Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: Rabbit

Rabbit: Chasing Beth Rider is the story of the famous novelist Beth Rider, author of vampire books and a Christian, who finds herself being pursued by the Rakum, an ancient order of vampires. Labelled a "Rabbit," a marked target, by an Elder, she is hunted by all Rakum to be tortured again and again because her books have started causing Rakum to leave the fold in search of a better way.

When some of the vampires try and protect her, she finds herself surrounded by conflict as the power struggle rages around her. As the conflict grows, Beth finds her faith a pillar of strength in the midst of it and soon her strength inspires those around her. They began asking questions and seeking answers they'd never thought about before. The "virus" sweeping through the Rakum, so feared by Jack Dawn, Beth and Michael's nemesis, begans spreading all the more, until the final confrontation with the Rakum Fathers and Beth's God.

I have to admit, when Ellen first described her book, I was skeptical. I had no concept of how Christianity and Vampires could be in the same book. Other than a vampire hunter priest, it just didn't make sense to me. And I also have to say the book had a slow start. Despite the short chapters and moving between characters, it didn't really hook me until 40 pages in when the back story of one of the supporting characters just touched me. After that I devoured the book rapidly, page after page.

First novels are tricky, especially then they are self-published, which is becoming more and more common. But Maze avoids most of the pitfalls. There are some missed words, such as "to" for "too" and such, but even novels from the major print houses let those slip through sometimes. For me the novel's major weaknesses were two holes in character motivations. First, with Michael seeming to flip over Beth because she's a pretty girl and looks too nice to be an enemy of the Rakum. Given the risks and potential costs for him, I expected a stronger reasoning. The second involved Beth herself, whose faith is so solid and even that she seems to hardly fear the events unfolding around her. In my experience, even strong, devoted Christians would have moments of fear and questioning under such circumstances, but Beth never seems to. Additionally, faced with the possibility of extraterrestrials at one point, she finds them hard to believe while fully accepting the vampires and other craziness consuming her days.

These are small issues however when the book sweeps you away. Maze does an amazing job with pacing, keeping things moving at a lightning pace in a way that catches you up and takes you along for the ride. The plot continues unfolding with various complications that raise the stakes as the book races toward the inevitable confrontation between the Rakum and Beth's God.

A powerful first novel, I am surprised a mainstream house has yet to snatch this up. It may be because of the present competitive environment, but I have no doubt that as this book keeps growing in popularity, they will take notice. I have the pleasure of proofing/editing the sequel next month, and if it's this good, the series can only become more popular.

Whether you're a vampire story fan or reticent as I was, I highly recommend this book from an exciting new talent.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ruminations on Writer's Block, Job Hunting Scams and More

For some reason, it's been like pulling teeth to get myself to sit down and write lately. I've managed to write a few scenes for the fantasy novel. I managed to write an outline for a new scifi novel I'm excited to start. But it's been two months now I've been trying to finish this first draft, and the lay off just seemed to tip the scales of motivation to the "none at all" status.

I finally decided to force myself to start typing in the scenes I'd hand written. One advantage of that is I end up with a second draft of those scenes in the manuscript, because I revise as I go. Doesn't mean I won't edit and revise them later, of course, but it does tend to make them stronger as a base. Another advantage in this case was getting a vision for the rest of the chapter which allowed me to write rough summaries of the scenes needed. This won't be the last chapter. I envision two or three more, but if I can get past this one it will definitely be a step in the right direction.

The normal way I get past writer's block is to keep multiple projects going at one time. If I get stuck on one, I switch to another. I also give myself permission to write crap every now and then. (It's not really avoidable so I might as well admit it.) This multiple project approach has really been great for me. I have yet to get stuck on two projects at the same time. I'm not stuck lately, I'm just unmotivated/uninspired. It's hard not to be in the present job market. Looking for a job is less fun than ever. The competition is fierce and companies have the upper hand.

There's also the lovely scams like the one where they recruit you to process client payments for a ridiculous amount of money, promising you earn this by only working 2-3 hours a day. They even go so far as to set up fake, fancy corporate websites with management profiles, etc. This a major scam though. It's called a "money mule fraud" and the email reads something like this:

My name is Russell Born and I represent NEBS Group Company.

This letter confirms that the resume that you submitted to CareerBuilder.com has been duly processed by our HR department, and your skills meet our basic requirements for the Payment Processing vacancy.

NEBS Group Inc. is a world-renowned company founded and based in the USA, which deals with IT services, matching the needs of the market with the best employees available worldwide.

Payment Processing Agent position is:
- Part-time (on average 2-3 hours a day (Monday through Friday).
- Work at home (all communication is online).

What do you need? Internet access and e-mail.

This position is offered on a probationary period basis for a period of one month. You will receive training and online support while working and being paid.

Salary for the training period is $2300/month. In addition you will be receiving 8% commission from every payment which you receive from a customer and successfully process. Total income, given the current volume of clients, will be up to $4,500 per month.

After the first 30 days the base salary will be increased up to $3,000 per month plus 8% commission, so there is significant earning potential if you are willing to work with diligence and efficiency.

You may ask for additional hours after your probationary period, when you have earned a full-time position.

If you are interested in our offer and would like to learn more about the Payment Processing Agent position, please, send the form below to hr.nebs.group.russell@gmail.com
NOTE: This is not a sales position.

Our representative will contact you within 24 hours.

