So, Halloween– a grumpy old man’s raspberry….

Halloween. The definitive sign that the holidays are approaching. If I could take a vacation from the whole business, I would. I hear the backside of the moon is peaceful….

I resent Halloween most viscerally. It’s permission for people to dress up and act with appalling stupidity. As a Christian who’s read entirely too much history, its origins as a Celtic day of the dead bothers me (yeah, I went there. I’m a stick-in-the-mud, no doubt about it). It’s one redeeming feature used to be the candy I could sneak from the candy bowl. Now that I’m diabetic I have to leave it alone. Thus the world constricts and grows dull.

In ancient Rome there was a festival known as the Saturnalia, held around the winter solstice, which resembled Halloween in some ways– both days are what sociologists call ‘liminal periods’, in which some of the social rules are relaxed and roles reversed. In Rome it was a period in which Romans drank, gambled, and in which masters, for one day, would change places with their servants and serve them. One famous Roman senator couldn’t stand it, and had a sound-proof room built in his villa to which he would retire and carry on with his work while everyone else in the neighborhood got plastered.

I feel you, brother.

I admit, Halloween was more fun when my daughter was little. When she was a toddler she was adorable in her different costumes; when she got older she exhibited considerable creativity, such as when she was the Statue of Liberty, or Miranda from The Tempest (yeah, my kid did Shakespeare for Halloween. Wherever you are, feel my paternal glow).

Now, though, she’s grown out of trick-or-treat, and prefers to hang out with her friends. I’m generally left with the pumpkin-carving duties and handing out the candy to children who shouldn’t be having that many sweets that late. It’s difficult to focus on Halo or World of Tanks when there’s a knock on the door every ten minutes.

Now, the forecast for tonight promises a good deal of wind and rain, which might cut down on the traffic; but this is Seattle, and in truth nothing short of a white-out blizzard will stop kids from showing up. I should move to the Amazon….

I guess I’ll survive. I always do. It gets tiresome, though, being the only sober man at the Saturnalia.

And this is just the warm-up for Christmas. Just wait until you hear what I’ve got to say about that one.

Later.

PRINCESS OF STARS UPDATE #3– My handicap as a writer…

Well, so far my intended posting schedule has turned to be more like an optional guideline. Here I am, two days late with my Princess of Stars update. I am either a lazy bum or I’ve been very busy. I have had quite a number of things to take care of this week, but I also spent too much time playing World of Tanks to honestly claim I was too busy to blog.

Princess of Stars is currently at 13,000 words. I am pushing through the initial setup and will soon be into the action. In this process I think managed to finesse, at least enough for the first draft, a particularly tricky section in which I was especially challenged.

I’m talking about Kathy’s love life. In dealing with this part of the narrative I suffer from a particularly acute handicap — I’ve never been a woman. Yes, I’m just a square that way.

In the first instance, I try to finesse this sort of thing by relating to the commonalities of people’s love lives– we all have the same emotional needs, no matter our culture or individual personalities. When that technique can’t carry me any further, I do research. I ask my wife and daughter.

Believe me, actually running a passage past people who can completely relate to it and spot its inadequacies is essential. And if you can’t do that by reading your writing to your spouse while she’s trying to watch The View, or describing the passage to your daughter while you’re driving her to school (captive audiences are pre-disposed to be critical), find beta readers who can help you out. In writing Kathy, a teenage to twenty-something young woman, I’ve found having beta readers who are all women invaluable. They’ve caught me in any number of errors and implausibilities.

With Princess of Stars this sort of backup is going to be especially essential– in the course of the next 137,000 words (or thereabouts) I’m going to put Kathy through some serious twists and turns, in which she’s going to have to confront issues she’s never dealt with before. Hopefully I will bring some verisimilitude to her reactions. At least, I can be sure I’ve got a network of first readers who will let me know if I go off course. And that’s the sort of support every writer needs.

Further bulletins to follow.

Story Fragment– A Sleep of a Thousand Years

Here’s a fragment from a fantasy novel I started a few years back. The plot is something vague about a legendary princess and men on a desperate quest, but it never really gelled. Occasionally I come back and doodle on it. Perhaps someday I’ll figure it out….

