Saturday, December 27, 2008

Using this blog for its intended purpose.

Is it bad that today I remembered one more thing that I disliked about Seize the Night? I'm not going to blog about it right now, because I honestly need to stop thinking about that darned book and focus my thoughts on more important things, like my own writing, the game room renovations we'll* be starting on Monday, and the New Year's Day gift exchange we'll be hosting.

If a song that keeps playing over and over in your mind is an earworm, what do you call a book whose details keep occupying your thoughts? Is it an eyeworm? A mindworm? A bookworm? No, wait, that's something else altogether. The thing that annoyed me the most was that on Wednesday night, my dreams were partially set in the world of the book. I never dream about being in MY book's world**, but my subconscious has no problem sticking me in a world populated by annoyingly emo vampire hunters. Thanks, brain. Is this how you repay me? 26 years of letting you live in my skull, and this is what it's come down to?

So, as you might have surmised from the title of this blog post, I am procrastinating. That's what this blog is for: killing time and telling you all about my writing. Perhaps I should ramble a little less, and talk a little more about writing.

My gift to myself on Christmas Day*** was to spend the entire day writing. Since I didn't have the internet, I couldn't post on this blog. Instead, I played various forms of Solitaire and Minesweeper (I literally have nothing installed on this laptop). There's only so long I can play such games, so I managed to write somewhere between 15 and 16 pages. I think the most I've ever written in a day is in the 20 range, and that tends to happen either when I've just started a story and I'm full of inspiration, or I've just hit the end and I simply can't go to sleep without finishing it (those are the days when I go to bed shortly before my husband gets up for work). I'm usually lucky to write more than a page or two a day lately, as I've really been dragging my feet. So 15-16 was a big deal for me.

The reason that I've been dragging my feet for so long is that I've reached the point in the book where various plot points and characters have to converge. Making them come together smoothly is hard work. Luckily, while I was out in the desert, taking my friend's dogs for a walk, I had some inspiration on how to smooth over a couple of issues I was having trouble with. Once I did that, I fell into this rush to write everything I'd thought of. This resulted in a lot of rather short scenes that I'll probably have to flesh out a bit more in my second draft. But at least I'm moving forward again.

For no reason other than that I feel like it, I think I'll start adding my current wordcount to every blog post, so that I can track my progress and see just how lazy I am. Today's wordcount: 77,932.

*I often blog under the assumption that everyone already knows everything about my life. "We" pretty much always refers to me and my husband Chris, although in this case, my Dad and possibly my brother and some of our friends will be helping with the game room project.

**Two of the four books in my currently-abandoned series were inspired by dreams, but that doesn't count. I had the dreams then wrote the books, not the other way around.

***I haven't celebrated Christmas for about 13 years now, but I take any excuse to give myself a gift. Also, I can't stop writing footnotes tonight.

Friday, December 26, 2008

I am a defective woman.

If stereotypes are to be believed, I should like romance novels. It's like porn for girls, right? So I guess if I was a guy, I wouldn't like porn, because I'm totally not getting into the paranormal romance genre. I've tried. Honestly I have. I've read a whole... three novels that might count as paranormal romance. Plus one entire series that sits somewhere between paranormal romance and normal modern fantasy. The series I can handle, but the honest-to-goodness romance stuff just annoys me on several levels.

I spent Christmas Eve reading Sherrilyn Kenyon's Seize the Night. It was a Comic Con give-away, so I decided I'd read it and review it for Collector Times. After writing a three-page review (which will be available on January 1st), I realized that I hadn't managed to complain about everything that annoyed me about it, so it's spilling over into this little rant.

So you don't feel lost, here's a capsule review: Seize the Night is a book in the middle of a series about a bunch of immortal demon/vampire hunters called the Dark-Hunters, who work under the auspices of the Greek goddess Artemis. This particular volume concerns a 2000 year old Roman general, and the 20-or-30-something human vampire hunter who are complete opposites but fall in luuuuuurve anyway, while kind of sort of maybe worrying about killing some demon/vampires that want to kill her twin sister, who is married to one of his old enemies.

I addressed a lot of my problems with the book in specific and the genre in general in the review, so I won't rehash them here, but here are a few more that I came up with:

1: Seriously people, learn how to portray gods. This was the second book I've read where the author comes up with a depiction of a goddess that I completely disagree with. I'm not an expert, per se, but I have studied a bit of mythology in my time, and the two goddesses in specific are ones I've read up quite a bit on: The Morrigan and Artemis. The former is a crow goddess of death and the battlefield. She wasn't a very nice lady. She forced Cu Cuchlain into a situation where he had to choose to break one or the other of his two geases, leading to his death. Yet Nora Roberts somehow manages to portray her as some sweet, beautiful, nature-loving, vampire-hating goddess. And then there's Artemis, who's considered indifferent at best to men, if not a man-hater and/or lesbian. She was a capable huntress and was later syncretized with a fellow moon-goddess, Hecate, the goddess of crossroads, who is also often associated with magic. How do you take that and turn it into a woman who keeps a stable of incredibly sexy men as her person demon/vampire hunters? And who, when we finally actually see her in the book, spends her time ineffectively dithering about what to do to avoid upsetting the oh-so-sexy and mysterious uber-character? She comes across like a schoolgirl who's freaking out because she put a scratch on her crush's sports car. Ugh.

I understand that in many mythologies, the gods were seen merely as more powerful reflections of ourselves, with all the foibles of humanity writ large. But I'd still like to see a god or goddess written in a way that suggests that they should actually inspire awe and worship in mortals. At the very least, having lived for thousands of years should give them some level of wisdom and maturity beyond that of the average human.

2: And while we're talking about wisdom and maturity... how about men who have lived for thousands of years, entering into relationships with women in their 20s or 30s? Talk about robbing the cradle! When discussing age differences of 10 years or so, people often bring up the difficulty of differing life experiences, relationship expectations, and lifestyles. How much worse is it going to be for someone who has seen empires rise and fall, living with someone who can count the number of presidential terms they lived through on their fingers?

