So, what happens when a superhero retires?

In light of all the superhero movies that have come out lately, I thought it appropriate to post a short story that takes a very different look at the genre. It’s one of six tales in my science fiction and fantasy collection, Mysfits. (Available here.)

Night Warrior’s Last Stand

Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston

The county called it a rest home, but it was more like a rest stop on a back road to oblivion. The doors were open to anyone old and feeble and broke. It had nothing to do with who you once were, or what you once did. In the end, the testimonials and medals and certificates of appreciation counted for nothing. Such was the fate of the Night Warrior, a man who saved many and lost but one. I hadn’t come to gloat, nor did I believe anything had changed.

I came for the ring.

Little remained of the man I remembered from my youth. Sitting in his wheelchair, head tilted to one side, a tiny saliva bubble expanding and contracting at the corner of his mouth, he no longer retained a shred of the presence that once struck fear in what passed for a heart in the ranks of his adversaries. Yet, none of that rabble could claim victory over the Night Warrior. Time alone had brought the superhero down‑‑had made soft all the hard edges and made rough all the smooth lines. He sat quiescently; that little which moved, trembled.

The rock-like jaw, having deflected a thousand glancing blows now sported a three-day stubble and mustard stains. The raven locks lay limp, gray, and stringy, and the eyes, once glacial blue and piercing as a pike, squinted out from watery frames of viscous pink.

I observed him from a distance, unwilling to believe the stark truth in front of me, unwilling to cut the last thread binding me to the fantasy I had nurtured for so long. Did he still have the ring? If so, it hadn’t done much for him lately. Is that what I truly wanted for myself? I suddenly doubted it. Just before I turned to leave, he saw me.

“Leonard?” he croaked.

I wanted to run, to excuse myself, to plead ignorance of the hated name which first brought me to him thirty-some years ago. Instead, I stood my ground; it was the first lesson he ever taught me. “Yeah, Boss, it’s me.”

He raised his hand from the shabby upholstered armrest, the motion confined to his wrist, then signaled to me with a sweep of his fingers.

I had no desire to go near him, no desire to smell him, no desire to further impress his ruin upon my memory. I stared at him instead, trying to find the strong confident face that changed my life so long ago.

He cleared his throat, rattling like an old engine. “Leonard.”

That voice! The Night Warrior survived, if only in his voice. Though little more than a whisper, it was enough to compel me. I floated toward him, unable to resist, and came to a stop at his side. He wasn’t wearing the ring. No matter, I knelt beside him and put my hand on his, willing myself not to pull away from the dry parchment covering his bony knuckles.

“Beware,” he said.

I looked around slowly, taking in the drab walls and worn furniture of the rest home. Threadbare carpet housed mysterious stains, the flotsam of passing guests, and insect treasures. The staff consisted of two spindly matrons in flowered scrubs and rubber-soled, pastel flats. The only thing which threatened was the cloying odor of soiled linen and food prepared for people without teeth.

“Beware of what?” I asked.

“Trust me, Leonard, they’re everywhere.”

“What’re–”

“Shh!” He trapped my hand between his–leathery leaves grasping, pressing, insistent.

I lowered my voice. “What the hell is it?”

He leaned toward me and whispered, “Sometimes I see them out of the corner of my eyes.”

“Who?” I straightened and freed my hand.

“Keep your voice down!”

“Right,” I said. Then, upon reflection, added, “Why?”

He shook his head, but the motion failed to dislodge a single gray hair plastered to the pale flesh above his eyes. “The dead ones. They’ll hear you.”

I stood up and glanced at my watch. “Yeah, well, hey, it’s been fun‑‑”

“Don’t be a fool,” he said. “Stand tall.”

With my eyes closed, it felt just like the old days when the Night Warrior‑‑clad in black and gray Spandex and daring the world to laugh–stood beside me, his faithful protégé.

“I used to see them only in my dreams,” he said. “All the ones I–no, all the ones we–killed.”

I chuckled. “Listen, Boss, I’ll admit there are a lot of people in here who look dead. I mean, you don’t look so good yourself. But you can’t–”

“I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the Jester, the Pale Rider, and the Shrew. People we canceled–bad guys. They’ve come back from the dead. They think they can take me now.”

His eyes grew wider while he talked, and he managed to control some of the palsy I’d observed earlier. He even straightened up in his wheelchair and forced his shoulders back in a parody of a hero’s pose. How many times had I stood in the shadow of that pose while some rescued damsel or elected official fawned over him. Where were they now?

