Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2016 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
Any reproduction of this material is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays, whichever you choose!

          "Learning is the fountain of youth.  No matter how old you are, you must never stop growing."
                    ~ CHINESE PROVERB
          I have always been in the camp that holds that the people and stores who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" have ridden the Political Correctness train to the far end of the line.  This year, I had the film peeled off of my eyes by one of my oldest and most respected internet friends, a practicing Jew from southern Australia, who pointed this out in her latest blog post:


          Thank you, Kaz, for the wisdom of your words.  I never wanted to be "that guy."  I didn't know, now I do, and the adjustment has been made.  So like the title says, Happy Holidays, no matter which one you celebrate.
          I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there is a Slayer of Darkness giveaway in progress over at Goodreads.  Click on the widget at the top of the right sidebar to join in.  Signed copies will be mailed to five lucky winners, so get your name in the hat.  This may be the last physical book I ever publish, so don't miss out!
          The party starts early over here, and I need my beauty rest.  Have a great day, and a great holiday season, and I'll be back with another thrilling post New Year's morning.  Don't miss it!

~ Blimprider

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Slayer of Darkness

          "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.  For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.  And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's personality.  Good prose is like a windowpane."
                    ~ GEORGE ORWELL
          And yet I did it.  I've done it multiple times in the past, and have plans to do it again; it seems to be in the blood.  Last Friday morning, the third installment of the Beyond the Rails series landed on Amazon in both print and e-book formats.  For some time now, I have been fielding suggestions that the crew of the Kestrel should expand into novels, leaving behind their short-story format.  I was resistant to the notion for a good long while, due to the fact that the characters and situations were designed to support short stories.  However, I finally decided that, like TV shows and video games that make the jump to the big screen, taking Beyond the Rails into the format of the novel was a worthy endeavor.  It was a long time coming, I know, and the reason for that was the need to examine the history and determine what loose ends were left in the stories, and there were plenty, that could be brought together and tied up, what supporting characters warranted space in the "big book," and what subplots and distractions could be woven into the fabric.  And now it's done.  I have, as Red Smith said, "sat down at a keyboard and opened a vein," and now the results are out there, open to every sort of scrutiny, and for the next days and weeks I will be waiting with that odd mix of eagerness and apprehension for the first reviews to come in.  I have my own opinions of the crew's transition, but mine aren't the ones that count!
         Since much of the purpose of blogging, Facebooking, Goodreading, and so on is to boost sales, allow me to present the synopsis from the back cover:

          It’s March of 1883, and the inhabitants of the east African colony of Kenya are preparing for the Long Rain. The crew of the Kestrel, a small cargo blimp, are no exception, trying to squeeze in the last few paying runs before two months of high winds and constant rain sweep the airships from the sky.
          Arriving in their midst is an old acquaintance, an Australian woman of uncertain background who brings an unbelievable story, and asks them to aid her in what seems to be an impossible task. She offers to pay them well, but can the money she offers be nearly enough to compensate for the danger she plans to place them in? And what business could the mysterious team of international bounty hunters be engaged upon?
          Join the crew of the Kestrel for their longest journey yet, a thrill-packed, suspenseful ride through a world of shadowy operators that could prove to be their last.

          Exciting enough for you?  I hope so, and I hope the book lives up to it.  It was a year of hard work, exacerbated by much nail-biting, backtracking, and do-overs, and I most sincerely hope it was worth it.  Time, and the reviews, will tell!  If you'd care to join in that particular feeding frenzy, you can get your copy, print or Kindle, by clicking the cover in the left sidebar.  Whatever you think, I'd love to hear from you!
          Until next week, then, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

One Path up the Mountain

          "There are many paths up the mountain, but there is only one summit."
                    ~ ORIENTAL PROVERB
          I'm going to do something that I never do here:  I'm going to talk about my religion, although only inasmuch as it informs my writing.  What, you didn't think I was going to lay myself bare, did you?
          Anybody recognize the symbol?  This has been appropriated by just about every martial art form that practices in America, and here on the legendary west coast, there is a big association with surf shops.  In fact, this is Taoism's symbol of balance and harmony, expressed as yīnyáng, literally "dark – bright," and carries the actual Chinese name of taijitu.
          To confirm all these hints, I am a Taoist.  Have been since a date I didn't think to mark in the early 1970s.  I was introduced to it by a certain martial arts instructor who was born in the old country and came here later in life.  By great good fortune, my ascension of the spirit happened to coincide with the run of the original Kung Fu series.  That show has been much-maligned over the years, but whatever there is to say about David Carradine (and there is plenty), the spirituality embodied in that show was spot-on, and reinforced my rudimentary steps along the path.  The coincidence of Kung Fu with my introduction to Taoism was, from my point of view, the most incredible case of kismet in my life.  Christians have a thousand movies they can watch for inspiration; Taoists have Kung Fu, and to our great good fortune, the producers got it right.
          I grew up in an entertainment world filled with the likes of John Wayne, Josh Randall, and Have Gun Will Travel; in other words, a surly bunch of cowboys who would as soon blow your head off as look at you.  When this quiet, peaceful half-Chinese monk wandered into this world of violence, everyone I knew enjoyed the fighting scenes, but nobody seemed to get that it wasn't about that at all.  Maybe I only did because of the other influence, that of my instructor of fighting; and there's a bit of irony for you.
          There is ongoing disagreement among religious scholars about whether Taoism is a true religion, or merely a philosophy.  See, it has no living God with a name, a personality, certain expectations of his followers, and so on.  Taoism treats its "god," the Tao, as a linear force like light or gravity, that acts in predictable ways to constantly create, destroy, and recreate the universe on a minute-to-minute basis.  What the Taoist strives to do is bring himself into balance and harmony with the cycles of nature, and thereby live his life with a minimum of hassle.  My take:  Most religions worship a God that tells you to be decent to your fellow man because that's what He wants, and you'd better do it!  Taoism teaches that aligning yourself with the Tao leads to a decent life, and will bring you the most favorable outcomes in your personal existence.  A difference that makes no difference is no difference.  No matter how you get there, though, mean people still suck!
          How this has shown up in my writing is that my main characters, as I look back at them, seem to be too kind and giving for the world they inhabit.  Some of that may be laid at the feet of the style that I consciously tried to emulate in the writing of Beyond the Rails, that of the "boys-own adventure" books of the 1920s and 30s.  That was a literary period during which the villains were villainous, the ladies were virtuous, and the heroes had perfect teeth.  A complicating factor in sorting out the reasons is that I write stories set in the Victorian Era, a time in which even the villains were as likely to make a self-justifying speech during which he called the hero "sir" as he was to plant a bomb aboard his airship, so the exact reason continues to elude me, but people seem to like it, so perhaps I worry overmuch.
          The thing is, I will soon be starting a new series with the working title of The Nexus Chronicles.  Last November 28th I was working diligently on the Beyond the Rails edit when it was knocked completely out of my head by the idea of Nexus sliding unbidden into my mind like a base runner stealing second, spikes up, and woe be unto whatever gets in his way.  I pulled out one of my ever-handy notebooks and wrote down, "The idea of Nexus, a border city formed at the intersection of all the astral planes, strikes with an almost physical impact."  In the two weeks since, this thing has been simmering, festering, and growing additional heads almost non-stop, and I've had to move into a bigger notebook.
          Here's the thing:  The denizens of Nexus, good and evil, are most definitely not Victorian drawing room characters.  The villains, above all, are not nice, and have no sense of honor or fair play about them, and any protagonist who attempts to deal with them as if they did will be chewed up and spit out, so the great challenge, and the Journey of Wonder that I'm about to undertake will be to see whether I can actually pull off heroes whose halos, of necessity, have slipped to varying degrees.  I usually say "We'll all find out together," but I'm not going to say that this time, because I intend to become a recluse while I'm working this out.  I've learned from experience how poorly I react to other voices pointing out my missteps while I'm trying to work out where to put my feet, and I'm going to spare myself that particular pleasure while I figure out whether I can write the stories this idea calls for.  All I can say is that I will keep blogging, primarily about general writing issues, and probably next week, when I see where this is headed, I'll pull the wraps back a little, and let those interested get a feel for the flavor, but don't expect any big reveals.  Just enjoy the blog, and see whether you can get into the concept.  I'll do my best to make it good! 


