16 October, 2012

Not dead

Not dead - not yet. Sometimes life interferes. (Sometimes, it's just pandas.) I'll be back posting regularly soon.

11 September, 2012

27 August, 2012

A new Nook

So The Queen of Mages is now available for the Nook, too. For you anti-Amazon folks out there. ;)

Becoming a Professional

When it comes to a mass audience, a large part of success is perception. If a potential reader perceives that your work is Professional Quality™, they're more likely to buy it.

How do you get them to think it's professional, when all the merchandise you've got is a product page on Amazon? It's a long, slow, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps process. I went into this expecting zero success, so I find myself inordinately pleased every time I sell a single copy of THE QUEEN OF MAGES. I have no marketing budget and am slowly working my way into communities where I can suggest that, hey, maybe you'll like my book!

If you can get a few good reviews, and get some buzz going, it can have a multiplier effect. Suddenly more people are exposed to your work, and they see other people recommending it—they start to think, hey, maybe it's worth something. It raises its value in their eyes.

Something else is to have a larger body of work. If someone puts out a novel and that's all they've got, readers instinctively assume they're not worth much. All you've got is the one novel? But this guy over here, he's got five novels and a dozen short stories for sale! Clearly he's more professional.

I'm on the wrong end of that so far: one novel, two short stories. But I'm working on it. My goal is to have a wide gamut of material available, so that there's something to pull in a variety of readers.

There'll be a new free short story available here soon, which I hope everyone will enjoy; and, Godzilla willing, maybe it'll convince someone that my writing is enjoyable enough to spend a few bucks on something more substantial.

22 August, 2012

The Hollow

There's a certain feeling I get in the pit of my stomach occasionally. It took me years to identify it: anxiety. I thought I was someone who didn't ever get stressed or anxious. It's still pretty rare, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. In fact, it makes it worse, because I have so little practice dealing with it.

I'm not normally very vulnerable to negative criticism; not that I don't deserve any, but rather that I just don't feel hurt by it... usually. Today someone said something to me that (quite by accident) nailed a particular chunk of self-doubt I've been harboring. I wouldn't be much of a writer if I never had any self-doubt, but because of what was said to me, I've spent the whole day trying to ignore that hollow feeling in my gut. Maybe she's right. Maybe I'm no good.

Am I a good writer? Only time will tell, and even then only if I persist long enough to get some feedback. Maybe a good night's sleep will make the feeling go away—it's worked before—but I'm always going to know that the self-doubt is lurking there. Maybe some day I'll be able to face it.

19 August, 2012

The Post-Publication Dilemma

Consider the dilemma of the just-published author. Let's call him, oh, to pick a name at random, BEN.

Ben has just self-published a book on Amazon (*cough*). He thinks it's pretty good, but that hardly matters: Ben has no advertising budget, no promotional machine supporting him, no name recognition (except for a few friends on a hypothetical fantasy writing discussion forum he frequents, or would frequent, if it were real, which it's not, because Ben is fictional).

From Ben's POV, it's easy: the book is good and everyone should want to read it. But from Randy Reader's POV, it's just one book among thousands of others. What's there to recommend it? Why would he even spend one second looking at it, when there's so many other ways for him to spend his time?

Okay, so you may have seen through my clever ruse and figured out that I'm talking about myself. I'm torn between spending time crawling the Internet, looking for places to promote my book; and spending time writing the next one. On the one hand, the more work I can get out there, the more likely it is that I'll cross that mental threshold into being a "real" author in the eyes of readers; on the other hand, if I can get attention for this book, maybe that will start me off with a bang sooner.

I'm better at writing than marketing (...or so I've led myself to believe), so I'm going to concentrate on the writing aspect, with just a little bit of persistent marketing. It's going to be a long slog to success no matter what, and it's impossible to tell in advance what path to take; so I may as well take one that sounds sane.

17 August, 2012

Several Horrifying Things I Learned While Writing a Novel

Never try to guess how much longer it will take you to finish. You will be wrong.

You will become brutally aware of the phrases you overuse. Do yourself a favor and don't count them, because the number will horrify you.

Deleting a chapter and starting over is a lot less painful than you think it will be.

Don't edit when you're sleepy. You'll just make it worse.

Don't make characters too nice. As much as we all wish we could stay in control, characters who sometimes lose it and say reckless things are a lot more fun to read.

Don't give your first novel a downer ending, because you'll just end up having to completely rewrite it.

It's fun leaving in subtleties and allusions, but people who aren't you tend to miss them. So be sure you put in enough that readers catch some.

Novels are not movies. Don't write dialogue the way movie characters talk.

The awesome battle music from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack you were listening to when you wrote your battle scene will probably not be playing for the reader when they're reading it.

Writing is hard, and there's nothing you can do about it

Writing well is hard because it's hard to get good feedback. Woodworking, filing paperwork, playing poker; these are all things that have relatively simple ways to quantify success. The chair doesn't collapse; last year's tax files are easy to find; you win more money than you lose.

Writing has a trap that other skills don't, which is that you can write for ten years and not get any better. If you're not getting good feedback about what readers think about your writing, you're going to be limited by your own ability to criticize your work; and by all accounts, humans are not good at analyzing their own writing. We always have blind spots, especially about things we created. Your tenth novel might be just as clichéd and boring and poorly-copy-edited as your first one.

If you can get 100 people to read your novel, and they're all strangers, and are all willing to give you good, solid feedback—congratulations, because you're a wizard or something. Most authors can only get a few people to give feedback, and usually those people are friends and family, because those are the only people who are willing to read a novel by an unpublished author. And their feedback is going to be biased, because they don't want to hurt your feelings if they think it's bad.

14 August, 2012

Now what?

So THE QUEEN OF MAGES is now out there in the cold, unfeeling world, bobbing around the Amazon charts. What's next? Is my mission complete? Was my only goal to publish a novel?

Hell no! For one thing, there's going to be two more books in this series. Amira's story is not yet fully told. I've already got copious notes for book 2 and it should be underway soon.

But for another, I made myself a promise when I started this mad quest: I'd give it ten years, and if I didn't find some reasonable measure of success by then, well... then I'd just keep trying.

Because I love writing. I always have; I believe I always will. I haven't got the marketing muscle to get my work widely seen, so I'm going to have to rely on 1) writing well and 2) chipping away at the public consciousness. And I haven't got the free time to spend assiduously building my brand in addition to the hours spent writing.

What's the worst-case scenario? That I spend decades doing this and never have much to show for it. And even if that happens (think positive thoughts, folks!), I at least had the pleasure of creating something—hopefully many somethings—that might have brought entertainment and delight to at least a handful of people.

Our time is limited; I already waited ten years longer than I should have to begin my life's work. I refuse to find myself on my deathbed, wishing I'd had the courage to take my life in the direction I always knew I wanted it to go.

So hold on to your hats, folks. Sooner or later, THE SILVER WAR is coming.

THE QUEEN OF MAGES now available!

After more than a year of blood, sweat, and tears (admittedly, not much blood), THE QUEEN OF MAGES is now available for purchase on Amazon for only $3.99! I guarantee that that's the best deal you'll find all day. (Guarantee not guaranteed.)

Certainly I'm biased, but I think this is my best writing yet: 190,494 words of what I hope readers will find an exciting, entertaining, moving adventure.

I'll write more later today, but for now, go buy it!

13 August, 2012

Final cover art for THE QUEEN OF MAGES

Welp, here it is:

The ebook will be published on Amazon in the next couple of days.

12 August, 2012

The Coming Review Food Chain

With the rise of self-publishing, there are now literally hundreds of thousands of ebooks being published each year. In the old days, the quantity of published books was relatively small; if you regularly perused a few of the mainstream review outlets (mainly newspapers/magazines), you could get a line on just about everything that was both 1) probably good and 2) actually available for you to purchase. (We'll ignore for now the hidden gems that you couldn't get because no large-scale publisher would touch them, even though if you did get a chance to read it, you'd love it.)

The perpetual tsunami of self-published works is unlikely to abate. And the overwhelming majority of what's published will never see any substantial success. But naturally there will be some gems in the rough. How will those get identified?

First, individual authors have to promote themselves like mad in order to get any traction. The first tier of readers will be friends and family of the author, or people who the author directly contacted: people at cons, people at bookstores, or even a small handful of people who happened to click on one of the few AdWords spots that the author was able to pay for, as well as an equally small number of people who stumble across the book and buy it just because they like the cover art or the subject matter or the synopsis.

This tier of people all read the book, and if they think it's good, they'll recommend it to other friends and family. The second tier will repeat this process, and the book may continue spreading, as long as new readers keep thinking it's good.

Most works will never get very far. But a few will, and eventually, they may come to the attention of the bottom tier of reviewers.

What exactly is the "bottom tier of reviewers"? This is sort of the critical flipside of self-publishing: independent critical outlets. Little online magazines, or even just blogs, where people review works. (These sites will have their own issues becoming popular, but we're not concerned with that here.)

The very bottom of these sites will have a handful of readers. Some of these sites will prove to be more astute critics, or will be better at recognizing works that are likely to be popular with a larger audience. And occasionally, one of these bottom-tier review sites will end up hearing about a bottom-tier ebook that a friend (or a few friends) recommended.

