Tag Archives: writing

Elements of Critique: Dialogue

My teenage son is constantly getting into trouble with Mom. It’s because of his mouth.

“The problem’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

With dialogue the problem can be both.

First, I need to know who’s talking. That means attribution tags are important to include as early into the speech as possible. I read books to my kids, and I do voices for certain characters. You’d be surprised how often I have to double back after reading two or three lines of speech, because the author did not let the reader know who was talking until the very end.

If I’m critiquing a piece and I come to a point where I don’t know who’s talking, I’ve identified a problem for the writer to fix.

Second, I need to know how something is said, but this can be tricky. I used to try descriptive speech verbs. He muttered, she bellowed, he shrieked, she replied, he shot back, she wondered aloud. However, conventional wisdom considers that a form of “telling” instead of “showing.” Therefore I avoid it. Here’s why:

If a question is asked and another character responds, the words they speak will make that relationship clear. If a character complains about a situation, my mind will imagine them muttering without having to be told. How about the difference between:
“Get away from her, or I’ll kill you,” Ashton shouted. He aimed the gun at the robber.
as opposed to:
Ashton leveled the pistol at the robber. The hammer clicked back. “Get away from her, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Which reads stronger?

She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. “What is this,” she yelled. “What does it mean?”
as opposed to:
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. Her eyes wide, her face ashen, she gasped and gripped her sister’s arm. “What is this? What does it mean?”

Which one merely tells the reader she’s panicked? Which one helps the reader hear it in her “voice” on their own?

I use “said” and “asked” almost exclusively. They become almost invisible. For my taste, I use something special only if there’s a chance a reader might think it was said in a different way. For example, “whispered” might be useful if it is the next line of dialogue in the middle of an argument, to note the sudden change in tone.

Insert speech here.
Insert speech here.

Third, dialogue has to sound natural. When I write out a conversation, I read it out loud to see if I would stumble over any of the words. If a sentence is hard for me to spit out when I’m calm, then it’s probably impossible for my character to say when she’s in a crisis or heated argument.

There’s a special consideration for fiction: accents. Sometimes we want to show that a character has a certain ethnic background by typing dialogue to show the accent. This can be done well, but must be done with consistency and can’t be such a heavy ‘accent’ that the reader has to try to figure out what’s being said. As usual, less is more. Describe the accent, then go for clarity.

A stereotypical fantasy example is that Dwarves all have a Scottish brogue. “Aye, laddie, me an’ my kin are headin’ out to th’ Castle o’ th’ Dark Elves ta crush th’ snot outta those wee dirty cavedwellers.” Painful.

Patterns of speech might be preferable to attempts at accent. Describe the unique qualities of the sound – a lilting voice, a thick rumble, rolling consonants, slurring words. Then write the character with a special order of words, such as, “I will speak to my cousin, yes? My cousin, he knows these things you seek. This is good thing. He and I, we help you.”

That way the character sticks out with an identifiable voice, without forcing the reader to figure out what you’re trying to say through “accented” dialogue.

Finally, dialogue is best in short bursts. I write a few words first, then show some action taking place or include the character’s thought, then place the next spoken sentence.

“When I write,” David said, “I try to time the breaks in speech to create a rhythm.” He stroked his chin and stifled a yawn. Man, I’ve been talking about dialogue too long. “By including action and thought in between snippets of dialogue, I show the reader a more complete picture of what’s going on.”

Obviously there’s more to it than those points. Whole books are written on the subject of crafting dialogue. But these are some of the things I look for when critiquing a piece.

And I think I’ve said enough.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow, even though we’re nowhere near finished with the A to Z challenge, I will be looking at critiquing endings.

Elements of Critique: Appearance

Welcome to the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2014, and thanks to you readers who are coming from that list to check this out.

This year I’m covering elements of critique: What to look for to make our writing stronger.

A critique is all about getting other eyes on our efforts, finding out what works and what doesn’t, seeing around our blind spots by taking advantage of the eyes and experience of several others.

Critiquing someone’s creative work can be daunting. You’re picking apart something they poured their heart into. But when everyone realizes the end result is a far stronger piece of writing, the slight pain of criticism and the terror of becoming vulnerable become well worth it.

When you hit “Publish” and send your words out into the Internet, or when you click “Send” on that e-mail delivering your manuscript to a submissions address at a publisher, the people who see your material have one unconscious motivation:

To dismiss it as quickly as possible.

Blog reader feeds and e-mail inboxes fill up fast. People don’t have time to wade through hundreds of articles. We naturally skim through, ostensibly looking for something to catch our eye. In reality, we’re flashing past plenty of material that for whatever reason we deem inconsequential, not worth our time.

Likewise, any editor accepting submissions is going to be inundated with pitches, queries, and manuscripts. The sooner that pile can be whittled down, the better. There’s a hundred more where this manuscript came from.

So the very first element of critique that I want to focus on is appearance.

Any editor or publisher is going to provide guidance for how submissions must be formatted. Magazine editors will post guidelines to give a prospective writer all the details necessary to know how to prepare their query or pitch. Even my critique group provides a formatting requirement, and they will pick on submissions that don’t follow the standards.

