Gone Writin’ – Be Back in September

Much like I did last July,  I’m going to shut down the blog for the month while I focus on other stuff. By “stuff,” I mean actually writing the back end of the first book in the Unari Trilogy. I’ve finished editing the first bit, so now it’s on to new stuff and uncharted territory!

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See you in September (or at the Lewisburg Literary Festival) – I hope!

Muse

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Still Not Sold on VAR

The World Cup has come and gone (congrats Les Bleus!) and, along with it, the most high profile deployment to date of Video Assisted Refereeing or VAR. Regular readers know I’m not a huge fan of VAR (not quite the militant my wife has become, however), but if it’s here to stay it’s at least worth making it the best product it can be. So how did it do on its debut on the global stage?

If I’m being honest – not bad. It seemed to work fairly efficiently and corrected a good number of “wrong” calls. Not all of them, of course, which goes to one of my primary complaints with any form of review in sports – a promise of perfect that can never be realized. And it didn’t take that long. According to SoccerAmerica, 455 incidents were reviewed in 64 games, with only 20 resulting in game stoppages (of an average 80 seconds). And it managed to avoid my nightmare scenario – where team A is fouled while attacking in team B’s box but there’s no call, allowing team B to counter attack and the next stoppage is after team B scores. How does that all get sorted out? It will happen eventually. But, more often than not, the World Cup version of VAR was a good thing.

The other versions still need a lot of work.

Every week, for some reason, MLS puts together a “you be the ref” video with a controversial calls (or non-calls) involving a penalty kick, offside call, and red card.

Invariably they tend to show referees making bad decisions and, in some cases, VAR does very little to help. Witness a recent outburst by Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, which attracted support from others around the league (before all the tweets disappeared, for some reason).

A lot of this comes down to something that video review in all sports (that I’m aware of, at least) have imported from the world of my day job – standards of review.

When a court of appeals reviews a lower court decision, it doesn’t just hoover up the record and spit out an opinion. The court reviews discrete issues, each with its own rules for reviewing it. Generally speaking, if the issue is purely one of law – say, what a statute means – it’s reviewed de novo, with no deference to the lower court’s decision. On the flip side, a purely factual issue is reviewed for clear error – meaning it’s not just enough for the lower court to have been wrong, but it must be really really wrong for the higher court to do anything about it. Lots of issues fall in the middle and get reviewed for abuse of discretion, which is also pretty deferential to the lower court’s decision.

There are reasons for these in courts of law. Primarily, the thought goes that lower courts that actually sit and watch witnesses testify and such have a better chance of getting the facts right than higher courts working from a cold record. There’s some evidence that isn’t true, but it’s the accepted basis of the system right now.

VAR (and reply in American football) has adopted, basically, the clear error standard, in spite of the reasons for doing so not applying. If anything, the replay booth is in better shape than the ref watching the game live to make correct decisions. Why hamstring things so that only “really really wrong” decisions are corrected? During the World Cup commentators mentioned that the replay officials (or perhaps just the ref making the review – why do they get to judge their own work?) couldn’t even look at replays in slow motion. What’s the point of that? If we’re going to stop the game to get things right, let’s get things right!

That, largely, is what’s keeping me from more fully embracing VAR. On the one hand, it goes too far in messing with the flow of the game. On the other hand, it doesn’t go far enough, since it limits the value of the replays. The powers that be need to work that contradiction out, sooner rather than later.

Or, at the very least, MLS needs to adopt the system FIFA used for the World Cup. It’s eons better than what they do now. If we have to have VAR – and I fear we must – let’s at least make it the best it can be.

Come See Me!

It’s that time of year again, as several events are coming up around the area where I’ll be hawking my wares and talking about books.

First up is the Lewisburg Literary Festival on August 3 and 4 in the best small town in America, Lewisburg, West Virginia. I’ll be in the Literary Town Square both days with lots of other authors. There all kinds of other things going on, too, including workshops and presentations from writers like David Sheff. Get more details at the festival’s website here.

