Tag Archives: fantasy

One Year Later

Here’s my #BlogBattle entry for this week. I need to tweak some formatting (italics and such) but I wanted to get it posted before the deadline.

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Hero, Hearty Fighter, and Formidable Foe…

Accompanied as always by his gorgeous assistant, Birgitte Bakkersson, the Stunner of Stockholm.

 “I think I figured it out, Bridge,” Grant said as he walked, hunched down, through the dusty catacomb.

The bright-eyed blonde smiled. “You’ve sorted out the way into the sealed Chamber of the Sun?” The Nordic lilt in her voice and the soft laugh when she asked tickled Grant’s fancy.

“No, not that. Look, we know now that there’s a whole other world,” Grant said. “We’ll call it Pandora.”

“Oh,” Birgitte said. “This again.”

“And it bears the mark of at least four ancient Earth cultures—”

“We are in the middle of a job,” Birgitte said, and the dim tunnel seemed to grow chilly and dark with her mood. “Lost in a grimy maze of bones, hoping we can even get inside the sanctum—once we find it. If we find it. Yet you’re still caught up with this mystery of yours. Perhaps you’re not best equipped to make sense of all these details, Mister McSwain.”

“I’m not,” Grant said with a sigh. “She was always better at this stuff.”

“You cannot prove your tale,” Birgitte continued, “and no one would believe it.”

“She believed it.”

“I hate to be cold, Mister McSwain, but our livelihood and our very lives depend on your expertise. Teagan O’Daire is dead and buried. You helped lower the casket—do you not remember?”

Grant paused as memories flooded his mind, forcing in against his will. The devastation in the Repository of Castellano after he set off a dynamite charge… the long, silent flight to Ireland… a blurry ceremony seen through tears in a cemetery in Galway under a sky that had no right to be so blue…

It feels like forever ago, yet sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

He noted Birgitte’s expression and took a deep breath. She needed him at his best, here in the moment, not caught up in a different life however long ago.

“I’m not reliving the past,” Grant said, taking Birgitte’s cool hand. “I’ve moved on from all of that. I’m just saying, these artifacts and sources of mythical power have a common root. And Roquefort would bury us in pound notes if we brought that back to London.”

Birgitte furrowed her pretty brow. Covered in webs and grime, gleaming skin hidden under a layer of dust, she still looked more ravishing than any woman Grant’s eyes ever beheld. Even her? Yes, more than her.

“Master Roquefort isn’t financing this expedition,” Birgitte said. “Are you ill, Mister McSwain? Do you not remember your meeting with the Viscount?”

“Right. What was I thinking?” Grant shook his head and pushed aside all thoughts of Pandora’s magenta skies and double moons. An image of a handsome man’s thin, pale face formed in Grant’s mind.

Anatoly Tarvinthian, the Viscount of Belarus, held to traditions of nobility while amassing a fortune in modern business. The vast wealth of his estate dwarfed his personal holdings in arms manufacturing, which was still sufficient to fund significant investments in America. Railroad barons gave way to natural resources and automotive industry over decades, but Tarvinthian’s money flowed freely into all of these.

Even more so, Tarvinthian showed talent in the world of fine arts trading, giving him ties to prominent museums and access to historic sites around the world. His private collection in his secluded castle summer home was rumored to fill several stories, with more floor space and estimated value than the Smithsonian and the Louvre combined.

That’s only what he dares reveal to his privileged few guests. He’s got secrets buried beneath secrets, and a treasure hoard that spans millennia of human history. What could he possibly need from a hired hand like me?

“Look at this marking,” Birgitte said, brushing a long, gloved finger in a strangely sensual way across a rune carved into the catacomb wall. “It’s part of the crest of Vlad Tepes. We’re on the right path.”

Then the shadows shifted up ahead, and a touch of natural light brightened the stone. Birgitte stepped back in surprise, and Grant cocked his head. “Do you think ‘the Chamber of the Sun’ could somehow be a literal meaning? Not just some honorific for a local lord?”

“I’d very much like to find out,” Birgitte cooed, and suddenly Grant very much wanted to find out as well.

Hunkered down, he shuffled toward the bend. The light grew intense, and Grant’s eyes narrowed and watered in protest. But he spotted a cracked stone wall, with a hole in the center where a pickaxe had broken through. The tool itself lay among ashes and dust piled on the floor. Grant grabbed the pickaxe and swung, doubling the size of the hole. Getting in would be easy enough. But where is sunlight coming from this far below ground?