For example, If I send my piece in Helvetica font when the publisher demands Times New Roman, right from the outset, I’ve told them a few things:
“I don’t pay attention to what you want. I want you to pay attention to me.”
“I’m above following your rules. I will be a problem to work with.”
“I don’t have time to look at piddly details. That’s what I have you for.”

When a guideline tells me to use a specific style (AP Style Manual or what have you), I should get a quick primer for what that means. It might mean typing ‘OK’ instead of ‘okay.’ Or it could mean not using the Oxford comma when making a list of 1, 2, and 3. (The comma after 2 and before the ‘and’ is the offending comma.)

Tiny details. Simple matters. Easy to miss, with potentially large consequences.

The critique group I belong to has guidelines, and we mostly follow them. There’s room among friends for “I forgot” or “Something went wrong in Word” as excuses.

The editor or potential reader isn’t there to be my friend. I don’t want to give him or her any reason to ignore what I have to offer.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s good.

Appearance matters.

Tomorrow I will look at background.

20140401-090211.jpg

One Fiddy

It’s been about a year and two months since I started this blog. When I published a recent post, I noticed I was close to 150 total posts. I thought it’d be a good time to pause and reflect.

149 posts on this blog, plus another 106 on the three topic-focused blogs I split off from this one about four months ago. 255 holds significance to me because I grew up using old computers like the Commodore 64, and 255 was the upper limit number in a lot of programs.

So with this post, I hit 256 total. Take that, C64. You can’t even count that high!

Along the way, there are about 170 of you who said “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this person’s writing.” Though I know there are probably many duplicate readers, my other three blogs each have about 100 people willing to have my posts spam their inbox, twitter, or Facebook.

This is my moment to say Thank you.

I have a number of family and friends who express surprise at my willingness to get along with people who are very different from me – especially those who are antagonistic and provocative about it. “How are you still putting up with that person?” “Why do you bother reading what they post? It’s always crap.”

My experience has been that there’s always a unique quality in every person we meet. There’s something about that person worth discovering. While I may not be a huge social butterfly, I love watching the way people interact and learning some of what motivates them. Like different spices or flavors of ice cream, I enjoy the variety, especially when they can open up my eyes to perspectives I’ve never had before.

That’s what this blogging experience has brought me. I check out the writing of almost everyone who follows me or comments on my page. I browse the Reader, looking at different topics and Freshly Pressed. I get to see what you all share, and invite you into the parts of my life that I’m willing to share. Windows open into lives I’ve never known, and I want to enjoy the view.

My blog experience is no success story. But for those of who you who have joined me in this little corner of the internet, I am truly grateful.

Branching Out

To the great friends, family, and strangers who have followed my writing on this site:

parkOne of the lessons I’ve taken from recent writing conferences and discussions with my fellow writers is the idea that a blog is usually meant to be focused on a few key topics. This allows the readers to easily discern what they’re going to get out of the site without slogging through a bunch of stuff that’s of no interest.

I’ve written about a lot of different subjects, and from the very start, I said I’ll just write about whatever I want here. Hey, it’s my blog. I can do that.

But what serves the readers is more important to me than getting “my” way.

With that in mind, I’m separating out some of the topics I normally write about here. What’s moving?

Spirituality

Most of the posts about spirituality and worship are going to move to a separate blog focused on the joys and challenges of pursuing God.

Creative Writing

The short stories and posts related to my long-term writing projects are going to move to a page specifically focused on prose, poetry, and inspiration for the craft of writing.

Fitness

I’ve always made it clear I’m no fitness expert. I do have some formal instruction (former certified spin instructor), but more importantly, I have the experience of being a pudgy guy trying to get and stay fit. With my upcoming process of recovery from foot surgery, that journey is going to provide lots of fun and food for thought. I’ve set up a blog for sharing motivation and mutual commitment to fitness with readers interested in that material.

So what’s left?

This blog will stay active, with any of my posts about life and leadership in the military (most of which are the popular tirades), cultural and political commentary, and the quirky stuff my kids are doing to give me more grey hairs.

I sincerely value every click on the “Follow” button, every “Like” and every comment on any posts. But I understand that not everyone came to this page for the same reason, so I wanted to be clear about where to find the topics that may most interest you. This change should work out so that I’ll be writing as much as usual, but readers will be able to find more of what they’re looking for at the new pages.

Thanks for sharing these moments with me.

Corporate Apologies

It’s 2 AM and I’m thinking, “There’s still all that writing I planned to do today… I should get it done.” I wanted to post some pics of the family getting out to enjoy the first day of pseudo-Spring… I wanted to post about motivation to get or stay fit, and some of the tools that I’ve found helpful… I thought about getting started on a creative writing piece, and some reflections about how fast my kids are growing up.

Forget all that! Video games! Facebook! Distractions!

I won’t apologize. I hear it’s one of those pathetic blog posts, to say “Oh sorry, I know you all couldn’t live without my meaningless banter all this time. I’ll write more.” I have a life, and so do you. We’ll catch up when we get the chance, digitally or in person. I’m cool with that. You too?