Then, of course, the immortal has to either accept the fact that their loved one will die after a few decades, while they live on for many centuries. Or they have to somehow give up their immortality, so they can live out a single lifetime with their lover. Let me tell you, my husband and I have had to deal with fights over the minor sacrifices we've made for each other. Can you imagine having THAT thrown in your face every time you have a fight? "Oh yeah? I gave up ETERNITY for you! I don't think asking you to do the dishes is such a big deal compared to that." Plus, what if the mortal love dies suddenly and unexpectedly, mere weeks after you've sacrificed your immortality? I doubt the gods are just going to give it back to you, because you ask nicely. Now there's a book I want to read.

Or perhaps, in some fairy tale endings, the mortal love is granted immortality. Well snap. You get to spend eternity with your lover. Hope it works out for you. Hope you don't mind watching every single other person you love grow old and die. Hope you're prepared to deal with changing your identity every few decades to avoid suspicion. Hope that your kids are immortal, too. No parent should have to outlive all of their children.

3: Three words for you: whirlwind freakin' courtships. Yes, people can know almost from the start of a relationship that they want to spend the rest of their lives together. But I have a hard time suspending my belief when, within a matter of *days* two characters go from hating each other to not just hopping into the sack, but declaring their love for each other. And then within weeks or months, they're married. Awww. How sweet. Right. That totally happens in real life.

4: Do Romans taste better than those who are not? (bonus points if you catch the song reference) Several times during the course of Seize the Night, the female lead "moans at the taste of her Roman" (or general). Does his nationality really affect his flavor? And can he really be called "her general" the first freakin' time she kisses him? Does a single kiss immediately confer ownership? Perhaps that's how vampire hunters mark their territory. I suppose it's better than my cat's method, but it has to be really weird, watching her walk through the store and smooch everything before she buys it.

5: Unquestioning acceptance of flaws and shady past. If my husband of eight years, whom I already love very much, confessed to me some dark secret from his youth, I would probably be able to forgive him. If some guy that I just met less than a week ago had done horrible things, and my family already hated him, and I didn't find out from him, but from some god who thought I should know what I was getting into, I wouldn't just shrug it all off and say "Oh, that's ok, he did the wrong things for the right reasons." I might still end up with the guy eventually, but I'd have to take at least a few days off from the relationship to think things through and ask myself if I could really live with a man who had, say, tortured people.

Then again, I suppose all of the mind-numbingly great sex that we'd been having over the past few days of knowing each other might cloud my judgement a bit (I could say more on the subject of the sex, but I told Blogger that this blog didn't have adult content, so I don't want to get too detailed).

6: Deus Ex Machina. Ok, this is something I hate about any book in any genre, or any movie for that matter, who can't just let its main characters solve their problems. But really, what is the point of having two moderately powerful characters, and making me spend an entire book watching them fall in luuuuuurve, if in the end, they have so little to do with the climax of the story that they might as well not be there? Seriously, I thought I was finally going to see some action of the non-sexual sort, but instead I get some uber-character coming in and taking care of everything with little more than a flick of the wrist. Gee. That's exciting.

I suppose the worst part of all is that whenever I read a book that I don't like, I get really paranoid about my own writing and I have to go back over it and question whether I'm doing any of the things that bothered me about what I just read. But then again, if I find that my writing is too bad, I guess I can come up with reasons for my characters to have mind-numbingly good sex, add a few lines about burning groins, market it as paranormal romance, and become a best seller.

No, I'm not bitter.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Background: Ainsley Anklam, Rifts

To help keep things from getting stale around here, I'm going to post a few roleplaying character background stories. Don't worry, I won't be offended if you don't want to read them. I figure a lot of people out there are about as interested in my character stories as I am in stories about sports games (that is to say, not at all).

The story of Ainsley Anklam -- a Temporal Wizard in a Rifts game that I played for a few months -- seems like a good place to start. It doesn't have very many gaming terms at all in it, it's short, and it's a demonstration of how I use character backgrounds as a way to experiment with different narrative styles and voices. I would never write anything of any serious length from first person with such a casual tone, but it works for a background. It helps me cement the character in my mind, and it gives the gamemaster a good idea of what he can expect from me.

Rifts is a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi game that takes place in a future Earth with magic, monsters, robots, all sorts of crazy stuff. Rifts are magical portals that stuff can travel through. DeeBee is slang for Dimensional Being (any species not originally from Earth). Other than that, I think I kept the terminology at a minimum. So, Merry Christmas, and if you know someone who might like to read this, feel free to re-gift by giving them a link ;)

