The Collapsing Empire Trilogy

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I’m a big fan of John Scalzi. I first ran across him by reading some of his articles for his blog, Whatever, and that lead me to his books. The first may have been “Old Man’s War”, which is itself the start of a multi-book series. Before long, I was buying his books through Audible, because I listen to audio books on my way to work, and Scalzi’s are often read by Wil Wheaton (Not the Old Man’s War series, that’s William Dufris and he’s marvelous too.) Still Wil reads “Fuzzy Nation”, and “Lock in” , and “Redshirts”, and “Agent to the Stars”, and the Collapsing Empire trilogy.

Scalzi has his haters, for his perceived liberality. They say all kinds of stuff about his books, and I have to say, I don’t get it. I’ve been reading sci-fi since I picked up The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at age ten. I’ve read Hard Sci-Fi, Military Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Speculative Sci-Fi, Psychedelic Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism. I even read “Battlefield Earth” all the way through. Scalzi’s books are good, solid adventures, with interesting characters and some great lines. There’s one thing that he does well that I think is almost unique, though. In both the Old Man’s War series (The latter part, with Harry Wilson as the front man) and The Collapsing Empire, he performs the most amazing balancing act.

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Look, in most stories, the authors tend to follow the Hollywood paradigm: at the climax of the action, the villain is winning, or has even won. The good guys are beaten, or captive, or sometimes even a bit dead. At THAT point, just AFTER it’s all too late, someone pulls a winning move out of the bag and Everything Is Ok again. This is fine, and makes for some tense cinema, but it can be really galling to read/watch as the heroes get a pasting. Sometimes they even have to be stupid to allow the villain to get the upper hand, or their powers weaken inexplicably (Think of Captain Marvel punching her way through a gigantic spaceship, then bouncing off Thanos like she’s a gnat). It’s like the story is supposed to be as chessgame between the two sides, but one side gets takes all the pawns, puts the king in check and sets fire to the board, then the other player drops an anvil on their head to win.

What Scalzi does is allow his heroes to be clever, to work hard and succeed in throwing off course the plans of the villains, but NOT derail them entirely. In The Collapsing Empire, the first book in the trilogy, Cardenia and Lord Marce and Kiva Lagos have to contend with the House of Nohamapetan arranging assassination attempts, corrupt business dealings and reaching for the throne itself. This being the first of the trilogy, you might expect things to go badly for the heroes, for the second book to be the struggle to regroup, then the third to be the triumphant final battle. That’s not the case – the bad guys make their plans, the good guys disrupt those plans, but the plan changes and the bad guys move on with it. Like a chessgame, their are captures and sacrifices and reversals, but the game doesn’t end until one side or the other reaches the winning condition.

I won’t spoil the ending of the trilogy, because it’s a great series. The problems the good guys face are huge, and they’re not all the creation of the bad guys. The third book was a real rollercoaster ride, with some very unexpected moments and a conclusion that was right for the story, even if it’s not the one Hollywood would pick.

If you can, grab these books. If you have the option, get the audio version, because Wil Wheaton really puts his heart and soul into the reading – this is not just narration, he really does conjure these characters for you.

The Last Emperox

5 reasons I didn’t make it.

Stop me if you’ve heard this already.

I’ve been writing with intent to earn since 1998. Been dreaming of being an author for another two decades before that. I have written and published something like ten e-books, over eighty plays, several short stories and some non-fiction articles. I’ve written a couple of screenplays that have gone nowhere, and I’m still not rich or famous.

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To be clear, I do comparatively well from my play writing. When there’s not a global pandemic shutting down every public gathering, I get a monthly payment for my scripts that’s very nice, especially considering there’s no heavy lifting involved. Some even won awards, like this nice medal.

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But no matter what, I’m not topping the bestseller charts with my books. Look:

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All the way up to number 73! Inside the top 100 of a very, very narrow category! Anyway, my point here is not just to whine about not being an NYT bestseller, but to explain why I’m not. I mean, sure, there are LOTS of reasons, but here are the top 5 I can think of. You can add more in the comments if you would like to be hurtful.

1. Writing is rewriting.

Stephen King says the first draft is you telling yourself the story*. That’s all well and good, but you should get to the end, then (after going and doing something else for a while) go back and look at the story you’ve got. You should maybe think about theme, and how to emphasize it. Look at the characters you have, and see if there are any you’re hanging on to for sentimental reasons. Do they all serve the story? Look at the different scenes you have. Are THEY all important? Is there one there that you don’t need, but you just think it’s funny? Is that a problem?

