Friday, April 1, 2016

Kung Fu Panda, Among Other Things

Hey all - it's been an age and a half since I've posted on here, and such an absence requires some explanation, all of which can be summed up in the word college.

For those of you seeking an actual post on here, I'm afraid that will have to wait.  In lieu of fresh content on Teenage Writer (which, by the way, will become a moot title this year; I haven't the foggiest what I am going to do), I've recently written up some thoughts on the Kung Fu Panda movies on my other blog.  You may enjoy it; I certainly enjoyed writing it.  You can find that article HERE.

To whoever is still out there reading this blog...thank you for your patience.  I hope you're having a wonderful spring.

Till next time.

Monday, September 28, 2015

LINKS: "Not KPRadio" Podcast and Stasis is FREE ON KINDLE!

For once, Monday is a good day.

That's right - because two great things are happening at once: Daniel Thompson has released a podcast featuring yours truly, and of course, STASIS is currently FREE ON KINDLE!

Feast your eyes, folks, on this screenshot:

Isn't it beautiful?  Here's where you can get some of the goodness.

First, check out our thirty minutes of awesomeness by clicking on this link to Soundcloud: "The Pixar Method, Braintrusts, and I'M FIRED?! with Jake Buller"

Next, check out the Amazon page for STASIS to download a free copy.  This free promotion starts today and goes through the end of September, this Wednesday.  Got it?  Good.  Click HERE to head over to Amazon!

If you've already listened to the podcast or read my anthology, there is more you can do to help!  Both the podcast and my book have places where you can review them.  If you have a bit of time, help a brothah out and write a quick review!

Thanks, guys - and ENJOY!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Stasis is going to be FREE ON KINDLE - plus, a radio interview!

Hey there, ladies and gentlemen!  It's always wonderful to read a blog post with the word "free" in the title - and aye, you read it correctly.  STASIS - my collection of Will Vullerman stories - is going to be FREE ON KINDLE starting on Monday!

It's part of a promotion I'm doing for a radio show.  I've posted about this show previously, if you recall, in reviewing the first episode.  And the rumors are true - I'm being hosted on Daniel Thompson's lovely podcast (which I wholeheartedly recommend, by the way) and we're going to be talking about Pixar and the beauty of simple stories.

It's going to be a fantastic show.  I'm in my element, and Daniel is a great host, so it's going to be both entertaining and - I hope - informative for you as a writer.

I'll post a link to the episode AND to the Amazon page of Stasis tomorrow - so check back then!  I can't wait.

Monday, August 17, 2015

"The Ultimate Canadian Love Story" and the new voices in writing advice (literally)

If you think YOU have a good high concept, you should see the one about moose that are slowly evolving into Canadians. (Meese?  Mooses?)

Yes, this is actually a legit thing, although it depends on how you define legit.  Kingdom Pen Radio is about to debut with a bang - several bangs, actually.  Radio host Daniel Thompson - a.k.a. Leinad O'Neil - in conjunction with Kingdom Pen has started a podcast series hitting a wide range of writing-related topics.

And, apparently, a lot of other random things.

Here's my informal review of the show's first episode:

The thirty-minute debut is packed full, with admirable studio quality considering that it is a startup podcast series. To approach it from an entirely technical perspective, the editing was excellent; the background music occasionally hindered rather than enhanced the dialogue, but it was a minor point.

The show's style was characteristic Daniel; confusing and hilarious at the same time, it wandered but also hit a few points.  The debut feature was one of the Writers Who Don't Do Anything, a Canadian chap by the name of Ezra Wilkinson.  While this was a basic, tone-setting episode - there isn't much advisory substance to it - it did hit some fundamentals about writing and had at least one serious moment, as well as a very interesting discussion about the Hunger Games.

Where it really shone was in being absolutely ridiculous.  I won't spoil the beats, but the show entertained like a drunk Scottish brawler in a poetry contest.  There were a few moments of golden creative comedy - the evolution of "Canadia" being one of them - and those pretty much carried the whole episode.

This isn't a podcast to stop your life for.  But if you have a few spare moments and have a tolerable resistance to radioactive weirdness, this is absolutely worth checking out.

Oh, and did I mention that these episodes often feature free stuff?

Yeah, that's right.  Free stuff.

There's a lot of craziness ahead, including podcasts with actual authors, such as Kerry Nietz and Bill Myers.  Yes, you read that correctly.

And there is a rumor that I might be a guest on one of these podcasts.  I can neither confirm nor deny. I can also neither confirm nor deny that it may feature some free stuff.

Here's what I can confirm: this podcast series is going to be a lot of fun.  Click HERE to check out the home page of Kingdom Pen Radio!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bite-Size Reviews: Ant-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and More

It's summer, which means that all of the big-budget flicks are dropping at once.

But unfortunately, I don't have a big budget, which means I've only seen one live-action movie in theaters since arriving back in the States.  I have, however, explored more stories than those that can be found in the movie theater.

Before I go on, let's start with the first of the lineup:


Four and a half stars.

One sentence: In an origin story reminiscent of Marvel's Phase One, Ant-Man embraces the superhero tropes - but plays on them too, creating a very fun and surprisingly good blockbuster.

Yes, Ant-Man is something of a standard comic book movie.  It's about a man searching within himself to become a superhero, it deals with his daughter as his motivation, and the world is in danger (again.)

But where Ant-Man really shines is in twisting these tropes, even if just slightly.  Much of the movie works as a satire on the superhero genre.  Paul Rudd wreaks havoc as the Ant-Man, only to have the camera pull out and show us just how small-scale the conflict is, to great comedic effect. (Speaking of comedy, this is possibly the funniest movie Marvel has made.  The humor is amazing.)  Paul Rudd himself plays a quirkier, more down-to-earth superhero who has no delusions of grandeur.  His wants are remarkably simple.

And simple is a good way to describe this movie.  It is not complex, it is not bright and flashy.  It approaches the subject with simplicity and more than a little wit, creating a movie that is not exactly amazing, but ends up being a whole lot of fun.


Four stars.

One sentence: Though the animation style is jarring at first, it proves suitable for a movie that, though plagued with inconsistent narrative, also feels alive with Celtic magic.

The Secret of Kells is an utterly unique animated movie, made with a particular style of 2D animation that I've never seen before.  Indeed, the style was at first a drawback, and one of the reasons I had never watched it before. 

Thea actual story drew from Irish legends and a bit of history to create their world, making it rich and full of magic.  The bright parts were full of wonder; the darkness, legitimately scary.  It is one of those stories that tells more with the eyes than it does the ears; the dialogue does not carry the movie, but instead the art and the soundtrack bear it onward. This became something of a problem; the narrative is inconsistent and lacks a clear focus and clear story beats, which makes it drag in places.  

Even so, the imagination present in the film was enthralling, and in several places it was made manifest most by the absolutely stunning - and even haunting - soundtrack.  In the end, for all its flaws, it left me with a feeling that I had just watched something really and truly beautiful.


Five stars.

(The following review is my initial reaction to this show.  I intend to write a much longer post later on.)

One sentence: Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeds in telling a story that feels timeless and ancient, a marriage of Eastern mythology to Western storytelling—and does so in three flawlessly constructed seasons that build up to a truly epic finale.

