Friday, January 8, 2016

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

I figured that was an appropriate title considering it’s David Bowie’s birthday, and it’s also my last day at my current job.

I’ve worked for the State of Wisconsin for almost five-and-a-half years.  In that time I’ve done a lot, learned a lot, and experienced a lot,  and that’s just the work-related stuff.  Due to the nature of being admin support, I also always had a lot of “unoccupied” time on my hands during work hours.  So, in that time, I did a lot of personal stuff too.

I managed to nearly finish my Master’s degree, and only have my Thesis left to complete in order to graduate.  I managed to write and self-publish several short stories, and several gaming products.  I’ve communicated with people all across the globe, and reconnected with old friends.  I’ve waxed philosophical, political, and nonsensical.  All from the comfort of my work computer, while still managing to complete all of my assigned tasks, and make my Bureau a better place.

Monday, I will be starting a new chapter in my career.  I have been hired by the Veteran’s Administration as a Voucher Examiner.  Don’t ask me what that is, exactly, because I only have a vague notion that I will be reviewing benefit vouchers for accuracy and potential fraud.  The location is closer to where I live, and I won’t have to pay for parking (I don’t think).  Both will save me a lot of money each month.  And because it’s a Federal position, the potential for advancement and growth is much greater than it is here at the State level (thanks mainly to Scott Walker).

I imagine that, since my job will actually be focused on specific tasks, unlike the “jack-of-all-trades” nature of admin support, I won’t have nearly as much “free” time during the day.  So, those who see me around Facebook will probably see less of me.  And my infrequent blog posts will probably be even more infrequent.

Of course, once I finish school, I will probably turn my evening attentions towards more creative endeavors.  I am always compelled to create stuff.  So, since I will be unable to do that during the day, it will force me to do it at home.  Which, honestly, is where I should be doing it anyways.  I’ve been lucky the last few years, but I know it’s not normal, nor should it be expected.

So, here’s to 2016 being a year of new beginning already.  And I hope that trend continues.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Writing Experiment

I recently read something (that I'm sure I had read before) which states that writers who talk about their current projects too much are more likely to not finish them.  A friend later posted something saying the same thing, explaining that when you talk about your project, your brain gets the same feeling of accomplishment that you would normally get if you actually finished the project, causing you to lose focus and the motivation to continue.

In light of this, I decided to perform a little experiment.  I recently signed up with the "Freedom with Writing" website.  They send out periodic emails with various writing opportunities, and info on how to make money writing in all kinds of ways.  They also offer some free eBooks on the writing life.  The first one was basically about how to write an eBook for profit.

I decided to take that idea, and run with it.  Long ago I had an idea for a book about what it's like to be admin support.  The idea was to describe, in great detail how to land an office job, how to conduct yourself on that job, what to expect, and what you will need to know (and/or learn) to do the job.  That old file is long gone, but the idea remained.  So, I sat down and started writing.

The thing is, I didn't tell anyone.  I didn't even mention it to my wife.  I just outlined the short book, and wrote.  Granted, it was easy to write as it was simply me pouring out my own knowledge based on years of experience.  But, in just under two weeks, I had a 10k+ eBook done.  And after several re-reads with edits, I decided to publish it on Kindle yesterday.

Now, while I hope it takes off and is a Kindle bestseller, I was actually more pleased with the result of the experiment.  It seems that not talking about the book may have played a part in me being able to finish it.  So, in the future, you will probably hear much less about what I am writing (which is saying something, since I rarely talk about writing these days anyways).  And since I have a big writing assignment due at the end of next month, now is a great time for me to start.

Incidentally, if you are interested in my new eBook, or know someone who might be, the link is below.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bit of this, bit of that


Had a disappointing trip to a local book store today. I work in downtown Madison, and there is a used book store down near the campus that I used to walk to during lunch every couple of months. They had a section in the back that was mostly just old books that weren’t selling very well. Everything was a $1, and I usually managed to discover at least a couple of good finds. Mostly classics from 60’s and 70’s. Well, today that section is all but gone. At least the fiction paperbacks are. I barely found anything to browse, let alone that looked interesting.

So then I wandered over to the Fantasy/Science Fiction section, which usually had a decent selection of more popular classic paperbacks. Nope, those are largely gone too. The majority of stuff in there now is less than 10 years old, and probably represents books that people bought, read, and traded in to make room for their next purchase. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot that looked very interesting. But, my wallet is a bit thin these days, so none of it was an option for that reason alone.

I’m a big proponent of collecting old paperbacks. Especially when I learned that the standard policy of most used book stores these days is to try to move those books through their “bargain” sections for a fixed amount of time. After that, they literally get tossed in a dumpster. When I heard that I almost cried. Must be the historian in me, wanting to preserve these relics for future generations. Ah well, I just need to accept that the world is moving forward, I suppose.