That said, apologies are amusing to me at the moment. Right now, a $60 video game is downloading onto my computer, courtesy of Electronic Arts. When they launched the newest rendition of SimCity – the perfect playground for anyone with a God complex – they screwed the pooch. EA set it up as a dedicated online game, but failed to prepare enough servers to handle the large amount of customers on launch day or in the weeks that followed. They misled their fans about the requirement for constant online access to run the game, claiming it was necessity when in fact their claim has been proven false. The creators turned off a number of features in order to keep the game running, but it was still such a mess that Amazon stopped selling the game until all the problems could be resolved.

This looks about right...
This looks about right…

Needless to say, it was less than ideal.

To make up for this failure, EA offered a free digital download out of a selection of games from their portfolio. They put up Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Bejeweled 3, Dead Space 3 (so many 3s!), Medal of Honor: Warfighter, SimCity 4, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and Plants Vs Zombies.

I won’t go down the list of how many of these I already own on the XBox, but I settled on Dead Space 3. I figure instead of playing it on the XBox with the volume turned down too low for the kids (and thus, me) to hear any of the swearing and screaming, I can pop in headphones and play it on the PC, and I’m paying nothing for the added flexibility.

EA is still the devil. But if it might be a little while till we next catch up, it’s their fault.

February Resolution

“You only fail if you stop writing.” – Ray Bradbury

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” – Steven Wright

 

It has been quite a while, and I regret being away from this for so long. “Life gets in the way” is a poor excuse.

It’s common experience that other priorities sometimes force themselves to the top of the list, but the harsh truth of writing is that people more busy than me are blogging and writing at a prolific rate.

You make time for what you love, what you want, what you need.

Writing is something I really want, so I never doubted that I would get started with this again. I thought I could in December, and when that didn’t happen, I told myself I had a New Year’s resolution to uphold.

“A New Year’s resolution to start blogging again? How trite,” I rationalized.

So now, at the end of January, I am committing to return. Perhaps this won’t have the over-reaching “every day” commitment I tried to maintain in August and September. But I will commit to frequent entries. Some of these can follow the daily format I used before — today’s Thursday Tirade about quality versus quantity, for example. Others will be whatever strikes my fancy.

In any event, I welcome back your thoughts, your feedback, and your interaction. Thanks for your patience; let’s get back into this.

– Dave

Introducing D'Ten

For this Storyline post, I thought I’d introduce a villain. I’ve had the idea of the Bloodsworn for quite some time, but they were a faceless foe and an alien culture to the characters in the Bordermarches. There’s no fun in that. It’s more interesting to see life from the villain’s perspective now and then (at least to me). So, allow me to introduce the new Chronicler of the Bloodsworn, D’Ten.

Saturday Storyline

From the Eldest, life was given to the Newborn;
To the Eldest, life is given from the Bloodsworn.

The Ancient Rede filled D’Ten with pride as he drew the sharp side of his hook-dagger along his forearm. His eyes widened as pain seared his nerves, but he kept silent as he finished the cut. Blood ran down his upturned palm, warm and wet, to drip off his fingertips onto the stained stone altar. A collective roar went up from the gathered crowd on the steps below, and D’Ten looked out over the masses.

Over my people.

They would follow him now. They would look to him as they once looked to Kasheta; they would trust his wisdom as they once hung on her poisonous words.

He raised a glittering goblet in his left hand, and the blood began streaming toward his elbow. Kasheta abandoned the old ways. She forsook the sacrifices meant for the Eldest Ones, dismissed the power and truth of the Rede. Under Kasheta’s guidance, D’Ten’s people were docile, quick to retreat and slow to respond as the bastard children of the Cerune Empire once again came across the mountains.

“Not the will of the Life-givers,” she would say whenever he pressed her to attack. “This Cycle will end in trouble enough for all; we need not add to it. We will depart, and not engage them.”

Foolishness. Weakness.

Kasheta was one of many Chroniclers to interpret the Rede in a figurative sense. She taught the people to give their lives–their time, their resources, and their energy–in service to the Eldest.

But D’Ten learned the truth. He knew how wrong she was, and the trouble that would come. He even knew the will of the Life-givers. One of them spoke to him directly, granting revelation about the long-forgotten paths his people once followed.

Blood was required, for the blood was life. For centuries, the devout among the Bloodsworn offered up a portion of their lives back to the Creators, a fitting tribute and offering of thanks for what the Eldest Ones first gave to mortals, a completion of the cycle that satisfied the Life-givers and turned away Their wrath.

D’Ten shuddered as he held the goblet aloft, almost spilling its precious contents. If the cycle was ever broken–if blood was no longer offered to the Eldest–then the Creators would return to undo what they began. The world would be shattered, all life extinguished… for those who gave life could surely take it away.

That must never be.

Kasheta had led the people astray. It was time to correct her error.

“Offerings shall be made once more,” D’Ten called out, “now and forever, in accordance with the Rede and the ancient ways, and in accordance with the words of the Eldest.” He tipped the goblet until a steady stream of crimson splashed across the altar, mingled with his own blood. Another cheer burst from the crowd, but D’Ten’s deep voice rose above them all.

“To the Eldest, life is given from the Bloodsworn!”

