Cool Things: Potter’s Field

“There’s a cemetery on Hart Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. Unidentified corpses are buried here under plain stone markers at the rate of around 125 a week…” 

-Jordan Halpert, Potter’s Field 

Kind of chilling, isn’t it? In the city of New York, 125 people die nameless and friendless every week. That’s about 500 a month. 6,500 a year.

Who are they? How did they die? Does anyone really care about them?

I’m not sure how accurate that statistic is, but by opening his comic noir tour de force Potter’s Field with it, Mark Waid manages to ensure that he has our attention from minute one. After all, who want’s to die nameless and forgotten? The least dignity we could be offered is a tombstone with a name on it. Yet to the people of the Hart Island cemetery, the only indication of who they might be is a cold, impersonal number.

But there is a man. A man who hates that fact, who cannot stand to just walk away from those empty stones. So he walks the length and breadth of the city, piecing together the clues no one else has the time or the resources to find, and finding the names for these people and recording them in stone for all to see.

Like the people he serves, this man has no name to give to others, so they call him John Doe. To us, and to the people who help him, he is as much an enigma as the corpses he names. He seems to have no family, no friends, no history at all. And yet, there must be something that drives him to live alone, in abandoned buildings, eating canned food and sleeping on cots. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the real mystery is – John or the people of in the potter’s field.

Or perhaps, as his name suggests, John Doe is just another one of the nameless dead who hasn’t given up on moving around just yet.

Potter’s Field is the polar opposite of the last Mark Waid titles I mentioned. Where Irredeemable and Incorruptible are quite possibly the greatest superhero titles ever written, Potter’s Field is a tribute to the mortal man. John’s not superhuman in anything but his ambition. He scrabbles about for clues, risks his life every time he crosses with the criminal underworld and very nearly becomes a real John Doe on more than one occasion.

But, as Greg Rucka says in his introduction to the first collection, he still shows us Waid’s favorite kind of struggle. That of a man who stands on the side of what’s Right , opposing what is Wrong. The fact that he does it without spandex, superpowers or a second thought from the press and public only makes him more of a hero, not less of one.

And it gives one new hope in the potential of funnybooks to tell stories. For that alone it’s worth your time. Pick up your copy now and maybe someday you’ll be able to show it to your children one day, and say, “This is one of the titles that started the revolution. This is what made comics a force in our culture.” And really, how cool is that?

Heat Wave: Pressure Cooker

Helix

I awoke in a familiar way, flat on my back, sore all over and staring up at a featureless ceiling. Now I’ve spent my share of time in a hospital. Pretty much everyone in the Project has, with the exception of Mona, who I don’t think has ever gotten an injury worse than a paper cut. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a dangerous job and we get hurt a lot doing it. On average I’ve probably spent a month out of each year I’ve been with the Project laid up with some sort of injury.

The problem was I couldn’t remember doing anything recently that would get me stuck in one.

What had I been doing yesterday? Hadn’t gotten drunk, hadn’t been in a car chase, hadn’t knocked a military helicopter out of the sky by creating the mother of all updrafts. In fact, other than getting a phone call from Circuit, yesterday was pretty tame.

Right. Phone call from Circuit. I sat up with a groan, awareness slowly filtering back through my groggy mind. With it came the smell of sawdust, which you don’t usually get in hospitals, and the feeling of rough wood under the seat of my pants, definitely nonstandard. It was starting to look a lot more like I’d fallen asleep in my workshop than gotten stuck in the hospital again.

I hefted myself off the half finished tabletop I’d fallen asleep on and tossed the chair cushion I’d used as a pillow back onto the chair it originally came from. According to my watch it was a little after nine in the morning, which meant I’d only been asleep for about four hours. I was frankly surprised I’d been able to get that much rest, as half finished furniture doesn’t make for a comfortable night, but then again, I had been pretty tired. After all, when I’d gotten there the night before that tabletop hadn’t existed yet.

As I smoothed my clothes down I discovered they were covered in small clumps of glue and sawdust. I grimaced, wishing I’d thought to change out of my work clothes before I came. It occurred to me for the hundredth time that it might be a good idea to start keeping a spare set of casual clothes in the workshop. At least this time I had managed not to ruin another pair of pants.

My workbench was fairly typical, consisting of a sturdy board with a number of cups full of nails, screws, pencils and other sundries, slots for larger tools, hooks along the sides for things like clamps and planes, and a pegboard along the back for most of the precision tools. The larger tools, like the circular saw, had their own tables in other places around the workshop. Before staggering over to my makeshift bed and passing out the night before I’d left a couple of newly shaped table legs lying there, intending to sand them down into something usable whenever I next got the chance. I was examining one of them, to determine if I wanted to try the belt sander on it or just finish it by hand, when someone knocked at the door.

Now, you’re not exactly supposed to turn a U-Store It rental space into a carpentry shop, but the manager knows me and is willing to turn a blind eye. It’s still not something I try to just tell anyone about, and most of the people who do know about it know that I go there when I want to be alone and unwind. Getting visitors there is pretty unusual.

So I took the table leg with me when I went to answer the door. Because you never can tell.

The door swung inwards and I kept myself a half step behind it as I opened it, the table leg held behind my leg. I’ve been in the business long enough not to drop my guard just because the person on the other side of the door was blond, female and even shorter than I am. It took a minute for my still groggy brain to work past the half dozen piercings, which she hadn’t had in the first time we met, and the radically different wardrobe.

My eyes narrowed slightly, as much from suspicion as a reaction to the bright sunlight outside. “Amplifier?”

She gave me a slight smile. “Who were you expecting? The President?”

“No.” I leaned my table leg up against the wall as I stepped out of the doorway, letting her in. “We haven’t gotten a visit from one of those since VE Day.”

Instead of her original Biker Girl ensemble Amplifier had shown up in a tightly fighting T-shirt that advertised some band I’d never heard of and a worn pair of cut-off jeans that ended just above her calf. She wore a thin string of chain links, clipped together with a small carabiner clip, in place of a belt. Her piercings were all plain studs. It was a different look, but then again, she was in a band and I hear that’s a job for unusual people.

Even more surprising was her friend, who swept in behind Amplifier just as I was about to close the door. She looked like she’d been attacked by a thrift store, wearing a slightly large pair of cargo shorts and an equally baggy button up shirt on top. A wild mass of curly hair sprouted from underneath a worn, battered San Diego baseball cap. Something clicked in the back of my brain, which had finally resigned itself to being awake and started working again.

“Herrera?” I asked, closing and locking the door behind her.

“Who else?” She asked, turning and giving me a mischievous look from under the cap’s brim. “Didn’t Sanders mention we were stopping by last night?”

“Yeah, he said something about it.” I just hadn’t expected her to be able to find this place. “I just wasn’t expecting you to…” Show up looking like a bum didn’t seem like the right way to finish that sentence. “Show up so early.”

“I have classes from noon until late in the day,” Amplifier said, poking through some of the lumber I kept along the wall. “What do you do in this place?”

