Mondays Finish the Story – April 27th, 2015 – Morning flowers.

Mondays Finish the Story flash fiction challenge for April 27th, 2015– 150 words based on this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“Are you laughing at me?“

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
*****************************************

“Are you laughing at me?“

“No, no—it’s just—well, the orchids are a little silly looking….”

“I’m sorry—they’re what they had.”

“I’m not complaining…they’re very nice—in a buck-toothed sort of way.”

“You are laughing….”

“At the orchids, just the orchids.”

“Okay…so you really like them?”

“Yes, I do. What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion. It’s just, I’ve, you know, never given you flowers. Thought I might.”

“Hmm…a man gives a woman flowers, there’s usually some sort of occasion. Or he’s got something on his mind.”

“Why should I have anything on my mind? What gives you the impression I have something on my mind?”

“Weelll…the economy has collapsed, the country is in revolution, a mutated plague is sweeping across Asia, and heavily-armed aliens have landed and claimed Earth for their own, and the one thing you think of is to bring me flowers? At 3:42 AM?”

“Um…yes. There might not be time later.”

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Draft Princess of Fire Blurb

Well, my first interview for a new job didn’t exactly go as well as I might have wanted (translation– I crashed and burned), so I decided to distract myself with a little blurb creation.

I think I do pretty well with my blurbs, since I aim to entice without revealing too much. I think I’ve read enough dime-store SF novels to have a pretty good sense of what should go on the book’s back cover. The purpose of the blurb is to persuade some kid with complexion issues to buy the book rather than a super-size container of malted milk balls. At least, that’s how it always worked for me.

So here it is–

Princess of Fire

Kathy Pennington has now been on the planet Jauthur for a year. Her battle of wills with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress of the Val, has reached a stalemate– the empress insists on Kathy succeeding her on the throne, and Kathy insists on going home to Chicago. Neither woman has budged an inch.

But when the empress is besieged in the south of the Empire by a rebel army, and the volcano on the capitol’s doorstep shows signs of awakening, Kathy must find sources of strength she did not know she possessed, to help save people from looming danger. If she doesn’t, hundreds of thousands of innocent lives will be lost in ash and fire.

I would welcome any comments. Thanks.

A big helping of reality pudding….

Okay, I’m going to try hard not to slip over into whining.

Today I got the official, certified, no-kidding, that’s-all-folks notification that my current IT gig is ending in a week. No surprise there, we knew the project was winding down and the probable end date was the end of April. The hardest part, though, is that I haven’t yet been able line up anything else. So, unless something comes through in the next six days, it appears that I will soon have some time on my hands.

Pro: I’ll have time to finish Princess of Fire, and maybe launch into Horse Tamer and a couple of smaller projects percolating away in my brain.

Con: Yard work.

Yep, I need a job….

Later.

A few thoughts from Anne Lamott

I just stumbled across an article on Salon by Anne Lamott, an author previously unknown to me, but who I may now check out. I thought the article, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared”, really interesting, and thought I’d share a few quotes–

“Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”

“Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly evil men I have known were all writers who’d had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published…Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won’t, it can’t. But writing can. So can singing.”

“Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying. Three percent is the existence of snakes.”

There’s a lot more in the article, including thoughts on grace, God and faith, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Mondays Finish the Story – April 20th, 2015 – The Pursued

Mondays Finish the Story challenge for April 20th— 150 words based on this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“They followed the buffaloes and their babies along the trail heading into the woods.”

Not sure what I ended up with here, but here it is.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
************************
They followed the buffaloes and their babies along the trail heading into the woods. They had no choice.

There were only four of them left—Walt, Pete, Liz, and Harper. Behind them the whole horizon burned.

“We can’t outrun that,” Walt said. He held Pete up, who stumbled, his face covered in blood.

“Look,” Harper said. Giant shapes moved, silhouetted against the fire.

Hunters. “Keep moving,” Liz said.

Deep in among the cottonwoods they found the pool of water. The buffalo all stood in it, up to their bellies. They know this is a safe place.

But not for us. “Harper, open the Path.”

“The Truth here stutters like a man frightened,” Harper said.

“Well, that makes two of us,” Walt said.

“Do it,” Liz said.

Harper took out his moonlight sword. He spun it overhead. Its light glittered, then spread out across the whole pool.

Liz smelled lilacs, felt a cool morning breeze. “Go!”