The words of the Life-giver’s visitation echoed in D’Ten’s mind as he poured out the last drop of Kasheta’s life from the goblet.

Who said that the offering had to be your blood?

As his people cheered, D’Ten grinned widely. They were focused on their ritual, but his mind wandered west, to the mountains where the Dunnestanni and their Cerunae allies swarmed like gnats in spring.

The offerings to the Eldest had been neglected for so long; D’Ten was certain he could feel Their anger.

You will have sacrifices. Many sacrifices. We will give You life for the life You granted us. The cycle will not be forgotten.

Walking Death pt. 2

Welcome to the first Saturday Storyline post. This certainly isn’t the first story I’ve posted. But this category gives me the opportunity to post a weekly piece of fiction, from ongoing projects or from writing just for fun. And for this post, you get part 2 of Walking Death chapter 1. (See the first part here.)

To recap, the Assassin fought her way to her target, Lord Tarrandin Condral, only to discover he’s not the easy mark he seemed.

Walking Death, Chapter 1, part 2

Tarrandin Condral moved with inhuman speed. The Assassin expected this of Cursebearers. The demonic curse, the Kem, imbued Tarrandin with the strength of ten men.

But this speed, this agility… it’s not possible, even for Kem’neth. He is in two places at once!

A blow across the jaw shook every thought from her mind. Strands of black hair came loose from her headband as the grey-cloaked Assassin crashed onto the head table. Dinnerware rattled and glass shattered, pieces tinkling on the hardwood floor

Her quarry-turned-assailant leapt upon the table and landed nearby. He thrust massive black-clawed hands at her. She rolled to the side to escape, but somehow he was already on the other side of her, sinking sharp nails into her skin.

Her shoulder burned as she twisted out of his grasp. She Stretched, trying to push him away, but her powers seemed muted. She slid backwards across the table, sending plates and silver flying. Tarrandin stepped back at the Stretch, unaffected.

She Pooled as she rose. Tarrandin strode through the darkness with ease. Pooling slowed Tarrandin’s guards, but it doesn’t faze him. Three past encounters with the demonically augmented beings were similar. Two ended with the Assassin fleeing. The one I managed to kill was a lucky shot while he was unaware.

The Assassin slid backwards, eyes on Tarrandin. Safe to assume all Cursebearers are immune to direct attack from my powers. Time to shift tactics.

A heap of utensils, goblets, and plates rose and hovered in the air before her as she Pooled. One by one, she Stretched metal missiles at Tarrandin.

The projectiles missed each time. Some passed through the cursed lord. She Stretched others at him only to find he was not where he appeared, his preternatural speed outpacing her senses.

This looks like another retreat.

Her mind raced, recalling all she knew about various Kem’neth. She dodged and weaved, always backing up, always on the defensive, trying to avoid the swipes of his claws. His eyes burned with yellow light. His teeth seemed elongated, a beast’s fangs, hungry for flesh.

And always he stayed ahead of her.

Her back screamed in agony as his nails raked her, rending cloth and skin alike. Blood trickled down her spine and her left arm. Pain is clarity. Pay attention. Tarrandin’s fist swung out at her, and she ducked. His hand reached out, grasping for a hold. She twisted out of the way, then rolled and kicked behind her. My foot passed through his groin, but struck nothing.

I cannot defeat what I cannot hit. Retreat became the priority.

Tarrandin slid to her left now, slashed her hip with his claws. She lunged to the right.

Deceit. The symbol he drew, a lidded eye of blood upon his forehead.

His Kem was Deceit, casting false images. She would see what he wanted and no more.

A fist caught her right cheek. Tarrandin stood a safe distance away to her right. Or so it appears. His meaty hand slapped her, and her knees wobbled. His foot came up and kicked her square in the chest. Air rushed past as she flew across the room.

The Assassin crashed into the rubble left by an Arcanist’s fireball. Sharp rocks dug into her back. Darkness Pooled about her again, even though it did no good against this foe. The hundred spikes of pain in her mind drove her onward. She stumbled to her feet, gasping. Her body wanted nothing more than to stay down in the shadows and rest.

Tarrandin approached on her right, aiming a short kick for her ribs. She covered up her left side, anticipating more deception. His boot struck from the right and knocked the wind out of her.

Of course he would expect me to figure out his power. Sometimes the best ruse was to play no trick at all. She coughed. A fine red mist sprayed into the air.

She tried to roll over. The hole in the wall beckoned. Escape.

Tarrandin watched and paced, the cat at play with a trapped mouse. She crawled away. His boot rested on her rump. He kicked, and she slid through rubble toward the opening.

Weakened, she tried to Scatter, hoping to clear a path through jagged rocks and broken wooden beams. A thousand cuts shouted from her arms, legs, and chest as she skidded through debris.

Need to get out.

The Assassin Stretched against the ground and lifted into the air. At the same time, she Flexed toward the hallway through the hole. Tarrandin stomped and cracked the ground where she had been.  She pulled herself over the burned rim of the opening in the wall. Once through, she released her powers and flopped to the ground, landing hard on one knee.

