Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true ** probably true

Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Thief Who Went to War




Well. It’s, uh, been a while since we least heard from Amra and Hogren. According to Amazon, the first publication of Thief Who Wasn’t There was on June 5th, 2015, so at the time of this writing, it’s been four years and two days. That’s a long time to wait for a sequel. Not GRRM long, not Patrick Rothfuss long, but long. Too long. And for that I’d like to apologize and explain a bit.

When I wrote Amra #4, my youngest was still a baby. I’d entered Mark Lawrence’s first ever Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off (the SPFBO) with Amra #1, and been offered a contract with Ragnarok Publications. I’d already put Amra #4 up for pre-order when the offer was made, and so a grand total of 32 people got the book before I had to take it down, so that Ragnarok could issue their own versions of the series.

If memory serves, that was only supposed to take about four months. In reality it took around a year.

Anyway, money was tight for us then. I mean, really, really tight. I was teaching English as a Second Language at the time in Vietnam, but they’d just put in place a new law that you had to have a degree to do so. I had a decade of experience, but no degree. I worked under the table for a while, because family’s gotta eat, but it wasn’t a sustainable situation. So I ended up moving to Cambodia for a time, where I could work legally, and at the same time worked like hell to finish up my Bachelor’s.

Long story short, Amra and Holgren’s next misadventure got put on the backburner, since I knew it wouldn’t be published by Ragnarok in any reasonable time frame and thus would buy no diapers. Then, by the time I left Ragnarok, it had moved from the back burner to the closet.

But I never stopped hearing it bumping around in there. Amra isn’t the kind of character who waits patiently for attention.

It has taken me roughly two years to get this book out. I’ve written and then discarded more words for it than you now hold in your hand – four previous versions went onto the scrap pile. Sometimes I had to stop, because I was completely lost and devoid of confidence. I wrote Prayers in Steel, An Unclean Strength and The Last God in the gap between Amra #4 and this book, as well as another untitled and unreleased book that’s quite different from all my others, and still not ready.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m super late with this, and super sorry, but I swear I wasn’t being lazy.

The Thief Who Went To War is currently being picked over by some amazing beta readers. After that, it'll be off to a proofreader, to kill typos and bad punctuation with fire. It will be in all the usual places on August 10th. I've just set up the pre-order on Amazon, and when the link becomes available I'll share that in a new post. I'll also set up the pre-order for all other venues besides Amazon sharpish.

I hope you’ll judge it worth the wait.


Friday, May 17, 2019

The Madness of ‘The Bells’


The fifth episode of the final season of Game of Thrones brought rioting from its fans. I’ma talk about it. As if you didn’t already know, spoilers ahead.

The scene was set thusly: The Iron Fleet is burning. The city’s gates are breached. The dozens of scorpions that line the city’s walls have been reduced to ash and splinters by the creature they were designed to kill. The allied troops of the Mother of Dragons are within the walls of the city, though not yet the Red Keep, where Cersei stands looking out, stone-faced and in denial.

Dany, atop Drogon, is perched on a tower, looking down at her troops facing off with Cersei’s. The opposition drops their swords, an unmistakable sign of surrender. Then the bells begin to ring out across the city, an established signal to all and sundry that the city as a whole is capitulating. In a word, Daenerys Stormborn has won. All that remains is mopping up the Red Keep, doing a dracarys on Cersei, and giving the Iron Throne a good disinfecting.

It is then and only then, in a wordless and commendable moment of the actor’s craft, that we see in Dany’s eyes rage and hate overwhelm her. Really, it’s a brilliant bit of acting on Emilia Clark’s part. Unfortunately, it’s also completely undeserved in terms of her character’s arc.

Some people disagree. They point to all the many harsh and bloody things Daenerys has done in her struggle for power. They tote up the body count, as if every death was equal, and equally heinous. They are not; not in fiction and not in real life. If they were, every soldier would be a war criminal. Whatever your beliefs about violence and nonviolence, the world has come to a general agreement that, even in war, there are actions that are too inhuman to countenance. We call them war crimes, and when the stars align, we punish them as such.

