Monday, February 20, 2012

Neil Hope, Degrassi, and Lessons Learned

I often feel the urge to explain my deep love of Degrassi. I’ve had a few friends write it off as a strange kind of nostalgia, a return to the TV of my childhood. But no. I missed the show back in the 80s. My only encounter with it then was in the form of one of the tie-in novels, about which I have little memory.

No, Degrassi was one of those things that I kind of missed, but kept coming back to haunt me. I know I read something about it when some TV group or another rated among The Greatest Shows of All Time. And I definitely remember a little piece that Kevin Smith wrote about it.

And then, of course, Kevin Smith was on the show a couple of times, as a version of himself that didn’t quite match up with reality.

And so, when I came across a copy of the first season of the show in my local library, I was just curious enough to pick it up, and get my wife to watch it with me. After all, I like the work of Kevin Smith. Might it not be possible that I would like the things he likes?

At its best, good TV can be like a good novel, filled with twists, and turns, and setups and payoffs, and characters you find interesting. And despite the fact that Degrassi was a TV show aimed at kids? It was all those things, and more.

Degrassi has been on the air in one form or another for something like 25 years now, with 19 separate years of new shows. And the overarching theme, to my mind, has always been this: What you do has consequences. Some are good. Some are bad. But there are always consequences.

That’s a big part of why I’ve watched every episode of Degrassi, and even own the complete series. So often on television, especially in the shows of the 80s, bad things happened to guest stars. Fred would come in, and he would be the best friend of the star, even though we had never seen Fred before. Then Fred would be diagnosed with AIDS, and we would all learn a lesson about needle sharing. Then we’d never see Fred again.

That almost never happened on Degrassi. On Degrassi, the cast was an ensemble, with almost everyone carrying equal weight. And so, when someone was diagnosed with HIV, it was a huge deal.

And now, with all the throat-clearing done, let’s talk about one of my favorite characters: Wheels.

Wheels was adopted. He knew this, and talked about it. In a very memorable instance, he met his birth father. And in an even more memorable instance, his parents were killed in an auto accident, and Wheels tried to get his birth father to become his real father.

Only his birth father wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Wheels got to a very, very, very dark place after that. And unlike a lot of American children’s television, wherein a character can eventually straighten up and fly right? It never happened.

Instead, Degrassi ended in what was possibly the most depressing way possible. Wheels got drunk and killed someone in a completely senseless car accident.

Eventually, the character of Wheels came back, briefly, on an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. And all those years later he got, if not a happy ending, at least some kind of closure.

Degrasssi: The Next Generation eventually phased out all of the classic characters except for the fellow who played Snake. I was sad to see them go, but I understood. You can only have so much churn amongst the same five or six adults before you completely run out of plotlines for them.

And yet, every once in a while, I find myself hoping that one or more of the classic characters will come back, if only for an episode or two, and let us know what became of them.

And here’s where reality intersects with fantasy, I suppose. Because Neil Hope, the guy who played Wheels? He died. In 2007. And the world is just now finding out.

If you believe the stories being written, and I guess I have to, he didn’t keep in touch with most of family and friends. So when he died alone, as a John Doe, the police couldn’t locate any kind of next of kin.

That sounds impossible to me, that an actor who worked on a very popular TV show for five years, who even came out of retirement (of a kind, as he never acted in anything that wasn’t Degrassi) to reprise his character, that he could just die and no one could know who he is. This is a face that’s still on TV today.

And yet it happened.

At the end of every episode of classic Degrassi, the MO of the show was that the final shot was a freeze frame on the person who learned something that week.

When I learned when and how Neil Hope left the world, alone and forgotten for five years, my brain immediately locked into a kind of freeze frame of him as a teenager. Standing there in his glasses, staring out at the world, his life a complete mess.

I could see that frame, could see that kid, his life ahead of him. I’m not looking at Neil, really, but at some kind of TV version of him.

I can see that face, and wonder, what did he want to be? Surely, not a footnote of Canadian television. Surely, not the guy who died alone at 35, the age I am now.

