Thursday, October 27, 2016

Context Free Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tonight is a night you’ll wish you had a gun.”

"My father used to talk about water dreams when I was a little girl, but he said they were rare, and when you had one, it meant someone close to you was going to die."

“This is not death. What new thing is this moving through my body?”

“A storm is coming to sweep away everything. Find a secret place, bury yourselves inside and wait it out. Wait it out.”

"As time passes, everything we ever knew or saw or heard, every person we ever touched or loved, they all drop away, leaving us with nothing but the vague and choking need to escape."

Which of these quotes stands on its own?

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Meaning of Monologues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right to the point. Thank you, monologues.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Cakey's Love Letter to Rubes

Hello, rubes.

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

Why, I'm referring to you, friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown, Esq.

not a picture of me

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

What Evil Dwells in the Heart of the City?

So let's talk about the latest novel. At the moment, it's over on Kindle Scout. For those who don't know, Kindle Scout is a kind of publishing competition where books vie for reader nominations. At the end of a 30-day campaign, books with a lot of nominations are supposedly eligible for a fairly good contract with Kindle. Now, honestly, I have no idea what the odds are of winning this thing. It could be like trying to win the lottery, for all I know, but I thought I'd try it anyway. So if you would, please give Teth of the City a nomination. Its right here. You can also read a sample.

If it doesn't win, I'll go another route with it. We shall see. But let's talk about the book a little bit.

Teth lives in a city that prides itself on its efficiency and prosperity. The motto that citizens learn from the time they are young, "A place for every person, and a person for every place," presents a vision of a society where nobody is forgotten, nobody is cast aside or marginalized.

As our story opens, however, we see a man living in less-than-ideal conditions. Teth's apartment is a small, enclosed balcony, one of dozens of them, possibly hundreds, built into the side of a vast metal wall. It seems like practically a prison, with no easy way to leave. As for the work, Teth spends hours each day putting together circuit boards by hand in exchange for basic daily provisions, which are brought to him by a courier.

It is, at best, subsistence living, and we can't help but wonder how a man would wind up in this condition. Did Teth choose this way of life? Was it forced upon him? And, perhaps more importantly, what sort of a city would create such a working environment?

Of course, there are answers to all of these questions. Ultimately, a city that promises prosperity and purpose to all of its citizens might fail to live up to that promise. Teth, we soon learn, is willfully blind to many things because he is nursing deep wounds from a personal tragedy. Getting him to care about anything, particular things out of his reach, will not be easy.

Unfortunately, beneath the mottos, the ideals, the news feed propaganda, and the promises, there is a reality to the City that is much different than Teth or any other citizen has ever imagined. And when a courier shows up at his balcony one day with information about the cause of his tragedy, Teth finds himself drawn inexorably into the heart of the City, to the truth that is hidden there.

And that, folks, is the essence of this latest novel. With weird creatures, desperate escapes, intrigue, dark and slimy passages, and strange technology, it should be an interesting read. Please give it your nomination. Thanks!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Opening Paragraphs Just Want Your Love

The purpose of an opening paragraph is to quickly pique the interest of readers. There are many ways to do this, of course, but I prefer to open with some indication of the conflict that will drive the rest of the story. A little bit of weirdness, a touch of mystery, a hint of danger, some indication of the setting--if I can work all of these things into the opening paragraph, then I've done my job. Take a look at the opening paragraphs of some of my recent novels, and you'll see this process at work. Here we go:

The Vale of Ghosts (The Archaust Saga Book One)

Ann heard screams through the window, though the shutters had been pulled and latched and a pillow shoved into the space behind it. A tortured scream, the scratchy warbling howl of a monster. She was crouched in the dirt beneath the windowsill, jabbing a crooked stick into the ground between her feet and trying to appear like she wasn’t listening, like she hadn’t a care in the world. A ladybug landed on her knee, and she offered it the end of the stick. It climbed onto the stick, and she held it up into the air until it flew away.

Army of the Inner Eye (The Archaust Saga Book Two)

Enari kicked the coarse wool blanket off the bed and sat up, his head swimming from the lingering residue of a bad dream. Heavy afternoon sunlight filtered through the shutters on the only window in the room, illuminating the dusty air in the clergy house. It took him a few seconds to realize that he was still hearing the voices from his dream, three or four voices speaking all at once, and they seemed scared or angry or both.

