On World Building

Occasionally, while reading or listening to a story, I’m struck by a sentence or a paragraph that is just . . . so perfect, it makes me want to throw out everything I have ever written. Or, alternatively, to fix everything I’ve ever written so that it comes closer to what I have just read/heard.

Today, on my way to work, I was listening to the Glittership podcast, episode 6: “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton (@lnmorton).

The first two paragraphs of the story are as follows.

After the Collapse and the Great Reboot, Lila moved into the city and opened a barbershop.

Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.

It was at this point that I completely lost the story. Not because it was boring or because something had kicked me out, but because of the stunning simplicity and beauty of the world building behind the phrase “because there were lions, once.” My mind wandered, imagining this story’s world. Something called the Collapse and something else called the Great Reboot are hinted at, but the single phrase “because there were lions, once” conveys important things about the character and the world and her relation to it.

It’s wistful and sad (to me, at least), and stated so matter-of-factly that there is no question in the reader/listener’s mind that the character feels this loss deeply. So deeply, in fact, that she has named her barber shop The Lion’s Mane in honor of the once-proud beasts. It tells us that lions are going to matter in this story.

The lion has long been a symbol of strength and wildness. If lions — the apex predator of an entire continent — no longer exist, what kind of world do these characters live in? I personally experienced a sense of loss upon hearing that phrase, as though lions really had been announced to be extinct. (I love big cats probably above all other animals.)

I missed the next half-minute of the story and had to rewind to that point, and nearly zoned out again, but pushed through, and listened to almost all of the rest on my remaining commute. I’m almost done with the story, and the promise of that phrase “because there were lions, once” is being fulfilled. I knew that from the get-go, of course, but this is how a skilled writer does it.

If you’re not already listening to Glittership, consider subscribing. Keffy R. M. Kehrli is the host of and editor behind the podcast. I’ve been enjoying it as I catch up.


On Tribes…

Paradise Lost 6

Paradise Lost 6

Pictured to the right are the attendees/students, instructors, and organizers of Paradise Lost 6, held in San Antonio, TX, from April 28 to May 1, 2016. I have been very slug-like in getting around to posting about it, in spite of the fact that it ended a week ago. But I’ve been busy. That’s my excuse.

That’s me on the left, peeking out from between Anna and Rosie. I loathe pictures of me, but everyone else looks fantastic, so I’ll allow it.

Paradise Lost is open to writers who have been to the Viable Paradise or Taos Toolbox writing workshops, or who are members of the online Codex writing group (which has membership requirements including juried workshops (such as Viable Paradise, Clarion, Taos Toolbox, Odyssey, etc.), or publication).

Organizing the entire thing was Sean Patrick Kelley. His able assistant was Peter Sursi. Our instructors were Walter Jon Williams, Fran Wilde, Jaye Wells, and Ken Scholes.

For reasons that remain opaque to most everyone who knows me, I decided to drive from Atlanta, GA to San Antonio, TX. It’s a 16-ish-hour drive, so, heeding advice from a good friend, I split it into two days and took it slightly easier. Both there and back.

Four other graduates from my year at Viable Paradise XVI (2012) were there. It was great to see them all again. I won’t do a lot of name-dropping here, because there were 20 others besides me there, and, frankly, it would take a long time to find and link all those sites. :)

The highlights: the lectures by the pros (one of which was an exercise about supply lines that actually made me think about something that needed to be thunk about in my novel, so yay!), the social times, the dramatic (some might say ‘melodramatic’) reading of Chuck Tingle’s Hugo Award Nominated Space Raptor Butt Invasion. It was . . . special. Very . . . special.

I pretty much can’t say enough positive things about this experience. If you have the means and the opportunity to go, do look into it. It’s four days of being around amazing people who are also all writers, story breaking, talking shop, drinking, playing games, playing music, dramatic readings of really bad erotica . . . I’m told there was even some actual writing that got done! :)

There are two “tracks”: a critique track and a retreat track. The critique track is just what it sounds like: you submit up to five thousand words of something you’ve written and (this year) two instructors/pro writers and six fellow workshoppers read and critique it. This year, the critiques for all seven manuscripts took place over two sessions (before and after lunch) on one day. The Milford method was used: the author stayed quiet while each of the critiquers got up to 3 minutes to hit their main points. It went in a circle, then the professionals each got . . . basically as long as they liked to make their points. There was a lot of dittoing and anti-dittoing. And bad puns. :) Then, at the end, if the author wished, s/he could briefly address any comments brought up during the critique. It’s a handy method, and one I’ve used before that works if everyone’s kind of on the same level, and there aren’t too many people in the group. :) As it was with seven authors per group, each person had to read and critique about 30,000 words in the two(ish) months leading up to the workshop. Not too bad.

