Thursday, October 27, 2016

Context Free Quotes

So I've been attempting to do a Quote of the Day on Twitter. Basically, I find one interesting or unusual quote from one of my many novels and post it each day. I thought it might be interesting to see what those quotes look like stripped of their context and source. Without knowing anything else, what do these quotes make you think of?

"One dumb act made in ignorance is all it takes to ruin your life forever."

"Look, we’re committed to destiny now. From this point on, whatever happens, happens. That’s how destiny works."

"The world got worse and worse the more she understood about it."

"It’s a very strange thing to be deceived. A very strange thing."

"I thought the world was normal. Then it all came crashing down, and I learned everyone is depraved and sick."

"The world is sliding into oblivion, devoured by shadow, and you are its last light."

"Our worst mistakes can become the catalyst for our greatest accomplishments, if we are willing to make it so."

"Are we smarter than the generations that came before us? How can we expect to fix a problem that they could not?"

"I walked forever down a hundred different places and saw all kinds of different lights and Watchers with hands, and then I came to the end."

"As she became a part of every single living thing, she realized that every single thing was, in some strange way, reaching out to her, crying to her for purpose, for life, for breath."

"Nature or fate or destiny has selected us for suffering, and we are to endure it, accept it, take and gorge ourselves on misery like the dutiful sub-creatures that we are."

"Nobody really believes in anything. My parents don’t believe in anything. They just breathe and eat and work."

Which of these quotes stands on its own?

To follow the Quote of the Day, head over to my Twitter account:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Meaning of Monologues

Let's talk about character monologues. In any story of significant length, there will be moments in which characters pause in the middle of the action in order to present a lengthy discourse, aka wall of text, to the reader. What possible reason could a writer have in unloading a paragraph of uninterrupted speech? Often it's a way to disguise exposition or to present back story. Other times, it's a moment to simply state the theme of the story in a way that won't take readers out of the scene.

We all do it. Even in an action-packed story, a character will pause at some point to speak at length about thematically significant things. Can I give you a few examples from my own books?

How about the time Aiden Tennant speaks in massive blocks of text about his life and his hopes and dreams? Mary responds now and again in order to break it up into digestible pieces, but it's basically Aiden downloading all of the thematic elements related to his character, in paragraphs such as the following (which proceeds after his confession about loving comic books and fantasy novels):

“So here’s the thing,” he said. “It’s gonna sound really weird, but the truth is I want all of that stuff to be real. Maybe it isn’t, but I want to believe in it, all of it. Nobody really believes in anything. My parents don’t believe in anything. They just breathe and eat and work. People like Kristen Grossman don’t believe in anything. Most of the people in Chesset go to church on Sunday and hear all of these wild, weird stories, but I don’t think they really believe a word of it. Some guy raised a staff and parted the ocean in two?” Aiden raised both hands over his head and waved them around, miming the old story and drawing more laughs from Kristen and the twins. He did not seem to notice them. “They don’t really believe that happened. They wouldn’t even want to live in a world where that kind of stuff was possible. They all want bland, they like bland. Not me. I don’t want a boring old world where all anyone ever does is grow up and work some awful job for no money and spend Friday evenings watching high school football games and recalling the so-called glory days until they die. They can keep that kind of life. Even if there aren’t any real aliens or wizards or magic or whatever, I want to read about them and pretend. It’s better than nothing.”

Or how about the time in The Vale of Ghosts when the mayor speaks for eight hundred minutes during a public meeting? What a perfect opportunity to clarify the nature of the conflict that will drive the rest of the novel. Here is the second paragraph out of six in which the mayor speaks:

“None of us can stand here and pretend we do not know,” the mayor continued. “What unfolded here two days ago is no mystery. Haven’t our ancestors passed down to us a thousand warnings about the vale beneath the ridge? The east, the west, and the south are closed to us. Only the land to the north is open. And not only did they warn us, but they left the ten relics of the prophet to protect us. Those who came before did all they could to keep us safe. Only deliberate disobedience, only mischief and defiance, bring trouble here.”

Then there's that time in Shadows of Tockland when David Morr gets a little speech from the ringleader of the circus about the nature of clowning and the different types of clowns, but really it's all foreshadowing the character conflicts that are to come. This long discourse is split up into reasonable chunks by David's brief responses, but otherwise it's just a huge thematic presentation of the novel itself:

“Onstage, whiteface clown is the boss. He’s the smart one, the bully, orders around the others. In our troupe, Cakey is the whiteface....whiteface clown is at the top. At the bottom, you’ve got the auguste,” Telly said. “The auguste clown is typically the dimwit character, the goofball, the idiot. Whiteface likes to slap him around, harass and threaten him, maybe toss a pie in his face. Karl is our auguste clown. He plays a character called Touches. Onstage, Touches takes a lot of crap from Cakey. That’s how it goes.” 

“Karl is pretty huge,” David said. “He doesn’t have to take crap from anyone, I wouldn’t think.”