“I make furniture,” I replied, waving absently at the half dozen pieces I had in various stages of completion scattered throughout the space. “What does it look like?”

“A place where people make furniture,” She said with a shrug. “It just doesn’t seem very agentish, you know?”

“Neither does rock band singer,” I said, scooping up the table leg and heading back to the work bench to get some sandpaper. “But here we are.”

“Here we are,” Herrera confirmed, tipping a mostly finished chair up on one side and examining the bottom. “Amplifier wanted to hear more about the life, and I suggested she talk to you, since you’re the senior-most talent on active duty in this branch.”

“And I have to do whatever you tell me?”

“And that.”

“Makes sense. Okay, ladies, pull up some chairs. Can I offer you something to drink? I keep some soda and bottled water around here.”

“Water would be great,” Amplifier said. “It’s a scorcher out there and it’s not a whole lot better in here.”

“Sorry, air conditioning isn’t a real priority in places like these.” I fished around in a cooler next to my workbench until I came up with a couple of bottles of water, which I held in one hand and tapped with the knuckles of the other until they started beading with condensation. Satisfied that they were cool enough, I handed one to Amplifier and offered the other to Herrera, who shook her head. I shrugged and kept it for myself.

There were a few chairs in usable condition scattered about, Herrera already had one and it only took a second for Amplifier to grab another. I settled onto the stool I kept at the work bench and took a quick drink of water to clear the cottony feeling out of my mouth. That done, there really wasn’t much to do except dive right in. “Care to guess why I’m a closet carpenter, Amplifier?”

“Um… it’s a hobby?”

“Yes and no.” I set aside the water bottle and began sanding the rough edges off the table leg, letting the rhythm of the work take over my hands as I tried to figure out what way to take the conversation. I’ve done this kind of thing a lot over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easy. Usually I have more time to get familiar with the backgrounds of the people I’ll be talking to and to work out where I’m going. “My dad was a carpenter and I’ve helped him since I was six. It’s not exactly what I’d call a hobby, just something I’ve always done. It’s also my retirement plan.”

She blinked. “You what?”

“Retirement plan.” I held the table leg up and examined it for a moment. “Handmade furniture is a small market, but it pays well. I do alright with my salary and housing stipend, but the fact is I’m working an entry level position and, odd as it may sound, there’s little room for advancement for talents in the Project.”

“Wait, what?” Amplifier leaned back slightly and narrowed her eyes. “Entry level? Teresa just said you were the senior-most agent.”

“Welcome to the wonderful world of Lincoln’s Rule.” I went back to work on the table leg. “It’s the first and biggest issue with working in the Project.”

“Lincoln’s Rule?” Amplifier straightened again. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Unfortunately, no.” I paused to brush some sawdust off of the table leg. “As you might guess from the name, Project Sumter began, in a much more limited capacity, during the Civil War. President Lincoln heard about a man at West Point who had superhuman abilities and wanted to find ways to use him in the war effort. But he already had grave misgivings about the South’s ideology and, in particular, their glorification of planters as a kind of American nobility.”

“Wait, when was this?” Amplifier crossed her arms. “I thought the Civil War was started to preserve the Union, and slaveholders only came into it when slavery proved the more palatable justification.”

I shrugged. “You know your history, although really, giving a nation as ornery and stubborn as ours any one motivation for anything is probably stupid. But regardless, Lincoln was just like any other man, he changed with time, and no time changes men like war time. More importantly, Lincoln knew the importance of symbols. The country gentleman was a symbol of the South. Lincoln wanted his army to be an army of the people. He didn’t want a super soldier becoming a war hero, he wanted average men to fill that role.”

Amplifier frowned and pulled her legs up into the chair, which was big enough she could easily sit in it Indian style without discomfort. “So what happened to the guy from West Point?”

“He was taken out of West Point, made an enlisted man and put under the command of an officer President Lincoln trusted. He served throughout the war and did good things, then retired and went home. Not a bad deal, all told, except it’s been the pattern the government defaults to when employing talents ever since. We can have a little bit of authority, serve as an NCO, for example, but we can’t be part of operational decision making, so an officer’s commission is right out. And we still operate with dedicated leash holders.” I nodded at Herrera, who looked a bit hurt.

“Not there’s no good reason for that policy,” I continued. “As you’ve probably heard, with great power comes great responsibility. I know that I’ve needed an oversight agent to real me in on more than one occasion, and the more destructive your talent can be the more important they become. But, unless you want to dedicate yourself to research full time there’s a limit to how far you can go.”

“So you’re planning to make up what you loose in salary through furniture making?” Amplifier looked around at the workshop again, then smiled slightly. “I guess that works out well.”

“Most people don’t stay with the Project for more than five or six years before moving on to something else, though.” I examined the table leg for a moment and set it aside, satisfied with it for the moment. “Having a fallback plan is one of those nagging little realities that most people don’t think of when they’re busy thinking about playing superhero.”

“On the flip side,” Herrera said, “we’re always looking for agents, which means that even if you choose not to join the Project now, there might be a future in it for you.”

“True enough. I know one guy who didn’t join up until he was fifty five, and he’s done a lot of good work for some of our branches over the years.” I dusted my hands off and rested them on my knees. “And that brings me to point number two that you should think about.”

“Health insurance?”

“No, that’s number three though, so keep ahold of that thought. Number two is, while the Project is at the beck and call off all the agencies of the Federal Government, for the most part we do law enforcement work. There’s a lot of running down paper trails, some stakeouts and the occasional bust like the one we found you during. But it’s mostly pretty boring, especially for the first two or three years. That’s time you’re not doing something you might be better at. Now you, you’re part of a band right? Singer?”

She bit her lower lip. “Yeah, that’s right. But anyone can do that, Clark and one of the other girls write all the music and lyrics. It’s not like I’m vital to the band.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, leaning back against my workbench. “After all, your talent gives perfect pitch, right? And you probably never miss a note unless you want to.”

For the first time since I’d met her, Amplifier broke eye contact with me and looked down at the ground. “Sure, but that’s not… it’s like cheating, right? I get an edge, so it’s not the same.”

“Nonsense.” I smacked my hand against the work bench for emphasis, startling her back into paying attention. “The fact that you have control over wave frequencies and strength is no more cheating that just being born with perfect pitch. How off key a note can you make sound right?”

“Uh… maybe a quarter step?” She didn’t seem entirely certain that was the answer I was looking for, but that was okay because I had no idea what it meant.

“So you still have to work at getting in the right ballpark?”

“Sure.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not all getting the right notes. There’s tempo and feeling, too. And if I’m using all my concentration on keeping myself in tune that won’t come out right, never mind how tiring it would be.”

“And you’re good at all of it, I’ll bet. And you enjoy it, or you wouldn’t be in a band.”

“Or studying music and recording in school. So what?”

“So, the Project doesn’t need agents with high visibility. It’s the other way around, actually. These,” I waved to the tools on my workbench, “don’t really care what age I am, or when the last time I used them was, so long as I still know what I’m doing. But age and appearance are a big deal for musicians, especially women, and any musician that disappears for a time is bound to be mostly forgotten.”