The retreat track is there to just get away from all the big, hairy nonsense that interrupts their writing when they’re at home (kids, spouses, bills, work, laundry . . . life) and just write. I think next time, this is what I’m going to do. There was still puh-lenty of time to do all the social stuff and get writing done, or so I was told.

The best part for me was that two of my fellow Paradisians were able to give me some inside information on some things I need to know about aspects of my novel that I know nothing about: government and law enforcement. A bonus I’m over the top about, and which I was totally not expecting. This is why critique groups are so useful! People have a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over very long careers. Skills that make them a rainbow-farting unicorn-dream for people like me, who don’t have those skills, but need to sound convincing in my manuscripts. Or, as one instructor said, you have to do the research to know what you’re talking about before deliberately breaking the rules for the sake of story. (Paraphrased.)

Anywho, as I said, you should definitely give it a go if you can, and you write science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Or, to put it in Internet terms everyone will understand: A++++++++++++!!!!! Would attend again!!!!!!!

  1. Which means sixteen uninterrupted(ish) hours of podcasts I got to listen to. It barely made a dent in my backlog, but it was a nice start.

The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee
The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee by Talya Tate Boerner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How can one be accidentally saved? That’s the question that pops into your head when you see the title.

*** MILD spoilers follow ***

Gracie Lee Eudora Abbott is ten years old. The summer is almost over, and school is looming ominously on the all-too-close horizon. So every single day is important! But her mother, Anne, makes her and her sister go to church every Sunday. They can’t even play all morning because they’ll get dirty, so it’s basically an entire day gone out of their busy schedules of being kids in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas in the early 70s.

Gracie’s father never goes to church with the girls and their mother. And that is totally not fair. If she has to go, why doesn’t he? Sure, he gets drunk (and mean) most nights after working all day on the farms. But that’s hardly an excuse.

So it’s only natural that Gracie would ask the preacher about it. Everything just . . . kind of got out of hand after that.

Boerner’s debut novel is full of wonderful prose, humor, and drop-dead serious situations that this plucky, curious, precocious ten-year-old girl has to navigate: school bullies, death, baptism, church camp, and the mysterious fate of the man in the gray house just down the street from hers. Did he really shoot himself? Is he all right?

*** END mild spoilers ***

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to Boerner’s future novels.

The writing reminded me a lot of A Painted House by John Grisham. It has a similar feel, and it’s also from the first-person POV of a child trying to make sense of adult situations. Highly recommended.

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Letters to ZellLetters to Zell by Camille Griep
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I unabashedly loved this book. It is full of humor and a lot of allusional gems to fairy tales and other works of beloved literature ranging from Oz to Narnia. And yet . . . it is not a frivolous story. These women (whom we would think of as Snow White (Bianca), Cinderella (CeCi), and Sleeping Beauty (Rory)) reveal real lives with real problems in their letters to their friend Zell (Rapunzel), who has recently upset their social structure by moving away with her husband and children to pursue her dream of raising unicorns. Her Pages (story) were done, so she was free to go “off-script,” as it were. In doing so, she allowed CeCi, Bianca, and Rory to dream of a different life after their Pages are completed.

But not every fairy tale ends with Happily Ever After. The friends have to find a new equilibrium as their relationships change, and yet fulfill their own Pages lest the very fabric of their reality (the Realm of fairy tales) is destroyed.

A wonderful read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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The Shambling Guide to New York CityThe Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is probably the best thing I’ve read from Mur Lafferty, and I’m a fan of her work, anyway. Who knew that a book about a book editor putting together a travel guide for New York City could be interesting?

Well, I mean . . . it’s a travel guide for, you know, monsters. Except they don’t like that term. It’s kind of insulting. They prefer ‘coterie.’ And they are anything from dragons to fae to vampires to demons, and everything in between.

Where do dragons sleep when they visit New York City? Where should zombies eat? And what about visiting incubi and succubi? All these are answered in the book.

But, of course, the book wasn’t just ‘Zoë sits at her desk compiling a book about New York City,’ because that actually would be pretty boring. She works with a couple of vampires, an incubus, a succubus, a death goddess, a water sprite, three zombies, a dragon, and a construct (think Frankenstein’s monster). And there are no sexual harassment laws or health insurance. Still, it’s a good enough job.

But then there’s a zombie uprising because someone is poisoning their food supply, and the Public Works Department (the coterie police force) are suddenly having to battle all kinds of problems. Something big is about to go down in New York City. And to top it off, it looks like someone (other than / in addition to several of her coworkers) is out to get Zoë.

Being a book editor is dangerous business when you’re food to a good number of your coworkers.

Highly recommended. As much as I hate to use this phrase, “It’s a fast-paced tour-de-force that will have you on the edge of your seat.” :)

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In my last update, I mentioned that the owners of 750words.com were willing to work with me on payment, and that I had sent a check since I cannot trust PayPal ever again.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in the end. They either never received the check, or ignored it. And then when I contacted them, I was told they had been on vacation and just hadn’t checked the mail. I gave them another several weeks. During which I attempted to contact them several times. To no avail. Finally, when my “trial” account was in danger of once more expiring and I had heard nothing, I finally just saved everything I’d written and cancelled the account. Oh, and stopped payment on the check I sent. Little danger of them cashing it after more than two months, but still. Better safe than sorry.

I have nothing against the site or the way it operated. What I have to negatively rate is the customer service, or the lack thereof. It’s just not professional to ignore people who are trying their damnedest to give you money. I’m rather stunned by this, but whatever.

So I guess my assessment is this: It’s a good site, and I’d recommend it if you’re not opposed to PayPal or their rather high monthly cost, and if you don’t need or want any sort of professional customer service on a timely basis.

It was nice to have a prompt to write every morning, and a ticking timer saying, “You only have x hours left!” each time I looked at the page. But it was apparently not meant to be.

Oh, well.


Review of Stop Me by Richard Jay Parker

Stop MeStop Me by Richard Jay Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was suggested to me because I enjoyed Dan WellsI Am Not A Serial Killer. I’m glad it suggested it, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

The premise: We have a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then sends out an email spam exhorting people to email it to ten friends, and they mail it out, and they mail it out . . . and if one of those friends of friends of friends happens to be one of his friends, he won’t kill the victim. If he doesn’t get the spam back, the local police receive a package: the victim’s lower jawbone, boiled and polished.


Now, on top of this, throw in a main character whose wife is taken by this killer, but the police never receive a jawbone. Neither, however, is she released, so of course, they police suspect him. And throw in a man who confessed to the murders, but who can’t be the killer, because he’s never left his hometown. And throw in another man who confesses, and ends up serving time for the crimes. And two seemingly unrelated murders. And family secrets. And betrayals. And a twisted cast of characters, any or all of whom are probably capable of being this Vacation Killer.

The pace is good, the characters are believable, and the situations are believable.

I can’t say too much else without massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that because I enjoyed each new revelation too much to deprive others of that same sense of discovery. :)

I will say, however, that I did not figure out who the killer was until it was revealed in the text. But I wasn’t at all surprised.

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Gil's All Fright DinerGil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are you tired of sexy, hot vampires who gaze at women for, like, a milisecond before said women rip their clothes off to throw themselves at him? Are you tired of werewolves who basically do the same thing, only hairier and more bestially?

Then this book is for you. Meet Earl the vampire and Duke the werewolf. Earl and Duke are basically good-ol’ boys who, through bad luck, became undead. They’re aren’t hot. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t even particularly nice or smart. But they have a knack for solving people’s supernatural problems, and that’s what gets them into trouble when they pull into Gil’s All Night Diner for a bite to eat (for Duke).

This was a fun read. There were a few things that annoyed me about it at first, such as the main characters’ propensity for using one another’s names more often than people in real life do. Luckily, that didn’t last long.

The pace is good, with a few curve balls thrown in. Both the vampire and the werewolf lore in this book is not what you’d expect if you’re into the more traditional mythology, but it’s consistent and explained well, and makes this Martinez’ own mythos.

It was a satisfying, fun, quick read, and I look forward to reading more by Martinez.

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Real MagicReal Magic by Stuart Jaffe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: The summary below is for less than the first hundred pages of a 300-page book. I don’t consider them spoilers, but if you’re a stickler, don’t read beyond this.

There’s quite a lot to like about this book. The author, Stuart Jaffe, was unknown to me before I attended a small science fiction/fantasy con in Chattanooga, TN, in June of 2013. My friends and I met the author, spent some time with him, liked him, and I ended up buying two of his books because they sounded interesting. This is the first I have read. Note: The other author, Cameron Francis, is a magician, and all of the card “tricks” in the book are his. Jaffe and Cameron do a good job of showing card tricks without the use of cards. :)

The main character, Duncan Rose, starts out not very likable. He learned all about magic — especially card-handling techniques — from his great-grandfather, Pappy. But instead of using his skills to make an honest living as a stage magician, he cheats at cards. This backfires on him one night, and his partner in crime, Pancake, who also knows a little about cheating at cards, cheats the wrong people and nothing Duncan does to try to defuse the situation helps. Minor spoiler: Pancake ends up losing his hand to the Russian mob, and the men are told they have to come up with $20,000 before morning or worse things are going to befall them. [White-on-white text; highlight to read spoiler.]

