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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Tamil Garden

So here's the thing. Most people who write fantasy novels do not have the credentials of J.R.R. Tolkien. That is to say, we are not philologists, and, as you know, philology is the study of language in written historical documents. That was Tolkien's particular field of study, so when he concocted imaginary names and languages, he used his actual understanding of how languages develop to give them a sense of consistency. He put much more into place and character names than readers realize. 

Lacking that technical knowledge, most of us make up names that are pseudo-medieval English-sounding names. Nowadays, when I write fantasy novels, I try to pick names that are not so weird that they will distract readers. I think people will accept a Jeren, but they might get eye strain with a Jhaereihn. Jeren is an example of a name that sounds like it could be an archaic English name.

For my novel, Garden of Dust and Thorns, I decided to go a slightly different route and use a different culture and language as inspiration for names. To that end, many of the names are Tamil names, or at least variations of Tamil names. What is Tamil, you say? Ah, well, the Tamil people are an ethnic group that lives primarily in southern India and northeastern Sri Lanka. They have an ancient and interesting history, culture, and language. Go look them up and read more. I won't get into it here.

However, I did want to share some of the character names from the novel along with their Tamil origins. If you've read the book, you might find the name meanings thematically significant.

Adhi - can be a boy's or a girl's name, sometimes spelled Aadhi - means "the beginning of everything"

Kathiri - from Kathir - means "sun rays" or "divine rays"

Appan - from Tamil word Appa, meaning "Father"

Maranam - a Tamil word meaning "death" or "mortality"

Innpan - A Tamil boy's name meaning "happiest person"

Magesh - Tamil boy's name, related to Mahesh - means "a great ruler"

Anyway, that's just a few to give you an idea. To be honest, I used to agonize a little bit over fantasy names, and my early unpublished stories are full of people and places with unwieldy names. For example, I once wrote a long, ponderous novel about a boy name Trapelo Namikyi and his sidekick, Ruantis. Chew on those names for a bit. Simple names that sound like they could co-exist in the same world work best, but it's fun to take inspiration from the many languages and cultures around the world.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Revisiting Mary of the Aether

Sometime in 2008, I decided it was time to return to writing. I hadn't written any kind of fiction in years, and my imagination had atrophied a bit. I'd never had much success at getting published. Oh, I'd sold a short story here and there along the way (like here), but I hadn't managed to sell a novel. So eventually I'd busied myself with regular life and given up the dream.

But finally the bug bit me again. This time, I decided to try my hand at something I'd never done before. I decided to write a young adult novel, so I brought together some ideas that were floating around in my head and started working on a manuscript.

That manuscript was for a novel called Mindy Lightbearer, and it was the story of an 11-year-old girl named Mindy Lang, her bullying friend Lucy Grossman, and the boy she secretly liked, Aaron Tennant. It opened with Mindy watching snow fall on the town of Chesset while her elderly father watched a documentary about Ponce de Leon on the television and grumbled at the screen.

Since it was an urban fantasy novel, it involved magic, specifically a kind of magic that turned thoughts and feelings into reality. This was meant to serve as a plot device to explore a theme about our protagonist envisioning her potential.

At the time, I lived in the smallest town I've ever lived in, a place called West Fork, and I wanted to capture the peculiarities of small town life. However, I didn't want to use an actual town as the setting because of the potential constraints of reality, so I created an amalgam of a number of area towns and named it Chesset. For the record, Chesset has the basic layout of Mountainburg, Arkansas circa 2008, but I rotated it 90 degrees and moved it west of the interstate and a few miles north. Also, unlike Mountainburg, Chesset has no dinosaurs in the city park.

The name of the town was a play on the town of Chester, Arkansas. In fact, Cholly's One Stop, the combination gas station-grocery store-cafe that serves as a major hub of activity in Chesset was very loosely based on the Chester Mercantile.

As I worked on the novel, I realized there was a much bigger story that could cover multiple volumes. Unfortunately, I was struggling just to get through the first draft. It turns out, not writing for years had diminished my abilities significantly, and when I finally finished the first draft, I was frustrated at how it had turned out. My wife volunteered to read it and afterward made a few confused comments and offered tepid praise.

