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?”


“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 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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

All over the place

About two and a half weeks ago my family and I moved to Cross Plains.  Now, that sound you just heard was the collective gasp of all of the Robert E. Howard fans.  Sadly, not THAT Cross Plains.  I’m talking Cross Plains, Wisconsin.  A little suburb located a few miles outside of Madison proper.  The rent is cheaper, the schools are closer, and the place has much more space.  Not to mention that it’s not the ghetto, like where we used to live.  So, that’s big news.

Then, the Monday after that move (on Saturday), I went down to the used car dealership where my wife had gotten her car a couple of years ago, just to look around.  They had a particular car I was interested in, so I decided to just take a gander and see what options I had for getting something new in the near future.  Well, it turned out that my credit score was a LOT higher than I expected, and I was able to get that car I had my eye on for lower payments (not much lower, but every bit counts), and $0 out of my pocket.  So, now I am jetting around in a 2009 Scion Tc, and loving it.

I was joking soon after that I seemed to be on a roll, and that maybe I should go ask my boss for a raise.  And, if I worked in the private sector, I probably would have done just that.  But, as a State employee, where my pay is based on my grade, and the whim of my legislators (including that massive douchecake, Scott Walker), it isn’t that simple.  However, my 5-year anniversary comes up at the end of next month, so when I do my review I plan to bring it up to my boss.

In the meantime, I have been looking and applying for other jobs.  The prospects are actually kind of slim if you want to make a decent living.  And since I’m not dumb enough to take a pay cut in this economy without a REALLY good reason, my choices are just that much slimmer.  Still, there is always hope.

I started my final class a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not actually a “class” so much as a preparation course.  After eight weeks of preparation, I will have to sit down with a proctor, and take no more than six hours to answer four essay questions.  Each one will be about one of seven classes that I took, but I won’t know which four I have to answer until the day of the exam.  I get to use no notes and no resources; just what I can pull from my scattered brain and horrible memory.  I’m not exactly very confident about this right now, but I’m going to give it my best.

I also have a backup plan.  Should I fail the comprehensive exam, I have the option to take it one more time, or take a capstone course.  I’m leaning towards the capstone.  Basically, I will have 16 weeks of guidance and help to write a 40-50 page thesis paper.  Honestly, that’s only about 16,000 words or so by my calculations (based on 325 words per page).  I wish I had taken that route to begin with.  Because I KNOW I can pull that off easily.

Anyways, it was nice to have a few months off from school.  I actually did some reading for pleasure.  I recently read the first two books in the Dragonlance Chronicles again, and loved them still.  I'm reading them as eBooks checked out from my library system, and volume three is not available for loan yet.  In the meantime, I finally read another Dragonlance book that actually takes place during that third volume, and it was pretty good too.

I’ve also started in on my goal to spend an entire year reading nothing but historical nonfiction.  I’m starting with a book about the Greeks, and will probably spend the majority of that year continuing to read different books about them.  Though I do have a book on Vikings that I want to read as well.  I figure, if I'm going to display the fact that I will have a Master’s degree in History, I might want to know a bit about the subject.

As for writing, I recently wrote a short story; my first foray into horror.  Had one of my friends read it, and he gave me some advice.  So, I’m going to do some revisions, and then see if I can find a home for it.  Still have a bunch of other stuff I would like to write.  And once this whole degree thing has blown over, I imagine I will be able to focus my energies a bit more.

All-in-all, life could be better in some ways, but it could be a lot worse.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The results are not in...

…because there are no results.  A couple of weeks ago, I offered one of my best stories, Blackskull’s Captive, for free on Amazon for three days.  I put out the word, and got some good feedback.  The idea was inspired by Charles Gramlich who had done the same with one of his stories, with some decent results.

Well, the sale lasted from Saturday through Monday.  We were out of town that weekend anyways, so I decided I wasn’t going to even look at any results until the whole thing was done.  I was hoping for a bunch a free downloads, which would lead to a few new sales afterwards, maybe a few sales of other stories, and a review or three.

Well, I did get a bunch of free downloads.

Other than that, not a tremor.  It was disappointing, but not unexpected.  I have no name recognition, and my stories are all just shorts, mostly in the fantasy genre.  So, basically, the experiment was a failure.

And I’ve kind of decided to give up on the whole idea of self-publishing fiction.  I really should focus on writing longer works if I ever want to be an accomplished writer.  And submitting them to paying markets is probably a better idea.

I do have another orc story complete, and a trusted reader looking at it.  Since it’s a continuation of two previous stories, I might go ahead and self-pub it.  Though I am actually thinking of just letting is simmer for a while, writing a few more stories about the cast of characters I have established, and putting them all together in a single volume.  I’m looking at the same idea for the Blackskull story.  I have a sequel started, with ideas for at least two more.

I think my problem, actually, is much larger than writing.  I have a lot on my mind lately, and a lot of worries.  So, writing is an effort to say the least.  But, since finishing school (more or less), I have been reading more, which always seems to help with my creativity.  So, who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll probably just chip away at my various works in progress, and not worry about my future as a writer.