Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2017 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Happy Halloween



          Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls!  It's the witching hour, 12:18 AM, the actual moment I was born those many years ago, and I'm here to pass some information along, both frivolous and serious.  I know, this isn't Halloween, but it's the last chance I'll have to post before that date, so I'm taking advantage of the situation.  October is the start of "birthday season" around Chez Ty, beginning with mine on the 7th.  The schedule goes birthday, birthdays (mother and son), Halloween, birthdays (twins), Thanksgiving, this year a quinceañera, birthday, birthday, birthday, anniversary, and Christmas, then we get a break in January before we have two more in February.  It ends with my daughter's in March.  These two months always feel like we're running downhill, never quite ready for the next party, which always takes place here; we wouldn't have it any other way!  Tomorrow we have our daughter-in-law and her first-born, who share the same birthday.  How cool is that?  Two days later is Halloween, and it doesn't let up until New Year's.  Great times, and anyone who wonders why I never get involved in NaNoWriMo need look no further.

*          *          *
          And speaking of writing, here's a quick update of events on the literary front:  I'm still doing the line-by-line punctuation check of Beyond the Rails III.  Some computer-savvy people have told me how to eliminate that particular activity, but I have come to realize that, as agonizing as it is, it is a great help to me, as during the process, I tease out typos, and polish the not-quite-right words in the first draft.  I should have that wrapped up by, well, Halloween, and can begin the second edit, which involves evaluating all the suggestions provided by my wonderful alpha-readers to see which of them are going to be used and which aren't.  Another round of rewrites comes after that, and I doubt the book will be ready by Christmas.
          My next project, Stingaree, has suddenly taken off.  I started writing the notes for that months ago with no clear vision.  I just took a notion to write a steampunk story about my home town, and found that it wouldn't "go" in any particular direction.  I had interesting characters with complex conflicts, but no engine to power a plot.  Well, a few days ago, I woke up from an afternoon nap (have I mentioned that retirement is great?) with the Initiating Event clear in my mind.  I dumped the old notes and began again, and the thing is eager to run, champing at the bit in impatience.  My only problem now is discipline.  Must...  Finish...  Beyond the Rails.  It will be done.

 *          *          *

          Now the real purpose of this visit. Back on May 19th, I set up the Punk Fiction Writers' Guild and invited all my writing friends to join.  There was an initial flurry of activity as a group of fellow authors signed up, but then it just petered out.  The Weebly blogging service didn't help, as they announced last month that ScribD (whatever that is) has taken them over, or was always their parent company, whatever, and that beginning on October 15th, ScribD would claim the right to "exploit," their word, any content on their servers.  Several stories were immediately taken down by their copyright owners, and I don't blame them.  I moved from Weebly over here to Blogger because when a corporation tells me they're going to lay claim to my work for the privilege of having it on their servers, I take them at their word.
          The point is that Punk Fiction is dying.  As I write this, it has been 21 days since anyone has visited, and I believe from the data provided by the counter that that was one of the members checking to see if anyone had been there.  I'm disappointed this didn't take off, but Weebly certainly didn't help us with their policy change.  Anyway, 21 days from now, if something drastic doesn't change, I will be closing that site down.  People weren't very interested before the policy change, and I don't see things improving in its wake.  But I could be wrong.  If things take off between now and November 19th, it will stay up.  Otherwise...  Well, you know.

*          *          *

          That's all I've got this time.  I'll check in next week sometime after this round of festivities dies down, and with any luck at all, I'll have something marginally more entertaining.  Until then, be safe and have fun, and if you figure out how to make that work, I want to know about it!  I gotta go rest up for a day of partying.  Hope you all enjoy your weekend half as much as I will!

~ "Blimprider"

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Moment in Time

          "Reading about imaginary characters and their adventures is the greatest pleasure in the world...  Or the second-greatest!
                    ~ ANTHONY BURGESS
          This morning I was delighted to find Beyond the Rails under praise in the literary blog of one David Lee Summers, a steampunk-writing astronomer, the real deal who holds a position at the Kitt Peak Observatory.  If that sounds like an odd combination, well, sometimes odd combinations make the best fiction, and I can only suggest that you check out his multi-fascinating blog, The Dead Planet.
          Today's article deals with speculation concerning some of the more esoteric uses you might find if you actually had access to time travel.  He was tagged by Susan J. Voss at the Dab of Darkness blog, and while he didn't exactly tag me, he did mention my work in a favorable light, and I'm taking the opportunity to keep it rolling.  This is almost an interview, with the subject tasked to answer a series of fun and revealing questions, so let's get started!

What is your favorite historical setting for a book?

          I'm not sure I have just one.  Historical rules out sci-fi and fantasy, which have always been big on my reading lists, but that still leaves a lot!  As a steampunk author, I'm almost obligated to say Victorian, and that's true, but I also like those tales from the age of exploration, the golden age of piracy, the colonial era in the Orient, when the Asian cultures were viewed as somehow mystical, and separate from anything we in the west could imagine.  But with me it's more about the historical era of the author rather than his particular work.  I am a very immature reader.  I most enjoy (and write) stories written in the style of a bygone era, when the action didn't stop every ten pages so the hero could have sex with some random hot chick, when they used cleverness instead of torture to gain information, when the solution to every problem didn't involve blowing it up with the biggest bomb yet seen on the planet.  I very much enjoy the "boys' own" adventure tales of the 1920s and 30s, and when I can find a book written in that style, period or contemporary, it becomes a prize possession and even gets re-read from time to time.

What writers would you like to travel back in time to meet?