See, rewriting can be hard. people say “Stick your draft away for a few months and it reads like someone else wrote it.” and that’s good advice, because they’re right. But the big test is whether you can take that story you built, word by word, and break it down, then reassemble it as a different version. I can’t. Even when I have had brilliant people like Lucy V Hay showing me the parts that need fixing, I can’t do the work. I’ve done it with plays – rewriting, restructuring, changing the endings. But not short stories or novels. So what I end up with is a first draft. Maybe proofread, maybe spellchecked, but not fundamentally different to the first version that fell out of my head, and I think people can tell that.

2. Bang the drum.

Nobody thinks to themselves “I love selling things! I think I’ll write a novel!” And no one says “Hey, I’m a novellist, but my favourite part is doing the publicity!” If you’ve chosen to devote huge chunks of your time to sitting alone, building imaginary worlds and people out of words, then you are unlikely to be the kind of outgoing gladhander who can sell product to everyone.

And yet, if you want to jump from writer to published author, you have to learn to sell yourself and your book. Even if you think you’re going to get an agent and get picked up by the Big Six and they’ll do the publicity, you have to sell yourself to that agent. You have to believe your work is good, believe you have more in you, and you have to be able to communicate that belief to someone who’s never met you.

I once rang a publisher when I had finished a first draft of a novel. I don’t know what I was thinking, but the poor guy actually answered the phone. I told him I’d just written a book, and he asked me to describe it. Right then I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. I stuttered and stammered and I credit that unknown phone-answerer with tremendous kindness. I don’t remember him sneering at me (as he should), nor slamming down the phone in disgust (also warranted.) He taught me a valuable lesson, which is that you have to have a pitch at your fingertips, and you have to make your story sound good. I did not.

3. Pick a lane.

This is maybe a little more controversial, but I think it applies to us enthusiastic amateurs. I mentioned I have ten e-books out there, but only two are novels. One’s a zombie novel, the other a vaguely YA book about a musician. I have four collections of short stories. One is Sci-Fi, two are coffee-break stories (warm, minor-twist endings, no bloodshed or graphic stuff), and one is… other stuff. I have a book of poetry. I have a non-fiction book about my family’s first year emigrating to Canada, and three non-fiction books about my hobby of building prop helmets. The point is, if you like one of my books, there’s no guarantee you’re going to like any of the others. And if I wanted to approach a regular publisher or agent, I could show them my dazzling sales stats (“Look! This month there were three sales! Three! In the same month!”), but would have to acknowledge that they are spread out amongst different genres. No big, pre-built audience waiting there for my next zombie novel.

When people talk about e-publishing, they often mention having a tail. Publish two or three books before you expect to pick up a serious readership. They may be right, but I bet it helps if you stick within your genre. I have a couple of friends who have written sequential books – Rick Wayne and Lisa Cohen, for example. Their earlier books were written on faith, and their readership grew as the series progressed. The clamour that people made on social media for the next book interested new readers. Don’t be a butterfly author.

4. Maintain your platform.

Everyone knows that authors these days have to have a social media presence, but that’s getting harder and harder to define. Let’s start with where I went wrong: I loved G+, built up a group of friends there, and gradually slid off the public face of G+ into more private group areas. It was more fun for me, but less useful for selling my books. I have a Twitter presence, but find I’m resistant to the Twitter style of trumpet blowing – posting pictures of your book cover fourteen times a day with pull quotes from other people saying how much they loved the book. Worse are the ones that try to give a sample of the book’s dialogue without running out of characters. Still, that’s more than I do. I can’t publicise my books on social media without deprecating them, even though I have devoted a lot of time to each one, and they’re sooooo cheap! But I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a schedule, and I lurk on Twitter rather than dividing my time more usefully amongst other sites too, like Goodreads, and Instagram and whatever else the kids are into these days. Somewhere online, there’s a group of people to whom your book will appeal. Finding them can be a big challenge, or maybe even a part time job. But if you choose not to do it, like me, then you can’t complain about book sales. Well, you CAN, but no one will listen.

5. Don’t drop the ball.

So, you write your novel. You re-write your novel. You get it edited (always a good plan). You maybe re-write it one more time. Then you go out to sell it. Maybe it sells, maybe it doesn’t. You sit down to write novel number two. The thing is, don’t completely abandon your first novel, especially if you’re self publishing. It may feel like last week’s laundry, but there will always be people out there who haven’t heard about it. People join and leave social media sites all the time. If you’re maintaining your platform, your number of new followers (or whatever) should be rising, and those new people need to know about your first efforts as well as your latest blockbuster. Yes, there’s a balance between ‘I didn’t know you’d written that!” and “Dear god, are you STILL banging on about that old thing?”, but you can find that balance. Look at what others do. Work out your own strategy for new versus old. It may be that, like Seanan Mcguire or Delilah S Dawson, you’ll want to split your genres out under different names, but whatever you decide, remember to cheer for your early efforts too. Any one of them could be the way a new reader finds their way to you.

So, Dim, does all this negativity mean you’re done with writing e-books?

