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.