Clay Tongue novelette Nicholas Conley fantasy

Language, the Secrets of Communication, and All of Our Clay Tongues

Human language is the source of human consciousness, at least as far as we understand it. Things “exist” to us — whether those things are objects, theories, or abstract notions  — only so far as (1) our ability to perceive them, and (2) our ability to describe them with words. Which is silly, when we think about it, because words are, on a base level, nothing more than silly symbols and sounds made by the human mouth. Words are inherently meaningless, other than the meaning that we connect to these words — and that meaning is what makes them powerful. Words are a beautiful contradiction. This doesn’t mean that “truth” doesn’t exist, because it does, but it does mean that how we perceive truth is directly connected to whatever language we speak, as well as how our culture perceives the words within that language.

The word “horse” means nothing, other than being a mouthful of sounds, unless we decide that “horse” is a descriptor for the real life animal. How we think of a horse, then, is directly connected to the word we use. For example, in the English language, our amusing tendency to associate other objects with parts of the human body: e.g., the supposed “legs” of a chair, or the “heart” of an artichoke.

Language is the power that fuels the human species. It’s the source of how we think, why we think, and how we retain memories. But at the same time, for those who struggle with communication, language can become an unbreakable wall between them and the rest of society.

The limitations and surreal nature of human perception is something I like examining in my writing, as readers of Pale Highway will attest to.  I’ll be delving even deeper into this topic in my next novel (Novel #3), when it comes out. But when I approached this subject for the writing of my short little fantasy novelette, Clay Tongue, I specifically wanted to delve into language, communication, and the challenges faced by those who struggle with it.

Clay Tongue fantasy novelette Nicholas Conley

To do this, I tried to link two different struggles, that would seem quite different on the surface, but actually have a lot in common: the pain of an old man who develops aphasia after suffering from a stroke, and the shyness of a little girl who has trouble speaking up in front of people. Both of them know what they want to say, but both of them don’t know how to say it.

In Clay Tongue, these characters — young Katie Mirowitz and her grandfather — have a tight bond, and this shared communication difficulty is what brings them together.

When it comes to the grandfather, I was inspired by the same nursing home experience that fueled Pale Highway. As a caregiver in the dementia unit, I worked with many people who’d been afflicted with aphasia. Scientists, lawyers, artists, mechanics, pharmacy technicians — people who suddenly, without warning, had their ability to communicate robbed from them. It was heartbreaking to see, when someone so desperately knows what they want and their brain won’t let them say it in a way that others can understand.

Clay Tongue Nicholas Conley fantasy

As far as Katie’s shyness, well… that goes back to my own childhood, where I myself had a lot of painful social anxiety, and an immense difficulty with getting words across. Though socializing comes easily to me now, those early pains never quite fade from memory. The secret to comfortable social interaction isn’t something you can take a class for, or find tricks to get around; you just have to learn it the hard way. Though it becomes easier with age, that’s no comfort to a little kid who still hasn’t figured out how to respond to a seemingly simple question like “how are you?” without feeling treacherously embarrassed.

With Clay Tongue, I wanted to examine this aspect within both characters: to delve into the secrets of communication, to show their struggles. And then, at the same time, to show that even in strange and indescribable personal battles such as these ones, there is always hope.

Clay Tongue: A Novelette is available on Amazon.

Clay Tongue novelette Nicholas Conley fantasy

From the author of the award-winning Pale Highway and the radio play Something in the Nothing comes a short fantasy of love, shyness, and the secrets of human communication.

Katie Mirowitz is a small little girl with an even smaller little voice. She possesses a deep love for her grandfather, who suffers from aphasia after a bad stroke cuts loose the part of his brain that processes verbal language. When Katie uncovers a miraculous secret inside the pages of her grandfather’s old journal, as well as an ancient key, she goes out into the woods in search of answers — hoping to uncover a mythical being that, if it exists, may just have the ability to grant wishes.


human verbs, motion, existence

Traveling Verbs

Life is what we create it to be. And thus life, or creation — and by extension, the identities of who “we,” “I,” or “you” are — are not fixed. We’re not solid entities. We’re not nouns. No, actually, we’re verbs.

