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It’s graduation season. Time to hand out Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and smell the fresh-cut grass and dream of bigger and better things in whatever comes next. Also a time to be a jackass.

 

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My wife dug up a photo from my high school graduation  I hadn’t seen or thought about in years. One look, and the entire episode came back in a glorious flash.

 

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Our high school class was full of characters and criminals (the quarterback got arrested for stealing a beer truck; I got arrested for, well, other things that I’m not going into right now), partiers and truants, burnouts and early pregnancies. We were so bad in fact, that leading up to graduation our superintendent,  principal, and anyone with an Administrator cap told us during an anti-pep rally that we were the worst class to go through the school in decades. And they weren’t kidding. So they warned us that they would not tolerate a single shenanigan during the graduation ceremony—we were to behave ourselves or else. Of course someone asked, “Or else what?” And they told us in no uncertain terms that if anyone so much as blew a bubble or put a funny sign on the top of their cap, they would not receive their diploma. They would be held back. Maybe everyone would be held back—I forget the specifics of the threat, only that they were trying to instill fear and trembling.

 

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Now, most of us were just glad to be getting out of there, and there were a few good citizens who hadn’t intended to act up, so everyone seemed content to toe the line. But I’m a Salyards, coming from a long line of Salyards who, upon considering a smart play and a dumb play, will routinely choose the dumb play. Genetics or learned behavior or a terrible mix of both, but it is our legacy, and who am I to disappoint my ancestors.

 

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The threats were repeated during rehearsal the day before, so that night, my friend Jason and I sat around brainstorming what idiotic thing I could do to thumb my nose at the fun-hating Man. We tossed around several ideas, but none really had the verve I was looking for. I had a couple of nicknames in high school—Lurch was the more popular, but Superman got some action, too. And when we thought about the ruby red color of the caps and gowns, it suddenly clicked. I’d draw an iconic emblem on my chest, pin it to a blue shirt, keep it under cover until I got to the podium, and then unzip and reveal my true identity at just the right time.  

 

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We drove to the school and it was a lovely day—sunny, warm, but not too hot (which was good, as the only blue shirt I had on hand was a sweatshirt).  As we lined up, the Administrators (yes, capital “A”, fitting for supervillains), starting spot checking, asking folks to unzip, checking for paraphernalia of any kind. I held my breath as they got close, tried to look nonchalant. They hit someone just in front of me, and then some kid a couple behind and kept going down the line.

 

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They must have thought they cowed us all into behaving, but really they ought to have frisked every single one of us and had tazers on hand.  Some other classmates knew what I planned, and most didn’t think I would go through with it. I should have reminded them of the Salyards legacy, but I just smiled and bided my time.

 

The ceremony was outside, and it felt like an eternity as I waited. When my name was finally called, with the sun inching towards the horizon, I slowly walked up the stairs, savoring the moment, wondering just how stupid I was truly being, but knowing it was too late to turn back.  

 

I walked across the platform, knowing the photographer was in position, and then I paused, unzipped the gown in a flourish just as a wonderful cinematic breeze tugged it a little, setting it rustling better than I could have scripted, and then approached the superintendent.

 

He didn’t even force a fake smile—the super was well and truly pissed and didn’t bother to hide the fact. And while  he couldn’t get out of shaking my hand, he did his best to try to break it. I squeezed back just as hard, mostly to protect myself, and gave him my best smirk right when the photo was taken.  

 

As I walked down the other side of the platform and headed back to my assigned spot, the principal ran up to me and said, “You cover that up this instant, or you will not graduate!”

 

I don’t know about you, but I often think of the perfect response after the fact, when the opportunity is long gone, usually lying in bed and cursing myself for not being quicker. But this time, I actually acquitted myself pretty well. I stopped, turned to her, turned the smirk back on, and replied, “I don’t think so. You do NOT want me back here next year. I guarantee it.”

 

Most moments don’t work out exactly as you imagined them, but this was one of those rare exceptions.

 

 

 

Veil of the Deserters: Free At Last!

It’s been a long time coming, but the ebook for Veil of the Deserters is out everywhere. The official release date for the hardcover is June 3, but Amazon, being Amazon, said, “Hey, we have these books in the warehouse ahead of schedule. That’s terrible. Johnson–sell those immediately, or you will be incinerated.”

And no one wants an incinerated Johnson, so you can pick up the hardcover at Amazon right now.

Thanks to everyone who waited patiently (and impatiently) for this book. I worked really hard to try and make this one better than the last, and feel like I accomplished that. I hope you do, too. If you read Scourge of the Betrayer or Veil of the Deserters, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite reader haunt.

http://www.amazon.com/Veil-Deserters-Bloodsounder%C2%92s-Arc-Book/dp/1597804908/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

 

 

 

 

 

Bloody Jacket

I just got the jacket for the hardcover of Veil of the Deserters. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m thrilled to see this now, as it means I’ll be getting my author copies in May and can do a dopey, awkward, and somewhat frightening happy dance. And it also means readers can get the ebook May 19 or the hardcover June 3.