This piece is a little cheesy, but I think it’s fun.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
****************************************
“This is it,” Ethar said. His face shone with excitement. “It has to be!”

Soren had to agree. They had all labored up the slope from the camp– Soren, Ethar, with his bag of scrolls, Gis, with his old man’s panting, Yar stumping upward, his face set, Duro following him– and now, before the Great Doors, sunk into the cliff-face, Soren was sure that their journey was over. Or half-over…. “Can you get it open?” he asked Ethar.

Ethar pulled a scroll from his pouch. “Give me a moment.”

“Gods give me strength,” Duro muttered.

Ethar didn’t seem to hear him. He consulted a scroll with red tabs, then stepped up to the Doors. They loomed over him, thirty or more feet high. Into their face were carved dozens of runes and images– Elha at war, on the hunt, bowing before their Queen. Soren studied the graven face of Tirana, but the features were stylized, stilted; they told him nothing.

Yar stepped close to Soren. “Captain, remember our bargain. You’re here to speak to the Queen of the Elha, if you can find her. But I want the Spear of Souls for my sovereign.”

“I remember,” Soren said. “But we’re still a ways from either goal.”

“True enough– but I didn’t think we would get this far,” Yar said.

Ethar studied the carvings. “It’s not a riddle; it’s a sequence….” he muttered.

Reaching up, he touched the foot of one hunter, dragged his fingers along the form of a dying warrior. Then he pushed at the hub of a chariot wheel.

A harsh, thunderous boom shook the ground beneath their feet. Soren staggered, then stepped back as the Doors shuddered, boomed, and then slowly began to open. They pulled apart, revealing a dark space beyond.

“Oh, my,” breathed Gis.

They went in, cautiously, weapons ready. The sunlight shining through the newly opened doors was watery, and the chamber within was filled with suddenly disturbed dust. Soren coughed, and Ethar sneezed four times in a row. But after a few moments they began to make out their surroundings.

The chamber was vaulted, and seventy feet high. On either side stood huge statues on pedestals– frowning kings and unequally unsmiling queens. “Hasu,” Gis muttered, gazing up at them. “Kannu, Sianna, Leato– all Tirana’s ancestors.”

“Fun looking bunch,” Duro whispered.

“They don’t like intruders,” Yar said. He stroked his beard, as if to ward off evil. He looked as patchy as Soren felt.

In the middle of the chamber stood a plinth, on which sat a huge stone casket. Around the base of the plinth runes were inscribed into the stone, of an old mode that Soren could not read. Gis and Ethar, however, both bent down at once and began to examine them. On the floor about the plinth, covered with thick dust, were sections of columns and blocks of stone. They did not look as if they had fallen; they looked as if they had been new-cut pieces, intended for further construction, but left in place and never touched again, as if their builders had just never returned to their tasks.

As the two scholars exchanged learned whispers Yar cautiously explored the chamber beyond the plinth, as if to make sure there were no enemies lurking in the far corners. As he did, Duro came over to Soren. “If there is a weapon in that casket, you must remember your charge from the Queen…no matter what you’ve told the dwarf….”

“I haven’t forgotten it,” Soren said. “But my charge was to find the Queen of the Elha and enlist her help. Any alleged weapon is secondary to that.

“Come on, Soren,” Duro said. “Look at this place– this is a tomb. We’re only going to find bones and dust in that casket. The legend is just that.”

Soren scowled. “As may be– but I will hold off judgment until we know, Duro son of Eig.”

The two of them glared at each other; then Gis said, “We have it!”

“Have what?” Soren said, glad to have something to distract him. Yar came hurrying back to the others.

Gis stood. “The inscription says that Tirana, Queen of the Elha, in her grief over her brother, chose to sleep the Sleep of Forgetfulness. She took the venom of a shistaska, and became like one dead, and was lain here, until the time should be fulfilled for her revival.”

“‘Became like one dead’, or died?” Doru said. “Are you sure of your translation?”

“Fairly sure,” Ethar said, still bent over the runes. “Although the declension is ambiguous in some contexts….”