My Daddy was a grifter. We were always on the move and he was always doing little things to get stuff for free. Free meals, free lodging, free money. Sometimes it was honest stuff, play up on peoples’ sympathies and they’ll help you out of the kindness of their hearts, but most of the time it was straight-up scam artistry. I helped a lot. After all, what better to set people at ease than a cute little red-headed girl with a smattering of freckles? It varied whether I was an actual participant in his grift, or just an adorable presence at his elbow, smiling at the mark.
Sure, I remember a lot of the ploys we used to use - but I sure ain’t gonna tell you. Trade secret, you know.
Daddy had a lot of good words for advice. He’d tell me things like “Honesty is a virtue in other people and a weakness in yourself” and “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Never eat expired ham.” But his favorite thing to say, above all else, was “You can’t con the con man.”
He should have listened to his own advice. He always thought that it meant that no one could con him and he never stopped to think that maybe he should be careful to make sure he wasn’t trying to pull one over on someone even trickier than him. One day he tried to pull off a huge scheme on some other guy. I don’t even know what he was doing, or how he messed it up, or what the terms were, but apparently it was some sort of bet that he lost, and I was the wager.
So that’s how I found myself, at the age of 10, as the property of some ugly whatsit who liked to be-bop around in time and space. No kidding.
I went from assisting one con to assisting another, but my master wasn’t a small-timer like Daddy. He did big jobs. Sometimes he tricked people out of stuff, but mostly he just took it. I learned a lot from watching him, ways to distract people and then just pick something up when they weren’t looking. Fun stuff. He taught me some important stuff, too, like how to speak a couple languages and even read Euro, and how to do math.
When I got old enough, he taught me all kinds of skills that he found it helpful for me to have. Every now and then, he’d steal something big, like a vehicle, and we’d need to break it down to parts. Then we’d have to find buyers. Mostly the boss-man would do that, but sometimes he’d let me tag along. I got to know a thing or two about buying and selling and being sly about it. One day he caught me palming, and gave me some exercises that would teach me how to “do it right.” He also gave me some locks to play with. Daddy would’ve been proud, I think.
Sometimes, when he didn’t want to travel ‘round with his magic, he’d let me drive. I got pretty good with cars and hovers; anything else he’d pilot himself. Just because I crashed that one tank into a building in the middle of our great getaway...
Things weren’t too bad with him, all told. Sure, he wasn’t loving like Daddy, and he had this bad habit of wanting to be all “mysterious” - bastard never even told me his name, so I started thinking of him as “Big Ugly,” though I always called him Boss or Master. He liked that. Anyway, he took pretty good care of me. There was always food, and decent clothes, and when I was 12 he gave me my first gun. He did keep me pretty busy with chores around his “lair” (ok, so it was a nice apartment, but lair sounds more impressive), and sometimes helping with jobs.
Wasn’t until I was 15 that I realized that he’d actually wanted me for something more than housework - ugh, no, not like that you pervert. Truth be told I don’t even know if he was a he. But anyway, I was about 15 when he really took me on as an apprentice. Started teaching me about space and time and magic, and how to bend it all to my will. I’d never thought that I’d ever have a chance at that kind of power, so I latched right onto it before it could get away.
Dunno if I was a good student or not, but Big Ugly seemed happy enough with my progress. He started letting me help with the big jobs, and a couple of times he even let me do a job all by myself. I got really good at getting things, one way or another. Of course, even if I actually purchased things, they were things that someone else had stolen, and I bought them with money we had stolen. Or made by selling stolen goods. I doubt I ever handled clean money during my ‘prenticehood, but that’s ok.
We traveled around a lot, but even more once I started learning magic. All over Europe and into Asia and over to America and down into Mexico once. Of course, our travel wasn’t just limited to this world - we went to some others, too. I traveled through rifts and portals, and learned that I had a knack for reading them, which came in pretty handy. I met all kinds of DeeBees and fought a few monsters and stole stuff that I had no idea what it was. Most of it was for jobs, but sometimes it was just sitting there and I’d take it. Hell, it’s hard not to do that when you can.
We passed a little over a year like that, til one day Big Ugly said that if I wanted to work with him any longer, we’d have to strike up a new bargain. Turned out he and Daddy had struck the original bargain without consulting me, so I guess my father had some idea what he was getting me into at the time. Suppose I should be grateful, then, it was definitely a better opportunity than I’d have gotten otherwise. Anyway, I didn’t like the sounds of the bargain he wanted me to agree to, so I set off on my own.
I have to give Big Ugly one thing, he didn’t just boot me out with nothing. Couple guns, lotsa credits, some gold and gems, everything I needed to start up a new life. My share of the take from the past few years, he said. I couldn’t argue with that. He even dropped me off back in England, which was mighty nice of him. I wasn’t sure if that was where I wanted to be, of course, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
I spent a bit of time doing my own thing, living off my wealth and enjoying being lazy before I got bored. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with myself, so I started keeping an ear and an eye out for jobs. That was when I found Phinny’s want ad...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Flashbacks: Yes, no, maybe?

Oooh, look at me, getting all fancy and posting two days in a row!

I had a thought the other day -- well, actually, I had lots, but this was the only one worth blogging about -- that maybe The Princess Dilemma could benefit from some flashbacks. I've been trying to establish a lot of the background via narration, but sometimes I worry that it comes across as a little too exposition-y.

In the interest of "showing, not telling" as we were so often instructed in class, I'm wondering if it would be better to insert some of this past information as flashbacks... Or maybe not so much flashbacks, but scenes between chapters. Between each chapter, a scene that takes place in the past. I could elaborate on some of Nyeida's past abductions, how and why Ciotoph decided to join The Syndicate, other things involving other characters that haven't yet been introduced via the excerpts on this blog. I'm thinking this might help establish the characters and flesh out the story. But on the other hand, it might be a distraction or break the flow of the story. I may have to experiment with it and figure it out. At the very least, if they don't work in the story, I'll have plenty of stuff to post here on the blog.

So then the question becomes, when do I insert them? Do I go back through right now and insert them between the 11 chapters I've written so far? Do I just start inserting some going forward, and add the rest later? Or do I continue writing as I have been, and add them in draft 2? It's something for me to play around with over the holiday.

And speaking of the holiday, I have a short story all slated to go up on Christmas. Hooray! It is absolutely, positively not Christmas-related in any way, shape or form (as I have never written a Christmas-related story and may go to my grave without having done so), so those of a particularly humbug nature need not worry about that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Been writing again.

Well, I neglected this blog for three weeks, which is patently ridiculous. I wasn't writing as much as I should have been during that time. However, last week I started again, and I'm going to try to keep up with it, which means I'll keep up with this blog. At least, that's the theory.

I've reached a point in The Princess Dilemma where a lot of the characters and plot lines are converging in one point, which has made writing a little slow, as I constantly think "Ok, so while this scene is going on, what's going on elsewhere? What are those characters up to? When are they going to encounter this problem?" I think I might need to write an actual timeline, which is not something I'm particularly adept at. I'm forging ahead as far as I can without one, because I'd always rather write fiction than write notes.

That said, I do keep some notes. It's very embarrassing to learn that you've changed a character's name mid-book, because you mis-remembered it. And it's a huge time-sink to scroll through 100 pages looking for a minor player's name. So I made myself write down all of the characters that I've introduced so far, and I'm trying to write down new names as I add them to the book.

Then there was the moment this weekend when I realized that I had not named the monarchs of three of the major countries involved in the story. Bad enough that the Elven Nation currently has no name, but neither did their Queen. So I gave the Elven queen one of my own pseudonyms. I'm so conceited that way! I might change it later, but it works as a placeholder for now.

I'll be spending Christmas Eve, Christmas, and part of Boxing Day dog-sitting for a friend of mine, and I plan to do a bit of writing while I'm there. I may or may not have an internet connection. She said that I can plug into her network, but whether my laptop will play nice remains to be seen. I think I might take advantage of Blogger's scheduled posting feature and slot a piece of fiction to run here on Christmas. I'd call it a present to my readers, but it will be one of my old roleplaying character background stories, so the quality and interest to non-gamers is dubious at best.