Reading that sentence might give you the wrong impression, however.  It is well and truly intense.  And it is chock full of emotion and great storytelling.

But it is also light.  It is, in fact, a TV show "for kids," in the most Pixarian sense of the phrase.  It is hilarious, at times flippant, and sometimes has little hints of the melodrama of Disney Channel.

That is, however, part of the genius of this TV show: an easily accessible and humorous animation that is not only clever and inventive, but meaningful and subtle.  It draws from Eastern mythology, among other sources, to maintain a timelessness, but also transcends it to become something that is not Eastern, but not Western either.  And perhaps the greatest achievement of this show is in its restraint: the scope is large, but not too large to lose sight of the main plot.

From the very first episode, the very last episode is in mind.  It does not meander, in the strictest sense of the word; even where it wanders, it often involves elements of the story that will come up later.  It is one story made up of over sixty individual episodes, an achievement I have not seen topped anywhere.  And that makes it something truly special.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out 

Inside Out follows the struggles of a little girl named Riley and the voices inside her head: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy. 

Rating: five stars.

In a nutshell: Inside Out is perhaps the most adult of all of Pixar's family movies, tackling hard questions about moving on and growing up; yet it emerges with a theme that is both true and startlingly resonant, making it one of the most relevant and emotionally touching movies Pixar has ever made.  

In full:

I had unrealistically high expectations for this movie.  Besides my unwavering faith in Pixar, Inside Out was the brainchild of my favorite director, Pete Docter, who was also the director of Monsters, Inc. and Up.  And when the reviews came out, critic after critic praised it as being inventive and clever and emotional.  

So when opening weekend came, I came expecting a tear-jerker and a well-crafted story.  I got exactly what I expected, but not the way I expected it.

Inside Out was both bigger and smaller than what I had envisioned.  The scope of the world inside Riley's head was stunning, both visually and conceptually.  The characters literally glowed.  Yet through the whole film, it never lost its smaller focus: on Riley's internal struggle, and how that played out in her head.

Part of what made Inside Out so complex is that it really had two main characters that were the same main character: Riley and Riley's Joy.  And as Joy gets lost and has to find her way back to "Head"quarters, real-world Riley begins to lose herself as well.

It works so well because it can be seen on multiple levels. On a purely superficial level, it's a standard "I'm lost and I have to make my way back home but learn something along the way" type story.  It's simple, it's colorful, and it has enough jokes along the way to keep people entertained.  (Side note: Inside Out is one of Pixar's funniest movies, especially for older people.  There are so many clever jokes.)

But there are several deeper levels below that; it's a story of how you lose your Joy, what Sadness really means, and what happens when you begin to lose yourself and the core of what makes you who you are.  It is almost endlessly complex in that way, because the movie is filled with unobtrusive revelations, ready to be seen the moment you look for them.

In many ways, it is also not a typical Pixar film.  Although they have never shied away from darker story-lines, Inside Out is perhaps their darkest movie.  The "real world" is painted in monotone shades, and Riley deals with moving away from her only home, losing her friends, and other things.  That only serves to make the ending brighter and more resonant, however, creating something that is both bittersweet and beautiful.

That is not to say that it is without flaw.  Because of the vastness of Docter's vision of the mind, I expected to see more of it, but I didn't.  Much of the middle felt a little rushed, like it was missing just one story beat, one small breather, five minutes of footage to even out the racing plot.

But even this turned into a strength: the last third of Inside Out felt more like a thriller than an animated movie, not because it was full of action, but because I became so invested in the characters that I had to see what happened next.  The emotional suspense drew me along tightly; if Inside Out had been a book, I would have been blazing through the pages.

Then it came to the end, and all of the frenzied emotional tension screeched to a halt in the face of one defining moment, the very core of the story.  What I found there made Inside Out the first movie to make me cry.

And in order to discuss this properly, I'm going to use spoilers.  Go further at your own expense; I'll mark below when the spoilers end.


At the climax of the movie, Joy realizes that Sadness is a necessary part of Riley, that Riley can't be happy all of the time.  As a result of Riley's move to San Francisco, she began to lose who she was.  Each "island" of her personality fell apart with Anger and Fear and Disgust at the helm, until she became numb to her emotional destruction.  She became in danger of not being able to feel at all.

Only when Sadness became a necessary part of her was she able to feel again.  When she was able to look back on her joyful memories with both sadness and joy, she began to heal.

And this climaxed when she came back to her parents after nearly running away, and she began to cry.  She couldn't be joyful all of the time.  And it hurt so much for her to be away from the place she called home.

But that moment of sadness also became a moment of joy, because her family rallied around her.  It becomes one of the longest frames of the film: the three of them kneeling on the kitchen floor, hugging one another.  A new core memory was made at that moment, and we are not told what it is or what it is made of; it simply shines both yellow and blue - Joy and Sadness - and we instinctively understand.  Life is not compartmentalized.  Sometimes to have Joy, you must have Sadness. Sometimes they are mixed.

And as a missionary kid - as someone who has recently moved from their home in Africa - I felt this keenly.  I felt that my sorrow was okay, necessary, and healing.  Sometimes sadness comes before joy.

And that was the one thing that made me cry.  Because I miss joy.  I miss home.  To feel that way is necessary, and bittersweet, and beautiful.


That evening, I left the movie theater silently.  I laid on my uncle's couch that night, staring at the ceiling, processing what I had just seen.  It stuck with me, sneaking into my thoughts when I wasn't expecting it, like all good stories do.

The truth does that to you.  And I think that is what Inside Out does best: it tells the truth, simply and beautifully.  It doesn't downplay sadness, but it also doesn't downplay joy.

I had minor quibbles with the movie; I had several things that didn't quite satisfy me.  In the face of the titanic heart of the story, however, it all melts away.

All of my critiques will down to long-term memory, to languish there and fade.  But the great core memory of Inside Out is what sticks with me: that beautiful, bittersweet frame at the end, the picture that sums up the whole thing.

And it made me cry.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bite-Sized Reviews: Cinderella, Interstellar, and More

International flights are lovely places to catch up with recent movie releases, and I found myself watching a few thought-provoking flicks while traveling back to the States this weekend.

Since I don't have the time (or motivation) to write long reviews, I'm going to give a few paragraphs per movie to detail my bite-sized opinions on some recent blockbusters.  Check it out:


Four stars.

One sentence: Ambitious, ambiguous, and messy—it is thought-provoking but the structure is all over the place, and the themes leave some to be desired.

Christopher Nolan is perhaps one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking filmmakers alive, and Interstellar proves to be worthy of his imagination.  But the structure of Interstellar was sorely lacking, having little pacing consistency (jumping from slow-mo to stress-mode in moments) and leaving large portions of interesting footage that was not necessary footage, dragging the movie on...and on...and on.

For all that, it still managed to be a thrill ride, part Inception and part Apollo 13. It accomplished something that few movies do: it gave me genuine doubt that the story would resolve in a satisfying manner, and whether the characters would make it out alive.  And the alien planet scenes were pure and haunting imagination.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but the movie wrapped up making me feel vaguely dissatisfied.  The last thirty minutes of the film stretched my belief rather than my mind, and regardless of whether the physics work out or not, it felt too convenient.  Nolan's themes, too, felt like too many questions with too few answers—and the answers that could be found felt shallow.