I held my hands out like the balances on a scale. “So you can shoot for a musical career now, but you may not be ready for the demands of the job afterwards. On the other hand, entering the Project now almost guarantees giving up all the progress you’ve made towards that career goes away, and it’s not a given you’ll get it back.”

“So you’re saying that people should never have to give something up to help others?” Amplifier asked skeptically.

“Just that they should really think about the costs, so there’s no second thoughts later,” I said. “Which brings us to point number three.”

“Health care.”

“Partly. Doing this job hurts, sure, you get knocked around a lot doing it. But Project Sumter appreciates that, and the fact that we have small salaries, and compensates for it accordingly. More than that you’re expected to do a fair bit of knocking about yourself. Did Herrera mention what kind of roles are generally assigned to a wave maker like you?”

“Not exactly.” Amplifier glanced at Herrera, who nodded. It looked like one thing Amplifier had gotten was the need try and share as little about her talent as possible. “She did mention that we’re above average when it comes to potential for collateral damage, so I might not get sent on as many field operations as other agents.”

“True, to an extent,” I said with a nod. “I’m a high collateral damage causer myself, but as time goes on you can expect that your supervisors and the Senior Liaisons will figure out ways to use your talents efficiently. What I don’t think you realize is what kinds of situations you might be asked to deal with.”

Amplifier crossed her arms and dropped her feet back towards the floor. When she realized they wouldn’t quite reach she frowned and braced them on the crosspiece between the chair legs instead. “What kind of things are we talking about?”

“High potential for collateral damage translates into really big hammer.” I hefted a heavy wooden mallet from my workbench for example. “Which means you’ll get situations where hammers are called for. For example, one potential use for your talent is to shatter large objects. Ever wanted to be a one woman demolition team? Because you could probably shake apart most concrete buildings with the right harmonics and enough power.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “How often would that even be necessary?”

“You might be surprised.” I set the hammer back in its place. “The point is, you’re probably going to be doing things that have a high risk of getting someone hurt. This isn’t comic books, this is real life. As you’ve probably already noticed, most talents don’t come with built in indestructibility to help keep you alive. And just because we’re trying to be the good guys doesn’t mean no one will ever get hurt long term by something we do. If you’re not prepared to have one or two people go deaf because of your powers, at the very least, then you’re probably not ready for this job.”

“That seems…”

“Harsh?”

Amplifier jerked back a bit from my challenging tone. “Self-righteous.”

“People get hurt one way or another every day, Amplifier. Our job is to try and keep that to a minimum. And that’s hurdle number four.” I leaned forward like I could press the spirit right out of her through presence alone. “This job tells you to keep the peace and you have incredible abilities to do it with. It also requires that you lie to most everyone you meet and keep them in the dark about what really happens in the world around them. It demands that you make decisions for the greater good without the input or okay from the people who you’re supposed to be helping. Do it for two years and you’ll either become a megalomaniacal ass or curse yourself because you think you are one. If you’re the first they lock you up, if you’re the second they do anything to keep you from leaving. So the real question is, are you ready for it?”

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Fiction Index

Reading

It may seem intuitive to some people, but reading is as much a part of the art of writing as the actual writing is.

Now, I’m not just talking about the need to read over what you’ve written, edit it and generally strive to turn it into stronger writing. That’s important, don’t get me wrong, and any author who’s not doing that needs to rethink their approach. And I’m not talking about reading how to books or other kinds of study. Again, very important but not where I’m going.

What I’m talking about is reading things that will inspire and shape your writing. This doesn’t mean plagiarism, which doesn’t reflect an improvement to your writing at all, but rather finding writers who tell the stories you’d want to tell, and then studying what they do. C.S. Lewis said in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology that he probably never wrote a book in which he did not quote from George MacDonald, but their works are markedly different on the whole. While you may never find an author that inspires you to the same extent as MacDonald did for Lewis, it’s certainly worth taking the time to try.

Reading other works can inspire you with themes and story ideas. While I’ve said before that a writer probably never runs out of story ideas, seeing how others have implemented similar ideas can shape your own in a number of ways. It might suggest things you could do to avoid overlap, point out weaknesses in the story idea you should avoid or just help you fine tune your idea by showing you what works.

Reading the works of others also helps you work out a solid idea of what good writing looks like. This applies just as much to nonfiction as to fiction. Tightly written news articles or engaging nonfiction books are just as valuable to fiction writers in helping you understand good prose as scintillating dialog and well drawn fiction characters are. Of course, the nonfiction writer benefits just as much from reading good fiction. The applications may not be as immediately obvious to you, but they’re real and noticeable.

But most of all, reading the words of others helps you understand your own writing preferences better. Keep a record of what you read, what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. Find sections you really like and break down what appeals to you about them. Find sections you feel could be better and then make them better. Don’t read passively, read actively. While stories are meant to move you and engage you, they’re at their best when you reciprocate and engage with them.

What you read is one of the biggest influences on how and what your write. If your desire is to be a skilled and able writer, you can’t help but need to take charge of what you read, study it, master it and turn it around into something that bolsters your writing. So what are you waiting for? Hit up your local library* and start reading.

 

*Full Disclosure: The author works for his local library, and may be biased in recommending libraries over other book suppliers.

Cool Things: October Daye

With a main character named October Daye, you just know a series is going to bring a slightly different perspective to things. Of course, whether you’re going to enjoy that perspective or not is a matter of taste, but I highly encourage you to give it a shot anyway.

Seanan McGuire‘s excellent urban fantasy series is an exploration of modern day faerie. October, or Toby to her friends, is a changeling, the daughter of a faerie woman and a human man. To most of the supernatural community changelings are outsiders, the addition of mortal blood to their faerie nature dooms them to outlive most of their mortal friends, but the fact that they still age and die makes them an uncomfortable reminder of mortality to the ageless fae. Worse, if they choose to live their lives as part of faerie they are expected to maintain the masquerade that the fae are gone, so they cannot live honestly with their human friends.

It’s a hard life that Toby and her friends must face, and she hasn’t had it any easier than others. It’s true that she was taken in by an honest to goodness Duke, and made a knight in his court, but even there she’s not entirely respected or treated fairly. And then the Duke’s twin brother conspires against him, kidnaps his wife and child and turns Toby into a goldfish for fourteen years.

No, Toby doesn’t have an easy life at all. But when she finally gets over being a fish (which apparently takes longer than recovering from being a newt) her trials aren’t over. In fact, they’re just beginning. In spite of the things she’s already suffered in Duke Sylvester Torquille’s service Toby keeps finding herself entangled in the politics of the Faerie Court. Between murders, conspiracies and confronting her own doppelgänger, it’s a wonder she can find time for anything else at all. But she keeps it up, if for no other reason than to save the children. Really, one of these days they’ll just stay put with their parents, but in the mean time the faeries of San Francisco continue to rely on Sir Daye to track their kids down when they turn up missing.