Desperate, Duncan turns to his estranged family and gets no help. They’re all tired of his dishonest lifestyle. As a last-ditch effort, he goes to the one person he can trust: Pappy.

Who turns him down.

In despair, Duncan decides that he is going to have to do the unthinkable: steal from Pappy. Pappy has kept a mysterious, elaborately decorated door closed in his apartment for years, warning Duncan again and again never to open it. But suddenly, whatever might be behind that door sounds like the solution to Duncan’s problems. He opens the door and steps through.

And winds up outside a house in a small city in Pennsylvania. In 1934. He’s wearing different clothes and finds less than five dollars in his pockets. He tries to convince himself it’s all an elaborate illusion set up by Pappy, but quickly realizes that it’s real. For whatever reason, the door is magic — the real thing — and he really is in 1934. His goal: to get back to 2013 and fix things.

He immediately falls back on his one real skill and finds a card game he can cheat at. He discovers he’s not the only one pulling the same scam. He and the other magician, Vincent, team up and cheat some mobsters out of $100, which is a large sum of money in 1934.

Unfortunately, their boss figures it out and comes for Duncan. And makes him a deal: Duncan is to get himself into the local magic club (of which Vincent is the head honcho) and find out their secrets and relay everything he discovers to the mob boss “or else.”

He soon discovers that everyone is after the same thing: a mysterious Vanishing Door act performed by a magician near the turn of the century. An act during which several people actually disappeared. Lucy has drawn a picture of the door, and it looks strangely familiar: a lot like the door in Pappy’s apartment.

Vincent wants the door because he wants the secret of the trick. Duncan wants it because he believes it to be his ticket home to 2013. The mob boss wants it for the power he believes it will give him.

To complicate things, Duncan finds himself head over heels in love with Vincent’s sister, Lucy, and is torn between leaving her in 1934 or bringing her with him back to 2013.

I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that the resolution was refreshing to me. Time travel stories generally have a number of problems, but Jaffe manages to thread that particular needle nicely, and finds a solution that didn’t make me groan and roll my eyes.

The tension is kept high as Duncan must satisfy the mob boss while simultaneously gain the trust of Vincent and the other magicians in the magic club and not betray his growing love for Lucy, and hers for him. The pacing is fast, and you will be kept turning the pages not only to find out how — or whether — Duncan manages to find a solution to all of his problems, but how the love story between Lucy and Duncan turns out.

I enjoyed watching Duncan grow from a likable character to one that finds true love and tries to do the right thing.

The characters are believable, the time travel is nicely handled (although never explained, which I’m fine with), and the resolution is satisfying. Although I did (eventually) see the end coming, it has a certain elegance that I wasn’t expecting from the trope used. (Is that mysterious enough?)

I would recommend the book to those who enjoy magic, time travel, “period pieces,” mysteries, and love stories. It has aspects of all of them, and yet isn’t purely any of them.

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Review: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End
John Dies at the End by David Wong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was just freakin’ weird. That is the only word that suffices. Gross, horrific, and disgusting in about equal measure, it was also funny as hell and kept me glued to the pages from start to end. (It was kind of uncomfortable, actually.)

I’m not even sure how to review this thing without spoiling it. There’s this guy named David Wong, and his friend John. They . . . hunt monsters. Like this one monster that’s made of meat. Not in the way that you or I are made of meat, but in a more literal way. Like, it’s a monster . . . made of meat. Like, meat from a freezer, all held together in a disgusting way by a supernatural power of evil.

Which can be vanquished, apparently, by really loud, heavy metal music played on a boom box. Or mint candies with bible verses printed on them.

And there’s a dog named Molly who both is and isn’t a dog. Who can sometimes levitate and talk. Of course, all she says is something about Korrok.

Korrok . . . that would be the big, supernatural evil. Kind of. It’s complicated.

I’m making kind of a mess of this, aren’t I?

Um. There’s also a girl. More than one, actually. Jennifer Lopez and Amy. No, not that Jennifer Lopez. The less said about her, the better.

Amy, though . . . she’s the kind of girl who disappears from inside a locked room for several hours every night, to be replaced by a bag of what looks like fat. And a giant, levitating jelly-fish. Of evil. Only she doesn’t remember where she went.

Look, just read it. Seriously. I . . . just read it.


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