Writers require courage equal to desire

I’ve been a “writer” for a long, long time. Dragon magazine published my short story, “The Visitor,” in 1988. I was 17. Shortly after that, I worked for a treasure hunting magazine, writing articles and book reviews. A few years later, I became a newspaper reporter and columnist. After that initial short story in Dragon, I spent most of my writing career in non-fiction.

I didn’t become a published science fiction novelist until 2012. Giddy with my new membership in the OMG I’M A REAL SF AUTHOR club, I attended conventions, appeared on several panels, sometimes with awesome people, sometimes with awful people. I gave away swag, sat in author alleys and had conversations – some positive or supportive, others not so much – and I experienced some strange bias in the SF community against things like technology, anime, YA, cosplay, but even stranger the bias against women. Some people assumed I’d never read Heinlein, Asimov or Bradbury. They assumed my books were all sex and no science, or strictly “soft” science fiction (which couldn’t be further from the truth). They assumed I was self-published. I received good and bad reviews, mostly good. I answered email from excited fans and aspiring authors, became the target of jealousy and bitterness from others. I won one award and became a finalist for another. I blogged. I guest blogged. I joined various author groups and met a lot of authors. I lost friends. I gained friends. I attended seminars offered by my publisher to teach me about how to use social media, how to create an author website, how to be a brand. I joined SFWA. I left SFWA.

In 2013, after publishing my 2nd novel, a sequel, I stopped writing because I loathed writing, save for a few interviews and columns here and there, which were journalism not fiction. I even stopped reading, because I loathed books. The last thing I read was Rat Queens, which is a comic, not a novel. I played Skyrim and Fallout because they were wonderful stories but not novels. I didn’t entirely stop doing conventions, but I only did a few, where I felt comfortable, and I focused on my jewelry design business instead, which had been thriving but put on hold when I became a novelist. I suffered debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, and depression. I went into therapy. I went on medication.

I’m not saying all this for sympathy, or to make any particular point. And I’m not one of those writers to which Jeff VanderMeer refers – I’ve never told him the story of my discouragement. But I am discouraged. He is right that there are good people out there. I love my editor, Alison Dasho, without her I would never have been published at all, nor finished the sequel. I love my first editors, Eileen Brady and Linda Cashdan, who helped me develop a novel that someone wanted to publish. Bull Spec founder and editor Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and there are so many authors who’ve been supportive along the way – Bill Harms, Richard Dansky, John G. Hemry, Christiana Ellis, Sara Harvey, Natania Barron, Robert Appleton, Kait Gamble, M. David Blake, Michael D’Ambrosio and more.

But I had to take a serious step away from the industry and the community, get healthy, figure out what to do next, and how I wanted to do it. Writers are expected to do so much more than write, nowadays, and I’m really no good at all the other crap. I still occasionally receive emails asking when the 3rd Stellarnet book will be out (though they are vastly outnumbered by the emails asking when I’ll write more Skyrim smut). And I do want to write again. But I’m having a hard time holding onto the good bits, because everything seems coated in slime. That’s on me, I know. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Auctioning a piece of SERENITY for a good cause


For a decade, I’ve owned a piece of Serenity: The actual St. Christopher medal worn by Adam Baldwin as Jayne Cobb in the 2005 motion picture. He can be seen wearing it when he tries to take River for a “nice shuttle ride” and she knocks him out with a can of peaches.

I’ve had a lifelong interest in jewelry and worked as a professional jewelry designer for more than half my life. So, I always notice jewelry in movies and TV shows, amused by what those little embellishments tell us about the character, story and plot.

In Jayne’s case, St. Christopher is appropriate, not only because he’s the patron saint and protector of travelers — and the crew of Serenity could certainly use all the protection they can get — but because the saint started out a tall, fierce mercenary who ended up serving God by carrying people across a dangerous river. Ha ha, “a dangerous River.” Coincidence?

In December 2005, Stephen Lane from the Prop Store of London posted in a Browncoat fan forum that he would be obtaining several props from Serenity. I asked him about the necklace, which he reserved for me. I bought it from him in March 2006. Prior to that, it was displayed at a Universal Studios theme park.

A photograph of Jayne's St. Christopher medal on display at Universal Studios in 2005.

I framed the necklace in a shadow box with the certificate of authenticity and a replica of one of Jayne’s shirts from the movie. Over the years, I displayed it at my local Can’t Stop the Serenity events for other fans to enjoy.

