Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. (Click on the titles to be taken to Amazon.) My Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker. The fourth book in the series, Soulless, is still under construction, but, I swear, it will see the light of day! I've also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in my collection, There is No Wheel.

This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.

Coming out in 2014 will be my Oz inspired novel Bad Wizard, published by Antimatter Press. I'm currently working hard to finish up another superhero novel, Cut Up Girl. Watch this space for news!


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse, Book Four: 30426 words

Things are zooming along! I stop this week in the middle of chapter seven. I'm probably a quarter of the way through the book, maybe more. A lot depends on how thoroughly I flesh out some of the subplots. This week, the Romer and Slate and Sorrow part ways, with the Romers planning to sail to the Sea of Wine to escape from Hell, but Slate and Sorrow choosing to stay behind. The Romers have a role to play in the plot, but I currently don't have much in the way of personal story arcs for them. The focus will be on Slate and Sorrow. Later, the Romers do return to take part in a big, climatic battle. But how much time I focus on their side quest is likely to determine whether this is a 120,000 word novel, or a 150,000 word novel.

In this short, raw, unedited excerpt, Slate and Sorrow have ventured forth into hell in the company of a demon guide named Fester. Fester hasn't spoken much before now, and in this scene Sorrow discovers that some demons have annoying verbal quirks:

---

They watched as the Freewind vanished around a bend in the river.

“There’s no turning back now,” said Sorrow.
“As any demon will gladly tell, no one may turn back from Hell,” said Fester.

“I had no intention of turning back,” said Slate, looking at Fester. The muscles of his left cheek twitched as he forced himself to keep his eyes on the devil. “Walker said you’d guide us. He also said you could read our minds. You know where I wish to go. Take us.”

“I know where you wish to go,” said Fester. “But your lover’s wishes are not so.”

“Okay, first of all, we’re not lovers,” said Sorrow. “Second, if Slate wants to find Stark Tower, I want to help him.”

“You would find that quest a bother,” said Fester. “The soul you search for is your father.”

Sorrow felt the blood drain from her face. “Then… it’s true? He’s here?”
“In the dark vale of despair, where he breathes the poison air.”
She crossed her arms. “How did he die?”
“This news will truly make you weep,” said Fester. “For he died quietly in his sleep.”
She frowned. “But… he’s here? Why didn’t he leave when Tempest opened the gates?”
“Your father believed that sinners should burn,” said Fester. “He fully grasps that now’s his turn.”
“If you want to go see him first, Stark Tower can wait,” said Slate.
She shook her head. “It’s… I don’t know what I would say to him that would do me any good. It sounds as if he’s finally getting taught the lesson I wanted to teach him. I can only imagine his shock at going to sleep thinking himself a saint and waking up in Hell.”
Fester shook his head. “Of this fact, you’re father long has known the truth. His soul was black, and each man he hung was proof.”
“He knew?” Sorrow ran her hands along her scalp, feeling as if this revelation didn’t quite fit inside her skull. “If he knew, why didn’t he change?”

“He gave his soul for a greater good, as you also think you should.”
Sorrow turned her back to Fester. She gave a deep sigh.
“I… I don’t need to see him. I don’t want to see him. Slate’s quest should come first.”
“Perhaps it’s due to birth, how easily lies pass through your lips,” said Fester. “But as you've judged its worth, we’ll set forth on your lover’s trip.”

Sorrow started to protest the second use of the word ‘lover,’ but held her tongue. I could have just been in the demon’s nature to try to get a rise out of her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“Which way should we go?” asked Slate, surveying the hills around them. Sorrow looked around as well, realizing that landmarks she’d been unconsciously cataloging were already gone. The hills were moving, so slowly for the naked eye to notice, but rapidly enough to rob her off all sense of direction.
“We must go toward the snow,” said Fester.
“There’s snow in hell?” Slate asked, surprised.
“Since Tempest’s allied with Hush, half this kingdom is cursed slush.”
“We really should stop asking him questions,” said Sorrow. “If I listen to one more rhyme, I think I’m going to scream.”

Fester said, “Screaming here would be—”
“By the pure metals would you just shut up?” Sorrow shouted at the demon.

“—unwise,” finished Fester. “It would draw the gaze of dangerous eyes.”

“Oh,” she said, biting her fingernails. “Then, I guess I should just keep quiet. Sorry.”

“Too late for regret, I fear,” said Fester, gazing toward the ridge of a nearby hill. “A gibbering guardian now draws near. Should you wish to survive this eternal night, draw your blades, for now, we fight.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four: 18952 words

A decent week thanks to a snow day, though I would have liked to get more done. A lot of my time during the weekend was spent playing publisher instead of writer. I had to finalize the Witchbreaker cover and get the ebook files uploaded across several platforms, and, of course, the second I did I found an error in the text, a small one, but I still had to fix it and go through all the uploads all over again. Sigh. Anyway, it takes a few days between the upload and the book showing up in various markets. I'll reveal the cover and talk more about the new edition later in the week.

