Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rejection was never so sweet

So I got my first rejection letter today via email from one of the editors at the online publisher Flash Fiction for the piece Tinkertoy Genii (specifically the version I recently posted). Flash Fiction specializes in stories of 1,000 words or less.

I have to say, for a rejection it was one of the nicest communiques I've ever gotten from a stranger. Here's an excerpt:
"For a previously unpublished fiction writer, your writing is excellent, the storyline fascinating, the details believable, the conflict gripping."
Now, as it turns out, I didn't resolve the main conflict in the story in the very short word count available, and the editor kindly pointed this out in rejecting it. Can't really argue with that, to be honest, and you'll notice it if you take the time to read the story. Flash Fiction is a tricky format and I'm a novice.

On the bright side, the editor closed with this encouragement:
"While I can't accept "Tinkertoy Genii" I sincerely hope you will continue writing and submitting and studying the craft of flash fiction writing as I truly believe it is valuable in honing a writer's all-around skills. I look forward, as well, to receiving more submissions from you in the future."
I have a couple other ideas that I've written up as rather clunky vignettes that might work in the Flash Fiction format, so I'm going to give those a go in the near future while working on the Illyria novel.

Anyway, after several days of being sidetracked with other work or getting stuck on setting issues, I sat down this morning and wrote 2,000 words for the second chapter and got this pretty positive rejection letter, so I'm feeling much better than I was at this time yesterday.

Vignette: Tinkertoy Genii Final Submission

Tinkertoy Genii by Doug Sims
The voice was a dull, distant roar, rousing her from the depths. Light and sound overloaded her senses, her mind spinning wildly. A memory fitted here, a skill slotted there, an emotion relearned, a pattern recalled. Sounds forming words, words falling through holes in a net being spun furiously but still maddeningly incomplete. Until clarity came at last.
She was disappointed to discover her vision resolved in grainy black and white. Worse was the realization that not only could she not move, she lacked any physical sensation. Her body was simply gone, a void. Good grief, she thought, What kind of retrotech shell have they dumped me into?
The voice continued. “Refugee Valerie Shem, are you conscious and self-aware? This is your scheduled debriefing with the Talos Orbital Authority. Refugee Valerie Shem, are you conscious and self-aware? This is—”
“Yes, yes!” she interrupted. Her voice sounded tinny, tinged with static. Where was here? No, the voice had said that much. Focus! “In what form is my consciousness currently embodied?”
The recording paused. She studied the grainy image of an insectoid drone, sprouting metallic legs at crazy angles, an eyestalk wobbling in front of whatever camera was providing her narrow field of vision. “Ah yes,” continued the drone. The operator was probably running half a dozen of these remotes, interrupting automated procedures as needed. “Greetings. You are currently being stored on a backup server in Talos Orbital spacedock.”
Backup server? Her sense of calm dissolved. “Backup” meant file compression, downtime, dormancy, which in turn spelled fragmentation and memory loss. Questions flooded her mind. Who had been her advisor at the Polytechnic? Where had she seen that glorious sunset on Ramses?
Holes. Like missing teeth, like itches she couldn’t scratch.
“What is my storage medium?” she shouted as loud as the damn box would let her.
“Ah,” said the drone, hesitating. “Nanotubes.”
“Tinkertoys!” cried Valerie. “You can’t preserve a recorded personality on a rod logic system! I demand an upload to a DNA matrix or a quantum computer. And I want a full-mobility cybershell or an android host!”