But I say again: That’s what happened.

Neil, of course, can’t learn a lesson from this, because he’s gone from this world and on to whatever comes after this.

But maybe there’s something people like me can learn from that freeze frame.

It’s possible that Neil had a terrible family, and awful friends. It’s equally possible that he was fighting mental illness, or other issues.

But as I sit here, thinking about him, I think:

I wish he had gotten help.

I wish he had held onto his friends and family. And if he needed new ones, that he had found the ones he needed.

I wish someone had thought to check up on him sooner. Five years is a long time to wonder what happened to someone, without taking any time to look into it.

More than anything, Neil’s death reminds me that in the end, connections are all we have. If I die tomorrow, rich and/or famous, it doesn’t mean anything if it takes five years for anyone to discover my death. If that’s the case, Something Had Gone Wrong.

So this is me, being reminded of that my actions have consequences, and that I need to remember to tend to the people I love, and let them tend to me.

I’m not sure that’s what Neil would have wanted me to learn from his death. But in life, and on Degrassi, a lot of people learn hard lessons, whether they want to or not.

Those lessons hurt, and there is loss. But hopefully, some good can come from it.

So goodbye Neil. And goodbye Wheels. And thanks, for this lesson, and all the others.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ethiopia Reads: First Donation

So as you may recall, I donate 10% of my sales to Ethiopia Reads.

Or rather, I’ve mentioned it on this here blog before, and I haven’t put a follow-up on the blog yet. Which I should have, a while ago.

Only I didn’t. Because I don’t sell all that much from month to month, and I know that when you give money using a credit card, well, there are fees involved for the person getting the money.

So I figured I’d wait until the end of the year, when the pile was big enough…

And was it big enough?

It was all right. Long story short, I also kicked some of my own money into the donation, to make it a nice, rounded $50 donation. And why not? Life has been good to me, and a little extra money will buy a kid a book.

I’m all for that.

Below, I’ve included part of my donation information, with my credit card info blanked out. But before I get there…

Thanks, all my readers, for helping me to do this. I’m going to keep donating, as long as I keep selling books. (And to be honest, even if I don’t sell books. But this way I can afford to donate more.)

If you’d like to make a donation of your own, here’s the link:

And if you want to get some four and five star fiction and non-fiction, and make me donate instead, here are those links:




Wednesday, February 15, 2012

10 (Hopefully) Fun Facts About the Blood Calling Series

Last night, I pushed publish on The Enforcers, the final book of the Blood Calling trilogy. There’s at least one more story I’ve planned out and want to tell (a prequel of sorts, which I’ll talk about in a second) but the series is at a point where I can stop and say that the tale is effectively told.

(Fans may disagree. I suspect I’m either going to get a lot of messages from people saying they love the ending, or a lot of messages from people saying, “That’s it? That CAN’T be it!”)

I could link all the books individually, but I don’t know that you want to have to hunt through a dozen links to find the books you want. So instead, I’ll link my author pages:




Okay, on with the show. Please be warned that while I’ve tried to tread lightly on plot points, if you’re very, very, very spoiler-averse you might want to skip reading this until after you’ve finished the series.

1. The question I get most frequently about the series is “In what order should I read the books?”

That’s not as easy to answer as it might seem. The main trilogy (Blood Calling, Misfits, and The Enforcers) need to be read in that order. But people want to know, where does Baby Teeth fall in there?

I think to have maximum impact, Baby Teeth should be read either before or after Blood Calling. The events contained in the novelette dovetail neatly with a story that gets told in Misfits, and I’m not sure if Baby Teeth is quite as enjoyable once you’ve read Misfits.

I could be wrong.

All that said, reading Baby Teeth is not essential to enjoying the rest of the series.

2. Speaking of Baby Teeth, I’m never quite sure if the story fits, tonally, with the rest of the series. When I started writing it, I hadn’t originally planned to tie it to the Blood Calling series. It was just meant to be a creepy story about a vampire baby.