What followed were about ten drafts of that manuscript, as I tried to figure out how to make it flow better. Mostly, it was just a struggle to create comfortable prose. I had lost my voice. I queried a few publishers, but I knew it was hopeless. Finally, I abandoned the novel to a desk drawer.

During the course of those rewrites, however, a lot of things changed. Mindy Lang became Mindy Lanham because Lang is my wife's maiden name, and I didn't want people to think the character was based on her. Then I dropped Mindy in favor of Mary; I thought Mary had more gravitas. She also grew up (from 11 to 14 and a half). Aaron Tennant became Aiden. Lucy Grossman became Kristen because I kept getting images of Lucy from Peanuts in my head.

But all those changes were for nothing. The book lay in a drawer and collected dust. I just didn't have it anymore.

And then November 2009 rolled around, and some frenzy took hold of me. It was like a voice from on high said, Dude, why are you not writing? Your talent is rotting in the ground! It was a strange phenomenon, but once it took hold, I couldn't shake it. Thus began a crazy five months in which I churned out dozens of short stories. They just flowed out of me like a fountain of the most beautiful vomit you've ever seen. Eleven of those stories wound up getting published. A few are still online, like this one and this one and this one.

It was a crash course, and I relearned how to write. So finally, after I got sick of writing short stories, I decided to go back and see what I could do with the novel that was now called Mary of the Aether. I knew now what I needed to do with the story, how to make it flow better, and crafting prose had become comfortable.

This time around, when I was finished, I managed to find a publisher, and I went through the whole process of being a first-time author (and all of the frustrations, excitement, and confusion that goes along with it). But, as it turned out, I was terrible at the editorial process, despite having a fairly involved editor. Some major typos made their way into the published novel. My favorite one was where I referred to the character of Constable Mohler as Constable Rogers in one place. Also, Kindle screwed up the formatting, and there were random font size changes throughout.

My publisher should have fixed these things, but they didn't. I won't get into the why, but the good news is I have a new publisher. That is to say, my publisher was bought out. The imprint still carries the same name, Whiskey Creek Press, but there are new people in charge. And the new boss has been diligent about rooting out every typo and formatting error in the manuscript.

So the good news is, if you buy Mary of the Aether now, you get the typo-free version, and if you buy the Kindle version, the font choices are correct from beginning to end. In a way, it feels like the end of a long journey with good ole Mary Lanham.

In the meantime, I've also written the rest of the series, and the fourth and final volume is coming out in mere weeks.

And there you go. That's is my long rambling history of Mary of the Aether. Thanks for hanging in there this long. There is a lot more I could say about the book. Maybe I will dig into the themes and ideas behind the story in another blog entry, but for now, these one hundred paragraphs will do. Thanks.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

My Protagonists Meet Proust, Part Two - Cakey the Clown

Okay, so in my last blog entry, I talked about this interesting fellow:

That is none other than Marcel Proust, who is known, at least in part, for a questionnaire that he filled out in a journal. That questionnaire is sometimes used by authors to interview their characters as an exercise in fleshing out personality and motivations. I decided to do this with some of my own characters.

Last time, we asked these questions of Mary Lanham, the protagonist of the Mary of the Aether series, so go check that one out, if you haven't.

This time, we are going to ask these questions of my weirdest character. Yes, it's time to ask the Proust questions to Cakey the Clown. Now, Cakey is a character who appears in my e-book, Shadows of Tockland, but I actually created him years ago (roughly 2000). If you haven't read the book, he turns up in a traveling circus when the protagonist, David Morr, runs away from home and joins up.

Let's see what Cakey has to say.