Interstellar, however, is ultimately thought-provoking and even haunting.  Regardless of its flaws, it is still a "deep movie," and that makes it worth the ride—and worth a watch.


Four stars.

One sentence: Cinderella is a fairy-tale in the best, most magical sense of the word—something heavy-laden in earnest wonder, even if it stumbles once or twice along the way.

I did not expect to like Cinderella.  I had heard both good things and (relatively) bad things about it, so I went in with an open mind.

And yes, it suffered from a few Disney moments.  The dialogue was occasionally stiff and overwrought (which is more a symptom of the storytelling style than anything,) several places were dry with princess movie cliches, and occasionally it stayed true to the original to the detriment of the script.

But in the context of the story, all that was fairly minor in the face of the movie's one great strength: earnest storytelling.  Lily James plays the titular character with quiet determination and real, honest kindness.  The movie is really earnest and tries to find real beauty without being cliche or cynical.  In a word, it was wholesome.

And wholesomeness is what makes it really good.  The lavish staging and costumes make it visually stunning—the acting is all great, with Cate Blanchett especially standing out by being so spectacularly sinister.  The tweaks to the original story (which I won't spoil) made it much, much stronger.  And the theme—have courage, be kind—is both simple and effective.  The movie does not wring it out or tack it on; it is simply an integral part of the movie, as it should be, with a few startling moments of surprising eloquence.

Yes, Disney princess movies might not be your cup of tea.  But you may find yourself surprised at how good Cinderella actually is.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Three stars.

One sentence: Miles better than The Desolation of Smaug and nearly comparable to An Unexpected Journey, I just hold one thing against it: it cannot hold a candle to the original book or to the trilogy that follows it.

Let's be honest, here.  After the train wreck that was The Desolation of Smaug, I was expecting Battle to be another installment of CGI: The Movie.  So when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised.  The pacing was smooth, and instead of trying to make another Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson opted to film a halfway decent story.  Many of the battle scenes were too long, but the urgency behind them was more like Jackson's Lord of the Rings style, moving the plot along rather than stagnating it.

Unlike Smaug, Battle had an emotional core and a theme: Thorin's internal struggle between his honor and his greed.  But that sword cuts both ways: The Hobbit was no longer about the hobbit.  If there was any main character in Battle, it was Thorin.  Bilbo, still being well-played by the excellent Martin Freeman, would disappear for whole scenes before popping up later on.

But ultimately, as "pretty okay" as Battle was, it makes me ashamed to think that Peter Jackson compromised the emotional and storytelling achievement found in Lord of the Rings.  There is just no comparison.  And in the end, The Battle of Five Armies became just another big-budget action flick: not bad, but not nearly as good as it should have been.


What about you?  What did you think of these movies?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How a Blog Grows Up: Part I

Many seasons ago, when Christian speculative fiction was just beginning to gain traction and the young acolytes of Bryan Davis, Donita K. Paul, and Wayne Thomas Batson were many, a teenager started a blog.

Over the course of the next five years, he alternated between gushing about his favorite books and lecturing importantly on how writing works. (It is questionable how much he actually knew about the writing process, but it's all about how confidently you speak!) Slowly, the blog evolved. The old, narrow, yellow blog was replaced by a wider white one, with a yellowed book in the background. The number of readers grew (inexplicably,) and gradually the teenager's obsessive love of comments declined.

As the years went by, his subject of his blog wandered in a generally content universe of almost anything having to do with writing. And as the teenager began to grow up, moving to West Africa, the number of posts waned; but some people still (inexplicably) found it entertaining and continued to read. His posts grew longer, more thoughtful; the book reviews were almost books in themselves.

And now, here we are. The teenager is an old teenager. The blog is now mostly white, with an old header and funny sidebars. If you sniff really carefully, you can detect a lingering fear that it might be three months till the next post. 

There is also a breeze in the air, because it is the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. The time grows near when Teenage Writer must grow up.

But it's a good thing, I promise. It's less of a death as it is a new life. Like I said in my last post, the name and place is going to change, but the essence will remain. With that, I'm going to write a few posts detailing how I plan on changing things up. It's not 100% clear yet (and it may take some wandering to get definite ideas for everything) but I hope that these posts will make it clearer.

This first post has to do with something that has, from the beginning, been an essential part of Teenage Writer: reviews. I've always liked analyzing things. (My personality type is INTP, if you want to know; the detached analyst.) So reviews always came easily to me—short reviews, not so much.

And as I've grown older, I've discovered a new taste for stories of all mediums. Film criticism is something I've been picking up over time, and studying the box office has become a hugely enjoyable hobby. (Let's not even get into animation. I could write for hours.)  So with that in mind, here is what I'm thinking about how my reviews will change.

1. I'll include multiple mediums—primarily movies, books, and TV shows.

Good stories can come from anywhere, to paraphrase a certain Pixar movie. I used to digest stories almost entirely through reading, but I've discovered a lot of incredible stories (and storytellers) in the last two or three years, mostly through watching movies and TV shows. Old and new.

So whenever I discover a story I really like (or dislike,) I'll do my best to write a relevant review, so I can share it with you guys. Good stories deserve to be talked about—and it's always best to warn people about the bad ones.

2. I'm converting to a five-star system.

I dearly love my old, clunky, decimal-ridden ten-point system. But using five stars is simpler and more universal. So at the beginning of each review, I'll give a rating based on the five-star system. (And I'm only going down to .5 when it comes to decimals, I promise.)

3. Thumbnail reactions. 

Also at the beginning of each review, I'll summarize it in a brief paragraph. It'll make it easier for people to tell whether or not they will want to read the whole review. It's also really fun to come up with clever thumbnails. Just sayin'.

4. Comparisons and pundit chat. 

I like being a pundit; it's entertaining. So where possible, I want to compare books and movies and shows to other stories of the same type—and analyze where the genres and industries are going. (In some cases, I want to write pundit posts without any review at all. I have one such post coming up soon that I think you'll really enjoy.)

Specifically, with movies, I'll probably talk box office—that eerie realm where $30 million dollars in three days makes a movie a certified flop. (See: Tomorrowland.)

To be completely honest with you, it's not because I think you'll care about how many millions of dollars a movie is going to make. It's because it's super fun to write about, yo.

So those are some of the ways my reviews will change. As for what I'll be reviewing, well, I have several books up my sleeve. And because I am so flipping excited for Pete Docter's Inside Out, Pixar's June release, I'll probably write a review shortly after it comes out. I plan on seeing it opening weekend.

(In case you wanted to know, it currently has 19 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and they're all glowing. It sits at a rapturous 100%—it's too early to tell if it'll stay there, but the last Pixar movie to hit 100% was Toy Story 2. Gah!)

Till next time!


Friday, May 15, 2015

Writing, College, Change, and Selling My Soul to the Devil

(I'll explain that title, I promise.)

I've been silent on this blog for several months now, and I feel that I owe you a bit of an explanation: I'm soaking up my last few weeks in West Africa.

Yes, you did read that correctly—the four awful letters of "last."  Come June, I'll be leaving Liberia and venturing out on my own into the great uncivilized wilderness of America's higher education system.  The college in question is Abilene Christian University, a school in Abilene Texas.  While I'm not fond of Texas, it's a wonderful college.

