Gallery: My D&D Final Session

Oh hey, as long as I’m writing posts, how about the most important update I could possibly give: the end of my D&D campaign?

It’s been about a year and a half now that four of my closest friends have been navigating Cindr, the world of one of my stories, in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that takes place 500 years after the events of the books. They’ve sought to rectify the mistakes of the past and stop a misguided cult from resurrecting an ancient evil deity, all while helping make monumental political changes to their world.

A few weeks ago, they had their final encounter with the cultists. They slew three demi-gods, as well as the aberration god accidentally resurrected by the ritual, saving everyone in the world and finally correcting an injustice that stood for centuries. Though one of them tragically lost their life in the combat, their sacrifice has brought untold peace to Cindr and a new beginning for the world.

Enjoy this gallery capturing the essence of the final session!

20190315_193116.jpg

The “before” picture: The final boss and final stage, pre-painted and detailed.

 

20190323_172718.jpg

The “after” picture: Final boss (the Incarnate) and final stage (Castle Kalin) after painting and detailing. Thanks to Theo Dronen for his incredible work on the Incarnate!

 

20190323_172916.jpg

Open wide: The inside of the castle, with the Incarnate for scale (in “real height”, the Incarnate measures about 90 feet tall)

 

20190505_171638.jpg

A “party” favor: My final gift to my players – 3D printed miniatures of their characters. Each measures approx. 30mm tall; purchased from Hero Forge. [From left to right: Korren Godslayer; V’aenxusm Starchild; Pixle, Citylord of Jasper; Azchel, Chosen of Pelekkarron (deceased)]

 

Final Session.jpg

Action shot: My players trying to figure out how to survive a horde of over 70 enemies and 4 bosses

 

I hope you enjoy the album as much as I enjoyed the campaign! And to my players: Never forget Slapsville. Never forget Geribold Smorf. Never forget Broccoli Rob.

Yours, a nerd and a half,

-R.R. Buck

The Incarnation (Short Story)

A little while ago, I woke up with a story in my head and I shat it out over about an hour and a half on a Saturday. This is the second draft of that story.

It’s not a very new narrative. The characters are problematic. But hey, it’s the first writing I’ve done in months and I wanted to share.

Enjoy!


“The Incarnation”

In the land of Faredor, where magic bends to will and the gods are given life by the prayers of the worshippers, it was only natural that Cuanei would be lord. Hers was a resolve unparalleled by those around her, and her magics were art. She ascended to governance of her city as a young woman, and none around her opposed.

She ruled well, if harshly. Cuanei knew what to expect of each of her subjects, and she pushed them to their fullest. The city prospered, though its people lay each night wearied and depleted of spirit.

Then she met Xoem.

 

Xoem, the daughter of the miller.

Xoem, the one whose laugh could brighten the faces of the dying.

Xoem, the one whose eyes were cobalt flames.

 

Cuanei loved Xoem from the first moment she saw her. They were married within the year, and Xoem brought an even hand to temper Cuanei’s rule. They spent their days in the castle and their nights in the blueberry fields. The city achieved even greater prosperity, coupled with a new peace.

Several years went by. The King of Faredor requested troops from each town to fight in his losing war. Xoem was taken by draft in the night, while Cuanei slept. Hundreds of miles to the east, away even from the reach of Cuanei’s magics, she fell.

 

What remained of her body was delivered in a wooden box to Cuanei’s doorstep.

 

The townsfolk saw nothing of Cuanei for the next fortnight. Then, on the following fealty day, their citylord reappeared. She asked that her citizens pray not to their old gods, but to Xoem. Cuanei knew her will alone would not be enough to return Xoem to life as a god, but if her entire city were to pray, they might resurrect her.

The townsfolk did as they were bidden, and Cuanei waited. After several weeks, Xoem indeed reappeared, for only a moment. She was as Cuanei remembered her – eyes alight, the stains of blueberry juice on her hands, the sweet summer wind wafting through her hair.

 

She asked Cuanei to forget her.

 

Cuanei could not bear to be parted from her love. She continued to rule, altering the city so that she might see Xoem once again. Every shrubbery was carved into Xoem’s likeness. Every wall was adorned with murals of her face. The citizens attended weekly rituals in the city square, where they would collectively pray for her return. And each week, she would return, if for a few precious minutes.

It was not enough for Cuanei. She began to schedule shifts for the townsfolk, so that someone would always be praying to Xoem. The villagers grew weary from sleepless nights and constant prayer. Their devotion flickered, and for a fortnight Xoem disappeared entirely. Cuanei retreated to her castle, intent on finding a new way.

 

She returned with a plan.

 

Cuanei armed her townsfolk. She taught them to fight. She tempered their wills with her own until they could perform miraculous feats of magic. Then she set them to take the nearby town and induct it into her own. When the city had been sacked, she had her artists instill new likenesses of Xoem in every building, street, and market. The citizens were taught to pray to Xoem as well.

Xoem began to appear for hours each day. Driven forward, Cuanei continued to conquer the cities around her. When the King of Faredor grew concerned and sent his militia down to stomp out this rising rebellion, his troops were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. Cuanei continued to grow in influence as Xoem now lived half of each day.

 

Those who refused to worship were disposed of.

 

Years later, Cuanei found herself on the Throne of Faredor, a kingdom united in worship of her love. Xoem now never left her side, though she wept and did not speak. Undaunted, Cuanei remained determined to return Xoem to her previous form. She took Xoem for walks in the castle’s blueberry fields, begging her to remember what had once been.

