On Passion

“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us… guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love… the clarity of hatred… the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

The above passage, a speech from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Passion,” is but one interpretation of passion itself. It’s an admittedly dark take, fitting in perfectly with a TV show in which the titular character’s boyfriend had just gone evil and began exacting his unique brand of treachery in a personal way. But I think passion is more than all that.

Though it does bear asking: without passion, what are we?

DSCN1724I have two true passions in life: auto racing and writing. Everything beyond that never really evolves past “interest.” Baseball is an interest. Video games are an interest. They’re great, they bring me happiness, but if I had to go the rest of my life without them, I could do it. Racing and writing? Without those two things, I’m not me. Without those two things, I might as well be little more than a name carved into a hunk of stone.

But how does one differentiate between interest and passion? Well, think about when you get up in the morning. When you crawl your achy, sweaty carcass out of bed, scratching at that itch buried in your dirty, unkempt hair, what’s the first thing that brings a smile to your face? What’s the one thing you have to do? Not in the “if I don’t do this, I don’t get paid” sense; I mean in the “if I don’t do this, I feel incomplete” sense.

The truly lucky among us have the same answer to both questions. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d like to think I’m on my way.

It became clear to me a long time ago that I could never actually be a race car driver or work for a race team. Despite my love for racing, I’m not what you’d consider a car guy. I can’t take apart an engine or change a transmission; I just love watching the competition and immersing myself in the sensory overload that is being at a race. Hearing the roar of the engines, feeling that powerful purr in my ribcage, smelling the burnt rubber and the fuel, feeling the wind rush by as 40 of those ad-splashed suckers roar by at 200 miles an hour… there’s nothing like it, and I’m not sure I can adequately put it into words.

Probably why I haven’t written a story about racing. Yet.

NASCAR is my vehicular poison of choice, though I’m also partial to IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, sports car racing… if it’s got four wheels and an engine, chances are I have at least a passing (natch) fascination with it. I can’t go through a weekend without watching a race, nor can I go a NASCAR season without attending at least a couple races. Racing is in my blood, and it will be until the day I die.

As for writing… well, I have a visceral need to tell stories. To take in stories, realize how Me at Comiconthey make me feel, then do everything I can to make others feel the same way. I’ve been a writer, in one way or another, since I was in middle school; by now, writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that not writing would be an affront to everything I’ve built for the last… almost 36 years.

Every time I read a comic book or a really good novel, or I see an engrossing TV show or movie, I come away with this jolt of adrenaline, this need to plunk my pasty ass down in front of my laptop and make with the typey-type. Every time I write a book, or a short story, or even a blog post like this, I’m scratching an itch buried deep under my skin that never truly goes away.

Every morning, I wake up with one thought: what am I going to write today?

Rarely, the answer is “nothing.” Those days are rough.

I say all that to ask that you all find your passion in life and pursue that. For there lies the route to happiness. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s okay. If your answer changes over time, that’s fine too. We all grow and change. What you loved at 15 and what you love at 35 doesn’t have to be the same thing. Sometimes, finding your passion boils down to realizing there are only but so many hours in the day, and you have to give up something.

That thing you can’t give up? That thing you refuse to let go of? That’s your passion.

If there’s one piece of writing advice I could give (and only one), it’s to follow your passion. If you’re in the middle of a story you’re not passionate about, stop writing it. Set it aside (but never get rid of it entirely). Find what you are passionate about, and work on that. Time is too fleeting to waste it on something you don’t feel.

Share your passion with others. There is comfort and happiness in numbers. I understand how that sounds, coming from an introverted hermit like me, but few things bring me as much happiness as sharing my joy with like-minded individuals. I don’t even just mean selling books (though that it a kickass feeling, I won’t lie). Fanboying/fangirling over a favorite book, sharing tricks of the publishing trade that worked (or didn’t)… that sense of community only fuels my passion further.