What does this mean for my writing and my blog, you ask?  (Okay, maybe you're not asking that.  But I'm going to tell you anyway.)

Regardless of what happens, I'm going to keep writing.  The going has been slow, admittedly; my current project has been languishing at nine thousand words since last November, and the outline is hardly faring better.

However, I have big hopes for what I can accomplish this summer and this fall.

My fantasy epic, A Swiftly Moving River, is still tugging on my heart.  A third draft is in order, as soon as I can get to it.  It's one of the most important stories I've ever written, and I'm determined to beat it into shape.

My current writing project is something I'm really excited about.  Chromeheads, a science fantasy time travel murder mystery, recently won Second Place at Kingdom Pen's "Begin Your Novel" contest.  I've got something really, really cool on my hands, and I can't wait to dive into it in earnest.  (The last time I worked on it was a ten thousand word vomit during the last week of NaNoWriMo.)  Plus, I have motivation: I need to have it at least partially done for this year's OYAN Summer Workshop.

And finally, I have a memoir I wrote last November.  I honestly don't know what to do with it.  It's forty thousand messy words, an outpouring of my heart, an examination of how Liberia's Ebola outbreak affected me, as a missionary kid.  It's bittersweet and raw.  It desperately needs a revision.  But after that?  I have no idea.

Moving on from writing—I'm also hoping to get things done with this blog.  It's in need of some upkeep; I used to average several posts a week, and now, I'm lucky if I write one post a month.

Some of it is uncertainty on where to take this blog.  Back when I was young and—let's face it—a bit of a know-it-all, I wrote authoritatively about writing, giving tips, tricks, and tools of the trade.  But the older I get, the less I feel like I really know about writing.  How authoritatively can I write, when I'm struggling to patch holes in my novel that should have been fixed two years ago?

I'm a better writer than I was two years ago, but I'm a humbler teacher.  I know that I know less than I thought I knew, if that makes sense.

The core of what I want to do is the same: to have this blog be a place where we can come learn together through the bumps I've found on my own writing path.  And, of course, so I can chat with you guys about my writing projects, and your own.

But I think that's going to take some change.  I'm not going to be a "Teenage Writer" much longer. And, while I want to keep the informal feel of this blog, I also want to smooth over the rougher edges that come with being an amateur blogger.

So my idea is to begin to set up a new site, with an actual domain.  I'm not sure when this will happen, honestly, but it's buried somewhere on my to-do list.  I'll keep you posted; this blog won't just disappear!  And I'll try to keep it updated in the meantime.

Finally, a little bit of round-up.  I may be offering editing and critiquing services in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled.  I'll post as soon as I know for sure.  In the meantime, I've added a poll on the sidebar about it—would you take advantage of such services if I offered them at a reasonable price?  (And it's totally okay if you say no.  Writing is hardly lucrative work, and most of us are dead broke.)

One last thing.  I'm probably going to put up one or two discreet advertisements.  I apologize for selling my soul to the devil.

Till next time, guys.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on these changes; leave a comment or shoot me an email.  Adieu!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Update on Life, and Being Back in Liberia

Hey, all!  My blog has been rather silent lately, but I return to bring you news

I've recently started chronicling my experiences being back in Liberia (we arrived back on the 20th of this month).  The trick is that it better fit my other, more nonfiction-focused blog, Reflecting the Mirror.

So I'll just dangle that morsel over your head—if you're interested, click on the link below.  It's going to be a series of posts, so if you want to stay updated, feel free to follow the blog!

Life at the Front, Part I

Don't worry, I'll be back soon—partly to fill you in on what's been going on, and partly to give some information on my current project.

See you then!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Buller Scholarship Video


I return to this blog once again on the eve of a great battle.  By that, I mean internet advertising.  Pretty exciting, huh?

Okay, not really.  But this is an extremely good cause.  Some time ago, my lovely and talented sister made a video for a full-tuition scholarship at Abilene Christian University.  It's about some of her experiences and service from our time in Liberia.  (Naturally, it's kind of a big deal, since college is ridiculously expensive.)

Last week, we learned that she made it to the finalists - the top ten videos!  (I knew she would.  And that she would probably win.)  However, she does need some help to get further in the contest.

In order to advance, she needs to get oodles of votes on her video.  While I don't think that's the best way to choose the "best video" - I mean, obviously hers is it - it IS very crucial.  This only goes on till tomorrow night.

With that in mind, I humbly and fervently ask you if you would take a few moments to vote for her video.  (And if you try to pass it over...well, just think what YOU would do if you had thousands of dollars in scholarships on the line! Hmm?)

So here's what you do.  Three things count as votes: voting for the video on the ACU site, liking it on YouTube, and resharing it - WITH the YouTube reshare button.

Here's the link. Her video is the one on the top right - "Alexandria Buller".  Also, enjoy just how amazing the video is and take some time to watch it.  Pretty awesome, huh?

Sorry for the spam, but it's not really spam.  You can just take this as a long and passionate [free verse] poem in honor of my talented sister.

Thanks, guys!  Till next time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Why "How To Train Your Dragon 2" Beats "The LEGO Movie"

Yesterday, How To Train Your Dragon 2 won Best Animated Feature at the Golden Globes.  Which is a pretty big deal, considering that it's a sequel (the only sequel to win Best Animated Feature was the stupendous Toy Story 3), and that DreamWorks Animation has never won a Golden Globe before. Hardly had the award been given when a number of people began complaining that The LEGO Movie should have won.

And y'know, people will complain.  It happens every day.  But this time, the complaints have teeth; judging from the hype around the Oscar nominations alone, The LEGO Movie was a clear favorite.  It had an innovative animation style, a surprising originality, more laughs-per-minute than any other animated movie in recent history, and an ending that actually made you think, rocketing a really good Warner Bros. cartoon into the realm where the really good stories live.

But despite everything going for The LEGO Movie, I agree 100% with giving the Golden Globe to Dragon 2, and I'm cheering it on to scoop Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.  Why?  Well, if you guessed that I'm about to tell you, you're right.  Let me lay it out for you.

1. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sequel that didn't flop.

That in itself is an achievement.  So many movies go on to make sequels that are second-rate - while animated sequels seem more likely to do well than their live-action counterparts, DreamWorks' recent disaster with Penguins of Madagascar comes to mind.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, in contrast, demonstrated even more emotional depth than the original, scoring very well in the storytelling department. The only other animated films to accomplish this, in my opinion, were the Toy Story sequels.

The box office shows the same result.  Even despite the slightly disappointing domestic run (it got $177 million, $40 million less than the first movie), it ended up making up for it by totaling over $618 million worldwide.  (The first movie ended just below $500 million.)

2. How To Train Your Dragon 2's masterful animation.

Obviously, the animation was excellent; but there were several technological innovations introduced in animating How To Train Your Dragon 2 that hadn't been seen before, such as "scalable multi-core processing" that lets animators see their work in real time, and new programs that allowed DreamWorks to animate with more subtlety and detail.

Does it beat out The LEGO Movie's imitation stop-motion and stunning work with rendering realistic LEGOs?  Not really.  But Dragon 2 is not without its own innovations.

3.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 has incredible storytelling.

This is by far the main thrust of my argument, so let me unpack it a little bit more.