Veil of the Deserters Jacket2

Just a Taste. . .

I don’t really know what makes the best excerpt. What is the ideal length? Do readers want something character-driven or a pulse-pounding action sequence? How do you show enough to intrigue or entice someone without getting all spoileriffic? I have no idea. About any of it. I’m not sure how long it would take a monkey tapping away at keys to actually write a good novel, but one could definitely select an excerpt faster than I did, and with a lot less second guessing and doubling back. It would be hyperbole to say I “agonized” over the excerpt choice, but I did go back and forth between several options before finally just saying screw it, this is the one.

To be fair, I do that at restaurants too. Should I go with the omelet or pancakes? If the omelet, will it be the Mediterranean or the western? Onions mess with my stomach but ham does sound good. But so do pancakes. Maybe whole wheat. That’s healthy, and will make up for my drowning the stack in syrup, right? I could get both. Except my eyes are almost always bigger than my stomach, and I’ll either leave half the omelet on the plate and feel guilty about all the starving people in the world, or I’ll put it away well after actually being full, and then feel guilty about being a glutton. Maybe a healthy scrambler with egg whites and chicken sausage. Mmmm. . . chicken sausage. . .

I digress. Anyway, here is the excerpt from Veil of the Deserters. Bon Appétit!

Veil of the Deserters Excerpt

Terminus

I have no sense of direction, a lousy sense of time, and very poor navigational skills. If I am on a highway or doing any travel that requires choices, I’m usually doomed. But even something as set, simple, and seemingly straightforward as riding the rails, where all I am required to do is get off at the correct stop, presents challenges I just simply can’t overcome most of the time. I’m just that big of an idiot.

Part One:

A couple of years ago some work friends were going out for happy hour and invited me. With three young kids at home, I don’t do those nearly as often as I used to. And since my wife was battling a cold at the time, and would be wrangling the circus midgets herself, I assumed it was a no-go. But she was a champ and encouraged me to go blow off steam, just so long as I didn’t come home super late or get too drunk.

I had misgivings. For a hot minute. But I promised myself that I would watch the clock and not let things get out of hand.

Which is what I almost always promise before things get out of hand.

But in this case, oddly enough, I was actually on my best behavior. I went out for a few hours, and did drink pretty fast, but even not in top drinking shape anymore, I had a lot of mass and bloodstream so it still takes a lot to do me in. And I kept my eye on the clock. When 8:15 hit, I told my friends I had to jet. They tried talking me out of it but I had a train to catch, and it was a 15 minute walk and 45 minute ride, and if I missed that one, the next wasn’t for another hour, so I stuck to the plan. I left, head held high, feeling pretty proud of myself.

I timed it just right, and would have made it to the train with a few minutes to spare. If the station doors I normally used were unlocked. Which they weren’t. I ran around the building, trying several other sets, also locked, and when I finally made it through an open door on the far side of the station and got to the platform, the train was gone.

An hour wait. Not ideal, but not the worst thing. I still wasn’t too far off my target.

I knew going back to the bar was certain disaster, so I stayed in the station and just waited it out. However, that also proved to be a deceptively bad choice, as I got sleepier and sleepier just sitting there. When the next train finally pulled up I boarded, but the damage was done. Between the alcohol, the lethargy of sitting, and the lulling motion of the train, I passed out within minutes. Maybe seconds.

When I finally woke up, the train was empty, and the conductor was shaking my shoulder. I’d whizzed past my stop, and another hour’s worth of other stops, and I was at the end of the line. In Elburn. For those of you not familiar with northern Illinois, you’re not missing much. All you really need to know is there is a tiny bunker of a station in Elburn amid a lot of farms and fields, and not much else.

It was 11:30. Not tragically late, but factoring the train ride back towards Chicago, a few hours off the mark. So not great either. I texted my wife to explain and got no reply. I texted again while I was waiting. Nada. Now I was getting uneasy. I hadn’t done anything that doghouse worthy yet. Had I? Then again, being home alone sick with three kids, with a no-show husband, and texts hours late, I couldn’t blame her if she was pissed and ignoring me.

I looked at the schedule in the station, wondering when the return train was going to show up. And lo and behold, the next one was in the morning. Six hours away. All trains were done for the night.

Huh. I did NOT see that coming. I went through my mental list of people I knew, and none were close and nobody owed me a big enough favor to get out of bed at midnight and drive out to nowhere to pick their idiot friend up from the train station.

My wife had turned her cell off, and was likely fuming, so I was on my own. I considered trying to find a hotel, but money was tight, and more importantly, I liked being married. That was out. The only other recourse was a cab ride. Sure, it would still be pricey, maybe more than a hotel, but it would get me home in an hour and a half.

