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Windycon 2018 Report

This past weekend was Windycon 2018, in Lombard, IL, and I was there. I’ve missed the last few Windys, mostly because of scheduling issues on my part, or a general reversion to my hermitish nature, but this year I got my act together and showed up. Herein lie the details of what transpired.

The theme this year was Unlikely Heroes, which is interesting enough, but I don’t feel like it directly impacted any of my panels. I saw other panels that had the theme woven into their subject matter, but for my run at least, the Heroes were a great deal Likely, perhaps even inevitable. One bit of warning, I’m not going to do a list of who I saw at the con, mostly because I’m terrible with names and would miss half the folks I saw. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the quality of my conversation and the likelihood of name recollection, in fact. So. If you’re reading this and are offended that I’m not mentioning you, please get over it, I’m not that important.

My convention started on Friday afternoon. I got there a little early so I could peruse the dealer room and make sure I knew where everything was. Also, let’s be honest, I didn’t want to drive there in the middle of rush hour. Windy’s great because it’s a small enough venue that it’s impossible to miss people you want to see, while still being large enough to always provide something to do. That said, a lot of the dealers were still setting up, so I binged off to the bar and had dinner. My beer for this convention was Noon Whistle’s Cozmo, which is very fine in the finest ways.

My first panel was Worlds of Magic, described as “A Comparison of various types of magic in today’s media”. Vague enough? A lot of the panel descriptions were about that vague, which means there was a lot of leeway heading in to them, but also that it was difficult to really prepare any comments. Good news, I can talk about magic systems of pretty much any type for a required length of time. There was an interesting comparison of the three types of magic systems that usually appear in various media (mostly books, let’s be honest), which were Thematic, Systemic, and Stylistic. I kind of think of thematic and stylistic as basically the same thing, where they’re adding to the atmosphere of the book without actually advancing the plot, but I think the difference comes down to the degree in which they move the world. Potter, for example, is Thematic. The whole series is about Harry becoming a wizard. That said, the rules aren’t clearly defined, as they are in Systemic works, and the plot is mostly about Harry’s relationships while he runs around picking up mcguffins and putting them in his mouth. Anyway. Good panel. I talked about Brandon Sanderson way too much, and then probably made some enemies because I complained about internal consistency in the Harry Dresden novels.

Morning panels are a bit of a curse, and I was afflicted both Saturday and Sunday morning. Fortunately, Windy understands late night parties, and doesn’t make the first panel until 10. Since I was driving in, this was a good thing, and necessary for my joy. Saturday morning saw me on the Wait Until Your Parents Get Home! panel, which was about the absence of parents in YA fiction. I have to be honest, I feel like we banged that one out in the first ten minutes and then kind of recycled the rest of the time, but there were a lot of questions from the audience, which is always a good thing. I was reminded that I don’t really read a lot of YA, but that my assumptions about how they work seem to hold true across the board, which either means there’s a lot of redundancy in YA or something.

I was able to attend one of Eric Flint’s panels. One of the nice things about Chicago area fandom is that people like Eric and Gene Wolfe regularly show up, and I try to get into as many of their panels as possible. Unfortunately, I feel like this was one of those occasions the brief panel description led to some subject creep. The title was “No guns, no ninjas, no problem!” and was theoretically about writing a story where the protagonist isn’t a bad ass killing machine. One of the panelists took this to mean, quite literally, how to be a bad ass without guns and ninjas, and suggested things like rayguns and knights templars. Right? But Eric held forth in appropriate manner, and by the end we were finally talking about maybe talking your way out of trouble, and having heroes that didn’t just punch and shoot their way through the plot.

My next panel was The Storyteller’s Guide to Not Sucking, and was basically about how to run better game sessions for your RPG friends. The moderator threw me for a bit of a loop, because he basically said “I’m sure everyone up here has a bunch of guidelines they could provide you, but instead we’re going to tell stories about times we screwed up a gaming sessions, so you can learn from our mistakes.” And, yes, I had prepared a bunch of guidelines I wanted to provide the audience. So. Mostly I had to try to remember the stories that led me to coming up with the guidelines in the first place. I struggled through, but feel like I could have done the audience more good just holding forth on how to tell a good story in game.

My last panel was Sunday morning, again at 10, but it was surprisingly well attended. We talked about sequels, and how long is appropriate to wait, and how that affects both the reader and the writer. We talked a little bit about how dangerous it is for the writer if the reader waits until the series is complete before they start reading it, and also how a series grows over time and becomes unwieldy. Eric Flint was also on this panel, and had a lot of smart things to say about how you can put out two or so books a year and still not satisfy your readers simply because the thing has gotten so broad that you can’t cover it all in one book. I really think everyone enjoyed the panel. Even the audience!

Other than panels, I had a reading and an autograph session. Since none of my books made it into the dealer room (maybe because I signed up so late, though they never seem to be there anymore, the curse of the midlist) I took the unusual step of selling books at my signing session. Well, unusual for me. I only did it because literally everyone else was doing it, and I’ve had people ask me if I had book available for sale at past conventions. So I made a little money, talked to some very nice folks, and even signed some books. Nothing wrong with that!