Lewisburg

Second will be the West Virginia Book Festival on October 26 and 27 in Charleston. It’s a very strong lineup this year, including Dennis Lehane, Debbie Macomber, and John Scalzi. I’ll have a table in the marketplace, so stop by and say hey (unless Sclazi’s on – I’ll be AWOL then). Find out more at the festival’s website here.

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I always enjoy talking we readers – even if they’re not my readers! So be sure to stop by.

Things Change

Sometimes I think this should be the theme song of writers:

I mean, even the most devoted planner would have to admit that no lengthy project finishes precisely the way it was planned. Things always change. As my ancestor (why not?) once said, “the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.”

I’ve written before about my current work in progress, The Orb of Triska. My intention was for it to be the first of a seven-book series called Empire Falls. Good news! Editing continues apace and I’m really liking where things are going. But, as I said . . . things change.

The plan was for each book in the series to be about the length of Moore Hollow. At about 85,000 words it’s long enough, but not nearly as long as most fantasy novels these days. All of The Water Road books are north of 130,000, for comparison (for another comparison, A Game of Thrones weighs in at 292,000 – and it’s the shortest of that series!). I thought more, shorter books would work better for this story and planned out each volume accordingly.

Then, between editing passes, I started thinking about it again. The series is going to follow three characters and the stories for two of them didn’t really break into that many parts. It was more like three parts. And the other character, who had a more discrete series of adventures, could be easily reworked into three parts, too. In other words, the bones for another trilogy are there. So, I decided to retool a bit.

Empire Falls the proposed seven-book series is dead. Long live The Unari Trilogy! Each of those will be about the length of The Water Road novels. I don’t think anything major will have to be left out, but everything should flow a lot better in three bigger chunks.

That’s where I am these days. You have to be flexible as a writer. Sometimes the best way to do something isn’t the way you thought it should be done in the first place.

Change

Weekly Read: Quick Hits

Books have been piling up a little bit (metaphorically – most of them are in electronic form) around here the past few weeks, so I wanted to take a brief moment to highlight some of the more interesting ones I’ve finished recently.

House of Penance

House of Penance

A graphic novel with a neat idea – a horror take on the famous Winchester Mystery House (link). Built by Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester of Winchester arms fame, the house is full of odd rooms and corridors. Stories have run rampant about why Winchester built it that way, continually adding onto it apparently without plan for years. House of Penance tells how she was trying to appease the spirits of all those killed by her husband’s guns. Like I said, neat idea, and the artwork is fabulous, but the story is really lacking. So little actually goes on, but the story is intent on remaining some kind of puzzle, that it doesn’t land like it could. Glad I read it, but not essential.

The Fifth Season

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While I don’t always agree with the picks for winners of the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards, I always look at the list of nominees as a good suggestion of books to check out. Among this year’s Hugo nominees is The Stone Sky, final part of a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. I’d never read any of her stuff before, so I backtracked to the first book, The Fifth Season, only to find it won the Hugo, too. Good sign? Damned good. This is a phenomenal book, full of rich and different world building. Jemisin also had the guts to basically make this book all backstory for the main character, but it works so well you just have to admire it. Can’t wait to get to the next one!

The Enchanted

Enchanted

I’m fairly certain everything that happens in this book is a figment of the narrator’s imagination. He’s an inmate on death row in a very Southern gothic sounding prison (although the locale is never specifically identified). He calls it an “enchanted place” and weaves various tales of the people (and non-people) around him. Since there’s no bright line in it that confirms the book is set in a fantasy world, I can only read it (as an attorney who’s talked to hundreds of people in prison) as the extended coping mechanism of a deeply broken, troubled mind. That doesn’t make the book any less compelling. For all its oddity and “this can’t be real”-ness, it may be the best conception of what being locked in a cage is that I’ve ever read.

Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

Crucible of War

Who’s up for a dense, thick tome about a war most of you forgot about when you were in high school? I was because the wife and I recently took a side trip to Fort Ligonier outside Pittsburgh while we were on a trip.

