Friday, January 30, 2015

Samples, Samples, and More Samples, Part One

I would like to give you a tiny but delicious sampling of every single novel I've ever written. However, that would make for a blog entry a bit too long. So instead, I will give you a tender sample of a few key novels that I most want you to delight in. Let's start with my first novel and then we'll sample my grimmest novel, shall we?

Mary of the Aether 

“Someone’s at the door,” Mary said, leaning in close.

Papa blinked and his eyes focused on her. “At the door? Yes, all right. Give me a moment to get up and get presentable.”

“I’m not sure—”

And then there came a knock so violent it rattled the door in its frame and echoed down the hallway like a thunderclap. Mary screamed and stumbled backward, clapping a hand over her mouth.

“Oh my,” Papa said, struggling to sit up. “Mary, you best call the police. Go.”

Mary raced out of Papa’s room and back to the kitchen. As she reached for the phone, she heard someone jostling the doorknob, trying to force it to turn. She attempted to dial 911, but her trembling fingers kept missing the buttons.

Another knock, forceful and angry, and Mary heard the crack of wood. She glanced into the living room and saw that part of the door frame had broken loose. She turned back to the phone, held it close to her face and dialed the numbers, forcing herself to go slowly so she would not miss. Then she pressed the phone to her ear.

A click followed by a voice. “911 Emergency. How can I help you?”

“There’s someone at our door—”

The whole house shook with the force of the next blow. Pictures fell from the walls, and the windows rattled. Mary dropped the phone and covered her head as bits of plaster rained down from the ceiling. Before she could recover, there came another crash, and she heard the door splinter. Mary looked down the hallway and saw the front door bowed inward, split right down the middle, jagged edges sticking out like broken bones. A final blow ripped the door hinges out of the frame, tore the bolts loose and sent the door flying into the living room in pieces.

As the pieces settled, Mary saw a man standing in the jagged opening, a tall man in a gray cloak and hood. She ducked back into the kitchen and retrieved the phone, but in her panic, she accidentally hit the ‘Talk’ button and hung it up. She heard the stranger’s feet crunching wood as he entered the house. Mary dropped the phone again and glanced back into the living room to see the stranger sweep his long cloak off his shoulders and stride into Papa’s room.

“Get out of here,” Papa said, trying to shout but managing only a hoarse croak. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“Nothing for me?” The stranger’s voice sounded surprisingly calm and deep. “Are you certain of that, old man? I’ll tell you what I think, I think you’ve got a secret.”

Children of the Mechanism

Kuo sank his hands into the meat trough and scooped up a large mound of the damp, gray paste. He brought it up to the lid of the trough and dumped it into the plastic bucket on the floor between his feet. Some of it slopped onto the floor, but Kuo was careful to pick up every little bit and flick it into the bucket. The grease ran between his fingers and dripped onto his feet, tickling his toes. When the bucket was full, he grabbed the rope handle in both hands, set his feet farther apart, and rose. The bucket was heavy, but Kuo was strong. The only risk was losing his balance.

Kuo turned, saw the line of feeders moving across the room, saw the Watchers beyond them with their mouthless faces and bent arms. Oh, the Watchers were always nearby, weren’t they? Always staring, staring, staring, and sometimes Kuo thought he knew what they were thinking. They looked past the other feeders and fixed their black eyes on Kuo alone.

"I know what you’re doing,” Kuo muttered. “I can read your minds. I know you’re playing the game with me.” 

He glared at them to make sure they got the point. Then Kuo turned toward the Grong. It filled most of the large room, the vast heap of it rising up to the ceiling a hundred feet above. A monstrous mound of flesh piled up in mottled folds like numerous fat bellies, it had no arms or legs, no head or neck or hair, just fat and meat and quivering pale skin. The feeders approaching the bottom looked like ants. All along the surface, the folds of the Grong hung heavy, as if the whole thing were slowly melting into the floor. 

Kuo moved to the back of the line of feeders and shuffled forward, clutching his bucket between his knees. The metal floor transitioned to the soft padding that served as a kind of permanent bed for the Grong. It had a bit of give to it, and Kuo sighed. He liked how the soft floor felt beneath his feet.