Birgitte watched with wonder from the bend. “You’ve done it, Mister McSwain. The Chamber of the Sun and all its secrets will be laid bare. The heir of Vlad Tepes will be made known to the world, and your name will be on the lips of multitudes.”

Grant swung again and again, swelling with pride—partly at the thought of renown, but mostly due to the breathy tone in Birgitte’s voice. If it made her happy, that mattered more than any other reward.

With a great lunge, he burst through the crumbling stone and stumbled into the sunlit chamber, then gasped.

Four Ixthacan sun-plates sat in fixtures at head level, and above each, an Eye of Ra had been chiseled into the stone. Hieroglyphs and characters glimmered around the room, some form of gold that seemed illuminated from within.

But Grant ignored all that at the sight of the portals. Suspended in the air a hand-length from each sun-plate, a shimmering circle of light offered a view to other places. Stars glimmered in one like a patch of night sky, and fading amber clouds shone through two opposing portals. In the portal opposite the night, pure sunlight shown through, filling the chamber while focusing its warm beam on the sarcophagus at the center of the room.

Grant ambled about, dumbfounded at yet another conflux of cultures and inexplicable technology. “Birgitte, come in here,” he called. “This is what I’ve been talking about.”

“Not yet,” she said from the gloom in the tunnel. “Not for another minute or two, I believe.”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Grant examined the room. Old forms of Chinese characters mixed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, all of them etched in that glowing gilt. His bare skin tingled when he touched one.

The sunlight shifted, diminishing slightly, and Grant eyed the brightest portal. Through squinting eyes, he saw the burning orb slip behind the dark sphere of the moon. “That’s right… there’s a solar eclipse today.”

Within moments, only the glimmering corona shone through the once-bright portal. Dim light came through the other two portals, their openings revealing dawn or dusk, though Grant couldn’t say which. “On most days,” Grant realized, “full sunlight always shines on the center.”

Birgitte sauntered in, her smile wide and hungry. “But not today. Well done, Mister McSwain. Now quickly, remove the Ixthacan relics to close the portals so we can see what lies within the sarcophagus.” She pointed toward the plate behind the eclipse. “Start with this one.”

It made sense—the gold alone was worth a fortune. Grant stepped forward to obey.

Then Birgitte spun and hissed, her fingers curled like claws. A cloaked woman burst into the room. A silver crucifix jangled around her neck and glinted in the light of the eclipse, and Grant caught the pungent odor of fresh garlic cloves.

She doffed her hood to reveal a wild mop of red hair, and lunged at Birgitte with a thick wooden stake raised in her right hand.

“Teagan?!”

Birgitte twisted, but the stake found its mark, plunging into her chest. She threw Teagan across the room, but the woman landed in a crouch with feline grace.

Birgitte cackled and examined the thick stake in her bosom. “Fool girl, you deem this little sliver of wood sufficient to kill a Brood Queen?”

“No,” Teagan said, drawing a revolver. “I think it makes a good target.” She leveled the gun and fired as Birgitte’s eyes settled on the red-paper wrapped cylinder shoved into the hollowed-out stake.

The dynamite erupted and Birgitte vanished in a cloud of fire and a spray of undead chunks.

Grant stood gaping at the scene. “You—you’re dead. How did you–”

“She lied, Grant,” Teagan said, placing a careful hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been chasing you for almost a year trying to free you from her grasp. Come on, you lumbering ox. Tarvinthian and the rest of brood are coming, and Dad here is about to wake up. And none of them will be happy to find Mom in pieces.”

The Hall of Meating

This week’s #BlogBattle entry, incorporating “sacrilege” with last week’s “derelict” since I skipped that one.

 

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Explorer of Exotic Vistas, Defeater of Deadly Villains, and Charmer of Care-Free Vixens,

 

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway… and Tepandorixotl

 

Even on an alien world, under the light of two moons in a sky of magenta, Grant remained true to his nature—an anchor Teagan desperately needed as she sought a solution to this chaos. Surrounded by featureless humanoid shapes of hazel-colored mud, Grant threw himself against the overwhelming odds without hesitation. His thick fist splattered the face of one creature, and his boot kicked through another’s leg.

 

The soft earth rose to a low hill nearby, and Teagan spotted a mud-spattered structure like a ziggurat or pyramid. She ducked beneath an arm of living clay and swept her attacker’s legs with a low kick. The creature bellowed and flailed in the air before it splatted into the mud.

