Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!

Chronicles of the Planeswalkers

This week, several of us who contributed to the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone continued our conversation with David Afsharirad at the Baen Podcast. I’m there along with editor David Boop and fellow authors Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Givens Kurtz, and Peter J. Wacks. In this week’s installment, we discuss our stories and what inspired them. You can download and listen to the podcast at: http://www.baen.com/podcastfiles/mp3/baen-free-radio-hour-2017-07-21-Tombstone-2-Feldspar.mp3

This week I continue my series on books I edited for LBF Books a decade ago with a book I didn’t edit, Chronicles of the Planeswalkers, Part Zero by B.T. Robertson. Although I didn’t edit this book, I enjoyed the series and I took over as editor with the second book, Chronicles of the Planeswalkers, Part One: Alliances. Like the other books I’ve featured in this series, I have a stock of the books available and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the series’ first book.

The first book tells the story of a world plagued by an unseen evil and growing chaos, where a Krayn elf will search for his destiny. Aerinas, son of Tristandor, journeys to lands far beyond those he has ever traveled before. A group of elves, giants, men, and other beings must uncover the mystery locked within the secrets of the Planes. Aerinas and the others alike face challenges that will affect them physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and ultimately they face an enemy that taunts them from beyond the borders of the physical realm.

The second book in the series is Chronicles of the Planeswalkers, Part One: Alliances.
This is the first one I edited. New York Bestselling Times author David Farland said, “B.T. Robertson’s Planeswalker series provides wondrous, exciting adventure that every fantasy reader will love.”

In Alliances, an unlikely band of elves led by a wizard formerly of the Order of Light treks across foreign lands and seeks a mysterious mirror hidden within the ruins of El-Caras, the place where the final battle between good and evil took place during the Calaridis Wars many years before. They find great evil stirring, and a plan to shatter the fragile peace. Now, alliances will be formed and battle lines drawn across the plane of Vaalüna. Aerinas, a rebellious Krayn elf, continues to discover the power of the magic inside him, but after finding an ancient text penned by a long-dead wizard it becomes clear that he must grow up and face his worst fears, or perish.

I was honored that B.T. Robertson dedicated the third book in the series to me. In Chronicles of the Planeswalkers, Part Final: Alignment the Planar Alignment is at hand and a powerful being named Hydrais awaits his return from banishment on the Dark Plane of Zamas. Meanwhile, on the Plane of Vaalüna, Aerinas, along with his friends and allies, struggle to prevent Hydrais’ return. To do so, they must battle the forces of evil while Aerinas confronts truths about himself and the cold, calculating intelligence that dominates all life and destiny.

David Farland continued his praise of the series saying, “With each book in the Planeswalker series, B.T. Robertson writes with greater power and ease. With this installment, he proves himself to be a master of the craft, on par with the best fantasy writers of the day.”

This is an awesome series and here’s a little secret. I only have one complete set of the series available for sale and each book is half off the cover price. First come, first served! To order copies, visit http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#cotp-zero

The Mechanics of the Heart

A little over a week ago, my family gathered around to watch the movie Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The trailer led me to believe we’d see a steampunk romance with something of a Tim Burton-influence. What we got was a rather surreal French film full of compelling visuals and an interesting soundtrack that reminded me of some of my favorite steampunk musical artists such as Abney Park, the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, Vernian Process, and Unwoman. In many ways, I fell in love with it, even though the film never quite achieved its full potential.

In addition to the music and the stunning visuals, I loved that the film’s mad scientist was a woman and that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès appeared as a major character. Much of the film’s second half is set at a circus populated by loveable characters who would be at home in a Tim Burton film.

Although there’s a lot to like in this film, I was underwhelmed by the romantic plot. In it, boy falls in love with girl on first sight, girl disappears, boy meets rival for girl’s affections and endures years of abuse at said rival’s hand, boy finally learns where girl is and goes after her, boy can’t get courage to reveal to girl that he is the boy of her dreams. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. The ending is sufficiently unexpected to redeem this plot somewhat. Still, the women in the film generally exist as romantic interests or nurturing figures. To top it all off, the film has a somewhat rushed and flat-feeling English dub and the DVD we watched had no option to watch in French with subtitles. Since watching, I’ve looked and can’t seem to find the French version available on a Region 1 DVD at all, which is both something of a mystery and a shame. It’s not like many North American DVDs don’t include French-language tracks!