The two greatest selling points of Toby’s adventures are their pacing and their solid grounding in the rich legend of the British Isles. All the books maintain a breakneck pace that introduces Toby to clever and dangerous problems. As the only trained private investigator the Faerie Court has to draw on (they’re a very old fashioned people in some respects), it’s only natural that she wind up involved, even if the people who hire her don’t always care for her much.

McGuire does an excellent job evoking the feel of British myth, even in a story set in Southern California. While it’s hardly faithful to any one particular interpretation of the  myth that actually serves as a strength, allowing McGuire to add, subtract and improvise the stories to suit her own needs.

Oh, and every book’s title is taken from a Shakespeare quote. How great is that?

If you’re into urban fantasy, I highly suggest checking it out.

Heat Wave: Power Drain

Circuit

Our exit strategy from Project Sumter boiled down to stealing the last working car in the motor pool and driving out the main door. With the rest of the vehicles sabotaged by Heavy on the way in, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would be able to follow us and our own skills ensured we were not seen leaving. Even so, we didn’t get out that far ahead of the lockdown. As Heavy drove down the street away from the building I could see shutters beginning to drop over the windows. It was impressive how such a little thing could transform an innocuous office building into an imposing edifice. I made a mental note of the effect, for future reference.

Since it only makes sense for supervillains to behave as if all government vehicles come with a GPS tracker as a matter of course, we didn’t stay in the sedan for long. Even if the Project couldn’t follow us themselves, now that they were aware of the break in it was only a matter of time before they asked the local police to find the car for them. In fact, the only reason we used one of their vehicles at all is because we didn’t want our van to be caught by any of the building’s cameras. So we met Grappler a half a dozen blocks away and changed vehicles, only pausing long enough to transfer the boxes we’d taken from the Project and for me to fry the sedan with an EMP that drained the last of my vest’s battery reserves. Police departments are adding video cameras to more and more of their patrol cars, and it wouldn’t be odd for the federal government to follow suit. It’s best not to take chances when it comes to leaving evidence behind.

After that, there wasn’t much to do but settle in for the long ride back to headquarters and start patching ourselves up. “Ourselves” in this case basically being me, as I was the only one with more than a few light bruises.

Heavy Water insisted on strapping my right arm down, in spite of my own insistence that it hadn’t been that bad since he got it back in socket. Still, the argument that strapping it down was to ensure it wouldn’t get worse had weight, so I finally relented and let him tie me up, reasoning that I could always take the restraints off again if I needed too. Heavy also decided that my fingers were not broken, but splinted the smallest two anyway.

So, with my ability to work with my hands seventy percent neutralized, I had no choice but to settle into my chair, kick the boxes we’d stolen over to Heavy and say, “Do me a favor and have a look at that, will you?”

He just grunted and ignored the box, fishing through one of his bags of junk that were stored in the van on a semi permanent basis and coming up with one of those little prescription bottles full of pills. He dumped a couple out into his hand and held them out to me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“This would be a painkiller,” Heavy said. “For the pain. Which, in spite of your being a smart guy, you’re ignoring.”

I swiveled my chair around to face the computer console and turned it on with a twitch of my talent. Ironically, while I’ve found that one can build simple programs and track computer activity fairly simply with my talent, the focus of modern software on a mouse or touchscreen driven interface actually makes routine tasks more difficult, since those are not easy to emulate. However sometimes it’s the only option I have. This was definitely one of those times. As I waited for the terminal to boot up I said, “I need a clear head right now, Heavy. It’s only a matter of time before the Enchanter makes his next move, and I want to be ready for him.”

Heavy sighed and dropped the pills into the pocket of my jacket, then put the bottle away and reluctantly picked up one of the boxes we’d retrieved from the evidence room. As he started to dig through it he said, “You’re sure in an awful hurry about this guy, boss.”

“Well of course,” Grappler said from the front seat. “Common sense says the Enchanter is the most dangerous person to us out there.”

“What?” I looked at the back of her seat. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Easy.” She threw me a quick, self satisfied glance in the rearview mirror. “The biggest, baddest bad guys always show up last, right? So that makes the Enchanter more dangerous than you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m far more terrifying than the Enchanter could ever hope to be.” I glanced back at my screen and smiled. “Case in point. We now have complete access to Project Sumter’s active investigation files. A near impossible task for others, accomplished in half an hour with my expert leadership.”

Heavy glanced over my shoulder and grunted. “Let’s hope that’s more useful than what we got from the evidence room.” He shook the box he was holding in his lap once. “This stuff is mostly melted crap that they found at the arson sites and took away with them so they wouldn’t have to explain it.” He hefted a piece of half melted concrete in one hand and admired it. “I didn’t even know you could burn this stuff.”

“Anything melts if you get it hot enough,” I said, skimming through the files we’d just stolen and looking for the Enchanter’s case. “Although I don’t think any burning was involved with that, it was probably somewhere near the Enchanter’s point of entrance when he burned his way into a building.”

“Either way,” Heavy said, dumping the debris back into the box. “It’s not that useful. Here’s hoping the stuff you got there is better.”

“Well, let’s have a look then, shall we?”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to be had from the electronic side of the night’s work either. The Project was kind of at a loss on the Enchanter front, or, as they called it, the Firestarter case. It was currently slated to be turned over to Senior Special Agent Harriet Verger and Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif, a team I wasn’t familiar with. Aside from establishing a pattern to the addresses of the buildings being targeted, and that almost entirely by accident as it was technically done by someone they interviewed, Agents Sanders and Helix hadn’t really learned anything I didn’t know already while they were working on the case, and Agents Verger and Massif hadn’t officially taken over yet, so the case was actually in a sort of administrative limbo at the moment.

Other than discovering that Aluchinskii Massif was the name of mountainous region in Siberia I didn’t learn anything new. Actually, I had to Google Aluchinskii Massif in order to find out what it was, so I essentially got nothing directly from the Project.

Suffice it to say that I was not a happy man once we got back to our little home away from home, parked the van and dragged ourselves into the small, out of the way, half buried concrete building that served as my current primary base of operations. Worse, once we were there I had to take off the wrapping Heavy had put on my arm and struggle out of my gear. My arm hadn’t been bothering me much up until then but moving it enough to get out of the vest was an interesting experience, to say the least.

Grappler tisked as she helped Heavy carefully extract me from my various piece of gear and said, “You’ve got to go with something easier to get in and out of if you plan to keep getting hurt like this.” She straightened for a moment to show off her sleek black pants, tank top and flowing, light brown knee length vest. Or perhaps there were other things she was hoping I’d pay attention to. And, with Grappler, one cannot rule out the possibility of a general desire for attention.

“Problem with that outfit is the accessories,” Heavy said, taking his belt, complete with holster and pistol, and draping it over one of her shoulders, then doing the same with my belt on the opposite shoulder. “See? It doesn’t look right.”