Speaking of classic paperbacks, some of you may have noticed that my “Currently Reading” image kind of quietly changes occasionally. I recently finished reading a book I found in one of the boxes I brought home from our storage shed. It was a slim book published by Wizards of the Coast based on their D&D line. I’d read a few of them, and they were generally good for what they were. Which was basically an introduction to what playing a D&D game would be like from a literary standpoint. This one featured my favorite of the “iconic” characters found in the rulebooks, Krusk the half-orc barbarian. All in all, a fun little read.

Ok, I guess that isn’t exactly “classic” literature. Though I’d contend that those little books are just as good as some of the pulp-ish sci-fi books of the 60’s and 70’s.

Anyways, after that one, I was planning on reading The Silmarillion. I’ve never read it, but I love Tolkien’s world-building (even if his actual writing style is a bit dry for my tastes), so I thought it would be interesting. Well, I’m sure it will be in small chunks here and there, but not in one long effort. So, while I’ll probably still browse through, and read choice portions, I chose a different book for my “main” reading; the first volume of Ballantine’s 1991 issue of ERB’s Venus tales, Pirates of Venus. Haven’t actually started it yet, but ERB has yet to disappoint me, so I’m hopeful.

On the writing front, I did about 2/3 of the synopsis for my latest WIP (the Mahak story that I posted a snippet from a while back). But I had to put it aside while I focused on laying the groundwork for my Thesis. I have a pretty detailed outline for that, and started in the draft-writing today. Almost 600 words of introduction today, which is cool. I figure if I can work on putting down about 2500 words a week on that, I should have no problem getting 70 double-spaced pages done by the end of January. Which means I might actually be able to carve out some time for fiction concurrently. I’ll start by finishing the Mahak book, and move on from there. I have a military sci-fi book that I started planning out using the Snowflake Method. I might try to dig into that one next.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Project resurection

Well, today is technically the first day of my last class.  However, due to a SNAFU with financing, I don't have access to the online classroom yet.  Hopefully later today, or tomorrow at the latest.  No worries, honestly.  The first week is just an intro week, literally and figuratively.

Though I will have my hands full with research and academic writing for the next few months, I am going to try to balance it with some fiction writing.  To that end I have been inspired to resurrect an old project.  This one was chugging along nicely a few years ago, and I had several thousand words down and nearly the entire first draft done.  Then, for some mysterious reason, the file got corrupted, and wasn't recoverable.  Although, looking back, I might have been able to restore it from an archived version (a perk of writing during downtime at work).

Either way, the few snippets I had emailed out to people were all I had left, so, in a fit of despair and disappointment, I just abandoned it.  Now, I have decided to take my basic premise, and reconstruct it from the ground up.  I'm also planning it to be much longer than the original short story idea I had been working on.

The story is sort of a fantasy version of Mack Bolan or the Punisher.  It involves an orc, Mahak, seeking revenge and justice in Misery, a city of oppression, after the murder of his mate and child.  The story also involves a magic-infused drug called rug-magru, or 'little death."  Below is a snippet that will probably get some edits down the road, but sets a good tone for the kind of story I want to write:

***

As Kikrok peered around the corner he spotted Lakoo. The orc looked nervous, and this made Kikrok nervous. He wondered what was causing his delivery boy to act so; eyes and head darting in every direction, jumping at every sound. Kikrok debated on foregoing the whole meeting, and high-tailing it out of there. But this delivery was important. Once this shipment of rug-magru was sold, his debt to Archid would be paid in full, and he would have enough to buy his way out of Misery. Checking behind him one last time, the orc tentatively stepped into the light at the end of the alley, making sure that Lakoo plainly saw him, lest he draw a weapon of some type.

The skittish orc looked up and flinched, but when he recognized Kikrok, he sprinted over to him.

“What’s wrong?” Kikrok’s voice was a harsh whisper.

“Did you not hear what happened to Gaag?”

“No…”

“Someone killed him!” Lakoo’s eyes were wide with hysterics. He grasped the dealer by the shoulders, their faces almost meeting in his anxiety. “They cut him to ribbons…slowly...”

“Get a hold of yourself.” Kikrok grabbed the orc’s shoulders and tried to push him away. The pair struggled, and in their shuffling, neither heard the hiss from above.

From his angle of fire, Mahak judged that the bolt would go through the first orc’s back and erupt from his abdomen with enough force to catch Kikrok in the upper thigh, or possibly the groin. Either would suffice. His estimation proved fairly accurate, as the bolt took the orc whose back was to him at the base of the spine, just to left. Both orcs cried out and collapsed. Mahak leapt from the roof, landing in a roll. As he came to his feet, he stalked towards the pair.