Cuanei began to believe it was the kingdom’s lack of willpower that made this spirit so weak. The Xoem she’d loved would never behave in such a way. And so Cuanei sent her military to enforce prayer by any means necessary. She paid an unimaginable toll in blood simply to hear Xoem speak a few words.

 

Xoem asked to be let go.

 

Cuanei then realized that what stood before her was an incarnation. Xoem would never have asked to be parted from Cuanei. And now she saw that the incarnation no longer looked like Xoem. Worship by so many who did not know her in life had caused Xoem’s face and features to distort. Her hair was a thousand different shades, her eyes no longer cobalt. Her hands were not stained with berries, but with blood.

No amount of enforcement by her soldiers could return Xoem to the image Cuanei remembered. And now even those in her home village could not truly remember what Xoem had been like. Only Cuanei remembered. Only Cuanei had the will to remake this incarnation in the form of her lost love.

 

So she slew all who worshipped.

 

In the end, the wind blew across an eradicated kingdom. It whistled through the empty halls of a castle in which only Cuanei lived, ruling over the dead. She gathered all her willpower, summoned every magic she knew, so that she might bring Xoem back. Not as an incarnation, as the kingdom had brought, but the true woman Cuanei had loved. She forced her hands through the shroud and wrenched back a woman with cobalt eyes and berry-stained hands.

It was Xoem, and undeniably so. Her smile graced Cuanei’s presence. Her hands were soft on Cuanei’s cheeks. Every sacrifice made, every person slain, had been worth it. Cuanei begged her love to speak, for she had waited so long to hear Xoem’s true message.

 

Xoem begged to be let go.

 

Cuanei stepped away from the spirit. The… incarnation. That was what it was, after all. Xoem would never have asked to be parted from Cuanei in life. Perhaps the years had changed even Cuanei’s impression. She banished the spirit, returning to the throne to think.

A new Xoem. Yes, of course that was it. Cuanei would relocate to another kingdom, where she would shape a new Xoem in her own image. One that wouldn’t want to leave her. One who was perfect in every way. One that was hers.

 

Cuanei left for the next kingdom.


And in case you just came to catch up with my life, it’s going pretty well. I’m finishing out the school year at my LAUSD school and then I’ll be moving down to Irvine with Lindsay so I can start my graduate program at UCI. Guess who’s (hopefully) going to become a better teacher for many thousands of dollars?

Very little of that life stuff will make its way onto this blog, but I promise every time I update with some new writing I’ve been doing, I’ll put a teeny paragraph of update at the bottom like I’ve done today. And here’s to hoping your life is going well, too!

Have a wonderful Sunday (what remains of it, that is).

Yours, scared to leave L.A. and his friends,

-R.R. Buck

Farewell (for now)

(Reed’s song of the day: Teenage Wasteland, by the Who)

Well, I officially started working for LAUSD today. For the first time, I stood up in front of a class of thirty 9th-graders and started talking about science.

I absolutely loved it.

My kids were incredible, my school was so supportive… I know things might change in the future, but for right now I really feel like I’m flying high. And I know when I go into my graduate program I’ll have a lot of good questions informed by my experiences.

However, as you can imagine, being a new teacher is exhausting work. I’m getting settled in now, but soon everything will pick up and I don’t think I’ll have a lot (read: any) time for hobbies outside of class and lesson planning. I’ve already basically stopped writing the past few weeks, and I haven’t posted in a while as well.

So I’m signing off. For now. Who knows? Maybe after this first year, and after I get finished with graduate school, I’ll be able to get back on and post more stuff. Or maybe I’ll start a blog as a teacher, since that seems to be the way I’m going.

(This is a good time to make a side note, in case any of my students or their parents should find this blog: My opinions represented here are entirely my own, and are not representative of the opinions of LAUSD, my school, or any other educational entities I’ve worked for.)

I want to thank everyone who’s been here watching me grow and reading my posts for the past two years. This blog has gotten me through a lot of rough patches, and I look forward to coming back to it in a few years and laughing about how juvenile I was.

So, from one new teacher starting off in the world, thank you for reading, and good luck in all your future endeavors.

Yours, hoping we meet again in the future,

-R.R. Buck

Book Review: The Poppy War

(Reed’s song of the day: Romance on the Air, from the Skyward Sword OST)

Hi everyone, and happy Saturday! I’m very excited to bring you a brand new review for The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang.

If you recall from my last review, I’ve been trying to delve more into diverse perspectives on traditional science fiction and fantasy, with the help of a few wonderful recommenders and some much-enjoyed trips to Barnes and Noble. Specifically, I’ve been looking to bring you the best in female fantasy authors.

Weirdly enough, I did not write a review for Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which is probably one of my favorite books. Since I read that book – about eight months ago – I’ve been looking for a new book I can really get behind, and thus far I’ve come up short.

Until now.

Let’s jump in.


Title: The Poppy War

Author: R.F. Kuang

Genre: Fantasy

Premise: Rin, a war orphan with no prospects in her life, manages to ace the acceptance exam to the most prestigious military academy in the entire country. As she trains with and eventually enters the armed forces, she comes to learn about the mystical forces that guide the world – and how she may be able to bend them to her will.

I want to start off by saying that this is R.F. Kuang’s debut novel. A debut novel has no right to be this good. It makes me cry, thinking about the littered trail of broken “debut projects” I’ve left in my own wake.