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It was in this general area (though not this particular fort) where a young George Washington blundered into a massacre that launched what many consider the first “world war,” sparking conflicts from the Americas to Europe to Africa and India. What AUTHOR is mostly interested here is how the conflict that began in the backwoods of Pennsylvania really jump started the machinery of British Empire and, in the process, laid the foundations for the American Revolution. It’s fascinating stuff, but this is pretty dry, serious history – there aren’t any characters developed as through lines for the book, names and places are flung at you with great depth. It’s also, sadly, a good example of how some things in America never change.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

Ones&Zeroes

On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.

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That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.

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This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.

Birth of an Idea

Some authors hate the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I’ve never really figured out why. I can see why readers might be disappointed with the answers, since they’re much more mundane than they might hope. There is no communication with the muse, no blinding flash of insight, just a keen eye and brain that perpetually asks, “what if?” And the realization having a pen handy is almost always a good idea:

So in service of explaining how that works, I thought I’d describe the process I recently went through were a new story idea crystallized in my mind. It’s as good an example as any of the truth that inspiration is out there everywhere, if you know what to do with it.

Right now in my lawyer day job I have a case pending in the court of appeals where one of the issues involves whether my client had served too much time in prison and might be entitled to credit for that. In my brief I made a couple references to him “banking time.” When the Government responded, for some reason, it turned the word around and repeatedly referenced a “time bank,” which it argued didn’t really exit (it does).

Beyond the fury at the allegation I was making shit up, the phrase “time bank” got lodged in my brain. There was something about it that seemed absurd and specific in a way that “banking time” didn’t.

With “time bank” lodged in my brain like a stepped-on Lego, I went into brainstorming mode, which to my neighbors looks like mowing my yard. I do some of my best thinking about writing while I mow, since it’s not like my mind is taken up with other things. So I turned over this concept in my mind, over and over again – what, precisely is a “time bank”? And how would it differ from a memory bank?

I came up with three different ideas, one sort of modern science fictional, one utterly fantastical, and one kind of in between. Thinking them over I found myself drawn the first, the modern one, and began thinking about how characters might interact with this “time bank.”

The working title is “Down and Out at the Time Bank,” a tale of a poor schmuck who gets in way above his head, but probably comes out of it just fine. Short story or something longer? Don’t know yet, as I’ve got to put it on the back burner while I work on other things. But it’s there, lurking in my ideas file, waiting for me to come back to it.

So, thank you, unnamed Assistant United States Attorney. You’ll win the case in the end (‘cause y’all almost always do), but at least you gave me something worthwhile I can take away from it.

And that, ladies and gents, is where story ideas come from!

Rivalries and How They Work

The World Cup is underway and, sadly, the United States isn’t involved this time. For the first time since 1990, we failed to qualify. In the words of one commenter I saw in a forum the other day, “we shit the bed.” It’s as good a description as any.

That has led some Americans to wonder who they might root for in the tournament. I think that’s kind of silly – as I’ve written before, you can be a fan of the game, without any particular rooting interest – but whatever makes the experience more enjoyable (Volkswagen is having fun with the idea in its new commercials).

While we Americans failed to qualify, our great rivals from across the Rio Grande did, and with some ease. That’s led to some to suggest that American fans should root for Mexico in the Cup. That reached peak silliness this past weekend with this Tweet from, of all people, United States Men’s National Team legend Landon Donovan:

Putting to one side the cash-grab aspect of all this (Wells Fargo, Landon? Really?), that’s simply not how rivalries work. I personally think it’s a bridge to far to wish ill on your rivals (not a fan of the “my two favorite teams are A and whoever is playing B” shirts). Rooting against someone just seems like bad karma. Sports should involve positive motivations, not negative.

Besides, you can sit back and realize it’s good for the United States for Mexico – and the other CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica and Panama – to do well. When the region does well on the global stage it lifts all boats and we, as a men’s soccer program, desperately could use some lift right now. But that’s a far bridge from actually rooting for them to do well.