CSTS is a fan-run project of worldwide annual screenings of Joss Whedon’s Serenity to raise money and awareness for Equality Now, an organization dedicated to the protection of women and girls around the world. They deal with issues such as rape, child marriage, sex trafficking, and FGM.

Since 2006, Browncoats have raised more than $1,000,000.00 for Equality Now and for other charities, including Kids Need to Read.

I coordinated the 2006, 2007 and 2008 CSTS screenings in my city — complete with costume contests, raffles, trivia contests and shooting galleries — then went on to be a global sponsor while continuing to assist my local CSTS committee.

This year, when the global steering committee asked for donations for their national auction, I knew it was time for Jayne’s necklace to have a new home and to do some good on the way.

So, I donated the necklace, shadow box, certificate of authenticity and all, to CSTS and the California Browncoats who are running the auction. It’s currently on eBay and 100% of the sale will go to Equality Now.

You can see the St. Christopher auction here. It ends Nov. 15.

See the entire CSTS auction here.

For the cosplayers and Browncoats who can’t afford the original, I’ve found a similar medal at CatholicShop.com. The original medal was worn on a 24-inch Boston style chain.

This is a photo of the actual medal worn by Jayne Cobb in the 2005 movie SERENITY.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Fallout fun

I started writing Stellarnet Rebel in 2009, a year after the release of Fallout 3. The “bracers” used by my characters Genny and Duin are similar to the Pipboy devices in the Fallout franchise. Basically, a smart phone worn around the forearm.

But I didn’t play my first Fallout game (Fallout: New Vegas) until 2015, so any similarities are coincidental.

My space colony on the planet Asteria is similar to the vaults in in the Fallout franchise, totally self-sustaining and self-contained. In Fallout, dwellers can’t leave because of post-apocalyptic radiation. In the Stellarnet Series, colonists can’t leave because there’s no atmosphere on the planet.

Vault 888 in my Fallout Shelter mobile game.

The underground vault in the mobile game Fallout Shelter is built in standardized modules. Each section connects perfectly with the others, a bit like like Legos, but customized to fulfill different needs – housing, food production, water reclamation, power, entertainment, education, etc.

This is very similar to the system of interlocking compartments and blocks I invented for Asteria Colony.

Residential blocks in Asteria Colony contain their own food production, similar to the Biosphere 2 research facility in Arizona.

If they were intelligent (and better looking), Fallout’s lake lurkers might be like Stellarnet’s water-dwelling aliens called Glin. Except that the Glin use electrical current as a natural weapon, like eels, rather than sonic shouts.

The Glin sometimes have to deal with large, deadly, dragon-like creatures known as r’naw. Not unlike Fallout’s deathclaws.

Makes me wish I could create a Stellarnet video game! Meanwhile, it’s six days until Fallout 4. My Pip-Boy edition is pre-ordered, how about you?

Am I the only one who really enjoys the Sole Survivor’s behind?

~ J.L. Hilton

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Love is love

Even human/alien love.

Image courtesy of Pride Publishing.

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Remembering STAR WARS and 1977

I was 6 years old when Star Wars hit theaters in May 1977 and my dad took me to see it on the big screen.

We lived in Los Angeles at the time, and I can’t remember for certain whether or not we actually attended the footprint ceremony at Mann’s Chinese Theater that August. I do remember that the adults in my life talked about the event and still called the theater “Grauman’s,” which had been the official name until 1973.

And I had a photograph of myself with Darth Vader, standing in front of that same theater, his black gloved hands around my throat à la the Death Star scene (shown at right). I don’t know if it was taken during this event, but when else would Darth Vader have been in front of Mann’s? Maybe they had a costumed character hanging around in the days that followed, for those who came to see his footprints after the cement had set.

The framed photo hung on my bedroom wall when I was growing up. I don’t know where it is, now.

I later dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween. I do have that picture.

I grew up with Disney princesses, but Leia was my hero. A princess but also a spy, rebel leader, handy with a blaster, strong, sassy, intelligent and kind. She was one of my early sci-fi female role models — along with Ripley, Uhura and Sarah Connor.

I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster before seeing The Empire Strikes Back and had hoped Leia would get with Luke. The whole Han/scoundrel and Luke/brother thing really disappointed me. Made my mom happy, though.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Honest Hearts DLC touches my own in Fallout: New Vegas

I recently finished the Honest Hearts DLC (“downloadable content” game expansion) for Fallout: New Vegas. In 44 years, I’ve cried at countless movies and books but never video games. Yes, I teared up at the end of the Knife of Dunwall/Brigmore Witches DLC for Dishonored. But uncontrollable bawling? That’s a first.