(Truth be told, I was trying to do a riff on Lovecraft. I think that if you squint, you can see the influence, but Lovecraft is much, much, much more relentless than I think I’m capable of being.)

I’ve told the story elsewhere, but in the end Emma was the glue that tied the two stories together. I was stuck on both Blood Calling and Baby Teeth, and she solved problems I had in both of the books. After that, the link grew.

3. Emma was never meant to be part of the Blood Calling series. Originally it was supposed to be about Wash and Lucy. Which makes the fact that Emma is the most-loved character in the series terribly interesting to me.

4. Most interesting fact about Emma? Emma isn’t her real name. I know what her real name is, but I’ve been holding it back, hoping that I could come up with a fun way to reveal it. I will tell you that her real name starts with the letter M.

I’m pretty sure I’ve already said too much.

5. The “lost” Blood Calling story, if it ever gets written, will be about Emma’s time in Egypt. I have a decent outline, but to get it right I’ll need to do more research than I generally do (which can be surprisingly substantial). I go back and forth whether to call the story Emma Goes to Egypt or A Game of Senet.

6. Speaking of titles, Misfits and The Enforcers had those titles from the moment I started working on them until the moment I pushed publish.

Baby Teeth, however, started life as Living Dead Baby. During the writing process, I also considered calling it My Undead Baby. My wife told me both of those sounded like zombie stories. She was not wrong. A friend at WPR (my online writing group of friends) suggested Baby Teeth.

7. Blood Calling, for that matter, also had a different name for much of the time I was writing it. It was called The Kids, because I was first launched into the idea of writing a vampire novel kind-of-but-not-really based on the song The Kids are All F###ed Up, by Cobra Starship. Almost none of the ideas I envisioned while listening to the song made it into the final novel.

For that matter, I suspect the song itself has nothing to do with vampires at all.

8. I don’t think I’ve ever been great at coming up with character names. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I’m guessing it’s related to the fact that I’m terrible with names in real life, and subsequently have a hard time assigning a name to a character who isn’t fully formed in my mind yet.

I often have to pull names from other areas of my life, just to put some kind of placeholder there. Then I never remove the placeholder. So, off the top of my head:

Washing Lincoln is, of course, named for the two most well-known US Presidents. Is that Wash’s “real” name? No. I have no clue what his original name was. His backstory is, somewhat, based on Frederick Douglass.

Lucy’s first name was pulled from Dracula. Leary is actually the last name of an ex-coworker.

(Before starting Blood Calling, I actually read Dracula and one of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies as research. That might be the only time in history anyone says that.)

Then there are the characters whose names came from Joss Whedon shows.

Nathan is named for Nathan Fillion, most famous among geeks for his work on Firefly.

Alex is named for Alexis Denisof, who worked on Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse.

Charisma is, of course, named for Charisma Carpenter, of Buffy and Angel fame.

Then there are the names pulled from my first movie, Searching for Mr. Right.Com.

Tim and Petrina are the first names of the lead actors in that film.

Wordsworth was Tim’s character’s original last name, until it got changed in a rewrite I was not involved in.

David, on the other hand, is named for one of the primary bad vampires in the movie The Lost Boys.

Emma is named for the Jane Austen novel. Which is funny, because I’m not a fan of the author or the book. But I thought Emma would be, since she’s a reader.

9. There are two bands who named in Misfits, both of them in The Pitt. They are names of bands my brother is/was in. He’s playing the drums.

10. At 212,000 words, the complete Blood Calling series is longer than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but shorter than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. That might change if and when I finish my Emma story.

What I'm Working On Next

With the completion of the Blood Calling series, the natural question is: What happens next?

In all honesty, I’m not 100% sure.

My original plan was to try to get ten books out in the course of a year. I don’t think I can pull that off at this point.

Let’s go into why.

Last night, I pressed publish on The Enforcers, a Blood Calling Novel, thereby bringing the Blood Calling series to a conclusion.

Now, my original plan was to cap the series with a novella/novelette about Emma, who was the breakout character of the series. I have a strong sense of how the story would go, and just need some information about ancient Egypt to put the story together.