So they'll review it, and the other independent review sites in nearby tiers (the ones that have a similar but perhaps somewhat larger readership/prestige) will pick up on the ebook. And if they hear enough about it, they'll end up writing their own review.

This process repeats up the chain, until (ideally) the ebook comes to the attention of the large-scale media outlets that have hundreds of thousands or millions of readers.

It's essentially the crowdsourcing of the slush pile. As a reader seeking good books, you can still pay attention to the big-name critical outlets with a long history; but you can also look around and find a few independent outlets that tend to recommend things you end up liking. Nobody really expects individual readers to troll the endless sea of self-published ebooks.

10 August, 2012

The things we talk about

A sample conversation between me and my wife:

Ben: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dWw9GLcOeA I, for one, welcome our new roof-surfing avian overlords  
Jean: That's completely inaccurate. He's not surfing at all.
Jean: He's snowboarding.
Ben: He's riding something on top of water. Surfing. QED.
Jean: He's riding a single object down a snowy slope. "Water" is flat.
Ben: http://www.hunuwan.com/WAVE1.jpg != flat
Jean: But definitely not shaped like that rooftop, either.
Ben: Not for very long, sure
Jean: Nor does the surfboard follow the "slope" of the water.
Ben: It's cold in Russia, things work different there
Jean: I'll worship the snowboarding bird, but I will not have this blasphemy that calls it "surfing."
Ben: The New Reformed Church of Water Sports Linguistics accepts definitions expansive enough for all believers.
Jean: They're heretics. They do not understand the TRUE nature of the bird.
Jean: Or of snow.
Ben: I've had enough of this, I'm calling the Crow Pope.
Jean: The Crow Pope is just a jumped-up carrion bird. True understanding of the love of Snowboarding Bird comes from directly viewing the video and understanding its meaning, not from the third-party interpretation of a bird in a silly hat.
Jean: Not exactly what I was looking for, but close enough: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_mWTKhKCRAi8/TJrol2kMgXI/AAAAAAAADF8/B2RmSErw2gc/s1600/crow+hat_002.png
Jean: Here's your crow pope: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-UgatH3upuyg/Tv5ACsZuYqI/AAAAAAAB-4s/91i-OU4iECo/s400/surprise%2Bparty%2Bcrow.jpg
Jean: And a promotional poster for his US Crowmobile tour: http://images.clipartof.com/small/95375-Black-Over-The-Hill-Crow-Wearing-A-Party-Hat-And-Standing-On-A-Cake-Poster-Art-Print.jpg
Jean: This appears to be him in extra-fancy ceremonial garb, with attendants (or possibly, decoys): http://www.trendytree.com/raz-christmas-decorations/images/h3153361-crowH3153361blackcrows.jpg
Jean: Do you have any idea how much those hats cost? Do you realize how many fledglings Crow Pope could have fed with that birdseed?

09 August, 2012

To hell with OpenOffice

With only a handful of chapters left in my final revision pass (and mostly I'm just waiting on the final cover art), I've decided that even though I wrote the entirety of THE QUEEN OF MAGES in OpenOffice (later LibreOffice; I upgraded back in March, although the two programs are still nearly identical at this point—LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice), I'm throwing the damn thing away.

(For clarity, I'm just going to call it LO.)

It is nice writing in a traditional word processor program, with its pretty fonts and non-breaking word wrapping and automatic curly quotes and such, but (and it's a but so big that Sir Mix-a-Lot would drool) problems abounded:

  • Assembling 40 individual chapter documents, 5 pieces of end matter, and a table of contents into an ebook file turned out to be a kludgy, annoying mess. I was able (despite awful documentation) to figure out how to create a master document, in which I could embed the 45 separate documents... one... by... one...
  • You can't edit documents in situ in an LO master document. You have to open each individual linked document separately. Normally this wasn't that big a deal—I tend to work on chapters individually anyway—but occasionally it was annoying, especially when I just wanted to adjust things having to do with layout. After I'd already finished my first draft, I wanted to go back and change how the title of each chapter was written. This meant opening 40 files and editing the header of every. Single. One.
  • LO (even after upgrading from OO) was touchy. Doing certain things with the document list in the master document would make LO crash. Sometimes opening too many documents at once would make it crash.
  • I kept all the files for the entire novel (chapters, front/end matter, notes, etc.) under source control in Subversion. Each day (sometimes multiple times per day, if I was getting a lot done) I would commit the changes. The problem is that Subversion has no idea how to compare differences between versions of OpenDocument files, so Subversion here was nothing more than a highly incremental backup system. If I accidentally changed something (via fat fingers), it might not be obvious, and there was no easy way to tell if something had changed relative to what was in the repository. You can't do svn diff on binary formats.
  • LO has some weird UI issues. Sometimes when scrolling around, a line or two of text will compress by a few pixels. It's just a subtle rendering error, but it's ugly and makes it look weird, but it happens constantly and looks weird.
  • OpenDocument files are a lot bigger than text files. Not that I'm low on disk space or memory, but I've been computing since the days of MS-DOS 2.1, and unnecessary bloat always makes my eye twitch.
  • I only use spellcheck right before I publish something. However, since you can't edit things in a master document, I would have had to open every single chapter file and run LO's spellcheck (which has a not-great UI) on each of them to see if anything was wrong. Instead I ended up using the command-line tool aspell on the exported HTML file (after I stripped out all the HTML tags) and, whenever I found a typo, opened up the particular chapter file to make the fix.
  • LO's HTML exporter is horrible. Not as bad as Microsoft's, but not even close to HTML 4 compliant. Yes, HTML 4, which was finalized in 1997. FONT tags everywhere, badly-formatted CSS, utterly extraneous SPAN tags... ugh.
  • The corollary to the HTML exporter's horrificness is that it's sometimes difficult to tell what kind of formatting/layout you need to do inside LO in order to get a given result in the HTML. This is normally not a huge deal, beause LO tries to preserve the look so that if you view the HTML document in a web browser, it will look more or less the same. But when you then have to convert it to MobiPocket, a format that is not particularly forgiving of formatting weirdness, it can be a problem.
  • I use vim for virtually all text (and for absolutely all code) that I write, and I'm so used to its convenient editing commands that whenever I want to edit things in LO's old-fashioned insert-mode-only interface, I feel like I've had half my fingers cut off.
  • I can SSH to my desktop from my phone, wherever I am, and write using vim. Using LO remotely is far, far more difficult, and (depending on the hardware) sometimes impossible.
As a result of all this, I'm going write the sequel in vim. Yep, good ol' vim, which I've been using for programming for 13 years. (It can do non-breaking word wrapping, too!)

I spent a couple of hours putting together a bash script that uses perl and sed to format the chapter files into MobiPocket-friendly HTML, and then assembles them and the front/end matter files (which are pre-written HTML fragments) into a single master document. It also automatically constructs an HTML table of contents (with links) from whatever files are in the chapters directory.

The only real advantage LO gave me was a little prettiness. But it's not much of an advantage. So I'm kicking it to the curb.

30 July, 2012

Zeno's Paradox

It seems like for every N hours of writing I do, I only cover half the remaining distance to my goal. I've been ransacking eBay trying to find some sort of mystical amulet or ghostly phial that will allow me to bridge that final gap and complete the damn thing.

But seriously, folks; there's a few passages I need to read over another time or two, and then give the book one final read-through to look for glaring errors. I'm setting the bar pretty high; only if something will legitimately cause confusion will I allow myself to change it. I could tinker forever, but I want the damn thing out the door!

THE QUEEN OF MAGES should be published in the next couple of weeks. Aside from the last little bit of writing, I'm waiting for the final cover art from the lovely and talented Melissa Erickson. I can't wait for you to see the final work; it's going to be fantastic.

18 July, 2012


My good friend Tristan Gregory, a fellow from Mythic Scribes, has just recently published his novel TWIXT HEAVEN AND HELL. It's available on Amazon and I urge you to check it out. Good stuff!

17 July, 2012

The Marketing Juggernaut Begins

One of the fun things about self-publishing is that there's no such thing as a hard date. Everything's ready when it's ready.

Is the novel ready? No. Not quite. But there is one thing it does have: a title.


And even better, it now has a Facebook page! So go check it out, and give it a like! What's the worst that could happen?1

1My eventual domination of Earth.

02 July, 2012


I'm inching closer. Right now I'm more or less just doing revision glosses on the work, because I'm waiting on cover art. I've contracted with a lovely and talented illustrator to create the cover for the novel, which should be complete in the next couple of weeks, at which point I'll be ready to publish.

It's funny, because the amount of money I'm spending on the cover is probably going to exceed what I earn from the book for the first several months. But that's okay; I'm in this for the long haul. Eventually, with enough hard work and convincing enough people to Buy It, You'll Like It, I'll make back what it cost.

The book itself is in good shape; I'm very happy with it. Yeah, you can tinker endlessly, but you have to cut the cord sometime. Everything I'm doing to the book now is either tightening up of prose (in this latest pass I've found half a dozen areas that needed to be rewritten slightly for clarity, or, in one case, a minor story inconsistency), or simply to expand and add color: world details, expansion of characterization, more expression of characters' internal states.

