"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

A new traveler's guide to traveling

I’m not exactly a seasoned traveler, but I have been traveling on a semi-frequent basis for the last 8 years. I’ve picked up a few things along the way, and every time I go on a trip, whether it’s to Paris or Prague or New York or New Orleans, I always ask myself why I haven’t written or filmed a little travel guide yet. So I decided it was finally time. This post will be available for everyone to see – followers of this blog and my YouTube channel alike – although Patrons may get a first glimpse.

The tips and tricks that follow are based on my personal experiences and may not be best for everyone. In addition, I offer some advice that I really hope will be of help and guidance to my friends or anyone interested in traveling abroad.

PART 1: Preparations

Pack light
It’s a bit of a stereotype that American travelers always pack everything but the kitchen sink. You can easily spot them in airports and train stations, overburdened with packs on their backs like camels, pulling vast, cumbersome entanglements of luggage. By contrast, most European travelers I’ve seen pack a single bag with a few sets of clothes and the essentials, and that’s enough. It’s a great example to follow. A friend once gave me good advice, which I’ll now pass on here: After you’ve packed, reopen your backpack and review its contents. Take half of it out and leave it behind. Then open up your wallet and double what’s in there.

Bring plug adapters
Most travel websites seem not to cover this issue, which I find perplexing, since I know several people who have encountered this problem. Depending on the country, there are different types of outlets than the ones we use in the U.S. Accordingly, you’ll need to buy an adapter to attach to the plugs of whatever electronic device you want to use. France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, for instance, all use completely different kinds of electrical outlets. Try buying a universal adapter. You can get them on Amazon, and some airlines (like Aer Lingus) carry them as well, so they can be purchased on board your flight.

Book in advance
In my experience, the farther in advance you secure all your tickets and reservations, the better. I’ve heard some people recommend getting plane tickets at least 3 months in advance. I agree, but I’d go as far as to say 5 months in advance, if possible. And there are still good and bad times to do that, depending on tourist season, weather, etc. Train tickets should also be purchased ahead of time (at least, if you want to have a seat; I made this mistake during my train ride from Berlin to Prague and had to stand for the entire trip!). One can even benefit from booking tickets for tourist attractions way beforehand, as I did with the Paris Catacombs.

Be aware of what’s going on
Live and learn, right? I should have done a bit more research regarding the strikes in Paris when I visited in November 2019. I was just barely able to get back home before the airlines – and effectively, the entire city – shut down. Labor strikes are much more common in Europe than in the U.S., so get updated on what’s taking place in the country you’ll be visiting before you go. And it doesn’t only come down to worker demonstrations; you should also ensure your safety when you travel, as several European cities have suffered terror attacks and social unrest in recent years. Don’t live your life in fear by any means! Just be vigilant and understand what’s going on before you make your trip. If you’re visiting Ukraine or Moldova, you need to be aware of the political situation there. It’s better to make an informed decision, than to put yourself in unnecessary danger.

Get your apps in order
I don’t recommend relying upon “smart technology” to the detriment of your own intellect and reasoning. But I do suggest you fill your phone with all sorts of things that will help you while you’re abroad! Both Google Translate and Google Maps are invaluable when you need to translate a sign or menu in a pinch, or stumble back to your hotel after several hours at a bar. Airline apps are very handy for tracking your flight status. Quite a few European cities now have Uber. And other travel-specific apps, like Showaround, can be a huge help in meeting locals and getting a personalized tour of a city! A compass app can also be helpful, and DuoLingo is an excellent tool for learning new languages.

PART 2: Culture

Learn some of the language
I’m not suggesting you devote all your time to becoming fluent in Italian or Czech (though it would be good to learn a second or third language). And it isn’t mandatory to speak another language in every country (in Iceland and Germany, almost everyone under 30 speaks English). But in many countries, people generally appreciate it when you take the time to at least learn a few words and phrases in their language. It shows respect for their culture and a willingness to socialize a little bit on their terms. The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge you don’t have, so there’s no harm in brushing up on a handful of phrases in the language of the country you’ll be visiting.

Don’t get offended
In Paris, people smoke everywhere, especially while they’re having dinner. In Berlin, it’s quite common to see sex shops and brothels. Some cities in Slovakia, like Kosice, don’t really have a “vegan option.” We live in a diverse world with different values and cultures, and that’s a good thing. And yet, I’ve already seen a few U.S. travelers who just can’t tolerate that the place they’re visiting “isn’t like America.” Well...why would it be? So please, take this advice: leave your hypersensitivity at home! What’s different is not bad or wrong, it’s just that – different. And if you only want to live with the values and customs of “America,” then perhaps consider not traveling at all!

When in Rome . . .
. . . well, you know the rest. This is sort of an add-on to the above, but it’s also good advice. Don’t be a loud, obnoxious tourist. Part of embracing and respecting a culture is adapting to it. If the atmosphere on a train is quiet and polite, maybe don’t scream loudly on your cellphone. If someone sees you and says, “Bonsoir,” maybe reply to them and engage with them? Don’t turn your nose up at a new or exotic food, try it. It’s understandable that not every aspect of the country you visit will fall in line with what you’re comfortable with, and that’s okay. But don’t be a complainer. You’ll find that assimilating into the place you’re visiting, and really getting to know the people and their way of life, will be the most rewarding approach you can take. And just maybe, you’ll learn something and grow as a person, too.

PART 3: Safe and smart

Watch your things
Go to Slovakia or Iceland or Sweden and the overall crime rate is much lower than the U.S. You’ll find that in some of these countries, things are relatively safer and less violent (although, of course, the grass is always greener; never let this be an excuse to let your guard down!). And yet, every country is not without its own issues. Pickpocketing in Paris or Rome, for instance, makes New York City look tame by comparison. Keep your passport and wallet in your front pockets, especially when in large crowds or on public transit. Keep a good grip on your phone. So on and so forth. Don’t allow yourself to be robbed of your things due to sheer negligence!

Carefully navigate and avoid scams
There’s the “string men” by the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur who want to “show you a trick.” Or the taxi driver who pads your fare. Or the cashier who is “speaking on the phone” as you hand her your credit card (but is secretly using her camera to snap a picture of your card number). These scams aren’t everywhere, but they are there, and you need to be aware of them. Planned ignoring and calm disengagement are good ways to diffuse these situations, as well as outright avoidance of areas where you spot these people. Once again, vigilance is always important when traveling anywhere.

Final tips
-        Know the emergency number for whatever country you’re visiting. Like 911 in the U.S., it varies depending on where you are. In France, for instance, it’s 112.

-        Get the address of the local U.S. embassy of the country you’re visiting. If you lose your passport or get into some other kind of trouble, this will be of huge importance.

-        Recognize that most European countries use military time. So for example, 15:00=3:00 p.m.

-        You don’t always need to visit the major tourist cities like Paris or Rome. I plan on seeing Bratislava, Krakow, Bucharest, Reykjavik, Dubrovnik, and Ljubljana someday! Smaller does not mean it isn’t worth seeing!

-        Don’t get your debit/credit card flagged and temporarily blocked for security by your bank; inform them beforehand of the countries you’ll be visiting and the dates you’ll be there!

I hope this little guide has been of some help. I might consider making an additional video in the future, going into greater detail on this for anyone interested. We’ll see what the future brings. Good luck and safe travels!

It’s over 9,000: Powerscaling, the writer’s crutch


upernatural’s Lucifer. The Walking Dead’s Negan. Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring. Game of Thrones’ Joffrey. Heroes’ Sylar. The Flash’s Reverse Flash. Every great story has its evil, menacing, sadistic, worst and most dangerous of all time villain. And if done right, the writing pulls the reader or viewer in, keeping them on the edge of their seat as the protagonist(s) struggle against the waves of chaos and suffering received at the hands of the ultimate nemesis. And then the great enemy is defeated, and that’s the end. Or not. Often, the story goes on... Only, what’s left, now that the big bad has been stopped? Well, get ready, because here comes Ultimate Enemy 2.0! Bigger, badder, stronger, fast – I’ll stop there, you get the point. Powerscaling. Oh, what a slippery slope...

It’s a compelling enough question. Say you have a series you’re writing, and you get to Book Three, and the villain is finally defeated, thus ending a trilogy? You’d like the series to continue, because when it comes to the protagonists, their stories may not be over yet. There’s still more to explore, there’s more to reveal. These character arcs are ongoing. But who will become the new antagonist? You can’t simply bring back that same villain all over again; unless you can somehow do this extremely skillfully (a million to one odds), it would feel incredibly cheap and utterly defeat the point of the previous story. So why not create a newer villain, even stronger and more evil than the last? Okay, sure. But if you went out of your way to demonstrate just how powerful and how horrific and unmatched the last one was, won’t scaling up to an even worse enemy be a bit of a cop out?

I can give you some examples of books and shows that have attempted this very thing, with results decidedly mixed. Game of Thrones. Once Joffrey was dead, they decided to bring in a ‘roided up, even more sadistic version of him in the character of Ramsay. (This isn’t a criticism of the books; George R.R. Martin may go a different route than the show did.) Ramsay made Joffrey look like an angel in comparison, except that Ramsay felt too over the top. His psychotic behavior felt almost comic book-ish at times, like the writers were just trying to hammer into your head, over and over, “Look, see how relentlessly, fiendishly sick he is? We’re trying so hard to show you how much worse than Joffrey he is!”

However, Game of Thrones then rectified things by introducing the Night King, leader of the White Walkers. This was a completely different sort of enemy. Silent, with piercing blue eyes, an eerily calm demeanor. The Night King was a force of nature, something that seemed almost compelled to kill, and did so almost gracefully. There were hints of amused malevolence, but it didn’t feel like we were simply getting a Hulked up version of a previous villain, and that’s why the Night King is a good example of how you can invent another enemy for your characters to face off against – without reinventing the wheel.

Think about it. You put a lot of thought and time into the first antagonist, right? You wanted to make him a unique threat, something that really puts your heroes’ backs up against the wall and challenges them on every level. Now that they have faced those challenges, how would it follow logically that essentially creating a carbon copy of that villain (however “stronger” or more insane it may be), would be any sort of compelling or intriguing choice? What you’d be left with is a story that hits the same beats, a “new” character that treads the same ground as its predecessor. Readers won’t feel any real sense of danger because there’s a vague feeling of “been there, done that.”

If you want to craft a second villain, it has to be threatening in a way that the previous one wasn’t, and that doesn’t always simply mean stronger or “more evil.” The first enemy was all about ultimate power and rage? Okay. So this one can be disturbingly calm and composed, and rather than physically threatening, this enemy’s weapon can be psychological. Maybe he’s good at manipulating our heroes, getting inside their heads, even getting them to act against their better impulses, essentially making them feel forced to do morally ambiguous things in the name of stamping out this evil.

In this character, then, we see a key difference. Where the first was terror inspiring, this one makes you panic for the protagonists in a totally new way. What if one of them loses himself, and in fighting the evil, becomes part of it? A “road to Hell is paved with good intentions” kind of narrative could be great not only in putting a new spin on an enemy, but also making a character confront a part of themelves and grow, furthering their story arc. This is just an example, but it goes to show you, there are different ways you can do something; as we know, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Breaking Bad is considered one of the best television series ever made for a reason. The writers knew they would be remiss if they simply followed up Gus’s death by introducing another “big bad.” Instead they turned the story inward, thereby also continuing the story arc and development of Walter and the larger narrative the series as a whole had to tell. After killing Gus, Walter was more and more willing to take lives, acting in ways he never had before and transitioning from “dying family man who had to do terrible things for a good reason” into a criminal mastermind who was arrogantly proud of his own growing reputation. In one of the most brilliant followups to an arch-enemy story ever, the next antagonist after Gus became...the main protagonist himself.

Now, let me just clarify. It isn’t wrong to powerscale, if it works. Azazel was a great and dangerous antagonist in Supernatural, but not so all-powerful that it didn’t feel believable to follow him up with a stronger one. Lucifer was a threat that felt more cosmic, the centerpiece of the literal Apocalypse, where Azazel was more “the monster in the shadows.” So in cases like that, it works. It’s up to you, as the writer, to be aware of your own antagonists’ power, their limits, and what drives them. If your heroes stop a petty criminal in Book One, a terrorist in Book Two, and a master killer who leads a cult of assassins in Book Three, the powerscaling is believable, so it works. But if you spend three novels dealing with the “ultimate threat” to the world, the most powerful enemy anyone has ever faced, don’t follow it up with “oh, wait – this new villain is now the most powerful enemy anyone has ever faced.” And if you do, don’t expect that suspension of disbelief to hold; your readers are going to balk.

There’s a saying that a hero is only as good as the villain, and that’s mostly true. Batman needs the Joker. Harry Potter needs Voldemort. So on and so forth. Put as much thought into the bad guys as the good guys, and you shouldn’t have a problem. But just as with any other character in your story, each antagonist must be unique and believable. And even better – get your readers to empathize against their will with the villain. Because they’re not simply “evil” for no reason. Most well written villains believe they’re doing the right thing in their own minds, and just as with the good guys, they have wants and needs, things that drive them and cause them to engage in wicked behavior. As William Faulkner once said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Words to live by – and write by.

Kill 'em all: A writing tip

he fiction writer has the unfortunate task of serving as both creator and destroyer. And it’s always painful to tear down something you’ve built. But don’t fear the reaper, because in many cases, character death is a sacrifice worth making. But what about context? And what about characters who don’t stay dead? The fantasy genre – and especially comic books – constantly suffer from too many resurrections, so let’s tackle this issue first.

Death serves such an important narrative function not only because it often enriches the plot, but also because it creates real emotion and drama, both for the other characters and the reader. It’s the act of taking a character you’re invested in – and ideally empathizing with – and completely ending them. If done right, this can completely shock, enrage, or sadden the reader, and regardless of which emotion it stirs up, it makes the reader feel something, which is the duty of a good story.

George R.R. Martin understands this tool very well, and has demonstrated it time and again in Game of Thrones. And because he kills off many characters, it creates a constant state of tension and apprehension for the reader, who never knows which characters are safe – if any. Game of Thrones, of course, killed off Jon Snow, and then, unlike with every other main character, brought him back from the dead. This leads me to a point: you’re allowed one resurrection, maybe two at most, in your story, before things start to feel cheapened and death loses its significance and emotional impact. But resurrection is not the only way to ruin death as a plot device.

Circling back to comic books, Marvel is releasing the Black Widow movie next year. It’s a prequel, because Black Widow died in Avengers Endgame. Of course, by not resurrecting her, they’re not completely doing a disservice to her final scene, but her return in yet another film, even one set in the past, still takes away from the impact of her death. It’s a loophole; a way to bring back a character that works maybe one time out of a hundred. Marvel has exploited another loophole to bring back the character of Loki – the idea of alternate timelines or a multiverse. This is a common plot device in comic books, but again, the upcoming Loki series on Disney+ will take away from the character’s death scene in Avengers Infinity War. And it feels especially disingenuous after Thanos’ line: “No resurrections this time.”

So use those resurrections sparingly, if at all. Even one of them can place that character in a precarious position afterward, narratively speaking. After Jon Snow returned, any subsequent scenes where it seemed like he would die (again) felt a bit artificial, emotionally speaking, since as the viewer, I kind of felt that the writers were unnecessarily toying with us, because they wouldn’t have brought this character back just to kill him again.

Supernatural is especially guilty of this. Sam and Dean have died and come back so many times that death no longer means anything on the show. In fact, the writers have had to grasp at straws to come up with ways to walk that back, or reinforce the sense of danger in potential death, with mixed results. Concepts like the Empty or absolute death by way of prophecy (“this time you won’t come back!”) almost make you wonder why the writers bother to go there. We all know there’s no chance of ever permanently losing our main characters.

This show also provides a perfect example for my next tip: know when to kill your characters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen books or shows keep a character around long past their expiration date. Case in point: Castiel is a great character played by a great actor, but Supernatural should have killed him off a long time ago, or returned him to Heaven. Since at least Season 8, he’s served little to no purpose, and shallow plots have been constructed for him to make us feel like his story isn’t merely spinning its wheels. Well, that, and the rabid Supernatural fanbase would riot if Castiel were permanently removed from the show – and that touches upon something I’ll get back to in a few moments.

My point, though, is that I think every writer instinctually feels when a character’s story has reached its natural conclusion. Don’t be afraid to act on that impulse. You or the readers may love a character you’ve created, but by forcing that character to continue to fit into the narrative when it no longer feels organic, you’re doing a disservice to that character and potentially ruining the character’s already established legacy. Castiel used to have the interesting dichotomy of being powerful and threatening, and also unintentionally comedic with his misunderstandings of humans and everyday concepts. Now he’s become so depowered (and I’ll touch upon power scaling in a future blog post) and so humanized that the line between human and angel might as well be removed altogether.

Some characters remain in the story from beginning to end, and if it feels right, go with that. Others become fan favorites and often become so intriguing precisely because of how rarely they appear. Pay attention to how the character serves the greater story and what the character contributes. If the narrative benefits from not overusing that character, don’t try and force that square peg into a round hole. These types of characters are like a spice – add too much and it ruins the taste; add just the right amount and it gives great flavor.

One series that did this well was the science fiction show Fringe. Robert Bell, played by Leonard Nimoy, was one of the most compelling and interesting characters on the show. Fringe ran for 100 episodes. Do you know how many episodes featured Nimoy’s character? Eight. (11 if you count additional voice credits.)

Characters are not always kept around, however, simply because a writer resists the urge to kill them. Sometimes it all boils down to pressure felt from a raging fanbase, who want the writer to do exactly what they want, or out come the pitchforks and the outrage on social media begins. This is a relatively new and modern problem that writers are now facing, and I can tell you this much: changing your story because of what fans are demanding is bad, bad, bad.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t value the input of your readers – sometimes they can alert you to truths or ideas that you weren’t aware of before. But don’t become so beholden to your readers’ opinions that you let them dictate what happens to your characters. The consumer of the writing doesn’t have the right to have a say in what happens. You’re the writer. If they were so good at knowing what was best for your story, they’d be writers too. Fans who act this way are like the backseat drivers of the writing world. To paraphrase Dean Winchester, “Driver writes the story. Shotgun shuts his cakehole.”

Unfortunately, so many stories have given into this pressure, with unpleasant – often disastrous – results. Look at Arrow. Fans started shipping Oliver and Felicity, when the chemistry between Oliver and Laurel felt much more natural. Both Oliver and Felicity are great characters in their own ways, but when the writers started to force them into a relationship to appease the fans, not only did it negatively impact Laurel’s story, shunting the character to the side after being so central in Seasons One and Two...It also felt extremely contrived, with even the characters’ dialogue exchanges feeling awkward and cumbersome.

We can see plenty of other examples, in The Walking Dead (“If Daryl Dies, We Riot”), Harry Potter (come on, it’s obvious fan favorites like Hagrid and Hermione were purposely kept alive), and even Game of Thrones (in the final season, everything felt much too safe – it’s unbelievable that Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Tyrion would all just happen to make it to the end). Again, I think this is a new problem. Writers are afraid of being crucified by the fanbase if they step out of line, and it shouldn’t be that way. So never be afraid to give a character the axe if you feel it’s necessary.

Whether they’d like to admit it or not, most readers are more interested in tragedies than happy endings, and that is one of many reasons why death is a good tool to have at your disposal. Walter had to die at the end of Breaking Bad. It couldn’t have been any other way, and if it had, the entire series would have been an exercise in narrative redundancy, so many of its motifs rendered hypocritically pointless. Ragnar’s death in Vikings was horrible and hard to watch – and perfect; it felt like the right time for his character arc to come to a permanent end, and it opened up unforeseen pathways for viewers, who for the first time in a while, truly didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the series.

And finally, here’s something that I believe writers today aren’t understanding: the outraged reactions of fans when you kill off a character they love is not a problem; it’s not something that you have a responsibility to “correct” or address. That emotional response is exactly what you want. It means you’re doing your job right. If a reader becomes so enraged or upset at a character’s death that they chuck the book at a wall and scream profanities about you, it means they were invested enough in your story that they cared so much about these characters, that it almost feels to them as if they’ve lost a real person. That means it’s damn good writing, and beyond that, it means that even if you’ve written the coda on a particular character, that character left behind a great legacy.

In the real world, it’s only the good people who are missed. The people who were loved by many. And so it is with the characters you create. If a character dies and the response is a collective “meh,” you’re failing to provoke an emotional response, probably because you’ve failed to construct a compelling character. Kill your darlings. After the anger and the denial and the tears, the fans who truly “get it” will look back on it later and understand why it had to happen. Killing characters is just part of the job. In the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”