“You’ve still got the ring, haven’t you?” I asked.

“The bastards. They think that just because I’m old, I’m vulnerable.”

“What about the ring? The ring of invincibility?” I almost said, “My ring.”

He stared up at me with his rheumy eyes and didn’t say anything for the longest time. “You’re still mad about that, aren’t you?”

“Me? Nah. Why would I be mad about it? You only dangled it in front of me all my life.”

“I never said I’d give it to you.”

“You never said you wouldn’t.”

“I couldn’t give it to you, Len. You couldn’t become me; there could only ever be one Night Warrior.”

“I guess we’ll never know,” I said, slipping my hands in my pockets. It was an old truth, one I’d resigned myself to years ago. And I’d left the next day. Broke the partnership. The Night Warrior worked alone for a few years, his exploits against the villains of the world receiving less and less attention in the press. I half expected him to show up at the grand openings of discount stores, or maybe charity golf tourneys. He didn’t, thank God.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. The palsy returned.

I shrugged. “Who did you give it to? I don’t remember hearing about any other sidekicks. My guess is you couldn’t find anyone with sufficiently low self-esteem. Am I right?”

With what must have been a supreme effort of will, the once great Night Warrior raised his head and focused those cold-fire eyes at me. “I encased it in a brick of Lucite and gave it to the Superhero Museum. It was the right thing to do. Len, I once held the trust of a thousand cities, the faith of a million believers. I‑‑”

“Broke the heart of the only one who ever really cared about you.” I would’ve said more but was distracted by the slightest bit of motion I detected out of the corner of my eye. I nodded in that direction, and he turned his head slowly, all the while shrinking as if deflated.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m not sure exactly,” I said, “but it could’ve been either the Pale Rider or the Shrew.”

He took a short, sharp breath.

“Not that I care,” I said as I walked away.

~End~

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Survive? Without a cell phone?

One can’t, or at least shouldn’t, spend every waking moment chained to a keyboard churning out prose, priceless or otherwise. From time to time, one needs to get out into the real world. As a proud resident of the great state of Georgia, there are plenty of attractive options available for my free time, one or two of which are utterly unique. This past weekend I had the chance to spend an entire day with my son, Brett. The two of us ventured onto the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National Golf Course on the final day of this year’s Masters Tournament. It made 2019 a most memorable year indeed.

Like millions of others, I’ve spent a good bit of time watching previous Master’s Tournaments, but I quickly discovered there are a number of things which make this particular event different from all the others.

For starters, I had no idea that bringing a phone or a camera along was a strict No-No. At the Masters, phones will not be ringing at any moment, let alone during critical ones. Nor will anyone be taking selfies. Such things didn’t occur in 1934 when the Masters was first played, and by golly, they won’t happen nowadays either.

Luckily, we discovered that CBS had captured us during their coverage of the event. We saw ourselves on a replay when we got home a few hours after the match ended. Here we are at the green on the 11th hole, the first half of “Amen Corner.” The guy in the upper right-hand corner wearing a red shirt, is Tiger Woods, who, in case you hadn’t heard, won the thing. The blue smudge on the left is my son’s attempt to point us out. He’s wearing a green shirt; I’m wearing a straw hat from the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. And yes, this is as close to a selfie as we could get!

Photos of yours truly in that hat are understandably rare, but my bride was kind enough to snap one of me later to prove that the 4-micropixel portion of the image above is truly moi.

Despite the No Phone Edict, some things at the Masters have changed, but only slightly. Like, for instance, the food concessions. Help yourself to an egg salad or pimento cheese sandwich on white bread. Price: $1.50. A domestic beer, which by the way, you can’t purchase until the last church service in Augusta has ended, will set you back $4. (I’m told they cost ten bucks each at the Superbowl.)

I found some other interesting facts about this year’s Masters. The Augusta National Golf Club has a membership of 300, including four ladies (Dianna Murphy, Condoleezza Rice, Darla Moore, and Ginni Rometty). Jack Nicklaus was the only player older than Tiger to win the tournament. He was 46 at the time; Tiger is 43.

Average daily ticket prices for this year’s event ranged from $2250 to $2600. (And no, we didn’t have to pay anywhere near that much, thanks to a friend of a friend.)

Television coverage of the Masters began in 1956 with a two and a half hour show. In 2019, there were 18.5 hours of broadcast time devoted to the tournament. The good news, for viewers: commercials were limited to four minutes per hour. All 63 years of TV coverage has been on CBS.

