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.

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 they 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. We will never know what their original food source was on their home world, but on earth, they loved human brains the most.

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, the 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 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.

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.

By the way, you can learn more about the books and places to buy them HERE.

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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My Protagonists Meet Proust, Part One

Marcel Proust was a French novelist and essayist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most famous work is a seven part novel called, À la recherche du temps perdu, which is a massive 2,300 page story with over 2,000 characters.

Thanks for the pic, Wikipedia!

Proust is also famous for a questionnaire that he filled out in one of his journals, which was later used by a French interviewer named Bernard Pivot, who then inspired James Lipton, who adapted some of the questions for guests on Inside the Actors' Studio.

I've seen a number of writers use Proust's questionnaire as a way of figuring out who their characters are. In other words, you ask the questions and let the character answer. It's a great way to flesh out their personalities and motivations.

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to ask some of my protagonists these questions and see if I know my own characters well enough to answer right away. So let's try it. Now, there are a ton of questions, so I've cut them down considerably for the sake of time. Let's start with my first published protagonist.

Mary Lanham - Mary of the Aether (interviewed as she was at the beginning of the first novel)

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I guess I get pretty good grades. Mostly all A's. That's my only real achievement. I can draw a little bit, or at least Papa thinks so. Kristen doesn't think so, but my art teacher liked this one drawing I did of a horse. Papa made me frame it and hang it on the wall, but he's biased. That's pretty much all I've ever done.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Well, it's sort of embarrassing to talk about, but I guess if the right boy recognized you and realized who you are and really liked you, and if you had friends that appreciated you and didn't think there was anything wrong with you, and if you were a little more confident in life generally, I guess that's about as close to perfect happiness as you could get.

What is your current state of mind?

Sometimes kind of sad. Not for any particular reason. Maybe sad isn't the right word. More like gloomy or maybe just bored. I guess I feel like I'm not really where I'm supposed to be in life, like I don't have the right friends, and I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, and sometimes I feel like I don't even know who I am or where I come from. Maybe it's too much to say I feel like I don't fit in the world, but that's kind of how I feel.

What is your favorite occupation?

It would be kind of cool to be an artist, any kind of artist, or just someone who is creative and skilled enough to make things, real and tangible and beautiful things like painting or sculptures or gardens. Anything where you could imagine something clearly and create and then stand back and see what you created would be great.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Well, I know what Kristen would say. She would say my most marked characteristic is that I'm out-of-touch. I'm out-of-touch on technology and fads and stupid stuff like that. But I think really my most marked characteristic is that I do good in school. It's not that hard for me. I only study a little bit. But I don't talk about it much because people think I'm bragging.

When and where were you the happiest?

I don't know if I can remember being really happy, but maybe it was a little bit better in Estes Park. Maybe.

What is it that you most dislike?

Being publicly embarrassed!

What is your greatest fear?

Not accomplishing anything in life.

What is your greatest regret?

I don't really want to talk about it, but not knowing more, or anything, about my mom kind of sucks. But I don't ask questions about it. It just makes people upset. I try not to think about her at all, which is awful because I don't know anything about her. It shouldn't be a big mystery, should it? But it is.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I wish I was a really skilled artist. I don't care if it's painting or drawing or sculpting or what. I just wish I could make beautiful things.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Being embarrassed and having everyone look at you and feeling completely alone, all at the same time. It couldn't get worse than that.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

I guess someone who is confident about himself but also kind, someone who is creative but humble, someone who can believe in others and believe in himself at the same time. 

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I am not confident at all, if that isn't already clear.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

People who are mean or rude, who find other people's weaknesses and use it against them.

What do you most value in your friends?

I don't know. I guess that they put up with me, even when I'm boring to be with.

Which living person do you most admire?

I guess my Papa, just because he's really old and weak but he still provides for me and he's kind to me and he tries to make time for me, even when he's not feeling good.

And there you go. The answers came to me immediately. I guess writing four books about one character really clarifies who they are for you. I'll try it again with another character some other time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

One Sentence Conflicts

So let's play a little game. If you are a writer, use your own books. If you are a reader, use a few of the books you've read and enjoyed. Here's the challenge. In one sentence of reasonable length, describe the central conflict in the novel. Keep the descriptions of the protagonist/antagonist to a minimum. Instead, focus on the nature of the conflict itself. You can do this in your own blog, in the response to this post, or elsewhere. But that's your assignment. Go for it.

Here are my attempts.
Mary of the Aether - In a small rural town, a girl receives the last drop of magic in the world and confronts an ancient evil, all while navigating the various anxieties of high school life.
Mary of Shadows - After receiving a magic called aether, a girl struggles to figure out what to do with it, as she is tempted to follow a more destructive path.
Mary of Starlight - After leaving a big mess in her wake, a girl must must return and attempt to set everything right, whatever the cost.
Children of the Mechanism - Slaves wander through a massive factory, trying to make sense of their world while avoiding the cruel robots who rule the place.
Shadows of Tockland - A runaway tries to acclimate to life in the circus while the world around him becomes increasingly hostile and dangerous.
Garden of Dust and Thorns - A young woman must find her way to the heart of a mystical garden, where a magic exists that might defeat the evil army of Deti Maranam, Lord beneath the Sand.
 Deep Water (Books One and Two) - A young man tries to come to terms with a genocidal tragedy in his own village by seeking revenge against those he believes are responsible.