“Sorry I asked,” Duro said, rolling his eyes.

“How do we open the casket?” Soren said, determined to stay focused. He sheathed his sword.

“Ah,” Gis said, with a raised finger, as if Soren had raised an interesting point in a lecture. “If the honored Ethar is correct, he understands the sequence for opening the casket. It is another secret pattern, but one he has deciphered from the ancient Elha chronicles….”

“Spare us the description,” Duro growled, “and just do it.”

Gis scowled at Duro, then looked at Soren. “Please do,” Soren said. “Before we start chewing each other’s ears off.”

Gis nodded. “Very well. Ethar…?”

“One moment,” Ethar said. He stood. Appearing to ignore Duro’s huffing and muttering, he walked slowly around the plinth. Every other step he touched one or two of the runes; Soren, watching, believed he understood the pattern. Each of the runes corresponded to numbers in the Elha mathematical system; together they seemed to be numerical sequences that had mystical importance. But he was not sure; his command of ancient Elha mysticism was not a patch on Gis’ or Ethar’s.

Ethar finished his circuit of the plinth. He touched the last rune. Instantly there came a sharp snap. Everyone took a step back. The top face of the casket split length-ways down the middle; as they watched, the halves folded back and slid down out of sight. The casket, now an open box, silently rose a foot or more. It stopped, and the sides folded down.

Inside, lying on its back, was a body. It was a woman; she was clothed in a shining blue sark that reached from her shoulders to her white feet. She was Elha; her ears and the tilt of her eyes marked her. Her hair, nearly white, lay over her in two long braids, reached to her midriff. Her hands, small and fine, rested on her belly.

The men approached slowly. “By the high gods,” Gis said, in little more than a whisper. “It’s her. Tirana.”

Soren was willing to take his word for it. To him, the woman looked as if she had just lain down for a summer’s nap. He stepped up and examined the body closely. The form beneath the sark seemed more than pleasing, but there was no movement, no sign of breath. Without being obvious about it, Soren took a deep breath. No scent of decay came to him.

“She sleeps!” Ethar exclaimed. “Just as the old chronicles said!”

“That’s daft, even for you,” Duro said. “She’s dead. It’s obvious. The old Elha were masters of embalming, that’s all.”

“I don’t know….” Gis said, uncertain.

“Come on,” Duro said, “it’s been a thousand years!”

“Yes, it has,” Soren said.

Yar stepped up beside him. “Is this it? One dead Elha wench? Is there nothing else in the casket?”

“There doesn’t appear to be,” Soren said.

Yar looked as if he wanted to hit something– or someone. “My king will be displeased. No, actually, my king is going to gut me slowly and feed my manhood to starving wolves while it’s still attached. He wanted that Elha weapon.”

“Well, my mission’s a failure, too,” Soren said. “I have no capacity for speaking to the dead.”

“She’s not dead!” Ethar said. “I tell you, it’s in the chronicles! She merely sleeps!”

“A thousand year sleep,” Duro said sarcastically. “Of course. So, if she sleeps, you scroll-addled fool, how do you wake her up?”

“Um….” Ethar said.

Tentatively, Soren stepped closer to the plinth. He reached a hand and touched Tirana’s cheek. He blinked in surprise. The flesh was supple, smooth, and seemed no different from that of a living person.

“She’s not mummified at all,” he said.

“As I said,” Ethar said, his excitement returning.

Soren hesitated again. Then he leaned down over Tirana’s still face. Still no scent of decay. Very gently he pressed his lips to hers.

“Soren?!” Gis exclaimed.

Soren lifted his head, hiding his surprise. He had expected his kiss to meet hard coldness, and, most likely, to taste putrescence. Instead, Tirana’s lips were warm, and she tasted, not of rot or death, but of woman.

But she still did not move.

“Now, what did that accomplish?” Gis complained.

Soren looked up. The others gathered around the plinth started with expressions of surprise, disgust or confusion. Soren smiled, shrugged. “Well, it always works in the tales.”

Gis rolled his eyes and groaned; Yar laughed. “And I thought I was strange,” he said.

“Well, it also means I’m out of ideas,” Soren said, sighing.

