Man of Destiny Series

Heart of Darkness vs Apocalypse Now

As part of my revisiting the works of Joseph Conrad, last week I read Heart of Darkness, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of his tales.

Based on Conrad's experiences as a river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, it takes the reader on a physical but also spiritual journey in to the center of what was once called The Dark Continent.

It's structure is unique.  While Conrad once again uses Marlow as the first-person narrator, in this work he is both a participant but also an observer.  That is to say the centerpiece of the drama is the attempt to retrieve a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz and Marlow's role is simply to repair a damaged steamboat which is then used to reach Kurtz's remote trading post.

Conrad's musings on human nature and the ease with which 'civilized' people can revert to savagery of the worst kind made it an instant literary classic.

Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Conrad's story, with the setting changed from colonial Africa to Vietnam.  This is not as ludicrous as it seems, and roughly the first half of the movie does a good job of drawing parallels between the breakdown of discipline and morality the farther one gets from organized institutions.

The problem is that near the midpoint, Coppola loses the plot and starts a meandering tale packed with lame tropes highlighted by inexplicably stupid behavior on the part of the characters.

I'm by no means the first person to observe this, and I'm sure lots of people have pointed out that it would not be difficult to recut the film to bring it into line with Conrad's story - and also provide a more satisfying ending.  As it stands, the film builds up energy until instead of a climax, it just sort of grinds to a halt and everyone goes home.

For a fleeting instant I thought of writing the alternate ending out, basically giving the film the Man of Destiny series treatment, but the definitive take has already been written - by Joseph Conrad.

To my knowledge, this is a story that has yet to be fully realized as a movie.  There was a TNT attempt some years back that was abjectly awful.  Go look it up if you want, I'm not even going to link to it.

Heart of Darkness is a significant work and also something of a litmus test because it's a great example of how people can value a story enough to make a movie while missing the whole point of the thing.

See also: the hideous movie disfigurement of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  Ironically, the craptastic adaptation of a cynical book about Hollywood is altogether appropriate.


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?


The uncanny parallels

I try to keep this blog free of politics, but the last few weeks have brought out a series of very alarming parallels between the current situation in America and that in pre-Civil War Spain.

As Stanley G. Payne pointed out in great detail in his Spanish Civil War, by 1935 the Spanish Left reached a point where it believed that no other party should be allowed to govern Spain.  This repudiated the constitution that they themselves had written only recently.

Time and again, they broke laws, ignored customs and always chose to escalate rather than calm.  Payne goes through an entire checklist of "off ramps" the Left ignored, any one of which could have avoided the resulting carnage of war.

The fact of the matter is that it is difficult to push a war on people who don't want one.  The Man of Destiny series was written in calmer times, but I recognized that one of the fatal flaws in the Star Wars prequels was how arbitrary and random the start of the Clone War was.

Thus when I began telling my story, I spent all of the first book and half of the second chronicling the downward spiral, including opportunities for both sides to de-escalate.

All historical parallels are inexact and one can rightly note that the standard of living, technology, international reach of modern American cannot be compared with that of Spain in 1936. 

Still, I cannot deny that part of the frenzy that drove me to write Long Live Death was a desire to get out in front of events and supply the book as a cautionary tale.  Spain's leaders in 1936 did not have many examples of how a seemingly united and peaceful society can disintegrate into conflict.  We do, with not just Spain but the breakdown of Yugoslavia serving as grim reminders that the bonds that keep nations together can collapse with frightful speed.

I will conclude by asking those of a religious bent to include a plea for reconciliation, forgiveness and renewed unity in your prayers.  We need all the help we can get.


Yet another "new writing project"

Since completing Three Weeks with the Coasties, I've bounced around on what to do next. 

One option was a prequel of the Man of Destiny series.  This would be set well in advance of the events in Man of Destiny and focus on the Deimos War referenced in background conversations.

Another option is to look at a project that has been going on since I was college - a fantasy epic set in the Atlantis of my own imagining.  It's gone through a few incarnations, none of which worked.

I don't know how author authors operate, but I tend to "hoard" my various projects and come back to them.  I have them all listed on a spreadsheet, which I sometimes review for ideas.  So it was while studying this that I picked up another project that had been kicked around for a while:  the Vampires of Michigan.

At some point I'll stop this game of being indecisive and just bludgeon my way through.  Part of what holds me back is the knowledge that the farther afield I roam, the less of a "genre" author I become.  Most authors seem to find a niche and stay there.  If I were doing this as my primary source of income, I guess I would do that, too, but since it's a hobby, I can do what I want.

On the downside, that gives me extra opportunities to waste time.

Plus, it's summer.  Who wants to stay inside and write?


I don't think Game of Thrones could have succeeded on its own terms

No, I didn't watch the finale.  I've read the synopsis and intend to take a look at some point, but I don't think it really matters.

As the lawyer types would say: the facts are not in dispute.

I'm the last one to minimize the complexity of writing a multi-volume story that covers dozens of characters over two decades, but I also know my limits.