Kikrok saw a skull-faced apparition approach, and with a grunt shoved the dying Lakoo off of him, causing the bolt to rip from his upper thigh. But before he could move another inch, a large orc with a skull mask was looming, pointing a double-crossbow at him. The upper bolt had been discharged, but the lower one was aimed directly at his eye. There was a tense moment when all that could be heard was Lakoo’s faint wheezing combined with Kikrok’s gasps of pain.

“You will talk.” Growled the skull.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The stress at the End

Next Monday I start my final course in my Master’s program. Now, I’m sure maybe a few are asking “Didn’t he already start a ‘last’ class before?” And the answer is, yes I did.

My college (American Public University) gives you a very concise and easy-to-follow outline of what classes you can take, what you’ve taken, and what you need to take to fulfill the requirements (as I’m sure most, if not all colleges do). As the final, capstone course, my program outline showed only the Comprehensive Exam as an option. So, I assumed that meant that’s what I needed to do.

After signing up for that class, and going through the first couple of weeks of writing outlines, and trying to recall information for essay answers, I began to get nervous. And that nervousness rapidly escalated to downright fear and anxiety. I am horrible with remembering names, dates, and specific people. Especially scholars of note. So, the idea of having to sit at a computer for six hours and write essay answers to four of eight possible questions, all from memory, and without any references available, was giving me hives, and causing me to wake up in the middle of the night with worry.

So, I emailed my Student Services office, and asked if it was possible for me to do a thesis instead of the exam. The answer I got was “Sure, no problem.” All they had to do was add the option to my Academic Plan, which allowed me to register. So, I immediately dropped the exam course (unfortunately just a few days too late to get any kind of refund), and registered for the Thesis course.

So, starting next Monday, I will spend the next 16 weeks being guided through writing a 40-50 page paper on some aspect of ancient cultures. To some that may seem daunting. But, based on the format of my previous academic papers, that’s approximately 16-20,000 words (based on most of my papers being roughly 325 words a page). I have snippets of failed novels longer than that. So, I know I can do this.

The only stress I have right now is that they suggest coming into the course armed with a handful of ideas for your paper to run by the professor. I decided that I would like to have five. Right now, I have one. With a few ideas that I need to spend this week exploring. At this point, I’ll settle for three, since I will probably have to opportunity to develop a few more during the first couple of weeks. So, that’s what I am working on this week. By the way, if anyone has any ideas, I’d be more than happy to hear them.

Outside of school, I’m working on doing more to relieve stress. And one of those things is reading fiction. Unfortunately, with my varied tastes, and the sheer volume of my TBR pile (both physical and virtual), sometimes it’s hard to pin down what I am in the mood to read. I’ve started and set aside four or five books since finishing Conan of the Isles (see my last post), but I have finally settled on something, and it’s keeping me interested.

Fans of fantasy wargaming, especially the Warhammer line, should be familiar with the characters of Gotrek and Felix. For those who aren’t, they are kind of a “high fantasy” version of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (and if you don’t know who they are I can’t help you). Gotrek is a dwarven Trollslayer (basically a berserker who eschews armor, and has a death wish), and Felix is a human poet and memoirist, who also happens to be very capable with a sword. The premise is that Felix follows Gotrek around to chronicle his adventures, including his inevitable epic death. The books are good fun, and I had read a couple many years ago. I found two more in the bargain pile at HPB a while back, and snatched them up. I’m reading Orcslayer first. Because orcs. So far, it’s pretty intriguing.

Anyways, life moves forward. Whether we want it to or not.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Conan of the Isles


As a follow-up to my last entry, I decided to re-read the 12th volume in DeCamp’s Howard-inspired Conan Saga, Conan of the Isles.

At the beginning of this tale written jointly by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter, we find our titular hero in his mid-60’s, seated upon a throne that has seen unprecedented peace and prosperity since the events of Howard’s Hour of the Dragon.  Conan’s wife, Zenobia died during childbirth some years ago, and he never re-married.  At his side sits his son, Conan II, aka Conn, who is the very image of a young Conan.

The adventure begins with the death of one of Conan’s oldest surviving comrades, Count Trocero of Poitain, falling victim to a supernatural attack right in the middle of the Aquilonian court.  These “red shadows” tear the veil between dimensions, and Trocero is gone in an instant.  These attacks soon become a plague across not only Aquilonia, but neighboring nations as well.  Conan is urged by the Gods to take up a quest to save the world, so he abdicates his throne and leaves in the dead of the night.

What follows is a rousing tale of fantastic and grim adventure that sees Conan joined by comrades from his younger days, and sailing across the ocean to lands unknown.  The scope of the adventure is a blend of the high-octane solo adventures of his youth, and an epic quest unlike anything Howard ever had the character take part in.  What the reader ends up with is a fantastical and bizarre tale of elder evils and ancient gods, lost civilizations, and human sacrifices. Conan is an old, gray wolf, well past his prime, but still a force to be reckoned with.

