Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

On Creative Burnout (#SFWApro)

I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but I’d like to take a moment to talk about creative burnout and self-care. Because I think sometimes we all push ourselves too hard, and we all deserve a break.

There’s nothing wrong with stepping back from our work once in a while. Digging into one’s soul to tell stories, craft images, or to create anything, can be an exhausting process.

But life takes its toll on all of us. Health concerns, financial worries, family obligations, other full-time work … they all put stress on us. Mentally, physically, and emotionally.

I sometimes feel as if our field puts too much emphasis on the need to make measurable progress every day. Write “X” words every day. Post a certain number of tweets. Produce, produce, produce.

Artists are not machines. We need to recharge. To rest. To think. To dream. Sometimes, what we think is “writer’s block” is more than just a sign of a problem with our project: in some cases, it’s a warning of burnout.

Too many of us have been conditioned to stigmatize the idea of stepping away from our work, not just for a day, but maybe for weeks, or months, or longer. There are those who make us feel like failures if we do.

I’ve been my own worst critic in such situations. Beat myself up emotionally for not working when what I really needed was to embrace the downtime. I needed time this past year to process bad news on multiple fronts.

What I’m trying to say is, cut yourself some slack. If you can afford to do so, be willing to walk away from a blank page. Self-care — whether physical or psychological — is not sloth. Downtime is not a sin.

When you’ve healed, when you’ve regained your strength, your focus, your time … you’ll know it. Your muse will return. Ideas will flow again. But first you need to care for yourself and those around you.

There’s no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all formula for recovering from burnout. Maybe you need medical care, or talk therapy. Or the right chat with a friend. Maybe you just need time and solitude.

But when it comes to survival, you owe it to yourself to be a little bit selfish. As they say on airplanes, put your own mask on first before you try to help others. Catch your breath.

Remember: the creative life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pace yourselves, my friends.

#SFWApro

Neil Peart, Sept. 12, 1952–Jan. 7, 2020 #RIP

I was standing in a pharmacy this afternoon when my phone rang. It was my dear friend Randy Giudice calling from Los Angeles. I hadn’t heard from Randy in some time, so I picked up right away.

He was the one who broke the news to me that my hero, Neil Peart of Rush, had died:

Shattered. Gutted. Bereft. That’s where I am right now.

I never had the honor of meeting Neil, (as I did with his Rush band-mates Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, in 2007), but Neil once sent me a brief but friendly email, as thanks for naming a character in his honor in my first pair of published Star Trek novels, A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal.

I wish I could have known the man behind the drum kit; I wish I could have had the chance someday to call the Professor a friend. Now that hope is forever quashed, and a measure of my joy in this life departs with him.

Neil Peart was more to me than a musician and an author in a band that I’ve loved most of my life. He was an inspiration to me, a guiding star, a talent who gave words and form to ideas that helped me find my own way as an artist and as a person.

Almost every work of prose I’ve ever published has contained some form of homage, either subtle or overt (usually overt), to Neil Peart’s lyrics. He was my idol — which, given his aversion to the notion of idolatry, is somewhat ironic.

I will always treasure the body of work that he and Rush created and shared with the world, and my grieving heart goes out to his family, his friends, and his colleagues.

All the world’s a stage, but the Professor has just made his exit, stage left.

Goodbye, Neil.

#RIPNeilPeart

15 Years and Cold Pizza

Today is my and Kara’s 15th wedding anniversary. Our tradition, since our first anniversary, has been to mark the occasion with cold pizza and good red wine.

Why, you ask?

Our wedding day, like most, was one of joyful chaos. We didn’t get to eat much at our reception, which we were told is typical. Consequently, when we got home that night, we were ravenous. But because we were planning to leave soon for a honeymoon, there was not much to eat in the fridge.

Except for a few slices of cold pizza. Which we promptly scorfed.

The following year, we’d planned a nice night out for our first anniversary. That plan was scuttled when I woke up feeling under the weather. I recovered my health and my appetite later that evening, but by then it was too late to go out. So we foraged in the fridge and found … cold pizza.

Thus a tradition was born.

