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)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Archaust Saga: An In-Character Introduction

Rumor and ancient lore tell us that malevolent ghosts dwell in the broad, grassy vale south of the city of Siliven. As far as we know, nobody in recent generations has seen these ghosts. In fact, if you stand at the edge of town and look down the slope, the vale appears rather plain, just weeds and grass with a small copse of trees in the middle.

But anyone foolish enough to go down into the vale runs the risk of having her mind invaded by these ghosts, and the consequences of that are madness, violence, raving fits and worse. The only thing that keeps the ghosts from ascending the vale and entering town is a little strip of green grass that encircles the town on three sides. It is here that the ten relics of the prophet Cabrien are kept. Set at regulars intervals along the circle of grass, the relics are contained in small, silver boxes which are raised up on tall poles.

These relics have some kind of power that creates a barrier for the ghosts. I don't fully understand how it works, to be honest. Unfortunately, they are no real barrier for disobedient or foolish people, who can, if they so choose and if no one is close by to stop them, simply step past the relics and enter the vale. This has happened a few times over the centuries, or so we are told. You might wonder why they don't build a real wall, something high enough to keep even the most determined troublemaker out. Well, according to the priests, the openness of the relic wall is meant to test our faith and discipline.

That's all well and good for most people. After all, who wants a mind full of ghosts? But then, not so long ago, a local girl by the name of Miral crossed over into the vale and disappeared. Her motives and purpose remain a complete mystery. She was quiet and shy but otherwise well behaved. What could possibly have possessed her to enter the vale? No one can make sense of it. I will admit to a fleeting temptation, though my intentions were mostly pure. That is to say, I went to the relic wall and looked for her. I got as close as I dared, but I never crossed. I wouldn't.

Not that it mattered. After a couple of days, Miral returned, and as we've now learned, all the old stories are true. She is no longer herself. Far from it. She has transformed into a raving, snarling lunatic, gnashing her teeth and attacking people. What does it all mean? I don't know. Most people are scared. Some are angry. But few seem to want answers. And that, to me, is the strangest thing of all.

Father is well aware of my curiosity, and he has forbidden me to come to my own house, which is where they are currently holding her. I only want to know what's happening. I only want to listen. It's not as if I intend to get involved. Miral is my own cousin. Shouldn't I be concerned about her condition? Well, I won't go in the house. Fine. But I can't promise I won't sneak over there and sit outside the window. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with wanting to know?

And that, folks, is just a little spoiler-free "in character" introduction to The Archaust Saga. The first volume, The Vale of Ghosts, opens right where this blog intro ends, with young Annella Fenn sitting outside of her own house, her back to a wall beneath her bedroom window.

It's a story about how seemingly minor choices sometimes have life-shattering consequences, about how events can spiral out of control despite our best efforts, about how a decision can seem so right in the moment before we act and then so catastrophically wrong the moment after.

Set in a fantasy kingdom called The Last Realm of Cabrien, it combines elements of fantasy with other genres. If you haven't already, click on the book cover above and read the sample on the Amazon page. I think you'll like it. Or head on over to my website to read about these and other science fiction and fantasy novels--HERE.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Beautiful First Appearances of Fabulous Villains

What makes a good villain? I suppose some people like an antagonist who is just pure evil, who does hideous and despicable things and wields great power. Others prefer a villain whose motives are understandable, who might even be somewhat sympathetic, one whose fall into evil makes sense. That sort of villain typically becomes more of a tragic figure than an incarnation of wickedness.

A villain's first entrance into the story is always significant and, if done right, can make for a memorable moment. That initial glimpse creates an impression that colors the rest of the story for the reader, I believe. Think of Darth Vader striding through the smoky door of the rebel ship in the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope. It's a bold and mysterious first appearance (made less impactful now, perhaps, that we've seen the little kid version of pre-Vader shouting "Yippeee!").

Anyway, to that end, here are some excerpts from my novels with the first appearance of the main antagonists. There is no particular deep purpose here in isolating these bits of text except for my own curiosity about how these first appearances feel, what sort of immediate impression they make. So without further ado, let's begin.

