Tag Archives: fiction

Writing Tips 3 (Your Slow Writer)

The end is here: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. Part 1 discusses my thoughts as a reader while part 2 is a contemplation about how language study and writing practice overlap.

Fear not, in this final (and world-rocking) post, I’m going to espouse on what I discovered with my writer hat on this year.

Part 3: The Writer.

Plan your project based on your life as it is. 

In the arts (and sometimes teaching), everyone is an expert. Even your uncle, aunt and rarely seen Facebook friend from high school has an opinion about what makes a great author. They’ve all got ideas about how much you should write, how much you should read, what ‘evidence-based’ activities you should undertake to spur on your creativity.

Plus, there are professional writers’ opinions. People who have ‘made’ it and sit at home while spraying fountains of words on their adoring fans. They’ve all got their TIME-TESTEDtm advice. Write 2,000 words a day. 3,000. Don’t call yourself a true author until you’re doing  60 crunches while spitting hot prose to a stenographer. “Don’t even compare yourself to me,” a stray-author might say. “Or pat yourself on the back until you’re churning out 67 books a year.”

Let me brag a little too: I’ve produced 8 books (50,000 – 100,000 words each) and 3 novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words a piece) plus too many short stories to remember. I have two out in the public sphere. This discrepancy between published and unpublished is probably not good for my career. Hell, some of those have even been re-written from scratch. For example, one of my novels was so bad that I wrote it again (another 80,000 words), but only count it as one in my quota.

So I don’t know everything the cosmos has to say about production and work ethic, but sometimes I can make it happen. Thank you very much straw-person author. And what I believe is that there’s so much pressure on aspiring writers to meet some subjective standard of production.

2,500 words a day is a fine goal, if you’re a full-time author. (Although, even they often struggle with it.) Or if you’re single and are taking it easy on a redundancy payout. Or if you’re not studying a foreign language. Or if you’re not moving to another country, starting another job, or working extra (unpaid) hours for your ‘vocation’.

Some person out there, in the void, might argue I’m rationalising why I don’t have time to write. Or why I haven’t written that much this year. That’s fine, I am lazy. I struggle with motivation to do more than one serious thing in my free time. I either study or I write. Right now I’m studying Japanese, and working, and married.

Yet, I still sometimes encounter wagging fingers about how if I want to be a ‘serious’ author then I need to produce more. Usually by those who don’t have a job (nor understand that work doesn’t end at 5 for most teachers), and are not in a relationship. They raise their fist to the heavens and give you pat speeches about how you have to tick all the appropriate boxes to consider yourself a certain kind of author.

Maybe you’ve ran into that person on your writing journey? I don’t know. I hope you never do, but just in case, here’s the thing: I like being married. It’s more important to me than a chance at success in the future.

I like my job. It’s not the greatest workplace in the world, it doesn’t pay oodles of cash, but it’s not terrible. I keeps me from living on the street because I don’t come from an upper-middle class family where they’ll subsidise my life so I can ‘become who was born to be’. Also, I want to look after my wife. (Who doesn’t?) That means a job, it means money, it means paying bills and smiling at difficult customers.

So these are things that are real, and they take time. Whoever you are, your life is also full of choices. Full of decisions. You can be an asshole to your loved ones and focus only on your career. (Some published writers are.) You can put yourself first and skimp on your responsibilities at your job. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and everyone will understand; they’ll put up with your shit until you become enough of a success to quit. Maybe even your first book will be a hit and the strain you put on everyone else won’t be that much, who knows? Life is random.

For the rest of us though, we make small and difficult day-to-day choices. We want to be a full-time author but there are so many other things which we need to balance. So many other tasks that need to be completed if we hope to keep our life in harmony.

So, here’s a not-so-pro tip from someone with 8 books hanging from his belt: choose a project that fits your time schedule. Think about how much time you actually have to write. Can you produce one story a month? A novella a year? Three books in three months?

People want consistent output. Something that’s regular and expected. Think about what you can deliver consistently to your audience and then design a writing project around that. You don’t have to write novels. Or novellas. Or short stories. You just have to produce consistently to an expected schedule. No matter how slow or fast you are, consistency is what wins fans and readers over. It even soothes debt collectors.

If you do that, and are a professional, you’re an author. A serious one. It doesn’t matter what any other jackass on the internet says (including this one).

Be a professional

Hey, customers are hard work. Remember when you were a kid and disliked school? Or your job? And how you wanted to join the circus, become a famous TV personality, or start your own Norwegian jazz and salsa band?

Remember how close you came?

Being an author can be a little like that. The author lifestyle can be the rockstar dream for those comfortable in a shirt and jeans. Think about it. Thousands of people praising your novel and telling you how special you are. Filled up panels where you’re asked penetrating questions and hold forth on complicated topics. Where people listen in rapt attention as you speak out your wisdom to the ages. A place where you are respected, not for your looks or slow smile, but your innate personality and knowledge.

Just me thinking that?

In this bubble you are free to be that special, amazing, and wonderful person you could be if all those other people weren’t keeping you down. Weren’t negging you out. If you didn’t have to bend backwards to meet stupid demands / needs / ideas of your boss / senior staff/ customers.

FREEDOM!

Bullshit.

Writing is no different than any other professional endeavour. Everyone has an opinion about your skill set. Whether or not they publish it online (so you can see it), or talk about it with their friends around a coffee table, they have an opinion. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes they tell it to you, and sometimes they are writing for their friends / readers and you just happen to stumble onto it when you’re slightly tipsy at 4:00am in the morning.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a professional. People are willing to pay you money for your skills. You need to treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it). It doesn’t mean you have to change for them. It doesn’t mean you have to write for them. What it does mean is that you need to handle them in a way that shows you understand what they’re saying and are (kind of) grateful for their input.

And like most professionals, you’ll have to tell a few lies to make your customers happy. Say that you did love their comment about your missing comma on page 9. Or how you are appreciative for them publishing a snarky article comparing your book to a Hitler / Justin Bieber mashup. It’s okay though, lies are our business. After all, that’s what storytelling is, isn’t it?

Everything is practice

Sometimes when I commune with the universe on top of a mountain while stroking a goat’s beard, I think about boxes. What is the purpose of the metaphysical genre box we built between fiction and non-fiction writing? Or between essays and short stories?

Are we not attempting the same thing? To communicate an idea in a palatable way to the audience? To find a way to sneak past their defences and lodge our own flag in their brain space? Isn’t that our job? To be the greatest advertiser ever known to humankind?

Probably.

Think of a book review and a book blurb. What’s the diference? Both are trying to effectively communicate to the reader what they will discover inside of a novel. A 5-star review should be (almost) the same as its blurb. If someone reads your reviews of another’s novels, they should come away with several things:

  1. What the book’s about.
  2. Does it achieve its goal of entertaining the reader?
  3. What the reader (you) thought of the work.

That’s it. Point 1 is exactly the same as a blurb (kind of, without the marketing gimmicks). So each time you write a review, you are practicing for your own blurbs.

Essays are the same. They expressions of your ideas put into words. They increase your vocabulary, give you a chance to find out how to engage readers and practice editing skills.

Everything you write is practice. Every interaction online with a friend. Every blog post about your day, every email to a friend is a chance to hone your writing skills. Think about how you can say something differently, think about how you can switch up your styles so your friend isn’t just honour bound to read the email but loves getting them.

Don’t waste these opportunities because there are so many. They’ll help you hone your style, develop the rhythm of your prose and expand your toolbox to contain a variety of screw and driver sizes.

Then, finally, when you come to your novel — you won’t have to start from scratch. You won’t have to reteach yourself things you’ve let go rusty over the years. They’ll be honed and the words will pour out onto the page in a torrent.

Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll hide under the covers like I do and play The Witcher 3 in the dark. Both are okay options because it’s your life. Live it. 😉

Picture:

Young girl sitting on a bench writing in her diary (C) andreaxt. Used under standard license from Dollar Photo Club. 

Yearly Book Recap 2015 (Fiction)

Good evening fine word connoisseurs,

As you know, this year I undertook the challenge to read more female authors than usual. My goal was a clean 50 / 50 split, but when failure struck my goal was to work harder at including other narratives than cis white male ones in my literature landscape.

This is the recap of that (very modest) goal. As I’ve read both non-fiction and fiction works this year, I ‘ve split them into two separate posts.  For the fiction post I’ll be using the below categories:

Fiction:

  • Change-your-life good.
  • Worth purchasing. (Fantastic, but not amazing.)
  • You decide. (Might contain some good ideas, some decent writing or interesting characters. Depends on your personal taste if you’re going to get your money’s worth.)
  • Nice try / Gold star. (The author put a lot of work into this, but it didn’t quite come off as well as it could have.)
  • WTF Random Publisher? (How was this even published? For indie authors, they are automatically excluded from this category. Quality control should mean something.)

+ Note: the list numbers do not indicate quality or ranking of the individual books against each other.

Change-your-life Good

  1. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is gritty, raw and punches the reader so hard in the face they’ll have to wipe away the literary stains. Imagine if Raymond Chandler was still alive, still wrote and embraced multi-cultural narratives. That’s what Zoo City feels like.

2. The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s a book that grabs the 21st century, and pulls it screaming onto the page. It doesn’t know what american-centric story-telling is or why white people should be the coolest characters in the narrative. It’s the first (and only) book I’ve read so far that seems to have a global vision when it comes to where Sci-Fi should go.

3. Push by Sapphire

This novel is ridiculous. In 100 pages it manages to worm its  way under your skin and just stick there. Like an ooze. It’s about Precious, a sixteen-year-old with a horrific home life. Even though it takes you into this hell hole of humanity, it also gives you hope. It shows you how Precious (with the help of a good support network) is able to overcome and escape the cycle she was born into.

Female Authors: 2   Male Authors: 1    Various: 0

Worth Purchasing

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

A multi-generational tale about a family of immigrants who moved from Bengal to Boston. Although a little too focussed on the male-side of the family, it covers a range of perspectives and has a snappy pace to it. Highly accessible and very enlightening reading.

5. Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis

(Full Disclosure: S. Elliot Brandis and I belonged to the same writing club several years ago. ) 

Once Upon a Time at the End of the World is a novella about an android and a prostitute who form an unlikely alliance and engage in bounty hunts after the apocalypse. Exceptionally well written, but at times the dialogue and the themes explored contradict each other.

6. 2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke

An oldie but a goodie. The movie was a wash for my brother and I, but the book fleshes out a lot of the characters’ motivations and creates a fascinating world full of possibilities. Highlights why Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats.

7. The Real StoryForbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson

An exploration of, or treatise on, the darker side of humanity. Stephen R. Donaldson seems to not know where the line is for the reader’s comfort, but creates a compelling story all the same. Consume at your own risk.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fun, whimsical and almost impossible not to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie as she struggles to inspire Howl to be brave, all while hoping not to fall in love with him. The characters are more selfish than the animated movie, but loveable all the same.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Difficult to categorise, Let the Right One In is a fine example of cross-genre literature. It takes the disquiet of horror, the character-building of drama and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel and mixes them all together. The result is a captivating slow burn of a story that builds to a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Movie Note: Oskar is more complex than the Swedish movie, but possibly not as likeable.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman knows how to write. He knows how to create diverse characters and infuse a story with compelling supernatural elements. Unfortunately, he can also get carried away. American Gods is full of profound ideas, but feels a little too loose on the narrative structure and sometimes events happen  that don’t propel the story forward. If it had been trimmed a touch, it would’ve been one of the best reads of 2015.

11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A coming-of-age / boarding-school drama that uses a sci-fi hook to hold the reader. Although the stakes are small and this type of story of love and loss has been told before, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a tight little tale about 3 students which compels you to read on. Not the most original work to add to your library, but worthwhile to admire simply for its execution.

12. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

In many ways, a mess of a book. Plot threads are often left dangling in a strong breeze, the story takes too long to start, and then jumps around too much until it finds its focus. There are way too many characters. However, it’s well written and there are ideas piled on top of ideas wrapped in a sandwich of even bigger ideas. However, After the uproar about Patrick Rothfuss’s depiction of women in the Ademre society, The Mirror Empire may be questionably sexist depending on which lens you view it through.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re a writer for inspiration, as a reader of fantasy it might leave too many things dependent on a sequel for a satisfying finale.

13. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is an oddity. It’s a really good novel that’s about the lengths a mother will go to to save her son from his own foolishness. A story that features zombies, regret, a steampunk setting and several heart-clenching set pieces. Unfortunately, the front cover makes it look like a wild ride about air pirates. Not what the novel is about at all. So, if you can get over the shock and initial disappointment of not having any awesome dogfights or cussing air pirates in there, you’ll be alright.

14. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

It’s short, the stories are interesting and it’s … J.K. Rowling. If you’ve got Harry Potter fans in your house they’ll love it. If you don’t, they’ll enjoy the twists J.K. Rowling puts on our old myths and creates something new. Good fun for a rainy hour or so.

Female Authors: 6    Male Authors: 8    Various: 0

You Decide

15. All Over Him By Casey Chase

Hot, dumb, erotic fiction. Not quite paranormal though, despite the blurb promising it would be. If you like your sex hard and your men obnoxiously stalker-ish then this is for you.

16. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg

Part of the post-Harry Potter fantasy novels which take pre-existing rules and try to tweak them a little bit. Starts out well with a frustrated teenager (one just legal enough to be romantically involved with an older man) who gets put into the ‘worst’ field of magic: paper. This happens despite her ‘mad’ skills.

At the commencement of the novel, the book seems to want to have a conversation about sexism and how it affects women, but then undoes all that by having the main protagonist fall in love with her teacher.

Full of whimsy, but its main plot hook loses momentum half way through and the tone shifts drastically between scenes for drama purposes. The Paper Magician seems unsure if it wants to a contemplation on love and loss or a flighty road through a magical landscape. It tries to do both, but struggles under the thematic weight and collapses by the end.

17. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

Centers on the tribulations of Yeine Darr and her unexpected rise to the city of Sky. Takes some of the ideas of American Gods and twists them splendidly only to have all that setup undone by a passive protagonist. A novel that’s supposed to be about empowering women to challenge the world order, has Yeine’s actions mean nothing all while falling in love with the masculine (and emotionally distant) dark god in the novel.

18. Acid Row by Minette Walters

A thriller with a fantastic hook: what if a town rioted because a pedophile was placed in their neighbourhood? The story starts well with a little mystery and lots of suspense, but gets caught on its social message and psychologist jargon. The author attempts to convey that the community isn’t really bad, nor is the pedophile, it’s the way he was raised and proceeds to explain that three or four times to the reader. Eventually the story and likability of the characters gets buried under useless exposition and over-explained character motivation.

19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A classic, but one that was struggle to enjoy. Everything is there: a foreboding father, the backdrop of the moors, inter-generational hatred and domestic violence, but it fell short. I can’t identify why, but unfortunately it didn’t connect with me.

20. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A frustrating read. The first half, maybe even 3/4, is excellent. Great pacing, fantastic flashbacks and a powerful emotional ride through what seems to be an autobiographical story. However, the last 1/4 destroys all of that. There’s too much lumped in which feels tossed together at the end to make Amir’s life seem less messy than it was.  There’s the confrontation between the protagonist and his childhood antagonist, the mirroring of his friend’s son’s actions against an all too similar event earlier in the novel, a finale which only happens because the Amir forgets everything he knows about kids and says something inopportune, plus the shrinking of a village from many individuals into only those that are relevant to the story. If it was an autobiography, you could write it off. Life is strange. But when it’s fiction the coincidences can only get piled so high before it feels like the author is twisting the world inside-out to get the end out of the tale they want. This is one of those potential greats that got lost on its own trail.

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Magic for hipsters. Perhaps more precisely, magic for ivy-league, male hipsters. They kind of book that struts around pretending to be grown up but is simply a teenager trying on an executive-looking pair of pants. It spends 510 pages trying to get the reader to sympathise with a character who (SPOILERS) cheats on his girlfriend, brings about the death of a classmate and runs away from all his responsibilities. All the while bitching about how life has done ‘im hard. If that sounds like someone you love spending time with then buy away.

Female Authors: 11   Male Authors: 10    Various: 0

Nice Try / Gold Star

22.The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry

It features a pixie king and his human love interest  Otherwise a standard paranormal romance. A more comprehensive review can be found here.

23. Elis Royd by Ron Sanders

One of the few novels that starts out with the writer taking shots at some imaginary straw-authors before penning a poorly written tome. Clearly some thought has gone into it, but the execution struggles and the ideas could still with a few more hours in peculation.

24. Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher

A book based on many ideas which has forgotten that an interesting world does not make a novel. Starts out with a solid chase scene but slides into talking heads after that. You might enjoy it if you’re deeply in love with the prose of Atlas Shrugged. More details here.

25. Winter by S.D. Rasheed

A paranormal romance that features one strangely inserted sex scene and ever-changing character motivations. At times forgets its own story and then spirals out of control with a main character who must fall in love with the dark demon to propel the plot along. Possibly the only novel I’ve read this year where I’ve wanted more description from the author so I know what’s going on.

26. Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe

A thriller / mystery / romance about a lost ghost that returns to Canada to find her killer. (Perhaps?) Introduces a world full of drugs, violence and angry sex in the tourist section of Vancouver. All the ghosts have a confusing set of powers and none of the characters are believable or scary. At times I accidentally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Unfortunately, you can feel the author had a clear vision they wanted to show in this work but it got lost in the execution.

27. Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle

Wanted to like it, but struggled with the character motivations. Full review can be found here.

28. Wool by Hugh Howey

I don’t want to put Wool here. I don’t. Yet here it is. Two of the best writers I know recommended this work. I read Hugh Howey’s posts on The Passive Voice and head nod along with him, but Wool was not good.

Wool starts with an interesting idea: what if we had to live in a silo due to a nuclear attack? Then he adds a conspiracy dimension to it, and a lot of events that don’t make sense. He kills characters for no reason, has villains pop out of nowhere to increase suspense and has the main character fall in love with a guy she’s met twice. What? How is that even a thing in 2015? Also, it’s long with extended introversion sequences that neither advance the plot nor the characters’ motivation. Overall, it’s a book that loses out due to pacing and plotting problems rather than writing skill.

29. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If Scott Pilgrim could come alive and write a novel, this would be it. Except it would’ve been written by the Scott Pilgrim before he had met Ramona. It features a protagonist that is cis, white and a HERO! Because … reasons dammit. He leads his multi-racial crew to justice against the evil corporate empire by cyber-stalking a woman, signing contracts without a lawyer looking them over, and acting like a teenager in front of a director of a company. If you don’t mind that, and the long sections which are not at all related to 1980s pop-culture, then you might want to snatch this up.

30. Speculative Japan by Various

A series of old sci-fi short stories that were translated from Japanese authors. It features 3 opening / introduction essays and 2 afterword pieces, which should give an indicator of what type of book it is. Many of the stories feel uninspired by today’s standards and of the ones that are solid, it’s difficult to know if the original story was blandly worded or the translation turned them into uninspired pieces of prose. Often it feels like a vanity project by those involved and is a tad expensive when compared to the many great anthologies are already available.

31. HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

It breaks my heart that this is here. I love Alistair Maclean. The Dark Crusader and Puppet on a Chain are two of my favourite novels of all time. In saying that, HMS Ulysses is chock full of b-grade war movie dialogue and overly dramatic scenes. Everyone is heroic and the characters, when not advising how dangerous things are, are unable to stop praising the dying captain. Interesting only as a reference point for how Alistair Maclean grew as an author.

Female Authors: 13  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

WTF Random Publisher?

32. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An Irish take on Push that goes completely wrong. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, A Girl if a Half-formed Thing is so full style that it forgets to tell a story. It speaks from the first person in a dialect so difficult to piece together that I simply gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I understood what was being said, but it was so painful and the main character continued to be so annoying that I quit of frustration and read the ending. Surprise: it’s dark ending. If you like art house books, almost impenetrable novels and think reading should be a chore then this is for you.

Female Authors: 14  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

Picture (c) sebra. Used under Standard License with Dollar Photo Club. 

Writing Tips Part 1 (Your reader in-house)

It’s the end of the year so I thought I’d give those budding writers out there some not-so-pro tips about writing. I’m going to do this in three sections: as a reader, as a language student and as a writer. I can also do it as a top-hat wearing movie addict, but I thought that was too much. Although, after deep introspection, how does one know if they don’t try?

That’s enough intro though. Let’s get down to it.

Part 1: The Reader.

 

Long debut novels are not (this) reader’s friend. 

There’s no way to be empathetic about this so I’ll just say it: there are a lot of good authors out there. From the classics, Jane Austen, to the modern classics, Kurt Vonnegut, to the current Japanese sci-fi authors being translated, Project Itoh, there are numerous people I want to read. There are perspectives from immigrant cultures, feminist writers, non-feminist women and hard-core right believers that are all profound and are all waiting to be enjoyed. And that’s just in novels, that’s before we get to non-fiction.

I don’t have enough time in the day. I don’t have enough time in my life.

And, here’s the thing, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy your work until I read it. Sure, I skim the pages. I read the blurb. I raise my hipster glasses and snort my nose at your sweat and soul. However, I have no concept if I’m going to like it until I’m flicking through the pages on the train and imagination deep in your land of elves with laser rifles fighting zombie sharks.

Even if you’re super famous (and critically acclaimed), your thing of beauty might turn out to be zirconia in my hands. You can scream, you can yell, and beat the keyboard that I’m wrong but it doesn’t matter. In my house, in my tiny world, the only opinion that counts is mine.

And if I think your book is boring, then it is. A boring novel that I’m stuck with until I finish it. All 590 pages of your morbid, self-congratulatory text. All that time wasted which I could’ve spent, I don’t know, reading someone else.

Even a novel that’s mediocre-to-decent can turn infuriating after 200 extra leafs of prose. Here’s an example, I loved Catch-22, for the first 400 pages. Then I wanted it to be over. Except it didn’t end. It went on and on and on and on. Maybe the story needed those extra pages, maybe the narrative wouldn’t have been as satisfying without the additional troubles Yossarian goes through. Who knows? All I know is that I don’t want to read another Joseph Heller novel.

So, let me ask you a question. Do you believe you’re a better writer than Joseph Heller? Do you believe, with your whole soul, that your prose and wit is elevated beyond his? Cause he’s a damn fine author. If not, cut those pages. Cut your first novel into the tiniest of sizes.

Do you know whose books I love? Whose books I not only want to return to but crave? Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-five (215 pages). Cat’s Cradle (206 pages). 

Do you know who else rips me to emotional shreds? George Orwell. 1984 (328 pages.)

Sapphire. Push (192 pages.)

I look at a 400+page novel with a sigh and a hint of resignation now. It affects my purchase choices too. As much as I love new authors (and I do, there’s so many freshly printed names on my shelf space at home), I hesitate when they creep over 400 pages. This means if your book is not super duper awesomely recommended, it gets the pass over. It gets the sigh and added to the bottom of the list.

This is from a person who (outside of comics and Harry Potter) hardly buys a second book from the same author. You may not think that counts, but it does. I’m not hanging out for my favourites, I’m willing to wade through sublime awful to get to that great tome by a debut novelist. As long as it’s under that word count.

My shelf is not infinite in size, width or depth. 

I don’t understand the book-marketing machine. There’s a chance that the Big 5 or 6 or 3 have some magical data analysis I don’t, but I as the Kindle has come to dominate the market, I doubt it. What I don’t understand is why so many of their books are of such varying sizes. Novels go from the tiny to the gigantic.

Why?

Do they think I’m a wizard that can change the size of my bookcase? Or do they think I’ll buy an entirely different bookcase to meet their new marketing strategies’ needs? Is their arrogance so all encompassing they imagine we use books for furniture? Large art tomes for the tabletop, inspirational / quote books for the legs?

Here it is: my shelf is 21 cm high. That’s tall enough for a DVD to fit into, tall enough for my Xbox One games and tall enough for my comics. There’s very little empty space between any of these and the bottom of the next shelf. It’s perfect. I can fit a lot of things in this space and it makes my apartment look tidy. Why should a book be any different?

Your novel shouldn’t be any larger than that. If you want me to keep it, make it 20cm. Hell, if you want me to buy it, you should make it 20 cm. I look at larger novels now with suspicion. I don’t know where I’m going to store them while they wait to be read. I don’t know where I’m going to put them (if they’re any good) after I’ve finished. So I just don’t pick them up anymore.

Maybe you like the larger look. Maybe you think it’s a ‘coffee table’ manuscript. Maybe you just want to irritate me. That’s fine, make it bigger. Make it 40cm high. Make it 100 feet high. Do what you want. However, if you’re an indie author trying to sell a few then think about where the uni student is going to store it. Where’s the outspoken female reader going to keep your fantastic adventure when she moves in with five other young women in New York? Where’s the father of two living in a small 1 bedroom, 2 bathroom going to stash your rip-rolling tale of love and abandonment when he has all his daughters things to find a place for?

Contemplate on these people’s lives before you decide on the size of your tome.

The bed is not my reading friend.

At home I have many things to engage me. You may not like this, you may believe the written word is the highest form of art, but that’s in your house. In mine, I have a best-friend and partner who teases me and shares about her day. I have unfinished Xbox One games. I have unwatched movies bought years ago and Netflix.  There are shows I want to watch one more time, comedy hits on YouTube and iTunes music videos I love to scroll through. There’s TripleJ. There’s iMac apps.

Hell, there’s my writing. This blog. My Japanese study. There are things that I don’t even want to do like washing dishes and ironing shirts. All of those time sinks listed above gurgle with my chronos as it washes down them.

Yes, I do read at home. This is true. But only for the best. Only for most powerful and dynamic of word creators (see part 1 of this essay), or if I’m hate reading. Could be either really.

Where I truly read though is on the train. I get 40 minutes one-way. 40 minutes crammed up against some sweaty office worker who is as disgruntled as I am. I’m not reading to enjoy it (although I am), I’m reading primarily to escape. To escape from the 40 minutes and the bodies hard-pressed against me. I’m reading because I hate wasting time when it could be used better.

This is where your precious literature is consumed. Not by some elegant, yet down-to-earth, top-10% grad student who came from a humble background but still has enough money to go to Harvard. Not by a person with a slow smile, seductive walk and gangly arms. On the train, shoved against an overweight woman who isn’t sure why she had kids 13 years ago.

I do this because crap fiction is easier to read in 40-minute periods. I do this because it’s the only time I can spend focussed on a single world. I do this because … I think devouring ego-shattering ideas should be done without an escape hatch.

So, here’s the thing. Your novel should be designed for that reader. For the person who carries it. The person who trudges up and down the stairs in the rain and on humid days. I don’t care about your novel’s paper quality. Even though I’m a hobbyist typographer, I don’t care if the pages are 80gsm or 110gsm. I’m going to read your work and cram it on the shelf next to everything else I own. It’s going to be manhandled and mistreated.

I care very little about your precious love for the look of the work. I may not like the Kindle version because they hurt my eyes, but I like books that are heavy and awkward to lug around even less.

I read about so much hand-wringing in online communities when authors discuss ‘book quality’ and ‘production values’. What’s the right font? The right width to make it look good? The right paper thickness? For some sophisticated readers that might be a thing. Perhaps it is. Unfortunately for this pleb, none of that matters.

I ask if it’s cheap, if it’s expendable, durable and portable. If you’re designing a POD book (and I recommend you do because that’s how I purchase mine now), think about those things. The book industry forgot where its readers consume their material long ago and look where it got them. I recommend not forgetting it yourself  You might just pick up a new reader.

Introspection is not depth.

Let’s finish on something more friendly: story and character. I’ve read two books this year, Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the author(s) seem(s) to have gotten lost on the path of introspection.

It’s difficult to describe story, motivation and character. Cthulhu knows better writers and teachers have tried. It’s almost impossible to discover that sweet (and billion dollar) spot for people to love your work, but one thing’s for sure, having the main character describe their thoughts about something to the reader does not make it profound or deep.

It does not make me sympathise more with the main character either. The character must do something. They must take their knowledge that they’ve discovered by their inner-gaze and turn it into a weapon of action.

This is what motivates me to read on. It’s what galvanises me as a person to turn the page. Precious is introspective. She sees the world through her lens, but each revelation jolts the story forward. It tells us about her friends, her family, her obstacles. We see the way she navigates them (or fails to) because of her thought process.

In Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms we get to read a lot of thoughts that are just that … thoughts. Sure, they’re good thoughts. They might even be well-written thoughts, but as Stephen King said, “It’s supposed to be good. That’s your job.” You shouldn’t bore the reader with a character’s thoughts because they’re well written, that’s not what’s important. Do they add to the character? Do they layer them more? Do they change the course of the plot?

No?

Then out they go.

They’re not deep. They’re not profound. They’re not worth anything. They are a racket or static which distracts from the important parts of your symphony. They are the long lulls that make me disengage with the text because nothing is happening. If I want to hear a teenage girl’s thoughts without story, I’ll go talk to a teenage girl. If I want to hear a left-wing group of young women discuss gender politics, I’ll read Jezebel. It’Il be both more interesting and more enlightening  When I read a novel, I want those characters to be part of a story, a statement, a hook, an arc, and that means cutting things. It means making sure their voices add to the wild road of the narrative instead of overriding it.

Otherwise, what am I reading your work for? I should watch a documentary instead.

(Image by: CrazyMedia. Licensed under Dollar Photo Club’s Standard Agreement.)

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The Hidden Chemical Sheds

 Joined plexi-glass screens ran from room’s ceiling to the floor. They formed a circle, and projected contrasting visuals: riots in Ipswich, a flowing creek, angry faces, and slow moving sloths. Faster and faster they went until white and red words flashed against black and white backgrounds. All were adjectives–some offensive, some rarely used in daily speech–every single one hovering around the phrase ‘The Patriarchy is Us’.

Inside of the circle, two women sat. One on the bed covered in dark blue sheets, and the other on the floor. Both were trim, their arm muscles well defined and necks long. They were not sisters though. No one could make that mistake; their faces were far too different.

Bella had blonde hair, hacked short and frayed at the edges. Her dark green eyes appeared to cage the wildness of a forest, and her face was round and nose sharp. Her hands moved in short, furtive motions. “You know what the most insulting word is?” she said, her tone fast and spiteful.

“Malak,” Pinei replied, her angular jawline barely moving to give a response. She ran a hand through her black hair, and then crossed her legs while sitting on the bed.

“No.”

“Is this one of those rhetorical things?”

“It’s women. It’s girl. It’s…being female. Feminine.”

Pinei’s brown eyes shifted their focus towards the skylight. “Still like voyeurs?” she asked.

Bella seemed to ignore her. “You understand how it works, right? ‘Throw like a girl.’ ‘Cry like a girl.’ Anything we do, anything that’s natural to us, it’s a weakness. I’m going to bring these people down.”

“‘We’re all sandwiches in man’s hands.'” Pinei stated, sounding distracted. Her attention appeared completely focussed on the moon above them. “Professor Vera,” she said in a mock-announcer’s voice. “She will free you from the prison of your mind.”

“You shouldn’t make fun of it, you know it’s true.”

True? One of our classes says everything’s relative, the other says we should fight as if their ideas are absolute. You can’t have two sides.”

Bella stood up and stretched, her pale skin appearing almost luminous in the moonlight. “It’s nuance.”

“It’s what lets them keep their jobs.”

“So you’re not coming with me tonight?”

Pinei sighed and flexed her tattooed arms. The images they contained were covered with old scars and a rolled up checkered shirt that hung loosely off her frame. “You’ve got it round the wrong way.”

“Really?”

“The patriarchy doesn’t label what women do as weak. It labels those actions as weak because they’re done by women.”

“Yeah. I know that.”

“Do you?” Pinei’s focus shifted back to her friend. “Tonight’s rally, what do you think it’ll accomplish?”

“We’ll show them that we’re a force. We won’t back down. We’ll show them strength.”

“Or… that, driven by an irrational anger, five-hundred female extremists sought to tear down a fragile collation of understanding allies.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bella pulled at her white shoe-string top. “If they want violence, if they want to see us fight using their tactics, we can. We’ll beat them at their own game.”

“There’s no game.” Pinei played with the sheets. “There’s just lives.”

“I can risk mine.”

“Sure.”

“So why don’t you come?”

“Because mine’s precious. They’ll have guns , they’ll use them. Last week was only the start.”

“You don’t know that,” Bella sat on the bed and pulled out a box from under it. Inside was a pair of shoes. “It’s all propgranda. No one died.”

“No one?”

“The Edict wouldn’t stand for it. There’s fifty women on that council. Over half. They wouldn’t let it happen.”

“Uh huh.”

“They’re just…strategising.”

“Over half the council is women,” Pinei continued. “And yet you’re marching on the capital.”

“It takes time.”

“Uh huh.” Pinei crossed her legs and closed her eyes. “Like when my father was shot, and they strategised?”

“That’s…”

“And my mother? When she was yanked from her bed and taken behind the chemical sheds?”

“Safety in numbers. It won’t happen in this country. It’s illegal.”

Pinei stared at her non-white arms, their hue dark but not black–stained with something else. “Doesn’t happen in your country, I guess.”

“What are you talking about?” Bella pulled her second shoelace tight. “You’re a citizen too. I’ve seen your ident card.”

“And I’ve never seen yours. Never even asked.”

“I’m fighting for our rights tonight. All of womenkind.”

Pinei smiled. “That’s right, of course you are. Because the patriarchy must be slain, it’s absolute existence the only thing we can hold onto in these troubled times.”

Bella stuck her tongue out and stood up. “Wish me luck,” she said, beaming.

“Don’t get killed. And don’t take the first bullet, it’s always lethal.”

Bella didn’t listen.

Released Novels

BUSINESS FICTION

App-Fail-Cover-2014-V4

The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer

The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer goes behind the scenes of a start-up game company, Tokidoki Enterprises, and gives readers an inside look at what it takes to compete in the hyper-competitive app market. Written for aspiring entrepreneurs and those wishing to start their own business, The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer provides an essential counter-balance to the flood of ‘Get Rich Quick’ books relating to the game industry.

Current Status: 

Available via Amazon.

The Tunnel Goes Somewhere

Mugi Comment:

This month I’m focusing on my writing group’s recently released anthology, 18. In addition to the interviews I’m doing with some of the collection’s authors, I’m also sharing my thoughts about the individual works and writers in the manuscript.

18 Barr St: Christopher Kneipp

This is a story I’m reluctant to talk about. I’m reluctant only because it’s that good, it’s so good you should really experience it without being told anything at all. Nothing, not even that it exists.

OK, maybe that’s not true. You probably do need to know it’s out there, and that it’s an excellent tale involving an Ouija board. However, that’s all. Nothing else.