A face peeked out of the line ahead of him. Big brown eyes, a curly forelock of black hair, a small and crooked mouth that was smiling, as always.

“Oh, Rel, I see you there,” Kuo shouted. “I see you!”

The feeder in front of him spun around and made a shushing noise. Kuo scowled at the man until he turned away. He might have punched him right in his face, but a Watcher moved up beside him.

“No shouting during the working day,” it said. “Loud noises lead to punishment. Work quietly. Work diligently. Keep your voice down.”

“Voice down,” Kuo said, ducking his head. “Yes, voice down.”

The Watcher turned and went back to its place, and Kuo sent hateful thoughts in its direction. When it was gone, Kuo whipped back around and looked for Rel, but Rel had melted into the crowd.

“I’ll find you,” Kuo muttered. “You can’t hide all the time, Rel. Just you wait and see.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Favorite Typo of All Time

So somehow, despite the hard work of editors and authors, typos still manage to sneak into a published novel now and again. This means the little typo managed to go unnoticed through multiple readings of the manuscripts and the galley. I think the brain does some kind of auto-correcting, providing cover for the typo get by.

Most of the time, these are minor things, and all you can do is inform the editor and let her make corrections. Occasionally, the typo is something that makes a significant change, but only once have I encountered a published typo in my own book that made me laugh out loud.

Let me first introduce you to the book. Here it is:

Mary of Cosmos is the fourth and final volume of a young adult series that I wrote over the last few years. The complete series looks like this: 

It's a young adult, urban fantasy series about the increasingly epic and magical goings-on in a tiny Arkansas town. If you haven't checked it out, I would, of course, strongly advise you to give the first book a read. I don't think you'll regret it. But let's get on to the typo.

So Mary of Cosmos, as a concluding volume, has all kinds of super-significant character moments, as you might imagine. Well, there is one moment in particular that is kind of shocking and definitely intense, and the typo occurred right smack dab in the middle of that scene. Picture the scene: a girl lies on the ground, wounded, and a boy stands over her. They are surrounded by wreckage and ruin. Got it?

Okay, so here is the sentence the way it was supposed to read (and the way it reads now that the editor has corrected the typo):

Finally, she sighed, licked her lips, and turned her head to one side.

Now, don't forget, the girl is injured, she is in pain. It's a dramatic moment. Okay, here is the way the sentence read with the typo:
Finally, he sighed, licked her lips, and turned her head to one side.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that one tiny difference changes the scene dramatically. When I discovered it, I managed to laugh out loud while being incredibly irritated at the same time. Fortunately, when I told my editor about it, she made a change to the manuscript right away. However, I think this typo is now my all-time favorite.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Quote Time Is Here Again

The quotes game is one of my favorite things to do on the blog, and I think it might be time to do it again. I pick one significant quote from each of my novels, both released and unreleased, and then you, the dear reader, decide which quote is your favorite. Sound fun? Okay, let's get to it.

"Maybe if I practice a lot, if I order my thoughts, I can learn to imagine better things. Maybe in time I could imagine anything. What if nothing is impossible?" --Mary of the Aether 


"The world just got a whole lot more dangerous tonight. Maybe it always was dangerous, but I didn’t know it." --Mary of Shadows 

"I know who I want to be. I want to help and heal, and I won’t let you or anyone else try to change me. I saw what I can become, I saw it, right there by the side of the road." --Mary of Starlight

"I don’t care if anyone likes me, as long as I’m not embarrassed ever again by my own feelings or my own behavior." --Mary of Cosmos 

"Destiny, I want to lick your face for all your perfect ways.” --Shadows of Tockland

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

"You cannot bury sickness under the ground and expect it to stay there. It will make itself known eventually. It will climb up out of its hole and demand to be seen." --Fading Man 

"Your comfortable life is paid for with the taxes of hard working villagers, so that one day, you might provide just leadership for them.” --Bloodstone, Deep Water: Book One

"Until a few weeks ago, I thought the world was normal. Then it all came crashing down, and I learned everyone is sick—depraved and sick." --A Whisper in the Void, Deep Water: Book Two

"The very thing that you took for granted will be your salvation. Never forget it." --Garden of Dust and Thorns

"Why is it every decision I make seems right one second before I make it and then completely wrong and ridiculous one second after I’ve made it." --The Vale of Ghosts

There you go. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I have not attributed the quotes to their various characters, but they each give you a sense of some important thematic element of each novel. Pick your favorite.