The pot o’ gold at the end of this celebrated rainbow? Just under $2 million for the winner. (The winner’s caddy gets 10%.)

And, just so you know, 90% of the world’s golf carts are made right here in the Peach State. Maybe we should change our nickname to the “Golf Cart State.”

Okay, now you can go back to work on your epic.

–Josh

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Camera Angles and Paragraph Tangles

And you thought I was just a novelist. Sigh.

Ray Bradbury in 1982.

It’s funny how certain things can coincide in one’s life and suggest ideas and/or actions unlikely to occur on their own. Such was the case for me recently when I found an intriguing article on writing. It focused on a technique promoted by Ray Bradbury, one of the great masters of the craft. Shortly after reading the article and sharing it with one of the writing groups I work with, I had the opportunity to take an intensive, weekend-long course on screenwriting.

While I enjoyed both, the real bonus came from the discovery that what I learned in one was reinforced by what I learned in the other. Confluence. How absolutely lovely!

I’ll begin with Ray Bradbury, best known for Fahrenheit 451, his dystopian novel about a future where all books must be burned. He also gained world renown for such works as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. These were in addition to 45 other books and hundreds of short stories, 65 of which he converted to screenplays for television. The man definitely knew whereof he spoke.

The article which grabbed my attention was devoted to his technique for breaking paragraphs. The following is from his essay entitled “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel.”

“All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot… I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”

This version of Bradbury’s epic SF novel was printed with an asbestos cover, presumably to prevent the book from spontaneously bursting into flame.

I’d never thought about it this way, but it made perfect sense. Then again, I’d never written a Hollywood style screenplay. At least, not until the weekend class, and then it made even more sense. A screenplay takes the very same thing into account. A scene generally takes place in a given location, but many shots go into the filming of it. When writing a short story or novel scene, the idea is to visualize the action taking place in each paragraph, including dialog.

Are there gestures one might capture? When someone speaks, what’s going on around them? What does the camera “see” during the narrative bits?

Translating the written word to a visual medium is often criticized, especially when it involves longer works, like novels. Short stories adapt much more easily because the stories are less involved. Almost all of Bradbury’s own screen adaptations came from his short stories.

Film is a visual medium, obviously, while novel reading is an immersive experience. Readers have the time to become fully engaged, intellectually, in every facet of the tale. That takes a good bit of time. Few people read a novel in a day unless they have very little else to do. Nowadays, the average screenplay is 120 pages long–that’s one page per minute of screen time. That’s why most novels don’t translate well to the screen unless they’re broken down into a series of episodes, and even then, it’s difficult to cover everything. Ask anyone who’s tried to compare the film version of “Game of Thrones” to the novels on which the series is based.

Even knowing the problems inherent in book-to-movie translations, Bradbury’s book has been done as a screenplay at least twice–in 1966 and again in 2018. The resulting movie posters are shown below. The critics were not terribly kind toward either one, although the original version has since been accorded some positive feedback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to be giving this paragraph-breaking approach some serious thought. The little I’ve done with it thus far seems to have produced some excellent material. It has certainly caused me to rethink much of what I write. But I like what I’m seeing.

–Josh

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Does your hero have hay fever?

Huh? Why would that make a difference? Why would someone even ask such a question?

Bear with me. This all goes back to an article in The British Journal of Homeopathy, Volume 29, published in 1872. It included the following observation:

“Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”

So, what does this have to do with heroes? Only everything!

The reason the upper crust in Merrie Olde England were more prone to having hay fever, along with a host of other ills, is that they weren’t exposed to as many bugs and viruses as afflicted the common weal and therefore had built up little immunity. The rich typically came from smaller families, which also limited their exposure to germs introduced by siblings. Remember, the riff-raff had a much lower standard of hygiene. The rich even washed their hands from time to time! All of which led to a weaker immune system among the upper crust.

Now, think of the hero or heroine in your current work in progress, but do so in terms of the human immune system. The more germs, microbes, and viruses they encounter, the stronger their immune system will be, assuming said germs don’t kill them. Likewise, the more adversity they face, and the more foes they encounter, the more likely they’ll be to survive the ultimate crisis. It’s as simple as that.

If you constantly hose your character down with the fictional equivalent of antibacterial soap, he or she won’t stand a chance when the fertilizer hits the proverbial mixmaster. It would be like doing your children’s math homework for them. They’ll look great right up until they have to perform an equation in class, most likely on a test that’ll mangle their grade point average, and crush your dream of having a successful-looking kid, like a car smasher at a junkyard.

