Friday, April 27, 2012

Bruce Willis is here!

When I came to work on Monday, one whole block across from the embassy was blocked off and filled with strange vehicles and loads of security guards. Turns out Bruce Willis is here in Budapest filming A Good Day to Die Hard, or Die Hard 5 if you prefer. Apparently it's cheaper or easier to get permission to film here, even though the action is taking place in Russia.
Hey all you casting agents or directors out there -- why don't you use me for some minor role in this? I'd do it for free and I speak English and Russian. I'm in good physical condition and I'm not bad looking. I'd love to have Bruce blow my brains out all over some window...or he can throw me out of one. I don't care. I just want to be in the movie!

My wife would be perfect for the movie, too. She's a native Russian speaker who also speaks great English, and she's drop-dead gorgeous.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Prologue to The Shattered Spire

Although my work in progress is a sci-fi thriller, every so often I work a bit on a direct prequel to The Shard called The Shattered Spire. Since there was no logical way to have any of the main characters located near the big event that kicks off all the action, I created a prologue so that I could show the reader the catalyst for the story rather than simply tell about it. If you have any ideas for how to make it better, let me know in the comments!


             He had planned it perfectly, arriving on tired horses on a cloudy, moonless night so his son would not yet be able to lay eyes upon the greatest wonder of the realm.  Oh, it had been there, a void looming in the darkness; they could feel its presence.  The boy had wanted to go to the spire then, but the stonecutter had hurried him toward the stables.  The lamp lit inn sat by the side of the flagstoned trade road that ran between the great cities of the inland sea to the east and Vimar Keep to the west.

            The night in one of the inn’s tiny rooms had been more restful than any he had known for years, even those nights spent exhausted from hard labor in the mines.  The magic of the spire cradled them and gave them soft and pleasing dreams.

            It was a harsh life cutting blocks of marble from the quarry.  The stonecutter had endured by holding tightly to the dream of bringing his son to see the Peace Spire.  A week before his son’s twelfth name day--a week before the boy must himself begin laboring in the quarry--the king’s man had agreed to give the stonecutter that week for himself.  He had wasted no time, renting a pair of brown nags and setting off the same day so that they could reach the spire and still have time to return by week’s end.

            This morning the boy had wanted to rush straight out to see the spire, but the stonecutter had forced him to sit at one of the trestle tables in the large common room and eat a hearty breakfast.  He wanted to give the sun time to crest the enormous wall of mountains to the east.  The first view of the spire should come in sunlight, he thought.

            Now the stonecutter paused just outside the door of the inn, savoring the moment.  A frost-rimed path led around the side of the inn toward the ancient monument.  He looked at his son, seeing the excitement plain on the boy’s face.  The boy smiled, and the stonecutter, normally taciturn, could not help but grin.

            He nodded his head and said, “Come.”

            They rounded the corner and the stonecutter saw that many other pilgrims were already swarming about the base of the spire.  He heard his son gasp.

            The stonecutter had not seen the spire for nearly twenty years.  As he drew his eyes up the length of the spire, he snapped his hand to his mouth to stifle his own gasp.  He had expected beauty, but he was unprepared for what he now saw.  The height of the spire,  its red granite rising up and up seemingly to touch the sky, did not surprise him.  Neither did the enormous teardrop crystal at its tip.  It was the dazzling shimmer of colors that stole his breath.  The sky was cloudless and the sun striking the crystal caused a burst of rainbow colors to dance in the biting air above the snow covered fields.

            “Father,” whispered the boy.

            “Yes,” he answered.  He knew he was grinning like a fool but he didn’t care.

            “I want to go closer.”

            With his heart thudding in his chest, the stonecutter felt the power of the spire surge through his blood like a raging torrent, filling him with energy and strength, and the confidence that he could accomplish anything he desired.  He had felt it all his life, but it was never so overwhelming as now, so close to the source.

            The boy had set off down the path and was even now crossing the small arching bridge over the stream that flowed behind the inn.  The stonecutter hurried to catch up.  He took a deep breath and smelled the sweetness of grass and rich earth.  His knees often pained him these past few years, but the energy from the spire filled him to overflowing so that he leapt over the bridge in two quick hops.