She gave a very put upon sigh and stalked off to the weapons locker. Heavy offered me a hand up and I accepted it, struggling to my feet and suddenly feeling very tired. “What time is it, Heavy? Do I even want to know?”

“You don’t, boss. If I told you it was late tonight, you’d want to work some more, since you never turn in before midnight. If I tell you it’s tomorrow, you’ll say you got too much to do to day, so you’d keep going then, too.” Heavy dropped his hands onto my shoulders and pushed me towards the short flight of stairs leading out of the garage and into the main part of the building. “You don’t want to know what time it is, you want to go to sleep. So take your pain pills and find somewhere to pass out.”

It was hard to argue with Heavy’s reasoning; he was entirely correct. So I trudged up the stairs and pushed through the door into the situation room, feeling more and more exhausted with every step.

The situation room is a fancy name for the big open room that lets me keep track of things. Even I can’t keep all the layers of my various plans, contingencies and back ups straight in my head, so I keep a real time representation of them going at my headquarters. Unlike what you typically see on TV or in movies, that doesn’t mean a large map sitting out where anyone can see it and try and figure out what I’m doing. Instead, schemes are broken down on a series of password protected, physically isolated computer terminals. Physically isolated means that they’re not connected to outside networks and have no standard input devices like keyboards or touchscreens, so pretty much the only people who can get anything out of them are fuseboxes, like myself, or people with ten pounds of specialized equipment and several hours of free time.

It’s a clumsy way of ensuring operational security, but it also keeps the details of my endeavors safe from enterprising people like Hangman, who are already too resourceful by half when it comes to finding information.

On top of that, there’s a half a dozen regular computer terminals and the usual spread of office equipment that you need to keep a large operation running, regardless of it’s purpose or legality. All that is arranged on a balcony that runs around the outside of a much larger room, overlooking the assembly and testing floor where my engineers like Davis work on building and safety checking various pieces of equipment before they’re moved to their final staging areas. Any time after midnight the place is almost deserted, so I wasn’t surprised to find the room pretty much empty when I arrived.

I was surprised to find Simeon Delacroix waiting for me on the balcony.

My office manager looked as calm and dignified as ever and, if his sleep had been interrupted, or he’d otherwise been inconvenienced by arranging to meet us in the dead of night, he showed no signs of it. His suit was cleanly pressed, his waistcoat and pocket watch were in place and he looked clean shaven, well groomed and alert. I felt a brief twinge of jealousy, since I was pretty sure I was none of those things, but I know that whatever it is that give Simeon his superhuman sense of timing and poise, it’s not something I’ll ever have the time to unravel and master. Not if I want to stay out of prison and on top of the talented underworld.

So I just gave him the evil eye and said, “You’re up late, Mr. Delacroix. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Correspondence, sir,” Simeon said, producing a pair of letters with a flourish. His voice was studious and neutral, designed to inspire trust and confidence, with any regional accent having been rigorously removed long before I met him. Even so, there was a trace of concern in it as he looked me over and took in the various medical accessories Heavy had added to my usual dress. He pulled a pen knife out of his vest pocket and quickly slit the envelopes open for me. “You wished to be notified if any word came from the Enchanter while you were out, either to you or to the police.”

I straightened just a bit, suddenly more alert and glad I hadn’t taken those painkillers yet. “He’s sent something out, then?”

“A letter to the post office box you keep in the city, sir,” Simeon said, extracting a sheet of paper from one envelope and handing it to me.

I took it in my one useful hand and glanced it over. All it said was, “There is no king, not by hatchet or taxi. Death to pretenders.” Like the other note, it was signed Enchanter.

“How incredibly cryptic. And useless.” I folded the note up and shoved it into a pocket. “What else?”

“A photocopy of a letter sent to the police, same as the last one they received, obtained by your connections in the department and forwarded through the usual means.” Simeon handed me the second letter, which was identical to the first.

“Again, he sends the same letter to multiple groups,” I said, absently fingering the letter as I tried to figure out what it meant. “Why those groups and no one else? And what, if anything, are they supposed to mean to us?”

“I’m sure that interpreting them is half the challenge intended, sir,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back. “Are either of you hungry? The kitchen staff prepared some light refreshment, I believe, before they left for the day.”

“Now you’re talking, Simeon,” Heavy said. “It’s that kind of thinking we keep you around for.” Heavy gave Simeon a slap on the shoulder and grinned. “You coming, boss?”

“No, I think I’ll take your advice and just turn in for the night.” I rubbed the back of my neck with my free hand. “Although as stiff as I’m feeling right now, I’m not sure I’ll ever actually get to sleep.”

“It passes, boss. See you in the morning.” Heavy trotted off towards the kitchen and I turned to head the other way, towards my office and the small cot I kept there for the times I slept over.

Simeon cleared his throat once and I stopped. “Was there something else?”

“Yes, sir. You received a phone call earlier this evening from a…” He hesitated midsentence. There aren’t many things Simeon hesitates to say. But one thing he hates is the way most of us talents go by code names while we’re working. He understands the importance of protecting our identities, but he always calls me “sir” when we’re in a situation where he can’t use my real name. If I had been contacted by someone using a codename he would usually just call them a gentleman or a lady. Unless he didn’t know their gender, which probably meant…

“Hangman? Did Hangman call?”

Simeon shifted his shoulders slightly, obviously relieved that I’d figured it out on my own. “Yes, that was the name they left, sir.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Did he say why he called?”

“Just that he had something that might interest you.”

“I see.” I mulled that over, then said, “When was this?”

“About half an hour before you returned,” Simeon said. He produced a slip of paper with a phone number on it and handed it to me. “This was the number given, should you with to return the call. But sir, I thought you should know that this didn’t come up through channels. We were contacted here, not at one of the satellite locations in the city or further south.”

“Hangman shouldn’t know this location’s number.”

“And yet,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back, “it would seem he does.”

Too resourceful by half. And yet, that was what made him so useful. “All right, Simeon. Thank you.”

“Not at all, sir. Just doing my duty. Will you be needing me again, tonight?”

“I’m not sure.” I looked down at the number on the paper I was holding. “I suppose I should talk to him tonight.”

“That might not be best sir,” Simeon said, looking meaningfully at the improvised sling on my right arm. “There’s no telling what that man wants from you. It might be best to see what it is when you’re in top shape.”

“Maybe.” I started towards my office again. “But you don’t make deals with the devil because you’re in a position of strength. Besides,” I turned back long enough to give him a grin. “He’s a good player but he’s new to the game. If I don’t give the kids a handicap then it wouldn’t be any fun.”

Simeon smiled slightly. “Very good, sir.”

As I walked into my office I contemplated the number Simeon had given me. The whole day had been spent trying to get something that would help me track down the Enchanter. Helix hadn’t been any help, and neither had raiding Sumter’s local office. But they say the third time is the charm. I picked up the phone in my office and dialed. The line picked up on the second ring.