We are autopoietic, self-creating (thanks, Gabriel). And so we are constantly fluid, always recreating ourselves in every new moment, always writing the next page of our story with every breath.

We’re all stories.


I’ve always connected to stories; both my own, and the stories of others, whether real or fictional. Stories, and the inherent connection they have to every aspect of life, is what made me become a writer. Every person you meet is a walking story. Every person’s story is the combination of planning, impulses, unexpected plot twists, and coincidence. Every “walking story” out there lives with a kaleidoscope of supporting characters, settings, and subplots running parallel to each person’s central narrative, which will eventually lead them to a final conclusion that no one can know until we get there. Yet, ironically enough, whatever conclusion may be, it will be built from every piece of what has occurred before. When “the end” comes, it will enhance and redefine all of the scenes that our lives were built out of, in ways we never could have predicted. Minor conversations may become deeply important, in retrospect, when our story becomes a possession of people other than ourselves.

Somewhat frighteningly, not everyone gets to choose what sort of story their life is. It may be a tragedy, a comedy, a horror, any number of things, and much of this is determined by such utterly random factors as chance, luck, and coincidence. Somewhere in the middle of this is “free will” and “choice.” These two things are important, but we shouldn’t fall into the illusion that either of them possesses any control over reality. Factors like societal norms, poverty, privilege, and geographical location all form the basis of a person’s story before that person is even born. Our free will is how we respond to the outside, how we choose to perceive it, but the outside has a way of taking back control whenever it wants to. But just as free will shouldn’t be overstated — when so many other factors also play a role in life —  free will should also not be understated either. Free will is the only tool we have to craft our own stories, to write our tales to the best of our ability.

The future awaits, and every moment builds to it. Every person is a story. Everyone is constantly evolving. Nothing is truly static. Nothing can fixed. And change or evolution, no matter how improbable it might seem, is always possible.

Dark Tower Trailer is Here!

Afters years upon years of waiting, the first trailer for the upcoming cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower is real, it’s breathing, and it’s live:

As readers know, the Dark Tower series was hugely influential on me — as a writer, a reader, and as a person — so this is easily my most anticipated movie of the year. It’s a hard one to get right, but so far, I’m impressed.

As the filmmakers have said, they are pulling from multiple books in the series for this first film, which I think makes sense; the original book, The Gunslinger, is fairly slow paced compared to the subsequent books, with much of it consisting of Roland and Jake following the Man in Black through the desert. It looks like this one uses the general plot structure of The Gunslinger, combines it with the house/portal from The Waste Lands, and then uses some of the New York elements of the last two books. Having everything somewhat different from the books actually works with this storyline, in a way it wouldn’t with other adaptations, since the notion of alternate realities, timelines, and dimensions is sewn right into the fabric of the Dark Tower mythos. As Jake famously said in the first novel, “there are other worlds than these.”

Either way, I definitely got chills hearing that last line. Idris Elba seems like an absolutely amazing Roland, with all of the gravitas that the character demands. Jake and the Man in Black look to perfectly capture the characters in the books. Can’t wait to see this in theaters.


Look Back: Top 5 Coffee Moments™

I just brewed a pour over coffee, and as I’m enjoying it, I thought I’d look back on one of my favorite blog posts from back in 2015. I’ll probably list some new moments one of these days, since there’s been quite a few in the last two years.

But what about all of you? What are your top Coffee Moments?™

Nicholas Conley's mysterious coffee obsession.

Before we begin, I should probably answer the obvious question:  what in Sam Hill are these so-called Coffee Moments™?

And to that, my reply is this: Coffee Moments™ are those special experiences, those memorable stories from our past, that will always contain the line “and as it all happened, I was drinking a cup of coffee.”

Coffee Moments™ can be thrilling, sentimental, scary and/or victorious.  Maybe your favorite Coffee Moment™ was sitting in that diner with your future spouse, on your first date.  Maybe it was the coffee you took with you to that interview where you finally landed your dream job.  Maybe it was the coffee you drank when you finally got into the college you most wanted to get into.  Perhaps it was even a cup you sipped while fixing up your first car.