Mary of the Aether
Leonard Watt

His first appearance is the opening paragraph of the novel, though readers do not get his name until quite a bit later. I like to think it's a pretty memorable opening.

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, un-mowed 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.

Mary of Shadows

Gavin, the primary troublemaker for much of Mary of Shadows, also appears in the opening chapter, interrupting Mary's birthday party in the park with some disturbing behavior. Here is his first actual appearance:

A figure stumbled out of the line of trees, hunched over, a man clutching his face. He wandered into the park, past the swing set and monkey bars, past wide-eyed children and a pair of corgi dogs on leashes who couldn’t decide whether to bark or whimper. The man’s eyes were covered, but he stumbled right toward the picnic table, as if seeing it in his mind....a trail of blood seeped out from under the man’s right hand and ran down his cheek. He had on a pale blue, button-up dress shirt, but the tail was un-tucked, and the breast pocket was torn and hung down like a bit of rent skin.

Mary of Starlight
Ronald Holt

Some of the same evil characters recur in this third volume of the series, but about halfway through, we do meet a significant new villain in the strange Ronald Holt. Here is his first appearance in this book:

“I surely hate getting bad news. I surely do. Anybody would.”

At first, Aiden thought it was Perry who had spoken and started to brush him off again, but then he realized the voice had come from his left side. A gruff voice, low and coarse. He turned and saw a man walking along beside him, ten yards away, keeping pace as he picked his way around the trees. Aiden had seen the man before, and he had expected to see him again but not so soon, not so suddenly. The man had a long white beard, black around his mouth, unkempt at the edges. It hung down to his chest. He wore a ragged fedora hat pulled low over his eyes and a long brown trench coat.

“It’s about the magical girl, I suppose,” the man said. “All of the bad news is about her these days, isn’t it?”

Children of the Mechanism

There isn't really a single villain in Children of the Mechanism. Well, I suppose the factory itself counts as the primary antagonist, but the cruel Watcher robots serve as the primary source of danger for the main characters. Here is their first description in the early pages of the novel:

The Watcher entered the Sleeping Room through the archway, returning from whatever strange errand it had been about, and stopped in a corner near the Refuse Hole. A boy relieving himself finished quickly and dashed away. The Watcher had a shiny, cylindrical body, fat wheels for feet, a flat, circular head with dead eyes, but it was the arms that the boys paid special attention to, long segmented arms made of polished metal rods with cloth bulbs for hands. Those were the killing hands, and they were ever poised, ready to strike.

“One minute until work,” the Watcher said. “One minute.”

Dreams in the Void
Lord-General Durehen Tallek

His first appearance happens in the first chapter, even though his real purpose is not made clear to the protagonist until a few chapters later. But here is that first appearance:

Six men passed, and then one appeared, riding alone, who seemed greater than the others. He wore the same sort of armor, polished to a mirror shine, but massive silver wings curled out on either side of his helm above the cheek plates, and he had a double visor, the first raised all the way up, the second lifted halfway, revealing a set of dark eyes beneath a heavy brow. A man and not an empty suit. His long cloak was fringed in gold cloth, and he had drawn it around himself, clutching a fold of it in his gloved left hand.

Garden of Dust and Thorns

The first real appearance of Magesh happens after the protagonist is captured and brought into a courtyard with some of her people. After waiting for a while in anxious silence, Magesh appears:

After some time, there arose a strange jingling sound from outside the courtyard, as if many chains were being shaken. She heard soldiers chanting that same word, the one that sounded like death, but in hushed voices. Finally, a pair of soldiers entered the courtyard, bearing a padded bench stolen from someone’s house. They set it in the open space at the center of the courtyard, then took up positions on either side of it. 

A man entered, markedly different from the others. He had no hood, only a long gray cape fringed in silver brocade. On his head was a kind of crown made of woven strips of leather, alternating red and black. His face, unlike the others, was uncovered, a hard face, features chiseled out of stone, framed by short curls of graying hair. He crossed the courtyard in four long strides, as the prisoners along the walls murmured and groaned, turned in one swift motion and sat down on the bench. He had a small curved sword sheathed at his side, but he drew it now and laid the blade across his thigh. 