The best bit of the weekend, for me at least, was the reading. I say this because I love doing readings, and I love going to them. I need to make a point of attending more in the future. But I read the prologue for Wraithbound to a very small audience (my wife, someone from my reading group, a guy from the convention whose job seemed to be to come in and out in the middle of things and restock the candy jar, and Richard Chwedyk) and it went very well. Richard came up later to ask if the book was sold yet, and to tell me how much he enjoyed the reading, and I giggled like a schoolgirl, because why wouldn’t you. It’s Richard Chwedyk.

And that’s it for Windycon 2018. I’ll be back next year!

The Knight Watch

Chapter One – Dragonslayer

 

I killed my first dragon with a blunt sword and the engine block of a 1977 Volvo station wagon. It was my mom’s car. She still hasn’t forgiven me, but that dragon was a real asshole.

This all happened at Sword Regionals, maybe three years ago.  I was competing in single-hand and shield, or sword and board as it’s known in my circle, and the tournament was going well. I’m not a big guy, tall and skinny and probably too gangly to be graceful, but for whatever reason I’m good with a sword. Call it a gift, or a curse, since there’s not a lot of demand for expert swordsmen this side of the 16th century. I always felt like I missed my time slot, like I should have been born in an age of knights and castles, rather than smartphones and fast food. These tournaments gave me a chance to connect with similarly displaced heroes and spend a weekend forgetting about the disappointing convenience of the modern world. I made some of my best friends at these things. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them all, if they think I’m dead or, worse, if I finally gave in to the mundanes and spend my weekends brewing mediocre beer or having opinions about politics. Thank the gods, nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyway, regionals. I fought my way through the first couple brackets, handling my opponents with ease and honor, never striking when they were down, always letting them reclaim dropped weapons or recover from slippery footing. The chivalry part of this is important to me. You can win and be a dick about it, but that’s just a more complicated way of losing. We’re grown-ass men and women out in a field hitting each other with wooden swords on the weekend. Might as well have fun doing it.

I did well enough in the initial rounds to earn a place in the finals, then sat nervously on the sidelines while the finalists for two-handed sword, polearms, acrobatic dagger, and siege bow fought their bouts. The champion for acrobatic dagger caught my eye; she was short and fast, rolling from shoulder to heel and up again, her black braids swirling through the air as she circled her opponent. Acrobatic dagger was supposed to be a combination of throws and dodges, but she never touched her opponent until her padded dagger went into the target on his back. It was a thing of beauty. The audience gave her the round of huzzahs that she had earned, then the marshal marched into the ring and raised his baton.

“Sword and shield!” the marshal called, and I scrambled to my feet. “For the Duchy of Elderwood, Sir John Rast, champion of the lists, bulwark of… of…” the marshal peered down at his sheet. Finalists usually had more accolades, but this was my first time in the big ring. The marshal gave up and flourished in my direction. “Sir John!”

There was a scattering of applause around the ring as I stepped over the barrier. “Get ‘em John!” someone in the crowd yelled, and I turned to see my friend Eric raising a stein in my direction. He had a girl on each arm, and three more circling. Typical. Eric was the kind of guy who only seemed truly alive at the faire. Real world Eric was quiet, obsessed with his art, and lived in the house his parents left him. Faire world Eric was witty, constantly surrounded by women, and perpetually drunk. It was something like magic.

I waved at him, then turned back to the ring. As my eyes swept the crowd I caught sight of dagger-girl. She was leaning against a tree, smirking as she juggled a dagger in one hand. When she raised her brows at me, I realized I was staring and quickly turned away.

My opponent was waiting on the other side of the barrier. He wore the bare minimum armor required by rule, preferring to show off the kind of body that a paleo diet and slavish devotion to crossfit will get a middle-aged man from the suburbs. His shield wasn’t much bigger than his fist, while his sword was everything Freud could have wished for, long and black and as thick as my leg. His chest was heaving, as though he had spent the previous twenty minutes screaming into a shoebox. The marshal waved his baton in the man’s direction.

“And for the Outlands, Kracek the Destroyer, Champion of the Feral Gods, Reaver of the Black Lagoon, Breaker of—”

The rest of marshal’s introduction was drowned out by Kracek’s war cry, a blood curdling scream that was quickly taken up by a dozen or so similarly dressed followers in the crowd. Kracek raised his compensation unit over his head, then kicked down the barrier and strode onto the field of battle.

Remember that thing I said about chivalry? Most folks feel the same way. But not all. Not Kracek the Destroyer, Champion of the Feral Gods, and extreme phallus rampant.

Kracek’s real name is Douglas Hosier, and he’s a property attorney from the suburbs. He drives a white Camaro, claims to date a Canadian model behind his wife’s back, and is fighting a losing battle against a receding hairline. I get the feeling Douglas expected more out of his life than what he’s gotten, and is channeling that frustration into Kracek. He and his band of emotionally damaged men have been expelled from every duchy and protectorate this side of Cairo but, being a bunch of lawyers, somehow kept finding a way into the lists.

The marshal glared at the damaged barrier, then walked to the center of the ring and raised his baton. We squared off, Kracek’s chest still heaving, my hands sweating through the thick padded mittens of my armor. Kracek grinned.