            “Do you feel it?” he called to his son.

            The boy laughed aloud.  “I could push a marble block all on my own, Father.”

            They passed other pilgrims, some of them laughing  and others gazing openmouthed into the sky.

            As they drew close to the monument, the stonecutter grew even more excited.  “Look, Son.  This is what I wanted to show you.”

            The base of the spire was a wide slab of carved red granite perhaps fifty paces across.  Its sides were covered with intricately carved bas-relief scenes from the lives of a myriad tiny figures.  The stonecutter stepped close and ran a hand over a picture showing stocky bearded figures wielding picks and awls within a mine.


            “And these are elves here, Father!  They look so real.  How could they carve in such detail?”

            The stonecutter wished he knew.  He had cut stone all his life, yet he could never mimic the delicate strength of these carvings.  Tracing a finger down the trunk of a tree in a forest scene, he marveled at the fantastic skill of some ancient master who had managed to turn stone into thousands of perfect leaves.  He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smell of cold stone.

            “Look up there,” said the stonecutter, pointing.

            The spire’s presence was intimidating when viewed so close.  It towered into the sky, and the stonecutter felt his neck creak from staring up the dizzying length of red stone.  Large runes were etched into the mica-flecked granite, each rune lined with silver that somehow never tarnished.

            “What do they say, Father?”

            “You know the story, my Son.  It was always your favorite.”

            “Tell it again.  It’s different hearing it here.”

            The shimmering colors in the sky were hurting the stonecutter’s eyes, so he dropped his gaze back to the carvings.

            “What do you see in these?” he said.

            The boy pursed his lips and examined the rounded base of the monument.  “They are beautiful beyond anything I have seen.”

            “They show scenes of peace,” said the stonecutter.  “You won’t find war in any of these pictures.”

            The boy nodded and said, “Here, let’s sit, Father, while you tell me the story.”

            The stonecutter joined his son on a length of smooth gray stone set back about ten paces from the base of the spire.  More such benches surrounded the monument, most of them occupied by other pilgrims.  The stonecutter tugged at his beard, trying to figure out the best place to begin.

            After some minutes he asked, “Do you remember when man arrived in these lands?”

            His son nodded.  “Arrival Day is now four hundred and thirty seven years past.  The great King Aronis led our people through the great pass where East Gate now stands.”

            “Yes,” said the stonecutter, “though it was the wizards who showed us this realm, where we could not easily be attacked and where the Peace Spire had already stood for more than five thousand years.”

            “Twas the elves and dwarves who built it,” the boy exclaimed.

            The stonecutter chuckled.  “I thought you wanted me to tell it?”

            The boy nodded and waved a hand impatiently for his father to continue.

            The stonecutter combed his fingers through his graying brown beard.  “Long and long ago there was a terrible war between the two races that dwelt in these lands.  They were deceived, drawn into war by the wizard Bilach, whose lust for power had caused him to turn to evil, though his fellow wizards knew it not at that time.  The dwarves marched on the forest of Laithtaris with fire and axe, and the arrows of the elves turned the sky dark at midday.  With both sides terribly bloodied, Bilach struck them with his own army, secretly gathered from among the orc tribes that infested the mountains.  The elves and dwarves had no choice but to put aside their grievances and unite against Bilach.  Victory seemed assured for the hosts of evil; their numbers seemed endless.  Yet the allies defended stubbornly and at last Bilach’s forces broke and fled back to their reeking caverns.  The allies were too exhausted and heartbroken to rejoice.  Then it was that the remaining wizards brought the elf queen and the dwarf king to council and told them that they should together construct a monument to peace so that they might put aside their grudges.”

            The stonecutter pointed at the flat land around the spire.  “This place they chose because it lies midway between the capitals of the two races.  The wizards asked...”

            “Father!  What’s wrong?”

            “In the sky there,” said the stonecutter, pointing to the northeast.  “I thought it was an eagle, but it seems too large now.”