The emotional story of Dragon 2 comes in two main segments, which cross over one another often throughout the movie: first, Hiccup growing older and maturing, and second, Valka, and all the emotions she brings out in both her son and her husband.

Both resonate immensely.  Hiccup's struggle to cope with the expectations of his father - even if they're more reasonable than in the first movie - and his journey of maturity are things that reach out especially to the young adult audiences.  And the tremendous emotional turmoil that comes about when Hiccup - and Stoick - discover that Valka is alive is the high point of the whole story.

For me, it comes down to two back-to-back scenes in the middle of the movie.  First is when Stoick sees Valka for the first time.  He advances, and she begins to back up, her voice growing more and more pitched as she struggles to defend herself, while he never says a word.

And finally, he says, "You're just as beautiful as the day I lost you." It's unexpected, it's poignant, and those ten words express more character development than is contained in the whole of Penguins of Madagascar.  It shows how Stoick has changed, as his relationship with his son has changed.  The original Stoick would have argued back - but the new Stoick simply murmurs a single, beautiful sentence.

This leads into the second song of the movie (the first being Jonsi's "Where No One Goes"): "For the Dancing and the Dreaming".  It's about them falling in love again - and that whole emotional journey is summed up in a single song.  Watch the characters as they move through the scene - how their expressions change, how their singing changes.  Stoick sings strongly, tapers off, and Valka hesitantly begins singing along.  And Hiccup's eyes shine as he sees who they are, stripped of the emotional baggage.  It's subtle, moving, and the song itself is beautiful.

In my opinion, those two scenes are some of the most emotionally mature and powerful scenes in recent animation, easily rivaling Pixar in depth.  Shoot, they're better than most of the live action movies that come out nowadays, regardless of genre.

I could go on.  Hiccup and Astrid's first scene is wonderful, and I could rave about the incredible and heartbreaking twists that occur closer to the end of the second act.  (For instance, the tune of "For the Dancing and the Dreaming" is played throughout the "Stoick's Ship" scene - it kills me every time I listen to it.  Gah.)  But I think you get the picture.

Granted, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is not without flaws.  It suffers from several issues in the last third, and a painful voice-over at the end that sounds like it should be in the TV show, not the movie.  Still, I don't think it comes close to eclipsing the fantastic storytelling of the rest of the film.

The LEGO Movie has its own depth and character development.  There are several scenes that develop Emmet and Wyldstyle in ways not often seen in animation, and the closing scenes are pure storytelling brilliance, bringing everything to an emotional head and a satisfying resolution.  But as good as it was, it was not nearly as mature or emotional as How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I'd gladly welcome more movies like either one of these two.  Both are excellent, and both deserve recognition.  But in my honest opinion, all of the innovative animation and deep endings in the world can't touch the storytelling depth of How To Train Your Dragon 2.

(Post Scriptum: this post is a deviation from what I normally write on here, but I hope you'll still find it relevant.  Being an animated movie critic is something of a hobby of mine, so when the opportunity came to articulate my opinions on a recent animation event, I couldn't resist.

Let me know what you think; if you find posts such as this interesting, I could definitely write them more often!)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

O Come, O Come: Christmas Reflections

One of my favorite Christmas songs is “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. Something about the minor key has always stuck with me—it was almost haunting, a lilting and wistful tune. This choice of key always seemed odd to me, especially considering that it was a song of anticipation with a chorus that rang out “Rejoice!” multiple times.

Last Sunday, as I was in church, we sang that song again. Most notably, it was followed with communion, and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” echoed over the speakers with a soft violin and quiet, stirring bells that sounded like they were being tapped out on a piano.

And as I reflected on communion and listened to the beautiful violin, I began to understand why “Emmanuel” had a minor tune. A quiet, almost melancholy ache rose up in my heart; and as the pastor solemnly urged us to “eat of this bread and drink of this cup” in remembrance of the Lord's death until he comes, I longed to see the day when the Lord would come back again.

That old Christmas carol is in a minor key, perhaps, because waiting is hard. Waiting is sad, and makes your heart ache. And as the world continues hurtling onward, consumed with strife and grief and bigotry, we long for something greater.

The Jews remembered the promises of God, that a God With Us would come someday and “ransom captive Israel”. But remembrance and hope are both hard things. One is looking back, and one is looking forward, and neither one is easy in the present. We want things now. We either want to be back in the past with Christ or forward to the Second Coming. But taking communion and remembering that God is not physically with us—yet—is a thing worthy of a minor melody.

So even as we celebrate the first coming of Christ this Christmas, let's keep our eyes ahead to the Second Coming. The revolution started two thousand years ago, and the echoes of that explosive God-man point forward to the day that he will come again in glory. He will wipe away our tears and make us wholly in his likeness; Christ will be Emmanuel again. God With Us.

And I hope and pray that we never get so comfortable with our presents and comfort foods that we forget the wistful hope that God has placed in our hearts. I hope that even as we celebrate Christmas, we will feel that aching longing for a day when there will be no more pain, and glory forever.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

(P.S. Also, please listen to all of Rend Collective's “Campfire Christmas” album. Most notably, my favorite of the disc, “For All That You Have Done”. You're welcome!)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Ambitious might be the best word to describe Sanderson's epic fantasy The Way of Kings.

He certainly puts the epic in epic fantasy; the other books of his that I've read pale in comparison to the sheer scale of this novel. Clocking in at over a thousand pages and hundreds of thousands of words, it's hardly slim. The world-building is incredible; he's created dozens of distinct characters, cultures, and magics. Although it never becomes crystal-clear, Sanderson also makes it easy to tread the waters and understand the basics.

Indeed, Sanderson has a special gift for keeping one's attention. Although the beginning sometimes loses you in the sheer number of new words and concepts, once the book gets rolling, it's hard to stop reading. And that is a very good thing if a book is over a thousand pages long. Incredibly, I never felt bored; it takes a skilled writer to hold a reader's attention over such a massive number of pages, and yet Sanderson does it with ease.

I also never cease to marvel how Sanderson manages to perfectly balance character development and plot, in addition to creating a detailed and incredible storyworld. The main characters are complex and round and even the side characters admirably developed. Yet the character development never sacrifices plot or speed—the novel shoves onward with speed, if not urgency. And as is typical Sanderson fashion, there are a number of stunning plot twists.

Still, this volume is heavier than some of his other works. The novel opens with an assassination, the battle scenes of which seem to drag on a little longer than necessary. In fact, that very character is responsible for some of the darkest moments of this tome, being tormented by his involuntary service and yet unable to change it—and used repeatedly for dark deeds.

Kaladin, the “main” main character, is a man haunted by loss. Reading some sections made me want to cringe at how badly things had gone for him; losing everyone that was dear to him, over and over. Some parts were almost numbing, as multiple characters I had liked were killed, or as people who had feigned goodness showed their true, corrupted sides.

This did work positively, however: I rooted for him loyally. Every failure made me cringe because of how expertly Sanderson had made me want for him to come out on top. Still, in the middle of the book especially, it seemed like there was no real stability. Was Dalinar crazy? Was Adolin wrong? Was the king descending into paranoia? Which characters were planning betrayal? Was there anyone actually good? This made most of the novel very morally ambiguous.