Unfortunately, my good friend who knows all about Egypt has been very sick lately, and so I’ve had to table the Emma story for the foreseeable future.

The publication of The Enforcers brings my published book total to eight. Early next week, I’ll finally get the final copyedits done on my Basic Movie-Making book, which will bring the book total to nine.

Since the Emma book will be/would be fairly short, I figured I would be able to write it over the last couple of months with no trouble, and get it released in March, and that would be ten total books.

Instead, I’m faced with three options.

One. Come up with a shorter tale to tell, write it, and get it covered and edited by the end of March. That probably won’t happen, simply because I don’t have any short ideas in my head right now. Might I have one in the next 40 days or so? Anything is possible, but I’m doubtful.

My second option is to finish the edits on But the Third One Was Great: Volume 1. The problem there is that the first volume is about 175,000 words right now. Going at normal editing speed, it would take my copyeditor about 30 days to get through the whole book. And that assumes that I’m done making my edits. Which I’m not.

My final option is to write another novel, and get it edited and released in the next six weeks.

Granted, I’m a fast writer. I might be able to write a book in six weeks, if I did literally nothing else. At 2000 words a day, I could knock out a 90,000 word novel (a little shorter than Mercy) in roughly 45 days. Then I would have one day to copyedit and release the book.

This is not really in my best interests.

Still, nine ebooks in one year is some pretty impressive work. So I think I’ll just let that stand, and be happy with it.

What does that leave?

Well, the Emma story is up in the air, and will remain so.

I still want to finish the edits on But the Third One was Great, but it’s a massive and strange project that’s going to require a surprising amount of work on my part to finish. I suspect it will take more than a month to get the copyedits done on one volume, let alone two.

Subsequently, I think this project is going to get pushed around on my schedule for a while.

I had talked about writing a sequel to Mercy, which is my best-selling novel. I had an idea, and I’ve had requests to write another part, but for lack of a better way to say it, I’m lacking a compelling reason to write part 2.

I have characters, and I have goals for those characters, but what I’m lacking right now is a strong emotional component. And to my mind, what made Mercy special was the emotional component.

I’m having that same problem with The Werewolf Solution. Mentally, I’ve sorta-kinda written and rewritten a start to the next volume, trying to figure out what events would, or could, launch another adventure.

When I wrote the original novella, I had strong ideas of where the story would go next. But again, I’m less sure about the emotional undercurrents. More importantly, I covered some similar themes in Blood Calling, and I want to make sure I don’t repeat myself.

So what to do?

Well, I started another novel. At the moment, it’s called Frank, the Lonely Unicorn. What it’s about is pretty much in the title, and I’m not revealing anything else because I’m still working out the bits and pieces of the story.

Why do a unicorn story? Honestly, it’s because Fairy Godmother-In-Law, despite the fact that I’ve never pushed it at any readers and bloggers, continues to sell. I suspect it’s because there just isn’t a whole lot of humorous contemporary fantasy stories out there in the world, and people in need of a fix are stumbling across my little story and enjoying it.

Granted, I could be wrong about the world’s craving for a story about a sarcastic unicorn on a hunt for love, but, well, it won’t be the last time I incorrectly gauge what readers want.

Beyond that, I don’t have much in the way of plans. Friends have been encouraging me to look for a traditional publishing deal for my novels, and I’m giving it some thought. So if you like my stuff, and you know an agent or publisher who likes the kind of thing I do, feel free to drop me a line.

I’m also considering changing up my covers a bit, and doing a little reformatting, and fixing the handful of typos people have found in my novels.

(Of course, it’s generally about three per book. Really. So I don’t know that it’s a priority.)

Do I have other ideas? At the moment, nothing pressing. I have a few old movie premises that might be fun to turn into novels, just to attempt something that doesn’t involve the supernatural. But that’s far, far, far in the back of my mind.

Tentatively, I still plan to write all the books I’ve spent the last few months thinking about, though I suspect my time frame will probably expand quite a bit. Getting all these books out will at the very least drag me to March 2013, and probably beyond.