To put it in another context, as a West Virginia University fan and alum, I hope that our Big XII rivals do well in bowl games and NCAA tournaments, because it makes us look better when we do well in the conference. So, while I’m happy with Kansas winning a national championship in basketball or Oklahoma doing well in the football “playoff,” that doesn’t mean I’m actively rooting for them. That’s just a bridge too far.

But still, if you’re an American fan and you want to root for Mexico, be my guest. Just don’t make it more than it is, as Donovan tried to do in a follow-up Tweet after being called out by fellow former USMNT member Carlos Bocanegra:

 

Um, no. In the same way that rooting for WVU against Baylor doesn’t mean I wish ill on the students in Waco, not rooting for Mexico has nothing to do with the horribles the current regime is perpetrating upon immigrants and Latinos. Sports can certainly build bridges, but not ones that can bear that much weight.

So I will watch with interest as Mexico (and Costa Rica and Panama) take on the world in our absence. I’ll marvel at brilliant plays made and shake my head at missed chances and nonsense. In other words, I’ll watch their games just like I do everybody else’s.

That being said – well done to Mexico for knocking off Germany yesterday.

Cheating? Brilliant? A Little of Both

The World Cup gets underway this week. Even without the United States involved (*sniff*) I’m still looking forward to the tournament. Beyond the month-long celebration of world-class soccer, it always seems to bring some really odd stories out in the run up to the tournament. Some are amusing, some less so.

This one falls kind of in between.

Tunisia are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 after topping their group in qualifying. That means playing a series of friendlies (soccer-talk for “exhibition”) in the weeks leading up to the Cup in order to prepare. That’s bad timing because the Tunisian players are Muslims and it’s currently Ramadan. That means not drinking or eating anything between sunrise and sunset for a month. This year, that month is May 15 to June 14.

You can see the problem. Soccer is famously taxing when it comes to physical stamina:

So playing the same at the highest level while you can’t eat or drink would be a real pain in the ass.

Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appears to have found a clever solution:

In friendly matches against Portugal then Turkey, goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appeared to feign injury at sundown, when the fast comes to an end.

As he lay on the pitch receiving medical treatment, his teammates rushed to the sidelines to drink water and snack on dates.

And it produced immediate results.

Down 2-1 to European champions Portugal, Tunisia rebounded six minutes after Hassen’s injury break by scoring an equalizer and ended the match 2-2.

Days later against Turkey, Hassen stopped play by lying on his back.

Again, his teammates ate dates and drank water provided to them by waiting coaching staff. That match also ended 2-2.

* * *

Pundits in Tunisia were quick to note the timing of the goalkeeper’s injuries in the second half of both matches – in the 58th and 47th minutes of play respectively.

This coincided with the time of sunset, which is when Iftar – the breaking of the fast usually with dates and water – begins for Muslims observing Ramadan.

In other words:

WhatYouDidThere

I’m torn about how to think about this.

Make no mistake, Hassen was cheating. Simulation is a violation of the rules of the game. While it usually comes up in situations where a player is trying to draw a foul or a penalty kick it applies just as much when a player feigns injury for some reason. That happens late in games when one team is trying to kill time or simply blunt the momentum of the other side when it’s seeking a game-winning or game-tying goal.

On the other hand, the benefit to his team wasn’t something completely unusual in modern soccer. If a player gets hurt – enough that the game stops for trainers to trot out on the field and tend to him – the teams routinely take a chance to get a drink. I’ve seen players slurp Gatorade-style goo from tubes on the sideline, too. Given the rigors of a soccer match, it’s not unusual for players to take any chance they can to hydrate and such.

Thus, part of me wants to chock this up to “creative gamesmanship” and give it a pass. And it happened in friendlies, anyway, so there wasn’t anything really at stake (Ramadan will be over by the time the Cup starts, so it won’t come up there). But it’s still faking an injury to gain an advantage, however slight, and that’s a chicken shit thing to do.

So, no more of this, folks. But, you know, pretty clever of you to think of it in the first place.