I will say Christopher makes each of his words count, like a pro, and shows all those hopeful writers how to pull readers along for the ride. That’s what he does and that’s why it caps off our anthology.

Well…go download it? Go download all of them? They’re available on Amazon. They’re free when we can make them (99 cents otherwise) and they take you on journeys you’ll remember forever. Especially this one, which you will recall every time your friend asks about doing a séance.

Fine, I’ll give you hint: don’t agree to the séance. Even if they’re really attractive. Just…don’t.

That’s all.

Aomori’s Dragons

The monster’s eye was red, its iris black and swirled like the vortexes Haruka used to watch as a child. Round and round it went. She could hear the thing’s nostrils sniffing, searching for her. Its snout was long, dark green and scaly.

Her bonded A.I., Sam, warned her about the damage: Left leg motor’s down, energy shield to twenty-five percent, water breach in rocket arm…reinforcements were on their way. From the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.

Americans, Haruka thought as she started swinging her right leg towards the monster. Shouldn’t be here. Don’t need them.

The titanium exoskeleton attached to her frame lit up where it could, where it wasn’t damaged, and told the defense suit it was required one more time. The reinforced-steel around her shuddered and even though Haruka had ear-protection , she could still hear the grind of the cogs and release of pistons as seventeen-tonnes of robot swung into action.

“This is reckless”, Sam told her. “We can wait.”

From the corner of Haruka’s eye, she could make out the blue flames of the right-leg’s propulsion system kicking in. <Why are you speaking in English?> she asked the A.I. in Japanese.

“It is my native tongue. And I am afraid.”

The monster caught the leg with the lower of its two left arms. Haruka tried to jump back, but her suit wouldn’t move. The thing grabbed her leg with a couple of its other arms and pulled. She screamed, the neural connection with her machine making it feel real.

“Your pain sensations are overriding my access,” Sam commented. “You need to regain focus.”

Haruka couldn’t feel her leg. She could see it attached, twitching, but she couldn’t feel it. Her body stayed hunched over as she tried to take several deep breaths to calm herself down. Closing her eyes, she searched for her father’s voice. The one he used to call her with when they would play by the ocean. The one that called her home after a day of discovering new wildlife.

The monster bellowed, its roar penetrating the metal container. Something started to leak out of her ear. And when she opened her eyes, the vortex glared.

It knows, she thought. It’s figured out I’m in here.

The sound of metal being torn apart broke through her thought process. Sparks started to float down from the robot’s roof.

“It’s attempting to open our suit,” Sam chimed in. “I suggest evasive manoeuvres.”

<My leg doesn’t work,> Haruka responded. A piece of titanium in the ceiling disappeared and ocean water trickled in. A throbbing had started in her head. <How can you fix it?>

“You need to try,” Sam replied–panic now apparent in the machine’s female voice.

Haruka swung her left arm at the red eye, it hit air. The chassis shook as they were tackled by the monster. Water started to stream into the cockpit as the machine sunk into the ocean. Parts of the control room sparked and then went dead.

She stopped being able to feel her limbs. The neural connections hadn’t been able to disconnect properly: her body still thought the machine was part of her. Sweat mingled with water and streaked down her face as she heard the gurgling sounds of the ocean getting closer and closer. More scraping. More claws cutting holes in the titanium. <Sam,> she called out. <Sam, I need to get out.>

The A.I. didn’t reply. Silence. The first time in eight years.

<Help me,> Haruka whispered as water lapped at her chin. None came and she descended deeper into the twilight, watching as the moon’s glow drifted further and further away from her. There was only the eye, the pressure on her face, the cold. And then, nothing.

Christmas Beyond the Known

She discovered him on the train like someone would a lost child. He stood quietly, holding the metal hand rail—his smile tired and gaze far beyond the carriage’s glass windows. At first, Mako thought of him as another attractive foreigner she could admire from a distance. His reflection more than enough to occupy her mind during the crush of rush-hour.

From the cut of his jacket and the way he let it hang, dishevelled and indifferently, she assumed he was an English instructor for a private language college. Possibly gone in a year. A fancy lad who worked a single Christmas, this one, and then went back to his yearly holiday in a country she’d only seen in movies. Still, Mako liked his diamond face and thin lips. Even his unpicked eyebrows she could have lived with for six months as they found their relationship equilibrium. Except that wasn’t her anymore. She’d given up on trysts with red-eye lovers. She had a career now, and her last boyfriend had wanted marriage despite hating everyone in Japan except her.

“The next station is Nakano,” the pre-recorded female voice advised from the train’s speakers. Mako could never tell if they’d hired a real Japanese woman who spoke good English to do the recording, or had an English speaker attempt a poor Japanese accent.

People piled out, pushing and shoving her in every direction when the carriage door’s opened. Not the man though, he didn’t flinch. His eyes stayed unfocussed, drifting with the swaying of the train and the ebb and flow of the boarding passengers.

Mako edged closer, slipping into the middle section of the car and three people away from him. It looked like he’d cut himself shaving that morning; there was a red bump on his chin. The top of his lip had flecks of hair he hadn’t caught though, like the way her first boyfriend at university had had. From the way he moved, he’d been riding the Chuo line for a while. Unlike most foreigners, he didn’t trip and fall over himself when the driver braked unexpectedly; rather, he continued to look at something in the distance Mako couldn’t see.

Kichijoji came and went, as did Tachikawa. He didn’t move. Even when the seat in front of him was free, he continued to stand. His ocean-coloured eyes kept her glancing at his reflection in the glass glass despite several stares from the bald man sitting opposite of where she was standing. There was something…transfixing about them. Something old.

When all the other foreigners got off at Hachioji, the man stayed—the outline of a tattoo showing under his long left sleeve. Mako couldn’t tell what it represented, but she knew the black lines all too well, after all, she had three.

“Shuuten,” the recorded voice stated. “Takao.”

Even though the remaining passengers prepared to leave, the man did nothing.

“Excuse me,” Mako said to him, curious about what his response would be to her English. “This is the final station.”

<I know,> he replied in Japanese.

<Did you fall asleep before your stop?>

<No.> He grabbed the last bag on the metal railing above the seats. <I always come to Takao at Christmas.>

She followed him off the train, his pace slow, measured. <Are you sure you don’t need any help?>

At first he paused, his back going stiff. Then he replied, <Ever killed a santa before?>

<No,> Mako replied, trying not to laugh.

<Then no, I don’t need your help. Not unless he wants to eat your heart more than mine.>

The man continued, his paces still methodical and controlled.

<What’s your name?> she shouted as he got near the automatic ticket gates.

<Call me Hellsing.> And with that, he walked through the rectangular boxes and disappeared. Forever, she hoped.

No Swords Required (Story 2)

“Yeah, pretty dead.” Tath kicked the body lying on the patchy grass. A knife and arrow protruded out of his head. “It’s not like I’m good at missing.”

Agra balanced a couple of shurikens on the tips of index fingers. He slowly started to move his arms around in a circular motion. As he increased the speed of the activity, his glasses slid down to the tip of his nose.

“You hear me?” Tath called out. “He’s dead, and he’s mine. The arrow goes in deeper.” To prove her point, she yanked it out of the corpse’s head and indicated at the blood on the shaft. “Definitely one for my column.”

Two shurikens whistled past her ears and thudded into a tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” Agra said as he walked towards her. He kept his gaze steady and—despite the setting sun—managed not to squint because of his cap. It was black with a blue whip embroidered on the front of it. “Mine definitely hit first.”

Tath flexed her muscular, dark-skinned arms and let out a low whistle. “Is that what all you boys say? ‘At least I got there first?’”

She didn’t say anything until Agra’s tall, wiry frame was next to hers. Then she added—while looking into his blue eyes, “Not a kill shot.”

“Thirty-five metres, that’s how far he was,” he said. “I didn’t chance it. That’s a poisoned knife.” He gestured towards the body. “Go on, pick it up or the kill goes in my column.”

She sighed. “Thirty-five? Really? More like twenty, and a bit. Look the shadows. The angle of the sun. I’ll give you it was around a tree, but mine went through them.” Tath pointed to the straight line of holes her arrow had made in the trees behind them. “Right into the cranium. I don’t need to pick up your cheap-ass knife. If he was dead, my arrow would’ve missed.”

A woman with mousy blonde hair stepped into the clearing. Her slight arms pulled two corpses behind her while the setting sun made her green eyes sparkle.

“Hey Mea,” Agra called out. “You saw it. I hit first. He staggered from the poison and, ‘bam’, went down.”

Tath rubbed her neck. “Staggered? Drunken kung-fu style into my arrow?” She shook her head. “I admit it was a good throw, but he’s for my fucking column. Put it down Mea, Tath, one. Ag, zero.”

She mouthed, “Yeah, mother fucker,” to Agra.

He replied by giving her the finger.

“How about one for both?” Mea asked. Her voice was deep, but soft.

“No,” Tath said. “He shoots blanks. Come on, we know this. Height don’t mean nothing.“ She tried to shove Agra out of the way but he stepped neatly away and she stumbled. “Fuck.”

“Just give them both a kill.” A man appeared from thin air. No one would’ve called him tall, but he was a centimeter taller than Tath, and five more than Mea. It was his full beard and torn jeans that gave him presence. Made him appear more in command of himself than his wavy brown hair suggested. “They won’t help set up camp otherwise.”

Tath had already stormed across the clearing. She poked the newcomer in the chest. “Look, Steh, you give one to him,” she jerked her thumb at Agra, “I ain’t helping. I’m going to sit on my ass and play with my fingers. Twiddle, twiddle, up a tree.”

Steh shrugged. He took a deep breath and conjured five metal cards. They started spinning in the air until a black portal opened and two bags dropped out. Both were large, green and made from canvas. He stroked his beard, grabbed the portal and shook it. A third one appeared, this time it was burlap and tied tight with a glowing cord.

The sound of the bag hinting the ground complimented Agra’s grunts as he pulled his shurikens out of the trees they were lodged in.

“Don’t help, don’t eat,” Steh said. “It’s not like we’re running a charity,”

“I got the target,” Tath said.

Steh blew on his hands and the cards disappeared. “I’m sure none of us could have managed that without you Tath. You’re our hero.”

“Yeah, well…fuck.” She kicked the ground. Her black leather boot gained another scuffmark. “I’ll cook. No one here can tell the difference between—”

“—Rosemary and apples,” Mea finished.

Tath glared.

“We’re all sorted then.” Steh tried to smile at both of them, but his beard made it look like a living organism was invading his mouth. Both women shuddered.

“Ag can get the meat,” he added quickly. “It’s what he does.”

#

The light brick was the size of a large hardcover book, but weighed fifteen kilograms. It made enough heat to sizzle meat, keep them warm, and boil water. It also provided the group with sufficient light to work in the grass clearing as if the sun hadn’t gone down.

If Steh hadn’t had tinkered with it though, they’d all have been dead by now. Blown up by one of the many faulty products Ai Corp produced. The director of the company would’ve quit, again, and then been rehired for her outstanding service. A large press conference would’ve been held and they would’ve talked about those ‘small town people’ as if they had a mental disorder.

Except he had tinkered, like he did with everything they picked up along the way. Including their most recent acquisition: the dead man’s pocket watch.

“Can’t believe they still have these,” Steh mumbled to himself. “Thought they were extinct.”

“…there I was with this ass, man,” Tath said to the other two. “Just staring at me. It was a really good ass. Hard, like you punch it and it doesn’t go red.”

Agra glanced over at her, and wiped the meat stains from the corner of his mouth. “That good?”

“You don’t get to have one of those every day. Just lying there. And he turns over, and…it’s like…that tiny screwdriver Steh carries. Fully up.”

Mea was sitting on a log they’d moved over. A tattered book was in her hands, mostly read. “Was it worth it?” she asked.

“I tried everything,” Tath continued. “We did it up, down, hanging from the ceiling. I did my rope trick—”

“—The one where you both hang from ropes and make love in the air?” Agra interjected.

“Yeah, that one. Every time. Every time I’ve fucked a guy with that…mind blown.” She raised her eyebrows.

“Nothing?”

“He comes away all smiles and I’m left with popsicles.” Tath paused and picked up her plate. After stuffing a fried potato in her mouth, she continued. “How can you have such an amazing ass and not…be good? Right? Right?

Mea caught Tath’s gaze and turned a page. “Quick sex isn’t for me. Men are too easily breakable.”

Agra stood up, walked over to the light brick and pushed the rest of his plate’s contents towards it. All the scraps blackened and turned to ash. “At least you weren’t trapped in that wheel for ten days. She kept preaching on and on about how the aliens were only coming for the unprobed.”

“How many times do we have to save you from your dates?” Tath asked as she slid up behind him. Reaching around his body, she emptied her plate onto the brick. “Sometimes everything you need’s right here.”

He turned, his deep blue eyes staring into her browns. Their skin colours interweaved: black, white, black, white, black.

“But you snore like a fat man with a breathing problem,” he said. “I’d turn into an insomniac who killed people for fun.”

“Don’t you do that now?” Mea commented, her eyes fixed on the page in front of her.

“Yeah, but for real.” His gaze drifted down Tath’s body. Past her large breasts, over her tight abs and down towards her thick baggy pants she always wore. “You know my condition,” he concluded.

“Fuck,” Tath fluffed her hair and walked away. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend, y’know? I just want sex. And I’m out in these woods with you forever.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky this time,” he commented as he sat down. “Never know what’s in Ristie’s crazy bag.”

“Hey Steh,” Tath called out. “Distract us. Ag’s talking about the bag.”

As if on cue, he held up his latest invention. “It was a pocket watch, now it’s a pocket watch and a kinetic exploder.”

“Oh?” Mea asked, her eyes finally drifting up from the novel. “You figured that out?”

Steh’s face went red. “It’s not all there. It’s…it absorbs energy until the hands spin off. I’m still working on the explosion part.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out. She always sends us to far away towns, we’ll have plenty of travel hours to kill.”

“So it is bag time?” Steh asked as he put the pocket watch on the ground. “Well…shit.”

“Mea,” Tath said in a sing-song voice. “Meeeaaaa. Guess whose turn it is?”

“I know.” She snapped her book shut, stood up and walked over to the burlap sack. When she touched the cord, it turned green then red and finally yellow. It floated to the ground without aid.

The bag spoke, like it always did, in a deep and pompous voice. “Good, good. You took even longer to complete this task than your normal glacial pace. Impressive. Still, as I often say to my little sacks, a dead man is a good man.” It laughed at its own joke. “Well, Meagh, what will you seek today? Fortune, fame? Bronze statues with helmets?”

“Death,” she whispered. “I only seek death.”

“As one must! Now thrust you hand in, don’t tickle me too much, and I guarantee you will find some such!”

Her olive-skinned hand slid down into the bag and rummaged around. She picked up and discarded four different scrolls before settling on one that seemed almost friendly to her. Almost.

“Ho ho,” the bag said as she withdrew it. “That’s a good one. Keep you plenty busy.”

The bag’s cord flew up and tied itself around the sack’s neck.

Plenty busy,” Tath remarked. “Where? Hokkaido? New Zealand? Goddamn Australia?”

“You should have a ‘neo’ in front of those,” Agra advised. “Remember?”

“Sendai,” Mea said before anyone else could comment. “It’s one of mine. We’re going to Neo-Sendai.”

#

Sendai used to be a good town. It was the right kind for growing families: large enough to have everyone’s favourite stores and all the brand shops, yet small enough to have a community. It had a baseball team once, a bullet train that could take you north or south through Japan and friendly people who spoke reasonable English. Then came the Chinese-American war, then came the earthquake Piroarago.

Now it was crumbling high-rises, broken tracks and miles and miles of one-to-two floor apartments. Concrete rubble lay on the ground and even though there was still a government, shops had been assigned locations to stop militant raids. The idea had come from a simple theory: thieves are lazy. If they had to travel a reasonable distance from one location to another, they simply wouldn’t. Local economy saved.

Correct or not, it had worked—most of the time.

“Would you like a kimono?” an over-weight store clerk asked Tath. His glasses and blue eyes made him appear quick-witted, aware; his crinkled face took all that away. Rather, the only interesting thing about was his white-skin. A sign the times were changing.

No,” she snapped. “Wandering adventurer here. What would I do with a kimono in the woods? Use it to jack off rake man over there?” She jerked a thumb at Agra.

“It is very smooth.” The store clerk pressed some of the material into her hands. “The finest silk from the Chinese mainland. Maybe this will finally let you satisfy him?”

What did you say to me?” She grabbed the clerk by his collar and shoved him against the wall. Several bowls and chopsticks crashed to the floor. “You saying I ain’t good with men? I’m Tath. I’m a legend down south. Men queue up to get me.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on,” Agra said. “He’s got a lot of good stuff. And the kimono would look good on you.”

The comment seemed to catch her off guard and made her blush, just a little. She relaxed her grip.

“If we weren’t heroes,” Agra continued, “maybe you’d have time for it.”

“Fucking patriarchy,” she said as she yanked the store clerk’s shirt back into position. “You read up on that for me. You get self-aware, alright?”

“Yes,” the clerk commented as he bustled back to the counter. “Patriarchy. Definitely.”

When they got to the meeting point, at the edge of the city, Steh was already there. Like always. He tossed both of them an apple.

“Guess who I met?” he asked.

“Hunnam, the writer with abs?” Tath asked.

“I remember him more for his treatise on the income inequality of abnormal species. But close, someone interested in the forbidden arts.”

“Someone interested in reading?” Agra said before taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his black t-shirt. “No one’s that—” He paused. “Linda.

“Yes, Linda,” Steh confirmed. “She looked good. Still has different coloured eyes though.”

“Linda is here, and you’re worried about her eyes?” Tath asked, her voice rising an octave. “We’re on a mission looking for a book. That’s all she does.

“Absolutely,” Steh took a bite of his apple. “Pretty convenient, isn’t it? She could be anywhere in the world, and she’s here. In the same city. Asking about the same book.” He swallowed. “And there’s a band of roving thugs the city would pay a million yen for each.”

“There’s always a roving band of thugs,” she replied. “There’s always a reward. You keep going on about them, like we fucking care.”

Steh sighed. “Well, I care. We kill enough people. I think we should get rich doing it. My hobby’s expensive.”

“So Mea’s. Hey,” Tath paused and looked around. “Where is she?”

#

Mea was only interested in one thing: books. Or more specifically, a series of books: Arry Motter and The Legendary Tales of His Wang. She’d already purchased, cajoled, murdered and lied to get five out of the seven, and—according to the mission orders—they were about to find another in a cave outside of Sendai. Which made it especially important for her to finish re-reading the last one she had of the series.

That was why she was sitting on one of the benches surrounding the only working fountain in the city. It was not because of the heat, although her top was sleeveless and low-cut, or that she wanted to be with people. It was the only place with benches, and she believed—firmly—that books should be read while sitting on something. Not on the ground.

Unfortunately, for her, it was also a place with people. Lots of people. And where there were lots of people, there was always that man. The guy who thought he should just say hello and sit next to her for a conversation. This time his name was Dey. He had black hair, a chiselled jaw and smelled of flowers. His shirt was also unbuttoned and showed a hairless and rock-hard chest.

“…favourite from that series is Nor. He reminds me of everyone I know. Tries hard, but never gets anywhere.”

Mea attempted to be polite. “You’ve read it?”

“Of course. First girleo I showed ‘the magic to made me.” He adjusted his position on the bench by edging closer to Mea. “I know they say reading’s forbidden, but they didn’t talk about writing.” He let out a puff of air. “Y’know, I’m quite famous in these parts. I’ve penned a few tomes. Mostly works of art. Pretty much defined a genre.”

Mea cleared her throat, gently closed her book and placed it on her lap. She scratched her forehead and sighed.

Dey didn’t seem to notice and continued, “Arry Motter isn’t that good. It probably shouldn’t have even been printed. Lapses in character. Set in London. What’s all that? Why localize? It’s not like it’s important. True fans know what I’m saying. It’s the fangirls that keep it popular. Not the real readers.”

She turned. “Are you criticizing my favourite series?”

“Constructively.” He held up his hands as if defending against invisible punches. “Hoooliiiie, you’re sensitive. Fake nerd girl alert! Gawd, didn’t take you for the type.” He paused and then pointed at her. “You know what you need? A little bit of love. Love from a mind that is truly…enlightened.”

“So you just thought you’d come over and let me know I was enjoying a terrible novel?”

“To enlighten you. All the mothers of Cthulhu combined. You wouldn’t read that shit if you knew what good stories were.”

Her eyes flashed yellow. “I am getting angry, Dey. I would appreciate it if you walked away and annoyed some other woman.”

He slid his arm around her. “Ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got some fiction you need to read.”

Mea punched him right in the jaw. It shattered. He flew sixty metres and crashed into a wall. His skull cracked open and he died twenty seconds later. She didn’t wait that long to start running. She just ran and hoped nobody had noticed. Everyone had.

#

When the three of them saw Mea sprinting towards them they guessed what had happened and did likewise. They ran until they were out of breath then jogged towards the cave’s location until the only sounds they could hear were from the forest. They didn’t stop even when they knew they were safe, they just slowed to a walk and kept trudging on in silence. It was well past midday by the time they reached their destination. And, if they were lucky, the next book in the series.

Unfortunately, they could make out a pillar of smoke coming from the direction of the cave. A tall, wide pillar of Old Testament proportions.

“Just a group of bandits,” Tath remarked. “Nothing we haven’t handled before.”

Steh didn’t appear so convinced. “That’s a huge amount of smoke for seven bandits. Plus, they have the caves.”

“OK, worry-balls, send your little things out.” She waved dismissively in the air and then mumbled, “Takes us longer. Stupid books.”

He pulled out two of his metal cards: They were green and had tiny lenses in them. Whatever the lenses looked at showed up on the card’s surface.

“Turn invisible,” Steh commanded. They did. “Scout the caves ahead,” he told them. They flew off.

“I guess it’s good to get a layout,” Tath huffed. “Still think we can take them. Stupid Sendai. Can’t go back there now.”

“He insulted Arry,” Mea offered as an excuse. “And men—”

“—Break too easily,” Agra finished. “We know. We just wish you wouldn’t break so many.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t if there weren’t so many bad ones,” she mumbled.

The scouts came back thirty minutes later, and the video they’d recorded contained nothing the group wanted to see. Not a single frame.

“Twenty-five?” Agra asked. “Count them again.”

“We have,” Tath snapped. “There’s twenty-five.” She punched the tree nearest her. “Fuck!” Her knuckles bled. Yanking the bow off her back, she slashed the air frantically. “FUCK!”

“If Linda touches the book before we do, we’re done for,” Mea added. “And she’s coming. She’ll just get more resources than us and flush them out.”

“We knew it had to happen one day,” Steh said as he pulled at his beard. “Let’s just make a plan so we can go out in style.”

#

Tath sat away from the light brick polishing her bow. She liked its curves, the way the runes had been inserted and how Steh’s magic made it glow or not glow on her command. Books had taught her how to make the weapon. How to make the fire arrows in her quiver, the rope ones using portal magic and how to accurately do a triple shot. She’d learned everything from them. Everything except how to break the curse.

She felt Agra slide down beside her. His eyes were staring into the darkness and had gone deep like an ocean. The same way they always did when he was worried.

“We’re not going to make it tomorrow,” he started.

“I know,” she replied.

“They’ve got juggers. I never thought…I know magic’s powerful, but to inject it into someone like that? I thought they were a myth.”

“I’ve killed one before. Had to cut his dick off.” She tried to smile at him, but they ended up chuckling instead. “Really,” Tath persisted. “That’s the best way. Cut it off. Then finish him.”

“It’s a good plan we made,” Agra said before going quiet and staring into the distance once more. Animals rustled in the darkness.

“You get this, don’t you?” he asked her.

Tath tilted her head questioningly.

“Combat,” he explained. “We would never have made it this far without you. And, I know I give you shit, but you’re my friend.”

“We can be sex friends.”

“I don’t know how that works. I get so…serious.”

They paused, and listened to the sounds of Steh tinkering and Mea turning pages.

“Do you regret that day?” she asked. “The one we snuck in there?”

“Into Ristie’s castle?” He laughed and ruffled her hair. “Never. She’s got to get bored with us soon. We can’t be that interesting.”

“Or we’ll die tomorrow and some other sap will get cursed.”

“Yeah.” He stood up. “That’s more likely.”

Tath started polishing her bow again, but then Agra’s footsteps stopped.

“That was your kill,” he said. “There wasn’t any poison. I guess I’m the lowest in the group rankings now.”

She smiled and whispered, “Bastard,” as he soon as he was out of earshot.

#

Mea looked around the clearing. The bandits had done a good job of securing the place: they’d cut all the trees down within a fifty-metre radius of the cave entrance, had a large fire burning so people couldn’t sneak up during the night and kept archers posted behind metal barricades just inside of the entrance. It was hard dirt too, difficult for tunnel machines to get through and the men kept their distance from each other. Most seemed alert, well-trained.

They were ready for everything.

Except me, she thought to herself as her concentration flowed down towards her legs. Then she jumped, flew sixty metres into the air and hit the ground to the right of the fire. The dirt cracked and the three soldiers she’d landed in the middle of inhaled sharply. Mea could smell the leather of their scabbards and hear them fumbling with their swords.

Too slow, she thought. You’re all too slow. 

#

Steh teleported directly above the two guards to the left of the fire. They had their weapons ready to battle a monster, but not a magician. He threw a card at each of them. They screamed as the metal rectangles sunk into their throats and the devices exploded. A shower of blood rained down on him along with some brain and possibly nervous system.

He dashed behind the fire as he heard the enemy archer located behind him hit the ground, he assumed dead.

If you’ve missed Tath, I’ll kill you, he thought.

A non-friendly arrow flew over his head. He waited and hoped. There were no more sounds to the rear of him, but there were some screams to the right. He heard bones shatter as a soldier smacked into the mountain’s side.

“How are we?” Tath asked as she slid next to him. Another arrow whistled through the flames above.

“Waiting,” Steh replied.

“For Mea?”

“Aren’t we always?”

#

Mea picked up the last swordsman by his hair, and then slammed his face into the dirt. It transformed into a pool of blood beneath her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she checked the area. Agra was in position to the left of the cave’s entrance; Tath and Steh were hiding behind the fire. She was clearly late, again.

Breathing in, she focused her energy into her legs and jumped once more.

#

Agra waited until Mea landed in the centre of the cave’s entrance and he heard her roar. Then he sneaked a quick look around the corner—an enemy archer was standing up behind a metal barricade and ready to fire. He flicked a knife down from one of his holders, peeked again and threw. The guard screamed in a good way: the I’m-going-die-soon way.

He took three quick breaths and whistled. It didn’t take long before he heard it. No one couldn’t have: Tath’s boommaker. It travelled at the speed of sound and the noise it made punched into your eardrums like fireworks.

He thanked Steh for their ear protector’s that cut out certain frequencies, and he thanked—whatever deity there was in the sky—that they’d given Steh his inventive mind. A second later, he popped his head around the corner and threw a knife at an archer who was rocking back and forwards holding her ears.

And then he saw the jugger. He was big. Probably three metres wide and three tall. He was also running straight towards the entrance. Agra let out an owl call.

#

Steh summoned four of his cards, teleported in front of the cave’s entrance and shot them straight at the monster. They didn’t work. They hit an invisible wall and deflected in a million directions.

Fucking shield tech, he thought as the thing came crashing towards him.

He dodged, dodged a second time and rolled to safety. Mea rushed passed him, Tath too.

“Cut its penis off,” Steh heard Agra yell before his companion slid into the cave.

A giant fist flew above him. Then he felt something connect, and six ribs break. The six he hadn’t been able to afford a metal bonding for.

He said nothing as he went down. He couldn’t. Instead, Steh tried to think of a summoning spell, anything, but his mind was scrambled.

Instead, he did what he could and rolled. He kept on rolling as fast as he could even though the monster was laughing. Then he hit a wall and felt something crush his leg. Blackness swam before his eyes and his body convulsed in pain.

His right hand had found something in his pockets, but he didn’t know what it was. It was metal, and round. He hoped it was grenade because he could just make out the jugger standing over him preparing for its final blow. He threw the device upwards and towards the monster’s crotch.

The looming shadow stopped moving completely. Steh didn’t need any more encouragement and started crawling away. The sound of something being cut, a gigantic roar of pain and then an explosion followed. Steh felt the earth shake as the jugger thudded to earth. He hoped it was dead.

He hoped, but didn’t care because the stars were beautiful and they were coming for him.

#

Tath heard Mea wrecking havoc on the barracks, she also heard Agra’s scream as he fought bandits in the mess hall but she couldn’t help. No matter how much her heart burned, because the enemy commander was just ahead.

She kicked open the rotten wooden doors to the kitchen and stared at the marble walls. The room couldn’t have been built recently, it was too posh—too impractical. It had to have been an executive bunker from when the war broke out.

The sink fittings sparkled chrome and the bench was old wood: dark brown and had been placed squarely in the middle. Fridges hummed away on a magical power source designed by one of the more competent Ai Corp departments.

Two arrows flew towards her, she dropped to the ground and scrambled over to the preparation bench.

“There’s two more juggers,” a deep voice called out. She risked a peek. His skin was half-olive, half-yellow. He had a shaved head and bushy eyebrows. And his hands were glowing green.

Fucking magic, Tath thought.

“My name’s Rish,” the man said. “I’m a relatively flexible guy. Run a decent operation.”

She heard the sound of a bow’s string being pulled back.

“You’re ruining that operation,” he continued. “Which is bad. But good, if you’d like to join me.”

“Where’s the book?” she yelled.

A boomerang arrow flew over the bench and curled back towards her. She dodged, but only just. It was glowing with the same green as Rish’s hands.

“There’s no book,” he replied, the confidence in his voice growing. “There’s only a locked door at the end of the next hall.”

Locked door, end of the hall. Right. Tath looked at her hands, they weren’t steady. Another glowing arrow circled around behind her and lunged for her heart. She threw herself to the side, but it clipped her arm all the same.

“Fuck,” she mumbled and slid three arrows into her bow. “I just need a second. One second.”

The problem was, Tath was pretty certain Rish’s archer was better positioned. But she was out of options, one more magic arrow and it was over.

“Dying is just like going home,” she told herself. “That’s what Aura said. Dying is just like going home.” She chuckled. “I wonder if there’s kimono’s there.”

Taking one last breath, she pushed out from the table and leapt…but it was too late, the archer’s arrow was already in the air. And then she saw the flying corpse.

#

Mea was angry. More angry than she’d ever been and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make her rage dissipate. She was even hauling a man’s corpse with her for no reason except that he had nicked part of her leg during combat. It hurt and that made her mad—that and the fact she couldn’t find Tath. She needed Tath. More than anything right now she needed her friend and the rooms were confusing.

Everyone in the mess hall was dead, except for a pale Agra who had a penis in his right hand, a massive gash in his chest and was laughing. Mea didn’t care if he bled out.

There was a locked door she couldn’t get past no matter how many times she slammed the corpse she was carrying against it. The armoury was clear, so was the barracks. She started to hyperventilate. Where was Tath?

Then Mea saw her through the open kitchen door. Tath had her bow drawn back, but she was trembling, and Mea could tell just how scared she was. There was a man in the room too, a man with bushy eyebrows and his eyes said he wanted Tath dead.

Mea threw the corpse and something green and glowing thwaked into it.

Tath released the bowstring. Three people screamed. Four bodies thudded to the floor. Tath was still standing though. Her slow smile still alive on her face; her brown eyes still sparkling because of the furnace in the kitchen.

Mea ran to her.

#

“Fuck,” Tath said as she felt her breath being crushed out of her. “Put me down. Dammit, Mea! Put me down.” When she was on the ground, Tath took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Neither of them were really hurt.

“How’s the boys?” Tath asked.

“Almost dead.”

“Men. Just. Fuck.” Tath grabbed Mea’s shoulder and laughed. “We’ll be fucking legends after this. Bigger than Kvothe.”

“No one’s bigger than Kvothe,” Mea said, her tone becoming serious.

“Fuck, he’s fictional. We’re real as shit.” Tath leaned on her friend for support. “Haul my ass to that door. I’ve got the mother fucking key right here.”

#

To both Tath and Mea’s surprise, their scroll not only unlocked the door but also the chest. They’d never known Ristie to be so kind.

“What the fuck?” Tath said. “Is that a book? I’m not delusional, right? That’s the book right there.”

Mea grabbed the novel out of the chest and unwrapped it. Her face went from excited, to depressed and then to angry in seconds. After a deep breath, she slowly wrapped the tome back up.

It wasn’t book six. It was book five. She’d copied the wrong instructions.

#

Agra dropped the penis he was holding to the floor and commented, with a slur, “I guess magic does make you smaller.”

“We have your friend,” a voice boomed into the caves. It was a woman’s—strong and commanding. He knew who it was. There was only one person in the world insane enough to hunt for books for fun—Linda.

“Tath,” he called out. “Mea. I don’t think I can fight another army.”

He could feel the blood congealing on his chest in thick, ropy clots and he wondered how long he had. Wondered if he’d die alone.

“You stupid fucker,” Tath said, suddenly at the mess hall’s doorway. “We’ve got a fucking mutant on our team. You could’ve called for help.”

“Wasn’t in the plan,” Agra replied as he felt their hands under his arms, hauling him to his feet. He opened his eyes, they both looked more beautiful then Jennifer ever had.

“Come out with the book,” Linda’s disembodied voice commanded.

“Well? Solutions?” he asked.

“She gives us Steh, she can have it,” Mea grumbled. “Stupid scrolls.”

He chuckled, and attempted walking with his own feet. “How many did you get Tath?”

“Four.”

“Bagged myself five and a jugger. Guess you can have the bottom of the ladder all to your lonesome.”

#

Linda, as they expected, had brought an army. Sixty soldiers—all in glittering armour and all looking like they belonged in a different world. At the front was the book huntress herself with her blue and violet eyes, long black hair and pointy nose. When the moonlight glanced off her pale skin, it made Linda appear graceful, at peace with the woods surrounding her.

“The book,” she said. “Give me the book for your friend.”

Tath chuckled. “He’s not our friend. He’s a fucking legend.”

“Well, the book for your…fucking legend,” she corrected.

“Promise Linda?” Mea asked. “On the book collectors code of honour?”

“Yes, fine,” she replied. “I, on the book collectors code of honour, promise to give you your…legend…back. And let you leave in peace.”

“Here,” Tath tossed it. “Come on Steh, let’s go.”

Steh didn’t move, so Mea picked him and slung him over her shoulder. He made a small grunting sound and mumbled, “Pocket watches. They’re the next thing.”

About sixty metres from the opening, they heard Linda scream. Tath and Mea looked at one another and grinned.