Monday, December 14, 2009

Progress Report: 12/14/09

This will be my last update of the year, 'cuz I'm going on vacation next weekend.

A lot happened this year in terms of writing. I finished my first novel manuscript, I started my next, and I made the move to pull out of webcomics. Not a lot happened this week in particular, though. It's a crazy-busy time with the holidays coming up and work being under a pressure cooker, so not much time for writing.

Thus, I'll take the opportunity to wish everyone who's reading a Merry Christmas, happy holidays... take your pick. And I'll see you in the new year.

2010. Wow.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Progress Report: 12/07/09

It's my birthday this week! I'll be 41.

I have been asked a few times if I'm going to illustrate my books. I also get asked for clarification when I tell people about my writing: "Are you talking about graphic novels?" No, not right now, but illustrations are an interesting thought. Not many people do them in novels anymore, but it used to be a standard to have a few illustrations scattered here and there. It would be fun to do that, especially in a Thunderstruck novel.

Psyche, whose chapter opens the book, is one character whose visual depiction never quite satisfied me. Goddess-level beautiful is tough for me to draw. Especially for someone who then engages in action scenes. I think I should've picked an actress to model her against and worked a bit with photo references. Anyway, it would be easier just to draw one or two illustrations of her for a book, wouldn't it?

Okay, so progress. Not much to say. Writing is slow right now, chiefly because work is taking up so much energy. I'm not sure why everything has to pile up at the end of the year when everyone is trying to go on vacation, but that's what it does. Happens every December. So I'm chipping away at the Thunderstruck novel and the 1st & 2nd chapter rewrites for Rose & Jade, working as much as I can on it under the circumstances.

Currently reading: Under the Dome by Stephen King. A giant, Stand-sized monster that should hold me for a while. Wonder if there will be any mention of the concept overlap with RahXephon? I doubt it. Not that I think King ever heard of the anime--just an interesting coincidence.

Currently listening: Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher. The latest Dresden Files book, which are always fun. I have to make some effort to make sure that Sax doesn't echo Harry Dresden too much, but I think that shouldn't be much of a problem.

Although would any editor really care, or would it even be a selling point? The derivative nature of popular fiction can be astonishing sometimes. I was in Borders this weekend checking out the Young Adult section, and it's Twilight clones from here to breakfast. The vampire-romance craze will die down, but for now they're going to squeeze as much juice out of it as they can. Agents & editors like to talk a good game about originality, but when I look at the shelves, I have to wonder just how much of that is smoke up the ol' tailpipe.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Progress Report: 11/30/09

December is just around the corner, and seems to be holding to pretty much the same pattern as it does every year. That is to say, things get very frantic in the weeks leading up to vacation, and then we go away for a while and get the chance to sleep.

In terms of writing productivity, it's the most difficult time of the year. I always built up a pretty good buffer for Thunderstruck around this time of year, because it was very easy to fall behind. I tend to have great ambitions to write on vacation, which do not always pan out.

In terms of this week, I'm carrying on with writing. I'm also testing out another critique group. This one is a lot closer by than the last, which is good. The possible drawback is they meet every week, and I was kind of hoping for twice a month. But hey, if I get into the habit, it could be a good thing. We'll see.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Progress Report: 11/23/09

The novel version of Thunderstruck is underway.

It's funny how one shift can suddenly change your whole perspective and open many doors. What I wanted to do to make this story work as a novel is get the larger, overarching plot with Vigil, Bella, etc. into the mix earlier. These elements may not be visible to Sharon and Gail at first, but I did want the reader to get an idea that there's something going on.

My solution is to start with Psyche. So the book will open with her introductory scene as a kind of prologue. Psyche then watches the sisters from a distance for most of the first novel as events unfold and they start to discover the magic around them. Through Psyche's perspective, we start to get the hint about all the other forces swirling around the lives of Sharon & Gail.

Anyway, we're off to the races. Trying out another critique group as well this week. I'll get around to finishing "Voyage of the Piquant" eventually--it was always just a fun side project, so I'm not worried about deadlines or anything like that. Is anybody reading it?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

I am assuredly the kind of reader that Eoin Colfer was most anxious about when he took on the monumental task of picking up where Douglas Adams left off to write the sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. That is, I am a huge Adams fan, and I’ve never read any of Colfer’s other books. It is with good reason that Colfer expressed his anxiety about stepping into Adams’ shoes. Did he pull it off with And Another Thing…?

Unfortunately, no.

I applaud the effort and the risk he took. I would say that if Adams had ended the “Hitchhiker’s” series after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, there would have been no need for another installment. But the fact that Mostly Harmless ended the series on such a bleak note—and the fact that Adams said that he wanted to write a sixth book to remedy the sour taste left by Mostly Harmless—is enough reason to justify Colfer’s heartfelt attempt. While And Another Thing… has its inspired moments, ultimately it does not measure up, even to the lowered expectations I had for another author attempting to live up to Adams’ legacy.

So where does Colfer go right, and where does he go wrong?

Adams’ unique style is a hallmark of his work. Both the Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently books are filled with his ingenious use of language, his abrupt insights, and his intelligent humor. Colfer does a creditable job of trying to create a compatible style without directly attempting to imitate Adams, and pulls off some very good turns of phrase.

However, most of the time it seems like he’s trying too hard. He frequently throws in “Guide Notes” in honor of Adams’ signature tangential asides, but they typically feel forced and overused. Adams’ Guide entries often reflected what was going on in the story or made some salient point in relation to the characters, but Colfer’s Guide Notes mostly distract, and provide very few humorous moments.

Colfer also repeats too many of Adams’ old jokes. We endure entirely too many references to Eccentrica Gallumbits, for instance, to the point that any humor value was long gone the fourth or fifth time she’s mentioned. The worst example of this Colfer’s use of the word “froody,” which he seems to think is an inexhaustible mine of comedy gold. There is one particular instance of this that just about made me stop reading: Colfer sets up a joke, telegraphing from a light year away that he’s going to haul out the poor battered corpse of the word “froody” and attempt to use it as the punch line one more damned time, and then forces us to endure the humiliating march through an entire paragraph towards this inevitable, predictable, and painfully unfunny payoff.