There you go. Now, those descriptions don't give much detail about characters, personalities, settings, or even the particulars of the plot, but I think they give a good sense of what drives each story. And, after all, in the end, isn't every story about conflict of one kind or another?

Okay, readers and writers, your turn. If you do this on your own blog, send me the link.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Novels Flow like Rivers from the Ocean of My Overactive Mind

How's that for a blog title? It's practically a whole article's worth of things to think about in just a few short words. Chew on it, people. Just chew until the gristle and fat melt in the heat between your teeth.

Seriously, though, I have been churning out the tales since the summer of 2012. I am in the final stage of prepping Mary of Cosmos for publication. That fun stage is called "compiling the errata," and it involves combing through every paragraph looking for typos that might have slipped through the cracks.

It is typically at this stage that I get absolutely sick of the novel I'm working on. Eventually, a mild fondness will return, right around the time it actually gets published. And then I will find things in the published manuscript that I wish I'd written differently or better, and I will lose some of that mild fondness for a long time.

And that, folks, is how it goes for each novel.

By the way, my editor had this to say about the Mary of the Aether series: "I have to tell you, I have LOVED working on this series. It is one of my absolute favorites! I’m pushing my 14-year-old son to read it, even if the titles all start with 'Mary.' He is a big fantasy buff and I think he would really enjoy the character developments and interactions. I could definitely see this series doing well if it just catches on like it should!"

I do believe that could be considered a ringing endorsement. I'll take what I can get.

Anywho, the last book I completed, you might recall, was a post-apocalyptic tale called Fading Man, the story of a man with memories of a place he's never been. His long journey to find this place brings him into a dangerous wasteland called Tockland. That's what we call the setup. Obviously, there is a lot more to it, including Pradeep and scadglings and bleakness.

That novel is currently being shopped around, which means I have queried every single literary agent and publisher in the known universe.

In the meantime, I have begun yet another novel. It will be novel number eleven. Yes, I've churned out ten novels since 2012. Why stop now? For the latest one, I'm returning to the fantasy genre with a book that is tentatively titled The Vale of Ghosts. If written well, it will be haunting, a bit creepy, and ultimately awe-inspiring. If not written well, it will grasp for those things and fall short. We shall see!

For the record, the ten novels I've written since 2012 are (in the order I wrote them): Mary of the Aether, Mary of Shadows, Shadows of Tockland, Bloodstone, A Whisper in the Void, Garden of Dust and Thorns, Mary of Starlight, Mary of Cosmos, Children of the Mechanism and Fading Man.

Now for a brief plug. If you haven't read Children of the Mechanism, check it out. It's dark, compelling, troubling, but ultimately hopeful, full of harrowing scenes set in the dark and dangerous passageways of a massive factory. We're talking hideous killer robots, strange machines, troubling revelations, and desperate escapes. If you buy it from the publisher's link, it's just $7.75, and that price includes both paperback and ebook.

There you go. Back to grinding through the paragraphs to root out typos. Fun!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The End of Aether

With all of the books I've written and published, it's crazy to think that my very first novel came out only two years ago. It's been a crazy, prolific couple of years since then, but it all started with Mary of the Aether back in July of 2012.

Since then, the series has continued with Mary of Shadows and Mary of Starlight, and I've also published a science fiction novel called Children of the Mechanism (and I've self-published a few other books, as well).

But the series that kicked it all off will come to an end this August. Mary of Cosmos, the fourth and final volume of my Young Adult urban fantasy series, is in final editorial revisions.

The comment from my editor was, "I had a very hard time finding anything to correct. The few items I found were mostly spelling or punctuation things, and very few at that. I’m thinking this Revision Phase will be more like a proofread for you," which is encouraging to hear. In fact, as I read through the manuscript, it does seem to be in really good shape.

Looking at the whole series, it's strange how the series started off as such a small story, a few characters running around a small rural town, with magical elements that were pretty mild until the last couple of chapters. The fourth book takes place mostly in that same small rural town, but the magical elements are so huge, and the stakes are so high by comparison.

Of course, the struggle of getting more epic is trying not to lose sight of the characters. I actually think book four brings things back down to a personal level from book three in a great way. We actually get back into some of those small interactions and relationship moments that hopefully make people care about the characters. We shall see how people react.

I must say, the first chapter of Mary of Cosmos is a doozy. In fact, I won't even be able to release it as a preview. The preview will have to be chapter three. If you want, you can read chapter three right here. Definitely, don't do so if you haven't already read the rest of the series. It be spoiler-tastic.

To pique your interest, here are the first couple of sentences of chapter one:

It took five days of healing to get her right eye open, another three for the left. Five more days passed before her hearing returned, and the first sound she became aware of was the creaking of her shattered bones coming back together.

Now, if you haven't read the rest of the series, let me greatly encourage you to do so. Click on the nice little graphic and go forth.