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The Writing Life — Episode: No One is Counting

Many things have wrapped up, and many more are still up in the air. It’s difficult to know what’s going on for writers from the outside, so I thought I’d take a moment to peel back the curtain and talk about where my various projects stand and what I’m doing on a daily basis to bring you more Akersian Weirdness (not a trademark, but I *do* like capitalizing things).

I’ve spent the last few months finishing the first draft of Valhellions, which is the second installment of the Knight Watch series. This is a book that I made good progress on last spring, then kind of stalled out over the summer because I was working on finishing revisions to Wraithbound. I started in on it again in the fall and had a lot of trouble getting back into the project. This was further interrupted by hernia surgery in February which took me longer to recover from than I hoped. My initial goal was to have the first draft done by the end of March, giving me April for revisions and then another two weeks of scheduled padding before the due date of May 15th. In reality, I finished near the end of April and sent it to my agent and some beta readers. Feedback was positive with minimal changes needed, so I spent a week on those and then sent it my editors at Baen about a week ago. So that’s done, until I get edits back from Baen, which may be at any time or not for a long while. The book is scheduled to come out next April.

The second I finished Valhellions, I started working on a novella that’s been kicking around my head for the last few months. It arose from a conversation on twitter that I won’t get into, but at the time I was working on Valhellions so all I could do was write up some notes about the inspiration, outline a couple scenes that spoke to me, and put it aside. When I came back to it, it was incredibly easy to just dive in and work. The story ended up at 20k words, which is too long for most markets. I’ll be passing that around my writing group in a couple weeks. After that, who knows?

Just to catch you up on Wraithbound, the book is still out for submission. The first round of submissions included fifteen publishers, including Baen, who have the right of first refusal on the project. They also got a couple months head start on the submission queue. We haven’t heard back from them yet, so it might end up there, or it might not. That’s the joy of publishing. We’ve gotten five rejections back, some quickly, some slowly. The manuscript has been out for almost four months now. That feels like a long time, but this is a pretty typical rate in trad publishing, and the pandemic/WFH thing has thrown a lot of schedules off.

So what am I working on now? Good question. It’s not worth developing a pitch for Knight Watch 3 at this point. Wraithbound is meant to be the first book in a new series, and I have a general idea of what’s coming next, but it’s certainly not worth starting book two until book one sells. So what does a writer do?

I could take a break. Sit around and paint miniatures and play video games and read books. That would be nice. But this business is about always moving forward, and none of those things move me forward professionally. So instead I’ve started a new book. It’s tangentially related to Wraithbound, so if WB sells you can market it as being in the same universe, but if it doesn’t then no big deal, here’s something new. It’s tentatively called The Language of Swords, and follows the adventures of a deergirl whose brother is kidnapped by a red-eyed mage. She has to infiltrate the mysterious cabal of mages to learn his identity, etc, et al, darkness and light, romance, weird things floating in the sky. And yes, the magic system is based entirely on sword forms and dueling and those weird things floating in the sky. The whole thing started with a card game that I’ll probably never make and kind of rolled out from there.

Speaking of games, I’ve casually started making the D&D killer I’ve always wanted to design. Not that I’m actually going to kill D&D. I just want to make a ruleset that pleases me, and maybe it will please other folks as well. Because RPGs are my life, friends. And games could be so much better than HPs and spell slots and so forth.

Book Insights — Mass Market edition

One of the questions I get from interested fans and aspiring writers is whether I will be releasing hardcover versions of various books, or why this other book is only available in trade paper, etc. My first answer to these questions is always “Well, I don’t decide, the publisher does” but then I usually talk a little bit about how those decisions get made and why. And since it seems to be something some people are interested in, I thought I’d do a post discussing it.

As with all these types of posts, a reminder that I’m only a writer. I’m sure people even deeper inside the industry than I am will dispute some of my claims, and that thinking about these kinds of things changes over time, or from house to house. But these are my observations.

With that out of the way, let’s start by discussing the three types of editions. They are Hardcover (HC), Trade Paper (TP), and Mass Market (MM). I’m using the abbreviations that Borders used to use, because that’s where I worked.