Monday, November 17, 2014

One Million Words

I published my first novel, Mary of the Aether, back in July of 2012. Since then, I have written and published nine more, and I'm currently working on my eleventh. For the record, those novels, in the order they were written, are:

Mary of the Aether
Shadows of Tockland
Mary of Shadows
A Whisper in the Void
Mary of Starlight
Garden of Dust and Thorns
Mary of Cosmos
Children of the Mechanism
Fading Man
Vale of Ghosts (unfinished)

That's a whole lot of writing, and it's mostly just the result of setting a daily goal for myself. Basically, I force myself to write at least 1,000 words a day, whether I feel like it or not. Most of the time, even if I'm not in the mood to start, once I get into the writing, I enter the zone. What is the zone, you ask? It's the creative head-space where catharsis happens, and it's a good place to be.

Now, my novels vary in length. The shortest is Garden of Dust and Thorns, at 87,000 word, and the longest is Shadows of Tockland, at 120,000 words. But the average length for all of my books is about 93,000. Why are we playing this math game? Because I wanted some idea of the total number of words I've written since I began this novel-writing frenzy.

As it turns out, the combined total is somewhere around 1,023,000 words. Yes, I've written over a million words in the last few years, and I show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the act of writing has become easier and more habitual than ever. I am certainly nowhere near running out of ideas, though I do find myself repeating certain themes and ideas throughout my stories.

For example, here are some themes that I see recurring over and over:

The dangers of bad leadership: Shadows of Tockland, Bloodstone, A Whisper in the Void, Garden of Dust and Thorns, Children of the Mechanism

Desperately trying to fix damage done through poor decision-making: Mary of Shadows, Mary of Starlight, Fading Man, Vale of Ghosts

Being destroyed by one's own obsessions: Shadows of Tockland, Fading Man

Being compelled by grief and loss to accomplish some great task: Mary of the Aether, Bloodstone, A Whisper in the Void, Garden of Dust and Thorns, Children of the Mechanism, Vale of Ghosts

Faith in a power greater than yourself: Mary of the Aether (whole series), Bloodstone, A Whisper in the Void, Garden of Dust and Thorns, Children of the Mechanism, Vale of Ghosts

There might be other major themes that recur throughout my novels, but those were the ones that came to mind. Anyway, I have no lack of ideas for novels yet to come. The one I'm working on now, Vale of Ghosts, is the first volume of a series, so I will be in that world for a while. And it is a very interesting and dangerous world, let me tell you.

Friday, October 31, 2014

But Why Did He Fade?

The first piece of fiction I ever got published in any professional capacity was a short story called Fading Man. I had originally written it as a creative writing assignment for a college class in the Fall of 1994, but it got a good enough response from fellow students that I thought it might pique the interest of an editor somewhere.

Eventually, it appeared in a now-defunct magazine called Starblade sometime in 1995. I was paid in contributor's copies (2, to be exact). Although it was exciting to get published, when I went back and read the story, I was embarrassed at the poor quality of my prose. My writing just didn't live up to my imagination, so I didn't show the story to very many people.

Fading Man the short story was set in a vague post-apocalyptic version of Tulsa, and it told the story of a man named Joe who has disjointed memories of a place he once lived. He can't connect the memory with the rest of his life, so he is trying to get back to this place, driven by a need to understand himself. Along the way, of course, terrible things happen.

Anyway, despite being not particularly well written, the concept of the story stuck with me over the years. There was something about it that really resonated with me, so occasionally I considered how I might turn the thing into a novel.