Teth of the City

Teth leaned as far over the balcony railing as he dared, feeling the press of the cold metal bar against his stomach, and thrust the hunting pole toward the clothesline. Made of hollow aluminum, the pole was dented in many places, scars from all the times he had banged it on the railing or on the wall. At the end of the pole, a little loop of nylon rope was threaded through a hole. With the pull of a crude trigger, he could contract the loop, but first he had to get it around the head of the line rat. The fat little animal had a long tapered nose, dusky fur, and loose folds of skin that drooped over the sides of the clothesline. But nimble forepaws and a prehensile tail kept it from falling into the hazy, red gloom below.

Fading Man

“There's nothing you can do for her,” Eleanor said, bent over, her hand resting on his shoulder. “It’s the water. The sickness is in the ground water, that’s what they told us. She must’ve gotten into a puddle along the way.”

This technique, if you want to call it that, is evident in everything I've written, going back to my first published novel, as you can see here:

Mary of the Aether

The lunatic in the long, gray cloak dashed out of the forest and ran right up onto the front yard, waving his arms in front of him like a child playing tag. He skirted the porch, paused, turned a complete circle and fell onto his hands and knees. A hood obscured most of his face, but Mary could see the tip of a pointy chin covered in whiskers. She sat at the living room window, leaning against the sill and resting her forehead against the cold glass, transfixed by the sight. The crazy man crawled through the high, unmowed grass, his face close to the ground, shifting back and forth like a bloodhound chasing a scent. He stopped at the driveway, lifted his head and appeared to sniff at the air. Then he scooped up a handful of gravel and sifted it through his fingers.

My goal is always the same. 1) introduce the conflict, 2) pique readers' interest, 3) give some sense of what is to come. Some of my novels are more effective at this than others, of course, but it's a fun little part of writing a novel. Any favorites?

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Turgid History of Mary of the Aether

So let's talk about the Mary of the Aether series. It's a four-volume Young Adult, Urban Fantasy series, and the first volume was also the first novel I ever got published. Mary of the Aether was originally written between 2009 and 2011, and an indie publishing house called Whiskey Creek Press published it in July 2012.

Some cool things happened with that first book. Chiefly, in the summer of 2013, it wound up on a recommended reading list called "So Many Books, So Little Time," which is part of an annual workshop for Arkansas teachers done by a Harding University professor named Ken Stamatis. As a result of that list, thousands of English teachers across the state heard about the book, and I became a fairly regular speaker at area high schools and junior highs.

Now, I have to give some credit to the publisher at that time. Once Mary of the Aether got on that list, the publisher worked with me personally to create promotional materials to take advantage of the situation. It was an exciting development and led to some sales and lots of feedback (mostly positive).

By the time that book was published, I had already completed the sequel, Mary of Shadows. It came out in August 2013, right after all the hullabaloo with the reading list. Unfortunately, even as I worked furiously to finish books three and four, my publisher was struggling to survive. For reasons I still don't fully understand, Whiskey Creek Press fell on dark times and died a slow, agonizing death. It became harder to get hold of them. A lot of their authors expressed mounting frustration. We got less attention for our books.

Ultimately, Whiskey Creek Press ceased to exist shortly before the fourth and final book of the series, Mary of Cosmos, came out in 2014. Consequently, books two through four didn't get even a fraction of the attention that Mary of the Aether did. Just compare the number of Amazon reviews for the first book to the others, and you'll see what I mean. Honestly, I'm just glad the fourth and final book came out at all.

What saved the day for Mary of Cosmos and the rest of the series was that Whiskey Creek Press's catalog was bought by Start Publishing, and they went ahead and released Mary of Cosmos for me. The name "Whiskey Creek Press" became an imprint of Start Publishing, and the series continued to be available. But otherwise, since then things have been pretty quiet.

I have to say, the relative neglect of books two through four is a shame. They are so much better than the first book. In fact, my original editor, Melanie Billings, in her final email to me, had this to say about the series: "I have to tell you, I have LOVED working on this series. It is one of my absolute favorites! I could definitely see this series doing well if it just catches on like it should! I’m so glad I got to work with you on it." That's a nice little compliment.

Well, not much happened after Start Publishing took over. A quiet couple of years passed with a few sales here and there, some more school speaking gigs, but no major developments. Well, a major development has finally happened. As of July 1, 2016, Start Publishing has entered into a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster.

This means the Start catalog, including the Mary of the Aether series, is now distributed by Simon & Schuster. What does that mean? Well, first of all, it means a much broader reach, with the books available a far more retailers than ever before. It also means I've now got an author page over at Simon & Schuster. What else might come from this remains to be seen, but it can only be positive. Perhaps the whole series will finally get the attention it deserves.

