Merry COVID Christmas!

I intend the title of this post to be taken unironically.  Despite the ongoing nonsense by the various Grinches in trying to snuff out the Christmas spirit with lockdowns and fear, Mass was at (diminished) capacity last night and our spirits are high.

What is more, a light blanket of snow arrived just in time to give us a White Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

Last night I finished a re-reading of The Silmarillion, and Tolkien's extended mythology appropriately concludes with the rising of a new star, a symbol of hope and a promise of mercy and pardon.

2020 has been a crazy year, but through it all, faith has always been a solace.  May you and yours have a blessed holiday.  Merry Christmas!

The much-needed change of the seasons

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend in Texas and he lamented the sheer monotony of the weather there.

Coupled with COVID precautious, which essentially leech the fun out of just about everything, he felt as though he was stuck on a treadmill, re-living Groundhog Day, as the metaphor goes.

Being a Michigander, he asked how the weather was and I said the change of the seasons was underway, with the first harbinger of fall showing up in cooler nights.

Since then, the weather has taken a more decisive turn, dropping into the 60s during the day and touching the 40s in the evening.

This is what I consider Ideal Weather.  I love it.

Like just about everyone else, I figured the disease would be bad, but short-lived, as such things historically have been.  What I did not foresee is the political leadership deciding to make the precautions indefinite.  It's profoundly disappointing.

Yet, there are some bright spot.  My diocese reports that not a single case of COVID spread can be traced to Mass attendance.  Not one over months.  So maybe we can loosen things up, perhaps?

Also, I'm glad to see Big Ten football is coming back.  I was all-in on the college game a few years ago before burning out, but now I like the background noise and the occasional game.  Plus, the sports pages are a welcome change away from the howling madness of contemporary politics.

Above all, for me autumn is about tradition, times gone by and fond memories.  It is reflective and comforting.  See it locked up and shut down is particularly hard to take.

We are only getting a glimmer of light, but sometimes that all we need.  Like the distant star peeping through Mordor's gloom, it reminds us that evil can never fully triumph: somewhere, light will still shine unsullied.

More thoughts about writing a fantasy novel

The change of the weather is putting me in a creative mood, and once again I'm at a loss for what to write next.

As I've pondered this question, I realized that the main reason I haven't gotten more than a few pages into a fantasy novel is because of Lord of the Rings.

I first read it in middle school and I've re-read it dozens of times in the years since, most recently earlier this year.  Each time I do so, I'm impressed by the quality of the work and instead of inspiring me to write something on similar lines, I am forced to recognize that Tolkien's masterpiece is the first and last word in the genre.

Obviously, there's a thriving market for fantasy books, and I've read more than a few, but they all struck me a second-rate when compared to the work of the master.  The essential problem is that I can't think of anything to say that Tolkien hasn't already said better than I ever could.

I admit that at one point I was gearing up for a Game of Thrones-style work, but my motivation barely got me to to 15,000 words before failing.  I found the Game of Thrones worldview demoralizing and writing something like it was unpleasant.

Since I write primarily because I enjoy it, I dropped the project.

At the moment I'm re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.  Perhaps it will give me some insight on what I want to do next.  I'm somewhat torn between doing a sequel (or prequel) of an existing work, or striking out with something new (hence the ongoing discussion of fantasy).

The advantage of the sequel is that there's a built-in audience and it's fun to revisit an earlier book.  On the downside, that sort of thing requires careful attention to continuity.  Starting from scratch, on the other hand, offers maximum creative freedom.  Having been recently bound by the constraints of non-fiction, that's what I'm in the mood for at the moment.

Where's my fantasy novel?

With Long Live Death moving to final publication, I'm already thinking about my next project and once again I'm pondering writing an epic fantasy tale.

Why haven't I already done one?

It's a good question.  I'm huge Tolkien fan, spent countless hours playing Dungeons and Dragons growing up, and of course I even did a take on Beowulf.  It's not like I'm a stranger to the genre.

So what's the hold up?  I've done sci-fi horror, space opera, vampires, military fiction and even a romance novel.  Oh, and an entire book of fantasy miniatures rules!  Where's the obvious tie-in to Conqueror: Fields of Victory?

The answer is that because I've spent so much time doing gaming and roleplaying, every time I get going on fantasy story, I get sidetracked (and then bogged down) on world building.

It's weird.  I can write other genres without having to explain the setting in meticulous detail, but when it comes to fantasy, I have to be all Tolkien and discuss language evolution and the date of the ruins.

I've probably written more fantasy material than anything else by far.  Almost all of it was background for DnD campaigns.  In my more mature phase as a writer, I've got give manuscripts that could fit into the description, none of which got very far.  They all come to a screeching halt over setting considerations. 

Until I figure that out, fantasy remains closed to me.


R.I.P. Christopher Tolkien

It's hard for me to mourn someone who makes it to the ripe old age of 95, but I can certainly express gratitude for the great things he shared with us all.

Without Christopher Tolkien there would be no Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (one of my favorite anthologies) would be lying in obscurity.

It is possible that other scholars would have unearthed these lost works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but none could have brought to the depth of understanding that Christopher did.

Though this may be heresy, I think Unfinished Tales is in some ways one of the most consequential of the posthumously published works because it is so accessible and well-edited.  The short stories and topic covered give a glimpse not only of the wider parts of Middle Earth, but also Tolkien's creative process.  This would later be explored in great depth through the History of Middle Earth, but that massive work can be overwhelming.

I think that was why Christopher's last effort was geared towards producing smaller books drawn from the earlier work.  The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin all contained previously-published material, but those earlier works were laden with footnotes and discussion.  The smaller volumes give us a more concentrated glimpse of what the great master was trying to achieve.

As Tolkien himself wrote in "The Quest of Erebor" referring to Dain Ironfoot:  "I should call it a heavy loss if it was not a wonder that in his great age he could still wield his axe as mightily as they say he did, standing over the body of King Brand before the Gate of Erebor until the darkness fell."

So it is also with Christopher, still publishing and delighting people well into his nineties.  Without him, that short, brilliantly evocative sentence would have been lost to us.  Rest in Peace.



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 new venue and a takedown of the Lord of the Rings movies

The good folks at have offered me use of their megaphone to write about geeky stuff near and dear to my heart.

First up: my take on why Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies are actually quite terrible.

I don't know how often I'll be doing these pieces, so - as Gandalf would say - expect me when you see me.  I'll throw a link to the stories when the publish.