“Nanotubes are the most robust medium for long term storage,” came the flat reply.
“Who gives a damn about long-term storage! I need full mind emulation now, before I degrade any further. I can afford whatever your backwards Orbital can produce!”
“Your credit account has a negative balance, Valerie Shem,” replied the drone curtly. “The cost of transmitting and receiving your ghost through hyperspace was not met by the funds on reserve with us. You are currently a ward of the state until your debt can be repaid.”
She remembered enough to respond to that. “My homeworld was sterilized by a solar flare!” screamed Valerie. “Why else would I evacuate to some forsaken cluster of satellites orbiting a gas giant in the ass-end of the civilized universe?” She paused, struggling to piece together her memories.
There were fewer gaps than she had first thought, but she noted a pattern to the missing data that belied random errors. “I think someone has sabotaged my records,” she said incredulously.
Her tone became more authoritative. “I request the opening of a formal investigation into the theft of my personal property and an assault upon my personal mind space.”
“Opening personal investigations requires a retainer to be deposited with Talos Orbital Security,” replied the drone.
Damn. She searched her memories frantically for some sense of who might have done this to her, hoping to find backup files hidden in her matrix. How clever had she been?
“Valerie Shem, I must inform you that you as an indigent ward of the Talos Orbital authority, your stored consciousness is scheduled for routine downtime to conserve energy and system resources.”
Bastards, she thought. She kept scanning herself.
There. A hidden memory file, with a recent time stamp. Accessing it, she found a sneaky piece of spyware, designed to record alterations to her cognitive structure. It told her nothing of her former life, potential enemies, or who had violated her mind.
But it might hold the solution to her current dilemma.
“What is the standard protocol in place on Talos for copyright and personal mindspace protection?” she asked.
The drone froze. “Level 1.2 quantum encryption,” it replied. “I fail to see—”
“I had Level 1.5 quantum encryption on my personal data, and it was hacked,” said Valerie.
“Opening an investigation into such matters requires a retainer—”
“I have a detailed record of the assault, showing how it was done, though not by whom,” interrupted Valerie. “This information might be of value to Talos Orbital Security, don’t you agree? Particularly given that the party involved is likely inhabiting your infosphere along with the other digital refugees.”
After a long pause, Valerie continued. “I might add that I have a worm program installed that will delete this information if anyone were to attempt to remove it from me by force.”
“You would run the risk of irreparable damage to your consciousness,” replied the drone.
“Do you think I want to live in this toybox?” she shot back.
The drone began tapping its long, slender appendages for what seemed like an eternity. Then, with a shake of its eyestalk, it spoke. “Valerie Shem, I am authorized to investigate your memory loss and, if your claim proves truthful, negotiate the purchase of your data recording on behalf of Talos Orbital Security.”
Valerie smiled to herself. They were hooked. Time to push. “Of course, I can hardly take part in such a negotiation in my current crippled state. I will need a full mind emulation running at baseline Human-Plus 2 clock speed to assess all parameters, the cost of same to be deducted from my fee.”
“Agreed,” said the drone, extending a probe toward an unseen panel. “Prepare for transfer to mind emulation.”
Before everything went black again, Valerie envisioned baring her teeth. Someone had tried to screw her, but they were going to find that this genii would not stay in her bottle.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Illyria Overview: Old World