“I suggest we give the problem a rest,” Gis said. “Perhaps we can think of something after we’ve eaten.”

There was a general murmur of agreement. “Well,” Duro said, sighing, “all right. I’ll get supper started. We’ve got that venison and the turnips. I’ve got a little garlic left. That should give the stew some flavor.”

Tirana sat up on the plinth. “Oh! I hate garlic!” she shrieked.

Yar yelled in surprise, lifting his axe and stumbling back. Gis fell backwards over one of the fallen pillars, his robes flying up and his spindly legs waving in the air. Ethar shouted, “Yah!” and dropped his scrolls, which rolled every which way across the floor. Duro turned and fled for the open chamber doors, wild-eyed with fright.

Soren instinctively retreated, and reached for Splitter. His hand was on its hilt when Tirana collapsed back on to the plinth.

“What in the name of the unholy demons of Lis was that?” Yar exclaimed, still in a battle-stance, as if preparing to receive a cavalry charge.

“I don’t know,” Soren said. He stepped cautiously back to the edge of the plinth. He kept a hand on Splitter. Tirana again lay on the plinth, but now her chest moved with breathing, her lips parted, and as Soren watched she stirred and moved her arms. She lifted one hand up to her mouth, then let it fall back.

“I think,” he said, wondering, “she’s waking up.”

Lookit, Lookit!

I finally figured out (thanks to information I gleaned from the WordPress forums) how to add a word count progress bar to my posts. I’m so jazzed I’m willing to publicly admit that it took me three years to figure out how to do something a fourteen year-old could probably have done in fifteen minutes. Ten thousand words out of 150,000 is about 6.6%, which is a start, if nothing else….

Of course, now that I know how to do it the temptation is to throw progress bars up for other projects, but I am going to try to stay focused on my main work-in-progress. Really. I mean it.

Oh, and I am working on some fiction to post for this week, but my planned schedule took a bit of a beating today because of a long road trip we took, in order to allow my daughter to tour a college she’s interested in. Which is a bit of a head-trip; I could swear she just started kindergarten a little while ago….

The Daily Show calls out the insanity– Star Wars racism

I am reassured– the Daily Show still knows how to call them–

http://www.cc.com/video-clips/snfwmw/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-star-wars–episode-vii—the-racism-awakens

Man, I want to be a ‘fantasy culture correspondent’. I’m going to go work on my resume….

Note— I had heard a rumor that the whole #boycottstarwarsvii hashtag business started out as an online joke. If it did, the jokers should have realized that in this day-and-age of Gamergate and Sad Puppies it would take on a life of its own. There are some seriously messed-up people out there….

Another note, to any fans offended by the dumping of the Expanded Universe– please deal with it. I totally understand why Disney and Abrams decided to start from scratch– the EU would have been a complete straitjacket. Although, full disclosure, I was never a fan of the EU anyway, so you can take my comment with a grain of salt.

I want to judge this effort on its own merits. Waiting for the first reviews….

Princess of Stars Update #2– The Productivity Question

I am now over 8000 words on Princess of Stars. No immediate issues have yet become evident– I’ve tentatively dealt with the story logic problem revealed by my synopsis. My productivity is about the only question mark at the moment– I essentially added five thousand words in nine days, or about 550 words a day. That is not a blistering pace, but it is fairly typical for me.

I stand in awe of those writers who can do one thousand or two thousand words a day, day after day. In his autobiography Fred Pohl stated that he wrote 2000 words a day, every day, even when he was traveling or having dental surgery. Obviously, this was critical to making him, in his day, one of the most productive writers in science fiction.

For some reason– laziness? lack of intellectual staying power? poor self-esteem?– I rarely can achieve as much as 1000 words a day, and I can never sustain it. My natural daily word count seems to fall somewhere in the range of 500 to 700 words (tonight I did about 750, woo-hoo). If I am right about this novel running to around 150,000 words (a pure guess at this point), then that would mean the first draft of Princess of Stars will be complete sometime around the middle of August, 2016. That’s not so bad.