After watching the film, we watched the special features which teased us with information about a book and an album. It turns out the movie is based on a concept album called La Mécanique du Cœur by the band Dionysos which was turned into a book by the band’s lead singer, Mathias Malzieu. In something of a plot twist, I discovered that while I couldn’t find the English-language soundtrack album on iTunes, I could buy the French soundtrack and the original French album. The title translates as “The Mechanics of the Heart” and in many ways, that proves to be a much better title for the work.

Once I realized that Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart was basically intended to be a steampunk and Gothic-flavored rock operetta, it made much more sense to me. Overall, the piece is more a metaphor for the fragility and unpredictability of the human heart than a coming-of-age romantic tale. Also, I’d argue not all the scenes should be taken literally. For example there’s a scene where Jack the Ripper mysteriously appears. This confused me during my initial viewing, but after pouring over the lyrics, I realize that Jack the Protagonist is having a moment of fear that his obsession could turn him into Jack the Ripper. Indeed, not your usual light animated fare. Steampunks in particular will likely find the beautiful, imaginative artwork inspiring.

Parents of young children may want to preview the film to decide if it’s suitable for their family. Some moments, such as the aforementioned Jack the Ripper scene, may well be unsuitable for younger children. Also, parents should note, the original album does contain rather explicit lyrics in English, most of which were toned down considerably or removed for the movie.

Despite my reservations, it was exciting to see what French artists are doing in the steampunk realm. The images and music from this movie are still swirling around in my thoughts. The original album has already become part of my collection and I’ve decided I need to make the movie a part of my permanent collection. It’s solid musical poetry that could have achieved true greatness if the narrative elements were as solid as the imagery and the metaphors.

Update: 7/18/2017: My DVD copy of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart arrived and I’m pleased to report that it not only has the English dub, but it include the original French language track, along with optional English subtitles. I’m guessing the English-only copies are the ones for rental, but copies made for retail sale have both languages, even though they aren’t advertised as such.

Dying Moon

This has been an exciting week. My wife and I were featured in a nice four-page article in our alumni magazine, The Gold Pan from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The article is a pretty thorough overview of what my wife and I have been up to in science and publishing in the years since college. You can download a PDF of the issue here: Summer 2017 Issue of Gold Pan.

Also, this week, I joined editor David Boop and fellow authors Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Givens Kurtz, and Peter J. Wacks to discuss the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone on the Baen Publishing Podcast. We talk about weird westerns, steampunk, and our stories. Our conversation lasted long enough, we’re in both this week’s episode and next. Come listen to our conversation at: The Baen Podcast.

Turning to this week’s featured book—ten years ago, I was editing science fiction and fantasy novels for LBF Books. At one point, the owners sent me a batch of novels to consider for publication and one clearly stood out from the rest. It was called Dying Moon and it was written by Shawn Oetzel. What really grabbed me was the seamless way Shawn blended crime drama and fantasy in his debut novel. As the tale unfolded, he explored the clash of elven and human cultures in the modern world and then added in plenty of action to keep me turning pages.

In the novel, an Elf called Dre Fao’lain is intent on the destruction of all his kind and enters into the world of 21st century Los Angeles to perform the magical ceremony necessary to accomplish his mission. Leaving a series of human bodies in his wake, the Elf is pursued by the LAPD. In the meantime the Elves send Kalen Or’Wain, Captain of the Elven Royal Guard, to stop him. Kalen teams up with a special agent who knows about the Elven world, an officer from the LAPD and even a street gang to stop Dre Fao’lain.

If you’re looking for a fun urban fantasy read, it would be hard to go wrong with this book. I bought several copies from LBF after the book was published to sell at conventions. I have a few left that I’m selling at a special clearance discount of 50% off. This makes a great summer read, helps me clear some room so I have space to stock new books as they come in, and helps support new projects I want to move forward. You can pick up a copy of Dying Moon at: http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Dying-Moon.