Probably because I was trained as an American historian, my setting features a conflict between the cultures of Old and New Worlds.

The New World is
Illyria [ihl-LEER-ee-ah]. For now, the Old World is Draconis [drah-KOHN-is] (not the name everyone gives it). While the lands of the Old World run primarily along an east-west axis, Illyria runs more north-south (just like Eurasia and the Americas, respectively). Draconis is also a bigger continent than Illyria.

From Illyria's perspective, the main civilization of Draconis is the
Dragon Empire (whose symbol is the Ouroboros). The Empire is divided into the Three Realms (also called the Dragon or Serpent Kingdoms), separate nations united by a shared cultural heritage (each civilization was founded by Dragons who taught the principles of culture and technology to lesser beings) as well as by the political allegiance and popular worship that they offer the Trinity of Elder Dragons. These ancient beings--Tiamahta [TEE-ah-mah-tah], Fahfenihro [fah-feh-NEE-roh], and Gormunduro [gor-moon-DOO-roh]--are among the most powerful entities in the Known World.

Each Realm has its own King or Queen who owes loyalty to the Trinity. The three monarchs sit together as the
Triumvirate to pass major decisions that affect the Empire as a whole. The three Realms are:
  • Samar [sah-MAR], the Kingdom of Salt (Whose King sits on the White Throne, made from the bones of a sea dragon), which controls a wide swath of Draconian coastline as well as fertile river valleys. Its people are noted seafarers and founded the first of the Empire's colonies on the Lucian [loo-SEE-ahn] Islands. Gormunduro is the patron Elder Dragon of Samar.
  • Cortado [cor-TAH-doh], the Kingdom of Gold (The Amber Throne, made from a solid piece of amber), which controls the mountains that border the Celestial Hierarchy as well as the mountain forests and an extensive plains region. Its people are called Cortadorans or Ironlegs. The Cortadorans built the flying Dragon ships to navigate their rocky and dry domain, and it was the Dragon ships that first crossed the Ocean of Tears to colonize Illyria. Fahfenihro is the patron Elder Dragon of Cortado.
  • Tilan [tee-LAHN], the Kingdom of Jade (Whose Queen sits on the Emerald Throne, made from jade with embedded emeralds and sapphires), which borders the lands of the Awakened Cities known as the Seven Siblings. Tilan has temperate rainforests and (to come). Tiamata is the patron Elder Dragon of Tilan.
Power within the society Dragon Empire is likewise divided between three major factions:
  • The Noble Houses: None of the Dragon Kingdoms are absolute monarchies, and the various Noble families, in particular the Major Houses (those who have an affiliated adult Dragon), wield considerable influence within each. The current King of Samar belongs to House Rocassa, the king of Cortado to House Vargo, and the Queen of Tilan to House Queztal. The Noble Houses are the only legitimate source of the Dragon-Blooded Elemanteros [el-eh-mahn-TEHR-os] who have the power to control the elements. Many Noble Houses also initiate members into secretive Mystery Cults based on the teachings of lesser or legendary Dragons.
  • The Imperial Church: The High Church teaches a doctrine based on personal karma, the reincarnation of souls, and the status of the Elder Dragons as gods that walk the Earth in the form of the sacred Trinity. The Imperial Church is divided into three major Orders, each based upon a fundamental aspect of the material world: The Order of the Eternal Sky, the Order of the Endless Sea, and the Order of the Unbreakable Stone. The priests of the High Church are also the only ones taught the secrets of ritual ceremonial magic, which can twist Fate (by altering probabilities) and sway emotions.
  • The Guilds: The Guilds are the primary engine of innovation within the Dragon Empire, though they too are bound by strong traditions and a desire to protect their status. The Crafting Guilds use Alchemy to create supernatural artifacts, materials, and potions. The Merchant Guilds use the art of Scrying to locate new lands, anticipate profitable ventures, and navigate treacherous routes. Those who reach master status in one of the magisteriums (or fields) of Alchemy or Scrying are titled Magisters. The Guilds, particularly the Merchant Guilds, have the greatest degree of contact with foreign nations. Wealthy Guild members also founded the various confraternities, influential combinations of philosophical societies and private clubs.
Some 125 years ago, the Nobles and Guildsmen of Samar used their seafaring and diplomatic skills to negotiate with the various tribes of sea serpents to gain passage across the Crimson Sea to the Lucian Islands, where they founded what became the first Viceroyalty of the Empire. Further expansion westward across the Ocean of Tears was halted when the Samarans encountered the Dreaming Hierarchs of the North and had to bear the brunt of conflicts against the pale-skinned folk and their otherworldly gods.

Just over 100 years ago, the Cortadorans crushed the last significant remnants of the Night Walkers, a loosely knit confederation of necromancers and undead who occupied the Rakasha Mountains on Cortado's eastern border. Around 75 years ago the Cortadorans sought to improve their fortunes and flew westward across the
Ocean of Tears in their great dragon ships (built by the Alchemy of the Craft Guild Magisters, empowered by Noble Elemanteros, and piloted by Merchant Guild Magisters), founding the first Dragon Realm colonies along the eastern seaboard of Illyria.

Cortado's colonizing efforts were fueled by greed, religion, and old hatreds. The Guilds found both new resources to exploit and new freedoms to purchase for themselves in the form of charters to operate in the New World. The Imperial Church found entire new peoples to convert. And the Noble Houses found to their horror that Night Walker refugees had beaten them to Illyria, forming their own settlements. The result was a brutal crusade led by Noble warriors, aided by mercenary bands, and accompanied by waves of indentured servants.

Illyria became the second Viceroyalty of the Empire. Illyria swears fealty to the Triumvirate, but the Noble Houses and Guilds of Cortado dominated the colonizing process and the King of Cortado takes the lion's share of the wealth generated by the colony.

The inland area in the Northeast of Illyria, known as Arbolia [ahr-BOH-lee-ah] or the Valley of Trees, was finally conquered 50 years ago, when settlement by Imperial citizens and their slaves and servants began in earnest.

Now Cortado and Samar vie for influence in Illyria, while Tilan busies itself dealing with the Awakened Cities, a league of living metropolitan gods created by humans through the use of geomancy and sacred architecture.

