Saturday, July 16, 2016

What Evil Dwells in the Heart of the City?

So let's talk about the latest novel. At the moment, it's over on Kindle Scout. For those who don't know, Kindle Scout is a kind of publishing competition where books vie for reader nominations. At the end of a 30-day campaign, books with a lot of nominations are supposedly eligible for a fairly good contract with Kindle. Now, honestly, I have no idea what the odds are of winning this thing. It could be like trying to win the lottery, for all I know, but I thought I'd try it anyway. So if you would, please give Teth of the City a nomination. Its right here. You can also read a sample.

If it doesn't win, I'll go another route with it. We shall see. But let's talk about the book a little bit.

Teth lives in a city that prides itself on its efficiency and prosperity. The motto that citizens learn from the time they are young, "A place for every person, and a person for every place," presents a vision of a society where nobody is forgotten, nobody is cast aside or marginalized.

As our story opens, however, we see a man living in less-than-ideal conditions. Teth's apartment is a small, enclosed balcony, one of dozens of them, possibly hundreds, built into the side of a vast metal wall. It seems like practically a prison, with no easy way to leave. As for the work, Teth spends hours each day putting together circuit boards by hand in exchange for basic daily provisions, which are brought to him by a courier.

It is, at best, subsistence living, and we can't help but wonder how a man would wind up in this condition. Did Teth choose this way of life? Was it forced upon him? And, perhaps more importantly, what sort of a city would create such a working environment?

Of course, there are answers to all of these questions. Ultimately, a city that promises prosperity and purpose to all of its citizens might fail to live up to that promise. Teth, we soon learn, is willfully blind to many things because he is nursing deep wounds from a personal tragedy. Getting him to care about anything, particular things out of his reach, will not be easy.

Unfortunately, beneath the mottos, the ideals, the news feed propaganda, and the promises, there is a reality to the City that is much different than Teth or any other citizen has ever imagined. And when a courier shows up at his balcony one day with information about the cause of his tragedy, Teth finds himself drawn inexorably into the heart of the City, to the truth that is hidden there.

And that, folks, is the essence of this latest novel. With weird creatures, desperate escapes, intrigue, dark and slimy passages, and strange technology, it should be an interesting read. Please give it your nomination. Thanks!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Opening Paragraphs Just Want Your Love

The purpose of an opening paragraph is to quickly pique the interest of readers. There are many ways to do this, of course, but I prefer to open with some indication of the conflict that will drive the rest of the story. A little bit of weirdness, a touch of mystery, a hint of danger, some indication of the setting--if I can work all of these things into the opening paragraph, then I've done my job. Take a look at the opening paragraphs of some of my recent novels, and you'll see this process at work. Here we go:

The Vale of Ghosts (The Archaust Saga Book One)

Ann heard screams through the window, though the shutters had been pulled and latched and a pillow shoved into the space behind it. A tortured scream, the scratchy warbling howl of a monster. She was crouched in the dirt beneath the windowsill, jabbing a crooked stick into the ground between her feet and trying to appear like she wasn’t listening, like she hadn’t a care in the world. A ladybug landed on her knee, and she offered it the end of the stick. It climbed onto the stick, and she held it up into the air until it flew away.

Army of the Inner Eye (The Archaust Saga Book Two)

Enari kicked the coarse wool blanket off the bed and sat up, his head swimming from the lingering residue of a bad dream. Heavy afternoon sunlight filtered through the shutters on the only window in the room, illuminating the dusty air in the clergy house. It took him a few seconds to realize that he was still hearing the voices from his dream, three or four voices speaking all at once, and they seemed scared or angry or both.

Teth of the City

Teth leaned as far over the balcony railing as he dared, feeling the press of the cold metal bar against his stomach, and thrust the hunting pole toward the clothesline. Made of hollow aluminum, the pole was dented in many places, scars from all the times he had banged it on the railing or on the wall. At the end of the pole, a little loop of nylon rope was threaded through a hole. With the pull of a crude trigger, he could contract the loop, but first he had to get it around the head of the line rat. The fat little animal had a long tapered nose, dusky fur, and loose folds of skin that drooped over the sides of the clothesline. But nimble forepaws and a prehensile tail kept it from falling into the hazy, red gloom below.

