When to End the Story

I watched the Supernatural Season 10 finale tonight. When it finished, I felt like I should go back and watch the Season 5 finale to get something more satisfying.

Supernatural is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. I first caught an episode while home sick from work one day – the Season 3 episode “Jus in Bello”. It intrigued me at the time, but I never got around to watching more of it (in part because, at the time, I didn’t have Netflix).

Fast forward to two years ago, when I began watching Supernatural on Netflix to catch up, and then getting one episode per week like longtime viewers. Ultimately, after watching the Season 10 finale, I concluded the show’s run could be a modern case study in what happens when the story goes too long.

The ur example, I suppose, would be Sherlock Holmes – Doyle wound up writing Sherlock stories much longer than he ever intended, bringing him back after killing him in “The Final Problem.” But Supernatural is a great modern example.

For those uninitiated in the ten-year-old show (which was renewed for an 11th season), it follows the exploits of two brothers as they battle supernatural evil in various forms. Elder brother Dean followed his father’s footsteps as the loyal son, while younger brother Sam rebelled and abandoned the lifestyle of the “hunter”, only to be pulled back in by Dean during a quest to find their missing father.

The series started as a “monster of the week” type show, with a surprisingly creepy atmosphere and genuinely threatening creatures, overlaid with rock music and a cool classic car. By the end of Season 1, though, the show had become something more – Jensen Ackles and and Jared Padalecki found a surprisingly convincing chemistry as brothers who loved and hated each other all at the same time.

Season 1 ended with a gut-wrenching twist; after escaping the Yellow-Eyed Demon, the murderer of their mother, with their father in tow, their car was t-boned intentionally by a demon-possessed semi driver, leaving open the question of who had survived and who had died.

The following season would end with revenge upon the Yellow-Eyed Demon for the death of both the boys’ parents, but the unleashing of hundreds of demons on Earth, setting in play the story elements that would wind through the next three seasons, culminating with Season 5’s season-long story arc of the boys’ campaign to kill the devil to prevent literal Armageddon. Ultimately, they prevailed, but with younger brother Sam sacrificing himself to bind the devil again.

The first five seasons followed a great story arc. The brothers grew in both skill and maturity, starting as young hunters inexperienced enough to be troubled by simple hauntings to veterans capable of taking the war to the devil. As brothers, they began as immature siblings with trust issues and tension over their father’s love but blind loyalty to each other, repeatedly lying to each other but eventually growing to trust each other, with Dean willing to let Sam go at the end of Season 5 for the sake of victory.

While the story felt stitched together at times, their was also clearly a long story planned from the beginning, and the writers team executed their part with great pains. It doesn’t mean there weren’t flop episodes in there (Season 1’s “Bugs” immediately jumps to mind, or Season 3’s “Seven Deadly Sins”), but as an arc of episodic episodes it was amazing.

The problems began with Season 6.

In part, the story suffered from the “Nuke the fridge” problem. The Winchesters had beaten Lucifer himself; what could be more threatening than the Prince of Darkness himself? To continue the story, the writers had to undo far too much of what had happened in the first five seasons. Sam was resurrected after his heroic sacrifice, the brothers’ relationship backslid, and they seemed to have forgotten important lessons about hunting and brotherhood that they had spent the previous five years learning the hard way.

The big story arc involved a civil war in heaven after the derailing of Armageddon, but because it was beyond the boys’ capacity to help, it was largely executed off-screen, leaving the episodes feeling disjointed and unimportant. Not until the very end of the season did it seem to actually matter, and then it was quickly resolved.

Season 7 tried to bring back a “big bad” to defeat (which they did in the finale), and Season 8 wandered aimlessly for quite a while until they stumbled onto an epic quest to close the gates of Hell. Season 9 reverted to “brother lies to brother” for dramatic tension – after eight years of hunting together, you’d think they’d have learned to tell each other the truth, as those lies always backfire – and Season 10’s arc was about Dean under a curse.

Season 11 looks to be bringing in another “big bad” for them to fight – one that, by all rights – should be beyond their capability, since apparently it took God and the archangels to beat back the last time. (Side note – Season 11 could actually be a great throwback to Season 5 if the writers bring back the prophet Chuck and the two surviving archangels from their prison, but I’m doubtful about whether they’re willing to go that direction.)