I'm looking forward to revealing the cover and the title of the book in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned!

05 June, 2012

The Girl With the Diamond Age

Am I the only one who thinks that David Fincher needs to direct something written by Neal Stephenson? After having seen/read almost everything by both men, I get a very similar vibe from them. Elaborately detailed worlds with a dark kick; intense, iconoclastic protagonists (or sometimes antagonists, e.g. John Doe from Se7en and Abdallah Jones from REAMDE); an appreciation for complex systems and how ugly things can get when the rubber hits the road.

Failing some sort of entirely new collaboration, I'd settle for Fincher directing an adaptation of The Diamond Age or, better yet, Cryptonomicon. Hell, let's go whole hog and have him direct a Baroque Cycle hexology. Who's with me?

17 May, 2012


This isn't a gaming blog, so I won't get too deep into this, but: Diablo III came out, and I am playing it. It's fun... when I can actually play it.

And I totally understand all the reasons Blizzard gives for making it a client-server game that requires an always-on Internet connection. The reasons make sense.

The only problem is that those reasons are all predicated on the client-server model working properly. If players can't log in to the servers, if the servers get overloaded beyond capacity, if the servers randomly disconnect you every few minutes (this has been happening to me for the entire last day), then all the reasons they gave for making it online-only (reduces piracy, centralizes community, enables real-money auctions) are utterly irrelevant, because you can't play the game.

"But Blizzard are experts! They'll be able to handle it!" Yeah, turns out, it hasn't been so great so far. I realize it's only the first couple of days, but should we really give game companies a pass on that? Do we really want them to take to the bank the idea that they can give players a crappy release day experience, and patch it up later? I guess we already have, to a degree.

What I've learned from this experience is that even a game like Diablo III, which I have been looking forward to for years, turns out not to really have been worth the aggravation. Which means that future Blizzard games that are ostensibly single-player, but require a constant net connection to play single player? I won't be buying or playing them. At all. I do love the properties, but I can do without. There's plenty of other, less aggravating ways to entertain myself.

I'm just one guy; I'm not going to affect Blizzard's bottom line with this. But this kind of choice is the only one that a customer can really make.

13 May, 2012

Final revision phase

So The Novel Formerly Titled Mindfire is now in its final revision phase. My lovely and brilliant wife read through it over the last couple of days and provided many insightful comments about things that dropped her out of the story, didn't make sense, or just plain didn't work. I've got some time off from my day job coming up, so I'll be rampaging through the novel fixing up all those things that need to be improved. Then it's one more quick pass to check for any obvious last-minute mistakes (typos, etc.) and I'm done.

I still need to get cover art made, and maps; figure out whether I want to go through Smashwords to publish it to all the various platforms or just start with doing it myself on Amazon; start marketing it (conveniently, Google just sent me one of their periodic "Here's $100 in free Adwords placements" cards. Honestly, I'll feel lucky if that results in one or two sales); send out free copies to a few deserving folks; promote it here; yadda yadda.

This is the culmination of almost a year's work. I've learned a huge amount along the way, and the most terrifying thing is that this is just the first time I'm going to go through it. I plan to keep doing this for the rest of my life. Godzilla willing, it'll get easier down the road.

08 May, 2012

Avengers, Dissemble

So The Avengers was amazingly entertaining, and now I am extremely pessimistic about my own skills. Joss Whedon probably sneezes, and the droplets form hilarious snarky one-liners on whatever nearby glass surfaces there are, which he probably has a lot of in his fancy Hollywood Hills home because he's a famous talented millionaire.

So I'm not bitter or anything; really, I'm not, because why would I be? Joss was writing much earlier in his life than I started, and he came from a long line of screenwriters. It's just a whole big-ass family of creative professionals. I keep reminding myself that I just have to keep doing it, and eventually I'll succeed. Or I won't. I can't succeed if I don't try; I don't want to be on my deathbed regretting that I never tried, even if I don't succeed.

I just finished the third draft. I need to rewrite the epilogue, and then there's still work to do; I've identified a number of things about the novel that need to be fixed. Mostly it's cosmetic clean-up; some characters need to be more sharply defined, some backstory needs to be elaborated upon (only slightly, I promise), certain things need to be amped up to make them more fantastical.

I'm also changing the title of the novel, back to the original title, which I alas am not going to share yet. Mindfire is neat and all but there's been a couple of fantasy novels released on Amazon lately using it, and I don't want to cause confusion. I already searched; virtually nothing is using the new (old) title. Mindfire will be the subtitle, or rather, the series name. The novel is book 1 of Mindfire.

Okay, here's a hint: the title is The _____ of ______. Can you guess? If so, please send me stock picks and lottery numbers.

01 May, 2012

Professional Crastinating

Is it possible to put off procrastinating until later? As much as I procrastinate, you'd think I'd have figured out how.

I'm a terrible procrastinator, particularly about household finances—taxes, filing paperwork, bills. I do all the easy stuff first and leave all the difficult stuff until later. Pretty typical, right?

But I've noticed that when I do manage to make myself do the difficult stuff, it's never as difficult as I thought it was going to be. So there's really just this initial hump to get over. This same hump gets in my way whenever my wife suggests we do something like go for a walk, or take the kids to the park. I really don't wanna! but then I get out of my chair and get on my shoes and once I'm outside, it's not so bad.

I'm not going to try to analyze the underlying reasons why I'm like this; I'm sure there are some such reasons, but I think it's much more productive to look at the thought processes that occur while I'm procrastinating. There's a lot of internal debates that happen, and if I could figure out how to have the right side win those debates, maybe I'd get more done.

Mostly what I want to do, when I'm at home, is write. So let's say it's just after dinner. I sit down at my computer, and the kids are still awake, and I know that if I start writing I might get interrupted, which is death for productivity. Still, writing in five-minute snatches here and there is still better than not writing at all.

But before I can even open LibreOffice, I see the pile of dead trees on my desk: the aforementioned paperwork and bills. And I think, "I want to write, but I need to go through this paperwork. But I won't want to go through the paperwork. So I'm not going to. But I certainly can't do something I want when there's something that I need to do." And the upshot is, I end up doing neither of them. Instead, I sit there switching back and forth between Facebook and my RSS feeds on Google Reader, even when there hasn't been anything new in the last ten minutes.

Sometimes I even put off things I like doing, because it requires a mental context switch to reload the state—that is, get back to where I was. Writing a novel is awful for this, because there's almost a year of work there. Granted, it's not like I have to remember everything every time I open up a chapter, but it's still a hurdle to get over. Once I actually start the writing, then it's a breeze... but the hurdle's always in the way.

27 April, 2012

No Rules

There are no rules in writing. There are only statistically relevant guidelines.

Writing is entirely subjective; there is no absolute good and bad, no absolute right or wrong, no absolute "you must do it this way." No matter how you choose to write, you can always find someone who will like it (within reason; 200,000 misspelled words in a row will probably not find any takers). And if your goal is only to make one person happy, then what does it matter whether you follow some arbitrary "rules"?

But most of us have bigger goals: We want to make enough money writing that it can be our career, and in order for that to happen, enough people have to like what we write. The more people you want to please with your writing, the more statistically significant those guidelines become. Most readers expect certain things, to wit:

You really can't violate standard spelling. Despite the fact that English has no central defining authority, spelling has become almost entirely standardized, with only minor regional dialects.

Grammar is a little less fixed, as there are a number of edge cases where you can bend the rules without any significant number of people perceiving it as a mistake, but generally, you've got to stick with fairly standard grammar or you're going to confuse your readers.

Things get fuzzier as you get into plotting, pacing, characterization, character development, descriptive style, and all the other elements of the actual storytelling. There's a lot of flexibility in how you can do these things, because there are a lot of different readers out there who will tolerate variance. There are individual readers who will tolerate slow pacing and fast pacing, but maybe not in the same book, or simply not at the same time—Joe Reader might well be up for a fast-paced detective story today, but next week maybe he wants something a little more laid-back and reflective. A single book can't please both those aspects of Joe Reader's personality at the same time.

Rules about how to write are legion. Here's one which includes rules by (among other well-known authors) Elmore Leonard. Dare you, Jane Unpublished Author, think you know better than the great Elmore Leonard? The problem is that some of Leonard's rules are violated willy-nilly by other famous best-selling authors. Does that mean Leonard's rules are bullshit?

No; it means they're guidelines. All things considered, following Leonard's rules will probably produce prose prone to popularity... but not always. (And to some degree, his rules are stylistic choices. "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," he says. It's trivial to find bestsellers (and critically acclaimed novels) that violate that rule. Maybe he's just trying to reduce the incidence of using verbs other than "said," knowing that eliminating other speech verbs is impossible.)

Pick your goal. Figure out what guidelines you need to follow to meet that goal. Then get your ass in the chair and write, write, write. You don't always win when destiny rolls the dice, but the more times she rolls, the more chances you have to win.