This book is so full of potential – not just for a continuing series, but for the author herself. The characters are deep and flawed and compelling; the story moves at a seamless pace even though it encompasses years of Rin’s life and has more than one time skip; the plot has significant enough turns and twists that I was surprised more than once.

There’s really not a lot else to say about the book, other than that you should read it. The person who recommended it to me said the protagonist was basically Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and while I don’t think that entirely holds true, she still has that same kind of drive for power and control over her world. Rin is a deeply flawed character, striking that perfect balance of identifiable and frustrating where you’re invested in her choices but you can’t help groaning when she makes the wrong ones.

And her supporting characters are all perfect foils, representing the decisions she has to make and the various paths she can follow. Her relationships with the other characters actually change over the course of the novel, which is refreshing – no one person stands as a complete adversary the entire time, and Rin’s maturation can be felt in the way she views others differently at different points in the story. Romances unfold in a very natural and not overbearing way, which is a huge plus for me.

This story is dark, though. If you’re not a fan of war brutality and human atrocities, you may want to sit this one out. The story is a very thinly veiled allegory for tensions between China and Japan, and some of the descriptions of certain war crimes turned my stomach when reading. There’s a fantastic weight to everything that happens in the story, an emotional impact that exceeds most depictions of war I’ve seen in other fantasy novels.

There are really only two points on which the novel falls short, and they’re the reason why it won’t get a perfect score from me. Firstly, there’s the setting. As I said, it seems very clear that the two fantasy nations Kuang has contrived are thin allegories for China and Japan, which makes for some fantastic realism, but it also leaves the world feeling a little underdeveloped. Instead of making a complete break for an immersive fantasy world, we basically get slightly different versions of the countries we already know. I almost wonder if it wouldn’t have better served Kuang to make this a historical fiction novel.

The second dull point on this novel is in the characters. While they’re all very deep and complex and interesting, I don’t get a strong sense of connection between them and the story itself. Rin is fighting this war for her country, but she’s never shown even the slightest bit of loyalty to her country before, which makes for a kind of disconnect in the impact of the war on her. She’s basically reacting to tragedies and war crimes which would make any sane person feel sick with rage, but it doesn’t affect her personally. In that sense, the story was carried along mostly by the brutality and not so much by the personal bond Rin felt with her fellow countrypeople. I would have liked to see more of a depth to Rin’s cause, other than I’m going to bring vengeance to people who kill innocents.

Still, for a debut novel, this blew me away. As I said before, there is such potential in Kuang’s writing, and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see where she goes next.

Reed’s Rating: 9/10

Yours, one satisfied reader,

-R.R. Buck

Life Counselor #8

(Reed’s song of the day: Cigarettes and Saints, by Wonder Years)

CW: Suicide/Depression

All these years, and I’m still waiting for Romance in Rome 2 to come out.

I’d tell you I hope you’re doing well, but that’s probably not helpful at this point. I’d apologize for not having done more years ago, but I’ve forgiven myself for my role in your death. If I could wish for anything, it would be for everyone else involved to learn and move on.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s ever really going to happen.

But why am I starting this off so miserably? You’d probably be mad at me for that. You always were one of the most bubbly, vivacious people I’d ever known. If I wrote you any kind of eulogy – and I’m gonna say right now that this is not a eulogy – it would have to be filled with stupid inside jokes and operatic renditions of Old Lady Avenue. I would be doing you a disservice if I did it any other way.

The things your life taught me are subtle, and I haven’t always been able to recognize them. I know one very important one, though, is realizing that girls are capable of just about anything boys are capable of. You fit so seamlessly into our family mechanic, roughing it with the boys without a second thought. I didn’t have very many female friends growing up, but you transcended even friendship – you were my sister.

You had an infectious kind of personality. Like you were always stoked to do everything, always jumping into the next project with reckless abandon. I picked up that energy and ran with it, and I think my brothers did too. A lot of the way I’ve tried to model myself as an adult is based off of that boundless enthusiasm you had as a kid.

Damn, I miss you.

Well, as long as I’m getting dark, let’s talk about your death. It hurts me to say that your death taught me more than your life, but it’s true. After all, how could someone so cheerful, so easily able to bounce back with indefatigable good humor, commit suicide? I think what struck me most was that it was you. Like, of all the people I knew, you would have been the farthest from my mind in that regard.

I’ve always been scared of suicide. I have such a love for life – even for the pain and the struggle and the adversity. Taking that away made no sense to me. And for you, my sister, the person with an unmatched emotional exuberance, to fall prey to something… I guess, something so inconceivable and alien to me? It just blew my mind.

But in that tragedy I learned so many things. I learned not to take life for granted. I learned not to assume somebody is doing well just because they’re chipper, or laugh the loudest, or talk the most. In time – far too much time – I learned not to shy away from the idea of suicide, to try to come to understand it so I could help friends who were on the brink.

Your death forced me to confront the darkness within myself, and to search for answers to questions I was afraid of. You made me start considering depression, and what I could do for those who struggle with it. You continue to remind me not to take things or people for granted, and to always reach out whenever I have the strength to.

You are one of the reasons I want to be a teacher, and one of the reasons I’m scared to be one. I want to do what I can to help children cope with their illnesses, insecurities, and issues. I want to prevent what deaths I can. And I know I won’t be able to prevent every one. I’m really, honestly scared of that.

But the most important thing your death taught me is that I can’t run from the truth of others’ struggles. I tried – and I left friends behind in the worst of times – but as the years have passed me, I’ve learned to confront what I most fear. I’ve learned to go into the darkness for my friends and to walk them back out.