 

“Some kind of shelter, Grant,” Teagan shouted, pointing at the building—the only one in sight. The barren horizon rose and fell in slight ripples and small hills, but Teagan saw no flora, no fauna, no signs of intelligence.

 

A voice boomed in her head, one single echoing word: A-round.

 

She clutched her ears in vain and struggled with each step, her boots creating pockets of suction in the moist earth. Beside her, Grant tore through the mud, his boots cutting deep troughs, and his fists carving a path through the alien foes.

 

A-round you, the voice repeated, pausing between each syllable but picking up speed. In-tel-li-gence. We are all around you, flesh-one.

 

To Teagan’s right, Grant caught a lunging mud-man and flipped it overhead, using its momentum to smash it into the ground. With Grant bringing up the rear, shoving the creatures back, Teagan reached the bottom of the hill and started the ascent toward the exposed structure. As she climbed, her foot sank through the hazel clay and hit the stone of the covered building.

 

You do not belong here, the voice hissed.

 

“Are you hearing this, Grant?”

 

Grant dodged a swing from one of the misshapen beings, and huffed in exhaustion. “What are you talking about?” Unable to wait for the answer, he intercepted another mud-man and grappled with the creature.

 

You hear me, the voice whispered.  I sense it.

Teagan scrambled out of the muck and up the steps. Two metal doors leaned against the wall, broken from their hinges. Though weathered and discolored, Ixthacan runes and art covered their surfaces.

 

The voice, now eloquent, continued its tirade in Teagan’s mind. Long has it been since our kind was forced to form crude, linear concepts and structured expressions suitable for the lesser minds of flesh.

 

“I think it’s reading my mind, Grant.”

 

Correct, the voice answered. Regrettably. An image filled Teagan’s mind–her form made up of rotten steaks.

 

Grant stood at the edge of the stairs, shaking clumps of mud off his hands and clothes. The creatures stopped their advance where the stone pyramid rose out of the mud. “I don’t know why they stopped,” Grant said, “but this dirt is shifting and moving, rising up the sides.”

 

Sacrilege. Meat-husks do not belong here. The way back is closed to your kind.

 

Teagan ignored the gibberish and looked at the peak of the pyramid. “I don’t get it. This is Egyptian architecture, quite similar to the great structures in Geza. But those are Ixthacan runes on the entryway…”

 

“The one we should maybe go through? Those clay things are still oozing this way.” Grant pulled Teagan along and moved past the metal doors into the darkness. As they crossed the threshold, a set of stones in the walls emitted a soft blue glow.

 

Your meeting place has been reclaimed, the voice continued. The foothold of flesh on this side is shattered. Your kind is banished, forbidden from these halls.

 

Teagan gritted her teeth and pushed the voice out of her mind. More characters and runes covered certain stones on the walls. Shelves held golden relics and ancient sculptures.

 

“Those aren’t Ixthacan,” Grant said, pointing at a set of characters.

 

“Holy Mother of God,” Teagan blurted, “are those ancient forms of Chinese characters? And look—that bladed spear matches the style of early Chinese weapons-craft. And that earthen statue of an imperial soldier—the Qin dynasty, perhaps? Judging by the armor?”

 

“But these are clearly Egyptian hieroglyphs,” Grant replied. “Look at the gold cat statue.”

 

“Where the hell are we, Grant?”

 

You are intruding upon sacred ground, the voice answered unbidden. Spreading your disease beyond the bounds of your prison. A low wave of hazel muck spread like a glacier, oozing through the entrance behind them.

 

Grant dashed to the spreading clay and kicked huge divots in it, trying to push it back. “I don’t care where we are so much as how do we get out of here!”

 

“What do you want?” Teagan shouted, and ignored the confused look from Grant.

 

An end to the disease you bear. Hatred flowed through Teagan’s mind, and the voice seethed in reply. The flaw in your forms that developed into soft, weak meat. The ‘devilution’ that forced us to purify our genepool, to prevent the epidemic.

 

“I’ve heard such talk before,” Teagan said. The so-called science of the hard-line Germans came to mind. “Surely we can reach some kind of accord.”

 

You waste words. You waste raw materials. You waste life. You do not belong here. You will die.

 

“So very evolved of you,” Teagan shot back. “Sorry to disappoint by suggesting we talk instead of killing each other.”