            He stood up from the stone bench and his son stood with him.  Whatever it was, it was blacker than night.  It looked like spilt lamp oil slowly spreading, until it drew close enough that the stonecutter could see vast bat-like wings, though no bat could ever grow so large.

            A man shouted, “Dragon!”

            “It can’t be,” said the stonecutter.

            “There’s no such thing as dragons,” said the boy, his voice breaking.  “You always said so.”

            Screams broke out all around and people began to run toward the inn.

            “They are just legends,” said the stonecutter.  He shook his head at the impossible sight.  The inky stain became the unmistakable form of an enormous jet-black dragon.  It seemed to hover motionless on its outstretched wings even as it loomed larger.

            “No such thing,” said the boy, panic clear in his voice.

            “Run, my Son,” whispered the stonecutter.  He reached out his hands and shoved at the boy, though he could not take his eyes from the dragon.  The monster wriggled sinuously and then folded its wings and plunged like a dart toward the crystal atop the spire.

            “Father!” screamed the boy.  He had begun to run but then turned back when he saw his father had not joined him.

            As the dragon neared the tip of the spire, it again spread its wings and pulled out of its dive.  It seemed to the stonecutter that the beast dropped something, though at this distance he could not tell for sure.

            Then the world seemed to explode.

            The stonecutter spat dirt from his mouth and pushed himself up from the rumbling ground, shaking his head to try to clear it.  A high whine was the only sound in his deafened ears.  My Son, he thought, and he frantically searched the ground around him.  He saw the boy lying unconscious about ten paces away, so he scrambled to his feet.  Dizziness nearly overwhelmed him as he weaved toward his son.  Something hard struck his shoulder and knocked him back to the ground.  He clawed over the hard ground, trying desperately to reach the boy.  A large chunk of rock shattered his leg.

            In terrible pain, the stonecutter reached out, grabbed his son’s foot, and used it to pull himself closer.  A head-sized piece of granite smashed into the ground two paces away, and tiny fragments stung the stonecutter’s forehead.  He turned himself onto his back to stare at the sky.  A dark cloud hung in the air where the top of the spire had once been.  More debris rained down all around.

            Out of the corner of his eye, the stonecutter saw the dragon banking around in a lazy arc.  He ignored the beast and watched as the spire, which even strong winds had never been able to move, swayed slowly back and forth.  Cracks ran through the red granite near the base.  Though he still could not hear, the stonecutter felt the ground thrum as the spire snapped and began to topple.

            Tears mingling with the blood flowing down his cheeks, the stonecutter pushed himself over and lay his body atop his son’s, as if he could protect the boy from the collapsing tower with his love.

          He couldn’t hear his own voice as he whispered his last words into the boy’s ear:  “I’m so sorry, Son.”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Top 15 Sci-fi Novels or Series

Since my last post was the top ten fantasy novels or series, I might as well follow up with my favorite sci-fi books or series. Again, these are only from the many that I have read. I have a huge bookcase filled with ones I hope to get to someday.

1. Orson Scott Card -- Ender's Game should be required reading in high school, as far as I'm concerned. I liked all the other novels set in Ender's universe, too, but this first one is incredible. I dislike many of Card's personal views and I wouldn't want to know him in real life, but that doesn't stop me from loving this first book.
2. Richard K. Morgan -- Altered Carbon and it's sequels is right up my alley with its dark, gritty storytelling. I hate putting Morgan here, because I find his opinions of readers who love Tolkien to be despicable, so that's two writers in a row leading off my list with whom I have issues.
3. Larry Niven (often with Jerry Pournelle) -- They may not be my favorites, but Niven produces so many that I really, really like that he deserves this spot. Lucifer's Hammer, The Mote in God's Eye, and Ringworld are just a few.

4. Scott Westerfeld -- Few seem to have heard of The Risen Empire and Killing of Worlds, but these are exactly the kinds of hard sci-fis that I love most. His space battle scenes are mind blowing.
5. John Scalzi -- Old Man's War is funny and clever while maintaining a sense that it could truly happen. Keep your eyes on Scalzi, as he has lots more to come, I imagine.