Honest Hearts is about what happens in Utah’s Zion Canyon after a nuclear holocaust. Among ruined school buses and ranger stations, the player is caught up in a war between post-apocalyptic tribes and the conflicting goals of a Mormon missionary and the mysterious Burned Man.

But there’s another story in Honest Hearts, too, one that’s told via hidden shelters and old computer terminals — the story of Randall Dean Clark, a soldier and survivalist trapped in Zion when the bombs fell 200 years before the events of the game.

I was north of Spanish Fork. Took the 77 along Provo Bay to steer clear of town. Would’ve been home in an hour. Engine died, truck just stopped. So did a Chryslus in the other lane. Knew right away.

First nuke hit SLC inside a minute. I was looking South – Lucky Man! Flash behind me so bright world looked on fire. Old couple from the Chryslus starts screaming they can’t see.

Didn’t watch you die, Char. Saved my eyes. Counted 12 more flashes next 7 minutes. Ground shook each time, 18 seconds later.

When nothing hit for half an hour, took a look. Globe of fire where you and Alex died. Didn’t kid myself.

Didn’t know what to do. Grabbed my pack and rifle.

Saw to the old couple. Sat them up against car, let them hold and comfort each other. Told them I was going to get help, everything be okay. One bullet through both heads. Instant.

Five day hike back to Zion.

You told me. Stop running off to the wild. Man belongs with his family.

You were right. You were right. You were right. You were right. Wasn’t there to hold you and my boy. Died without me. Never touch you or him again.

Should shoot myself. What I deserve.

Can’t. Maybe soon.

Randall spent the rest of his life in Zion, grappling with survivor guilt while he watched the comings and goings of feral ghouls, mutant animals, refugees, and the cannibal remnants of Vault 22. He had a brief relationship with fellow survivor Sylvie, until she and their unborn son died in childbirth.

Playing the DLC, tribe members spoke often of the “Father,” his love for them, and how they avoided his taboo caves. At first, with the presence of the Mormon missionary, I assumed they spoke of the Christian god, but eventually realized that they meant Randall Clark, the survivalist. Unseen, he’d spent his life assisting their ancestors, leaving them weapons manuals, medical books, supplies and messages preaching the value of kindness and mutual care. And he became a “vengeful spirit” who used his military skills to protect the innocent from evil.

Randall eventually developed lung cancer. Reluctant to shatter the illusions of the children by revealing himself, alive or dead, he climbed to a high place where the children would be unlikely to find his corpse and allowed himself to die of exposure.

“It’s cold enough that I won’t last long on the high mound up next to Red Gate. I think I’ve got enough breath left in me to make it. I’ll just lie down and stare at the sky. Feels right.”

I couldn’t even explain the story to my husband the next day without crying again. And I can’t reread the survivalist’s logs without tearing up now. Lip is quivering.

“I hope they’ll do well. I hope no harm comes to them, from within or without. Did my best to prepare them with the last notes. Said something kind about each one of them, what makes each one special. Told them ‘The Father’ was pleased by their kind natures and that it would be up to them to handle things on their own from now on, that I’d be silent but still watching and still caring.

“Lying, then. Oh yes.

“Lied to you, Char. And Alex. And Sylvie. Told you I’d be with you forever. But I wouldn’t go back and unsay it once if I could.

“What was the point of it all? So many failures.”

The Survivalist was designed by J.E. Sawyer, and his diary entries written by John Gonzalez. Maybe someday they’ll see this blog and know how very much this story touched my heart.

Why? Because I am Randall Dean Clark. Every single day, I am torn between wanting to give up and wanting to go on. I look at the world and it seems like such a bleak, desolate place, like the Mojave Wasteland. So much greed, corruption, fear, anger, ignorance, pain, hopelessness, despair. I often wonder what’s the point of it all, and yet I keep trying. The only meaning in life for me is the good I might do for others and the hope that it makes the world a little bit better for someone else.

Seeing how the effects of Randall’s actions echo down through the years, not because he’s some mystical magical supernatural god, but simply because he’s a human being who suffered immense pain and loss, yet in spite of “so many failures,” still chose to go on, to survive, to educate, to have compassion for those in need and righteous fury for those who would enslave or cannibalize others — that’s the most meaningful story I’ve ever experienced in a video game.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Back in my day, video games had stick figures

When people complain about graphics in video games, and frame rate, and immersion, and lag, and whether PS4 is better than Xbox One, and how Skyrim “sucks” compared to Oblivion or Morrowind, and which Final Fantasy game is better than the others, and how PC is better than console, I’m all like…

“We played this in the 1980s and we loved it.”

