Decatur Book Festival 2016

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaI scoped out the Decatur Book Festival for a little while on Saturday and listened to a handful of indie authors do the unthinkable… Speak in public!

Check ’em out:

Roger Newman (Suspense Thriller starring a OB/GYN mystery solver)
Michel Le Gribble-Dates (Yoga and storytelling for kids)
Katelyne Parker (Fiction, Hosanna)
James Marshall Smith (Suspense Thriller written by a Radiation expert at the CDC)
Dawn Loetscher (Memoir, Survivin’ the Hand Life Dealt)
Dell Johnson (‘Poetry and Other Muses’)
Bernard Lee, Jr  (‘A Look Back In Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the Fifties’)

Lots of cool genres and types of literature on display at the DBF. If you’re in the Atlanta area (possibly nursing a Dragon*Con hangover?) you should go check it out!

Once-a-Book word: Desultory

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!


Hmm. What to say about desultory?

Something about this word sounds pretty to me. Is that weird?

I certainly doesn’t look pretty. On paper, it looks like a word-monster, with ‘desolation’ for a head, ‘insult’ for a body, and ‘purgatory’ for a tail.

Des-sult-tory. Hmm. What was I talking about?

Oh yeah. Desultory. When I hear the word spoken, I first think of an illusion, something fleeting and beautiful and slightly dangerous.



Anyway, the true definition of ‘desultory’ skims across of those concepts, to some degree. Kind of?

It means aimless, halfhearted, unfocused. It can also mean random, or sporadic—but always in a lukewarm, lazy sort of a way.

Y’know what I mean? Does that make sense? Kind of?

Oh never mind.

If you care, here are some other once-a-book words I wrote about. Click ‘em. Or whatever.
Peripatetic. Sanguine. Sartorial.

I just read: We Are All Completely Fine

weareallcompletelyfineFrom Dracula to NOS4A2, from The Exorcist to Friday the 13th, a lot of plots in the Horror genre follow a well-trodden path. A person (or group of people) are targeted by a mysterious and malicious force. The protagonist(s) pass through a phase of disbelief and/or denial, Then they suffer through an increasingly awful series of circumstances that force them to come to grips with the unthinkable. Oftentimes, this is where a savior or advocate figure enters the story. In the final climax, the protagonist(s) face their fear, and they either triumph or they fail.

I have to admit that my own Horror/Paranormal novel, Line of Descent, follows this structure. And I’m sure that most genres (Romance, Mystery, Fantasy) have dozen of examples of great stories that follow the same conventional, comfortable story-beats. Still it’s always refreshing when an author breaks the mold.

That’s just what Daryl Gregory does with ‘We’re All Completely Fine.’ Gregory creates a unique slant on Horror convention by introducing a simple and brilliant premise. ‘What if the characters who survived some of these typical Horror stories came together to form a support-group?’

As we meet the clients in Gregory’s therapy sessions, we pretty much don’t need to know their full stories—although Gregory drops in some skin-crawlingly creepy details. There’s Stan, who survived your typical back-woods cannibal scenario. And Barbara, who was tortured by a sadistic madman. And Harrison, the former teenage monster-detective who helped to foil a demon apocalypse. (If you’re interested in learning more about Harrison’s YA-ish exploits, you can read about them in Gregory’s latest novel, Harrison Squared, which I reviewed here before I realized it was a prequel.)

To say that each of these characters is a short-hand representation of a horror cliche would be selling them—well—short. The ways that Stan and Barbara deal with their post-trauma lives are truly memorable and deeply human. Gregory is the type of author who comes up with ideas that make you say ‘Whoa! I never saw that coming!’ and then moments later, ‘Of course that’s what would happen!’ And this story is no different. And, of course, as we learn more about each group-member’s scarred life, we learn that the incidents that have ruined their lives are all connected in sinister and serendipitous ways.

I really enjoyed this book, and for most of it, I really couldn’t predict what would happen in the next chapter. I recommend it for any fan of the genre.