The problem was, I wasn’t getting any WiFi out there in the boondocks, so I resorted to calling the operator and trying to find a cab. There were none in the vicinity. Or the vicinity of the vicinity.

I kept calling places, and they either didn’t serve that area, or would take hours to show up. The shortest wait was 45 minutes, so that was that. I sat and waited and pinched my wrist to stay awake so I didn’t miss my cab.

The cab showed, we hit the deserted roads, and he drove me back to my suburb.

We pulled into the driveway after 1. I gave the guy my credit card. Only he was a contrarian and didn’t take cards. I argued with him, saying I was pretty sure he HAD to accept cards. Wasn’t it a law or something? He insisted cash only, and I was in a pickle. I would have just jumped out and ran, but since we were in front of my house that option was off the table. I cursed, and told him to drive me to the gas station where an ATM was. While the meter continued running.

And wouldn’t you know it, the ATM was out of order. So we drove another mile or so down the road until we found another one.

So, to recap: I left the bar in the eight o’clock hour, patting myself on the back, expecting to be home even earlier than expected, and instead, walked through the door nearly six hours later, $120 lighter for the cab ride alone, but remarkably sober.

I slipped into bed as quietly as I could. My wife didn’t stir a bit. I expected glacial stares in the morning or cat litter in my coffee. Instead, she asked, “What time did you get in last night? I took some Nyquil and totally passed out.”

Though I was tempting to say, “Nine!”, I told the whole story, knowing the ATM charge would rat me out in the long run anyway.

My wife laughed and said, “You should have just gone to a strip club. It would have been cheaper and you still would have been home earlier!”

Now, you might think this would be a learning moment, and that being a grown-ass man with a moderately high IQ, I’d be really unlikely to repeat this kind of mistake ever again. And you would be wrong. Who’s dumb now?

Part Two:

Several months later, on a very cold Thursday sometime in the middle of winter, the work crew invited me out to another happy hour. My wife was in good health, and amazingly enough the kids were too, so there wasn’t a compelling reason not to. Well, except for me. I should have been a compelling reason not to, but I ignored me.

My wife made a joke about the last adventure and not falling asleep this time. Work folk made several more jokes, also about setting my alarm or calling me en route to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. I laughed and drank and drank and laughed.

After a few hours, I headed to the train like the last time, but sure to do some things differently this go around…

1. Build in enough time to walk around the perimeter of the station to go through the only set of unlocked doors? Check.
2. Catch train on time? Check.
3. Set alarm on phone? Check.

Again, I nearly broke my arm patting myself on the back. I was smart! I was responsible! I had fun AND was being a good husband! I rocked!

Until I didn’t.

You see, I set the alarm for A.M. Which wasn’t altogether helpful on that evening train.

Sure enough, I passed out like I’d been hit by a tranquilizer dart set to take down a belligerent and drunken rhinoceros.

When I felt a hand shaking my shoulder, and looked around and saw the train car deserted except for one tiny old lady shuffling for the exit, and stared up into the conductor’s face, I knew with dawning horror I’d done it again. End of the line. No trains going the other way. Middle of winter. And basically broke. I said “Elburn!” with the same venom Seinfeld reserved for Newman.

I texted my wife. She texted back this time. And probably wished she didn’t. “You’re never going to believe it,” I texted. She believed it. And she stopped texting. I reviewed my options. Pay the idiot tax to the taxi driver and blow money we didn’t really have just then, or stay in the station and come back on the morning train.

I chose the latter. It was a bunker, but at least it was enclosed, and there was some heat hissing out a vent as I walked in, so I wouldn’t die. It stopped abruptly and didn’t kick on for another hour or two. Clearly they didn’t expect many people to be as stupid as I was and sleep in the bunker in the middle of nowhere.

I paced until I was too tired, and then sat back down and commenced shivering. I considered the idiot tax again, but I’d made my very cold bed and I was going to lie in it. Like a lot of train stations, this one had some books on a rickety rotating rack. I looked them over. All harlequin romance novels. Fantastic.

It was too damn cold to sleep, so I grabbed one and started reading to try to keep my mind off just how bad this all sucked. The book wasn’t even so awful it was good, it was just horrible. When the heat teased me by going off an hour later, I rushed over to the vent and just finished peeling off my gloves to warm my hands when it shut off again. That was it. A brief blast of hot air to make sure nobody had to remove my corpse in the morning.

I cursed a blue streak, kicked the cement wall and nearly broke my frigid toes, and then sat back down and continued reading about pulsing manhoods, quivering love holes, and stormy hair. Seriously. Stormy. Hair. I remember that one.

