The Writing Life

From a newsgroup post dated October 14, 2014:

Had odd dreams last night; one was clearly the result of being on six (!) panels at Capclave, but the other isn’t quite so readily explained.

In the last dream, which was still going when I woke up, a reader was asking me (in e-mail, I think) when I was going to get back to my “Cyber War” setting, and whether it connected to my other story settings.

I explained that yes, it was connected to my two time-travel series, “The Deleted Dinosaurs” and “The Time Meddlers.”

None of these three actually exist, of course, and other people have written series called “Cyber War” and “Time Meddlers,” but “The Deleted Dinosaurs” sounds promising. Anyway, in the dream I’d written multiple stories in all three series, starting in the 1980s.

In that earlier dream I was one of the headliners at a second annual event where the first one had gone spectacularly well, to the point the organizers (I might have been one of them, it wasn’t clear) had done very little preparation, on the assumption that everything would go smoothly because it had before. It didn’t; no one could remember the schedule or find the printed programs (though we all agreed that they existed, albeit in insufficient numbers).

The event was some sort of writer-training thing. There were supposed to be panels and workshops, but the lack of organization meant those weren’t happening. At some point I took the bull by the horns and began lecturing a large audience on manuscript preparation — a lecture I have actually given, but not for a decade or more because it’s out of date in these days of e-mail and electronic submissions. I remembered its obsolescence when I woke up, but I don’t think I did during the dream. (The dream was interrupted by a neighbor’s yapping dog, but I went back to sleep and eventually dreamed about that three-part SF series.)

The lecture dream clearly resulted from Capclave, but the program at Capclave was actually superbly well run this year except for being too long — it started at 3:30 Friday (I was on that panel) and ran until 5:00 Sunday (I was on one of the last set, too; there were three at that hour, instead of just one). It was well-attended, too, except for that last slot.

The connected-stories thing, though, just comes from being a writer for a long time.

I don’t usually remember any of my dreams, let alone two semi-coherent ones from a single night; I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m pretty sure there was yet another dream I almost remembered in between the lecture and “Deleted Dinosaurs,” but I can’t recall any details.

About Story Settings

From two newsgroup posts both titled “Work in Progress: Bait (title will probably change),” and both dated April 21, 2013; I retitled it because (a) “Bait” did change titles, and (b) it isn’t really about that story in the first place.

“Bait” is now Veran the Fair and the Thieves of Borgran, and it still isn’t finished.

Today I got thinking about the setting, and realized I’ve been inventing too many backgrounds from whole cloth lately, instead of fitting stories into existing settings. Because of the way its magic works, Bait doesn’t work in Ethshar…

Setting of twelve novels and eleven short stories so far, beginning with The Misenchanted Sword. Many more planned, some begun. Multiple forms of magic with fixed rules, but none of them fit Bait.

… or the Bound Lands…

Setting for A Young Man Without Magic and Above His Proper Station. Unwritten/partially written stories in this setting include On A Field Sable, Assassin in Waiting, Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire, Untrue Names, The Prince’s Return, etc. Magic… well, there are actually three kinds, something the characters themselves don’t realize. I know the rules of sorcery (as do many of the characters), but there’s also wizardry and chaos magic.

You know, I could maybe make Bait work set in the Cousins. Hmm. But I’d need to rework some of the magic, because sorcery does everything through wardings and bindings, and that doesn’t allow for the teleportation spell I need in Bait, and it does allow for
transformations…

Naaah.

…it would be a tough fit for Barokan…

Setting for the Annals of the Chosen: The Wizard Lord, The Ninth Talisman, The Summer Palace. No further stories contemplated. Magic is derived entirely from spirits, which doesn’t fit.

…or the Lands of Man…

Setting for the Obsidian Chronicles: Dragon Weather, The Dragon Society, Dragon Venom. No further stories planned, really, though a prequel called Lord Dragon was discussed a few years back. Magic
is vaguely defined, subtle, and complicated, and neither the magic nor the geography matches what I need in Bait.

…and it would only fit the Restored Lands if we go back the Great Pollution, probably before the Final War.

The Restored Lands (name subject to change) are the setting for The Dragon’s Price, an unfinished novel intended to be first of a series called The Signs of Power. Wizards are extinct; magic now takes specific forms indicated by specific birthmarks on the few people who can use it, and is strictly regulated by a theocratic regime.

(Though that’s maybe an interesting idea, that it is the Restored Lands long before they needed restoration.)

That could work, but would add theological complications, as there are real gods who can intervene in the mortal world in the Restored Lands, and I don’t want divine interference in Bait.

I don’t even remember what I called the setting for “Arms and the Woman” and Meant for Each Other, but it doesn’t work there unless, once again, it’s set in the distant past, before the Extinction.