Things May Change.

But this is where my head’s at now.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Books I Love: The Gone Series

Recently, I’ve been having trouble getting through most of the books I’ve been reading.

I don’t know if that’s because of the books, or if it’s because of me, but in thinking back over everything I’ve read over the last year or so, I feel like I struggled with a lot more of my reading material than I usually do.

Of course, I’ve been working, and writing my novels, and generally busy with life, but I could only think of two books over the last year that I just plain sailed through.

The first was Notes from the Blender, by Brendan Halpin and Trish Cook.

The second Plague, the fourth book in the Gone series, by Michael Grant.

Now, there are going to be six books total, and here are the titles, because you will want to read them: Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague, Fear, and Light.

So, of course, the first question that should spring to mind is this: What are they about?

I’ll come back to that. I swear.

Because first, I want to talk about how I discovered the books, just so you can understand what they were up against when I started reading them.

When the first book came out, Ain’t It Cool News, which rarely covers books, had kind of a neat idea. Since the book deals with a bunch of people vanishing, they planned to put up the first 10 or 15 chapters, one day after the next.

Each chapter would vanish at midnight.

Then, unfortunately, the underbelly of Ain’t It Cool reared its ugly head. Chapter 1 went up, and the formatting was really, really funky, and the comments were rife with bile, as they usually are. (You suck, your whole family sucks, this book sucks, and anyone who says otherwise is a corporate shill. The usual.)

But I read it, and the chapter didn’t fool around. The first big idea dropped within a few paragraphs. That premise is, everyone in town over the age of 15 vanishes at the exact same moment.

Then came the next few chapters, posted daily, still totally wonked in the formatting department, with the comments growing more and more heated for reasons I didn’t really understand.

Because the story kept developing, and it was still pretty cool. The town was trapped under a giant bubble that the kids can’t see out of. Anyone who turns 15 vanishes. Some of the kids develop powers.

And on, and on, and on.

The series was eventually pulled before all the chapters were posted, but I grabbed a copy of Gone and I quite literally flew through it. The books are all North of 400 pages, and they are still over way too quickly.

Of course, it’s easy to be a critic when something bothers you. But it’s harder to talk about something you enjoy.

I think I know why, in this case. Even in those few short paragraphs above what I’m writing now, I’ve already given away some of the more entertaining surprises. And while I could tell you more about the plot, I’d hate to ruin it for you.

Here’s what I can tell you – and hopefully it’ll get you hyped up enough to pick up the first book.

1. The series is Stephen King endorsed.

This is as it should be. Somewhere deep into the second book, I realized that it reminded me of the Stephen King of old. The Stand, for example, was a massive book that kept the pedal to the floor, always relentlessly hurtling forward, always adding new ideas and dropping new bombs on the characters (sometimes literally).

The Gone series contains the same raw power, always moving forward, always willing to jam it’s characters into horrible situations and let them die, if need be.

Unlike other YA series that gets their characters into horrible situations, and then finds a way to let them off at the last second.

2. The series doesn’t stop for plodding character monologues.

It’s easy to fill space with teenage angst. As an author, I know this. As a reader, it drives me up a wall. I’m good with characters having emotions, but I am not good with the story grinding to a halt for five pages while people talk about their feelings. As a component of scene? Good. As the scene itself?


We get none of that.

3. The series is constantly upping the stakes to near-impossible levels, and then raising them again.

Some of this is right there in the titles. What happens when the food runs out? What happens when people start getting sick and there are no doctors, and little in the way of medicine?

What happens when kids try to form a government?

What happens when you run out of water?

When happens when the electricity goes out?

I am astonished just how vicious Michael Grant can be.

Is there more? Yeah, there’s more. The next book is out in April, and the final volume a year later, and that’s a shame. I fully intend to grab the book at the first opportunity and consume it in great, crushing bites.

But after that, I have to wait a whole year for the final volume.

I’ll be sad to see it end. And if that doesn’t tell you how much I enjoy the series, nothing will.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why American Idol Makes Me Sad

Before I kind of launch into this, a little throat clearing.