Light shone from a doorway down the hall. She struggled to gain footing, then lurched toward the door. No chance of success… have to withdraw…

“Heading for the ballroom balcony?” Tarrandin spat, hissing with a voice not his own. It’s dominating him. Kem’neth were like dogs on a leash at times. Sometimes the dogs broke free, and the demons enthralled the Cursebearers. Tarrandin’s a shell now, a form of flesh to cover the demon like my cloak covers me.

She felt hot rancid breath on her neck. It spoke again. “Very well. I will make sport of you before my guests. They don’t understand yet, but they must suspect that Lord Tarrandin isn’t all he claims.” Clawed hands closed around her shoulders. She fought the urge to shudder.

“They will recall why they obey him,” Not-Tarrandin went on. “Why they should fear him.”

He shoved her. The bright doorway rushed at her as she tumbled down the hall.

The Assassin landed in the darkest portion of the hallway, between the door and the nearest glowing magic Shackle on the wall. The silhouette of Tarrandin strolled toward her.  Yellow eyes shone in the shadows as he blocked the light of the Shackle.

I need darkness… not for my powers, but for his eyes.

The Assassin pulled at the shadows as if trying to rein in a wild horse. Her muscles shot fire through her veins. More. Shadows flowed like rivers toward the dim hall. Streams of black swirled around her and blocked the light of the Shackle and the doorway, plunging the two foes into a tangible darkness. Even Tarrandin’s hungry eyes disappeared.

Not that I can trust the image of them in the first place.

Her chest ached like a man lost in the desert who drinks too much upon finding an oasis.

But she felt his presence in the mass of darkness. She crouched, ready to strike. I can’t touch you with my powers, and your powers blind me.

He stood still, hesitating as shadows rippled about in waves.

You can disappear, but you can’t dissipate.

Wind whistled in the black as she drew her bootknives and slashed both arms outward, crisscrossing the demon’s abdomen with deep cuts. He howled. The force and fury shook the walls of the Baricund, disorienting the assassin. She lost her hold on the mass of darkness, and it rushed away in all directions, revealing the doorway behind her. Spurred on by success, she ran.

Tarrandin bellowed in that alien language and gave chase. Each stomp shook the floors. He moved slower than before, his breath raspy and labored. That wound would kill anyone else. The Kem is the only thing keeping him alive. She neared the lit doorway.

There’s only one way to kill a Kem’neth. Now I have a chance at it.

Ahead, she heard confused chatter from the thousands of gathered guests. The music and conversation stopped with the echoing scream. Many eyes were on the balcony where Lord Condral addressed the crowd earlier in the evening. The crowd gasped and murmured when the bloody Assassin appeared instead of Tarrandin. Some cried out for guards.

The Assassin ignored the crowd for the moment, turning to face Tarrandin. He lurched toward her. Murder burned in his yellow eyes. A string of saliva waved back and forth from his chin with each step.

I can’t affect him with my powers. And he’s still too strong for direct combat.

The magic light of the Shackle sparked her memory. The eyepieces Arcanists wear are immune too. Tarrandin was essentially a living, moving Ocular, untouchable by her powers.

I only need something else I can touch.

She reached behind her for the two sword-breakers in brown leather sheathes on her back. Each slender shaft of razor-tipped steel had two prongs curved out to the sides, designed to catch enemy blades and snap them with a twist.

While the crowd looked on, she took a ready stance on the balls of her feet. No need to run now. Tarrandin closed in on her. She Pooled once more.

I have one chance at this.

The balcony and doorway vanished in darkness.

Worldmender Excerpt

As promised, here’s an excerpt from the second story idea I wrote about earlier.

This one is for Worldmender, and it takes place about a third of the way into the story. I wanted to get the feel for the atmosphere and how the character’s unique gift works.

            Tavener Dendriss squinted at swirls of sand and acrid smoke as he looked out from the wooden shanty. Scattered clouds shone in the night like soft lamps, reflecting the fires in the capital city of Sulkath below. A few buildings stand unharmed, the King’s palace among them. But the walls and defenses are rubble.

            Explosions rattled the shanty’s timbers. Dust fell from the ceiling. The Voices wailed in Tavener’s mind, and he winced.

“the burning, the ripping, it hurts, how it hurts, isn’t it over yet”

            He shook his head and ran his fingers through close-cropped red hair. The Voices have always been quiet in the city… but for ages now, Sulkath has known only peace.

            Tavener knelt and rested his palm on the floor. He imagined replying to the Voices, whispering pictures They would understand. They never listen to my words. Hardy thistle swaying in gusts of wind. Stoic mountains unfazed by storms. A tranquil pool surrounded by dry grass nestled between sand dunes. Serenity.

            A boulder crashed into the smooth waters. Wildfires swept across the grass.

“they come, they come at last just as she promised but they are no different, they are no better, they bind us and rip us and mold us and remake us into whatever they desire, so much fire so much flame, their hunger never ceases and –“

            Tavener steeled his resolve and tuned out. He caught one last whimper.

“why don’t they go back home”

            Silence filled his head, but it did not last.

            His companion, Brightwell, watched him with a furrowed brow. “You look pained.”