So, whether you care or not, you didn’t die for nothing. You cracked my life wide open and showed me where I needed to put the most work in. I should be thanking you, really, but that just seems morbid.

Eh, fuck it. Thank you. And I hope, in that last moment, you didn’t find yourself afraid. I hope you felt like you were making the decision that was right for you, and that you passed on easily and softly.

Like falling asleep.

Yours, remembering GoldenEye and Snowboard Kids,

-R.R. Buck

My Thoughts on the Gillette Ad

(For those who haven’t seen the ad: here)

Strap in folks, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

You know, every time I’ve gotten close to a political or social justice rant on this blog, I’ve stepped back for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to be yet another voice in the cacophony, shouting opinions nobody is likely to take seriously because of the flood of opinions already out there. Second, I don’t want this blog to become my own ravings about these issues and lose sight of why I’m here – to try to provide guidance and chronicle the life of a new writer and educator. Third, I just don’t like writing about this stuff. It makes me too angry.

But the gloves are coming off today, because I can’t believe what I’m hearing from other men and from people on social media.

Let me come out first as saying I am 100% in agreement with the message in Gillette’s recent “We Believe” ad/short film. If you haven’t seen it, the link is above – it’s a call-out of toxic masculinity and a plea for men to be better role models for the sake of the next generation of boys.

In order to not immediately lose credibility with people who found the ad offensive, I’d like to list a few of the most prominent arguments AGAINST the ad I found in social media, and to talk about why I disagree with them.

If you’re reading this as a person who was offended by the ad, I can only ask that you keep an open mind about what I’m going to say. Please, this is an extremely important conversation right now.

And as a side note, I’ll be using gender-binary terms “men” and “women” in this article. I apologize for not taking into consideration intersex, genderqueer, and other folks, but I don’t think this ad was aimed at them. And as another side note, I’ll be limiting my focus on the United States, since this is already shaping up to be a long post.

Here we go.

Argument 1: Gillette doesn’t give a shit about the MeToo movement; it’s just doing this to make money.

Of course this is somewhat true. People generally accept that all marketing strategies are driven by the financial bottom line and, no matter how relatable they may seem (or how woke, in this case), ads are always about generating attention and increasing purchases of products.

I feel like I’m seeing people online rationalizing why Gillette made this ad, when all I can think is, So what? Why does the reason for making this ad matter? What I’m interested in is the propagation of important messages to the public. If a newspaper were to air an op-ed about this very same topic, we could argue they’re only doing it to be controversial and appeal to certain groups of people who read their paper. Yeah, agreed. But again, so what?

I’m at a point in my life where every single message that comes out surrounding these important issues (whether I personally agree with it or not) is important to me. They inspire conversation, raise awareness, and allow for critical examination of our society and its norms. Especially in the case where a large, well-known company is backing the message instead of an easily dismissable fringe group… well, we can see the response online.

So, TL;DR: I don’t care what the reason is for Gillette making the ad; they could have made any number of noncontroversial ads for their products. I care that a company is supporting a message that allows us to critically examine our society.

Argument 2: This ad is attacking and stereotyping all men when only a small portion of men promote toxic masculinity.

There’s another implicit argument here – that men are tired of being under fire ever since the MeToo movement began – but I’ll handle that one a bit later. For now, let’s examine the idea of stereotyping men as being toxic males.

Now, as a neuroscientist I have an academically informed perspective on this. Let’s consider the idea of so-called “Implicit Bias”. If you haven’t heard the phrase, the idea is that, even in those who show no external signs of prejudice – even in people like me who like to pretend we’re super woke – there is always some degree of implicit prejudice.

There’s a series of tests you can take online (I’ll link it here) to determine implicit biases you might have. One of the test involves flashing pictures of stereotypically white and black faces, paired with positive and negative words. Most people – not just most white people, but also many black people and people of other races and ethnicities – will more quickly associate negative words with black faces and positive words with white faces. It happens on such a microscopic scale that you might not even be aware of your biases without taking the test.

Even then, you might wonder how much this implicit bias actually affects the experiences of black and white people (or men and women – isn’t that what we’re talking about, after all?) The simple answer I can give – which is backed by multiple studies I’ve read in college and courses I’ve taken – is that implicit bias can have enormous explicit repercussions. Consider a suspect cornered by the police who reaches into their pocket for their ID. There’s an actual implicit bias test on the site I linked where, instead of flashing positive and negative words between the faces, you’re flashed pictures of a device that might be a weapon or might be a phone or wallet. Can you guess which faces are more associated with the weapons?

What does all of this have to do with toxic masculinity and stereotyping? Well, you can feel free to take a third implicit bias test about men and women. The vast majority of society has some degree of implicit bias whereby they associate men with aggressiveness, anger, and confrontation, and women with passiveness, emotionality, and pacifism. These biases do filter into our society, whether or not we are consciously aware of them. Only by accepting our biases and working on them can we minimalize their impact on other people – and even then, we’ll never be entirely rid of them.

So, yes, all men (and all women, and probably many intersex people as well) have a stereotype of masculinity which they implicitly promote in young boys. And you might be asking, if women are also promoting these stereotypes, why aren’t they coming under fire?

This one is simple. Men are the role models for masculinity in young boys. Boys will model what they see men do in their lives; they will look to men for acceptance and approval of their burgeoning masculinity. Women can promote implicit masculine biases towards boys, but with nowhere near the effectiveness of men.