“It’s Circuit, Hangman. Tell me what you got…”

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Author’s Obligations: The Audience

You do not become an author simply because you want to have a good time. Being an author is a job, and it comes with certain responsibilities. They vary in importance and some of them are more important for fiction or non-fiction authors. But they are there, and if you’re not living up to them then the ugly truth is you are failing as an author. Obviously, it’s important for the aspiring author to know what they are.

If you’ve done any writing at all, you probably have some idea of what these responsibilities are already. Watch your grammar, mind your punctuation and know your story. But the more ways you see them, the more ways you can think of them, the more they will shape your writing and the better your writing will be. So what’s the first, most important duty of the author? Is it to clean, flowing prose? Good grammar and punctuation? No, the first duty of the author is to your audience.

Writing is a part of the art of communication. When you are writing you must be aware of the person or people who are reading, if they cannot understand you then you have failed to communicate. Therefore you must be mindful of your audience if you hope to succeed. Don’t get so caught up in your story that it runs away from you, it’s very unlikely your audience will be able to follow all the places it takes you unless you take the time to carefully mark the path. In short, know your audience.

So, who is your audience?

Well, as contradictory as it may seem, the author’s first audience is themselves. Yes, I’ve just said that it’s important not to get too wrapped up in your own story but, at the same time, the person who has to be most invested in understanding and enjoying your writing must be you. If you don’t buy into what you’re writing 100%, no one else will buy in at all. What’s important is to look at your story through the eyes of the reader. You need to set aside everything you already know about the story you are writing and look at it as if you’d never heard of anything in it before. Learn to put aside your author’s perspective and see if you can enjoy what you’ve written on it’s own merits.

The second audience is the people who share an interest in what you’re writing about. They are your most importance, core audience, they are the ones who will read your story and then want to share it with others. While self editing is the first hurdle for your story, you will need feedback from this part of your audience before you can call your story complete. Can they follow your ideas? Do they enjoy your story? Is there some barrier to understanding that needs to be removed? You can’t evaluate these things yourself, you’re not objective enough nor do you really count as a large enough sampling to be useful. You need feedback from your core audience if you hope to communicate with them.

The third audience is the people who are in the “mainstream”, a mythological group of people who include pretty much everyone who’s not a part of your core audience. While “mainstream” supposedly refers to popular culture, the fact is it’s really too varied to count for much. It’s just changing too fast and doing different things for different people, trying to target it would be like trying to hit all the heads on a hydra with a single toothpick. Some people from the general public will love your work, some will hate it and the vast majority will most likely view it with a certain amount of apathy (if the majority loves it, you’ve crossed over into the rarefied atmosphere of the smash hit, and I’d love to hear how it’s done). Regardless, while it’s important to try and make sure the “mainstream” can understand what you’ve written, you cannot chase after their approval of stories or themes. If you do, your writing will have no identity and will never find a following.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to knowing your audience than what I’ve written. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to codify in one or two short articles. You have to read a lot of what your audience loves, you have to know some members of your audience personally and spend a lot of time with them. An author can’t just sit in a chair 24/7 and write then expect to be successful. He has to be out with his audience, as well. Fortunately, you’re probably going to like the people you meet, since your first audience is yourself and thus your second audience is likely to share interests with you.

So get up and go out for a bit, get to know your audience. Then, the next time you sit down, ask how your stories and theirs can link up. You may find your writing improves for it.

Cool Things: A Little Princess

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, A Little Princess is a children’s novel by Frances Burnett about a little girl who lives a life of comfort and privilege, only to loose her father and fortune all at once. It’s a story about dealing with change, the importance of character and enduring times of trial.

While those may seem like heavy subjects for children’s literature, there are few things as dependable in life as change and trail, and few tools for dealing with them as powerful as character. As such, A Little Princess was and is an important piece of literature for equipping young people, and especially young women who are not as represented in literature as they might be, for dealing with life.

A Little Princess is also the latest production by all for One productions. Full disclosure: Like the last such production I mentioned, I will be appearing in this play.

If you’re interested, and particularly if you have a young daughter, this is a great play to check out. Performance dates are February 22-24 and March 1-3. Play begins at 8:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 PM on Sundays, with doors opening half an hour beforehand. Full ticket prices and ordering information can be found here.

If you live in the Fort Wayne area, I hope to see you there.

Heat Wave: Charge and Resistance

Circuit

There was a moment of surprise as the man in the doorway drew back a half step. His attention had been on someone in the room, and he’d only seen me out of the corner of his eye. I had a split second before he realized he didn’t know who I was and I used it to plant my feet and drive my shoulder square into the center of his chest.

Now that may sound like an impulsive action for someone like me, who’s used to careful plans that require minimal effort. But in this case, it was the only option that made sense. He wasn’t sure who I was, because he hadn’t seen me clearly yet. I wasn’t wearing a mask or anything like that, so I looked fairly innocuous. I could try and pass myself off as someone passing through, like I had with that college student in Texas. In fact, that would be what I would try to do under most circumstances.

Except this wasn’t a normal job. I wasn’t breaking into a lab, a bank or a corporate office. I was in the basement of Project Sumter’s Midwest headquarters, a secure government facility, and I was about to break in to the evidence room. Playing coy wouldn’t help, and it would give this guy a clear look at my face. He had to be taken down as quickly and quietly as possible.

The idea was to slam him to the floor and hit him with enough current to keep him down for the count as he fell, then deal with whoever else was in the room before they could do something inconvenient, like grab a handgun or worse, call security. This plan hit an immediate snag when the other man didn’t go down.

In fact, he didn’t even back up or grunt in discomfort. It was like slamming into a brick wall, except not quite so abrasive. I shifted my feet to get better traction and pushed harder, but he still didn’t move. Trying all that didn’t take more than a second, and I was just about to back up to try something else when the blond man got around to grabbing me, one hand on one shoulder the other under the opposite elbow, and twisted me through the door and flat on my back on the ground.

I reached up with my left hand and snagged his ankle, then gave a sharp tug. Nothing happened. It was like trying to yank over a flag pole. I’m getting close to forty, and I’m not as spry as I used to be. Any other time I’d wonder if I was getting soft, that maybe the fall had taken more out of me than I thought. But here, in the basement of Project Sumter, I was certain I was dealing with a talent. And unfortunately, it was one I didn’t recognize.

With a twitch of my own talent I tripped the switch in my gloves, intending to trigger the electrodes built into them and carry out the electrocution part of my plan, even if the toppling part wasn’t working. I immediately discovered a new design flaw in my set-up. Rather than having a complete taser rig in both hands I had put a positive terminal in my left hand and a negative terminal in my right. With only one hand on my target, no current would flow unless the man was grounded in some way. Which he apparently wasn’t. And not even I can force circuit out of open air with so little charge to work with.

