Join my mailing list to receive news and updates!

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Father, and Son, and a Book

How did you figure out what a writer is? How do we figure anything out? I have a bunch of really strange, probably telling memories of discovery. I remember realizing that cartoons were drawn, that Fred Flintstone wasn’t an actual person with very odd make-up. I remember coming to grips with differences in belief, differences in perception, differences in the way people treated each other. I remember reading a lot of books and, at some point,  realizing that someone created those books. Out of nothing. Out of their heads.

My father was the pathway for that discovery. He gave me the love of reading, and eventually the love of writing. My house was full of books, and silence, and the appreciation of the meditative word. I read a lot as a child. That’s the only way to feed a writer. When I discovered that writers were just people, putting words onto the page and forming the story in their minds, I felt like I had opened the door into a mad new world of possibility. That I could write. That I could create worlds. And the first writer I knew was my father.

What was glorious about that is that I was one of very few people who knew my father as a writer. He had many roles he played, in many people’s lives. He was (and is) a pastor, a professor, a scholar, a joker, a theologian, a businessman, an entertainer, and, ultimately, a teacher. And he’s good in all of those roles. In a few of them, he’s great. But for a few of us, those fortunate enough to see beyond his public face, my father was a writer. There are stacks and pages and decades of unpublished material in his office. He’s always felt that his job came first, that those other roles had to be served. When I started writing, I think I did it largely so that he could see what it was like. That it could be done. That an Akers could do well in that world. In some ways, I wanted to lead him to the thing he had always wanted. To give him the gift that he had given me. The love of writing.

Last Christmas, I bought my dad a ticket to Bouchercon. I’ll be going with him, to guide him through that world, to make what introductions I can, and to encourage him when his own modesty would lead him astray. I want to teach him to believe. In himself, and in me. My father gave me many things. This is all I can give back.

Gaming for Life

I’m a gamer. I get that that word has some pretty bad connotations these days, but I was calling myself a gamer before most of these people were born, so I’m going to stick with it. I started with board games, I moved to strategy games when I was in junior high, and I’ve been playing RPGs and tabletop war games since I bought my first d20 in high school.

Actually, longer than that. My parents were very strictly religious, and so I wasn’t allowed to play D&D. Instead I settled into a long stream of Cyberpunk, and then Cyberpunk 2020, and MERP, and then I just made my own systems for a long time. I didn’t join a long term D&D campaign until well after college, not because I was still following my parents’ injunction, but because I felt other games simply had better systems, and more interesting worlds. I guess I stand by that, even now. I only play Pathfinder because that’s what my group is used to.

But there’s a point to this. The point is that gaming taught me everything I needed to know about storytelling. If you look at the notes for the Pathfinder game I’m running currently, and then looked at the notes for the Wraithbound novel I’m plotting, you wouldn’t find a lot of differences. I create the worlds the same way, I sketch out the characters the same way, I look for vectors of conflict and alliance and motivation in pretty much the same way. The problem with this is that I run really, really complicated games. Most of our sessions involve the players just sitting around talking about what’s happening, and what might be happening, and slowly unwrapping the puzzle I’ve set before them. And then we roll some dice and someone dies, and then we schedule the next session.

In books, that doesn’t work as well. The Wraithbound novel has run into a lot of problems because my basic concept was this: I wanted two heroes, working toward the same goal, but in opposition. Do you know what that looks like on the page? A god damned mess. These are both good people, you want them both to succeed, but only one can win. And being the writer that I am, obviously neither of them actually win, they both just lose in particularly interesting ways. And you can’t sell a book like that. Not to readers, anyway.

But I think the underlying principle stands. I think games are the best story you can tell. Because not only are you hearing the story, you’re living it. When Aerith dies in FFVII, god that hurts, because you’ve worked with her for so long, you’ve done everything to protect her, and still she falls. And when a good session of D&D is done properly, the GM, the players, and the world are working together in tandem, in concert, to tell the best story that they can.

Maybe I run my games strange. Maybe I think too much about narrative structure, and the way characters align themselves to different structures. But when I present my players with problems, and watch them run wild with the possibilities, and then drop narrative beats into their path and watch them build off the world I’ve created… man.

