Settling into the reins

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Happy 2019.  Hope you’re recovered from the holidays and settled into the reins of a new year.

On the fiction front, Beneath the Broken Moon is currently under the editor’s knife at Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid. My previous experience with an Editorial Service was, to put it politely, disappointing. (I don’t appreciate being viewed as an ATM, strung along with vague promises of actual helpful suggestions for my MS if only I purchased the next tier of services… )

Now I don’t know a thing about Rachelle Stewart Ramirez , but Shawn Coyne’s, Story Grid is on my very shortlist of genuinely helpful books about writing, so he’s got street cred with me. That, and the fact he’s Steven Pressfield’s editor and business partner. If you’ve never read The War of Art or Gates of Fire, you need to remedy that. Right now.

According to the website, the manuscript evaluation includes:

  1. The 6 Core Question Analysis. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will read your manuscript and apply the Story Grid 6 Core Question Analysis to your work. This is a deep dive into your manuscript, analyzing what works and what doesn’t work.
  2. A One-Hour Phone Consultation. You will talk one-on-one with your editor, discussing your own questions and the editor’s analysis of your story. You’ll leave the call with a clearer global, big-picture view of your manuscript and its genre.
  3. A Story Grid Spreadsheet of Your First Five Scenes. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will provide a full Story Grid work-up of the first five scenes of your manuscript. This will give you a black-and-white, close-up view of which scenes are working and which aren’t—and why.
  4. Next Steps Recommendation Letter. Every writer is at a different place in his or her journey. Your Story Grid Certified Editor will provide suggested next steps you can take to level-up as a writer. This will include specific Story Grid homework to help improve your skills and your manuscript.
  5. Masterworks of the Genre Recommendations and Additional Resources. Throughout the Story Grid Diagnostic process, your editor will help you identify and refine your genre choice. Once that’s done, your editor will provide a list of Masterworks to study along with the Story Grid Genre Cheat Sheet for your genre.

All delivered within 30 days.

Nothing so far. Then again, it’s only been two weeks and I remain cautiously optimistic. After all, I need a good editor. I want a good editor. Learning what works and what doesn’t is critical to learning how to write better. More on that as the story develops.

In other writing news, ZONA ALFA is complete. For those who aren’t familiar, I’m a long-time table top war gamer and ZA is a set of rules for miniature wargaming in a Russian-flavored post apocalyptic setting. (Think STALKER and METRO 2033)

Turns out the fine folks at Osprey Publishing in the UK had seen my painted toy soldiers and battle reports at my S7 blog, and were crazy enough to ask me to develop the rules for them. There’s still a lot of Polish and Tweak to do, but this has been a wargaming nerd’s dream come true. My heartfelt thanks to them for the opportunity.

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ZA interior art and possible cover. Cool, eh?

In line with that, I’m currently hammering out another short Tale from the Exclusion Zone featuring veteran Zone Guide, Yuri Bonyev. (Vodka, AK74s and mutants… what can go wrong?)

And when that’s done, I’ll start in on the next installment of The Clar1ty Wars.  Been a long time coming but I assure you the shadow war between the Orbital Corporations and the Planetary Government is about to spill into the streets. The current working title for book 3 is Gun Monkey Rumble. Autonomous drones, genetically engineered agents, cyber-enhanced soldiers, criminal gangs, religious terrorists…  Our hero, black market pharma fence, Seeb Gilani, is going to have her hands full of flaming vials of nitro glycerin.

That’s all for now. My other job (stained glass work) calls. Have an excellent day. Live well. Art hard.

– patrick t.

 

 

Audiobooks and the magic of story telling

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I’m told all the Cool Kids are into Audiobooks these days, so I’m taking my first steps in that direction. I’m happy to announce the short stories ‘Sozo’ and  “A Prayer to Saint Strelok’ are now available at Amazon’s Audible and iTunes/Books.