 

Grant stomped a mud-man’s torso as it rose from the spreading clay, then kicked the head off another. He glanced back at her and asked, “Who are you talking to, Teag?” Then another mud-man leapt on him, and Grant smashed it into the wall with his broad back.

 

You cannot kill us, foolish progenitor, no matter how hard your worker drone tries.

 

“You should tell him so, get him riled up. Maybe he’ll do a better job of it.”

 

He cannot hear us. We deign to speak on your level. We are incapable of descending to his.

 

Strange thoughts resounded in Teagan’s mind, and foreign memories rushed through her vision. A world at war under twin violet moons… armies of living earth driving out the deviants whose bodies solidified into muscle and bone… slaughter and fear, desperation and despair, followed by capture and exile.

 

Minions of the Great Rebel, the voice boomed, and Teagan collapsed to one knee. Begone! Sinful flesh was banished from this plane, dispersed and scattered onto derelict, lifeless planets floating in the empty expanse of the void. How dare you—the exiled and forsaken—now try to return?

 

“My God, Grant,” Teagan gasped as the memories coalesced in her mind. “They cleansed a full third of their population. Anybody with the DNA that might permit this evolution into flesh some generation down the line—they killed or exiled them all.”

 

Grant grunted in response, thrashing and dodging among a crowd of mud-men.

 

The others, the voice cooed in Teagan’s mind, the ones you fear, who sought entrance to this world? These Germans—they are not wrong, fleshling. They wish to cleanse, to purify. Where they err is that they do not see themselves as part of the problem.

 

The telepathic connection formed an image of a portal back to Castellano’s repository in South America. Perhaps we did not fulfill our task so many ages ago. We shall correct this.

 

“Grant, they’ve changed plans. They’re going to invade.”

 

Between stomping mud-men, Grant surveyed the room. “So many treasures of antiquity,” he muttered. “So many connected historical mysteries we could solve.”

 

He doffed his pack and swung it like a weapon, splattering two more mud-men across a glowing wall. Then he rummaged within it while kicking mud-men back. “Does that connection you’ve got work both ways? Can you tell how to get us home?”

 

Teagan smiled and the voice in her head recoiled in sudden fear. A line of light sliced through the air in front of the Qin soldier, and expanded into a shimmering circle filled with an image of the repository’s dark cavern.

 

Grant’s hands grabbed her and pulled her in. She braced for the disorienting shift, the blades of light and cacophony of this alien transport. But instead, they stepped across worlds with minimal resistance, like rising from beneath the surface of a lake.

 

Strands of clay came through as well, stretching across the floor and dragging more of the hazel mud from the other world.

 

Something hissed beside Teagan. Grant held a bundle of dynamite, the braided wick already lit.  “You said they had a plan. There’s nothing I’m better at than messing up plans. Usually my own. Let me do what I do best.”

 

He tossed the bundle through. “Cut the portal, Teag… and hit the deck.”

 

I Like to Make Drawrings

So I got the first part of Chapter 1 of DIffusion critiqued in my writers’ group. And while I am pleased with the feedback, the magic confused one reader who hasn’t read book 1. (Diffraction, available here, shameless plug!) 

The primary magic is Refocusing, where the four Aristotlean elements (earth, water, air, fire) are transformed from one into another. Some elemental shifts are complementary – air turns into fire pretty smoothly, with minimal loss of energy. Others are contradictory – fire to water and vice versa, for example. These conversions waste significant energy, so the amount of the end result is the amount you start with, cut in half or more.

Additionally there are two secondary elements produced by combining two primaries: magelight (fire and air), and shadow (earth and water). 

The impression my crit group member got was that I had written something like Avatar, where one learns to bend a particular element only. I obviously have some clarification to do in the writing so that the idea of transforming one element into another comes through clearly.

But I thought there might be other ways to convey this information.

I love books that include art or “scholarly perspectives” on aspects of the story. Sanderson has been doing this with his Stormlight Archives, and it’s awesome. To me, that level of detail helps reinforce the idea that this is a coherent world.

One of my favorite hobbies is drawing to pass the time. So I took a couple hours and whipped up an artist’s rendition of sorts for the elemental continuum in my fantasy series.

Starting from the top left, Aqua, Aera, Flagros, Terros, with Tenebrae on the left side and Lux on the right (plus Lyllithe’s strange Void in the center)

I still have some annotations to add… maybe a couple arrows or connections showing which elements are contradictory… and I’ll have to fix the parts where the top sheet of paper sticks up from the bottom layer. (The perils of drawing with pen instead of pencil, I suppose. I finished the outer parts without any deal-breakers, then totally botched the magelight on the right side and had to start those parts over. 