We all do it – even if we think we don’t. We all carry biases and prejudices about masculinity. It’s not even an insult to say so – it’s something so common to human and even animal experience, it’s a given. But just because it’s a biologically ingrained habit doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying our hardest to adjust for it, and to bring up our boys outside of that stereotypical masculinity.

Argument 3: We men are tired of being targets for all these perceived social problems.

Well, here’s the thing. We’ve only very recently seen men as the targets of social issues like this. Second-wave feminism, in which gender norms and cultural inequalities were first being highlighted and men first started taking serious criticism from women, began in the 1960s. The real honest man-bashing didn’t happen on such a powerful, nationwide scale until the beginning of the MeToo movement (which, I might remind you, became popular in October of 2017 – less than two years ago).

Up until recently – and even if we go back to the very beginning of feminism and women’s suffrage, that’s only about two hundred years – men have never fallen under the crosshairs for perceived social problems. In fact, it’s been literally everyone else besides white men – African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish people, Islamic people, the LGBTQ+ community, the Middle East, and other nations – who have taken the blame for society’s perceived problems.

We’ve gone two years with the burden of social issues, and we’re already cracking. Imagine the plight of other people who’ve had to deal with these issues for centuries, the pressure-cooker of prejudice informing their development, actions, and place in society.

Argument 4: But you can’t hold men accountable for atrocities committed in our grandparents’ time. We don’t do that stuff anymore, so we shouldn’t be catching shade for it now.

First off, yes we do. Remember implicit bias? We all continue to let our invisible prejudices inform our daily interactions with others. And if you want to tell me that at least we’re not lynching people or promoting rape culture, I can dig you up quite a few news articles and studies that suggest that’s not the case.

Argument 5: But it’s 2019 now, and we’re in a more socially aware era. Why should anyone – men, women, anyone – be a target for discrimination and hatred?

Well, I agree with you on the hatred part. I can’t look a black person in the eye and say, “I know my ancestors oppressed yours for centuries and that people like me are still holding you back from social equality, but would you mind not hating me?” I just don’t think it’s fair. But I do wish people could act without hatred.

On the other hand, I don’t think men shouldn’t be a target for discrimination. I think with the privilege most men feel, we have no idea what it’s like to face this kind of discrimination. Black men may know discrimination for their ethnicity; gay men may know discrimination for their sexual orientation. But none of us know discrimination for our sex and our gender identity.

And here’s the thing – societal discrimination is completely separate from discrimination caused by a specific person or group. If you’re walking down the street and someone calls you a slur, that’s an example of a person being discriminatory.

But (and this one goes out to all my fellow straight cis white males who honestly, truly have never known discrimination) there’s a completely different feeling of being discriminated against by society. It’s harder to get a job; your education can be lacking; your housing options are limited; you find yourself in a cycle of poverty and criminality that never ends.

Do all women face this? Of course not. Some women grow up with incredible privilege. But one thing they will never be able to shake is the pervasive discrimination of a (uh oh I’m saying it) patriarchal society against them. And every single man who denies it exists is just adding to it. We are the silent defenders of the status quo, where the status quo is meant to support men just like ourselves. And that, to me, is unacceptable.

But people are lazy and self-serving; the only way we’re going to make moves to defend people who aren’t like us is to feel a little bit of their burden. To share a little bit of that discrimination. So no, I don’t think it’s “right” for men to be discriminated against right now. But I don’t think it’s right for everyone else to be discriminated against as they have been for time immemorial and I happen to believe that, if men feel the burn a little bit, they might suddenly take an interest in these issues.

Or maybe they’ll continue to react with vitriol and aggression, as they have to the Gillette ad. Who the hell am I to say.

Argument 6: There’s nothing wrong with stereotypical masculinity as it stands now. It teaches boys to be go-getters, successful.

This is the argument that scares me the most. I mean, yeah, certain traits about masculinity are great. I personally think every person should feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asserting themselves when they need to. I also think a drive for success isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But the problem is that the stereotypical male right now achieves at the price of others. They edge out the competition of those who, by nature of their own stereotypes which have been ingrained in them since childhood, cannot or will not compete. Women may no longer be taught to stay at home and take care of the children (except, oh yeah, some people do still teach that),  but they’re not exactly encouraged to be CEOs and presidents.

And some things about the stereotypical male I do find very flawed. How many of us men can say that, at some point in their childhood, they were called a crybaby for reacting emotionally to something? The vast majority of boys are taught that the only emotions they can express are anger and competitiveness. This leads to emotionally unhealthy men who might think that the only acceptable solution to an emotionally complex problem is anger. And who do they take that anger out on? At least in part, they take it out on the “others” – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people. It’s another tool in the oppression of those groups.

It’s not fair to men, the reinforcement of this stereotype. It’s unfair to them as it is to women. And that’s what’s hard for me to understand, if I’m being honest. A revitalized understanding of what it means to be a man – of the wonderful diversity of things men can be, feel, think, and say – could benefit ourselves as well as everyone else. It could ease so many social tensions.

So why is this ad getting attacked?

It’s a threat to traditional masculinity. It doesn’t hold back to hit where men have been hurting in the past few years. “Mansplaining” (God, I know so many guys who hate that term, and I used to as well); the “boys will be boys” mentality; explicit encouragement of violence and aggressiveness; dismissal of sexual assault; media portrayal of sex as conquest… we’ve heard about these things over and over again recently. It feels like the shitstorm never stops, like men are being blamed for so much.