Fortunately, thanks to the snow day, I met my goal of 10,000 words for the week, plus a few thousand extra. Even better, I like the way things are shaping up. I've been carrying stuff around in my head for a while now, and sometimes ideas that seem great in my skull just crash and burn the second I start typing them. So far, things are flowing nicely.

As promised, here's a sample from this weeks work. It features Cinder, a major player in the final book. Due to unusual circumstances surrounding her conception, she has the power to leap between the material world and the spirit realms. It's a power she'll be getting to use a lot as the book progresses.

Please note, this is raw first draft. It even contains a note to myself, to go back before the second draft to research the physical description of a character last seen in the first book. I use notes like this quite frequently, to help maintain momentum.

Excerpt: (This is from a few pages into the chapter, as Cinder has left the village of the pygmies to search for her mother, and paused for a while to watch long men building a settlement on the shore.)

Cinder turned away and headed back into the maze of brush. Her mother would likely be returning soon from her hunt. Perhaps she could still catch her before she reached their home village.

By now, the chirps of the morning birds in the brush had changed from a song to a cacophony, loud as a waterfall. She didn’t hear the huge boar rustling along the pathway until she turned a corner and found the beast less than ten feet away. The boar was one of the largest she’d ever seen, six feet long from tusks to tail, its powerful muscles bulging beneath a rust colored hide. She skittered to a halt, startled. The boar was as surprised as she was. Half the time, a startled boar would bolt and run. This was not one of those times.

The boar lowered its head, it’s tusks pointed like twin spears as it charged. Cinder met its charge by lowering her spear, planting the tip into the beast’s shoulder. The spear caught in the mound of thickened skin that protected the beast, failing to hurt it. The boar’s momentum ripped the spear from her hands and at the last possible second she leapt, lifting her legs above the slashing tusks, using the creature’s back as a springboard. She landed on the path behind it and ran. With luck, the boar wouldn’t give chase.

Around her, a thousand birds took to the air as the boar spun in its tracks, let out a deafening squeal, and lunged forward in pursuit, its heavy hooves thundering on the volcanic rock.

Cinder was the fastest runner among the Jawa Fruit tribe, but the boar quickly closed the small lead she’d started with. She could hear it panting mere inches behind her, but dare not look back. She still had a hundred yards to cover before she reached the edge of the forest, and the hope of leaping for a branch to clamber skyward beyond danger.

She had no choice. Though her mother had forbidden it, she would have to escape to the other place. Stretching her arms before her, she grabbed the air, then tore it. She ran through into the chill gray landscape her action revealed.

She stopped as the boar ran through her now ghostly form. All around her, the berry bushes lay dead and withered, there leaves gone. The sky, pink with the morning only seconds before, was no dark and starless. She could still see into the living world, the shapes there wraithlike, more shadow than substance. She saw the boar charge on a few more yards before halting, spinning around, its rage changing to bewilderment. The shadows of birds flitted into the air to the left of the boar, their cries of alarm muffled and distant.

The source of the bird's distress quickly revealed itself as Cinder’s mother leapt from the bushes beside the boar. Her mother was the tribe’s greatest hunter, a titan five and a half feet tall. At fifty, she was one of the oldest members of the tribe, though her body was still athletic, hardened by years of constant use. Like other members of the tribe, her skin was dyed green, with her hair a lighter shade of lime. Unlike other members of the tribe, she wore more than just a loincloth, concealing her torso with a vest of leather.

She carried a spear like the one still stuck in the boar’s shoulder, but her mother had far more experience in the proper use of the weapon. With a grunt, her mother drove the stone tip between the beast’s ribs. With a howl of rage and pain the boar spun, its tusks slashing the air, as Cinder’s mother leapt back from their path. Then she calmly reached out and grabbed Cinder’s spear, plucking it free. As the boar slashed its tusks toward her once more, she drove the spear into the beast’s left eye. Bringing all her weight to bear, she drove it deep into his skull. The creature’s body fell dead.

Instantly, the creature’s spirit was a solid thing standing before Cinder. The ghost glared at her with its one intact eye, shuddering with rage. Before Cinder could take any action to defend herself, the creature turned and bolted, turning to smoke as it ran, vanishing from sight.

“Perhaps pigs have a hell of their own,” said a voice from behind.

“Oh,” she said, turning around. “You followed me? Why didn’t I see you?”

The man standing before her shook his head. “I didn’t follow you. I followed her.” He nodded toward Cinder’s mother, who squatted over the fallen boar, freeing Cinder’s spear. She studied the now mangled leather strapping that held the obsidian spear tip in place with a scowl. Cinder knew her mother would recognize the spear as one of her own, and deduce who had to have planted in the boar’s shoulder. Other members of the Jawa Fruit tribe used spears almost half the length of those her mother preferred.

“Tell her I must speak to her at once,” the man said.

“She’ll kill me if she finds out I came to look at the long men,” Cinder said. “She’ll kill me if she finds out I came here!”

“You engage in hyperbole,” the man said. “She will scold you, nothing more.”

“We should wait,” said Cinder.

The man scowled, though his scowl wasn’t much different than his normal expression. Dead men seldom looked happy, but this one’s face seemed permanently set to a look of disgust, as if merely speaking to Cinder was a loathsome task.