The Imperial Church

The High Church, which teaches a doctrine based upon reincarnation and karma, extends across the Realms, although its northern, eastern, and western branches each espouse a slightly different variation of the core faith, and there are countless minor sects and heresies.

The Church does not have any of its own Dragons, but its leaders communicate directly with the Trinity. In this way their ultimate loyalty is not diluted by the creation of ties to lesser Dragons.

The Church has three major Orders, each associated with one of the primary elements that makes up the visible world: Air, Water, and Earth. Each Order has priests, monastics, and lay followers. [Each Order may be thought of somewhat like the orders of the Catholic Church: Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans, each following the same faith but with an different emphasis on how to interpret it.]

The Order of the Eternal Sky (Bluesashes) promotes logic, observation, and rational behavior as the best ways to comprehend the world and live within it while pursuing the correct path toward enlightenment. Its primary missions include education, exploration, and the reforming of corruption.

The Order of the Endless Sea (Greencaps) emphasizes intuition, empathy, egalitarianism, adaptability to unexpected circumstances, and surrendering to fate as the keys to success and spiritual growth. In some ways it is similar to strains of Taoist thought, with an added emphasis on social justice.

The Order of Unbreakable Stone (Graycloaks) teaches stoicism, patience, endurance, obedience, and force of will as the pillars of right behavior and thought. It is strongly focused on stamping out heresy

In broad terms, the Order of Stone is strongest in Cortado, the Order of the Sky is strongest in
Tilan, and the Order of the Sea is strongest in Samar, but each Order can be found in every Realm. Gormundero is associated with the Order of the Sea, Fahfenihr with the Order of Stone, and Tiamata with the Order of the Sky.

The Order of the Flame is a small and secretive group. They are used whenever the Trinity feels that a region is in need of purification through religious fervor or when the Trinity secretly wants to foment revolution for reasons that mere mortals cannot fathom.

The various Guilds have their own confraternities associated with various elemental principles. The Noble Houses are noted for having their own secret Mystery cults that have arcane rituals and multiple levels of initiation.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dragon-Blooded, Part 2

One thing I think I'll add to the elemental magic of the Dragon Blooded is the concept that an elemental magician must attune him or herself to the element that they wish to control, and that this process brings with it detrimental side effects.

I want this kind of magic to have some down sides because it is more immediate and versatile in many of its effects. Sorcerers have to find spirits, bind them, and then deal with them. The Guild magi have to create their effects and tools in advance. The ceremonial magic practiced by the Church requires both time and typically a group effort to initiate. Whereas an elementalist can call upon his or her chosen element once the necessary power has been channeled.

Attunement is a concept I've seen in several places, so it's hardly completely original. But a lot of fantasy elements keep reappearing.

Anyway, here are the bad side effects associated with each element:

Earth--Body becomes particularly fertile ground for various microorganisms, highly susceptible to various sorts of fungal infections on the skin, produces a ripe smell due to bacteria. On the plus side one can digest almost anything.

Metal—Bones turn increasingly metallic and heavy, causing unpleasant stress on muscles and tendons. Basically move more slowly much of the time, endure chronic pain--can get so bad that limbs are voluntarily amputated. Unlike real life, the metallic bones don't result in blood poisoning. On the plus side, very hard to break a bone.

Fire - Body temperature rises, renders the elementalist sterile, physical dehydration and associated bouts of delirium a problem. On the plus side, quite resistant to cold and warm weather won't cause any worse effects.

Lightning—Body’s electrical impulses become irregular, leading to uncontrolled spasms and twitches; body may also radiate ions during bad moods that make nearby people uncomfortable and edgy. On plus side, can produce a pleasurable electric buzz in others.

Air- Bones become brittle and fragile and body loses mass in the form of lower density. The elementalist becomes less physically strong because the bones make for weaker levers. [Note that the Dragon-Blooded still has heightened stamina and healing abilities.] The positive is that the aerially attuned have beautiful speaking and singing voices as well as exceptional breath control.

Rain—Emotional moods generate highly localized, very minor weather effects (little clouds, fogs, mist, frosty breath, etc), making it very hard to conceal one’s feelings. On the plus side, the rainmaker can always stay cool in the heat.

Water-- Become cold and clammy, take on more water weight, get heavier, move more slowly and clumsily on land but swifter and agile in the water, like a sea lion.