25 April, 2012

The End Is Nigh

So I had a really painful minor epiphany the other day, when I realized that my ending sucks and I need to redo it. From scratch. Yeah. A lot of work went into the current ending, but unfortunately the whole thing was predicated on something that wasn't true: Turns out, people like happy endings, as long as there's some pain along the way. The old ending was a goddamn disaster, for both the protagonists and for me.

Simple, safe happy endings are fine for a particular group of people (children), but I am (hopefully) not writing for children. On the other hand, not everything has to be a brutal catastrophe like Game of Thrones, which, although popular, is statistically speaking an anomaly. The good guys usually should win in the end, even if they get pretty beat-up along the way. Why did I think I could successfully go rogue my first time out?

A lot of writers—particularly new writers—try to go way overboard in their first works. A new, untested chef wouldn't think that he has the skills to make a nine-course French-Mongolian-Hualapi fusion dinner and get it perfectly right the first time, but someone writing their first novel thinks, "Hey, I can string words together in a way that doesn't make people's eyeballs bleed. Therefore, I can write a five-novel series that not only will dispense with traditional story structure, it will have nine separate protagonists alternating between first- and third-person POV chapters, and all the characters will die halfway through book one!"

This pervasive delusion is partially reinforced by the occasional first-time writer who does manage to pull off something ridiculously complex. Then he gets famous, and then other writers say, "Well damn, if Bob Peckermeyer can do it his first time out, why can't I?"

No. Flukes happen, but depending on them is madness. Most people take years to get good at a discipline—that's why they call it a discipline—and you're better served by starting out simple. Write a straightforward story with one protagonist, one major villain, some supporting characters, and a setting that is not an utterly radical invention. Master the basics; then you can ignore the rules and start doing wacky things.

18 April, 2012

Deity Reflex

I was walking home from the gym a few minutes ago. It's open until midnight on weeknights, which is convenient; the kids are in bed, the wife's ensconced with Bejeweled, tonight's leftovers are put away, and I can squeeze in a workout without anyone bothering me for anything.

On the way home, I looked up at the spring stars, and, as happens to me from time to time, I was briefly taken in by the endless infinity of the universe. I thought about how cool it would be to be able to see the ecliptic projected on the sky, as if the world were my own personal Celestia—or better yet, if I just had bionic eyeballs that could superimpose whatever I wanted on the world.

That thought led to a kernel of an idea for a story, about a future civilization that has mastered biological engineering and where everyone who wants them has bionic eyes, so that they can gaze upon the wonders of the universe with all sorts of informative overlays and HUD elements—and, hell, Wikipedia—at their disposal. And then I thought, what if that was their religion?

The universe is vast, so vast that we simply can't comprehend it. We have to use terms like light-year, of which just one is already unimaginably larger than anything we can comprehend. (A little under 6 trillion miles. And you thought it was far to Pomona.) And then we talk about billions of them.

The human brain is capable of feeling connected to all that, even if we can't rationally contain it inside our—admittedly amazing—brains. Not everyone feels that connectedness in the same way; those who have been taught to be Christians feel it as the presence of their deity, Jehovah. Muslims call it Allah. We interpret that deity reflex by whatever cultural framework has been imprinted upon us.

That reflex is a double-edged sword. We feel an unimaginably pure sense of belonging and comfort when that reflex is engaged; it's unfettered emotion, and the lure of that feeling cannot be denied. But reason and rationality are what brought us out of the darkness. Is there room for both of them in this world?

I don't want to be too definitive here. Reason can conquer many problems, but no one wants to live in a world bereft of joy—or even of less favorable emotions, like apprehension, confusion, dismay. Sometimes it feels good to feel bad, as the great poet Shirley Manson taught us.

As writers, we have the ability—and, perhaps, the responsibility—to help others tap into that reflex. There are few acts greater than to describe a feeling in terms so precise that it makes someone say, "Yes! That's it!"

15 April, 2012


Life interferes. Months ago I was almost done with the second draft of Mindfire, and hoping to get most of my planned revisions done in a couple of weeks.

"Oh ho ho," said life, adjusting its monocle and stroking its white Persian cat. And then it pressed a red button on its desk, and the floor opened up, dropping me into a pit of badly-coded PHP scripts.

But I battled my way through, and I'm making progress again. I'm almost done with the third draft, and unless my faithful beta readers manage to point out major problems, it'll be off to be published.

On another exciting note, I got feedback from a short story market, letting me know that one of my stories is in the running for publication; they'll let me know in, hopefully, a week or two. I'm fully going into this expecting to be rejected—less pain that way—but it is a validation that twice out of about a dozen attempts, I've gotten this far into the process. I honestly expected to get rejected dozens of times before getting any kind of traction at all.

So even if this latest attempt does fall through, I know that I'm at least capable of writing stories that are good enough to be seriously considered for publication by SFWA-membership-qualifying markets. It only takes a little faith that if I keep it up, eventually I'll write something that will strike a chord with the right editor at the right time... and then, I'll be the one wearing the monocle.

04 April, 2012

Rejection X

X as in 10. Ten rejections and counting. The last one was the best yet: It made it to the final editorial round, only losing out by a hair. The editor returned a selection of comments about the story, giving me some insight into why it was passed up.

So the question is, do I try to modify the story to fix those issues before continuing to submit it? Or do I submit it as is, hoping that another editor will not find the same flaws? I have to agree with one of the comments, although it's a minor thing by any measure; but the other comment was clearly one of personal taste, and so there's no need for me to change it.

I'm only a tenth of the way to the point of reassessing my game plan; still a long way to go.

27 March, 2012

Obligatory Mad Men post

Mad Men is less about story than it is about character. Or rather, it's less obviously about story. The characters drive the action; sometimes Things Happen from external, unpredictable sources, but most of the conflict and tension and drama in the show stems from how the characters respond to things.

Don seeks that creative problem-solving place, because it makes him feel like he has an identity; Peggy wants to be treated like an equal, and wavers between obedient conformity and tough aggression; Pete wants, above all else, respect, and views events through the lens of how much he respect they gain or lose him.

In this season's premiere double-sized episode, we also learned a great deal about where Lane's psyche currently sits. His racist reaction to the black cab driver's offer to return the lost wallet stands in stark contrast to his rebellious pride at having a black girlfriend in season 4. His desire for sexual liberty, demonstrated by the aforementioned black girlfriend (and encouraged by Don when they had that night on the town, complete with hookers), has been suppressed in favor of reconciling with his wife, but Lane still held out a (slightly creepy) hope that the mysterious Delores might be interested in him.

It is hard writing characters of this depth and complexity, and any great writer should, it seems obvious, focus on the immensely difficult task of creating characters. Story and plotting are easy by comparison; great characters drive their stories.

23 March, 2012

Focusing on the Easy Stuff

What is the focus of most discussions about writing fantasy fiction?

Frankly, it's the easy stuff: historical details, magic systems, horses, swords, clothes, government. The stuff you can go read a couple of books about and get a perfectly good handle on, and because you read a couple of books about it, you're way ahead of most of the people reading the book you write as a result.

What's missing? Character. Story structure. Narrative flow. Building tension over a novel-length story.

There are very few discussions of these topics. It's not hard to see why; these are the difficult parts of writing, the elusive parts that are at the core of every great book ever written, and nobody who hasn't been pretty successful is going to be considered much of an authority on those topics.

Should we be trying to encourage more discussions about these kinds of topics? Is there any point? Will we get anything out of it, or would that time be better spent actually writing our own work? Is it even possible to discuss these things in any meaningful way without some sort of formal scholarly framework behind it?

11 March, 2012

The Best Rejection

I'm up to six short story rejections—but the most recent one came with a (short) explanation!
Unfortunately, it's not quite right for us.  The details felt vivid, but the tone of the narrative felt to me more like an external camera, recounting the dialog and actions of the story from afar but not taking me inside a character's head to make me feel the story through their own eyes, through their personality and attitude and mood, such that I could empathize with their goals or fears.
Given the story in question, I can't argue; he's got a point. But the fact that the editor in question actually decided to give an explanation is incredibly encouraging.

I do realize that it might still be a "form" rejection—maybe "external camera" is on his prefab rejection list right between "I saw the twist coming a mile away that your main character turns out to be Jesus" and "Your prose reminds me of a Chick tract written by someone having an aneurysm"—but the very presence of that second sentence tells me that I'm possibly on the right track.

I've never been so happy to be rejected in my life.

For all I know, this will mark the apogee of my efforts, but I intend to keep at it until I do succeed (by a more conventional standard).

06 March, 2012

The Roundtable Podcast

So my good friend Dave Robison, along with his compatriot Brion Humphrey, have started a nifty new podcast called the Roundtable Podcast. Its primary focus is on bringing together an established writer as a guest host (like, say, for example, J. Daniel Sawyer) and a new, up-and-coming writer (like, say, ME!) to go over a story pitch and help flesh out some of the ideas.

And I was lucky enough to be the guest writer for the first episode, which is now available at the RTP's website. So go check it out! It's quite entertaining; I listened to it last night. I like to think that I didn't sound nearly as lame as I thought I did when we were recording it.

05 March, 2012


Four short story rejections and counting.

