25 November 2018

The End of NaNoWriMo!

Last night I won this year's National Novel Writing Competition (#NaNoWriMo), and I haven't even finished writing my novel. I did, however, attain the 50,000 word threshold of greatness. Of course, I knew I would achieve that mark. I don't enter competitions unless I intend to win. However, the competition is really (at least in my case) a contest against myself, and against the day job and all manner of vagaries that might interfere with my writing. Yet, once again, I have succeeded! (More on this year's entry below.)

Last year (2017), I was unable to participate. I was simply written out. (Read more about that situation here.) The year before (2016), I did participate and wrote what became my epic fantasy novel. Despite writing only about 55,000 words during the month of November, I eventually finished the novel at 233,000 words months later - which is about average for an epic fantasy, leaning heavily on the word 'epic'. I skipped 2015 but did give it my first try in 2014, producing most but not all of sci-fi story about a captured alien trying to get home.
My initial reluctance at trying to do such an intensive writing effort - not that I don't want to! - was that it falls in November, one of the busier months for those of us in academia. However, with a story idea, some notes, a plan or outline, it is possible to cobble out a rough draft in 30 days. That's about 1,700 words per day. Or, as my college freshmen like to say: "Well, you like to write, so it's okay for you." Indeed, I do like to write; it is the one activity that brings me peace and enjoyment.

So this year I thought to write an autobiography. Yes, many times I've borrowed from my own life for fiction I've written. This time, I really wanted to bring together the many stories and anecdotes from my life, especially my childhood. I'm not so vain that I expect to find my life of interest to others; however, that does not stop me from writing for myself. That still counts in the NaNo world. So, yes, I wrote, or started writing, my autobiography, beginning with the moment of birth told from the nameless baby's perspective.

As I snatched a few minutes here and there to write more, I tended to jump around in the timeline. I wrote about my family's travels while I was a toddler, with a tongue in cheek attitude. I wrote about elementary school and the quirky kids I met there. I jumped ahead and told the story of, for example, how I met Carla, the funeral director's daughter, when I moved across town to a new school for 7th grade. I explained the family history according to both grandmothers. I named names, including actual relations (they'll never read this!). I was writing for me, for my entertainment. It has been self-satisfying and I make no apology for that. I'll continue through my college adventures and my various experiences living overseas (I kept journals). I may depict events slightly better than they actually were because who wants to read the complete unvarnished truth? (Oh, and I quickly made a cheap-looking book cover.)
You see, at the same time, during the same month, aside from the day job, I was finishing the final revision of Book 3 of my vampire trilogy. Also during the month, aside from this autobiography, I worked on a short story I owe for an anthology. Then, as I approached the 50,000 word goal line, I got drawn away to start a revision of an early novel of mine involving a man-eating tiger which I hope to publish in the near future. I also graded stacks of essays, literary analyses, and research papers. 

Because the words never stop coming. And I think, if they ever did stop, I would also stop. And that is not a possibility I wish to consider.

Next time: The Stefan Szekely Trilogy comes to a close with mayhem and melancholy!

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

21 October 2018

The Beard Problem

As you may know, I am deep in the revision of my latest novel, the concluding volume of my vampire trilogy, ostensibly based on medically accurate and historical accountability. Like many writers do, I go through a manuscript in waves, focusing on different issues in each pass. In a later chapter, I realized I had made a dreadful mistake: I had failed to account for the beard. 

It is the future and the beard and cassock look has returned, at least in the Hungarian Empire of 2101. The chief prosecutor wears a red cassock and red skullcap in his duties in the High Court of Justice - and sports a long gray beard. So far, so good. However, later, when he has a prisoner in his quarters (the illegality of this situation is another story, obviously), nothing happens with his beard. I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you!

A long beard - which I've never had personally - will get in the way of many things. While dining, it gets in the food - unless I write a sentence mentioning how "he swept his beard aside". The beard would be stained with blood if he took a bite as any good vampire likely would. Crumbs would collect. These need to be accounted for. The only two fellows I've known who wore long beards (defined as hanging lower than the chin by an inch or more) have described these problems.

Then comes the seduction following the dinner. It is not meant to be an innocent affair. However, the beard again gets in the way. Hanging from the chin and cheeks, a beard would touch the other person when in close proximity, right? The beard would tickle at best, would scratch at worst. Probably it would be an unpleasant experience for the other person. Especially if the beard were soiled by various food dishes from the dinner. The other person would be quite distraught for that reason alone. 

It seems a lot of the male characters sport beards in this volume. Was his black or gray? Black with streaks of gray? And how long was it? Trimmed or unruly? Does he tend to give it a tug from time to time? Does it get caught in zippers? It really becomes a problem keeping track of all these different beard issues. It adds to the word count just by describing how he takes care of the beard in each scene. Next time I shall definitely make every guy clean-shaven. 

The problem exists also for women's hair styles. Does she wear her hair up in this scene? Is it up for the entire scene, or does it fall at some point, especially during the fight? Not being a hair stylist by any stretch of the imagination, I pay little attention to hair styles.Yes, I see the character in my mind's eye but somehow little of that image gets on the page. Long, straight hair, like my 7th grade girlfriend had, or flowing, wavy hair like a girlfriend in college had. Or the curly hair I've seen in a lot of shampoo commercials - that's the limit of my choices, it seems. I prefer to get on with the story.

Men's hair, too, may change with the physical action. If there is a ceremony, the well-coiffed might be more formally arranged, I imagine. For battle, perhaps a close-cut style to fit under a helmet. For an emperor, his long, flowing mane might add to his aura of masculinity. Long hair with a long beard suggests otherworldliness, a true warrior-king. It all depends on what you want as the author.  

And I'm not even going to get into clothing fashions. One thing that I appreciate with George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels is his attention to details when it comes to what the characters are wearing. It almost becomes too much at times, but I still like that he went to the trouble to do it. That leads me to check once more whether her evening gown is black with red trim or violet with white trim. What is the dress material? Does it crinkle or swish as she walks? And when the dress is torn off, how does the maid know to have replacement clothing nearby? Perhaps, it's time for yet another pass through the manuscript.

And yet, for a vampire novel, it seems that the clean-shaven look is more appropriate. Men struck with the curse of vampirism tend to lose their hair much as a cancer patient on chemotherapy loses hair. For that matter, females would become hairless, too, for the same reason (based on my medical research into porphyria). Therefore, the typical depiction of the famous Count Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi) below would be inaccurate. Hair on the head but no facial hair would seem to be a fashion choice, not the result of any biological abnormality. Check your sources. Check the continuity and consistency of your details is today's lesson. After all, it's a salon out there!

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

07 October 2018

The Wonderful World of Projection

In the world of science fiction writers there is the trope of the present reality being projected into the future. Take what is happening now and extrapolate how it might develop logically ten or twenty or a hundred years in the future. H.G. Wells did this with The Time Machine, speculating how humanity would divide into Eloi (dumb surface dwelling cattle) and Morlocks (hideous underground consumers of Eloi). Writers of both utopias and dystopias have done the same thing, as far back as Plato and The Republic. Why?

Perhaps it is a desire to assure ourselves, in the case of the utopia, that good times are coming, or, in the case of the dystopia, that our lives could be far worse than they are now. In fiction, when writers try to predict the future (in my experience as a reader), there are two ways: 1) leap far ahead in time so that nothing of today remains and there is no need to consider a timeline of progression of social, political, technological development. Or, 2) start with the way things are today and project them into the future in a logical way. The former works well if the story is set, say, ten thousand years in the future; the latter works best for a 20 or 100 year setting advancement. The point in this latter method, I believe, is expressly to show how today will become tomorrow.

So I've tried that method with my so-called medically accurate vampire trilogy. My point then was to expressly illustrate the medical aspects of vampirism. Book 1 starts in 2013-14, the same time period in which I was writing it. In previous blog posts I explained how I took the issues of today and projected them 13 years into the future for Book 2. In Book 3, we go to 2099 - not a huge leap in time but a significant chunk to deal with in terms of showing the changes that are possible. So a Book 1 which was grounded in science had to stretch a bit for Book 2, and now Book 3 is allowed to speculate much further and by necessity introduce some good ol' sci-fi (i.e., "speculation based on science"). 

And then there are the usual vampire tropes, or features, readers expect to see in vampire novels. There is a lot of blood, of course, lots of throat biting, lusting for blood, blood starvation, hibernation, etc. There is the trope of vampires being associated with bats - when the "vampire bat" was named after the fictional character and lives far away from Transylvania. There is the attempted explanation of the origin of vampires, of the legends which circumscribe the phenomena. There have been glittering vampires and those who have become hideously disfigured. There have been alternate histories written based on vampires rising to power in real places. In the genre it seems there is a vampire style for every reader. And we can enjoy them all.

I chose from the start to take the "disease" seriously, a genetic disorder which runs in families - which fits many of the ancient reports of vampire-like people (research!). There is also a curious correlation with the ethnic group residing in the isolated tracks of Transylvania, an area settled by large numbers of Hungarians, and that is the propensity to have Type AB blood - so rare that only 5% of people in the world have it. (Read Book 1 of the Stefan Szekely Trilogy for an explanation of how their blood type can change back and forth - and with the change comes physical abnormalities.) 

Then there is the projection: what is now becomes what will be. For example, take politics. Nationalism seems on the rise in the United States and in Europe, a backlash against recent government policies and the results of those policies. Regardless of how you may feel personally about such matters, for the sake of the story - the sake of a good, realistic, plausible story - let us say that trend continues. We then would find nations breaking out of the European Union and going their own way. Geographic and political pressures may force the breakaway nations to ban together. Project a little further and that group becomes an empire. 

Take another example: technology. We love our social media so much today but already we are seeing problems with data collection and misuse, with identity theft, with other internet-related commerce such as cryptocurrency. It would not take much for that grid to come crashing down. An electromagnetic pulse in the atmosphere would wipe out all electronic systems for miles around, crippling banking and utilities. Back to the pre-electronic age we go. In another way, social pressures could result in rebellion against such systems, or a government might ban the internet (already being limited to citizens in several countries today). It is easy to imagine - to project from today - a society where the modern, the electronic, the technological has been rejected. People would go about by horse and carriage again instead of electric cars. But I digress . . . 

"In the multiverse all possibilities can be projected simultaneously."
It makes for interesting thought experiments. The what-if scenarios are played out. The thinking goes that by projecting a situation into the future, we can see where problems today exist and repair them so the "awful" future that could happen will not happen. Projection of happier times and a more pleasant world, even a paradise of free love and ice cream for everyone, is also a scenario which may have dire consequences. For example, everyone is so comfortable that nobody works, nothing gets done, society falls apart, blame ensues, people form blocs and fight against each other, thus transforming a utopia into a dystopia within a generation. Or is that just me observing our world today? 

As one great writer reportedly said, "Every work of literature [regardless of its setting's time and place] is a reflection of the author's [present] situation."

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

23 September 2018

The Future of Vampire Trilogies

I often feel as though half of my job as an English teacher is to get my students excited about writing. I do that by encouraging them to write what they have to say or by writing about the things they have done. I share my own writing adventures with them. I talk about my books, not in a salesman kind of way but as a writer sharing craft tips. The usual response I get is "That's okay for you, you like to write, but we don't." 

To this supposition I retort using a quote which I thought was my own invention but which apparently (much to my chagrin) has been credited to various people from Benjamin Franklin to Ernest Hemingway: "If it is not worth writing about, it is not worth doing." That is the gist of the student writing life: to get it done in as simple a fashion as possible. Sometimes what is "worth writing about" has not actually happened - perhaps can never happen. When I was young, I had not much life experience to write about. Most of it was not worth doing and so not worth writing about. I felt sad at my circumstances.

So I began to make it up. I had few really worthy experiences so I invented experiences. This was the start of fiction. I joined the liars club. No, I didn't lie about important things or even ordinary things, but it was easy to exaggerate, to put a spin on what I said and wrote. Teachers loved that about me: I always had an interesting tale to tell. Take 7th grade, for example, when our teacher liked to have the class write stories. On Fridays we would share our stories by standing at the front of the room and reading what we had written - which was also an exercise in heart palpitation and social anxiety!

Even today, someone will ask me how I got the idea for my book - whatever my latest is - and I shrug humbly and say something like, "Well, I had a dream, see, and . . . ." The truth, however, may be much more ominous. In the case of my so-called "vampire" trilogy, there are two answers. The first book, A Dry Patch of Skin (referring to the first symptom of transforming into a vampire) was intended as a stand-alone novel, a one and done, because paranormal or Gothic or horror was not my usual genre. I just wanted to explain to my teenage daughter who was hooked on the Twilight series that vampirism was an actual disease affecting real people, something painful and disfiguring, not glittery and glamorous.

The research involved took me through a lot of medical texts and anthropological accounts of legends and ancient reports to bring the truth about vampires to light - pardon the pun. My own doctor (who was working on an MFA degree on the side) read it and said I got the medical things correct. (You can read a blog post about the medical issues here.) The story ended with a proper conclusion. I believed the story was done. I moved on to write two more novels on completely different subjects.

Then I realized something from that vampire novel continued to pester me. What would happen next? That is always the bugbear for writers. We just cannot put it down, can't leave a sleeping bear alone, can't stop picking that scab. And so I conceived a new story, one that by necessity had to be less "medically accurate" and more along the lines of futuristic science fiction. Naturally I had to put myself in the shoes of my protagonist and hero, Stefan Szekely, who at the end of the first book, had accepted his sorry fate like a good trooper. How would he react to the passage of time? What would he want to do?

I've blogged previously about how I considered Book 2 here

When I decided to go ahead and write a second book, thus making it a series, I knew there would be a third book - to make it a trilogy. Trilogies are all the rage now; I wrote about trilogies on a previous blog. However, I did not sit down and plan out both books together. When I finished writing Book 2, I really had no idea what would happen in Book 3. It did not take long, however, for a dream to show me a scene that would become the starting point for Book 3 - and then I was off and running!

So the third book of any trilogy must:

1) further the adventures (or misadventures) of the cast, especially the main character of the previous book;

2) be an exciting, compelling journey in itself; and

3) bring all the story lines together in a satisfying, plausible conclusion - and possibly make certain there is no need for a fourth book.

The Vampire Genre has developed its own tropes, symbols, motifs, and customs, starting with John Polidori's invention "The Vampyre" and fully realized in Bram Stoker's turn in Dracula. Others followed until the preponderance of the evidence created a vast multi-channel marketing juggernaut that an outsider could never hope to penetrate. And yet, it is the variety of vampire themes and story lines that give the genre so much richness. No one is solely correct about what a vampire is or is not. Not even me, though I profess to have written (Book 1, that is), a "medically accurate" version where our tragic hero transforms against his will into what he does not want to become. I continue to try to keep it as "real" as possible.

And so I give you, the reading world, what I hope is an enjoyably different take on a vampire society. If medical accuracy was possible in a 2014 novel (set in 2013-14), then a story set in 2027-28 would have to include futuristic aspects. A Book 3 which is set in 2099 would take the differences to a much greater extreme, it would follow. Less Gothic horror in the traditional sense and more science fiction in the dystopian sense. I apologize; the usual tropes cannot be sustained in a futuristic setting ("Vampires on Mars" being one exception). However, like any good author, I bend over backwards to keep things as believable and plausible as possible given what we can and cannot know about the future and about our own predilections as humans - and as humans transformed into vampires.

The story must be compelling in other ways, too, not just extending the vampire "elements" into the 22nd century. Blood is still blood. Ways of getting it may change but the fundamental issue remains. Yet after that - after our lovely dinner of red - what next? Power! The rise to power. Because power means always getting what you want, what you need, assuring its constant supply. Absolute power, with a strong hand behind the throne, works best. However, power that is absolute necessarily corrupts absolutely, it seems. How can one escape such corruption? That is the focus of Book 3 in the Stefan Szekely Trilogy.

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

09 September 2018

On Sequel Addiction

Are you addicted to sequels? What's up with that? Sure, you liked the first book, so you have to get the next, right? And then there's another? Let me at it! And another? How many are there? Ok, how long do I need to keep up with these characters? I'm not sure I can just stop reading and forget them. So I must continue. These characters are part of my life now.

Fortunately there are plenty of trilogies around today. It seems to be the preferred format for books of science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy, especially if marketed to young readers. It has to do with marketing, I suppose: get the readers hooked and they will buy two more books. I always believed, apparently erroneously, that the trilogy is based on a good plot arc. Hence the story needed to be told across three books, regardless of the profits that might be made. 

Check out these trilogies. 

As a reader, I'm hesitant to commit to a multiple-book package. It's not the money, not the shelf space involved. It's the time and emotional expenditure involved. Usually I will read the first book and then go ahead and get the second book when I am sufficiently invested in the first book - after the first chapter, half-way through book 1, etc. If a novel has plenty of publicity, made into a TV series, I may get the whole set of books at once. (I did that with George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series yet I'm still in book 1.) 

As a writer, however, I was always dead-set on writing stand-alone books. But when the story, the world, the characters are still there at the end of book 1 calling to you...well, you have to return. Both times I've worked on a trilogy they started with one book which I expected to be it, the whole thing, one and done, enough said. Then, sometime later, with the story still bobbling back and forth in my head, unable to let it go, I sit myself down and begin book 2. Then book 3 usually follows quickly after book 2 because it will certainly be a trilogy. There are not many 2-book series.

I have written two trilogies. The second one was completed last night: book 3 of that trilogy.

The first was my sci-fi/steampunk interdimensional warhorse The Dream Land. Book 1 introduces the main characters and how they discover a doorway to another world and learn to function there, even to rise to prominent ranks and affect their new world. One returns home, however, and finds the situation intolerable. Thus, book 2 - what happens next? Inquiring minds wanted to know. 
In the case of this first book, it was going to be a stand-alone, but immediately upon finishing book 1, I had the idea where to go next. Then I got stuck in a plot conundrum after 50 pages and let it sit for what turned out to be ten years. Life and a lot of academic/ scholarly writing took over. It wasn't until a student of mine showed me his story on a similar theme as mine that I was reminded of the novel I'd left unfinished on my computer. I found that file, saw where I'd left off, and now that the plot conundrum had magically resolved itself in my head during the interim, I could continue. I knew what would happen in book 3 before I finished book 2. I started on a book 4 before I was finished with book 3. I knew I was addicted. I just could not stop living in this world, interacting with these people - er, umm, those characters. (I've left book 4 - just a few pages - to smolder a while and see if I want to write it.)

My second trilogy began as a stand-alone. I had said what I wanted to say in that book and believed the story done. With my daughter hooked on the Twilight series - during which her reading time really expanded! - I was determined to convince her of the truth of vampirism, about the medical conditions which led people to appear as vampires and who populated real reports that became the legends that prompted first Mr. Polidori then Mr. Stoker to pen their Gothic tales. A Dry Patch of Skin was my "medically accurate" vampire story, set in the same year I was writing it (2013-14) and, in part, in the same city where I was living and writing it. I made my point about vampires. My own doctor (who was also working on an MFA in creative writing) found no flaws in the medical side of the story. But what would happen next to my tragic hero? Gotcha.
The question nagged me through the writing of two other stand-alone novels.* Finally, I decided to see where the story might go. I started writing, just as a test. It had to be in the future since book 1 was set in my present. That turned book 2 into a sci-fi novel, which made it more interesting to me as a writer. At that point, I knew there would be a book 3 but I did not yet know what would happen in book 3. The main thing in starting the sequel was picking up the same character again but having him changed over the period of time between the books. The world had changed, too. Depicting that change was the fun part. You can read more about plot considerations on earlier blog posts here and here. All right, and here, too. You're welcome.

Now I have book 3 of this trilogy sitting on my doorstep (metaphor, not literally), the first complete draft literally finished last night. I still have that burst of electricity flashing through me, could hardly sleep, and still thinking about what I might have missed in the story that I need to address this morning. Plenty of time for revision, and editing, and proofreading, of course - and beta reading, and more tweaking, and looking for those five words in the manuscript that everybody but me will see are misspelled. I believe I have fulfilled the promise of a book 3: to give main characters their final arc, to wrap up plot points, to put a nice bow on the end of a three book experience. More on this book next time. For now, the experience of writing a trilogy is both rewarding and sad; we work hard to make things happen, like having our protagonist suffer, our antagonist delight in the suffering, a few jokes tossed here and there, some philosophy delivered by the serious character, a flash of eroticism, and voila! Trilogy. 

Then, almost too quickly it is done. And we have the emptiness in our guts as though someone close to us had died. We want that person back in our lives again. So we imagine it was so. And the sequel is born, the characters re-born, and all is well. A sequel has saved us. A trilogy will save us longer.

*A Girl Called Wolf, although a stand-alone, could be considered a sequel of my novel A Beautiful Chill (which was written first) because the main characters of the latter novel appear in the former novel.

After writing my quest novel Epic Fantasy *With Dragons, I felt compelled to continue the story despite having announced to everyone that I had said everything I needed to say about life and love, heroism, and the universe in that book. However, some of the characters wanted me to go on, so I started a sequel but it remains unfinished after about 75 pages.

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

25 August 2018

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation - 2018 (part 4)

Every time I go to Beijing to teach a summer course at the University of International Business and Economics, my meals are always an adventure. It's not that I don't like Chinese food; I definitely do. And it's not that my choices are limited. In a city of ten million people there must be about 1 million restaurants and cafes and food kiosks. I could also dine in the campus cafeteria like my students, if I wanted to.

Last summer I had problems. I had to keep running to a bathroom, to put it as delicately as possible. That really put a crimp on my relations and on my sightseeing. I diagnosed the problem as either 1) I kept re-infecting myself every time I ate out, or 2) the bug was staying in me no matter what I ate. It was an unpleasant experience, although it did help me lose weight. I finally got some local medicine that treated the symptoms and got me through the long flight home. Once home, I went to my doctor who prescribed a regimen of antibiotics which cleared it right up.

This summer, I thought I'd be prepared. I went to my doctor pre-emptively and he offered to prescribe antibiotics which I could take if the same problem returned. As it turned out, I did not need it. Everything was fine. In fact, I was able to up my eating game due to the emergence of several new restaurants near my hotel. So I was able to avoid the hole-in-the-wall cafes on the east side of the campus or those to the north of the west gate of the campus which I had gone to often the previous summer at the behest of students and well-meaning friends.

First was a Cantonese restaurant. Having been to Hong Kong, I had the understanding that Cantonese food was mild (not spicy) but the fare here was not bland at all and quite delicious. I tried many dishes on the menu during my four meals there, including dim sum.

They added some bulls on Wangfujing street.
Another major dining destination for me was just a few steps from my hotel door: a Japanese restaurant which specialized in sushi (of course!). Actually, in my six visits, I noticed they seemed to specialize in eel ("unagi" in Japanese), which is cooked rather than served raw. I sampled several dishes as well as a variety of sushi offerings, including the eel "don" (filet of eel, grilled, over a bed of rice). 

At The Sizzler!
I still made  use of the neighborhood 7-Eleven store, purchasing breakfast bread, bananas, bottled yogurt, sodas, and water bottles (can't drink the tap water), and candy - because I was on vacation. My walking balanced out my eating, I learned during my first visit. For nostalgia's sake, I popped into the YongHeGong restaurant on the corner (specializing in pork cutlets on rice) and promptly found myself sporting symptoms of the previous summer's visit. I downed a shot of meds I'd brought from home and no more problem.

A custom of mine, whenever I feel homesick or my stomach craves some good ol' homecooking, is to venture down to the big tourist shopping street known as Wangfujing. There, I can find two huge bookstores to browse away the hours as well as a large food court in an upscale  shopping mall. In that food court is one of America's premier steakhouses: The Sizzler! A proper steak and potato, salad bar, and cheesecake will set everything right again.

Speaking of homecooking, after I noticed a Pizza Hut a few blocks from the campus, I offered my friend the opportunity to experience a real American-style pizza. We went there, perused the menu, and I immediately recognized that this Pizza Hut was not going to serve the usual pizzas like back home. One featured pizza had eel on it, another had Peking duck. We went to the do-it-yourself page and cobbled together something close to American-style: beef and peppers. It sufficed.

And as usual, my faculty colleague treated me to Peking duck at their original location in Qianmen. The show is when the duckmaster carefully slices up the duck and makes a lotus flower with the slices. Then you eat it by wrapping the duck slices in a thin pancake with some spring onions and duck sauce.

Also as usual, my visit ended at the Hilton Hotel by the airport, where all rationality is thrown out the window in order to dine at the expensive restaurant there, where my guest ordered . . . the burger. Now hold on! Being an upscale eatery, the burger was top grade and had exotic ingredients on it, like fois gras (goose liver pate). I ordered a Tandoori dish, mostly because we had been talking about Indian food the past week.

This summer, I was well-served food-wise. I also was blessed with lovely company providing smart conversation and delightful witticisms, as well as a beautiful view across the table. That was the best part: taking pictures of our food - or just as often forgetting to photograph the gustatorial presentation prior to destroying it. After all, photography is half the fun of dining out, isn't it?

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

19 August 2018

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation - 2018 (part 3)

Into every summer vacation a little rain must fall - or a lot of rain, in my case when I went to Beijing to teach a university course. However, sometimes the rain was the least of my concerns. 

First there was the temperature. I am blessed/cursed with a fairly accurate temperature gauge. I must be surrounded by exactly 68 to 72*F. at all times. My hotel room must be within that range for me to fall asleep and stay asleep. Otherwise, I toss and turn and awaken as a grouchy troll. Usually I need to switch rooms at least once. So I did this summer, too, from 624 to 634. 

I had to argue with the hotel staff (in my English, their Chinese) that the controls on the wall did not accurately measure the temperature settings. The dial was at its coldest setting (10*C) yet the room was much warmer than that setting. The hotel housekeeper pointed out to me that [my friend's translation: ] "When the room is warm, set the switch to "heat" so the heat will be "fixed" by having the A/C come on, and if the room is cold set it to "cool". Also, the "L" on the fan switch meant "large" so that was the highest setting. There was no way "L" could have meant "low" according to the staff person (because it was at the top of the switch positions, I guess). Got a new room anyway.

The futball theater.
Then there was the World Cup soccer tournament. It is strange how disparate things can come together to make you act counter to your norms. A year ago, in writing the second book in my vampire trilogy, I had been researching Croatia as one of the settings. I went online to get info about Croatia. As a result, I followed someone on Twitter who posted a lot of pictures of Croatia - her summer vacation there. Now, as I continued to get posts of people I followed, here comes the World Cup soccer [um, excuse me, futball]. So she is cheering for Croatia, obviously, but mostly I suspect because she decided to go back to Croatia and marry a Croatian guy she met last summer. So I got hooked watching the games. 

As an ardent American football watcher, I felt a bit out of sorts but I caught on. The object of the game is to see who can score at all. As big as the net thing is, you would think a toddler could score easily. Anyway, I liked it. I liked watching the games so much that I worried how I would see them when I went to China. Last summer (2017) I had followed Iceland in some run-up series to this tournament, so I believed I could see the games in my hotel room. I was correct. But...time zone shift! The games were on at 2 am Beijing time.

The morning sun fighting the clouds.
No problem. Even with an 8 am class start, I would watch the games. The first I watched in my hotel room was France vs. Belgium. I had picked Belgium to win. I went to sleep early, my alarm set, and got up at 2 am. Tried to get up. Nope. The next game I watched was the Croatia vs. England match. With little happening the first half, I fell asleep. When I did awaken at a normal time, I quickly turned on the TV and saw the popular player from England being interviewed. At first, I thought England had won because it was an England player they were interviewing. But, as I watched, I saw he wasn't too happy. Then the TV switched to Chinese commentary at a sports desk - with no scores showing! Finally, they put up the graphic of Croatia vs. France for the final match!

The last two matches were easier to watch: they were broadcast live at 11 pm Beijing time, so I could watch them and still get a little sleep before getting up to teach the class. Alas, Croatia did not win. You have to hand it to the Croatia guys, anyway. They played more minutes of futball than any other team there, due to so many overtime and shootout wins. England did not win its "bronze medal" match either. The rain still fell. My students still took notes. I still got paid. And I still went to see the usual places in Beijing and eat the usual foods. More on food next time.

One of many Duty-Free shops at the airport.
With my 4-week course crammed into two weeks, I had little time to go shopping for souvenirs. I expected I would get them at the airport when I was leaving. However, despite my best intentions, the departure area of the Capital Airport had undergone a severe realignment. Absolutely all the gift shops had been taken over by the Duty Free businesses. It was so overwhelming that one Duty Free shop was across the walking area from another Duty Free shop - all the same company, apparently. And they all sold the same stuff I don't want: cigarettes, liquor, jewelry and watches. I just wanted a tea cup and a t-shirt. So, no souvenirs for folks back home. That is my story and I'm sticking with it.

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

11 August 2018

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation - 2018 (part 2)

Everything begins with a departure and an arrival. For my summer trips to Beijing to teach a university course, every year is the same. Get the visa first - which is a trip in itself. There is no express or same-day service at the visa office, so I must wait four days. A mini vacation, a chance to get some writing done. They almost know me by now.

Then comes the day of travel. Two-hour flight to the hub airport, couple hours of layover, then the 13-hour leg to Beijing. I can never pick the right seat. Less success choosing the right seatmates. Going, I had a Chinese high school exchange student in the middle seat and an older professor from a northeastern university on the aisle. When they both were awake, he regaled her with tales of university life and which university she should apply to in order to continue her studies in the US. I was too tired to correct some of the ideas he had for her education. Instead, I watched four movies - two I had wanted to see and two which I endured almost to the half-way point before just ending it already!

Thank goodness there is something new every time I arrive in Beijing's Capital Airport. I actually felt good at the end of this flight, even with only four cat naps of about 20 minutes each. But the two-kilometer walk through the huge complex upon arrival always zaps my goodwill. This year foreign arrivals first must use automated machines to record their fingerprints prior to entering the immigration lines. (I suppose refusing fingerprints would have caused me to be sent back on the next flight.) Not all the machines were working - certainly not the ones I tried. Then, with receipt in hand proving we had offered up our most intimate details, we should have been allowed to proceed.

However, foreign passport holders had to wait in a weary bunch as Chinese passport holders went ahead to the immigration counters. It wasn't as though we competed for the same lines. I did not complain - too tired. Once in the long foreigners' line, I passed easily because I'm a nice guy and a regular joe. I also got my bag - historically I'm always near the last - and passed through customs - nothing to declare except my contempt for the hassles of travel. The international flight was 13 hours; from exiting the plane to exiting the secure area of the airport (including the shuttle train that takes us from the outer area of the gates to the inner portion for immigration and customs) took 1-1/2 hours.

My decision to stay in Beijing was eventually rewarded when I finally exited into the public area and easily found my student assistant for this summer there to greet me. "Serena" got me and my bags to a taxi and then to my hotel, which is across from the UIBE campus. It was an overcast, humid afternoon as we went from the airport to the hotel, a situation which did not change much during the course I was to teach. This year, I was asked to teach the same course in two weeks instead of four - I presumed it to be a way to save on my hotel bill, which the university paid.

Back to the Yinghua ("Cherry blossom") Hotel, my old nemesis. The staff knows me well, understands I like good a/c. I also care about feng shui. My free time during these summers includes a fair amount of writing in my room so feng shui is important. My first two years I was in room 424 - I actually requested it the second year - which had great feng shui; I wrote the greater part of two novels those two summers (A Girl Called Wolf and Epic Fantasy *With Dragons). However, last year's visit was a terrible room-shuffling experience (read about it here), but I still managed some good writing production during the room changes. This year, only one room change.

More on the room experience next post!

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

04 August 2018

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation - 2018

As many of my dear readers may be aware, I was on vacation last month. That is my story and I'm sticking to it. In my last post, I offered you a fine selection of books to entertain and enlighten you while I was away. Yes, I do notice if anyone has added one or more of them to a to-be-read list, and those of you who followed through with your reading scheme, I thank you. 
This is your vacation on rain.
Actually, I was working - so let's call it a working vacation. I traveled to Beijing, China for three weeks to teach a university course called "Business Writing in American Context" (Chinese translation). My course, like all those taught at the University of International Business and Economics, was in English. Students must be fluent enough to be successful in their classes. I went last year, as well. And the year before. Yes, it seems it is becoming a habit. However, I have vowed that this visit (2018) would be my last - unless I get a very good reason to go through all the hassles to get there again.

For 2018, they threw me a curve: to teach the same course in half the time. So my class went from 4 weeks (2 classes a week) to two weeks of 4 classes each week (one class was about 4 hours). That made the grading of papers for 62 students this year a challenge. In fact, I did little else during those two weeks but focus on the class. I knew that going in, so I arranged to stay an extra week beyond the end of the course to have some sightseeing, shopping, hanging out time.

I need not have worried about doing anything fun when I wasn't in class. Those two weeks were full of rain or such oppressive humidity that I would have preferred rain. I brought a collapsible umbrella which had served me well for several years. Unfortunately, I left it in the classroom when I went home (the rain had stopped) and only realized that fact the next morning when the deluge returned. The hotel, thankfully, had full-sized umbrellas for guests to use. Then the doorman pestered me about returning it even though I needed it for another couple of days before the rain finally stopped.

Everyone remarked it was the rainiest summer anyone in Beijing could remember. Students, however, were very courteous with their umbrellas, always lining the hallways in an orderly fashion. On one particularly heavy rainfall day, my class assistant relayed the consensus of the students asking if the class would be cancelled. I was already in the classroom - on time - so it was on, baby! I did not count anyone late and, in fact, I delayed the start for 15 minutes. At the end of the two weeks, one student gave me a lovely postcard with a message on it, noting among other things that I was always punctual "even in rainy day".

With jet lag waking me earlier than normal, I had time to write. I continued working on the first draft of the third book in my vampire trilogy. I had written a huge portion of book 2 last summer. I also worked on two different short stories. Cranked out about 75,000 words total in three weeks. After my class, it was lunch time so I would grab something simple, often from the nearby 7-11 store, then return to my room to relax, eat the lunch, take a nap, then get up and write. With little distraction (no substantial social media access, for example), it was possible hunker down and type those chapters.

Room 634, which had decent feng shui.
For my dinners, I had plenty of company. A new Japanese (mostly sushi) restaurant had opened next to my hotel since last summer, which became a regular hangout. A new Chinese (mostly Cantonese) restaurant had also opened up the street since last year and got a lot of my business. And there was always the big Pizza Hut several blocks north of my hotel to try - especially if I wished to show a Chinese lady how "real" American-style pizza is (it wasn't, but that's another blog post). At least I did not get sick like last year.

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

02 July 2018

Your Summer Reading List

It's that time again! Summer Reading Season!

I'm posting this before I escape on vacation in the hope that you or your loved ones (or anyone you know [or anyone they know {or all the other people you may cross paths with this summer}]) will get the word on these "purdy good" books of made-up stories they just might want to read this summer - because, as we all know, 95% of pleasure reading is done during the summer - and 82% of that pleasure reading is done near a pool or on a beach. Fact.

FYI, I write in several genre, whatever fits the story that my muses dictate into my ear, so there's something for everyone: romance, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, literary, biographical, but not YA (sorry). Most of all, I try to write a compelling tale of people in crisis, strangers in strange lands, whether it is our contemporary world or a world of imagination. 
Below is your summer reading list! The links go to the ebook pages (a.k.a. Kindle) for all 10 books, but they also exist in quality paperback editions. Click on the book titles to be magically transported to a place where you can read a sample and elect to purchase the entire book. Happy reading! 

SUNRISE (new for 2018)
Book II of the Stefan Szekely, Vampire trilogy
(Book III being written as we speak...)

For Stefan Székely it is a fate worse than death: To be dead yet stuck with his dead parents. 
After 13 years Stefan can endure it no longer. He wants a castle of his own. But first he must visit his family’s bank in Budapest.
With endless strife rumbling across Europe, Stefan hardly recognizes Budapest, now capital of the Hungarian Federation. The world has changed. 
Nevertheless, he embarks on the reign of terror he always denied himself, living the vampire playboy lifestyle. Until he gets a stern warning from the local vampire gang. He is not welcome - unless he plays by their rules.
Should Stefan fight for his right to party like it's 2027? Or will an encounter with a dangerous stranger change everything about his new existence? As clashes between vampire gangs and State Security escalate, Stefan just might be the key to changing the fate of Europe forever!
. . . If he can survive three bloody nights in Budapest.
The sequel to A DRY PATCH of SKIN continues the trials and tribulations of Stefan Székely, Vampire.

CORLAN, MASTER DRAGONSLAYER, the best in the Guild, the best in the Burg!

And yet, returning from his latest expedition, Corlan discovers jealous rivals have conspired with the Prince to banish him from the city.

Sent into the Valley of Death, Corlan conjures a plan. He and his new sidekick, a runaway boy from the palace kitchen, will trek the thousand miles to the far end of the valley, where a vast marsh provides nesting grounds for the dragon horde. Once there, Corlan vows to smash dragon eggs and lance younglings, ending dragon terror once and for all time.

And yet, as dangers, distractions, and detours harry him along the way, Corlan learns ancient secrets that threaten to destroy everything in his world. Even with the aid of wizards and warriors, he must use all his guile, his bravado, and the force of his stubborn will just to survive - and perhaps return home - no matter how the gods challenge him with their harshest tests.

Ice and snow are all 12 year old Anuka knows outside the hut in Greenland where she was born. 

When her mama dies, Anuka struggles to survive. The harsh winter forces her to finally journey across the frozen island to the village her mama always feared.

But the people of the village don’t know what to do with this girl. They try to educate and bring her into the modern world, but Anuka won't make it easy for them. She sees dangers at every turn and every day hears her fate echoing in her mama’s voice.

Her mama gave her that name for a reason. She is A GIRL CALLED WOLF who searches for the place where she belongs, a destination always just out of reach, on a path she will always make her own.

("A great book to read during hot summer days!")


When the handwritten letter from Japan arrives, Benjamin cannot help but flash back to when he lived in Hawaii and met Hanako, a Japanese stewardess. 

But Addy, Benjamin’s wife of three years, knows what the letter really means: a love child was born.

Now Benjamin must save a child he has never met, learn the truth behind Hanako’s death, and risk his marriage and his career to do the right thing. But venturing into the lonely woods of northern Ishikawa throws him into an ancient world of strict customs and tight-lipped villagers.

AIKO, a love story wrapped around a mystery, is a modern version of the Madame Butterfly story told from his side.

(the only medically accurate vampire novel)
The truth about being a vampire: It is not cool, not sexy. It’s a painful, miserable existence.

Good reason to avoid that situation, thinks medical technician Stefan Székely. He's too busy falling in love with TV reporter Penny Park, anyway. Until one day when she notices a dry patch of skin on his face.

At first it's just annoying, nothing to worry about, some weird skin disease he can treat with lotions. However, as his affliction worsens, Stefan fears that his unsightly problem will ruin his relationship with Penny.

If only that was all Stefan has to worry about! He soon realizes there is a lot more at stake than his handsome face. To save himself, Stefan must go in search of a cure for the disease which is literally destroying him inch by inch. If only his parents had told him of the family legacy.

Book I of the Stefan Szekely, Vampire trilogy!

Opposites may attract...but can they stay together?

Íris is a refugee from an abusive youth in Iceland, further abused on the streets of Toronto - until she sees Art as an escape. With a scholarship, she drifts from depression to nightmare to Wiccan rituals to the next exhibit. There's a lot she must forget to succeed in a life she refuses to take responsibility for.

Eric is settling in at Fairmont College, starting a new life after betrayal and heartbreak. Divorced and hitting forty, he has a lot to prove - to his father, his colleagues, and mostly to himself. The last thing he needs is a distraction - and there's nothing more distracting than Íris.

A Beautiful Chill is a contemporary romance set in the duplicitous world of academic rules and artistic license - in a roundabout way a prequel to A Girl Called Wolf.

Troy! Ilium! 3000 years ago Greeks and Trojans battled below the fortress city.

Now comes Alex Parris in 1993, freshly graduated and eager to tour the ancient site. On his cruise to Istanbul, however, he meets Eléna, a mysterious older woman who draws him into an affair.

When the two lovers challenge Fate by visiting the ruins of Ilium, they are rudely separated – forcing Alex to embark on his own Odyssey. His struggle to return to Eléna becomes a fight for survival on the wild Turkish coast.

(sci-fi, steampunk, interdimensional doorways, world-ruining, political intrigue, time travel, battle hamsters & magic potions)

How far would you go to save the love of your life? Through a portal to another world?

High school sweethearts Sebastian and Gina discover a doorway to a new world. Adventure-loving Gina falls in love with the world of Ghoupallesz and wants to stay, but studious Sebastian fears losing touch with Earth, so he returns alone.

Years later, working the night shift at the IRS, Sebastian feels the cosmic pull once more. Gina is in trouble. Again. Of course he must return and save her! Perhaps this time, he hopes, they can remain together. Returning through the interdimensional doorway, Sebastian must gather his old comrades from the war, cross the towering Zet mountains, and free Gina from the evil Zetin warlord’s castle. 

Unfortunately, there are more questions to answer. Is his adventure on the other side real? Or is it just the dream of a psychotic killer? That’s what the police want to know when his friends and co-workers go missing.

THE DREAM LAND Trilogy is a genre-mashing Epic of Interdimensional intrigue and alien romance, a psychological thriller marbled through with twisted humor, steampunk pathos, and time/space conundra. 

NOTE: Check your local Amazon listings. You may be able to get these for free if you are a Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime member or just on my good side!

(C) Copyright 2010-2018 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.