Coffee Moments™ can be anything, to anyone, as long as these moments contain…

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My Writing Space

As any creative professional knows, the zone where you create things is your castle. Some people have roaming workstations, while others need a specific spot at a specific time, but there’s always a place where the magic happens — whether it’s a physical location, a psychological one, or (most likely) both. It’s the same for all forms of creative passion: we all have our desks, our studios, our work tables, or whatever else we may need.

For me, while I do enjoy getting some work done in local coffee shops every so often, the primary place where the writing happens is in my office, at home. Whenever I sit down here, as I am now, I feel a sense of purpose, belonging, a focus. With a mug of coffee in hand, I feel ready to conquer the next manuscript before me.

Longtime readers will recognize little touches like the Spider-Man poster and the coffee mug; the desk is never complete without that mug there and filled with hot coffee, as you might imagine. The dinosaur is an old childhood relic that reminds me of my father, and which has been on my desk for over 10 years. It has taken on increasing importance over the years, as childhood relics tend to do. As for those “slugs” roaming around the plant… well, those are the marvelous creation of my endlessly creative wife Veronica, and readers of Pale Highway will know why they’re there.

But let’s not stop with me. What about you guys? What sort of creative workstation/s do you have? Let’s hear about ’em!

Doctor Doom Victor Von Doom fan film Marvel Fantastic Four Ivan Kander

The “Von Doom” Fan Film Reveals the Doctor Doom We’ve All Been Waiting for

Superhero films may have taken over the multiplex, and characters both A-list and B-list may have become household names, but there’s arguably one major Marvel Comics character whose legacy on film has been mistreated more than any other: Victor Von Doom, better known by the title Doctor Doom.

Famous Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee, who co-created almost all of the Marvel Universe, has long said that Doctor Doom is his favorite villain. While the Joker has catapulted to the #1 spot on most supervillain lists thanks to a long line of fantastic film and animated adaptations, Doctor Doom is a character who has long been held by many comic book enthusiasts as the greatest comic book supervillain of all time. Doom is a complex figure whose mythology combines science fiction and sorcery; he’s a vain man pained by a dark past, a tortured soul who believes himself to be the hero, believes that he could save the world if only everyone accepted him as their leader. His story is epic, tragic, one of the most developed in all of comics.

What Doom is not, and never has been, is the obnoxious, greedy businessman that he was portrayed as in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, or whatever weird stuff they were trying to do with him in the 2015 reboot. While villains like Magneto and Loki have risen to prominence due to excellent film adaptations, there has never been a proper, faithful cinematic depiction of Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom Victor Von Doom fan film Marvel Fantastic Four Ivan Kander

Well, until now. Thanks to filmmaker Ivan Kander, there is now a fan film named Von Doom available online, that does for Doom what 20th Century Fox has failed to do. Gritty, epic, and faithful to the comics, Von Doom may be only 14 minutes, but it’s the best 14 minutes that Doom has ever had on film. Using time travel as a plot device, it tells the story of Doom’s tragic origins, as a young boy in the small Eastern European country of Latveria, and his young adult self’s attempt to combine magic and science in an effort to change the past. Don’t be wary of the fact that it’s a fan film, either: like Truth in Journalism, the Venom fan-film that I reviewed back in 2013, this is quality stuff. But don’t just take my word for it: check it out below.

(And after you do, continue reading my thoughts, right below the video!)

Now, this film isn’t perfect. It’s too short to get as deep as I’d love for it to,  and the budget is lower than a studio production would be. But what really shines here is that Ivan Kander really understands Doom’s personality, really gets what makes the character iconic, and even came up with a clever way to frame Doom’s story in a way that could fit three periods of his life within such a short runtime.

I’d love to see what Ivan Kander could come up with for a full length studio production, but even in the absence of that, Von Doom contains a lot of lessons that 20th Century Fox should pay attention to, if they ever want to utilize one of their biggest properties in a way that will not only befit the character’s legacy, but also get fans into theaters. To me, these are the biggest takeaways from Von Doom, and how it could influence future films:

1. The Origin Really, Really Matters

Doctor Doom Victor Von Doom fan film Marvel Fantastic Four Ivan Kander origin story

Both Fantastic Four franchises to date have completely ignored Victor Von Doom’s comic book back story, and both have also totally destroyed the character as a result.  That’s because Doom’s origins aren’t some throwaway reference, and tying them to the Fantastic Four’s origins is a mistake. Victor Von Doom’s childhood tragedies are as important to his character development as Magneto’s Holocaust origins are to him, and if you tamper with the story, you lose the character.