Looking at the series as a whole, Season 5’s finale would have wrapped the series up in a neat bow. The ending wasn’t happy for all the main characters, but that’s okay. It was satisfying. Unfortunately, the money and the ratings were apparently more than satisfying, too, since they continued a story that clearly was finished.

None of this is to say that the later seasons didn’t have some good stories. For that matter, there are some standout episodes (including my favorite episode in the entire series, “Weekend at Bobby’s”, which was early in Season 6). As a whole, though, the arc storytelling simply lost its punch.

I’m a writer by trade – I’ve finished five novels (the first three were fanfictions that gave me the experience and the confidence to actually try something original), and I’m by no means an expert. I’m still honing my craft, and I suspect I will be for many years to come…probably until they plant a headstone on me.

But at some point, the story needs to end. When the good guys have won, and sacrificed, and learned their lessons, they need to be able to go home. Continually pitching them into the flames again and again ebbs the life and spirit of a work.

Let it go when it needs to go. Zombies are never a good thing. Dean himself states, “What’s dead should stay dead.”

So bring on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!


Rogue One

It’s like 1999 all over again.

Star Wars fans have been getting a crazy amount of content since the entire franchise was bought by Disney. Though Clone Wars ended, and canon was subsequently reset, there’s been multiple novels, comics, and the new Star Wars Rebels cartoon released (which ended its first season on a high note, including the return of Clone Wars character Ahsoka Tano). Information on upcoming media continues to pour out, from long-awaited Battlefront 3 to rumors of Episode VII‘s plot.

Today, Episode VIII got a release date (subject to change, I’m sure, given how far out it is) and, more interestingly, the first stand-alone Star Wars movie was announced: Rogue One.

For readers who aren’t big Star Wars fans, the title doesn’t mean much. To longtime fans, though, this is an extremely exciting announcement.

Pre-canon wipe, Rogue Squadron was an elite fighter squadron led by Wedge Antilles in the war against the Empire. Founded by Luke Skywalker, they were the “best of the best” X-wing unit and were the spearhead of offensive operations.

Rogue Squadron featured in a series of comics by the same name, plus a set of four novels written by Michael Stackpole. The late Aaron Allston wrote a trilogy of X-wing novels that immediately followed Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron, though Allston’s relegated the Rogues to secondary status to focus on the screwups of Wraith Squadron.

Among the original expanded universe novels, the X-wing series is consistently listed among the best and most-loved, often just after Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series that kicked off the entire EU.

Before The Phantom Menace, the Rogues also inspired a series of games also collectively referred to as X-wing – the titular game, which started it in 1993, followed by TIE Fighter (often considered the best of the series), X-wing vs TIE Fighter, and finally X-wing Alliance. The final game came out just before The Phantom Menace, and the series has never been revisited, though it had a spiritual successor of sorts in the Star Wars Galaxies MMO’s Jump to Lightspeed expansion.

Among the Star Wars fandom, there are distinct groups (though they’re seldom spelled out as such). Jedi and Sith are definitely one group (and arguably the most popular); there’s also the stormtrooper cosplayers (most notably the 501st, which does a large amount of charity work); and a smaller segment of X-wing fans.

So, at least a part of the fanbase is very fired up to see an X-wing movie. And this is a huge change of pace – for the first time since The Phantom Menace released in 1999, there’s a major Star Wars project that isn’t based on Jedi or Sith.

And pilots everywhere rejoiced.

A Few Thoughts on Leadership

For the past several days, I’ve been examining what I know about leadership. Some of it’s relevant to books I’m working on; some of it is applicable to some circumstances my wife and I have been discussing. One conclusion I came to is that a lot is said about leadership, but much of it is either untrue or not relevant to a given situation.

Because of the honors program and scholarship I had in college, I graduated with a minor in Leadership. We took classes in a variety of areas – ethics, decision-making, group psychology, and yes, leadership. The program “icon” was Theodore Roosevelt (a man that, seven years out of college, I finally no longer despise), and thus a lot of our leadership discussions/conferences/luncheons/etc focused around him.

But I’ve found that “leadership” as discussed in such ways is often too large a scope, too broad a concept, to apply when it’s really relevant.

I’ve been a leader of different groups going back to my time in high school. I was president or officer of several different clubs and organizations. I typically coordinated group projects for classes. And those roles didn’t change much when I went to college; I often found myself doing the same things.

But I also got myself into leadership positions (sometimes unwillingly) in a very different area, too: online gaming.