“Arms and the Woman” is a published short story; Meant for Each Other is an unfinished YA novel. I like their setting and hope to re-use it elsewhere, eventually — it’s a world where (once again) wizards are extinct, but lots of their leftover magic is still cluttering up the landscape. But no wizards means no Bait.

I don’t think it’s really a good match for Meloria or the Inner Lands, from The Innkeeper’s Daughter, either, though that could maybe be made to work.

I’d need to rewrite what I have of The Innkeeper’s Daughter, I think, to make the magic match up better. The Inner Lands are ruled by the evil Lord Gorzoth, and a prophesied hero from Meloria is coming to try to kill him. Magic is complicated, poorly understood, widely but erratically distributed — not a good fit.

But on the other hand, I realized that it could fit the setting for an unwritten story called Home is Where the Heart Is. In fact, using that setting works really well.

Home Is Where The Heart Is consists of one page of notes and a lot of stuff in my head, I hadn’t actually started writing it yet, and until today I had no intention of ever using its setting for anything else, but it would work great for Bait, so there we go.

The working name for that setting is now The Wizardly Desmesnes. It’ll probably change.

The News from Ethshar

From a newsgroup post dated February 20, 2013:

So I just got a fan letter from someone wanting to know when I was going to write more about Valder of the Magic Sword, and I wrote back that I’d had At the Sign of the Crimson Wolf in my plans for decades but hadn’t gotten around to it, partly because the ending I’d outlined was really lame, and while I was typing that I suddenly realized that the entire existing outline had a HUGE GAPING STUPID PLOT HOLE, and fixing it could yield a much, much better ending. Much better.

(I had, incidentally, already fixed one huge gaping plot hole, long ago — somewhere between 1989 and 2004. Maybe that one kept me from seeing this other one.)

Anyway, I pulled up what I had on the project — basically, three files, one the opening, one the outline, and one a bunch of notes — and assembled it into a single file, and added my sudden new insight, which took all of three sentences. But it was interesting doing this, because upon looking at the outline I discovered I had completely forgotten a major subplot, and looking at the notes I found a paragraph I’d cut and pasted from a letter I sent Lester del Rey on February 3, 1989, talking about the project — and mentioning in passing that it was one of nine not-yet-written Ethshar stories that I had planned at that point.

I wonder what the other eight were? I mean, I can think of three of them off the top of my head, but I’m really not sure which others were in there…

Oh, wait. Six of the eight are accounted for. But the other two I’m still unsure of.

There’s also a note to myself dated September 3, 1990 (no, I don’t always date notes to myself, but sometimes I do) suggesting a plot twist that I’d forgotten that’s probably a bad idea.

Anyway, this has been entertaining, and has suddenly jumped At the Sign of the Crimson Wolf out of the great undifferentiated morass of “things I might write someday” into fourth place on the list of “Ethshar stories I intend to write,” behind Ishta’s Companion, Stone Unturned, and Azraya of Ethshar.

Note: Ishta’s Companion got written and was published as Relics of War, Stone Unturned is written and awaiting publication, but I’m in no hurry to write either Azraya of Ethshar or At the Sign of the Crimson Wolf just now.

The Muse Plagues Me

From a newsgroup post dated January 5, 2013:

On Usenet there’s a busy thread about high-tech guns incorporating various technology to make them safer or more accountable, and goddammit, now I have the opening scenes of a story in my head.

At first I thought I might have a complete short story, but then I realized that no, it’s the opening of a much longer tale.

So it’s a near-future setting where gun control efforts have taken the form of requiring (or strongly recommending) new guns to incorporate a device that informs the local police any time the gun is fired outside a shooting range, and a camera that goes off whenever the gun is fired, showing what it shot at.

And one dull evening the cop on monitor duty gets an alert — someone has just emptied a .45’s twelve-round magazine as fast as he could pull the trigger. He puts out the word, and a cop car investigates the reported location.

The gun owner’s mangled corpse is there. So’s the gun. They pull the camera’s memory chip, and find twelve images of a cthulhoid monster closing at superhuman speed, untroubled by the high-caliber bullets hitting it…

The Writing Life

From a newsgroup posted dated April 17, 2012:

I can’t remember what brought it on, but I was thinking about the Weird Shit Boys tonight.

For those who don’t recognize the name, this was a project I started many years ago. The premise is that the FBI really does have a team they send in when there’s something supernatural or mad-sciency, but it’s not Mulder and Scully, or the Men in Black, or Fringe Division, it’s the Weird Shit Boys — a middle-aged housewife psychic/witch, a boy genius, an old, old man who’s been a weirdness magnet all his life and has an eidetic memory so he can match almost anything to something he’s encountered before, and a more or less standard-issue agent who rides herd on the others. The FBI doesn’t admit these people exist, and they aren’t officially working for the FBI, but if you convince the FBI that you really do have a supernatural problem, the WSB will show up.

Tonight I realized two things about the WSB’s world. First off, nobody’s worried about the Apocalypse, or vampires taking over the world, or whatever, because if large-scale supernatural threats really happened, the way they do in Hollywood, then the world would have been destroyed centuries ago. The good guys can’t always be there and win, so the odds are so high that it’s a virtual certainty that if an Apocalypse was possible, it would have already happened. So the FBI doesn’t worry too much about this stuff, but on the other hand, you don’t want to just ignore it, either — thus the WSB.

Sometimes, though, if the events are public, you need to be seen to do something, even if the event doesn’t really call for the WSB, so they also have the Paranormal Defense Unit. The PDU is a bunch of guys in suits with heavy armament and fancy gadgets, but it’s all for show — they don’t do anything but show up, go through the motions, and issue a reassuring (and largely fictional) report. The PDU guys aren’t full-time; they’re regular FBI agents with some theater background who get called out as needed.

On the tricky cases, though, you call in both the PDU and the WSB, and try to keep them out of each other’s way.

So having worked all this out — I have no plans to actually write anything about them any time soon.

The Bound Lands

From a newsgroup post dated October 1, 2011. That thread had a different title, and I’ve edited this post a little, but I’m reprinting it here because I thought some readers might be interested in the background of the Bound Lands.

On 1 Oct 2011 06:04:08 GMT, fuzzy@fuzzychef.org (Josh Berkus) wrote:

>Can you explain what the whole business with the Bound Lands was? It was referred to several times in the book but never really explained.

Oh.

Okay, the world in which these stories take place was originally just a chaotic mess, with variable and constantly-changing laws of nature — summer might last a couple of days in one place, several years a mile away, and that “mile” might change length from one day to the next. Gravity wasn’t a law, just a suggestion. A woman might have kittens rather than human children, and a baby could hatch from a serpent’s egg. Reality wasn’t stable enough for civilization to exist, but there were scattered barbaric tribes here and there.

Then a bunch of wizards happened — the Walasian religion teaches that they were the eldest children of the Father and the Mother, but there’s no real evidence of that. They appeared from somewhere, though, and bound the lands into a solid, stable form. Their influence extended over a circular area taking in what later became Walasia, Ermetia, and half the Cousins; within this region the year was always four equal seasons, the seasons always came in the same order, each species brought forth young of its own kind, the sun rose every day, etc. This rational area was called the Bound Lands because they were bound by wizardry into stable form.

Beyond the Boundary there was a lot of slop-over — things were far more stable than they had been, but still a little wild. The farther away from the Bound Lands one goes, the more chaotic everything is, until by the time you get to the outermost extremes of the Quandish Archipelago, or the farther Mystery Lands across the seas to the south and east of Ermetia, things are almost as weird as before the wizards arrived.

The wizards set up their own state, the Old Empire, and welcomed ordinary humans to settle in it. Some humans were already there; others immigrated. The immigrants were given the name “walasi,” which was a wizards’ word usually translated (to be polite) as “guests.” (Its actual meaning was more like “foreign pests.”)

Whether the wizards were human or something else isn’t clear. They could interbreed with ordinary humans, but usually didn’t. Their magic was inborn and hereditary, not something anyone could learn, but some Walasi were able to learn and use a weaker form of magic, which they called sorcery. Whether the first sorcerers were wizard/human half-breeds or not is the subject of much debate.

And then the wizards started disappearing, faster and faster, without explanation, until finally, over a period of thirty or forty days, the last two-thirds of them vanished and the Old Empire collapsed.

The Walasi sorcerers took charge of things and restored order in the form of the Walasian Empire, but never managed to recapture the southeastern chunk of the Old Empire, which reorganized itself under the original humans of the Empire as Ermetia (the Closed Land). Walasia also wasn’t able to keep hold of the eastern provinces, which broke apart into dozens of little principalities collectively known as the Cousins. The people of the Cousins expanded eastward, beyond the Boundary, but stayed fragmented, so now there are Cousins both in the Bound Lands, and outside.

Quand is the old word for “outside,” and originally meant everything beyond the Boundary, but later applied specifically to the federation of semi-barbaric tribes that came to control the peninsula and archipelago to the northwest of the Bound Lands. Their magic came largely from refugees from the collapse of the Old Empire. One such refugee was the first Lord Blackfield, who took over a burned-out, dragon-ravaged area in the southern part of the peninsula — the name comes from the dragon-scorched fields he claimed.

One of the novels I had hoped to write, Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire, would have described the fall of the Old Empire and the first Lord Blackfield’s origins. You’ll notice Lord Allutar had a copy of that story in his library.

Cover to Cover

From two newsgroup posts dated August 23 and 24, 2011:

The trickiest parts of self-publishing, for me, are twofold. The big one is publicizing the work, so that would-be readers can find it.

The other one is coming up with a decent cover.