I don’t know. The pandemic hasn’t been good for my confidence, or my creativity, like a lot of people. And there’s that stupid feedback loop, where I don’t make any money from e-books, so I don’t invest any time in them, but they’re not going to sell if I don’t invest the time (see three of the points above) and right now I should have time but I still can’t muster time and energy to do all the things I have to, let alone the things I think I want to.

Well, that got dark quickly. Are you still writing plays?

Yes. Sllllloooooooooooowwwwwllllllyyyyy. But yes. And tomorrow I may laugh again, because me and my writing partners at TLC Creative are still working on The Hound of Music.

Thanks.

 

 

*He says other stuff too, I expect, like “Pass the potatoes.” and “Who elected this clown?”, but I thought I should stick with the relevant stuff.

The Facebook Effect during COVID

We moved out here to Canada, as I’m sure you’re sick of me saying, back in 2009. To keep our relatives and friends up to date with contact details and health news etc, we sent emails every couple of days with photos attached. Before long, it became obvious that this would be horribly intrusive – who wants a two page screed on the things we have been doing, complete with pictures, turning up in their email while they’re going along with their regular life? We’re hanging out in Stanley Park, or riding the Seabus, or going up Grouse Mountain, while they’re paying the gas bill and doing the school run. It was no fun for our friends to be continually pestered with how great things were for us.

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Like a lot of people in similar situations, we turned to Facebook. We could post a bunch of pictures at a time, and people could choose to look at them or not. If we got too irritating, they could cut us out completely.

After a while, though, we heard about ‘The Facebook Effect”, where people are made to feel inferior to their friends, because their own lives don’t look as interesting as the images posted by their friends. Of course, people only post the Good Stuff on Facebook, so logically you KNOW their lives aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s hard to remember that as you click through photo after photo of smiling, happy people in their beautiful house etc etc.

So, now we come to the pandemic. People are hunkered down in their homes, and the truth is that we’re all knocked sideways by this. We don’t know for sure how long it’s going to last, what the true outcome of the whole thing is going to be, how life is going to be changed from now on…. It’s a lot. And what your daily life looks like varies tremendously from person to person. Mrs Dim is working from home, via Zoom, and phone and email, and her working day is still pretty much 9-5, but in the study with the door closed, rather than in her office on the top of the mountain. I was stood down from work because delivering library materials to the elderly and sick would have been EXTREMELY irresponsible, but I couldn’t exactly work from home either. I was encouraged to stay in touch with the Library and take online courses, but after a couple of weeks, I was officially laid off. Now I am overseeing Tiny Weasel’s online education (nagging, that’s what I’m doing. “Do your work, log on to the chat, watch the video, write the essay.” It’s about as effective as you’d expect.) Eldest Weasel just took her Finals and is now on break until the Summer Term starts, and Middle Weasel is still doing shifts at the Bakery.

So, some people have more time on their hands, some people actually have less – if your kids are usually at school or daycare and now they’re home, someone has to be responsible for them. It wasn’t long before the social media sphere was alive with things you “ought” to be doing with your “spare time”. Learn a new language, learn a musical instrument, do the gardening, write a novel, watch all the TV….

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This is the COVID Effect. Because we don’t necessarily have more time, and we don’t necessarily have more capacity. Mrs Dim keeps saying “Ok, I think this is normal now, I think I understand…”  but I don’t think that’s true. I think the reality of what we’re dealing with comes and goes in waves. One day you’re fine with it, you can race through your “Must Do” list and tick some things off your “Want to” list. Other days…Other days it’s enough to be out of bed and fed. Back when I stopped going in to work, I started a 12 week course, and skipped through the first six weeks’ content in a week. I also started learning to use Blender, the 3d modelling program, by following YouTube Tutorials. But the pace of learning with both these courses has slowed. Arguably, I have more time now, and things should have settled down, but some days the energy, the enthusiasm, just isn’t there.

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Over the past few weeks, we have done some DIY. We’ve done some gardening. I’ve done a “Monday Challenge” three weeks in a row for the family, silly challenges that take a half-hour at lunchtime. Some things we’ve posted pictures of on our Social Media, and some we haven’t. We have relatives in countries that are under a stricter lockdown than we are here in BC, and it seems unfeeling to post pictures of a freer life, whatever our true motivation.

I’m not going to be able to play the piano by the time we’re through all this (we don’t have a piano, which is a big obstacle there…). I’m not going to be able to speak Mandarin, and I doubt I will ever finish making this 3d doughnut. And I’m ok with all that.

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Whatever you might want to do, or have to do, I hope you remember to be kind to yourself. That this isn’t normal, no matter how long it lasts. That no one is demanding that you come out the other side with anything but your sanity intact. And if there is something you’ve been planning to do, take this:

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Cooped up and coping.