My earliest experiences were with an online gaming group that played custom missions for games with competitions for top score and best narratives. In those early days, I didn’t have Internet at home, and many of my fellow gamers in the group either had similar situations or didn’t have fast enough connections or computers to make direct online gaming feasible. I intentionally sought (and achieved) leadership roles, which gave me a small degree of prestige and a lot of work.

Later, after going to college, I started playing massively multiplayer online games – in those days, best thought of as living, breathing, but virtual worlds. (Modern MMOs tend to play not-so-differently from a regular game, save difficulty and time commitments.) I had learned lessons from my earlier experiences in online gaming and didn’t seek leadership roles, yet they found me anyway.

It was after I started resigning those leadership roles and attempted to try some new things that I began to notice trends. These trends became even more obvious after a stint as manager at my last job, before resigning to start working on more novels and to stay home with the Peanut.

While we often discuss how our leaders need to be the best and brightest and smartest people, I’ve found that our actual leaders are seldom any of those three – and for good reason. This led me to my first principle of leadership: our leaders tend to be the most active people in an organization.

Time to make up statistics!

In my experience, something like 75% of the people in a given organization are “average” – they aren’t exceptionally active or inactive and generally go along with most anything the leadership decides to do (barring some terrible decisions). In most cases, I don’t mind being in that 75%.

Of the remaining 25%, let’s say 15% are Active In Name Only. Yes, we’ll call them AINOs, which makes no sense at all, but we’ll go for it. These are the people that don’t show up, or do show up but don’t participate, or show up, complain about the decisions, and do nothing to support the group. Every organization I’ve been in has some AINOs – the trick is to keep the number minimized and to prevent them from sapping the energy and momentum of a group.

Then there’s the final 10%. Those are your ultra-active members. They’re the ones who have fingers in every pie and are suggesting new recipes all the time. They seldom complain but throw themselves whole-heartedly into the work of the organization. (In my early gaming days, that was me entirely, and I burned myself out doing so.) Few people remain ultra-active; with time, they slip into the 75% or even all the way down to AINO status.

However, these 10% tend to be put into the leadership roles. And that’s a good thing. Putting a 75%er or an AINO in charge is a good way to kill a group; it’s important for the leadership to be that 10% of highly-active, highly-motivated, high-energy people, because they will do their best to bring the group along. That sort of energy is infectious, and without it, groups whither and die.

This leads into the second principle I’ve found: once a leader of a group, always a leader of a group.

If someone has risen through the ranks and become an active leader, they tend to always be viewed as a leader. After stepping down from the leadership role, their opinion will still be sought after and given a heavy amount of weight.

It goes even further than that, though. If that now ex-leader leaves the group to start a new group or join a competing group, members of the former group will follow.

I’ll give an example from my gaming days.

Anyone who knows my gaming habits knows I love flying. (I like it in real life, too, but it’s rather expensive.) I’ve played quite a few flight sims over the years, like Falcon and the Jane’s series, but the one that hooked me the most was (due to my other interests) the classic X-Wing series.

Now, when I went to college, Star Wars Galaxies came out that same year. I picked it up and played it casually until the first expansion came out: Jump to Lightspeed, which added space combat themed similarly (though the mechanics were different) to the old X-Wing games I loved.

I played it obsessively at times, and casually at others, but almost never walked away from it for more than a week or so at a time. The guild I played with tried roping me into leadership for the space division multiple times, but I avoided it right up until the Rebel space coordinator on the server (the man, the myth, the legend: Gwreng) quit and turned everything over to me.

Suddenly, I was in charge.

I became a fixture in the space scene on our server. (It’s a good thing this happened in college, because if I tried putting that kind of time into a game now, it’d probably cost me my marriage, even though my wife enjoys gaming, too.) As often happens, though, over time I slowly burned out. I think I was the space coordinator for about a year and a half, and our guild leader for about ten months, when I finally insisted on stepping down.

I played with the old guild for about a month after my resignation as leader, and found I couldn’t stay anymore. For major decisions, one of two things happened: either I was consulted in detail, and it annoyed me, or I wasn’t consulted, and the resulting decision bothered me even more. (That’s not to say the decisions made were necessarily wrong; I had spent too much time in charge there to fall back into the normal ranks.)

So I quit the guild. It was not done in a mean-spirited way; in my resignation, I asked guild members to stay. I had decided to form a new group with a different purpose (training pilots) and didn’t want to sabotage the group I’d spent years playing with.