Because this year’s anniversary is one that ends in a five or a zero, we have something special planned. An excellent brick-oven pizza with all of our favorite toppings awaits us in our fridge, as do desserts from local bakery Gian Piero. For our wine, we have a superb 2006 Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino that we’ve been saving for this occasion. To dress the table I procured a bouquet of 15 roses — one for each year of our marriage so far.

Here’s to many more wonderful years of cold ’za and vino fina. I love you, Kara.

Fantasy casting the Dark Arts series

I have been asked, notably in two interviews by Paul Semel, about what actors I would cast in the key roles of my Dark Arts series if it were being produced today, and if money and talent availability posed no barriers. Because I tend to picture my stories as movies in my imagination before I write them, this is a matter to which I’ve given much thought over the past few years.

These days there are so many great premium long-form series running on so many different channels and services that I can’t really say I have a preference for which one I’d most like to see host a Dark Arts series. All I can say for sure is that I’d rather it be on a premium subscription service than on network television, but at the same time, several cable channels have impressed the hell out of me with their series work (including, but not limited to, AMC, FX, and BBC America).

So, who do I wish would star in this daydream blockbuster of mine?

TOM HOLLAND as Cade Martin
I feel like Tom Holland has the perfect combination of vulnerability and boyish innocence on the verge of becoming cynicism to play the lead role of book one, The Midnight Front.

SUSANNA SKAGGS as Anja Kernova
I was blown away by the subtlety and emotional depth of Susanna Skaggs’s performance in the final season of Halt and Catch Fire — so much so that I find it hard to picture anyone else as Anja Kernova, “the Saint of Stalingrad.”

TOMMY FLANAGAN as Adair Macrae
I’ve been a fan of Tommy Flanagan’s work for years. His recent work on the FX series Sons of Anarchy was especially powerful. He carries with him an aura of danger, gravitas, and loss that makes him the perfect choice to play a 357-year-old Scottish vulgarian master sorcerer.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER as Kein Engel
If you’ve seen Michael Fassbender in the recent Alien films, or as Eric Lensher/Magneto in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, you already know that he has a knack for portraying characters of cold, ruthless power. That makes him the ideal candidate to play the series’ arch-villain.

DIEGO LUNA as Father Luis Roderigo Pérez
A key character in book two, The Iron Codex, Father Pérez starts out as a rival to our heroes. He is decent, pious, and brave. I think that Diego Luna (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would be the perfect actor to bring this character to life on the screen.

PARKER SAWYERS as Miles Franklin
Assuming this talented and charismatic actor (Pine Gap) can muster a good London accent, he would be a superb choice to play Cade’s best friend at Oxford (and, in the sequels, his partner inside MI6).

SARAH POWER as Briet Segfrunsdóttir
Perhaps best known to SF fans as Pawter Simms on the Syfy series Killjoys, Sarah Power has a regal quality, excellent emotional range, and a knack for playing the smartest person in the room. All of these traits make her a sublime choice for a villainess in search of redemption.

VOLKER BRUCH as Dragan Dalca
The star of German hit TV series Babylon Berlin, Volker Bruch possesses great charm and intensity, as well as excellent physicality. As soon as I saw him, I was able to picture him as the villain of book two, The Iron Codex.

ODED FEHR as Khalîl el-Sahir
With a magnetic screen presence, an aura of mystery, and a rich voice, Oded Fehr has all of the qualities I would expect for an actor looking to play a wise and ancient magician — in essence, this series’ Yoda.

So that’s my wish list for the most major roles. There are some important supporting roles from book one that I have never successfully cast in my imagination (such as Stefan Van Ausdall, Nikostratos Le Beau, or Siegmar Tuomainen), but who I will recognize if I ever see actors who match my mental portraits of those characters.

How to Support Authors Whose Work You Love: Pre-Orders

When you like certain authors’ work, there are three key things you should do to support them: Pre-order their books, post online reviews, and promote them through word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth praise for authors’ work is the greatest gift readers can bestow. Reviews rarely lead to sales. Praise often does.