That's why I waited to publish the first volume.  My story was far less ambitious than George R.R. Martin's and my inspiration was clear (insofar as I knew what I did not want to write), but even so, I doubted my ability to adjust on the fly.

Everything had to fit together and that meant changing things on the front end to make sure they fit on the back end.

This wasn't an exercise in ego, it was a service to my readers.  I wonder if that's part of what's going on - writers so full of themselves they think they can handle things they clearly can't.

I'm still a relative novice, but trying to keep 1,000 pages of text and a quarter of a million words straight was pretty tough.  And that's what, just one of Martin's books?

He bit off more than he could chew.

And there lies my criticism.

He didn't need to go so big to have a good story.  Dial it down a little, be humble, and take the win.

I freely admit that I decided to follow the example of J.R.R. Tolkien in making sure everything worked before publishing.  Lord of the Rings is a single, unified book published in three volumes.   It is a seamless masterpiece.  I knew I wasn't even approaching it's level of greatness, but I'd rather turn in a serviceable story than a flawed would-be epic.

To be sure, Martin has more stature and money than I do.  On the other hand, I like to think I'm just getting started.


A look at Star Wars: Episode I 20 years later

My latest article at Bleedingfool.com looks back at Phantom Menace, which opened 20 years ago today.

It was a very different time and I was a different person.    Many of the themes I brought up are familiar to people here, but it's interesting to contemplate the different cultural moment we live in compared to the one of 1999.

I won't say they were simpler times, but the certainly seemed safer.  Take a look and leave a comment.


Waiting for DoD and other projects - a writing update

Given that I'm on furlough, I probably should blog here more, but I've been busy around the house and wasting time elsewhere in the interwebs.

I've also been getting some writing done, which I will address momentarily.

But first the big news is that my latest project (Three Weeks with the Coasties, a Tale of Disaster and also an Oil Spill) is done and waiting review by the Dept. of Defense.  I submitted it at the start of the month, but it takes weeks for things to get processed.  Once that's done, I can go ahead and publish. 

It's an odd step for me, but because I was on active duty during the period in question and am in fact still serving, I gotta follow the rules. 

Until then, I've been keeping myself busy on a short story set between books three and four of the Man of Destiny series.  It's for one of those short story anthologies.  I'll let you know if it gets picked up.

Finally, I'm putting together the plot for a new series of books that share a background but aren't necessarily sequential.  I can't really say more about it because I still go back and forth on key details.

When the furlough began, I figured I'd be able to knock out a bunch of writing projects I'd put on the shelf for later, but going through them I see that some are hopeless while others need a lot of reworking. 

For example I had the beginnings of a tale of intrigue, politics and ambition that basically was rendered redundant by Man of Destiny.  The setting might be salvageable but it needs a totally new plot.

I also admit that things that interested me six or seven years ago don't necessarily interest me now.  In addition, I think my writing style has gotten quite a bit better and much of my older work would need to be entirely re-written.

All of which is to say: a lot of the 'future projects' I put on the shelf are likely to stay there - or simply go into the circular file.

Still, I'm hopeful that I can get some things worked out and then plow ahead with unprecedented speed.  The hardest part of writing for me has always been the building the premise and figuring out generally where it's going to go.  Once I get that, it's off to the races.

I suppose some folks might wonder why the Man of Destiny prequel hasn't been mentioned, and my answer is that it's in the mix, but not a priority.  I spent three years working on that project and the short story has actually got me thinking about it again, but I'm not yet ready to fully embrace that madness again.

Maybe after another Star Wars movie comes out.


Jerry Roe, R.I.P.

Last week there were a number of high-profile funerals, but the death of a once-towering figure in state politics was completely overlooked.

Jerry Roe was the executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 1969 to 1979, a time of great upheaval.  This was the era when both parties were undergoing major changes.  The Democrats were shifting from working-class party made up of rural farmers and industrial workers to its current top-down coalition while the GOP was losing its "country club" old-school Yankee flavor.

Jerry was a moderate Republican, of the Gerald Ford and (specifically) William Milliken variety - low taxes, less regulation and agnostic on social issues.  This stance brought him a lot of grief over the years, something he freely acknowledged, but nothing would budge him. 

I met him in the summer of 1998, when I stumbled upon a campaign for state representative that he was advising.  I was underemployed at the time and without any real direction.  I'd dabbled in politics and figured I'd try my hand at the campaign game.

I had no idea who he was, and my first impression was that he was a cantankerous old coot with a keen mind and a way with the ladies.  He styled himself The Silver Fox.  My nickname for him was The Viagra Viking, and he regaled me with tales of his various exploits over whiskey and cigars. 

He was a keen student of political history and I never got tired of talking to him and tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge.  I believe he visited every presidential grave and - when prompted - would describe them in detail.

As it turned out, our candidate lost, but Jerry introduced me to a number of people over the summer and into the fall and in January 1999, I landed my first "real" job with a decent salary, health benefits etc.   I was now a paid political hack.

I kept in close contact with him during the decade that followed since political knowledge was essential to my career advancement.  In addition to advising various campaigns and chasing women, he taught government classes at Lansing Community College and he was (not surprisingly) enormously popular with the students there.  I can imagine that his lectures were unique.