“Bring him,” he said, after a moment. Dark eyes beneath bushy eyebrows, a sharp nose, flaring nostrils, thin lips, deep creases at the corners of his mouth and along his forehead.

Vale of Ghosts

Now, this situation is somewhat unique in that the true villain of this whole fantasy series doesn't appear until fairly late in the first book. Prior to that moment, the protagonist has no idea what she's dealing with. In fact, when he first appears, she mistakes him for a statue:

And sitting on the bench was some bent-backed old statue, gray and mottled skin like polished marble. Someone had draped it in a filthy robe that was falling apart. It was the figure of a man with well-defined muscles, its face hidden in its hands.

But then it reveals itself to be a living thing:

Suddenly, the statue moved. First, it shuddered, as if waking. Then it sat up. She saw an angular face, delicately carved. The lips parted to reveal rows of pale teeth, and the eyelids opened to reveal hollow spaces where eyes should have been. But when the statue turned toward them, she realized the hollow spaces were not empty. Tiny specks of light flashed deep inside, pinprick lights like distant stars.

And, of course, from that point on, things get markedly worse for all involved.

There are many more--General Mattock from Shadows of Tockland. Devourers from the Mary of the Aether series. Sindaya from Garden of Dust and Thorns. The Master from Children of the Mechanism--along with a few that I can't name because they are revealed during major plot twists.

So what do you think? What makes a memorable antagonist? What makes a memorable first appearance for a story's villain?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Favorite Characters

I love a good character. Actually, I love writing a good character as much as reading about one. Now, what makes a character "good" is highly subjective, and in particular what I enjoy about writing a certain character may not translate into what readers enjoy, or don't enjoy, about the same. In general, what makes me enjoy writing a particular character usually has to do with a combination of a quirky personality and clear (to me, the author) motives. To that end, here are some of the characters that I've most enjoyed writing over the years.

Cakey the Clown (aka Gavril Tugurlan) 

This will come as no surprise to those who have read the novel, I suppose. In the end, Cakey stands out quite a bit for his weird antics and strange behavior. The particular iteration of Cakey that appears in my novel Shadows of Tockland is a genuine weirdo, driven by a mysterious childhood, some Roma prophecies with apocalyptic leanings, and a significant amount of psychological trauma and guilt. All of this combines to create a character who is fearless, overly confident, occasionally threatening and dangerous, hard for other characters to like, but also quite talented (at juggling knives and other useful things).

Kristen Grossman 

Now, here's a character that some readers just do not like at all, but she is one my favorites. In the Mary of the Aether series, Kristen is the protagonist's "best" friend, and by "best" I mean "sort of a nuisance and sometimes a bully and too often present." She is sarcastic, and sometimes it is not clear if the sarcasm comes from genuine meanness and hostility or if she's trying, in a lame way, to be funny. Readers that see her as just a bully who is constantly insulting everyone tend not to like her. As the author, of course, I understand that a lot of this comes from fear and pain, and by the second novel, Mary of Shadows, it should become clear to readers that she has a profound sense of abandonment tied to her father. Though that doesn't excuse her behavior, as the author, I always knew that there was, under the crust of sarcasm and annoyance, a tender-hearted soul who yearned to do something awesome in life. At the same time, the sarcasm was fun to write, I must admit.


If you've read Children of the Mechanism, you know that it is a dark and relentlessly bleak novel about child slaves living and working in a vast factory, lorded over my cruel robots called Watchers. Because of their strange childhoods, all of the characters exhibit unhealthy emotional development, reacting to things in unnatural ways, but none of the major characters is stranger than the one called Kuo. Now, as an author, I am fully aware that Kuo is most likely suffering from some kind of genuine mental illness, probably schizophrenia, among other things. However, along the way he has some major revelations about his world that set in motion all of the events driving the plot. His compulsion, his shifting view of the character called "Rel" (part-real and part-hallucination), and ultimately his drive to fulfill his purpose make him, for me, a compelling character.


I can't say too much about this character because he is the antagonist in an unfinished fantasy series of mine called The Archaust Saga. The first volume, The Vale of Ghosts, is available, but I've done little to promote it. Mostly, I am waiting until the second volume is closer to completion. I'm about two thirds of the way through that one. Anyway, let me be frank, Vyshe is a despicable creature who does terrible things. I don't like him as a person, but his motives are weird, and his skill-set is unusual, and his personality makes him a real oddball. He is up to all sorts of shenanigans in the second volume. He creeps me out, and he is gross and vile, but as a villain, I am truly enjoying writing about him. Not to say I won't be relieved if and when he gets defeated. But I won't say much more about him at this time.

Anyway, I've enjoyed far more of my characters than this, but these few are among my favorites. Getting into the headspace of a character as you write about him or her is part of the fun of creating novels, but the author's experience of a character is often quite different from a reader's experience of the same. For my readers out there, which of my characters, if any, have you enjoyed? Are your feelings about the ones in this list different than mine? Let me know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Joy of Chapter Titles

Although it may seem like a minor aspect of writing a novel, I really enjoy creating chapter titles. I think a good chapter title has a profound effect on the reader. Ideally, it should give some ominous inkling of what is to come without revealing too much. Done right, the reader reaches the end of a chapter, turns the page, sees the title of the next chapter and says, "Uh oh."

For example, in my novel Shadows of Tockland, one of the main characters, an oddball circus performer by the name of Cakey, keeps talking about some terrible impending event called the "ever-night." He is vague about the particulars, but he is convinced this event is coming and that it will be catastrophic. And then, all of a sudden, readers turn a page, and there is the chapter title: Ever-night. *cue ominous music*

In Children of the Mechanism, the characters keep descending deeper and deeper into a massive factory, encountering stranger and more terrible things as they go. Then, all of a sudden, readers turn the page and see the next chapter title: The Bottom of the World. They've reached the bottom. What awful thing will they find there?

It might be something subtle. In my Young Adult novel Mary of Shadows, there is a chapter early on called The Worst Person in the World. My hope is that when readers see it, the title piques their interest--The worst person in the world? Who could that be?--and makes them want to keep reading to find out.

Now, with all of that said, I believe I have just created my own personal favorite chapter title. I can't give any context for it because I'm not done writing the novel. This new story has a little bit of the vibe of Children of the Mechanism, if not quite so bleak and oppressive. But I think maybe the title will be interesting all by itself. Behold:

The Sweet Embrace of a Thousand Monsters

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Another Novel Comes Pouring Out

So I haven't updated the blog in a while, and I wish to rectify that immediately and tout de suite. What am I working on these days, you might ask? Well, I am two chapters into a new novel with the working title Teth of the City. Some of you will be excited (and others disturbed) to hear that it has a similar flavor and feeling to Children of the Mechanism. It is not set in the same world (I don't think; we'll see), and it's not about child labor, but it does have that same dirty, dystopian, claustrophobic feeling.

Imagine a vast, grungy metropolis with massive metal walls and buildings (something like Blade Runner's version of Los Angeles without the flying cars, billboards, neon lights or crowds of people). A haze hangs over everything, turned to luminous fire by the rising and setting sun. In the midst of this sprawling city, there is a vast wall, and set into this wall are thousands of small balconies. Our protagonist, Teth, lives and works on one of these balconies, eking out a living while trying to hide from his tragic past. His life begins to unravel when a new courier shows up one day to make his daily delivery of provisions. Her name is Cera, and she seems to know him. Alarmingly, she remembers his past, and she claims to have secret information about things that happened to him long ago, things he has tried very hard to forget.

So there you go. Without giving away too much, that is the gist of Teth of the City. I really, really like the setting, and the story will have some truly creepy and beautiful moments, I do believe. It has a nice dream-like quality to it, in my opinion. If you liked Children of the Mechanism or even Shadows of Tockland, I think this one will be right up your alley. It's pouring out of my brain pretty fast, so it should be completed and published in a couple of months.

 Cover Art by Wisconsinart |

Cover Art © Wisconsinart |