The first is a straight-razor of a story about a combat vet returning to a broken, near-future America. Remarkably, it was included in The Crossover Alliance’s 2nd annual anthology in  2015.  (I note that of the three TCA anthologies, that year is the only one without a single review. “Coincidence? I think NOT!”) Sorry guys.

OTOH, ‘Saint Strelok’ is a recent short piece inspired by the Ukrainian post-apocalyptic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  video game series. Set in and around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, those games rank in my top 10 all-time favorites. They’re dark, brooding, terrifying, and wonderful. “Call of Pripyat” is the one you want. It’s the most accessible to the first-time stalker.

Back to audiobooks though… I have to say auditioning narrators and hearing my own stories read back to me was immensely sobering. ( I gotta keep at this. God help me.) But on a happier note, I was reminded  of how I used to read to my children – and now my grandchildren – and how there’s something truly wonderful about those hours that’s hard to express because the transaction of those moments goes beyond words.

Dr. Seuss to Tolkien, Kipling to Dahl, R.L. Stevenson, Lloyd Alexander, and a hundred more, reading out loud gets me thinking about the wonder of stories, the music of language, and what I think is a strange but essential osmosis of meaning.

Call me crazy, but I’ll go so far as to say that simple thing, more than any other everyday, ordinary practice in modern society, imparts not just parental/adult care and concern; it cultivates a sense of wonder and adventure. It feeds the imagination, exercises it. I think – depending on the stories- it’s how the core values of being a decent human being in the face of Life’s monsters and perilous journeys are transmitted to our kids.

Now some might label it frivolous but I say it’s a critical investment. Yes, STEM them chillun ’til they wins the Nobel Prize, but this is more than coding classes or the latest tablet/phone. This is heart, not mind, and I suspect this is probably one of the simplest but most profound investments a parent or guardian can make in a child. And all you need is a book. A library card. And an hour or two per week.

Now I’m not equating ‘St Strelok’ with Willy Wonka or Treasure Island. God no. I’m just letting folks know they can listen to two of my stories on their Kindle or phone or whatever device now. I think the narrators did an excellent job and I hope you will too. Please give them a listen or recommend them to a friend who likes my kind of stuff. Fire off a review if you can. It’s nice to get feedback.

Hard Kill‘ is next. My Celtic-flavored ghost story ‘The Barrow Lover’ should be available by September. I’ll let you know for sure when they’re ready.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

Note to self: find that hard cover copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

*** Other Links

Click to see those two stories at AMAZON.

Sozo (Original Cover)    possible cover2

SOZO                                           ST. STRELOK

Making it easy on Beta Readers

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I’ve always understood ‘Beta Readers’ to be those long suffering friends and family of writers who are willing – after putting up with the author while they were writing the novel – to then read it, in its entirety, for internal consistency.  They’re not copy editors or grammar nazis scrutinizing for typos and errant semicolons. No, they’re weighing the substance of the story. Plot flow, character motivations and story logic. They might trip over the occasional repeated phrase, but did it work? Allowing for conventions of genre and personal taste, is this a story worth reading?

To that end, I was trying to come up with a one-page hand out to Betas. I want an easy code for them to mark if/when/why the spell was broken. Jot a number or letter in the margin near the offending passages and move on. Here’s where I’m at so far:

  1. So what? (or Do you care?) Are the characters engaging? Is the drama worthy of conflict? Did you stop caring?
  2. Oh Yeah? (or Is this credible?) Is the tech/magic/psi power ‘logical’ in the story world? Are the characters actions and words believable?
  3. Hunh? (or What the hell just happened?) I’m confused.. ‘Two pages ago we were traveling east and now the Sun is setting right in front of them.’ or ‘I thought she had a gun. Why isn’t she shooting at them?’ stuff like that.
  4. Can we go now? (or I just read a bunch of words and nothing happened) Sure there’s ambiance and milieu, but I define ‘fiction traction’ as ‘plot over word count’. No Value Change, no forward motion, and the prose gets boggy.

