.

Ahh, Wild Arms… how I love thee!

In the late 1990s, my beloved Phantasy Star series had come to an apparent close and I was in search of new games to fill the void. From the first day I saw it on the Vidpro wall at Toys “R” Us, Wild Arms filled that void, built a home, and tunneled its way into a very special place in my world. It has all the heart and soul, and fantasy and science fiction, that I loved about Phantasy Star. But it also added a new element: an Old West-style world, complete with gunslingers and ten-gallon hats. I can directly attribute the Western-like setting of Yesterday’s Demons to my love of Wild Arms and its planet, Filgaia.


JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien

Yeah, yeah, a fantasy novel was inspired by Tolkien — how shocking. But it’s actually not what you might think. Tolkien’s influence on Yesterday’s Demons does come from his status as the godfather of fantasy, of course. But Yesterday’s Demons was also influenced by the one-two punch of Tolkien’s dislike of allegory and his Catholic worldview.

It is well known that Tolkien wasn’t a big fan of the Narnia books by his friend, CS Lewis. Among other objections, Tolkien didn’t care for allegory. He felt Aslan was a too-on-the-nose stand-in for Christ. I suspect he’d be amused that in modern times I’ve heard Aslan described on the Internet as “the Jesus lion.”

But while no one would call Frodo Baggins “the Jesus Hobbit,” Frodo’s role as the Ring-bearer parallels Christ’s role as the sin-bearer. There are shades of Simon of Cyrene in Samwise Gamgee, especially when Samwise helps a beaten and exhausted Frodo bear his burden for a short time. And the OneRing was destroyed, and evil thoroughly conquered in Middle-Earth, on March 25, the day on which Christians celebrate the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary — the day on which Christ was conceived in His mother’s womb.

Tolkien’s Catholic faith was deeply important to him, and it was impossible for him to separate it from his work. He didn’t use allegory, yet his stories were inevitably and undeniably infused with Catholic morals and a Catholic worldview. And that’s pretty much exactly what I hope people will say about my own work.


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Unsolved Mysteries and other true crime TV shows

How in the world do old “true crime” TV shows from the 1980s like Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911 influence a fantasy, SF, Western novel?

Some of my grandmother’s favorite shows were what we’d now call “true crime TV.” I watched many of them with her, even though they often scared the pants off of me. I was afraid to visit the restroom during an Unsolved Mysteries  commercial break for fear that a criminal or alien would be standing at the window watching me. Rescue 911 gave me recurring nightmares that someone had broken into my garage. And when the annual Unsolved Mysteries Halloween episode aired featuring ghost stories? Whoa no! I didn’t sleep for days.

Fast forward to my earliest thoughts about the story that would become Yesterday’s Demons. I knew I wanted to write a fantasy, SF, Western novel. But I also knew I wanted it to be about fear — how fear controls us in ways both good and bad, how it can be both healthy and maddening. And you know what they say: write what you know! Thanks to all those paranoid fears and nightmares brought on by my grandmother’s true crime TV shows, I knew old friend fear far too well.


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Every Texan I know

I moved to Texas in 2007 and I’ve never looked back and I never will. I love it in God’s country. Since Yesterday’s Demons was published, friends have told me they saw some of our mutual friends in the book’s protagonist, Siv McCaig. And they’re right… all of them, no matter which mutual friend they mentioned by name. In many ways, Siv is an amalgamation of every Texan I’ve met since living in the Lone Star State.

I have a good friend who laughs the loudest at his own jokes. I have a pair of mentors who are brothers who always refer to their father as “our father”… except when they’re talking to each other, in which case he’s always “Daddy” — and these are big, tough, barbecuing Texans. Siv wears boots and jeans and when he’s planning to do something, he says he’s “fixing” to do it… just like every native Texan I know.


Yesterdays Demons Cover Final (Small)So that’s it… or rather, that’s the big five that came to mind the fastest. If you like any of the items listed above and you haven’t yet given Yesterday’s Demons a try, I think you’re missing out.

And if you liked this, check out #My5 from other authors:

Why NUnit is better than MSTest

My new team uses some MSTest for our C# unit tests, but mostly uses NUnit. Though NUnit has been around a long dern time now, I’ve never found myself in a professional environment that favored it. So lately, I’ve had no choice but to dig into it, and I quickly found it to be far preferable to MSTest for one simple reason: clarity.

Here’s the MSTest version of a simple StringCalculator test:

   1:  [TestMethod]
   2:  public void Add_1And2Returns3_Success()
   3:  {
   4:       var result = StringCalculator.Add("1,2");
   5:       Assert.AreEqual(3, result);
   6:  }

This isn’t bad. But you know what often happens when an engineer uses MSTest’s AreEqual method? The order of the parameters gets changed.

   1:  Assert.AreEqual(result, 3);

Technically, the above still works. But what the code says is, “Assert that my expected value, which is the result of the operation I am testing, is equal to the actual result my code returned, the static value 3.” That’s total nonsense.

NUnit makes the value that is expected and the actual value returned by the method under test much more explicit. You can still reverse the actual/expected order, and like with MSTest it will still work, but the naturalness of the syntax really helps prevent that from happening.

   1:  [Test]
   2:  public void Add_1And2Returns3_Success()
   3:  {
   4:       var result = StringCalculator.Add("1,2");
   5:       Assert.That(result, Is.EqualTo(3));
   6:  }

Remember that one of the three pillars of unit tests is readability. (The other two are trustworthiness and maintainability; see Chapter 8 of The Art of Unit Testing by Roy Osherove.) NUnit is far preferable to MSTest on readability grounds alone.