They all stepped into the pool, and were elsewhere.

Star Wars! They’re sucking me back in! Nooooo……!

Some months ago I expressed extreme doubt about the new Star Wars film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, in large measure because of the involvement of J. J. Abrams, against whom I harbor several filmic grudges. I am ready to admit, of course, that some of my antipathy may be defensive in nature, in that I don’t want to be hurt again by a lousy Star Wars sequel. My previous rant cannot be characterized as an objective assessment– oh, no, no, no….

But now here’s the new trailer for Episode VII–

Now, you really, really can’t judge a movie by its trailer. A minute and a half to two minutes of what’s often a film’s best bits, pasted together to sell the movie, rather than tell the story, can be a powerful and emotional experience. Plenty of movie trailers are actually better than the movies (Interstellar comes to mind).

Having said that, this trailer leaves me short of breath.

Storm Troopers and light-sabers, X-Wings and desert worlds, crashed Star Destroyers and, oh, man, the Millenium Falcon and Chewbacca and Han Solo. Somebody knows how to push my buttons.

Oh, and did I mention John Williams? Do I need to?

Grrr…I can feel myself getting sucked in. The old dream stirs, the old hope revives. Which means, at the very least, the trailer is doing its job.

I need to be strong, and not give in to the gibbering fan-boy within. I resolve to approach this film with caution, gather reviews, evaluate the situation. There will be no camping in line for opening night.

But…if it so happens, crow just might taste pretty good in this case….

We shall see.

Five fantasy books that have influenced me

Despite the fact that I have stopped posting chapters of Horse Tamer, I remain intent on writing the complete novel. Although it has to take a back-seat to finishing Princess of Fire, I’ve started re-orienting the existing text to my revised start-point and my grimmer vision of Mankin. I expect this will be as much a labor of love as the posted chapters were.

Writing Horse Tamer got me to thinking about my fantasy influences, and I realized that some of the best deserve to be called out and honored, especially as younger readers might not be familiar with some of them. Considering how picky I am with my genre reading, it’s also worth noting the books I go back to, over and over again, for inspiration, or which influenced me at an early age.

In no particular order, here are five of my favorite fantasy books–

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien– naturally. This is the ur-work of modern fantasy. Both fantasy and sword and sorcery existed before Tolkien– William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End was published in 1896, and Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian twenty years before Tolkien completed LOTR. Tolkien’s work, however, has defined the genre for the last two generations.

I definitely fall into the camp of those who assert that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, taken together (as it was originally meant to be), the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century. It powerfully encapsulates our culture’s growing realization that modern society was not the paradise its propagandists said it was– and suggests a remedy– not a bucolic retreat into medievalism, of which some critics accuse the trilogy, but a regaining of a sense of our dependent inter-relationship, both with each other and with nature. In one sense, the Lord of the Rings is the first ecological cautionary tale, published years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In another, it was a vanguard of the counter-culture. In yet another, it is a profound anti-war tale.

The Blue Hawk, by Peter Dickinson — an example of a rare type of fantasy I admire and aspire to write. These are fantasy stories with little or no magic. Other examples would probably include the Gormenghast trilogy, Watership Down, and Shardik. Personally, I dislike magic– to me, it’s a cop-out, and usually takes me away from the kind of setting I really enjoy– the sort that focuses on human relationships and struggles, while set in partly or wholly imaginary worlds. There is considerable debate whether these sort of stories are actually mannerpunk, steampunk or sci-fi; for me the debate is almost meaningless, precisely because genre boundaries on the whole are growing increasingly meaningless.

In the book Dickinson creates a world that is refreshingly not medieval, but rather a re-working of Egyptian or Sumerian culture and history. The young priest Tron intervenes in a ceremony and becomes entangled in a political struggle that at first appears to be merely between the kingdom’s priestly caste and the nobility, who want to break out the strait-jacket the priests have placed on the kingdom– but which in the end is revealed to be a story of gods and their purposes. I love the story, and the atmosphere Dickinson creates, of desert temples, winding rivers, highland peasants, shadowed struggles between priestly and royal factions, and of a place and time far removed from ours. More fantasy needs to be written like this.