Books don’t compare. It’s writing as rock band. It’s storytelling as fireworks. It’s a thing of fucking beauty.

So. The curtain falls away, the band is gone, the theater is full of an unearthly shrieking, and there on the stage is a god, a demon, a twisting, writhing, damnation-fanged beast of destruction.

Roll initiative.

Knowing what you write

I’m deep into edits on The Pagan Night. I have this problem that I’ve run into with each of my books, and that’s that I write it in the wrong order. Somehow when the first draft is complete and I go back and read it, I find that I’ve put a lot of rising action at the beginning of the book, and background information in the middle, and my points of climax are scattered throughout. So I have to go back and make corrections and generally rearrange things so it all makes sense. That’s where I am with this book right now. It’s a strange process to rearrange all of the chapters and then read slowly through, making sure you’ve got the continuity right, and trying to keep track of characters and where they are and what they’ve done and what they know. It’s tricky.

The point is that I’m so deeply embedded in The Pagan Night right now that it’s probably the last thing I want to talk about. I was planning to continue my series on the world of the book, but I don’t think I could muster an interesting paragraph on Tenebros, not when I’ve spent the last few days trying to remember who has Malcolm’s spear.

Instead I’m going to talk about religion. You may have noticed that all of my books feature religion pretty prominently. This is natural for me. I was raised in a religious family, and while I’ve given up that aspect of my life, my background has prepared me to take up the subject at the drop of a hat. I can deploy false theologies faster than Chicago weather can change, and usually with just as awesome results. It’s a skill that I’ve honed, and that I’ve learned to appreciate.

When I first started writing, though, I did not appreciate this at all. In fact, when I was struggling to finish my first short stories, and trying to produce characters that were believable or worlds that could hold the reader’s attention, I bemoaned my lack of broader knowledge. An enormous amount of my education as a child had gone into religious studies, and because of that I really didn’t know as much about other subjects as I would have liked. I grew up sheltered, both physically and socially, and so wasn’t that great at weaving believable environments. Pretty much everything I knew about the world came from books, and very select books, at that. It was a bad situation.

My early writing reflected this. I’ve often said that it took years for me to get the sound of William Gibson out of my voice. That’s part of the process of finding your own writing style, but it’s also an artifact of my upbringing. I knew more about The Sprawl than I did about the real world, and so even my non-SF/Fnal writing had a bit of Count Zero in it. (CZ was the first Gibson book I ever read, and remains one of my favorites) I simply didn’t have much experience to draw on.

I raged against this. I was really frustrated that so much of my knowledge base was worthless to me. I had no use for religion in my life, and therefore no use for it in my writing. And my writing was suffering for it.

The thing that broke that cycle was a little story called The Algorithm. By the time I wrote it, I had managed to sell a handful of short stories, and an agent was looking at a manuscript for a YA portal novel. Things were looking up, but I still didn’t feel like I had found anything distinctive in my own work. I was just a very good craftsman who was still fumbling around the edges of his own art.

When I wrote The Algorithm, I called it the best story I had ever written. While that’s probably not true, it was certainly the most important story to my development as a writer. Because in it, I approached my ideas about religion, and my feelings about belief and truth and understanding. It’s kind of a crude story, now that I look back on it.

The central idea of the story is that there’s this monastery built on the banks of a river. These barrels come down the river, filled with strange things, and the monks fish the barrels out and open them up and make things with the strange stuff they find inside. Most of it is clockwork, cogs and camshafts and various weighted pendulums, and the monks are trying to rebuild the machine that the clockwork came from, but they don’t have the plans or any clue what the machine originally did, so they’re just figuring it out as they go along. Whole schools of thought have been formed around these barrels, and each new delivery brings insight into what’s come before, or destroys notions of how the machine is supposed to work, and so forth. And sometimes things come down the river and they make no sense at all.

Like I said, it’s a pretty crude metaphor, but it opened up in my head a clear understanding of how I thought about my own life and the things that had been so terribly important to me when I was younger. And I really didn’t know I was doing that. I was just trying to write a cool story.