And hey, if you've not given the series a chance, let me strongly plead with you to do so now. It's worth it, I believe. Just click the picture below and get started!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Creepy Places with Strange Odors and Slimy Walls

Okay, confession time. World building is not my strength. You know what I mean by world building? The term refers to the author's process of constructing or fleshing out the overall structure (political, geographical, cultural) of their imaginary world. It's a big deal particularly for science fiction and fantasy writers. Good world building gives readers a strong sense of a believable imaginary world outside the confines of the immediate plot.

I don't enjoy it so much. It probably shows. My devotion tends to be toward characters and events, mood and tone, but I do very much enjoy creating memorable settings. These, of course, can contribute to world building, but in fact, they operate much like the setting of a play or a scene in a movie. They place the readers in a distinct location and give them a stage on which to locate the characters and keep track of the action.

Boy, do I love to create a memorable setting, something that readers can feel and smell, something that gives a distinct impression, something they will remember. I don't know how good I am at it, but I enjoy it. So with that in mind, let's look at some of my favorite settings from some of my novels. These are places I loved to create, places that were vivid in my imagination. If you've read the books, which of these stick out in your memory?

Children of the Mechanism - Grong Room

One might say that this whole novel is set in a memorable place. It's a vast, dark, grungy factory full of slimy refuse holes with dented robots roaming about. It's labyrinthine and smells bad, and it's full of danger. But, one place in particular that I enjoyed writing about was the Grong Room. This is the place where a character named Kuo lives and works. It is a vast, high-ceilinged place with a rubbery floor on which a hideous, huge flesh-creature rests. The Grong is a headless, limbless, living bio-mass of some kind that absorbs a nutrient-rich "meat paste" which workers spend all day slopping under its massive skin folds. Doesn't that sound fun? It's hideous, odorous, dark, and disgusting.

Mary of the Aether - Chesset

Chesset is a small, fictional town set in rural Arkansas that has a lot of qualities that I have experienced in real places. If you know the area of Northwest Arkansas, you will see pieces of Mountainburg, West Fork, Winslow, and Chester. The only two businesses in town, at least initially, are a small convenience store and one of those ubiquitous soft-serve ice cream parlors that small towns love. Everything revolves around these two places, until a big gas station sets up shop just off the highway. Chesset feels like a real place to me. It is very much like towns where I have actually lived.

Garden of Dust and Thorns - The Garden

The garden in this novel is the last green place in a world that has otherwise transformed into one vast, dusty desert. Since it was created to preserve plant and animal species, it is a unique sort of place where things from many different kinds of environments and climates all exist side by side. Baobab trees next to stately aspen, bison grazing with camels, and a magical power somehow allows all of these things to thrive together. If such a place existed, it would be quite a thing to see. Every kind of fruit, every color of flower, it's all there. A massive wall of thorny vines surrounds it and keeps out the dust. The tragedy of the story is that the people who live outside the garden take it for granted. Some never go inside. They are content to live in their sad little town on the other side of the wall.

The Vale of Ghosts - The Archaust Chamber

This place appears in the first two books of The Archaust Saga. Actually, it appears in the second volume, Army of the Inner Eye, quite a bit more. It is partly a natural cavern and partly a constructed chamber. Primary access is through a hole in the roof, which drops into a deep, muddy pool. But the real heart of the Archaust chamber is behind an ancient door, where a narrow passageway leads into a secret room. It's dim, dark, oppressive, and hopefully super creepy. And it is here that our curious protagonist first comes face to face with the real evil that threatens the kingdom.

Teth of the City - The City

A sprawling futuristic city, full of massive metal buildings, countless balconies, winding streets, sleek vehicles, and thousands of neat little workstations and living quarters for all the people. That's the setting of my next novel. A place for every person, and a person for every place. That's the motto. But if you look a little closer, you will find seedy places, rundown and desolate locations, street dwellers, and mysterious entrances into underground corridors. It's overrun, busy, noisy, and a bright red sun burns through the constant haze in the sky overhead.

Anyway, those are just a few examples of some of the memorable settings I've enjoyed writing about over the years. I love to create a vivid sense of place, where readers can practically feel the grime and smell the odors. Hopefully, I have occasionally managed it.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Every Story Needs a Weirdo

I can't help myself. In just about every novel I've ever written there is at least one character who is a flat-out weirdo. Sometimes they are just quirky, other times they are psychologically damaged, and a few of these people are totally insane. It's not something I set out to do. It's just something that happens. I try to make interesting characters, and since I tend to be a little weird myself, it bleeds over.