6. Philip K. Dick -- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is good but not a favorite of mine, but I had to move Dick up here because Blade Runner is the most awesome movie of all time, and it was lightly based upon this short novel.

7. Joe Haldeman -- The Forever War is a believable tale of the future horrors of war. It's considered an all time classic by many.

8. Alan Dean Foster -- Okay, so he may not be quite as great a writer as many of these others, but he sure can tell a cracking good tale. Some of my favorites are Alien and Aliens, since I love the movies so much.
9. Alistair Reynolds -- Chasm City (a mixture of gritty dark sci-fi and space opera) is the best I've read by him so far, though the first book, Revelation Space, wasn't bad either. I've purchased all of his many books, so I have loads of reading ahead of me.

10. John Varley -- I own a bunch of his novels but have only read loads of his short stories and one novel, Red Thunder, but Varley writes sci-fi with the best of them.

11. William Gibson -- Neuromancer is the classic that started cyberpunk. I'm not quite as enamored of it as the critics, but I liked it.

12. Isaac Asimov -- His Foundation Trilogy had many unrealistic elements, but the story was so fantastic that I willingly suspended my disbelief.

13. Frederick Pohl -- Gateway is a fun and imaginative space romp, though I haven't read the sequels yet.

14. Frank Herbert -- Dune is another classic that I didn't like nearly as much as the critics did, but it's still quite good. It took me two tries to finally get through it, though, so it might not have been a good idea to try as a young teen. The sequels didn't do much for me.

15. George R.R. Martin -- Since he's my favorite living author for his fantasy series (see yesterday's post), I'll close this top 15 with his Tuff Voyaging series. It doesn't approach the greatness of A Game of Thrones, but then nothing does these days.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Top 10 Fantasy Novels or Series

I saw a top 25 list of fantasy books today and it got me really mad. I don't know who did it, but the person had so many bad books (and Tolkien was listed 4th! Heresy!) while leaving off no-brainers like Ursula Le Guin or Fritz Leiber. I just had to do my own list. Now for the disclaimer so no one gets mad at me: I'm only able to judge those that I have read. There are many on my bookshelves that I know I will love, but I just haven't had the time to get to them all yet. So, no Steven Erikson, China Mieville, Robin Hobbs, and so forth. I imagine I will like them, but give me time and I'll get to them.

So, here are my top 10 fantasy books or series, based upon the many that I have so far read. I'm sticking with ten because the post would go too long otherwise!

1. J.R.R. Tolkien -- It should go without saying. He's the grandmaster of all fantasy. Everything that I love about fantasy began with him. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings are the greatest group of fantasy novels out there. Period.

2. George R.R. Martin -- That someone would even come close to being as great as Tolkien is amazing, and it's good fortune for us fantasy lovers that Mr. Martin has done so. His A Song of Ice and Fire series (starting with A Game of Thrones, which you may have seen as a fabulous HBO series) has all the elements I love in fantasy, but does them in the gritty, realistic manner that I have always preferred. I think there is a rule that you can only be amongst the demigods of fantasy if your middle initials are R.R.

3. Robert E. Howard -- His Conan novels alone would lodge him firmly in this spot, but he also wrote many other fabulous characters, from Bran Mak Morn to Kull to Solomon Kane. Sword and Sorcery at its finest.

4. Ursula Le Guin -- You wouldn't have the wonderful Harry Potter books, I don't believe, without Le Guin's Earthsea books. Boy who has no idea about his special wizard powers? Check. Goes to a school for young wizards? Check. If you haven't read A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, you really must.

5. Fritz Leiber -- After Conan the best sword and sorcery stories are Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Gorgeous prose and even better characters. Read them!
6. J.K. Rowling -- Harry Potter. What a splendid plotter Rowling is. Enough said.

7. Katherine Kurtz -- I get the feeling many of you out there haven't even heard of her Deryni Chronicles. That's a shame, because they are terrific.

