175,430

That is the final word count for Ages of Aenya, after completing a first draft back in May of 2011 at 156,584 words. As you can see, I’ve added almost 20,000 words, but cut just as many. A good story requires at least three thorough edits, and this coming after a complete overhaul/rewrite of The Dark Age of Enya; though to be fair, the new book is as similar to the old as Tim Burton’s Batman is to Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Why not a fourth edit? To be honest, the editing has to stop somewhere, otherwise I’d never write anything new. Since I tend to be OCD when it comes to writing, I have promised myself to lay off the book unless a revision is required by an editor from a publishing house. Overall, it’s taken me nine years to rework my older book into what it is today (fourteen if you count from the story’s inception). This is, in part, because I had yet to reach the level of expertise to sit on the shelf with the big name authors. What many aspiring writers probably don’t want to hear (I know I sure didn’t) is that I simply could never have written this book without the many, many, many years of practice. If you’ve written a book and it’s your first, I can almost guarantee it’s crap. Future projects, like The Princess of Aenya, should come easier. This also explains the baffling and often intimidating prolificacy of writers like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin and Stephen Erikson, who seem to shell out 800 page monsters every month. They could not produce so much if they had yet to learn the basics, or if they had to rewrite their entire novels two or three times over.

How do I feel now that it’s finally over? Elation. Relief. Dread. Elation because I made it. Many times along the way, I fell into pits of despair. I often wanted to give up, because it felt hopeless, because I feared that nobody cared or that the story would never measure up. These feelings got so bad, at one point I was literally sick in bed for a week! Relief comes from the fact that I can finally take a break. I have been pushing myself to get this done. Oftentimes, I wasn’t in the mood or didn’t feel inspired. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, however, is that you don’t need inspiration to churn out good work, and that often, things you write while inspired only seem good and later need rigorous revision. If you’re an aspiring author and are waiting around for an idea to strike you like lightning, you’ll be waiting around forever. So go write! Finally, there is dread. After 14 years of work, Ages of Aenya might just be a lot of incoherent crap. Maybe the story will make little sense to other people, or will lack suspense, or is missing that je ne sais quoi that gets readers to care about the characters. But I have given it my all and I think, when I am honest with myself, it has been worth the effort.

Ages of Aenya will become my legacy. It will exist long after I am dead and, I hope, capture the imagination of readers for a generation to come. I know my ambitions seem lofty and maybe sometimes vain, but it’s all part of this mental disorder I call the writers’ disease. It’s not about fame or fortune; it’s just that the book is like my third child, and I can only pray, like any parent, that it finds a place to belong in this world. Perhaps more importantly, Aenya will pave the road for a series of books, as it establishes a new fantasy setting, a marriage between fantasy, Sci-Fi and naturism.

 

To commemorate the event, I commissioned Alexey Lipatov to help design a new cover. He worked on the fine art and I did the layout and lettering in Photoshop. Lipatov beautifully captures the scope of the story, both its fantasy and Sci-Fi aspects. The city has a Roman/Egyptian feel, which is appropriate given the theme of hubris central to the novel. Thelana, by contrast, represents the naturist ethos of innocence and nature. She is literally coming upon civilization and all that entails, a clash of cultures being another theme I explore in the book. Lastly, notice the fossilized golem at her feet? That plays a large role as does the fiery meteor in the background. The golem represents history and the dangers of forgetting our past; the meteor is an omen of things to come.

 

It’s the Story, Stupid

I am starting to panic. My final day of editing is tomorrow. After that, I’ve promised myself I am going to give up trying to improve Ages of Aenya and start on something new. After all, there is only so much editing a writer can do before he goes bananas. At some point, you just have to let it go, trusting that the thousands of hours you’ve put into the book will pay off. Problem is, I suffer from extreme anxiety. After my first draft was finished two years ago, I felt the same anxiety, followed by weeks of what I can only describe as desperation. Few people outside of writing can imagine this feeling. How often in any profession does someone wait fourteen years for a payoff? Yes. Fourteen years. Since 1999. That is when the first iteration of City by the Sea, the first story to feature Xandr and company, was written. It eventually became part of The Dark Age of Enya in 2004 and was later transformed into Ages of Aenya. I suppose I could have written other books during this time, but I was busy with work and kids; I have also been fighting my personal literary demons, which have set me back many a time. But more importantly, I love the characters and the story, and I believe they are worth sharing.

