Amanda Green’s Nocturnal Origin, a review

Lions and tigers and weres, oh my!

I just finished Nocturnal Origin, the first book in the “Nocturnal Lives” series by Amanda S. Green.

The book is an urban fantasy, detailing the adventures of Police Homicide Detective MacKenzie Santos as she becomes exposed to, and a part of, a world of shapeshifting human/animal creatures.  The shapeshifters come in to basic types:  “pures” where the trait is genetic passed down through bloodlines (although recessive and subject to being “activated” later in life), and “lycans” where the trait is passed as an infection and a normal person can be “turned”.

This particular volume does not indicate how “turning” is done although there are indications it involves more than simply biting someone (without killing them) and that it can happen accidentally.  At least, one character considers the possibility that he has accidentally turned someone.

Mackenzie, Mac, is investigating a brutal, and bloody, murder, one that seems more like the mauling of a wild animal than the result of a human murderer.  She soon comes to realize striking parallels between that attack and the one she had survived not long before the story opened.

At the end of the day, she goes home.  The moon is full.  While she’s home, pain rips through Mackenzie’s body and, well, so far as she is concerned she blacks out until she wakes exhausted, naked, in her back yard.

And I’m sure most everyone reading this knows what happened.  Well, not quite.  MacKenzie is promoted to Lieutenant, put in charge of the Homicide division, and gets a new partner.  She is also soon introduced to a “pride” of “pures.” As you might imagine from the name the “pride” consists of feline shapeshifters.  The Lycans, old enemies of theirs, are wolves.  Note that, although except for a brief appearance by someone described as changing into a rat we only see wolves and felines in this story we are told that other animal types are also represented.  Pride, pard, pack, and herd are mentioned.

And yes, Mackenzie is a “pure” who shifts into a jaguar.  And so she has three tasks . . . four.  She has to bring a killer to justice, keep the secret of pures and weres, learn to deal with her new-found nature, and somehow find the balance to keep her humanity in the process.

The story had some elements that might seem cliched but they flowed naturally from the characters and situation and did not interfere with the story.

I enjoyed it and can recommend it to others who might like urban fantasy with a law enforcement twist.

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Asking others to step aside?

Recently, Lynn Shepherd wrote a piece suggesting that JK Rowling should stop writing and step aside to make room for other writers, so others can have their chance.

Others have thoroughly deconstructed that piece.  Amanda Green in a guest post over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, Larry Correia, a blogger at the BBC.  It’s not my intention to do so here.  No, my intention is to look at what such an attitude can do to ones writing.

Writers write.  They create worlds in their head and set them down in tangible form for other to read.  Because of this, ones attitudes and beliefs about how the world works find their way into the story whether one wants them to or not.  Oh, some writers are good enough that they can write a convincing tale contradictory to their own beliefs, but it takes extra work to do so.  So what effect does a belief that the successful should just step aside so that others can “take their turn” have?

Stan Schmidt, then editor of Analog, once gave me the most important writing lesson I ever received, and he did it in six words: “The essense of story is conflict.” That lesson, incorporated into the manuscript he had just returned (which, as you might imagine, lacked that conflict, thus his comment), led to its being my first professional sale. (“The Future is Now”, currently available as one of the two stories in FTI:  Beginnings.)  Conflict can be external, (Beowulf against Grendel’s mother) or internal (Hamlet against his own self-doubt).  The character can win their conflict (Beowulf again), or not (Hamlet).

“Please, sir or madam, will you step aside so that I can have what I want” is not conflict, not unless the answer is “No” and the protagonist, instead of whining about how unfair it all is, goes out to attempt to win what he or she wants anyway.

From the dawn of time, the heroes in literature have always challenged the powerful.  Sigurd did not ask Fafnir, “Please sir, would you stop hoarding gold and allow others a chance?” No, he killed the dragon and took the gold for himself (and thereby took on Andvari’s curse, but that’s another story).  Frodo and company didn’t ask Sauron to please step aside and allow others to rule.  No, they raised an army and set out to destroy Sauron’s ring and, not incidentally, Sauron himself.  Hipomenes did not ask Atalanta to please stop running so fast so that he could catch up.  He used Aphrodites’ golden apples to distract her so he could win.