Although it’s an exciting tale, and well-plotted, the reader who is familiar with Howard’s original works must come to terms with a few things.  First of all, neither DeCamp nor Carter possessed the talent for word-smithing that Howard did.  Though their prose is serviceable, and not at all amateur, it does lack the polish and raw energy of Howard’s works.  I often found myself mentally editing here and there as I read.

But, the biggest hurdle will probably be the outlandishness of the tale.  Although the authors create a plot that seems logical, there are instances of incredible coincidence and luck that move Conan forward.  This is sometimes in stark contrast to the way Howard presented Conan, who usually overcame obstacles by sheer force of will, strength, and stamina (though there is plenty of that here as well).  And the setup itself is beyond what Conan has done before.  One reviewer I read compares it to being more like an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale, rather than a Robert E. Howard tale.  There is some merit to that assessment.

One other thing to note is that Conan is not the brash youth he was in Howard’s stories.  He is a much more mature and contemplative Conan.  This may jar some readers.  But you have to bear in mind that he is a score of years older than he was in Hour of the Dragon, and much of that time has been spent ruling a relatively peaceful nation. So, this progression is actually pretty logical for this tale.

All-in-all, I enjoyed this book, warts and all.  It’s a fun, almost mythical tale of Conan having “one last adventure,” and it delivers that tale with gusto.

Monday, August 31, 2015

On Conan and DeCamp


This is the one that started it all.

I'm fairly certain that any fans of Robert E. Howard, and I mean the real fans, like those who frequent the conan.com forums, will probably want to put me to the sword for this, but I'm just going to say it:

I don't mind what L. Sprague DeCamp did to Conan in the 60's (with the help of Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg).

Let me first be perfectly clear that this is NOT meant as any kind of defense of DeCamp’s attacks on the character of Robert E. Howard as a person.  DeCamp said some pretty deplorable things about Bob, and played armchair psychologist way too much.  Subsequently, his off-color views of the man left an indelible stain on his legacy.  There are, unfortunately, way too many people who only know REH from the introductions in the Lancer/Ace editions of Conan, and are ignorant of what he was really like.

This is not about that.  This is about DeCamp as a writer and editor, and his efforts to create a continuous and cohesive narrative out of Conan’s life.

I should start at the beginning here (and some who have been following my blog for a while might already know this).  I came into Conan through the 1982 film.  I had never really heard of the character prior to that, and certainly had never heard of Robert E. Howard.  After one viewing, though, I was hooked.  To date, I have probably seen that movie at least a hundred times. 

(It should also be noted that those who want to vilify John Milius for his “butchering” of the character on film need to remember that DeCamp was the technical advisor on the film, and his Ace editions were the only references Milius had beyond some of the comic books.)

A few months later, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a Fantasy and Science Fiction class (how cool is that???), where I was supposed to read a fantasy book of my choosing.  While perusing the used book shelf at the library I saw a white paperback entitled simply “Conan.”  I thought that it must be the book the movie was based on, so I snatched it up.  Imagine my surprise to learn that it was an anthology of short stories about the character.  And imagine my further surprise when I found out it was the first of a series of twelve books (at the time).  Short of it; I soon had all twelve volumes and was steadily working my way through all of them.

The important thing to note is that, during these formative reading years (I was only just then starting to choose my own books to read), I could not differentiate between what was REH and what was LSDC (or Lin, or Bjorn).  All I knew was that I liked every story I read.  True, I liked some better than others, but none of them were “bad” to me.  And when I first read them, I skipped the introductions, and went straight to the stories.  Consequently, I didn’t even know about the editing and conversions.

So, what does that mean?  It means that, in my opinion, DeCamp handled the character well.  He spun interesting and exciting tales, and kept the spirit of the character mostly intact.  The hybrid stories, those that started as non-Conan stories or fragments, were just as fun to read for me as the (mostly) pure Howard ones.  And even the offerings written solely by DeCamp were good, especially the last two volumes (Conan of Aquilonia and Conan of the Isles).  In fact, I’m inclined to read those again some time.

All of that being said, as I have grown as a reader, I've learned to see the differences, and I’m pretty sure that the stories I liked best out of those twelve volumes were the ones written by Howard.  I can recognize now that Howard was a greater talent than any of the others.  But, I still hold those pastiches in high regard for their entertainment value, and I commend DeCamp for pulling off the feat he did, and giving readers a complete narrative of Conan’s life.  Canon or not, the details he filled in make sense to me, and in my mind they reflect what Bob might have done if he had been given more time, and the inclination to do the thing himself.

So, burn me for a heretic if you will, but I still have my old Ace editions (with the black covers, since they looked much better than the white ones) right alongside my Del Rey volumes.  And I will always cherish them for the part they played in the history of my favorite literary character ever.