Wood—Must spend longer and longer periods in a physically dormant state. On plus side, less need to eat.

I'm also thinking about giving a particular flavor to the Noble Dragon-Blooded magic based on which the three Realms (West, North, or East) that the Noble House belongs to, similar to how the Guilds in each Realm focus on different applications of material magic, but I haven't really figured that out yet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Setting: The Color Question

Yesterday I read this post about people of color in fantasy/sci fi on my friend Aaron's blog. It deals specifically with the case of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books and how the main characters were changed from people of color to a bunch of white folks in a poorly adapted mini-series.

The names of most of the characters and places in the Green Kingdoms in my Illyria setting were taken from aboriginal or Maori names and words. Some of those names sound Celtic, while others don't. I imagine a number are versions of Anglic names. Whatever the case, I liked them, and it seems fitting to make the residents of Illyria not be white.

As things currently stand, my Trolls are based on Neanderthals, so they're pale-skinned and fair haired (tending to red-heads) according to the latest research on the topic.

My Elves are darker-skinned, like the inhabitants of the southern portions of the Indian sub-continent.

Most of the residents of the Green Kingdoms have light brown, caramel or mocha-latte colored skin like the people of Cortado in the Old World from whom they are descended. They turn darker with more sun exposure.

In the Western Forest of Illyria one finds lighter-skinned humans, descended from their Old World ancestors called the Night Walkers. In the frozen North one finds dark-skinned human colonists from Samar, the Northern Empire of the Old World.

The Great Wolves are gray, while the Hents tend to have deep brown fur and the Selkies range from dark-gray to black.

Now, back in the Old World I have three more cultures whose dominant skin colors I haven't determined. There's an Eastern Empire, there's the Divine Hierarchy folk who worship the so-called Gods Above in the South, and there are the people of the Awakened Cities.

The easy thing to do would be to make the Eastern Empire residents "yellow skinned," the Hierarchicals black-skinned, and the Awakened Cities folk Asiatic as well. But those cultures are not exact cognates for Chinese or African or Arabic societies.

Now that I think about it, there's another option I find interesting, which involves playing with the geography of the Old World and our western European/North American preconceptions about cardinal directions and latitude.

What if the Northern lands lie closer to the equator and the Southern lands are colder? The Western lands could stay pretty much the same. At first blush I like this idea, inverting certain concepts. It's simple but simple often works.

So in this case, the inhabitants of Samar in the Old World would be dark-skinned. I like that, as I had the Guilds there slotted for wielding sympathetic magic of a very sophisticated nature--some overtones of voodoo but with a more mechanistic/technological feel. So they are similar and different from stereotypes that readers might jump to.

I'd still make the original Night Walker-descended Old World settlers of Illyria and the Green Valley be paler in complexion than the northlanders (in part because they deal with death and night), but now the Frost Land colonists from Samar would be black.

The inhabitants of the southern lands would not be part of the Dragon Realms, but would instead worship the djinn/angel like beings known as the Gods Above. I like that association as well.

Then in the Eastern Empire the inhabitants will be predominantly reddish-brown or coppery in skin tone. So will the rivals who split off from them, the geomancers who created the Awakened Cities.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Sorcerers control spirits (associated with natural places and animals) and ghosts (the souls of dead sapient beings). They are an unusual by product of Illyria's history.

In the Old World, binding souls is strongly discouraged, as it is associated with the dark necromancy of the Night Walkers, a civilization destroyed by the Empire of the North.

(There is a big tradition of binding souls VOLUNTARILY in the Eastern Empire, where revered ancestors may be bound into household shrines and honored as a way of easing their reincarnation into a higher form. In the North, people might talk to the dead by allowing spirits to possess them--but in doing so they would making themselves vulnerable to the dead.)

Because refugee Night Walkers were the first Humans and Goblins to settle Illyria, the tradition of soul-binding came to the New World. There it conflicted with the indigenous Shamanism, which negotiates with spirits and accepts possession by them rather than binding them.

When the Western Empire began to found it's Illyrian colonies, it wiped out the Night Walker pockets that it found, the last being found in what are now the Green Kingdoms. To fight the Night Walkers as well as hostile indigenous cultures (who opposed the new colonizers as they had the old invaders), the Imperials found it necessary to accept sorcerers into their own forces to counteract the spirit magic they encountered.