But let us put modern, real world notions of war atrocities aside. Let us look solely at the previous actions of the Mother of Dragons. She crucified slavers in the hundreds, and burned others of them alive. She looked on as her husband killed her abusive brother, the rightful Targaryen heir, in an exceptionally brutal fashion. She burned to death a powerful witch who killed her husband and unborn child, making her barren in the process. She locked another powerful, treacherous lord away in a lightless cell, there to die of thirst and starvation. She killed a powerful, thieving sorcerer. She burned the collected leaders of the Dothraki when they were going to imprison her. She burned two noblemen who took up arms against her to death, because they refused to bend the knee. She executed by means of dragon fire lord Varys, for the crime of treason. And of course countless enemy soldiers and sailors have died by her hand or at her orders.

In short, if you are powerful and/or belligerent and oppose her, maybe don’t make long-range plans.

But do you know who she’s never killed, or had killed? Peasants. Commoners. Children. The powerless. People who have not threatened, harmed, or taken up arms against her.

In nearly eight seasons, she has shown exactly who she is – a ruthless, powerful woman who will fight to her dying breath to reclaim what she sees as her birth right. But she has also known and shown what lines she was not willing to cross.

Let’s go back to Dany, perched on Drogon atop that wall. The bells are ringing. King’s Landing is prostrate before her. Her enemy, the one who beheaded her close advisor days before, is about thirty seconds away as the dragon flies, waiting to get dracarysed.

And so Dany decides she’s gonna torch the defenceless, surrendered city, with her troops still inside it, instead of flapping straight to the Red Keep – which holds Cersei and any remaining troops willing to fight for her, and the iron throne. Why torch the town first?

Because fuck those filthy peasants, I guess.

The truth is, we know why. The showrunners decided that Jon and Dany had to go at it in the last episode. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the only reason. They tried to backpedal the character in the last season, putting her on an ‘I saved you all, why don’t you love me? The brown people loved me when I saved them!’ jag – with tasteless overtones of jilted lover sprinkled on top for added flavor – that was somehow supposed to prepare the ground for what she did in King’s Landing.

It didn’t. Most fans weren’t fooled or satisfied, because for six plus seasons they watched Dany grow into who she was. And it wasn’t that. It wasn’t perfect, mind you – but it definitely wasn’t that. The Bells required Dany to not only be insane, but stupid. To burn what she had already won. To delay destroying her worst enemy for the sake of murdering a city full of nobodies.

‘But she wants them to fear her!’ I hear the Game of Thrones writer’s room cry out. ‘She can’t have love like in Meereen, so all that’s left is fear!’

Except she’s got a fucking dragon and the living already fear her, and the dead fear nothing, and Dany is not stupid enough to not understand either of these points.

‘But she’s craaaazy now!’ that same writer’s room bleats. ‘She snapped! There’s no accounting for craaaazy!’

Except there is. There was a way to show Dany deciding to finish off her dear old dad’s bucket list item of roasting King’s Landing, a way that, while unsatisfying, would at least have made a grudging sort of sense. If she had destroyed the Red Keep first, and then some dumbfuck commoner had pelted her with horse dung while she was giving her liberation speech, I might have reluctantly swallowed the ensuing incineration. It would have been at least tenuously supported by her character development.

But that’s not what happened.

The Bells, and indeed the entire seventh and eighth season, has displayed other instances where the decision was made to prioritize plot expedience over established character development, but none were as unearned and unforgivable as those few, wordless seconds showing a woman atop a dragon deciding to destroy what she had just conquered.

The Bells should serve as a reminder for every writer that your plot needs to be true to your characters. If it’s not, we’re watching or reading about puppets, not people – and even Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy.

Shoutout to the Goodest Boy.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Notes from the trenches #1

It's hard to give crunchy updates, ones that can objectively measure progress on a novel. The most obvious one is word count, and it is a useful measure, of course; a book is a collection of words, after all, and the more of them there are in a draft, the closer it likely is to being finished. Currently Amra 5 is sitting at just over 11,000 words. Averaging the other Amra books, we'd get a word count of just over 70,000 words, which give you an indication of sorts. But as I get older, I get fatter, and my books might suffer the same fate.