Again, he has his moments. I thought his handling of the Vogons was pretty good. But as a whole, Colfer’s attempts miss the mark.

I’ll review how Colfer handled the primary returning characters from the series. It should be noted that Marvin doesn’t appear in the book, nor is he referenced by name. Take that for what you will.

Colfer’s strongest character is Arthur Dent. Colfer does a very solid job of capturing the essence of Arthur in both dialogue and internal monologue. He manages to iron out the most blatant lapse in Arthur’s characterization that Adams himself committed in Mostly Harmless, which was the fact that Arthur quickly forgot about Fenchurch once she disappeared. High marks for Colfer in this area.

Ford Prefect, on the other hand, is by far his worst characterization. Throughout the book, Ford exhibits himself to be stupid, unobservant, lazy, and interested in nothing but getting wasted in one way or another. While it’s established that Ford does love to party and have a good time, Colfer turns that facet into the totality of who Ford is, and it’s extremely frustrating. Ford should be a resourceful survivor, well-traveled and capable of ingenious solutions. In the original series, Ford is usually the one who has a clue what’s going on, in contrast to Arthur’s general floundering. None of this makes it into Colfer’s Ford, who is an unlikeable moron with not a single virtue to his name. There were several Ford moments that came a hair’s breadth from making me give up on the book entirely (in fact, the only thing that kept me going at these points was that I was determined to write this review).

Trillian is somewhere in between, and on this I’m willing to cut Colfer some slack. Adams expressed his own insecurity about how he wrote women—he felt he made them too idealized and not human enough. Trillian doesn’t have as strong a personality in the original stories as the other main characters, and is mostly stuck with being sensible and practical while everyone else is being over-the-top. That being said, I never warmed up to Colfer’s Trillian, who manages not to be very sensible or practical, but also not very distinctive.

Lastly we have Zaphod. I felt that Adams’ Zaphod was a more nuanced character than it might seem at first blush, who hides a mixture of brilliance and deep insecurity under a deliberately flamboyant, narcissistic persona. Colfer takes a certain liberty with Zaphod that allows him to plausibly write the character in a very different way—that is, the persona becomes the reality. This Zaphod lacks any depth at all, and is often so stupid that he’s not remotely believable, but he has his charming moments. It’s not great, but not offensively bad.

As for the remaining characters, I would say the core problem is that Colfer gives us very few characters to like. Adams had a gift for making even his bit players sympathetic, but Colfer’s characters are for the most part appalling. Much of the action takes place on a planet called Nano, and there is not a single inhabitant of that world for whom I developed even the slightest affection. It is one thing to make characters who are flawed, but Colfer’s original characters so lacking in redeeming qualities that there’s really no warming up to them.

Oddly enough, the one exception to this is a Vogon named Constant Moan, whom I quite grew to like. You would think that if you could make a Vogon sympathetic, other characters would be a piece of cake, but it turns out not to be the case here.

A meandering plot is hardly a sin in a Hitchhiker’s book, so that can be forgiven. Blatantly recycling Adams’ plot elements is not so forgivable. This is especially problematic in the first half of the book, and it doesn’t help that Colfer tries to squeeze humor out of the characters saying, “Hey, we’ve done all this before.”

In the second half of the book, the plot enters more original territory, but this doesn’t really improve matters. The bulk of the story revolves around the fate of the planet Nano, and the key problem is that I hated this planet and everyone on it. There were some set-ups that might’ve been funny, like when the administrator of the planet is conducting job interviews with various gods, but it always seemed to me like Colfer was trying too hard. The humor felt strident and forced.

The thing about gods factors into one last problem I’d like to bring up, which is that Colfer doesn’t have a feel for when it’s best not to explain things. Douglas Adams used the gods—the Asgardians pop up at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe or Thor appear with Trillian at a party. But he did not go into any great detail about how mythical deities fit into a science fiction universe. In an infinite universe, anything is possible, right? So a few Aesir show up, and you go with it.

Colfer makes the mistake of trying to explain how the gods fit into the big picture, and doesn’t realize that this is a writer’s tar baby. The more he attempts to make sense of it, the less sense it actually makes. He repeats this mistake throughout the book in various ways. To quote Adams, “The impossible has an integrity that the merely improbable lacks.” Adams allows his universe to be nonsensical and impossible, whereas Colfer can’t seem to resist trying to explain in some semi-rational and therefore merely improbable fashion.

And Another Thing… is a laudable effort, and it has its good moments. However, these good moments are floating in a vast sea of not-so-good moments, which rank from simply weak to “Where’s my lighter fluid and matches?” bad. I don’t consider this some kind of referendum on Colfer as a writer. Given the pockets of inspiration present here—and the sheer guts it took to take on this project at all—I am perfectly willing to believe his other books could be excellent. This time, he just bit off more than he could chew.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Progress Report: 11/16/09

This week, I began sampling critique groups, and attended one Wednesday evening. I liked the people, but the attendant costs and driving time are not ideal. I'm going to see what I can find closer to home, and then make my decision from there.

I am also working on the outline for a novelization of Thunderstruck. The biggest challenge is trying to create cohesive novel-length installments. The structure is very different from the ongoing serialized form that works in a webcomic. For instance, assuming the first novel starts at the same place as the comic does, where then does it end? I would like the novel to be a self-contained story, setting up to be part of a series. I think it ends after the "Heritage" chapter, when Sharon & Gail set off for New Orleans, but it feels like that would be a fairly short book. Maybe it ends when they reach New Orleans, or maybe I lengthen the story in some way before they set out... there are options. Just have to figure out which ones are best.

I'm also writing a book review, which is something I plan to do from time to time. I finished listening to And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer, who has picked up the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series where Douglas Adams left off. I'll post that this week sometime, and let you know how well I think he managed that admittedly daunting task.