Hardcover books are large format, hard cover, usually with higher quality paper, probably color illustrations on the front and back matter, maps, etc. Used to be the industry standard, and for certain genres (looking at you, YA) they still are.

Trade Paper is almost the same size as HC, but with a soft cover and usually more resilient but slightly lower quality pages. Rapidly becoming a favorite for the reasons I will discuss below.

Mass Market is your stereotypical pulp edition. Smaller, less wasted space on the page, soft cover, cheaper pages.

The first thing to discuss is the margin on each of these editions. Margin is simply the profit the publisher makes on each copy sold; the difference between how much it costs them to produce the book and amount of money they receive for it. The secret sauce is that there’s not a huge difference in production costs between MM, TP, and HC. Sure, there’s some, but it’s not commiserate with the increase in cost to the reader.

In adult fantasy, your typical MM costs around $8-10, while TP is $16-20, and HC goes for ~$30. But everyone involved is making a higher percentage of money back on both the HC and the TP than they are on the MM. It simply doesn’t cost two or three times as much to produce a hardcover book as it does a mass market.

So why not produce everything in hardcover? Because of demand. Readers aren’t going to spend $30 every time they want to read a book. So there need to be lower price points to meet demand. Mass Market was the original answer to this, but it’s starting to leak into Trade, because publishers have found they can train the reader to pay a little more and make a better margin without taking the HC jump.

One of the considerations for booksellers is shelf space. When shelved spine out, TP and MM take up just about the same amount of real estate, but the margin on that space is much higher for the Trade. That means bookstores will have a tendency to keep TP releases on their shelves longer than MM, because the potential sale is higher value.

Hardcover in adult fantasy is usually used in two situations. First, if you have an incredibly popular or hyped release that you know is going to sell a lot of copies no matter what format it’s in. Why not make as much on that event as possible? The second situation is if you have a release that has a small following, but an incredibly dedicated one. Again, these readers will pay whatever you ask, so why not make as much on that as possible?

Just a quick note to point out that most YA fantasy comes out in HC, and is priced considerably lower than adult fantasy. The typical new release in YA comes in at around $18, while the exact same size book, with the same treatment and paper stock, will be $28 on the adult shelf. They charge what they know the customer will pay.

Once the publisher has capitalized on the initial release, they’ll usually rerelease the book in TP once HC demand has tapped out, and again in MM a year or so later. Only incredibly successful books see this kind of treatment.

A lot of fantasy releases start in TP and then go to MM a year or so later, especially if they’re part of a series. For example, my Hallowed War series came out in Trade, each one year apart. But the same month the last book came out in TP, the publisher rereleased book one in MM, and the rest of the series in MM six months apart.

Trade Paper is popular because it’s a nice balance between price point, margin, perceived quality of product, bookstore reception, and cost. If a reader’s going to pay $10 for a tiny mass market, why not pay a little more and get a larger book that is easier to read, is more durable, etc. The bookstore is happier with this purchase, the reader is happier with this purchase, and the publisher is much happier.

There is a strategy among some publishers to release books in MM initially. This is simply a form of market research. Let’s be honest, publishers aren’t really sure which books will do well and which will fail, so they’ll put out a bunch of books in MM and see which ones get traction, then maybe rerelease those in Trade or omnibus editions. I don’t think this is terribly fair to the authors, nor do I think it’s good business, but I’m an author, not a publisher, so I might be biased.

There are publishers that work almost exclusively in MM, TP, or HC. They have a business model and understand their version of publishing extremely well.

I think that’s enough for now. Do you have any questions about this side of publishing? Are you a publisher who wants to correct me stridently and with great authority? Please leave a comment below! And thanks for listening!

Book Recommendation, Day One: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

Click the link to buy the book!

One of the things I said I wasn’t going to do in this series is recommend really popular books. You’re not going to see Sanderson or Rothfuss or Martin on my list, because they’re doing fine without my attention, and the publishing houses behind them aren’t scratching their heads trying to decide if they should cancel those series.

However, the first book I’m going to recommend is from a very popular author, Daniel Abraham. Dan is half of the writing team that brings you The Expanse, and while that series is fine and good, I’d much rather he go back to writing stuff like The Long Price.