Fast forward to February 2014. I started working on a new novel, a young adult novel called The Figment Tree. At the time, for various reasons, including a short-lived job that was a horrible ordeal, I found that the tone of The Figment Tree wasn't a good fit. It was too lighthearted, too much of a coming-of-age tale, and writing it wasn't cathartic.

When my mood and the tone of a novel I'm writing are in opposition to each other, it becomes like nails on a chalkboard. I needed something a little darker and more emotionally exhausting, something that mirrored my true state.

Now, by this point, I had already written Shadows of Tockland, which is set in a bleak and dangerous post-apocalyptic version of Northwest Arkansas. I began to see a connection. Maybe the world of Cakey and the Klown Kroo was the same world as Fading Man.

That gave me my inroad, and the novel of Fading Man began to take shape in my mind. It became a story with a bit more complexity, not the story of a lone man but the story of a relationship, not the story of a man trying to figure out who he is but the story of a man looking for a destination where everything will finally make sense.

What I ended up writing, thanks in large part to my mood during the first half of 2014, became rather bleak but hopefully compelling. It's not, by any means, the lighthearted story that The Figment Tree would have been. But I hope it will resonate with people.

It was a profoundly cathartic experience for me. I used to long to sit down and work on it, and there were specific scenes that I yearned to get to during the process. Whether or not readers take to it, this novel will always mean a lot to me.

Anyway, we shall soon see. Fading Man is now available in paperback and soon to be available as an e-book. In fact, you can read a free sample here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Fading into Tockland

So here is how it all went down...

Sometime in the near future, there was a meteor shower one crisp autumn night, but these were no run-of-the-mill meteors. These weren't the kind that streak across the sky for a couple of seconds like a shimmering green fire before burning out. No, these rained down upon the earth for days on end, and many of them reached the ground, causing widespread devastation. The areas hit worst were Siberia and the Pacific Northwest.

Massive loss of life and the destruction of cities and infrastructure had profound consequences, but, truth be told, if it had only been the meteor shower, the world might have recovered. Oh, it would have taken many years, and scars would have remained. But the world might have rebuilt and recovered.

But, in a truly strange twist of fate, there were living organisms on some of the meteorites. They were burrowed in deeply, but they must have been incredibly resilient to have survived the vacuum of space and the intense heat upon entering the atmosphere, not to mention the impact of hitting the ground. But survive they did. We can theorize that the meteorites might have been the pieces of a destroyed planet on which these little organisms lived. But how can we ever really know?

They resembled nematodes, parasitic roundworms. In the larval stage, they are microscopic, but as the grow, they become visible, tiny little wriggling shapes, purple and shiny. They were not designed for life on our planet, but they adapted quickly.

The parasites found their way into the waterways and formed colonies. From these colonies developed queens, large and bloated creatures with long tentacles, and the queens began to eject larvae by the thousands. Rivers carried the larvae far and wide, and people drank the contaminated water without realizing they were ingesting their own madness and death.

The larvae first latch onto the inner lining of the small intestine. As they grow, they work their way into the bloodstream and slowly travel to the brain. For some reason, they love the brain. We will never know what their original food source was on their homeworld, but on earth, they loved human brains the most. Over the course of months or years, they slowly eat their way into their host's brain.

Common symptoms of infected people include severe anxiety, fits of rage, uncontrollable outbursts, flu-like body aches, sensitive skin, paranoia, and confusion. Eventually, inevitably, the worms kill the host, and unless they are close to their queen, they worms also die. This is not, after all, their home. They are struggling to survive just as much as we are.

The brainworm plague hit at the worst possible time, as humanity was struggling to rebuild. It sent the world into chaos. Governments fell, cities were emptied, crime and desperation tore nations apart. And it was during the years of chaos that the great emperor arose. As the story goes, he was the self-appointed general of a ragtag militia formed to protect villages from bandits. But from this humble beginning, he rose to become a great conqueror.