Is this fair?

Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. But it’s my opinion that, so long as we continue to promulgate harmful masculine stereotypes; as long as we refuse to accept and struggle with our implicit biases; as long as we continue to be the voice in power that doesn’t speak up for those without power… we do need to keep seeing these kinds of ads. We do need continued attacks on our masculinity. Because while the majority of people may hate what they fear, some people – some wonderful, open-minded people – will take that fear, that attack, and use it to learn about themselves. To improve about themselves.

I believe men can be better. I believe the first step is to accept our biases, and the subtle ways in which we harm ourselves and others.

I believe in you, readers. If you’ve made it this far without ragequitting or thinking what an ignorant lefty shithead I am, please see if even a small part of you agrees with what I’m saying.

I welcome discussion in the comments section as long as it doesn’t get super toxic. Please let me know how totally wrong I am if you feel that way.

Yours, with love to all men out there,

-R.R. Buck

Why It’s Important to Look at Old Writing Projects

(Reed’s song of the day: Toe to Toe, by Streetlight Manifesto)

Well, I’m sick again. My immune system can’t handle all these elementary schoolers and their aversion to hand-washing.

I had to cancel work, but I guess there’s a silver lining to it. I feel like I should be working even though I’m home, so instead I make myself write and read over old projects. That way the day isn’t wasted and I can actually get caught up on writing goals.

But today I’m not here to talk about current writing projects. In fact, I want to go back the opposite way. Today, I challenge you to look back at your older writing projects and see what you can glean from them.

This is something a lot of writers, myself included, don’t really like to do. Usually we cringe at how bad our old projects were: how flat the characters, how shallow the settings, how unilateral the plots. Looking back on old work can often validate a writer’s bigger insecurities, and given how fragile the writing balance is for some of us, that’s just not a step we feel comfortable taking.

BUT SCREW IT!

See, it’s all about mindset. If you go back into your old projects thinking they’re an indicator of who you are now and how you write now, of course you’re going to be upset. And that’s the case with all retrospect – if you look back at yourself in high school and say, “Dear god, I was such an asshat“, you have to be able to separate yourself then from yourself now.

I think the thing is, writing is such a delicate thing – an expression of self and a huge emotional investment – that we tend to be frightened of really looking at and analyzing it on an objective scale. But I might argue that that same investment is what’s keeping many of us from writing more frequently or moving forward with story ideas. If we could all try to take it a little less seriously – or, not even less seriously, but more academically and less emotionally – we might be able to really move forward as writers.

So that’s my first reason for reading over old projects:

1. Allowing you to take writing less seriously.

It can just take you out of your own head. If you find a piece of writing from years ago, chances are the emotional context of that piece is significantly dampened. You can laugh at how bad it was, remind yourself that you’re a world away now as a writer… and maybe you can bring that kind of emotional lightness back to what you’re currently writing. You can remind yourself that the stakes are not extremely high for this new project since, a few years from now, you’ll be able to look on it as a marker along a path.

Of course, there are other reasons you should be reading old writing projects. Another one that comes to mind is:

2. Giving you the chance to view old strengths and weaknesses.

This is honestly huge, and it ties in with taking your writing less seriously. It seems like so often we start a writing project and immediately criticize all the horrible things about it. But oftentimes in retrospect you can say to yourself, “Well, yeah, this was some juvenile writing, but it’s not all bad… I mean, look at this character, they were pretty compelling… and I totally nailed this scene….”

Looking at old writing can help you identify areas where you were strong as a writer. You might even be able to link it with a project you’re writing currently. And if, in one particular project, you were doing really well with something you traditionally struggle with, you can try to analyze why that might be. In my case, I found an old writing project where I did a really good job of environmental descriptions, and I realized it was because I was writing in first person instead of third. Those insights can be extremely helpful for current projects.

And that analysis can be especially helpful for identifying threads and areas of improvement. Which brings me to my third reason:

3. Assessing overall improvement over the years.

I mean, first off, this is an overwhelmingly positive thing. Chances are, when you’re reading old projects, you can immediately see how your writing has improved since then. It might give you a much-needed ego boost to continue with whatever current writing quagmire you’re in.

But more importantly, looking at your previous work side-by-side with your current work can let you see what you’re getting better at and what you’re still struggling with. If you had better characters in an old project and you’re struggling with them now, you need to figure out why that is.

This technique allows you to direct your focus on the areas of writing on which you haven’t been improving. From that point, you can go on to find exercises to help you develop that particular aspect of your writing.

But honestly, the most important reason to read over old work is probably this:

4. Nostalgia and purpose.

We all get sick and tired of writing sometimes. Many of us may put down the pen and never come back to it, exhausted from constantly putting in work that seems to go nowhere. Coming back to an old writing project can remind you where you were at when you wrote it, and why it felt so critically important back then. It can also help you remember why you write in the first place.

So many of us struggle with getting words down on paper because we immediately hate what we write. But if we read back over old projects, we can give ourselves the mental space to find that perfect balance of levity and gravity with which we should view all writing. And when we get in that mentality… we can make some truly wonderful things.

That’s all I got. I need to lie down and read for a little bit. Wish me good health, because I definitely need it.

Yours, sick of being sick,

-R.R. Buck

Reed’s Top 3 – Movies

(Reed’s song of the day: I Need Some Sleep, by Eels – from the Shrek soundtrack)

I am honestly astonished I haven’t written this post yet. I went back through all my old Top 3 posts, sure I had done it. And it’s not even like my top three movies have changed recently; they’ve been the same since my freshman year of college.

