Category Archives: Realities

Purée

Today I got a visit from Inspiration, apropos of absolutely nothing.

I think.

If I really go back and retrace the past few weeks, I can reconstruct the component factors that probably went into today’s flash of insight – but why they combined into a coherent thought today, I can’t say. Said bolt of inspiration happened while I was packing a picnic lunch for a pool trip. Here is what I packed: cherries, French bread, pomegranate lemonade, granola bars, and baby carrots. Here is what was playing on Pandora as I packed said lunch: “6th Avenue Heartache,” by the Wallflowers. Here is what I was wearing: dark-brown cargo shorts and my Badlands Harley-Davidson T-shirt. The color of the picnic cooler is dark red with grey nylon webbing. The cherries were Rainiers. My Badlands shirt has one of those double tags in back, and I remember thinking I should cut the other one off, or maybe cut both off. Ellie was asking me if she could have two slices of bread. Alex was looking for his Keens. I was trying to remember if I’d put the district pool passes back in the pool bag. My phone was ringing, and I had a moment of wistful irritation; I had to completely reset the phone over the weekend, and it lost all of my custom ringtones for friends and family.

Not one of these things had anything to do with the idea that popped, fully-formed, into my head as I zipped the cooler shut. Not one. And yet, there it was, as clear as if it had been whispered in my ear. As I deconstructed it later, the precursor elements were all there. Had I listened to a lot of Luka Bloom lately? Had I spent half of a warm summer night stargazing out at Chatfield Reservoir? Had I gone back to Brandt’s Metallurgy Fundamentals for one last checkthrough of some assumptions? Yes, yes, and yes, and the combination of those three things certainly made up the core of the idea (which I’m not going to spoiler, sorry.)

But why then? Why in the midst of packing a picnic? That, I think, is the real frustration with inspiration; it’s like loading a blender full of fruit and ice, one berry or cube at a time. At some strange predetermined time – unknown, of course, to me – when the pH of my accumulated fruit blend is just right, when the ice has melted to just the right blend of solid and liquid, when the resulting taste combination is perfect, said blender surges to life and yields up something amazing. That can be at four in the afternoon or four in the morning; sometimes I’m just out of bed, other times I’m worn to a nub from my day. I’ve been happy when Inspiration visits, and sad; I’ve been on the couch in the family room and on a jetway in New York and in a microbrewery in Chicago.

What makes Inspiration depressing for creatives of all types, I think, is how random it is. You just can’t force it. I capitalize the word itself because I’ve come to think of it as a force, something on a par with Ohm’s Law or Avogadro’s Number; it’s not inspiration, it’s Inspiration. She’s practically a person to me by now (with the proper-name capitalization that her status merits) a maddening one that teases with visits just frequent enough, ear-whispering done at just the right pace, to keep me writing.

I suppose the best I can do is to keep filling the blender, hoping that this kiwi or that blackberry is going to be the magical ingredient. And the sensation when inspiration pours through me – when my hands cannot keep up with the thought as it develops – is just otherworldly. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I just wish I knew where the ON switch was sometimes.

5.56

In the wake of the horrific Aurora shootings this past week, we’re all shaken here in Colorado. It’s too bad, really, that it takes an event of this magnitude – of evil on a scale this large – to spur us into an extra-tight hug for our kids and an extra level of vigilance and care in our communities. But it is what it is: we have a sorry tendency, as a species, to slide continuously into complacency and ennui, jolted awake from time to time by visions of the basest capabilities of the human animal.

I had a few exchanges over the weekend with readers, mostly checking in on me – thank you! (And, apparently, my geek cred is intact, since many of you guessed I’d be at a midnight showing of DKR.) I did have one email, though, that gave me pause.

“Do you think differently at moments like this,” the email read, “about including high-powered weapons in your books?”

I hope that, in the two books completed to date, I’ve made it very clear that such weapons have no place anywhere – in our world, or in anyone else’s. The development of weapon tech in Reswyt is an affront to the realm’s original purpose, and it’s the goal of the protagonist to return Reswyt to its pristine state.

Note that I didn’t say a non-violent state. Violence is a fact of life; I know this, living in a house with two nine-year-olds and a six-year-old. I’m constantly exerting civilizing pressure on three children that occasionally feel the need to just haul off and slug each other, and there’s a host of real or imagined physical slights taking place here constantly. (As an aside, when you accidentally harm someone, it’s an accident; when someone else accidentally harms you, that’s a premeditated act of war – or so it seems to the under-ten set.) Reswyt is red in tooth and claw, and always will be; good and evil want confrontation at some level –  otherwise, we’d be absent youth counselors and law-enforcement officers and counterterrorism agents and other real-world superheroes that want a crack at real-world evil. Those confrontations are how we learn who we are in this life; when something like Aurora happens, it jars awake the active force for good inside all of us. (It’s telling, I think, that the shooter was consistently described as ‘cheering for the villain’ in movies and books; do we need any deeper insight into his soul than that one fact?)

But maybe, just maybe, I’m asking the question in the Dreamline series of whether the escalation of violence is inherent to the human condition – and whether there’s something we can do about it. I can’t find a historical newswire entry for ‘crazed man breaks into movie theater and proceeds to pummel moviegoers with his fists.’ How did we get here? Through a fearsome acceleration of our ability to kill on a large scale. And while we can’t put the genie back in the bottle on every level, we can certainly work to limit our own access to weapons like those used in the Aurora massacre – to slow or even stop that acceleration of deadly capacity.

Sabine’s work in Reswyt is a dream of mine, and perhaps of yours – the possibility of resetting that acceleration and forever sealing off its ability to restart. It’s not an idealized utopia – not when your soul may be taken down by a pack of wolves on a nightly basis. But it is a viable one, respecting the fact that there’s no way to legislate out of existence your ability to punch someone in the face. And it’s one that you can be a part of, in your own way. Assault weapons and high-caliber handguns and hundred-round magazines have no place in our society; no one needs them for personal defense purposes, and they’ve been put to overwhelmingly more evil than good in the hands of deranged individuals over the past two decades. We’ve all seen that. Now it’s time to tell your Congressional representatives to limit private consumer access to these products.

A Spy in Seven-League Boots

I’m writing this from the Khan el-Khalili marketplace in central Cairo. It’s hot here; I can tell from the ruddy exertion clear on the faces of the merchants around me, the thin veneer of sweat that sheens every temple and neck. I move as silently as an assassin through block after block, ignoring the cries of beggars and the accosting hands of merchants thrusting faded silver ankhs and exotic stringed instruments at me. No, I don’t want a tattoo…or any other, erm, ‘services,’ miss. Something that I mistake for a ferret is shoved at me, and I move backward awkwardly; it’s a monkey, one trained by one of the merchants to attract business to his cart. Just as I recover my senses, an aircraft carrier-sized platter of fresh bread, balanced atop the head of a kid who cannot be older than twelve, slides past me and I nearly jump in surprise.

In my chair.

In Littleton, Colorado.

The Internet has transformed the lives of billions of people worldwide, enabling everything from telemedicine to remote camera feeds from the top of Everest to live coverage of emerging news events around the globe. I’m no exception, in either my professional or avocational lives; it’s simply unbelievable what I can do today in researching a book  from my office chair. So here I am, Longboard at hand, navigating a high-definition first-person POV tour of Khan el-Khalili – which features prominently in Khemnet – and taking hundreds of screenshots. Off they go to Photoshop, where I circle objects in red, tagging this merchant’s face, that prostitute’s awkward come-hither, that platter of bread (it’s damned impressive), capturing to the best of my ability the beet-faced urgency of commerce in (literal) heat.

It’s amazing.

Until I began Reswyt, I hadn’t written in what I’d consider the ‘modern’ Internet era. I’d started – and failed to advance – a half-dozen books in my life, starting in college (and I’m dating myself to say I graduated from CSU in 1991) and progressing through the mid-90s. Things got awfully busy from 1997-2007; I finished a second master’s degree, started two businesses, saw three amazing children enter my life, . Writing took a back seat, and when I did get started once again, it’s been with a profound sense of awe and gratitude that the Internet of this decade exists.

It’s a virtual prepaid ticket anywhere, from the Metallurgical Laboratories of King’s College in the UK to the museum housing an original papyrus of the Book of the Dead to the barked, fervent storm of currency that is Khan el-Khalili. I can slip into virtually anywhere – onto the American River Bridge in Sacramento for a virtual bike ride, into suburban Portland for a look at the architecture of older homes, down the Nile river as it looks now – or as it might have looked in Dynastic Egypt, courtesy of CGI-driven archaeological reconstructions. I get what I need and slip out just as quietly, the locals unaware that I was ever there; no footprints mark my passage, no currency has changed hands.

My hope in this sort of endeavor is that it enriches the books in small but significant ways; characters don’t bike to a park to stargaze, but to this park. This is the path to the hospital; this is where he died, this is where they kissed, this is where she made the decision. We live in a world of fictional precision made possible by spies in seven-league boots; why would we not take maximum advantage of what has been given to us?

Gilda

There’s this fantastic, moving story in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York – one of the many official and unofficial SNL backstory tomes – about a party some of the original cast players held at one point after they knew that Gilda Radner was dying of cancer. They’re all getting high, the booze is flowing, the Stones and Van Morrison are spinning endlessly on the turntable, and they’re all laughing about the old times. And at one point, someone picks up light-as-a-feather Radner and just starts carrying her around while she laughs like crazy. And then she’s handed off to someone else to carry about, and then someone else, and then someone else –  Murray to Aykroyd to Martin – and they’re carrying her all over this apartment party from room to room and she’s hysterical, that kind of can’t-stop-laughing-if-I-tried laughing.

They didn’t want to put her down. Putting her down would signal the end of the party, and the end of the party was – for most of them – probably the end of Gilda. Who knew when they’d individually see her again? Or if she’d even still be alive then? So around and around she went, a farewell tour conducted on shoulders and under arms and cradled before them each in turn.

I’m feeling that vibe as Khemnet starts to take shape on the page; I get the sense, with each scene, that this is it. These two characters aren’t ever talking again. This decision is final; that action is definitive. More of this story is going to play out, of course, off the page; Sabine finishes high school, or graduates early – who knows? She’s a sharp kid. Matthew’s headed for a medical career; Dylan’s considering his EPL options; and on and on it goes. But that part of the story is going to ‘hang off the page.’ It’s going unanswered; the window on this story is closing, and with that comes a strange and conflicted obligation. The more neatly any tale is tied off, the less believable it becomes; but the less neatly it’s tied off, the more frustrating it is to read. (With the finale of The Sopranos essentially pegging the meter in one direction, and just about any Disney-princess movie burying the needle in the other.)

I’m certainly more Tony than Tinkerbell, but it’s a bittersweet sensation to be saying goodbye, and I’m fighting the urge to allow characters to play themselves offscreen with a speech and a swirling orchestral score. It’s not a speechmaking life; are you aware, at any point in time, that this interaction or that might be your last with someone? We all tell our kids and spouses we love them, just in case today’s the day for the bus to lose its brakes, but we’re not in the habit of making speeches, and characters don’t know they’re about to have their story curtailed, either – so it’s reality for Khemnet, I’m afraid, with all of its attendant mystique.

“Who’s she going to end up with?” is the most common question these days, but what does that mean – ‘end up with?’ There’s a finality to that state that I’m not sure is warranted. Who were you dating your freshman year of high school? Did you ‘end up’ with him or her? Probably not; that’s what makes the question kind of moot. Sabine could easily break up with one and take up with the other a thousand non-existent pages in their futures, actions never documented in a junior year unseen. I’ve actually considered bringing that concept into the book, with an epilogue or a cadenza of some type that deliberately leaves her later life in question, but I’m not sure I want to go there.

“How does it end?” That’s another popular one, and while I don’t have anything Sopranos-esque in mind, I also don’t have a bow for it. That’s not reality. The best of stories are the ones we feel that we got a momentary and detailed glimpse into, but that existed before we ever opened to the first page and that exist after we finish the last one. There’s a sense that, perhaps, you observed a conversation between lovers in a restaurant without them knowing; now they’re paying the check, perhaps suddenly aware that their voices got a bit loud and lascivious after the second glass of wine, and now they’re heading for the door.  That’s always been my goal for the characters in these stories. So it has an ending, to be sure, and one that wraps up these characters’ involvement in the dreaming realm, but it’s far from a horseback ride together into the sun. (If for no other reason than some of the characters ARE horses, and…y’know…that’d be a little odd.)

Endings can wait for another day, though.

Right now, I’m all about carrying Sabine around. And to be honest, I just don’t want to put her down.

Seven Nation Army

I had a really nice exchange with a book blogger this past week. She’s been kind enough to lend her support to both Reswyt and Nekhet, and it’s a genuine joy to talk to her; she’s all about books, and believes passionately in getting her voice heard by people looking for something new and different to read. “New” automatically applies to both of mine, and “different” does, apparently, too – but she got a little incensed when someone posted on her blog that she just ‘didn’t get’ Reswyt.

“Doesn’t that bother you?” she said. “I think it’s an amazing book. A genre-shattering book. And here’s someone I respect, who likes a lot of the same things I like, who just didn’t get into it.”

No, I told her, it really doesn’t. There’s art for everyone; that’s my mantra. I knock Nickelback a little1, but zillions of people love Nickelback; it’s the art for them. I’ve touched on this subject a little before, imploring people to go find the art that is for them and stop tearing down the art that isn’t; somebody likes it, and it’s the art for them, and you’re just burning cycles and wearing down your stomach lining trying to make people like the art that’s for you. My next question to her was: surely there’s something you don’t get that your friends do, something they rave about that you totally can’t see the point in.

“I’ll think about that,” she said2. “What about you?”

I have the White Stripes. And, to her horror3, I told her all about that.

I confess. I don’t get the White Stripes. I don’t get the intentionally godawful lo-fi recording; I don’t get the stripped-down ‘charm’ of a two-person band; I don’t get the basic (but not the GOOD kind of basic), repetitive song structure; I don’t get the supposedly deep and heartbreaking lyrical content. (And I’m someone who goes looking for deep and heartbreaking; I’ve ascribed deep-and-heartbreaking status to some songs that I later was forced to admit were no more than wading depth, and really, just kinda…moving…a little.) When Rolling Stone listed its greatest guitar songs EVAR, and fucking ‘Seven Nation Army’ got listed, I instantly began sputtering and fuming and listing off double-fistfuls of riff-driven songs vastly superior. When The Edge and Jimmy Page were announced as making a guitar tone/songwriting movie together, I was overjoyed…until I learned that Jack White would be the third participant, Ruprecht waving his trident about on Olympus in earnest imitation of Page’s Poseidon.

Hold that thought. The one forming in the back of your mind; your impassioned plea for sanity, your already-developing list of Songs To Play For People Who Don’t Get The White Stripes, the thick sheaf of impressive and artfully-written reviews that will place me in the decided minority of musical imbeciles, that will condemn me to sit here in my wrongness and be wrong. I don’t care; I don’t give a shit what you’ve got in your bag of tricks. I’ve listened to every White Stripes album, front to back; I’ve listened to Blunderbuss and all of Jack’s side-project bands, waiting, waiting for the moment that the light comes on, and in the end, I’ve decided that I’ve simply wasted hours of my life forcing myself with gritted teeth to desperately try and find joy and enlightenment in something that holds none for me.

Smarter people than I, people with more musicological awareness and greater depth of musical perception, tell me that I’m supposed to like the White Stripes. I’m sure my book-blogger friend went to town listing off Reswyt’s charms, too, and I’m sure they fell on deaf ears. That’s OK. In the great chain of being, there are things that aren’t for me, and if that’s true, I can’t fathom the universe in which something I create isn’t for someone else. It’s all in equilibrium and balance. I’m all right with the idea that I’m somebody’s Jack White; that’s fine.

Because if I’m not somebody’s Jack White, I might just become everybody’s Nickelback.

Oh, sorry. Did I say that out loud?

_________________________________________________

1 Who am I kidding? I bash Nickelback ALL THE FUCKING TIME.

What she eventually came up with, by the way, was ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’ I don’t even know what that is.

Maaaaaaybe not getting invited back onto this blog. Maybe.

Whore

Well, that was an interesting day at the races.

KDP Select is a lot like one of those extreme amusement-park rides that involve thick, padded harnesses and waivers printed in LARGE RED LETTERS on the entryway sign. It’s extremely disorienting, vaguely nauseating, undeniably thrilling, and you exit the ride conflicted between a strong desire to get back in the line and a strong desire never to go on the thing ever again.

That’s the experience of taking part in one of KDP Select’s free promotion days, which (I can’t believe I’m typing this with a straight face) entitles me to give away my work for free1. Under no other circumstances am I allowed to do so on Amazon, and it comes at the cost of being Kindle-exclusive; so Reswyt is off of the Nook platform for the summer (sorry, Nookies; you can still buy Nekhet – and where have you been for a year?).

I took a lot of Facebook grief for this move, especially from the head of my beta reading group, who read me the riot act about joining the KDP Select clan, but the unfortunate truth is that KDP Select works. I’ve sold thousands of copies of Reswyt, and KDP Select doubled my audience – in one day. Reswyt got to #6 on the Amazon Bestsellers list in Fantasy (albeit by being free, but you can’t buy that kind of visibility). And, before Siobhan disowns me – sorry, your words, not mine – I feel compelled to walk you through the Unfortunate Realities(TM). They begin with one hard dose of truth: the people who downloaded Reswyt for free weren’t prospective buyers. Not at their current level of awareness of the book, or – alternately – not through their fiscal policy on unknown books.

(Disclaimer: a universe exists where Reswyt catches fire through fevered word-of-mouth recommendations, and it breaks out to become a top-10 novel (paid, thank you) without me really lifting a finger or doing much in the way of promotion. In that universe, all the math to follow is rendered irrelevant and void…unfortunately, it’s not the universe I live in, so whereas Alternate Dave-Prime is currently lighting cigars with matches snapped across the head of a midget dressed like one of John F. Sebastian’s organic toys, I’m left to hustle and promote.)

Back to the proceedings.

Reswyt went on sale in September of 2011, at which point I put pretty much every spare minute and truly loose dollar I had behind promoting it, with solid results. The book outsold the self-publishing standard figure (500) and the standard for a successful fiction novel (5,000), and has settled into a nice rhythm of selling more copies every week. Not enough to retire on, but enough to be satisfied with given that I don’t have a publicist, promotion company, or major-publisher pockets to work with. But if you’re in the market for a new fantasy book and haven’t bought a copy in the past seven months, there’s probably one of two reasons for that2.

1. You had no idea the book existed, despite my best efforts to the contrary (I still get a lot of this, even – somewhat disturbingly – from my friends); or

2. You’re a crusty, inveterate cynic who doesn’t pay for first novels, especially given that there are hundreds of free books to audition.

In short, you weren’t going to buy the book anyway – either because the promotional channels I can afford to use don’t reach you, or because you’re well aware of the book but are too cheap to give it a try. Fine. How, then, am I to rectify either one? Option 1 isn’t solvable except by pouring money into promotion, and option 2 isn’t solvable through any means other than handing you the book. Actually, handing you the book solves both options 1 and 2. But, for the moment, let’s ignore the cynics, and listen carefully to my advisors crying out from the gallery for me to keep Reswyt at its current price point. Is it possible to fix the first issue with nothing but military-grade promotion?

Sure it is. And the results are actually worse than giving the damn book away. 

Let’s say I want to grow my readership by, say, five thousand people, and I’d like to do that quickly, before the summer reading season is upon us; get a large group to read the first book before the summer, and odds are good I’ll attract a few people who want the next installment to ponder in their Adirondack chairs during the dog days to come. The most proven and tested means I’ve found yet is Facebook cost-per-click advertising, which I used pretty extensively in the first few months Reswyt was out to get things going. (I still do a bit here and there to keep the name in front of people.) It is, by far, the cheapest, most targeted, and most effective ad provider out there, and it produces results. At a cost, that is. Specifically, my cost per click is around $0.30; it’s not cheap to buy clicks for Kindle owners (everyone wants them). My conversion rate, or percentage of clicks that buy the book, has historically settled at around 10%, some months it’s 9%, some months 12%, but it settles to a mean of 10%.

So, to get 5,000 new readers, I’d have to purchase 50,000 clicks at $0.30, for a total outlay of $15,000, payable to the Facebook Corporation today, thanks very much. Then, assuming everything holds true –  that I was even able to get 50,000 clicks (no small feat), that my conversion rate didn’t dip, and that my cost per click (CPC) didn’t climb, in approximately 60 days I’d receive a check from Amazon for…$14,000. (Reswyt retails for $3.99, of which my royalty is $2.80, times 5,000 copies = $14,000.) For my trouble, I would have lost $1,000, not to mention having to come up with fifteen large on short notice for my ill-conceived media blitz. And sure, I could raise the price, but that would lower my conversion rate, and round and round the spiral we’d go.

KDP Select, by contrast, nets to a bitter, but practical net of spend-nothing, get-nothing. Yes, it’s a little sickening to watch thousands of people giddily blow through the turnstiles, my book in hand, having paid nothing for it, but again, I have to remind myself that those readers wouldn’t have all shown up in one day without paying out to attract them, and many would never have shown up at all. (In this universe, anyway). And some proportion of them are going to want to know what happens next, and for them, they’ll buy Nekhet at full price and we’ll both be content. In the meantime, I’ve invested nothing in promotion, and received nothing in compensation – but at least I didn’t lose $1,000. And I’ve got the same new 5,000 readers I would have gained in the scenario above. I also manage to solve both the awareness issue and the cynic issue, since Amazon is kind enough to put its shoulder behind promoting my free book – but will not do the same for my costing-proposition book. (Go figure. At some point, Amazon will figure out the authors would pay good CPC rates for within-Amazon promotion, and then my problems will be solved.)

Yes, I’ve heard the counterargument – that those unwilling to buy a first book will be just as unlikely to buy a second. To this I’d respond first that I pity any poor soul so jaded and tightfisted that he or she will condemn themselves to forever reading the free first books in untold numbers of series, never finding out what happens to the characters involved in any of them, just to save a buck. (I’d say there would be a ring of Hell for these people, but sadly, they’re already living that experience.) And I don’t buy that every single reader who downloaded Reswyt for free is of the latter camp; I’ve gotten a big flurry of Facebook messages this morning from people who obviously started the book last night, and they’re overwhelmingly positive – with most of them wondering why they hadn’t heard of the book before3.

Am I going to do it again? KDP grants me five such by-the-decree-of-the-king-let-all-subjects-dine-at-the-royal-table days in every 90-day period I sign up for, so I suppose I’ll wait to see how Nekhet sales do in June before committing. But as a means to get the book into the hands of new readers, it’s tough to argue with.

Is it possible to feel dirty but satisfied? ‘Cause I do.

___________________________________________________________________

1 Has Amazon glommed onto the fact that authors have self-esteem issues? They have.

Or, I suppose,  you just intensely dislike me.

3 That sound you hear is me pounding my forehead on my desk.

Trickster

There’s this sort of avoidance undercurrent running through the email pile lately; a topic that’s hinted at, questioned obliquely, discarded with a winky emoticon. At times, it’s brought to just beneath the conversational surface, then allowed to descend once again into the koi pond of topics, an increasingly blurry shimmering bolt of motion. In some, the subject is phrased in the form of a question; in others, a backhanded compliment (or an outright compliment). A few (thankfully) are confrontational; most are somewhere between vaguely supportive and nervously curious.

The question is a simple one, so allow me to boil down a hundred-odd variants of it into a single portmanteau question combining parts of all: What made you feel as if you would be comfortable writing a teenage girl protagonist – and how is it that you pulled it off?

(Disclaimer: not everyone added any variant of that second part, but I’ll be forthcoming in telling you that the positives are running 50:1 to the negatives on that front – in other words, there’s an order of magnitude more of you that find Sabine eminently believable than do not. So I’ll include the declarative in that portmanteau.)

I suppose my first response is to level-set expectations: no one can possibly inhabit the body of another and know, for certain, what another’s feelings and emotions might be. As a fortysomething suburban father, I can’t really claim to know what a high-school freshman girl is thinking or experiencing. I also can’t tell you anything about what an Afghanistan war veteran is thinking or experiencing. Or an unemployed financial advisor. Or a single mom. Or a five-year-old kid, or a grandmother, or an alien, or a robot, or a duck-billed platypus. No idea what’s going on in there. None.

But my job, as an author, is to make characters believable and organic to you, the reader. So every aspect of motivation, environment, and behavior has to go under the microscope from the first time the character appears on the page. That has to be true of any character I write that isn’t a fortysomething suburban father, candidly. There’s exactly one of those, really, in either book so far, and Tom Britten gets about six seconds of screen time before he’s ushered off. That was my writing comfort zone: six seconds. Beyond that, I’m writing a widow; another, scarred, teenaged girl; a middle-school-aged girl; two high-school guys; and numerous bears, horses wolves, and lupine humanoids. Oh, and a nineteenth-century French soldier interpreted by an Egyptian god as a fictional character.

(Read that last one again. I’m actually surprised more people haven’t asked, what made you think you could write a nineteenth-century French soldier interpreted by an Egyptian god as a fictional character? There’s a challenge.)

Below the question, though, is another, pricklier, more…cultural question. J.K. Rowling went about ten thousand pages writing a male protagonist, along with a male sidekick; Hermione’s her only comfort-zone character, and Rowling was decidedly not a young girl when she began the series, so even that’s at a distance. No one’s ever questioned her qualifications to write Harry and Ron. In fact, look down the roster of most YA fiction and you’ll see a long list of female authors tackling male protagonists (or significant male characters). Yet that’s never questioned. If female authors can write male characters without so much as a sideways glance, can’t male authors write female characters? (Careful, here; to elevate the complexity of one over the other is reductionist and, frankly, sexist, so forgive me if I don’t buy the ‘you couldn’t possibly understand’ argument.)

I suppose, at the basis of this issue, is the concept of whether anyone can write any character not ‘themselves.’ Last I checked, there’s very few actual lycanthropes writing shifter-fic, and a real dearth of undead penning vampire paeans. There’s not a sci-fi writer alone who’s ever been in near-earth orbit, let alone space (fine, some fanboy/fangirl correct me on this with a piece of obscura). No one writing historical fiction was alive in their chosen period in history. Not one of us is an authentic narrator; we are all dopplegangers, shapeshifters, mimics in stolen shoes. We succeed, or fail, based on your personal judgment; we draw courage from your praise, inspiration from your criticism, and both become strengthin the end. If you believe Sabine, if you believe Taryn, if you believe Guillaume in his new and insanity-inducing skin, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

Tleilaxu Edition

I got into the paperback debate once again this week, in part because of an email exchange with a Reswyt reader, to whom I was able to send a concise one-word response as to why, exactly, I’m still not issuing paperback copies of Reswyt and Nekhet.

That word was Dune.

Dune is my all-time favorite book. I’ve read Dune, easily, five hundred times in this life. It’s my sneezing-on-the-couch book, nervous-the-night-before-a-presentation book; it’s my literary macaroni and cheese on shitty days, my dependable go-to to read by the pool. I think it is to me what the Harry Potter series is to many people; an endlessly readable work. I’ve read Dune when I was eight and eighteen and twenty-eight and thirty-eight. I’ve read Dune in a ski lodge with a fractured foot, and I’ve read Dune lying in an infinity pool in Cabo San Lucas, Negra Modelo falling readily to hand. I’ve read Dune in a house; I’ve read Dune with a mouse. I will read Dune here, and there, Sam-I-Am; I will read Dune everywhere.

(For haters who are tempted to click away now, and have vowed that if Dune is indeed my favorite book, they will never read anything by me again: note that Dune was Game of Thrones before there was Game of Thrones; it boldly eschewed pew-pew science fiction at a time when every secondary character was hosing coherent light around, electing instead to favor blade combat. Dune put feudalism and religion and philosophy into a sci-fi setting flawlessly, in a way that’s never been duplicated since; take it from someone who’s read every single ‘this is the next Dune’ book ever set forth by a book publicist. It’s an absolutely unique book (and series); you don’t read something and put it down and say, “That was like Dune – only more so.”)

But as much as I love Dune – and, in terms of the story, I do – I also hate Dune, the physical book. It’s five-hundred-ought pages of densely printed type, and no matter what edition I get, it’s always printed on the thinnest, most gossamer paper the printer could possibly coax into holding ink, the better to keep it from becoming a four-inch-thick paperback. But the same printing decisions that enable Dune to be held comfortably in one hand – while ordering a beer with the other, or stirring a piping hot bowl of pho – also make it an environmental nightmare. Dune, you see, is a book best read in a semiconductor manufacturing clean room; spill a drop of anything on its glassine pages, and you’ll see it go straight through an entire chapter, like xenomorph blood in Aliens, rendering whole paragraphs and pages entirely unreadable. Forget your copy of Dune in the beach bag, and drop a wet towel on it, and the next morning you’ll be the owner of a bizarre-looking creature, the offspring of a Japanese fan and a cuttlefish. I’ve dropped a copy of Dune in the snow (after the aforementioned fractured foot) and ten seconds later, it was an unreadable horror. Add in the fact that the pages religiously tear if not given a  pre-turn saikeirei and slowly moved over with a spotless white glove, and it’s a recipe for disaster. And this doesn’t even count the number of copies I’ve just flat-out lost, probably buried at the bottom of a U-Haul box somewhere in the basement. (In the afterlife, I’ll probably get back every ballpoint pen I’ve ever lost, along with every misplaced copy of Dune, and be subjected to a second, crushing death under their weight.)

As a result, I’ve probably purchased fifty copies of Dune in my lifetime, over three decades of reading. The spifftastic leather-bound copy sits up in my office bookshelf, but years of grudgingly forking over $8.95 to bookstore clerks for a new paperback copy have made me paranoid about that copy in the extreme, and there it sits for all time, a museum curation exercise more than a usable book. And so, almost on an annual basis, I’d look around for my copy of Dune to take on a business trip or an afternoon at the pool, and either not be able to put my hands on it, or find that the latest copy, too, has fallen prey to the ravages of some environmental factor or other.

Thus, my childlike satisfaction with the Kindle, where my copy of Dune now lives, permanently, ubiquitously, a wireless tablet click away from respawning on some device or another for an afternoon out on the deck with a cold beverage. I’ve downloaded Dune to my daughter’s Kindle and read it while she took placement tests; I’ve downloaded Dune to my phone while stuck in traffic. It’s all the same copy, it’s always in pristine condition, and I never have to pay for it again. Ever. Like Duncan Idaho’s ghola, I can simply warm up another Tleilaxu copy of Dune anytime I want – and, having achieved this particular level of book-curation Nirvana, I just can’t imagine the scenario under which you’d want a paperback. I’m not saying Reswyt or Nekhet is going to become the kind of book you’d want handy on this sort of basis – but you probably have such a book in mind, your own personal Dune, and you’d want the Kindle curation benefit for that book, I’m sure.

Still not sold? Quick, name the last album or track you bought. So – you got that as a CD, right? No? A cassingle? Eight-track? 45RPM? Wax cylinder? No? You bought it on iTunes, you say, and stuck it into iTunes Match, and now you can download and listen to it anywhere, on any device, anytime, and you, uh…never have to pay for it again? It’ll never melt on your dashboard, or cultivate a psychotically-placed vinyl skip, or be accidentally used as a coaster at a cocktail party? Because it’s digital content, you say.

Fascinating.

Kull wahad.

Junkie

If there is a rich, creamy center to the writing process, I’m in it right now.

I know, I know; I promised I was taking some time off, but…there was just something so juicy, so rewarding, about having a blank Scrivener document open in one window and the Nekhet sales report open in another. One’s finished and in consumption; the other’s blank – and under construction. Yin and yang; white and black. So I started sketching some ideas, and one thing led to another, and I looked up to find myself 3,000 words into the next book. I wasn’t even going to start until September? What gives?

Endorphins. That’s what. There’s no other explanation. And their potent cocktail is a-swirl in my grey matter thanks to the juxtaposition of two very pleasant parts of the writing process.

A little background. In descending order, I’d have to rank the bookwriting tasks as follows, from most pleasant to least:

  1. Ideation and scene sketching (where I am now)
  2. Finishing and publishing the book (more relief than anything else)
  3. Story outline assembled (this is a good feeling)
  4. Scene construction
  5. Gamma read (the most enjoyable of the three)
  6. Alpha read
  7. Beta read
  8. Final editing and production (painful and frustrating, respectively)

Now, we’re not talking about the difference between licking the beater and rising at dawn to go work on an asphalt crew here. Writing a book’s damn fun, but there are sections that involve running joyfully down flowering hills, and there are parts that are more like…well, work. Editing, in particular, is just a tripartite grind; you’re asking yourself to completely change perspectives and focus, three times, at three different levels, on a book you’ve already written. The first time (alpha), you’re looking to see if it’s a book. The second time (beta), you’re making sure continuity’s being respected. The third time (gamma), you’re making sure your participles aren’t dangling. (Oops! <zzzzzip>) Those reads aren’t nearly as much fun as coming up with the book concept in the beginning, or building scenes and dialogue, or watching the plot begin to mesh – or seeing your work up on Amazon.

But finishing one, and contemplating starting the next, puts me recently in completion of task (2) and in the throes of task (1), which has really led me to begin wondering whether authors don’t at some point become serial-publishing junkies based on that confluence of endorphins. Contrast April with February of 2012 (tasks 6 and 7) and March (5 and 8), and you can see the late stages of  a book add up to a pretty unpleasant load of tasks (both months’ task ranks, not surprisingly, sum to 13). But oh, the end of one and the beginning of another. It’s everything you first get into writing for – a sense of accomplishment and a wide-open vista of creative possibilities.  I haven’t been here before, so the giddy rush of pleasure that’s been circulating my cerebral cortex for the last week is an entirely new experience – and a really, really good one. I can certainly see how there’s a profound sense of loss once a series wraps up – and how authors can be tempted to do just one more, even if the story’s done.

It runs downhill, you see. It’s never better than it is right now; then you get going with the next one, and before you know it, you’ve got the story structure in place, you’re finishing scene construction, and then it’s down the long road to alpha, beta, and gamma readings. Then you’re making sure Microsoft Word points the fucking smart quotes the right way, and thenceforth into the hell that is KF8 formatting and the Nook publishing engine. And it’s never darker than the moment before you press the submit button on the Amazon and BN pages.

And once this one’s finished, I expect a blank Scrivener page will beckon once again. As Ministry famously warned…just one fix.

Mailbag

Why did Brummbar have to die? – Molly W.

Well, it’s fiction, first off; characters die. Eddard Stark in George R.R. Martin is my gold standard for ‘if this character can die, any character can die.’ I don’t think the reader senses reality in a series unless there is the very real possibility of loss. After Reswyt, I was fairly determined to make sure the rules got obeyed in the sequel, and the rules are very much as follows: there is a strong possibility of being physically injured or killed in the dreaming realm, and there’s more risk of true death for a dead mind such as Brummbar; the Balance can heal wounds that originate from entities that manifest in Reswyt (i.e. physical combat between animals); the Balance does not see or understand anything it did not personally manifest. That line of logic led to Brummbar being shot and, eventually, killed. But beyond the logical rationale for his death, it’s necessary, too; he tells her, at one point, that her knowing who he is will change her decision-making process in Reswyt, and that’s not a good thing.

Is Sabine ever going to choose between Dylan and Josh? – Kiersten M.

I get this one a lot. Yes, she will. But part of the theme of the book is that Reswyt is a unique environment in which you get to see, up close, the makeup and temperament of a human being’s soul. Wouldn’t you take the time to evaluate your options?

The scenes in which Taryn goes to find Dylan’s body and Ahriman interacts with the Queen for the last time – are those supposed to be Taryn and Briana sleeping on the flight home? – Emma R.

Yes! I was really hoping somebody got that. I go to a fair bit of trouble to make sure that I’m respecting the realities of human sleep – in other words, I don’t have anyone fall asleep when it’s completely unnatural for them to do so. Taryn is an exception, for obvious reasons. But yes, you’re correct – that’s them dozing off on their respective flights back to California. Although Taryn’s scene may be her falling asleep at the gate; that’s how Sabine finds her, after all.

I don’t remember Ahriman – the Sensate – ever touching Taryn in horse form. How did she know who Taryn was?  – Nilaya A.

She did touch her.  It happened in the scene in which Dylan, in the form of Levanter, serves in the rear guard of the horses – the first night he goes into the valley with them.

What’s the name of the next book? – Megan S.

It’s down to among three names, and to be honest, I just need to decide which of the three is most pertinent to the theme and substance of the book. I’m not keeping a secret here – it’s just that I actually haven’t decided which one it’s going to be.

Would it really have been possible to forge iron of the right grade in a coal-fired forge? What about reaching the Curie temperature for the magnetization process? – Sarah T.

I did my research on this! According to Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers , 10th Edition, coal gas burns at about 3,590°F (1,977°C) under 100% air-efficient conditions. More or less air will decrease the temperature. This means that the maximum temperature of a coal fire in a forge is about 3,500°F (1,927°C). The melting point of iron is 2,796.8°F; the Curie temperature of iron is 1,418°F. Matthew would have needed to build a very good, but by no means perfect, coal-fired forge to accomplish both tasks.

How is that Josh returned to Reswyt as Evynder? I thought that, once he was awakened in the dreaming world, he could never go back. – Mackenzie M.

Well, it would be an ill wind that blew no good from Josh’s injury. I’ll give you a hint – oneiric (dreaming) activity was shown to be markedly disrupted in patients with trauma to the parietal lobe of the brain.

Are you going to keep Sabine’s diary going on Twitter for the next book? – Kara R.

I haven’t decided yet, but my initial reaction is no. That was a really fun promotion to run, and I think a lot of people had fun finding and reading Sabine’s diary, but if I do another promotion for the third book, it will be something different.

What kind of mathematical sieve was Matthew coding? – Anandamayi G.

I didn’t pick a specific one, but the Sieve of Eratosthenes – a prime-finding sieve – is the most famous, and probably one of the most likely to be run in an operating-speed contest of the type he participated in.

Can whooping cough really cause narcolepsy? – Katie N.

I did a blog post on this, largely to allay reader concern. I won’t reset it here, since the full text is available on Subterraneum, but the short answer – for the overwhelming majority of human beings – is no. Taryn is something of a special case.

If the rest of the Ennead dies off, as is suggested in Reswyt, how did the Steersman survive? – Sati K.

The causative factor for the decline and death of the Ennead is the loss of human worship. That’s a pretty clear message in Reswyt – that Horus, as a hunting god, saw his worshipers decline once gunpowder was introduced to Egypt. I would imagine that other gods had the same experience as science, particularly the flourishing of advanced Islamic science during the period c.750 CE – c.1258 CE. The Steersman, however, is not a god in his own right; he’s a creation of a god, imbued with an aspect of Anubis (much like Ra created a separate aspect to serve as the Judge in Reswyt, if required).

Would Sabine really have died if her conscious form traveled through all Twelve Gates of Night? – Anna V.

I puzzled over that for a long time, even though it didn’t end up being a plot factor in this book. What I decided was that the weskhet-ra returns to Egypt each morning with no human souls on board. That would mean that the Steersman would at least have had to forcibly put her ashore in the Land of the Dead. Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.