*          *          *


          On the writing front, I'm going to solicit your opinions here, as a point was raised last week by one of my readers, and I want to know how everyone feels about it.  This reader said the blog was hard to read, because of the light-on-dark print, and the all-caps font that I use.  Let me address each of those points separately.
          First, the color.  The background color of the blog is #441500 on the standard internet color chart, International Steampunk Brown, and I have no plan to change it.  That means it will be light-on-dark for the foreseeable.
          Second, though, the font. The name of the font is Walter Turncoat, and I chose it from among the dozens of fonts that Blogger offers because it most closely resembles my natural handwriting.  The photo to the left is of a page from my Beyond the Rails notebook so you can see the uncanny resemblance for yourself.  Seriously, if you could get a font based on your own handwriting, would you use it?  Yeah, I thought so.
          But unlike the color, I'm not married to it.  If it's driving off readers, I'm not so stupid that I won't consider a change, so that's what I'm asking here.  Should I change it?  I've put a poll at the top of the right sidebar, and I would very much like for everyone to voice their opinion: should I leave it as it is, make it larger, or change it completely?  This is an important question to me, as I'm not doing this to drive off readers, and your input would be dearly appreciated.
          As to Beyond the Rails III, I am still hopeful of seeing it for sale on Amazon by this coming Sunday.  Once that's done, I'll be taking a break for Christmas and New Year's (if you can call building a new world from scratch "Taking a break"), after which I'll be pitching into the next project.  I have repeatedly said that that will be Stingaree, but I may have to go to The Nexus Chronicles next just to get that monkey off of my back, because it is paying no attention to my demands to get back on the back burner and be quiet.  But I have three weeks to figure that out.  Meanwhile, let's get the Kestrel back into the air for another thrill-packed adventure!
          Until next week, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Importance of Reviews

          "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy..."
                    ~ FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT
          Thus spoke the United States president on the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  My generation grew up despising Japan and all things Japanese, from cheap toys to professional wrestlers.   Today, 75 years later, Japan is one of our closest friends and staunchest allies on a very turbulent world stage.  I admire, and in many ways love, the Japanese people and culture, but as a sailor in the United States Navy, I have sailed up the channel at Pearl Harbor, manning the rail and rendering a salute to the broken wreck of the USS Arizona, and it is impossible for me to refrain from honoring those unsuspecting brothers in arms who were ambushed and slaughtered on that on this pivotal date in history.  Some of the most ambiguous feelings I entertain well up on this particular date, and I wonder sometimes whether 75 years from now, we will be this friendly with the Muslim World.  I won't be here to see it, but I hope for it, nonetheless. 
          The subject of this week's post is book reviews, and I considered tying the ambiguity of my feelings about Pearl Harbor into some half-assed pun about reviews, but that's too cheap a ploy even for me, so I'll just pitch in.  Reviews are an author's life blood.  Not sales.  Not interviews.  Not the equipment and paraphernalia of our Craft.  Reviews, pure and simple.  These other things, to be sure, are necessary items, but reviews are what keep us going.
          Allow me to elaborate.  Many, nay, most of my friends are independent authors, or "indies."  In the not-so-distant past, an indie was someone who had written a book, and felt so strongly about seeing it in print that he paid a vanity press hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a crate of his books delivered to his home which he then had to try to market by whatever means he could find.  Being an indie a decade or so ago meant a huge outlay of cash in order to put your book before the public, which in turn meant that we actually had two gatekeepers:  The publishing industry itself, and an author's personal wealth.
          Today anyone can write anything, click a mouse, and their book is for sale on amazon.com, and any number of other places.  The upside is that no one has to go through a gatekeeper to become a published author.  The downside is that no one has to go through a gatekeeper to become a published author.  The point of this doublespeak?  Somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand books a day are published, and most of them are of very poor quality.  A casual sampling of Amazon's "look inside" feature, or a survey of books.google.com will demonstrate that quite clearly, but the quality of the work isn't the subject of this particular outing.  No, it's the value of reviews to an author.
          Many of those friends I mentioned above are trying to establish careers in the field of fiction writing.  I myself am an amateur, a hobbyist author.  I have a solid retirement package in place, and will never be dependent on a single book sale to make this month's rent, none of which means that I don't enjoy seeing sales figures on my publisher's report.  But what I enjoy more than anything is having people read my work, and tell me that they enjoy it.  To date, I'm fairly certain I have given away more copies of my books than I have sold.  But professional or amateur, needy or not, an author wants above all else to know that his work is being read, and if not 100% appreciated, at least discussed, and this is where the review comes in.
          Just as most authors in the internet age aren't professionals, neither are most reviewers.  In fact, the vast majority of reviews are written by casual readers of the books in question.  Look at the reviews of your favorite book on amazon.com.  What do you see?  Page after page after page of ordinary Joes and Janes from upstate New York, rural Texas, and the far Pacific shores that read a book, enjoyed it or not, and took the time to share their opinion.  Again, because of the publishing model that is in place here in the internet age, it is necessary for an author to garner reviews from his everyday readers in order to have any impact on the market.
           If this sounds like I'm soliciting book reviews from my readers, I am, but that's a fraction of it.  I am soliciting reviews for all my indie friends, and the indies I've never met and never will.  Let me explain the facts of life to our non-writing fans.  Writing a book is a long endeavor.  From concept to planning, to research to the actual writing, followed by proofreading, editing, creating or commissioning a cover, to finished product can take a year for an ordinary, everyday novel.  Considerably longer for a major project, something historical, or a trilogy, for example.  This is a year of recreational time taken from friends, family, and other interests, and most writers suffer the crushing burden of a day job as well.  If someone has invested this level of work in writing a book that has entertained you, uplifted you, moved you in some tangible way, it is a natural human response, I would think, to want to say thank you for putting forth the effort to produce this.  And the best way to do this in the modern literary market is to write a review of the book.
          The most common, and most effective place to share these reviews is on Amazon.com for one simple reason.  We are all, as indies, facing a numbers game.  We want to share our work, and we market everywhere we can think of, from Facebook to our personal blogs.  Most of us cannot afford to hire a PR firm to do a national media campaign, so we go it alone.  But there is a critical mass of reviews that Amazon looks at to determine the point at which they begin to promote your book in those bar ads we've all seen that take the form of "If you enjoyed this book, you might like this other one (yours!)."  I've heard various figures floated around, and don't know the exact one myself, but based on what I've heard from other sources, it seems like an author starts getting some push at around thirty reviews.  And make no mistake, Amazon does everything in their power to stack the deck against the independent author.  If you write a review of my book, and Amazon discovers that we are friends on Facebook or a blog, they will delete it.  If a book is in both physical and Ebook formats, they separate the reviews, in other words, if you have ten reviews of your paperback and twenty of your Kindle, you don't have thirty reviews, you have twenty.  So if you've enjoyed a book that I've written, or any other independent author you've encountered, encourage them to write more.  Enable them to write more.  Write a review!
          Readers, I think, hear the word "review," and they think of those four-column epics in the New York Times written by celebrity critics, filled with snarky innuendos and double entendres, but you don't need to go to these lengths to support an indie author.  Just a quick couple of sentences saying, "I liked this book because the characters were believable," or you liked the descriptions, or the plot was complex and full of surprises counts in Amazon's numbers game.  You don't have to search for the place to leave a review; Amazon will Email you asking what you thought of the book.  And even if you didn't buy the book on Amazon, find it there, and leave the review there.  No matter what you think of Amazon, they are the big he-bull in the publishing industry, and more people will see the book and its reviews there than on all other sites combined.  We aren't asking much.  We spent a year on average to bring you that story that you read in a week.  If it brought you any enjoyment at all, take a minute and tell the world about it.  We all thrive on the appreciation of our work.  Some of us are trying to have careers based on that work, so any little thing you can do is appreciated.  A couple of sentences might make the difference as to whether you ever get another book by a favorite author, so give it some thought.  Call it an investment.  It can pay big dividends.