In life, he must have been a tall man. (Check Greatshadow description.) His face was thin, his scalp bald, and he wore long black robes, unlike most other dead men she’d met, who were normally unclothed. He differed also from other dead men in his gaze. Most of dead she’d met had wandering eyes, confused expressions, as if they couldn’t quite comprehend where they were or why they were there. This man’s expression was focused, unblinking. He seemed to have no doubt as to the where or why of his existence.

In the living world, Cinder’s mother stood up and shouted, “Cinder! Cinder!”

“She thinks the boar has harmed you,” the man said. “It would be cruel not to tell her you’re unharmed.”

Cinder sighed and nodded. “Wait here.”

“Where else am I to go?” the man asked, sounding both annoyed and amused.

Cinder once more tore the air before her and stepped through. The humid jungle air washed over her, rich with a thousand scents, flowers, berries, bird droppings, and, above all, the scent of blood as the boar bled out from the slit her mother had carved in it’s throat with her obsidian knife.

“Cinder!” her mother cried out again, facing away as her daughter emerged from the land of the dead. The worry in her voice could be plainly heard now that it was no longer muffled by the veil between the lands of the living and the dead.

“I’m here,” said Cinder, softly. “I’m okay.”

Her mother spun around. “Cinder! I found your spear! I thought… I thought you had… what on earth were you doing out here? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”

“I’m fine,” said Cinder. “I was looking for you.”

“Looking for… why? What was so urgent it couldn’t wait until daylight?”

Cinder placed her arms behind her back. “There’s… there’s a ghost who’s come to see you. He says he knows you from a long time ago.”

“Stagger?” her mother whispered, her eyes growing wide.
“It’s not father,” said Cinder. “Though his name is Father. Father Ver.”
Her mother’s face fell. She wiped the boars blood from her obsidian knife against her loin cloth, shaking her head slightly.

“You’ve been to the other place again, haven’t you?”

“I had to go there to escape the boar.”

“And the long men,” her mother said. “You say you came here looking for me, but you really came to look at the settlement again. Again! After I forbade it.”

“No. It’s just… I knew since you hadn’t told me you were going to go hunting, you must have come hunting here, on the edge of the settlement. Father Ver says his business is urgent.”

“He’s dead,” her mother said, sheathing her blade. “He has all of eternity to wait.”

“He says eternity is shorter than it used to be,” said Cinder.

Her mother sighed. “Fine. Let me talk to him.”

Cinder held out her hand. Her mother hesitated, then took her offered grasp and looked around, seeking the visitor. Her mother’s eyes locked on a nearby form, invisible in the material world, but plain to Cinder’s eyes.

“Ver,” her mother said. “I never expected to see you again.”
“Infidel,” said Father Ver. “It would be a dark day in Hell before I came to you for help. A dark day indeed, but a day that has come.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four Progress: 6058 words

This morning I finally started writing the fourth book of the Dragon Apocalypse Saga. My goal now is to crank out 10k words a week and ten weeks from now, at the end of April, to have a roughly 100k word draft. As I roll forward, I plan to update my word count here each Sunday, and maybe include little snippets from the work. Today's snippet is on the long side, nearly 3000 words long, but I think it flows rather quickly. Please note this is raw, unedited first draft. It's possible that every word here could wind up cut from the final draft. I'm notorious for never getting my first chapter's right on the first attempt. Still, I feel pretty good about this one:

Chapter One
Madmen

Wind lashed the white bear and the Black Swan as they marched across the frozen waves toward the Keep of the Inquisition. In the gloomy darkness, the white bear paused, rising on its hind legs, its purple silk cape flapping behind it, the ends threadbare and tattered after weeks of non-stop storms. Its nose twitched as it turned its head first to the left, then the right, sniffing the air, then releasing its breath in great clouds of steam.

"We’re close," said the bear, its voice a gruff growl. "I smell someone."

"Alive or dead?" asked the Black Swan.

"Alive," said the bear. "Though they’re wearing so much perfume, I can only barely detect the hint of sweat beneath the floral miasma."

The Black Swan climbed to the peak of a frozen swell, the spikes in her iron feet skittering on the rock hard ice. Her diamond eyes whirred as she adjusted their focus, until at last she spotted the white robed figure standing atop jagged rocks on the nearby shore, ghostly in starlight.

No, not standing. Dancing, gracefully, arms lifted, toes barely touching as the figure leap from rock to rock.

"Zetetic?" asked the white bear as he climbed the swell beside her.

The Black Swan shook her head. "Equity Tremblepoint, I think."

"Has she lost her mind? She’ll freeze in this wind."

"I’m not sure anyone who dwells within these walls can be called sane," said the Black Swan, as she slid down the swell and continued toward the Keep.