So let's look at a few examples of my weird characters. If you've read these books, I'd be curious to know which of them you liked the best.

Shadows of Tockland

All of the characters in this story are weird or damaged in some way, but nobody matches Cakey the Clown, AKA Gavril Tugurlan. He performs a knife juggling act in The Klown Kroo, a traveling circus. That's not what makes him weird. What makes him weird is that he never takes off his clown makeup, I mean never, and he occasionally utters prophetic pronouncements about an impending apocalyptic event called the ever-night. He believes in destiny to a fault, and he's quick to violence. At the same time, he can be extremely loyal.

As he tells our anxious protagonist, "Mark my words, the ever-night is coming, and when it does, you'll be glad you've got some wild nutters at your side." And, boy oh boy, does that turn out to be true.

Children of the Mechanism

The characters in this book are all enslaved children, so they have stunted developments and strange ways of talking. However, the weirdest of these poor kids is an unfortunate guy by the name of Kuo. In this case, Kuo is most likely suffering from an actual mental illness, some form of schizophrenia, so his behavior is more sad than amusing. He keeps seeing an old friend of his, another slave named Rel, who might or might not actually exist. Poor suffering Kuo unwittingly does some really awful things to some innocent people, but later on, the same mental confusion actually compels him to heroism. In a way, he turns out to be the most important character in the story.

Teth of the City

This book isn't published yet, but just you wait until you meet Kide. He's a short, smart, gifted guy with a huge, hideous beard, and an impressive gut. He's someone our characters turn to when they need access to hidden files in a computer database. But Kide is a hoarder, with an apartment stacked to the ceiling with "stuff," and he's sarcastic and self-amused. Plus, he loves to call people buddy and pal and dearest. A nice combination of traits, yes?

Mary of the Aether

There are a few rather strange people in this book series. Kristen Grossman, for example, who is sarcastic, occasionally insulting, sometimes insufferable. In the second book, Mary of Shadows, we learn that this might be the result of some family turmoil she has experienced. However, the weirdest character is a fellow named Richard "Mullet" Williams. He's sweaty and awkward, and when readers first meet him, he is in the school bathroom, pretending to have diarrhea so the school nurse will send him home. The nickname comes from the long sheet of glorious, greasy hair that spills down his back. He also almost gets everyone killed, so that's a problem.

Anyway, those are just a few examples. Yes, I do enjoy creating weird characters, and I create them often. Some are only mildly strange, like timid Elonny from The Vale of Ghosts or Innpan from Garden of Dust and Thorns, others are dangerous nutjobs, like Cakey. I enjoy writing them. I hope people enjoy reading about them.

You can learn more about these various books right HERE, people, HERE! Click it! CLICK IT NOW!

Thanks :)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Alarming Readers with Chapter Titles

I've said before that I'm unusually fond of chapter titles. They provide the author with a great opportunity to entice, or possibly alarm, readers, so that they want to continue reading. A good chapter title gives a vague but distinct notion about what is to come, maybe hinting at danger, maybe presenting a riddle to be solved along the way. With each novel I write, there is usually one particular chapter title that really stands out. Let me share some examples and explain what I mean.

Teth of the City

Chapter Title: The Sweet Embrace of a Thousand Monsters

This book doesn't have cover art yet. In fact, I'm not even done with revisions, but I like this chapter title. It refers to a crack that a character makes earlier in the story, which is meant as an exaggeration of the possible dangers they are about to face. But suddenly, readers turn the page and see the chapter title! *cue creepy music*

The Vale of Ghosts
The Archaust Saga Book One

Chapter Title: Morning Breaks All Things

At a certain point in the story, the characters have put together a somewhat ill-planned strategy for dealing with the difficult situation that is troubling them (am I being vague enough?). Anyway, it's late at night, and they are enacting this plan. Suddenly, readers turn the page and come to this chapter title. It does not bode well. It hints that things might not go the way the characters intend. It whispers at potential soul-shattering catastrophe.

Army of the Inner Eye
The Archaust Saga Book Two

Chapter Title: The Unprotected Heart

In the previous novel (mildest spoiler alert), a powerful being tells our protagonist that he can protect her body, but he cannot protect her heart. It is clear in the context of the story that this is a reference to possible grief and anguish from the hero's friends and family being put in mortal danger. Well, along comes book number two, and suddenly one of the early chapters bears this title, hinting that perhaps the warning from the previous book will suddenly become a terrible reality. *cue anxious hand-wringing*

Garden of Dust and Thorns

Chapter Title: Everything Dies

Here's a fun little fantasy novel I wrote once upon a time, where two great supernatural beings wage war over the last green garden in a world turned to dust. It features a brutal war between soldiers and a forest full of animals. Good times. Anyway, at a certain point in the story, the two sides are coming together to draw up battle lines, promising a vicious fight. There's no telling how it will turn out, but things don't look good. Readers turn the page and see the next chapter title. Hearts sink.