Somehow, hours later, despite the constant shivering and painful reading material, I started to nod off. And might have completely, except I noticed some movement right near my feet. Two little mice had discovered the large warm human space heater in their midst and were just about to climb up my pants. I stomped my feet and screamed at them and they ran away. Like mice do. But every time I sat back down for more than a minute, they came creeping back. So we did this dance all night long until the sun came up. They tried to stealthily climb Mt. Jeff, and I flailed and tried to stomp them to death, only I was so cold I moved on wooden legs, so never get within three feet each time they went running for cover and through the cracks in the wall.

If there were any video cameras in the station, the security guards or rail employees would have laughed themselves silly reviewing the tape the next day.

Mercifully, dawn meant the arrival of a train. When it pulled up. I was so angry with myself and filled with impotent rage towards mus musculus that I was wide awake, despite not sleeping a wink.

Of course, once I was on the warm train, I might as well have been hit with chloroform. When I woke up, I hadn’t made it all the way to the city, but had whizzed past my stop several stops ago. I couldn’t go back to work in the same clothes, reeking of alcohol and stupidity, so I got off the train at the next stop and took a cab ride home. That still cost $40.

The wife and kids were dressed and ready for their day when I walked in the door, and all my wife could do was shake her head. I was sorely tempted to call in sick with the brown bottle flu and go directly to bed, but I didn’t really feel I deserved it, so I cleaned up and headed back out to catch the next morning train into work.

Whenever I see a seedy romance novel, I get twitchy and imagine little furry friends trying to run up my pant legs and nestle in with my warm manhood.

If there is ever a Part III to this, I will jump in front of a train.

Speak From the Heart. Or Gut. Or Spleen.

I think it’s important to be self-aware as a writer, identify your strengths and weaknesses and actively try to improve with every project, getting better at the stuff you are good at and really trying to develop those skills that are lacking. I have plenty of things I need to work on, but one thing I can usually fall back on is dialogue. Not saying I’m Tom Stoppard or anything, but I usually feel pretty confident that my dialogue at least won’t be abysmal. And I have to give a lot of credit to Ivan Davidson (aka “Mr. D.”). He was one of my favorite professors at Knox, teaching drama, theatre history, acting, playwrighting, directing. On top of being a wonderful professor, he is an amazing person and routinely brought out the best in me, even when I slacked off in other classes and did my best to be an assclown.

I loved Mr. D.’s playwrighting class, and it really helped refine any skill I had at writing dialogue. And while I learned a ton, several things he imparted always stuck with me.

1. Read every line of dialogue out loud. This is critical for plays and screenplays when the lines are intended to be spoken, but still really useful for fiction too. You catch all kinds of awkward construction and clunkers when you read the lines out loud (true for exposition too, but it really magnifies goofy lines of dialogue that look awesome on the page and somehow sound like hot garbage aloud).

2. If you block off the character’s name or identifying tags on the page (as an exercise, not permanently), you should still be able to always (or most of the time) immediately tell who is speaking. You want to try to give each character a distinctive patter, quirks and tendencies and rhythms and particular cadence or vocabulary, something that distinguishes them.

Some masters of dialogue excel at really stylized language (Edward Albee’s hyper-articulate characters spring to mind, or on the other end, David Mamet’s staccato bullet poetry), and others create something that has the illusion of being natural and authentic. I say illusion because real dialogue is often chaotic, confusing, repetitious, or hopelessly broken, and yet people still manage to communicate. It’s amazing, really. Read a transcript sometime of unscripted conversation—it can be a nightmare; half the time it doesn’t make any damn sense at all, or it’s dull. In plays and fiction, even if you are trying to capture that kind of naturalistic flavor, it usually has to be distilled so you don’t lose your audience of put them to sleep. But no matter what the style, cover up the character’s names and see if you can figure out who is who. If several characters easily blend together, you probably have more work to do.

3. Dialogue is ACTION (another writer from that class just reminding me of this one!). It shouldn’t just serve as telling stories of things that shaped the characters or to unspool exposition, or a way of just conveying information. Dialogue should propel the immediate here and now; characters want something—they’re trying to encourage, undermine, sway, console, brutalize, outsmart, or seduce each other, and dialogue should DO that. A plot and story are only as good as the tension and conflict, and this isn’t just people hitting each other in the face or someone getting junk punched in the man business—dialogue can be vicious or scintillating as characters with irreconcilable agendas square off.

4. Along the same lines, make dialogue do double (or triple) duty. Sure, it might be delivering some exposition, or revealing character, or even trying to accomplish something, right here and now (see above), but it can (and should!) hit more than one note at once. Maybe it’s foreshadowing, or slyly giving some subtext or hints of all the stuff that be boiling just under the surface. Maybe it appears to be providing some backstory when it’s also giving you a glimpse of things that will ignite in the third act (or last chapter). Sort of a subset of the Chekhov’s Gun principle—while you can mention something innocuous that doesn’t bear fruit later in the text, you can also plant seeds that lead to a crazy crop of holyhell leaf later on.

