Friday, May 1, 2015

A Dark Road Is Back

Well, it turned out to be a lot more than 3 weeks. Pretty much everything that could go wrong work-wise, did. Then more went wrong.

I'm back again now, with the 6th installment of Hengist of Tintagael, The Dragon Princess, now queued for publishing on Amazon. The pdf's available right now for free in Free Stories.

Hengist has now reached the Tarim Basin as he travels the Silk Road east in search of the waters of the dawn, and freedom from Dionysos.

On the way he meets a Princess of Lop Nur, daughter of a hequin princess who became queen, a blind sword saint and an Assurian sorcerer in the pay of the advancing Kushan army.

And, of course, the Old Tochari vampire queens.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Dark Road is on haitus for 3 weeks

Due to my day job commitments I'm pushing my publishing schedule back by 3 weeks. Story 6 will be due on Sunday 15/03/15, and the remaining stories each week after that.

I'm not too happy about this but realistically its the way it's going to be. There's only two of us in my team and when 1 goes on holidays everything doubles up. I knew my coworker was taking leave during my writing sprint but I'd planned to tough it out for 3 weeks.

Well, turns out not. As things would have it we also have our busiest time of the month now, plus several business-critical changes to our statement process, plus our contractor is leaving at the end of Feb. So kind of a perfect storm for late nights and weekends Charlie spends not-writing. I tried to get no 6 out last week. Not only didn't I make it but I hardly saw my wife or the kids all week. I swear if the dog goes unwalked for another week his legs will evolve into pouffes.

So, onward to the 15th!

Monday, February 16, 2015

The People Of The Abyss Is on Amazon!

Warning: mature themes. The People Of The Abyss circles the Ganymede myth, so Hengist's love interest this time is another guy. As with The Sword From The Sea's Medea / Goddess theme, the sex isn't in any way graphic but it is an explicit part of the story.

Other than that it's business as usual. Hengist continues east across a sword-&-sorcery Silk Road mashup of the ancient world, the dark ages, and the crusades. He's trying to rid himself of the influence of Dionysos whose three gifts come at a price Hengist no longer wants to pay.

The basic plot is classic pulp sword and sorcery: Hengist is stuck in the mountains (probably the Pamirs or the northwestern Himalayas) when a storm forces him into a jade-walled palace sitting on a spire of rock rising from a bottomless chasm. As the mise en scene suggests, a brush with sorcery & Netherworld denizens soon ensues.

Will Dionysos help Hengist as he's done in the past, or will Hengist be left on his own in his most desperate hour?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What I Learned Writing The Burning Sand

The Burning Sand (here on Amazon) was both the hardest and the easiest of all the stories of A Dark Road so far.

Easiest: the writing. I spent far less time actually writing that the previous 3 stories - maybe only half as much. It flowed. I didn't sweat over it for hours cutting it from 7,500 words to 5,000. There was no agonizing over what to take out. The whole thing came in just over 4,500 words and it didn't feel forced in any way.

In hindsight that was due to two things. First: the story is extremely linear. It's simple. There's not many moving parts to figure out and allot screen time to. Second: I'm actually getting better at recognizing what's essential to the story I'm trying to tell and what's extraneous to it. I did very little backtracking. I recognized the blind alleys in my head much sooner, rather than following them for hundreds or thousands of words before I saw it. Although that wasn't something I noticed at the time it's very cool to see it now.

Hardest: despite it being dramatically less work I slipped by an hour submitting to Amazon. I was still up at midnight on Sunday night. The the better the writing went, the less I was able to keep myself at the desk actually writing.

On the plus side I got the pool filter cleaned and the lawn mowed on Sunday. That might not sound like much but mowing our lawn is something of an adventure. Especially after four weeks of high rainfall, lots of sun and zero attention. I had knee-high trees growing out of it (true).

The weird thing is that right up to the weekend I always felt like I was ahead on the writing. Even though I'd taken my foot off the gas I convinced myself I was tearing up the tarmac. By Friday I was only halfway through at best with no sense of urgency.

While that warm self-deceptive glow is a lot more pleasant than drowning in doubt and self-disgust - this is total shit, I'll never be a writer, actually I've never wanted to be and so on - functionally it's identical. I wasn't finishing my shit.

But I got it done. It's up on Amazon next with it's three predecessors. I'm proud of that.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Burning Sand is on Amazon!

Like all the Hengist stories this is set in an imaginary sword-and-sorcery version of a real place. Here it's Kyzyl Kum, the Red Sands desert in Turkmenistan, and the giant eternally burning crater known as The Devil's Gate in the neighboring desert of Kurrakum, or Black Sands**.