See, that's why I love a good chapter title. Oh, the little mind games you can play with a good chapter title. Tweaking expectations, building tension, casting doubt. It's a lot of fun. Of course, every chapter title can't be a gem, but when you can make them crackle, it's a nice feeling.

(by the way, click the book covers for links to the various books)

Friday, May 6, 2016

What Am I Trying to Say?

When I write a novel, I am, first and foremost, just trying to tell a compelling story, with interesting characters, thrilling events, and a memorable setting. Sometimes, there is also a bit of cathartic saturation, where I am wallowing in a particular mood or emotion. However, there is almost always a singular thematic idea that I am chasing as well.

With each of my novels, I can simplify that thematic idea down to its most basic essence. Here are a few examples:

The Vale of Ghosts

Annella Fenn, the main character, addresses the singular theme in this way:

Isn’t it strange how everything can fall apart in one day? In one moment?” Ann said, musing into the growing darkness. “One dumb act made in ignorance is all it takes to ruin your life forever. It shouldn’t be that way. There should be some way to go back and undo choices made, especially choices made unwittingly. Don’t you think?”

Army of the Inner Eye

The sequel to The Vale of Ghosts offers a natural thematic progression from the first book, which Annella also summarizes with this statement:

“Every time I try to fix a situation I make a big old mess.”

So it's easy to make a big old mess and incredibly hard to fix it. And that is what this book series explores, chiefly, and that is how it goes sometimes in life, folks.

Shadows of Tockland

A strange, violent novel about a clown troupe traveling across a post-apocalyptic America. Shadows of Tockland tells the story of a young man named David Morr who runs away from home to join up with the clowns. As he meets the performers, he finds that each one is strange in his or her own way. However, what they all have in common is an obsession with performing, despite the perils and tragedies they encounter on the road. 

Bubbles the Clown, as she is called, sums it up nicely in this bit of conversation with David:

“I like to perform. Better to say I need to perform. It feels good when you get applause. It’s good when you get recognition. It feels right when you’re on the stage, and you can feel it all coming together. You know what I mean?” 

He shrugged. 

“No, I guess you don’t get it yet,” she said. “But you will. There’s something in performing that we all need, and it makes the awful stuff seem worthwhile. Even Gooty sticks around, and he’s got the least reason to be here. All of us need something that we only get from doing this. That includes you. There’s some reason you wanted to join up. What was it? Your old man?” 

David nodded. “Mostly. Had to get out of Mountainburg.” 

“So we’ve all got our reasons,” she said. “And that’s why, if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll keep right on letting Telly be the boss, even when his decisions get you in trouble. Because you need to be here, you need to be on the road, you need to be onstage despite the risks and the pain.”

Children of the Mechanism

A truly dark tale about child slaves living and working in a massive factory, watched over by cruel robots. When a glitch in the computer system causes some of the doors to open, a few brave children leave their rooms and begin to wander the corridors. And really, that's kind of the point right there. When a door opens, you have to have the courage to go through it. As Ekir says:

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

Despite this, only a handful of slaves are willing to risk the uncertainty of the open door, choosing to remain in the misery they are familiar with rather than trust themselves to fate.

Anyway, that's just a few of my books, but you get the idea. Maybe we'll examine some others at a later date. Chasing a singular theme, an idea, a cathartic saturation in a particular mood or emotion, those are the kinds of things I'm doing when I write a novel.

At the moment, I'm working on a new science fiction novel called Teth of the City. It's what you might call dystopian, and it has a similar feel to Children of the Mechanism, though it's not nearly as dark. In the end, Teth of the City is about learning to care again, learning to give a crap after years spent nursing old wounds. I think it might just be powerful stuff, but we shall see. More on that one later, folks.

(By the way, click on any of the book covers in this blog entry to go to the appropriate Amazon page for the book)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Archaust Saga: An In-Character Introduction

Rumor and ancient lore tell us that malevolent ghosts dwell in the broad, grassy vale south of the city of Siliven. As far as we know, nobody in recent generations has seen these ghosts. In fact, if you stand at the edge of town and look down the slope, the vale appears rather plain, just weeds and grass with a small copse of trees in the middle.