The Doomfarers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley. Another story that blurs the boundary between sci-fi and fantasy, it revolves around the discovery of a portal leading from the mundane Earth to a fantasy world. The first half of the story involves a US Army armored cavalry APC in Vietnam that is pulled into the fantasy universe to help defeat a dragon. Inevitably, complications ensue. The second half involves the APC commander, who returns to Coramonde to help the rightful prince Springbuck regain his throne.

This book captured my imagination in large part because I read it while I was still in the Army, in an actual armored cavalry regiment, so I was immediately able to relate to the APC crew, their weapons and attitudes, and their profound sense of dislocation at finding themselves in a different world. Brian Daley was a Vietnam veteran, and he brought a great deal of authenticity to the story. The book was an important milestone for me, in terms of how it presented realistic characters and dialogue, even in a fantastic setting.

Unfortunately, Daley passed away in 1996 from cancer, far too soon.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This story has become one of my personal favorites, the sort where you read the book until it falls apart. Set in a fantasy world modeled on Reconquista Iberia, it tells the tale of the breaking of a curse that has haunted the royal house of Chalion. Its protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a rare example of a good character– honorable, honest and dedicated to those he serves– who is not boring. Bujold redeems Cazaril’s straight-arrow qualities by presenting him also as deeply-wounded, humble, self-deprecating and sometimes blundering. I’m the sort who needs characters I can root for in his books and movies, and Cazaril is just the sort of sympathetic character I latch on to.

Bujold also does something else in this book I deeply appreciate– instead of utilizing magic, she has constructed a detailed theology revolving around five deities who, to the characters in the story, are not theoretical at all, but participants in the action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin (aka, Game of Thrones, which is technically the title of only the first book in the series). Since these books are still being written, the jury is not yet completely in as to just how effective the story will be as a whole when it is finished. For one thing, I am personally scratching my head as to how Martin is supposed to wrap up everything in just two more books– there are so many threads and loose-ends, it feels to me as if he needs three or four. Of course, that may be the difference between me and a literary genius.

Because, despite the incomplete nature of the series, it’s clear to me that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of genius. It has re-defined the fantasy genre, away from the Lord of the Rings template toward something dark, gritty and more sensual. In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire is seen by some as the prime and most successful example of the “grimdark” sub-genre, which is itself a reaction to Tolkien’s work. Of course, as was the case with Tolkien, most of Martin’s imitators cannot match his power.

The power of Martin’s writing lies largely in his refusal to flinch away from the hard realities of life, and particularly life in a medieval setting. It’s often hard to read his work, but for me that resonates– it reads like history, and anyone who reads history knows the first requirement of a historian is a strong stomach. There is no idealization of the human condition in Martin’s work– he fully comprehends the basic fact that people are selfish, false, treacherous, violent and power-hungry. They use power to hurt, and rape as a weapon of war. Good people die for no reason, and too often the wrong prospers. Westeros is the power-obsessed Middle Ages re-written in a modern idiom.

The saving grace in all this darkness is a handful of characters- Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen, among others– who you come to root for, because they preserve in themselves some aspect of hope and integrity. None of them are perfect– Tyrion, for example, is a completely mixed bag of lust and square-dealing– and you have to steel yourself for the possibility that someone you love is going to get it, as Martin has no compunction about killing off characters. But that just illustrates his narrative honesty.

Martin’s ability to create nuanced characters is another major contributor to his power. Good, bad, in-between, they are all three-dimensional and believable. I find myself liking amoral self-servers like Bronn the sellsword, because he has a pragmatic honesty and a sense of humor, and even Cersei Lannister is revealed, beneath her vicious exterior, as a fearful and wounded woman who loves her children. How Martin manages this while creating a cast that may dwarf that of War and Peace is an opaque mystery to me.

I hope that Martin can, in the end, wrap up his epic in a way that resolves all the threads. Writing a genuinely epic fantasy is tough, but resolving it in a satisfactory manner is probably the toughest part of all. Off the top of my head about the only author I can think of who actually accomplished the feat was Tolkien. But among modern authors, Martin is probably the one person who can do it.

It suddenly seems almost sacrilegious to mention my faltering and simple-minded effort with Horse Tamer in the same breath with these works. What inspires you frequently also creates a sense of futility– I know my stories will never match the grace and power of these books. But the inspiration also creates the desire to honor your sources with your own effort. Sometime after I complete Princess of Fire and before I start Princess of Stars, I intend to finish Horse Tamer.

And then I guess we’ll just see what happens.