My next non-fiction post will probably cover flashbacks, and my current debate with myself as to whether or not I want to use them in The Princess Dilemma.

Monday, December 1, 2008

And now for something completely different.

Ok, well, maybe not completely different. Just a little bit different. This link will take you to Chapter 2 of The League of Explorers, a round robin super hero story being penned by the writers (and possibly readers) of Collector Times Online. Chapter two is written by ME! It's different, because it's a super hero story. It's not different, because it's fiction and my character Chloe has something in common with a lot of my roleplaying characters.

Of course, you may want to start with Chapter 1, which was written by Jesse N. Willey, the Collector Times writer who came up with the whole idea. You can also view the Character Sheets, where Joe Singleton has thoughtfully provided awesome art of my characters.

If you're into comic books, or other geekery, you may want to browse around Collector Times a bit. You may even find more (non-fiction) writing from me. I've been doing columns and reviews there for years, and I love it. The entire magazine is an ads-free, volunteer-run labor of love which happens to attract some very opinionated, well-spoken, and imaginative writers and artists.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chapter 1 -- An Excerpt

I suppose it is always best to start at the beginning, so to help provide some reference for the other excerpt I posted before, here are the first few pages of The Princess Dilemma.

In some ways, this is a first draft. In other ways, it's about the 6th or 7th draft. Maybe someday, I'll post all of the other beginnings I've written for this book, to show how its evolved, changed, and Nyeida's name has mutated, over the 8 years I've been trying to tell this story.

Nyeida was exhausted; she’d danced the night away with countless partners, suitors and friends alike. The grand ballroom had been practically overflowing with the nobility and royalty of the known world. Aeristos, Noridos, and Lanimos of the Elven court had even been there, and she’d shared dance with each of them. She regarded the Elven princes with great fondness; the trip home with them had been full of learning and laughter.

The one person who mattered most had not been there, of course. Melerdin, who had swept her off her feet, only to be banished from the Empire for daring to impersonate nobility, was gone to her forever. Love was not to be hers, it seemed, but that was often the case for royalty. She would have to settle for a tolerable husband, and now that she didn’t need to worry about being teleported off to some random corner of the continent, she finally had time to find one.

There had been many likely candidates that night, but none really stood out. Her half-brother the King would likely have a few suggestions the next day, as would her mother. They knew more about the bachelors of the realm than she did; she’d spent so much time in captivity that she felt she no longer knew anyone, not even her family. Perhaps not even herself.

Her maids were undressing her; they chattered while they worked. It had taken her months to grow re-accustomed to the presence of the maids. None of her captors ever provided such a thing to her, nor had they provided the sort of elaborate clothing that required help to get in and out of. After she’d worn simple clothes for so long, and dressed herself and cared for all of her own needs, she found herself impatient with the frippery of royal garb. A princess could not run around in just her shift, though, and so she had to tolerate it.

The dress she’d worn that night was beautiful, to be certain, yet it would never be worn again. A princess also could not be seen in the same ball gown twice. And so all the hard work of the seamstress, embroiderer, and beadworker went to waste. Once, when she was eight or nine, she’d cut the beads off of an old dress and used them to make a necklace for her favorite doll. Her mother had given her a lecture when she found out. If a princess wanted something, she asked. She didn’t salvage it! Old dresses were not meant to be cut up; they were meant to languish in the wardrobe, until it got too full and the maids threw everything out.

It seemed like hours before they finished removing the dress, and the undergarments, and all the complicated ornaments in her hair. At last she could go to bed. The maids blew out the lamps and candles behind them, and she was alone in the dark. She was used to solitude, and after such a busy night, it held some comfort. Nyeida fell asleep, comfortable with the knowledge that she would wake again in her own bed the next morning.
A young man in the livery of a kitchen servant – slightly stained from the chaos of the night – slipped unnoticed from the princess’s sitting room into her bedchamber. While the maids had nattered on and done their work, he’d been hidden in a decorative chest. It was not the worst or most uncomfortable place his work had taken him, and after tonight, he suspected that such weird situations would be a thing of the past.

He moved quietly across the thick carpet, though his footsteps would have been near-silent even without the rug to muffle them. Natural agility paired with years of practice and training granted him stealth. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, just enough that he could see dim outlines in the black and avoid obstacles. He considered himself the best at what he did, but he didn’t mind the idea of retiring early so someone else could have that honor.

The princess was asleep. He’d waited an hour after the maids left, in a trance within the chest. Careful movements within the close confines had prevented muscle cramps. Those were the sorts of tricks that many others didn’t think of, and it was one of the reasons why he’d risen in the ranks of the Syndicate well ahead of others who had been there longer than he had.

Sleep was not enough. They were in for a wild trip that night, and he didn’t want the princess to wake up before they reached their destination. From within his uniform he withdrew a cloth and a bottle of the herbal poison that the druid had promised would put the girl into a sleep so deep that she wouldn’t awaken until the antidote was administered. His employer trusted the druid, and so he had to as well.
He soaked the cloth with the pungent herbal brew – careful not to breathe too deeply – and rested it across her nose and mouth. While he waited for the poison to take effect, he helped himself to the assortment of small boxes on the vanity. He’d been ordered to find the signet ring that most abductors used to prove that they had the princess, and no one had told him he couldn’t take the other jewels as well. If this scheme didn’t work out as well as the boss expected, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little treasure to live off of.

After he’d placed the goods into a sack that hung from his belt, he turned back to the princess. The cloth and bottle went back into his jacket, and the girl went on his back. He tied her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. It was an awkward arrangement, made moreso by the fact that she was a good head taller than him and all limbs, but there weren’t many ways to carry an unconscious body down a hundred feet of rope.

As he secured his hook and prepared to climb down, he wondered if the King would appreciate the irony of this as much as he did.

It was a slow climb, and several times he almost slipped. He was thankful for the leather gloves that protected him from rope burn. The thief was a slight man, and his muscles, though strong, did not appreciate the extra weight on his back. Pain was only temporary; he put his mind on the goal and persevered.