But anyone foolish enough to go down into the vale runs the risk of having her mind invaded by these ghosts, and the consequences of that are madness, violence, raving fits and worse. The only thing that keeps the ghosts from ascending the vale and entering town is a little strip of green grass that encircles the town on three sides. It is here that the ten relics of the prophet Cabrien are kept. Set at regulars intervals along the circle of grass, the relics are contained in small, silver boxes which are raised up on tall poles.

These relics have some kind of power that creates a barrier for the ghosts. I don't fully understand how it works, to be honest. Unfortunately, they are no real barrier for disobedient or foolish people, who can, if they so choose and if no one is close by to stop them, simply step past the relics and enter the vale. This has happened a few times over the centuries, or so we are told. You might wonder why they don't build a real wall, something high enough to keep even the most determined troublemaker out. Well, according to the priests, the openness of the relic wall is meant to test our faith and discipline.

That's all well and good for most people. After all, who wants a mind full of ghosts? But then, not so long ago, a local girl by the name of Miral crossed over into the vale and disappeared. Her motives and purpose remain a complete mystery. She was quiet and shy but otherwise well behaved. What could possibly have possessed her to enter the vale? No one can make sense of it. I will admit to a fleeting temptation, though my intentions were mostly pure. That is to say, I went to the relic wall and looked for her. I got as close as I dared, but I never crossed. I wouldn't.

Not that it mattered. After a couple of days, Miral returned, and as we've now learned, all the old stories are true. She is no longer herself. Far from it. She has transformed into a raving, snarling lunatic, gnashing her teeth and attacking people. What does it all mean? I don't know. Most people are scared. Some are angry. But few seem to want answers. And that, to me, is the strangest thing of all.

Father is well aware of my curiosity, and he has forbidden me to come to my own house, which is where they are currently holding her. I only want to know what's happening. I only want to listen. It's not as if I intend to get involved. Miral is my own cousin. Shouldn't I be concerned about her condition? Well, I won't go in the house. Fine. But I can't promise I won't sneak over there and sit outside the window. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with wanting to know?

And that, folks, is just a little spoiler-free "in character" introduction to The Archaust Saga. The first volume, The Vale of Ghosts, opens right where this blog intro ends, with young Annella Fenn sitting outside of her own house, her back to a wall beneath her bedroom window.

It's a story about how seemingly minor choices sometimes have life-shattering consequences, about how events can spiral out of control despite our best efforts, about how a decision can seem so right in the moment before we act and then so catastrophically wrong the moment after.

Set in a fantasy kingdom called The Last Realm of Cabrien, it combines elements of fantasy with other genres. If you haven't already, click on the book cover above and read the sample on the Amazon page. I think you'll like it. Or head on over to my website to read about these and other science fiction and fantasy novels--HERE.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Beautiful First Appearances of Fabulous Villains

What makes a good villain? I suppose some people like an antagonist who is just pure evil, who does hideous and despicable things and wields great power. Others prefer a villain whose motives are understandable, who might even be somewhat sympathetic, one whose fall into evil makes sense. That sort of villain typically becomes more of a tragic figure than an incarnation of wickedness.

A villain's first entrance into the story is always significant and, if done right, can make for a memorable moment. That initial glimpse creates an impression that colors the rest of the story for the reader, I believe. Think of Darth Vader striding through the smoky door of the rebel ship in the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope. It's a bold and mysterious first appearance (made less impactful now, perhaps, that we've seen the little kid version of pre-Vader shouting "Yippeee!").

Anyway, to that end, here are some excerpts from my novels with the first appearance of the main antagonists. There is no particular deep purpose here in isolating these bits of text except for my own curiosity about how these first appearances feel, what sort of immediate impression they make. So without further ado, let's begin.

Mary of the Aether
Leonard Watt

His first appearance is the opening paragraph of the novel, though readers do not get his name until quite a bit later. I like to think it's a pretty memorable opening.

The lunatic in the long, gray cloak dashed out of the forest and ran right up onto the front yard, waving his arms in front of him like a child playing tag. He skirted the porch, paused, turned a complete circle and fell onto his hands and knees. A hood obscured most of his face, but Mary could see the tip of a pointy chin covered in whiskers. She sat at the living room window, leaning against the sill and resting her forehead against the cold glass, transfixed by the sight. The crazy man crawled through the high, un-mowed grass, his face close to the ground, shifting back and forth like a bloodhound chasing a scent. He stopped at the driveway, lifted his head and appeared to sniff at the air. Then he scooped up a handful of gravel and sifted it through his fingers.