          Jules Verne, of course; I'd even learn French for a crack at him!  H. G. Wells, one of the pioneers of sci-fi, who also gave us wargaming in the gentleman's parlor.  Doyle, Poe of course, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who popularized pirate tales.  The pioneers in their fields, I suppose, the people who said, "No one's ever done this before, so I'm going to."  That's brass, and also huge talent.  To identify a new field to write in, and then to do it, and nail it in such a way that their names are remembered and their books are sold and read over a century later just boggles the mind.

What books would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

          The Forgotten Realms series by R.A. Salvatore.  For those unfamiliar, this is an ongoing fantasy series that began in 1988 with The Crystal Shard, and continues with the release tomorrow of Hero.  The series at this writing comprises 47 books and counting.  The publishing house is Wizards of the Coast, and all the characters and situations are based to a large extent on whatever edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game was current at the time of each book's writing.  When I saw that, I was remarkably unimpressed, but Salvatore's talent is to pare this huge world down to a handful of core characters and make you care about them over years of adventures together.  Teenage Jack would have loved it!

What book would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

          This is tricky, as I don't know my older self...  Or maybe I do, being 68 years old now.  When I try to think of a book I enjoyed as a youngster that I probably wouldn't pick up now, it's hard (see my answer to the first question above) because I'm such a juvenile reader that I still like the same things I did as a kid.  Probably a book I would skip today just because of its lurid cover art would be Cycle of Nemesis by Kenneth Bulmer.  I probably would have skipped it as a teenager, but I was stuck for a weekend in an airport waiting for a seat via space-available, and there was very little to choose from.  Cycle of Nemesis concerned an ancient Sumerian/Babylonian god of pure evil who was locked away by reading the incantation on a stone tablet.  Because the bottom of the tablet was missing, the wards only held for 7000 years, meaning that 7000 years after the last uprising, the current society had to remember what was required, and equally importantly, believe in it in order to reset the seals.  Of course, in the plot of the book, it was our turn.  It was an amazingly good read trapped in an amazingly bad cover, and coincidentally, in keeping with this theme, it involved a good bit of time travel.  I still have this book, and re-read it again about two years ago.

What is your favorite futuristic setting for a book?

          This is a hard one, as I've really kind of moved away from sci-fi reading.  I would probably have to say the Star Trek universe, as there is room for science, adventure, exploration, social commentary, and most importantly, there is a huge amount of established canon, so I don't have to learn a whole new reality every time I crack the cover.  That may be part of my fascination with Forgotten Realms as well; I'm a lazy reader.  I want to pitch into a gripping story, not slog through a cultural history of some nonexistent society.

What is your favorite book that is set in a different time period?

          One book?  You have to be kidding, right?  Limited to one that I assume would comprise my entire library for the purposes of this question, I would have to go with the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes.  The brilliance of the man and the ambiance of his surroundings are just too good to pass up.

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book to see what happens?

          Absolutely not!  Knowing first hand the blood writers shed to bring us their fantastic stories, I couldn't do this to them.  I may have when I was a child, but if I did, it was too long ago to remember.  Respect for The Craft aside, why would I want to deprive myself of that earth-shaking surprise.  And if you're a reader who does commit this disrespectful act of pure evil, SHAME ON YOU!

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

          Easiest question on the list.  I would take it to the deepest point of the Marianas Trench, weld it to an anvil, and drop it in!  I've read altogether too much terrifying sci-fi to imagine that anything good could come from messing with the time flow.

Favorite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods.

          This one's easy, too.  I simply have to return to Cycle of Nemesis.  Just stellar work, as the Big Bad's imps tamper with the time flow attempting to gain an advantage over the heroes, and those confused characters try to make sense of the occasional glimpses they catch of themselves in strange costumes.  A spectacular ride.

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

          The Gor series, by John Norman.  Begun in the 1960s, these books postulated the existence of a Counter-Earth named Gor that traveled perpetually on the opposite side of the sun, and in the pre-satellite and space probe days, could not be detected.  Gor was a fantasy world without magic where warriors rode on giant hawks or tyrannosaurs, and unwittingly fought for humanity in proxy wars set in motion by the mysterious Priest Kings.  There are 34 books, and the series continues, the last installment being published this August.  The first six were a magnificent sword-and-planet series reminiscent of the Carter of Mars books by Burroughs.  Somewhere between #6 and #7, he seems to have had a run-in with one of the early militant feminists, and the series thereafter devolves into an anti-female screed, with whole chapters devoted to the idea that women are neither happy nor well-adjusted unless they have a man telling them what to do, they are natural slaves and sex objects, and a whole list of similar themes that I found too offensive to continue to wade through to get to the deeply buried story inside.  What I wish is that I could go back and read the first six, and never know there were any more after that; that would eliminate a huge disappointment from my young adult years.

          And that concludes my "interview" on time travel.  I'm going to tag a few friends here, and challenge them to post to their own blogs.  Ready?  Here we go!
          Karen J. Carlisle
          Sarah Zama
          C.W. Hawes
          Kara Jorgensen
          Naomi Rawle
          and of course, William J. Jackson.

          I can't wait to see what you guys do with this, so get busy!  Love you guys.  Have a great week!

~ "Blimprider"

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Special Hell for Writers

          "If there is a special hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works, with all the misconceptions, the omissions, the failures that any finished work of art implies."
                    ~ JOHN DOS PASSOS

          I sometimes live in that special hell, and when it is in full session, I feel like I'm the only one who's ever been thus mired.   My reading suggests to me that my experience is typical of most indies.  I've had works on the public stage for three years now, and while I haven't had the joy of being widely reviewed, only two out of nearly two-score reviews have carried a rating of less than four stars.
          And yet, constant lack of belief assails.  The Imp of Self-doubt perches on my shoulder and whispers seductively in my unprotected ear.