He’d spent the past four months as a servant in the castle to prepare for this heist. Four long months of hell in the kitchen; long hours of work under cruel chefs, meals that barely kept his strength up, disgusting living quarters, and various abuse that he’d had to endure to keep his true strengths and talents hidden. There’d been little sleep in that time; at night he would sneak out to learn the layout of the castle and the grounds, the habits of the guards, all the little nuances of the place.

As such, he knew just what path to take after he’d reached the ground and retrieved his rope. He ran along the hardest patches of earth, where he’d leave few footprints. He moved with long strides, on the balls of his feet, swift as he could. The King’s Wood was his goal, that great stretch of forest that ran for miles behind the castle. If all had gone as planned, an associate would have slipped into the Wood earlier that day, amidst all the hustle and bustle surrounding the ball, and placed his horse and supplies at the determined spot.

He avoided all of the guards; half of them were probably drunk from the night’s revels anyway. Gods knew that his fellow kitchen drudges had spent the past three weeks talking about all the leftover food and drink they’d be allowed to indulge in after the ball. It played perfectly into the plan; right now, they were all too busy gorging themselves to even notice that he was gone.

When he reached the shadowy confines of the Wood, he slowed his pace. The trees were thin at the edge of the forest, but it was still a dark place under the meager light of the crescent moon. With great care he picked his way to the chosen clearing, where he found his brown mare, all tacked up and with his sword strapped to a saddlebag. The lackey had done well after all.

Daisy was an old hat at this business; she’d been his horse for almost as long as he’d been a thief. She didn’t give them away with any sort of whinny, only butted his chest with her head and snuffled at his jacket. She was a better partner than most humans he’d worked with: reliable, efficient, and smarter than half of his associates. He was more likely to mess up that night than she was.

He spared a moment to stroke her nose, then set to business. With some relief, he untied the princess and draped her over the pommel of the saddle. He checked all the straps on Daisy’s tack, strapped on his sword, and studied the map of the forest which had been left for him. His destination had not been specifically marked; he’d been told the way to find it when his boss had laid out the plan. He swung up into the saddle and headed towards the only part of this that would be worse than life in the kitchen.

It would be morning before anyone within the palace noticed that Princess Nyeida was gone. As such, he didn’t feel the need to make haste through the woods. He kept Daisy at a leisurely pace, all the better to make out landmarks in the colorless shadows of the benighted forest. It was late Spring, and the night was mild. A light breeze stirred the leaves. In the face of such pleasant weather, he couldn’t see any reason to continue to wear the awful livery jacket anymore, so he stripped it off while he rode and shoved it into a saddlebag.

Freed from the jacket, and far happier for it, he rested a hand on the unconscious princess’s back. It was admittedly the first time he had ever kidnaped someone, and it felt strange to have live loot. He was more accustomed to jewels, money, and artwork. There were those in the Syndicate who excelled at abductions, but they did not have quite his skill for infiltration and stealth, nor quite his tolerance for abuse and misery.

Misery was still on his mind when he sighted the tree. It was about as tall as five men, stout of trunk, with a canopy of branches that spread disproportionately far. That part of the King’s Wood was old, but the tree looked older still. It held no resemblance to the other trees in the area, nor indeed, any type of tree he’d ever seen. The rough bark had an unsettling silver sheen to it, and even in the dark of the night the leaves looked blacker than they should have been. Each leaf was long and narrow, with a serrated edge like the knife of a particularly cruel assassin.

The branches were woven so tightly together that they blocked out even the faint moonlight, though the wood of the tree gave off a feeble light of its own. Nothing grew beneath that shade, nor was there any of the regular forest debris about. The breeze stirred the leaves, and the sound they made was like a thousand insects crawling over each other.

He did not like the thing at all, yet it was his goal. Daisy balked at the very idea of walking under the dense branches, and she never shied from anything. It took quite a bit of somewhat less than heartfelt coaxing to get her to move forward, and even then she took faltering half-steps with long pauses between.

It must have taken a good quarter of an hour to get her to go three times widdershins ‘round the trunk, all the while he chanted the nonsense that the boss had made him memorize. He was not a magician of any sort, and it was not exactly a spell. There were just certain mystical rules that had to be followed when one was dealing with the Scorned Ones.

After the third turn, there were two figures standing next to the tree, where none had been before. To all outward appearances they were identical. Taller than him, thinner than him, garbed in robes of the same deep black as the leaves. Their only visible features were their eyes, which glowed a dim amber from beneath their deep hoods.

Just as he had been told to do, he offered them a scroll of fine parchment. Moving as one, they each took it with one hand, then unrolled it between them. After a minute they spoke together, with voices like the sound of steel being honed. “The price for your passage has been paid. Remember the rules. Stay upon the path. Touch no one, and allow no one to touch you. Do not take anything from the realm. Do not stop for any reason. Do not make eye contact. Speak to no one. The way out will open to you when the time is right. It will be on the path. Do not be fooled by false exits. Safe travels.” This last was spoken with unmistakable sarcasm.

The two rolled up the scroll, and it vanished. His instincts told him that it had gone up one of their sleeves, but he couldn’t say which one. They stepped apart, then, and held their arms out in a mockery of welcome. Between them, the trunk split to form a portal barely large enough for him to ride through on Daisy. The realm beyond was all mist the color of fire, and it was all he could do to force his horse through.

He entered into a place of indistinct outlines, odd angles, and unpleasant sensations. The only thing straight and clear was the path Daisy stood on, which appeared to be paved with charcoal. It crunched underneath every step. As she was now moving forward in an urgent trot quite at odds with her earlier reluctance, this created quite a din. The path was broad enough that two men could have ridden abreast, maybe three. To either side the ground sloped and veered off, depending on its whim. The color varied between sour milk, morning shadow, the heart of a flame, and many colors he could not have described even if he had been in the mood to try. At times it appeared smooth and glassy, but other times it had the appearance of bark, or gravel, or shifting sand, or grassy fields. Diffuse light came from the ground, only to be swallowed up by the featureless black sky.
Well, I think that's enough to start with! I may post Ciotoph's journey through the gateway in a few days. (why didn't I use his name yet? I'm sure it seemed like a good idea when I was first writing this. I may change that later)

Oh, and on the topic of names, for the entire eight years I've been writing this thing, the horse's name has been Daisy. I had no idea at the time that I'd be getting a dog named Daisy. I might have to name a character Maggie now, just to be fair.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Things I learned from good critiques

It's time for me to show this blog some more love!