There are reasons for hope far from rationalizing. If I could talk to an agent or a publisher, face to face, I would tell them this: People have loved my stories since I was a six years old. I was always the favorite of the class in every creative writing course I’ve ever taken. When I wrote fan-fiction for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, people always raved. Ages of Aenya is worthy of publication because the story is good, the characters are engaging, and it is well written (after my BA at USF and almost 30 years of practice, I think I’ve got the semi-colon down). More importantly, the book has a point of view, a thing sorely lacking with many of today’s bestsellers.

OK, click the Next Blog above and more than likely, you will find another poor sap’s blog professing the same things. But if I could tie an agent to a chair, I am confident he would find Ages of Aenya not merely as good as most books, but better than most books. Look, I hate to toot my own horn here; I know it’s bad form . . . but most books are a chore to finish. Finding a great read in a random stack is like finding a diamond in a pile of coal. Why else do so few people read these days? It’s not that their X-Box games or Blu-Ray discs are so much more interesting, but that games and movies waste less time. Even today’s bestsellers fall into the read-and-forget category. More than anything, I am frustrated when a book with obvious flaws makes it the top of the charts. The success of Harry Potter, on the other hand, was no fluke. J.K. Rowling made billions because her story was good.

Not everyone can grow up to be a writer, but I don’t think the bar should be lowered to include the struggling masses. All books should cater to the reader. Whether I fail as a writer or not, the reader should decide. I don’t know whether my book gets buried by other submissions, or whether agents or publishers cannot find the time to understand something different, or if they think they cannot sell a book with naturist or philosophical concepts by a non-celebrity, but none of that should matter. Only the story matters. If Ages of Aenya is poorly written, poorly executed or just plain boring, it deserves to fail. While not every book can succeed, every book deserves to be judged by its merits. I continue to write, maintaining the belief that a good story with engaging characters will always find a place on the bookstore shelf.    

Masochistic Grammar

One of the things that really What really drives me crazy is Grrr-ammar! For anyone passionate about the written word Writing can be a masochistic enterprise, especially if you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, like I do. Every sentence you read on my blog has been read over dozens of times is carefully has to be meticulously edited before being posted I post it. Every word I am not 100% certain about, I have to look up in an online dictionary Wikipedia. But it’s not just a matter of correct vs. incorrect grammar, spelling, typos and or punctuation. There are literally an infinite number of ways to write any one a sentence. While it a sentence may be technically correct grammatically, the sentence may be confusing, misleading convoluted, redundant, or may just lack the emotional impact punch to make it work the way you want it to. Readers who don’t write are often oblivious to the subtle power of a good sentence. Often, the Great writers walk a fine line between convention and breaking every rule in the Little Brown Handbook. I am constantly screaming at my Microsoft Word program because it either doesn’t know proper grammar or it doesn’t know when I am taking poetic liberties (hate those squiggly lines!). Writing is sometimes art, sometimes a strict set of guidelines. You want to convey meaning an idea as clearly and concisely as possible, but you also want to do it in a way that moves the reader emotionally. A good sentence can give you goosebumps, make you cry, or (insert third thing here). Sometimes, in the heat of editing, I feel like an impressionist painter throwing words on the canvas screen. Other times, the keyboard is like my piano. But mostly, writing well is a whole lot of frustration tug-of-war between clarity and poetry. Looking at every conceivable way to convey an idea write one sentence and picking the best iteration can take forever, which is maybe why I spent twelve hours editing my last chapter. Mind you, I spent thirteen hours on the first draft, so that which amounts to twenty-five hours of work for one stinking chapter! Just to make you people happy! If that’s not masochism, what is?

Actually, what is masochism?

mas·och·ism noun \ˈma-sə-ˌki-zəm, ˈma-zə-also ˈmā-\

Definition of MASOCHISM
1: a sexual perversion characterized by pleasure in being subjected to pain or humiliation especially by a love object — compare sadism
2: pleasure in being abused or dominated : a taste for suffering
— mas·och·ist noun
— mas·och·is·tic adjective
— mas·och·is·ti·cal·ly adverb

To illustrate my point, here’s just a sample of here are just a few ways to convey one simple idea:
How many ways are there to convey one simple idea? Here’s just a sample:

– Dick went to the store to buy milk.
– Dick picked up some milk at the store.
– Dick bought milk at a nearby store.
– Dick got milk from a local grocer.
– Dick was at the store for the purposes of buying milk.
– The milk Dick got was from a local grocery store.
– They needed milk. Dick went and got it from the store.
– They needed milk, so Dick went to the store.
– Dick went to Publix for milk.
– Dick visited Publix and, while there, purchased some milk.
– Since Dick was at the store, he decided to pick up some milk.
– When Dick went to the store, he bought milk. (passive voice)
– Dick went to the store; he bought milk.
– Dick was thirsty for milk, so he went to the store to buy it. (admittedly awful)
– Dick was all out of milk at home, so he went to Publix.
– At the store, Dick found the milk he was looking for.
– Dick wanted milk. Then he remembered the two for one deal at Walmart.
– After eating nine chocolate chip cookies, Dick realized he was out of milk. But the store was just around the corner.
– Dick, too lazy to get off his lazy bum, stayed home to play Mass Effect 3, while his sister Jane went out for milk.
– It was raining when Dick went out for milk, so he had to take his umbrella.
– Dick was trying to lose weight, so he opted for the 1% milk.
– Dick, being a Vegan, bought soy milk.
– Dick got milk.
– Got milk? Dick sure does!
– Dick went to the store to buy milk, but when he got there, he realized he forgot his wallet and so returned home with nothing.
– The baby was crying! Dick had to run to the store for milk!
– Dick didn’t buy any milk. He hates milk.
– Being lactose intolerant, Dick didn’t buy any milk at the store.
– “Where did Dick go?” Bob asked. “Oh, he went out for milk,” Jane replied.
– When Dick never came back from the store, Bob went to buy the milk instead.

Rejection Form Letter

Thank you very much for providing us with the chance to read your novel. We are sorry to say that at this time we don’t feel it is right for Amazing Fantasy Publications. Please be assured that your work received thorough and fair consideration. We looked for elves, dwarfs or dragons, but could find none in your story. We also noticed a lack of wizards or characters who grow up to become wizards. At the very least, we would have accepted a rogue type character, particularly one with a hood over his face, who walks a fine line between hero and villain. Our focus groups have found that readers are frightened by new or different perspectives, which is why we at Amazing Fantasy Publications cater only to authors working within market approved subject matters. For future consideration, we suggest looking at our current lineup of titles. Be sure to check out our new horror/romance section, featuring vampire/teenage girl, vampire high school girl/werewolf college student, and the latest in this exciting new series, gay zombie bondage executive/gay young virgin secretary with lots of spanking. We wish you the best of luck with your writing career, and thank you again for thinking of us.

Sincerely,
Amazing Fantasy Publications

Who is God?

 

I’ve been on a philosophy binge lately, spending hours on YouTube watching debates by noted intellectuals, scientists and philosophers, namely Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra. It is quite amazing what you can find on YouTube if you try; you rarely find such meaningful discourse on TV. But in watching these debates, I find myself torn between the two sides of my brain, the one side which is purely logical, and the other which is more spiritual. The reasoning part of me agrees with the atheists most of the time, but the part of me that looks for God cheers whenever the Deepak Chopras of the world make a valid point. Unlike Dawkins or Hitchens, Sam Harris concedes there is value in “spirituality”; he recognizes that religious experience is an integral part of the human experience and cannot be dismissed entirely. I made a similar point in my post, Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist. But make no mistake, Harris is out to destroy faith. He even rails against religious moderates, making the case that moderates give room for fundamentalists and fanatics to operate. And this is where we part ways, because I do not see how Harris expects to win this battle. Ninety-percent of the planet is religious in some way, and if Harris thinks all these people can be convinced otherwise, if he imagines a time when grandmothers will know more about Newton’s Laws than the myths of our forefathers, he is sadly misguided. There will indeed come a day when we set religious texts on the mantle of literature, but that day will not be coming during our lifetimes.

If you look at the God vs. Science debate as a whole, science wins with regards to reason and evidence, but loses to general public opinion, because, as science itself has proven, people follow their hearts more than their heads. To me, it seems, there are two games being played. When self-appointed gurus like Deepak Chopra are called upon to defend spirituality, they always make the mistake of couching their rhetoric in scientific terms. Essentially, they are playing science’ game, and where reason and evidence are the only currency, scientists will always win. Rather than invoke quantum theory, Chopra should focus on the Sufis and Kabbalists and mystics of antiquity. A literal, empirical description of the universe falls under the domain of science, but how that description should make us feel, and what it means to us and our place in the universe, is something science cannot, nor should not, try to answer. Science deals with what is, not what should be. It is poorly equipped to handle the artistic, creative, imaginative side of the human mind.

Sam Harris makes a passionate plea for a better basis of morality, and with regards to the failings of Christianity and Islam, I am in full agreement. We obviously should not be executing homosexuals or stoning adulterers, but making a case against God by focusing on the atrocities committed in his name is as disingenuous as people attacking atheists for the crimes of Stalin or Pol Pot or Josef Mengele. Atheism did not cause the deaths of millions in communist nations, but neither did it help to prevent it. On the other hand, even Sam Harris has to concede that Jainism is a religion of non-violence, so where would the harm be if the entire world was made up of Jains? People can be good without superstitious beliefs, but removing God from our lives makes us no more moral than Christianity or Islam. There is nothing intrinsic in science or in atheism favoring morality. Science is objective, while morality is subjective. Granted, Harris argues that objective observations speak to the subjective nature of morality; we can, for instance, measure the pain felt by another human being or animal; we can even seek the root causes of evil on a chemical level in the brain, but what we cannot do scientifically is decide what actions we should make upon gathering the data. Science can help us make better, more informed decisions, but the ultimate decision is always subjective. We can determine, for instance, that confining a baby cow to a pen will cause the cow to suffer, but there is no mathematical formula to prove that the right action is to free the cow to open pastures. Yes, animals suffer, but why should it matter to us? Why should any action matter at all, if we are nothing but a network of atomic processes? This is where science stumbles, because questions of emotion, of purpose and meaning, are domains of art and music and literature, and yes, religion.

The ultimate question for modern spiritualists is Who is God? Most people can agree that God is not the way fundamentalists view him. He isn’t Jesus and he isn’t an Anglo Saxon man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. But I’ll take it further and say that God is neither a benign energy field looking out for us, nor a remote Deist conception who merely created the world. God is neither sentient nor even a “being”. At this point, atheists contend, God must be nothing at all. But I disagree.

One of the most profound things I have ever heard came from my mother, who was never educated past elementary school and is barely literate. I was talking to her about trees. I brought up the question of why we should feel for them, since they have no emotions. Her response was, “It doesn’t matter. We have the feelings for them.” In other words, we can imbue, or impart, emotion onto an otherwise unfeeling object. Bravo, Mom. The same principle applies to God. God is not something “out there”, to be found with some scientific instrument; he is in us; he is an expression of our emotions, our hopes and dreams and yes, our idea of love. God is fictional, like Superman, but just like Superman he is more real and more important to our everyday lives than most physical things are. This is why atheists lose the public debate. When a physicist talks about quantum theory, he may just as well be talking about ghosts. For most people, quantum mechanics is either too difficult to imagine or too far removed from everyday experience. Whether subatomic particles pop in and out of existence is entirely irrelevant to a mother fretting over a sick child. God, whether imagined or real, matters more.

Ultimately, people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are left scratching their heads, wondering why the battle against religion isn’t going so well, because they have nothing with which to fill the God shaped hole in human consciousness.

Jainism is the world’s most peaceful, non-violent religion. Among them are the skyclad monks, a sect of practicing nudists! Coincidence? I think not.

 

Game of Thrones: A Clash of Kings

My copy looks nowhere near this cool

If I had a magic portal to visit any world in the fantasy genre; we can call this the “Fantastica Gate”, I’d be sure to steer clear of Westeros or any of the outlying kingdoms in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. I’m bound to get raped, or stabbed in the back by my brother or best friend. With the exception of the Stark family, people in Song of Ice and Fire aren’t very nice, which makes for a gritty and, some may argue, “realistic” fantasy series. I put that last part in quotes because I do not share Martin’s dour view of the world. Now before you start jumping down my throat in protest, allow me to offer a few caveats: I realize Westeros is fictional, but being myself a writer and creator of worlds, I feel that I have a more intimate understanding into Martin’s thought process; I know it’s impossible for a writer to divorce himself entirely from his work. If you spend a lot of time talking about rape and murder, you either have some sick fetishes (hopefully not) or those things color your world view. After all, great fiction gets at the heart of reality, mines the essence of existence, and in this way is often more “true” than non-fiction. For ardent fans, Song of Ice and Fire feels more real than other fantasies because of its cynicism. Fighting for idealistic principles like love or faith or honor is simply naive. There are no true heroes in Westeros because there are none in real life. Fairy tales exist to mask the horrors of reality. What we have in Martin is the hard truth laid bare: knights raping and murdering at their leisure, kings killing and torturing women and children, and soldiers abandoning their post at the first sign of battle going awry. Song of Ice and Fire accurately reflects the real world. Or so some would argue.

My graduate studies were in ancient and medieval history. I know of the genocide perpetrated by the Roman Empire, the massacres of Genghis Khan, the genital torture by Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, the raping of Muslim women during the Crusades and the burning of “witches” during the Spanish Inquisition; I studied things that would turn George R.R. Martin’s stomach. Once, I wanted to give my novel a touch of real world torture, since whips are so cliche, but what I found in my research sickened and dissuaded me. Never mind water boarding . . . terrible as that is . . . there isn’t a hero in all the fictional multiverse who could deal with real medieval torture. Put Westley from A Princess Bride on the “butt pyramid” and see how quick he gives up on true love. During inquisition times, heretics who resisted conversion to Christianity at the hands of Catholics often died afterward. Point is, I know real life isn’t a Disney fairy tale, except when it is. I experienced the magic of a first kiss when I met my wife. Medieval fiction, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Le Morte d’ Arthur and The Canterbury Tales, shows us a more diverse world than Martin lets on. The brilliance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic anthology, written in the 14th century, is that it reveals the worst humanity has to offer but also the best and most spiritually uplifting. The fact that chivalry was developed at all attests to the fact that many people believed in and practiced altruism. For every Caligula, there is a Jesus, for every Pol Pot a Buddha, for every Stalin a Gandhi. The world we live in is, at times, shockingly horrific, but there is just as much good to balance it out; and as history proves, good wins over evil in the end. Case in point, during the 1930’s, two people came into positions of influence, Hitler and Disney, but where is Hitler today? I have yet to visit Naziland.

It’s this essential lack of goodness, this cynicism, that I find so off-putting in Martin’s novels. When the women in King’s Landing go into hiding to avoid getting raped, with an executioner on standby in case the invading force should find them, Sansa tells Queen Cersei, “A true knight would never harm women and children,” to which Cersei replies, and I paraphrase, “how naive you are.” But is Sansa naive or Cersei? If it were Alexander the Great or Saladin outside the city, the women would have little to worry about. In my view, Westeros is an overly terrible place to find yourself, or Martin just focuses on only the worst aspects of it. It would be easier to overlook the tragic parts if the book spent more time on the characters you care about, mainly the Stark family. So many pages come before you get to someone like Aria (my favorite character) that I often found myself wishing for an abridged version.

I’ll be honest, I gave up on A Clash of Kings in 2006, but started again after watching the HBO series. The show, being a show, moves at a much quicker pace, so the problem of length and focus isn’t as pronounced. But in going back to the book, I’ve come to broaden my outlook as to what constitutes good fiction. Now that I know what to expect, the fact that the books do not conclude doesn’t bother me. I’ve also realized that A Song of Ice and Fire is not meant to be an action/adventure, and barely counts as fantasy. It is a protracted political drama/soap opera. My wife was jarred by a scene in the show where a “shadow” creature materializes to murder someone; she felt it was out of place, since there is so little magic beforehand. Whatever the pros and cons for A Game of Thrones (read my 2006 review here) the same apply for A Clash of Kings. There’s still a glut of words, overemphasis on world building, and more characters that I can possibly remember or have the capacity to care about, but there is also superb writing style, immersive drama, and Tolkienesque realism. Martin’s greatest strength is in coming up with the places, characters and historic details for his series, which makes him the envy of any writer working in the genre. There is nothing particularly unique about A Song of Ice and  Fire, other than it may be the most epic story ever put to paper.

Overall, the pros outweigh the cons, though many of the “harsh realities” continue to be off putting. If time is a problem, or if you’re not much of a reader, the TV show may be a better option. As for me, I’ll be picking up the next in the series, A Storm of Swords, with crossed fingers that some Jesus like character will come along to inspire compassion in Westeros, or that, at least, the most evil people (I am looking at you Joffrey) will get their comeuppance.