Mary of Shadows

Gavin, the primary troublemaker for much of Mary of Shadows, also appears in the opening chapter, interrupting Mary's birthday party in the park with some disturbing behavior. Here is his first actual appearance:

A figure stumbled out of the line of trees, hunched over, a man clutching his face. He wandered into the park, past the swing set and monkey bars, past wide-eyed children and a pair of corgi dogs on leashes who couldn’t decide whether to bark or whimper. The man’s eyes were covered, but he stumbled right toward the picnic table, as if seeing it in his mind....a trail of blood seeped out from under the man’s right hand and ran down his cheek. He had on a pale blue, button-up dress shirt, but the tail was un-tucked, and the breast pocket was torn and hung down like a bit of rent skin.

Mary of Starlight
Ronald Holt

Some of the same evil characters recur in this third volume of the series, but about halfway through, we do meet a significant new villain in the strange Ronald Holt. Here is his first appearance in this book:

“I surely hate getting bad news. I surely do. Anybody would.”

At first, Aiden thought it was Perry who had spoken and started to brush him off again, but then he realized the voice had come from his left side. A gruff voice, low and coarse. He turned and saw a man walking along beside him, ten yards away, keeping pace as he picked his way around the trees. Aiden had seen the man before, and he had expected to see him again but not so soon, not so suddenly. The man had a long white beard, black around his mouth, unkempt at the edges. It hung down to his chest. He wore a ragged fedora hat pulled low over his eyes and a long brown trench coat.

“It’s about the magical girl, I suppose,” the man said. “All of the bad news is about her these days, isn’t it?”

Children of the Mechanism

There isn't really a single villain in Children of the Mechanism. Well, I suppose the factory itself counts as the primary antagonist, but the cruel Watcher robots serve as the primary source of danger for the main characters. Here is their first description in the early pages of the novel:

The Watcher entered the Sleeping Room through the archway, returning from whatever strange errand it had been about, and stopped in a corner near the Refuse Hole. A boy relieving himself finished quickly and dashed away. The Watcher had a shiny, cylindrical body, fat wheels for feet, a flat, circular head with dead eyes, but it was the arms that the boys paid special attention to, long segmented arms made of polished metal rods with cloth bulbs for hands. Those were the killing hands, and they were ever poised, ready to strike.

“One minute until work,” the Watcher said. “One minute.”

Dreams in the Void
Lord-General Durehen Tallek

His first appearance happens in the first chapter, even though his real purpose is not made clear to the protagonist until a few chapters later. But here is that first appearance:

Six men passed, and then one appeared, riding alone, who seemed greater than the others. He wore the same sort of armor, polished to a mirror shine, but massive silver wings curled out on either side of his helm above the cheek plates, and he had a double visor, the first raised all the way up, the second lifted halfway, revealing a set of dark eyes beneath a heavy brow. A man and not an empty suit. His long cloak was fringed in gold cloth, and he had drawn it around himself, clutching a fold of it in his gloved left hand.

Garden of Dust and Thorns

The first real appearance of Magesh happens after the protagonist is captured and brought into a courtyard with some of her people. After waiting for a while in anxious silence, Magesh appears:

After some time, there arose a strange jingling sound from outside the courtyard, as if many chains were being shaken. She heard soldiers chanting that same word, the one that sounded like death, but in hushed voices. Finally, a pair of soldiers entered the courtyard, bearing a padded bench stolen from someone’s house. They set it in the open space at the center of the courtyard, then took up positions on either side of it. 

A man entered, markedly different from the others. He had no hood, only a long gray cape fringed in silver brocade. On his head was a kind of crown made of woven strips of leather, alternating red and black. His face, unlike the others, was uncovered, a hard face, features chiseled out of stone, framed by short curls of graying hair. He crossed the courtyard in four long strides, as the prisoners along the walls murmured and groaned, turned in one swift motion and sat down on the bench. He had a small curved sword sheathed at his side, but he drew it now and laid the blade across his thigh. 

“Bring him,” he said, after a moment. Dark eyes beneath bushy eyebrows, a sharp nose, flaring nostrils, thin lips, deep creases at the corners of his mouth and along his forehead.

Vale of Ghosts

Now, this situation is somewhat unique in that the true villain of this whole fantasy series doesn't appear until fairly late in the first book. Prior to that moment, the protagonist has no idea what she's dealing with. In fact, when he first appears, she mistakes him for a statue:

And sitting on the bench was some bent-backed old statue, gray and mottled skin like polished marble. Someone had draped it in a filthy robe that was falling apart. It was the figure of a man with well-defined muscles, its face hidden in its hands.

