Friday, January 30, 2009

The Language of Fantasy

I am in the process of publishing a series of six fantasy novels complete with wizards, elves and dwarves and yet I rarely read fantasy. I loved The Lord of the Rings, thought Harry Potter was fantastic and think Watership Down is a masterpiece. These are three of my all-time favorite stories. They are doorways into places—magically real beyond reason. Books in other genres have entertained me, educated me, depressed me, and forced me to turn pages, but they were all forgotten, usually a few days after putting them down, and yet I can’t say I am an avid reader of the fantasy genre that gave birth to my favorites.

I have tried to read other fantasy novels, but it is often like bashing my head against a wall. With towers of dense descriptions, moats of unpronounceable words and barbican prologues, I usually can’t breech the first chapter. It is as if the writers—like the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty with her forest of thorns—are doing all in their power to ensure no one will endure the trials to reach the interior. Yet perhaps the greatest of obstacles is the fascination with archaic sounding prose. The overly dramatic, yet simplified, backward sentence structure that reminds me of a frontier white man translating the words of an American Indian.

Something as simple as:
Dron’s father, the oldest of us, and a bear of a man, even refused to go into the valley.

Is presented as something like:
The father of Dron, wide of girth, ancient of his people, strode forth. He would not enter the dark place, the land of Hidden Moons.

The dialog is often worse. “I have had the weariness in my limbs as well, my lord. A hardship it would be to continue for us, weak in spirit, empty of stomach.”

I am guessing the authors feel they are creating a more authentic sound, believing this is how people in the past spoke to one another having perhaps read Beowulf, or the Song of Roland. They could well be right on this point. Not having a time machine I can’t say if the writers of that time were putting down words in distinct contrast to what they heard in the streets or not. What I can guess with a degree of certainly, is that the style of speech used did not strike the users as odd. The language people conversed in would have sounded commonplace and typical, filled with slang, and puns just as our own. And just as our manner of speech would be received as odd and strangely stilted to someone speaking an understandable English in the fourteenth century, we have the same opinion of theirs. Were a writer describing a tenth century knight brought to New York City, I would expect to see this language difference, but when a story is set entirely in another place and time, there is no sensible need for this unless they anticipate their audience is to be made up of people who actually lived a thousand years ago.

Insisting on an archaic sound creates an unnecessary obstacle to the reader. A hurdle they need to jump over in order to reach the story and the characters. It also has the tendency to sound silly, childish and, quite frankly, as if English is not the writer’s first language.

I feel it is important to immerse the reader in the world. I want them to feel at home, as if they were born there. Enough oddities will challenge them, the language should not be one. I would prefer readers are not held at arm’s length, constantly reminded that the people in the story are very different from them, that they are watching this story unfold in a distant place with alien people. I want the reader to come to think of themselves as being a character in the book and thereby experience the events first hand. That’s a challenge when all the other characters are saying things like, “I too have felt the blow of Ector, strong upon my chest and did rattle me greatly!” I always feel like tapping the guy on the shoulder and asking, “You mean the guy hit you too? Why didn’t you just say that? Just say the creep hit you and nearly knocked you down.”

Not everyone agrees. I have had some chastise me for my modern sounding dialog—people who apparently prefer to read their modern fantasy as if it were written by a monk in twelfth century France. Being fantasy, I retain my get-out-of-jail-free card rational of—my world, my rules, but I would still insist that this is how the dialog that the afore mentioned French monk wrote would sound to the monk sitting on the stool next to him. And should, said monk, choose to write a tale set in the fictional world of Chicago a thousand years in the future, I am certain the people of Illinois would use thee and thou, ye and verily. Then the monk beside him would say, “but wouldn’t people in the future speak differently?” and the author would reply, “Perhaps, but I’m not writing it for them.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Early Avempartha Art

As the release date for the second book in the Riyria Revelations series approaches, I find myself caught up in producing promotional materials. These are items I use to get the word out at bookstores that I have a signing, or to catch people’s attention as they walk in a store. The two primary weapons in my arsenal are posters and bookmarks, both of which—along with the book cover—I design and illustrate myself.