“I’m going to annihilate you, kid. I’m going to beat you so hard, your mother’s going to be sterile. You’ll be running back to—”

“Begin!” the marshal shouted. Kracek bellowed his disappointment at modern social norms and charged forward.

This was normal. Kracek and his type fought linearly, charging or charging faster. I gave some ground, presented my shield and winced as Kracek chopped at it. There were rules about force of blow, but Kracek always danced the line, a hair’s breadth away from disqualification with each attack. He forced me back again, then slammed his shield into my sword, nearly knocking it from my grip. The tip of his shield caught my hand. The marshal called halt, separating us with his baton.

“No blows with shield, a demerit and reset.”

“He swung, I blocked,” Kracek growled. “What’s the problem?”

The marshal didn’t answer. Kracek shook his head and slouched back to the middle. “Judge is on your side, little man. Cowards like you, always hiding behind the rules…”

“You’ve got issues, man,” I mumbled. He whirled on me, shaking that ridiculous sword in my face.

“I do! I do have issues! Screw you issues, that’s what!”

“What?”

“You know what I mean!”

“No, I… I really don’t.”

“You’re gonna know! You’re gonna remember the might of Kracek!”

“Right, yeah… you mentioned that.” I glanced at the marshal. “He mentioned that, right? There’s not an echo or something.”

“Taunting!” Kracek shouted. “Taunting, one demerit!”

“Demerits are for me to give out, and for you to earn, Mr. Hosier,” the marshal said primly. “Now please reset before I am forced to disqualify you.”

“Stupid rules!” Kracek the Hosier yelled. He stomped back to his position, flexed in the manner of a man about to eject his bowels, and shouted. “Kracek!”

I was just bringing up my shield to the guard position when a column of fire erupted from Kracek’s mouth and slammed into me. The flames curled around my shield, licking at the cheap linen tabard my mother had sewn for me for my birthday. The heat crisped my eyebrows and filled my lungs. I backpedaled, dropping my sword and shaking my shield off my arm. The metal sizzled as it hit the grass, and pain prickled along the length of my forearm. My gloves were ash. I turned to stare at the marshal.

“There’s no way that’s legal!” I barked.

The marshal was staring at Kracek in disbelief. His baton was smoldering, and the shocked look on his face had as much to do with his horror as his lack of eyebrows. Then he turned and ran into the crowd.

“You’re just gonna… just run? Come on, man! I didn’t—” I glanced over at Kracek and shut right the hell up.

Kracek was hunched over, with molten fire dribbling out of his mouth. He was larger, and his pale, suburban skin was glowing like beaten copper. He tossed the rattan sword to the ground, then rolled his shoulders and looked around.

“Kracek’s true form has become apparent. Kracek is displeased,” he muttered, casting angry looks around at the crowd. “Kracek must fix this problem.”

“Kracek must be on drugs,” I said. “Seriously, man, get a therapist. You have some stuff that needs resolution. Honestly.”

“Kracek will start with you,” he answered. He took a step forward, and his boot burst open. Talons spilled out. Scales crawled up Kracek’s leg, and his shoulders heaved, splitting open to reveal mucus-slick wings. When he smiled, Kracek’s teeth looked like a band saw, as sharp and as bright as steel. Flames flickered in his eyes and across his black tongue. I took a step back.

“Or I’m on drugs. That could be,” I muttered. “Eric, am I on drugs?”

A scream went up from the crowd, joined by a hundred others, and the grassy field of the St. Luke’s Community Soccer Field and Recreational Facility became a stampede. Kracek grew and grew, arms elongating, belly bloating, wings stretching up until they topped the trees. He took a deep breath, and the stink of sulphur and ash filled the air. For some reason, I pulled out my padded dagger, then pissed myself.

A blur knocked me aside, sending me flying ten yards. I landed in a heap on top of the ale stand, breaking through the tent and smashing barrels of overpriced PBR. A flash of light filled the sky, and flames roared over my head. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, I could see blood-red flames. When I opened my eyes, dagger-girl was staring at me.

“Take a knee, mundane. The heroes have arrived,” she whispered. Then she hopped over the smoldering remains of the stand and bounded toward Kracek. Toward the dragon.

The dragon, I thought. What the hell is going on? What was in those turkey legs I had for lunch? When the council hears about this, they’re going to have a fit!

Then I looked around and saw what the dragon had done. There was a wide swath of burned ground in the middle of the soccer field, littered with black lumps that must have been chairs or barrels or… no. They were bodies. Black ash piles of dead bodies, white bones sticking out of crisp flesh, and the air smelled like barbeque smoke and burning grass. I put my hands on my knees and threw up, most of it splashing back into my face, since my helmet was still buckled down. I ripped the visor off and threw up again, kept at it until my stomach was more than empty.

The air sizzled over my head, and a stream of flame lashed through the air. It passed twenty feet above me, but the heat singed my nostrils and burned off the bile on my tongue. I spat and looked around. What I saw changed my life.

Dagger girl was dancing around the dragon, the same way she had danced around her opponent in the ring. Kracek (were his scales receding around the crown of his head?) followed her, craning his sinuous neck and spraying jets of flame, always missing by a second. He bellowed his frustration, and the trees shook. The girl landed on the dragon’s back, punched down a dozen times in the space of a second, then bounced away. A stream of viscous blood followed her through the air, trailing from the twin daggers in her hands. Kracek’s screams changed to pain, and he reared up on his hind legs and stretched his wings to the sky.