Fading Man

“There's nothing you can do for her,” Eleanor said, bent over, her hand resting on his shoulder. “It’s the water. The sickness is in the ground water, that’s what they told us. She must’ve gotten into a puddle along the way.”

This technique, if you want to call it that, is evident in everything I've written, going back to my first published novel, as you can see here:

Mary of the Aether

The lunatic in the long, gray cloak dashed out of the forest and ran right up onto the front yard, waving his arms in front of him like a child playing tag. He skirted the porch, paused, turned a complete circle and fell onto his hands and knees. A hood obscured most of his face, but Mary could see the tip of a pointy chin covered in whiskers. She sat at the living room window, leaning against the sill and resting her forehead against the cold glass, transfixed by the sight. The crazy man crawled through the high, unmowed grass, his face close to the ground, shifting back and forth like a bloodhound chasing a scent. He stopped at the driveway, lifted his head and appeared to sniff at the air. Then he scooped up a handful of gravel and sifted it through his fingers.

My goal is always the same. 1) introduce the conflict, 2) pique readers' interest, 3) give some sense of what is to come. Some of my novels are more effective at this than others, of course, but it's a fun little part of writing a novel. Any favorites?

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Turgid History of Mary of the Aether

So let's talk about the Mary of the Aether series. It's a four-volume Young Adult, Urban Fantasy series, and the first volume was also the first novel I ever got published. Mary of the Aether was originally written between 2009 and 2011, and an indie publishing house called Whiskey Creek Press published it in July 2012.

Some cool things happened with that first book. Chiefly, in the summer of 2013, it wound up on a recommended reading list called "So Many Books, So Little Time," which is part of an annual workshop for Arkansas teachers done by a Harding University professor named Ken Stamatis. As a result of that list, thousands of English teachers across the state heard about the book, and I became a fairly regular speaker at area high schools and junior highs.

Now, I have to give some credit to the publisher at that time. Once Mary of the Aether got on that list, the publisher worked with me personally to create promotional materials to take advantage of the situation. It was an exciting development and led to some sales and lots of feedback (mostly positive).

By the time that book was published, I had already completed the sequel, Mary of Shadows. It came out in August 2013, right after all the hullabaloo with the reading list. Unfortunately, even as I worked furiously to finish books three and four, my publisher was struggling to survive. For reasons I still don't fully understand, Whiskey Creek Press fell on dark times and died a slow, agonizing death. It became harder to get hold of them. A lot of their authors expressed mounting frustration. We got less attention for our books.

Ultimately, Whiskey Creek Press ceased to exist shortly before the fourth and final book of the series, Mary of Cosmos, came out in 2014. Consequently, books two through four didn't get even a fraction of the attention that Mary of the Aether did. Just compare the number of Amazon reviews for the first book to the others, and you'll see what I mean. Honestly, I'm just glad the fourth and final book came out at all.

What saved the day for Mary of Cosmos and the rest of the series was that Whiskey Creek Press's catalog was bought by Start Publishing, and they went ahead and released Mary of Cosmos for me. The name "Whiskey Creek Press" became an imprint of Start Publishing, and the series continued to be available. But otherwise, since then things have been pretty quiet.

I have to say, the relative neglect of books two through four is a shame. They are so much better than the first book. In fact, my original editor, Melanie Billings, in her final email to me, had this to say about the series: "I have to tell you, I have LOVED working on this series. It is one of my absolute favorites! I could definitely see this series doing well if it just catches on like it should! I’m so glad I got to work with you on it." That's a nice little compliment.

Well, not much happened after Start Publishing took over. A quiet couple of years passed with a few sales here and there, some more school speaking gigs, but no major developments. Well, a major development has finally happened. As of July 1, 2016, Start Publishing has entered into a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster.

This means the Start catalog, including the Mary of the Aether series, is now distributed by Simon & Schuster. What does that mean? Well, first of all, it means a much broader reach, with the books available a far more retailers than ever before. It also means I've now got an author page over at Simon & Schuster. What else might come from this remains to be seen, but it can only be positive. Perhaps the whole series will finally get the attention it deserves.

And hey, if you've not given the series a chance, let me strongly plead with you to do so now. It's worth it, I believe. Just click the picture below and get started!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Creepy Places with Strange Odors and Slimy Walls

Okay, confession time. World building is not my strength. You know what I mean by world building? The term refers to the author's process of constructing or fleshing out the overall structure (political, geographical, cultural) of their imaginary world. It's a big deal particularly for science fiction and fantasy writers. Good world building gives readers a strong sense of a believable imaginary world outside the confines of the immediate plot.