Mr. D.’s influence extended a lot further than anything I learned in class—he impacted me as a person as much if not more than he did as a student—but anytime anyone compliments me on the dialogue in my writing, I always think how lucky and grateful I am that I took his playwrighting courses.

Streams: Crossed

I got some great entries in the Crossing the Streams contest, and was happy to read several action sequence nominations from books and films I hadn’t read before. Thanks to everyone who entered. Great suggestions!

I will announce the two winners tomorrow and reach out to let them know, and find out which book they wanted. And as noted, the winners will be in the mix for the Super Duper Uber Massive sweepstakes for a whole bunch of free books.

Crossing the Streams

Ari Marmell invited me to be a part of “Crossing the Streams 2014,” a flippin’ huge, multi-author book giveaway! With streams! Crossed!

I, and a whole bunch of other speculative fiction writers–mostly novelists, but some short story and comic writers as well–have thrown in together to create something huge for you guys. Some writers, like me, will have appropriated Ari’s message on his site almost word for word. Because, you know, lazy. Others will have put their own individual stamp and flair on it. Because, you know, overachievers.

But across the board, this is how it basically works:

Each individual author involved is running a contest on his/her own site. The specific details vary from author to author; the contest I run on my site might be very different than the one on James’s site, or Gabrielle’s site.

However, despite some contest differences, there are a few details in common. Specifically, each of us will select two winners from the contest on our own site. Each of those winners will receive one signed book, free, from the author whose contest they won. So, for instance, if you’re one of the winners here, you’ll win one of my books. If you’re a winner on Paul’s site, you’ll win one of his, etc.

But… that’s just the appetizer. Once the contests have ended, all the authors involved will get together and choose one single “super-winner” from all the entries on all our sites combined. This one lucky individual will receive a signed book, free, from each and every one of the authors involved.

Yep. Somebody out there’s going to win around twenty free books. Free and clear. No strings, no kickbacks, no takebacks. You just win a bunch of books. Which is all kinds of awesome. And who doesn’t want to be a “super winner”? No one, says I.

You can only enter each author’s contest once, but you may enter multiple contests. So you could enter here, on Matt’s site, on Betsy’s site, etc. Heck, you can enter on everyone’s site, if you want. (And even if you aren’t selected as the “super winner,” you might win more than one of the individual contests. You never know.)

You can find a complete list of the authors involved, as well as links to their sites, below. But first…

How to Enter Jeff’s Contest:

Again, these are just the rules for my contest. The rules for entry on other authors’ sites might be very different. And probably cooler. (See lazy, above.)

But for me, it’s really simple. All you have to do is e-mail me at Jeffsalyards[at]gmail[dot]com (Of course, not being a nefarious machine or some slippery spamming program, you already know to change [at] to “@” and [dot] to “.” right?)

Your entry must come via e-mail. No carrier pigeon, no broke college kid looking for a buck as a courier, no wax tablets. You must add “Crossing the Streams” in the subject line. If you forget to do this, there is a very real possibility I will completely miss your email and your chance to win will be dashed. Even if you include it, there is a small possibility that still could happen, but fail to include “Crossing the Streams” and you are almost guaranteed of missing out.

In the body of the e-mail, all you have to do is name a favorite fight scene from sci-fi or fantasy fiction, and tell me what makes it memorable or kick ass. You don’t need to  go into much detail when you explain. It can be a single sentence, if that’s all you want to write. Or, you can write a few paragraphs. Whichever you prefer.

I will select two winners. One will be chosen completely at random, so even if you don’t think your explanation is very interesting, don’t worry, you’re still in the running. The other winner will be chosen by completely subjective, arbitrary, and somewhat draconian fashion, based solely on who I think included the best brief explanation and whether or not I shared your taste in what makes a great fight scene. Neither selection will be influenced by gifts, flattery, or food. Maybe alcohol. No, scratch that, not even alcohol. I am a rock. I cannot be bought.

And of course, everyone who enters is also in the running for the random “super-winner” selection (I just like writing “super-winner”).

Entries must be received between February 19th and March 19th 2014.

And at least for me, that’s it. Really. :-)  Easy, no?

Prizes: My two winners, and the super-winner, may choose one of the following prizes:

Scourge of the Betrayer (hardcover) 

Veil of the Deserters (hardcover) (NOTE: this book will be released in June, so delivery of this prize, if chosen, will be delayed a bit, but you will get it, and while I’m of course biased, I think it might be worth the wait.)

If you’ve got any questions, please feel free to ask via my contact page.

The Rest of the Gang

As I said, there’s somewhere around twenty of us involved in this. You can find names, and links, here.

But do me a favor. If you click on over to one or more of these sites, don’t just look at the contest page, okay? Everyone involved in this contest is a great author or artist. If you like my stuff, you’re sure to like at least some of theirs. So take a few minutes,  poke around, check things out. See if any of their work intrigues you. Maybe even buy a couple of books. I know they’d all appreciate it, as I certainly would.