“Flimsy mortal! Kracek will sear your flesh from your bones and boil your blood in your skull! Flee before the might of Kracek! Flee before the champion of the Outland realms!”

“Gotta catch me first, snakeface!” the girl shouted. She landed in front of the dragon, crouching with both daggers spread wide like wings, that smirk still on her face. “You’re getting slow in your old age. Slow and stupid.”

“Respect your elders, child,” Kracek said. His voice hissed through my mind, and flames licked his teeth as he spoke. “I have been in this world longer than any of your kind.”

“And now you’ve overstayed your welcome,” she answered. “Time to go!”

She leapt forward, but just as her feet left the ground, Kracek poured a stream of fire from his jaws. Twisting, she was somehow able to avoid it, but as she tumbled away the dragon whipped his massive tail forward, catching her in the back. She flopped like a rag doll, bouncing through the charred grass before coming to a halt. Kracek laughed, crashed back down on all fours, and strolled languidly toward her still form.

“Oh man, oh man, oh MAN,” I whispered to myself. What do I do? I can’t just sit here and watch her get killed. I looked around at the smoldering stalls. The vendor next to the ale house was a weapon maker. None of the blades were sharp, but they were good steel, and had already shown their mettle against dragonfire. I snatched one of them up and ran at Kracek, waving the sword over my head and yelling.

“Hey, you scaly freak! Over here! We haven’t finished our match yet, you cheating son of a bitch!” Not my most eloquent taunt, but it served the purpose. Kracek paused and craned his horned head in my direction, then let out a derisive snort that scorched the ground at my feet.

“We are not playing games anymore, Sir Burbia. Go back to your foam swords and your weak ale. You have a cubicle to fill on Monday.”

“Sir Burbia? Did I just get heckled by a dragon? Is that what my life has come to?” I muttered to myself, then let out a furious roar and charged in. Kracek’s wing brushed the air above me, buffeting me, nearly driving me to my knees, but I kept going. His nearest leg rose up. I looked up at those blackened talons, sticky with blood, each one as long as my forearm and wickedly sharp, and I realized I was in over my head.

“For Elderwood!” I shouted weakly, my voice cracking as I swung the dull blade against his muscular claw. The steel sang in my hands as it struck scale. The sword snapped in half like an icicle. I stood there, holding the broken hilt, staring at my death. For the second time that day, someone else saved me.

Kracek’s claw fell on me, but just as his talons were about to reach my face, a blade of shining steel flashed between us. The tip of the dragon’s claw fell to the ground. Kracek shrieked and reared up, beating the air with his wings. A heavy hand fell on my shoulder and pulled me back. A knight, there was no other word, stepped between me and the dragon. He was in full armor, the steel of his plate shining with runes. His double-handed sword blazed with the light of the sun. He looked at me over his shoulder.

“Get outta here, kid. This is tough enough without trying to keep the idiots alive.”

I was about to answer when a pillar of flame fell on us from the dragon’s mouth. The knight didn’t have a shield, but as the fire roared close, a purple dome surrounded us. The shriek of burning air fell hush. I scrambled to my feet, nearly bumping into a black man in exquisite robes, carrying a silver staff. Tattoos of light swirled around his left eye, and glowing rings spun above his clenched fist. His pale eyes were fixed on the dragon.

“Clarence is correct,” he said. His voice reminded me of a professor, almost too precise, his enunciation as sharp as lightning. “You are no good here. Take your bravery and go home.”

I was about to protest when Kracek roared again, and another wave of flame singed the air. The knight howled in pain, and the mage flinched back. I turned just in time to see the knight, armor still smoldering, run up the dragon’s arm and start hacking at Kracek’s throat. I ran.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but I must have stumbled through the bodies of a lot of my dead friends. There were bones and ashes everywhere, and the ground was soggy with steaming blood. Realizing what I had done, the madness of trying to fight that thing with a hunk of dull steel, I nearly threw up again. It was only fear and an empty stomach that kept me running all the way back to the parking lot.

Most of the cars had already cleared out, though there were enough smashed bumpers and broken glass in the lot to indicate it had been a hectic scene. There were dents all along the side of mom’s Volvo, which would have taken some doing, considering that the thing was built like a tank. I tore open the door and dug her keys out of the glove compartment, then slammed them into the ignition and twisted. The engine grumbled at me, grating and clanging and sputtering with each turn.

“Come on! Come on!” I shouted. Stuff broke around me all the time, from cars to computers to expensive espresso machines. The only reason I was driving mom’s car today was because mine had finally given up the ghost at the last moment. She wasn’t going to be happy when I brought it home with a dent in the door. “Not like she’ll believe this story anyway,” I muttered. “Come on, you viking bitch, start!”

I was about to give up and just run when the engine roared to life. I shouted victory, slammed the door shut, and dropped it into gear. Glass popped under my tires as I backed out of my spot, then I cranked the wheel around and lurched toward the exit. I was halfway across the lot when a cacophonous wave of violence swept over the asphalt.