I tried to bring my right hand up and grab hold of his leg with it, but he was bending down at the same time to grab my left and it was a simple matter for him to switch targets and grab my right wrist. A second later Heavy Water slammed into his back and stopped dead. It was kind of eerie to see a six foot tall man, weighing in over two hundred pounds and in training stopped dead in his tracks by a man just as tall but at least twenty pounds lighter who wasn’t even paying attention to him. I probably would have given that some more thought if it hadn’t felt as if something extremely heavy slam into my left hand at that exact same moment. I lost my grip on the other man’s ankle and my entire arm and shoulder wrenched up and around and flipped me halfway over onto my chest. A dizzied glance didn’t show any source for what hit me, but I didn’t have much time to look.

The blond man held onto my other arm just long enough that getting flipped over wrenched it out of its socket before letting go and turning around to deal with Heavy Water, leaving me face-down on the floor, right shoulder in significant pain and left hand reporting that it was very possible some fingers were broken. And worse, I had no idea what had happened.

I’d like to say at this point that one of the many gifts my talent gives me is the ability to switch nerves on and off like all other electrical circuits. Alas, real life is not so convenient. I’m not sure if it’s the chemical component to nerves, or if some part of my subconscious just doesn’t want to tamper with my own body that way, or if there’s something else I don’t understand causing it, but messing with the nervous system is outside my abilities.

So I had to brace my left elbow and push myself up onto my knees with no relief from the pain. I was vaguely aware that someone had come up and put a hand on my shoulder, thankfully the one that was still socketed, and was saying something to me. Probably an admonition to behave myself. Grabbing his leg and shocking him down to the floor was simple, if uncomfortable.

He grunted in pain as he collapsed and then I gave him a second shock to the body, to make sure he stayed quiet. While I did so I heard the sound of ceramic breaking, followed by a wet splat.

I looked up to find that Heavy had stopped using plain force on the blond man and switched to tricks. Where I favor magnets and Tasers as my primary tricks, he carries a number of hard ceramic containers filled with ink and scored along one side. He’d apparently backed up from the other man and broken one on the door frame. The ink settled in his hand in one large glob, refusing to flow apart as he used his own talent to make it more viscous than cold oxtail soup. The blond man backed up a step but Heavy flipped it forward like a man pitching underhand and the whole glob flew in a gentle arc that slapped the other square in the face and stuck.

As Heavy’s victim staggered back, clawing at the ink blob and making a mess out of his hands for his trouble, I clambered to my feet and slapped both hands into his back, ignoring the shooting pains from my fingers and shoulder as I triggered my taser a third time. He stiffened and went down, proving that whatever his talent was, it didn’t make him immune to electricity as well as physical impact.

With the blond man finally out of commission I had enough time to glance around at the rest of the room. The first thing to do was to make sure there wasn’t anyone else in there, which was difficult with all the shelves running down the length of the room. But there wasn’t anyone here in the entrance, or behind the desk that was right next to it. I glanced over at Heavy, who was stripping the blob of ink off the face of the blond man so he wouldn’t suffocate. I jerked my head towards the back of the room. Heavy just nodded and slipped off, quiet as a ghost.

The second thing to do was check the charge in my vest. To my dismay, it was almost three quarters empty. Not much I could do about it at the moment, except do everything I could to avoid having to use it again on this trip. I made a mental not to come up with some way to charge it from conventional current without needing specialty equipment.

All that was left was priority number three. I stepped over to the computer and rested one hand on it.

A computer is nothing more than a massive collection of circuits that process information based on one factor, whether a given circuit is open or closed. These circuits form patterns upon patterns, and the astute mind which has had enough practice can interpret them. If they were born with the fusebox talent, they can even manipulate those patterns with a little practice.

It’s not the most elegant way to program a computer but it is a great way to get a look past firewalls or other password protections. And, since all I wanted to know at the moment was whether or not an alarm had been sounded, direct interface was the best way to go. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to determine that there was no sign of anything like an alert going through the system. No files were being deleted or removed, the firewall wasn’t locking the terminal out from the rest of the network and it didn’t look like anyone was trying to access the cameras in the room from outside. Satisfied, I lifted my hand off of the computer tower.

“Coming your way!” Heavy called. That was followed by a wet splat and the sound of someone falling to the floor. I hurriedly stepped away from the terminal and glanced down the rows of shelving. A short brunette woman lay sprawled on the floor in a puddle of ink that was no doubt as slick as oil. Of course, on a linoleum floor, like you find in most government buildings of a certain age, pretty much any liquid would make things slippery.

I stepped down the hallway to block the woman’s path, but I needn’t have bothered. Heavy was on her almost before I could do anything, slipping a plastic zip-tie around her wrists before she had a clear idea what was going on. A moment later she was gagged and dragged into the corner of the room.

While Heavy was doing that, and trussing up the other two men we’d stumbled into at the door, I started poking through the various boxes and other detritus on the shelves. When he finished and came to help me look around I said, “I hope she didn’t see your face clearly.”

“I told you we should have worn masks,” he said. “It’s not worth it to ‘look inconspicuous’ if they know who to throw in jail afterwards.”

“We’d never have gotten past that wall man if we wore masks, he’d have figured out we were up to no good in time have someone hit the alarm.” The boxes on the shelf were dated too early to be what I wanted. I waved for Heavy to follow me and moved on to the next aisle. As we walked I said, “If you’re worried about my methods you could always go in business for yourself. You’re certainly capable of it.”

“Not me, mister,” Heavy said, shaking his head emphatically. “I promised myself once that I’d never be one of those guys who just went around causing problems for the hell of it. You, you got standards, boss. But you still know that you need to raise havoc from time to time. I like that.”

“Um…” I really didn’t know what to say about that. “I’m not exactly an altruist, Heavy. I’m doing what I do because it needs to get done, true. But also because I’m the only person who can do it right. I prefer jobs well done, no matter how ‘important’ they are, to being a hero.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Heavy said, and shrugged. “Maybe you just don’t hear it like I do. Anyway, I like the work, it pays well and…” He glanced at the aisles of boxes. “I think it’s better for Grappler, too.”

Suddenly I found myself interested in the shelving as well. I realized we were now at the end of the last full aisle, the last row of shelves just beyond was empty. I headed down it. “Heavy, you know that I’ve never really-”

“Wall man.” Heavy said, cutting me off. “Is that what they’re called? That big blond guy from before?”

Grateful for the change of topic, I switched mental gears and thought about it for a second. “Honestly, I’ve never heard of anything like him. It’s not like I’ve seen a comprehensive list of all talents Project Sumter knows about, and I doubt any such list encompasses all the existing talents in the world. He’s really bothersome, whatever he is. I’m not even sure what he did to my arm. It’s like you rammed into me, instead of him.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Is any of what we do?” I pulled a box off the shelves and rifled through it. It was full of the kind of junk you’d expect in any mundane evidence box. Stuff in little plastic baggies, stuff in big plastic baggies, stuff in plastic baggies of every size in between. None of it looked like what I wanted. “Whatever it is, it has it’s limits. Good thinking dropping the ink on him, but why’d it take you so long to jump him?”

“Didn’t want to get shocked when you tased him,” Heavy said. “When I realized you weren’t going to be able to I tackled him, for all the good it did.” He waved to my right arm, still dangling slightly awkwardly. “Want to take a second to get your arm back in socket?”

“When we find what we need.” I put the lid back on the box I had pulled, wincing as my right arm moved in some way it didn’t like, shelved the box and picked a new one. This time it only took a few seconds of pawing through it to come to a conclusion. “This looks like part one.”

Heavy smiled and tipped his own box so I could see the contents. “And this is part two.”

I smirked and pulled a small case of tools from my belt. “I told you this would work out fine. Let’s wrap it up.”

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Viral

If you are an unheard of person trying to make your mark on the Internet, then going viral is a dream come true. It means instant exposure to a huge audience, some part of which is probably going to find you and your content wildly appealing. That, in turn, means that you will get even more exposure, popularity, fame, wealth and general dating ability.

A brief interlude, in which I will explain what “going viral” means to my readers who are not “down” with “internet jive” (hi mom!) Going viral refers to when something on the Internet experiences a sudden boost in popularity entirely by word of mouth. News of the viral event travels from person to person and usually happens with little or no need for a middleman, much like an epidemic, from which the term “viral” comes. Social media has made it easier and easier for things to go viral over the Internet, just as modern transportation has made epidemics more and more of a worry. Any piece of media can go viral, but it typically refers to a YouTube video or, in rare cases a comic (as in a stand-alone illustration, although it sometimes refers to serialized webcomics).

A very recent example of a viral event is PSY’s Gangnam Style. If you are one of the five people in America who aren’t familiar with this little bit of Korean absurdity, let me spread the infection a little bit more.

Wasn’t that fun? Whether you like it or hate it, Gangnam Style is now a part of the American consciousness. A year ago, how many people you know could answer the following question:

“Who or what is Gangnam?

A) A district in Seoul, South Korea.

B) A battle mecha franchise from Japan.

C) A new kind of inner city gang.”

If you’re like mot people, the answer is none. But now they’ll all say, “Oh, that’s the song with the Asian guy who rides the ponies, right?” And they’d be right, because going viral has the power to define things in the cultural consciousness. And that’s on top of the fame, money and hordes of attractive single people.

Many people come to the Internet, and indeed to blogs such as this one, with a fairly simple plan in mind:

Step 1. Go viral.

Step 2. ???

Step 3. Profit!

What they quickly learn is that it doesn’t actually work that way. In fact, the order should probably be:

Step 1. ???

Step 2. Go viral.

Step 3. Profit!

You see, all the real work goes in before you make the big break. Even in the age of the Internet, there’s no easy win. You have to put in the time and dedication to make even a little bit of a mark. Viral videos generally have three things in common.

First, there’s the dedication to craft. PSY was a successful Korean pop artist long before he went viral. One of the earliest viral events was “All Your Base“, a video put together by video editing students as part of a major project. In fact, look at pretty much any major viral event that has resulted in lasting success and you’ll find that it had a higher than normal level of finish work, proof of a dedication to making good content. The creator probably had a string of much less successful work before they made their big break.

Second, there’s a love of what’s being done. Look at AutoTune the News, makers of more than one viral video. Sure, their videos are silly and the music isn’t really that memorable. But the real magic is that they bring out the music the creators hear in every day speech. That love goes into the songs they right and attracts people to them. By the same token, PSY has said that Gangnam Style was not created to be an international sensation. It was a love song to the Gangnam district, a celebration of all the things that make it unique and lovable.

Third, there’s a willingness to have fun. I’m not aware of any viral events on the Internet that are people playing things completely straight. If you want to go viral, you can’t take yourself very seriously. Again, look at Gangnam Style. PSY blows himself up, engages in a dancing duel with a man in a plastic suit and rides invisible horses everywhere. And he obviously has a great time doing it. We want to share that fun with him, and we’re sucked in with him.

Ultimately, I don’t think anyone can intentionally go viral. But your can create in such a way as to make it much more viable. On the other hand, when you go viral there are far fewer people who have been with you since the beginning and come to have a true appreciation of your work and goals. You may not have the support and emotional maturity to deal with the sudden exposure. And you may not want the huge, impersonal masses staring over your shoulder, wanting you to repeat the old successes when you’re seeking to press on to newer and better things.

Should you go viral? Well, that’s really up to you. It will probably be a fun and wild ride if you do. But whatever your goal, it’s best to work relentlessly at something you love. Keep presenting your work in the right forums, taking feedback and never give up and you’ll be surprised where you wind up.

Cool Things: “Chinese” New Year

According to the Chinese Zodiac, the new year begins on February 10th, 2013. Like all great Chinese traditions, this has pretty much ignored any contradictory Western traditions, such as our having our own calendar that’s used pretty much world wide. There will still be huge celebrations in may places across Asia as the Year of the Snake officially begins.

As the child of mixed heritage (is that politically correct?) I’ve always had an interesting relationship with the Chinese New Year. It’s not a holiday my immediate family had any special traditions for, beyond occasionally visiting relatives. On the other hand, to my father’s side of the family it was frequently a time to touch base, enjoy good food and company and generally do everything that Americans generally associate with Christmas (including gift giving!) On the third hand, I could typically mention it to my friends and get nothing more than a blank look.

Ah, the good old days.*

Now there’s this thing called Wikipedia, and it has a table that not only tells you when the Chinese New Year falls, but what the technical term for the Chinese Zodiac is and which of animal’s year we’re about to embark upon (for those wondering, mine is the Year of the Rat, something my sister has always found most appropriate). The Internet and other forms of media are becoming more aware of these and other, similar, cultural events and my own home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana even has a Chinese Association that will be honoring the holiday in grand style.

So what happens on Chinese New Year? Well, a lot of things.

Traditionally, you set if firecrackers and do other rituals to ward off evil spirits. In spite of their relative modernity, the Chinese are still rather superstitious and there’s a while string of activities to ensure good luck and ward against bad luck that are most effective if done on New Year’s Day. Whether they’re continued for their stated purpose, or just to give people a chance to dress up in gaudy clothing and do the Dragon Dance is anybody’s guess – and it probably varies from person to person.

It’s also a time of family. Partly because this was a time to go back to the ancestral home and honor your ancestors – and again, some people probably still do that. But in part because the act of going back to the ancestral home brought everyone back together at the same time. And let’s face it, no matter how tough things are between people, when you cram thirty or forty of them into one house relationships have got to improve somehow – unless there’s a homicide, which probably doesn’t help anything. But anything short of that only serves to build family solidarity.

These days it seems like it takes weeks of planning and a military logistics team for families to get together in any way, shape or form. Sometimes you need an excuse to convince people it’s worthwhile. So go ahead, celebrate Chinese New Year. Go out and eat, cram your entire family into one house and give each other great, huge wads of cash so you can all start the year of in prosperity. And who knows? Maybe next time you won’t need an excuse.

But if you should, my mother’s side of the family can trace its roots back to Germany, where they have this funny little tradition called Oktoberfest…

 

*This statement is intended to be sarcastic. In case you are one of those people who misses these kinds of things.