Check it out on Amazon
 Hengist has three gifts bestowed on him by Dionysos: the gift of tongues, the gift of music, and the gift of killing. But gifts from the gods come at a price, one Hengist resolves to pay no more.

He presses east, determined to find the waters of dawn spoken of by the oracle that will free him from Dionysos forever. When he enters the red sands it's People know as the World, he thinks he's done just that. He learns how to live as one in the desert and believes his old life is behind him forever.

Dionysos, however, is not the only power from beyond the walls of the world - nor the most terrible.

The Burning Sand is the fourth in A Dark Road, my 10 stories in 10 weeks project featuring Hengist of Tintagael's odyssey across a sword-&-sorcery dark-ages/crusades Central Asia analog.

** In our world Kyzyl Kum and the Devil's Gate are way too far apart for Hengist to walk between them the way he does in the story. It seems the two worlds are not an exact copy of each other after all.

What I learned about writing The Sword From The Sea

I broke the rules with The Sword From The Sea. It's just over 5200 words, and according to the rules it has to be between 4500 - 5000.

My previous 2 stories in the sequence, The Iron Casque and The Gate In The Void, both came in at 7500+ in their drafts. I worked hard to slash the word count down to 5000 for both of them. Although it was tough I succeeded, and the stories were stronger because of it - it forced me to look at extraneous plot choices and indulgent passages.

 With The Sword From The Sea, I didn't cut it below 5000. I tightened up everything I could but there just wasn't the fat in there that the other two had. I couldn't keep cutting without removing vital pieces of plot structure.

Some years ago I wrote a novella called Brand Of Cirgyl of around 23,000 words. I later decided it had to be under 20,000. I attacked it ruthlessly over about a dozen rewrites. At the end I'd taken out so much that it was essentially gibberish. I realized I'd broken it, although not how or why, and left it to gather dust. It never got under 20,000 words.

So in The Sword From The Sea, when I couldn't take out any more plot-related elements, and I realized I'd reached the limit on how much style and setting I could remove without maiming what I'd left behind, I stopped. I could feel that I was close to the edge of the precipice that had caused Brand's demise. The Sword From The Sea was 5200 words, which broke the rules (but left, I hoped, my story intact) and promised my self that I'd do the next story in 4800 words.

By now The Burning Sand is done. It came in at 4500 words.

Review Of Trey Causey's Strange Stars

I'd seen the Strange Stars buzz but the product didn't grab my interest. To unpack that a bit: I don't play space rpgs regularly, I've never run one and have no real plans to do so, and to be brutally honest I just didn't find the cover appealing. This last doesn't signify much, except as an observation that art and taste are intensely personal and this didn't intersect with mine.

Chris Kutalik's interview with Trey at Hill Cantons changed my mind. Partly that was Chris' recommendation, which I value, part was the glimpse I got of Trey's professionalism in his approach to production, and partly it was his comments, which resonate with my own thoughts right now, around pulp-era-inspired paring back of the word count in a way that boosts rather than sacrifices impact.

I bought the pdf, which is normal for me. I like pdfs. Shipping to Australia isn't cheap and my shelf space isn't unlimited.

These are my thoughts.

The Material
The material is 5 star scifi. I don't say that lightly. It reminds me of George RR Martin's scifi setting (A Song For Lya, Dying of the Light, Sandkings, Tuf Voyaging) with a dose of Gibson's Sprawl. Both of these are to me masterpieces of sf setting. I really think Strange Stars approaches that level.

The Layout
The layout is inspired. It's done in illustrations with paragraph-length text inserts clustered around them. The presentation reminded me of Marvel Hero Rpg datafiles and it works. As an aside, my first thought was that this concept is quite limited in terms of what types of products it will work with - that it works great for a scifi setting book but wouldn't work at all with a module or full length game, or anything to do with fantasy - but now I'm not so sure.
In Strange Stars, it's a clean and powerful way of delivering the infodump. This is more subtle that the material's wall of gorgeous but as time passes I'm beginning to think its equally inspired.

The Art
I found the art competent and professional. The cover art is a solid indicator of the aesthetic you'll find inside, which for me is a big tick and a strong endorsement of the art direction choices.
The amount of art used is a standout: every page bar the two end-pages and the second-last page is built around a piece of artwork and/or color diagrams. These aren't random inclusions, either.  It's very obviously a conscious design choice made to present the content in a very specific way. It's coherent and extremely effective.

The Chasch
In my book any product that includes a Chasch-analog (the Ssraad, p27) gets an extra star right there.