*          *          *

          On the writing front this week, goodness, the activity!  I am being driven like a rented mule by the desire to see Nexus underway.  Under that particular prod, I took Sunday and completed the update of Beyond the Rails II, and submitted it to the publisher.  The "corrected" copy is now what is for sale on the Amazon website, with typos, spelling issues, and punctuation gaffes weeded out and fixed.  As I mentioned last week in regard to the first book, if you already own this, you don't need to buy another, as nothing of substance has been changed.
          The next project on the horizon is Stingaree, which has already had some work done on it.  You can read the first chapter by clicking on the Sample Tab at the top of the left sidebar.  It will be torture to work on this while I'm aching to get Nexus into final form, but it will be good, as I can use the year, more or less, that it will take to bring Stingaree to completion to flesh out the world of Nexus so that all, or at least most of, the envisioned interactions have already been established and the consequences worked out so that I'm not making it up on the fly.  I'm not that kind of writer, and I very much want Nexus to be perfect.
          For each of the past two days, I have been able to complete the third edit of three chapters of Beyond the Rails III.  If I can keep that pace up through the end, I estimate that I'll be ready to download CreateSpace's template and start formatting by next Wednesday.  Within a couple of days of that, the book should be available on Amazon!  If you've been following the blog, you know that Beyond the Rails III is a novel, and one thing that that project, along with my work on Stingaree, has taught me is that I have a good deal more facility with the short story-novelette form than I do the full-size novel; accordingly, The Nexus Chronicles (my working title) will return to a format of several 12- 15,000-word stories in a book.
          And that is all I'm prepared to share for now.  Keep following along, as I have plans to reveal little by little what will be going on between those particular covers.  Until next time, then, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Nexus

          "A hack is on the constant hunt for 'ideas' for his plots, or 'new angles.'  The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity.  He is impervious to suggestions."
                    ~ EDMUND BERGLER
          I usually begin with the main part of the post, and put my writing update last, but I'm doing it differently for this post, because I'm as excited as a writer as I have been in a long time.  Last Monday morning, as I sat at this keyboard working on the Beyond the Rails edit (and more on that later), the idea for a story struck me with the physical impact of a Mike Tyson haymaker.  I should tell you right now that, accepting the sage advice of Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Tyler, and Norman Mailer,  I am not going into a great amount of detail, but this idea concerns the goings on in a mythical city.  Its ambition, and that is beyond any doubt the right word, is to tie together every myth and fable in human history.  The name of the city, and the working title, is Nexus, but had Star Trek not used the title for its Hugo Award-winning episode, it could easily have been called The City on the Edge of Forever.
          Tuesday, having slept on it, I woke up with the premise of the story fully formed, fleshed out some of the mechanics, and worked out most of the big-picture details of time and setting.  It may be difficult for me to stay within the confines of steampunk for this one, although I may be able to work some limited aspects in.  It will be traumatic, and feel like something of a betrayal, to leave it behind, but authors are supposed to grow, right?  By Wednesday, yesterday, I was fleshing out some characters and outlining the opening scene.  In the days ahead I have plans to begin a detailed map.
          The point is, this new project has taken over my head, and is working diligently to throw everything else out into the street.  Stingaree?  Never mind that, it wants me to abandon the Beyond the Rails edit.  So far, the discipline is in place to prevent that, but lots of notes are getting assembled in the notebook that accompanies me everywhere.  By next post, I may be wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea, but right now it's is the biggest event on my writing horizon.  Stay tuned for updates.
          On the subject of Beyond the Rails III, I have finished the second edit, and put the manuscript aside to cool off, in other words, to allow my love for my own prose to fade.  In the interim, and in preparation for its publication, I have completed a full edit of the first book, and over the next week to ten days, will be editing the second.  These edits involve morphing all of the apostrophes and quotation marks which were somehow transferred in different type face than the text, correcting a few typos and misspellings, and removing a bunch of hyphens that I was advised had appeared in the middle of a good many sentences.  Owners of the original editions should be advised that no substantive changes have been made, and you will not miss anything if you don't buy the updated version.  By the time I'm finished editing the second book, I'll be ready to start the final edit on the third, and there is an outside chance that it could be ready for purchase by Christmas, though not by much.  Anyway, that's the latest.  Now, on to the article I had planned...

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          A few posts back, I compared the structure of a novel to a street on a movie set, with all the facades looking fabulous as they hung on the scaffolding erected to support them.  This week, I'm going to compare them to an actual house, maybe like the one you live in.  If your book is a house, then, the cover must be the exterior, and obviously, a well-designed house with a nice paint job is going to be inviting, and a crummy one with decaying eaves and big paint blisters missing is going to put you into fight-or-flight mode, in the case of a reader, mostly flight.
          If the exterior, the cover, prompts you to knock on the door, someone will open it, and what you see over the resident's shoulder constitutes the first impression that you will never unsee.  Looking past the door frame, you'll see a well-ordered home, a loving family, or a mess, maybe even one of those hoarder houses from the National Geo Channel, and what you see in that first glimpse is what's going to make you decide to come in, or say "sorry, wrong address," and flee to your car to escape.
          The literary equivalent of that first glimpse is your opening sentence, and we are taught that if you want a modern reader with all the demands she has on her time to come in and make herself comfortable, that first sentence had better be a doozy!  Let's examine a few from books new and old, large and small, and see what the writer accomplished with the use of his first dozen words or so.  For starters, let's look at a few classics:

1. A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, 1864:
          On the 14th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
          As an opening sentence, this seems terribly weak to me.  Grant you, I am no fan of Verne, having finally read seven of his most acclaimed works, but this first sentence is in no way calculated to make me want to read the rest of it.