Add in a big red “R” for REDUNDANCY – ( “*Sheesh* You said his name 37 times in two pages.”) and a big red “C” for CLICHE – (‘She was as dead as a door nail’ Really?)

One of Neil Gaiman’s Rules for Writing is that when a reader says something doesn’t work, they’re almost always right but when they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.  I think those 6 notations will let a writer – me, in this case – know where the story falters without putting too much of a burden on already gracious and patient people.

Any thoughts on this? Weigh in.

Have a good day.

 

 

Thoughts on ‘art’ as ‘ministry’

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When churched people learn I’m a stained glass artisan who also writes fiction, after they recover from the initial surprise, they often spin my vocation as some form of ministry. (After all, it’s artistic, not practical. Not ‘real’ work, eh) So my windows must be for churches and my stories about Jesus or theology. Or maybe the End Times – that’s OK too.

If I have the time and enough of a relationship with the individual, I try to explain my “Christian” testimony in these contexts actually consists of me treating my client well, doing the work honestly, on time, on budget, and meeting or exceeding expectations in terms of design, execution, and craft. It does not mean I incorporate the shape of a Cross in the window or hide the face of Jesus somewhere in the pattern. And when it comes to writing, well my speculative fiction pieces are most definitely NOT dramatized sermons with Chapter and Verse cross references. In fact, I caution some people against reading my stuff because I sense they’re looking for moralistic parables or family-friendly entertainment. My stuff will only confuse them.

Over the years I’ve encountered various reactions that range from relief through perplexity to downright distrust. Some people understand. Others simply aren’t wired for it. Some are in different  places in their faith, and a few are so locked in to a particular mindset about religion, that any derivation is deviation and immediately suspect. Even though I’ve run this gauntlet many times, I’m on edge whenever it comes up; I’m not looking to argue or persuade someone against their convictions. I’m simply doing what God has set before me – however clumsily.

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After this morning’s devotions, my eye caught the spine of a book on one of my overflowing shelves: Dorothy Sayer’s ‘Letters to a Diminished Church’. Opening it, it fell to a dog-eared page.

“The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

   Church by all means and decent forms of amusement certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Not, if they did, could anyone believe they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

   Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

   And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be called a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

This absolutely rings true for me. This is what makes me strive to be a better, more creative stained glass artisan and to write more honestly and skillfully. I hold myself against this standard whenever I step up to my worktable or sit down at my desk.

And this principle right here is why I urge any believing artist never to shy away from honing their craft and employing any and all the conventions of their medium and genre to make good work. Excellence should always be the mark of Christian endeavor. Our worldview provides us with a foundation, not a straitjacket. Faith is inherently supernatural. It is wings, not chains. It is a benchmark gauge, not a Procrustean Bed.

Don’t accuse me of advocating gratuitousness here, I’m not. By all means be gracious and aware. But Christian artists must access all the tools available to them so their work – whatever that is – stays true to itself and thus to God.

No, I won’t always thread the tension between my flawed understanding and the reality of God without a hitch. But I have to do the work set before me, tackle each project honestly to the best of my ability, and trust it is God who works in me both to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

Trust God. Go forth and Art hard.

Have a good day.

 

 

  • PS: This is also the reason I’m simultaneously stunned and irritated with ‘Christian’ services like VidAngel that censor naughty language and ‘offensive’ scenes from television/movies like Netflix’ recent “Black Mirror” and “Bright”. As if cuss words were the defining factor in secular content and not hearing them somehow makes me more Christian, or renders the show magically ‘God-fearing’ and acceptable. Those folks are cashing in on a cloistered religious mindset and utter lack of discernment.
  • BTW, ‘Black Mirror’ is a disturbing as it is brilliantly incisive. I wish I had the chops to write those kinds of stories.

 

 

Writing in a time of funk and strange.