If writing’s your passion, write. If it’s art, then paint or draw or sculpt. If it’s tinkering with the innards of a computer or a 1967 Pontiac GTO, then tinker away. But don’t let the hours and days pass you by without your passion. If there’s one thing you have permission to be selfish about in life, it’s your passion. Indulging in your passion is what gives you the strength and the drive to handle the parts of life you aren’t that jazzed about.

Got a full-time job that stresses you out? Make time before or after for whatever you love. Stressful family life? Tuck yourself away in solitude and take in whatever it is that makes you tick.

Because at the end of the day, Angelus was right. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.

SHORT STORY: The Agency

This might eventually become a novel — because another book to write is exactly what I need right now — but for now, enjoy this short little tale.

Bethany was sweating.

Surrounded by pitch black, enveloped in silence, the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead and meandering between the nodes stuck to her was the only thing she could register. A soft, rhythmic beep interrupted the silence. Her heart thundered in her chest, as if it were trying to break through her ribcage. Her temples throbbed.

A sliver of light burst through from the other side of the room. Once her eyes focused, Bethany noticed a tiny red dot. She was being recorded, and her ears caught the faint whir of the zoom adjusting. That sound, mixed with her heartbeat and the beeping, created a cacophony of paranoia.

Bethany balled her hands into tight fists, her palms slick with anxiety. She tried to count the nodes stuck to her forehead, a feeble attempt at calming her nerves. But she kept losing count. She never got farther than eight. No matter what she tried, Bethany could not quiet her nerves.

The bitter taste of nausea twisted in her stomach. Her heart started beating even faster, as if that were possible. The Director could probably sense her fear without the fancy equipment he surrounded himself with. The giant gray slab housed all of the Agency’s data, and it was a constant reminder that there were no secrets here — not even in someone’s head.

If this was how the Agency treated one of its own… how did it treat its enemies?

The beeping came to a stop. The red light went out. Bethany was once again trapped in complete dark, complete silence. Next to death, this was what she imagined sensory deprivation to be like. Were it not for the constant thump of her heart, the trickle of sweat down the back of her neck, the hitch in her breath, Bethany would assume she had died.

“State your name, please.”

The booming, disembodied voice startled Bethany. She gasped and flinched hard enough that a couple of the nodes tugged on her forehead. The adhesive peeled from her damp skin, and Bethany hissed in pain before closing her eyes. Perhaps if she focused only on her own heartbeat, she could control it.

But why was she so worried? She had faced lie detector tests throughout her entire adult life; they were part of the territory in her line of work. Even before being recruited by the Agency, Bethany had constantly subjected herself to such screenings. But this was more than a mere polygraph. This machine was imprinting itself into Bethany’s brain, mapping her entire psyche and searching for the slightest irregularity. Even if Bethany answered every question as truthfully as possible, she knew there was a chance she would be expelled from the Agency.

Or worse.

In this void, time held no meaning. Bethany couldn’t tell how long she sat in silence, her brain scrambling to decide on a course of action. She uncurled her fists and latched onto the chair, hoping to keep some grip on reality.

What time was it? What day was it?

“I repeat: state your name.”

Bethany’s gasp was a little louder this time, and she instantly cursed herself under her breath. There was nothing more pathetic than being startled by her own boss’ voice.

“Beth,” she said, her voice cracking. “Special Agent Bethany Louise Harmon.”

The beeping returned.

With a deep inhale, Bethany closed her eyes again. She released the air built up in her lungs, feeling her body shudder with the effort. She swallowed thickly, refusing to let the bile tickling the back of her throat to go any further. She suddenly regretted having pasta for lunch.

“How long have you served the Agency, Miss Harmon?”

Again, the Director’s voice made Bethany jump. She could swear his voice was deeper than usual, though that was likely a trick of her surroundings. Here, his voice echoed off the walls. Were it not for the rampant paranoia, Bethany would have called the voice almost divine.

“Um.” She licked her lips, shook her head. “F-four years.”