Idyll Cover Sketches

Here are two cover sketches I did, representing my two ideas for the IDYLL Book 1 cover.

Idyll cover_sketch2

Cover Sketch 1:

This was my initial concept, the idea that I had in my head for most of the time that I was writing. Four riders in the distance, climbing a ridge that eventually resolves itself into the silhouette of a sleeping woman (Alma Starboard) under a shroud.

The pros: I liked the idea of this being a soft, dream-like cover, which might help set up the idea the Starboards and the Bridges eventually begin to question their own reality.

The cons: It’s not super-dynamic, and it doesn’t give you much of a sense of the protagonists.

Then there’s Alma. Would the viewer realize she’s there? Is she sleeping or is she dead?  Plus, Alma’s profile and the shroud merging with a grassy landscape would have been a serious pain to Photoshop, and make it look right. I’m still not sure that most people see the upside-down blue face in the cover of Line of Descent, in the half-a-second that they might spend looking at it. I didn’t want to create the same issue for myself again with this cover.




Cover Sketch 2:

So I tried to make something more ‘in-your-face.’ I started off with the four travelers standing together, holding whatever, looking tough, directly into the ‘camera.’ But I decided it made more sense, and would add more action, if they were on horses. The idea was always to have Samuel in the front. I felt like I needed to imply there was a primary protagonist to the book, even if some readers would decide Walt and Sam are co-protagonists.

The terrain in this sketch is far more rugged than the final art. But you have to work with what Photoshop gives you.

In the end, I thought this layout had more of a movie-poster feel to it more of a sense of the four main characters taking charge of their situation. I think it’s bolder, overall. And I hope that means it’s more likely to grab a reader’s attention—and their imagination—right off the bat.

Another Idyll sketch.



To the ends of the Earth

What is it lately with all the apocalypses? Everywhere you look in pop culture, someone’s trying to survive one. There’s your garden-variety plague apocalypses (Station Eleven). There’s your zombie plague apocalypses (Walking Dead, World War Z). Comedic apocalypes (Last Man on Earth). A capital-A Apocalypse (the villain from the upcoming X-Men movie). HBO apocalypses (The Left overs), celestial apocalypses (SevenEves), and apocalypse remakes (Fury Road).

Why are we so obsessed with the world ending? There’s a theory out there that says that the post-apocalyptic genre taps into a deep desire to return to our primal roots—and not necessarily in a good way. If the society’s infrastructure crumbles, then all social conventions go out the window. And then its totally acceptable to kill strangers. In fact, in the case of a zombie plague, it’s downright pragmatic.

I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, that all post-apocalyptic stories are excuses for us to vicariously satisfy our bloodlust Besides, I think we’re probably just as bloodthirsty now as we were twenty or thirty years ago. So why are post-apocalyptic so overwhelmingly popular now? Why is Kansas’ governor officially declaring October zombie preparedness month? Why are Zombie Runs and Zombie Paintball so popular? Why is ‘Doomsday Preppers’ a thing?

It’s not hard to figure out why movies in the 1950s featured atomic monsters like Godzilla or Them!. (Not ‘them,’ ‘Them!’) Back then, nations were legitimately scared of being wiped off the map by nuclear war. Compared to the real fear of a nuclear holocaust, ‘It Came From Beneath the Sea,’ or ’The Giant Gila Monster’ seem downright cozy.

So what’s zinging our zeitgeist in 2015?

How about the fact that we’re just too damn connected? Facebook, Skype, texts, emails, tweets, photo streams… We are inundated with enough messages and info to choke the most robust of data plans. Thank goodness for those of us with phone phobia, the only means of communication that seems to be going extinct are actual phone calls. Still, it’s becoming a bit alienating as constant contact replaces human contact.

For many Millennials, who have grown up in a world of Google searches, push notifications, Netflix queues, and geofencing, the idea of all those connections suddenly ceasing probably seems equally fascinating and horrifying.

So what are we going to do about it? Move into a solar/wind powered cabin, somewhere off the grid? Actually it would be far easier to download The Dog Stars to our phone and visit the post-apocalypse whenever we like—in short escapist bursts—between checking Tinder.