Use At The Table
Something you need to be aware of if you're not already is that this product is not a doorstop-style sourcebook, or a list of canned adventure seeds. It's a reference tool of inspirations for a rich scifi setting. The good news is that 1) there are a ton of adventure ideas embedded in the text, and b) the setting, though only offered in glimpses, is both deep and consistent.

I paid 9.99 for the pdf. I've read some comments claiming that's steep for a product of 30 pages. I don't think so. This is an art-heavy product with professional layout, neither of which come cheap. I'm satisfied I've gotten and will continue to get my money's worth.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Sword From The Sea is on Amazon!

The Sword From The Sea is the third in A Dark Road, my 10 stories in 10 weeks project featuring Hengist of Tintagael's odyssey across a sword-&-sorcery dark-ages/crusades Central Asia analog.

Hengist, following the words of the oracle from Ctesiphon in the last story, journeys to the edge of the Tethys Sea and the city of Bek Udesh. He plans to bathe in what he hopes is the eastmost sea and the waters of the dawn. Only then will he be free of the god Dionysos.

Things are never so simple for fictional heroes. Hengist finds himself caught between the sorcerer-king Mithridates of Bek Udesh, and the king's ancient nemesis Medea of Kolkis.

Once again the story got up on time but the blog post came much later. Technically it meets the deadline (in the same or next week the story is being written) but I'm not that happy with writing the post so late after the book's published. Anyways.

The title "The Sword From The Sea" is actually a reference to one of my favourite books and authors, "The Bull From The Sea" by Mary Renault. The part of me that still harbours illusions about being cool and edgy cringes at using "The Sword From The Sea" as a published title. It thinks it's kind of ganky. But fuck it, retro-me is driving this one.

Somewhere in my head it fits, so it stays.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What I learned writing The Gate In The Void

This is what I learned about writing when writing The Gate In The Void:

First up,  I submitted it to Amazon on 25/01/15 at 11:30 am. That's inside the deadline and 9 hours earlier than my first in the series, The Iron Casque. So thats a good thing, although I still spent all day Saturday on it and 6 hours on Sunday morning. That's still too long.

I took a different tack this time from last time.

In view of the troubles I had with The Iron Casque I decided to spend 2 days really nailing an in-depth outline of the story structure to avoid the constant backtracking that plagued Iron Casque. When I started to write, I hoped, it would then be a non-stop blast through my point by point outline and an easy race home to the finish line.

But I ended up taking 3 days of prep to write 3000+ words of outline and notes that only really got used in the first 1000 words or so of the final draft. So, it really wasn't an efficient use of writing time.

Essentially this is again because of my underdeveloped sense of structure / how much plot can reasonably fit into a 5k story.

Like last time, I'm struck by how much I have to learn about the craft of writing - how to get this character on stage to develop this plot point in a believable and prose-economical way, how to show that event effectively, how to make sure each element's word count is proportional to its significance to the story, and so on.

I really don't know how I avoided coming to grips with this stuff in any but the most cursory way in my previous writing, but somehow I did. Its actually quite fascinating. I'm hopeful that by the end of 10 stories in 10 weeks I'll know how and why that could happen.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Gate In The Void is on Amazon!

The Gate In The Void is the second in A Dark Road, my 10 stories in 10 weeks project featuring Hengist of Tintagael.

I originally titled it Black Ctesiphon, after an oldschool dungeon rpg module I wrote for my kids. I thought it would be cool and fun to write at story that takes place in a setting modelled 99% faithfully on my actual dungeon writeup. Hence the name.

But it turned out that very little of the action took place in the dungeon (after Hengist puts the smackdown on the giant solifugid, that is).

What the story ended up being was an old fashioned netherworld foray surprisingly similar in structure to an early Jirel Of Joiry tale.

I was pretty happy with this since I'm a massive CL Moore fan. But the really interesting thing is that I didn't plan it that way (and at first actually resisted it). It grew naturally from the structural constraints of a 5000-word S&S story.

That is, I had 5000 words to:

* sketch my protagonist
* assemble a supporting cast
* establish the opening setting
* establish a reasonable premise for all the characters to be there and to be working together
* describe the netherworld: physical characteristics, laws, denizens, atmosphere
* bring the plot home
* establish the hook for the next story
* make everything above interesting

These are  staples for pretty much every S&S short story, except the netherworld element: and that's the one, it turned out, that needed the lion's share of the word count. I think the biggest reason was simply that you can't convey weird + spooky + alien (or at least I can't) without a serious chunk of screen time. You need to paint a word picture of pretty much everything the heroes do and encounter there, because you can't use mental shortcuts to setup a scene the way you can in a familiar setting.

So the alien world becomes the main feature, and you have to pare back everything else. That left me with no room for tooling around the dungeon.