White flowers of frost crunched beneath the Black Swan’s steel toes as she ascended the pebble beach toward the front gate of the fortress. She glanced back across the trackless ice they’d just crossed, praying to no god at all that their journey had been worth it. It felt like an eternity had passed since they’d fled the Silver City, the air thick with the stench of burning flesh. The last of King Brightmoon’s elite guard had thought to push back the tide of Tempest’s unliving armies by pumping burning oil from massive jets atop the palace walls to consume the seemingly endless hordes of the marching dead. Instead, the burning corpses had continued their march, the front lines crushing against the heavy oak of the wooden gate until it charred, then burned, and finally crumbled. The burning army had surge into the palace, bringing death to all that remained of mankind that could reasonably be labeled civilization.

Reaching the gate, she pounded on the frost-covered wood, hoping her knocking could be heard above the howling wind. Her hope was rewarded almost instantly as unseen chains clattered within the walls and the gate began to rise.

After weeks without seeing the sun, she had to raise her hand to block the radiance that flowed from within the castle. She stepped into the great hall, brightly lit with a thousand glory stones floating in silver cages that filled the torch sconces. After the chill of the frozen ocean, the warmth of the hall felt like a furnace.

The bear stood once more on its hind legs, then shrank until it took the form of a woman with gray hair. For an instant, the frost that had tipped the bear’s fur glittered like diamonds against her nude skin until her purple cloak fell around her. She took a step forward, stumbling slightly.

"Are you okay?" asked the Black Swan.

"I’m fine," said the woman. "After walking on four legs for so long, going back to two feels strange."

The Black Swan moved further into the halls, gazing at the paintings that covered the walls and the eclectic statuary set into alcoves every few feet. It was difficult to discern a theme among the artwork. Paintings depicting church-like piety hung above marble nudes of mixed genders locked in graphic depictions of depravity.

The woman in purple silk paused before a painting of a white haired woman wearing pure white armor. The resemblance between the faces of viewer and subject was striking.

"Queen Alabaster Brightmoon," the Black Swan said.

"With paintings like this around, it’s surprising it took us all so long to realize Infidel was a Brightmoon."

The Black Swan shrugged. "I knew it all along. I just thought the information might grow in value as long as I held it secret."

The white haired woman shook her head. "Does anything have value now? Both of us have spent our life in pursuit of wealth. My estate on the Silver Isles makes this island fortress look like a cottage. You’ve got enough treasure stashed away to purchase the obedience of kings. And in the end, what’s all that money worth? Absolutely nothing."

"I can still buy your loyalty, at least," said the Black Swan.

"You might have got me back into the game with promises of a fat pay day, but, honestly, don’t you think at some point your quest to stop the end time became my quest as well?"

"So I don’t need to pay you when this is all over?"

"A contract’s a contract."

"Of course," the Black Swan said. "It’s good to see that some things remain true even in these--" The Black Swan stopped in mid thought as a drawing of black ink on stark white paper framed in glass caught her attention. It was a likeness of herself, naked, or at least unclothed. She didn’t know if the bareness of her iron shell constituted nudity or not. In any case, she now wore pants of black leather and a blouse of black silk to conceal her metallic form. A broad brimmed hat concealed her hairless scalp. Only her iron feet, fingers, and face revealed her mineral shell.

She picked up the frame, studying the intricate detail of the drawing. Beside the depiction of her current form, dozens of gears, pulleys, and braided iron wires were laid out, along with a pair of bellows. These were what passed for her internal organs these days. Beside these sat a small white skull.

"When did you pose for that?" asked Menagerie.

"I didn’t," she said, the lenses in her eyes clicking into ever sharper focus, until she could be certain that the black lines weren’t soaked into the paper as ink, but instead sat slightly raised upon the surface, crafted of pure, rustless iron filaments fine as hair. "Sorrow’s been here. She sculpted my current body. These were her final plans, the ones I approved." She shook her head slowly. "The breasts look so much better on paper than the final product."

"Please don’t get started on that again," the white haired woman said with a sigh.

"Yes," said a faint voice from behind the two women. "Please don’t start a discussion of breasts until I’m close enough to hear the details."

The turned and found an ancient man hobbling toward them, supported by a stave decorated with carved serpents spiraling along the length. The old man was toothless, his right eye a pure white, sightless moon. But his left eye sparkled as he regarded the two women.

"Ah!" he said, sounding delighted. "I had given up hope of seeing an actual woman again before the world came to an end."

"What of the woman outside?" the woman in the silk cloak asked.

"Equity? She’s no woman. At least, I don’t think she is. Or he is." He shook his head. "Pronouns are the simplest thing in the world until Equity takes the stage."

"Why’s she dancing?" asked the Black Swan.

"To say good-bye to the world, of course," said the old man. "It’s ending within the hour, you know. If we make haste, and disrobe along the way, we can still reach my chambers in time to—"

"If you finish that sentence I’ll disembowel you," said the woman in purple.

The old man frowned.

"We’ve no more time to waste," said the Black Swan. "We must see Zetetic at once."

"Zetetic isn’t taking visitors, I’m afraid."

"Tell him the Black Swan is here to see him."

"And Menagerie," said the woman in purple. "He knows me. We were companions during the quest to slay Greatshadow."

The old man smiled. "As long as we’re naming names, I’m called Vigor."

"I know who you are," said the Black Swan. "You’re an authority on reptiles."

"Yes," he said. "Though my specialty is dragons."

"If you know about dragons, do you know why?" asked Menagerie. "Why are they doing this?"

Vigor cocked his head. "You mean destroying mankind?"

"What else would I mean?"

Vigor shrugged. "I haven’t a clue. Zetetic hinted he knew, but I haven’t had a conversation with him in the last five years where I understood a single thing he was talking about."

"Then let us talk to him."

"As I said, he’s not taking visitors."

The Black Swan’s arm sprung out with spring-driven force and locked iron fingers around Vigor’s throat. "Take us to him now or I’ll throttle you."

Vigor smiled weakly as he managed to gasp out, "Threats aren’t… terribly effective.. in the hour before the world… comes to an end."

The Black Swan opened her fingers. "But it won’t come to an end if Zetetic takes action. Why hasn’t he stopped this already? With a snap of his fingers, he could undo all of this! He could send Tempest’s armies back to Hell. He could free Abyss from Hush’s control. He could at least tell us what happened to the sun, and how we might put it back into the sky!"

Vigor rubbed his throat. "I don’t know why he hasn’t stopped it. I hold out the faint hope that Equity’s sense of stagecraft has rubbed off on him and he’s waiting for the moment of greatest possible peril to make a grand entrance and turn back all the horror."

"It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than they are at this exact moment," said Menagerie.

From outside the still open gates, above the howl of the wind, came a bone shivering, high pitched shriek. The Black Swan cut her eyes toward Menageries, her iron eyebrows knitting together.

"I knew I was tempting fate the instant the words left my lips," Menagerie said.

Equity Tremblepoint stumbled though the open gate into the hall. Her white robes were torn to tatters as she collapsed dramatically, her figure framed by the darkness behind her. She arched her back and placed the back of one hand against her brow, while her other hand extended to point into the darkness, trembling, as she exclaimed, "The dead! They’ve found us!"

The Black Swan ran to the gate. A trio of dead soldiers stood in the darkness barely a yard away, with shreds of Equity’s white robes still dangling from their skeletal fingers. One carried a black blade that stank of sulfur as he raised it overhead, preparing to chop the Black Swan in twain.

There was a slight tap on the Black Swan’s shoulder as a squirrel used her for a launching pad to fling itself toward the sword-wielding corpse. By the time it reached the warrior, the squirrel had changed into an enormous silverback gorilla. It grabbed the lead corpse by the wrist and swiftly disarmed it, in the most literally meaning of the word. Then, using the dismembered limbs as clubs, it knocked the skulls free from the shambling forms flanking the first corpse.

The gorilla picked up the black blade and turned back to the Black Swan.

"Go! Find the Deceiver! I’ll hold them off!"

The Black Swan peered into the starlight, at the ragged forms lurching over the frozen swells. Their numbers were uncountable, an army so large it was as if Hell had thrown up the damned souls of everyone who had ever died, which, of course, was precisely what was happening. She knew from interrogating the few demons that had been captured that the undead hordes had been promised the earth once the last of the living perished. With their leaders bearing blades forged from the gates of Hell, as each living man fell, the ranks of the damned swelled. As far as the Black Swan was aware, the last living inhabitants of the earth could be found on this small island far removed from any place that could be called a place, occupied only by madmen.

"Why hasn’t he stopped this," whimpered Equity. "I thought he would stop this!"

"Fall back!" the Black Swan shouted to Menagerie. "There’s too many of them. Get back inside the gate."

"You’ve seen how quickly they can inside a fortress," Menagerie growled. "I can hold out longer than an eight inch thick slab of oak."

"Not alone," said the Black Swan.

"He won’t be alone," said Vigor, hobbling forward on his staff.

Menagerie’s gorilla eyebrow’s shot up. "No offense, but I’m not sure how much help you’re going to be."

Vigor began to disrobe, struggling to pull his shirt over his head.

Equity sobbing despair turned into a rueful chuckle. "There was no chance at all the world would come to an end without Vigor taking one last opportunity to show us off his genitalia."

But it wasn’t Vigor’s crotch that caught the Black Swan’s attention. It was, instead, the elaborately inked tattoo that completely engulfed his torso. The tattoo depicted a dragon in minute detail, and the dark lines seemed to pulse with light as Vigor pulled a small flask of powder from a pocket as he tossed his robes and staff aside.

On wobbly legs thin as sticks, he shouted to Menagerie, "Do you think you’re the only person who ever studied blood magic? For three long years I lived with the scion of Greatshadow. I collected blood frequently, telling him I was studying the effects of the various medications I gave him to heal the wounds he had suffered in infancy. He had no reason to suspect I had plans to study draconic biology from a vastly improved perspective."

He popped open the cork on the vial and tilted his head back, shaking the powdery contents into his open mouth. The wind snatched away much of the dark black powder, giving the air the scent of blood. Vigor coughed as he strained to swallow the dusty mouthful. Red spittle flew from between his lips. He coughed again, more violently, and a jet of flame shot ten feet out from his open mouth. The flames seemed to have melted his face, which grew longer, more narrow, and the heat covered his skin with vivid red blisters, crusted with black. His body bulged as he dropped to all fours. With a horrible rip, his paper-thin skin split along his spine and two long red wings unfolded from between his shoulder blades.

In ten seconds, the transformation was complete, and a dragon larger than a bull with wings the size of mainsails stood facing the armies of the damned. He opened his crocodilian jaws and roared. An inferno billowed over the waves, incinerating the front ranks of the undead army.

Menagerie grabbed the Black Swan by the shoulders, refocusing her attention.

"Go!" the gorilla shouted. "Only Zetetic can stop this now!"

The Black Swan nodded, turning, grabbing Equity by the waist and slinging her over her shoulder as she ran into the hall.

"Where can I find him?" she shouted.

"Put me down before I throw up!" Equity shouted back.

The Black Swan put the aged thespian back on her feet. Equity responded by pointing at a stairway at the back of the hall. "Zetetic dwells in the uppermost chamber of the main tower!"

"And you’re sure he’s there?" asked the Black Swan.

"Of course not. He’s probably long gone into an abstract realm. Even if you find his body, I don’t know that his mind will be with it. But what choice do we have but to try?"

"I’ve been asking myself that for close to two hundred years," grumbled the Black Swan as she ran toward the stairs, he feet clanging like hammer blows on the marble floor. She took some comfort from her certainty that Equity was wrong. If a portal to an abstract realm had been opened within the last few days here on the island, she’d still detect the echoes. As someone familiar with traveling to different realities, she had a sense, just a bare pressure in her head, faint but unmistakable, whenever she was near a dimensional veil that had been breached.

She raced up the steps to the floor above. Flames flickered through a window. She quickly glanced out to see Vigor nearly a quarter mile out on the ice, spewing flames, spinning as he blasted the armies massed against him. Unfortunately, from her higher vantage point, the vastness of the army behind the flaming corpses was revealed. As large as the dragon was, he couldn’t protect the Keep from being overrun by the advancing army.

She ran on, resisting the temptation to look further upon the battlefield. Her only hope lay at the top of the stairs. Her tireless legs moved with machine precision to propel her upwards, leaping three steps at a time.

At last she reached a locked door. She hoped beyond this she’d find Zetetic. She pounded on the door with her fist. "Open up! It’s the Black Swan! You owe your life to me!"

When no reply came, she threw herself against the door. The thick wood cracked, but held. She threw herself again, then again, until the door came apart and she stumbled into the chamber beyond.

It was a room lined with paper. White as snow, in sheets large enough to drape a bed, the walls and ceiling and floor had been lined with the material. In the center of the windowless room, devoid of all furnishings, sat Zetetic, cross-legged, his head in his hands, staring at a small object before him.

She stepped closer, and saw it was a pencil.

"Zetetic?" she said, softly.

He said nothing.

"Zetetic, it’s me. The Black Swan. You know me. You know I’m the one who paid King Brightmoon to spare your life when you were captured by the Church of the Book all those years ago. I greased the palms required to let the king trust you with saving the sun, and paid the necessary fees to have you take possession of this keep. You owe me a favor."

Zetetic didn’t even look up.

She moved to a few feet away. She crouched, her iron joints squeaking. Studying his face, she saw he was awake. He blinked, but never lifted his face to acknowledge her.

She reached for the pencil.

The Deceiver’s hand shot forward and grabbed her wrist.

"It would have been far better if the church had hung me," he whispered. "I owe you nothing."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

And then... the Apocalypse!

Yeesh. Has it really been November since I put up a post here? Admittedly, I've been a wee bit busy. As readers of my other blog know, it's just been announced that I'm the 2015 Piedmont Laureate. This means I'll be teaching several workshops and making several other appearances in the coming year. Tomorrow, for instance, I'll be doing a reading at the Chapel Hill Library at 4pm. Today, I sat down for an hour with a reporter for my local paper for an interview. Since the beginning of the year, I've attended two conventions, a First Monday Classics book club, and the arts meeting where I was introduced as Piedmont Laureate. Not a lot of time at home! No one can say I'm resting on my laurels, even though I now actually have them.

When I have been at home, I've been working hard on a secret project. Last year, I did a series of blog posts where I publicly wrestled with what book to write next. I announced I was going to write a sequel to Cut Up Girl called Big Ape, and discussed how I'd started outlining and doing other pre-work on the book. Then... stuff happened.

Good stuff! I had mentioned here a while back that I intended to write a 4th Dragon Apocalypse book, but couldn't justify doing it until late 2015 because that would be the earliest that I could get the rights reverted back for Witchbreaker, the last book published by Solaris. But, I'm pleased to announce that we've since reached an agreement for them to revert the entire Dragon Apocalypse series to me. So, I've been working silently to prepare Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker print and ebook editions, and I'm happy to announce that Greatshadow and Hush are now available for purchase. Witchbreaker will be following soon. Then, my big writing project for the year will be to finish the fourth book.

I've been thinking about this book a long time. I left the characters in Witchbreaker in somewhat of a cliffhanger, and I've had a couple of years to daydream about what happens next: The world comes to an end. Seriously, not to give a spoiler here, but the next stage for the Dragon Apocalypse series is the eponymous event. By the end of chapter one, everyone's dead. The rest of the book is just blank pages! Or... maybe not, considering that there's been a self-identified time traveler among the Dragon Apocalypse cast since the first book. Finally, the full story of the Black Swan will be revealed. Plus, we'll find out if Slate and Sorrow can find true love in Hell, and learn the fate of Infidel and Stagger's daughter, and discover why Greatshadow had Stagger vow that she'd be raised in his domain. Oh, and we'll see if Numinous Merchant is the Omega Reader, and find out how Zetetic wound up in a painting done centuries before he was born. I can't wait to write this book, because I really want to see how it ends! Did I actually have some master plan all along, or was I just throwing in random stuff and hoping something would eventually come together? We'll find out!

For readers hoping to see Cut Up Girl coming out right about now... patience. I want to see it published more than anyone, but I don't see the point of releasing it until I actually have Big Ape ready to go. When those books come out, I don't want to leave readers dangling for almost two years the way it's worked out with the Dragon Apocalypse. I promise, it will all be worth the wait.

In the meantime, if you haven't read Greatshadow or Hush, now's a great time to try them. I've done a thorough update on both books, tightening the prose, fixing small typos that slipped through the former publisher's editing. They have new covers: Greatshadow is done by Jeremy Cavin (who did covers for Nobody, Burn Baby Burn, and Bad Wizard). Hush is done by Giared Terrelli, an artist I met at the NC Comicon, who I hope to work with again soon.

Ebook and print editions are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.

Monday, November 24, 2014

PUT DOWN THAT HOOK!

One bit of advice often offered to beginning authors is that you should open your story with a hook. I think this advice is responsible for millions of terrible beginnings, openings with overwrought action bits that wind up confusing the reader more than drawing him in. The story opens with a gun going off. It starts with a bang! Or, the story opens with the character dangling by his fingernails from a window ledge. Tension! Suspense! Spare me. It's not that such openings are always wrong, it's just that trying to open a story with suspense kills the best part of reading something suspenseful. You want the stakes to be rising with each page, as the machinery of the plot keeps clicking forward, cog by cog, until you know that when you turn the next page something will have to give. If you start your story at a moment of peril, where do you go from there? The tension either has to decline, or else ratchet up from such a high baseline that it creates unintended comedy.

Instead of a hook, what a writer really needs is a strategy. Anytime you sit down to write a story, you have several important things you want your reader to know quickly. Who is the story about? What's their problem? Why should anyone care? Where and when is the story taking place? If it's science fiction or fantasy, what are the rules the character has to obey in regards to commanding miracles?

What used to paralyze me when I was starting as a writer was the seeming impossibility of getting every important detail on to the first page. I remember one story I wrote about characters exploring an ice-cavern on Mars. It was kind of important to make sure the reader knew they were on Mars, instead of just a glacial cavern on Earth. So, I had to sprinkle in lots of references to Martian terrain, have the characters mention the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, talk about the gravity as compared to what they were used to, etc. I was so busy explaining that they were on Mars that I didn't really get around to explaining the family dynamics of the characters until a few pages later. The hero was a 12 year old boy who'd been born on Mars, and he was exploring the cavern with his mother, a long-term Martian colonist, and her new boyfriend, a colonist who'd arrived on planet only a few months prior. The tension between the son and the boyfriend is the emotional heart of the story, but someone reading the first page could be forgiven for missing that fact. On the other hand, if I tried opening the story with the son and the boyfriend squabbling and the mother trying to play peacemaker, the fact that the story was unfolding on Mars then seemed like arbitrary window dressing. Arguments like this happen in a million living rooms all around the world. Why does being on Mars make it different or special?

At this point, I'd like to tell you how I solved my dilemma: I wrote another story. I set that one aside after a dozen rewrites and moved on. Because, fundamentally, I didn't have an answer to the question of why being on Mars was vital to the story of their family dynamics. I was just using cut-and-paste plotting, taking a story that could be told anywhere and jamming into a setting I thought would be exotic. SF editors of better magazines are looking for stories that blend with their settings in such a way that they could only be told in their specific time and place.

Eventually, I became better at imagining stories that blended character, setting, and plot in insuperable relationships. But, I was still faced with the problem of how to get all my information on the page in a way that would draw readers in. Even today, I agonize about my openings, and they often wind up being the very last thing I write. This was definitely the case with my most recent novel, Bad Wizard. It originally opened with the current chapter one, with George "Grinder" Greer staggering his way through Washington, DC. I defaulted to this opening because Bad Wizard is set in a specific historical era, and Grinder seemed like a decent character to establish the time frame. I reveal he's a Civil War veteran, though he was a young teenager when he served. Now, he's a member of the Secret Service, protecting Oscar Diggs, the Secretary of War. Opening with Grinder gave me a character firmly grounded in our reality, so at the end of the chapter when he encounters Dorothy Gale and her magic slippers, the introduction of magic is a great way to close out that chapter and encourage the reader to turn to the next page. As an opening chapter, it had its merits. Alas, it was the wrong opening for the story.

So, the last scene I actually wrote for the book was the prologue, where Dorothy Gale is introduced in the first sentence. The book is mostly about Dorothy. The best possible strategy is to put her front and center on page one. Rather than put Dorothy in some sort of physical peril, I open with her at the funeral of her Aunt Em. We swiftly learn that her aunt and uncle have passed away, and Dorothy is now wondering what she will do now that her last relatives have passed away. She goes back to the farm lost in thought, and finds the local banker nailing a notice to her front door. The looks at the notice, and reads aloud the word that stands out. The last line of the first page is also the first line of dialogue in the book, a single word: "Foreclosed?"

Winged monkeys and witches can menace Dorothy in their own good time. For my opening, I'm counting on more readers being able to empathize with her real world problems. She's a poor Kansas farm girl about to be kicked out of her home. She's unhelpfully told she can probably find work in Topeka, but has no idea how she can get to Topeka and survive there. She has nothing of value to sell... until she remembers those strange silver slippers that were found next to her in the field after the tornado. Line by line, I guide the readers into Dorothy's world, first attempting to shape an emotional attachment by touching on a problem that most people can identify with. The life she knew is coming to an end against her will; what will she do next? Only after the emotional attachment is formed do I introduce the slippers, and reveal that Dorothy's reality is different from our own because of the existence of magic.

This is now a pretty common strategy for me. Every story is different, and every story will reveal how to tell it eventually. But, just glancing at my short story collection There is No Wheel, of the ten stories, five of them contain the name of the protagonist in the first sentence. Three of them have the protagonist's name as the very first word. Only one story has the name of another character appear before the protagonist. Most of the other stories are told in first person, so there's an "I" in the first sentence, and you might not know the name of the protagonist, but you swiftly gain a sense of who they are based on their unique voice. Only two of the stories open with the characters in any sort of near term peril. For the most part, I'm patient. Establish the character. Establish where and when they are. Clarity is my number one goal. The best hook of all is for your reader to quickly and easily grasp what's going on.

Of course, just saying who your character is and where they are at can be boring. What you need are telling details that reveal your character and your world indirectly. This is the opening to my short story "Echo of the Eye."

Kidd pumped quarter after quarter into the washer at the Laundromat. The humid air was thick with the smell of bleach and Tide. The water in the window of the machine began to turn pink. A career as a butcher had left Kidd unusually skilled at removing blood stains.


The reader will suspect that Kidd is the protagonist, since he's introduced first. The smell of bleach is a strong sensory connection, an aroma almost everyone will be familiar with, and a familiar scent can instantly link a reader to your world. The mention of a brand name establishes that the story is taking place in contemporary America. The water turning pink is meant to be slightly disturbing. Is it because of blood? The next line establishes that there is blood present, though it presents the benign explanation that Kidd is a butcher. And he must be a down to earth guy, doing his own laundry. Still... hopefully, the reader leaves the first paragraph feeling the possibility that something sinister has happened.

You probably won't find many writing books advising you to open a story with a character doing laundry. But, soap suds were the way to go with this particular tale. If you're having trouble finding the right opening for your story, try the direct approach. Introduce your character in the first sentence. Establish where they are at the moment the story starts, whether it's on a starship, in a living room, or out in a forest. Focus on a simple sensory detail, preferably at scent, taste, or texture, that will engage the core of the reader's brain. Give them an intriguing fact to close the paragraph, then move on. Your readers will follow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Win a print edition of Bad Wizard!

 
Yay! Goodreads is finally showing a listing for Bad Wizard, so I'm finally able to arrange a giveaway there! Now through November 15, Goodreads users can enter to win one of five signed copies of my latest novel. Just follow this link to enter, and good luck! 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bitterwood: The Complete Collection, Now in Print!

Behold! Bitterwood, the Complete Collection, is now available in print! I've had it available as an ebook for a while, but couldn't put out an assembled print edition while Solaris still had the paperback rights. Now that they've agreed to revert the rights, I'm finally gathering up the one giant story into one giant book. 
 

And when I say "giant book," it's not hyperbole. This thing is massive, just shy of half a million words long, in a 6"x9" trade paperback that's 800 pages long. This book isn't just good for your brain, it's good for your body, since you'll get a good workout just picking it up to read it. It contains all three of the core Bitterwood Trilogy novels, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed. Then, as a bonus, it contains an entire prequel novel, Dawn of Dragons, plus a bonus short story, "Tornado of Sparks," as well as an introductory essay explaining my creative process in designing my dragons called "Building a Better Dragon." All this for a mere $27 cover price (as opposed to $40 for buying all the individual titles in print). And, to sweeten the deal, Amazon is already selling the book at a discount, at $24.30. Of course, if you are actively opposed to giving money to Amazon, feel free to wander into the book store of your choice and ask then to order you a copy. This is the ISBN-10: 1502906422.

 
I'm not kidding about burning calories while reading this book. It's big! Big I tell you! For those of you who fear you're not up to the task of lifting such a monster, take heart. Starting next week, I'll be unveiling print editions of all the individual novels. Of course, only the Complete Collection will contain "Tornado of Sparks" and "Building a Better Dragon." Get yours today!