            She huddled in shadow at the back of the shanty. He caught her checking the contents of the deerskin pouch for the fifth time today. “All part of the plan,” she says. But I’d sure like to know what’s in that bag.

            Her wavy auburn hair, streaked with sand and dust, curled around her face. Most of her once-green cloak and robe now matched the color of milk tea. She looks like a street urchin in need of a meal and a bath. Or two.

            He glanced down at his clothes. I’m sure I look no better.

            And Tavener had seen what she could do. She is no child in need of your protection, his conscience warned. She has deep wisdom, even if you do not yet understand it.

            She rose and drew near. “Is it the Elements? The voices you spoke of?”

            “It’s nothing. The battle is upsetting them.”

            Brightwell laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “My king, the one true king, has come. All will be set right. Tell the Elements they will not suffer much longer.”

            “I stopped listening. It’s easier than trying to convince them.”

            “Few things worth doing are easy, Tav.”

            He looked away. The moon crested the ruined skyline of Sulkath. “Time to move. Benestayn and Gherris won’t be patient.”

            Without waiting for a response, he stepped into the night. Can’t tell her how I really feel. Sure… your King has come. But Sulkath already has a king. And King Nafalis is not going to roll over and die at the sight of an opposing army, even if it is from Kandurien.

            Tavener picked his way through chunks of stone and scorched wood. Every building on this street suffered damage in the battle. The lower castes call Kandurien heaven on earth. But Kandurien’s armies tore right through the slums on their way to Nafalis. Who’s to say their King Hun-Shin is any better?

            The Voices answered in song.

“we see… we know… we watch the lands below… wherever our winds go… all flesh yearns for kandurien… all men wish… all men pray that hun-shin will rule one day…”

            “Cute,” Tavener muttered.

            “What’s that?” Brightwell asked. She trotted down the street to catch up, picking her way between piled bricks and craters in the hard-packed sand.

            “Voices of Air love to rhyme.”

            “Oh.”

            Tavener smiled. She tries to understand. That counts for something.

            He stopped and crouched behind a crumbling wall. Brightwell bumped into him, but he did not notice. The Voices drowned out everything else.

they come, they search, they will hurt you if they find her, like they hurt us when they rip and tear and bend and

            “I hear footfalls ahead, marching,” Brightwell blurted out. “Soldiers.” She looked all around for refuge, like a spooked rabbit.

            Tavener tugged Brightwell’s arm and ducked into an adobe hovel with a gaping hole in the front. A fire across the street cast flickering light into the single large room. Brightwell pulled her hood down as far as it would stretch, then hid behind Tavener. He understood. There’s little chance any of them will recognize her, but she’s still a fugitive.

            He thought of her deerskin pouch and its secret contents. Even Kandurien cannot afford to lose their Lifesingers.

            Three soldiers marched up the littered street as if all was well. The crisp swing of their boots kicked rocks and rubble out of the way. Silver trimming glistened on their coats, silver gauntlets reflected firelight. Despite his doubts about the invading King Hun-Shin and the armies of Kandurien, Tavener caught his breath at the sight.

            Men of Kandurien, in the flesh, here in Sulkath. I scarce believed this possible.

            An image of a stocky red-haired Dendriss filled his mind. Sammal, brother, you would have rejoiced to see this day.

            One of the soldiers spotted Tavener and turned. He raised an empty hand as a sign of peace and proclaimed, “Citizens of Sulkath, King Hun-Shin has seen fit to liberate you from oppression and usher you into his merciful care. Do not resist. We are here to help. Food distribution begins in the Palace Square at dawn.”

            The soldiers then continued on their way, scanning the buildings for other survivors.

            Tavener glanced at Brightwell and winked. “Acting like refugees worked, just like I said it would. Nothing to worry about. Now we need the rain you promised.”

            She smiled and nodded. “It’s coming.”

“so dry so barren no rain ever, she knows much but she must not know how the Waters come, so thirsty, when will the Waters come”

            A glimmer of hope sprung to life in Tavener’s heart, and he patted the ground.

            Soon.

            He heard the faint and unfamiliar Voice of Water scoff in the distance. Tavener sent a picture of sheets of rain, remembering every detail from the one time he’d seen it as a child.

            He received an image of cracked, parched earth baking under relentless sunlight.

            Brightwell rose and jogged down the street, away from the soldiers. Tavener gave chase.

            Soon. But first, we start cleansing the city.

            Memory came unbidden. Tavener pictured the last time he saw Sammal. They were two of a dozen new slaves, brought from afar to entertain the crowds. The arena master paced in front of the line, reciting his expectations and rules. Sammal spat at him as he passed by.

            The man paused his pace but not his speech. He drew his sword and cut Sammal open like a rotten pomegranate, then warned the others, “You are easily replaced.”

            Seven years in constant fear of death…

            And now the high arches of the tall circular structure and the statues of arena legends loomed before Tavener. Brightwell strode forward without stopping, but Tavener paused, hardening himself for what came next.

            Brightwell turned. “Tav?”

            I’ve told her of the Voices here… but she can’t understand. She never had to hear them.

            He sighed. “I’m all right. Let’s get this done. I hope that rain is coming soon.”