An explosion blossomed over the soccer field. I couldn’t see what was going on over the berm, but I could hear the screaming, and Kracek’s hideous laughter. The tips of his wings fluttered through the air, and bright, blinding flame washed across the field. The screams got louder, and worse. I slammed on the brakes and stared toward the field, fingering the transmission.

“Ah, to hell with it,” I muttered, and threw it in reverse, spinning the station wagon’s balding tires as I spun around. “Can’t take the car home in this condition anyway.” I pointed the hood toward the walkway that led to the fields, pulled the seat belt across my shoulder with one hand while I steered with the other, and floored it.

There was a barrier to prevent this very thing from happening, but it was made to stop ambitious suburban parents from driving their precious German SUVs onto the sidelines, not to stop a chunk of viking metal at top speed. I crashed through the barrier, slewed back and forth on the loose gravel of the path, then reached the field. The shocks bottomed out in the drainage ditch, and for a brief moment I was airborne, flying like a valkyrie toward the dragon, and destiny. I planted the nose in the mud, sawed the wheel back and forth as the tires bit into the sod, then lay into the accelerator and started screaming.

The heroes were in a bad way. The knight was down, dagger girl was on fire as she danced away from the dragon’s claws, bloody rents in her leather armor and desperation in her eyes. The mage, if that’s what he was, knelt beside the fallen knight. There was blood coming from his eyes. He turned and looked at me, his eyes going wide and white as I barreled toward him. Then he grabbed the knight and somehow rolled out of my path.

The dragon heard me at the last second. He was focused on the girl and her shining daggers, and gave no thought to an engine roaring ever closer, not until it was too late. Kracek swung his sinuous neck toward me, wide head just off the ground. His golden eyes flashed wider for just a second, and flames curled around his jaws as he breathed in, ready to obliterate me, mom’s Volvo, and the everything in between.

I put the hood of the car into his jaw, going about forty miles an hour. The front of the car crumpled, and I was thrown against the seatbelt, hands smashing the wheel as my head snapped forward like a whip. I saw the hood erupt and the engine, old and heavy and still spinning, shoot out of its moorings and through the dragon’s skull. The dragon’s teeth shattered like delicate china. The black slug of the engine tore through Kracek’s head and punched out the other side, taking whatever suburban frustration and mystical wisdom a dragon posing as a property lawyer might contain along with it. The dragon’s neck whipped through the air like a firehose, spewing molten flame across the field. He deflated, scales shuffling to the ground, wings withering like spiderwebs in the wind. Then he dropped to the ground and was still.

The Volvo kept going. It cut donuts in the soccer field, the wheel snapping back and forth in my hands, before finally skidding to a halt. With numb fingers I snapped the seatbelt open, shoved open the crumpled door, and got out of the car. The two people still standing stared at me with open shock. I tried to wave, lost control of my arm, my shoulder, and then my legs, following my hand to the ground. I lay there for what seemed like a long time, breathing in scorched grass and wondering if the ringing in my head would ever stop. A shadow fell across my face. I looked up and saw the mage and the girl, staring down at me. The girl looked furious.

“Who’s this guy?” the mage asked.

“An idiot,” she said. Then she turned away and ran to the fallen knight. The mage leaned over.

“Even idiots can be heroes,” he said. He pressed his palm against my forehead. There was a bright scarlet light, and then nothing.

I woke up in a very different kind of place.

Origin Stories

Last week, someone asked me what led me to fantasy. I’ve written science fiction, thrillers, horror, poetry (God spare us from young poets), theology, and heartfelt rants, but fantasy was my first love, and it’s the genre I keep returning to. But I had to really think about how I got my start.

Honestly, it was knights. I had a very young fascination with knights, and castles, and the kinds of stories that surrounded them. There was nothing fantastic about it. I read pretty much every version of the Arthur legend I could lay my hands on, along with detailed accounts of life in castles, medieval warfare, and so forth. I was heartbroken that my family didn’t have its own heraldry (Akers is a place name, about as historic as Smith or Wright) and set about making up my own heraldry. Raised Presbyterian in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a natural love of all things Scottish, and attended a lot of Highland Games in my youth.

Of course, the middle ages had a lot of horror, but I didn’t notice. I wanted to be a knight in armor. I wanted the glory of the charge, banners streaming, a castle at my back. That was never going to happen, of course, but I could dream.

The move into fantasy was natural. Someone handed me Tolkien, and I was off. While my imagination has strayed far from those knightly dreams (my Veridon stories are evidence enough of that) I still find myself returning to them. I think that explains more about The Hallowed War series than anything else.

National Finish Writing this bloody Novel Month

Or, why I’m writing 75,000 words in the month of November.

 

It’s been a busy year for me. Lots of game writing contracts, some work I’m doing with a secret collaborator, and the launch of The Iron Hound have kept me busy. On top of all those things, I have the third and final book in the Hallowed War series to write. We had to get an extension on the deadline, but in order to have the book out on schedule next year, it needs to be done by December. This December. Like, in thirty days.

Along comes NaNoWriMo, urging participants to write 50k words in a month, and I think to myself “Well, that’s about what I need to get done, so I’ll play along.”