It’s a matter of perspective.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Stellarnet Series jigsaw puzzles

Click on the images below to play some online browser-based jigsaw puzzles of the Stellarnet Series book covers.

preview35 pieceStellarnet Rebel

preview35 pieceStellarnet Prince

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A strange magical birthday with a butt cake

The other night at dinner, a friend joked that I should have an Arrow butt cake for my birthday.

Yes, that’s “butt” not “bundt.”

Challenge accepted.

Vanilla cake, fudge filling, green frosting, and four green candles with aluminum foil arrowheads, because I’m 44 today.

I celebrated my birthday — which I share with Emma Watson and Luke Evans, who are BOTH going to be in the upcoming live action BEAUTY AND THE BEAST movie btw — by watching the “Broken Arrow” episode, after playing a little Skyrim and seeing STRANGE MAGIC in the theater again.

I also received one of those Edible Arrangement fruit baskets and a friend made me some homemade baklava.

Best birthday ever.

For more about objectification and dude butts, check out The Hawkeye Initiative.

~ J.L. Hilton

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The Book of Life vs. Strange Magic

I finally saw THE BOOK OF LIFE yesterday, after hearing so many good things about it. And now I’m even more mystified by the poor reception of my new favorite, STRANGE MAGIC.

I’m not saying THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t deserving of its success. It is. But I don’t see how the two films are so very different that one should make 8x as much money and the other should end up at the bottom of a dog pile of criticism.

THE BOOK OF LIFE, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by award-winning animator Jorge Gutierrez, took in $97 million worldwide ($50 million domestic, $47 million foreign), after a Halloween 2014 release.

STRANGE MAGIC, with a story by George Lucas, direction by seven-time Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, and distribution by Disney, had a record-breaking bad debut and a box office total of only $12 million with a limited release (US only) in January 2015.

Disney may have been stuck with STRANGE MAGIC in the process of acquiring the Star Wars franchise, and just didn’t give a crap about it. So, are the box office differences due to the ways both movies were marketed and released? Or something else?

THE BOOK OF LIFE has an 82% on the Tomatometer, and STRANGE MAGIC only 19%. So, are critics responsible for getting audiences out to see THE BOOK OF LIFE while steering them away from STRANGE MAGIC? Why? Some of the features praised in the one film are the very same features disparaged in the other.

For instance, Common Sense Media calls THE BOOK OF LIFE a “beautifully animated film” yet calls STRANGE MAGIC an “uneven musical… stranger than it is magical.”

Both movies are strange, in their own ways. Both are set within magical worlds populated by supernatural creatures. Both have unconventional romantic storylines. Both have sassy sword-slinging heroines. Both have their share of fluff and foofaraw.

Both were beautifully computer-animated in lavish detail. STRANGE MAGIC gives us evocative fantasy forest and fairy imagery along the lines of genre stars Brian Froud and Amy BrownTHE BOOK OF LIFE delivers clever marionette-type figures and a Dia de los Muertos theme.

Both were musicals. I’ve seen several reviewers refer to STRANGE MAGIC with phrases like “bad karaoke” and “too much singing.” Yet THE BOOK OF LIFE features a full slate of pop songs, too, and the two movies even share one of the same tunes — “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (originally recorded by Elvis Presley in the 1960s). In THE BOOK OF LIFE, most songs are sung by Diego Luna as Manolo the Mariachi. In STRANGE MAGIC, you have the talents of Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming — hardly a list of “karaoke” performers.

And speaking of strange animated films: JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART. This steampunk musical with songs by French rock band Dionysos, produced by Luc Besson, made only $3.4 million in foreign box office (no US release, but you can watch it on Netflix streaming) yet has a 70% on the Tomatometer. Not quite as good as THE BOOK OF LIFE, but still much better than STRANGE MAGIC.

I can’t help wondering if maybe some of the critics who didn’t like STRANGE MAGIC simply found it more comfortable to pick on the animation, music, and vague, subjective qualities like being “boring and uneven,” than admit they’re too shallow to relate to the movie’s deeply emotional and unconventional narrative, “Everyone deserves to be loved.”

So, while I am happy that such movies as THE BOOK OF LIFE and JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART are being made, I’m sad that my STRANGE MAGIC fandom is so small.

No action figures, books and shirts for us.







~ J.L. Hilton

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