PS: I guess I should complain about the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic stories, since I just contributed to the genre myself. (Try Idyll for an apocalypse on another planet!)

PPS: I just finished Peter Heller’s ‘The Dog Stars,’ so I’m hoping to write a review in about a week.

Idyll Chatter, Part 1

IDYLL_Cover4c_1200Releasing this week, a new book! Yeee!

IDYLL is the end result of a long strange trip that started in February of 2006. Since then, I’ve married, had two kids, began and released another novel, took a writing hiatus, and went through a short-story phase.

Before all that, IDYLL started with an image in my head of two horseman in a big woolly field surrounded by mountains. I knew that I was having was a sci-fi daydream, but the riders were dressed like Stone Age hunters, replete with slings and polished spears. How did they get to this desolate place? Why were they carrying prehistoric weaponry? Why were they riding alone?

With these questions in mind I formed the backbone of a big story. These future riders were dressed like prehistoric hunters because they believed that cavemen live purer, more ‘human’ lives than spacemen. (Ah, that old cavemen versus astronauts debate lives on!) They were alone because their world had been ravaged by a plague. And yes, in early drafts, that plague was of the zombie variety. They were riding to a towering spaceship, which was stuck like a thumb emerging from the ancient landscape. A retro-ancient quest to find a technological cure for an apocalyptic disease. That was the start of the premise anyway.

Over ten years, lot of the important details changed. Very early on I saw the movie I Capture the Castle. Then I read the book by Dodie Smith. That’s when I knew that my two lonesome brothers were going to meet two isolated sisters. An extra complication. To make my book more relatable, or possibly more marketable, I decided to shift from a Stone Age setting to a Western. (After all, if you lived in the future, and you turn back the clock to live in any time period, would you choose to live in an era before plumbing, before beer, before some form of dentistry?)

Making the book possibly less marketable (but hopefully less cliched) I got rid of the zombie idea.

This manuscript has been through seven significant overhauls. Most of those ,thankfully, were not start-to-finish rewrites. Usually a quarter or halfway through my new status quo I would realize that it was seriously flawed in some way, and would have to start over. The final manuscript of IDYLL was titled ‘7th Round5f.’ But hey, who’s counting?!

But finally it’s ready (I hope). A nearly-ten-year process coming to a close, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And there’s a whole new vista beyond. IDYLL is the first in a trilogy, after all.

The journey ends. The journey continues…



Shadow Sideways

Shadow SidewaysFor a moment allow me to channel cinema bad-ass Steven Seagal, who, according to legend, once had this conversation:

SS: “I just read the greatest script ever written.”

Random person: “Wow! Who wrote it?”

SS: “I did.”

With that said, I’d like to say I just published the greatest sci-fi novelette ever written about super-powered ex-spies living in a nudist colony! OK, maybe it’s the greatest sci-fi novelette about super-powered nudists—WRITTEN THIS MONTH. OK, the month is still young. Maybe I should just drop it and go right into the blurb:


SHADOW SIDEWAYS reads like Carl Hiassen meets Robert Ludlum meets H.G. Wells. It’s a near-future science fiction thriller—a novelette that is a quick, witty beach read.

Sly Severance is a retired spy—a man with extraordinary ‘enhancements’ who served with the United States’ most cutting-edge and clandestine special forces team.

Now he lives on a Mexican beach with an adopted family of similarly enhanced retirees. Together they have created the world’s weirdest—and most reclusive—nudist colony. They used to be thieves, mercenaries, and assassins, and now they will go to great lengths to maintain the safety and the secrecy of their beach.

“We don’t like strangers. We don’t like prying eyes.”
“I’ve pried eyes before. I didn’t mind it.”

When a CIA officer ambles onto the colony’s beach, Sly is forced to return to his old way of life. To protect his home, he will lie, steal, fight, and draw blood. And he will find himself in a very dark place, a vantage point where the differences between right and wrong can be as hard to see as a SHADOW SIDEWAYS.