In spite of my best intentions, the group still splintered with my departure. It didn’t happen immediately, but within six months of my leaving I had several of their best vets on my roster as trainers and a core of others had left to form several new groups.

And oddly enough, even those who formed new groups /still/ looked to me for guidance.

And that could be a problem. When my own energy and interest waned, so too did some of the groups. My actions had further-reaching consequences than I realized, particularly my (I can now say) wrong-headed reactions to certain developments in the game. Even when I wasn’t officially in charge, my mistakes still led others down detrimental paths.

That last part is what sparked this whole reflection, because I’m seeing it offline these days. Old leaders who no longer have the enthusiasm they once did now negatively affect the activities of their groups, and they usually don’t even realize it.

Once a leader, always a leader.


There are times when a person can’t help but feel some heartache.

On a personal level? My Peanut has been sick all week and clearly suffering. His head cold clearly came from his daddy. He had vaccinations on Monday which also spiked him a fever and really put him under the weather. He hasn’t been my happy-go-lucky kid all week, and I hate not being able to do anything about it.

On a community level? This week an FFA advisor and shop teacher, while driving a bus, was involved in an accident at a train crossing that killed both himself and a 17-year-old student, with virtually every other student on the bus injured. I didn’t know any of them personally, but my heart still aches for their families in Larimore. My nightmares are made of the very stuff a couple living near the accident experienced – wrapping injured kids in blankets and pulling them out of the wreckage of a school bus while waiting for first responders to arrive.

On a world level? Twelve people shot dead by Muslim terrorists over satirical cartoons. Cartoons are worth killing people over? Not only that, but the sons of bitches escaped. As of this morning, when I’m writing this, they’re apparently cornered in a hostage standoff outside Paris, and have made statements that they wish to die as martyrs. How many more will they kill?

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

It doesn’t help that we’re in the middle of a deep freeze in the Midwest. Outdoor temperature (before windchill) barely even approaches zero, and we’ve had windchill warnings pretty much every day this week. Cold and gloom tends to sap the will and cheer.

Some days it’s a struggle to remember that things can be, and will be, better than they are right now.

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

A New Accomplishment for a New Year

2015 has snuck up on me with all the subtlety of a drunk driver – obvious, dangerous, and difficult to predict. The Christmas break is coming to a close, and very shortly my days are going to have less free time as my wife returns to her teaching position and I have the Peanut all day at home.

2014 wasn’t productive in terms of writing – something I’m working hard to address in the new year. (Having a kid and taking care of him really cuts into writing time and energy.) However, I did feel I need to mention my first major accomplishment of the year:

Dead Man’s Fugue has been pirated.

Yes, this is quite an accomplishment – because it means someone thought it was worthwhile to pirate.

May many more books of mine be pirated in the coming year!

(Standard disclaimer: no, I don’t want my books to be pirated. I think my prices are very reasonable for the content, and I need all the cash I can get. My CPA is already scratching his head and coughing into his hand and saying things like “social security” and “they don’t count several of your worst-performing years”. But hey, I’ll take what fame I can get.)

(Side note: sporadic blogging will be resuming this week. Don’t expect daily posts, but I should have at least a couple up a week again. Contract Hunt is taunting me with its incomplete state, and I’m pretty inspired right now.)

Guest Post: Christmas Letter from the Peanut

Hiiiiiii! Mama was going to write a letter to all our friends and family to tell them how we are doing, but I like to type. (And dance. I really like to dance. It is so much fun. I like jammin.) So I get to type. (With Mama getting in the way too.)

Mama and Daddy (and other people who I think I am supposed to know) tell me that I have a birthday coming up on December 23rd. They say I’ll be a whole year old. I don’t really know what a birthday is but I’m sure it will be fun. As long as I get to run around. Sometimes we go places with people and I have to be in the torture device (Mama and Daddy call it a ‘car seat’) or sit on people’s laps and I don’t like that. I like to explore!

Mama also says Christmas is coming up and that she and Daddy brought me home on Christmas day. I like coming home. Every time Mama and Daddy say “We’re home!”, I know I can get out of the torture device. I even arch my back to help, though Mama and Daddy don’t seem to think I’m helping. I got to help Mama set up the Christmas tree which was kind of fun though I just mostly played with the branches. Once I got over being concerned. Mama told Daddy I was scared, but I wasn’t scared. I was just checking things out. Mama gave me lights. She looked like I was supposed to be excited. The lights were okay. They were more fun when I figured out I could make them jump. I like figuring out how things work and how I can get into them and if I can get Daddy or Mama to yell and swoop down and pick me up. I like the swooping. It’s fun!