No "Voyage of the Piquant" this week. Still working on that last installment.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Three]

Aholl drove the ship by sheer force of will, studying the charts endlessly as he tried to anticipate the moves of his enemy, training his crew in the secret arts of maritime combat, sniffing the briny air for a hint of where his prey might be hiding. Never once did he take advantage of our seemingly endless array of entertainment features to unwind and get away from it all. Whether it was wisdom, instinct, or madness that drew him on, I know not. He was a man with a purpose on a ship full of cruisers, and we found ourselves infected by his unforgiving quest for revenge.

No matter who is captain on a cruise ship, routine is always the king. So adapting to this sudden shift in our well-lubed pattern took its toll on the officers and staff. Louis and his massage team pulled many a late shift, I can report, as we all scrambled to shape Aholl’s militant orders to a palatable form for our passengers. Trying to make the effort of preparing for battle with a monstrous squid into a luxurious and exciting holiday experience put our skills as vacation experts to the test.

Yet for some of us, this venture into uncharted territory felt invigorating. We who serve aboard cruise ships bear little resemblance to our pioneering forbearers, the explorers of past centuries who dared to chart the unknown seas in their primitive wooden galleys without the benefit of charts, modern electronics, and fully-appointed spas. Being swept up in Aholl’s lunatic pursuit of Mocha Rich was, for most of us, the first time we had ever stepped into the unknown as the sailors of yore had done, pitting our mettle against a true elemental force of nature.

In theory, anyway. We hadn’t seen the squid, after all. And some of us wondered if it even existed.

“He’s completely barking mad,” Captain Wellington observed one night as we gathered in the kitchen after the evening meal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he concocted this whole yarn about a giant squid out of his twisted imagination.”

“What about his pinkie?” asked Louis.

“Hardly compelling evidence,” the captain said. “There are any number of ways a man could lose a pinkie. Look around this kitchen, for instance. Knives, cleavers, electric can openers… all sorts of things that could take a finger off. Right, Quisiene?”

The burly cook looked up only briefly from the immense mixing bowl over which he was laboring. He grunted in a way that could have meant anything.

The captain frowned at him, then spoke again. “So it needn’t have been any kind of attack. He was probably preparing some calamari dish with a light cream sauce, had an unfortunate slip of the knife, and then over the years he’s embellished the tale up to this business about a giant white squid.”

The staff murmured. It sounded like a plausible story. Quisiene simply shook his head and heaved an oar-sized spoon through the dough. “Think that if it gives you comfort,” said the cook, “but you are the one spinning stories here, not Aholl.”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“The kind of madness that grips Aholl does not come from delusions and lies,” Quisiene said. “His are the eyes of a man that have stared into the naked truth, the truths that we who live cocooned in luxury and privilege do not dare to see. Aholl tells no lies, captain. ‘Twas a monster squid what took his finger. Before this voyage is over, I fear the beast will take far more than that.”

“Well that’s just ludicrous!” the captain spluttered. “Even if there is a big white squid out there somewhere, it’s not a threat to us unless we’re stupid enough to jump off the ship or something. It can’t hurt the Piquant. This ship is six hundred feet long. We’re too big to fail!”

Quisiene simply shrugged and went back to his mixing.

“What the hell are you making, anyway?” the captain asked.

I intervened. “Aholl has him baking day and night. Something to do with the hunt for Mocha Rich.”

“He does,” Quisiene said, “but this dish isn’t for Aholl. It is a tradition harkening back to the early days of the epicurean explorers. When one of us died at sea, we were committed to the waves in a funeral cake. ‘Let Davy Jones know that the dinner bell has rung,’ it was said. ‘To the locker we commit a true gruelmaster.’”

“A funeral cake?” the captain squeaked. “You’re making a funeral cake for yourself?”

“Aye,” said Quisiene.

“Well I order you to stop it!” Wellington demanded.

But Quisiene paid him no heed. The squishy slurp of his great wooden spoon plying the dough seemed to whisper of an oncoming doom.

The next morning, Aholl called me to the Fiesta Deck at the aft of the ship. “Mr. Irving,” he said, fixing me with that tax auditor glare of his. “Ye asked about long lines and fishing. Well, we shall be dropping some lines into the water today, and then we shall see if Mocha Rich takes our bait.”

“Bait?” I asked. “Is this what Quisiene has been making for you?”

“Nay, lad. Take a look for yourself.”

He gestured to a length of thick cable on the deck, coiled next to a monolithic form draped in canvas. At his command, I unveiled what was concealed beneath, the bait that Aholl intended to use. I must’ve looked quite perplexed, for Aholl let out a chainsaw laugh.

“Speakers?” I said.

“The very thing,” he said.

The great speakers had been pulled from the dining hall, cocooned in watertight clear plastic, and affixed to reinforced cable. I puzzled over this oddity for a while, then a chilling insight made an unwelcome entrance into my head, and I felt some inkling of what Aholl might be planning. Trembling, I traced the path of the cable back to its source.

Sure enough, Aholl had moved every scrap of karaoke equipment on the ship out to the Fiesta Deck.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “You intend…”

“That’s right, lad.” With a mighty kick, he shoved the plastic-wrapped speakers off the side of the Piquant. The cable slithered after the heavy payload, unspooling in the wake of the heavy amplifiers.

“Send an announcement to the passengers, Mr. Irving,” Aholl trumpeted. “Thar shall be karaoke! Nonstop, day and night, twenty-four bleedin’ seven!”

I felt my stomach quake at the thought of it, but Aholl had even more insanity yet to reveal. He brandished a sheaf of papers in front of my nose, and grinned like a barracuda. “This is the playlist,” he growled. “They shall sing these songs, cast them into the sea, and let Mocha Rich hear how we mock him.”

With sweaty hands, I riffled through the list. It was worse than I could’ve imagined. “Sir, you can’t mean to… sir, a karaoke performance can turn even a masterpiece into unlistenable drivel. But this list… I mean, ‘Muskrat Love,’ for God’s sake! Nobody should be singing these atrocities!”

‘They’ll sing them,” Aholl vowed. “They’ll sing them flat and toneless and off-key, and they shan’t break for a minute. And we shall drop every botched note and pitch-poor warble into the darkest depths, where dwells Mocha Rich.”