Cakey the Clown - Shadows of Tockland (interviewed as he was at the beginning of the novel)

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

When I finally decided to stop being two different people and became one person, that was my greatest achievement. You see, we are all divided into two. There is the person that exists onstage, when the audience is watching, and there is the person that exists offstage, when nobody is paying attention. It became clear to me that the man I was offstage was a construct, a fake, an empty suit, a deflated balloon, so I set him loose. Now, the person that I am onstage is the only person and my only self. I am one, complete, whole, clear. There is no mask, only my real face.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

When you finally perceive the moment of destiny, the decision gate toward which events have been pulling you, the exhilaration is like nothing else. And when you finally enter that gate and turn in the direction of fulfilling your purpose, the sublime moment is so beautiful and perfect that every single thing that ever happened to you suddenly and forever makes sense. I have not reached that moment yet, but I feel it drawing near.

What is your current state of mind?

To be honest, I have grown impatient with a lot of things, restless and ready to embrace the future. I have always known that the ever-night is coming upon the world, and all of these elements, from plague to war, are dragging humanity toward it, kicking and screaming. And I have always known that I will be in the pivotal place when it arrives, and I am ready to be there. Rubes and foolishness and nonsense and noise are all distractions that wear on me, as I wait for my moment to arrive.

What is your favorite occupation?

I don't really believe in the concept of occupation. You do what you are, and you are what you do. So if what you are doing is not making you what you are, then you are doing the wrong thing. That is why the rubes are always unsettled. But as for me, I do what I am at all times. When I'm juggling onstage and the rubes are captivated, I am not merely entertaining them. I am embracing myself, my destiny, my future, and the moment that is coming.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Sanity. Sometimes I think I might be the only sane person in the world. Why can't the rest of them see the divided self? Why can't the rest of them see the ever-night that is coming? Why can't the rest of them see how every single thing that happens is drawing us to a pivotal moment? Why can't they see that what looks like a mask might, in fact, be a real face, and that the so-called real face might be the mask?

When and where were you the happiest?

I'm not thinking about the happinesses of the past. The past was only a staircase leading me to a greater height. I will be happiest in the future, when I get where I know I am going. In a way, in some dimension, the future has already happened, so that is my happiest moment, there before me somewhere, as if it has already been.

What is it that you most dislike?

The dull inability to perceive the future that infects almost every single human being in the world. The distraction with tragedies of the past and hardships of the present. Don't they know how to shed these things from mind and memory and march forward? And certainly my fellow performers should get this. But they don't. They don't.

What is your greatest fear?

I have transcended the place where fear festers and have gone into a realm where fear becomes fodder for a building electrical certainty. If I hadn't ripped away the second-self, if I still allowed myself to step offstage and become that other person, then fear would still dominate.

What is your greatest regret?

This is a stupid rube question. Regret? How can you have regret when you are driven every step of the way by destiny? When you are onstage, there is no time for regret. Why? Because you are in the middle of the show, building toward the end. Do you get it now?

Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to breathe on other people and make them comprehend everything that I have come to know. Trying to explain it is like pounding on a steel wall with a foam hammer. Conversations always tip over the edge and fall sideways into foolishness.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

To be a rube. To live offstage. To wallow in that offstage self. Which is exactly what the whole world does.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

If I met a woman who could perceive that every single event that happens is only pulling us inexorably toward a pivotal moment of destiny where we confront the ever-night then indeed that would be a woman of rare quality. There are no accidents, no mistakes,no griefs, no tragedies, only steps leading to destiny.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I don't deplore anything in the onstage self, and that is the only person that I am anymore. But that other self, the one I buried, the one who climbed offstage at the end of the show, I deplore everything he was and every trait he possessed.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Milling about like animals on a highway, oblivious to the truck bearing down on them. That is the trait of all people, it seems, and why? Why am I the only one who gets it?

What do you most value in your friends?

There are fleeting moments when I feel like my fellow performers almost accept what I am and what I have realized, and those are valuable moments.

Which living person do you most admire?

I have to say my grandmother, though I have never really known her. I don't even know if she is still alive. I don't know what happened to her. There are only stories that I have carried with me, but she is the one who placed destiny upon my face when she bathed me in the cerulean waters of the Suceava River and called me a child of destiny. I have a memory of it. I'm sure I do. 

And that is Cakey the Clown, people.