The excerpt that I posted before is partially the result of some good critique comments that I got when working on a previous project in a writing class. In particular, one classmate said that he liked my description, but he wanted more. Instead of just seeing the scene, he wanted to smell and hear it, too.

It was an interesting comment. I guess that -- as a jewelry designer as well as a writer -- I often tend to think more of the visual and tactile, and not quite as much on the aural and olfactory. But ever since I read that comment, I've tried to not just visualize a scene as a write it, but think about the whole experience, the smells and the sounds as well as the sights. It's still something I struggle with, and sometimes I have to go back through and add things later, but without that critique, I never would have thought of it.

Anyway, I was thinking of livening things up with some more fiction. I've got a ton of old roleplaying background stories lying around on the hard drive. What say you, readers? Are you interested in a glimpse into my geeky hobby, or would you prefer to wait for non-gaming-related stories?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: The Merchants' War by Charles Stross

Possible subtitle: Stupid cover, good book.

As a reader and hopeful author, I often wonder if authors get any say in the cover of their novel. I'm pretty sure the answer is no, otherwise we wouldn't get all of these covers where the main character looks nothing like how they're described, or situations that don't really happen in the book.

The Merchants' War by Charles Stross -- Book 4 of the Merchant Princes if you're American like me, Book 3 if you're in the UK like Stross -- has a cover that invited quite a bit of ridicule from my husband, and in fact, I'd be pretty embarrassed to read the book in public. It's the sort of cover you expect to see on one of those blogs where they photoshop a new title on a Choose Your Own Adventure book or cheap 80s video game (I'd provide links, but I'm too lazy to go looking for them).

How bad is the cover? Well, you can see it in Amazon's listing for the book. In case you can't tell, yes, the men in medieval armor and surcoats do in fact have guns at their belts, and are firing more guns at a man flying over a courtyard in an ultralight glider aircraft. Shockingly enough, this actually happens in the book, although the perspective in the cover is way off.

And yet, despite the fact that the book has armor-clad, gun-toting men firing at ultralights very late into it, I enjoyed it immensely. Like the three (or two) books before it, it's a fast-paced page turner of a sci-fi fantasy crime thriller detective adventure novel. There's a little bit of everything thrown into the mix. Political intrigue, drug trafficking, government conspiracies, shocking revelations, the hint of romance, gun fights and more.

The Merchants' War starts to answer questions that readers have probably been asking all along (at least I have). Is the clan's ability to walk between worlds magical or some sort of genetic mutation? Are there more than three worlds that can be reached by those means? Are there worlds that are more techoligically advanced than the world we live in? I won't share the answers that are revealed, because I try to avoid spoilers, but I will say that I was satisfied with how these avenues were explored.

There are a couple of places where The Merchants' War almost lost me. When a government scientist starts throwing out ten-dollar science-y words that I've never seen before and can't even figure out how to pronounce so I can ask my bio-geek husband what they mean, and it's 2am, I feel tempted to put a book down. And most of the plots involved the DEA, FBI, and other acronyms failed to grab me, just as they did in the previous book. And there's one plot twist, that I again don't want to give away, but I find it pretty implausible.

Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed the book and often had a hard time putting it down to eat meals and sleep. The characters continue to be strong, and I enjoyed the new revelations about my favorite secondary character, Erasmus Burgeson. My previous issue with weak dialog seems to have completely disappeared. The plot moves along nicely, and I'm constantly guessing as to how much of what characters reveal is true, and how much of it is carefully-cultured lies meant to manipulate the characters and the reader. I'd highly recommend this series to just about anyone, silly cover paintings aside.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An Excerpt!

Already I'm off to a grand start procrastinating on posting this blog. Well, it is a little daunting to put this piece of fiction up on the web. So far only one other person has seen it, and she's a big supporter of mine. Here on my blog, anyone can see it, and they might not be so kind. Ah well. An author must develop a tough skin!

Without further ado, here is an excerpt from The Princess Dilemma.

Ciotoph had begun to realize that finding the princess would not be an easy job. The night was well behind him, and his pay was dwindling by the hour as he failed to turn up any clues on her whereabouts. He was in the city, because he didn't think she was crazy enough to try to ride all the way back to Deveradi.

Usually, finding someone was an easy matter. As long as you had something that belonged to them, or a lock of their hair (or sometimes a more solid piece of their body, especially if you worked for The Fox), you went to a wizard who specialized in such things and he'd magic up their location for you. The only difficult part was getting to where they were before they left.

Of course, King Linnaried had to cover his sister in anti-magic wards, and now that wasn't an option. He had to do things the hard way, and while he had a lot of skills, finding people wasn't really one of them. He was having to rely far too heavily on his natural cunning and charm, without any expertise to back it up. He could tell that he was floundering.

The first thing he'd done upon reaching Elgaris was check the inns closest to the gate. No one at any of them admitted to having seen Nyeida. He checked the stables for Daisy, too, and was disappointed to not find her. As night had softened to pre-dawn, he'd explored the allies, hoping she might have hidden in one, but all he found were beggars who sprang quickly awake and begged him for coins that he was not willing to part with.

He felt like an idiot. If he had half the brains that he usually thought he did, he would have brought something of Daisy's and had a wizard track her down. It stood to reason that wherever his horse was, the damned princess would be, too. And even if she wasn't, at least he'd have his horse back and he could stop riding Murder around.

Murder was demonstrating as much patience with city riding as he had with picking their way through the forest. He pulled at the bit, and snorted and shied from various things on the street. He even tried to bite a few beggars, which probably would have just given them more reason to demand his money. Ciotoph suspected that he'd do better on foot. It was about time to drop the contrary stallion off at a syndicate safe house. He had to get word out on the street anyway, even though paying informants was going to cut into his profit margin.