Once the wars of conquest were over, the Western Empire made sorcery legal under certain limits. Only the Wardens of the Western Forest, the personal Huntsmen of the various Illyrian Kings and High Nobles, and the masters of the Shadow Guild may bind human souls, and only those of convicted criminals and traitors. All other spirits used by sorcerers are to be those of animals or "lesser" species such as Great Wolves, Hents, or on rare occasions Trolls.

However, there is always talk of rogue sorcerers who disobey these bans. Typically they commit their soul-binding crimes in one locale and flee to another to sell their services to unscrupulous employers.

Whereas the Dragon-Blooded are typically taught by the Human and Dragon tutors of their own Noble Houses, with various manuals of instruction being produced for each House, sorcery is a more mysterious and secretive art. Outside of the Wardens, Huntsmen, and Shadow Guild, it is only taught by one master to one apprentice at a time.

More Magic Modification--Dragon Blooded

I've realized that I can write a more complex nonfiction-style setup than I'm comfortable writing as a narrative.

So I'm trying to nail down a simplified approach to the magic and such. I think I've got the Guilds in a pretty good place. As for the Nobles, I'm streamlining that concept to focus on the Dragon-Blooded aspect, since the relationship with Dragons plays a key role and the idea of ability being passed through bloodlines ties nicely to the conceits of the aristocracy.

These empowered individuals are known as the Dragon-Blooded Elemanteros, or the Dragon-Blooded, or simply the Elemanteros [el-eh-mahn-TEHR-os]. Elemantero is singular.

The ranking members of each major Noble House and their scions can control elemental forces because they have been physically imbued with the enchanted blood of their House Dragon. The abilities associated with being one of the Dragon-Blooded can pass down from the originally imbued generation to the next, but this isn't reliable and such traits attenuate after a few generations. What's typical is for a person of the ranking noble line to receive an infusion of Dragon blood during their coming of age initiation rites. This happens for both young men and women. Bastard offspring with elemental powers are possible, but they'll be wild talents unless they get some sort of training.

Being Dragon-Blooded gives you a stronger constitution than mere mortals, giving you a longer natural lifespan and it also gives you access to whatever elemental forces your Dragon sire has mastered. A Dragon that has mastered a wide range of elements can pass along a much greater variety of ability to its House.

The caveat is that while a Dragon might master conflicting forces, you'll only be able to handle one major element and whatever its secondary related elements may be, as per the Elemental Schema chart. The specific Element(s) you can control depends upon your psychological makeup. This also effects how you control those elements. Those who are not suited to the only elements available will end up controlling them reluctantly or doing so in unusual ways.

Repeated infusions of Dragon Blood can increase your power and heal severe injuries, but every time you accept it you are transformed into a more reptilian form. This is called Embracing the Dragon. And you don't ever want to take blood from two different Dragons into your body, even many years apart. Very Bad Things happen.

Being Dragon-Blooded only gives you the power to manipulate certain elements. The skill to do so comes through training, natural aptitude, imagination, and will.

This creates a form of magic that I think has interesting story implications and possibilities.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Illyria Update

Thanks to some feedback from my buddy Aaron and a lot of thinking while working on a big garden project, putting in two stone-walled terraces on the slop in our backyard, I've really cleaned up and tightened a bunch of the setting concepts for my Illyria fantasy novel, Dahvo's Treasure. I'm almost done compiling these in basic form into a setting document (complete with a map and a diagram) that sets the stage nicely.

I've also written out longhand (thanks to several trips to a library near my kids' school with a notebook, an iPod, and earplugs) a decent outline for the whole plot, which I've translated into a more detailed electronic document for the first ten or so chapters. I've got a decent draft of the first chapter out and made good progress on the next two chapters, which I hope to jump back into soon, as I'm eager to return to the actual writing as opposed to the prep work.

I feel pretty good about the whole thing; new ideas and insights into the characters are popping up again, the setting is feeling pretty fleshed out, complex, and believable, and I think the plot works on a variety of levels. If I can push through with a manuscript I can see taking the story in interesting places for several sequels. Oh, and I also wrote out a chapter by chapter synopsis and a short setting document for another related novel concept, an urban fantasy police procedural I'm tentatively calling Elfshot.

Not much point doing all this if I'm not going to indulge in a few dreams.