Westercon 70 Revisited

Last weekend was a long holiday for many folks in the United States as the country celebrated its 241st year of independence. As far as my “day” job at Kitt Peak National Observatory was concerned it was just an ordinary weekend—no extra days off for me. Fortunately, those days coincided with the dates of Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona. Westercon, otherwise known as the West Coast Regional Science Fantasy Conference, is held in a city in the Western United States, typically around Independence Day weekend. The last Westercon I was fortunate enough to attend was Westercon 62, which was also held in Tempe at the same hotel that hosted Westercon 70.

Westercon started on Saturday, July 1. My daughter, Autumn, and I went in early to make sure we could drop books off with Duncan’s Books and More, who kindly sold my books over the weekend. Also, I wanted to check in. Autumn was working the convention as a volunteer and wanted to see what she could do. As it turns out, it was a low-key morning with few events. I did get to spend some time chatting with Emily Devenport and Ernest Hogan. Programming coordinator Michael Senft also came by and introduced himself and chatted for a while. In the afternoon, I participated in a panel on “The Return of Space Opera.” Much of our discussion centered around defining space opera and much of our conclusion is that you know it’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it thing. We did note that a defining characteristic was grand scope and that space opera doesn’t require great science accuracy, but that you can certainly have scientifically accurate space opera!

Sunday was the day we decided to brave Phoenix heat in costume. I was actually dressed in a relatively light version of my normal steampunk attire. Autumn dressed as “Entropy,” spokesperson for her crochet store, Entropy Creations. Verity dressed as the night sky. Although it’s not altogether visible in the photo, her skirt is lighted with constellations she sewed in and wired herself.

Sunday was my big panel day. I started with a panel discussing the science of steampunk. The discussion began with panelists throwing out a steampunk gadget from their work while those with science backgrounds on the panel thought about how it might be may to work. From there, we moved on to a discussion of the nineteenth century technology that inspired us and how steampunk doesn’t necessarily require working technology—a good, internally consistent magic system can work just as well. This discussion was followed by a panel on the future of steampunk writing. Vaughn Treude, Arlys Holloway and I concluded that steampunk has a bright future because there are so many possibilities, but that it’s still waiting for its J.K. Rowling or Stephen King—an author so famous that they’re literally household names. We noted some are close, but haven’t quite crossed that threshold.

In the afternoon, I joined Thomas Watson, Ernest Hogan, and Weston Ochse for a fun panel about cryptids. The discussion opened up by defining a cryptid, which usually is a monster but one that people believe might exist and people claim to have seen, although there is no hard evidence. Ernest brought up that some cryptids do prove to be real. His example was gorillas, who were not proven until the middle of the nineteenth century. Because Westercon 70 was also known as Conalope, we also discussed the history of jackalopes and how they grew from a novelty item in tourist shops to even grander folklore. For example, homesteaders were told that they should wear stovepipes on their legs to prevent jackalopes from goring them. Also, apparently you can pacify a jackalope by giving it a shot of whiskey. In my research for the panel, I even learned that my home town of Las Cruces has its own cryptid, the elusive teratorn, a giant bird or pteranodon said to snatch up small animals or even children!

My final panel for the day was called “Alien Autopsy, the Biology of ET.” Dr. Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Thomas Watson and Syd Logsdon joined me. Much of this panel was spent discussing the requirements for life and whether we might even recognize fellow lifeforms when we first see them. After the panels were over, it was time for the masquerade. MC for the show was Diana Given, one of the owners of Wild Wild West Con, an event I’m fond of attending in Tucson. Autumn volunteered as runner for the masquerade to deliver messages. Here you see her consulting with Weston Ochse, serving as one of the event’s judges. Some conventions have very large masquerades. This one was rather small. I suspect the summer heat in Tempe kept people from doing as much with costuming as they might. Still it was a fun event with a nice card trick performance as entertainment.