(Well, that should let you know they’re really, really good.)

All of these movies share three commonalities which bring them close to my heart. One is – and I know you’ll be flabbergasted – fantasy elements. It may come as a huge surprise to my readers, but I actually kind of a little bit slightly like fantasy and science fiction, so movies with those themes tend to appeal to me.

The other two factors are more standard. Emotional and philosophical content matter a lot to me in any consumable medium (except maybe milk), so that’s a big deal. I love movies that make my eyes tear up or my heart leap. And the final factor is what I call the “What the fuck?” factor. Mind-bending movies where you have to put things together even as the movie is happening…. movies where you have to watch it three times before you really get what’s going on…. those are my addiction.

The only reason I mention this is because, even though these are my favorite films, they may really not be the kind of films you’re interested in. Still, if you watch any of them, feel free to leave me an angry Facebook message telling me how shitty my cinematic tastes are.

Onward!


NUMBER THREE: CLOUD ATLAS

Genre: Science fiction

It has been a few years since I’ve seen this film, so I’m going off what I remember from college. And that might put up a red flag for you, as in “If he hasn’t seen it in years, how can it be a good movie, or even among his favorites?” Well, let me just say, watching this movie is a wonderful chore. The first time I saw it, my best friend and I literally had notepads on our laps trying to figure out what was going on.

What did I say? These movies are not for everyone.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes occurring across different periods of history, extending from colonialism all the way into a far futurescape. In all of these vignettes, two characters remain constant (and most of them are played by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry). These characters may change ethnicities, genders, and appearance from story to story, but spiritually they are the same. In fact, that’s one of the core ideas of the movie – this sort of reincarnation-and-archetypal-memory theory whereby the characters are all connected by something larger than them.

And honestly, that’s the reason I love the film. Not because of the mind-bending confusion of it (although that helps), but the theme of humanity being connected by threads of love and contact, repeating the same struggles each generation, but strengthened by those who hold them close. The movie has a sort of optimism to it that buoys me. I love it.

NUMBER TWO: INK

Genre: Indie Fantasy

Of the three movies on this list, this is the one you’re least likely to have heard of. It’s also the most polarizing – many people I’ve shown the movie to have thought it wasn’t very good. It’s also one of the only movies that can make me cry every single time I watch it.

Ink is the story of two opposing forces that clash every night to give the world good and bad dreams. (No, it’s not a clever remake of The BFG.) The story centers around a creature in purgatory, known as Ink, who is trying to become one of the bad guys by kidnapping a little girl while she sleeps. The story is told half in the “real world”, following the girl’s father as she slips into a coma, and half in the dream plane in which the good and bad dream-people roam, as the good people try to convince Ink not to sacrifice the girl.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for dreams.

What gets me about this movie is the theme of family. Though Ink is considered the protagonist of the film, I find the girl’s father to be a much more compelling character – a narcissistic businessman who lost sight of the importance of his daughter and is now confronted with it. I feel his struggle, his past and his present, more powerfully than almost any character in any medium. The music, the acting, and the cinematography all perfectly work together to bring depth to that struggle. It moves me every time.

NUMBER ONE: INCEPTION

Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

I had a sad moment the other day where some of my middle-school kids were asking what my favorite movie was and when I said Inception, they’d never heard of it. I mean, granted, it’s not like I expected that movie to become an icon for generations, but still.

If you haven’t heard of Christopher Nolan – the director of this movie, in addition to the Dark Knight Batman remakes, Interstellar, and Dunkirk – I demand that you close this tab, open up your favorite TOTALLY LEGAL movie streaming site, and watch everything he’s ever made. The man’s a genius and his name, to me, is synonymous with the “What the fuck” mind-bending genre of movies.

Inception is about a group of thieves who, through the use of an ill-explained mechanical device, break into your dreams while you sleep and steal your most important secrets. The game changes for them when they are employed to do the exact opposite – to implant information in a person’s dreams that will grow into an idea. Basically like mind control, except the person in question believes they had the idea autonomously.

If that were all to the film, it would be a good movie. But there’s an entire separate layer of emotional content which, to me, lifts this film higher than all others. The main character, Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio), has been unable to return to his family for years, ever since a job went wrong. His wife died some time ago, and his children have been living with their grandparents, subsisting on the occasional gift or card from dad.  Cobb’s struggle to return to his children and to let go of the memory of his wife is personified in increasingly disruptive versions of them appearing in dreams. It gets to the point where Cobb’s wife becomes a secondary antagonist, trying to prevent him from succeeding at his task.

I wish I could say more, but that last paragraph already smacks of semi-spoilers. You’re just going to have to trust me when I say that this film is stunning, gripping, and emotionally compelling. Please go watch it.


That’s all I’ve got, and I’ve gone far over my word count, so let’s just wrap it up nice and clean. I hope you’re having a wonderful day, and if not, I hope tomorrow is better.

Yours, cinematically,

-R.R. Buck

Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

(Reed’s song of the day: Testify, by Rage Against the Machine)

What?! Three posts in a week? I want to get off now.

I recently had a friend recommend some fantasy novels with diverse perspectives to me. I’ve been looking to expand my reading list for a while, and so I’m excited to bring some reviews back to you all as I work through a broader swath of voices in my favorite genre.

Let’s dive in!