Ever since then, religion has been the thing I write about. I wrap it in the very real relationships of the people in the story, and try to dress it up in thrilling plot and beautiful world creation, but the core of each story is faith, belief, and understanding.

Or, more importantly, the strange things that happen that we don’t understand, and accepting that not knowing is okay, it’s normal, it’s right.

The point, gentle reader, is this: We must all find the thing that matters to us, no matter how difficult it is to talk about, no matter who else is already talking about it or in spite of the fact that no one else seems to care, and we need to write about that. It might not be relevant to all of the readers out there, but it will find the hearts of some of them. And those people? They’re your readers.

Don’t keep them waiting.

Two Gods, Light and Dark

I’m careful with religion. I’ve gone through various phases of belief and zealotry, various degrees of faithfulness, but what I’ve ultimately settled into is a state of deep thoughtfulness about religion. In my books I approach it very seriously. I want my readers to think about religion. But at the same time, I don’t want to make it seem like I want my readers to think about religion. I have no message I’m trying to push, other than a desire that we think about belief.

Thinking about religion is how Tenebros got started. I wanted to explore the idea of an evil god, but one that’s worthy of both our love and our worship. That was the seed idea for the Celestial Church. But I didn’t want to do something so simple as one good god and one evil, so I drew on what I know of mesoamerican religion, the concepts of duality that seem so strange to monotheists, and I created a couple of interesting gods.

The basic creation story of the Celestial Church is that there were once two suns. They circled the earth day and night, only there was no night, just one endless, burning day. The people hid beneath the ground, tore up the roots of blighted trees for food, and drank silt-thick water from the earth’s heart to survive. One of these suns looked down and saw the destruction he was causing, and had pity on the earth. So he fell, dropping from the sky to dip into one of the wounds in the earth, where harsh water boiled up out of the ground. He quenched himself in that water, extinguishing his flames, and rose back to the sky with skin as cold and hard as silver. He became the moon, and always after that there was a day and a night, and a summer and a winter. So while summer is the season of joy, it is also the season of war and fury, and while winter is the season of harrowing, it is also the season of mercy and reason.

Introducing Tenebros, land of the Pagan Night

Tenebros is a land of mad gods, ash-grimed paladins, pagan huntresses and honor-bound knights. It’s an island divided into two countries, a land split by generations of crusades, atrocities, and the lesser wars of reavers and thieves, bound together only by a common faith and their fear of the feral gods that roam the pagan night.

Welcome to the first in a series of articles that will introduce you to the world of The Books of the Winter Sun. I hope to give you a tour of Tenebros, its people, its religions, and the magics that bind the world together while also threatening to tear the people apart. More than that, I want to give you a look at how and why I made things the way they are. Tenebros has been forming in notebooks and in my mind for nearly a decade. I’m very happy with the final creation. I hope you get as much joy out of the place as I got in its formation.

One of the clever people associated with marketing the book has described The Pagan Night as “Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke.” I think that’s a good description, but not because I was trying to channel George Martin or tripping on Miyazaki. I like to believe that our source materials are similar, though. Where Martin is recreating the War of the Roses, I am drawn to the slow integration of Angles and Saxons following the conquest, as well as the absorption of pagan traditions into early Christianity. Couple this with my fascination with religion in all its forms, add a dash of shintoism, and you get Tenebros.

Once, the Tenerran tribes of the north worshiped the spirits of nature without interruption. They learned to channel and bend these gods through personal sacrifice, offering their bodies as hosts and their blood as food, bringing rain to their crops and living in harmony with the beasts they hunted and the land they harvested. They were at peace.

Along the southern coast of Tenebros, the Suhdrin lords ruled from stone castles and prayed in dark towers. They came from across the seas, bringing with them a druidic religion of season worship, their gods the twin lovers of Sun and Moon, their religion ruled over by a Celestriarch who had broken the royal line and assumed control of the Suhdrin people by force of faith.

These two nations lived in peace, trading when the crops were in, settling back into their homes when winter fell. But all of that changed when Suhdrin traders traveling deep in the north found what they believed to be the birthplace of the god of winter and night, the Gray Lord, Cinder. Word spread throughout the Suhdrin cities, and soon holy armies marched north to wrest the sanctified land from the pagan tribes.

Generations of crusades followed. The eventual result was the slow conversion of the Tenerran people and the establishment of a single rule of all of Tenebros. The two nations stayed apart, mistrust between them sown by generations of atrocity and war, but the banner of the Celestial Church spread across the island. The priests of Cinder and Strife (Bright Lady, goddess of summer and sun) raised altars in all the Tenerran tribes. Slowly the culture of Suhdra spread. The tribes gave up their wandering for settled fields, and their hunting grounds for castles of good stone and warm hearth.

The spirits remained. The gods of the forest, abandoned by their worshipers, went slowly mad. They rampaged through the forests, destroying fields and turning villages into broken timber and blood. The Church formed orders of knights and inquisitors to hunt down those who might keep the old ways, and to put the feral gods to the sword. The Order of the Winter Vow, taken by militan priests of Lady Strife, was created to keep the roads clear and the hearths of the faithful safe. The names of the gods were forgotten. They were called gheists now, and feared, and hunted.

This is where the story starts. A world of feral gods and vow-sworn knights awaits. But in the shadows of the pagan night, the blood that is spilled sometimes feeds those mad gods, and the battles that might change the world are not fought with sword and steel, but with faith, and fear, and silence.

The Era of Isolated Failure

I want to talk a little bit about rejection, perseverance, and the impossible weight of discipline. But first, I’m going to talk about sports.

I’m terrible at team sports. I don’t know what it is about my particular mental twist, but that thing that happens when you’re trying to do something, and everyone else gathers around and encourages you to do that thing… doesn’t work for me. It actually makes me want to quit. There’s some kind of scar on my emotional state, a twitch in my mental bits, that recoils from encouragement. I am literally only capable of succeeding in isolation, and only as a result of self-directed determination. I am a creature of isolated perseverance.

This is why I’m a writer. There is nothing more solitary, nothing more personal and isolated, than writing a book. You will spend day after day, year after year, bleeding onto a page, reeling narrative and false humans out into the darkness, with no one to tell you if what you’re doing is right. And when you do get feedback, it’s entirely subjective and quite possibly wrong. I have a dozen readers for my works-in-progress, and they come back with different perspectives on everything I give them. You have to learn to weigh their opinions. You have to cull. You have to evaluate.

But most of all, you have to learn to trust yourself. You’re your first reader. At the end of the book, you’re really your only reader. Because you have to write the book you want to read, as well as the book you want to write. Writers-in-forum, a species of writer that’s really nothing more than a negotiated opinion, spend a lot of time talking about what sort of book you should write, what sort of book will sell or not sell, what sort of book the genre needs or what sort of character the readers need. But the writers-in-forum don’t know shit about your book. They don’t know shit about you. All they know is the public forum. And writing is a solitary task.I’m asking you to write the book you need to write. And expect it to get rejected, because it’s probably a terrible book. And you’re probably a terrible writer. But if you buckle down, ignore the endless waves of negative help, the writers-in-forum and their negotiated opinions, and write the book you need to write? The book you want to write? You might stop being terrible.But probably not. So get used to isolation. And get used to determination. Because the only difference between you and the writers you admire is how much they’re willing to fail in hermitage, and how strong they are in the dark, alone, without praise and without attention. We all go through the era of isolated failure. People only notice you once you start to succeed. And after that?It’s all light. But we’re born to darkness.

The Wolf at the Hearth

I like dogs. I’ve had dogs my entire life, always working class dogs, always big dogs. My first dog, a Bernese Mountain blend, ran with a pack of semi-feral mutts in the mountains of North Carolina for most of my youth, but he was fiercely protective of me, so I never shared the common fear of large dogs that some of my friends expressed whenever that pack trotted around the bend and overtook us on our bikes or at play. He was my dog. He wasn’t born to the leash.

This might be why it’s easy for me to look at my dog and see the wolf. For all their variety of size and temperament, dogs are an evolution of the wolf, a trick of breeding and the imposition of human will on the raw savagery of nature. Our ancestors lived in fear of the darkness of the woods and the monsters that lurked there. The wolves that lingered at the edges of our village, that loped between trees at the limits of our sight, whose howls echoed off the moon and filled our nightmares with teeth and blood and the feral stink of fear, eventually those wolves came into the circle of our campfires, rested their heads on our knees, and took food from our hands. Our fears became our best companions.

This isn’t a post about dogs. I’m sorry if you don’t like dogs, and are struggling to find a reason to be interested in this article. But I wanted to frame an idea for you, an idea about fear and the domestication of savagery, so bear with me.

This is a post about Amazon, and publishing. About the quiet domestic bliss of the traditional publishing world, and the unsettling fear that is nipping at the edges of our pleasant dream. There are echoes coming off the moon, and a lot of people are pretty worried about it. I don’t think there’s a reason to worry. I think there’s more reason to hope, but it’s the kind of hope that comes with the possibility of getting your hand bitten off.

Publishing has been pretty comfortable with itself for a long time. We’ve created a way of doing business that we find pleasing and comfortable. And I’m not just talking about the actual business of publishing. I’m talking about the entire business of readership, of writership, of delivering narrative and processing books, of distribution and marketing, all of which are virtually unchanged since the middle of the last century. Sure, there have been incremental changes, but the core system is the same.The problem, of course, is that that system of business is no longer valid. It’s no longer sustainable. I subscribe to a number of industry newsletters, and every week I have to read about how sales are down at bookstores, about how this or that indie is closing, publishing houses shutting down or merging or changing focus in an effort to stay afloat.It’s an old industry, and we’re in a new economy. And so we have to adapt.For a while now I’ve believed that the primary product of the old publishing industry isn’t books. It’s the nostalgia of books. We hear a lot of talk about the weight of a book in your hand, the smell of its pages, the experience of browsing a disorganized bookshelf and the joy of discovery at finding that perfect novel, guided by the wise hand of a bookseller. And let’s be absolutely clear, I love all of those things. But as a business model, it’s faltering, and no amount of wishing that it wouldn’t collapse is going to keep the roof up. Music went through this. Newspapers went through this. We’re going through this. And the way forward is the light at the end of that tunnel, not clustered around the pilings at the center.So. Let’s talk again about that wolf. Amazon is our wolf. Amazon is the harsh wilderness at our doorstep, the naked reality that the way readers buy books and experience stories has changed, and they’re not going to go back to an older, inefficient and largely outdated way of doing those things just for the sake of nostalgia. We need the fear of that reality to fully penetrate the industry. We need publishers and editors and marketers and writers to go to bed each night with the howl echoing off the moon, and the taste of blood in their teeth.Fear can bring change. The natural reaction is to raise the walls and stoke the fire, and huddle closer to what’s comfortable. But the wise move is to tame that wolf, to change both our expectations and our practices to match the new world. The industry as it stands is not sustainable. But the industry that might be, the one that lives just over the horizon, the one we create from the wreckage of this one… that industry might be pretty amazing.Or it might bite off our hand. But that’s better than living in fear.

As Blood From Ash

Welcome, welcome, all of you, welcome. This is the new home for all the news about my books, my writing, my adventures in melancholia, and sometimes it’s the place where you’ll find valuable information unrelated to these things. Things you should know today:

1) I’ve finished the next-to-last draft of The Pagan Night. It’s off to my agent for a thorough reading, and then I’ll do a little reworking on it before sending it on to my editor, hopefully in March.

2) I’ve started working on a number of smaller projects, including a novella that expands on the Burn Cycle, and a collection of short stories for the Wraithbound universe.

3) I got a haircut.

4) My part-time job is going away in a couple of months, and I’m really going to have to figure out something to do about that. I’m open to suggestions. (My number one suggestion is that you BUY MY BOOKS)

That’s all for now. Please enjoy the site. If you have a chance, maybe take a minute to review some of my books at Amazon or on Goodreads, or maybe just wander the streets recommending my novels to perfect strangers (what is the perfect stranger? Is there, somewhere, the Prime Stranger, from which all other strangers are formed?) if you feel that will be a better use of your time.