Nine months ago, when I started writing seriously, I had this vision that I would write my novel straight through, and then self-publish it. I figured I'd be done by the end of the year.

I was wrong. But I did learn a great many things along the way, including a lot about the worlds of e-publishing and self-publishing, and I ended up becoming motivated to start self-(e-)publishing short stories as a way to begin building a name for myself. It wasn't something I could have predicted, but it turns out to be an approach that, I think, works well for me.

It is, in fact, I think an ideal example of the four stages of competence. At first, I thought, "I'll write a novel! And it'll be great!" Not realizing, of course, that I had never written a novel before, and that there are a number of skills involved in it beyond the simple ability to put one word after another. This was the unconscious incompetence phase: I didn't recognize that I didn't know what I was doing.

I think now I'm in the conscious incompetence phase. I know that I don't know what I'm doing. And I'm doing my best to keep at it, hoping that some day I'll actually be reasonably good at this. That'll be the conscious competence phase, of course, followed, some day (I hope!) by the unconscious competence phase, where I am a master author and the world is my oyster. (Actually, I hate oysters. Why can't the world be my shrimp tempura roll?)

25 February, 2012

Knowing What You Want

Well now, it seems that I've gone and gotten an article published on Mythic Scribes! Check it out, and if you feel inspired, participate in the discussion!

23 February, 2012

Jury Duty

Eleven years ago I served as jury foreman on a criminal trial here in Los Angeles. It was a short trial, a domestic abuse charge. The jury eventually hung because of two jurors who simply could not accept the fact that there was no valid reason for a man to EVER strike a woman—"Not even in self-defense?" I asked, and they shook their heads.

By coincidence I was unemployed at that time, and during lunch break one day went to a job interview for the job I still hold to this day. Before, I had always considered jury duty to be something for rubes. "Do you really want to trust your fate to twelve people who couldn't get out of jury duty?" was the old joke.

But afterward, I realized that it had actually been a really interesting process, and over time I also came to realize how important it is to have fair (or as fair as humans can reasonably get) jury trials. These days, whenever anyone complains about jury duty (especially folks who get paid time off for it), I point out that jury trials are part of the reason we don't live in a country beset by warlords, death squads, and brutal tyranny. As much as people like the rhetoric about how absolutely awful things are here in the U.S. these days (and they certainly have been better), we're a long, long way from many of the privations that other, less fortunate people have to deal with on a daily basis.

I'm serving jury service right now. Yes, it interferes with my job; but it's important, and in the long run, I'm glad to do it, I'll be glad to serve on a jury if called, and I'd be damn glad others are too if it was my ass on the line.

17 February, 2012

The Woes of Technology

So, a week or so ago the power supply on my desktop started whining--this high-pitched, barely audible squeal. I should have known to replace the power supply, but alas, when we had a power surge yesterday--ZAP! The power supply died, along with my motherboard and hard drive, at the very least.

Thankfully I have pretty recent backups of the most important things (that is, my writing) so nothing truly important was lost. Just some recent data, and nothing critical. But it's still a pain in the arse. I've ordered new parts from NewEgg, which are winging their way to me now--but this couldn't have happened on a less-convenient day: Thursday night. Meaning that even if I ordered with overnight shipping, the earliest it could possibly get to me is Monday--no wait, Tuesday, because it's a holiday weekend.


Then, of course, while I was troubleshooting my computer -- my wife suggested that I try the power supply from her computer in mind, which didn't work -- somehow HER monitor died, and then for entirely unrelated reasons, the boot sector on her hard drive got corrupted and had to be repaired. So now she's using my monitor, I'm using her laptop, and for the next four or five days I'm basically stuck using Windows.

This makes writing a problem, so I'm probably not going to get much of it done for the next several days. A pox on you, technology.

11 February, 2012


Two short story rejections and counting. Three more pending. Stephen King lost count of how many rejections he got before he finally sold a short story, but it was at least a hundred.

Although my primary concern is finishing my novel, Mindfire, it's difficult for me to monomaniacally focus on it when I have other unrelated ideas floating about in me 'ead. So I've been writing a number of short stories lately, in the 1k-3k word range—flash fiction seems to be quite popular these days, and a lot of paying markets are seeking stories in that length range (or even shorter!).

So I alternate between writing the novel and writing short stories. Some of these I'll post for free on the blog (such as The Destiny of Kajiyama Shen), some of these I'll self-publish (such as The Demons of Lashtë and Chalice and Knives), and others I will put through the rigors of submitting to paying markets.

It's this last that is the simplest approach, and yet the most difficult. For an unknown author, the editors of these markets (short fiction magazines and so on) have to really like the submission in order to publish it. Even if you do a lot of research—reading all the back issues to find out what kinds of things they publish, and tailoring stories for the individual market—a story that most folks would enjoy reading, if they had a chance to, might get rejected because that particular editor just didn't happen to get grabbed by it.

That doesn't mean it's not good enough to get published anywhere; maybe the twentieth market you submit the story to will accept it, and you'll never know unless you keep trying. Since the list of (e.g.) SWFA paying markets is both finite and relatively short (about 30 markets currently), it would be reasonable and feasible to submit a given story to every market on the list (or at least the appropriate ones; some only accept SF or fantasy, not both).

From a probability standpoint, having a lot of stories to submit helps, because prose fiction markets don't tolerate simultaneous submissions. Each story can only be submitted to one market at a time, and it might be weeks before you hear back. In the meantime, that story can't be submitted to anyone else. So if you write another one, you can be shopping that one around as well. Each story in the pipeline increases your chance of selling one.

Do the math: If each story has a (let's be generous) 1% chance of being accepted on each submission, and there's 30 paying markets, then a given story will have a (1 - 0.9930) ~= 26% chance of being sold, if you were to submit it to all the markets. (For a given story, this might take a year or two, if each market takes a couple of weeks to respond.) Shop enough stories around to all the markets, and one of them might get sold.

You could get lucky and sell a story on your third or fourth submission. Or it might take hundreds, like Stephen King. The only thing you can do is not let yourself get discouraged, and keep at it: "Never give up. Never surrender."

05 February, 2012

Inspiration observed

I was at my son's school yesterday, helping build a garden. Shovel in hand, I was waiting to dig a hole when I realized that the conversation I was hearing out of the corner of my ear was very one-sided. It was pitched in a way that made me think it was someone talking on the phone, and when I glanced over, sure enough, there I saw a dad with his cellphone at his ear.

I looked away from this unremarkable occurrence, and then a moment later noticed that something had just changed in the tenor of his speech. I instinctively felt sympathy, and then realized that it was because I knew he had just been rejected in some way. Maybe he had offered to meet up with someone, and they said no. I tuned in a little better and replayed the overheard words in my head: "Oh. Okay. Well, maybe another time, then."

It probably wasn't a big deal, whatever it was, but I instinctively felt sorry for him. We all know how it is to make a suggestion that we'd like to see accepted, only to have it shot down. It's invariably an awful feeling.

But it was also a moment that I filed away, something that could be used in writing a scene, that particular shift in tone and posture and expression that someone makes when they get rejected in some way. I don't know if it'll come up soon, or at all, but it was an interesting exercise in writerly observation of the human condition, squirrelling away fragments of life for later incorporation into a narrative.

02 February, 2012

The Slow Reveal

Yesterday I read a lovely little piece of flash fiction: Fool's Fire by Hayley Lavik.

Go read it. I'll wait. It's only 954 words.

Done? Great. Wasn't that beautiful? And it does something, quite well, that is difficult to pull off: slowly revealing the nature of a character in a way that does not annoy the reader.

It's all too common for authors to hold information back simply so that they can spring it upon the reader later on. The gender switcheroo is common: Avoid using gender-specific pronouns when describing a character, so that at the last second you can reveal that—gasp!—that tough warrior is actually a woman!

This kind of thing is easy to do in prose, but it's got to serve some purpose aside from a cheap shock. And it's hard to do without telegraphing that it's what you're doing.

An excellent example of this device being used well is in Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, wherein—

SPOILERS - highlight to read
Two characters (Isaac Newton and Daniel Waterhouse) have been relying on another (Sean Partry) in order to try to catch a third (Jack Shaftoe). After several sections where we (from the perspective of Newton and Waterhouse) interact with Partry, it is revealed that Partry in fact is Jack Shaftoe. Having never met the man before, Newton and Waterhouse do not recognize Shaftoe on sight, and so Shaftoe is able to essentially nullify them as opponents by pretending to be searching for himself.

This serves to demonstrate to us (when the duplicity is revealed) that Shaftoe is cleverer than these lettered men, among other functions in the story.

It's essentially a dance where the author needs to keep the audience entertained while not telling them everything. The undead ghoul who is the protagonist of Fool's Fire at first seems merely to be an unfortunate young woman who is lost in a swamp, until we realize that she is disgorging a surprisingly large amount of mud from her gullet, and having fragmented memories and perceptions that a normal human would not. (My guess is that she was spurned by her object of affection and drowned herself in the swamp.)

It's an effective, highly formal use of the device, a solid skeleton on which to drape the detailed flesh of the story.