I don't enjoy it so much. It probably shows. My devotion tends to be toward characters and events, mood and tone, but I do very much enjoy creating memorable settings. These, of course, can contribute to world building, but in fact, they operate much like the setting of a play or a scene in a movie. They place the readers in a distinct location and give them a stage on which to locate the characters and keep track of the action.

Boy, do I love to create a memorable setting, something that readers can feel and smell, something that gives a distinct impression, something they will remember. I don't know how good I am at it, but I enjoy it. So with that in mind, let's look at some of my favorite settings from some of my novels. These are places I loved to create, places that were vivid in my imagination. If you've read the books, which of these stick out in your memory?

Children of the Mechanism - Grong Room

One might say that this whole novel is set in a memorable place. It's a vast, dark, grungy factory full of slimy refuse holes with dented robots roaming about. It's labyrinthine and smells bad, and it's full of danger. But, one place in particular that I enjoyed writing about was the Grong Room. This is the place where a character named Kuo lives and works. It is a vast, high-ceilinged place with a rubbery floor on which a hideous, huge flesh-creature rests. The Grong is a headless, limbless, living bio-mass of some kind that absorbs a nutrient-rich "meat paste" which workers spend all day slopping under its massive skin folds. Doesn't that sound fun? It's hideous, odorous, dark, and disgusting.

Mary of the Aether - Chesset

Chesset is a small, fictional town set in rural Arkansas that has a lot of qualities that I have experienced in real places. If you know the area of Northwest Arkansas, you will see pieces of Mountainburg, West Fork, Winslow, and Chester. The only two businesses in town, at least initially, are a small convenience store and one of those ubiquitous soft-serve ice cream parlors that small towns love. Everything revolves around these two places, until a big gas station sets up shop just off the highway. Chesset feels like a real place to me. It is very much like towns where I have actually lived.

Garden of Dust and Thorns - The Garden

The garden in this novel is the last green place in a world that has otherwise transformed into one vast, dusty desert. Since it was created to preserve plant and animal species, it is a unique sort of place where things from many different kinds of environments and climates all exist side by side. Baobab trees next to stately aspen, bison grazing with camels, and a magical power somehow allows all of these things to thrive together. If such a place existed, it would be quite a thing to see. Every kind of fruit, every color of flower, it's all there. A massive wall of thorny vines surrounds it and keeps out the dust. The tragedy of the story is that the people who live outside the garden take it for granted. Some never go inside. They are content to live in their sad little town on the other side of the wall.

The Vale of Ghosts - The Archaust Chamber

This place appears in the first two books of The Archaust Saga. Actually, it appears in the second volume, Army of the Inner Eye, quite a bit more. It is partly a natural cavern and partly a constructed chamber. Primary access is through a hole in the roof, which drops into a deep, muddy pool. But the real heart of the Archaust chamber is behind an ancient door, where a narrow passageway leads into a secret room. It's dim, dark, oppressive, and hopefully super creepy. And it is here that our curious protagonist first comes face to face with the real evil that threatens the kingdom.

Teth of the City - The City

A sprawling futuristic city, full of massive metal buildings, countless balconies, winding streets, sleek vehicles, and thousands of neat little workstations and living quarters for all the people. That's the setting of my next novel. A place for every person, and a person for every place. That's the motto. But if you look a little closer, you will find seedy places, rundown and desolate locations, street dwellers, and mysterious entrances into underground corridors. It's overrun, busy, noisy, and a bright red sun burns through the constant haze in the sky overhead.

Anyway, those are just a few examples of some of the memorable settings I've enjoyed writing about over the years. I love to create a vivid sense of place, where readers can practically feel the grime and smell the odors. Hopefully, I have occasionally managed it.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Every Story Needs a Weirdo

I can't help myself. In just about every novel I've ever written there is at least one character who is a flat-out weirdo. Sometimes they are just quirky, other times they are psychologically damaged, and a few of these people are totally insane. It's not something I set out to do. It's just something that happens. I try to make interesting characters, and since I tend to be a little weird myself, it bleeds over.

So let's look at a few examples of my weird characters. If you've read these books, I'd be curious to know which of them you liked the best.

Shadows of Tockland

All of the characters in this story are weird or damaged in some way, but nobody matches Cakey the Clown, AKA Gavril Tugurlan. He performs a knife juggling act in The Klown Kroo, a traveling circus. That's not what makes him weird. What makes him weird is that he never takes off his clown makeup, I mean never, and he occasionally utters prophetic pronouncements about an impending apocalyptic event called the ever-night. He believes in destiny to a fault, and he's quick to violence. At the same time, he can be extremely loyal.

As he tells our anxious protagonist, "Mark my words, the ever-night is coming, and when it does, you'll be glad you've got some wild nutters at your side." And, boy oh boy, does that turn out to be true.

Children of the Mechanism

The characters in this book are all enslaved children, so they have stunted developments and strange ways of talking. However, the weirdest of these poor kids is an unfortunate guy by the name of Kuo. In this case, Kuo is most likely suffering from an actual mental illness, some form of schizophrenia, so his behavior is more sad than amusing. He keeps seeing an old friend of his, another slave named Rel, who might or might not actually exist. Poor suffering Kuo unwittingly does some really awful things to some innocent people, but later on, the same mental confusion actually compels him to heroism. In a way, he turns out to be the most important character in the story.

Teth of the City

This book isn't published yet, but just you wait until you meet Kide. He's a short, smart, gifted guy with a huge, hideous beard, and an impressive gut. He's someone our characters turn to when they need access to hidden files in a computer database. But Kide is a hoarder, with an apartment stacked to the ceiling with "stuff," and he's sarcastic and self-amused. Plus, he loves to call people buddy and pal and dearest. A nice combination of traits, yes?

Mary of the Aether

There are a few rather strange people in this book series. Kristen Grossman, for example, who is sarcastic, occasionally insulting, sometimes insufferable. In the second book, Mary of Shadows, we learn that this might be the result of some family turmoil she has experienced. However, the weirdest character is a fellow named Richard "Mullet" Williams. He's sweaty and awkward, and when readers first meet him, he is in the school bathroom, pretending to have diarrhea so the school nurse will send him home. The nickname comes from the long sheet of glorious, greasy hair that spills down his back. He also almost gets everyone killed, so that's a problem.

Anyway, those are just a few examples. Yes, I do enjoy creating weird characters, and I create them often. Some are only mildly strange, like timid Elonny from The Vale of Ghosts or Innpan from Garden of Dust and Thorns, others are dangerous nutjobs, like Cakey. I enjoy writing them. I hope people enjoy reading about them.

You can learn more about these various books right HERE, people, HERE! Click it! CLICK IT NOW!

Thanks :)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Alarming Readers with Chapter Titles

I've said before that I'm unusually fond of chapter titles. They provide the author with a great opportunity to entice, or possibly alarm, readers, so that they want to continue reading. A good chapter title gives a vague but distinct notion about what is to come, maybe hinting at danger, maybe presenting a riddle to be solved along the way. With each novel I write, there is usually one particular chapter title that really stands out. Let me share some examples and explain what I mean.

Teth of the City

Chapter Title: The Sweet Embrace of a Thousand Monsters

This book doesn't have cover art yet. In fact, I'm not even done with revisions, but I like this chapter title. It refers to a crack that a character makes earlier in the story, which is meant as an exaggeration of the possible dangers they are about to face. But suddenly, readers turn the page and see the chapter title! *cue creepy music*

The Vale of Ghosts
The Archaust Saga Book One

Chapter Title: Morning Breaks All Things

At a certain point in the story, the characters have put together a somewhat ill-planned strategy for dealing with the difficult situation that is troubling them (am I being vague enough?). Anyway, it's late at night, and they are enacting this plan. Suddenly, readers turn the page and come to this chapter title. It does not bode well. It hints that things might not go the way the characters intend. It whispers at potential soul-shattering catastrophe.

Army of the Inner Eye
The Archaust Saga Book Two

Chapter Title: The Unprotected Heart

In the previous novel (mildest spoiler alert), a powerful being tells our protagonist that he can protect her body, but he cannot protect her heart. It is clear in the context of the story that this is a reference to possible grief and anguish from the hero's friends and family being put in mortal danger. Well, along comes book number two, and suddenly one of the early chapters bears this title, hinting that perhaps the warning from the previous book will suddenly become a terrible reality. *cue anxious hand-wringing*

Garden of Dust and Thorns

Chapter Title: Everything Dies

Here's a fun little fantasy novel I wrote once upon a time, where two great supernatural beings wage war over the last green garden in a world turned to dust. It features a brutal war between soldiers and a forest full of animals. Good times. Anyway, at a certain point in the story, the two sides are coming together to draw up battle lines, promising a vicious fight. There's no telling how it will turn out, but things don't look good. Readers turn the page and see the next chapter title. Hearts sink.

See, that's why I love a good chapter title. Oh, the little mind games you can play with a good chapter title. Tweaking expectations, building tension, casting doubt. It's a lot of fun. Of course, every chapter title can't be a gem, but when you can make them crackle, it's a nice feeling.

(by the way, click the book covers for links to the various books)

Friday, May 6, 2016

What Am I Trying to Say?

When I write a novel, I am, first and foremost, just trying to tell a compelling story, with interesting characters, thrilling events, and a memorable setting. Sometimes, there is also a bit of cathartic saturation, where I am wallowing in a particular mood or emotion. However, there is almost always a singular thematic idea that I am chasing as well.

With each of my novels, I can simplify that thematic idea down to its most basic essence. Here are a few examples:

The Vale of Ghosts

Annella Fenn, the main character, addresses the singular theme in this way:

Isn’t it strange how everything can fall apart in one day? In one moment?” Ann said, musing into the growing darkness. “One dumb act made in ignorance is all it takes to ruin your life forever. It shouldn’t be that way. There should be some way to go back and undo choices made, especially choices made unwittingly. Don’t you think?”

Army of the Inner Eye

The sequel to The Vale of Ghosts offers a natural thematic progression from the first book, which Annella also summarizes with this statement:

“Every time I try to fix a situation I make a big old mess.”

So it's easy to make a big old mess and incredibly hard to fix it. And that is what this book series explores, chiefly, and that is how it goes sometimes in life, folks.

Shadows of Tockland

A strange, violent novel about a clown troupe traveling across a post-apocalyptic America. Shadows of Tockland tells the story of a young man named David Morr who runs away from home to join up with the clowns. As he meets the performers, he finds that each one is strange in his or her own way. However, what they all have in common is an obsession with performing, despite the perils and tragedies they encounter on the road. 

Bubbles the Clown, as she is called, sums it up nicely in this bit of conversation with David:

“I like to perform. Better to say I need to perform. It feels good when you get applause. It’s good when you get recognition. It feels right when you’re on the stage, and you can feel it all coming together. You know what I mean?” 

He shrugged. 

“No, I guess you don’t get it yet,” she said. “But you will. There’s something in performing that we all need, and it makes the awful stuff seem worthwhile. Even Gooty sticks around, and he’s got the least reason to be here. All of us need something that we only get from doing this. That includes you. There’s some reason you wanted to join up. What was it? Your old man?” 

David nodded. “Mostly. Had to get out of Mountainburg.” 

“So we’ve all got our reasons,” she said. “And that’s why, if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll keep right on letting Telly be the boss, even when his decisions get you in trouble. Because you need to be here, you need to be on the road, you need to be onstage despite the risks and the pain.”

Children of the Mechanism

A truly dark tale about child slaves living and working in a massive factory, watched over by cruel robots. When a glitch in the computer system causes some of the doors to open, a few brave children leave their rooms and begin to wander the corridors. And really, that's kind of the point right there. When a door opens, you have to have the courage to go through it. As Ekir says:

"Open doors are the best thing in the whole world. An open door means you can leave something bad and maybe find something good."

Despite this, only a handful of slaves are willing to risk the uncertainty of the open door, choosing to remain in the misery they are familiar with rather than trust themselves to fate.

Anyway, that's just a few of my books, but you get the idea. Maybe we'll examine some others at a later date. Chasing a singular theme, an idea, a cathartic saturation in a particular mood or emotion, those are the kinds of things I'm doing when I write a novel.

At the moment, I'm working on a new science fiction novel called Teth of the City. It's what you might call dystopian, and it has a similar feel to Children of the Mechanism, though it's not nearly as dark. In the end, Teth of the City is about learning to care again, learning to give a crap after years spent nursing old wounds. I think it might just be powerful stuff, but we shall see. More on that one later, folks.

(By the way, click on any of the book covers in this blog entry to go to the appropriate Amazon page for the book)