When I put those half-dozen short stories out there, I had to come up with covers. I was determined not to do anything generic, or use any of the publisher-provided art, but… well, it’s challenging.

I’m reasonably happy with what I eventually came up with. In particular I think the cover for “Stab” is pretty good, and of course that one was almost accidental. That’s just an ordinary Oneida kitchen knife, sitting on our dining table; the glare is from the camera’s flash. The “blood” is computer-generated, but otherwise the photo is unretouched. I actually took some photos with real blood on the blade — checking one’s glucose twice a day tends to reduce squeamishness about blood, and meant I had lancets handy — but that looked much more fake than the CGI blood.

I originally took several pictures by natural light of the knife with my blood on it sitting on various pavements, but none of them looked any good at all. On the way back into the house, after I’d wiped the knife clean, I put it down on the dining table and did a double-take. That looked good!

The cover for “Parade” is just a photo I took in New York in June, judiciously cropped but completely unaltered. That’s West 43rd Street.

The cover for “Hearts and Flowers” was assembled out of online public-domain clip art. Took maybe fifteen-twenty minutes.

The cover for “Heart of Stone” is a clip-art stone wall background with an excerpt from a Botticelli painting on it.

The cover for “Dead Things Don’t Move” is a reworked photo of a neighbor’s back-yard workshop.

The cover for “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” is a reworked photo of a diner in Reading, Pennsylvania. I took the picture last year.

The cover for “The Ghost Taker” — well, what I intended to do was assemble a bunch of carved faces from various sources into a staff, like the one the priest in the story carries. I was working on that, using a couple of carvings Kiri did years ago as my first pieces, and had gotten as far as knocking out the background in one picture, and doing some preliminary work on the figure’s base in the photo to make it easier to merge with the next chunk, when I looked at it and said, “What the hell, that’s kind of cool just like that.” So I stopped there, and used it.

Points of Pride

From a newsgroup post dated May 17, 2011:

Like most people, I take pride in my accomplishments. Sometimes, though, I suspect that what I consider impressive accomplishments would not be on anyone else’s list.

For example, I am very proud of having sold stories with these titles:
“Dead Babies”
“Science Fiction”
“Ghost Stories”
“New Worlds”

I’m proud of having written the title story for an anthology that wasn’t supposed to have a title story — “Beneath the Tarmac.” I consider it completely unfair that the publisher then retitled the book Deathport.

I’m proud of having written and sold a story that was specifically designed to violate an anthology’s guidelines, “The Pick-Up,” even though in the end I sold it to a different market that paid more than five times as much. This was a particular challenge because the guidelines accidentally said they didn’t want to see a character turn out to be a vampire, werewolf, elf, alien, and Elvis, instead of “or.”

In general, I take pride in perversity. “My Mother and I Go Shopping” was written specifically because an editor was complaining about rejecting a story with that title as totally inappropriate for a fantasy market. Unfortunately, that editor was no longer buying by the time it was finished, so I had to sell it somewhere else.

“Remembrance of Things to Come” was written to fit the description in a cover letter an editor was using as an example of the ridiculous crap he had to put up with. I was very disappointed when the editor didn’t think my stunt was funny, and I had to sell the story somewhere else.

“Mittens and Hotfoot” was written because a friend was complaining about the work in a convention art show, saying that there were all these pictures of kittens and baby dragons, but no one wrote stories about kittens and baby dragons.

The Muse Plagues Me…

From a newsgroup post dated August 30, 2010:

I’ve been reading Kushiel’s Dart. Not rushing, just reading a chapter or two every so often.

I read two chapters tonight, and one of them has a scene where Phedre goes to the temple of Kushiel to do penance. It’s not an important scene, and does nothing to move the plot forward, though it’s important to the character on a personal level.

And that scene, not much more than a two-paragraph throwaway, has me plotting a new story based on one passing detail in Carey’s description of Phedre’s arrival at the temple.

I’m not sure where my story is going yet, and since it’s high fantasy it may not be marketable, but it intrigues me. There’s an acolyte, you see, who discovers a secret she hadn’t wanted to learn…

The Muse Plagues Me

From a newsgroup post dated July 27, 2010:

Here’s another story idea that’s annoying me: Aliens come to Earth to exterminate a deadly threat to their civilization. They can’t explain how they know, but they’re absolutely certain that if they don’t wipe out every single carrier of a particular gene sequence, in about a thousand years their species will be extinct. They don’t want to hurt anyone else; in fact, they’ll be happy to give humanity their FTL drive and lots of other advanced tech and other goodies, and to welcome Earth into the galactic community — as soon as That Gene Sequence is gone. They’ll pay bounties for carriers, destroy entire cities that shield carriers, whatever it takes.

Some of the carriers are apes; in fact, a couple of endangered species are going to be completely wiped out.

And some of the carriers are human, which is where the story comes from.