            She smirked. “It’s almost here.”

            The Voices were a low buzz, constant in the city. It was difficult, but he learned to ignore them. At the Rose Garden arena, that was impossible. Twisted by centuries of violence, they raged without ceasing.

“break them tear them someone come and cut their flesh and spill their juices hot and tangy, metallic and thick and sweet to slake Our thirst for just a little while longer, so long since men danced upon Our soil to pour out their lives and wet our parched throats”

            Tavener trembled as the rants continued. He forced himself forward to the stairs that led down into the arena’s oval floor. Brightwell took his hand. “It’s going to be fine, Tav. I’m here.”

“kill her kill her slit her throat and rend her skin and carve her until the life drips down and fills us with delicious warmth”

            They stood on windswept sand in the center of the arena. Though the stands were empty, Tavener heard shouts and catcalls of spectators from his past. He felt the lust of the warped Voice of Earth here, and its constant desire for more blood.

            “Now, Tav.”

            “Now what?”

            “Now it’s time for you to convince the rain to pour from the clouds.”

            Tavener heard Water’s distant laugh again. He glared at Brightwell.

            “This was your plan?”

            She nodded.

            Few things worth doing are easy, indeed.

Walking Death: Ch. 1

As promised, here’s the first story excerpt. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Walking Death, Chapter 1

The year the Empire fell began like any other in recent memory: celebration.

The Assassin knew the night would end with blood.

She crouched at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city of Veneshal. Black strands of hair brushed her tanned cheek, and she swept them away, eyes fixed on her goal far below. She peered into the distant shadows and dove.

Her grey cloak whipped behind her as she plummeted three hundred feet toward the highest tower of the magnificent building below. A cloud of black dust burst around her, and she froze in the air a hand’s length above the stone. Her foot touched down with serene poise.

The Assassin observed the rooftop below. She stood invisible in the night, hooded and covered in loose grey fabric, hidden from the city lights. Glimmering rings sat on pedestals around the manors of nobility. They twinkled in the night like stars fallen to the earth.

   Refocused magic. Arcanists are present.

The contract required a public killing, so the Assassin expected confrontation with a magic-user. She felt neither fear nor excitement at the challenge. She merely noted the complication and planned her reactions.

Throughout Veneshal, ornate paper lanterns hung above commoners’ doorframes in such great numbers that the few clouds and the rippling bay around the port city glowed like amber.  Music and the clamor of the New Year’s celebration rose to the assassin’s ears.

But no celebration echoed as loud nor building shone as bright as that on which the Assassin now stood. The Baricund dominated Veneshal’s skyline, both a fortress and the grand mansion of the Condral family, nobles with blood ties to the Emperor himself. Tarrandin Condral oversaw all trade that came through the docks, so he possessed enough wealth for frivolity. He held feasts and diversions year-round. Tonight’s celebration surpassed them all. Based on the plan the Assassin had been given, several thousand favored attendees would be inside the Baricund. The crowd outside doubled that number.

   Irrelevant to the mission. The ground exits are a worst-case option. Not even a team of Arcanists can keep up with me once I get outside.

There were fifteen guards in the courtyard below, sweating in shining plate armor. The unlucky few assigned to crowd control. Probably another score of guards within.

No one watched the rooftop.  The cliff face jutted out high above the Baricund.  Rappelling down was impossible.

   Then again, no one has seen powers like mine.

She gazed down at the stone roof and pictured the floor plans she memorized.  Tarrandin would have withdrawn to the private ballroom by now, surrounded by four hundred chosen guests.  His top lackeys and businessmen, most likely. Anyone connected to Hazfis Ral.

Ral’s criminal ties spread throughout every major city and town across the Empire. On receiving her mission, the Assassin wondered whether the enigmatic figure that indirectly purchased her services was Ral himself.  Counting Tarrandin Condral, four of her last seven targets worked in Ral’s network.  He’s cleaning house, or someone is sending him a message.

But the Assassin was not concerned about Hazfis Ral.  The man with the money does not matter. I have a contract; I will fulfill it.

She picked one stone on the rooftop and reached out in her mind.  Shadows stretched and oozed like spilled ink running across a sheet of paper. At her command, the darkness gathered in a slow swirl around her chosen stone until she could not see it. A whip-crack broke the silence as the stone shattered. The pool of shadow exerted tremendous force on the adjacent stones. Jagged lines spider-webbed out from the edges.

The hidden figure sprang from her perch, extending her hands toward the roof below.  Lines of fine black dust appeared in the air between her and the mass of darkness.  The ceiling crumbled. Stones plummeted and smashed the ballroom’s hardwood floor. The Assassin slipped through the new-formed hole, followed by the swirling plume of dark flecks left behind as the pool dissipated.

Partygoers froze. The orchestra stopped. All eyes turned toward the ceiling.

As the Assassin fell, she Stretched a new jet of shadow downward, pushing away from the ground to soften the impact. At the same time, she Pooled again, pulling a mixture of darkness and rubble into a funnel around herself.

When her foot touched the ballroom floor, she released all that she gathered. Broken rock sprayed out from the swirling cloud in every direction. Fabric and flesh tore with equal ease throughout the room as the Assassin Scattered all she had Pooled.

Screams echoed in the chamber. Men and women scrambled over each other in a dash to the exit. The Assassin scanned the crowd for anyone pushing against the human tide. Tarrandin’s bodyguards fought the panic and frenzy of the crowd, jostling their way through the rush of bodies. They wore no armor to speak of; they were still guests at a banquet and so were dressed in formal attire. Three wore eyeglasses. Three Arcanists. Manageable.

Pureblood human Arcanists used eyepieces called Oculars in order to manipulate magic. The potential energy of inanimate objects could be bound by the eyepiece, Refocused into a new form, then loosed in combat against a foe. Arcanists were the most destructive force in the Empire’s employ, but the Assassin felt no fear or worry. One at forward-left. One at forward-right. One at right flank… and weapons all around.

The Assassin’s powers could not touch an Ocular. She did not fully understand why. But the people wearing the devices were just flesh and blood. Jets of shadow dust reached out past the approaching bodyguards and Arcanists to yank several chunks of fallen rock toward the Assassin–through her foes.  Bloodstained stones thudded on the ground at her feet, followed by eight bodies. Two wore Oculars.

This was the opposite of Stretching, an ability she called Flexing. She could use the shadow to pull at an object. A large object could serve as an anchor for the Assassin to propel herself through the air. A small object could be Flexed or Stretched at high velocity as a projectile weapon.

The third Arcanist still stood unharmed. The stones she flung toward him splashed to the ground, Refocused into muddy water.

Six guards rushed her. Arcanist first.

She drew two long curved knives and leapt into the fray. The Assassin spun, parried, dodged, and slashed at the guards, but always her eyes remained fixed on the man with the Ocular. Her blades became a blur, her cloak a swirling shadow.

   They can only Refocus what they can see. Be faster than sight.

The ground under her softened like quicksand. Not fast enough! The Assassin Flexed at a nearby guard, pulling herself into the air and shoving him down into the puddle of liquid stone before it solidified around him. She landed with a slash across another guard’s arm, and he dropped his sword. This she Stretched toward the Arcanist, but the blade shimmered into droplets of metal. They sprayed past him and splattered across the wall.

She felt no frustration at this failed attack. The distraction served its purpose.

With a flick of her wrists, two silvery spikes flew toward the Arcanist. He swept at them with his arm, but they flew straight and remained intact. His eyes widened. Yes, they’re warpsilver too. You’re not the only one with fun toys.

The Arcanist fell to his knees, clutching at his eyes. A fist-sized stone on a stream of shadow dust punched into his chest and slid him across the floor.

The Assassin recovered the precious spikes, then turned her attention to the remaining guards. She Pooled shadow around herself. The guards grimaced, muscles straining against the sudden weight. None of them fled from her, a credit to their bravery.

   They should have.

The first two bodyguards reached out to capture her. To the assassin’s eyes, they looked like tired men slogging through a swamp. Their fingertips reached for her, and she exploded in motion. She punched out with both fists, knocking the breath from their lungs and bending them over. Then she sprung onto their shoulders, pushing them downward while jumping over their falling bodies to snap a sharp kick into the throat of a third guard.

In the midst of the chaos, one of her enemies raised a monocle to his eye. The Assassin smiled. You were wise to keep your power hidden until now.

Her foot brushed the ground and her leg spun around to sweep the third guard into the air. Then she Stretched, launching him at the new Arcanist. Thought so… you can dissipate a rock or blade, but you won’t risk hurting your ally. The Arcanist hesitated, and the guard crashed into him. Both went down in a heap of limbs.

Two bodyguards lunged toward the crouching Assassin, and she Stretched against the ground. The floor could not be moved, so the Stretch tossed the Assassin into the air between the guards. Her knives flashed, slicing into their necks. Then she Scattered, sending them away with a wave of force and black specks.

The Arcanist regained his footing, about to unleash the Refocused fireball in his hand. The Assassin threw her knives, speeding them along with a Stretch. He quickly shifted elements from fire to air, pushing the knives off course with a howling wind. The blades flew wide, curving behind the Arcanist. Then the Assassin Flexed, yanking them back point-first.

The wind stopped as the man fell. Bloodstains formed in his chest where the knives nearly pierced clean through.

The last bodyguard had the good sense to run. The Assassin gave no chase. Witnesses are part of the plan.

A third of the guests remained, eyes fixed on the action. In the center of the ballroom, the Assassin was alone with Tarrandin. He slouched at the table with heavy-lidded red eyes. The empty glass on its side clearly was not his first. This will be over soon.

The Assassin stepped forward, drawing two more knives.

Then Tarrandin grinned. Slurring in an alien language, he lifted a steak knife from the table and sliced his palm. He painted a small symbol on his forehead with the blood.

   So the rumors were true. He was a Kem’neth, a human filled with demonic power. She recognized the symbol. The sign of Deceit.

She paused in her approach. Ninety percent reduction in likelihood of success. She felt no sense of defeat, no fear of failure, and no exhilaration at the surprising challenge she now faced. Only an observation that she could very well die.

She brandished the knives and lunged.