Thanks, and best of luck. :-)

I Don’t Always Give Art Notes, But When I Do. . .

 

 

 

I’m a pain in the ass. There’s really no getting around it. Sure, sometimes I’m polite or diplomatic, but still, in general, a pain in the ass.

 

When Night Shade Books was in the process of commissioning the cover art for Veil of the Deserters, they told me they wanted the scene to be dynamic, a contrast to the moody, atmospheric cover for Scourge of the Betrayer. And they asked me for suggestions about what might appear.

 

Mistakes were made.

 

I wasn’t expecting to be consulted a whole lot in the design process, or even at all really, maybe just given the chance to offer some token feedback after the roughs for the piece were done. So I really appreciated the chance to weigh in, and figured I better make the most of it. While I have wasted many an opportunity in my life, I wanted to be sure to make the most of this one, recognizing that it was unusual and might not come around very often. So while the publisher probably only wanted a quick thumbnail synopsis of an action scene from me, I probably convinced them never to solicit again because I supplied extensive (and I mean voluminous, ridiculously specific, and probably gratuitous) thoughts, suggestions, and reference material to illustrate what I was hoping to see. In short, I was a ridonkulous pain in the ass.

 

I always wanted the Bloodsounder’s Arc series to be fantasy with an almost historical fiction feel to it, especially as far as the arms, armor, and combat were concerned, which I wanted to be realistic and practical. Armor was really expensive stuff, and while there are plenty of instances where classical, medieval, or Renaissance-era combatants were poorly armed or wore whatever they could pillage or scrounge together after bashing someone else in the head, many elite combatants—cataphracts, Varangian guard, fyrdmen, Hospitallers, etc.—wore the best they could afford. Because armor, by and large, worked. It didn’t make you indestructible or even necessarily a tank on the battlefield, but it sure as hell beat a loin cloth or chainmail bikini. And the Veil cover art seemed an ideal place to reflect and capture what I was going for.

 

In my head, I always imagined the Syldoon armament being closer to Mamluke or Ottoman in style than anything Western European, with a lot of scale armor and lamellar, sometimes worn in conjunction with mail, sometimes standalone. The Syldoon are a standing army, and considered the preeminent soldiers in the land. So they ain’t wearing potato sacks. Since Braylar was going to be on the cover, I gave Michael C. Hayes (Mr. Artist Man) plenty of visuals that would sync up with the scene I had in mind from the book: A mail byrnie. . .

 

 

. .  . with a lamellar cuirass over the top. . .

 

 

 

. . . a helm with an aventail drape covering the face. . .

 


I also gave some pics of reenactors and western martial arts groups in the middle of sparring, showing how flexible and fluid a combatant could be, presuming the armor was tailored to him/her. That whole tired myth of a knight being overburdened and awkward, or worse, as helpless as an overturned turtle if he got knocked off his horse—had no place here. I wanted the mail to ripple and flow and shift the way it does in reality. Sinuous, snakey goodness. I wanted the combatants to have range of motion, and appear competent and deadly rather than restricted and clumsy. 

 

I also offered some pics of a bronze Scandinavian mace as inspiration for the Deserter God flail heads—I wanted the faces to be tormented or filled with rage, and essentially blind, since they have a ring of spikes where eyes would ordinarily be. Here’s a sketch of one such head.

 

 

It looks a little Bart Simpsonish, so I asked the artist to not only remove the eyes and add the spikes, but to make the faces intimidating, and as you can see on the cover above, they have attitude in spades.  

The Brunesman Braylar is fighting is armored more like a mid-14th century knight or sergeant. Again, I bombarded poor Michael with reference material. A coat of plates over a hauberk, spaulders on the shoulders, elbow cops, steel vambraces and gauntlets, and a bascinet-style helm.

 

 

And Braylar’s sister, Soffjian, is more unusual. She is a war Memoridon—something of a mage or psionicist, but armored enough to be in the mix if she needs to defend herself physically. Given her role, I wanted to visually differentiate her—I didn’t want her quite as well-armored as the other two on the cover, as she isn’t specifically a front line fighter, but I also wanted to avoid the chainmail bikini at all costs.  So in keeping with the less traditionally western European vibe, I gave some samples of Byzantine armor from various collections.

 

 

I know this still didn’t go quite far enough for some readers, who like to see their women combatants in full plate, but they can throw eggs at me rather than the artist. I probably should have specified that you’d need some clothing at the very east under a scale cuirass like that to prevent chafing, but otherwise, she appears pretty much as I hoped—wearing functional armor that would certainly help her out of a scrape, but not designed to wade into the front lines for any extended period of time. Her strength is the kickass memory magic she wields, though she does acquit herself really well in some fights in Veil–she is pretty badass, and has a nasty ranseur. . .   