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Writing-wise, 2017 was lackluster – to use a generous term.

Twelve months on, I have one short story released at the last minute, birthed in a spasm of inspiration, and two larger projects stalled 20% from the finish line. So yeah. Not so hot.

Why? (that perennial question) Between real life, studio work, a persistent, low-grade funk, a national pandemic of strangeness and acrimony,  I confess it was a battle to sit down and slog through. Like pulling teeth. Now none of those are valid excuses – I’m responsible to do the work – but they are/were real. And if that was a battle, some kind of test of my creative mettle, I’m afraid I failed.

Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe this malaise, this inertia is the accretion of my own naiveté and inconsistency. A consequence of laziness and immaturity. It could be put down to what Steven Pressfield termed “Resistance”, or perhaps I’ve hit what Seth Godin calls “The Dip” – that place in the process, the venture, where the initial inspiration and enthusiasm has worn off and the going gets tough. The Dip is re-evaluation time – a prolonged moment to assess whether to push on or be brutally honest and prune a branch that’s taking valuable time and energy that could otherwise be invested in some other, more fruitful way.

I hope it’s just a Dip I can get past, but right now, I honestly don’t know which it is.

That said, I do know that the passing of a year is an occasion to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. I also know I want to be a man of my word; I started those projects and I’m determined to finish them.

item4Now I won’t call this commitment a New Year’s Resolution. Gym memberships soar in Jan/Feb and fall back to regular levels by March. I’m too old and been at this too long to trick myself with slogans and effervescent, self-help sleight-of-hand. Resolutions only work if I’m willing and determined to chop away at them every day after Jan 2nd. However, by God’s grace I’m going to type ‘The End’ on both of those pieces in 2018. Then I’ll take it from there.

 

Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy new year.

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No reason for this picture. It was just too weird to not add.

 

Three Quick Thoughts on Writing

Once upon a time

It’s work. No getting around this. I get flowing with inspiration but most of the time you’ve got to take a deep breath, dive in and trust inspiration to follow. Writing begets writing. Anything worth doing is worth the time and effort to do well. Step back. Take a breather, fine. But don’t give up. Keep your butt in the chair.

The field is overwhelmingly crowded. It’s up to what, a million books published per year in the US now? 2/3rds of those are indie/self published. So 8,760 hours in a year, that’s 114 books per hour.  There is a flood of new titles every time I log onto Amazon. All of them best sellers, each the latest hotness, fulled with explosive action/steamy romance/engaging plot lines ripped from tomorrow’s headlines/spine-chilling horror… Many of them with double, triple, even four times the number of reviews of established classics in their genres. Any writer with a lick of self-awareness can’t help but wonder how their work can stand on its own, let alone get noticed. But that’s the playing field now. And yes, it’s even more work piled on top of the actual writing work.  

I can’t not write. We’ve all been ready to throw up our hands in despair. If you haven’t, you’re either a colossal self-deluded egotist, or you’ve got to give it more time. That said, if story-telling is in your bones, you’ve got to keep going for your own sanity’s sake. I wish you massive commercial success: foreign language rights, weeks on the best seller list, movie rights… but for many of us, the real pay off is not going to be the silver we get in our bank, but the iron we get in our souls by persevering in the creative process. What, you really going to give up and watch TV?

Have a good day. You’re going to make it.

Need a kick in the butt? Read THE WAR OF ART

Semper Gumby

More ‘graphs from my latest mil sf WIP, ZOMBIE SIX.

MEDEVAC crew trains for emergency response

 

SEMPER GUMBY

 

 

Rucker and I watched Tien Chang burn.

Not like we hadn’t seen the effects of an orbital strike before. But there’s just something about fire.

We were across the river, five kilometers away, and could still hear it roar. Buildings were torches. Signs, light posts, cars, flared like kindling. Downtown was a shimmering inferno of melting asphalt, glass, and steel. It is hard to believe those things burn like that. But they do. A city of a hundred and forty thousand people turning to cinders.