If “please step aside so others can have a chance” is really how you think the world works, or should work, then you need to take a close look at your fiction because that can lead to very boring fiction or fiction that causes readers to scream, then hurl the book across the room.

Your characters need to climb mountains, metaphorical if not real.  They don’t need the mountains to step aside for them.  And one of the best ways to have characters climb mountains is if you, yourself, go out and climb your own mountains, metaphorical or otherwise, and however it works out–win, lose, or draw–you can use it as fuel for your stories.  Whatever happens, in the words of Neil Gaiman, use it to make . . . good . . . art.

Indie Publishing and "Yog’s Law".

Back in the days of GEnie, an online service run by General Electric (thus the quirky capitalization) and before the spread of the Internet*, there was an SFRT (Science Fiction Round Table). By the time I had joined, the Science Fiction Roundtable had expanded beyond the one board to three:  SFRT, SFRT2, and SFRT3.

One of the sysops of the SFRT boards had the online handle of “Yog Sysop” (since then, he’s become one of the founders of sff.net, an online discussion group, web, and email host). He formulate what became known as “Yog’s law” which states “Money flows toward the writer”. An alternate formulation was “the only place a writer signs a check is on the back.” This was in the long-ago before the rise of indie and self publishing, of course, when traditional publishing was essentially the only game in town.

That rule was the way to differentiate between “legitimate” publications and vanity or outright scam “publications.”

Today, of course, it’s not so simple. Nevertheless, as a writer I try to adhere as closely to it as possible. After all, the idea is to make money writing, not spend it.

One of the things I’m trying to do with this “indie” thing is bootstrap my way up. Being incredibly insecure (what? You’ve never heard of an insecure writer before?) I’m really reluctant to spend much of my own money in prepping and publishing a work. Time? Well, I already spend time in writing the thing in the first place, but money? Money that I could use to do things like buy bacon? That, I’m more reluctant to spend.

So I started with a very small budget, basically $15 spent for Dreamstime credits most of which I used for the image for the cover for Live to Tell.

I was actually concerned that the $15 I allocated for cover art would be a write-off.  I’d sink that money and never recoup it.

Did I mention insecurity?

However, the insecurity turned out to be unjustified.  Initial sales of “Live to Tell” gave me enough accrued royalties that, even though they hadn’t reached a level to be paid out yet, were enough that I felt comfortable spending a bit more money (less than the accrued royalties) for more Dreamstime credits to get more cover art.  And so I paid a little more money for cover art for “EMT” and “FTI:  Beginnings.”**

Hopefully, I’ll continue to make sales, and be able to hire someone for things like professional editing, buying my own ISBN’s, or more tools for preparation so I can wean myself away from Smashwords. But I want to, if at all possible, pay for these things out of money made by earlier work so that, on net, I’ll follow Yog’s Law: Money flows towards the writer.

I may have to take off the writer hat from time to time, and put on the publisher hat.  And publishers, of course, pay for things.  But in the end, when you add up the ingo and outgo, the net flow of money must be towad the writer–me.

If that isn’t how it works out then I’m doing something very wrong indeed.

*The Internet existed, certainly, but it was, at that point, largely limited to the government and large schools.  Widespread access via various Internet Service Providers was still in the future.

**At the moment, those get the “ready stories” out and available.  There will be more to come, but I need a bit more time to prepare, or in some cases finish, those.

Character and Plot

I’ve always been reluctant to write much here about the theory and practice of writing.  I always thought, “Who am I to tell people how to write?  There are so many people who are so much better out there.  People would do better to listen to them.”

Well, I’ve now got a few things out under my own name, and people are actually buying them and saying nice things about them.  So maybe I do have something to say on the subject.

A question I have seen from time to time is “which do you develop first:  character or plot.” A related question is “which is more important”.  Um.  Yes?

Here’s the thing, your character dictates the plot and the plot dictates the character.  They are inextricably intertwined and have to mesh if the story is going to work.

Consider two of Shakespeare’s plays:  Othello, and Hamlet.  In the first play, we have Othello, the more, a general in the Venetian army.  Direct and forthright–and more than a little hot-headed.  In the other we have Hamlet, quiet and studious, tending to look at things from all different angles, and more than a little indecisive.

The events which Othello faces drive him to quick action.  The villain of the piece plays on his temper and pushes him to take the direct action that is so natural to him . . . with tragic results.

Hamlet, on the other hand, dithers.  He wants to be sure.  He carefully examines evidence, tries to evoke further information, slowly builds a case.  This very hesitation, however, leads to him making mistakes that drive other the forces to working against him . . . with tragic results.

Consider how things would have worked out had the two characters been switched, had the person facing Hamlet’s situation had Othello’s character and vice versa.  Neither story would have been a tragedy.  Othello in Hamlet’s situation would hardly have been a story.  Othello-Hamlet (OH) hears from the ghost of his father that his uncle killed him and married OH’s mother.  OH then goes and confronts Claudius and kills him.  End of story.  Oh, OH might have ended up executed for regicide, or maybe he and Claudius kill each other.  But all the rest of the rather impressive body count for a stage play would still have been alive.

On the other hand, had the person facing Othello’s situation had character similar to Hamlet’s, that story too would not have been a tragedy, although it might have been an interesting story in its own right.  Hamlet looks things over from every angle, examines every bit of evidence, sets “traps” to try to unveil what people have done.  And slowly, we would see Hamlet-Othello (HO) unveil Iago’s plots, with unfortunate results for manipulative Iago.

One story would be very short and not very interesting.  The other longer, and perhaps somewhat more interesting.  But neither would likely be great.  Neither would be a story hailed as a masterpiece down through the centuries.

What Shakespeare did here was pair the character up with a situation diametrically opposed to that character’s natural inclinations.  Hamlet, naturally methodical and contemplative, faced a situation that naturally called for quick action.  Othello, the opposite, given to quick action he faced a situation where a more deliberate approach would have been the more successful option.

I do something similar to this in my story “Live to Tell”. In that story, my character’s greatest weakness, his greatest fear, is that of recapture by the Eres, the enemy in the piece.  And the question of the story is whether he will rise above that fear or whether it will lead him to a tragic end.

You don’t necessarily need to do this, of course.  Perfectly acceptable stories can be told where the plot is the protagonists natural element.  In those cases, however, some care has to be made to pit some element that works against the greatest strength.  The best Superman stories aren’t those where Superman wades in punching, but where his strength is of limited use, where he has to find some other way to solve the problem or at least to give him an opportunity to bring his strength to bear.  Or take Batman.  His best villains are either those with an intellect on a par with his own (The Riddler, or The Calculator) where he has to really work to outsmart them, or characters whose “thinking” is so outside the norm that Batman’s intellect and training are of limited use (The Joker).  It’s not great surprise that Superman’s greatest villain is one diametrically opposed to him and while Batman’s greatest villian isn’t exactly diametrically opposed, he’s certainly at right angles.  And there’s a very good reason that Superman doesn’t generally fight street gangs as a major plot point and Batman does not generally fight Lex Luthor.  The plot, and the antagonist, has to be matched to the Protagonist.  Character and Plot have to work together.  Batman and Luthor are actually quite similar:  supergenius intellects with a great deal of wealth and industrial power behind them.

And I had not really meant to get into a discussion of comic book characters when I started this.  And perhaps a bit of the focus got lost.  But “character or plot” is very much a “chicken and egg” question.  You need both, and they need to match.

"EMT" Science Fiction Novelette — Up and Live


Emergency Medical services on the Moon present new challenges, not all of which come with the territory. Kristine is an EMT in the Lunar Ambulance Service. Budget cuts and inadequate equipment make it increasingly difficult for her to do her job. William Schneider is finding that some of his subordinates have ideas of their own, ideas contrary to the corporate philosophy he is building, ideas that lead to shortcuts and trading lives for money. They find themselves riding their problems on a collision course to avoid disaster. 
Excerpt:
     At touchdown, Kristine performed the three step sequence that opened the sealed door, three steps that could be performed quickly if needed but that would not occur by accident.
     Below them a small group of construction workers clustered around an inflated emergency sack.
     “All set, Kris,” John said behind her.
     Kristine turned and saw that he had freed one of the stretchers from its wall mount. “Right,” she said and clasped hold of the hand bar at her end.
     Together, she and John wrestled the stretcher down the ladder.  Its oversized wheels bobbed easily over the lunar dust.
     “Here he is, Doctor,” one of the construction workers said.
     Kristine grimaced at that.  No matter how many times she had tried to explain to these people, they insisted on calling her “doctor.” She was not a doctor; she was an EMT.
     “Make room,” she said to the assembled construction workers as she wheeled the stretcher alongside the injured man.
     “OK, John,” she said. “Into the stretcher.”
     He nodded.  Working together, they popped open the latches for the stretcher lid.
     The stretcher was specially designed for work in vacuum.  It consisted of a tempered glass tube, hinged on one side and latched on the other.  Rescue workers could place person into it and bring him under pressure far faster than they could move him into the ambulance.  To allow workers to treat a patient, a number of gloves of jointed metal plates protruded inward from the wall.  The interior of the stretcher was already equipped with the most commonly needed supplies.  An airlock at the head could allow workers to pass others inside.
     With the stretcher open, Kristine knelt at the head of the injured man so that he was between her and the stretcher.  John knelt just below his hips.  Kristine placed her right arm where the man’s helmet showed through the transparent material of the emergency sack and, with her other, reached across under his waist until her hand extended beyond.  John placed his left under the man’s knees and with his right grasped Kristine’s extended left hand.
     “On three,” Kristine said. “One…two…three.”
     At “three” they lifted together and gently set the injured man into the stretcher.  Still working as one, they slapped the lid shut and fastened the latches.
     “Check or move?” John asked.
     “He going to be all right?” one of the others asked.
     Kristine looked up.  The others had gathered around again.
     “Get back,” she said, waving them away.  To John, she said, “Check.  I don’t like the look of him.  That’s an awful lot of blood.”
     John nodded. “Gotcha.” He stuck his hands into the glove set at the foot of the stretcher and took the ripper from its bracket.  Using the specially designed power tool, John trading off with Kristine when he reached the limit of reach of a particular set of gloves, the two of them quickly sliced open the emergency sack.  The suit went next, exposing the body of the injured man.
     “He’s still bleeding,” John said as the injured leg came into view.
     “Get pressure on the wound,” Kristine said. “I’ll check the vitals.”
     Fumbling in the gloves, John managed to grab a gauze pad from the storage bin and pressed it against the man’s torn thigh.  It took both hands to cover the wound.
Kristine wrapped the blood pressure cuff around the man’s left arm.  She hit the switch to start taking readings while she strapped the O2 mask over his face.
     “Pulse 125,” she read, “BP 80 over 30.  Respiration fast and shallow.”
     “Shit,” John said. “He’s going into shock.”
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00IH6VA4Y/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00IH6VA4Y&linkCode=as2&tag=coldserv09-20

Available from Amazon or Smashwords.

Epublishing my first story–the process.

Back when I first started writing the way things worked was that you wrote a story, sent it out to markets for that kind of story (one at a time) and if none of those markets bought it, you stored it (called “in the trunk”) and hoped that another market might open up that would let you sell some of these “trunk stories” down the road.

There are many reasons why a story might not sell having nothing to do with whether or not its a bad story (although, let’s be honest, many are).  You might have sent him the second best “retro-DNA-zombie story” he got that month.  But, well, it’s the best one that gets the nod.  Or you may simply be the seventh best story that month and he’s only got six slots.  Or maybe you have an 8,000 word story and the editor needs to fill a 6,000 word slot (or the other way, has to fill a 10,000 word slot and finding a good 2000 word story is hard).  Or (this one is a real “sucks to be you”) your story may actually be slightly better in some way than story by Big Name Author, but Big Name Author’s name on the cover will sell more magazines or books and, well, business reasons also have to factor in the choices editors make.

Nowadays, however, there are alternatives.  With the rise of self-publishing, particularly electronic publishing, these stories that did not find a home in professional publications don’t have to languish in the trunk hoping for some future market to give them a home.  Authors can put them out themselves.

That means a lot of good stories that otherwise would never see the light of day can find readers.  Of course that also means that a lot of really, really bad stories will also be out there for people to wade through to find the good ones.

So, I had a story.  It had made the rounds of the professional paying markets.  It garnered some nice comments on the way but all amounted to “thanks but no thanks; does not suit our needs at this time”.

At that point I had to think:  was the story just that bad or was this a reasonably good story that folk might enjoy enough to pay for the privilege.  Well, I had had those nice comments along the way.  Editors don’t waste them.  If they say “this was a good story but…” they mean just that.  Form rejections may be politely worded, but beyond that editors do not sugar-coat their responses.  If your story was utter dreck they’d just drop in the form response and move on.

So, I had that.  I also had the responses of my beta-readers before sending it out in the first place.  Some of those beta readers were published authors themselves and they were specifically looking for problems.  That’s what a “beta reader” is for.  If a beta reader just says “I liked it” or something similar, don’t use them as a beta reader.  So while my beta readers found problems, they were things I could, and did, address in revision.

So after thinking it over, I decided that I still believed in the story.  I still thought I had a pretty decent story there that just didn’t fit the current market’s “needs”.

The story was titled “Live to Tell.” It was a story, set in the relatively far future, of a soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress who is thrust into a situation tailor made to trigger his worst nightmares.  Military SF, particularly in the shorter lengths (this one was about 8500 words), can be a hard sell and that was certainly one stroke against it in the professional market.  And most anthologies on Military SF that I had seen were fairly tightly themed.  The likelihood of my coming across one for which this story would be a good fit seemed remote.

So, I decided to go Indy with it and publish it myself as a short ebook.

I looked at my options and decided to go first with Smashwords since that allowed me to do the work once and it would go out to many vendors.  At a friend’s suggestions I also did Kindle Direct Publishing myself.

First step was to download Smashwords’ style guide read it, then have it open for reference while preparing the manuscript.

I won’t go into the specific formatting.  I followed the style guide slavishly.

In addition to formatting the text, I also wrote some short front matter (copyright notice, table of contents, license information) an “about the author” section, and a list of other works with a link to my “My Titles for Sale” page on this blog.

In parallel with the above work, I had to decide on a cover.  There is a site, Dreamstime, that has a great many royalty free pictures for sale.  I searched there and found one that appealed to me, seemed to suit the story, and was not too expensive. (This is a short.  I don’t want to spend more on cover art than I make back in royalties.)

So, cover art selected I cropped and scaled to size (target size 1600X2400 pixels) layered on the title and author name choosing big, bold fonts that would be easy to read, and saved the image as a jpg.

This was the result:

With the text and cover now prepared, I was ready to upload.  And in uploading, I discovered that there was still a bit more to do.  Smashwords wanted two descriptions:  a very short one, and a somewhat longer one.

So the very brief one:
“Staff Sergeant Mike Yamada must overcome his worst nightmares as he faces recapture by the alien Eres forces.”

And the somewhat longer one:
“When the star traveling Hospital Ship Mercy is captured by an Eres task force, Staff Sergeant Mike Yamada must overcome Post Traumatic Stress and face his worst nightmares returned. Alone among the complement of the Mercy, he has been an Eres prisoner before and only he knows the true horror that awaits if they do not somehow escape.”

And that completed the Smashwords upload.  Their auto check program, called “autovetter” found no problems and the story soon went “live” on Smashwords (as of this writing I am still waiting for it to go live on other venders).  With that done, I turned to Kindle Direct Publishing.  A few edits to remove references to “smashwords edition” from the text and I was able to use the same file and cover I had created for Smashwords.  The Kindle edition went live within a few hours of uploading and was already making sales before the day was out.

You can find them here:

Smashwords:  Live to Tell.

Amazon:

And that’s the story of how I became a self-published author.