Doom’s back story is epic in scope. You can’t just pay lip service to Latveria and expect fans to be happy, because the character is Latveria. Victor Von Doom began as a poor boy in a poverty-stricken country, fled to the United States, became a brilliant scientist, and then came home as a revolutionary, ready to overthrow the authoritarian government that had enslaved and brutalized his people. Now, this doesn’t change the fact that Von Doom is also an authoritarian himself — the people of Latveria might be safe beneath his rule, but they certainly aren’t free — however, the complexity here is what makes the character interesting.

You Need Science AND Magic to Make a Proper Doctor Doom

Victor Von Doom Doctor Doom fan film origin story latveria Ivan Kander Marvel Fantastic Four

Doctor Doom, the armored figure that Victor Von Doom is destined to become, might seem at first like a purely science fiction character. He’s a brilliant scientist, he attacks his opponents with armies of robots, he uses life model decoys. But what Von Doom really gets right, from the very beginning, is that Doctor Doom’s interest and skills in the mystical arts are also a huge component of the character.

Some of Doctor Doom’s best stories involve him relying purely on magic, and he’s listed as one of the most powerful sorcerers in the Marvel Universe. Sure, the whole magic thing doesn’t fit into the wacky sci-fi high jinks that define the Fantastic Four, but there’s a solution for that…

Make Doom the Protagonist of His Own Film

Victor Von Doom Doctor Doom fan film origin story latveria Ivan Kander Marvel Fantastic Four experiment

Seriously, if there’s anything that the Von Doom short film proves, it’s this: Doctor Doom works better as a protagonist, instead of being squeezed into a Fantastic Four movie. That doesn’t mean he’s a hero, but he thinks he’s a hero, and a character as complex as Doom deserves center stage.

The bad writing that Doctor Doom has suffered from in the Fantastic Four movies is at least partially because both films have unsuccessfully tried to tie Doom into the Four’s origin story, and it’s a bad fit. While Doom is linked to Reed Richards, and despises him, much of his actual character arc is largely independent of those four blue-costumed heroes. Doom has gotten into blows with most of Marvel’s heroes, but those battles aren’t really his focus. In the grander scheme of the Marvel Universe, he’s a well known dictator who has diplomatic immunity when he visits other countries, and thus can’t be arrested. He’s not just a foil for the heroes.

No, Doctor Doom deserves his own movie. A Doctor Doom film could tell the story of Victor Von Doom’s rise, fall, and subsequent rise. It could tell the story of his exile from Latveria, his mastery of science and magic, and then his return as a man in a metal mask. Again, Doom can be the protagonist without being a hero. A film that focused on Doom, and only on Doom, could have an epic narrative similar to Batman Begins.

If the film needs a villain, then Ivan Kander’s Von Doom proposes a terrific solution, through the use of time travel: use Victor as both the hero and the villain. Pit the younger Victor against the older Doctor Doom. There are lots of ways to make this work, and the Fantastic Four aren’t necessary for it. They can have their own new reboot — preferably one which has them battle against, say, the Mole Man —  and Doom can meet up with them in a sequel, if need be. But not yet.

 Get the Personality Right

Doctor Doom Marvel Victor Von Doom Fantastic Four Stan Lee

And finally, here’s another big one. Doom’s personality has to be right. He’s not a psychopath, not a cocky businessman who tells dumb jokes, none of that. The character as depicted in Von Doom is Doom as he should be.

Again, Doom doesn’t see himself as a villain. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero of the story, and he’s in a constant struggle to do the right thing, to take the path that he believes will make the world a better place. Doom has flaws, but insanity isn’t one of them. He’s arrogant, vain, and haughty. But he’s also a character that viewers should, at least on some level, want to root for — a character whom we should be saddened by when he starts making decisions that we know to be immoral, even if he is too stubborn to see it.

A solo Doctor Doom movie is a blockbuster success waiting to happen, and if the studios ever decide to pursue it, then Von Doom should be their primary inspiration.