          "Do you really know what you're doing?  You dropped out of high school, where you earned lousy marks in English.  Do you know the difference between a preposition and a conjunction?  Can you diagram a sentence?  Well, can you?  And what is up with this so-called style you write in?  Pure adventure fiction?  No sex?  No one having their intestines ripped out while they watch in agony and horror?  There's a reason that went out of fashion in the 1950s, you know!"

          I don't know where this little guy comes from, but he is unrelenting.  A lot of people, including some who read this blog, consider me a good writer.  I have the reviews to prove it.

          "Tight plot...  gripping action...  realistic dialogue...  compelling characters."

          And yet, he won't go away.
          Where does he come from?  He is born, I believe, in childhood, a nasty sibling created by thoughtless parents, the ones who are never satisfied.  You've heard them...

          "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
          "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."  [I was born and raised in a major city, and didn't know the country existed before I was about 12.]
          "If brains were gunpowder, you couldn't blow your nose."
          "You can tell a Tyler, but you can't tell him much!"  [Dad bailed early and was hated forever.  Come to think of it, he was also from the country.]

          He is nurtured by condescending minor functionaries, and empowered by the demanding martinets so often encountered in the workplace.  Snotty salespeople and pushy marketers make their contributions, as do those more recent constructs, internet trolls.  I have never been able to eradicate that particular imp from my psyche.  As a side-note, parents, be careful what you say to your young children.  There is a period in their lives, before they become obnoxious teenagers who despise everything you stand for, when they believe everything you tell them, and unhearing the snide sarcasm that highlights our shortcomings is more than most of us can manage.  This is a subject for another article by a trained professional, but a word to the wise couldn't hurt.
          So I guess my point here is that the self-doubt is sometimes more than I can manage, and more often than I should, I let it spill out into my public presence.  You guys, the regulars, the friends, the followers, have been a wonderful support group for my efforts, and you deserve better than I have provided.  I know that I doubt my own ability as a writer.  Thanks to modern social media, you know it too!  I have been having a terrible time with it this last week, questioning as I do when it gets bad, whether I'll ever write again, whether I should write again.  It has shown up here, to the detriment of the last few posts.
          I promised not to do that anymore, and I failed.  Let me offer a new covenant:  I'll promise to try my best to keep this crap out of my presentations, and I will ask that you call me down if you see it.  Perhaps that will make it more distasteful for me to let it out of the box than it is to give it free reign.  If you do see it crop up from time to time, I ask you to understand that it is a huge, powerful monster I'm fighting, and keeping it subdued is a full time endeavor.
          As to no longer writing, pay that no mind.  I am, as I have said, mired in post-production of Beyond the Rails III, which requires all the skills that I have no interest in, editing, proofreading, wearing out a thesaurus, things like that.  I want to be writing!  I have plans.  The notes for Stingaree, my novel of steampunk San Diego, are at a crossroads, and need my full attention, and I have plans for a spinoff series from Beyond the Rails.  These are the things I want to be engaged in, not crossing Ts and dotting Is.  These bring out the imp, and he brings all of his tools with him.  Bear with me, soon BtR III will be in the wake, and I'll be on to the Next Big Thing; this, too, shall pass...
          And now, on to happier pastures.  This is for Karen J. Carlisle, a talented fellow indie who left this comment on last week's post:
          "Looking forward to the relaunch.  I love hearing character background stories."
          This is for you, Karen.  Hope you find it to your liking!

*          *          *

          "It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."
                    ~ WILLIAM FAULKNER


          Faulkner explains it well.  The germ of a novel begins to form in your mind:  "It's a story about this romantic adventure in a far off land with pirates, and tribesmen, and a lost city, and a fabulous treasure, and a happily ever after ending."   You begin to solidify events and settings, and the flow of a plot, and shortly you need to consider what sort of characters are going to populate your world.
          So you seek out a how-to book about character construction, fill out the template, and think that now that that's settled, you can go ahead and write your book, moving characters in and out of scenes like manikins, and they will do exactly what you tell them, end of discussion.  A noble theory; in practice, not so much.  Ordering characters about in a work of fiction can be a lot like herding cats.  You can have these great ideas for what you want them to do, but once they have come to life in your imagination, they become real people to you with complex personalities and motivations, and won't do anything that is contrary to those motivations.  Put in its simplest form, when you write a hero who is heroic through your entire book, you will find when you come to the end, that he will not murder the villain, no matter the provocation, no matter how much the villain might deserve it, because he isn't a murderer.  Oh, you might write it that way, but you know as you're writing it that it doesn't feel right, and you know as you're writing it that you're going to change it.
          Understanding this broad, basic truth, you can now extend it to lesser drama. How does he perform in a game of chance?  A fight?  A romantic competition?  Heroes are heroes, and they have to be heroic.  This is why writers and actors love their villains.  A villain can chew the scenery like Vincent Price, he can sway minds to evil like James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom in Conan), or he can commit the evil himself like Darth Vader.  The hero has no such outlet; the hero is, well, the hero.
          What does that mean?
          The hero must be virtuous.  He must have a well-defined sense of right and wrong, of moral justice as opposed to legal justice; the two things are often diametrically opposed.  If he cannot recognize evil when he sees it, how can he oppose it?
          The hero must be courageous.  It isn't enough to recognize evil.  The hero is made heroic by his willingness to place his mortal existence between the evil and those it would harm, be they family members, strangers, or entire civilizations, and that takes more courage than most of us have; that's why we admire heroes, real and fictional.
          The hero must be competent.  He or she must be sensible, logical, clear thinking, and stable enough to bring those skills to bear against a problem that seems too large to be solved.
          The hero must be likeable.  There isn't much to elaborate on here.  It's hard to be heroic if people don't like you!
          So, Virtue, Courage, Competence, and Likeability, the four walls of the hero's prison.  What happens if you miss one of these holy marks?  Leave out Virtue, and what you are left with is a villain, or at best, a henchman.  Leave out Courage, and you have a Monday-morning quarterback, an uninvolved observer who will spend the rest of his life wrestling with the question, "You were there.  Why didn't you do something?"  Leave out Competence, and you have a slapstick hero, which still works if you are writing comedy; think Beverly Hills Ninja.  Leave out Likeability, and you are left with an antihero.  Again, these work, but they require a special set of skills to execute well.  Paul Newman in Hombre or Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns are prime examples.
          Now that you know what qualities your hero is going to have (and you always knew; it never changes), you need to know who he is and what brought him here, and if you work this backstory out in sufficient detail to make the character, his actions, and his dialogue come to life, you're going to know six times more about the character than your readers will ever see on the page.
          So let's delve into Clinton Monroe; owner and captain of the airship Kestrel, and as such, the hero of Beyond the Rails.  You see him in the books as moral and competent, but a bit reluctant to get deeply involved in other peoples' problems, at least at first, and with no use whatsoever for drunks and government officials.  It is enough for readers that he is consistent and believable in these traits, but not for the writer.  Backstory informs the character far more than some action he took in the last chapter, so let's see what we're looking at there.

          Clinton Monroe is about 45 years old.  I didn't pin him down to an exact age, because I have no plans to age this crew.  I'm told that Nero Wolfe, a widely-loved fictional detective, wasn't aged over a period of decades; apparently, this is a viable approach, and I'm using it.  He stands about 5'8" tall, is slender and shows no outward sign of arthritis or other age-related issues.  He has white hair kept fairly neat, and a van Dyke beard to match.  His clear blue eyes are close enough to 20/20 to preclude the need for glasses, a cliché I adopted from nautical literature about "clear-eyed sailing men."  His speech is that of an educated gentleman, but as we shall see, that is an affectation he came by later in life.
          Born in Manchester, older sibling to one sister, Monroe was the scion of a working class father with no great prospects.  As a child, he worked as a newsboy, messenger, and desk clerk before accepting the Queen's Shilling and enlisting in the Royal Aero Service.  As an enlisted airman of conscientious bearing, he rose through the ranks of junior petty officer quickly, and during service in the New Zealand Uprisings of the 1870s, was brevetted to Lieutenant for exemplary service.  In the subsequent actions against the Zulus and their Prussian allies in 1879-80, he was a commodore (military rank of commander) in command of a division of four frigates, light scouting and screening vessels equivalent to the modern destroyer.  Leaving one of his ships to guard a supply center, he went on to support a fleet action.  During his absence, his detached unit was lured out of position against orders, and the supply dump was sacked.  The officer in charge lied to the board of inquiry, implicating Monroe, and because he had superior family connections, Monroe was found to be at fault, and relieved of his commission.  Disgraced and humiliated, he traveled up the coast to Kenya, a remote backwater colony, and crawled into a bottle.  After a couple of years as a lush, he sobered up, called in a marker in the form of a loan from one of his last friends in the service, and bought a broken down river lighter and the gasbag to lift it, becoming one of the first operators in the air cargo trade in the colony.  His wide experience gives him great facility in dealing with people of every rank and station, but he has never regained his trust of the Queen's Government, nor his tolerance for drunks.
          Monroe lives aboard his ship in a small cabin, and his friends are primarily his crew, a group of people with widely diverse backgrounds who he likes; it's a requirement of employment.  He has never wed, and has no offspring, but feels no pressure to acquire them.  He lives each day as it comes, knowing how quickly and unexpectedly things can be yanked away.  He has made friends with almost everyone he has dealings with except the British authorities, about whom he has mixed feelings.  Generally, he treats them as well as they treat him, and given that his background is known to the senior officials, that isn't always positive.
          His private life is pretty much the same as his personal life.  Usually, this part of the assessment is given over to hobbies and vices, but Monroe's life is his work and his ship; his job, in other words, is his life, and he is fortunate to love it.  In lieu of a hobby, he throws himself into the minutiae of operating his ship and serving his customers.
          This also means his work life is his real life.  His friends and his allies are the same people, his crew, and to a large extent Faraji, owner of the open-air bar and grill on the north side of the Queen's Royal Hotel, his crew for obvious reasons, and Faraji for steering business his way, and keeping him abreast of the local gossip.  One should note that with a traditional character, he will have a job that either drives the story, such as the case with a doctor, cop, or journalist, or that interferes with the story, as when the person is a middle-manager at a big box who can't afford to be fired, but who has to deal with the crisis that forms the plot of the book.  I made Monroe a man who literally lives his job, and if you say I took the lazy way out, maybe you're right, but it works.  Note also that when a person has a traditional job, his friends and allies, as well as his enemies and opponents, need not be the same group.  The senior British officers fall into this category, often holding Monroe in contempt while working with him for the good of the colony, and the subjects of the Crown who live there.
          There is a factor I call the Double-Edged Sword, a character trait that will prove to be both a strength the character falls back on, and a weakness the villain can exploit against him.  In the case of the hero, it is nearly always his integrity, as is the case here.  It is hard to blackmail or swindle Monroe because of his adherence to the principles of right and good, but villains can operate around the edges of that integrity, knowing that he won't take the easy way out by murdering them, for example.

          And that is what makes Clinton Monroe tick.  A character sheet with this level of detail will set you on the road to a living, breathing character who steps off the page and draws the reader into your story.  I used to think it was necessary to complete this before you started writing, but I've learned better now.  People aren't born with their parents knowing everything about them, and characters needn't be either.  You can begin with a physical description.  That will get you started.  Set aside a few pages in your notebook or Word program, whatever you use, and describe him or her.  Then every time you come to a point where you have state whether she likes classic movies, favors fine food or fast, dresses elegantly or slouches around in sweats and a tank, add it to your character study.  If she drums her fingers on the table when she's irritated, make note of it, and don't have her pick at a mole the next time.  Your readers won't stop to notice consistency, but be inconsistent once, and they'll never forgive you.  Try to remember after you've forgotten everything else I've written here that authors don't write books; characters do.  Make your characters come alive, and they will take you with them on their journey to excellence.
          Apparently, this immersion stuff really works.  I'm feeling better already.
          You'll note that it isn't Monday.  Having spent yesterday getting this ready to post, I see no reason to adhere to a schedule.  I announce my posts on Facebook and The Steampunk Empire, and if you aren't receiving notifications there, just drop in every few days, and see if there's anything new.  I'll try to keep it fresh and current.
          Now get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider"

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rebooting the Franchise

          "3:00 AM is the hour of writers, painters, poets, over thinkers, silent seekers, and creative people.  We know who you are, we can see your light on.  Keep on keeping on."
          ~ Unknown attribution; posted on Facebook by STAR CLAY.
          Actually, with me it's about 6:00 AM, but I've enjoyed being a part of that group, and hope I will continue in their company for the rest of my life.  While it is still too early to tell (wait until Beyond the Rails is finished, and I'm immersed to the eyeballs in Stingaree), I fully intend to use my retirement to throw myself into the fabulous world of goggles and gears, and dare I say, become a Force to be Reckoned With on the steampunk landscape...  That's my intention anyway, and with no pesky job to steal the vital hours, I will at least have an honest opportunity to make my mark.
          The difficulty remains finding something to blog about.  I have in the past made a feeble attempt to give writing lessons of a sort, and have recently owned up to the hubris it takes for me to do that; the only lessons I'm qualified to give would be on How to Remain Obscure.  But I may post articles about my methods and techniques, so that at the very least, the aspiring author may assemble a working map of what not to do.  I also plan to refrain from talking about any specifics of my works in progress.  Famous and successful authors as diverse as Emily Bronte, Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Tyler, and Norman Mailer have offered dire warnings against "discharging the tension."  Having made that mistake in the past, I believe them.  That doesn't mean I won't discuss the backstories of my worlds and characters, offering background information on their personalities and motivations, and the pursuits that drive them.  I will also discuss other authors' books, movies, games, television, music, day trips around southern California, and very likely other things I have yet to think of.
          Here's a thought:  I have long told the story of the first novel I completed, Temple of Exile, which I just sat down and started writing with no preparation, notes, nothing but the concept of a modern fantasy story, and the bloated disaster it became due to my attempt to "pants" it.  Would anyone care to see that reprinted in these pages?  In installments, of course.
          My franchise, my brand, if you will, is very much Beyond the Rails.  That is about to change, or more accurately, it is about to be expanded, and I want this blog to be a dynamic, living document which grows in parallel with my writing that friends and followers can visit to see what's going on in my writing life without having to wait a year and more between books.  I plan to shorten that interval considerably as well, but that's another subject.  As far as this blog goes, I plan to have fresh material up all the time, and while it may take me a while to get to a "look" that enables me to be both current and relevant, bear with me; I'm a stubborn essobee, and you may rest assured that I'll get it right eventually.  Perseverance is a highly underrated virtue!
          On an unrelated note, aren't those yellow letters fabulous?  I've found my font for the "special" material, and no doubt about it!

*          *          *

          So yesterday, Sunday, we had our old friend "Chops," a.k.a. Patrick, over for a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill.  We ended up playing five.  The liner notes describe the game thus:
"In Betrayal at House on the Hill, each player chooses an explorer to investigate a creepy old house.  As you explore the house, you discover some new rooms.  Each time you enter a new room, you might find something... or something might find you.  Explorers change over the course of the game (for better or worse), depending on how they deal with the house's surprises.  The house is different each time you build it.
At some random point during the game, one explorer triggers a scenario called a haunt.  When the haunt is revealed, one explorer becomes a traitor bent on defeating his or her former companions.  The rest of the explorers become heroes struggling to survive.  From then on, the game is a fight between the traitor and the heroes — often to the death.
This game has fifty haunts, and each one tells a different story.  All are yours to explore as you live or die in the House on the Hill."
          All of which is a pretty good description of a game that has an unbelievable amount of replay value.  The game offers twelve different characters, all rated in the categories of Strength, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity.  Forty-four rooms are represented by tiles that are drawn and placed one by one as the explorers move through the house, tripping over trash, falling through rotten floors, struggling to cross chasms and labyrinths, and finding a multitude of items, from a holy Angel Feather that allows you to choose the result of any one dice roll, to a vial of smelling salts that restores a character's depleted attributes.  Flashlights burn out, spiders the size of fists drop from the ceiling, and you see yourself in a coffin.  Madmen rave, crystal balls are consulted, and mysterious teeth slash from the darkness, and just when it seems that things can get no worse, one of the explorers' minds breaks (or did they plan it all along?), throwing you into a fight for your lives as your erstwhile friend embraces the madness of the house, and invites demons, tentacles, specters, and in one case, a reanimated corpse reminiscent of Frankenstein's Monster over for a little party.
          I have to say, this game was so engaging and enjoyable, despite the pure horror of the subject matter, that we played five rounds.  We rarely play more than three of anything, so that will give you an idea right there.  It is like living in a B-horror movie, and one of the reviews I read during my preparation went so far as to call it "Cabin in the Woods:  The Game."  I would have to agree that that is a pretty apt description.  Horror book and movie fans need to add this to their collections.  Now you can take part in one of those books or movies as a participant trapped in the nightmare, and live or die based on your own quick wits, intelligence, and athletic abilities.  A footnote:  Patrick wasn't able to make it by for my birthday, but brought my gift on this visit:  The expansion kit called Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow's Walk, which adds twenty new rooms, twenty new cards, and fifty new haunts to the basic set; we're going to be enjoying this for a long time to come!
         Patrick couldn't attend my rollicking-good birthday do because he was attending San Diego's Gaslight Gathering that weekend.  He brought me a program, and I have to say, it looked like fun.  A number of people who are members of my Friends list, or who I have at least spoken with on occasion, were listed as featured attendees, and it may have been fun to go and meet some of them in person, but there were a couple of obstacles.  First, the Gaslight people continue to schedule their event to conflict with my birthday, and second, I never go to this kind of stuff.  See, I'm a hermit.  I have crowdaphobia, and would cheerfully walk across the Mohave Desert to avoid one.  This may be an issue for me in the future, as he gave my name to a con coming up in San Jose that caters to steampunk authors.  The deciding factors will be how big it is, how long it lasts, and whether I can put down enough drugs to immunize myself against the lunacy of people in large groups...  oh, and whether they actually call me.  I'll start holding my breath in just a minute here.

*          *          *
          The self-editing of Slayer of Darkness continues apace.  I'm getting close to the bleeding from the eyeballs phase, and I'm only on the first edit.  I am aided in my writing by a really elegant piece of software called yWriter.  In this program, you type your book, scene by scene, into a template that tracks characters, items, settings, times, and so on, places them into storyboard presentations, and just generally helps you keep everything sorted out and organized.  The big drawback is that when you move the finished scenes to Word in the Times New Roman font, the apostrophes and quotation marks remain in Arial, so the first edit consists of going line-by-line through an 80,000-word novel and changing each set of quotation marks and apostrophes to TNR.  Madness!  Of course, I catch a few typos during this process, but OMG, so unnecessary.  The second edit will be to get out all the wonderful suggestions offered by my alpha-readers and decide one by one which ones I'm going to incorporate, and for the third edit, I'll be looking for just the right word in each situation - 300+ pages of them.  Little wonder that by the time I finish a book edit, I've sworn off writing as the worst idea I've ever had, and it generally takes me a couple of months to get back into it.  Oh well, stay tuned for updates.
          And that's thirty for this thrilling installment.  I'm going to try to keep this on a Monday schedule, meaning the things I did on the weekend will be fresh, so we'll see how it works out.  Until next week, play nice, look after one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider"

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

New Tricks

          "Make a rule for yourself that the only way anyone will see your stories is by you writing them."
                        ~ ANDY WEIR, author of The Martian
          New Tricks is a British procedural comedy-drama that follows the work of the fictional Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad (UCOS) of the Metropolitan Police Service.  Led by Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, it is made up of retired police officers recruited to reinvestigate unsolved crimes.  Here in the States, these often autonomous units are generally known as "Cold-Case" squads, but I like the British version just fine.
          New Tricks is new to me, but in my research I find that there have been twelve seasons of this show on the BBC, so it appears that we have a lot of wonderful viewing to come!  I received Series 1 on DVD as a gift several months ago, and have just gotten around to slipping it in for some quality viewing.  In the first episode, Detective Superintendent Pullman (Amanda Redman), having landed on a certain pompous desk-riding boss's "list," is given the assignment of putting together a team of retired detectives to reinvestigate a botched case the particulars of which are about to allow a psychopathic killer to walk free.  The final form of the team she assembles consists of ex-cops Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong), a recovering alcoholic with an instant memory for obscure details of long-forgotten cases, John Halford (James Bolam), Sandra's former boss on the homicide detail who discusses cases with his dead wife, and Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman), a former cop almost too honest for his own good who hangs out with his three ex-wives (simultaneously!) and the daughters they all had together.  The "tricks" these old dinosaurs get up to under the nose of their modern, rules-following boss drive much of the comedy, but these are marvelously-written, convoluted stories of brilliant police work in which the good guys come through in the end.  The first episode hooked us hard, and we've since watched three, so we have a lot more to enjoy.  As you might imagine, when a show runs for twelve seasons, there are going to be personnel changes, but the format is always three retired detectives led by an active female officer.  I guess their motto is "If it works, don't fix it!"
          New Tricks may be an old show, but if you haven't had the pleasure yet, you are really missing out.  Think Law and Order with heart and humor, then drop in to amazon.com for your copy, and let the entertainment begin!

*          *          *

          And then there are the new tricks I'm still wrestling with.  I'm not used to being home full-time yet.  Sure, with the goofy schedule I used to have, I had plenty of stretches of days off, but there was always a need to organize that time off because I could always see a date on the calendar when I had to be back in the office, and I knew I needed to accomplish A, B, and C before that date came around.  Now there is no pressure, and my constant mantra is "I'll do it tomorrow."  Only, I never do.  I'm thinking that I might have to establish days on the calendar when I do certain things, housework, home repairs, playing games, going out, writing...
          Oh, yeah, about that writing:  Writing is the one thing that I have done without a break since late elementary school.  It has been my constant companion through my abusive childhood, my naval service, my long period of unemployment spent taking care of my invalid great-grandmother, and on throughout my storybook marriage, and the raising of my sometimes difficult children.  I have written my feelings, good and bad, I have escaped into fantasy worlds, I have created adventures in places that never existed.  I love writing, and I very much don't want to abandon it, but it seems like it's in the process of abandoning me.  It's like that cherished girlfriend you think you're going to be with forever, and one morning she comes out of the bedroom and says, "It's over."  You never thought it would happen, but it has, and anything you try to do to convince her to stay just makes you look creepy.
          I don't care.  I'm going to fight for my title of Author.  I spent a long time achieving it, and I'm not going to let it drift away without making every effort to recapture it.  I'm not sure that any technique will actually work, but I'm going to try some.  The hiatus that Bonnie suggested may not be a good idea, not that I won't try it.  But, rather than setting a time, a year without writing in this case, I think I can say that I won't attempt to put words on paper until I'm feeling the burning need to let the story out, that it could be somehow dangerous to try to contain it.  Of course, I need a story to be working on, laying down riffs, weaving plot lines, creating the most compelling characters and situations.  Let me tell you what I had envisioned, and what I'm still going to attempt to make happen.
          I am currently in post-production of Beyond the Rails III: Slayer of Darkness.  Post-production for a writer involves rereading your work until you're sick of your own prose.  You have to do the most mundane things, making sure that every set of quotation marks matches up, every dash and em-dash is used properly, every character is where he or she needs to be when he needs to be there, and that no one has teleported from Germany to Bolivia in the space of two minutes.  Spelling?  Oh, hell yeah!  Then with the mechanics seen to, you get out all the notes that your wonderful volunteer alpha-readers provided during the creative process, and evaluate their suggestions for improvement.  You decide which of these unpaid assistants you're going to offend by not using their suggestions, make changes to descriptions, find the right adjective for every occasion, write the blurb and the author bio, photograph the cover...  Well, you see what an indie is up against, and none of this comes under the heading of his or her primary skill or interest, which is writing a book.  If you're like me, and don't have the extra arm-and-a-leg lying around that an editor charges for their invaluable service, then you go it alone.  You squint at the page, tracking down errant commas and dangling participles until you're bleeding from the eyeballs, and when you think you've caught them all, you start over, because that's your name on the cover, not your alpha-readers', not your writing group's, yours, and if your book is a bust, yours is the name everyone will add to their "Never Buy Again" list.
          So maybe that's the burnout I'm feeling right now.  I hope and pray that it is.  I think I need to "steep" myself in The Craft, and hope, like a dying fire, it rekindles with some fresh logs.
          It was always my intention to step back from Beyond the Rails after the third book, and take on a different project entirely, and I have already done some work on it.  It's called Stingaree, and the first three chapters can be read by clicking on the title in the History and Samples tab at the top of the sidebar.  They are very much drafts, and could change drastically when I begin work in earnest, but the story is largely set.  It is my experiment with a story constructed around a historical personage, but as a minor character whose presence affects the main characters, who are entirely fictional.  In this case, the name Stingaree is taken from San Diego's Victorian waterfront district, as rough a port as you could find on the Pacific Rim.  The historic personage is Wyatt Earp, who owned one of the most famous bawdy establishments in Stingaree following his adventures in and around Tombstone.  I plan to be poking around in this fascinating world, and hoping it drags me in and leaves me unable to not write the story.  Time will tell, as will I, every Thursday on these very pages.  Consider this your invitation to be here for the ride.  It promises to be an interesting study in forced creativity.

*          *          *

          Finally, allow me to close with a bit of old business.  Last Friday, I posted an "Off-Spec," meaning Unscheduled post, early on my birthday with a few pictures of the early loot, because that was the time I had before things really got rolling.  Later that evening, my son Brian showed up with his gift, a lamp of exquisite design which I present both on and off for your edification.











          With inspiration like this literally lighting my way as I work at my desk, I can't possibly fail to recapture the magic...  At least, that's what I'm going to keep telling myself!  My religion teaches that if there's something you want to be, act as if you already are, and wait for the reality to catch up.  With plenty of support from those closest to me, I'm well on the way!
           You've probably noticed by now that one of my New Tricks has been to abandon the Every Thursday format; I'll be posting when I have something to say, so until next time, play nice, look out for one another, and get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ "Blimprider"

Friday, October 7, 2016

My Steampunk Birthday

          Hello, folks!  Just checking in with birthday news, mostly for friends and family, but anyone else who'd care to join in as well.  Wife and daughter just delivered the goods.  I had great fun opening T-Shirts,
games,
and one be-yootiful clock!
          Thanks, you guys, you're fabulous!  Tonight comes grandkids, in-laws, and our son.  It's gonna be one great weekend!  Hope you're all having one as well.  See you Thursday!

PS:  Got up this morning about six, as usual, and instead of digging out the writing material and wading into Beyond the Rails III, I clicked on the Xbox and waded into X-Com: Enemy Within.  Made for a far better morning; I believe I could get used to this!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Authors Anonymous

"Wind stirs the bamboo,
But once the wind passes,
The bamboo is silent.

Geese land in the chill pond,
But once the geese fly away,
There are no reflections.