COVID 19 has affected everyone differently, I guess. Some love the chance to isolate, some hate it, some would be fine with it, except their entire family is isolating WITH them, and that’s no fun. Like a lot of guys my age, I expected the apocalypse to have zombies in it, so I have spent some time considering the need to metaphorically pull up the drawbridge. It’s nice to have the option to walk the dogs without also carrying weaponry (saying this now, aware it may not age well…)

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We’re very fortunate on many counts – our corner of BC is voluntarily self-isolating, rather than being in lockdown. We can still visit grocery stores and there’s things to buy when we get there. Mrs Dim is able to work from home, ad though I’ve been laid off from the library, I have the option of EI or the CERB when my money runs out. In the meantime I get to play teacher for Tiny Weasel, tidy up all those long-term DIY jobs, and the plethora of other ones that have sprung up now that Mrs Dim has a little more time to stride around the house.

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And, as other people have pointed out, it’s Spring. We have the cheering sight of nature waking up around us (including bears, of course) and the weather is warmer, and sunnier than it has been for a while. We get to remodel the top of the creek bank, and if my tennis elbow ever clears up, I can take that carload of rubbish to the tip.

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The other thing that reminds us how lucky we are is our contact with the outside world. I’m used to Skyping with my Mum and Dad back in the UK, but these days Mrs Dim has been video conferencing with her whole family once a week. That means family in the UK, in Greece and in Washington State. Every one of them is in Lockdown, with trips outside severely restricted.

We don’t know when things will change, but I think everyone is accepting the idea that they will simply change, not “go back to normal”. This weird interlude has upended so many aspects of normal life that it seems impossible things can go back to the way they were. I hope the good parts, like remote working access for disabled people, become the norm, but I worry that the gratitude being showered upon the health workers and delivery personnel will evaporate when the time comes to give it a more concrete reward than clapping. The NHS may have saved Boris’ life, but I truly believe he cares more about his bank account, and that’s being cared for by lobbyists.

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Like many folks, I’m not finding the constant anxiety, crowded house and gloomy news broadcasts very conducive to creativity. I still have scripts to read and appraise, and I still have writing projects of my own to work on, but I find the more mechanical task of appraisal easier than writing something new. I’m trying to learn 3d modelling from free youtube tutorials, and my wooden AT AT toy is…. well, I’ve nearly got all four legs on, let’s say no more than that. Each day is an adventure, but I’m using the word the way Rincewind the Wizard would. Adventures are uncomfortable, awkward and sometimes terrifying things, best viewed from a distance.

Wherever you are, and whoever you’re there with, I hope you’re remembering to be kind to yourself. This isn’t normal life, and anyone who’s expecting you to act like it is can be safely ignored as a dangerous loon. With whatever methods at your disposal, check in on your friends and neighbours, not least because that means they’ll be able to see you’re alive too. And if you’re looking for a reason to be grateful… well, there AREN’T any zombies.

Yet.

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Policing Grammar

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I’m a big fan of words. Been reading a long time, and was one of those kids at school who struggled with Math but sailed through English. It’s my thing.

So I dreamed of making a living from writing, and along the way I have worked in a couple of different jobs as a proofreader. Right now, I do it for my publisher, reading and marking up scripts. Spotting errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling, because if you are a publisher, you don’t want the thing you publish to have errors. Yes, language is evolving, but there ARE rules, and you want to get them right.

But look, that’s PUBLISHING. It’s a business, and the one I’m connected to is an English-language business. Working with words so long has made me twitchy. I passed a Day Care sign the other day that was missing two apostrophes in six words. But I didn’t get out my Sharpie and draw them in. For one thing, one of them might have been a deliberate choice for a business name, such as has been made by Waterstones. That’s fair enough. Also, it’s not my job to point out the errors – the signwriter/maker should have (it was a pro job) and if they did and the customer said “stet”, then who am I to complain?

The most common ground for forcible corrections is, of course, Social Media. I don’t get as much time on sites as I’d like, but I still run across dozens of things that look like errors whenever I log on. However, there’s a lot of things to consider before wading in with a virtual red pen.

Firstly, most people update their SM feeds on their phones. Phone keyboards are small and fiddly, and plagued with autocorrect. I know I’ve posted some things that are close to gibberish because I knew what I was typing, not what was being posted.

Secondly, people on SM should be free to express themselves in their own idiom. I know I grew up (mostly) in the south of England, with a Headmaster born before the Second World War. My writing and speech was influenced by the books I read too – Biggles, Enid Blyton, The Hobbit, Swallows and Amazons, The Dark is Rising, Earthsea…. It was a very English childhood. I can’t and shouldn’t expect other people’s language to reflect my experience.

Finally, I don’t know much about the people who are posting. Many are using English as a second or third language, and their facility with it is still far above mine in any other language. It’s presumptuous of me to correct their minor errors when I couldn’t even introduce myself in their native tongue.