As always, Sanderson doesn't shy away from religion, but sometimes the events that occur obscure the religious waters more than they clear them up. Many references are made to a common deity, known as the “Almighty”. (I could never determine whether “Stormfather” was another word for the same god or distinct from it.) Near the end, as several things are revealed about this “Almighty”, the waters become even more muddy.

Is there a “good guy” who created the Almighty? Obviously the Almighty isn't as ultimate as some of the characters believe. Is there actually something ultimate? It is never said. One character is also an atheist, and argues several times with different people throughout the novel.

Religion is not the only area which muddies moral waters. The themes of the novel conflict often. One character defends her trapping and killing of several highwaymen as “good” because she prevented them from preying on people in the future. Multiple characters justify murder for the good of their people. (Let it be noted that in both of these instances, the POV character disapproved.)

Sanderson seems to indicate that there is some moral rock, some absolute that morality is based on, but his characters have trouble finding any moral stability in a maze of questions.  Some questions, such as the validity of killing in order to save lives, are never really answered.  Sanderson gets lost in his moral conundrums, dragging some of the positives down with him.

That being said, there were some positives. Two of the main characters especially, Kaladin and Dalinar, take stands for what they believe is right.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

Kaladin is hurt so often that he begins to refuse to try and save people, to invest in them; as a result, he's plunged into a deep depression that he nearly doesn't come out of. But when he does, he invests in Bridge Four, a group of men destined to die in a hellish way—he gives them their humanity again. He gives them leadership and hope. He protects them and loves them.

 As a result of this warmth, they become more than just “bridgemen”, the living dead—they begin to grow, to thrive, to find passion and honor and loyalty. It's a beautiful thing.

(End spoilers.)

The other man is Dalinar, a staunch highprince who blames himself for not being there for his brother, the king, the night he was assassinated. As a result, he becomes rigid—morally straight in every way. Indeed, even when he begins to question his sanity, he is the only real moral character in the whole story. “You're the real thing, aren't you?” one character asks him.

Dalinar's two focuses are the Codes, the Alethi rules that tell him how to wage war, and an ancient book called The Way of Kings. Throughout the book, we get glimpses of The Way of Kings in anecdotes and proverbs. And they are indeed impressive. One passage on the humility of kings is reminiscent of some Biblical principles—in fact, the Codes and Kings together form Dalinar's morality, something he says changed his heart, and thus his behavior. (Whether or not it was intended, there is a strong Biblical parallel there.)

And in the end, both of these characters are justified for the positions they hold. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that the themes of trust, honesty, and honor triumph over the hatred and betrayal rife throughout the rest of the book, giving a degree of stability to a novel that would otherwise be more unstable.

Sanderson is, as always, imaginative and well-thought-out in the way he structures his world, his plot, and his characters. While the religious aspect is hardly compatible with Christianity, there does seem to be an underlying moral bedrock to the themes, despite the muddied waters. It's a complex book, and because of some of the content, it's not easy reading. But perhaps the title gives an indication of what Sanderson's focus is: The Way of Kings. A book about the warmth of real morality and humanity. 

And despite getting lost along the way, I think that's where the heart of the book lies.


Rated 8.5 out of 10.

Recommended for ages 16 and up. There is little cursing—several minor words—and almost no suggestive content, so it is clean in that respect. However, I recommend an older age due to two factors. One, there is a significant amount of violence and corruption; the sheer number of character deaths gets numbing in certain sections. Two, it is morally complex and sometimes muddy, and requires some discernment.

However, I strongly recommend any student of the fantasy genre to read this novel.  Regardless of whether you agree with his moral approach, Sanderson is extremely good at what he does.  Furthermore, he is, more than any other writer I've read, a master of both plot and character; plus his imagination is superb.  For that reason alone, if you can read the novel, I think you should read it.

Right now I have the second book in the Stormlight Archive on the mantle—and judging by the reviews on Amazon (higher than the reviews for the original) and the size of the tome (over eighty pages longer than the original), it's going to be an extremely fun week.  (The following books, including Words of Radiance, are what I picked up from the library today.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

In Sum: Twelve States and NaNoWriMo

The title says it all.  In the last three weeks I've been in twelve states, traveling everywhere from the Midwest to the East Coast.  It's been fantastic, seeing all of these new places and old friends - that being said, there are other things that have been neglected.

I've neglected to tell you that I'm doing NaNoWriMo - and that I'm doing it badly.  Check it out:

Yeah, 15,000 on Day 17 isn't the best of stats.  (I have a car drive coming to recoup some of that, however; we've got a long stretch of Oklahoma ahead.)  But I have the best of excuses!  Eleven states and over 24 hours' worth of driving is no small thing.

My NaNoWriMo project is my first nonfiction work, a memoir of the past year's events.  It's called "Safe to Shore: A Missionary Kid's Journey Through The Liberian Ebola Crisis".  So far I'm up to this past May, and I still have a long road ahead.

That being said, I'm worrying about running out of words to say.  We'll see!  Worst comes to worst, I'll write the last half of my newest Will Vullerman story to add up the word count.

How about you guys?  Anyone here blowing up their brains - er, doing NaNoWriMo?  How badly are you dying?  What's your word count?

Till next time (and hopefully it'll be sooner),

Friday, October 17, 2014

Don't Freak Out: What You Need To Know About Ebola

Ebola is scary, and people are frightened. And that's okay. Sheesh, Ebola scares even the most seasoned MSF worker out of their pants. (Freaks me out, too.)

However, we need to be scared of Ebola because of what we know about it, not because we fear what we don't understand. A lot of people have been asking questions, and a lot of Americans are freaking out – because they don't understand the situation. I'm hoping to lay out the situation and let you know what I know. There's a lot of misinformation about Ebola, and a lot of this “Fearbola” is unfounded.

My dad, working in the Ebola unit, helps Dr. Brantly suit up
in his protective gear. (Photo courtesy of Samaritan's Purse.)
(Before I go on, let me tell you why I can talk about this with some authority. I lived in Liberia during one of the worst parts of the outbreak. Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were both friends of mine – Dr. Brantly was our neighbor and Mrs. Writebol was our organization's Personnel Coordinator. My dad was a unit manager of the non-medical staff, and did the same job as Mrs. Writebol, working closely with both her and Dr. Brantly. I lived on the ELWA campus where there are two Ebola units, one of which is the largest Ebola treatment center in the world.

I'm not trying to brag or put myself above people. But please understand, I know what I'm talking about. I'm not just a teenager giving opinions. What I'm about to share with you is a collection of facts, not my own spin on the subject.)

Okay, let's go.

The Basics

Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever. That means that Ebola always comes with a fever, and that as it advances, it can, but doesn't always cause hemorrhaging (uncontrolled bleeding). My dad describes it as a disease where every liquid in your body is trying to get out—causing internal and external bleeding (in cases far along), uncontrollable diarrhea, vomit, and severe loss of hydration, among other things.

The Ebola virus is ONLY found in liquids. This makes a very simple rule: you can only get Ebola through direct contact with someone's bodily fluids – blood, urine, feces, vomit, and so on. Furthermore, if you come in contact with those fluids, it has to enter your body through a semi-permeable membrane– eyes, nose, mouth, open sore or cut, and so on. Furthermore, it's not a tough virus—bleach, soap and direct sunlight kill it easily.