Bethany cringed. That moment’s hesitation would undoubtedly be noted. That split second of indecision would be seen as evidence of a lie at best — the potential for becoming gun-shy in the field at worst. Bethany’s record in the field was nearly spotless, but any crumb of information the Agency could use against her, it would. The Agency demanded perfection, and loathe be those who consistently fell short.

Silence reigned again, though Bethany thought she heard a sigh. Was the Director disappointed in her response? That split second it took her to answer? The stammer? Had he already given an order?

“During that time,” the voice returned, “have you ever aided and abetted enemies of the United States of America?”

“No,” she answered in a tone she barely recognized.

“Are you sure?”

Bethany opened her mouth, but she was too shocked to form any words. The follow-up had caught her off-guard — which would also be used against her in any future evaluations. Her heartbeat picked up speed again, just as the incessant beeping returned. Her hands curled back into fists. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her nose. She licked her lips and opened her mouth again, but just like last time… no words.

“Bethany?”

She flinched. The Director had never used her first name before. She had always been Agent or Harmon. His voice had almost taken a paternal quality; in a way, it felt like this interrogation was a personal challenge for him. Did the Director know something? Had Bethany slipped up somehow over the years? Her mind raced with so many questions that she forgot to answer his.

She sucked in another deep breath to steel herself, using the armrests as anchors. “I have never knowingly aided and abetted an enemy of the United States.”

Once again, the beeping stopped. The Director had no response. Bethany’s heart slowed enough that it no longer felt like it was beating itself against her sternum. Her fingers relaxed their grip and her knees stopped shaking. Glancing at the pitch black around her, Bethany counted the seconds.

The count reached sixty. A full minute without another question. This couldn’t be the end of the interrogation, could it? Was it really as simple as stating her name and affirming she had never helped the people she was tasked with bringing down? Something was off; this felt all wrong. This was oddly cryptic, even for the Director.

The room went from pitch black to blindingly white without warning, and Bethany recoiled with a gasp. Squeezing her eyes shut, Bethany curled into herself as much as she could in a sitting position, slowly blinking the stars out of her eyes before they finally adjusted to the light. Two of the nodes tore off her forehead.

When properly lit, the interrogation room was ghost white. Massive databases and digital storage units lined the walls on either side of Bethany. Their secrets were well above even her pay grade, and she stared at the machine attached to her forehead, a black monitor displaying a digital readout of her brain.

The door swung open, slamming against the wall. Before Bethany could react, a tall man in a fine-pressed Italian suit hovered over her. The scent of his cologne, mixed with all of the other sensations bombarding Bethany, almost made her gag. Still, she held her composure as best she could, looking up to see the Director bearing his gray eyes right into her.

His hair was as white as the rest of the room. His nostrils flared and his mouth formed a tight line. The Director’s hands grabbed the armrests on either side of Bethany and he leaned in closer. Bethany had only seen the look on his face once before: five years ago after a mission gone wrong. The next day, over seventy associates of a Korean crime syndicate were dead.

Bethany’s blood ran cold as she once again tried and failed to speak. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Director’s, despite her brain screaming for her to do just that.

“Then tell me, Agent Harmon… who is Grant Pasch?”

MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder Woman

It should’ve never taken this long for us to get a female-led superhero movie.

But I’m glad this is the first one.

Wonder Woman, on top of being the best DC-based movie since The Dark Knight, is a marvelous film — one that was worth the wait and the hype, and it gives us hope that a) Justice League might actually be good, and b) we can have more diverse superhero movies.

Patty Jenkins did a fine job in her big-budget directorial debut, and Gal Gadot embodies Diana Prince the way Robert Downey Jr. embodies Tony Stark and Chris Evans embodies Steve Rogers. I hate comparing Diana to male heroes, but in the movie landscape, that’s pretty much all there’s been until now.

Can the Catwoman and Elektra jokes (those films did not fail because they were female-led; they failed for the same reason Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern failed: because they were bad movies). Wonder Woman is a fantastic film, a bright spot in the otherwise bleak DCEU, and proof that an iconic character such as Wonder Woman absolutely belongs in what is an increasingly-crowded comic book movie market.

In fact, she stands out. Wonder Woman is easily on par with my other all-time favorites in the genre — the aforementioned The Dark Knight and Captain America: the Winter Soldier. But what makes Wonder Woman stand out, even then, is Gadot. The moment she first appears on-screen, she grabs this film by the… I’ll go with horns here, because I feel like the other analogy would be too obvious… takes control, and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

She is the epitome of Diana’s strength, conviction, and belief in mankind’s inherent good — even when repeatedly shown otherwise. Her fish-out-of-water arc, which harkens back to the first Thor, is a surprising source of comic gold, and it works a) because of her rapport with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and b) because Diana is never the butt of the joke. Gadot strikes the perfect balance between the badass, the compassionate person, the idealist, and the goofball. Diana is all of those things, and Gadot embraces them all.

The opening chapters (this is a book blog, after all) on Themyscira are beautiful, as is the big fight scene (even in its brutality). Later in the film, when Diana has her first true badass “I am Wonder Woman” moment (those who have seen the film know), it’s remarkable in its intensity, its cinematography, and the fact that Diana is shown to be a badass without throwing a single punch.

That scene brought a tear to my eye. And I know I’m not alone in that.

I bristled at the romance between Diana and Steve, but that’s because I reflexively bristle at any romantic subplot anymore. I’m at a point now where, unless I’m watching or reading an actual romance, keep the love out of it. And dammit, can we stop letting guys named Steve get on planes?!

This film isn’t perfect; it suffers from poor villains (which the vast majority of other comic book movies do), the twist in the third act fell flat for me, and the final battle was a jarring change given the tone the first two acts established. But those faults do not truly detract from what is an otherwise amazing cinematic experience, and Wonder Woman is still one of the genre’s best in spite of those.

It remains to be seen if Wonder Woman can fix some of the damage that Man of SteelBatman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad have done to DC’s cinematic efforts, but as a comic book movie — and as the first such film to star a female hero — it’s a tremendous accomplishment. I will see Justice League this fall just to get more of Gadot’s Diana, and I will be back for however many Wonder Woman movies they decide to make (Gadot deserves at least 50).

Wonder Woman is a fantastic movie, one that every fan of the genre should see, and it proves that diversity of character and diversity of creator need not be something we shy away from.

OUT NOW: The Bounty Trilogy

Bounty trilogy coverHAMPTON, Va. — Where can you get three full-length novels for just six bucks?

Amazon, where you can now pick up The Bounty Trilogy — a Kindle exclusive — for just $5.99. The Bounty Trilogy bundles together BountyBlood Ties, and Behind the Badge, the first three novels in the Jill Andersen series.

In addition, I’ve thrown in the first four chapters of Notna, which will release on Oct. 10.

From The Bounty Trilogy‘s Amazon listing:

Jill Andersen is a war vet. She’s a homicide cop. And she’s a vigilante.

But don’t call her a hero.

When Dr. Trent Roberts’ body is fished out of the Chesapeake Bay, it triggers a series of events that leaves Jill facing the prospect of her darkest secret coming to light. On top of solving that murder, she must decide who she can trust – all while trying to prove her disgraced father’s innocence.

A shadowy billionaire, a mysterious cabal, and an underground cybernetics experiment weave a complicated path to telling Jill’s tale – one that takes an even more dramatic turn when four cops murder a 17-year-old boy in cold blood and a mysterious, powerful figure delivers his own brand of vigilante justice.

With Jill at a crossroads in the upcoming Behind the Mask, catch up on J.D. Cunegan’s adrenaline-packed blend of murder mystery, science fiction, and superhero comic books that one reader called “a delightful mix between Daredevil and Castle.”