Online reviews of books are vital to authors. It takes 25+ reviews to trigger beneficial effects from most retail sites’ algorithms. The most important thing to remember when leaving reviews of a work you’ve read is to be truthful, thorough, and fair.

That brings me to pre-orders. Online pre-orders are critical to the success of many books. I know some fans resist them. Don’t.

Waiting for a series to finish before you decide to buy it is a good way to guarantee that your favorite authors will get pushed off the shelves. It serves to kill new series before they get started.

Publishers and retailers use online pre-orders to gauge public interest in new books. This determines how they treat those books. Strong pre-orders for a book can inspire a retailer to increase its print order. It can propel a book onto bestseller lists.

When a publisher sees that a book has garnered strong support from pre-orders, it might invest more in its marketing.

Pre-orders help readers, too. Many online retailers guarantee pre-order prices, so you can lock in the best price.

So, if you love books, or like the work of a certain author, be sure to pre-order their books. It matters quite a bit.

FYI, The Midnight Front, Book 1 of my Dark Arts series coming January 30, 2018, from Tor Books, is currently available for pre-order in the format of your choice—hardcover, paperback, eBook, or digital audio. I’m just sayin’.

Also, if you’re an author who has a new book coming out in the next five to six months, and if that work is now available for pre-order in at least one format, please feel free to post links to your pre-order pages in the comments below!

#SFWApro

Helpful Mr. Bear — a blast from my childhood

On a recent visit north to see my family, Kara and I returned with a box of my childhood books given to us by my parents, who were clearing out their house in preparation for a big move south.

The books are all vintage children’s story books of the 1960s and 1970s. Some were originally mine, some were passed down to me from my brother. The reason Kara and I took the books is to make a gift of them to her younger sister, who just gave birth to identical twin boys.

While flipping through the yellowed tomes, I found myself smiling as I saw old favorites from childhood: The Monster at the End of This Book; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; Puff the Magic Dragon.

Then I saw that my wife had set aside one book that she said I needed to look at: Helpful Mr. Bear, written by Chizuko Kuratomi and illustrated by Kozo Kakimoto.

It’s the story of a big friendly bear who gets lonely on his mountain, and so he goes down to the bunny town to bring gifts to the bunnies. Hijinks ensue.

It would seem that the key elements of my adult psyche were imprinted far earlier than even I had ever realized.

Farewell, Mister Puck, Greatest Cat of All Time

Today has been a day of mourning here at Chez Mack-Bain. We had to say good-bye to our beloved feline friend Mister Puck. We got to spend just over twelve years of our lives with him, and in that time we came to love him more than we can express.

Puck as a kitten on our dining tableHe was born in early November of 2004, and we adopted him on March 6, 2005. It had been a case of love at first sight. Kara spotted him, a shivering orange-and-white fluff, across a crowded room at the Union Square Petco. She knew the moment she saw him that he was the kitten for her, and for us. I wasn’t so sure, but her passion for him persuaded me.

He had come to us slightly feral and terrified. When we first got him home, all he wanted to do was hide. To get him to eat, Kara had to feed him bits of wet cat food from her fingertips.

Puck as a kitten in his towerIn time he learned to be less scared, but he was always a clumsy thing, and small for his age, probably due to a period of malnutrition during a crucial early growth phase. His rear feet were absurdly pigeon-toed, and as a result he wobbled when he walked, and when he ran he sometimes hopped like a bunny. He was perpetually skittish, terrified of his own shadow, and a neurotic creature of habit.

Though he never really warmed up to strangers (with only a few rare exceptions), he soon came to be very affectionate with me and Kara. He would lounge behind our heads when we sat on the sofa; hip-check our heads as he strolled along from one end of the sofa to the other; flump against me in the mornings (or afternoons, when he felt I had slept in too long); cuddle up against Kara as she went to sleep at night. He loved his spot under the sofa, atop his kitty tower by the window, under the bed in my office, and on top of our radiator in the winters.