If someone contracts Ebola, the incubation period is 2-21 days, with 8-10 days being the most common period from exposure to the onset of initial symptoms. That means you're safe after three weeks.

Basically, if you don't touch an Ebola patient or their fluids, you won't catch it. My dad has sat across the threshold from an Ebola patient, less than three feet away. He never got sick. He had contact with Mrs. Writebol while she was sick—but because he didn't have contact with fluids, he did not contract Ebola.

It's also worth saying that the sicker you are, the more contagious you are. (That is one of the reasons why my dad did not contract Ebola from Mrs. Writebol; she was in the early stages of the disease.) So if you're well enough to walk about, and you have Ebola, the chances of getting someone else sick are much lower.

This is why I'm confident that the American nurse who flew on a commercial airline before contracting Ebola did not give Ebola to anyone else. Assuming that she had symptoms when she flew (a dubious assumption), she would have nevertheless been in the very beginning stages of the virus – and thus she would not be very contagious. Why am I confident? Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian who flew to Nigeria and caused a small Ebola outbreak there, flew on a commercial airline while he was VERY sick – and no one on the plane or affiliated with the airline contracted the virus.

Also, don't listen to the fear-mongers. Ebola is NOT airborne.

One more crucial point: if a person has Ebola in their system but shows no symptoms, they are not contagious. A lot of people get this wrong, so pay attention: you're only contagious after you show symptoms; and you are not highly contagious until the disease is farther along. Example? My dad ate pizza with Dr. Brantly less than twelve hours before Dr. Brantly developed symptoms. Dad's fine.

What About An American Outbreak?

There won't be one, unless nobody in America has running water and the hospitals make a lot of really bad decisions. (Since neither are true, I'm saying this with confidence.) Let me explain why.

1) American hygiene is miles better than West African hygiene.

Much of West Africa has very few working toilets, very little running water, hospitals that didn't implement universal precautions, and a population that has very bad individual hygiene – with almost no hand-washing and a lot of physical contact. As a result, Ebola spread – in fact, it's hard for Ebola NOT to spread when public urination is common and hand-washing is nearly impossible.

America is one of the cleanest countries in the world, with nearly everyone possessing running water, a nearby hospital, and decent individual hygiene. Furthermore, we are not a very physical nation – everyone loves their personal bubble. Thus, a widespread outbreak of Ebola would be nearly impossible in the United States.

2) The hospitals in the States are on alert and better prepared than nearly all West African hospitals.

A lot of people are saying we aren't prepared. Despite some of the decisions made by the Texas hospital that recently received an Ebola patient, in which two nurses contracted the disease, our hospitals are nevertheless better resourced than those in West Africa. If you think the decisions of American hospitals are risky, the decisions of many health-workers in Liberia were even worse. Some workers in Liberia were protecting themselves by wrapping trash bags around their hands.

If all of the precautions and protocols are followed, no outbreak will occur. The upside of people freaking out, however, is that everyone's being really cautious – making an Ebola outbreak even less plausible.

3) The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is conservative and on top of things.

Shortly after I was evacuated from Liberia, those of our family who were in the States were quarantined with very conservative regulations. While a lot of the decisions were made from public opinion, they were at least going above and beyond what was required to make sure Ebola did not spread. (This was primarily on a county and state level.)

They're trying to implement similar protocols in Texas, which makes me confident that even if multiple Americans get exposed to Ebola, the disease will not spread much farther than that. At this point of the disease there will not be a big American outbreak. Period. So don't freak out.

How Do We Stop Ebola and Keep It From the United States?

Simple answer? Stop it in West Africa. The way it's going, Ebola could become a second HIV, a disease that occurs with near-regularity in third world countries. That's not acceptable, and it's certainly a huge public health risk for the States. Maybe there won't be an outbreak here, but “Ebola Scares” could occur with more regularity.

Let me be frank. Americans frustrate me. While the outbreak spiraled out of control in West Africa, America was preoccupied with Who Shot Who and celebrity scandals. Now that three cases have emerged in the States, everyone freaks out. People have been dying and families have been ripped apart for months now. I've lost friends to Ebola. And America doesn't care until it affects them personally...and then they vastly overreact.

The best way to stop Ebola in the United States is to stop it in West Africa. If we set up precautions in our airports, educate our hospitals; if we send in money, resources, health workers, to West Africa – everything possible to stop the disease, the risk to the world will be nil.

Got it?

How Do We Protect Ourselves?

The odds of you or someone you know coming into contact with someone is symptomatic with Ebola is extremely small. (There are hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and three have contracted Ebola and had minimal contact with several dozen people, and those people are under quarantine or fever watch.) That means you're more likely to get hit by a car or die of the flu or win the lottery than to come in contact with (much less contract) Ebola.

That being said, there are two very simple things you can do to make your odds go from one in one million to...well, even lower odds.

One: wash your hands often. Obvious? Maybe. But if that had been done in West Africa, we wouldn't be looking at a global crisis.  Not only does it protect against Ebola, it'll also help you fight some of America's more minor viruses.

Two: don't touch any stranger who is sick. Most expatriate health workers quarantine themselves, or watch themselves for symptoms – so the most likely candidates for coming to the States with Ebola are native Liberians or Guineans or those from Sierra Leone. This is what happened with the Liberian man who got sick while in the States.

The fact is, you pretty much have to touch a person with Ebola to get sick. If you maintain these two ridiculously easy precautions, the already low odds will get even lower.

In Sum

You can't contract Ebola except through direct contact with infected fluids. Furthermore, the possibility of the average American coming in contact with Ebola fluids is extremely low, especially with our hygiene. Because of this hygiene, the worst case scenario is that a handful of Americans will get sick – assuming several Ebola patients do not go to the hospital and come in contact with people instead.

The danger of an American outbreak is low, but the danger will be nothing if we help West Africa and stop Ebola in its tracks.

Conclusion: don't panic. Know the facts. Don't touch sick people. Help West Africa. Spread the word.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Off Center: When God Meets Marketing

It was over a month ago when I first launched Stasis (popularly stylized STASIS), my first short story anthology and my first Kindle release in two years. I got pretty hyped up about it; hired a professional cover artist and did as much as I could to promote the release.

At first it seemed like things would go well. I had more likes on the Will Vullerman Facebook page than I did for The War Horn, and more followers on my blog. And it was a good thing, too! I needed to make some money, to put it bluntly. Not only did I have college and the surrounding stress looming on next year's horizon, but I wanted to attend a writing workshop this winter, and I had my eye on Stasis for providing the funds.

It didn't happen quite as I wanted it to. While the anthology sold well initially, within a week sales had dropped off to nothing. Compared to The War Horn, Stasis made little more than half in sales, even though I invested twice as much money into the cover art.

It told on the Amazon page, too. It currently has two reviews, compared to The War Horn's eight – four or five of which had been posted in the first month. So I was disappointed, and a little frustrated. What was up? All my logical senses told me that it should have worked better. I had a pretty good platform, I had a great cover; it should have done great. In the back of my head, I had a little inkling of conviction, but I shoved it aside and simply promoted the book more.

Then I read an excellent post by a friend of mine, and that inkling grew into a conviction. My focus was in the wrong place. But it wasn't until I read Phil Vischer's series of articles about the bankruptcy of VeggieTales, nearly ten years ago, that it really clicked.