But then it reveals itself to be a living thing:

Suddenly, the statue moved. First, it shuddered, as if waking. Then it sat up. She saw an angular face, delicately carved. The lips parted to reveal rows of pale teeth, and the eyelids opened to reveal hollow spaces where eyes should have been. But when the statue turned toward them, she realized the hollow spaces were not empty. Tiny specks of light flashed deep inside, pinprick lights like distant stars.

And, of course, from that point on, things get markedly worse for all involved.

There are many more--General Mattock from Shadows of Tockland. Devourers from the Mary of the Aether series. Sindaya from Garden of Dust and Thorns. The Master from Children of the Mechanism--along with a few that I can't name because they are revealed during major plot twists.

So what do you think? What makes a memorable antagonist? What makes a memorable first appearance for a story's villain?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Favorite Characters

I love a good character. Actually, I love writing a good character as much as reading about one. Now, what makes a character "good" is highly subjective, and in particular what I enjoy about writing a certain character may not translate into what readers enjoy, or don't enjoy, about the same. In general, what makes me enjoy writing a particular character usually has to do with a combination of a quirky personality and clear (to me, the author) motives. To that end, here are some of the characters that I've most enjoyed writing over the years.

Cakey the Clown (aka Gavril Tugurlan) 

This will come as no surprise to those who have read the novel, I suppose. In the end, Cakey stands out quite a bit for his weird antics and strange behavior. The particular iteration of Cakey that appears in my novel Shadows of Tockland is a genuine weirdo, driven by a mysterious childhood, some Roma prophecies with apocalyptic leanings, and a significant amount of psychological trauma and guilt. All of this combines to create a character who is fearless, overly confident, occasionally threatening and dangerous, hard for other characters to like, but also quite talented (at juggling knives and other useful things).

Kristen Grossman 

Now, here's a character that some readers just do not like at all, but she is one my favorites. In the Mary of the Aether series, Kristen is the protagonist's "best" friend, and by "best" I mean "sort of a nuisance and sometimes a bully and too often present." She is sarcastic, and sometimes it is not clear if the sarcasm comes from genuine meanness and hostility or if she's trying, in a lame way, to be funny. Readers that see her as just a bully who is constantly insulting everyone tend not to like her. As the author, of course, I understand that a lot of this comes from fear and pain, and by the second novel, Mary of Shadows, it should become clear to readers that she has a profound sense of abandonment tied to her father. Though that doesn't excuse her behavior, as the author, I always knew that there was, under the crust of sarcasm and annoyance, a tender-hearted soul who yearned to do something awesome in life. At the same time, the sarcasm was fun to write, I must admit.


If you've read Children of the Mechanism, you know that it is a dark and relentlessly bleak novel about child slaves living and working in a vast factory, lorded over my cruel robots called Watchers. Because of their strange childhoods, all of the characters exhibit unhealthy emotional development, reacting to things in unnatural ways, but none of the major characters is stranger than the one called Kuo. Now, as an author, I am fully aware that Kuo is most likely suffering from some kind of genuine mental illness, probably schizophrenia, among other things. However, along the way he has some major revelations about his world that set in motion all of the events driving the plot. His compulsion, his shifting view of the character called "Rel" (part-real and part-hallucination), and ultimately his drive to fulfill his purpose make him, for me, a compelling character.


I can't say too much about this character because he is the antagonist in an unfinished fantasy series of mine called The Archaust Saga. The first volume, The Vale of Ghosts, is available, but I've done little to promote it. Mostly, I am waiting until the second volume is closer to completion. I'm about two thirds of the way through that one. Anyway, let me be frank, Vyshe is a despicable creature who does terrible things. I don't like him as a person, but his motives are weird, and his skill-set is unusual, and his personality makes him a real oddball. He is up to all sorts of shenanigans in the second volume. He creeps me out, and he is gross and vile, but as a villain, I am truly enjoying writing about him. Not to say I won't be relieved if and when he gets defeated. But I won't say much more about him at this time.

Anyway, I've enjoyed far more of my characters than this, but these few are among my favorites. Getting into the headspace of a character as you write about him or her is part of the fun of creating novels, but the author's experience of a character is often quite different from a reader's experience of the same. For my readers out there, which of my characters, if any, have you enjoyed? Are your feelings about the ones in this list different than mine? Let me know.