The problem was, after six months away from operations, he didn't know where any of the safe houses were. They moved them every few months, always a few steps ahead of the city guards – worthless lot that they were, and most of them were on the take anyway. What he did know were places to meet other members of the syndicate, someone who could tell him where to go.

He fought to get Murder's attention and turned towards the Holy District. Sometimes the obvious answer was the right one: the best place to find a thief was at a temple to one of the many gods of burglary, larceny, or trickery. It was so obvious that most people simply assumed that no syndicate member was foolish enough to go there, little realizing that the syndicate had paid off the few guards who weren't too superstitious to set foot in the temple of the likes of Baenmor or Radafaest or Nohfend.

It felt good to be back in Elgaris. The city had always been his home, and he didn't realize how much he'd missed it until he'd entered the shadow of the vast stone wall that encircled it. For years, that wall had been the border of his world. The Fox's mansion was too far away from it, it was like a moon in orbit of his planet. Here, in the shadows of buildings that he knew well, he imagined that he could feel the pulse of the city. He and Elgaris, they had a symbiotic relationship. Or maybe he was a parasite, he could admit that, but he was a graceful parasite. Elgaris fed him, and gave him shelter, and anchored him.

If anyone had asked, he would have said that he felt the most comfortable in Elgaris because he knew it so well. He knew which businesses and homes were protected by the syndicate, and which were not, and what their defenses were. He knew where he could hide, and who he could pay to lie about where he'd been, and just how far he could push the guards. He knew which dancers were really whores, and which ones would slap you for asking, and which ones were well-disguised men. There were few surprises in Elgaris for him, and they were usually pleasant.

But deep down inside, he could admit to himself that there was a certain level of sentimentality involved. This city had shaped him into the man he was, and shaped his view of the world. All other places were held up to Elgaris, and in his mind they were invariably found wanting. He loved the way the city was cradled by ocean and cliffs, and how the markets were filled with the exotic goods that were brought in by ships sailing the tradewinds. He felt proud to be the son of a country that had resisted the Deveradi Empire, despite having accepted their religion and their friendship.

He knew that his love of the city was another thing that stood between him and Mirisha. While he would stand on The Fox's estate and gaze into the forest, pretending that he could see beyond it, to the city, her eyes were always drawn to the woods itself. He had seen her often, looking out the window with the sadness of a caged animal that has resigned itself to its fate. She was as much a child of the wilderness as he was of the urban world.

Perhaps that was why he was so drawn to her. She was exotic, so far outside his experience that she was almost incomprehensibly alien. Once, in an attempt to get to know her better, just before he left for Deveradi, he had walked with her in the woods. She had been sent out to get the dywali root for the poison, but while they were in the depths of the forest, she had gathered a variety of herbs, mushrooms, and fruit. The way she had casually identified each plant and its properties at a glance had awed Ciotoph. To him, it was all just a sea of green. To her, each leaf was distinct and unique, like the faces of the people around him in the city.

He should have brought her with him. There was no telling how long he would have to comb the city for the princess, and how well Mirisha would cover up her lies in his absence. The thought of her at The Fox's mercy tugged at the shreds of his conscience. He could have lied and said he needed her to come with, needed her knowledge of the forest, needed her to coax the princess into coming with them, anything. It was too late now. He didn't dare return to the estate without Nyeida.

While he had been thinking about Mirisha, he reached the Holy District. The temples there were not laid out in any sort of discernible order; they were not grouped by pantheon, or by type of deity. Their placement was based strictly upon which church had claimed what plot of land when Elgaris had chosen to welcome the omnipantheonists into their city. At that time, it had been the southern border of the city. The temple of Baenmor stood on Perimeter Street, which had once run along the base of the wall. In time, though, the city had grown and the wall had been moved out to its current location.

Many's the hour he'd spent reading the history of his beloved city, mostly in books that he'd stolen from the homes of the wealthy. He knew by heart the details of the protests against the influx of the Deveradi church, and the costs of expanding the city, and the calculations that had been done to decide where to put the new wall. That wall had filled decades ago, and now there were hub villages several hours down the road, where people had moved to escape the over-crowding in Elgaris.

He rode east down Perimeter Street, past the temples of gods that he knew only by reputation. Ciotoph was no omnipantheonist. He paid some reverence to Baenmor because he liked the god's attitude, but he had little use for the hundreds of other deities that Deveradi had stolen from their neighbors.

Though the Syndicate used several temples as places to meet or leave messages, the Holy District was otherwise off-limits. They did not steal from the temples, assassinate priests, or conduct any sort of transaction within the district. There wasn't even protection money involved; it was mere superstition, for which Ciotoph had little patience. If he did retire and go rogue, he had a few raids planned.

The temple of Baenmor was a moderate sized two-story building, with one basement slightly visible above the street and three more hidden below. It was faced with exotic grey marble quarried in the territory the god's cult was native to. The front door was bordered by twisted chains, from which their hung locks to which there were no keys. The back door was a well-kept secret.

Ciotoph rode past the temple and continued on to a stable staffed by monks from the church of Ouharash, the celestial horse originally worshiped in Farwel Province. The stable operated on donations, and he paid them well on that day. It was not just because they had always given the best care to Daisy, but also because he felt they deserved it for putting up with Murder.

He walked behind the stable and into the alley that ran behind the temples of Perimeter Street. Like every alley in the city, it was cramped, smelly, and littered with debris. The pious were no more concerned with the sanitation of the city than anyone else was. Ciotoph slunk into the shadows and felt all his concerns ease. He was in his element. The stink, the broken crates, and the rats were all part and parcel of his city, and he accepted them as he would accept minor blemishes on a lover. Nothing is without flaw.

Baenmor was a two-faced god, and as such, his temple also had two faces. The front door, with its symbols of security, was for those who came to pray for protection from thieves. He had read that in Karons Territory, Baenmor's dual nature was well-known and accepted. In Elgaris, however, the men and women who came through the front door had no idea that the god they prayed to was just as likely to grant his aid to the thief as he was to protect against thievery.

Having had enough experience with the duplicity of men who claimed to be honest, Ciotoph had a grudging admiration for the fickle, hypocritical god. He enjoyed the irony of the situation, and the apt illustration of how little the gods really cared for petty human beings. And of course, he enjoyed the secrecy. Only a fool would walk into the temple of Nohfend, the assassin god whose church had no back door.