“Onstage and offstage, kid,” Telly said, waving him off. “I told you, don’t get confused. Now, in between the auguste and the whiteface, you’ve got the contra-auguste. Contra-auguste is typically trying to win the whiteface clown’s approval, caught in the middle, you might say. Annabelle is our contra-auguste, performing as Bubbles.” 

“Got it.” 

“As for me, I’m the ringmaster,” Telly said. “The ringmaster’s job is to keep the other clowns bouncing off each other. A manipulator but never a victim. That’s me. And that ends lesson one. Now, did you write all of that down?”

Or how about that one time in Garden of Dust and Thorns where the protagonist screams the central theme of the entire book at another character for an extended length of time?

“You wanted to see the Garden in ashes, you’ll get your wish,” she said. “Revel in the death of the world, Sindaya. Revel in it. I tried to tell you. I pleaded with you, with you and with the others, pleaded with you to look around you, look at what you are destroying, and you would not hear it. Celebrate as your Lord of Dust and Sand and Misery eats into the Garden, celebrate and laugh as you pierce the bodies of innocent people who did nothing to offend you, whose only sin was living in the shadow of the wall. Wretches and pigs, all of you. Vile monsters!”

And that, folks, is what a nice monologue is all about. It's a chance for a character to just spell it all out without it feeling like a wall of dull exposition. Done right, readers won't even think outside of the character. They'll just be swept up in the scene.

To be fair, it doesn't always take a long paragraph to pull this off. It can happen in a sentence or two, such as the time in Dreams in the Void where the villain reveals the theme and plot in one short little statement:

“You’re…you’re already becoming like me,” he said. “Everyone is. There is only one mind now…only…”

Right to the point. Thank you, monologues.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Cakey's Love Letter to Rubes

Hello, rubes.

And you say, "Wait. Rube? What is a rube? To whom are you referring?"

Why, I'm referring to you, friend.

And you say, "How can you call me a rube?"

Well, do you work for the circus? Are you circus people? Are you a clown? A trapeze artist? A big old burly roustabout? Heck, are you a regular old carny, smelling of corn dog grease and body odor? No? Well, then you are a rube. A common folk. Are we clear? I hope you can live with it, my dearest sweethearts, because I intend to call you a rube until the end of time.

Now that we've worked that out, let's move on.

My name is Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown. You heard that right. I'll say it again, slowly. Cakey. The. Jacked-Up. Clown. My specialty is knife juggling, but I'm also fairly skilled at acrobatics and street fighting.

You might not know this, but every clown has a unique "face." That's right. No true clown would ever copy the face of another. My face looks as follows: A big blue unibrow that covers half my forehead, a little green dot on the end of my nose, a blood red mouth that is smiling on the left and frowning on the right, a big puff of orange hair. By the way, it's not a wig, and it's not makeup. It's my actual face.

As for the costume, it changes. Sometimes I wear the big poofy yellow one. Sometimes I wear the big poofy patchwork one. It depends on my mood. There's a blue one, a pink one, a clear cellophane one, and a plastic trash bag I wear on holidays.

For the last few years, I've worked for a traveling circus called The Klown Kroo. The terrible spelling in the title is the fault of a big cinder block fellow named Karl. It's a long story. Anywho, when we come to your town--and we will, rubelings, we will--I highly recommend you plop down your centavos and come see us. It'll be two hours of the most intense and troubling entertainment you've ever witnessed. Knives will be thrown, plates will spin, a tiny little man in a top hat will prance about, a big guy will harass some rubes in the front row. It'll be all-around good family fun with minimal suffering. I promise.

Oh, I know what you're thinking, "Cakey, we can't come and see the show. It's not safe to congregate in public places these days! Too many people with brain-sickness wandering about! We might get bitten or stabbed!" Fair point. And you're right, as far as the biting and stabbing goes. However, I swear to you this solemn oath, my rubes: The Klown Kroo will do all in its power to fend off any errant sicklies who wander into the tent. We want our rubes to be relatively safe while they enjoy the show, and I promise you will be as relatively safe as you can possibly be!

At least until the end of the world. When the end of the world comes, we're all doomed, and no one will be able to help you. But until then, come and enjoy the show.

By the way, if you have a brain worm infestation, please don't come. In that case, you're better off wandering into the forest never to return. In fact, two out of every two doctors say the best medicine for brain sickness is being lost forever far from civilization, clothing optional. That's science, folks, and who are you to question science?

Alright, that's about all I've got to say to a rube. To be honest, it's hard to relate to rubes. Mostly, I just want your pennies and dimes and your rapt attention. But I like you as much as I am capable of liking you. When the ever-night comes, I will remember that you came to my show, and I will not hunt you down like a hoot owl in the night. Fair enough?



Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown, Esq.

not a picture of me

P.S. -- They wrote a book about my adventures. Read it. Just click the stupid picture below. *Ugh* There, I pitched it. Can I go now?

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.