Sadly, word counts can also be deceptive. They might not be the right words, and until a writer (ok, me) hits the flow, it's entirely possible that the word count can go down as well as up. There are approximately 80,000 wrong words, all told, from the previous scrapped drafts of Amra 5, after all.

But let's pretend that these words are definitely golden. Going by the average word counts of the previous Amra books, that means we're approximately 1/7th of the way home. In what is a good sign, last night I had a fairly brain-bending idea about the ending that I think will make it more powerful than what I'd plotted, and when I woke up this morning, it was the first thing I thought about after 'gotta pee gotta pee gotta pee'. That's always a good sign.

Thus endeth the update. The rest is just blathering.

* * *

I mentioned flow somewhere up above, and I think I should explain what I mean by it. Basically I mean being in the zone - when I've got energized focus on the book and I'm feeling fully immersed in the story and I'm perfectly confident about what's happening as I write. It doesn't mean speed or continuous effort; I've always been the kind of writer that works in bursts. But it's a feeling that what you're doing, the story you're telling, isn't arbitrary but rather inevitable. A is followed by B is followed by C, and you don't have to give it much conscious thought. It's not effortless; I've never experienced an effortless writing session. Never. But it's more like cutting grass with a power mower, and less like cutting grass with the scissors they give you in kindergarten so you don't accidentally cut Jimmy's finger off. Or maybe not so accidentally. Jimmy was a little shit.

Anyway, a book doesn't have to be written that way, not even by me. But it sure helps.

My problem is that I've always written by what I think of as the flashlight method - meaning I don't need to have the whole plot mapped out, just a beginning and an end, maybe two or three oomph scenes, and then just far enough ahead of wherever I am in the process to get to the next scene or two. In other words, the plot is mostly in darkness, but I've got this flashlight that makes sure I don't fall into a pit or off the side of a cliff.

Most of the time it has worked well enough. I like it because it means I get surprised, and if I get surprised while writing, then there's a good chance that the reader gets surprised while reading. Sure, it's a little bit dangerous, but it has worked well enough for me.

Until Amra 5.

I mentioned that I've had to re-teach myself how to plot. For this book, at least, my old method just hasn't worked. I won't bore you with the details, but after months of struggling, I finally came to the conclusion that I had to plot this book to a much greater degree than I had anything else I've written. Not because the plot was substantially more intricate than any other Amra book, but because I kept writing in the wrong direction, realizing it only when I was deep, deep in the weeds.

Why? Because this is the fifth book in a series that's probably going to be a dozen or so books long. Flashlight plotting works for a standalone, or even a trilogy. I am here to inform you that it doesn't cut it for stories much bigger than that. You have to balance the needs of the individual book against the trajectory of the series, while keeping in mind all that has gone before. You'd need a bigger brain than was given to me, to do that on the fly.

Let's just say I now have some sympathy for the later books in the Wheel of Time series, and for George Martin. That shit ain't easy to balance properly. It's very tempting indeed to descend into minor plot points and just sort of... hang out there, where things aren't so crazy and messy. And then call it deep characterization/world building instead of fear and avoidance. You even get to point to the swelling word count and say 'but I'm making progress! This book is progressing!'

Well, your word count is. Your plot...














This, by the way, was a consistent issue with the trashed versions of Amra 5. Not the only one, by any stretch, but a recurring one. It's one I am trying very hard to avoid in the latest.

* * *

On a final note, I want to thank you folks who have left comments of support. I haven't responded individually; but it's not because I don't care. My personalized flavor of anxiety makes it very difficult for me to interact for periods of time, is all. I turn into a hermit. I withdraw. I'm, uh, working on it, but it might take me a while longer to get back to being sociable. It was worse when I was younger; at least I'm not dumping my phone into the toilet because notifications have brought on an anxiety/panic attack. I ask for your indulgence.