Monday of Westercon started with my exoplanet presentation, which always seems to draw a crowd. I was glad that Dr. Dave Williams was in the audience because he’s an expert in our solar system and helped me answer a few questions I didn’t know as well as he did. After the talk, I went for coffee with longtime friend Jeff Lewis. Jeff performed the part of Roberts back in our very first audio recording of The Pirates of Sufiro back in the 1990s. We discussed the state of science fiction, what we’ve been doing in writing and he introduced me to the program Scrivener. I’ve been hearing good things about the program and I’m trying it out now. I’ll see about giving a report of my impressions soon. That afternoon, I joined Madame Askew, Dirk Folmer, and Katherine Stewart for a steampunk free-for-all where we talked about what a dynamic culture it is, with everything from events, to games, to costumes, to gadgets to writing.

Independence Day itself started with a panel about putting the science in science fiction. We had a good discussion about researching science for your writing, but making sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. After the panel, I went to an autographing session and signed some books.

As it turns out, Westercon was the same weekend as Libertycon, which was the official debut event for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop and including stories by such luminaries as Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Larry Correia, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Kevin J. Anderson. I’d already committed to Westercon when I learned about Libertycon, but still, I was pleased to be able to celebrate the release of the anthology by reading my story. I was pleased a few people came out to my reading. One of the folks in the audience asked, “Are all the stories in the book as good as yours?” She then said my reading was “Almost as good as Harlan Ellison.” That seemed like high praise to me! You can get a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone from your favorite local bookstore, or you can order it directly at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/

Also at the reading, I gave a special sneak peak of the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt we’re working on, noting that the trailer still very much a work in progress!

Overall, the event went well for me and I was glad to be part of it. I know behind the scenes there were snags and hiccups, but I’ve been behind the scenes of some book events and know how hard it is to keep everything moving forward. What’s especially impressive is that most, if not all, of the organizers are volunteers with other full-time jobs. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for putting on a good event.

Tales of Zandria

Last year, I had the pleasure of traveling to Baltimore for Balticon 50 where eSpec Books released it’s collection of steampunk fairy tales called Gaslight and Grimm. I’m honored to be one of the contributors and it was a real delight to meet many of my fellow contributors. One contributor I was pleased to meet was Christine Norris. The reason is that we had worked with each other at LBF Books almost a decade before, but this was the first time we’d actually had a chance to meet face to face.

In 2005, I edited Christine’s young adult novel Talisman of Zandria, then edited its sequel, Return to Zandria in 2007. I thought these were terrific stories and I enjoyed getting to know the protagonist, Ivy Peterson. Here’s a little bit about each of the novels.

When Ivy Peterson sees the most extraordinary thing in her own backyard—a fairy—she dismisses it as a daydream, but she quickly realizes that it was, in fact, the real thing. She goes in search of the mythical creature, and accidentally falls into Zandria, a magical world that exists just outside her own. Unfortunately, she finds that she’s trapped there. Someone has stolen the Talisman, a magical amulet that controls the five gates between Zandria and her own world. Ivy and her new friends, the wizard Arden, his young apprentice Connor, and a pair of fairies set off on a quest to reclaim the Talisman of Zandria.

Diana Hignutt, author of the award nominated Empress of Clouds said, “Talisman of Zandria sparkles with wonder, adventure and excitement. A must read for fans of YA fantasy.”

Ivy Peterson was not ordinary. Ivy was More-Than-Ordinary because once she found herself in a very special place and had a very special adventure. But Ivy was far too old for fairy tales…wasn’t she? It has been three years since Ivy recovered the Talisman of Zandria, and her life is very different. She is no longer the shy young girl who chased a fairy through a magic gate, but a teenager, concerned with clothes, friends, and school. She has nearly forgotten about the special world that exists on the other side of a thin, magical veil. But they have not forgotten her. Now a crisis is brewing in Zandria, and only Ivy can help. They implore her to come to their aid, and Ivy’s memories of adventure pull her once again into the enchanted world of mermaids, dragons and wizards. Reunited with old friends, and bringing a new one along for the ride, Ivy must now lead them into the wilds of her own world, and not only keep them safe, but stop an empire from falling into the clutches of evil.

According to Coffee Time Romance, “The reader is transported into beautiful imagery that is quite magical as Ivy and Lori race to help the people of Zandria. Christine Norris sketches a tale that young and old will enjoy.”

Hadrosaur Productions has first edition copies of both novels on clearance for 50% off the cover price. The direct links to the books are:

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.