01 February, 2012

Story: The Destiny of Kajiyama Shen

This is a free, complete short story I wrote. It concerns a young student of martial arts who seeks his destiny in a distant land...

Kajiyama Shen scrambled up the rock face and came to a halt before the cave opening. There was dust all over his gi, but he would not dared have come here wearing anything else.

"Hello?" Shen called out. His voice echoed in the cave, like a stone kami's mocking shriek. There was no answer. He looked back out over the Zhaigou Valley, the golden rice stalks swaying in the wind, the pillars of pale rock standing sentinel against any desecration. He had been challenged, and passed, to get here. But that had been only the beginning. What lay ahead, he could not guess.

He drew calming breaths, and went into the cave. The light faded, leaving him with only faint shadows to navigate by. Soon the cave was pitch black. Shen put his hand on the wall and crept along, his heart pounding, the memory of his master's words repeating in his mind.

Your training is complete, but your journey has only just begun. You must go to the Cave of Dire Wind in Zhaigou Valley, across the Barren Sea, and only there will your destiny be revealed to you.

Shen remembered, certain—hoping—that his master had not sent him to chase shadows. Maybe I was supposed to question him. No, that could not be it. Master Tsuyoshi had taught him, taken him in when all the other sensei had laughed and said that a scrawny little boy like Kajiyama Shen could never learn the art. He would not question his master.

Memories of his training floated in the darkness before him, but were dispelled when he barked his shin on a rock. He cursed and hopped back, trying to soothe his pain. And then he realized that he could see, by some flickering light ahead. Warm air rushed past him, a susurrating moan. He crept ahead, feeling with his toes and fingers, until the light grew and he could see where his feet would land.

The crackle of flames came to his ears just before he saw the enormous pyres, spaced around the edge of a vast chamber, thickening the air with smoke and making it almost unbearably hot. He sweated through his gi in seconds.

The chamber was like the inside of a temple, straight walls carved with mystical shapes, meeting at sharp angles. The smoke from the pyres climbed the walls into darkness, a tiny spot of light in the ceiling indicating a chimney. Shen realized his jaw hung open. He snapped it shut with a click and looked around. What fuels the pyres, I wonder?

"Hello?" he called out again.

"Hello, Kajiyama Shen," came a voice from all around him. He spun, trying to locate it. It was the sound of honey on a fire, of butterflies lost in the wind, of magic made real and death finally come. But he could see nothing.

"I—I am here to learn my destiny," Shen said, making himself sound braver than he felt.

"You should not have doubted Master Tsuyoshi," the voice said.

Shen gasped. "How do you know who my master is? How do you know my name?"

He heard metal tapping on stone. It made him think of his weapons training, when Master Tsuyoshi had shown how a spiked tetsubo could smash a rock, let alone an opponent. He looked up, and saw something glittering, slithering in the darkness. It coiled along the wall of the cave-temple, and then came past the pyres to perch on the dais at the far end.

The creature was enormous, fifty feet long or more, a long scaled body like a snake, but with four clawed legs. Its snout was long, its eyes old and penetrating. Its scales glittered orange with inner fire, and its claws shone like the silver moon.

"I am Furui Tatsu," the creature said. "I am here to guide you to your destiny."

Shen stood as tall as he could. "I am ready."

"That is for me to judge," Furui Tatsu said, and it was suddenly clouded by smoke. Shen squinted, only to see a man, dressed in gi as he was, approaching. Furui Tatsu had vanished.

Shen waited in first stance, until the man came close and stopped. Shen did not recognize him. "You are not worthy," the man said in a voice dripping with scorn. And he attacked.

Shen was surprised, but kept his guard. He blocked and counterattacked, backing in a wide circle around the temple floor, gauging his opponent as he had been taught, letting the man expend his energy in a flurry of blows while Shen conserved his own strength. He watched for weakness, for flaws. His heart beat with conviction.

When he had come back around to where he started, he stepped back slightly farther. The man was goaded into rushing toward him, and Shen twisted aside, dodging the man's fist by a hair, and struck.Chikaraishi, the Lifting Stone, cracked the man's rib and sent him flying. But before he landed he exploded into a cloud of smoke, and vanished.

Shen looked and saw that Furui Tatsu had reappeared. He could not tell if it was smiling or frowning, but it nodded. "You have mastered patience," the creature said. Shen felt its gaze on him, as if it could touch him with its eyes. "But you do not wonder why he attacked you."

Shen was about to object—It's part of a test, is it not?—when Furui Tatsu vanished into smoke again, and another human form stepped forward. Shen almost rubbed his eyes, for he recognized this man. It was Master Tsuyoshi.

"Master! How did you get here?"

"You disappoint me," said Master Tsuyoshi, and he leapt forward.

This time Shen could barely fend off the blows. He had sparred with Master Tsuyoshi more times than he could count, more days than he could remember. Never had his master been this fierce, this enraged. Tsuyoshi twisted like a serpent, avoiding every blow and hold Shen could muster, and striking Shen's arms, legs, chest, back. Shen nearly had to run just to stay out of his master's grasp.

Master, what have I done to anger you so? Shen thought. No true master would do this to his student! You are not my master!

Tsuyoshi vanished. Furui Tatsu gazed down at Shen once more. "You have learned to question your own senses. But you still feel pain from an obvious lie."

Shen wanted to shout at the creature that he did not understand, but Furui Tatsu's gaze pierced deep. Shen did not want to disappoint the creature as he had his master—No! That wasn't Master Tsuyoshi. It is just a test. He shook his head in anger. "What are you showing me, Furui Tatsu? I do not understand."

Furui Tatsu's mouth moved into something that might have been a smile, and the creature vanished into smoke again. This time, Shen was confused by the silhouette he saw walking toward him, and realized it was not any man he knew, but a woman—a beautiful woman, Princess Mayu, daughter of the shōgun. Shen had known her when they were children, when the shōgun would visit the teahouse Shen's mother had owned. The shōgun had loved that teahouse when he in turn had been a child, and came there often with his own family. Shen would play hide-and-seek with Mayu in the storage rooms and garden while the shōgun took tea and met with local officials.

Mayu had grown into a woman of transcendent beauty, renowned far and wide for the grace and honor she brought to her father's court. Shen had not seen her since he joined the dojo, except from afar, when she waved to the commoners from the palace balcony. But now, standing before him, Shen saw her face weathered by anger, the anaka of a mourning daughter painted on her face in ragged black lines. "I should never have consorted with you," she said. "My father is dead because I could not defend him, because you made me weak. No more!" And she drew a katana from a sheath at her back, and lunged for Shen.

He had no weapon at all, let alone the reach to get past her blade. She carved the air around him as he dodged and weaved and ducked, wishing he could shout No! It's not my fault! We were only children! The steel whispered past his ear, shaving hairs from his head, licking at his gi, leaving traces of red finer than any calligraphy where the sword's very tip kissed his skin.

Shen tried to dart left, dance right, get around her, but Mayu was too fast. He could only move away, until he felt the press of stone at his back. He saw the rage in Mayu's eyes, and knew there was only one way.

"Forgive me, Mayu," he said, falling to his knees and clasping his hands together.

Mayu's katana stopped an inch from his face. Her expression softened, and the anaka faded away. "It was not your fault," Mayu said, all her rancor gone. "We were only children."

Furui Tatsu watched Shen from the dais as Mayu dissipated into smoke. "You recognize when all is lost and it is time to give up the struggle," Furui Tatsu said. "But you still feel regret for that which is not your fault."

Shen stood up again. His cuts were gone, his gi undamaged. He sensed something still to come. "I am ready, Furui Tatsu."

The great creature reared up, and took a step forward, making the hall tremble. Shards of rock rained down from above, and the pyres flickered. Shen stood his ground as Furui Tatsu stomped closer, seeming to grow longer and larger the closer it came. Finally, Furui Tatsu towered over him, reaching to the ceiling. But the creature faded into smoke once more, and Shen saw a shape, a very familiar shape, walking toward him out of the smoke. He was not surprised when he found himself looking into a mirror, as Kajiyama Shen stood before Kajiyama Shen.

He looked into his own eyes, and knew what he must do. He stood in third stance, and waited.

"I am not worthy," the mirror Shen said, but his eyes clearly said You are not worthy. And he attacked.

Shen lowered his hands and let the first blows strike him. He tried to keep his feet, but as the mirror Shen's fists and feet struck him again and again, his strength waned and he collapsed to the ground. The mirror Shen attacked unabated, and Shen's world became pain, the anticipation nearly as bad as the strikes themselves.

Eternity came and went, and Shen breathed easy into the emptiness. His bones were all broken, his organs destroyed, his skin flayed, his spirit shattered. But he knew. He knew he had made the right choice.

A golden glow waxed within him. It grew and unfolded like a lotus, touching his fingernails, toes, wrists, shins, elbows, thighs, shoulders, groin, neck, chest, eye, heart, mind. All along, they were healed. He stood, and faced Furui Tatsu again.

Now the great dragon certainly smiled at him. "Your training has taught you much, but you have that rarest of gifts: the knowledge that you must not fight yourself. Return home. Your destiny lies before you."