Still, overall I’m happy with this and intend for it to be close to Chapter 1 in the eventual print version of Diffusion. 

Early May Diffusion Update

May is off to a good start on the ol’ word count tracker.

In January to April, I only had one other week where I reached >7K words.

Roughly a thousand words a day, on various projects, for the first half of May. I can live with this.

Additionally, I enjoyed some opportunities to hone my craft and improve my understanding of all things writing. I picked up Sol Stein’s much-lauded classic, Stein on Writing, and I attended a workshop on story structure led by an award winning sci-fi author who for various reasons retired and decided to teach on Okinawa, Japan.

Not only that, but my local writer friends and I finally held the first full-fledged, in-person critique group that we’ve been talking about off and on for over a year. Getting fresh eyes on a segment of Diffusion chapter 1 helped me identify what’s working well and what I should clarify.

Also I discovered–to my chagrin–as far as readers are concerned, I named a character “G-Mail.” One of the things I love to do in crit groups is read portions of everyone’s submissions out loud. Your ear catches things your eye glosses over when reading silently… like the fact that Gemail (pronounced in my head as guh-mail) turned into Gmail.com for everyone else.

This morning, I’ve been working on the overall outline. I’m a planner with sci-fi and fantasy… and pretty much everything I write, now that I think about it. Planning means I need to know Point A and Point Z, along with several landmarks and stops in between. There’s room for some creativity between these points, so characters can still surprise me as I write. But conflicts and character developments have to lead to certain key events–especially if I want the reader to get to the end and look back, thinking, “Oh, there it was all along, how did I miss that?”

I’m definitely not doing the “seat of the pants” method of “write whatever comes to you.”  My multiple Grant & Teagan posts for BlogBattle entries are the closest I can get to that, since it starts with a word prompt that gives me an idea for a scene.

So one of the unrealistic things about fantasy and YA fiction is how the main character just so happens to be the linchpin of the entire world, connected to and holding everything together. And there’s room for that in the genre–it’s kind of expected. 

Sure, you have stuff like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones), where riveting, beloved characters are killed with extreme prejudice. And as a result, certain fans look down on books that don’t have a double-digit death count of potential fan-favorite characters. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Still, even if the hero/heroine is the center of that novel’s universe, there has to be a reason for all this attention. And in fantasy, one favorite way to get there is prophecy–partly because it fits the genre, partly because it ties current events to the past, and partly because the myriad ways characters misinterpret it can lead to wonderful conflicts (spoilers for my book 2 and beyond, haha).

Also you get to dabble in poetry, because as The Lego Movie taught us, “all this is true, because it rhymes.”


So, in first draft form, here’s a part of the “Daughters” prophecy that helps explain the motivations of and manipulations by characters in positions of power. It also plays a big part in the growing conflict between Lyllithe and Josephine:

In centuries yet far beyond I see four years of blight

When ev’ry soul is shaken and their hateful foes delight

As all the pow’r of Hell breaks forth with endless appetite

For blood and death and chaos plunging nations into night 

In centuries yet far beyond, behold the Naurchoth’s rise

Whose rifts shall tear asunder and darkness blot the skies

Whose wrath—though slowly kindled—shall break forth as a flood

Let mankind’s candle dwindle, drowned in a sea of blood
Daughter of Puremight, hold back no more

Daughter of Twilight, fulfill what you swore

For the Daughter of Midnight stands at the door

With an army of Shadewrought ready for war.

Daughter of Puremight to break and restore

Daughter of Twilight, to bind up the core

Of the Daughter of Midnight whom all abhor

As she shatters and scars Avatars we yearn for

Daughter of Puremight, do not stand alone

Daughter of Twilight, move past what you’ve known

Lest the Daughter of Midnight come into her own 

And annihilate all that remains of the Throne 

Story By Numbers

“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.

I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.

Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.

So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.

(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)


Last week, a local college with offices on-base provided a free two-hour workshop: How to Write a Short Story

Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels. 

Cool idea

Protagonist

Emotional problem

Outer problem

False solutions

Final solution

For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story. 

Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.

The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted. 

Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.

Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.

The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.

Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?

But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.

It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept: 

Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.

The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.

Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?

What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.

