Archives: Writing

Wandering the Web

With my writing schedule back under control I’ve been wandering around spreading good cheer and talking about great fantasy writers. On the off chance there are some people who visit my site who don’t regularly visit the Black Gate web site, I thought I should point you toward two recent posts celebrating two of my favorite authors.

The first is about Leigh Brackett, and features a lengthy excerpt from the opening of one of her fine sword-and-planet stories so interested folks can see why she’s so lauded.

The second I just took live earlier today, and it is all about Robert E. Howard’s writing. I spend a little more time discussing the whys and wherefores, peeking under the hood, as it were, arguing that he is far more than he is assumed to be.

If these sorts of posts prove popular, I have other writers in mind to look at as well.

In addition to these writer celebrations, I’ve been doing a little mulling over the purpose of blogging as promotion, and it provoked some lively discussion. You can find it by clicking here.

The Fierce Impatient Side of Things

Lately I’ve been reading through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection El Borak And Other Desert Adventures. I’ve read a lot of these stories in various beat-up old paperbacks, but some are new to me, and others haven’t been read by me in ten years or so. As I’ve said elsewhere, Robert E. Howard was a vivid writer and brilliant crafter of action scenes. I love how swiftly he brings a scene to life, and how visual and cinematic his fight scenes are. I always learn something or catch some great turn of phrase whenever I’m reading his work, and I usually enjoy myself immensely.

Sometimes I find myself growing annoyed with some of the artifacts of the era and magazine genre for which he wrote, particularly the racism, or the tendency for characters to infodump or villains to monologue. I know Robert E. Howard wasn’t himself a racist or sexist, but anyone who pales at seeing racism or sexism will be in for a rude awakening when they try out adventure fiction from the pulp era. Anyway, sometimes these aspects of the fiction that I otherwise quite enjoy start to irritate me… And then I think about how little I enjoy the sense of pacing in so many modern fantasy novels (how do people read such loooong books where nothing much happens for long stretches of time?) and how uninterested I am in novels that are mostly social criticism, and I remind myself how pleased I am to be reading some REH, who, like Conradin, seemed to celebrate the fierce, impatient side of things.

Writing Tools: Notebooks, the Kind with Paper

Ye olde trusty notebook.

From the time I was in grade school all the way up until after I graduated from college I wrote in notebooks. It seemed such a natural process that I wonder now how I got away from it, and why it was such a revelation when I took up writing in notebooks again.

In my school days I used to carefully comb through available notebooks  and select one with multiple subjects, college-ruled. Usually it would be a spiral-bound Mead, 8 1/2 by 11, but sometimes I’d experiment with slightly smaller sizes. When I was older and wandering through the Kansas City Renaissance Festival with my wife, I purchased a lovely Celtic leather notebook cover with an unlined sketchbook, and I filled a succession of replacement sketchbooks between those covers with my scribbles for years after.

As striking as that notebook was, though, I eventually fell out of using the thing. It became impractical to drag it wherever I went: my student days were over so I no longer had a backpack over one shoulder, and I didn’t have the kind of job where I always toted a briefcase. In those rare instances where I DID have a briefcase, it was already so loaded down that something weighing as much as a hardback book was a nuisance. I never used a notebook for writing unless I was at home, at which point I might as well have been writing on the computer. I thought that I had “outgrown” the use of a notebook.

Paperblanks Mini notebook, with Pilot G-2 mini and Papermate Profile mini pens.

Paperblanks Mini notebook, with Pilot G-2 mini and Papermate Profile mini pens.

I’d gotten away from the purpose of notebooks. In the last two years I’ve rediscovered just how useful they are to me as a writer, and I’ve been trying to evangelize my writer friends ever since. Waiting on a really slow train to get by on the tracks? Waiting in a plane? Waiting for your kid to get out of a music lesson, or stuck in traffic? Maybe, like me, you’re waiting for your friends to get out of a panel at Dragon*Con you weren’t interested in attending, or you’re out back fixing the horse fence. Writers write; they don’t just compose when it’s convenient for them, when the stars are in alignment, or when they happen to be sitting in front of their computers.  Snatches of dialogue, scenes, entire outlines can be lost because the muses don’t wait to inspire you until you’re in just the right place with just the right tools.

I don’t mean to suggest that we are powerless before the goddesses of inspiration, nor do I mean to belittle the ability to simply sit down and focus and make writing happen even when you’re having a slow day. Writers have to be able to make writing happen, not to wait for it to happen. What I’m advocating is having a small notebook (and a mini-pen — those things don’t break when you sit on them, and can fit in a front jeans pocket) ready with you so you can be ready to write rather than NOT write, which is infinitely easier. Whipping out your pen and notebook is much faster than rifling through your laptop or mini-laptop case and waiting for the computer to cycle on. In many of the instances I described above, firing up a computer  would be impractical enough that you’d probably leave the writing for later.