All this came about when I read a tweet reminding people that correcting someone else’s language is a reinforcement of privilege and racial oppression. I know some people sneer at that as an exaggeration , but you know what? They’re not people who have ever experienced oppression.

We’re into the third month of a new year. There’s enough incivility in the world, with racism, mistrust and naked fear. I’m going to redouble my efforts not to add to people’s unhappiness by correcting them for mistakes that aren’t important. I’ll keep proofreading, though. Grammar and language have rules, and though they bend and change over time, they are there to help comprehension. When I took German in school, I had to learn a lot of grammar rules, and they don’t all make sense, otherwise there wouldn’t be a category called “irregular verbs”. This is not just an English problem. But when I went to Germany, the locals listened to my attempts to speak their language and they answered me with compassion, not correction. It was a kind act, and much appreciated.

Book Review: The Best Of Uncanny

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I like anthologies. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good novel too, but a good anthology is like a box of excellent chocolates – something you can dip into from time to time, or sit with and devour all in one sitting. The point is that it’s not one huge meal, but a smorgasbord of different tastes. They’re not all going to be perfect for you, of course, but the joy of a book like this one is that you know that’s not because the tale is substandard – it’s just that it doesn’t resonate with you, with your experience or taste. You can still appreciate the quality and artistry of the work.

I’ve read anthologies in the past where I’ve ended up skipping more stories than I’ve read, but here I am snared again and again by first lines, by concepts, by tones, by lyricism… Sometimes just the evident joy of the author in telling a damn good story. The stories themselves range in length and format, and the subjects are so varied it’s not worth trying to list or explain them. You’ll find a story to love in this collection. You’ll certainly find one to haunt you, and like as not you’ll find several that you just HAVE to tell some friends about.

In an age when fiction magazines are supposed to be fading way, Uncanny shines like a beacon of hope. This is not a home for stories, it’s a breeding ground, a nursery that grows a forest of fiction, tall and proud, putting oxygen back into the world. Breathe in the atmosphere – it’s uncannily good.

Day of the Dalek

It feels like we’ve been working on Derek for a million years, but our original aim was to have him built for the October 2018 Vancouver Fan Expo.

I’ve written about this before, the idea and the build process ( https://dtrasler.com/2018/10/13/living-with-derek/ ) and I think I’ve mentioned the rebuild once or twice too. This Saturday, the 15th of February, was the new deadline. We reached the point where we were sure we weren’t going to make it, then made the decision that we WOULD.

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Laurel jumped into overdrive, spending late nights affixing the hemispheres (after re-fitting the gaskets round each one) and repainting all the slats in gold. We’d had to abandon the idea of using the Raspberry Pi as a voice-changer. Not because it wouldn’t work, but because I couldn’t wrap my brain around programming it in time. Or maybe at all. In place of that, we had an old phone pre-loaded with Dalek voice recordings, Doctor Who music and some Star Wars voices for a bit of a laugh. This was plugged into a small but pretty powerful speaker that ran off batteries, so it wouldn’t drain the phone’s power. We still had no motors, so Derek would be foot-powered. Flintstones-style again. But we had fixed the rotation system in the dome, and the ears and eyestalk would light up at the press of buttons.

Mrs Dim volunteered to drive, to reduce my stress about parking and arriving on time. She found us a great spot under the convention centre where we could stack up Derek out of the rain.

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Bearing in mind we were a Dalek, a Dalek Maintenance Tech and two other characters who looked like this:

(Captain Will Charity from The Adventurer and Taako from The Adventure Zone.)

It was quite a surprise when the polite Host from the Convention Centre said “Are you here for the Fan Expo?”

It was SO tempting to say “Nope, just a few eccentrics taking our dalek for a walk…”

We didn’t, of course, and she kindly directed us to the elevators. We were IN!

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One of the things I’ve been thinking about as we did the renovations was “What are we going to DO at the Fan Expo?”. It was a good question. Last time, I was distracted by the panic over parking and the the lost wheel disaster. We never made it into the exhibition hall at all. We knew from our previous, non-dalek visit that the hall can get crowded, and we were booked in for Saturday, usually the busiest day. This year, the plan was:

  1. Get there.
  2. Get inside and set up a base in the refreshments area.
  3. Get photos with the Doctor Who Cosplayers and the 501st Legion.
  4. Don’t lose any wheels. Or anything else.

1 and 2 were easy enough. This year’s Fan Expo was brilliantly devised, with a spacious refreshments area, plenty of seating and tables, and wide avenues between them. Mrs Dim made herself at home at a table, and we went on our first of three journeys around the hall.

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That first trip was the quietest, giving Derek time to browse the comics…

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…try to swipe a lightsabre….

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…and make a new friend. Of course, when you do that, there’s always a chance they’ll try to follow you home.