Puck asleep and awkward in his tower.Aside from some plaque on his teeth, his last physical had turned up nothing out of the ordinary. So we were concerned when his behavior changed abruptly after the holidays this year. He became asocial, choosing to hide from even us, and his appetite deteriorated. As a lifelong companion of cats, I knew these were bad signs.

We brought him to the vet in early January of 2017; the first visit turned up nothing amiss. His blood work was perfect, all tests of his organ function were optimal. His weight was down a little, but there were no warning signs for diabetes or hyperthyroidism, or anything else. We were baffled, but thought maybe he had just gone through a blue funk of some sort.

A couple of weeks later, while petting Puck’s face, Kara felt a hard mass under the skin on the left side of his throat. We immediately took him back to the vet, and this time we insisted on x-rays, which revealed a tumor-like mass. The doctor took a sample for biopsy. The plan was, if the tumor was benign, just an annoying fatty tumor, we would surgically excise it. That threatened to be an expensive process, but I was prepared to pay the cost. “Let’s go to work,” I told the doctors.

Puck in a WindowA few days later they had the biopsy results. It was a malignant squamous cell carcinoma, and it was not just in his throat but attached to his jugular vein, which meant it was both inoperable and imminently terminal. There was nothing we could do but try to make him comfortable for as long as we were able.

We soldiered on, in denial, for the last two and half months. I was especially heartbroken at this news because Puck was only 12 and in good health otherwise; we should have had years more time with him. Adding insult to the injury, this type of cancer was the same thing that had taken my beloved Ripley six and half years earlier.

Puck's Box (exterior)A few days ago I noticed that Puck’s tumor had broken through the surface of his skin, bringing with it the putrid reek of infection. Puck had reached a point where he could no longer open his mouth to eat or drink. That meant I could no longer give him medicine. There was nothing more that we could do for him. From that point forward, his quality of life could only decline, his discomfort could only increase — and through it all he would be starving but unable to eat. The point at which I finally knew for certain it was time to contact the doctors was when Puck emerged from under the sofa late one night, looked up at me, and tried to cry — but couldn’t open his mouth to let out his cry.

His longtime veterinarian kindly agreed to make a house call today, on his day off, a day when his office is normally closed, to ease Puck off this mortal coil. I visited their office yesterday to fill out all the papers and pay all the fees. When that was done, I bought some supplies and brought them home to prepare for our final good-byes with our beloved golden prince.

Puck's Box (interior) Flowers for Puck Puck's Burial ShroudI remembered that when we had to put Ripley to sleep, I hadn’t realized the doctors would need something in which to put my cat after it was done, so that they could take her away for cremation. We ended up wrapping her in an old pet fleece, because it was all we could find on short notice. I wasn’t going to let that happen to Mister Puck.

To allow him to make his final exit with dignity and beauty, I emptied the box that had brought the copies of my latest book. I used some shiny metallic-silver gift wrapping paper to decorated the outside of the box, and all its top flaps. Two and half jumbo bags of cotton balls formed the cushion in the bottom of the box and a pillow; a pair of somber-colored but tasteful pashmina shawls from a discount store provided the box’s lining and Mister Puck’s shroud. Last but not least, I bought some fresh flowers and pre-cut their stems to fit inside the box.

When I had finished all these preparations, I broke down and cried for a while.

Today, the doctors came to the house at roughly 2pm. They gave Puck a mild sedative so that we could spend some time with him without him being terrified. They gave me and Kara a generous period of time alone with Puck, and when we said we were ready, they delivered his final injection while we held and soothed him. After the doctor pronounced that Puck had passed, Kara and I wrapped our furry little man in his shroud, and then we lowered him into the box. I arranged the flowers on top of him, to tell whoever might open the box, “This beast was loved.” And then I taped it closed, to preserve Puck’s privacy, which I know he would’ve wanted.

The rest of today has been a surreal blur. This is a pain Kara and I will feel acutely for some time.

Mister Puck, you were the best of all cats, and we gave you the best possible life that we could. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, comfortable, and healthy. I wish you hadn’t left us so soon, but these things are rarely if ever up to us.

Requiescat in pace, beloved cat.

Mister Puck
November 4, 2004 – March 26, 2017

Mister Puck