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883:
          Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the "Admiral Benbow" inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodgings under our roof.
          Here, at least, there is some substance for a reader to sink his teeth into, although it seems to promise a slog to rival any manual of tax codes that the Internal Revenue Service has ever produced.

3. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, 1888:
          The Law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow.
          Again, a generation after Verne, is there anything here that makes you want to keep going?  There certainly isn't for me, and unlike Verne, Kipling is one of my favorite authors.  It seems that the early adventure books that boys cut their teeth and honed their dreams on tended to begin with a whimper rather than a bang.  Perhaps the 20th Century would fare better?

4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, 1901:
          Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
          Nope.  Apparently, readers in the latter half of the 19th Century held expectations so low that this sort of dull, uninteresting introductory fare that promised the reader an adventure in staying awake was not only acceptable, but so superior that these are among the books best remembered today.  And this despite the existence prior to them all of this invitation to come into the writer's parlor:

5. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe, 1842:
          I was sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.
          Now, here were words to bring a reader in for the long journey, and penned by a crass American a generation before the great Jules Verne wrote uninspired prose about his uncle rushing into his house!  How could these masters have forgotten how it was done?  But let's move forward fifty years, and see how mid-Twentieth Century authors were snagging their readers.

6. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954:
          When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
          It is impossible, in the wake of Peter Jackson's magnificent films, to go back and pretend that we don't know what this book is going to become, but as an opening sentence, all I see to "bring me in," as it were, is that reference to an eleventy-first birthday.  This might engender some slight curiosity as to what exactly that might be, so it's clever enough, but hardly compelling.  Where are those opening lines that today's writing professors, agents, and publishers warn us have to get the reader by the throat with the opening statement, and never let go?  When did they begin?  Perhaps in war...

7. Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton, 1951:
          The rowboat slid out on the Potomac in the hazy light of a hot August morning, dropped down past the line of black ships near the Alexandria wharves, and bumped to a stop with its nose against the wooden side of a transport.
          This is better.  In fairness, this is a non-fictional history being written in a narrative style, but it makes me at least wonder what the business of the people in that rowboat is, and want to read further to find out.  And honestly, if what is essentially a textbook can set the hook like this, what's the matter with these fiction authors?  Let's explore further.

8. Jirel Meets Magic by C.L. Moore, 1935:
          Over Guishard's fallen drawbridge thundered Joiry's warrior lady, sword swinging, voice shouting hoarsely inside her helmet.
          Now, here is an author who knows how to hook a reader, and it's obvious that the art hadn't been lost at all.  Of course, Moore wrote for the fantasy pulps, and as such, was considered beneath mention by the literary snobs who wrote books for smart people.  Naturally, as so often happens, Catherine Lucille Moore is given her due today, decades after her death.  Her series, Jirel of Joiry, is praised as being one of the first works to show the influence of Robert E. Howard (Conan), and the first to introduce a powerful leading female character to the fantasy genre.  But she was hardly mainstream.  Let's look at some late-in-the-Century powerhouses. 

9. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, 1977:
          The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.
          His descent?  Now this is more like it.  What is he descending to?  From where?  Classic; a simple description of a simple scene that absolutely demands that you learn more.  This is promising.  Moving on, then, to a true modern powerhouse of literature and screen, we have:

10. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, 1990:
          The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering on the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.
          Here is a passage that says nothing about its genre.  It might be adventure, romance, horror, or mystery, but it requires further reading.  Brilliant!  Now we're getting somewhere!  A few years further along, we are presented with:

11. Shock Wave by Clive Cussler, 1996:
          Of the four clipper ships built in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1854, one stood out from the others.
          Would you read on?  It seems optional.  If you enjoy a good yarn of the sea, as I do, then you probably would.  If not, this seems a little flat.  The rest of the paragraph goes on to describe dimensions, tonnage, and sailing characteristics; hardly the most exciting fare.  Moving on to one of my favorite authors:

12. The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore, 1988:
          The demon sat back on the seat it had carved in the stem of the giant mushroom.
          All right, my personal bias notwithstanding, who can read that introductory sentence from the first of 40 books, give or take, and toss it aside with a "meh?"   Salvatore has been on the NYT Best Sellers List for over two decades, with his stories of dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and his small band of companions.  He should be as big as Tolkien, but much like C.L. Moore, he isn't taken seriously because he writes in the Dungeons & Dragons universe as dictated by that role-playing game system.  How much do our prejudices, and those of others, deprive us of?  Before I wrap this up, I want to look at three of the biggest blockbusters ever to seize the public's imagination:

13. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, 1997:
          Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
          Yeah, curiosity is generated, I suppose, and this is the first sentence of the first book intended for children, and perhaps it works in that context, but I just have this nagging feeling that the Queen Mother of Fantasy missed a great opportunity to make a grand entrance.  *Sigh*  Moving on...

14. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, 2005:
          My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.
          Meh.  What are we looking at here?  Is this supposed to excite me to keep reading?  Well, it doesn't.  I have driven to the airport, or at least past it, many times with the windows down, and have yet to become romantically involved with a vampire.  So, let's wrap this up with the most infamous book and movie ever put before the American public:

15. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 2011:
          I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.
          Has anyone else ever done this, or am I the only one?  Oh, you have?  As an opening line, this one makes closing the book seem like an inordinate amount of effort.  Just drop it where you are, and let the housekeeper deal with it.  This book, and Twilight, are so polarizing that the mere mention of them in a certain Facebook writers' group of which I am a member is grounds for dismissal.

          But I'm not here to discuss the literary merit of any of these works.  This is about the first sentence, and its ability to hold that reader as she stands before the bookstore shelf, several dozen books of her chosen genre laid out before her, and what is that author going to do to snag her right now?  Why shouldn't she put your book back on the shelf after that quick scan of the first page, and pick up someone else's?
          As authors, we are all told loudly and repeatedly that we have to snag the interest of the agent/publisher/reader from the opening line, and it makes sense to my logic center.  Deciding to look into this more closely, I chose the first dozen books more or less at random from my own shelf to cover a wide time span and several genres, then I added the last three, which I don't own, because they are huge!  I looked at a number of other well-known books and authors, from Fail Safe to The Killer Angels, from Asimov to Grisham, and what I found is that very few big, well-known authors adhere to this principle, regardless of the era, and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to do so.  This was the exact opposite of what I expected.
          So, what is to be my conclusion here?  I easily put more time and effort into this article than any other I have ever done, and I can honestly say that I am stunned by the results.  Fifteen books, plus another score considered and not included, is hardly a meaningful sample, but they are fifteen successful books by mostly major authors, and very few, 20% by my lights, adhere to the principle in question.  That doubles to 40% if you include the borderline entries, but that isn't much for a market as savagely competitive as publishing and marketing books.  Have we been mislead?  Is it unimportant?  What's a struggling indie to think?
          Here's what I think:  I will continue to make my opening sentence a mind-harpoon designed to spear the reader's curiosity and sense of adventure.  Why not?  I see nothing to lose by making that opening hook as compelling as possible.  If that is done well, maybe that browser in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon's website drops your book into his basket instead of back into obscurity, moving on to look for another opening that better meets his expectations.  Yes, that seems to fly in the face of my empirical data, but in a business where 5,000 new books are published every day, no advantage seems too small to seek out.
          This has been inspiring.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I'll look at some of the indie books published by my friends and colleagues, and see what we can glean about them.  Maybe they'll find it helpful; maybe I'll find myself friendless.  Time will tell.  Until then, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Friday, November 25, 2016