8. Thieves World novels -- No author name here, because this is a shared world series, where many famous writers contributed stories based in the city of Sanctuary. You could pick up these books cheap these days if you get them used, so why not check them out and see why I love them so much?
9. Dennis McKiernan -- Dennis did what I have long dreamed of doing: he wrote a sequel to Lord of the Rings. No one is allowed to do that and get away with it, right? Well, his stories were so well done that he got an agent who actually attempted to convince the Tolkien estate to publish McKiernan's books. They said no, of course, because they are grumps, so Dennis had to massage his stories until they stood alone. I'm glad he did, because I reread them every so often. That's how much I love them. They are called The Iron Tower trilogy and The Silver Call duology. I'm not taken with his later books. Oh, and he also had amazing cover art on the original versions of these books done by Alan Lee. The second series also had art that looked like Lee's, but it was done by another artist, hired to mimic Lee's brilliant work.
10. Terry Brooks -- Another author who directly stole elements from Tolkien, but I still loved The Sword of Shannara. I can do without the rest of the Shannara books, though some aren't so bad, but the first one is a must read, in my opinion, especially if you love Tolkienesque fantasy the way I do.

Honorable mention for authors who come close to the top:
Philip Jose Farmer's Dungeon series; Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series; Patrick Rothfuss's Kvothe series; Patricia McKillips's Riddlemaster series; Michael Moorcock for his Corum, Hawkmoon, and Elric sets; Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series (as well as my favorite ever short story The Burning Man); Lawrence Watt-Evans for The Lure of the Basilisk; R.A.V. Salsitz for the Where Dragons Lie books; Andre Norton for Quag Keep; Joe Abercrombie for his really grim works; and I'll stop there because I'm becoming overwhelmed!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Short Stories

The fabulous flash fiction writer Simon Larter sold another of his short stories to an anthology for science fiction. I believe that's his third such sale, so congratulations to one of my critting partners!

This reminded me that I have long tried to prod myself to write some short fiction in order to get a couple sales to have on my bio. The problem is that short fiction doesn't come naturally to me. When I think up stories, they always seem to be in novel-sized lengths. I think I even write better in the long form. With novels I can sprinkle in exposition in subtle ways that don't jar the reader, while in short stories I have trouble figuring out how to get everything across to the reader without turning dialogue into excuses to provide exposition.

Today I took a look at my three attempts at short stories, each in varying stages of completeness. None make me feel good the way my novels do, but I see some promise in them, if I can just nail down where exactly I need to improve them. So I began polishing and fleshing them out. Perhaps my crit buddies can help a little, if I'm lucky.

Any of you out there masters of short story telling? If you'd like to read mine in their rough form and give me advice, just let me know!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Vacation in Prague

We just returned from a week's vacation in Prague. I've long said it is the prettiest city I have ever seen (and I've seen many cities around the world), and this trip reinforced my opinion. Naturally, the fact that I love Gothic architecture influences my opinion.

The only drawback on this trip was that the apartment we rented had no internet service. It was both nice and odd to have no connection to the outer world for a whole week.

My proud moment of the week, though, was actually completing War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, a monumental achievement heretofore only managed by about ten people (since we can't count the millions who only claim to have done so) throughout world history.

I put lots of pictures from the trip up on my standard photo page, but here are a few of my favorites.
The famous Charles Bridge.
Early morning shot on the Charles Bridge. Our apartment was just on the other side of that tower.
A typical Prague street scene.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Always the Bridesmaid...

Well, I'm a guy, so maybe that's not the best cliche to use for this, but it's all I could think of for this situation. Nathan Bransford was one of the great online literary agents (for the two of you out there that didn't know that already). He's been cool to me, even posting one of my blog posts on his front page once.

Each year he hosts a March Madness challenge during the NCAA college basketball championship tournament, the winner of which earns a review of part of their manuscript or query. The bridesmaid reference in my post title is about the fact that I have now come in 2nd twice in the three times that I have played! There are a lot of entrants, so doing that well is pretty good...but second doesn't get me any more than dead last does. I would have loved to see what he would have thought about my WIP, a sci-fi thriller called The Immortality Game (link on the sidebar).

Drats! Nathan eludes me yet again!