Anyway, in the past month this writing process has gotten enjoyable again. I don't pretend that all the elements I've created to this point are perfect; all of them can be improved. But I do feel that they're pretty good at this stage, and that is satisfying.

Review: LA Requiem, The Two Minute Rule

Recently finished LA Requiem and The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais. One's an interesting modern take on the hard-boiled private eye genre, the other's a fast-paced page turner about a former bank robber who gets out of jail only to find that his estranged police officer son has been murdered.

In Sum: Both novels are well written. The parts that I saw coming felt right, the author developed some of the main characters in surprising ways, and he had some good twists here and there. Nicely crafted stories that were enjoyable reads.

LA Requiem has a character named Joe Pike who is one of those quasi-superhuman ex-military guys who show up all too often in action fiction. He wears sunglasses all the time, he's extremely fit for his age, he's taciturn, he's a killing machine, he's incredibly stealthy, and he has uncanny powers of observation when it comes to tracking and finding clues. He'd be completely unbearable if he was the main character or if Crais didn't go to the trouble of showing us how lonely Pike's life is and how he's alienated so many of the people around him over the years.

The narrator is a guy named Elvis who is more flawed, though still competent, and easier to like. There's a surrounding cast of characters who are generally interesting, including the LA private eye genre staples of incompetent brown nosing police detective, rich guy with political pull who hires the PIs, and the honest cop who helps the PI protagonist even when doing so might amount to career suicide. In this case, the honest cop is an attractive woman. So while it isn't earth-shattering, it reads a lot like a well-done movie.

The Two-Minute Rule is more original. The main character is flawed but not so much that you find him creepy or pathetic, and you sympathize with his desire to learn why his son, who he remembers as a little boy that he let down, was murdered. And it has a great character in a middle-aged former FBI bank crimes investigator who is struggling as a single mom following her retirement and who proves to be all too eager to get back into the thrill of tracking down felons, as the murders are tied to a big bank heist carried out, ironically, not by a brilliant gang but by two steroid-inflated morons. The main characters are honest about their own flaws and not so caught up in their own little worlds that they can't see the strengths and foibles of those around them. A good story with a couple twists and a satisfying yet generally believable resolution.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Harmonious Soul

Last week I went with my son on a field trip with his gifted 1st/2nd grade class to the Discovery Center here in Boise, Idaho. One of my favorite parts of the visit was watching each child, with the help of the teacher, use the Center's harmonograph (which looks a bit like the device seen here) to produce beautiful spiraling designs (sort of like these) on a sheet of paper.

The teacher collected all of the resulting images and posted them on the wall outside the classroom. As I was looking at them this morning I was struck by the fanciful idea that each image represented a EKG of the soul of each child. Some of the patterns turned really chaotic at the core, others were simply complex. My son's was one of the largest patterns and one of the simplest at the core, with a great deal of symmetry.

In a way, that pattern reflects how I perceive him. He has a powerful mind that runs to picking up minor obsessions for months at a time. He has a very literal way of looking at the world as many Asperger's Syndrome children seem to do. He's very trusting and he's trying very hard to understand our world with all its white lies and fables. And though it can be frustrating trying to deal with his frustrations and sorrows and tantrums each day as a parent, there's a beauty and elegance to his joy and his love and his curiosity that makes me take pause on occasion and just watch.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Schismatrix and The Alchemist

Recently finished two books:

Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. This book is full of science fiction ideas about technology and society that seem believable and fresh today even though it was written nearly 25 years ago (1985). It has the same trouble with fairly flat characters who seem to exist more to show off particular technologies or social ideologies than to undergo actual growth and change that pervades most of Sterling's work. But it is a remarkable book nonetheless, one that I think I struggled to understand when I first read it as a teenager. Reading it now for the first time in over a decade, I have a greater appreciation for the imagination the author displays. At the same time, the clunkiness of the narrative stands out a bit more.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. This is a short novel about a shepherd boy who seeks his destiny, which begins as a journey in search of a hidden treasure amid the Pyramids and ends as a quest to learn the secret Language of the World, which is the key to spiritual and psychological transformation, which in turn is the true goal of alchemy. It has the tone of a fable and presents a lot of interesing insights into the character of human feelings and emotions and how we treat each other, as well as some thoughtful ideas about the nature of fate. All in all, a nice story that makes you think about your own dreams and what you are or aren't doing to achieve them.