You say deception like it's a bad thing

          "Everyone who works in the domain of fiction is a bit crazy.  The problem is to render this craziness interesting."
                    ~ FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT
          Good day, friends old and new.  Today I'm going to offer my views on the art of being deceptive, and its place in compelling, memorable fiction.  Of course, all fiction is by definition deception, since it describes people and events that never lived or transpired, but if you think back you'll realize that the stories you remember are the ones that kept you guessing until the final paragraph.
          Bear with me, for a moment, I'm going to assemble a convoluted chain of logic to try to illustrate what I'm talking about.  I've always had something of a deceptive streak.  I always found it entertaining to keep my friends guessing about what I was up to, why I was (or wasn't) doing it, who my other friends were, just everything, and I was probably less well-liked than I might have been otherwise.  One of the first nicknames I was given by others was "Machiavelli," which should tell you all you need to know about that.
          An anecdote from my youth should be instructive.  I got out of the navy on Friday, October 3rd, 1969, four days before my 21st birthday.  I moved back into my old room in my family home, and began my search for civilian employment.  It wasn't but a couple of weeks later that my great-grandmother, who had been my primary caregiver throughout my childhood, fell and broke her hip.  For the four ensuing years, I became her primary caregiver, unpaid, but rent-free.  The logistics of the arrangement meant that I couldn't be away for too long at a time; grandma and I shared the duties, but as she was the one with a "real" job, she was the breadwinner, so I wound up taking little odd-jobs for pocket money.  One of them was as a groundskeeper at a Little League field a block down the street.  After games, one of my duties was to clean up the bleacher area, which always provided me some cans and bottles for recycle, and a few packets of Cremora powdered coffee creamer, and thereby hangs a tale.
          As much as I could, I would get out to socialize, and I naturally gravitated back to the friends who had stayed in school when I left to join the navy.  In the early '70s, which coincided with our early 20s, many of them were into recreational drugs, and it was a short step from there for me to join in.  All I ever did was share in a joint when one was passed around, but as with so many things, I left my true involvement ambiguous, and challenged them to figure it out.
          Back to my Cremora story.  I always brought these packets home; we were coffee drinkers who were living paycheck to paycheck, and this was free stuff.  One day, I was off-duty and preparing to go visit the Gary brothers.  These were two unrelated guys named Gary, one an accomplished petty thief, and the other a doper into the hard stuff.  As I was prepping, my eye lit on these Cremora packets, and a diabolical plot formed unbidden in my ever-busy mind.  I cut two squares of tinfoil, poured a packet of Cremora on each, folded them up with a tight seal, and took them along to Gary's.  When I arrived, they were in the garage.  The thief was at the workbench grinding the serial number off a bicycle he had liberated from some poor kid, and the doper was up in the "penthouse," a room in the rafters made of plywood sheets, and furnished with those too-cool '70s posters and a blacklight.  During the conversation, I feigned an "oh, by the way" moment, and told them that Auntie Jen, an older girl from Ocean Beach notorious for her extreme hippie lifestyle, had gifted me some "stuff," and I gave each of them a packet.  The thief sniffed it suspiciously, dipped a fingertip in to taste, and set it aside, but he kept coming back to it because it tasted pretty good.  The doper, of course, dived in and went swimming in it.  At length, the thief told me he wasn't getting anything out of it.  "Oh, well," I said, "it was free."  Within a few minutes of this, the doper leaned backward out of the penthouse and announced, "I think it's heroin, man!"
          I almost ruptured an intestine trying to keep from falling down laughing, and came clean with the thief about what it was.  He joined in my mirth, and we never told the doper that he'd gotten one of the best highs of his life off a teaspoon full of coffee creamer.  I mean, why ruin a guy's fun, right?
          While you're pondering the question of why I didn't have all that many friends, I'll make my point:  I allowed Gary the Doper to deceive himself about what was in the packet, and he proceeded to ride his own assumption to a natural yet seemingly impossible conclusion.
          As a writer of fiction, what would this skill be worth?  My estimate would be a lot, and we all have it to some extent.  Ever concoct an elaborate story to call in sick and get a day off?  Explain to a cop why it was necessary for you to speed through that one particular stretch?  Get a teacher to excuse the homework you didn't do because your dog ate it?  You're exercising that skill, and it can help you weave a compelling yarn on the page.  Here's an axiom for you:  Your reader should never be allowed to get comfortable.
          What if a group of friends are sitting around an urban apartment playing Texas Hold-'em, and for one brief moment, they smell smoke, woody, but not exactly wood?  At first they don't notice, but once they become aware, they're likely to check for a fire, especially in the kitchen.  But they don't find one, the smell fades, and they return to their game.  It happens, but what if that smoke was from a more sinister source, a harbinger of...  something, something you the author are not going to give up right away, nor the next time it makes an appearance thirty pages along.
          What if someone brings in the mail, is distracted by a ringing phone, tosses it on the couch to go answer the phone, and a certain vital letter slides down behind the cushion with no one being aware of it except the reader?
          Or maybe something doesn't happen that would normally be expected.  [spoiler]  Think of Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, in which the solution to the mystery hinges on Sherlock Holmes working out that the watchdog didn't bark on the night in question, and solving the puzzle of what that implied. [/spoiler]
          These little tricks add an element of uncertainty and tension, and can be used with ease if you just keep yourself aware of their potential while you're working on your story and sprinkle them in places where the reader is likely to pick up on them, and assign them a significance that they may not actually have, or of course, overlook the significance that a seemingly mundane clue lacks.  The key here is subtlety and misdirection.  You don't need to beat the reader over the head with this stuff.  They're smart enough to have bought your book, after all, so trust them to find the bread crumbs; as anyone who has been taken to task over a typo can attest, they miss nothing!
          What you're trying to do here is keep your reader suspended in a fog of uncertainty about where you're going with your narrative.  There is very little as boring as a predictable story; well, the romance genre is the obvious exception, but that audience is generally looking for a happy world where things go right (a different sort of escapism), and would have little patience with a supernatural demon or a serial killer showing up in Paris as the ingenue is  getting busy with Mr. Right.  But if you aren't writing romance, keep it unpredictable.  Nothing is more boring to a reader than a book so predictable that she works out the secrets you've so cleverly tried to hide ten pages before the reveal.  The only way I know to prevent this is to put your writing aside for as long as it takes (about two weeks for me) for it to fade in your memory, then go back and read it with fresh eyes, and try to work out whether you've hidden the outcome well enough to remain hidden from the racing mind of your reader.  Think of the movie The Sixth Sense.  Did anyone see that ending coming?  Really?  No you didn't!
          This kind of writing is a delicate balancing act that is a thing of beauty when it's done right, as in The Sixth Sense.  It's a learned skill, developed, like tightrope-walking, by practice, practice, and more practice.  I flatter myself that my approach to life, as exemplified by the anecdote above, has given me a head start in this area, but I'm certainly not prepared to say I've mastered it.  But I keep practicing, and so should you, because a comfortable reader is a bored reader, and a bored reader will soon be reading someone else's book!  Not the desired effect, so think hard about subtlety and misdirection.  Should you go on to great success as a writer, you'll look back and say they were the most valuable tools in your kit.