 

 

Just in case the artist hadn’t thought I’d gone overboard, I even gave some samples from a Russian Olympic pole vaulter as inspiration for Soffjian’s look/expression/physique—muscular, but lean and athletic; attractive, but more haunting than inviting or seductive.     

 

 

Again, I assumed that after I compiled all these images and offered all these notes, the publisher or artist would nod, and then laugh and laugh as they disregarded all of it. But while Michael didn’t try to copy every single element, he caught exactly what I was going for and did a marvelous job (in my opinion anyway) or capturing the appearance and feel I was after, and then adding his own flourishes and wow factor. The level of detail, the movement, the energy of the cover art is pretty dang sweet.

 

And the designers who took the art and ran with it did a great job, too. Most of that work happened after Skyhorse took over the show, so I wasn’t sure how receptive they would be to a pain in the ass like me, but they also incorporated my notes as much as possible.

 

I know some writers end up really frustrated with their cover art or designs, so I feel pretty lucky that my publisher(s) not only invited me into the process, but didn’t immediately kick me out once it was clear I had a lot of ideas and suggestions, and that Michael did such a fantastic job using what I supplied and making it pop off the page.  

The Troglodyte Shuffle

I’ve had forgettable teachers. Some that were going through the motions, counting the days to retirement. Others were well-intentioned but just not really engaging or inspiring at all. I’ve also had a few who were memorable but for being awful—professors who were so invested in their own publishing efforts they used the same syllabus ten years running with nary a change and taught completely by rote, or worse, teachers who seemed to detest their lot in life, their students, their classroom.

But I’ve also been lucky to have a number of teachers at various levels who had a profound impact on my life, who pushed me, made me uncomfortable, demanded things of me, made me accountable, brought out my best even when I seemed intent on stopping them. And in almost every case, it was because they not only cared or encouraged, but because they called me out on my shit. And no one did this in such spectacular, verbose, vicious, and still humane fashion as Robin Metz, a literature and creative writing professor at Knox College.

I’d taken a couple of fiction workshops with Robin, and he lived up to his reputation—an amazing professor who talked three feet above almost everyone’s head, the sort of teacher who delights in being the brightest guy in most every room and never dumbs down his vocabulary or presentation, but just expects you will either try to keep pace or fall behind. Robin was also my advisor, and I considered him my mentor. Which makes this next bit unconscionable.

It was my sophomore year, and I was taking another fiction workshop. These classes met once a week, often for a grueling four or five hour session. And since we were on the trimester system at Knox and it only met ten times, Robin made it clear that you shouldn’t miss a class unless you were dead or dying. Or Jeff Salyards. Who, for reasons not entirely clear, decided to be a total assclown that semester in all his classes, even the one in his major taught by his mentor, and who also had a massive ego, figuring he could coast, pull all-nighters, and still do just fine, thank you very much. That was my usual m.o., but I was in overdrive that trimester. Or underdrive.

I missed three fiction workshops out of ten. And didn’t have a legitimate excuse for a single one. Not even an illegitimate excuse. Well, unless drinking counts.

But wait. I’m only getting started. Each student would have at least two stories workshopped in class, preferably three, then revise everything significantly and turn in a portfolio of no less than 35 pages at the end of the trimester. I only submitted one story early on, and it was half-hearted at best and it got lambasted, deservedly so. I don’t even remember what it was about. And I missed another class when I was supposed to turn in my second story, and kept making excuses the remainder of the semester for why that never happened. Already on a roll, I decided to skip the last class. Which, coincidentally, was also when Robin changed the date when the portfolio was due, moving it up several days.

Finally, it was finals week and time to polish my “portfolio,” which so far consisted of one story that was barely salvageable if I had interest in trying, which I didn’t, and half of another story I’d started but never mustered the enthusiasm to finish. I was wandering around campus, thinking about what to do, or Pop Tarts or something, when I bumped into Kris Choma and Mike Smith, two other writers in the class. Mike asked me how my portfolio was coming along.

I replied, “Not so hot. But at least I have a few more days.”

They looked at each other, then back to me. “What are you talking about? It’s due tomorrow. Oh, wait, you missed the last class, didn’t you. . .?”

After several minutes of manic laughter and falling into a bush, I sprinted to the library and got started—I had about 30 hours to put together 35 pages. But instead or buckling down and making something of the crappy raw material I had, I decided I was going to go in a completely different direction and write and submit the first few chapters of a science fiction novel as my portfolio. That’s what I wanted to write all along, but Robin had dissuaded me.

I wrote like mad, but being sleep-deprived, slap-happy, and under the gun, when I struggled with some character names I decided to go with “Laro Xes” and “Repus Nam” (go backwards, word by word, yep, you have it—genius. . . sheer. . . genius). I also included gratuitous sex scenes just for kicks. The chapters ended up being 33 pages rather than 35, but I was out of time. After running into some problems in the computer lab printing it, I raced across campus and found Robin’s office locked tight (I was an hour or two late). Pages in hand, I continued running across town, but he wasn’t home, so I dropped the package in his mailbox, dusted my hands off, and congratulated myself.