It’s ALIVE!!!– well, almost….

I have been a little delayed actually creating the hard-copy of Princess of Fire for my line-edit. In trying to tidy it up before printing I realized that there were a couple of remaining gaps, and, more critically, that the action at a particular point in the story had all the tension of a well-cooked noodle. I took a few days to try to ratchet the suspense, and while I’m not yet perfectly happy with the solution, it’s good enough for me push on ahead.

And here it is–

DSC03055flaton

DSC03080PoFsideway

and, what the heck, a sample page–

DSC03082internal2

(My apologies for the picture quality– my digital camera is lousy, not to mention bad).

The trick of printing the manuscript out in landscape, arranged in two columns with a smaller font than the final draft, is a trick I learned years ago in my over-the-transom days, to save both ink and paper. Makes it a little more convenient carrying it on the bus, as well.

The hard-copy edit has always been important to me– for some reason I catch most of my weak grammar and cliches here. Reading it through in hard copy also helps me locate and think about remaining weak spots.

It’s also a clear sign that I am making real progress toward the final product. That’s always a serious morale booster.

Now all I have to do is locate my red pen….

The Noise of Distant Battle

I have been watching, from something of a distance, the controversy over the Hugo nominations for this year. The nominees are largely, if not wholly, composed of a slate put together by right-wing fans. I’ve read a number of articles and plowed through a certain amount of angry comments, but I think Chuck Wendig, once again, has a very useful perspective on the whole business; Damien Walter, on the other hand, points out that much of the motivation behind the slate of nominees may not, in the end, actually have a lot to do with science fiction or fantasy.

In the process of my reading I came across this, which was reblogged on Goggle+ :

http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/04/04/hugo-awards-nominations-swept-by-anti-sjw-anti-authoritarian-authors/

Here’s a pertinent quote–

“The Sad Puppies have struck a blow for creative and intellectual freedom. But their campaign is just one part of a wider movement against the forces of the authoritarian left, whose allies are decreasing by the day. Whether they are called CHORFs, SJWs or Stepford Students, authoritarians, finger-waggers, bullies and panic-mongers are facing a backlash across dozens of fronts as the defiant spirit of GamerGate floods into other fandoms.”

Wow. Come the Jubilee, huh?

Except I’m wondering what it is exactly these guys are celebrating. Many commenters on Chuck’s post and others, as well as the i09 article, point out that what the Sad Puppies campaign has effectively done is destroy the Hugos, all in order to count some dubious Culture War coup. Henceforth, unless something changes, the Hugos will be nothing but a battleground for competing, politically motivated slates of nominees.

Here’s my thought– meh.

For all the sturm und drang, the Hugos, in my opinion, may just not be that relevant. I, personally, have not paid attention to them in years (decades, in fact). They’re a fan award that has no major influence on my reading or book-buying habits. And I suspect this is true nowadays for the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy fans. There are, doubtless, millions of SFF consumers who’ve never heard of the Hugos. As others have pointed out (see Chuck’s post again), fandom is far larger than the Worldcon and Hugo voters.

A point in support this assertion– when you look at the number of ballots cast this year for each Hugo category, you realize that we’re talking about small numbers (e.g., “BEST NOVELETTE (1031 ballots)”) when you compare them to the total number of Worldcon memberships, and exceedingly tiny when compared to the total number of people worldwide who read science fiction and fantasy on a regular basis. The Sad Puppies complain that the Hugos have lately been nominated by a tiny clique, and, ironically, they’ve just proven it. And it’s just about as valid when they do it as it is when any other tiny group does. In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In the end, the triumphalism of the Sad Puppies seems to me as empty as that of a World War I army celebrating the capture of a few dozen yards of enemy trench line. They’ve paid a high price for not much, and, in the final analysis, it won’t change a whole lot. The diversification of SFF against which they rail is largely a reflection of the diversification of Western society, and no amount of right-wing posturing and coup-counting is going change that.

Thanks be to God.

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge– OBERON IS HERE

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, 1000 words based on an image.

I went with the one Chuck provided–

chuckoberon1

My usual mediocrity….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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OBERON IS HERE

Finally, fighting the traffic was just too much. I gave up— there was no chance of getting home today. I pulled off into the driveway of a little honky-town bar and restaurant, just shy of the I-20/S-208 interchange. I could see the cars on the interstate were at a complete stand-still. I just didn’t have enough energy left to brave it.