During those years I met my wife, married her and we started our family.  He was happy for me, but warned me that I had to make a decision:  family or career.  "If you stay in politics, you're going to get divorced.  That's just how it works."

I said I wasn't willing to do that.  He said that was fine, but I needed to find another line of work.  I didn't believe him, but ultimately he was right.  Trying to be an engaged husband and father is fiendishly difficult in the political world.  Candidates can sometimes pull it off, but staffers are always "on the clock" and the holidays everyone else enjoys are consumed with parades, booths and door-to-door.

I wasn't willing to do that and naturally that put me at a disadvantage against those who were.  When I got canned, he expressed sympathy but gave me a knowing look and I laughed.  He told me so.

I saw Jerry less often after I got out of politics.  We'd chat on the phone from time to time and get together, but between my family, day job, military career and writing, I didn't have a lot of time.  Plus, he was still Mr. Republican and I was now A Man of No Party, so I was less inclined to agree with him as I used to be.  I was tired of the whole filthy enterprise, but it was his life's blood.

When I wrote the Man of Destiny series, Jerry was the inspiration for Maxim Darius.  Truth be told, there's also a lot of him in Jermah Macro as well, particularly the womanizing element.  The scenes where Darius explains things to Peer Graff are based on similar conversations we used to have.

Over the last few years, Jerry suffered a series of health problems, including a heart attack that almost killed him.  He wasn't expected to pull through but did, and marveled at his good luck.  A couple of years ago I tried to get in touch with him but he was undergoing an episode of dementia, and I was told to stay away.

Happily, he recovered and I was able to sit down and chat with him this spring with the obligatory glass of scotch (no cigars, thankfully).  I gave him autographed copies of my books, and showed him the dedication, which he loved. 

I'm told that a memorial will be held in November, but not even a death notice has gone out.  Someone updated his Wikipedia page (he was always proud that he was important enough to have a Wikipedia entry), but that's all I've seen.

Hopefully he'll do well in the Final Caucus.  Rest in Peace, Jerry. 


Joss Whedon and writing what you know

I was always a voracious reader and as I got older, I began imagine myself as an author.  The problem that confronted me was trying to figure out what to write.  I was good with short fiction and research papers, but beyond that I was at a loss.

I don't remember when I first heard the phrase "write what you know," but applying it helped me to move forward.  I've also taken an interest in the biographies of authors I admire to see how their experiences shaped their writing.

A big influence in this sense is Stephen King's "On Writing."  I was told that the first half of the book - which is largely autobiographical - isn't as useful as the second.  I found the opposite.  The second half is great if you want to learn how to write like Stephen King, which I absolutely do not.  Instead, I found a lot of insight in how he came to focus on the horror genre.  He had a rough and unhappy upbringing and so he wrote what he knew.

The same is true of other authors, of course.  Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" contains such vivid descriptions of the Italian Front because he was there.  This also works in the realm of fantasy.  JRR Tolkien's wartime service unquestionably shaped his vision of evil and his descriptions of Mordor and the Dead Marshes - just as much as his linguistic and historical knowledge created his iconic visions of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits.

There's another area of knowledge for authors, though, and that's relationship experiences, which is what I want to talk about here. 

Back when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was on TV, I couldn't help but notice that none of the relationships in the series went well.  It didn't matter what the context, they all went south.

Okay, it was a show about angsty teenagers, but the spin-off went the same way.  So did "Firefly," both on the show and in the subsequent movie.

Now I get the value of having drama and working long-term relationships can be awfully dull, but there is some use in having a stable romantic relationship as a baseline which can operate in contrast to the other tormented ones.  Whedon never did this, and I always wondered why.

Subsequently we learned that his relationship with his wife was rather difficult.  Not only that, but apparently he had a casting couch and used it frequently.  Setting aside his blatant hypocrisy in claiming to be a feminist while exploiting his talent sexual gain and degrading his long-suffering wife, I think this is the key to understanding why the relationships in his work ended up the way they did.

Put simply, he didn't know what a good relationship looked like and apparently couldn't imagine one, either.  When he did have one (in "Firefly") he killed off one of the characters.  Even happiness became unhappy.

"Man of Destiny" has a number of romances, some of which end well, and some don't.  In that respect, I think I did a better job than Whedon (and certainly my personal life is better).

Of course, Joss Whedon exceeded my entire sales with a single night's audience of any of his shows, so who am I to boast, right?

In my own defense, Whedon did have the advantage of being third-generation Hollywood.  I'm pretty sure I'd have an easier time getting discovered if my father and grandfather were well-known authors.

Getting back to the point, I find it fascinating that someone who was otherwise imaginative and well-rounded had this blind spot. 


The series is now complete!

Today The Imperial Rebellion went up on Amazon.  The series is done and available for purchase.

The complete "Man of Destiny" series runs 250,000 words and more than 1,000 printed pages.  I often wondered if I could write a trilogy.

Well, I guess I can't, because I had to add an extra book.

Still, it's pretty cool having it done.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.