*          *          *

          And on the personal writing front, as I announced last week, I'm taking the week off from the Beyond the Rails III post-production grind, ostensibly for a rest, but that ever-ticking core of my writer's mind has its own agenda.  Wednesday I decided to make a change to Beyond the Rails, the first book, to update my web page to this one.  While I was there, I realized that the punctuation is non-standard, and I have seen a couple of typos in my own copy, so I embarked on that correction process.  I figure it will be updated around the middle of next week.  Despite what some of my writing colleagues have taken me to task over, I still can't turn creativity on and off like an appliance; please God that I never can!
          That's it for this week, kiddies.  Until we meet again, play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Conflicted Character

          "Be so good they can't ignore you."
                    ~ STEVE MARTIN advising prospective young comics.
          This week's quote has nothing specific to do with the post at hand, but it's so good that everyone, no matter their field of endeavor, needs to make it their motto for life.
          This week's post is about characters, and one of the ways that writers employ to make them compelling, and make no mistake, compelling characters are fiction.  I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough:  If you, as a writer, get your characters right, they will take care of everything else.
          So today, I'm going to discuss yet another way we can use to make a character deep, nuanced, convoluted, and dare I say, compelling:  Wounds.  No, not knife and gunshot wounds, but the kind we all suffer in our daily lives, from unthinking parents and uncaring bosses to thoughtless friends and tactless acquaintances.  We all carry baggage from the time we were old enough to understand body language; after we begin to understand spoken language, they get deeper.  I was made to feel utterly inadequate as a child, and that I would never amount to anything.  Regular followers are familiar with my periods of depression, and the oft-voiced belief that I have no business doing this.
          Thanks for that, grandmas.  Without any grounds for thinking it, I am at least partially convinced that the reason I write is to show the parents, teachers, and peers who so often called me stupid that I'm not.
          But I'm not here to do an exposé on my less-than-stellar childhood.  Everyone has these ghosts, these inexorable spirits that haunt them, no matter how they try to banish them.  They engender false beliefs about themselves and the world around them that hinder and handicap every effort they make to advance themselves in a task, or in life in general.  These beliefs are almost never true, but they always make perfect sense to the person who holds them.  In literary terms, these false beliefs are the "character flaws," and every memorable character has them.
          Perfect characters are uniformly dull and uninteresting.  This is where planning really comes into its own.  The difference between a character that is allowed to randomly assemble herself as the narrative unfolds can't hold the coat of one that was designed from scratch with a range of well-thought-out flaws that were carefully assembled to come from a reasonable source.  This is hard to explain, but an example may suffice:  A hatchet-wielding Temperance Union matron is likely to have come from a strict religious background, and maybe (probably?) a home with a father that used to get drunk and beat up the wife and kids on a daily basis.  But a fun-loving flapper who routinely drinks as part of her social life is most unlikely to be numbered among her fellow crusaders.  Think about where these flaws and questionable traits had rise, and don't give a character too many.  One big one and one or two smaller ones should be plenty.  For a main character, an added treat is if you can give him a secret that he would kill or die to prevent coming to light.  This is more closely associated with a villain, but a hero can certainly have one, and once you the writer know what that is, it will inform everything the character does, and he will fairly leap off the page with intensity.
          Once the underlying flaw or secret is identified, give it full rein.  The story goal, especially for the protagonist, must conflict with his beliefs arising from that flaw, and he must overcome it and resolve it in order to resolve the needs of the story.  To see this in action, look no further than Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, its final scene on the bell tower being one of the most powerful in cinema.  Imagine the weakness of that scene had Jimmy Stewart's character not been terrified of heights.  Now make a paralyzing fear of heights the secret that a police officer is hiding, hint it to the readers, and put her in a place where the life of a hostage (a child for maximum effect) depends on her overcoming it before backup arrives, and you have your compelling character in spades.  Put her on the page, allow her to fight to overcome her flaws, and bask in the epic reviews as she takes your story and your reputation as a writer to heights (no pun intended) you never dreamed of.

*          *          *

          I'm going to take a moment to introduce my readers to a new blogging friend of mine, Phoebe Darqueling.  Phoebe is a fellow steampunk author I met when I set up the soon-to-be defunct Punk Fiction Writers Guild.  I have read her blog, For Whom the Gear Turns, a few times, and enjoy her style, but moved in for a discussion when she posted a review of Master of the WorldI invite steampunk enthusiasts of every stripe to pay her a visit and say hello, and maybe bookmark her site for the long haul.  As well as being a writer, she is a maker, and a reviewer of books, TV, and movies.  She has a great deal to say, and an interesting way of saying it, so stop by soon and often; you could do worse!

*          *          *

          News on the Beyond the Rails III rewrite is nonexistent, as I have put it on hold for the next week.  My daughter, who picks up, feeds, and tutors some children after school is off next week, as school is out of session, and instead of continuing to provide her service as she usually does, she is taking the week off.  So am I.  This works because the second edit was finished last week, so by the time I get back to start the third edit on the 28th, things won't be so fresh in my mind, and difficult to change because I'm just in love with my own prose.  Hopefully, the third edit will wrap it up, but if it doesn't, nothing says there can't be a fourth.  The only problem with that is that history shows that by the time I start the fourth edit, I'm changing things back to the way they were originally.  We'll just have to see what happens, but the bottom line is that I'm not going to think about Beyond the Rails III for the next eight days, and maybe a few more beyond that.  This blog is exempt from that particular moratorium, so you can look forward to even more of my pearls of wisdom later this week.  Try to contain your enthusiasm!
          I'm going to stop giving out a date for the next blog post, as every time I do that, I miss it.  I'll just say it will be between four and eight days, and let it go at that.  Keep an eye out...
          That's it for this week.  Until we meet again, play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider"