Problem is, my actual math is a little more. It’s not really 75k words, it’s 30 chapters, but my average chapter is 2500 words long. Truthfully, that’s as long as they go, with a lot of them coming in at just over 2k words, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I pretty much need to write a chapter a day to finish the book.

There are complications. Right now I’m riding a hell of a head cold. I have family coming in later this week. I’ve never tried to write every day for thirty days, and am not sure what that’s going to do to my creative reserves. And I still have game contracts that I need to work on. But I’m going to set myself this goal, and publish it, and then offer daily updates on my progress.

And… I guess I’m going to get started right now. Ta.

Bookday for The Iron Hound

The Iron Hound releases today! I’m excited because this is the first time two of my books have been on the shelves at the same time. I’m hoping that will provide a boost to book one, as well as additional support for the series as a whole.

Right now it looks like The Iron Hound is in most stores, though there might be a delay in databases updating and shipments arriving. I was in a B&N yesterday and they hadn’t received their copies yet, and said books sometimes didn’t come until the day of, or possibly a day delayed, so I’m not worried yet. Ideally the book would be on every shelf that has a copy of The Pagan Night on it, but that’s not the case yet.

I drove a little farther today than I usually do, to write at the Starbucks where I first started writing oh so many years ago. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, taking the appropriate classes and making the appropriate sounds in college. I even landed a few freelance jobs in the gaming industry my senior year, which had me thinking that maybe I could make a living at that. But as soon as college was over I got too involved in my daily life, and took a forced break from writing.

That all started to turn around at this Starbucks. On Tuesday nights, my wife took a pilates class at the park district across the parking lot, and I would come in here and write. One night a week, for one hour. That’s all the time I was able to get. Fifteen years ago I made a commitment to deliver on all this talk about being a writer, and came out three or four times a week, almost always to this coffee shop, never here for much longer than a couple hours before it was time to head home again.

I wrote my first three books here. Four, actually, but one of them is never going to be published. I wrote almost all the original Veridon stories at one of these tables. There used to be a B&N in the same shopping center, and when Heart of Veridon came out I walked over and signed my first ever published novel, then came back here and worked on the next one.

Decades after all these things happened, my fifth novel is coming out. Today I’m working on the sixth, with a short break to review the three pitches I have for my next project, and probably tinker with the thing I’m working on with my dad.

I’m not going to get much actual work done today. Most of this is ritual, things I’m doing to mark the anniversary, to talk publicly about what it’s like to be a writer. The work takes time. Persist. Twenty years ago, this kind of success was only a dream. Twenty years from now, it might have been my high water mark, or just one more step in a greater success story. Or something else. The fact is, we don’t know what tomorrow will be.

So work.

The Iron Countdown Hound

Today marks one week until The Iron Hound is on store shelves everywhere. This is a big deal, possibly even bigger than the release of the first book in the series. Why, you ask?

Because it’s the first time that two of my books will be on the shelves. Sure, there are some independent genre specific bookstores that stock everything I’ve written, but for general release, none of my books have lasted longer than six months. Considering that an average month sees fifty releases, and bookstores are not an ever-expanding gas, swelling to provide the necessary space for all these new books, it’s inevitable that the calculation of which books stay and which go back to the warehouse is particularly mercenary.

I’ll admit, it was pretty depressing the first time this happened. Heart of Veridon, my first book, was a work of love. There were years of development in the world, and decades of hopes pinned on its success. And while I hesitate to say that it failed, there’s no way to describe its release as a roaring success, either. But by the time it was falling off shelves, I already had a contract for another book, and plans for a third. So I was okay.

But as each of those books in turn hit shelves and then fell off six months later, I started to see a worrying trend. Was I going to be an author who could only be on shelves briefly? Would I even be able to keep selling ideas to publishers with this kind of sales record? Is there any way that this leads to a career?

This led to a deep think, and a five year pause. I was writing during that period, of course, but the project that I spent my days on was unlike anything I’d written before. Much bigger, much more fantastic. It took me back to the books I fell in love with in the first place, the Shannara series, Saberhagen’s Book of Swords, Tolkien and Lewis and McCafferey. Big fantasy.

The eventual result was The Pagan Night, which came out a year and a half ago. And wouldn’t you know it, that book is still on shelves. Nearly every Barnes & Noble in the US has at least one copy in stock, and if that copy sells, they’ll reorder another. That may not seem like much to you, but it feels like immortality to me.

And now we have The Iron Hound. A book that I’m proud of, a book that is a worthy successor to The Pagan Night, and more, a book that I think you’re going to love.

A book, in fact, that you should buy. Today, if you like to preorder, or in a week on this shelf or that one.

I hope you enjoy it. No, I hope you love it. Because I sure do.

Middle Book Syndrome

Even though The Iron Hound is my fifth book, it’s my first second book. The two Veridon books were connected, but they were written in serial, rather than in series. Dead of Veridon was a sequel to Heart, but it wasn’t part of a longer story I was telling, and there was never going to be a third book. (Though, seriously, if someone wants to pay me to write more Veridon, I will write the HELL out of that. I love Veridon)

But The Hallowed War series was sold and contracted as a trilogy. The Pagan Night was written (though in need of revision) and I had a synopsis for the other two books. The act of revising The Pagan Night created significant change in that larger synopsis, though, so when it came time to write The Iron Hound, I needed to rewrite the synopsis. And it’s a good thing that I did, because my first attempt was… poor.