“But really, will a giant squid even care?”

“Ye never have understood him,” Aholl glowered. “Mocha Rich is not some oversized mollusk, plying the lightless waters and waiting for a sperm whale to gobble him down. He is as intelligent as he is cruel. A din such as we will inflict upon him will run fingernails over the blackboard of his evil heart. Let him hear the bitter discord of my hate. Let him hear a green grocer from Queens serenade him with ‘Macarthur Park.’ He will come for us soon, laddie. He’ll come.”

That night I lay in my bunk, tossing and turning in a puddle of my sweat-drenched blankets, drifting in and out of fevered dreams. I dreamed of the whole sea rising up in indignant fury, towering over the tiny form of the Piquant as we blasted the heaving waves with a karaoke-mutilated version of “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

Nature itself would rebel against us for what we were doing. Truly, the Piquant was now cruising the waters of the abyss.

Progress Report: 11/9/09

I realize these Progress Reports are not the most thrilling reads. It's not their job to be exciting. It's their job to give me a weekly benchmark for how my writing is progressing. Oft times, those steps aren't too interesting to read about, but that's the way it goes. When there's electrifying news to report, nobody will be happier than me. Meanwhile...

I rewrote the first chapter of Rose & Jade, and started another editing pass. This pass isn't so much about rewrites as it is about trimming excess language.

The third segment of "Voyage of the Piquant" is ready to roll. After this: the shocking conclusion.

Inspired by poetry I've been reading, I've started a metaphor journal as a place to record colorful language and turns of phrase. Naturally, the moment I sat down to record some of the ones that I had been thinking of, they all drained out of my head like... like... oh, see? There they go again. Something more interesting than "water down a plughole." This is why I need the journal. I have gotten a few, my favorite of which is: "a scimitar smile."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Two]

Captain Wellington’s only attempt to take back the ship ended almost as soon as it began. Reasoning that every man, even a mad one, had to sleep, the captain assigned us to watch Aholl all through the night as the gristly squid-hunter stood vigil on the bridge. It wasn’t long before Aholl seemed to drop off in the sumptuous captain’s chair, but when Wellington gingerly reached for the harpoon gun, one of Aholl’s bloodshot eyes bulged open. The harpoon tip bobbed and pointed at Wellington’s generous belly, and our captain let out a squeak and stumbled away.

“I think he is actually still asleep,” I whispered to the shaky captain. “His eye never focused on you.”

“Well you try and take that thing away from him, then!” Wellington hissed.

I declined.

We retreated together to the officer’s lounge to confer with the rest of the staff, leaving Aholl in sole possession of the bridge. Wellington delivered the news to our colleagues that our attempted mutiny had come up short. Everyone expressed their disappointment, but all of us are well-trained in customer relations, so everyone had encouraging words to say about how brave Wellington had been to make the attempt, what a clever plan it had been, and how they were sure things would go better next time.

Only one voice spoke in dissent. Quisiene, the head chef, cut through the babble with a voice like a double-bladed electric turkey carver. “You stand no chance against that man, captain,” he said.

We all turned to regard him. Quisiene occupied a position of legend in the crew. A massive man, standing 6’4” and muscled like a lumberjack, Quisiene was covered head to toe in tattoos of entrees from around the world. He had served with the U.S. Navy and later as a freelance cook with the merchant marines, and had cooked on destroyers, gunboats, and aircraft carriers. Quisiene had seen his share grueling combat, and had plucked recipes from the heart of enemy territory in some of the deadliest seas of the world before finally coming to the Piquant. His 30’ submarine sandwich was legendary crowd pleaser in the cruising world.

Captain Wellington sucked in his gut and glared at Quisiene. “We’ll simply wait until he’s more deeply asleep.”

“A man like that never truly relaxes,” Quisiene said.

The head masseuse piped up next. “Perhaps I can offer him a complementary full-body rubdown and spa treatment. He’ll be sleeping like a baby…”

“He’s not the type to accept a spa treatment,” the cook said.

“Well then, smart guy,” the masseuse said, “how about when he’s in the potty?”

I leaned in and whispered to him. “We call it the ‘head’ on a ship, Louis.”

Quisiene ignored the lapse. “None of you have ever met a man like Aholl. He does not relax his guard, not for an instant. All of human sanity and joy has been boiled out of him, leaving only a hard egg of revenge. Nothing good shall hatch from such an egg.”

“Hard-boiled eggs don’t hatch at all,” protested the captain.

“None of us are a match for him,” Quisiene said. “Not even me. I fear he will lead us only to ruin.”

It was a fortunate thing that we were in the latter stages of our voyage. By now, we’d conditioned the passengers out of the last vestiges of independent thought, and they responded like a well-oiled machine to the new agenda. They rotated by group through the new “craft time” activities, making the modifications on the Piquant that Aholl required for his hunt.

Aholl himself, billed in our impromptu literature as a “special celebrity guest,” paced the decks with relentless determination. He drummed his peg finger on the rails and bulkheads as he scowled out at the waves, scanning the peaceful waters for his ancient nemesis. The passengers at first were wary of him, for his sheer intensity shattered the atmosphere of relaxation that we try to enforce. Yet beneath the guttural swearing and the blood-chilling stare, I saw that he possessed the deep charisma of a true leader. He quickly divined how to best motivate the passengers as they took their duty on “wildlife watch,” looking for any sign of Aholl’s great white squid.

“I shall reward the first man, woman, or child to spot the beast,” he told the assembled passengers. He reached into the dark folds of his coat. “I affix these up where all can see them, and they shall be a prize for the one who first sights Mocha Rich!”

With that, he withdrew a sheaf of vouchers for free car rentals, hotel rooms, and dinners at four-star restaurants and nailed them to the Promenade Deck. The passengers babbled in appreciation and rushed to their posts, eyes searching the choppy waves.

On the third day, twelve minutes after the end of lunch, I plucked up the courage to approach him with a question that had been bothering me.

“Mr. Aholl. Sir. Um… it’s about this squid.”