Book Signing Option

Yesterday a coworker surprised me by asking to buy a copy of my fantasy book, Diffraction. To be honest, those moments are always good encouragement to keep doing this writing thing and not get frustrated by the challenges and difficulties of essentially trying to work a second job.  So maybe I really needed it, or something, because when he jokingly asked for a creative or special signature, I went a touch overboard. 

 

“I will be both Light and Strength!”
 
I feel a little bad about the folks who bought a book and got my signature squiggle along with some well-meant but bland “thanks for your support, hope you enjoy the read” standard line. While they got what they paid for, who knows… Someone may have wanted a Lyllithe picture more.

Maybe I should make this an additional purchasing option. Signed books are $15 to people in the States (five bucks covers the shipping and handling). Given the time and effort it took, I feel I could fairly tack on an additional $20 charge for a hand-drawn version.

In any event, it was a fun exercise and a thank-you to someone willing to brighten my day a bit with an unexpected purchase.

Problem As Solution

In my experience, there are some questions a fantasy writer is told to ask themselves right from the start. And one of the most important is: What is different or unique about my setting?

What is it that sets the world I’ve created apart from any or every other fantasy work? 

In other words, “Give me a reason to pick up this book.”

So much has been done before that it’s hard to come up with an idea that feels original. When you say, “elemental magic,” people say, “Like Avatar?” When you talk about rampaging hordes of savages, people say, “Like the Reavers in Serenity?” Bring up corrupted, shadowy creatures, and D&D players ask about displacer beasts or doppelgangers. And that’s without the standard sword-and-sorcery tropes that conjure images of Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and countless other fantasy settings.

How does a writer set their world apart? How do you highlight what’s different?

I knew I had a few differences I really liked: a religious system of Gracemarks that bestow divine power, a system of elemental magic fused with a material or technological component, and a problem of a broken world where rifts of chaotic energy twist creatures into corrupted, destructive versions of themselves.

  
In the process of revising and tightening my first fantasy novel Diffraction, it hit me that what I liked most in fantasy settings wasn’t the sort of book that called all kinds of attention to “Look how strange and fantastic this is.”

Much love to Narnia, but I didn’t want a ‘magic wardrobe’ book or some “fish out of water” contrivance like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

What hooks me in worldbuilding done by authors like Sanderson is how the unique quality of the setting is adapted and utilized as a part of the world.

Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is a great example. The world is ravaged by frequent powerful storms, and almost every living thing has adapted in some way to this rather negative quality. At the same time, gemstones gather energy from these highstorms, creating sources of magic power as well as a monetary system (the larger and better quality of gem, the more stormlight it holds, thus the more valuable it is). And this stormlight fuels both magic and the limited technology of the world. 

In other words, it’s all connected. The unique “problem” in the setting also serves an important purpose and acts as a solution of sorts to other questions. It’s a testament to human determination, survival instinct, and ingenuity.

As I thought about the various unique qualities I liked for Diffraction, I realized something very similar from a worldbuilding perspective would work in this setting. 

The rifts of energy that cause trouble by corrupting animals into powerful forces of destruction are also the source of magically-enhanced conductive metals necessary for the religious orders and Arcanists’ Hall to function. What’s a problem from one perspective is a solution from another. It feels more natural, since things in our day-to-day lives are rarely entirely good or bad. More often, the critical factor is how we react to the circumstances around us.

This to me feels like a natural way to look at a fantastic setting. It’s less about “what kind of quirk can I put into the world to make it special” and more about making a world that feels real… despite the quirks that set it apart from the worlds of other novels, and from our own.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback from Amazon. You can find it (and my other books) on my author page.

Reverse Engineered Magic

Last year, I made it my goal to get my forever-in-progress fantasy novel out the door as a finished book. Diffraction is the result of all that effort (most of it at the beginning of the year, when I set out to finish it, and at the end when I felt under the crunch to make good on the promise).

A while back, I spent just over two hours walking on the treadmill and digging through alpha reader feedback to figure out how to approach what seemed like a daunting task: Revision and Editing.

The good news? It wasn’t as daunting as I expected.

Even more fun, I engaged in further world-building to sort out some of the relationships and conflicts going on in the story.

To my critical eye, it felt like too much jammed into one setting–too many separate and unrelated elements all vying for a reader’s attention. 

Like many fantasy worlds, Diffraction is set in the ruins of a once-great Empire, whose scientists incorporated elemental magic with a form of technology in order to reach its heights. It’s also a world that experiences limited yet direct interaction with the Divine, whose seven Aspects bestow symbols of power upon their most worthy adherents.

