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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Finding Chesset

Chesset is the primary setting of the Mary of the Aether series. It manages to be right at the center of every major event that happens over the course of the four novels, despite the fact that the significance of the events grows exponentially with each volume. Of course, Chesset doesn't exist outside of the novels. It is an amalgam of certain tiny Arkansas towns, chiefly Mountainburg, but also a bit of Chester, West Fork, and Winslow.

However, it is not located in the same place as any of those towns. Instead, it is somewhere between Mountainburg and the Bobby Hopper Tunnel on the west side of Interstate 49. In reality, the place where it would be located is just a grassy valley. In fact, here is what Chesset's location looks like on Google Maps:

Here's the street level view of what the area looks like that should be Chesset:

In the words of chef Justin Wilson, "Don't that pretty?" Can't you just imagine a little Chesset existing right there in that valley, all nestled in snugly waiting for aether and Devourers and Lookers to come barging in?

Now, did I really have all of this in mind when I was writing the series? Actually, yes. When you spend years working on a four volume series, you have a lot of time to ponder each and every facet of the story, the characters, and the locations. And you do. Believe me, you do. I used to drive past this area and say to myself, "Yep, that's about where Chesset would be."

Dinky Dairy

In the novel, the Dinky Dairy is a local ice cream and burger place that the locals like to frequent. It was loosely inspired by the Dairy Dreme in Mountainburg:

Lucky's Truck Stop

Lucky's is the big truck stop that comes to town at the beginning of Mary of Shadows and causes quite a stir. It is the biggest store in town, threatening poor little Cholly's One Stop. It was loosely inspired by this now-defunct place in Mountainburg, a truck stop that opened right around the time the first section of I-49 opened (which was then called I-540). It has since closed down, and the building might be looking for a new tenant. Someone should call Vera.

Anyway, there you go. Another little glimpse of the inspirations behind Chesset. If you haven't read the whole series, I highly recommend you check it out. It represents years' worth of mental regurgitation from an overactive imagination.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

And What Have I Learned?

Well, my first book series is complete, and all four volumes are published. Mary of the Aether began my journey as a published author, so the series covers a period of time in which I learned a lot about the craft. I'd like to discuss the things I enjoyed about the experience and about the books, as well as the things I learned along the way.

Overall, I think the series taken as one whole story turned out really well, and I believe the conclusion brings readers to a satisfying place. As far as specific things that I like, I really came to care about some of these characters. In fact, when Mary of Cosmos came out a few days ago, I had this strange thought go through my head--Well, I did it, Mary. I told your story. It's done.--as if I were addressing and saying farewell to a real person.

I am satisfied with the character growth of the three main characters: Mary, Kristen, and Aiden. Despite the fact that some readers find her irritating (and some reviewers have referred to her as a "mean girl"), I have to admit, I like Kristen Grossman most of all. Her character arc is the most meaningful to me. That will make more sense once you've read the fourth volume, I suppose.

Another thing I enjoy about the series is how real Chesset feels to me. I think I managed to create a believable setting. Chesset doesn't really exist. It's a small town comprised of bits and pieces of real places, but it's a fictional town. Yes, there's a little bit of Mountainburg, a little bit of Chester, a dash of West Fork, but it doesn't really look and feel exactly like any of those places. Nevertheless, by the end of the series, I think readers get the sense that it is a real place.

Now, what did I not like about the series? One thing above all: the tone! The tone! The tone! I feel like the tone of the series is inconsistent, and this is mostly down to my inexperience. The first volume, Mary of the Aether, is a somewhat laid-back character-driven story that takes its time getting to know the small town setting. Books two and three are relentless with danger and growing threat and barely pause to breathe. Finally, the fourth volume manages a healthy equilibrium, alternating between moments of intensity and quiet character moments, and I wish that tone had been struck throughout the series.

It's interesting that there is a sharp divide between those who prefer book one to books two and three, and those who prefer books two and three to book one. However, I really think Mary of Cosmos will satisfy both camps. In fact, while the threat has never been greater, the story manages to capture some of the most meaningful character interactions in the entire series.

So there you go. That is what I learned. I am now 70,000 words into the first volume of a brand new fantasy series, and I am taking what I have learned and applying it to create what I think will be the most compelling story I've ever told. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

What is the Point, Mary?

What is the point of the whole Mary of the Aether series? That's a question that you might ask, if you're the type of person to ask such questions. Of course, on one level I'm just trying to tell what I believed would be an interesting story with quirky characters in a unique setting. I tossed in some magic and fantasy elements because I enjoy stories with that sort of thing.

However, there is always some part of me, some thought or idea or belief, that works its way into my stories. So what about the Mary of the Aether series? Well, as it turns out, I did have something that I wanted to say, and it shaped the whole tale from beginning to end.

To summarize as briefly as possible, the Mary of the Aether series is about a young girl who is given the last drop of magic in the world. It's a magic that gives form and substance to her thoughts. Over the course of the novels, she must protect this magic, called aether, from a mysterious sect called the Lookers, and their hideous masters, the Devourers, lords of Abussos.

Aether is simply meant as a plot device to represent Potential. Specifically, it reflects the way that Mary's future, as well as her present environment, is in some large way influenced by her thoughts. What she imagines, what she fears, what she wants, what she daydreams about and imagines, all of these things work together to influence her direction in life.

I think this is largely true of all of us. What we create on the inside has a way of working out into our lives sooner or later. How we see our own future influences the decisions we make. If we expect to accomplish nothing in life, chances are we will accomplish nothing. If we dream big, we will tend to take big steps.

In the novels, Mary's magic sometimes goes awry and causes damage. In order to make it work correctly, she has to be focused, trusting and confident. When she lets doubt and fear creep in, when she becomes double-minded, bad things happen. I think this is also true of us non-magical ordinary people. Doubt and fear destroy our potential.

Notably, aether does not originate inside of Mary. Rather, it is something that is given to her by her parents, and something they encourage her to embrace fully. As with any child's potential in life, parents play a huge role, for good or ill. However, aether does not originate with her parents. Ultimately, it comes from something called the Source, which has clear overtones of a Divine Being

This is intentional on my part, for I do believe that ultimately what we are and what we can be derives from an infinite divine source. We are capable of more than we think, and more than our limited biology might suggest. Although I avoid overt religious references in the novels, it is important for Mary to recognize that this power has been given to her by an outside source. It is a strength greater than her own, and one she can rely on even when she feels weak.

So what we have is a metaphor about a child approaching adulthood and beginning to realize her full potential in life. Fear and doubt inside of her can damage this potential, but there are also outside sources that could cut it short. That is what the Lookers and Devourers represent. For it is quite possible for someone with all the potential in the world, and the confidence and faith to get there, to meet a tragic end because of the evils that are in the world. 

It can all be taken away in a heartbeat, and that is one of the sad realities of this mortal life. To have any chance of making it, Mary must at times depend on friends and family to help her. So there are moments where her friends are directly responsible for saving her from Devourers (and moments where they inadvertently lead her into danger). We don't walk through life alone, not if we want to make it.

There is much more I could say on the subject, but I'll leave it at that for now. All of that was on my mind as I wrote the four volumes that comprise the Mary of the Aether series. It is the story of overcoming fear and doubt, confronting the evils that are in the world, relying on friends and holding onto the simple confidence and faith that can carry us through.

And with Mary of Cosmos coming out on September 23, the tale is told, and the conclusion of the matter is presented. Mary of Cosmos brings to a conclusion my thematic statement on this particular subject, and since I really have nothing else to say regarding Potential, it is safe to say there will be no book five. So there you go. I hope you have enjoyed the journey.