So, to recap: I missed about a third of the classes; only submitted one story for workshopping and it was atrocious; opted to write something completely brand new for the portfolio that Robin hadn’t seen before; chose science fiction, even though Robin was adamant that young writers should master the fundamentals before jumping into speculative fiction, anything postmodern, etc.; chose to hand in three chapters of a novel I just started instead of self-contained short stories; cackled at my perverse and ridiculous character names; fell short of the minimum page requirement; and delivered the whole package of awesomeness a few hours after deadline.

I was pretty proud of myself. I felt like these crazy introductory chapters were top-shelf. After all, I’d worked really hard on them for more than an entire day straight.

So imagine my surprise when I got my grades next trimester and discovered I got a C in fiction writing. My major. From my advisor. I was shocked at first, and then ticked off. Yes, it was last minute, and incomplete, and late, but damn it, I’d worked my ass off and was genuinely happy with what I produced in that white hot burst of creativity. Those 33 pages were Grade-A.

I checked Robin’s office, but he wasn’t there, so I tried the Gizmo—a little snack shop café on campus. Sure enough, he was sitting alone at a table, all tweed and salt and pepper. I marched up to him, said hello. Robin smiled, no doubt imagining I was humbled and contrite, and ready to talk about how not to repeat the debacle of my last semester.

Instead, I help up my “report card” and said, “I don’t understand.”

“Oh?” he replied. “What can I help you with?”

“You gave me a C? Really?!”

Robin’s affable smile disappeared, bushy mustache precariously balanced over now tightly-drawn lips, his eyes narrowed and not friendly. “Sit down,” he said. It was not a request.

I did, suddenly feeling less sure of myself. And over the next two hours, I figured out why alarm bells were going off belatedly. I had stomped in there, indignant, ready to present my case why I deserved at least a B—at least!–and my disproportionate arrogance set Robin off and incurred his wrath. He ripped me a new one in such incensed, articulate, elliptical, hyperbolic, and brilliant language, I was absolutely stunned and could do nothing but sink lower in my chair, occasionally offering brief responses when required, but otherwise silent and paralyzed as I suddenly realized mistakes were made. It was like being berated by a furious combination of Abraham Lincoln, James Joyce, and Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t even understand everything he said, but there were anecdotes and allusions aplenty, literary history and tirades about frittered potential and ill-deserved smugness along the way, but the message he kept circling back to again and again was, in so many words: “I can’t believe what a colossal asshole you are.”

In the middle of this scalding scolding, Kris and Mike saw us and started heading over until I shook them off. Something about my defeated expression and troglodyte posture, and the veins pulsing in Robin’s head, told them that it was a really bad time, and they moved away. Fast.

I wish I had Robin’s speech on tape—it was absolutely amazing and mesmerizing, beautiful and horrible in equal measure, culminating with the one line I remember exactly: “You are a failure not only as a writer and an artist, but as a human being.”

OK, admittedly a bit ruthless. But my skull is like a lead bunker and he needed the big bombs to get through, as he tried to impress upon me just what a complete and utter jackass I’d been, disrespecting him, the other hardworking students in the class, and myself and my talent. Robin wanted me to see how I was squandering a wonderful opportunity and wasting everyone’s time, and if he had pulled his punches, I doubt I would have received the message. He could have failed me, and by all rights, should have. But as he said, the grade was immaterial. Something bigger, more lasting, and of greater consequence was at stake.

And it worked. I got it. I stumbled out of the Gizmo in a fugue, uncertain what had just happened, with no idea where to go, but having perfect clarity about one thing: I had been given a pass when I didn’t deserve one, but there wouldn’t be another. It was time to do better or change majors. Or maybe join clown school.

Robin’s impassioned indictment wasn’t completely transformative—I never became the best student on campus, and still occasionally imploded or suffered from delusions of grandeur, but not on that scale. And I had enough self-awareness after that to check and catch myself more often than not  (although David Foster Wallace gave me another well-deserved ass-kicking a few years later, so nobody’s perfect). But still, if Robin hadn’t taken the time to deliver that verbose and grand speech, to really try to get my attention and impart something, I probably would have bobbed along through the rest of my college years, maybe beyond, failing to realize that writing is a craft and requires dedication, commitment, and most of all, work. Lots of work.

At the end of the day, talent only gets you so far and you can only play the potential card a limited time. You have to sit your ass in the seat and write, and you have to develop some kind of apparatus for critiquing your own writing. But most of all you have to work hard at it. Craft doesn’t happen on its own or through wishful thinking.

Robin taught me that. I need a refresher now and then, but he helped instill that in me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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