The signboard outside the bar read “OBERON IS HERE” in big, black letters. I mean, state the obvious.

I went in. The air conditioning inside gave me a pleasant shiver. Driving two hundred miles in the Texas heat will take it out of you, even if your AC was working, which mine wasn’t.

The bar portion of the place was quiet, empty, dark. The TV behind the bar was showing the same talking heads who had dominated the air waves for the last week; mercifully, the sound was muted. The only other person in the bar was the bartender. He leaned on the polished counter; when I stepped up, I saw he was working a newspaper cross-word puzzle.

“I hate those puzzles,” I said, planting myself on a stool.

The barkeep looked up. Older, heavy, with eyes that had seen more than his fair share of trouble– but he smiled. “Keeps my mind off things,” he said. “Especially since it takes me a while to finish one.” He put down his pencil. “What’s your pleasure?”

“Heineken?”

“Not a problem.”

He pulled a bottle out of the ice, plopped it on the counter, uncapped it for me. I took a sip. The beer was as good, or better, than the cool air of the bar.

“I’m surprised you’re not hip-deep in customers,” I said.

The barkeep shook his head. “Nobody wants to give up their place in the lemming parade. Not that they’re going much of anywhere.”

I snorted. “I wonder where they think they’re going. It’s not like running away is really a solution.”

The barkeep eyed me curiously. “You’re not a lemming, then?”

“Nope– trying to get back to Dallas from a job in San Angelo. Problem is, seems like every major road is jammed with people going the other direction, on both sides. I get around one flood and I hit another.”

The barkeeper nodded. “Yeah, the government panicked, and passed it on to everyone else. Glad I don’t have to go more than a quarter-mile to get home.” He picked the newspaper and the pencil, put them away. “What’s your business?”

“IT networking,” I said, taking a sip. “I was finishing up installing a system for a little mom-and-pop in San Angelo when this whole thing started.”

“Really.” The barkeep pursed his lips. “Maybe you can explain something, then.” He jerked a thumb at the silenced TV. At the moment a really attractive blond newsreader was talking to a scientist from MIT, wearing an expression that told me she was trying to look serious while not understanding a word the scientist was saying. “All of these assholes, they just confuse me. How come they didn’t see this coming?”

“Well, that’s the confusing part,” I said. “They should have seen this coming, years ago. Instead, it just…appears. There’s nothing in science that should allow that to happen.”

“And is that why they can’t say for sure what’s going to happen?” the barkeep asked.

“Mostly,” I said. “I mean, they’ve only had a few days of information to work on. Makes all the mathematics kind of speculative.”

“I guess so.” The barkeeper glanced back up at the TV, thoughtful. “Makes you wonder if it’s intentional.”

“It does,” I said. I took a big hit off the bottle. “Problem is, we may never know. Even if we make it through.”

“I guess not.” The barkeep reached up, turned off the TV. “You trying to get home to family?”

“I’ve got a dog,” I said, smiling. “All the family I have at the moment.”

“Ah. Well, maybe you’re lucky– I got two grand-kids. Worse comes to worse, it’ll be hard, but at least we’ll be together.”

“True enough.” I finished the beer. “How much?”

“Forget it,” the barkeeper said. “Considering everything….”

“No, I should pay for it,” I said. “If we do make it through, the mathematics indicates you’ll still have to pay rent on this place.”

The barkeeper laughed. “Fair enough. Make it a dollar fifty– a discount for your future business.”

“All right.” I fished out two bucks, he gave me back two quarters. I slid off the stool. “Is there a place around here I can park and camp for the night?” I asked. “I’m going to call it quits for the day, see if it’s better tomorrow.”

“Leave her right where she is,” the barkeeper said. “Nobody will bother you. Besides, I’ve got your license plate number.”

I grinned. “Thank you. Pleasure meeting you.”

“Likewise.” He stuck his hand out, and we shook.

I stepped back out into the parking lot. The traffic was still at a dead stop. Yeah, my back seat would be about as good as it would get tonight.

I looked up. Still three million miles away, and the planet covered half the sky. Green, yellow and orange cloud bands striped its atmosphere. Storms circulated here, there, and yonder in those clouds. Quite a sight.

Oberon. King of the Fairies. Capricious, powerful, vengeful. “Well, maybe it fits,” I murmured.