As I sat back to imagine a world where gods prove their existence to men and where magic-users apply some level of scientific thought and experimentation into the use of their powers, I realized these can be complimentary elements of the setting rather than competitors. 

My religious orders gain divine power through Gracemarks: a radiant, metallic symbol on an individual’s right hand that represents which ideal or Aspect they identify with. Gracemarks often appear spontaneously, bestowed by the Divine. But the orders can also apply a Gracemark made of a blessed metal, which confers similar powers upon the marked person. 

 

A double Gracemark of Light (the horizontal line and above) and Strength (the horizontal line and below–a rudimentary figure lifting a burden overhead)
 
A world with obvious divine interaction would reflect that in the culture. If many people wear a symbol that implies something significant about their individual values, then displaying the back of the right hand like a wave would reasonably become a common form of greeting. 

If you show me a symbol of Justice and Order, I expect you to treat people fairly and uphold the law. Showing me a blank hand might not give me a stereotypical box to fit you in, but neither does it mean I assume you’re untrustworthy. Showing a hand with a scar in the shape of a Gracemark — that tells me to be on guard, because here’s an individual who once had a specific, public moral allegiance and forsook it.

On the other hand, I always meant for magic to have a technological component. Humans need a special lens to see the arcane energies they use for any magical ability. But that only allows one to see and draw on magic. So (based on some thoughtful alpha reader feedback) I added an output device to match the input of the lens – a metal etching that guides or focuses the energy the magic user sends forth.

Given human propensity to take what exists and use it in new ways, it hit me that these Arcanists would study Gracemarks used by the religious orders, then create a similar method or means to use their own abilities. Using conductive metals, touched and transformed by the magical nature of the world, Arcanists would have etchings that grant them fine control of magic power. 

Like any good reverse-engineered technology, improvements can adapt the tech to the new user’s needs. Picture a golden tattoo, placed anywhere on the body. Unlike a Gracemark that is always on the right hand, always exposed, the Arcanist’s etching can be hidden if desired. This fits their character more as well. If you want to be brazen and show off your etching, you certainly can. But if you’d rather keep your abilities hidden, a simple pair of spectacles and a covered etching prevents anyone from guessing you’re about to tap into elemental energies and unleash devastating magic.

Thus the effort to clarify how divine power and magic work in this setting becomes a means of character development and description. 

I picture a rough-and-tumble tough guy whose Ocular is a monocle secured by a leather band around his shaved head. His riftgold etching is affixed to his face in a sunburst around his eyepiece. He’s an Arcanist thug, and he doesn’t care if you know it.  That’s a very different character from the rich noble who wears the Ocular equivalent of a contact lens, practically invisible, and whose etching is hidden from view on his right shoulderblade. 

The best part is that this system of Gracemarks and Arcanist etchings is something a reader can see themselves in, much like “which house would I join in Hogwarts?” or “which faction would I belong to in Divergent?”  One of my co-workers who is also a fan gave me some feedback, and one of the first things she said was she enjoyed trying to decide which Gracemark she’d choose. 

I’m chalking it up as a successful concept.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback on Amazon. You can find it (and all my books) at my author page.

Out of Stock

When I self-published Diffraction, I had no idea how many hard copies I might need and guesstimated 15.

  
Those got claimed faster than expected. So I ordered another 12 after the 15 arrived. 

But when people saw me handing out the signed copies, more friends said, “Me too.” So now all 12 are claimed before they even get here. And now I need to order more.

I never anticipated writing would be something I do for a living, so I’m realistic about the fact that 30 or 40 copies of a self-published book does not equal best-seller.

But it puts a smile on my face nonetheless.

Thanks to those who gave my writing a shot!

Real Artists Ship

It’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs. I found it in a book by Jeff Goins, called You Are A Writer, So Start Acting Like One.

I’ve been reading it in the winding line at the Postal Service Center, waiting to pick up packages that invariably contain anything but what I was waiting for. (My wife had fun with holiday shopping.)

Today I got my present in the mail:

 

Sometimes shipping takes a while!

And all but one of the books are already claimed. I got my signing pens ready!

Thanks to all who support in various ways – the Facebook shares, the GoodReads review, the “me!” responses when I post an offer. 

This gets me going for the next book (the draft of which currently holds 5,600 words).
Blessings.