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

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          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.

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          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!

*          *          *

          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"

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Burden of Being a Writer

          "When you're a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person.  There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something.  But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer.  He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there's this cold observer who cannot cry."
                    ~ BRIAN MOORE
          Let's get one thing perfectly clear:  I am a hobbyist author.  For most of literary history, the term "author" has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside.   But now, over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they're doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on amazon.com.  These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.
          Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from "How does this guy not have a book deal?" to "This guy is unable to form a sentence in the English language."  The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we're hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list "Author" as their profession on their tax return.  But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable.  I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft.  You've taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you're trying to do.
          Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author's technique.  Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I'm no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford.  Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.
          You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it.  That's all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren't even aware that you're reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren't just reading.  You're hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor's harsh after-shave lotion, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell, you are there!
          Compare this to what happens on a movie set.  The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that.  But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.
          I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of "he did this," and "she said that," but I'm not completely omnipotent.  Each scene has a "viewpoint," a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told.  I aim for 80-100 scenes, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints.  The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman.  My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he's trying to deal with the wolf at the door.  Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth character, and on rare occasions, I'll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I'm out of the plot.  I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?
          And that's the burden.  You're a reader trying to have a good time, but you're also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton?  If you're a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment.  I can't say whether it's worth it.  Financially, certainly not.  I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn't really a joke.
          But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing.  I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren't that great.  And they won't be.  I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don't want to live that life.  I'm happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that's the way I want to keep it.
          Doesn't mean I don't carry the burden, though.  How about you, my writing friends?  Do you experience anything like this?  Leave a comment, and let's explore how it affects you.

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          In other news, Den of Antiquity is set to release over the coming weekend.  A dozen members of Scribblers' Den, myself included, contributed short steampunk stories to this anthology.  The theme of the stories was to include a "Den," be that a cozy room in one's home, an animal's lair, or a den in the sense of a den of thieves.  This will be sold on amazon.com at a modest price, and in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, all proceeds will go to Red Cross Disaster Relief.  All of which means you get to have a good read and do a good deed all at the same time.  I will have full details of the purchase options in my next post, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, so whether you're a dyed in the wool steampunk aficionado looking to sample some lesser-known voices, or you're curious about the genre, and would like to dip your toes in around the edges, this is a great opportunity for you to add some excellent works to your library without cleaning out your wallet.  Check in here next Tuesday, or if you can't wait that long (I hope!), visit Scribblers' Den or many of the fine blogs in the sidebar on Saturday for opening-day announcements.
          And on that note, I'm going to skedaddle.  I'll have the house to myself today, which means some more work on Stingaree will be getting done, so I need to do a little housecleaning and run an errand so I'll be in position to take advantage.  Be here next Tuesday for the anthology, and of course my scintillating blog post, have a great weekend, and always remember to read well, and write better!

~ "Blimprider"