He was called General Mattock, and his empire was called Tockland. At its peak, it stretched from the Llano Estacado to the Ozark Mountains and north deep into the Great Plains. Somehow, the plague was almost nonexistent in Tockland, while it raged in the surrounding nations. How could anyone stand against him?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the backdrop of both Shadows of Tockland and my next novel, the upcoming Fading Man. More to come soon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Oh, the Shadows! Oh, the Tockland!

Once upon a time, I wrote a book about a troupe of clowns who end up fighting through a city filled with zombie-like hordes and an army with tanks. What would possess an otherwise sane person to write such a book? Well, unfortunately, an exploration of the origin of this particular book will only cast doubt upon my sanity. Nevertheless, let's go.

So the origin of the book Shadows of Tockland starts with a character named Cakey the Clown, AKA Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown. This is a character who precedes the writing of the book by many years. In fact, Cakey came into being on Halloween night in 1999, and here is what he originally looked like:

You see, I was invited to a friend's Halloween party out in the country, and I didn't have a costume. So another friend of mine went with me to Wal-Mart to find something, but Wal-Mart was down to slim pickings on the Halloween aisle. I wound up with this strange clown makeup that had to be water activated in order to be applied. Well, I didn't have any water, but I did have a bottle of Sprite. So I used Sprite to apply the makeup as my friend drove down this rough and bumpy country road, and the end result is the picture you see above.

Because the makeup was all clumpy and caked on, I called myself Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown, and even though it was just a one time gimmick for a Halloween party, the idea and the name stuck with me. Cakey began to appear each year at Halloween parties, taking on a slightly different appearance each time (all of them fairly disturbing so apologies in advance):

Now, of course, because I have an overactive imagination, this character began to take on a life of his own in my brain. I began to work out a storyline for him. Who is Cakey? Where does he come from? Why is he a "jacked-up" clown? This led to me to create a whole strange world for Cakey. And that led me to create an extremely crude website full of amateurish flash cartoons called The Klown Kroo (a fragment of which survives right here).

Now, that early version of Cakey and The Klown Kroo was just a joke, but eventually I decided to take the idea seriously. Could I actually transform this silly concept into a serious novel? For years, I worked out various ideas. Initially, I intended to set the story in a twisted version of the modern world. Later, I toyed with the idea of some kind of pseudo-mythological setting.

Eventually, I gave up on Cakey (and writing) for a few years, but after Mary of the Aether was published, I returned to the concept. By that time, I had become somewhat obsessed with the post-apocalyptic genre, so I decided to translate Cakey into that setting. An idea began to form in my mind of a clown troupe facing hostile crowds in some kind of wasteland.

In transforming Cakey from a silly cartoon to a believable character, I realized the only reasonable explanation for his behavior is that he is in some sense mentally ill or at least deeply damaged. But nobody wants to read about another deranged, violent clown, so I gave Cakey a strong (if skewed) moral foundation. He is not a nihilist by any means. Instead, he is driven by an almost prophetic conviction about his own destiny. And that is how we wound up with a character that The Brass Rag called "a demented poet."

But one of the key changes that came about in crafting the novel was that I shifted the narrative perspective away from Cakey and onto a newcomer. Cakey is too damaged to give a reliable point-of-view and too self-justifying to offer a clear understanding of himself. So David Morr became the protagonist, and as a newcomer, he offers an unfiltered view of Cakey and the rest of this ragtag group of weirdos.

The completed novel, Shadows of Tockland, proved to be too baffling for most publishers. I got a host of responses that said similar things: "this is well-written and the characters are interesting, but we don't know what to do with it." One publisher said it didn't have enough science fiction to be considered science fiction. Another said it was really good but they had no idea how they would market it. A post-apocalyptic adventure novel about a clown troupe just didn't have mainstream appeal, they said, no matter how interesting it was.

So the book sat on my hard drive for a couple of years. Finally, I decided to just release the thing as an e-book, and that brings us to today. Shadows of Tockland is currently a Kindle exclusive. It hasn't gotten the attention of Mary of the Aether because it is a strange concept, but it just might be the best thing I've ever written. Check it out.