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By this point the hall was filling up a little, and we were stopped again and again for photos and the same three questions:

a: Is there someone inside there?

b: How long did it take to make?

c. What’s it made of?

Oh, and there were a few outliers, like “Is that from Star Wars?” and “What’s Doctor Who?” We hoped the guy who congratulated us on our “brilliant R2 D2” was kidding. He must have been, right? I mean, he WAS at Fan Expo…

Laurel took a breather back at base, and people kept coming up to take pictures with Derek, standing quiet sentinel at our table. The other two weasels had taken a turn around the hall, and when they got back we poured Laurel back into Derek and set off to find the 501st photo booth. My work computer home screen is our 501st group photo from last year:

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I was looking forward to updating the picture.

The 501st were great. First of all, they had to take apart their queuing system so Derek could get into the photography area. We got an extra surprise when one of the troopers (in the TIE Special Forces outfit) turned out to be a member of the Project Dalek Forum (www.projectdalek.com). In the end we got our photo on the Death Star AND with a bunch of Mandalorians – including THE Mandalorian, and a certain baby.

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The fun with the 501st lasted just long enough for us to trot (and wheel) around the corner to meet up with the other Doctor Who Cosplayers. That may have been our biggest reaction of the day – a number of Doctors had gathered and were preparing for a photo in the stye of a football team or school class – all lined up neatly. Derek rolled onto the red carpet and things got a bit more… animated.

Until they stopped being animated at all. Victory for Derek!

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In fact, victory for Derek felt like the theme of the Fan Expo for us this year. All kudos goes to Laurel – she worked hard on the construction and finishing of Derek, but really shined as his animating force, bringing him to life for everyone we met.

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Final Post of 2019

At my secondary school, we once read a story that included a scene where people were celebrating the turn of the century on December 31st 1901. At least, that’s my memory of it. There was an intense discussion, which finally made clear to me that the decade isn’t over until the end of the tenth year. So, this decade doesn’t actually end until December 31st 2020, but we all know the REAL end is in just a few days.

Like a lot of people, I’m looking back over the twenty years since the year 2000 and thinking about the changes we’ve seen.

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In late 1999, I had written a couple of one act plays and was co-writing a pantomime for the first time. It would be the start of a writing partnership that’s still going today – TLC Creative.

Back then we were living in south Wales, with only the one child. Despite this, I was still making heavy weather of being a stay at home Dad, trying to launch a writing career in between shopping, cleaning, dog walking and childcare. Twenty years seemed an impossibly long time when you’re measuring your child’s growth in weeks, then months. If I thought about it at all, I thought I’d be a published author, supporting my family on my writing earnings.

Why do you want to be a writer

I thought this despite a staggering lack of success in selling the two novels and dozens of short stories I had written.

Instead I’m living on a different continent, working for the library in a job I had never known existed. We still don’t have flying cars or jetpacks (thank goodness!), but the future is wilder than I had imagined.

I thought being a dad would involve wisdom, graciously passing on experience, and having access to All The Answers. I didn’t know it would be a constant rotation of cleaning, cooking, mending, explaining, excusing…. I thought I would know, not be desperately guessing and hoping that things would work out. For me, being an adult is mostly marvelling that other people my age are in charge of multi-million dollar industries or even countries. Mrs Dim is reluctant to leave me in charge of both the dogs at once.

Small wanted weasels

Sometimes I look at the Weasels and think how clever we have been to have gotten them this far. But I know people who are living through these final days of 2019 without children they thought they would see to adulthood. It’s important to be as good a parent as you can, but it’s still a lottery. I find it easier to believe in an indifferent universe than a creator who is capable of saving everyone and chooses not to. The Weasels haven’t been neglected, but there are a lot of aspects of being a young person growing up in BC that I can’t help with. In addition, growing up in the 2010’s is very different to growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, in good ways and bad. My kids are accepting of all kinds of orientation, gender identity, race or creed. They see the kind of ideal world as the norm, and are outraged that anyone should be denied that. Mrs Dim and I believe they’re right, but struggle to explain the problems older generations have with acceptance. We shouldn’t accept THAT, of course, or let it stand, but understanding is important.

In the next decade, we expect the Weasels will be heading out on their own, or with others. How and when that’ll happen, we don’t know. Mrs Dim already has some ideas about what life might look like in the future for us. She talks about her apartment downtown, on the waterfront. The walks she’ll take, the little Pho or Sushi places she’ll drop into. It’ll be a small, but neat apartment. I ask what my place will be in it.

“You’ll be on the mantlepiece.” she says. “In an urn.”

Bless.

Twenty years on from beginning my real efforts to become a writer, I’m not rich, or a household name (although “Dim” in Welsh can mean “None”, “nothing” or “anything”, depending on context) and I’m not even traditionally published. But I receive a monthly payout from Lazy Bee for the plays that are still selling around the world. I still write new plays, though much, much slower than at the start of the decade, and I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.