Vischer explained, front-to-back, what had happened to VeggieTales and how it ended up in bankruptcy. But in the end, he said that it wasn't the lawsuit or the marketers or the bank that had led to this downfall; it was his own ambition, getting him off-center from the real message of his stories. Risky decisions and high budgets were all part of it, but when money rather than faith became the real gamble, VeggieTales crumbled.

And I really connected with that. Not only on the business side, but on the faith side. I had gotten off-center. Stasis had become about making some money, expanding my platform, and hoping that people got to read a story I thought was good.

Not bad things, and they're certainly necessary things for releasing a book. But they had become my main focus, and that was what was wrong. I had separated faith and marketing, making promotion an entirely secular thing. I had replaced the ultimate glory of God with the glory of self, narrowing in on my own petty problems and what I thought would solve them.

The real idea of the thing is letting my story glorify God in its own way, to prayerfully and consciously give it to the world, rather than selling it to the world. What really matters about Stasis is that people enjoy it, process it, find in it little gems of truth and larger echoes of that which is eternal. Money is a secondary thing.

Keep this as a reminder, both for you and for me; let it keep us on the straight and narrow. I love the writing process, and I revel in the joy I get from drawing a story, coloring in the characters and plots as richly as I can. I've learned how to keep first things first during the writing process. But all of the dazzling bewilderment of numbers and charts and profits threw my direction off, at first by just a decimal. But every rift grows over time.

Writing's not about money. Really, no job we love doing is really about money. It's about the glory of God—that two-way thing, where we get the greatest satisfaction and joy by making something for God's satisfaction and joy.

Am I still going to market Stasis? Sure. I'm even planning a promotional giveaway, and I've already acquired one of the books necessary. But that's not my focus. Focusing on marketing makes you stale, like a house shut up for too long, and long strings of numbers make you too impersonal. My focus is to let people enjoy...not to push or harass them into clicking the “Buy” button, but by honestly putting my work before them as it is, with as much warmth and humanity as I can muster.

I'm not a great big author on his great big author website. I'm a writer, like all the rest of you, grasping after stars of glory, wrought by the great Star-Maker.

Let's keep each other focused on the Center. That's where the real glory's at, after all.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Of Titles, Reviews, and Shrines of Bacon

Hello, hello!  It's been some time before I've had a really thorough update; and so the time has come ("the Walrus said") to talk of many things.

The first point I have to share is that a lot of things have happened behind the scenes.  The most notable of those things is that I have thoroughly revised "Tornado C"—in time to submit it to the OYAN Novel Contest.  But you had to have a name for the novel to submit.

It was a long, agonizing process.  It involved ridiculous names—I considered "That Ending Though" for a while—and almost-fitting names.  Finally, while brainstorming with a friend, I came up with something, several hours before my deadline.

I'm actually immensely pleased with the title.  It's sort of poetic, and it fits the novel well—as a story of monologues and deep thoughts, and high-emotion points where I tried to write the prose in such a way as to evoke poetry.  And while it still has rough spots, the novel has been significantly reworked for the contest, landing somewhere north of 100,000 words.

After I receive the results of the novel contest—that's several months out—I'm hoping to use A Swiftly Moving River to break into the traditional publishing world.  STASIS and The War Horn were my experiments, a way to expand my platform and get some work out there.

But I think A Swiftly Moving River is my first really good novel.  I've never had a novel that affected me this emotionally before, and I think that's a good indicator of how powerful it will be for the reader.  It's the sort of novel that might actually get published.

Next up on my list is the fact that I'm writing an exclusive Will Vullerman story, called "White-Out".  I'm two thousand words in and loving it so far.  It may be available to read soon, as part of a giveaway.  I'm planning on using it for marketing—I have a couple tricks up my sleeve to try and get the word out about STASIS.

Which brings me to my next point.  While the sales are doing well for STASIS, the Amazon page is lonely.  See for yourself:

If you've read the book already, I encourage you to be the FIRST to write a review—and even if you aren't the first, consider taking a few minutes to write one anyway.  Reviews are huge when it comes to marketing, and an honest review will help my marketing more than all the banners in the world.

It's a good cause, too!  I'm using the funds to try and apply for a writing workshop this winter.  Every sale I makes contributes two dollars towards a week of intensive writing development.

And finally, I'm in the States.  It's a long story of how I got here (I was evacuated due to the severity of the Ebola outbreak), but I'm happy to be in Kansas again.  I continually think of all those still in Liberia, however, and any prayers you have for them would be appreciated.  The outbreak continues to worsen, and that hits close to home.

Being back in the States has certain comforts, however.  Bacon, for instance; and whole milk.  While America tends to enshrine bacon, I do love it.  It is a beautiful thing.  (Whole milk is even better though.)  Kansas being the best place in the world, I am terribly grateful to be back again, to see my homeland after nearly a year of being apart from it.

That about sums it up.  How is YOUR writing going - if you have a current writing project?  If not, what are you reading?  (I'm reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, and I'm pleasantly surprised by how good it is.)

Till next time,

Saturday, August 23, 2014

STASIS - Now Available For Kindle (And What You Can Do To Help!)

Feast your eyes on this glorious screenshot!

The day has finally come -STASIS is available on Kindle!  Here's a direct link: CLICK HERE.

It's just $2.99.  That's like, less than a grande coffee at Starbucks.  That's less than buying a pack of socks at Old Navy.  Wear the old socks and buy the new book!  And the best thing is, you get to keep the book forever.  It won't wear out like a pair of socks, and it won't get sucked dry like a grande bold pick of the day.  (Although it may keep you up at night like aforementioned cup of coffee.)

What's not to love?

If you're as enthusiastic about this as I am (doubtful), or even a little bit excited (hopeful), then tune your ears and listen up.  Here are some things you can do to help make STASIS a success.  (And, to go all inspirational on you, a success for one self-published author is a success for all.  Plus, I'll likely be reinvesting this money into writing workshops - it's not like I'm going to run out and buy a Keurig with my royalties.  But don't tempt me.)

1. Buy the book today or tomorrow!  You've probably heard of the ever-popular "Amazon Blitz"—a time where all the readers buy the book at once, to push it up the sales rankings.  To make this launch as effective as possible, you can help STASIS do an informal blitz: just buy the book in the next twenty-four hours to help it shoot up the rankings!

And it's just three bucks. You click a couple of buttons and you can be reading it in less than a minute.  Even if you live right next to Old Navy, you couldn't get socks that fast.  The deal just keeps getting better and better!

2. Read and review it! Amazon reviews are enormously influential in helping people decide whether they want to read the book. And if your review is less-than-glowing, post it anyway - an honest review often helps sales more than a rant about how amazing this book is.  And I appreciate any feedback you have to give.

I also just created the Goodreads page for STASIS - so you can add it to your bookshelves and review it there, too!

3. Reshare on Facebook! (You can find the necessary links and the official Will Vullerman Facebook page here.  "Liking" the page can also help generate more interest in the book.)  The more exposure this gets, the more likely it is that STASIS will be a success.

4. Tell people about it! If you have a blog, do a review, or link up to the Amazon page - I'd really appreciate it.  Word-of-mouth is the only way indie books like this one survive - so get the word out!

Thanks to everyone who made this enormous effort possible.  You guys are all inspiring and wonderful.

Happy reading!