I could have left out the netherworld entirely and made the mainstay the dungeon itself, but I wanted to do both. Then when the story wasn't long enough to keep both, the strongest contender elbowed out the other one.

So I ended up with an old-fashioned pulp S&S netherworld story, and "Black Ctesiphon" got replaced with a much more old-fashioned pulp S&S name.

Which as it turns out, I like better.

The next one in the series has a working title of A False Sea. Its where Hengist travels to the Caspian Sea in the belief that it holds what he's looking for. Only instead he ends up hooking up with Medea and fighting giant blind sharks and getting stuck in the middle of centuries-long sorcerous war (and of course he doesn't find what he's looking for after all. Its still only Book 3).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What I Learned Writing The Iron Casque

This is what I learned about writing while writing The Iron Casque:

- I tried to put way too much stuff in. It was really, really hard** to physically and mentally fit all the essential plot points in 5000 words. The plot kept pushing every other story element (setting, character, atmosphere) off the page.

** When I say "hard" I mean "impossible". I've learned I have a very poor grasp of how little of a plot fits strongly in 5000 words. (On the plus side, I have a lot of plot to work with when looking for strong elements to actually make it into the story. I just have to be more Darwinian about it).

Note: The first draft was around 7500 words. That's a lot of extra material to cut out. There isn't that many extra words just in the word-padding in my sentences. To get this story down to my limit (4500 to 5000 words) I had to slice out a whole chunk of plot and leave it squirming on the cutting room floor.
That was shocking to do, but it was 2 am and I had to be up for work the next day at 5:30.
So I did, and I concertina'd the plot in a new slimline version, and it made the story stronger.

- I took a little too much description out. Paring down the description to fit the word count at 3 am Sunday night sliced off some things that would have made the story richer. In some places the prose was a little too sparse. This is sword and sorcery.

That's what happens when you have no time at the end of your deadline.

- I need to track how long I spend writing
  - WRITEROOM does this automatically?

- I spent WAY too long on this story. I spend around 40 hours just writing a story of 5000 words. That doesn't include cover, background, notes, & outline.
That's insane and impossible. I have a wife, 3 kids, a dog, a yard and a full time job that deserve my time as well.

- I wrote so SLOWLY. This was due to:

    - going back and polishing what I'd written as I was writing (this was a good thing. It saved time later. Just needs to be quicker).

    - stylistic rewrites of what i'd written in previous sessions each time I sat down (this was a bad thing).

    - lack of focus: writing a scene or the start of a scene then taking it out before the end of the session because it was a distraction to the actual story (a stronger sense of what is and is not the story should see this naturally fall away. for now, spending extra time on strong focus and preplanning of each chapter / short story should make this better).

    - inexperience with structure: writing a scene or scenes then later realizing that direction was a blind alley/would not take the story where I planned it to go

    - overwriting: too many words to say what I needed to be said (being mindful of this while writing should correct this if repeated often enough. I hope.)

    - PASSIVE VOICE: this was the thing I wrestled with most but was the most useful.The only way to fix this is to keep going back for every sentence and fixing it, again and again. But it meant I couldn't get any flow happening. I had to continually redraft the sentence or paragraph I'd just written from passive to active.

In conclusion:
I finished the story. It came in under 5000 words, and I was happy with it at the end. I was 3 and half hours over time (submitted to Amazon 3:30 am AEST) but I'm OK with that. I did what I set out to do and that made me feel proud.

And I had no idea about some of the stuff on this page. I've learned a lot.

The Iron Casque is on Amazon!


The first story of my Dark Road sequence of short stories is now available on Amazon.

I finished submitting it to Amazon on 19/01/15 at 3:30 am Australian EST.

That's 3 and half hours late according to the rules but I'm OK with that on the first week.

In it, the hero of the story (and all the others in the sequence) is Hengist of Tintagael, a warrior from the sword-and-sorcery  world of Dis who meets an enigmatic and beautiful woman on the road from Damascus.

Naturally things don't go smoothly. Alchemy, murder, clay golems and the gifts of Dionysos are unlikely to make a pleasant mix. Things go probably about as you'd expect.

Monday, January 12, 2015

10 stories, 10 weeks

I'm going to write 10 sword-and-sorcery short stories in the next 10 weeks and put them on Amazon.

Story 1: Due 18 Jan 2015

Last year I read about someone who decided to create a website every day for 180 days, even though she'd never written a line of code before, and then did that.

As someone who's whined about wanting to be a writer for decades that blows me away.

So every week for the next 10 weeks I'm going to write a sword-and-sorcery short story from scratch and publish it on Amazon.