The awful part is that I know that target date is sure to slip, because many other factors reduce my effective daily word count– real-life distractions (flu shots and bills and forms to be taken to my daughter’s school), my lack of a personal work-space (I need a man-cave sooo bad), wasting time doodling on other projects, and so on. And then…then there is the time lost to those days– sometimes weeks with Princess of Fire— when the essential futility and wretchedness of my writing oppresses me and I lie in a puddle of self-pity, unable to lift my hands to the keyboard. I am not one of those authors who are breezily confident in their own writing. It’s too easy for me to see my own flaws, and note the (large) gap between conception and execution. Perhaps the miracle with Princess of Fire is that it only took twenty months to complete.

I’ve said it before– perseverance is one of the cardinal virtues of a writer. Fortunately, I am very stubborn person. And, come what may, I am on the road.

More reports to follow.

My resistance is crumbling….

I have to admit– the ad campaign is working. Damn, this looks good.

My previous reservations about the new Star Wars movie still hold, but just barely at this point. The trailer, like the teasers before it, hits all the right notes. More than that, I’m now curious about the characters and story-lines. And I really want to see Gwendoline Christie in something other than Game of Thrones. She’s just so good.

I still want to see a review, but resistance may be futile….

Mondays Finish the Story – Oct. 19th, 2015- The Mystery of the Forest

Mondays Finish the Story for October 19th, 2015— 150 words based on this picture–

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

and this initial sentence–

“Not knowing what to expect, he made his way into the dark of the forest.”

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

Not knowing what to expect, he made his way into the dark of the forest.

After a few minutes he came out. “The forest is dark. It is full of trees.”

“Are you sure?” his companions said.

He went back, and took a closer look. “Yes,” he said when he came back out. “I can state unequivocally that the forest has trees in it.”

“There’s got to be more to it than that,” his companions said. “Are you examining the situation with sufficient intellectual rigor?”

“I think so,” he said. “I applied both Platonic and Hegelian logic to the problem. The issue seems to be irreducible.”

“Try one more time,” his companions said.

He did so. This time the wood elves popped their heads out of their hidden burrows. “Hey! Would you guys mind not traipsing about quite so much? We’re trying to enchant some primroses here.”

Moral: It’s rude to stomp around while not seeing the forest for the trees.

A MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT OF EARTH-SHATTERING IMPORTANCE!

Well, not really.

All I really wanted to do is to call attention to a change in the way I blog.

For the last three or four years I have blogged when I’ve felt like it. I started this blog as a stimulus to my own writing efforts; over time it evolved into, not just a place to talk about my progress on my current work-in-progress, but also a space in which to vent, to bloviate, to express my opinions on books or movies, and, perhaps most importantly, to experiment with fiction, short and long. I’ve written more short fiction, flash and otherwise, on this blog than I’ve ever done anywhere before. I wrote 60,000 words of a fantasy novel for which, unfortunately, I could not in the end find a resolution, and which has joined my (many) other trunk novels on the Great Backup Disk of Oblivion. I’ve actually committed written poetry.

But it has all been more-or-less random, with me being my typically undisciplined self. That’s the part I’ve decided to change. I am introducing a schedule for this blog.

There are three weekly flash fiction challenges I’ve followed in the past– Sunday Photo Fiction, Mondays Finish the Story, and Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge, which typically appears on Fridays. Not every one of these challenges sparks my interest every week (this week’s from Chuck is a horror mash-up. Sorry, don’t do horror, nope, uh-uh, call me Mr. Wussy, I don’t care), but between the three of them I should probably be able to figure out something short fiction-wise to post weekly on Monday. If not, I can post a story fragment, similar to The Golem or one of my abandoned story pieces, such as Northern Lights.

Each Wednesday or thereabouts I intend to post a short update on my WIP, which at this time is Princess of Stars (note– I passed 5000 words today. Probably about 1/30th of the final total. Maybe. The road stretches away, toward the far-distant hills….).

On Fridays I want to start posting a weekly review of a movie or a book, similar to my review of Station Eleven, or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of these may be new books and first-run movies, but many will be classic works that have influenced me one way or the other. Since I did a review of The Curse of Chalion yesterday, I’m giving myself a pass for this week.