Most importantly, this life is one that I’m happy with, despite the occasional requirement to commit DIY. Come what may, the time up to this point has been good, and I’m grateful for that.

I wish you all the best in the coming decade.

(Also, if you want any good plays, check out www.lazybeescripts.co.uk )

Packing it in before packing it up.

It’s not the last day of the holiday, but it was the last day at Disneyland. We’d thought we’d bought Park Hopper tickets, enabling us to spend some time at Disneyland and some time at California Adventureland, across the way. As it turned out, we could only visit one park per day, and since we’d spent the first two at Disney, we felt we should give the third day to Adventureland. However, Mrs Dim wasn’t going to have any disappointment on her watch, so our first stop on Thursday morning was the Customer Services booth outside the parks. They upgraded our tickets (at a minor cost of Oh My God How Much? No, Don’t Tell Me) and we skipped off to see how long we would have to wait for the Guardians of the Galaxy ride.

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The last time we visited Adventureland, they were in the process of converting the old Tower of Terror ride into this new one. We were eager to see how they had done, but were nervous how many other people were there ahead of us. And it turned out, not that many!

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The queuing system took you through the lobby of the Collector’s establishment, showing you some of his collection, as well as introducing you to the conceit of the ride (The Guardians have been captured for display).

Naturally, we saved all the Guardians through our amazing “Sitting strapped into seats” ability, then moved on to find a superhero to hug.

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Once we’d finished browsing the local web, as it were, we had to rush off, because Mrs Dim had set her sights high – we were going to get on the Radiator Springs Racers ride this year! Last time we came, we could not ride it, because the queue was so long and all the fast passes were booked up for the day. This year the line was long, but not as long as the one for Smuggler’s Run had been, so we toughed it out.

It was worth it.

This was awesome. We had already crossed two rides off our list that we had doubted we could even get onto! We rushed off to Pixar Pier to try our luck with the newly renamed “Incredicoaster”. (Used to be the California Screaming….)

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Once again, the queue wasn’t huge, and it was moving pretty fast. There were funny videos playing to distract the nervous, and we reached the gates before we knew it. The people in front of us got onto the coaster and the gates closed. Then there was an announcement and the gates opened again. The reluctant and confused people were ushered off the coaster and the WHOLE QUEUE was turned away. Something was wrong, and they weren’t going to let anyone ride until they figured it out. Fair enough.

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To make up for our first failure, we jumped on to the giant ferris wheel (which probably has a comedy name, but I can’t remember it…) Mrs Dim asked me and Eldest Weasel if we were ok with a swinging gondola. We shrugged and said “yes”. But, dear reader, we were not ok. The stunning views across the park were not enough to distract us from the hideous sensations and I have rarely been happier to get off a ride.

There was some good representation for “Coco” in Adventureland, and we recovered while listening to the Mariachi band, and filling out our own contribution to the “Family Memories” area in memory of Cousin Shaun, gone far too soon.

Two successes, two less successful ventures. Mrs Dim got her spirits back up with a trip on the flying chairs, and then we headed across to Disneyland. Middle Weasel and I agreed that we had come to terms with not having another visit to Galaxy’s Edge, but now the chance was here, we were both thrilled.

We walked in to Disneyland, just as a parade was setting off. That gave us a chance to snag a couple more character pictures.

Then, to save our poor tired feet, we hopped on the train to ride around to New Orleans.

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We walked into Galaxy’s Edge along the route we have been using to leave, and almost immediately bumped into Resistance heroine, Vi Moradi. This time we didn’t just see her, she came over to chat to us!

While she was asking us how we were getting on, she was interrupted by another familiar face who also wanted her photograph taken with us…

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When we had finally stopped being mobbed by famous faces, we strolled into the Smuggler’s Run ride for one last trip on the Milennium Falcon. It was great fun, yet again.

We emerged with the ship mostly intact, and went to try both Blue Milk AND Green Milk. Green milk tastes like soap, and blue milk is more like brake fluid, but they’re both very expensive.

While we drank, we saw Vi getting escorted to prison by two troopers.

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Less than a minute later, she came strolling back down the street.

“You didn’t even use your blaster?” asked Mrs Dim.

“Piece of cake” Vi shrugged and disappeared again.

We closed out our final day with a meal at Pizza Planet.

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Thanks to all our lucky breaks, the great rides, and the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge, this visit to Disney really has been out of this world. The drive home is going to be a long one, but it’s been worth every mile.

Taking a Disney break at Universal

We have tickets for three days at Disney, but we know from the last time we were here, that it’s possible to sneak in a day at Universal Studios and see the other kind of Parklife (damn, got that song stuck in my head now…) The difficult bit is deciding when to leave, because no matter when you choose to go, it’ll take about two hours because of LA traffic. The park opens at 9, and that’s when we left.

Obviously, I didn’t take any pictures while driving over there, and the kids were zonked out in the back, with Mrs Dim doing my navigating for me. We DID spot the Hollywood sign, way off in the distance, so cross that one off the list.

For some reason I was a little grumpy when we arrived. Might have been the driving, or that peculiar aggressive grumpiness that suddenly seizes people when they realise they have to share something fun with other, ordinary people. The last time we came to Universal we had a wonderfully strange stroke of luck, with impending bad weather keeping most people away, but never appearing. This time it looked like we were going to have to share, and worse, QUEUE. Then I dropped my phone and shattered the screen. Bother. BUT….

It was still a really good day. We kicked it off by heading over to Hogsmead. The snow looked ludicrous in the heat, but we snagged some cold Butterbeer and started to relax.

We were trepidatious about the main ride in Hogsmead, but the wait time was only 20 mins. This sounds rough, but after weathering a 90 minute wait in Disney, it seemed reasonable to us. Plus, the queuing system for this ride takes you all through Hogwarts castle, and the decoration is fantastic. The portraits are animated and talk, and there’s something happening in every room you pass through – in the Defence against the Dark Arts Classroom, for example, Harry Ron and Hermione are wandering around under their invisibility cloak. Items move, doors open and close and their voices are clearly heard. Turns out, 20 mins isn’t long enough to see everything before you reach the ride.

The ride itself is an amazing combination of physical ride and simulation. You move through actual environments like the Forbidden Forest and the Observatory, and 180 degree screens project the illusion of flight around the outside of the castle and across the Quidditch pitch. Sounds, light and physical interactions like hot air and water help sell the experience. It was great!

You’re helped off the ride and gently ushered into the Gift Shop, of course. Like Galaxy’s Edge, there’s not a lot to ride in Hogsmead – the Hippogriff coaster and the Hogwarts ride are the only two, but there’s the “wand-choosing” experience, which provides you with a wand that can activate a number of shop window displays when you perform the spell action correctly. This is an amazing thing for the kids (and adults!) All those times you have wished you could perform real magic, and here’s a very convincing simulation.

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At that point we had to leave before Eldest Weasel sold a kidney to buy yet another wand. We had to go all the way down to the lower lot to see the Jurassic World stuff. Dinosaurs, remember? (She did say the ideal thing would be to ride between the two lots on a velociraptor, on a broom, drinking Butterbeer and throwing amber left and right, with Porgs on both shoulders. Kids today, huh?)

The old Jurassic Park ride has been replaced with an updated Jurassic World ride. Although the essentials of the ride are the same (you ride in boats, get wet, and there are dinosaurs), the details are different enough that it felt like a new experience. And wet enough that we didn’t take photos. When it finished, Eldest Weasel shook herself and ran over to the Velociraptor Encounter (which was the only reason she came…)

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She was told the book was probably in bad taste, but Blue the Raptor didn’t seem to mind too much.

After that, the only sane thing to do was go on the World Famous Studio Tour, currently celebrating its 55th anniversary. We had ridden the tour two years ago, and weren’t expecting major changes. Of course, you get a different commentary each time you have a different guide, and Marcellus was a master raconteur. He knew a lot about the shows being filmed, even if we rarely recognised any of the ones he mentioned. We were thrilled to go through the streets used for The Good Place though, a show that didn’t EXIST two years ago…

The best bits of the tour are still there: the Bates Motel and house, the Jaws attack, the earthquake in the Metro station, the flash flood, and the two newest additions, the King Kong 360 3d and the Fast and the Furious “What the heck is going on, who are these people, what was that, why did it explode, please let it be over, why does Vin Diesel play anyone but Groot?” experience.

On a whim, we wandered into the Special Effects Show, which was short but punchy, and paid tribute to some of the less sexy areas of special effects, like the Foley artists, who deserve more credit and adulation. After that, it was time to cruise the gift shops once more and head out… Except that on our way we passed the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, and opted to have an early dinner, rather than rush off to sit in traffic.

The decor was great, combining movie memorabilia with info and pictures from behind the scenes. Our server, Chris, was attentive and knowledgeable, and pointed out the sign on the table. It said “Run Forrest Run”, but if you flipped it over it said “Stop, Forrest, Stop”. If you needed assistance, you flipped the sign, and ANY server would stop to see what they could do for you. We ate great food, and Mrs Dim FINALLY got her cocktail.

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After a good meal and such a busy day, the ride back through LA wasn’t too bad at all, despite the reappearance of the Christmas songs in our random playlist. Still, if you’re driving through LA on a hot October evening after playing with Dinosaurs, why not do it with The Muppets singing the Twelve Days of Christmas?