First, I should make it clear that I don’t really watch American Idol that closely. My wife had a co-worker try out for last season, and she wanted to see if he made it on the show. He didn’t, but a relative of a good friend did, along with a woman we’d seen perform a couple of times. By the time they were off the show, she was curious to see how it ended. (Blandly. Scotty seems like a nice guy, but his music isn’t really my kind of thing.)

You can tell I’m not really committed to the show because I don’t vote. And the reason I don’t vote? I don’t really care who wins. The show has run for ten years. I can name almost none of the winners (two or three at best) and maybe five or six participants outside of the year I watched it. But even now, less than a year later, those names are shaky.

It just isn’t my kind of music. Or perhaps more accurately stated, I know the people who interest me will not win. So why vote for anyone?

But let’s move on to what’s bugging me.

I told you my wife had a co-worker try out for the show, and that’s true. He never appeared on television, though he did make it in front of the three judges, and they said he wasn’t ready. (Or so he says. There’s no real way to prove it, but I’m gonna trust the guy.)


The thing is, I’ve also had two other friends try out for the show. I’ve heard both sing, and I think both of them are good at it. Great? That’s in the ear of the beholder, so I won’t comment about that. But here’s where things get interesting.

Neither of them made it in front of the judges.

Now, that makes sense. Quite literally thousands of people fill city after city after city, just trying to get their five minutes in front of the big three. Of those, at least this season, somewhere between 40 and 50 people get sent to Hollywood. Per city.

But when they show the auditions, you don’t see 40 people try out and get through. You get to see maybe four or five. And then you get to see a bunch of people sucking. Just flat-out singing badly, or otherwise making a fool of themselves.

I know people who watch Idol for this reason, and only this reason. They actually quit watching as soon as the audition period is over.

Breaks. My. Heart.

It does so for two reasons.

To start with? Even if these people are deluded about their singing ability, they are on TV specifically because a judge back in the auditorium decided to humiliate them.

If you don’t know how the whole process works, it goes like this. Thousands of people show up before dawn to get in line. They go into a massive auditorium, where they come up three at a time and try out in front of a pre-judging panel. They get maybe 30 seconds or a minute each to decide whether to send a singer on to the next level (meaning they get in front of the judges we all know and are mostly indifferent to).

Those first judges know how well or poorly the audition is going. And yet, they send many monumentally bad ones on specifically so they can suck on national television. Granted, sometimes this works out okay for the person in question (see William Hung, who either became a cult hero or a national laughingstock, I’m still not sure which) but mostly?

Well, you get to see those reactions to, as people who genuinely feel they are talented, and often seem pretty nice to boot, get their feelings crushed in front of the cameras. And if they get angry about it? They get to be on camera again, crying and/or swearing.

Look, I understand that it can be funny to watch someone fail. But to cap it off, the judges are often not just honest, but downright cruel in their assessment of what they’re watching. There’s no gentle comedown, there is laughter and mockery. On a family show.

These aren’t actors, folks. They’re actual human beings, trying to chase a dream, and being held up for ridicule. Deliberate, vicious, ridicule.

Meanwhile, people are slapping together PSAs wherein we tell kids not to bully other kids.

You know. Except for these people. I guess they deserve what they get, because, you know, they don’t sing very well.

By the same token, these “failures” getting through prevents people who might actually have a shot from getting in front of the judges. Am I saying that my buddies deserve a shot at stardom? I dunno. Thousands of people audition, and a few hundred make it to Hollywood, most of which are cut shortly thereafter.

But, you know, it could be a much more positive experience for everyone. Instead of looking for people to mock, the pre-judges could send through a few people they weren’t as sure about. The judges wouldn’t have to look like vicious knife-sharpening soldiers on a cruelty crusade.

Would the ratings go up or down based on this decision? I doubt it. The show is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, on television today, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Which makes me sad, really, as person after person pursuing their dream, instead of being hailed for trying to do what they love, becomes “That idiot on idol.”

I can’t say I’m in love with that. Dawg.