On this framework I will also tack occasional additional posts about other topics, incidental poems or spontaneous rants. However, there is one topic I intend to avoid– politics. Despite the fact that here in the US we are schlupping our way into the presidential election, despite the fact that so much of what is going on is eminently worthy of satire, and despite the fact that I have opinions (oh, brother, do I have opinions) about so many of the candidates, and the state of our union at this particular moment, I don’t want to devote much time in this blog to discussing the election. I’ve tried to keep this space dedicated to writing and books and movies, and I don’t want to stray too far from that focus. I may set up a Tumblr account devoted to politics, but I also don’t want to take too much time and energy away from my fiction writing. Politics in this country at the moment is a bottomless pit, and I’m not sure my two cents would do anything to illuminate the darkness (yah, a triple mixed metaphor! High-five to myself).

Lastly, I am contemplating trying to serialize more long fiction, but my previous attempts have been mixed at best. And again, I don’t want to take energy away from Princess of Stars. It’s just that I have a lot of ideas, and bits and pieces of different stories written down, and I would like some of these stories to see the light of day, one way or the other. We’ll have to see.

Meanwhile, changes are coming, hopefully positive. Bear with me.

Books that inspire me– “The Curse of Chalion”

curse of chalion2

I have blogged before about how I am, in general, bored with the fantasy genre as it currently exists. To me most fantasy seems to be recycled material I have seen over and over again. Considering that I have been reading fantasy since about 1972, that may not be complete hyperbole.

There are exceptions. I am, along with the rest of the Western World, impatiently awaiting George R. R. Martin’s next volume, The Winds of Winter. I have been a fan of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea fantasies for literally decades. And I currently reading (and enjoying) Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which was nominated for a Hugo this year (a review is in the pipeline).

But these are exceptions. You may notice that each of these examples reside at a very high level of literary quality. Unfortunately, in my opinion, your average fantasy novel falls well short of this level. Worse, there seems to be a lot– I mean, a lot— of formula. How many novels nowadays manage to break free from a medieval-style world (the fact that Martin does it well doesn’t mean it isn’t a worn-out cliche), wizards, dragons, implacable evil, blah blah blah? Too many fantasies these days just seem interchangeable.

Let me introduce you to one that isn’t.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold is, in my wildly biased opinion, one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. The fantasy world she creates isn’t a straightforward medieval rehash; rather, it strongly resembles Reconquista Spain, a welcome change of pace. The story revolves around the breaking of a curse that haunts the royal house of the kingdom of Chalion. The protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is honorable, honest and dedicated, but not boring– he is also deeply wounded, uncertain, and sometimes blundering. The balance Bujold crafts between these attributes is so skillful that Cazaril emerges as a fully authentic character who is good, but not some sort of wax dummy– a narrative feat considerably harder than it looks. Cazaril is the sort of character who immediately engages my sympathy and interest.

Another great selling point of the book for me is that Bujold does not use magic in the story, or at least magic as it’s typically employed in fantasy. Magic is one of things I like least about fantasies, which probably goes a long way to explaining my antipathy to much of the genre. To me magic seems a lazy, over-used device.

Instead, Bujold creates a theology in which the gods are active participants in the story’s action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This device allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise. It’s an internally consistent piece of world-building that manages to avoid the cliches of fantasy magic.

Although there is violence in the novel, there are no epic battles, and the evil in the story arises from the machinations of perfectly ordinary and understandable human beings and their greed and selfishness. No dark wizards conjuring in black towers; just ordinary villains, clawing their way toward power, who don’t care how many people get hurt along the way. It’s a refreshingly realistic take on conflict in a fantasy setting.

For me this is one of those books you read until the covers fall off. It appeals to me with its sympathetic characters (and not just Cazaril), its rich, well-realized world that resonates with real-world history, and its believable politics and human muddle mingled with questions of the divine. It’s a brilliant example of how to combine the mundane and the sacred, adventure and deeper questions. It’s the sort of story I would very much like to create; Bujold’s execution, though, intimidates me and causes me to doubt I will ever have the skill to do so.

I want to keep trying, though.

Later.