Sideview of the Paperblanks Mini notebook.

Sideview of the Paperblanks Mini notebook.

I rediscovered notebooks while my family and I were wandering around the art museum bookstore in Cincinnati and I saw  a display selling 3.75 by 5.5 notebooks. They were lined, the pages were sewn into place so they’d be less likely to fall out, and the covers were slim but durable. They were small enough to slide into my back pocket, where us American men-folk often keep our wallet. It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase of something I didn’t think I needed, and I actually felt a little guilty spending the money. I haven’t felt guilty about the purchase since. I swiftly learned that I had found an ideal writing tool. I get all kinds of good work accomplished because of the thing, most especially outlining. I’ve found the notebooks especially useful for “thinking aloud” to solve problems I wouldn’t usually solve while in front of the computer screen. For instance, I often write in outline form what would happen if I followed this plot thread this way, and then this other way, and then that way, which has saved me from going down even more dead ends with my writing than I would normally.

The diminuitive Paperblanks Micro notebook.

The diminuitive Paperblanks Micro notebook.

I’ve found these little notebooks so handy that I filled one notebook last year and have only a few pages left in my current model. I’ve already picked out a replacement. I’ve looked at other brands, and seen that Moleskine, amongst others, has an equivalent size that might suit you. I’ve been very happy with my first choice, Paperblanks, though. They’re durable enough to last me a year, come with a built-in bookmark , lay flat pretty easily, and even have a sturdy pocket on the inside back cover where you can drop index cards or important scraps of paper (in fairness, it should be pointed out that Moleskines seem to have all these features as well). Paperblanks come in an array of styles sure to suit a variety of customers, and are available in larger (and even one smaller!) sizes. I’ve found Paperblanks, Moleskines,  and other brands at major bookstore chains, although they also can be ordered at online venues. I’ve paid between 9-12 dollars for one, which is why I first thought they were an extravagance. I’ve since realized that the right tool is worth the extra price.

Desert of Souls Available February 15th

The Desert of Souls is now available for Kindle!

My first book is now on its way to bookstores, and I recently got to hold the finished product in my hands for the first time. It will be available for purchase in just a few short days, and I’ve decided to provide a sneak peek of it for the curious just below.

I’ve been especially pleased with the reviews, and in the next few days I will set up a page that collects them. Here’s one, from Publisher’s Weekly:

As richly textured as an antique rug, this fantasy-mystery sweeps readers into ancient Baghdad. Asim, captain of Master Jaffar’s guard, and the wily scholar Dabir, who is hopelessly in love with Jaffar’s niece Sabirah, track stolen golden artifacts into the shifting sands that hide the ruins of legendary Ubar, entry to the land of the djinn. Asim’s dazzling swordplay, his Muslim piety, and his unwavering loyalty to his friend balance Dabir’s bittersweet devotion to Sabirah as the pair battle forbidden magic that forces them to slice away layers of their own spirits. Their antagonist, evil Zarathustrian sorcerer Firouz, poses moral questions that deepen this multicolored Arabian-nights tale, as does the plight of pretty, quick-witted Sabirah, who prizes scholarship and lives for the moment while facing the fate of a political marriage. A captivating setting and well-realized characters make this a splendid flying-carpet ride.”

The official description and many blurbs can be found on another page of my site, but it may be that you’ve followed an outside link to read an excerpt, so I’ll cut to the chase. Here’s the first chapter from the novel.



The parrot lay on the floor of his cage, one claw thrust stiffly toward the tiny wooden swing suspended above him. The black olive clenched in his beak was the definitive sign that Pago was a corpse, for while he had fooled us all by playing dead in the past, he had never failed to consume an olive. To be sure, I nudged the cage. It shook, the swing wobbled, and the bird slid minutely but did not move a single feather of his own accord.

“He is dead,” Jaffar said simply behind me; simply, but with the weight of the universe hung upon the final word.

I turned to my master, who sat with his back to me upon the stone bench of his courtyard. The second-story balcony, from which the cage hung, draped Jaffar in shadow. Beyond him, sunlight played in the rippling water that danced from a fountain. Flowers blossomed upon the courtyard plants and wild birds warbled gaily. Another parrot, in a cage upon the far wall, even called out that it was time for a treat, as he was wont to do. But my master paid no heed to any of this.

I stepped into the sunlight so that I might face him. Upon another bench, nearby, the poet Hamil sat with stylus and paper. There was no love in the look he bestowed me, and he returned to his scribblings with the air of a showman.

“Master,” I said, “I am sorry. I, too, was fond of Pago.”

“Who could not be?” Jaffar asked wearily. He was but a few years younger than my twenty-five, but due to time indoors looked younger still, no matter his full beard. His face was wan, from a winter illness that had also shed some of his plumpness.

“He was the brightest bird here,” Jaffar continued in that same miserable tone.

“Brighter than many in your employ,” Hamil said without looking up.

“Too true,” Jaffar agreed.

“Is there some way that I can help, Master?” I was the captain of Jaffar’s guard and sometimes his confidant; the matter of bird death, however, was outside the field of my knowledge, and I did not understand why he had summoned me. It is true that I had found Pago entertaining, for in addition to playing dead, he could mimic the master and his chief eunuch, and even sometimes answered the call to prayer by bowing thrice. He did this only when it pleased him to do so, which, as my nephew Mahmoud once noted, was far too much like many men he knew. Also Pago had once perched upon the poet’s chest when Hamil had passed out from consuming the fruit of the grape, and pinched his long thin nose heartily. That had pleased me so that I brought Pago the choicest of olives whenever I knew I would pass by his cage.

“Do you suspect he has been killed?” Jaffar asked.

After the Book Deal

In May of 2010 I posted two short essays on the Black Gate web site about something that had been a kind of holy grail for me: obtaining a book deal with a major publisher. That first essay is about the power of making connections; the second concerns itself more with the specifics of my own novel contract. In this third essay I thought I’d talk a little about what happened once the book contract was signed.

The advice you usually hear is to not quit your day job, so you may be wondering why I did so, since, as I previously mentioned, I was not awarded a gold-plated limousine with my new book deal. I have a spouse with a good income, and my advance was more than I would make in a year teaching as an adjunct professor at the local university, so my wife and I decided to have me try writing full time to see how it would all pan out. It is not as great a gamble as it might be for someone with a more permanent position, as I can always return to teach more adjunct classes.

In January I began to draft the promised second book. I continued to work away at it until I got the chance to submit a book proposal to a brand new novel line at Paizo. I had enjoyed my communications with Paizo’s Erik Mona and James Sutter during my years at Black Gate, and I’d thought highly of their game products, so I tossed my hat in the ring. The result was another book offer, which has kept me so busy for the summer that I pretty much disappeared from the Black Gate board. I have enjoyed working with the Paizo folks, but I thought I’d stay focused today about the steps of novel deal one.

Signing the Contract

Last week I wrote about obtaining my first book deal. Over the next few months I thought I’d talk from time to time about what happens next.

As the point of my first essay was mostly about the importance of contacts (and in working steadily and not giving up), I mentioned some things in passing that I thought I’d cover in more detail. For instance, how did I get the offer? By air mail? Phone call? Candygram?

My friend Scott Oden had submitted my manuscript to his editor at Thomas Dunne Books, Pete Wolverton. A little over three weeks later, I received an e-mail from Pete asking me to give him a call at my convenience.

When I’d sent previous novels to other publishers, at best I had only ever received pleasant e-mail rejections, or, in olden times, a letter. Sometimes my novels had just disappeared, with nary a response at all. I had never received a request to call, and with Sherlockian-like deductive reasoning figured that was a promising sign.

I deliberately slowed down, made myself a cup of tea, and took my time drinking it. About twenty minutes later I dialed the number Pete had provided.

How to Get a Book Deal

In late July of 2009 I got an offer for a historical fantasy novel from St. Martin’s imprint Thomas Dunne featuring my series characters, Dabir and Asim. The deal itself reads anti-climatically, which is why I delayed posting about it. But I think that there’s something to be learned from the story of publication, so I’ve decided to share it.

I finished revising a book, I gave it to a friend, he showed it to his editor, I got an offer, I talked to agents of two writer friends, agonized about which agent to select, then chose one. Boiled down, the process sounds simple; after all, I’m just one of those lucky guys who wrote a novel and showed it to a friend, then got a book deal after just a few weeks from the first pro who looked at it. Easy as pie, right? This account of events manages to miss a couple of things.

The deal happened fast – if you leave off the year of drafting, and that I knew the characters of the novel so well because I’d been writing short stories about them for nine years. Then there’s the fact that before this book deal are twenty preceding years of sending other novels out to publishers and agents and collecting rejections… I honestly am not sure how many novels I’ve written before this. Sometimes they’d been rewritten so many times that each draft was a completely different animal (and one that still got rejected). It’s taken me a lot longer to get here than I would have liked, but I have to say, I appreciate it far much more than I would have if I’d just fallen into it. Apparently I’m not a fast learner, but I am really stubborn.