A hundred-plus years after the article cited above, another popped up on the same subject. This one focused on “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.” The study examined the incidence of hay fever among 17,414 kids born in the spring of 1958.

Of 16 variables explored, the “most striking” was a comparison between a child’s likelihood of developing hay fever and the number of his or her siblings. It was an inverse proportion; the more brothers and sisters a child had, the less likely he or she was to get the allergy.

Simply put, those extra siblings provided more exposure. Does that mean your hero must constantly battle family members? Maybe, if the setting of your story features a single household. In stories with a slightly larger scope, those siblings are symbolic of the stumbling blocks you must provide for your protagonist in their quest to reach a goal.

For immune systems, it’s probably best if the ongoing exposure doesn’t escalate, though in nature, there’s certainly no guarantee of that. In fiction, however, the opposite should be the norm. The threat level and/or the degree of difficulty should constantly be on the rise. Problems should only get harder, and the villains more despicable as the tale progresses. If you’re unable to find suitable bad guys, there’s always nature, government, and the shortcomings and foibles of your hero to focus on. The point is, things should only get harder, the prize more worthy, and the perils more dire. That’s the way to grow a hero.

Now, lay off the anti-microbial, anti-septic, anti-germ hand soaps. Sneeze once in a while. It might be good for ya!

–Josh

 

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Stop the music?

What I’m about to reveal will surely come as a surprise to some of my long-time writer friends. The news is, to me anyway, simply shocking. According to an item published recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, listening to music could “significantly impair” your creativity. The article was written by Naijja Parker.

I can hear the shouts now: “Say it ain’t so!” and “Stone the infidel!” But please, don’t aim at me.

The revelation stems from research conducted in England and Sweden on the impact of background music on creativity. The results were published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

The researchers used something called Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRATs) in their testing of some 100 students. The subjects were required to complete the tasks, designed to evaluate “insight-based creative problem solving,” while also listening to background music. The tasks are fairly simple and involve such things as providing three words–for example: life, time, and mare–and requiring test subjects to find a single word that can be combined with all three to create new words. A valid response to the example would be “night” as in nightlife, nighttime, and nightmare.

One might argue, as I certainly would, that such a test requires a good vocabulary as much as it demands creativity. But then, I just make shit up for a living; what do I know?

Still, it strikes me as quite a leap to equate the ability to dream up plots and characters with the ability to find words with matching roots (or whatever it is that CRATs requires).

The folks doing the study used a variety of music in the background during their tests. This included tunes with and without lyrics, and with lyrics in a foreign language. They played all sorts of music, and they also tested their subjects without any background sounds at all. “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.” Do tell.

This newsflash caused me to review some of the conditions under which I’ve written fiction. While I prefer serenity, it’s not always possible. Ask anyone with an active family or a demanding pet. On a number of occasions, I’ve used music to help me sustain certain moods while I worked. In particular, I recall playing a CD that featured a wealth of drum music while I worked on battle scenes in the Druids trilogy which I co-authored with Barbara Galler-Smith. The bombastic percussive strains had me fired up as much as the story did, and I found myself more easily picturing the savage clash of 1st century Celt warriors and Roman Legionnaires. This short bit of drumming may help to demonstrate (be sure your volume is set appropriately):

Do I use this technique often? No. But I confess that’s due as much to laziness as anything else. I can easily see the benefit of mood-setting music, and I’ve located a few short instrumental segments as examples.

Imagine listening to something like this while working on a moment of melancholy or the sadness of a beloved character:

Or perhaps this would be appropriate background music when writing about a determined character in pursuit of… well, almost anything:

Finally, let’s suppose you need to work on something mysterious, ethereal, or majestic. Perhaps it’s the postlude after a major conflict, whether on a battlefield or a struggle of the heart:

Just for the heck of it, close your eyes while listening to one or more of these and try to imagine it as the accompaniment for a character in something you’re working on. Can you see that player more clearly? Does the sound amplify the emotions in the scene?

If so, join me in offering a collective Bronx cheer to the buzzkill researchers in England and Sweden!

–Josh

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The Beat Goes On and on and on….

My previous two posts, both about changes to the copyright law, generated a great deal of interest–way more site views than usual. And the saga continues, at least for a while.