The back door of Baenmor's temple was well-hidden. Its outline could only be spotted from just the right angle while standing in the shadow of the alley, and it could only be opened by pressing and turning certain stones in just the right way. Not every stone in the wall that could be moved was meant to; there were numerous false clues. To join the Syndicate, hopefuls had to pass a variety of tests assigned to them by their sponsors. One of his had been to find his way into the back room of the temple of Baenmor. It had taken him three hours, and he'd nearly lost a finger, but he had succeeded. On that day, Ciotoph won his membership to the Syndicate and his respect for his chosen god.

He could open the door easily now, without a second thought, though it still took more than a minute of manipulating the stones. A small smile came to his face as the last stone slid into place and the way was opened to him. One more thing that he'd missed about his city. He stepped inside the temple, his thoughts as close to pious as they ever were.

While many religions burned specific incense that was considered sacred to their god, the priests of Baenmor offered up whatever they had most recently stolen from other temples. On that day, sandalwood was the predominant scent in the air, but it was layered over the mingled perfume of a hundred different types of smoke which had permeated the draperies and carpets over the decades.

The back rooms were quiet. Prayers were never said aloud here and the place was designed to muffle sound. Most of the worshipers would have walked silently even over a floor of rushes, but the thick carpet was a welcome touch. Ciotoph liked the air of luxury that it gave the temple, when paired with the lush midnight-blue velvet that hung on the walls.

Mindful of the fact that he had been away for half a year, he picked up a tithing pouch from the basket by the door and quietly slipped half of his remaining coins into it. He left his own money bag in its customary spot, and pushed the tithing pouch as far down as it would go into his boot. The coins dug into his calf uncomfortably through the thin leather of the sack.

He walked down the hallway until it opened up into the small, private thieves' sanctuary. The room was well-appointed, with comfortable arm chairs instead of the traditional pews, rugs more lavish than those in the hallway, and elegantly carved tables displaying holy artifacts that the priests had taken from the surrounding temples. It was well-lit, because those who came to pray in Baenmor's back room had few things to hide from each other.

Most of the worshipers were unfamiliar to him; the Syndicate was large enough that it was difficult to keep track of everyone, especially since so much of their work was done solo. He did recognize two people, and one clearly recognized him. She'd been in the Syndicate only two months when he left for Deveradi, and had served as his look-out on the last job he did for The Fox before leaving.

No one spoke in Baenmor's back room. Instead, rat-faced little Ilona signed her words to him. Didn't know you were back.

Sign conversations were terse out of necessity. It was not a language designed for expressing a lot of complex ideas or for polite chatter. Just got here. Need a safe house. Have a horse, too.

Southwest corner of King Melereth and Fountain Way. Nice place.


Ilona smiled, and her overbite only made her look more rodent-like. She looked young, maybe even younger than he'd been when he joined the Syndicate, and she had the sharpest eyes of any girl he'd ever met. He didn't think she was working directly for The Fox; usually only people who he'd sponsored did.

He left the temple, his business there concluded. The tithing pouch was gone before he reached the door. He hadn't seen, heard, or felt the priest who took it. He never did, and probably never would.

Questions, comments, criticism and praise are all welcome!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"So, what's your book about?"

Good afternoon, blogosphere,

I realized a few hours after I made yesterday's post that I forgot to tell you what sort of book I was writing. With a name like The Princess Dilemma it could be a kid's book, a Young Adult fantasy, chick lit, historical, romance, or even literary fiction about someone who happens to be a princess. But of course, since I talked about writing fan fiction and gaming stuff, and because my profile picture is of me dressed as a faerie waiting to get into Comic Con, it will come as no surprise to anyone that it's a fantasy novel.

They say it's good to be able to summarize your plot in one line, so here's my book's soundbite: it's about a princess who gets sick of constantly being kidnapped and decides to take matters into her own hands.

There's more to it than that, naturally. In some ways, it's a coming of age story, and it deals a lot with opening your eyes to the world around you and learning that the things you were told when you were growing up might not be as true as you always believed. I think that's why I had to grow up some more before I could actually write the book, I think. My original drafts were just about the princess and her dilemma, and didn't have any subtext or depth. Only when I moved away from the idea of the idyllic fairy tale kingdom did I find myself coming up with a lot of conflicts, a lot of subplots, and the actual motivations for the characters to be doing what I wanted them to do.

Tomorrow, I'll post an excerpt.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Welcome to my writing blog

Hi, and welcome to my blog. If you're reading this, there probably isn't much else to see here yet, but I hope to fix that as time goes by.

Some of you may already know me, but for those who don't, here's a little introduction. My name is AJ, and I write. Ok, mostly, I sit with my word processor minimized while I goof off on the web, but every now and then I buckle down and actually put virtual words to virtual paper. This blog just gives me one more thing to do instead of writing.

I've been writing from an early age. I started with silly short stories, did a brief stint with fan fiction in my early teens, wrote a short (and embarassingly bad) novel in my mid-teens, dabbled in (also embarassingly bad) poetry at around that same time, and in my late teens I turned to using my writing to design worlds for tabletop roleplaying gaming and background stories for characters in said games. That kept my muse happy, until a few years back when I got inspired again and started writing another book. Several half-finished novels later, here I am in November 2008, posting to a blog and pretending to be an author.

My current project is called The Princess Dilemma and is an idea that I started developing back when I was eighteen. I had to mature a bit as a person and a writer before I could really find the right tone for it, as evidenced by the four or five failed starts that litter the hard drives of various computers. I feel like I'm finally in the right place to write this novel, and that when it's done, it will be the first major work that I attempt to publish.

So where does this blog come in? Well, aside from the afore-mentioned procrastination aid, I intend to use it to keep my friends, family, and possibly fans (dare I hope?) abreast on the progress of The Princess Dilemma as well as any other writing projects I might be working on. And because reading is an integral part of writing, I'll also be posting the occasional book review here.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you stick around! To sweeten the deal, I'll dig up some fiction to post on here to keep you entertained while we all wait for The Princess Dilemma to be finished.