I like seeing what I can make Daddy do. He spends all day with me, though he tries typing too. I don’t like that so I try and see what he’s doing or if I can make the page move or if I can make him scold me. Then I know I can get him to play with me. I really like it when he sits on the floor. Then I can climb over him and get him to tip me backwards and roll me and all sorts of fun things. Sometimes I must talk too much because Daddy puts me in the home torture device (I think Mama calls it ‘playpen’’) and I don’t like that. It’s sometimes fun, but then I’m by myself because Daddy is busy doing something in the kitchen. It involves water and I like water! And I think I could help but Daddy doesn’t, so I’m by myself and I fall asleep in the home torture device because it’s boring.

Baths are the best time of the day except when Mama shoves that bristly thing that sometimes taste like apples in my mouth. I don’t like that. (Mama calls it ‘brushin my teeth’.)

But it’s never boring when Daddy says, “Benjamin, somebody’s coming.” I know this means Mama is coming home and I get so excited! I squeal when Mama comes through the door because I only get her in the evening and sometimes in the morning and on the days when we go to church and the day before we go to church and some random days that I don’t understand. So I like to spend as much time with Mama as I can. Unless I want to take a nap. Then I want Daddy and blankie. Daddy’s good for napping and blankie is good for burying my face in. Mama brings home papers and metal things. I can’t play with the papers; she tells me her students wouldn’t like that. I don’t know what students are. I sometimes find the metal thingies on the ground and try to bite them, but Daddy always takes them away. He and Mama had a talk and now I find less of them. This makes me sad.

I am excited to see what birthdays and Christmas is all about and to see if I can learn new things. I love meeting people, so come home if you want too!


Turning Over the Odometer

Today I turn over the odometer.

No, I’m not talking about any of my vehicles – I have a tendency to buy them when they’re already over a hundred thousand miles, and thus far we’ve run into major mechanical issues on any of them that near the 200,000 mark.

Today I turn 30.

When I was a kid, I heard adults (including my parents) tell me things like “Time goes so fast” and “The years just fly by.” As a kid, I didn’t understand that – I mean, time was slow and it took forever.

Not so much anymore.

A year and a half ago, when I had my ten-year class reunion, it started to dawn on me just how fast time flies. It certainly hadn’t seemed like I’d been out of high school for ten years, but the evidence was incontrovertible. And now even more time has gone by.

It’s official.

I’m getting old.

But if I am getting old, at least I have a few things to show for it. I have a home, a wonderful wife, a too-smart kid. I’ve written and published several books, with more on the way. I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor. I’ve been in the small-business world and climbed a couple rungs on a corporate ladder.

I can’t wait to see what I manage in the next thirty years.

Star Wars: Episode 7 Teaser

Since the teaser hit on Friday, I’ve had people (usually very excited) asking me about my reaction to the trailer. Oddly, I’m feeling rather ambivalent.

First, for reference:

The first time I watched it, I actually thought it was another fanfilm trailer mashup. JJ Abrams is delving really hard into the old Ralph McQuarrie concept art for the first trilogy – something the people creating Star Wars media seem to be doing since we saw the Y-wing bombers in the first season of Clone Wars.

Parts of the teaser made me smile and thrilled me a bit – namely, the trio of X-wings skimming the lake (I don’t even mind the new design) and the Millennium Falcon evading TIE Fighters (presumably over the sands of Tatooine). Some of that is probably nostalgia for the golden years of LucasArts gaming: X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighters, X-Wing Alliance, or even Star Wars Galaxies before it shut down.

Much of the rest of the teaser did almost nothing for me. The (presumably) Sith Lord’s lightsaber design didn’t bother me (though it was why I first thought it was a fan trailer, not the real deal), and the new droid looked ridiculous. The rest of it looked pretty much like I expected a Star Wars teaser to look.

Maybe I’m getting cynical. The past fifteen years of Star Wars productions has been very hit-or-miss across the board, from movies to television shows to gaming. For every good production it seems like there’s been two terrible ones. Maybe JJ Abrams is the guy who will turn that around, but I’m reserving judgement until (at minimum) I get to see a full trailer.

And maybe someday, when Shattered Expanse is a multi-billion dollar media enterprise, I’ll be in a position to comment and actually have something to say that people will listen to!