After considerable plodding through the government’s stodgy website, I still had unresolved questions. That’s not surprising since the website is a one-size-fits-all approach to the curious and often confusing issue of copyrights. So I used their Contact Us form and submitted two similar but still different questions.

The first inquired about short story collections containing dozens of individual works. The “Group” form for registration has a hard limit of ten. Would a single copyright for the collection protect all contents even if each member work wasn’t listed separately?

The second query was about how to link registration requests for collections if the contents were strictly limited to ten enumerated works.

These questions generated the same automatic response thanking me for the inquiry and advising that an answer would be forthcoming within five days. I settled in to wait. But, wonder of wonders, the copyright office responded the very next day!

My excitement was short-lived, however. Both questions received the same form letter response containing a variety of links to commonly asked questions, none of which were even remotely similar to mine. Ah yes, bureaucracy in action, something to behold.

So, what’s a writer to do? Make the best of it I suppose. There are some websites which offer more in the way of how to deal with copyrights, but these typically focus on how one acquires permission to use already copyrighted material. I found one especially informative website. (And here’s the link.)

During my look-see into the copyright law changes, I was surprised to see a number of apparently brand new online services which promise to navigate the government’s labyrinthine webpages and Byzantine forms for as little as $99. At first, I merely laughed at these blatant attempts to reach into my already abused wallet. Now I wonder if that $99 purchase would also give me some peace of mind.

I suppose it’s obvious by now that I have a low tolerance for red tape. My patience level for politicians and politics of any kind–business, government, or homeowner associations–is similarly subterranean.

What really cobs me about the government’s approach to the copyright issue is simply this: the world has had the internet for decades. During that time, countless webpages have been designed expressly for use by the public. The majority of those webpages can be navigated quickly and easily. Very few are likely to induce rage. And yet the people who continue to come up with one bureaucratic obfuscation after another are the same ones who benefit from properly designed and executed software. Can they not tell they’ve constructed Frankenapps?

Evidently not.

Until next time,

–Josh

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The Supremes weigh in on copyright — Part 2

God must really love bureaucrats, or there wouldn’t be so many of them. I just wish we could rely on a higher power for a little help when we have to deal with them. Having spent several hours registering the copyrights for some of my work, I now have a reasonable working knowledge of the system as it pertains to publishing books. The system works, but it’s cumbersome, and it’s clear the process wasn’t designed by someone who gave a damn about the folks who have to use it. But wait! Isn’t that the definition of “bureaucrat?”

So, how did I get here? A quick recap of events (which you can read about here) is in order. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, specified that actual approval of a copyright application by the United States Copyright Office is required before a suit can be filed.

Previously, one could hold off registering a copyright until they had reason to believe someone was trying to use their work without permission. That’s no longer the case.

My initial research suggested one could register up to ten items at a time. The actual line from the agency’s web page states: “Beginning March 15th, you may register up to 10 unpublished works using the new application for a ‘Group of Unpublished Works.’ A different limit will apply when registering a group of photographs.” 

Silly me. I thought “unpublished works” included novels and/or non-fiction books. It doesn’t. The ten items mentioned here refers to songs, short stories, or other components of a single work. I presume that includes recipes, sermons, poems and similar short pieces of intellectual property. If your collection of short stories runs longer than ten, you’ll have to register the others in a separate filing. However, I couldn’t find anything to explain how these subsequent listings could be linked. Like I said, it’s cumbersome. The answer is likely in there somewhere. I just didn’t have the time to dig it out. Sorry.

So, that meant the ten novels I intended to register each required a separate application, even though most of the information in them was repeated unchanged. Oh, and the charge for this “service” is $55 per title.

While I poured over the logic-challenged webpages at www.copyright.gov and https://eco.copyright.gov, I pondered what could happen if I just said to hell with it and left the copyright for my titles unrecorded.

With my luck, some joker would stumble upon a novel they really liked and decide to steal it. They could check for an existing copyright registration using the handy search function on the government website. And, upon discovering I hadn’t bothered to protect my work, they could–theorhetically (I don’t mean to suggest a methodology for the morally bankrupt)–republish it under their name.

Based on what I’m reading, there’s not a whole lot I could do about it.

But it could get worse! Imagine if the thief of my intellectual property took the time to register a copyright in his own name. He could then turn around and sue me for copyright infringement–on my own work!

So, guess who’s going to be spending some time recording copyrights. And in the future, I’ll do it before any new work is published. And I urge all the writers I know to do the same.

Don’t be stupid. Protect your work, and yourself.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments