From Beginning to Middle

I’ve been heads’ down banging away on the (still-untitled) work in progress for the last month. This has entailed a couple of rounds of the merry game of “This is a better idea, now I need to re-outline the rest of the book.” The most recent round occurred last night; I reached what I realized was the true mid-point of the story on Monday, around the 52k word mark, and it wasn’t where I’d planned plot-wise.

Which is OK! Even though it has made me re-think the ending of the book.

Which is again OK, because I think it will make for a more cohesive story. The originally-planned ending took things off at an angle that might be better used for a what-comes-after tale. If I get to write it, anyway. Because that is definitely gonna be sequel material, and a lot less understandable without reading the WIP.

In any case, I’m more-or-less still on track to wrap up the first draft by the end of November. Which means my free time for November is pretty much spoken for; writing is what I do at least 6 days a week. It’s taken a conscious effort to carve out time for one of my face-to-face RPG games, and I’m managing to get some reading in, because I start losing my shit if I don’t keep those things (and people!) in my life. (And of course sword training on Sundays, and the other rare occasions I can sneak it in.)

It also means I leave the house around 6 AM and get home between 8:30 and 9 PM most weeknights. But hey, this is the ride I’ve signed up for. (And which my family supports, to my undying gratitude.)

So: that’s where the new book is at, and what I’m up to.

(And “The Frozen Past,” my first book, is still out on query. We’ll see what happens. These things take time.)

Meanwhile, back to the word mines.

Take A Knee

This veteran not only supports the athletes “Taking a knee” today, I agree with them. If you disagree, it strikes me that you may not be listening to their message, the thing they’re trying to bring attention to: “Please stop killing us.” Because that’s what is happening. Police in the US have killed at least 721 people in 2017 in less than nine months (source: Washington Post database). That’s on track to beat the 963 killed by police last year.

The single biggest factor in whether police will shoot someone they apprehend is the color of their skin, not the crime for which they are being sought. Many, it turns out, were innocent. Whites who are sought for the same offenses, even violent ones, are much more rarely shot. These are the facts.

Acts of protest, by their very nature, make us uncomfortable because they force us to consider aspects of ourselves, and of our nation, which we don’t want to believe are true. If this protest bothers you, I urge you to stop for a moment of introspection and ask why that is.

Trust me when I tell you that it takes more moral courage to make a stand like these people are than it does to jump out of an airplane.

And for those who are saying that athletes (or musicians, or artists, or writers) should just shut up and do their jobs: becoming a public person in the execution of your profession does not remove one’s right to speak out against injustice.

All respect to Colin Kapernick and those following the path he’s blazed.#TakeAKnee

35 Years Under Oath

On September 22nd, 1982, my dad drove me to the AAFES Station, the enlistment center at which I’d signed up for delayed entry back in April that year, and dropped me off. I had joined the US Army, signing up to for MOS 19D – nineteen delta, in Army parlance – a Cavalry Scout. I’d also volunteered for Airborne training and, upon completing that, was to join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

I’d never been in a plane until the day I flew from Baltimore to Louisville for Basic, and I’d already volunteered to jump out of planes. People tell me they understand me better when they know that bit of my history.

But before I left Baltimore, I stood in a room with a number of other young people – I don’t remember how many anymore, it was probably twenty or so – and took the Oath of Enlistment:

“I, John Francis Appel, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Being an atheist, I left out the “So help me God” bit at the end, which you’re allowed to do.

(And don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no atheists in foxholes. I was hardly the only one when I served, and there’s plenty serving today.)

Basic and AIT were tough, no doubt about it. I injured my left knee in the second full week of Basic, which put me on crutches for about a week, and limited some of my physical training for a week or so after that. It hurt, sometimes badly, right up until we got a break for Christmas and I went home on leave for a couple weeks. It still bothers me occasionally today.

But I finished, if not in a particularly distinguished fashion. I went on to Fort Benning for Airborne School, and after some difficulties there, got my wings and headed to Fort Bragg and the 82nd.

I spent four years in the Regular Army all told, going from Fort Bragg to Fort Hood in ’84. Sergeant’s stripes came in 1985. Leaving the Regular Army in July of 1986 – two months early courtesy the Graham-Rudman budget cutting bill – I spent a year in the Army Reserves in the Operations shop of a reserve Special Forces group. (I’m always careful to say that I served in the 11th SFG but was never a Green Beret. There’s another story there.) In 1987 I switched over to the MD National Guard and back to being a cavalry scout, and in July 1988, I took off my uniform for the last time.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 I briefly looked into re-enlisting, but was told pretty firmly that I would almost certainly be sent to Korea to free up a currently-serving guy to go to the desert. That was the last time I considered going back into the Army.

Next year, 2018, will mark 30 years since I became a civilian. But probably surprises non one who knows me well that in many ways, I still consider myself bound by that oath I took as a skinny teenager back in ’82.

My military service was a formative period of my life; not one event, but a big string of them over those four years full-time and two part-time. It’s hard to count the number of roads not taken and possible alternate Johns populating the multiverse from the choices I made during that time. But while I’m not the same person I was in 1982, or even ’88, there can be no doubt that the core of the man I am today was formed in the days I wore “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet” on my chest.

I have a deep and abiding affection for the US Army, and the 82nd Airborne in particular, and most especially with my fellow paratroopers and cav scouts, past and present.

But that affection is tempered by what I truly believe is the over-veneration of those in uniform. A free and democratic society should not place blind and unblinking faith in those under arms, for what history has shown us again and again is that that path leads to authoritarianism. Those who bear force and exert power over life and death in the name of the nation must be held accountable, and I believe, should welcome that. I fear the infiltration of our Armed Forces by people who want to bring about an authoritarian state – or at least would be willing to stand aside as one was created.

And everyone’s heard the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” One doesn’t need to look too hard at recent history to recognize that the answer to our issues in the world can’t always come from the barrel of a gun, or the weapons bay of a stealth bomber, or the launch tubes of a guided missile cruiser. After one of the terrorist bombings in Paris a friend posted a cartoon of a Godzilla-sized GI wading the Atlantic, rifle held overhead, saying “Hang on, we’re coming.” That bothered me greatly, because we have more to offer the world than our soldiers, more than our prowess at violence and ability to project at least some bit of our power to damn near any spot on the planet. We can’t solve all the worlds problems by shooting them. It’s entirely the wrong solution to many of them.

And yet: I am proud of my service. I am proud of the Army, while recognizing its many imperfections, for despite those it has so often done the long, hard, dirty work that needed doing, without the flash and glory-seeking of some of the other branches. (I’m looking at you, Marines.)

I’m not certain how else I’m going to mark this day, besides this post. It’s a working Friday, so I’ll go to the gym. My day job hours will be spent as a protector of a different sort, in information risk management. I’m deep in the draft of a new book, so I’ll most likely stop somewhere to write before I go home. Since it’s Friday I might head over to the pirate bar for a glass or two of rum before calling it a night.

But I’m sure at some point I’ll think back on that skinny, nervous kid with the big glasses who had no idea what was going to happen, and marvel at how his life has turned out so far.

Convention Report – May & June

It’s solstice time! Well, just past, anyway. And time for a check-in on the three conventions I’ve attended so far this year.
The SFWA Nebula Awards Conference kicked off my season over May 18th – 21st. Pittsburgh hosted the event this year, and the location was by and large terrific. The event space itself was just the right size – not too crowded, but not so spread out that you couldn’t easily get to things or feel like you were missing out because things were happening elsewhere. The con suite was a bit tight, and there was an issue Saturday night with the post-award party – we were loud, and there were non-SFWA people on the floor, so the party had to relocate downstairs. But otherwise, the facility worked really well for the size of the event.
I got a lot out of the programming too, and so did Michelle, who came along with me. Mary Robinette Kowal and her programming team have worked very hard to make this a convention both for pros and “early career” writers, folks like myself or just a bit further down the path, i.e. those with a few sales under their belts. But the established folks were warm and welcoming to those of us working to break in, sharing their knowledge and experience through the formal sessions as well as in pick-up conversation throughout the weekend. My VP 20 pals Karen Osborne, Jo Miles, and Jennifer “Macey” Mace had similar experiences. All of us met a number of people at all levels of the field, and I think we all walked away with some new friends and contacts.
One of the highlights was meeting astronaut Dr. Kjell (pronounced “chell”) Lindgren, the toastmaster and a life-long fan of science fiction. Dr. Lindgren also very graciously took about 45 minutes on Saturday to chat with Karen and myself about medical issues in zero-gravity and vacuum, things very relevant to our works. Five-year-old John was bouncing up and down, but 52-year-old John managed to comport himself more-or-less like an adult during our conversation.
The following weekend brought Balticon 51, my local con. Now, despite being a lifelong fan of science fiction & fantasy, last year was the first time I’d attended Balticon for more than a single day. Balticon 50 in 2016 experienced a number of issues, organizationally and logistically, but those were mostly ironed out this year.
I split my time at Balticon between volunteering with the science track, attending panels, socializing, and being on panels myself. I wound up sitting on five panels: one on worldbuilding, two on cyber & hacking (one science track, one on hacking & cyber ops in genre), one on infodumps which I moderated, and one on “writing after the workshop”. I’m not sure I was at my best on the first panel, but found my groove after that, and one of the panelists on the infodump panel complimented my moderation.
Assisting the science track team turned out to be a great experience. Balticon has a very strong and varied science track, which isn’t surprising given the sheer number of research-related institutions in the region. My volunteer gig was running the camera while recording the sessions, which meant I got exposed to a lot of cool science – everything from the science of touch to dinobirds.
Balticon also featured a lot of hanging out with friends, both people I already knew and others I met at the convention.
My most recent con trip was the one I’d been most looking forward to: 4th Street Fantasy in Minneapolis. Where the Nebulas is a professional conference, and Balticon is very much an old-school SF/F con, 4th Street is something of it’s own beast. Programming is a single track of panels, ten in all over the weekend, and the topics are at a pretty high level, intellectually-speaking. But what I was most looking forward to was the opportunity to connect up with my Viable Paradise 20 tribe; fully fifteen out of the twenty-four of us attended.
Man, 4th Street was a blast. The Cheese Weasel Reunion was everything I’d hoped for, and I got to spend some time with a couple folks I didn’t get as much time with on the Island as I’d have liked. We got to have a little send off for our classmate Karen Osborne, who’s headed to the Clarion writing workshop later this week. And, of course, about half the VP instructors were there as well.
I was a little nervous going into Saturday as Scott Lynch, who runs the programming for 4th Street, had approached me a week before about being on a panel titled “Dreaming Under Darkening Skies: Writing and Living During the Cold War,”, and I’d accepted. Knowing I’d not only lived through the last half of the Cold War, but that I’d served in the US Army during the Reagan years, Scott thought I’d have an interesting perspective to offer. Fortunately, my co-panelists Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, and Marissa Lingen were awesome and it was easy to fall into dialogue with them, despite it being the first panel of the morning. I quickly got over my jitters and folks seemed to really get something out it.
(Let me just say that I’d pay money to listen to Stella Evans, John Chu, Arkady Martine and Max Gladstone talk about whatever they wanted to for hours. Their Sunday panel on “idea commerce” was by itself worth the trip to Minneapolis.)
I got to meet still more awesome people at 4th Street, fans and writers alike, and am
already making plans to go back.
“But John,” some of you are likely saying, “Wasn’t there some sort of controversy at 4th Street?” Yes, there was, and I don’t mean to diminish the impact it had on good friends of mine. But that warrants its own post.
One convention left for the summer for me: ReaderCon in July. Meanwhile, back to that story about paragliding telepathic gene-tweaked smart dogs.
And one final note: I’m participating in the Clarion Workshop Write-a-Thon in honor of my friend Karen Osborne, who is attending this year. My goal is to write 25,000 words between June 25th and August 5th. You can sponsor me (either a one-time donation, or a per-word pledge) here.


I need to do a write-up of the SFWA Nebulas weekend at some point, but there’s only been a short break before Balticon 51 starts tomorrow (Friday, May 26th). I’m on four panels:

Friday, 7 PM: How We Imagine the Future and What it Says About Us (panelist)

Sunday, 9 AM: Hacking and Cybersecurity: Phishing, Botnets, and Data Breaches, OH MY!  (Science track, moderator)

Sunday, 10 AM: Hacking and Cyber Ops in Science Fiction (panelist)

Sunday, 9 PM: Handling the Unavoidable Info-dump (moderator)

Balticon is my home convention, though I’ve only been to it once before – which I’m coming to realize is my loss. Special guests this year include my Viable Paradise instructor Steven Brust and S.M. Stirling. It promises to be another great convention. Hope to see you there!

Rolling Into May

Things have been busy in House Appel. On the writing front, I wrapped up the fifth draft of The Frozen Past and as soon as I can wrangle the synopsis into shape, I’ll start querying it. Between the Writing the Other class I’ve been taking online and doing some beta reading, the writer brain has been pretty engaged. In odd moments I’ve begun addressing the changes to the outline of the next book, which lacks a working title. (I’m calling it “Exile Cluster Book 2” for now.) The changes are necessary because it finally became clear that a character I created on-the-fly while drafting some early scenes needed to become a viewpoint character, and ultimately, she’s displacing one of the two existing viewpoint characters. This means ECB2’s protagonists are a couple of 60+ women kicking ass on a space station. I hope I can pull this off.

April also brought a milestone in my bariatric post-op journey: I’ve dropped a full 100 pounds since surgery, about 140 since first starting the process. This brings me to 260 pounds or so. There’s a ways to go and a lot of work to make it down to 200, but it should be possible. And it’s only possible with the great support I get from Michelle, Alexa, Ben, and my medical team at Hopkins Bayview.

Where swords are concerned – well, I’ve plateaued for a bit, while Ben has advanced pretty rapidly. He’s reached a point at which our senior instructor no longer fights him from nach, or “after” – Brian will not take the vor against Ben, meaning he won’t wait passively for Ben to attack, but will seek to launch first attacks against him. I’m definitely not at that level yet (and have the bruises to prove it!) but improvement is coming, if slowly.

Looking towards the summer, this year marks my first as a science fiction con-goer, and I’m doing so as an “early career” writer. The last two weekends of May will be taken up with first the Nebula Award Conference in Pittsburgh, followed by Balticon. And I got some big news on the Balticon front over the weekend: not only will I be heading up a science track panel on real-world hacking and cybersecurity, but I’ll be on four additional panels over the weekend. At the moment, I’m set to moderate one of those. More details on that closer to the con.

June takes me to Minneapolis and the Fourth Street Fantasy convention, and July sees a combo of 25th-anniversary trip for Michelle and I to Cape Cod, followed by Readercon in Boston. We may pop out to visit some folks in western Mass after Readercon.

Somewhere in there, work will begin on the first draft of the next book. I’m also noodling around with a shorter piece featuring a minor character from The Frozen Past that everyone loves and wants to see more of. And in odd moments, I’m playing with ideas for a far-future, is-it-science-fantasy-or-super-science-as-magic story, book length.

Busy looks to be the watchword for the summer. Stay tuned.

What I’m Loving This Month: March 2017

As we roll into March, I’m going to try to keep this space updated a little more frequently. As part of that effort, I’m going to try a once-a-month or so wrap up of things I’ve run into and enjoyed.
What I’m listening to:
Audiobooks: I’m enjoying the hell out of Becky Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit”, the follow-up to her terrific “A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet”. Chambers’ sharp writing is well-portrayed by Rachel Dulude, the gifted narrator of both works. While events of tremendous personal significance for the characters occur in both books, these lean more towards slice-of-life tales, with strong character development. This isn’t the sort of thing I normally read, but that’s part of what makes it great as far as I’m concerned! Not every story needs to see the world being saved.
Chambers has constructed a lovely space-opera universe here that feels real without taking itself too seriously. Her characters are a delight, even the occasional asshole. These are also stories about a generally hopeful future, featuring a wide degree of freedom for most of the residents, both human and alien. That is certainly something many of us can use these days.
Music: “Splendor & Misery” comes from Clipping, an experimental hip-hop/rap group featuring, among others, Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame. It also happens to be a science fiction story told through the music, rap, and spoken word of the album. There is a movement growing to nominate the work for a Hugo Award in the “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” category. Having listened to it twice now, I’ll be doing that.
Earworm special: Canadian folk singer James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters”, a song about the smoke jumpers who perished in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana. I discovered this via the Cry Cry Cry cover on Radio Paradise a few months ago, but for some reason it wormed it’s way into my brain last week and wouldn’t let go for days.
What I’m watching:
My television time has been scaled way, way back, but I make time each week to watch “The Expanse” on SyFy as it airs. I’m a big fan of the books and the series does a great job of capturing them. (No doubt the involvement of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers who pen the books collaboratively as James S. A. Corey, helps.) The casting is pitch perfect in nearly every role, from the series leads to the secondary characters to the bit parts. Top-notch production values, too. I’ve watched season 1 three times and parts of season 2 twice. This is not just great science fiction on television, it’s great television.
I’m also watching “The Magicians”, SyFy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s best-selling novels. Unlike the Expanse, this show has departed in some significant ways from its source material, but I believe it’s remained faithful to the spirit of the books. I’ll admit part of my being OK with this is that we get to see a lot more of some characters who don’t last long in the books.
What I’m reading:
Reading time lately has most often been “beta reading” works by some of my fellow up-and-coming writers, but I recently managed to finish Chuck Wendig’s “Invasive”. This is a near-future SF book about genetically modified ants and, well, some dastardly shenanigans. Wendig writes in thriller mode, with tight pacing and occasionally brutal events in his narrative. I didn’t have as much fun with this one as with his hacker story “Zeroes”, which is set in the same continuity, but it’s still a spiffy read.
Having finished that book and wanting something a bit lighter to read, I picked up Matt Wallace’s “Sin du Jour: The First Course.” This is an omnibus of the first three novellas in Wallace’s “Sin du Jour” series about a catering company that services events for demons. Really. It’s quite funny so far, and just the kind of mental palate-cleanser I was looking for.
What I’m playing:
Well, not much. My tabletop gaming is pretty much on hiatus until I get this next revision on “The Frozen Past” done and off to it’s next readers. Ditto for my computer gaming. I have dabbled a little with Fractured Space, a space-based MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game. I’m not normally a MOBA guy, World of Tanks excepted, but have found Fractured Space quite fun. The problem is the relatively small player base; there’s a fair bit of waiting time between matches. I tend to use these games as mental cool-downs in the time between breaking off writing for the evening and bedtime, and the downtime while waiting for the game to find players to begin a match has stretched beyond my patience point for the last few days.
I’ll try to do this again on in the second week of April.