Current projects

What I’m working on at the moment:

  • The novel The Hordes of Chanakra being shopped around looking for a publishing home.
  • The short story “God of Thunder” out to beta readers
  • A new story for the Heroes in Hell series in progress
  • A story in progress for a zombie-themed anthology
  • A story in progress for an orc themed anthology
  • A Science Fiction novel involving spies in space in progress
  • A sequel to The Hordes of Chanakra being outlined.
  • A fantasy novel in a Norse setting being researched
  • A paranormal romance being researched.

Now if I can just get paid for some of that.

Context Science Fiction Convention

Got back from the Science Fiction convention “Context” earlier this evening. My very first panel while I was there was a “writing with other” panel on collaborations and the like.I was on it because of my recent sale to the Heroes in Hell shared world series. Another panelist (“the” other panelist as it happened) was Mike Resnick.

Shortly after that, I was in the Con Suite having a snack and Mike Resnick walks in. We start chatting and soon he is giving me career advice. Wow. Here’s multiple award winning science fiction writer Mike Resnick giving nobody me advice on how to advance my career. Is this a great field or what?

I mean, this is Mike Resnick. List of awards and nominations as long as my arm, been in the field since I was third grade (and before my wife was born), that Mike Resnick. And he’s giving career advice to a nobody like, well, me. I have no illusions about my importance to the science fiction and fantasy field. That is something I hope to change in the future but, right now, I’m a nobody.

Excuse me there. I just had a fanboy moment. 😉

My very first published story

This was not the first story I sold but, due to the vagueries of publishing schedules it was the first story to see print.  There are certainly things I would change were I writing it today.  For one thing, I use entirely too much passive voice in this piece.  I am of mixed feelings of the very long and detailed description of starting a fire in the opening scenes.  On the whole, I think it was excessive and could stand to be pared back a lot.  On the other hand, it’s deliberate pace helps set up the conclusion.

Jilka and the Evil Wizard was intended as a short, comic piece.  And that’s really the only way I could get away with that ending.  It’s basically the punch line for a joke.  Today, I’d never try to get away with anything so . . . so.  Still, even today after twenty years I still find it a fun read and get a giggle out of it.

So here it is.  Enjoy!


David L. Burkhead
Originally Published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Winter 1991

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© 1991 All rights reserved


“Damn,” Jilka said.  That was the second time her firestarter spell had failed.
She tried once more.  She spread her hands over the small pile of brush, focused her mind on the image of the proper mystic sigil, spoke the word of command, and rapidly snapped downward with both middle fingers and thumbs, leaving the other fingers extended.  The brush sputtered a bit.  A small light glowed, then nothing.  The brush remained cold.
“Damn and damn,” Jilka said. “I guess it will have to be the old fashioned way.”
She rummaged in her pack for a moment, coming out with a cottonwood board.  A row of holes had been drilled partway through the board along one edge.  Notches had been cut from the edge of the board to he centers of the holes.  Beside the board, she laid a wooden stake, about a foot long and as big around as her thumb, a stone with a small hole drilled about halfway through it, and a two-foot-long bow strung with rough cord.
Jilka took a handful of the lightest, driest, smallest pieces of the brush and rolled it between her palms.  When it was thoroughly fluffed to her satisfaction, she placed the bundle so that it was half covered by the board and under one of the notches.  She rubbed the pointed end of the stake along the side of her nose for a moment then placed it, pointed end up, in the hole with the notch that opened on the brush.  Next she wrapped the string of the bow twice and placed the stone over it.  Holding the stone and applying pressure with the stake to it, she ran the bow back and forth, whirling the stake rapidly in the hole.  Soon smoke began pouring out of the hole in the cottonwood branch.  When it was smoking to Jilka’s satisfaction, she removed the stake and dumped the black powder that had formed in the hole into the bundle of brush.  A few seconds blowing and it was aflame.  It was then the work of but a moment to transfer it to the larger pile of brush and Jilka had her campfire.
She dug further into her pack to find her rations.  Dried meat and fruit was to be her dinner, rounded out with some tubers that she had found that would go well roasted.
Once the tubers were roasting, spitted on a long branch above the fire, and Jilka was gnawing on tough, dried meat, she had time to brood.
“Master Carolus?” she told the winds, “why did you release me as a journeyman?  I can’t even do a simple firestarter spell right.  I’m not ready.”
She sighed.  Master Carolus could do the firestarter spell with a thought, and she could not manage it with all three parts:  thought, word, and deed.  Those were the three parts to any spell:  thought, the focusing on the mystic sigils that channeled energy into a spell; word, speaking the words of power; and deed, the gestures that directed and focused the spell.
Journemen and apprentices usually needed all three parts to cast a spell: although often some of the spells, the simpler ones, would be so well learned that they required less.  Jilka had learned the handfire spell, the only spell she had learned, well enough not to need to speak the words of power.  Adepts could work magic with only two of the three parts, usually thought and deed, while the masters, such as Master Carolus, needed only one, usually thought.
And Jilka?  Jilka, journeyman mage of the College of the Lady, with a single exception, could not work spells with all three.
It was not that she had not tried.  Jilka had worked long hours to master the magic spells, longer than even Master Carolus had required of her.  Still, no matter what she did, the magic would not come.  She had been expecting to be discharged as unfit; that would have shamed her, but she would have understood.  But what he had done, she could not understand.  He had promoted her to journeyman from apprentice.  A journeyman mage who could not work magic.
And to make matters worse, while she had been brooding, the tubers had burned.  She did not know whether to laugh or cry.
And so it was that, still half starved, Jilka made her bed.
The next day, Jilka reached the village of Embron.  It had a good location, where the North road crossed a fair sized river.  Jilka had no doubt that in time it would become a city of some standing, but that was a concern for the future.  For the time being, she would find the inn and get a hot meal where she would not have to worry about balky firestarter spells or burnt tubers.
The inn was where she would have expected it to be, next to the river.  She found a quiet corner and ordered a simple meal.
It was such a shame that she would not be able to enjoy it.
“Lady?” The boy stood across the table from her.
The table was almost as tall as he was.  He peered up at her with large brown eyes, rimmed red from crying.
“Oh, no,” Jilka said softly.  Whenever anyone addressed a mage uninvited, it was always because they wanted something.  And the thing they always wanted was magic.  She would have to do something about her robes.  Her robes marked her as a mage, of course, and she could not have that.  People would always be asking her for magic charms and spells and curses removed.  Asking her, of all people, And thank the Lady that dragons were extinct of they would be asking her to exterminate them too!
“Lady?” The boy was still there.
“Yes,” Jilka said grudgingly.  Well, when she apprenticed to a sorcerer of the College of the Lady, she had taken an oath to succor those in need.  She would have to try.  And when she failed, well, there went any chance she would ever have of any kind of reputation, even if she did learn magic.  She would be the laughingstock of the profession. “What can I do for you?”
“M’ folks,” the boy said, “Th’ evil wizard took ‘em.  You’re a sorceress.  Can’t you get ‘em back?”
Jilka rubbed her hand over her face, pinching and massaging the bridge of her nose.  Evil wizard.  Why did it have to be an evil wizard?  Well, at least she would not have to worry about her reputation.
“I’ll do what I can,” she heard somebody say and was surprised to learn that it was herself.
Jilka looked up that the tower that the boy had brought her to.  Black, of course.  A dim, green light glowed in one of the upper windows, naturally.  She checked her preparations.  They would not work, of course, not against an evil wizard, but she had to do something.
“You stay here,” she told the boy.
“It’s been a nice life,” she said as she paused a moment at the door.
Strangely, it was unlocked.  Of course, who would barge in on an evil wizard?  Powerful mages and fools were the only two categories Jilka could think of.  Well, she was not a powerful mage, so what did that make her?
There were four guards in the lower chamber.  They stood and faced her with drawn swords.
“I am the sorceress Jilka,” she said and struck a pose.  She gestured and a ball of light appeared in her hands.  That was the one spell she had mastered.  The light was utterly harmless, useful only for finding her way around a dark room, but, hopefully, they would not know that. “Let me pass, or die,” she added for good measure.
They were not buying it.  She could see it in their eyes.  In another instant, they would be on her.  She reached into her belt pouch and grabbed a handful of the powder with which she had filled it.
“Behold the dust of sneezing! She intoned and threw the pepper into their faces.
It worked beautifully, far better than Jilka had hoped.  While they were distracted by fits of sneezing, coughing, and tearing eyes, she dashed past them and up the stairs.
The wizard’s workroom was on the top floor as Jilka had expected.  Her entry interrupted the wizard in the middle of an incantation.  A man and a woman were strapped, in wide eyed terror, onto twin tables.
“What is the meaning of this?” the wizard bellowed.
“I am Jilka, sorceress of the College of the Lady,” she said. “My powers have already laid low your guards.  I have come for the man and the woman.”
“And what do you offer in return?” The wizard fairly sneered.
“I’ll let you live,” Jilka said.
“You’ll . . . let . . . me . . . live?” The wizard howled with laughter.  “You?  A little poppet of a girl, not a true mage, scarcely even a good apprentice?  And you say you’ll let me live?” The wizard was laughing so hard that he could barely stand up.  A moment later, and he could not stand up.  He fell to he floor.
“You dare laugh at me?” Jilka shook her hands in the air and attempted to look threatening.
The wizard, if anything, laughed louder, rolling on the floor.
Jilka folded her arms in front of her, placing each hand within the other’s sleeve, and did her best to look stern.
The wizard, in his mirth, continued rolling on the floor.  He struck the charcoal brazier, dumping its contents.
The wizard’s laughter turned to screams of agony and terror as the coals ignited his robes.  Jilka stepped aside to let him pass as the flaming wizard dashed from the room and down the stairs.
“Well, what do you know?” Jilka said.
“How did you do that?” the woman on the table said in awe as Jilka bent to release her.
Jilka smiled. “Ah, lady.  You know that a magician never reveals her tricks.”
“Of course,” the woman said in reverence. “I beg pardon for forgetting.”
As the man and the woman left, Jilka inspected her new tower.
“To think, all I had hoped to do was to get a chance to use this.” She pulled a dagger from her sleeve. “But I never expected an evil wizard with a funny bone.  Who’d have thought it.”

Finding an editor

Okay, as I’m looking for what to do with my recently “completed” novel, one option is self-publishing. However, self publishing will require considerably more work on my part, including finding the professionals to do the tasks I can’t do myself.

One of those tasks is editing. Few writers are good editors, and fewer still are good at editing their own work. And I’m not one of them. That means hiring an editor. The problem is finding an editor for hire that is 1) competent, 2) not priced completely out of my league, and 3) after taking my money is going to do an honest job, including being willing to say about the story “trunk it and try something else” if that’s really what the editor thinks. Of those, #2 is the easiest to find.

There are lots of editors for hire, a quick google search turns up tons of possibilities. And I can quickly enough determine whether they are “affordable” (criterion 2 above), but how does one determine #1 and #3? How does one know that the editor in question is competent and willing to do an honest job, even to telling me things that the editor might think I don’t want to hear. (Well, I don’t want to hear “it sucks and there’s nothing I can do” but I’d rather hear that than either hear “it’s good but we can make it better” when it’s not or even “it’s wonderful, you don’t need me” when it’s not that either.

In “traditional publishing” the author doesn’t pay the editor.  The editor is instead paid by the publishing house. Supposedly, this deals with both #1 and #3.  The publishing house, supposedly, would only hire the editor if he or she were at least reasonably competent (please don’t write to tell me how wrong I am–I’m talking about the theory here, not how it works in practice). and the editor’s interest is in finding and publishing successful books, not in convincing you the author to send him or her money for “editing.”

In the not too distant past aspiring writers were warned by professionals in the field to avoid “book doctors” and many other “editing services” as people who will take your money and not really accomplish anything for you.  With the rise of self-publishing, however, the need for professional editors for hire is something that’s also on the rise.

So how does one find . . . how do I find . . . the editor that will do the job I need done?

Scene setting

Sarah Hoyt has a wonderful piece on that over on her blog According to Hoyt. The key point is that when you write a story you’ve got this picture of the world and the people in it (even if they’re not “people” but walking cabbages or what have you). Your reader, however, doesn’t.  They come into your world knowing nothing about it or about your characters and the only things they know are what you tell them and what you show them.

Picking the right details to show, and when to show them, so as to create the picture you want to create, while at the same time not bogging down the story in excess detail, is a constant balancing act.  Ideal is providing those relevant details in ways that push the story along.  Heinlein was a master of this, better in some cases than others but very good at the telling little detail that establishes setting.  The classic example is “the door dilated” from Beyond this Horizon.  Everyone knows what a door is.  That it “dilated” rather than opened immediately told us that we were in a world different from the normal one.

Another excellent example is the Heinlein’s novel Friday.  The opening scenes just drip with details that set the scene all without bogging down a remarkably fast-paced opening.

So dig out some of your favorite stories, stories that created a vivid impression in your mind without bogging down in detail.  Go over them to see how the writer did it and “go and do thou likewise.”

Author’s Commentary on "With Enemies Like These" in Lawyers in Hell.

This was my story in the new Heroes in Hell book:  Lawyers in Hell. It was commissioned for the German webzine “Zauberspeigel” and published there August 11th:

Authors’ Commentary on
»With Enemies Like These,«
 a story in Lawyers in Hell

Michael Z. Williamson first approached me about writing for the Lawyers in Hell, with Janet Morris’ approval, of course.  I had had little exposure to the Heroes in Hell series before that—a short by Gregory Benford in one of the “Nebula Winners” volumes and a “fix up” (a novel made by editing several shorter works together) of Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh stories.  But that was enough to show that the world was different from the concept of Hell I’d grown up with.  It would have been very difficult to write interesting stories in that concept: “And they were tortured for all time. The end.”

With a basic idea of the world, I needed characters.  The first was easy.  One of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s quotes was personally important to me: “If a man neglect to enforce his rights he cannot complain if, after a while, the law follows his example.” So I had one character.  The basic plot was one I had wanted to use for some time, and it’s a classic:  two enemies forced to work together for mutual survival.
I wanted to do a little more with that plot, though.  I wanted to use an opponent who was a “mirror image” of the protagonist.  And so I found William Dunlop Simpson.  Both were US Civil War veterans, Holmes for the Union, Simpson for the Confederacy. 

Both were lawyers.  Holmes became a US Supreme Court Justice.  Simpson a South Carolina State Supreme Court Justice.

I had two characters and a basic plot device so I needed a setting.  As I said, I wasn’t very familiar with the Heroes in Hell series so I didn’t feel comfortable working in the main settings.  So I asked if I could maybe have my characters “fall into” another Hell, the Norse Niflehel with which I had some familiarity through an interest in the Asatru religion.  Janet approved the idea and from that point on the story just wrote itself.

Sometimes you get the bear…

And sometimes the bear gets you.

You know, I’ve always found that expression a bit annoying.  Wouldn’t it be:  “Sometimes you get the bear.  The bear gets you once“?

Be that as it may, the subject right now is writing, in particular getting stuck.  Most of the writers I know have had the experience of sitting down to work on a project and it just won’t come.  You sit there, staring at the page (screen these days) and the words just don’t want to come.  As I said, most writers I know have had the experience and I suspect most of the others just won’t admit it.  But I could be wrong.

The term for that is “writer’s block.”

I don’t like that term.  For one thing in every other job in the world, there are times when one doesn’t feel motivated, doesn’t feel “inspired,” when the body and mind say “I don’t want to do this.” They don’t get special terms.  There’s no “bricklayer’s block” or “engineer’s block” or “corporate CEO’s” block.  But writers?  Writers get to say “I have writers block” and people nod in sympathy and maybe buy them another beer.

You know.  I think that may explain writer’s block.

Seriously, though, there are times when the words come easily, where the story is just there.  You sit, your fingers fly over the keyboard, and words appear on the screen.  Magic.  It’s just about the greatest feeling in the world. (Just about.  I can think of one or two others that are better.)

Then there are other times, times when you sit there and write one word.  Then you sit there and write another word.  Then one more, each word like giving birth to a porcupine . . . breach.

And the thing is, at least in my own writing, there’s no difference I can tell between the results of the “easy” writing and the “squeezed out one agonizing word at a time” writing.  They’re just as likely to be good (as in “saleable”) or just as likely to be dreck.  Some of my published work is one, some the other.

The interesting thing is, writing for me rarely falls between those two.  It’s either one or the other but never, say, a little struggle to find the right words, or anything like that.  No, that’s reserved for editing.

In the Neolithic Age

In another Blog, the subject came up of people who claim “one true way” to write.  That if you want to be a writer, you must write this way and no other.

I answer them with this piece:

In the Neolithic Age
Rudyard Kipling

In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt;
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.

But a rival, of Solutr]/e, told the tribe my style was ~outr]/e~ —
‘Neath a tomahawk of diorite he fell.
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”

But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!”

. . . . .

Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer
[And a minor poet certified by Tr–ll].

Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow,
When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
Still we let our business slide — as we dropped the half-dressed hide —
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Still the world is wondrous large, — seven seas from marge to marge, —
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night: —
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!