Shen looked into the eye of Furui Tatsu, and saw his future: the joys, the pain, the struggles and triumphs and failures yet to come. He bowed to the dragon, and strode from the cave.

Master Tsuyoshi would be waiting.

Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Clayborne. All rights reserved.

A Drop in the Ocean

I've been using the Internet since around 1994; I had AOL at first, and then after getting my account cancelled for swearing in a chat room (...yeah) I signed up with a local ISP called PrimeNet, which had SLIP connections. I honestly can't even remember what I used to do with it: the Web was still in its infancy, then, but I think I did set up a web page and browse some other sites.

My day job is PHP development for a major entertainment website; I manage a team of developers. I've been doing web development as my career for twelve years. I run Linux on my work and home desktops. It would be reasonable, I think, to say that I'm pretty familiar with the Internet.

Despite that, Twitter confounds me. To a degree, it's just because there's an overwhelming number of people. Yesterday I went on a following spree, adding a large number of fantasy-writing-related folks (mostly people from this list). A few followed me back (thanks guys!) and I'm very, very slowly starting to get the hang of how to actually use Twitter in a productive manner.

I still don't know what people actually do to manage it; I see people who have a thousand followers and also follow a thousand people. Having a thousand followers, that I get; but following a thousand people? Do these people simply not read their timeline at all? Or do they have a small, select group partitioned into a list that they read, and ignore everyone else? Things like that. I could code Twitter, I just don't really know how people actually go about using it day-to-day.

To me, it's primarily a marketing tool. I tweet all my blog posts there, and I'm now getting in the habit of tweeting regularly. I'm still intimidated by the sheer number of people on Twitter. I'm sure I'll get used to it in time; but right now it feels like I'm floating in the middle of the ocean, without a square inch of land in sight.

Chalice and Knives is now available!

I'm pleased to announce that Chalice and Knives is now available on Amazon for Kindle! As with The Demons of Lashtë, it's only $0.99. And it's about twice as long as that story, meaning it's an even better value for your entertainment dollar.

Spiffy, eh? Okay, okay, so marketing isn't my strong suit. But I do promise that you'll enjoy the story. Or at least, I promise that you should enjoy it. (I don't know what that means. Buy it! You won't regret it!)

And if you do buy it and enjoy it, spread the word. Tell your friends about this little nugget of enjoyable happiness that will make their day that much brighter.

On the flip side, if you hate it, tell your friends, and maybe some of them will read it out of sheer curiosity about what could make you froth at the mouth like that.

30 January, 2012

Cover art: Chalice and Knives

I have absolutely no graphic design training; what little I know about designing covers has been picked up along the way, mostly by trial and error. And I will never claim that I'm actually any good at it.

That said, here's what four six hours in the GIMP and fifteen bucks' worth of stock art will get you:

So, as evident, this is the cover for my next short story, Chalice and Knives, which I'll be publishing in the next couple of days.

The best thing about e-publishing

I'm in the process of finalizing my next short story, Chalice and Knives, but in the meantime I took another look at the cover for The Demons of Lashtë. Someone had pointed out that the title text overlaps part of the background, and is a little hard to read as a result.

Well, I took the cover art and revised it. And now I think it looks significantly better:

Here's what changed:

  • I redid the gold drop shadow on the title to make it more consistent and a little denser.
  • I redid the clouds effect above the city to make it more uniform, as well as a little darker and more evil-looking.
  • I redid the red drop shadow on my name, to make it stand out more.
  • I changed the aspect ratio to 1.6:1, which is the recommended ratio (recommended by Amazon, anyway, for purposes of displaying). Most books on Kindle do seem to use this ratio for their cover art.
The best thing about e-publishing? Once I had finalized the cover and rebuilt the file, I was able to update it on Amazon in about two minutes. Well, it'll take 12-48 hours for it to actually show up on Amazon, but my work is done: now all I have to do is wait, and the new, slightly prettier version will be available for all and sundry.

Unfortunately, I don't think Amazon automatically updates a purchased copy of the story with the new file, so if you've already purchased it, I don't know if there's any way to see the changes. But it does mean I'm not stuck with the first version of the art.

25 January, 2012

Short story sample: Chalice and Knives

Here's the first section of my next short story: Chalice and Knives, concerning the deeds of a thief in a desert city.


Sendi flashed her teeth at the fat old swindler. “I gave you my word, didn’t I?”

The fat man, whose name was Jerez, did not return the smile. He spat into the dust of the tavern. “That for your word,” he said. “I am interested only in the clinking of gold, not the sound made by the flapping of gums. I get you into the palace, and you bring me the Magister’s golden chalice. The gold I get for it, we split, seventy-thirty.”

Sendi would have thrown her cup in his face if there wasn’t so much gold at stake. Instead she swigged what was left of the wine and rapped the empty cup on the edge of the table to get a serving wench’s attention. “It should be seventy-thirty my way if I’m the one breaking into the palace. You get to sit in here and twiddle your thumbs. Nobody’s going to be trying to put a sword in your gut.”

“Other thieves I can find,” Jerez said, leaning forward as far as his chins would let him. “But without my help, no thief will find entry into the palace.” He twiddled an odd little coin in his fingers. It reflected light bright as day, which could only be the work of magic, in this dank tavern in the middle of the night. It could just be a cantrip, a little enchantment to make it glow brightly... or it could be something more arcane. Sendi itched to stab the fat scoundrel and take it, but if it was some kind of ward...

“Fine. Sixty-forty. And that’s my final offer. You won’t find better, not from anyone who has a chance of pulling this off.” She held her cup out as a sullen serving wench sloshed wine into it, and flipped a copper up at the girl for her trouble.

“You are a scoundrel and would beggar me!” Jerez wailed. “I would accept sixty-forty, my way. It is quite generous.”

“My tight little arse it’s generous,” Sendi said. She jabbed a finger at Jerez, making the man jerk back. His sweat-stained silks seemed ready to burst. Maybe he’d stolen them from a smaller man. “Fifty-fifty. Final, final offer. Take it or we’ll see whether you bleed pork fat.” One of her daggers appeared in her palm, and she twirled it with a flourish, then stabbed it into the table. She held out the hand to Jerez. “I always keep my word.”

Jerez let his thick fingers brush hers lightly. “Fine, then. You have your deal, though may Ahman curse you unto all the generations of your children for your impudence and insolence.” He heaved himself to his feet. “You will find the lower riverside door of the palace unlocked for exactly one minute, as the twilight bell tolls tomorrow night. And you will need this.” He flipped the coin to her. Sendi caught it and was startled by its warmth. It felt as if it had been sitting in the sun for several minutes.

She looked up to send him off with one final insult, but the fat man had disappeared through a curtain already. Sendi pocketed the coin and took some time finishing her wine. It would not do to be seen leaving this dive too soon after Jerez. Many eyes watched in the night, here in Talsalam.

19 January, 2012

Obligatory SOPA/PIPA post

Numerous other folks have covered the SOPA/PIPA issue far better than I ever could, but I'll add my two cents of support here: Even though SOPA/PIPA appear to be on the ropes, everyone needs to, at the very least, contact their congresscritters and express their displeasure at this prospective legislation. Assuming you do disapprove of SOPA/PIPA, which everyone should, since it doesn't even set out to accomplish what the people who support it want it to accomplish. It's like using a tactical nuclear weapon to take out a beehive behind your house. Yes, the beehive will be gone; but so will your house and all your neighbors. The collateral damage is just too high.

The actual magnitude of Internet piracy of copyrighted works is in dispute, but even if you take the most extreme (read: highly exaggerated) claims of Big Media as literal truth, SOPA/PIPA still are a terrible idea. Not just for the sake of principle, but for the sake of practicality as well: SOPA/PIPA are likely unconstitutional (prior restraint); they seek to grant the government and private companies far too much power with far too little oversight or balance; and the things they allow could and would for absolute certain be abused.

Like I said, many others have already gone over this territory better than I ever could. If you haven't gotten in contact with your elected officials, you should do so now. I could say that it'll just take a few easy minutes to fill out the contact forms on their websites, but should I really have to encourage people to do their basic civic duty? Keeping an eye on our politicians is absolutely critical. Voting isn't even the absolute bare minimum; letting your representatives know what you think is the absolute bare minimum, and do you really want to be someone who just does the bare minimum? 'Cause if you do, you'll get exactly the government you deserve: one that ignores its citizens, listens only to the big moneyed interests, and ends up screwing up your life.

14 January, 2012


I did not expect instant success from publishing The Demons of Lashtë on Amazon. I know I'm a new author; it's going to take time, and a lot of relentless marketing, to get people exposed to my work. I'm confident that a lot of people will like it once they read it, but it's still a massive hurdle for me to get to the point where people are reading it.

Nonetheless, I had a very strong sense of elation and glee once I published the story. It was now a Real Thing that had Really Happened. And, unlike previous efforts in my life, I did not immediately decide that, having done this Real Thing, I was done. That was a good feeling. It let me know that I am really committed to the whole endeavor of writing as a career.