After a few rounds with my editor, I realized the problem was that I was writing a good book, but not a good second book in a trilogy. The story I was trying to tell required a full trilogy to tell, but I wasn’t advancing that larger narrative the way I should have been. I was tracking my novel-sized goals, but not my trilogy-scale targets.

This is part of the reason The Iron Hound took so long to reach shelves. I lost six or seven months in this process. It didn’t really take me any longer to write, but it took nearly the same amount of time to conceptualize. That’s what happens with writing. Sure, I can write 1000 words a day without much effort, and should theoretically finish a first draft in about 160 working days (maybe I should start writing shorter books?). But there’s a lot of work around that work that slows things down.

So what makes a second book? For me, the main thing is keeping an eye on character development and plot progression. If you look at the outline for the entire trilogy, the whole story is about the same shape as an individual novel. Book one is about introducing the characters and the world, then presenting the core problem that’s going to motivate the entire trilogy. Book two involves rising tension, reversal, and movement toward the final confrontation. Book three tells the story of the long anticipated final confrontation, the moment of darkness, and the ultimate triumph of the heroes. This is for really standard storylines, and playing with that model is both necessary and interesting, but for purposes of illustration it’s sufficient.

It’s also important that each individual book have a satisfying conclusion, so that the reader doesn’t feel tricked into buying the next book. It needs to stand alone, but still point toward the next book. Each book needs to be a self-contained microcosm of the larger narrative, satisfying but always contributing to the big story. Otherwise you’re just treading water. It’s better than drowning, but you’re not getting anywhere.

Book two is still similar. The characters are already established, and the threat pointed to at the end of book one needs to be developed into the true motivating force of the trilogy. By the end of book two, the reader should be anticipating the final confrontation coming in book three, while still being drawn to a satisfying conclusion. Too many hanging narrative threads will be unsettling. Too few, and the reader has no reason to look forward to book three.

I’m pretty sure the middle book in a trilogy is the hardest to manage. You have to balance the larger narrative without ignoring the page to page motivation of the characters. You have to hint at the final confrontation of the trilogy without diminishing the final confrontation of the second book. And you have to give your characters an appropriate amount of personal development while still giving them room to grow in the final volume. It’s tricky, maybe the trickiest thing I’ve ever had to write.

Unless the last book is trickier. I don’t know. I’m still writing it.

Waiting as art form

I was talking to a writer friend last night about the disconnect between the release date of a book and the last time the writer worked on it. Unless you’re a top tier seller, the gap between the day you turn in the final draft and the day it appears on shelves can be significant. For The Iron Hound, which comes out in just under three weeks, it’s nearly a year. There were a couple rounds of revisions thrown in there, but those came with several month gaps between them, so I had to reacquaint myself with the story to make sure I wasn’t revising in new mistakes that I would have to correct later.

This gets weird when it comes time to promote a book. The author has often moved on to the next project, and in some cases is several books down the line. Since I submitted The Iron Hound, I’ve written two pitches, completed three gaming contracts, written a short story, and started book three in the Hallowed War series, tentatively titled The Winter Vow. That’s a lot of words between me and that book.

I guess that as writers we exist in the space between finishing a book and the reader actually reading it. There’s this terrible delay. Other than the direct feedback of my agent and my editor, I don’t know how well a book is working until readers start reacting to it, and that reaction trickles in over a long period of time. My first book recently got a positive review nearly nine years after I wrote it.

In some ways, a writing career feels like piloting a tanker through the dark. Adjusting for failed experiments, improving the craft, finding new and better ways to reach your readers, these are all incremental changes that a writer makes, the effects of which won’t be seen in public for years. It’s one of the faults in the art form, and it’s especially apparent in a world that expects agile response times and constant interaction.

I don’t write with you in the room, looking over my shoulder. But maybe that’s a good thing. These books I write are the purest possible artistic expression for me. Maybe you’ll like them, maybe you won’t. There are certainly things I can improve. But if I do, you won’t see the result of that for a long, long time. Be patient. Writing is a game of creative waiting. Reading is a hobby of creative anticipation.

Why Grimdark is OVER

It’s time to declare an end to Grimdark. This manifesto will outline the inevitable demise of an entire subgenre, which is obviously failing, despite consistently high sales numbers and the ongoing popularity of dozens of authors who identify as Grimdark. I am going to singlehandedly eviscerate their careers and launch a brilliant new subgenre that will take Grimdark’s place. So. Why is Grimdark over? Two reasons:

  1. It’s not over.
  2. I’m just tired of reading it

There you go. Manifesto complete.

To be honest, I’m not completely tired of reading it. I’m sure I’ll come back. I still haven’t gotten around to Richard K Morgan’s fantasy series, beyond the first one, which was perfectly fine but not compelling for me. There’s a lot of Joe Abercrombie on my TBR pile, but I stopped somewhere in the middle of Best Served Cold and never really got back to it. And while there’s plenty of reason to argue whether or not A Song of Ice and Fire is truly Grimdark, it’s fits well enough into the genre for my purposes, and I’ll be reading Winds of Winter when it comes out, and hanging on every episode of the new season.

For that matter, there’s a lot of grim darkness in my current series, The Hallowed War. Feral gods terrorizing the countryside, corrupted inquisitors forsaking the god of winter to swear allegiance to the god of nothingness, and families tearing apart along fault lines of betrayal and honor… there’s darkness. My personal writing style notes include making sure I don’t overuse the words “shadow” and “blood”, so yeah. Grim.

If you’ve read this far and haven’t caught on, I’m not actually saying Grimdark is over, or in any way failing. But it’s failing me, creatively, so I’m putting it to the side. I think there’s a heaviness in modern fantasy that isn’t serving us well. It’s grinding the joy out the genre, and out of life itself.

That isn’t to say that the genre shouldn’t address difficult themes, or try to reflect the genuine complexity of human experience. The common criticism of fantasy among fans of serious literature is that it’s pure escapism. But the themes of Lord of the Rings sprang from Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War, and there are clear parallels to the rise of fascism in Europe and the creeping corruption of civilization on the natural world throughout the books. Frodo’s final confrontation isn’t some sword-swinging action scene, but really an internal struggle with the weight of evil and the possible release of suicide, a struggle that he only overcomes through the companionship of Samwise and the intervention of his own evil reflection, Smeagol. There’s some heavy shit going on on the plains of Mordor.

But that’s not all there is to the story. Things get dark, but heroes rise. Evil encroaches, the idyll is broken, the shadows creep across the map, but then good people get together and say “Enough. This has gone far enough. We have to stand. And we have to do it together.” And sure, they’re flawed, they’re fallible, they’re weak. But they overcome those things and push through. They’re relatable, but they’re more than us. They’re heroes.

The most important thing that a hero does is give us something to aspire toward. I think we’ve lost something of the heroic in our fantasy. I think we’ve fallen victim to the flaws, glorifying in our mutual grimdarkness, without aspiring toward heroism.

That has always been the role of fantasy, to me. It’s not escapism, it’s aspiration.

So that’s why I’m done with Grimdark in its purest form. I’ve had enough of miserable people doing bad things to each other, glorifying in their faults without overcoming anything besides their own inhibitions. I get the anti-hero. I get the flawed champion. I get the sympathetic villain (which is hilarious when compared with our inability to empathize with people with slightly different political agendas on facebook) and the complicated moral compass. I get it, and I’m done with it.

I’m all in on heroes.

George Martin is Kurt Cobain

The first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones premiered last night. My wife and I don’t have HBO, so we’ve only been able to watch each season once it’s on DVD, and we never bothered to pick up last season. Fortunately, our cable provider made HBO free on demand for the week leading up to the premier, so she and I mainlined GoT for the last five days.

It got me thinking about the state of fantasy in popular culture. At this point I’m not talking about superhero fantasies, which have waxed and waned for decades, or urban fantasy mediums like True Blood, or science fantasies along the lines of Star Wars. I’m presenting a very strict definition of fantasy, here. Swords. Sorcery. Wizards and supernatural occurrences and maybe (God, please let it be) dragons.

Basically, I’m not at all sure what to think of the mass popularity of GoT. I’m glad for it, because it draws eyes to the genre and dispels some of the common stereotypes about fantasy. It sells books on shelves, it raises the genre in the eyes of editors, developers, and producers (hopefully leading to more movie deals for authors, more contracts for writers, and a broader potential market of readers), and it adds fantastic elements to the social conversation.

That said, I don’t think simply writing a GoT analog will get you readers. I strongly believe that the broad swathe of GoT fans are exactly that – GoT fans. They’re not going to read very deeply in the genre, if they read at all, and they’re not going to stray very far from their comfort zone of licentious knights, medieval politics, and a host of bad guys you’re just hoping will die in this episode. That isn’t to say there aren’t GoT fans who are fans of the whole genre, and avid readers, and a tribute to the fandom. In fact, some of the best fantasy fans I know are GoT fans first (I’m looking at you, Brotherhood Without Banners!) The fact is, GoT brought fantasy into the mainstream. Martin is Tolkien’s Kurt Cobain.

But what does that mean for the rest of us? I’ll admit, the pitch sentence for The Hallowed War was “Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke”, so I’m far from innocent, here. How do we as writers resist the immense gravitational pull that is GoT, and how do editors steer clear of the trap of churning out copies of such a successful series, in the hopes of catching some of its gold? Further, should we be resisting at all? Readers clearly like this thing. Why not give readers what they want?

As writers, we have an obligation to push the boundaries of genre, to experiment, to avoid the pitfall of safe writing. But we also need to make a living. When Martin sat down to write A Song of Ice and Fire, his intention was not to do what was popular, what was selling, or what would make him a lot of money. He wrote what he wanted to write, because he loved it. There was no financial pressure on him (he had essentially retired), no time pressure, nothing but his internal drive to create. He produced the best book he could, and because he was a great writer, the fan base followed.

That’s the spirit we have to follow. Not the sales numbers, not the tastes of this editor or that popular blogger. We need to write the books that interest us the most. The readers will follow.

Or they won’t. But you’ll never know until you try.

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