Title: A Darker Shade of Magic

Author: V. E. Schwab

Genre: Low/Middle Fantasy

Premise: Kell is an Antari, a magician who can travel through three different versions of London in three different dimensions. The fourth version of London, Black London, was lost some time ago to magical chaos and sealed away… that is, until an artifact from Black London pops up in Kell’s possession. And is then promptly stolen by Lila, a thief from Gray London who’s never known any magic in her life.

On the face of it, this sounds like a standard fantasy book and you might be wondering why it was on a list of diverse perspectives and voices. And it very much is a quintessential fantasy story – just one that happens to be written by a woman. Honestly, one of the best things about this book is how easily and solidly it fits into the larger genre. It proves (not that the fact needs proving) that women can write fantasy just as well as men.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, however. The polarizing point of the book, for me, was its characters. There are fewer of them than in most fantasy – essentially two protagonists, two villains, and a third [antagonist-with-the-conflicted-multifaceted-relationship-with-the-main-character] type guy. Along with a smattering of much less significant side characters, this is all you get.

And I have to say, those characters are the reason this book won’t be receiving a higher score from me. They fit into good, well-used archetypes. They feel familiar and their struggles feel familiar – something which, to a different reader, might be a comfort. To me, they just didn’t seem to reach a depth I wanted. I imagine that, since this book is the beginning of a series, the future books may expand on the characters in a way I find very satisfying; as a stand-alone, however, I found them to be lacking.

Which isn’t to say the book doesn’t have its strengths. As I mentioned above, one strength is how solidly A Darker Shade fits into the genre, and the execution of a well-done, if rather simple, storyline. If I were to sum up this book in a single sentence, I would say it was a solid, albeit unsurprising, read.

There is also one character – the [antagonist] character not unlike a Zuko or Malfoy, that really impressed me. As with the other characters, I wished he had some greater depth, but his relationship with the male protagonist was interesting and I found myself sitting up in my chair every time they collided. Honestly, if it weren’t for this antagonist, the male protagonist would have been pretty boring and the story would have been carried along by the female protagonist (who was overall much more satisfying to read).

And interestingly enough, the magic itself becomes a character in this book. That isn’t uncommon in fantasy, but I was impressed by the subtlety with which it was done and the way it factored into the eventual outcome of the book. (I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers.)

The worldbuilding faces the same criticism as the characters. Which is to say, it was pretty and interesting, but I would have liked to see more. This was a tight 400-page novel and the plot moved along at a very decent clip, which is always a good thing to me, but I felt like the story could have stopped to enjoy little nuances and facets of each version of London – expanding upon similarities between the three would have been especially interesting.

But, interestingly enough, the overwhelming strength of this novel comes from exactly the lack of detail that bothered me in regards to its world and characters. And as I type that sentence, I realize how confusing it sounds. What I mean to say is that the magic system itself – not the characters who use it and not the cities in which it dwells – is delightfully uncomplicated and enigmatic. That same concision, that same shallowness that bothers me when used for the characters and setting, is a perfect tool for describing the magic system.

Most fantasy seems to fall into one of two groups: One, the Lord of the Rings group, chooses not to explain its magic in very much detail, while the other, the Stormlight Archives group, has a whole goddamn doctoral thesis worked out about it. I generally prefer somewhere in the middle, and A Darker Shade falls on the lighter side, but in a way that serves it very well. You are given enough to understand the power and stakes in what’s happening, but not so much that you get a final-season-of-Lost kind of letdown. And it’s magic in the classical sense, with muttered spells and elemental controls – again, something familiar. It feels like you could do the magic yourself, which is a huge strength when the novel is kind of built around the kind of familiarity common in low-fantasy novels.

So, overall I’m happy I read it. I’m hoping for my next book to be a little more shocking, but my time reading A Darker Shade was well-spent and I’m glad for the recommendation.

Reed’s Rating: 7.5/10

Yours, very excited for his next read,

-R.R. Buck

Writing Sample – Kailla

(Reed’s song of the day: Main Theme, from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)

I recognize the irony in this – posting about writing just after saying I wasn’t going to do much writing in 2019 – but hey, I’m a strange and fickle creature.

I’ve been toying with the idea of trying middle grade fantasy for a while now. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books were a huge influence on my desire to read and write fantasy as a kid, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at that sarcastic wit common in some of my favorite authors – Colfer, Pratchett, and Snicket.

So while bored a few days ago, I wrote a few introductory paragraphs to a middle-grade fantasy story, just to experiment with that tone. I’m actually pretty pleased with the results, and so I thought I’d share them here.

Enjoy!


This is a story about Kailla.

You may already be remarking to yourself, “What a strange name that is!” Perhaps you have even noticed it bears some similarity to the name Kayla. You would be correct in assuming they are pronounced exactly the same way. Why, then, is it spelled so strangely?

Because, dear readers, the genre is fantasy, and fantasy writers have very little to do all day but think of colorful packages for tired ideas and new spellings of old names.

As we have wasted far too much time on Kailla’s name, let us be quick about her appearance. She was a perfectly ordinary twelve-year-old girl. Brown curly hair, brown eyes, dark skin and white teeth. She had no horns or wings or claws. This is not that kind of story.


That’s it! Just enough to tantalize. It’s good for writers like me to try their hand at a few paragraphs of a certain style without investing too much into the story or background. Maybe I’ll do a few more projects like this in 2019.

Anyway, that’s all for me. Here’s to hoping your year is starting off well!

Yours, now badly needing to go to the bathroom,

-R.R. Buck