In the same way,
Once the red dust passes,
The mind is still.
                              ~ Deng Ming-Dao 
 
          My name is Jack, and I'm an author.  I've had this problem since elementary school, this compulsion to entertain others with the written word.  It has consumed years out of my life, and now that I'm retired, it is consuming my retirement as well.  Or at least, it was.
          Last week I shared the story of a member of the EOC (Easily Offended Committee) in my writers' group who had gone out of his way to be offensive, hurt my feelings, question my life experience, and make me look bad in front of the group.  At the time of that writing, it was recent and raw, and I hadn't come to terms with it yet.  Now I have, with the help of my dear wife and partner in every hi-jinx and shenanigan that life has thrown my way since 1975.  Sometimes, it seems, you're too close to a thing to see it.  That's when you need to borrow someone else's eyes.  I was struggling with these comments, and the fact that writing has been becoming more and more of a chore by the day, and she pointed out, "You don't have to write.  You don't have to do anything anymore but just relax and have fun.  Why don't you take a year off, and see how you feel about it then?"
          Lots of guys criticize their wives, some in fun, some in earnest, but I'll have none of that!  My wife is wiser than Solomon as well as being sexier than Cleopatra, and I listen to everything she has to say.  A "hiatus," she calls it.  Liberation, I call it!  Tomorrow, I'll be 68; today, I'm free.
          Of course, it won't happen tomorrow.  Beyond the Rails III: Slayer of Darkness, is nearly finished, would have been finished, but I need to rewrite the ending to bring the saga to a full stop as the third book in a trilogy.  Period.  That should occupy me for the rest of the week, then comes a period of proofreading, spelling, grammar, and punctuation checks, and the process of cleaning up the historical anomalies and finding the exact right word for every situation.  I need to write the blurb, design a cover, then it's load it on CreateSpace, and wave bye-bye.  This, what did she call it, a hiatus, probably won't start until November.
           All of which begs the question, what am I going to do with this blog?  Don't know.  I can tell you what I won't be doing.  I won't be giving writing lessons, telling you all how to develop characters, which viewpoints belong in which scenes and the like, and keeping everyone up to date on my latest work-in-progress like some kind of omnipotent literary guru.  For three years, I have had a great amount of fun pretending to be this skilled and dynamic author, preening like an international bestseller before my handful of fans, and it's been an enjoyable ride.  It has also been complete shite, and it's time for me to stop parroting things I have read in the how-to books of successful authors, and get on with enjoying the time I have left.
          That said, I have ideas.  Stingaree will probably be published if I live long enough, and there are other projects bubbling in the mud pits down on the lower levels.  There are times when I'm left to my own devices, such as all day Thursday, when grandma goes to visit the local grandkids at their house.  There's nothing to say that I can't switch on the word processor instead of the Xbox.  Time will tell, but writing is no longer going to be an unpaid job that my life is structured around in retirement.  Nor will it be a public process.  Hanging out in a place where I can expect to be challenged, insulted, and called a liar in every way but use of the actual word is not an activity I intend to pursue further.  I will have considerably fewer alpha-readers due to this, and those critiques and discussions that I am able to have will be held in private.  Drop me a line if you'd like to sign up.
          So, the blog?  Well, the title isn't specifically literary.  I had this blog before I self-published, and it had nothing to do with writing.  It will return to its roots, if it does anything at all.  I read, Bonzo and I watch TV and movies, I play games, both board and video, and I live in a tourist mecca.  I may occasionally regale you with reviews and such.  By the way, in Taoism, the world view I embrace, the affairs of the world are often euphemistically referred to as red dust.
          I'll begin the first blog of the new look with a book review.  Enjoy!

          I recently read a smashing good book called Brutal Valour: The Tragedy of Isandlwana (The Anglo-Zulu War Book 1) by James Mace.  This is a long book, 504 pages in paperback, and I found every word entertaining as well as informative.  Mr. Mace, a life-long historian and author of seventeen books on various historical periods, gives us handful of characters to follow through the grand adventure, soldiers of the legendary 24th Regiment of Foot, on their way to South Africa where they will bear instrumental roles in High Commissioner Sir Henry Bartle Frere's illegal and unwanted (by the Crown) invasion of Zululand on a contrived pretext.  I am assuming these are fictional characters, as I have not been able to locate them in the historical record, although that is probably the case with most privates.
          Most Americans are familiar with the Battle of Isandlwana through the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn.  There was also a NOVA documentary about the battle that tried hard to show the Zulu side, but no matter the focus, I have always been of the impression that the battle was a sudden affair with one of Lord Chelmsford's isolated columns caught in the open and wiped out by a vastly superior force.  Mace has the advantage of writing almost 140 years after the events, and has done an incredibly thorough job of collecting and collating records, facts, and anecdotes from sources that have lain unmined for much of that time.  The result is a fabulous adventure story that joins the young recruits of the 24th in England, and follows them to South Africa while simultaneously telling the story of Sir Henry's subterfuge, and Lord Chelmsford's arrogance and incompetence in splitting his already inferior forces in the face of an enemy known to be highly organized and well-led.  His only fear that he expressed during the campaign was that the Zulus wouldn't fight. The detail presented in this story is enormous, and you never once feel as though you're reading a textbook.  Every facet is presented, from the initial campaign that burns an isolated village, shifting Chelmsford's arrogance into high gear, to the morning of January 22nd, 1879, when the 1,500 British and colonial troops camped on the shoulders of the hill known as Isandlwana had their "What's that noise?" moment, as 35,000 blood-lusting Zulus who had been brilliantly maneuvered into position after decoying the bulk of Chelmsford's force away from the scene, crested a ridge a mile away and headed straight for them.
          If you are curious about this British war that is largely unknown to the majority of Americans, if you love a rollicking good adventure story, if you are interested in colonial goings-on during the reign of Victoria, this book is for you.  I can't wait for Book 2.  I'll be right there to snap it up.
          And that does me for this week.  I'm thinking of going to a monthly schedule, or maybe no schedule at all, posting whenever I come up with something.  Until then, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!