The magic system in TLP is fascinating. Mages called Poets are able to capture the essential essence of ideas and turn them into human-like servants. Most of the first book is about the relationship between one Poet and his servant, Seedless, and the way they can be manipulated simply because they’re human and fallible, despite being incredibly powerful.

The world building and character development drives the narrative. It’s cognitively dense fantasy, an epic that focuses on the individual, and includes some of the best writing of our generation. There are a dozen award winning and nominated fantasies that can’t hold a candle to TLP.

But it didn’t do that well the first time around. Happily the series is being rereleased in an omnibus format, so everyone can enjoy it in a single volume without scrambling to find the individual issues.

It’s the best fantasy series most folks have never heard of. You should read it.

A Call to Action for Readers and Writers

Let’s all be clear about something. The coronavirus lockdown has been terrible for the publishing industry. The whole industry, from top to bottom, from writers, to publishing houses, to agents, to bookstores, to readers. It’s been a shitshow. Debut novels have fizzled, bookstores have struggled, writers have seen books delayed or even cancelled, and the books that have gone out have struggled with anemic sales figures. There are exceptions, of course, but overall we’re looking at a bad situation for people who love books.
Who does this hurt the most? Well, I can tell you that writers are in a bad way. But more than writers, I think readers are the ones who will lose out. Maybe their careers aren’t at stake, but if publishing can no longer put out an interesting and exciting line up of new books then readers are faced with a very dull future. Decisions are being made today that will impact what you can read next year, or even two or three years down the road.
What the industry is facing is a problem of discoverability. Amazon is fine for what it is, but what happens is readers who want a specific book go to Amazon, they pull up the book, they buy it, and they log off. That’s it. Amazon can talk about its recommendations algorithms, but anyone with access to sales numbers can see what happens when potential readers are no longer actively browsing bookshelves. Sales drop. Debuts flounder. Series disappear.
All of this is going to affect the decisions publishers make in the years to come. They’ll be less able to compete for exciting debuts. They’ll be less willing to sign longer series (and in my genre, fantasy, that’s a killer). Everything will focus on known formulas and proven sellers. It’s a vicious cycle.
What can we do? I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to start a project to recommend books to my readers and fans. Every day between now and Thanksgiving I’m going to spotlight one book and tell you why you should buy it. Some will be titles that came out this year, some will be old favorites that never got the attention they deserve. What I won’t be doing is recommending books that are already popular. Those already have their place on Amazon. They don’t need my attention.
If you’re a writer, I urge you to do something similar. Make an effort to promote and tag other authors. If you get tagged, please don’t just recommend the books of the people who tagged you. Don’t just recommend your friends, or people you want to be seen promoting for social standing. Point to books you enjoyed reading, and think other people would also enjoy.
If you’re a reader, please feel free to do the same. These days, word of mouth is simply the best algorithm we have. But most of all, buy some books. Show some love. These are hard times for all of us. Books make them easier. Writers make the world a better place. Do what you can to ensure writers can continue to share their dreams and enrich your lives.

A Cyberpunk Reanimanifesto

Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that there was a book that made them want to be a writer. That’s pretty obvious. It might even be a series of books, or simply a particular period in their reading life when they graduated from consumer to creator, from reader to writer, from being a fan to deciding that you wanted other people to be a fan of you. But we all have an origin story.

For me, there are two origin stories, which is why my body of work is kind of a hash of different influences. The first one, the… shall we say… inciting incident of my writing story was Tolkien. Obviously. And from there I went to Brooks and Saberhagen and McCaffrey, reveling in swords and dragons and the kind of things that heroes do. My writing story is also closely tied to my gaming history, so while I was reading about these fantastical worlds I was also gaming in them (since my particular upbringing forbade D&D, I had to make up my own game systems and worlds and magic, which was pretty good training for what was to come).

But I have a second origin story as well, and it came around high school. Rather than making me want to be a writer, because I already had that going on in spades, this second origin story made me want to be a *good* writer. It made me realize just how much a writer could do with a story, and a world, and the words on the page. It happened in a high school writing elective. The teacher, Mr. Bonner, set down a story I had turned in and said “Oh, you’re a cyberpunk.” And I said “What?” because that word meant nothing to me. So he sent me home with a reading list, and it changed my world.

The first book I could get my hands on was Count Zero, by William Gibson. It’s actually the second book in his Sprawl trilogy, and some would argue the better of the three, but at the time it didn’t matter. As I read that book I could feel my brain changing shape inside my skull. New pathways were burning, new ways of thinking about story and world and character. A whole new narrative landscape was opening for me, and I was hooked. Like, hard man. I was chipping in.

The games I played changed too. R Talsorian had just released the black box edition of Cyberpunk, with three thin manuals and some dice. I absorbed that game whole and inflicted it on my gaming group. Then Cyberpunk 2020 arrived, and I had the game I was going to play for foreseeable future. There followed a whole raft of other games, from Shadowrun to SLA Industries to Cyberspace, but Cyberpunk was the native language of my dice for a long time.

So when I first started talking about being a writer in any professional capacity, of course I said I was a cyberpunk. I wrote stories about netdeckers and samurai and synthpop kids, about invasive technology and neo-capitalist murder squads. Unlike in high school, my college level professors didn’t really know what to do with this stuff, but I could feel it in my bones. I knew what I was writing, and I knew it was good.

Unfortunately, the publishing industry moved on without me. By the time I was sending stories to magazines, cyberpunk was a distant idea that had glimmered and then been snuffed out. The market had changed. Even William Gibson, King Chrome himself, started writing near future technothrillers. Very good ones, mind you, but the neon had died out.

But now it’s coming back. Maybe it’s the resurgence of nostalgia for that era, maybe it’s the realization that the things cyberpunk warned about instead became blueprints for hyper-capitalization, or maybe it’s because fashion is just a mindless beast regurgitating the styles of old, and cyberpunk’s ticket has floated to the top of its vast belly. I don’t care. I want my street samurai. I want my hacking ninjas. I want my punks, and I want them cybered to the bloody teeth.

If you love cyberpunk, be sure to check out my short story Bulletproof Air. I’m going to write an entire series of these, all interconnected, released one chapter at a time. There are also new editions of Cyberpunk and SLA Industries coming out. Let’s reanimate this manifesto! Mirrorshades! Lasers! Dystopia!

Margin of Prophet

How many of you remember Christian bookstores? There are still some around, of course, and the big chains only collapsed in the last few years, but it’s been a while since they were ubiquitous. I want to talk a little about the decline of Christian bookstores and the subsequent change in Christian publishing, and what that might mean for genre publishing in a post-Covid world.

Keep in mind that I’m not an industry analyst, or a publishing insider. I’m a writer who has been publishing traditionally in the genres for a little over a decade. Before that I worked in various bookstores, and my father has been involved tangentially in publishing for the last forty years. I’m just a guy with opinions. None of this is a divine proclamation.

So. Let’s begin.

I was a child of the 80s, living in a part of the country very heavily influenced by American Evangelicalism, and so Christian bookstores were a foundational element of my early life. I was a fantasy fan from the outset, but my parents distrusted the genre. This proved difficult. My early reading was carefully curated by their concerns and the recommendations of people they trusted. I only got to read Terry Brooks because my seventh grade English teacher (at my conservative Christian school) had a reading closet that you got to borrow from if you did well in class. There was a battered copy of Sword of Shannara in there, opening the door to a lifetime of Shannara related joys. I read Anne McCafferey, because a pastor my parents respected mentioned reading the Pern series in a sermon. And of course I had Lewis and Tolkien. It wasn’t until high school that I had better control of my reading, simply because I had a car and cash in my wallet. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point, dear reader, is that all of this restriction created a market for Christian fantasy and science fiction, and publishers filled that need. I won’t go through the books I picked up at the enormous Christian bookstore my family frequented, because they were largely cheap imitations of better books. But I was a kid who didn’t know any better, and I ate them up, hook, line, and awkward conversion story shoehorned into the narrative sinker.

But Christian bookstores have largely collapsed. Family Christian and LifeWay shut down in the last few years, victims of the same headwinds that killed Borders, with the additional difficulty that their most profitable products were appearing in Walmart and Costco at lower prices. Traditional Christian publishing has mostly abandoned the genres (with the exception of Romance) and focused on celebrity authors who bring their audience with them from another channel. I heard an interview with the head of a major Christian publisher recently. The core message of that interview was that they make acquisition decisions based entirely on the notoriety of the author; how famous are they, how many followers do they have on social media, how likely is that audience to convert into book buyers, etc, et al.

It’s kind of a horrible thought. You can’t get published in that space unless you’re already famous in that space. You have to be something else first, and then maybe you can be an author. There is no midlist. There are only celebrities signing their first contract, and aspiring writers who simply can’t get signed, regardless of talent.

Why is this relevant to non-Christian publishing? Because this is what happens when markets narrow. There used to be a captive (ha!) audience for Christian fantasy, now there isn’t. Christian publishers are forced into more and more narrow catalogs focused on celebrity rather than quality. What’s the aspiring Christian fantasist to do? Become a ghostwriter, I guess. Or write well enough to make it in the traditional markets.

How does this relate to post-Covid publishing? Simple. The market is narrowing. There’s been tremendous financial disruption in retail. For years, bookselling has been an anemic performer in the retail sector, losing ground or making slight gains during periods of broad economic growth. When the overall retail environment craters, booksellers are going to face the greatest losses, with the least financial buffer in their bank accounts to compensate.

Major retailers have pivoted to address this. B&N is making sweeping changes to its stores, carrying fewer titles and focusing on books that sell. The stated aim of the changes at B&N is to reduce the number of returns. Publishers depend on the churn of selling titles that will eventually be returned to fund their operations, keeping a lot of plates in the air in the hopes of finding their next big hit somewhere in the midlist. If B&N cuts back on that churn, publishers will have no choice but to reduce their midlist. It’s inevitable. It’s just math.

What does that mean for authors like me? I think a lot of us are going to be forced into the self-publishing world. That’s where Christian fantasists mostly are these days, especially those intent on message-fantasy. I used to belong to an informal internet group of Christian fantasy writers, with hundreds of members. All of them were aiming for sustainable self-publication. None of the talk in that group was on how to break into traditional publishing, or how to get an agent, or what conventions to attend to meet publishers. There are advantages and disadvantages to that, but this isn’t a post about indie authors. It’s about the future of traditional publishing and what it’s going to look like in the near future.

Narrowing markets, fewer titles, stricter gatekeeping. That’s the future. That’s what’s happening today. Booksellers are pivoting, and publishers are going to be forced to keep up. There are a lot of changes they can make, but publishing is a nostalgic business. We cling to dead models because we’re all pursuing dreams in here. Our name on a cover. An office in New York. An award on our mantel. But dreams don’t pay bills, and the margin for error is shrinking by the day.

Influences and Inspirations

Some influential books in the making of Knight Watch

*Disclaimer: none of this implies an endorsement on the part of the authors mentioned. I just want to outline the writers and works that influenced me while I was writing Knight Watch.

Let’s take a moment to look at the formation of a book. Specifically, the formation of Knight Watch, my seventh novel and the first in a new series. Knight Watch is somewhat different from my previous books, and I thought it would be helpful to examine the influences and inspirations that formed the book in my head. The above image tells most of the story, but I’d like to unpack these things a little bit for you, my loving audience.

First, Correia’s Monster Hunter International. For those of you who don’t know, MHI is all about a secret, non-Governmental organization who hunts and kills monsters for fun and profit. I’m a big fan of the series. It’s got a lot of the things I love in a book: violence, secret histories, cool monsters, bad-ass operators, more violence, and a healthy dollop of humor. There are times in Knight Watch when MHI’s influence is only thinly disguised. Especially the violent parts. The public facing pitch for Knight Watch has always been “Men in Black goes to the Ren Faire” but the pitch I gave Jim Minz (my editor at Baen) the first time we talked was “This is MHI for sword nerds and gamers.” And I think that holds. So if you like MHI and swords, you’re going to find a lot to like in Knight Watch, and vice versa.

Secondly, Butcher’s Dresden series. I think one of the things that makes Dresden so popular is how grounded it is in the real world. Harry is just a guy who happens to be a wizard. He’s relatable, and he’s funny, and we get a kick out of exploring the world with him. That’s what I was trying to do with John Rast, the hero of Knight Watch. John’s just a guy who wants to be a hero in a knightly tale, and then quite suddenly he is, and the world kind of falls apart around him. He’s funny, he’s relatable, and you’re going to enjoy exploring the Unreal world with him.

Finally, PG Wodehouse. This one might not seem to fit with the above examples, but let me explain why it’s a central influence on the book. You see, while I’m certainly a grimdark guy, going back to before that was even a phrase people used, I’m also a goof. I like absurdist and gallows humor, I like puns, I like wordplay. Frankly, I like joy, and there’s not enough of that in the genre. And the main reason for that is PG Wodehouse. Because while everyone else’s parents were reading them bedtime stories, my dad was reading me Wodehouse. From a very early age I was acquainted with Blandings, and Bertie, and Jeeves. I grew up in their company. That dry British wit has been written into my DNA. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such success in the UK (five of my first six books were published by British houses, and all of my short fiction appeared in Interzone). So while Knight Watch is all about monster hunting and clever heroes, it’s also about joy.

That’s the list. I hope Knight Watch brings you the same joy reading it as it brought me writing it.

Pitch Wars 2019 Wishlist

I am participating in Pitch Wars this year. Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to spend three months revising their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where agents can read a pitch/first page and can request to read more. If you’re reading this because you’re a fan of mine, then hopefully you’ll become a fan of my mentee once this whole process is over. And if you’re reading this because you hope to become that mentee, then here’s my wishlist!

Who I Am: My name is Tim Akers, and I write fantasy and science fiction. Over the last ten years I’ve published six novels, about a dozen short stories, and written nearly 100k words of material for various games, including Pathfinder, Malifaux, Wild West Exodus, and the Midgard setting for 5e. My first three novels were steampunk noir, mixed with a healthy dose of New Weird strangeness. My last three books form the Hallowed War trilogy, and are epic fantasy as influenced by Miyazaki, the Final Fantasy series, and a childhood fascination with knights and druids. I am represented by Joshua Bilmes of the JABberwocky Literary Agency.

What I’m Looking For: While I read broadly, I have focused my writing skills on producing entertaining, commercially viable stories that are fun and satisfying to the reader. For the purposes of this wishlist, I will only be accepting Adult pitches. For Fantasy, I’m open to epic fantasy, portal fantasy, low magic hijinks, sword & sorcery, steampunk, and New Weird. For Science Fiction, send me cyberpunk, space opera, milsf, and clever near future work that falls outside the typical climate change dystopia.

What I’m Not Looking For: Erotica, re-hashes of established tropes, a narration of your last D&D game, or time travel unless it’s particularly clever (See Hurley’s Light Brigade for a sterling example). Fantasy is a genre that depends on established tropes, but in order to stand out from the crowd you need to do something interesting with them. That doesn’t mean “the exact opposite of what’s expected”, because that’s not interesting, it’s just the opposite.

Caveats: If I think you’re good enough of a writer to be my mentee, it also means that I think you’re good enough of a writer to face hard criticism. I edit honestly, and directly. Writing is a difficult business, because writers put a lot of themselves into their work, and when that work is criticized it’s very easy to feel attacked. If I’m your mentor, I’m going to work hard to make your book the best it can be, but that means I’m going to take a knife to it. It’s going to be messy. If you don’t think you can face that, then save yourself the heartache and submit elsewhere. But if you seriously want to be a better writer, then I think we can work together.

Reading Lists: Here’s a comp list to give you an idea of the sort of books I enjoy.

Fantasy: The Dragon and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Red Knight by Miles Cameron, Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss, Blood of Ambrose by James Enge, The Scar by China Mieville, Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith, The Thousand Names by Django Wexler, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin, The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.

Science Fiction: The Expanse series by James SA Corey, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, Outriders by Jay Posey, Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos.

Final Notes: This is my first time serving as a PW Mentor. I don’t yet have best practices in place for reading submissions. If you submit to me, please be patient. Know that I’m going to give all the submissions my full attention and, if I choose you as my mentee, know also that I’m going to give your manuscript the same care with which I handle my own work.

Click here to return to the Pitch Wars Mentor List

Thanks for your interest!

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!”


“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.

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