I could see flames raging higher and higher, gasping, grasping into the night sky for more air. Soon a vortex would form, pulling everything inward to the white-hot heart, and a pillar of fire would rise on scorching winds over the city center, writhing and howling like Hell’s own tornado.

 

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“Damn,” Ricker grunted. “Admiral Sota is not fucking around.”

“No, he isn’t,” I said.

Lights flickered south of the city along the riverbank. I cranked my optical neurochems and zoomed in: a string of trucks was racing down the highway away from the blaze. Compensating for the light-wash, my tacti-comp ID’d them as Isuzu bulk haulers. Might be insurgents. Might be civilians. It didn’t matter – the evac deadline had passed twelve hours ago. The drone cordon would take them out before they got another kilometer. “The Admiral is not a ‘fuck around’ kinda guy,” I finished.

Rucker nodded absently. He had spotted the trucks too and was tracking them. “So I’m thinking the Timmies said ‘No’ to the Council’s offer of a cease-fire?”

“Word is they shot the diplomatic android first,” I explained. “Then told the rest of the negotiating team to chī shǐ back to the 18th generation. That hurt the Admiral’s feelings, so he decided to send a message.”

Rucker gave a harsh laugh. “Yeah, but Rods from God? Who’s left to hear it?”

I jerked my head south where Xuan Chang and Wen Chang, the two remaining colony cities, stood. “The Turkistan Independence leaders. I mean, nothing quite says, “Listen Up!” like hypervelocity tungsten telephone poles fired from Low Planetary Orbit, right?”

Rucker shrugged. “Well, when you care enough to send the very best….”

It was my turn to laugh. I snorted, looked back across the dark, flame-lit water. “I just hope they listen.”

Rucker shrugged, and started to walk back to our camp. “Bah. I give it two days, boss. Fleet has the entire system on lock-down. Absolutely no traffic from the moons, Belt mines, or orbitals unless it is UNE authorized and got a military escort. Meng Tian is cut off. Methinks the Tim’s glorious revolution just got strangled in the cradle.”

“Can’t argue your logic, but…” my voice trailed off. I had a feeling about this one.

Rucker spread his hands in mock surprise. “Seriously?”

He pointed across the river. “Once word of this spreads, they’ll have to come to the table.  Who wants Chang Two and Three lit up like that? The Timmies may be fanatics but they’re not stupid. The Planetary Council won’t go for it. Not the U.N.E. either, not really. Crisped miners, slagged infrastructure, delayed ore shipments… bad for business all around.”

 

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Rucker spit, shifted his Steyr-30 to the crook of his other arm. “Fifty yuan says we’ll be back on the Hephestus in forty-eight hours, cryo-ed, and zip lining our way to the UNE’s next cluster fuck.”

“From the Freezer to Hell in sixty seconds,” I intoned. “Or your money back. Guaranteed.”

“Zombie Six. That’s how we roll.” he said.

I thumped my chest plate despite the itch at the back of my mind. The Kepler solar system was effectively blockaded, Fleet Marines had landed at New Shenzhen, Tien Chang was burning. I so wanted Rucker to be right.  But…

An A.I. generated, strategic, socio-psych profile can be as meticulous as it is wrong. People are spectacularly illogical. Brute truth is sometimes a kick in the head makes people give up – sometimes it just pisses them off.

I could feel the anger coming off Tien Chang in waves.

He raised one eyebrow. “You’re not taking my bet.”

“Hey, I’ll take your money,” I said. “In the meantime though, make sure our ammo and power cells are topped off.  Chandra has first watch.”

Rucker frowned.

“I’m not jinxing us,” I said. “I want Zombie Six to be ready in case the Timmies won’t see reason, is all.”

Rucker saluted. “Semper Gumby,” he drawled, and went back to the rest of the squad.

***

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