That might not sound like much. For some people it's not. But to have 10 stories on Amazon by the end of March will be something I'll be proud of.

These are the rules:
  1. each week starts on Monday at 1 minute past midnight and ends at midnight the following Sunday, Australian Eastern Standard Time
  2. "short story" means from 4500 to 5000 words
  3. "from scratch" means I start each week with zero words of the story written
  4. "published" means submitted to Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing by the end of the week
  5. each story will be a complete, ready to market ebook, as polished as I can make it, including a cover image
  6. after each story I'll post a companion blog post about the process here, either in the week of writing or the week after it
  1. the stories will all be a linked collection inspired by Harold Lamb's Swords From The West and set in the dark ages/crusades/sword-and-sorcery world of Dis.
  2. I'm doing the covers myself. This isn't part of the rules per se but I can't justify the cost of 10 covers for 50,000 words. So I've downloaded Photoshop on a free 30 day trial and I'm teaching myself to use it.
  3. the covers don't have to be done from scratch each week, just the stories. If I can do any covers before I start work on the story, I will.
  4. the writing and covers don't have to be without flaw. They just have to be something I'm not ashamed of and that I can finish in the timeframe. One of the major reasons behind this project is accepting that the perfect is the enemy of the good and so on.
  5. I already have names and outlines for the 10 stories, I just haven't started writing any of them.

Wish me luck.


Project Start: Monday 12/01/15
Project End  : Sunday 22/03/15

      Working Title                    Start On        Submit On
1    The Iron Casque                 12/01/15           18/01/15
2    Black Ctesiphon                 19/01/15           25/01/15
3    The False Sea                     26/01/15            01/02/15
4    Blood Sands                       02/02/15            08/02/15
5    The Palace In The Abyss   09/02/15            15/02/15
6    A Princess Of Loulan        16/02/15            22/02/15
7    Place Of Ruins                   01/02/15            01/03/15
8    The Jade Gate                    02/03/15            08/03/15
9    Gyong Yin Temple              09/03/15            15/03/15
10  Pillars Of Dawn                16/03/15            22/03/15

Saturday, January 10, 2015

what's swords & spires?

Swords & Spires is the term I use to describe the fantastic fiction I love best.

Its fiction that features the struggles of a central, self-reliant fantasy protagonist (or more rarely, a pair of them) against the backdrop of an exotic and fantastic world.

The protagonist is the Swords part. The Spires part is the fantastic and exotic world they inhabit. Both parts must be vivid and both have to be front-and-center of the story, or it doesn't qualify.

Barsoom is a poster child for Swords & Spires, as is Howard's Hyboria.

Tanith Lee's Storm Lord and Birthgrave series are 110% Sw&Sp.

So is Andre Norton's Witch World, and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark and most any of her short stories. Clark Ashton Smith is, and Vance's Dying Earth, and MZB's Darkover books.

Zelazny's Amber is Sw&Sp, as is Harrison's Viriconium. Almost all of Moorcock is.

Dune is. Tolkien isn't.

Gemmel and Asimov aren't. Heinlein isn't. Leiber's Nehwon is, but his scifi isn't.

I use the term Swords & Spires because I often want a way to talk or think about these kind of stories as if they're the same thing. I can't do that using existing genre labels without a lot of qualifications.

To be clear, I don't have any problem with existing genre and subgenre labels. I mostly find genre labels useful or at the very least harmless. I just like to use the term Swords & Spires because

a) this type of fiction is spread across a number of different genres

b) those genres also include** a lot of other kinds of story that don't have the qualities I'm talking about

** usually. Sword-and-planet is the one exception I can think of.

the state of fantasy

Innovation doesn't come from the middle.

If you expect to see genre-breaking fiction in the middle of a genre - any genre - you're looking in the wrong place. Because that's how genre works.

Over at Black Gate, Connor Gormley wrote that fantasy is derivative, unimaginative and limited.

I guess he's never watched a movie like this, or this, or read anything by this guy.

He can't have read this book about a dragon, or this or this about wizards.

He must never have looked here and seen the stuff on elves. Or, you know, here.

And he can't ever have read this about dwarves.

All of these are the kind of fantasy Connor says doesn't exist. Not only has it always been here, it's being produced daily. In volume, with the weird dial ranging from 1 through to 11. If you don't see it, the only failure of imagination is your own.

The best news? If you're reading this and still think fantasy is stifled, that's OK. Because if you're serious about your passion then you can do what Moorcock and Tolkien and every other writer did when they looked around and didn't see the fiction they loved or wanted or needed: they created it themself. Just like everyone I've linked to in this post did. You can do it too. There's never been a better time.