I've felt that I was, for a while; Mindfire, which is still in progress, I started last July, and I'm still working on it to this day, with no significant breaks (not counting Demons, which took a few days to write, edit, design the cover for, and publish). I've convinced myself I'm going to finish, and the end is in fact in sight; but the terrain between here and there is bumpy, and it's still going to be painful getting over it.

Building a career as a writer is hard no matter what. The traditional route involves a great deal of rejection, and not necessarily the promise of success; self-e-publishing means you can circumvent the gatekeepers, but then you get to do everything yourself—everything, including editing, design, publishing, marketing, and so on. It's a lot of work in either case. And I keep telling myself I'm going to succeed, because what other choice do I have?

09 January, 2012

The Demons of Lashtë is now available!

I'm pleased to announce that The Demons of Lashtë is now available on Amazon for Kindle! It's only $0.99, and well worth the price, if I do say so myself. (Well, of course I'd say that.)

I will see about publishing it for the nook and other platforms to come, but for now, I'm just happy to have my very first (self-, yes) published work out there and available for everyone to enjoy.

If you buy it and like it, please leave a review on Amazon, and tell your friends. I'll guarantee* it's the best dollar you (and they) will spend today.

* Not guaranteed.

Cover art for The Demons of Lashtë

So I finished writing The Demons of Lashtë, and my next big step was creating cover art. The consensus for short stories these days, when self-publishing, is to find appropriate stock photography and then modify it to make it look professional and appropriate. Or at least as much as one is capable of doing. I have virtually nothing in the way of artistic ability.

To that end, I present the cover art for The Demons of Lashtë:

This was created by combining two separate stock photos from Dreamstime (total cost: about $15), manipulating the colors on both, drawing in a little human figure with a halo, adding some text, and using a GIMP plugin called GIMPressionist to give it a painted feeling. The text is in a free font called Fairy Dust, and has several layers of drop shadow underneath to make it readable. The whole process took maybe two hours, plus a half hour or so of browsing through stock photos to find ones that I liked. (To the degree that the cover looks decent, all credit is due to my wife.)

The story should be published on Amazon for Kindle in the next couple of days.

06 January, 2012

Shorts, and a sample

While my novel-in-progress, Mindfire, is still my primary focus, something I'm going to start doing is producing short stories on a regular basis (scroll down for a sample), and making them available for sale on Amazon (for Kindle). There's three primary reasons for this:


Getting my work out there in a professional format is going to be helpful in building up an audience. I'm really starting from square one, here; aside from a few people who've followed this blog, or followed me on Twitter (hi guys!), or are friends on Mythic Scribes, I haven't exactly got what you'd call an audience. The novel will be several more weeks until it's finished at least; but I can take a little time out here and there to produce polished short stories that, I think, people will like.

Practice writing

One thing strongly recommended by a lot of "new-to-writing" guides and articles is to write short stories on a regular basis. There's a few reasons for this: they're easier to finish than a novel; they give experience with constructing a complete story without getting bogged down in all the elaborate developments that occur in a longer story; they don't lock you in to a particular fictional world and make you spend a lot of time on world-building.

I will be immodest here and claim that I don't need practice writing prose; you can judge that for yourself below, where I've included a sample of the first story I'm going to publish, The Demons of Lashtë. I'm confident that I'm already good at that part. (Not that there's no room for improvement, but...) It's really the process that's important: completing something, publishing it, getting feedback.

Practice publishing

I've experimented with the Kindle Direct Publishing platform before. It's missing a lot of functionality I wish it had, and I hope that Amazon will improve that in the future; but there's more to publishing a short story than just throwing it onto Amazon.
  • Creating cover art. I've been directed to a few good stock photo sites, where I can get good pics cheap, modify them and put title/author's name on them, and use those. They just need to look professional enough that people aren't turned off, and ideally are enticed by the cover.
  • Formatting the doc. I use Linux, and I've already got a suite of tools I use for converting OpenOffice documents to Amazon's .mobi format. There's still a lot of little gotchas to watch out for, and I haven't done this enough to be completely confident in getting the files exactly right, but it seems to work so far.
  • Marketing. That's right, the dreaded m-word. I have an instinctive aversion to marketing, as I majored in Computer Science and have been, professionally, a web programmer for the last twelve years. I always feel like that pimping my work will make people recoil and say, "How arrogant!" But I'm slowly learning that this is (mostly, I hope) not the case. So I just need to get over it.
So, without (much) further ado, here's a sample of the first few paragraphs of the first story I'll be publishing: The Demons of Lashtë. I will definitely be posting here when the full story is available on Amazon. :-)

Sample of The Demons of Lashtë

The demon struck, and Anders Vasik let the blade flash through him, cleaving armor, flesh, bone, sinew. The pain was staggering. But the demon-sword emerged out the other side, cleansed of blood, as the two sides of the wound melded together, trailing the blade’s passage. Anders’s spell left a bitter tang of sulphur in the air.

The strike left the demon unbalanced, and in that moment Anders held out his palm. A blinding pinprick of white fire tore through the demon’s gray hide, making a fist-sized hole ringed in char. The carbonized flesh swirled away on the wind, and the demon’s face twisted with every ounce of the minimal emotion it was capable of displaying. It fell back, tumbling into the jagged canyon, to be devoured by the enormous shale lizards that lurked below.

Anders collapsed onto all fours. The blade’s passage had taken more out of him than he’d expected, but he’d survived. That was all that mattered. He’d recover, he’d live to fight the next demon, and the next.

He looked up, and across the canyon, to where the city of Lashtë loomed, silent behind its walls of blackened stone. They’d shone, those walls, golden in the morning, silver at noon, ochre in the setting sun. But no longer. The erupting wrath of countless demons thrashing wildly to climb, to break through, blasted down by the city’s mages, had stained the walls permanently black. Only by a sacrifice of half their number had the mages created the chasm, buying the city some breathing room. Anders didn’t know if it had been worth it.

The horde was unending. This was no time for introspection. Anders whispered silent words to Umwë, and felt a warmth spread from his heart. Energized by golden fire, he stood again, and waited for the next demon to come.

A stone’s throw along the edge of the canyon, his friend Dródi stood, waiting as well. They’d gotten a respite, by whatever luck. “How are you feeling?” Dródi called. Beyond him was another shield-mage, and another, spaced along the canyon, disappearing beyond sight.

Anders shrugged. “Bored,” he called back. He estimated that it was another two turns before his shift would end. Then someone would relieve him, and he’d retreat to Lashtë, to rest and recreate. He looked forward most of all to seeing Gunnvar. They were as good as betrothed, although her father had not made the offer yet. But he knew it was coming.

A flicker of motion caught his eye. Another demon was coming. Anders brought up his hands, and began to summon fire.

02 January, 2012

Happy New Year!

I see a lot of writers resolving to, for example, write more, Finish That Novel, and so on. I feel like I resolved to do that back in July when I began writing this novel, and my determination to finish it and see it published hasn't dwindled since then. It wasn't a conscious decision; it was like a switch flipped and I realized that I really wanted this, and it would only happen if I buckled down and did it.

When it comes to New Year's Resolutions, if I try to make too many of them, I end up not following any of them. But one or two reasonable, specific goals, I know I can accomplish, because I've done it before. They have to be specific, because otherwise it's too easy to cheat by bending the rules and claiming that whatever it is you're doing meets that goal. "Eat less" is a terrible resolution, because it's so easy to say, "Well, I'll eat this cookie, and then I'll just not have any more for a week." The next day, it's "Okay, I'll eat THIS cookie, and..."

Eight or nine years ago, I resolved one New Year's Eve not to go to McDonald's for an entire year. And I managed it. Never set foot in a McD's, not once, for an entire calendar year. (And no cheating by having someone bring it to me.) I had previously gone there at least once a week, but after a couple of weeks of not going, I didn't really miss it. The following year I went to McD's a couple of times, maybe three or four the whole year. Since then, I don't think I've gone more than once or twice a year at most, and in the last two or three years I haven't gone at all (except once a year or two ago, when co-workers went there, and I was just too lazy to go somewhere else).

The goal wasn't "no fast food"; I still went to Jack-in-the-Box, Burger King, In 'N' Out, and so on. I still ate processed, pre-packaged, unhealthy crap all the time. But I managed to break away from that one particular chain, and it taught me that if I could break away from one, couldn't I break away from them all?

Last year, one of my resolutions was to not eat the free cake and ice cream that the company I work for gives out at the monthly birthday celebration. And I managed it. Again, a small goal; it was only relevant once a month anyway, and I was tempted a few times, but reminded myself that I'd resolved not to do it, for health reasons (dairy causes problems for me, I've figured out).

This year, my resolution (a joint resolution with my wife) is that we both go to the gym twice a week. We've got a membership to a gym that's a ten-minute walk from our house, and it's open 5 AM to midnight most days, so it's not hard. The only thing that can stand in our way is ourselves. We tend to spend most evenings planted in front of our computers, doing non-urgent things, so there's no reason we can't both manage to get out twice a week to work out. Again, it's both reasonable and specific, and I think we'll be able to manage it, especially if we both take on the task of reminding the other that it's their turn to go to the gym tonight.

What's your resolution this year?