He whirled to face me, eyes round as golf balls. “Have ye seen it?”

“No, no,” I said, flapping my hands in front of me. “It’s just… well, isn’t it true that the giant squid is a deep sea creature?”

“Aye, ‘tis so.”

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, sir, how is it you plan to hunt one from the surface?” I looked around the deck. “I mean, shouldn’t you be trawling with lines or nets or something? Not that we have any on the Piquant…”

“Lines and nets cannot snare the likes of that devil-spawn,” he rumbled. “Mocha Rich is no ordinary squid, lad, not even for a giant squid. He’ll come to the surface if he’s drawn.”

“Drawn?” I repeated. “By what?”

“By me,” Aholl declared. “We are bound together by the suction cups of fate, he and I. And I think he shall be drawn to this ship as well.”


He gave me a knowing look. “I’ve read how these cruisers foul the seas, pumping out your waste and wash-water into the oceans as you heave these soft-bellied vacationers ‘round the world. Such things invite the wrath of Mocha Rich.”

I felt cold sweat trickle down my back, but tried to laugh it off. “Sir, I’ve served on cruisers for over twenty years now, and I’ve never heard of one being attacked by a giant squid.”

“Mayhap they don’t want you to hear of it, lad,” Aholl said. “Still, ye do have a point. Mocha Rich shall need more incentive than I’ve yet given him yet to seek us out. Once our preparations are done, I know how to lure him out of his Stygian depths. I know how to drive him into a killing frenzy. He shall come for us, all the fury of Hell at his back, and seek us out for battle. Fear not on that score, laddie.”

“Fear not,” I said weakly, feeling my heart tremble. “Of course.”

Progress Report: 11/2/09

Real life concerns took precedence over writing for the most part this week. One thing that happened is that we had to say goodbye to our oldest cat, Quantum. He'd been with us for 16 years, almost as long as we've been married, and was the first pet that Candi and I got together. Quantum was a very weird and delightful Siamese, as fine a companion as you could ask for. He embodied the feline traits of dignity and absurdity, which is a paradoxical trick only cats can pull off. Towards the end, he was in a lot of pain, though, and his body was breaking down. It's very hard to make the decision to put a beloved pet to sleep, but this is part of the contract. We help them along when it's time to go, as much as it hurts to say goodbye.

So my focus wasn't totally on writing. For that reason, and others.

In terms of writing, I did manage to hammer out a few more pages of my "Voyage of the Piquant" story, which I'll post after I finish this entry.

Also, I'm revising the opening chapter to Rose & Jade. It's clear that in the process of shopping a book, a lot of weight is put on the first pages, so they'd better be good. I think this fixation on the introductory pages is more important to agents/editors than it is to readers, but that's the nature of the beast. I also think that my first chapter could be better, and I've got an angle on how. Hopefully, that will increase my chances of catching the interest of the right agent.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part One]

Voyage of the Piquant
Part One

Call me Irving. The tale I am about to relate is a story of obsession, madness, the power of the sea, and other heavy stuff like that.

I was serving as Chief Activity Coordinator aboard the Piquant, a six-hundred foot cruise ship operating off the Pacific Northwest. We were late in the season, perhaps our last run along the Canadian coastline, when we found ourselves drawn into a nightmare of unspeakable proportions. It began on a normal day, during the normal routine, on a cruise that seemed no different from the hundreds I had seen in my career.

A seaman is supposed to be able to sense a storm coming, and I suppose I must’ve gained some of that legendary faculty for precognition during my years on the sea. I first felt a sense of dread as I was guiding my group of passengers through their early evening routine.

“And ready... now drain!” I checked my stopwatch, ticking off the standard seventeen seconds. “Good... now shake! Two, three, four. Now retract... and zip! Group three, move out, group four into place.” The next line of men shifted their way to their assigned positions with the practiced ease of a precision drill team. “Check your number to your urinal,” I instructed, my tone crisp and professional. “Now unzip, and extend...”

And I felt it—an ominous premonition something was about to happen... something that was definitely not on the agenda.

I stared into the distance, looking past my clipboard, as if I could see through the steel hull of the Piquant and into the ominous forces gathering in the endless depths upon which our vessel we floated. The seconds ticked by on my stopwatch, unheeded, until finally I heard one of the passengers clear his throat. I glanced towards the sound and saw the men standing before their urinals, poised and waiting for my command.

I shook off the strange feeling, remembering my duty. “Sorry, men. All right, on my mark… now, drain!”

I dismissed the eerie premonition as nothing more than a lapse of consciousness, perhaps brought on by an ill-advised second helping of Muenster-spinach quiche with truffle garnish at breakfast. Yet within thirty-eight minutes, I received the first sign that there was more to my feeling than a case of gastronomic excess.

As my group shuffled onto the Riviera Deck, the intercom crackled to life. “This is your captain,” came the voice of Captain Wellington. “This ship will be making an unexpected stop. There is no cause for alarm. Please continue with your scheduled activities.”

The passengers milled nervously, low chatter humming to life from the group. Aboard a cruise ship, that kind of uncertainty can lead to unthinkable chaos. “To your positions!” I snapped, my voice cutting through the babble. “We are not deviating from the schedule! Stand on your color-coded squares... very good.. Mr. Armstead, please turn your head towards the viewing marker. Now breathe deep, and... appreciate the sunset!”

My timely actions may have saved us that evening, but nothing could have prepared me for the horror that was to come.

I guided my charges through the remainder of their routine without further incident. Three minutes and twenty-two seconds after I had sealed the cabin doors behind the passengers for the night, I spoke to the captain about the disturbance. “What happened back there?” I asked.

Captain Wellington twirled his fingers along the length of his waxed moustache. “We picked up a castaway,” he informed me.


“He was lost at sea, in a rubber life raft,” the captain said. “By maritime law, we were obliged to pick him up. Even if it meant sacrificing our position for optimum viewing of the sunset. Damn, but the sea can be a cruel mistress.”

“Where is the castaway now?” I asked.

“Sickbay,” the captain said, then both of us stopped. A sound came to our ears from along the corridor leading to the bridge. We heard footsteps and the familiar swish of a hand sliding along the polished brass surface of the safety rail. Yet there was something different about that sound, something alien that sent a chill straight down my spine.

The man who entered stared at us with black eyes that contained nothing of human sanity. His coarse beard seemed to be made of bristling wire, similar to the copper scrub brushes they use to clean the grills in the kitchen when they get really nasty. He had skin as rough and leathery as an old loafer, creased into a permanent scowl of rage. And we saw the horrible truth behind that discordant sound on the handrail—on the grizzled madman’s right hand, where his pinkie should have been, there was only a wooden peg.

“What the devil are you doing here?” the captain demanded.

“The devil?” the stranger rasped. “What do you know about the devil, you softgut? The devil lurks out beneath the waves, white and slick and hungry. He tasks me, and I mean to have him! I’ll chase him around the Cape of Good Hope, past that boot-shaped bit of Italy, and through the Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

“Pardon me, but what are you talking about?” I asked.

“My name is Aholl,” he growled. “I’m taking command of this ship.”

“You most certainly are not!” Captain Wellington said..

Aholl drew a harpoon gun from the folds of his battered black coat. “Say again now, you bowl of pudding?”

“Eh... heh,” the captain chuckled weakly as the tip of the harpoon pointed between his eyes. “Now... I’m sure we can discuss this like reasonable men.”

He brandished his peg-pinkie, the veins on his neck standing out like jump ropes. “Reasonable? You see this, milk boy? You think a man like me is capable of being reasonable?

“It’s only your pinkie!” the captain squeaked.

Only?Aholl roared. “Try touch-typing with a thing like this, flounder-breath! I used to be able to hit eight-five words per minute. Damn it all to Hell!”

“How did it happen?” I asked, hoping to draw his attention away from the captain.

He whirled to face me, flinty eyes shimmering. “Bitten off, lad. Bitten off by the fiercest hunter in the seven seas. My little finger rests in the gullet of the great...” He paused.

I leaned forward.


I held my breath.


“Squid?” I repeated. “A squid bit off your finger?”

“They have very powerful beaks,” the captain said, keen to placate the lunatic with the harpoon gun. “Can be quite nasty.”

“This ain’t no ordinary squid,” Aholl told us in his gravelly voice. “’Tis a beast what squirmed straight out of the poop-chute of Lucifer himself.”

“Oh gross,” I moaned.

“He roams the sea, laying waste to everything that dares cross his path. White as bone, and twice as vicious. I call him Mocha Rich.”

“We serve that at the coffee bar,” I said.

“Shut up,” Aholl snarled. “That devil took down my last boat, destroyed my entire crew, yet somehow I survived. My last ship, she was too small for the job. But this tub of bolts,” he looked around at the bridge assessingly. “Aye. This might just be enough.”

“But surely you can’t mean to use this ship to hunt a squid!” the captain protested.

“He tasks me!” Aholl bellowed. “He tasks me!”

“Right, yes, you already mentioned that,” Wellington said. “But we have a schedule to keep, don’t you know. The passengers...”

“Shall be my crew! Fear not, they’ll be well rewarded when we take the beast. I am a man of some means.”

“But it is not in the itinerary!” cried the captain.

“You can shove your foul itinerary into Mammon’s blubbery armpit!” Aholl thundered, waving his harpoon gun wildly about mere inches from the captain’s face. “Do as I say or I’ll skewer you like a sautéed prawn!”

Wellington clapped his hands together, smiling through the sheen of sweat which covered his face. “Right! Well, then I suppose we shall be making a new schedule for tomorrow. Mr. Irving? Let’s report to the copy room. And for the love of God, I hope we have enough toner.”

Progress Report: 10/26/09

Got a nibble.

At this point, it's no more than a nibble--that is to say, an agent has asked to see more of my novel. But a nibble is something, and that's at least encouraging. I will, of course, keep you posted.

Meanwhile, apart from making more submissions and contacting agents, I realized I was having a hard time motivating myself to write this week. Forcing it, almost. As I reflected on this, I discovered one of the unforeseen voids left by Thunderstruck in my life. The comic was a labor of love, written pretty much just for fun, with no major pressure. Every writing effort I've made since then has been, in one way or another, geared towards professional publication.

So I needed to write something just for fun.

I'm posting the first part of this story on the blog and on my DeviantArt site. It's a silly piece of work, but that's precisely the point. It's called "Voyage of the Piquant," and it is a homage of sorts to a famous literary masterpiece. See if you can guess which one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Progress Report: 10/19/09

In terms of progress, I could copy and paste the previous report and have it covered.

At this point, it's kind of like forging across the frozen reaches of Siberia. "What did we see out there today?"

"A lot of snow."

"Same snow as last week?"

"No sir. Different snow."

"Looked the same."

"I promise, it was different. We're getting to new snow every day."

"Well, I guess that's something. Let's keep going, boys. We're bound to make it through all this snow eventually!"

(muffled collective cheers from the team)

(Aside) "I hope to God we're not going in circles."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Progress Report: 10/12/09

Submissions and more submissions.

Successful writers always like to tell stories about how many times they were rejected before they finally got their break. In that tradition, I'm accumulating rejections now for Rose & Jade. Got a pretty good collection so far.

Everybody gives advice about perseverance, tenacity, sticking with it, and all that. The "I got rejected a thousand times before I was published" stories come from all sides, from your local authors all the way up to your multi-million selling giants. Successful authors share these tales in order to give heart to starting authors, such as myself. And it's good, because it helps me keep going.

But at the conference I went to recently, one writer who was giving a presentation looked out over the room full of agents and editors, and he said something quite candid: "There isn't one agent that I wouldn't want to run over if I saw them on the street."

Because being rejected is no goddamned fun.

Anyway, the cycle continues, and writing continues. I'm going to a critique group this week to see if it'll be a good fit for me. I joined the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers association. I have the outline for a new novel churning along, and I'm probing the conceptual approach for a novelization of Thunderstruck. I'm thinking point of view style chapters, as in George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, might be the way to go.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why "The Raptor Clause"

I chose the title of this blog as a play on words to incorporate two of my favorite things: dinosaurs and writing.

This is not to suggest that all my stories will contain dinosaurs. Thunderstruck contained no dinosaurs, unless you count the "Patches" outtake. But Rose & Jade features dinosaurs in addition to dragons, so I decided to tip my hat to that passion of mine for the title of the blog.

One of the things that's really cool in modern paleontology is that we are finally able to look at the soft tissue imprints of fossils with more detail and clarity. That's allowed scientists to peek inside the chest cavity of well-preserved dinosaur mummies and check out the heart and other organs. We've had pretty good skin impressions, too. It's kind of sad to think about how many good soft tissue fossils have probably been destroyed through routine efforts to expose the bones, but now that paleontologists have better technology at hand, I expect we'll see more and more discoveries.

Traditionally, most scientists have depicted fleshed-out dinosaurs very conservatively, draping a reasonable quantity of muscle over the bones and providing them with some basic gray-green skin. This is a conservative approach, and scientists are by nature conservative, so that's to be expected.

But dinosaurs were assuredly much more interesting, magnificent, and strange than the bones can indicate.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Take an elephant skeleton, and put it amongst paleontologists who have never seen an elephant or any related creature. What do they make of this peculiar being's skull? How do they suggest it got food to its mouth? The most significant feature of the elephant is its trunk, yet there are no bones in the trunk (just tens of thousands of muscles). I'm not sure what these hypothetical scientists would postulate, but I they wouldn't go as far as nature did. And they'd probably miss the ears, too.

Artists get more leeway than scientists. The dinosaurs I like to write about are colorful, weird, and have adaptations that are unlike anything we see today. I may be wrong about what the real beasts were like, but no more wrong than the super-conservative version. If I'm going to err, I'll err on the side of magnificent.

Progress Report: 10/5/09

All submissions, all the time.

The differences between what agents want to see make the whole submission exercise somewhat slow going. For instance, I've now written synopses of varying length, from one sentence to a full page. As I get more of them done, I expect I will be able to re-use more elements.

One of the agents had an interesting request, though. In addition to the first 30-some pages, this agent asked for "one of your favorite sentences from your story." That took a bit of looking to figure out what to choose. This is the one I picked:

The living juggernaut rammed headfirst through the blackjack tables, tossing its mighty horns as playing cards fluttered like a cloud of butterflies in its wake.

I selected that because the first 30 pages are not action-heavy, and I wanted to give a hint that we get into some action down the road. Also, I like the bit with the butterflies.

Other writing churns along. I've had a lot of ideas, which is good, and now I need to get some more onto paper. The screen. Whatever.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Progress Report: 9/28/09

This week was mostly about whipping my query letter into shape and getting it ready to go off to editors. Which I have done now (two queries out) and will do some more this week.

Query letters are intimidating. I think virtually every writer would like their query letter to say: "Look, could you just read my damned story, okay?" and leave it at that. I feel like I have a bit of an edge on this process, since I've been writing ad copy professionally for +5 years and the principles are pretty much the same, but it's still a bit of a trial.

From what I've seen, the thing that most writers run into is a difficulty boiling down their own story to its key, interest-grabbing essentials. Actually, the problem for writers is that there is a sense that if you can write a 250,000 word epic fantasy novel, a page of sale copy ought to be a snap. It doesn't work that way. Copy writing is its own beast, and there are writers who are superb at other sorts of writing that can't scratch together a piece of decent copy to save their lives.

(By the same token, if you've ever tried to read a full length book written by someone who knows only copy writing, you have tasted a special flavor of pain.)

In terms of fiction writing, I'm progressing along on a short story that is currently called "The Dragon and the Aussie." It's about a friendly dog meeting a wary young dragon. Not enough to build a trilogy on or anything, but I think it'll be a sweet little piece. Short stories are a nice way to keep in practice between stretches at novels. I'll have to look more deeply into the ins and outs of short story publication once I get a few under my belt.

Speaking of short stories, I have also been combing through some of my older stuff to see if there's anything up to snuff for publication. Jury's out on that, but there are some fun reads, and I'm thinking I'll go back to these pieces and start posting them on DeviantArt once and a while (linked to this blog as well), and give people something to read.

Also on the agenda: making this blog look more interesting. Needs some art, some links, stuff like that. It's pretty bare-bones right now.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Possible Futures of Thunderstruck

Understandably, a lot of people who have followed the story of Thunderstruck want to see it continue. So would I (as I hope you know). Here are some of the suggestions that I’ve seen, and my answer to how likely they actually are.

1) Publish an Outline.
Or a bulleted list of what I planned to happen. The answer on that one is no. This would be a cheap and hugely unsatisfying way to end a story. Picture for a moment your favorite series — Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, what have you. Now think of a bulleted outline of the last book. How does that experience compare to reading the actual book? The answer is that it sucks. The experience is so bad that it would be better not to have read the outline at all.

That is not the only consideration. The fact is that I do not write with a rigid outline. Thunderstruck has on several occasions jumped the tracks and gone in a way that my outlined version did not predict. Which is fine, because every time it’s done that, I’ve liked the outcome. So even an outline would only give you one vague possibility for how things might have gone, and not a very accurate one at that.

Besides, if I publish an outline, that kind of kills the suspense if I ever do come back to the story, doesn’t it?

2) Go to a Reduced Schedule (1-2 times a week)
I seriously considered that possibility. Ultimately, what it boiled down to was a question of whether I devote myself to writing or keep trying to be an artist/writer. And I choose the former. I love drawing, but for various reasons, I don’t think it’s my career path. Writing is.

3) Publish the Existing Comic as a Graphic Novel
I appreciate the encouragement from people who say they’d buy Thunderstruck in a traditional print format, and I am not immune to the appeal of this vision. There are some technical problems with this. For one, I have not drawn with a print format in mind. Go back and look at the physical dimensions of the comic throughout its history. They’re all over the place. Notice the font size, and how it will vary wildly from one strip to another. These things aren’t too bothersome in the fast-and-loose world of online comics, but in a print format they will stand out and look shoddy. This could probably be handled, but it would be time-consuming.

Another practical issue is that I have shamelessly mined the Internet for photography to use in backgrounds. I haven’t kept track of who owns the copyright to these photos or what the usage agreements for each might be. Since Thunderstruck has been a virtually profit-less enterprise (a hobby, in short), there’s really not much legal concern. If I were to physically publish the comic, I would have to scour through each of these and most likely re-do the backgrounds. Not impossible, but again, time-consuming.

But the ultimate decider on this is that I would want to go back and re-write a lot of the story. Not just to bring the older art up to snuff (though that is a temptation). It’s because the writing itself would need an overhaul. More detail on that in just a second.

4) Publish a Prose Version of Thunderstruck
This is the most likely thing to happen. I have a lot of work in Thunderstruck. It’s a world that is rich in detail and compelling to me, and I’ve got a lot left in the story I still want to tell. There is a lot of potential for prose-novel version of Thunderstruck.

Don’t expect it to be identical, though.

The thing I liked least about writing a webcomic was this: you’re stuck with your first draft. Oh, there’s no physical barrier to making rewrites, but readers don’t really dig being dragged back and forth through a rewrite process. The very act of drawing the comic also makes rewrites incredibly tedious — I can change dialogue without too much difficulty, but the effort that goes into drawing is so great that the prospect of re-drawing completed pages is enough to send me screaming for the nearest balcony.

First drafts are messy, and there’s a reason that rewrites are so important. It shows in the end result. The pacing in Thunderstruck is inconsistent. Characters change as I get to know them, and their later incarnations don’t mesh with their first appearance (Grogan was the most striking example of this). I ended up hitting the reader with great walls of exposition, clumsily delivered. Elements of the plot shifted around like sand. And so forth. I’ve had many readers say wonderful things about how well-executed and written Thunderstruck was, and I am very grateful of it (and fairly proud as well), but I know it could be a lot better.

I was thinking at one point of picking up the story from the last strip, and carrying forth in prose. But I think if (hopefully when) I return to this universe and these characters, it will be with a fresh page in front of me, a stronger idea of how I want to shape and pace the story, and a better, tighter approach. Back to the start, in other words.

Ah, but I will miss some of the things you can do in comics. Like the bit where Sharon and Gail first communicate through their respective bathroom mirrors — that came out quite nicely, and it would be hard to capture it the same way in prose. Comics also give you the option to subtly drop visual clues in a way that isn’t the same in prose, like Jude’s necklace.

So, will Thunderstruck return someday in a new incarnation? I think the chances are good. What I am really ending right now is my hobby as a webcomic writer/artist, in favor of devoting myself to a professional career as a writer. But there’s no reason to believe story of Thunderstruck can only exist as a webcomic. It is a world close to my heart. And it would be a fine, fine thing to go back someday and share more adventures with Sharon and Gail.

Progress Report: 9/21/09

This blog has several purposes, but the primary one is to keep up-to-date with these progress reports. One of the things I learned from writing a webcomic was how useful it is to have a schedule. It keeps me on task, allows me to budget my time, and generally lets me establish a discipline around writing.

So for now, I intend to publish one progress report per week, every Monday, on my writing. If I haven't gotten any writing done or made any progress over a week's time, I'm doing something wrong (unless I'm on vacation). I didn't end Thunderstruck just so I could have more time for video games or watching football. I did it because those hours I spent on the comic are quality hours I am going to use for writing. That's my promise to myself, and to you.

This week's progress was mostly about wrapping up Thunderstruck, but I think I should tell you a little about my novel here while I've got you. It's called Rose & Jade, and is the first installment of a planned trilogy called "The Awakening of Dragons." It took me about two years to write it, and it is now in a sufficiently polished form that I'm shopping it to agents and editors. This week's efforts will be focused on that endeavor, and I'll tell you about all that in more detail next Monday.

Welcome to The Raptor Clause

Hi everyone. Sorry the place is kind of sparse right now. I just moved in, and I'll get it spruced up here as I go along.

I expect that most people here right now are coming from Thunderstruck, so I'm going to talk about that. For those of you who don't know, Thunderstruck is a web comic that I've been self-publishing since May 31, 2004. I just ended it today, and I'm betting there are some readers who won't be happy with me about that.

The last strip of the comic pretty much gives you my reasons for bringing Thunderstruck to its abrupt close. Here's a little more about why I chose to end the way I did.

There was a strong pull to wrap the story up in some way instead of severing the plotline in the middle. As I examined this option, I realized that there was no way to do this in a satisfying fashion. Everything I considered started to feel cheap, rushed, and uninteresting. If I crammed the ending into a small space just so I could have something that felt like a conclusion, it would've been lousy.

I considered publishing a kind of outline of where I thought the story would go. That was even worse. First of all, my outlines are only general guidelines, and I know just how much I deviate from them when it gets down to the actual writing. Secondly, outlines are just boring. I know some of you may be frustrated by not knowing how things turn out or what the secrets are, but I don't think an outline would've brought any real satisfaction.

I then considered at least getting to the end of the chapter, just to get a better closing point. Since all the chapters end in cliffhangers, that's not saying much, but it would've at least been a cleaner breaking spot. The problem with that was that I knew I was going to end it. Thunderstruck demanded a great deal of time, energy, and passion, and that last ingredient is the key. I couldn't devote myself in the way that any story deserves, especially a demanding one like this, if my heart wasn't in it.

And there's the other trap. If I kept writing until the end of the chapter, the pull to carry on after that would start to creep up on me. I'd fall back into my routine -- demanding, yet comfortable -- and might lose the momentum to do what I know is the right thing.

I know the ending is sudden. But it's time.

Thunderstruck has always been a labor of love. It is very hard to let it go. It's been a part of my life and my identity for over five years now. I know I'm going to miss writing it, and miss interacting with all of you who have read and enjoyed it.

I've learned a lot from writing Thunderstruck. And I plan to put that knowledge to good use.