I thought I would present them here first as a teaser for those interested in clues about this second book in the series. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Twenty-four hours later—I’m still exhausted. I’m not the only one. Everyone who I’ve talked to, who was there, all admit fatigue even a day later. Who knew standing still in the cold could be so tiring.

Having moved to the DC area three years ago, my wife, Robin, insisted that we attend the inaugural. I was not thrilled by the prospects of fighting the crowds, or the cold. She cited the many regrets she received from friends throughout the country who lived too far away to witness the event. She was using a variation of the starving Chinese argument made famous by countless mothers of fussy eaters—we should not waste the opportunity. It would be exciting, an adventure. So, we went.

The day began early. My wife and I, and a friend, who drove in and spent the night at our house, were up at five-thirty AM, only to discover we were already late. Rumor held that people arrived on the Mall as early as four in the morning. We had a hearty, hot breakfast of eggs and potatoes and layered-up against the cold. It never usually gets too cold in DC. I was born in Detroit where the wetness of the great lakes can turn twenty degrees into a wind that eats through down coats. I also lived in northern Vermont where temps often stayed around minus twenty-five for a month. In Washington, even in the dead of winter, temperatures remain in the thirties and forties. That morning the little weather widget on my computer announced it was seventeen degrees and there was wind enough to make the flags pretty.

We packed up lunches and bottles of water and set out. Driving was not an option. We rarely drive anywhere. It isn’t so much a green thing as a hatred for traffic. We walked across the creek and through the wood to the Metro where an orderly line funneled people onto the trains. Everyone was friendly and smiling. The train filled right from the start. When we reached the second stop on the line, we squeezed tighter. We squeezed again at the third stop admitting only one or two. The train moved slowly. Congestion along the route pushed a forty-minute trip to two hours. People joked about personal space. One woman threatened to be sick, which prompted several nearby to offer plastic bags. The conductor reminded us every five minutes that he appreciated our cooperation and patience (as if we had a choice) informing us that traffic was heavy due to the inaugural event.

“Oh is that today?” Robin joked and people roared across the car. Despite the long ride, despite the cramped quarters, and the heat from six layers of bulky clothes, everyone was happy.

We exited at Foggy Bottom where we faced the vendor gauntlet. Dozens of merchandise sellers lined either side of the walk starting at the Metro exit. They shouted and waved hats, buttons and t-shirts. Everything had either the name, or the face, of Barak Obama. We left the vendors and followed the line of walkers through the streets.

Washington had been transformed. There were no cars on the roads, only military vehicles with a handful of camouflaged soldiers parked to block streets. One young soldier agreed to take a photo of a pretty girl as she stood with his fellow sentries. In his zeal, he backed up into a street sign ringing the thin metal with his head. His fellow soldiers found this hilarious.

“Good morning! Right this way! Isn’t this wonderful!” As we approached the Mall, we encountered numerous people in red knit caps clapping and greeting us like coked-up Walmart greeters, or off-season cheerleaders suffering withdrawals. They grinned broadly, jumped up and down, and swung high-fives to all who passed. Were they paid? Just really happy people? Or merely trying to keep warm. We didn’t know, but they did infuse the atmosphere with anticipation.

We reached the Lincoln Memorial and came down the steps to the Reflecting Pool. It was a clear day with a thin haze of clouds. Bare trees and brown grass lined the pool, as did port-a-johns and hundreds of bundled people—not nearly as many as we expected. It was ten in the morning and by then we expected the place to be crammed, but there was still plenty of walking room. From huge refrigerator size speakers suspended from metal scaffolding, music blared. We walked down the steps to the tune of “This Land is Your Land.” As we rounded the pool and made our way up the hill toward the Washington Monument, the music turned to an angelic chorus. With the streets closed, all these vast groups of hooded people moving slowly up the hillside, shafts of golden morning sunlight breaking through, and that music coming from everywhere—the mood felt more religious than political. It was as if, we weren’t there to witness a president take the oath of office, but the second coming of Christ. It was on people’s faces, an infection of the same excitement as the greeters, everyone was smiling, everyone expectant.

We reached the top of the mound but hit a wall of people right at the monument. Beyond that lay, a sea of heads and shoulders—people packed tight. We would get no closer. Instead, we opted to retreat to the WWII memorial where we managed a good view of the jumbotrons. We stood like emperors in March Of The Penguins, tucked in tight as much for warmth as the view. We ate our little lunches then waited, shifting our feet, shrugging our shoulders, trying anything to stay warm. While walking it was fine, but after several minutes of just standing, the cold reached in.

The speakers blared names and the jumbotrons displayed faces as dignitaries were introduced. It was then I noticed the make of the crowd. A great deal was made afterwards about how the occasion transcended politics. Those who said that weren’t standing where I was. Bill and Hillary were cheered. Nancy Pelosi, Jimmy Carter and other democrats caused the crowd to erupt into applause. But when Bush senior, Newt Gingrich and other republicans came up—crickets. I began to grow concerned. I was afraid the crowd would turn ugly when George W was introduced. His face flashed briefly on the screen long before he was introduced and large portions of the crowd grumbled, and there were boos. One fella behind me began a loud chorus of “Nah nah nah na, hey, hey, hey…goodbye!” I’m not a Bush supporter, still I felt uncomfortable. He’s still the President of the United States, and beyond that, it was just plain rude. Even if President Bush couldn’t hear us, there were others in the crowd who did, those who were not of a like mind.

A man in front of me turned his head sharply, an irritated expression on his face—the first I’d seen that day. He was one of the few who bowed his head when the prayer was said, and he was the only one to clap when George W was finally introduced. Surprisingly, people didn’t boo much—at least not where I was—there were a few but not that many, nothing like what I expected. Instead, there was a vacuum of silence filled only by the lone clapping of that one man with his vinyl-clad gloves struggling to make as much sound as possible. He clapped for a long agonizing time. No one looked at him. No one made a comment. He clapped until President Bush’s face left the big screen. He clapped just as hard, and as long, when Barak Obama’s face appeared.

The rest of the crowd went insane.

Aretha sang a song. Biden took the oath. Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman played a John William’s variation of Copland. Then Barak stood up and the crowd went silent. Around me, people stood on the tops of walls, on parts of the memorial, (where officials would never normally allow) like men on tanks or students on a wall in Berlin—it had that feel. Everyone leaned a bit forward, listening as the new President took the oath. There was a fumble of words, a few laughs, silence, then the roar. Mittened hands burst into the air. Heads went back. Hats flew. People jumped up and down and everyone shouted and cheered. For at least that moment, everyone forgot they were cold.

The Moment before

The Moment

Then he spoke and the crowd went silent again and stayed that way, except for the loud man behind me who had so badly mimicked the Steam song. He erupted with glee each time Obama made a comment that appeared to denounce former President Bush.

President Obama concluded his speech and everyone applauded. Then the crowd began to break up. A poet began to recite something, but self-preservation was screaming at us to start moving. With frozen-stiff muscles we staggered away looking a bit too much like those emperor penguins with eggs on our feet. We escaped the Mall just ahead of the surge and when the crowd zigged, we zagged. We left the streets and made for the Kennedy Center crossing a tangle of major freeways. Such a path would normally be suicide, but on that day, not a car was visible. It was eerie, like an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. A gang of skateboarders rolled down the middle of the expressway. We could hear their little wheels on the pavement because there was no sound of rushing traffic. In the distance, we spotted small groups of wandering people in hoods, and on a bridge an army truck. The whole thing was unsettling, but the moment we entered the Kennedy Center a security guard looked at us with a big grin.

“It didn’t snow!” She told us with enthusiasm.
“Not yet,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter now. Can snow all it wants now.”

The café in the center was closed. We warmed up briefly then went next door to a little coffee shop for hot chocolate before facing the journey home, which was slower than we would have liked. By the time we returned we were exhausted, drained and unable to get warm. We curled up on the couch, drank hot tea and watched the news. Two million people they were saying, and not a single arrest. One woman fell in the Metro tracks but a visiting transit cop saved her. No murders, no fights, no thefts—the news reporters sounded disappointed.

They showed satellite images of the Mall, the crowd looking like dark swarms of gnats. It didn’t look that way when we were there and somehow I imagine the emperor penguins would feel the same way if they saw the movie Morgan Freeman’s narrated. You can’t capture the cold on film, and you certainly can’t capture the absolute silence of two million people standing shoulder to shoulder, just smiling.

Monday, January 19, 2009


This past weekend my wife, Robin and I attended our first con event—MarsCon in Williamsburg, Virginia. I’ve worked tradeshows before. This was similar, but not quite. The venue was smaller than the tradeshows of my advertising past, which were held in convention halls. MarsCon took place throughout the body of a Holiday Inn, which formed a sort of labyrinth of chambers and corridors linking a dealer room, art room, various panel rooms and the larger ballroom where a stage was set up for the various comedy and musical acts. As an author I found myself in this last room stationed around the outside of the in what was termed the “Author’s Alley,” although we shared the space with a variety of vendors.

As I mentioned, this was my first convention and I had no real idea what to expect. People came dressed up in costumes. Star Wars Stormtroopers, Starbuck, from the original Battlestar Galactica (took me a while to place that costume,) but mostly they came dressed in Steampunk garb. Steampunk, I soon learned, is a subgenre of science fiction set in the era of steam power, hence at least part of the name. The outfits were then based on the Victorian era England fashions as in an eccentric version of the works of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. So we are talking about corsets, long coats, tops hats and impossibly huge gun-like contraptions one might expect to see in the Hugh Jackman movie Van Helsing.

Robin and I set up our little green-clothed table between two other authors who displayed a plethora of titles. Both turned out to be writers of various sorts of erotica: Tentacle Erotica, Werewolf Homosexual, Hetero Sexual and Bi-erotica. Sandwiched in, it was a challenge to catch anyone’s eye to look at my single little gold book with its mundane declaration: They killed the king. They pinned it on two men. They chose poorly. A few did manage to see the sign we set up and spoke to us. No one ever heard of me, or my book. Most passed by.

A few appeared to purchase the book out of pity. Others had collections of author-signed books, and didn’t appear to care what the book was about. Nevertheless, we endeavored to explain the story. Actually, Robin did most of the talking. I’ve never been too comfortable selling my own work. It just feels arrogant and rude. Whenever someone did purchase, I requested that they try and read some of it, and if they were there the next day of the convention, that they stop back by and tell me if they liked it.

The next day I shifted down and set up beside Marshall Thomas the author of the “Legion” series of military sci-fi novels. He was much more my style. To my delight, a handful of those who purchased the day before returned. They had grins on their faces. “I started reading your book!” they would tell me. “Got to the point where they just got the job to steal the sword. It’s really good.” They always said this last part with a surprised tone. I got that a lot. One woman actually decided to purchase it after reading the first two pages and was stunned not to find a single spelling error. I began getting the impression that the bar was not set very high.

Those folks that read the book must have told others since on the second day sales picked up. People who passed me by before stopped and purchased. Then while I manned the table hoping to sign books, Robin took advantage of an open mic in the bar and read a portion of the book to a packed audience. Most of the time I stood or sat and watched the people mill about, listened to the bands or watching the jugglers. At night, we dragged ourselves to the little Comfort Inn, down the street. Next morning we’d eat breakfast at a little waffle café next door. It has been a long weekend. We sold quite a few books, not nearly as many as we’d hoped. Still, if some of those who took the time to read the story, liked it and told others, maybe…maybe next time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In the beginning

When I was six, no older than seven, I was at a neighbor’s house, we were playing hide and seek and in their basement, in a backroom, seemingly abandoned, I came upon a typewriter. It was a huge black metal, up-right thing with small round, divoted keys. It was electric. I pressed a key. Snap! Beside the machine was a pile of crisp white paper. I completely forgot about the game. I loaded a sheet, ratcheting it down and began to type. I swear the very first thing I wrote was: “It was a dark and stormy night, and a shot rang out.” I thought I was a genius.

My friend found me but was oblivious to the value of the discovery I had made. He wanted to go outside, do something fun. I thought to explain that I couldn’t imagine anything that could be more fun than what I was doing. I looked back wistfully at the pure white of the blank page wondering what might come next. Was it a murder mystery? A horror story? I wanted to find out, I wanted to fill the page with more genius, I wanted to see where the little keys would take me, find out who I might meet. We ended up alley-picking until my mother called me for dinner. Alley-picking was the art of walking down the alley between the houses and seeing if there was anything cool being thrown away that we could take for ourselves. I had hoped maybe someone was throwing away a typewriter—no one was and I went to bed that night thinking about that typewriter, thinking about that page and that first sentence. If only.

I forgot about the typewriter. I forgot about writing and by the age of twelve, I hated reading. The first novel I tried to read was a book called Big Red. It was about a boy and his dog. I was going to be traveling in a car for four hours on the way to my sister’s farm and would have nothing to do. This was before DS, DVD’s, VCRs—before all these letters combinations. It was also before Sirius too and I knew that twenty minutes after we left the sphere of Detroit, there would be nothing but static on the radio. That’s why I brought the book. I never read a book before. I never did much reading at all that wasn’t required by a teacher. It wasn’t something I did for fun, but I was desperate. Four hours trapped in the backseat of a car for a twelve-year-old was eternity. I read the book. It took me all summer. I finished it out of a sense of perseverance rather than enjoyment. I wanted to achieve this thing so that when I was forty I could say, “Yes! I read a book once! It was excruciating, and took half a year, but by God, I did it!” Then whomever I was speaking to would look upon me with awe and know they were in the presence of a learned man. The reality was, the book was boring and put me to sleep, and I knew I would never try something so stupid again.

The following year I passed a bookshelf in our home and stopped abruptly when I saw something very strange. This particular bookshelf belonged to my older brother and was forever filled with dozens of neatly ordered paperbacks. I lived with my brother and his books all my life. We shared a room. So I was quite familiar with each of the novels. They were mostly about animals—boys and their dogs books like the one I borrowed the year before. There were also a large number of westerns, espionage, and war books. Looking at the titles was like looking at a TV Guide from the late fifties and early sixties: The Virginian, I Spy, The Longest Day, Get Smart, Old Yeller, The Man From UNCLE. But there was something very different that day. There was one book I’d never seen before. It was sitting out, standing up, its jacket cover facing me. It was an odd book. Mostly white it had a thin border of pink surrounding it and an aqua colored title giving it an Easter feel. Within an oval, was a picture like a window looking into another world. There was an odd shaped hill with little homes built into the side of it, a meandering river, some strange ostrich-like birds and a twisting tree with huge pink fruits. It was entirely out of place with the rest of the books and seemed to know this by standing out front, separating itself from the pack, and I had this odd notion that it didn’t just happen there. I stood looking at the book for a long while. Then I looked around me, wondering if whoever put it there was watching to see what I did. I was thinking this not just because the book was new, but because it was so terribly familiar. The image of the other world, the strange scripting text on the cover, it was like something out of a dream. I felt much the same as I am certain Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters felt when he began building his mashed potato mountains. There was something about this book, something old, something so insanely familiar, but I couldn’t think what. I read the title, but that didn’t help. It was nonsensical. It read: The Hobbit.

I picked up the perplexing book and began reading it. It wasn’t like Big Red. It was an odd little story about people with hair on their feet who don’t like to go on adventures. I wasn’t impressed but I was driven by the mystery that consumed me. What was it about this book? The only way I knew to find that answer was to read it, so I pushed on. The story got a little better when the trolls entered the picture. It was clearly better than Big Red at least. The mystery only deepened. I knew some of the names. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin. How did I know these odd words? I only ever read the one book, and never saw this one before that day? I read on and finally reached chapter five. If you’ve ever read The Hobbit you will know what I am talking about when I say that everything changed in chapter five. This is of course, the chapter entitled, “Riddles in the Dark.” I found myself sucked into the story, lost in the world of goblins and wizards. And then I hit upon the name Gollum. It staggered me. I knew that name! It was so familiar! What was it? Then I read the riddles and finally I knew. I knew this story! I remembered about the ring and the riddle game. I remembered it from my own past, but how—my brother!

I rushed from the room and confronted him. I held up the book. What is this? I demanded. I knew he held the answer. I then learned that when I was very young perhaps only five, and my brother was fifteen, he had read The Hobbit. He was in our room late at night reading it and when he read chapter five, he couldn’t contain himself and slipping out of his bed crept to mine and woke me up. When you’re five, the house is dark and your older brother wakes you up with a flashlight, whispering, you know something important is happening. He told me the tale of Bilbo and Gollum with the passion and energy that a fifteen-year-old uses when it is three in the morning and there is a full-moon shining in the windows. In the coming days, he plastered our bedroom walls with drawings he made from the book covers and blow-ups of the maps within. I lived for several years with these images before my eyes not really knowing what they were. Then we moved and the drawings were gone and the memory of that dark night faded—until I saw the book cover some eight years later.

I read the whole trilogy. I loved it in a way I never dreamed it was possible to love a book. When I closed the last page of The Return of the King, I was miserable. My favorite pastime was over. As I mentioned before this was before all those letters, before Xboxes and PS twos and threes, back when television only had three stations and cartoons were something shown on Saturday morning. I went to the bookstore with my brother looking for another series like that one. There weren’t any. There were some ghastly books like The Worm Ourborous which said they were compared to Tolkien’s trilogy. I desperately wanted to believe them and tried very hard to read it. It made me long for Big Red.

There was nothing to read. I sat in my room miserable and bored. Like all kids I made the mistake of telling my mother I was bored and she put me to work cleaning out the front closet. I pulled out what looked like a plastic suitcase.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That? That’s your sister’s old typewriter. Been in there for years.”

I never finished cleaning the closet.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sanity Can’t Always Be Measured With A Yardstick

Part of the luggage of an author is to promote your books. Aspiring novelists might see the moment their book is accepted by a publisher as the Holy Grail, the pinnacle of the mountain, the point where they can plant their flag and take pictures. The reality is being published is a lot like graduating grade school—you celebrate until you realize you are starting high school as a freshman and everyone else is so much bigger than you are. Suddenly you aren’t comparing yourself to other unpublished writers wondering if they are better at dialog. Instead, you are comparing yourself with W. E.B. Griffin, Patricia Cornwell, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson and Stephen King, and the yardstick is numbers of copies sold. There is no question that you are on the bottom of that pile.

If your book is good then there is only one thing holding you down. No one knows your book exists. Publishers do what they can, but aren’t as interested in promoting unproven talent when they have money-makers. Writing a good book is something an author accepts as the challenge. It is what an author works at, trains for, but the moment the book is published the rules change, goals switch, and abruptly you discover you are now a PR representative. Most of the writers I know didn’t reach the age of eighteen and ponder in the solitude of their bedrooms, “author or salesman?” Yet there you are, confronted with the stark reality that in order to be an author, you have to make people want to read your stuff.

This is done mostly though book signings. The usual ones have you behind a table with a stack of your novels and a pen near the entrance. If you are doing your job you aren’t just sitting there reading, waiting for someone to notice you, walk over, and ask to buy your book. If you are doing your job, you are standing, smiling and coaxing people over, engaging them and explaining all the reasons why they should buy your book. I have yet to meet a writer who is comfortable with praising themselves and their skill to strangers, but let’s face it, “Okay, so my book isn’t Grapes of Wrath, and it will never be as popular as the Twilight Series, but do you wanna try it anyway?” Isn’t going to make too many sales.

Besides signings I’ve done lectures, both about my books and about writing in general. These are never comfortable ventures either. Luckily, I don’t have a huge problem with public speaking or I suppose this would be a nightmare. Instead, the problem arises from not knowing how many people will show up. I’ve stood at a podium with a microphone facing thirty empty folding chairs. Usually I just start speaking to my wife and maybe the event coordinator and hope folks will hear my voice, get interested and wander into seats. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t.

I’ve also been asked to read from my book. I was one of those kids who slumped down behind his desk in English class when it was time for the teacher to call on kids to read aloud. I’m not good at it. I trip over phrases and stumble on words—words that I wrote. I accidently add words that aren’t there but suddenly think should be and leave out words that are. I suppose no one notices anymore than if a pianist misses a note in Rhapsody in Blue, but still I feel like an idiot. Yes, I’m a published author who can’t read my own writing.

You will likely be guessing, and rightly so, that I don’t see book promotion as a perk. It is often tiring, embarrassing and stressful, yet there is one event I do enjoy. They don’t happen often, and it is not the kind of event that can be planned, designed or promoted. Publishers have no control over it, they can’t schedule them and no amount of money buys them. They just seem to happen. Every so often, I am invited to a local book club that has chosen to read my novel for that month. They can range in attendance from forty, to five people. I meet them at coffee shops, bookstores, pubs or even private homes. These are fun. Everyone there already has a book; I don’t have to sell it. Everyone there has already read it; I don’t have to be mindful of spoilers. Everyone there has something to say, a question to ask, an opinion to express; I don’t have to make a speech. And I can listen. I can listen to them talk about my characters as if they are real people, how many liked Royce verses how many preferred Hadrian. I can hear them debate whether the wizard is good or evil, and note the passion in voices. I can explain how to pronounce words and watch eyes widen, or knowing smiles appear.

No one ever says they hated it, everyone is too polite. It is the quiet ones I wonder about and I keep thinking they are listening to their mother’s advice, “if you can’t think of something nice to say…” but the quiet ones are usually silent because they are too embarrassed to say they didn’t get a chance to read the book. Everyone seems happy. They are appreciative that I have come to visit and talk and they tell me they liked the story. When you write in a small, closed room, isolated and alone in your battles against demons and dragons, you have to wonder—does anyone care? For years, I wrote novels that went into drawers unread that eventually made their way up and into cardboard boxes in the attic, forgotten. I would spend a year or more working late into the night wrestling over plot problems or the placement of a single comma. When it is three in the morning, everyone else is asleep and you are alone stressing over the placement of a comma in a hundred thousand word novel you know no one will ever read, it is easy to begin questioning your sanity.

Money would be nice. The number of units sold is the yardstick after all. But hearing a single person say they stayed up all night reading because they couldn’t put the book down, or they cried when they read the sad part, or laughed so loud they woke their husband when they read that joke—the one with the precisely placed comma—that’s when, at long last, you realize you’re not crazy. And knowing that you aren’t crazy is a pretty nice thing.

So to those of you who have reassured my sanity—thank you.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cover Sketch for Book Three

With the first book of my series, (The Crown Conspiracy,) at bookstores, and the second, (Avempartha,) at my publisher, I am working on the third. The manuscript is presently awaiting a rough edit from my wife. While I pride myself on avoiding plot holes, sometimes you are blind to openings a truck could haul freight through. Robin is particularly good at catching me. She is a bit like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny—the magician’s greatest nightmare—poking at my plots for weak points.

“Wouldn’t they check to see if they could all enter the prison using just their hands first? I know I wouldn’t stick my head in there before I was sure. Wouldn’t Royce have a plan? Wouldn’t he explain exactly what each of them would do in detail first? Would Myron just leave the horses behind? What if they don’t come back? Won’t the horses starve?”

We have been known to debate these kinds of issues for hours and sometimes the debates can get heated and loud. I’ve always wondered what the neighbors think. “Hon? The Sullivan’s are arguing again about whether you would stay conscious long enough to see a sword pulled slowly out of your stomach or not.”

As it happens however, Robin has been too busy to take red pen to my scores of beautifully lined up black letters, which, while I am certain this is a relief to the neighbors (and my daughter) it leaves me turning to other projects.

This weekend I began the rough sketches for the cover of the third book, which like book 2 will depict a scene from the story. I will be continuing the tradition of avoiding any depiction of characters. It is one thing to have an artist paint a picture of characters that don’t look at all like how you pictured them, and quite another to have the author do it. When I was a young man just starting college I had hoped to be a professional cover illustrator, and I learned that usually artists only have the back cover blurb and a few brief notes to go on. They don’t have the luxury or the time to read the story and authors rarely have any control over the cover art, or the book title. (Tolkien never liked the title The Return of the King that his publisher imposed, feeling that it gave the plot away.) This is why black-haired, brown-eyed characters sometimes appear on the cover with blond hair and blue eyes. Wanting to avoid shattering carefully built dreams, I decided to restrict the covers to landscapes inspired by the book.

Book one is a loose watercolor of Melengar in late autumn, Essendon castle on the right, the Galewyr River curving around and leading past the Wind’s Abbey on the left edge of the back cover. Book 2 was a no-brainer, it is a depiction of Avempartha, a view that Royce becomes quite familiar with. For book 3, I ran into trouble. Nothing has come immediately to mind, or rather several ideas have come to mind—all bad. Sadly, I am not nearly as good an illustrator as I would like to be—part of the reason I am a writer I suppose. I can think of a few scenes that would be great, but I don’t have the skill to make them work. Maybe one day…until then this is what I am struggling with so far.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This is a book of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Tragedy followed by triumph, followed by tragedy, followed by triumph. Set in southern England between the years 1123 – 1174, this is a piece of historical fiction that nestles itself nicely into the fabric of real-life events. It is a period of anarchy between the reign of King Henry I and King Henry II, and if you are knowledgeable about this period, some of the story might be spoiled, particularly at the end where the story dovetails with famous historical events.

The story is about a handful of people: A destitute mason who seeks to build a cathedral, a kindly monk struggling to make the world a better place, a woman believed to be a witch, a young brother and sister—once privileged nobles—now destitute, a cruel and vindictive earl, an odd, but brilliant boy and a power-hungry bishop. The novel follows the course of these lives through success and failure revealing how they intermingle with surprising effects.


Pillars of the Earth is an extremely enjoyable read. It begins with a likable character and instant action that provides firm footing. The story is quite believable and well devised with one character leading to the next and back again in a wonderful weave that is masterful. Plot changes are not easily anticipated providing moments of surprise. Antagonists are well developed and presented so well you want to see them dead. Protagonists are so poignant, and their trials so terrible, they can tug at a reader’s emotions. The vicissitudes of the events keep it interesting throughout and the end is satisfying as each lingering plot point is neatly tied up in eloquent and often unexpected ways.

The sweeping drama, the anguish and joys of simple people, remind me of the works of Victor Hugo, only much lighter and easier to read.

It is too long. While length is not a detriment in general, it is here, as the novel feels artificially drawn out. It is not that it has too many words, Ken Follett writes in a simple, easy to read style. Rather, the story itself is too long. Characters (and readers) endure catastrophes and yet succeed in overcoming them only to suffer another, and another and another. Climax follows anti-climax over and over becoming too repetitive. The book has the feel of two, three or four books jammed together and rushed through with a thin narrative style.

In addition, Mr. Follett has an irritating habit of explaining events after they have occurred. Many pages are devoted to rehashing past events. He also has a rare tendency to speak to the reader, thinly veiling this as a character’s thoughts that always feel out of place when it happens. In one instance, when a woman is threatened with rape she reflects philosophically on the rapist’s motivations.

I can’t help but feel that if the novel’s plot had been pruned, or extended over more than one book it would have proven more powerful. It might also have allowed the author to spend more time enriching scenes that might have brought the events and character’s to life more vividly. As it is, the story has an odd distance, as if it is a tale being told to you rather than a story you are witnessing first hand. This, I suspect, might put off impatient readers. Nevertheless, the book is wonderful. The plot is so strong and well conceived, it more than makes up for these small annoyances and readers who stick with it will be swept up.

I would suggest The Pillars of the Earth to anyone who reads. (although not appropriate for younger readers due to some graphic sexual scenes) It has enough historical fact to appeal to non-fiction readers, and an outstanding story filled with romance, sex, warfare, religion, kindness, hatred, mystery and betrayal. Few will be disappointed with this novel.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Proud Father of a Three Month Old

The Crown Conspiracy is three months old, and I have no clear idea of how well it is doing. This being my first published novel, and not knowing any other published authors, I have no idea if this is typical or disturbing.

The reviews on Amazon look good (as do the reports I am seeing on Goodreads). Readers appear to genuinely like the novel. My only other data point is how well I’ve done at book signings, but I can’t imagine that every reader, every buyer of TCC, has obtained it through my hands. At least I hope not. I trust there are people out there who have read it on a lark, on a dare, out of boredom, or because they happened to see a review somewhere that struck a chord and were so pleased that they felt compelled to spread the word. “I just read this incredible book…” is how I imagine the multitude of conversations beginning, or maybe, “Have you ever heard of The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan?” I suppose the day you can ask that second question and not be certain of the answer is the day I will need to take a great deal more care in what I write in this blog.