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ripper's Fall

          Greetings, friends and followers, and welcome back to the Hideout.  And if this is your first visit, you're welcome, too!  Grab a comfy seat, and let's get started.
          I'm back a little earlier than I said I would be, but there's a very good reason for it.  I have read a wonderful novel of urban fantasy set in a steampunk world, and I can't wait to tell you all about it.  It's called Ripper's Fall, and it's written by a talented author named Byron Havranek.
          The book concerns a secretive Victorian-era ministry of the British government that works from an office in London, and whose business is protecting the common citizen, or subject, to be precise, from the depredations of paranormal forces.  The specific adventure of Ripper's Fall is set in motion when one of their mid-level mages witnesses, and manages to break up, the pursuit of a terrified newsboy by a spectral carriage driven by a shadowy figure wielding a whip made of human vertebrae.  He pursues the boy directly into a huge church, laying waste to the furnishings and icons, and seizing the priest and a different boy than his original target before he is barely driven off by the mage and his superior with help from what appears to be an angel.
          Without giving too much away, this creature belongs in a different geographical region, but it has been driven from its home by supernatural forces, and has come to the teeming city of London to snatch the souls of innocents to be used to power its return.  As it resides on an alternate plane of existence and can make raids at will to whatever area is unguarded, the only way to seriously oppose it is to journey to its realm and attack it at the center of its power.
          Said assault is planned and executed, and is in fact the meat of the narrative.  Using the technology to hand, the ministry claims use of the Nelson, the most powerful military dirigible in the service of the Queen.  A flying ship must be used, as the portal is several thousand feet above Hyde Park, so despite the inherent fragility of airships, there is no alternative.  The airship itself is heavily armed, and carries "wreckers," automaton warriors programmed to kill without remorse, and whose engineer believes are more than just machines.  They and the ship will provide support and diversion while the ground team, comprising the mage and his superior, a "vesper," a woman with the power to wield her voice like a weapon, an ex-Confederate sharpshooter, and a few others, slip into the monster's very lair to rescue the kidnapped victims.
          There are two mechanical issues that grated on my ear and made the reading a little harder than it needed to be, and I want to get them right out front so you can make your own judgment.  First, the book would have benefited from one more line edit.  There are a few words that may have been left over from a rewrite, and a couple of grammar issues, but there are less than a dozen in all, and they don't contribute much to the negativity.  More serious to my ear was the phonetic spelling of the sharpshooter's heavy southern accent.  Many times, I had to stop and reread sentences in an attempt to figure out what he was trying to say.  This is a common error committed by writers in the early potion of their careers, and I am certainly not immune to it, as anyone who struggles through the accents presented in Beyond the Rails can attest.  I have since learned ways to suggest an accent without spelling it phonetically, though they are tricky to execute, but my hope is that Mr. Havranek finds a solution to this as well, as it does get in the way of an excellent story.
          But not too much in the way.  I didn't want to gloss this over, as it is an issue, but even with the difficult passages, this novel rates a solid 4 out of 5 stars from me.  As an example of paranormal horror set against a steampunk background, it is a solid effort and well worth the read.  I've enjoyed books that weren't nearly as well executed, and I strongly suggest that anyone whose interest runs along these lines could hardly do better for a spooky read on a winter's eve.

*          *          *
          "There are, in actual fact, men who talk like books.  Happily, however, there are also books that talk like men."
                    ~ THEODOR HAECKER
           On another subject, that of writing in period which steampunk very much is, I must solicit opinions from writers and readers alike.  What do you do?  What do you prefer to read?
          The subject is period slang and colloquialisms.  Slang is a funny creature, and a moving target for a writer.  As a writer, I have received the most compliments for my natural-sounding dialogue.  That's flattering, and a view that I cherish, but writing period work makes it difficult.  Lists of Victorian slang can be found on the web, though they often come out of context and with no guidelines, and most are difficult to work out.
          Take, for example, the odd phrase, bitch the pot.  The first reaction to this might be, "What the hell?"  This is actually one of the less obscure terms one might encounter, and can be worked out like a puzzle.  One might early on come to the realization that "pot," in Victorian terms is most likely to refer to a teapot, and with a bit more convoluted effort, the realization dawns that "bitch," then as now, was a derogatory term for a woman, who were as a rule much more interested in tea service than men, so far from meaning to "bogart a joint," "bitch the pot" was simply slang for "pour the tea."  What is almost never explained in the glossaries is that this term was used exclusively in male-only gatherings; the writer is left to figure that out on his own.
          So if this is one of the less obscure terms, what are we talking about here?  It isn't hard to work out that tight as a boiled owl is a reference to one's state of drunkeness, but what on earth might the function of a quail-pipe be?  A mutton shunter?  How about neck oil?  And what could the amusing term crinkum-crankum possibly be referring to?  Dirty puzzle, cackle tub, inexpressibles?  How, exactly, does one smother a parrot?  And why would one wish to do so?
         I could go on all day here, and that's part of my point.  If you're a reader of steampunk, or just historical fiction in general, what do you like to see?  Should I try to include all the original period slang, and try to subtly suggest what it is by context?  Or would it bring your immersion to a crashing halt if I told you that someone had a fly rink?  My method has been to use a more modern term, or sometimes a military or nautical term that is better understood, but when I do that, my alpha-readers tend to come unglued, and give me a severe batty-fanging.
          So where's the middle ground?  Primarily, I guess, what I want to know is what do you as a reader like to see?  The real deal, even if you might have to stop your read to look it up, or post a mental place-holder until the context gives you the meaning, or would you rather see an imprecise but understandable term that keeps you in the narrative flow?  Curious writers want to know in order to serve you better.  So drop a comment, state your views, and let's talk.  I'd love to hear from you.
          Now get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider" 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Road Ahead

          "Upon completion comes fulfillment.  With fulfillment comes liberation.  Liberation allows you to go on.  Even death is not a true ending.  Life is infinite continuation."
                    ~ DENG MING-DAO

          Today I'm going to look far down the writing path, into the dark forest of unformed plans, examine the tracks and trails, and try to get a feel for what might be waiting there.  Beyond the Rails III is in the latter phases of post-production, and it's time to do this, as I think I'm going to set the blimp aside for a while.  Beyond the Rails, a series of tales centered around the adventures and hijinx of the crew of a cargo blimp in 1882 Kenya, has been very well received by those who have read it, and I will forever cherish and be grateful for the many kind things people have said about my writing skills based upon those stories.  But as much as I love that cast of characters and the world they inhabit, the premise, after twelve short stories and a novel, has worn very thin.  There are only so many ways to describe picking up a cargo at "A," heading for "B," and having an adventure along the way.  It's time to try something new.
          The interesting thing for me to contemplate is what form that "something new" might take.  My next project, which is already well into its planning phase, is Stingaree, a story of a steampunked Victorian San Diego.  This is my home, and the place I still live, and the original Stingaree, old San Diego's vice-ridden waterfront district, still exists, although today it is the very upscale Gaslamp Quarter, a recreational zone consisting mostly of restaurants, clubs, hotels, and music venues.  The beauty of this is that many of the original buildings have been preserved as historic sites, including the Oyster Bar, primary setting of Stingaree.  The downside is that I don't see Stingaree being anything other than a stand-alone project that has no prospect of becoming a long-term domicile for its author.
          One choice, which I took the trouble to set up at the end of Beyond the Rails III, is to spin off a series to be called The Darklighters, which would see one of the Beyond the Rails characters accept an invitation from an agent to join that organization, and embark on a series of adventures opposing an Illuminati-style shadowy group seeking world domination, not through military means, but quiet takeovers, monopolization of trade, getting a stranglehold on resources, and so on.  Imagine an 1880s Man From U.N.C.L.E.  There is great potential there for enough stories to sustain me through the end of my days.
          Another option, and one that has long intrigued me, is a series with a lot of paranormal activities at its core.  I'm thinking here of ghosts, goblins, and creatures of myth and superstition from various cultures of the world.  As The Darklighters is a direct spinoff of Beyond the Rails, and quite naturally shares that essentially non-supernatural world, it isn't really a viable candidate for expansion into this area.  In the Scribblers' Den's anthology, Den of Antiquity, I offered a tale called Brass & Coal, a short story about a pair of bumbling confidence swindlers named Braxton & Collier (think Laurel & Hardy) who set themselves up as paranormal investigators, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a startling surprise.  Could be some thrilling tales there, and potential for some comedy as well.  Or, I could start from scratch and make it dead serious.
          And, of course, something else may grab my attention before Stingaree comes to completion, such as the long-dormant joint project with my dear friend Patrick that brought me to steampunk in the first place.  Seriously, I don't see that happening, but then, a lot of things have a way of happening that I don't see coming.  Need to work on that...  Anyway, I'd love to talk about this, so if anyone has any ideas, questions, or suggestions that might start the gears turning, I'd love to hear them!  Old friends, be advised that I'm soliciting your input, and if you've never commented here before, this would be a great time to start.  Click on the comments and offer your thoughts; you'll find I'm not as surly as that old picture makes me appear!

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          I can't close here without expressing a few thoughts concerning America's most contentious election cycle in living memory.  I have remained outside the fray, saying very little as two of the most unqualified candidates I could have ever imagined turned the presidential campaign into a contest of bullying and name-calling beyond anything I ever saw in the schoolyards of my youth.  I'm not here to talk about who I voted for, or why I think Donald Trump is a better or worse choice than Hillary Clinton.  That's my business, and to air it publicly would only invite an argument that I don't intend to have.  Anyway, all of those views have been aired to death by people much smarter than me.  No, I'm just taking a few moments to unburden myself, and lament a great loss.
          I have often talked about how I miss the boys' own adventure stories from the years between the Wars, and as anyone who has sampled my work knows, I have taken it upon myself to recreate those stories in modern form for others who miss them as I do.  But there are other things from that bygone era that I miss as well, and unlike literature, I have no means to address them; I can only mourn their loss.
          Take political campaigns, for example.  In my youth, when I was enthusiastic and naive, and growing up in what every adult assured me was the greatest nation on earth, people running for president, governor, mayor, or dogcatcher would stand up on the podium and say, "If you elect me, I will create a national system of superhighways to expedite trade, travel, and aid the military in their task of defending us."  Or, "I will support democracy wherever it arises," or, "I will put a man on the moon," or, "I will end discrimination in our time," or whatever their particular vision was.  Then the voter had a choice of platforms among which to make an informed decision.
          Today, and for a good many years, but today especially, the campaigns have become concerted, billion-dollar efforts to find and publish dirt on the opponent.  "My opponent is a criminal, and if elected, I will see him/her jailed for treason!"  "My opponent's wife is an illegal immigrant!"  "My opponent is an adulterer!"  "My opponent is soft on defense!"  "My opponent is soft on immigration!"  "My opponent hired a maid who wasn't a citizen!"  "My opponent smoked a joint when he was in college forty years ago!"
          All of which may be true, but is it relevant?  What are you going to do about poverty, disease, the nuclear programs of rogue states, energy dependency, terrorism, and education?  How do we find out?  And it isn't enough to say, "Unlike my opponent, I have a real plan!"  That's good; what is it?  And don't just say, "Elect me, and it will be great, you'll see."
          I guess my lament is for my country, and the loss of something that may well prove to be impossible to recover anytime soon, or maybe ever.  Donald Trump has won election, validating all the hateful, divisive, denigrating, dismissive, and downright ominous things he said during his campaign, as well as the style of campaign that he ran.  Had Hillary Clinton won, we would now be lamenting our election of a slick, smarmy Washington insider who has repeatedly demonstrated her disregard for the rule of law, at least as it applies to her.
          So, who has won here?  Certainly not America.  I don't see a scenario in which we, the private citizens, could have improved our lot or come out ahead on any count.  Any chance of that happening evaporated, candidate by candidate, as the decent people were bullied out of the running by the big-money campaigns of the self-serving.  My daughter pulled up a stat on election night that said that 60+ percent of the people who voted for Trump didn't want to, but he was a better choice than his opponent; 50+ percent of those who voted for Hillary said the same about her.  If that's the case, how the hell did we wind up with these people as our only choices?  I've heard it said that if you give a free people the right to vote in open elections, they will get exactly what they deserve.  I hope to God that isn't true.
          For the past three decades, I have read pundits and analysts who have repeatedly said that the Twentieth Century belonged to America, and that the Twenty-First would belong to someone else, most of them naming China as the next rising power.  As an American, of course, I've always hoped that wasn't true, but I never imagined that I would be able to put my finger on the calendar and say, "This is when it ended, 8:00 PM Eastern Time, November 8th, 2016."  The next half a decade will tell us how this comes out.  Odin, Gilgamesh, Cthulhu, Jesus, Buddha, whoever's in charge up there, I beg you, prove me wrong!
          There, it's off my chest.  Now, I think, I can return to the mundane business of writing adventure tales, though I doubt I'll ever be able to concoct a story as outlandish and surreal as this election!  Until next time, just try to stay safe and keep breathing.  That's about all you can ask for in the wake of last Tuesday's debacle.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

New Anthology Available

          "I love it when a plan comes together!"
                    ~ JOHN "HANNIBAL" SMITH
          This past Saturday saw the release of the steampunk anthology, Den of Antiquity, a project it gives me great pride to be associated with.  The brainchild of Bryce Raffle, a Canadian author of thrilling tales, and a true mover and shaker in the Scribblers' Den group at Steampunk Empire.  This is the Den's second anthology, which has become a traditional anniversary celebration for the group.  Bryce announced an open call for stories, I don't remember, almost six months ago, a time frame that even I could meet.  The theme was to be a den.  Fitting somehow, eh?  Well, according to my trusty Funk & Wagnalls, a den can be a private room for relaxation or study, the cave or retreat of a wild animal, or a term for a place, such as a den of thieves.  As long as the story worked a den into the narrative, it was a go.  There were eleven stories collected for inclusion, and a glance at the table of contents should prove instructive:

Brass and Coal by Jack Tyler
An Evening at the Marlon Club by Kate Philbrick
Dragon's Breath by E. C. Jarvis
The Reluctant Vampire by Neale Green
The Complications of Avery Vane by Bryce Raffle
The Jackalope Bandit by David Lee Summers
After the Catastrophe: The Lady of Castle Rock by Steve Moore
When the Tomb Breaks by William J. Jackson
All that Glitters by Karen J. Carlisle
Yggdrasil's Triumphant Return by Alice E. Keyes
After the Crash by B.A. Sinclair

          Information on all the authors can be found at Scribblers' Den, and there is a gallery of pictures and links to their Steampunk Empire pages, and from there back to their author sites, so a few mouse clicks will open up a wealth of information on a group of fine independent authors who offer tales from the cutting edge, with no publishing house prodding them to recapture the Last Big Thing.  If you are a steampunk die-hard looking for some voices that you might not yet be familiar with, or a curious newbie wanting to try out the genre, here is a list of links where the book can be obtained:

Amazon               Barnes & Noble               Kobo               iBooks

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          On the writing front, I have finally finished the line edit of Beyond the Rails III, and have begun the process of evaluating the suggestions made by my talented alpha-readers.  I can't say enough about these guys.  They read my unedited first-drafts with all their warts and running sores, and say things like, "Wouldn't this line read better as..." or, "This scene might be more effective if they used a frannistat rather than a gunkulator."  (Isn't steampunk wonderful?)  I would still rather be writing Stingaree than rewriting Beyond the Rails, but the worst part is behind me, and it paid some handsome dividends in the process.  Of course, I could publish what I have right now and be done with it, but the discipline to not do that is what keeps my ratings at 4 and up, and my reviews, as a rule, glowing.  Well, that, and those aforementioned alpha-readers.  So if I can hold to this pace over the holidays, Beyond the Rails III should be on track (no pun intended) for a January release, at which time I can throw myself whole-heartedly into Stingaree.  That's also the time that I will start to toy with ideas for the next project, and next week, I'll be soliciting opinions about that, so be sure to stop in Sunday, and we can have some real fun!
          And that's 30 for this issue.  Play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider"