23 October 2011






AND...If you still feel like participating in more contests, please click over to this one at Shelfstealers Books and vote on the book cover for my upcoming novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, an anti-romance set on a college campus, about two opposites attracting yet struggling to get along with each other because they have to. NOT based on Real Life! (Yeah, right....)


Have a fabulous Sunday!

19 October 2011

The Horror You've Always Craved...with a side of brains!

October usually means a breath of cool air, colorful trees, and a welcome respite from the rigors of academia often dubbed "fall break". 

Another aspect of the month is the inevitable saturation of Halloween/Samhain paraphernalia in shades of black and orange. It all comes to a climax on the 31st, of course, when literally all Hell break loose upon the world.

As we enter the final run-up to that festive occasion, I wish to help celebrate the depravity deep within us all by alerting you to an event that is truly keeping with the spirit of the evil spirits of the season. 

Some of my fellow authors have written suitable fair for the season, while I have not. (OK, sure, I did write one story* that would be in the "urban fantasy" genre, something about a vampiress returning to save an ex-lover from certain death--written well before the Twilight phenomena.) But I digress...

The publisher of my novel AFTER ILIUM, Fantasy Island Book Publishing is having a "scary story" contest!

Whether your cup of tea includes blood and gore or silent, simple psychological thrills or brutal, torturous knock'em-off one-at-a-time stealthy mayhem, the story you submit to the contest must be able to scare the pants off readers. Because we love seeing people's pants fall down. It's a complicated fetish. 

Digressing again!

Vampires, werewolves, zombies, serial killers and their cute pets, weird aliens and robotic machinery, psychopaths and their clones, or nefarious bugs and slithery snakes, colorful spiders and worrisome wraths, ghouls and ghosts, or that kid in third grade who you just knew would grow up to be trouble--anything is possible. 

The only thing that is NOT possible is for Fantasy Island's own authors to enter the contest. That would be like cheating, of course, because we ARE authors! You can be too!

So dig out that story you crafted in school, the one you secretly want to publish, the one that caused your grandmother to say extra prayers for you, the one that you know will make our blood run icy and our brains melt inside our skulls. 

Submit your story between October 22 and 30th following the instructions at the link:

*My story "Rendezvous" will be included in an anthology of stories produced by the editors of Fantasy Island Book Publishing.

12 October 2011

Got weather? ...making weather and seasons matter in plot!

Seasons change. Do they also change in your story? How does weather affect your characters? Or do they ignore it? Weather happens, but does it happen in your story?

On the calendar, it is the middle of October. By my internal circadian clock, I should be experiencing the full flourish of autumn foliage. The intellectual part of my brain cautions, however, that the dates will alternate based on where I am in the world. Raised in the Midwest, it seems right on time.

But, having recently lived in the Northeast, I feel it's behind schedule. Friends from the Northeast have shared their pictures and so I get some necessary fix. But it's never enough. Perhaps I should make it my business to remain perpetually in autumn by following the blossoming colors, wherever they may be: something like a pub crawl, only following falling leaves.

Surely that is madness! Is it? Why cannot one live in perpetual autumn? Or springtime, or summer for that matter. Winter is easy enough. And yet, as I consider the settings of science-fiction tales, it strikes me as odd that there are seldom seasonal changes. Of course, some stories occur safely within the bounds of a single season. Others are set on worlds where there is perpetual winter or summer. Yet none that I can recall are set in a permanent autumn. I vaguely recall a story by Arthur C. Clarke titled "Autumn Country"--or I could be way off (help me out, s/f readers). That one, I think, was merely metaphorical, not autumnal.

Perhaps that has a lot to do with the transience of the season. Given the finite measure of tree sap and the subsequent coloration of leaves, it would be nearly impossible to maintain that moment indefinitely. Although I am not an "outdoor" person, I take notice of the changing seasons--and the weather particular to each season. That makes me incorporate the seasons--and the daily weather--into the novels I write, whether science-fiction or literary. For some characters, of course, the weather is important. For some plot points, particular weather is crucial. Could we ever have a "dancing in the rain" moment if it were set in a desert with little rain for the whole year? And how can you make "snow angels" in a tropical location?

People go about their lives seldom paying attention to the weather. Such moments of attention seem reserved for storms or for the few "perfect" days. Here are some examples of incorporating seasons and weather into the story. It doesn't take much, but when it happens--much like a sudden thunderburst--readers take notice, along with the characters about which they are reading.

Eric stared out the windows of the fifth floor foyer,transfixed by the dark gray skies, the ominous clouds drifting over the campus. He decided this was the first authentic day of autumn, a day when the pure gloom of the season saturates everything. He wanted to go out, walk the campus as Albright suggested, and take in the delightfully cold, blustery afternoon. But he had papers to grade.

In the above excerpt from A Beautiful Chill, the protagonist equates his mood with the season; they are in lockstep.

After the rain stopped, Íris makes her way to the hill overlooking the canteen, and takes off her clogs, stands barefoot in the soft, wet grass. She wiggles her toes and feels like a little girl again as she gazes up at the gray clouds, churning as though they regret dropping all of their rain so soon and not saving any to spill on her. She raises her arms to the sky and chants the spell of making and the pale sun burns through the clouds for a minute.

In this second example (above) from A Beautiful Chill, notice how the weather (rain) has affected the mood of the protagonist. It is a crucial shift of attitude which makes what happens next plausible.

Eric was surprised the Icelandic painter entered his mind as he swung his car onto the highway early in the morning, heading south for Thanksgiving break. A jagged line of thunderheads spread across the horizon before him. Soon the Oklahoma rain battered him. Four hours later, as he approached the Texas line, he knew why he was driving south. 

Weather and seasonal words and images can also stand in for ideas as well as moods. Here the image of the "line of thunderheads" is not only something real on the trip but something that serves as a metaphor for his state of mind: confused, threatened, stormy. The positioning of the weather images replaces a sentence in which we could have been given his direct thoughts.

In another example, images of weather and seasons set the scene, create a mood, and suggest the mindset of the character. This is the beginning of a middle chapter in my novel Aiko:

Outside, the wind was driving a light snow across the peninsula, singing in the woods, whistling through the eaves of the old house.
Hanako turned to the warm fire and held her hands near.  The kotatsu—the table with the electric heater underneath—was turning her legs toasty.  The house was silent, her obâsan long ago turning in and her infant daughter even earlier.  Now she was alone.

In After Ilium, set on the Turkish coast during July, all of the descriptions are designed to emphasize the dust, dirt, and heat of the location. There, the protagonist, Alex Parris, is eager to visit the site of ancient Ilium.

Although the story occurs all in the same location and season, without a drop of rain, the environment that is set up contrasts welcomely with images of water (the strait he paddles across), liquid (water from a stream, a cold bottle of beer), thirst (for a drink and metaphorically for other desires), and the comfort of home it represents. The differences between hot and dry and cool and wet create a subtle, continuous motif throughout the novel.

He breathed in dust and felt his body limp against an unyielding surface. His eyes saw mostly darkness. At the edges, a deep bronze light played with him. The surface beneath him was warm, wet with his perspiration. And his blood, he suspected. Soon he felt some vibration beneath him. It grew stronger and he realized what was happening. He broke through his stupor and, at the last possible moment, summoned what energy remained in him and thrust his weakened body over.
He felt the hot sun on his face. The noise and vibration continued and he knew he must go further. One more time, he urged himself, and rolled over again. Then again, and found himself quickly dropping into a shallow ditch filled with the powdery beige dust that covered everything in this Mediterranean landscape.

In Year of the Tiger, set in India, half of the story is told through the tiger-protagonist's point of view. I reasoned that animals would be far more attuned to the seasons and the weather and therefore always be noting its changes or stasis while the humans, busy with their everyday concerns, would be less attentive of seasons and weather patterns to the point of ignoring them.

The dawn drew up blood-red, like the spilled essence of a great carcass laid across the canopy of the world, dripping, oozing down its palate onto a frigid horizon that soaked it all in like a reluctant sponge longing to be wrung.

Although the passage may seem overdone, the point was to demonstrate the heightened stimulation animals in the wild receive from the natural world to which humans are not attuned.

Weather and seasonal phenomena on alien worlds is a special case. For The Dream Land trilogy, much of the action is set on a planet revolving around a pair of suns, the larger yellow star and the smaller blue star. For a portion of each day the light from both suns combine to cast a range of greenish hues across the landscape. It becomes especially evocative to include such unusual phenomena in the story.

Here is an excerpt from when our hero, Set-d'Elous (a.k.a. Sebastian Talbot) attends his alien wife's dying moments:

On the second day of winter, the month of Gouo in 1481, with the pea-colored flurries drifting downward from the Kelly green clouds hovering against the horizon, imprisoning the suns at their final dusk light, he turned away from the window and took her hand once more, kneeling beside the qala.  In the darkening shadows their eyes met, penetrating deeply into each other’s souls.  He felt the squeeze of her fingers, the pull of her eyes.  He remembered every moment he had gazed into those eyes, and the first time: forty-one years behind the calm wake of his longboat, sailing the Ghoupalle River Styx called Fardomn-Iker.  A stroke of his silent oar, a smooth passage, journey of eternity.  So sang the man in the raelor robe who extended the GP insignia, hammered out of gold, over her prone figure.

As I look back through my catalog, I see that I can classify my stories as either "Summer" or "Winter" stories based on their general settings. Similarly, I used the season I was in as an aid to writing the story. It's a struggle to write a snowy scene in the middle of July, or a hot and dusty scene while bundled up with my stockinged feet up against the space heater. Likewise, I need those same seasons to make revision and final preparation for publication go more easily. We are affected more than we may realize, especially as writers, by all of this phenomena around us. (The one exception might be a story set completely indoors with no windows.)

Let your characters experience the weather and the seasons, just as we do. Let them comment on it. Talking about the weather is always a conversation starter, after all. Let the weather interfere with the plot: storms, floods, dust, rain washing out a picnic, snow making roads impassable--tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, perhaps. And beautiful sunrises and sunsets, too. And light spring dew. And brilliant autumn leaves drifting down upon the yellowing grass. Clouds of many shapes. The color of the sky, the angle of sunlight in each season and at different times of day. 

Without having your characters give a complete meteorological explanation of every phenomena they experience, let them acknowledge and be affected by what they experience. We are all moved, positively or negatively, by what we see and feel around us.

Let these become sidekicks to your characters, partners in crime, white knights or darkest evil. 

Mother Nature will thank you later. Maybe.

07 October 2011

On Apples and Jobs

It's October and I feel some pressure to create the first post of the month. This post will be a brief history of my involvement with Apple and Steve Jobs. No disrespect is intended.

Once upon a time--I think it was the early 80s--I was sitting around the barracks of my summer Reserve training base on one off-weekend, and I decided to go to the PX. I was killing time mostly, but I paused to look with delight at the latest magical artifacts from the future. There in the corner of the PX was a display of electronic devices called computers. Having spent the bulk of my communication time on a typewriter (writing stories, letters, etc.), and primarily a manual one at that, I was quite fascinated. It was an Apple product.

Noting all of its features and the promise of futuristic simplicity, I wanted to buy it. The price was prohibitive, however, so I gave up the idea. Later, when a relative died and left a little money for me, I went out and bought my first computer. It was not an Apple product; with the $1600 I had, I got a Tandy 1000 computer from Radio Shack. It had a monochrome monitor and two slots for the program floppy disk and the floppy disk where I could save my files. I also got a dot-matrix printer. The computer ran some DOS version more primitive than Windows, but I was in heaven. Later, when I went to Japan for several years, I took with me a "portable computer" weighing 16 pounds, also from Radio Shack.

Productivity aside, I kept to the PC path and eventually found myself back in the USA and in grad school in Texas. I had just returned from Japan--where I first encountered the computer accessory known today as a CD-ROM disk (I laughed at the commercials on Japanese TV, saying "Who'd buy anything that stupid? One scratch and it's ruined." That's right: I am not a visionary). With Yen in the bank, I purchased the best system I could afford: a PC-compatible computer with a hard drive of 1 MB, running Windows 3.1, and a color monitor and a ribbon-cartridge printer. Price: $3000. That was the mid-90s.

However, at my university, the computer labs were stocked primarily with Macintosh computers. At first, I found them difficult to work with; I was thinking too much, thinking of DOS code. Gradually I learned to work with Macs, especially for the graphical work I was doing. I always had to convert files to use them on my PC machine at home, of course. So I always carried around a couple boxes of 3.5" diskettes containing all my necessary files. Still later, I returned to using Macs at a different school, though they had only a few stuck in a separate room away from the main computer lab. For home, however, the Macs always remained out of reach financially and so I stayed on the PC bandwagon even as my friends and colleagues embraced the Macs and subsequent products with gusto.

When it came time to get a laptop for use while traveling, I considered the Macbook but bought an HP instead, then when it gave out, a Toshiba. I remember going into the Best Buy store with my lame HP laptop, hoping to get it repaired. As I waited, I wandered over to the big Apple display to have a look. A salesman there asked me if I were interested in their latest product. I could have made the perfect TV commercial for Apple by what I replied: "That's all right, I'm just here to get my PC repaired."

The iPod attracted me, a music aficionado, yet as less-expensive copy devices became available, I opted for those. The iPhone has more features than I would know what to do with, plus I already had a cell phone. I thought the iPad was cool yet I bought a Netbook. The iPad2, or whatever the official name is, further attracts me, yet as long as my Netbook is working I don't feel the need to go with my fanciful side and dive into the Apple barrel.

I've never had anything against Apple, its products, or its founder Steve Jobs. I admired it all from afar. I've cheered their success, loved their advertising, smiled at controversies. I was an Apple/Mac wannabe. There was a certain cachet, a smugness, perhaps, in the users of Apple products, particularly in my early encounters, that I did not want to be a part of. Although I never felt particularly cool or comfortably a part of the crowd of PC users (or usees, in the more accurate vernacular), I was set early onto a path I felt I could not easily extricate myself from. And so much of my life has passed by as I waited for the right moment to make my move and join the 21st century.

Now, as if seeing my life pass before my eyes, founder Steve Jobs has passed away. We are close to the same age, close enough that I feel sad and awkward and find something missing in my world that wasn't missing a few days ago. I went out to eat dinner between a day at school and an evening of grading student papers. At the next table was a woman using an iPad2, the new, skinny thing that looks like half a placemat, something so delicate and fragile I'd be afraid to actually use it. I know how clumsy I am, after all.

The timing of all of this is not significant, yet I want to get something before it is too late for me. A major era in technology may have just ended, yet so much continues without diminishment. You can find elsewhere on the Internet lists of things Steve Jobs has done, foreseen, visualized, and made happen. My recent involvement in the Steampunk movement (where what's old is new again) makes the contrast all the more clear. And so, without further adieu, and having no other motive, I am on my way to make a purchase. I want something that will continue without diminishment, something that will keep me young.