Check it out on Amazon!


The World’s Crappiest Synonym

Stephen King is among the most talented authors to emerge in the last 40 years (and certainly one of the most popular). But in my mind, he is also the progenitor of the world’s crappiest synonym.

King was one of my favorite authors growing up. I have a theory that The Stand is the most influential genre book written in the last 30 years. Think about the boom in post-apocalyptic books that followed a dozen years later. A lot of those authors probably read The Stand in their formative years. I think the Walking Dead has more in common with The Stand than with Night of the Living Dead.

I have another theory that Stephen King’s voice is the closest any author comes to ‘speaking’ in the way that most people think. In his 2001 treatise on writing, called…wait for it… ‘On Writing,’ King describes his craft as a type of telepathy, and I think that sums up his writing style perfectly. If you try to write in a style that is as relatable and ‘unobstructed’ as possible—and if you often intersperse 1st-person inner dialog into 3rd-person POV narrative—then I think you’re writing in Stephen King’s style.

Take a look at this suggestion from ‘On Writing,’ in which King illustrates the point that a writer should never let a fancy (or stiff) vocabulary come between the writer and the reader:

“…never say ‘John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion’ when you mean ‘John stopped long enough to take a sh_t.’ If you believe that ‘take a sh_t’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say ‘John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps ‘John stopped long enough to push.’)”

Push it real good

Push it real good

Ew. Excuse me a moment while I try to ‘push’ that quote out of my head.

Ah. I can’t do it. Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is one of the best writing-advice books out there, and I gathered many great insights from it. But this particular passage, King mixing tautology with scatology, has always stuck with me. In some ways, it’s embedded a more enduring, disturbing image in my head than anything I’ve read in Pet Sematary, Carrie, or It. I guess, to me, ‘push’ is one of those words (like ‘moist’) that apparently has an inherit ickiness to it.

Perhaps Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, the writer-creators of The Venture Brothers also read ‘On Writing.’ In their episode “What Color is Your Cleansuit,’ they wrote this scene involving the series’ primary antagonist, and his ‘anti-villain’ girlfriend.

The Monarch: Excellent! Then we drop in our mutant henchmen, as if taking an evil, mighty push!
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch: That is so foul! Can you say “movement” instead of “push”?
The Monarch: Okay, movement. I don’t even know why I said push. It’s really gross when you think about it. Push…

Again, ew.

I guess the ultimate lesson would be, there’s no good way to chronicle the ‘act of excretion.’  Maybe writers should just avoid the subject altogether.

For other writing tips that traumatized me, click here. Or here.


What’s your crutch?

shutterstock_229762090As I was reading through and editing my book this month, I was shocked at how many times I ran across the word ‘sloshing.’ I had written accounts of a nauseous character walking on sloshing floors, of a drunk character with a sloshing head, of water sloshing over feet, of the sound of crickets sloshing through the night air. That last one had me scratching my head. Sloshing, sloshing everywhere! I never realized I had such an affinity for that word.

My book also contained much ‘clenching of jaws.’ Anger, determination, fear, reserve—half-a-dozen varying emotions had my characters nearly cracking their molars.

Needless to say, I broke out the editing pen and there will be a lot less sloshing and clenching in my final draft. I don’t want my readers to see a phrase or a writing device used so often that it takes them out of the story.

I was less surprised to see a bunch hyphenated words in my story. For a good while, I’ve known about my love of the hyphen. I love to create new words using a hyphen (‘beetle-sized,’ ‘mustard-colored,’ ‘trash-strewn’). Or to throw it into existing one- or two-word phrases. I especially love when I throw a hyphen between two words and find out that it’s supposed to be there (‘month-long,’ ‘high-pitched’). Hyphens! I think they’re great, but I realize better writers than me would call them a sign of lazy writing, or at the very least, a crutch that I rely on far too much.

With that said, what are the things that you use again and again in your writing. Particular phrases, words, or punctuation? And do you try to pare them down once you get to the editing phase, or leave them in to help distinguish your voice?

I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.