++++++++FORM++++++++FORM+++++++++++
First name:_____________________
Last name:___________________________
Country of residence:__________________
Contact phone:______________________
Preferred call time:_______________________
++++++++FORM++++++++FORM+++++++++++

We have found your resume at www.careerbuilder.com. This letter confirms that your resume has been duly processed and your skills meet our basic requirements for the Payment Processing Agent vacancy.

Best regards,

Russell Born
NEBS Group Inc.


The company name, of course, changes monthly as does the website, but these guys actually expect you to use your own checking account to process customer checks, only they'll disappear after you pay for shipments, etc. and never pay you. Don't fall for this. Providing them with your info and bank accounts may just promote further fraud.

It's a scary world out there, no wonder I'm fighting depression with this job hunt. Who can you trust? Daily I get offers for free resume evaluations, and they always say that I have a weak resume and need their services. In fact, the resume I used an online specialty site template to help me design, doesn't meet their standards. They, of course, can fix it for the bargain price of several hundred dollars. Like someone selling a service is even objective, right?

Anyway, such are the joys of present life for me. For what it's worth...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thoughts on Characterization and Sin

"No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means -- the only complete realist." CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

One of the reasons I write my characters the way I do is my belief in the depravity of man, which Lewis explains well in the quote above. It's fun to think we make choices to do bad or good, but the truth is, I think our sinful nature is far more powerful than that. I know there are times I did/do things I never thought I'd do and, in fact, had planned not to up until the very minute they occurred. If my free will is dominant, how can this be? The Scriptures tell us that even when we try to do good, we fail. The Apostle Paul writes:

"For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Romans 7:19-24

This war inside us is a common factor in the character development arcs of fiction, whether the writer shares my belief or not. People are complicated creatures and I have seen far too many books by authors who either don't believe this, don't know how to write it or somehow can't bear to represent it and thus present cardboard, watered down, unrealistic characters instead. This is not a problem restricted to Christian fiction, but I have to say it is far too prevalent there. Books like that just don't ring true for me. In fact, they turn me off, so I won't write characters that way. I just can't.

In my fiction, bad guys are bad and good guys are conflicted. Beyond that, even the bad guys have some good qualities (most of them anyway) and the good guys have their bad sides. Because I want my fiction to be fit for the 12-year-old kids who are just discovering speculative fiction at the same age I did, and because of my faith beliefs, I don't write sex scenes or foul language and I keep the violence focused on only what's required by the story. But that also doesn't mean my characters can't be realistic. When a character curses, I just write "Bob cursed" and let the reader fill in the blank. We all have our favorite curse words anyway, don't we (be honest)? And so, those would pop into our mind when we read that. Reading fiction is supposed to be interactive. That's why over describing and telling are discouraged. The more the readers contribute from their own imaginations, the better their reading experience will be.

Besides, who can related to perfect characters? Do heroes need to express ideals we aspire to? Of course. Otherwise, they won't be heroes because heroes are people we admire and want to emulate. But even heroes have imperfections and if we don't write those into our stories, they won't seem like real people.

Anyway, this is how I approach character. I am sure other writers have different thoughts on it and even different motivations but I hope most of us end up in the same place, because realistic, conflicted, imperfect characters are a lot more interesting to read about. For what it's worth...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Goodreads

Okay, now that I've gotten my political prosletyzing out of the way for the week, on to more writerly related matters. While my lack of focus in general due to my work situation has kept me from writing much lately, it hasn't kept me from reading, and for reading I love Good Reads as a tracking system. Www.goodreads.com has a list of any book you can think of, links to other readers, reviews, ratings, and bookshelf categories including read, to read, currently reading. You can even update the page you're on at the time for each book you've listed as "currently reading." Best of all, you can win free books. I've won two so far and I joined in April.

Other than the blog, I post all my reviews there, and I then link them to twitter and facebook. I also link this blog there, have my bio and a link to my book. I have interacted with a lot of struggling authors like myself there as well as publishers and more successful writers. It's a great new social networking community focused around bibliophiles, and I highly recommend it. I have gone back and found books I read as a child and rated and reviewed them. It has reminded me of books long forgotten and reminded me of books I always meant to read and hadn't. They're all listed there and what a great way to keep track of a reading list.

If you like books as much as I do, I highly recommend it. Now if I can only find a site like goodwriting to keep me going on that...

For what it's worth...

Friday, June 18, 2010

National Monuments Unsafe in Arizona because of border crossing drug mules

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/06/18/federal-lands-arizona-travel-warnings-place/

For all those who still say the Arizona law is discriminatory, I hope you read my earlier post showing how the law matches federal law. Here is a link to the kind of problems people on the border deal with. We have them here, too. Obama loves to blame but not to actually change anything. This is all about political capital not about what's right, not about the law. The lawsuit is just posturing and we should all be disgusted the President is wasting our government's time on this instead of actually making laws to fix it. He could do the same with the BP spill, but he's too busy blaming careless BP. I thought we elected him to get things done? So far he's not living up to it.

Okay, that's the rant for today. I feel better having gotten that off my chest. For what it's worth...

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup

One of the things I picked up on my travels is an interest in soccer. While little appreciated in most of the US, outside the US, soccer is THE biggest game in the world. Populations live and die with the successes and failures of their team. I started collecting soccer jerseys on my travels and continue to, which is why people often see me wearing them. They are certainly the least expensive of jerseys compare to other sports, and I find them quite comfortable especially in the hot climate where I live on the US-Mexico Border.

Soccer can challenge American's expectations for sports because of its' pace. While the players move fast and the ball changes hands a lot, the scores tend to remain low. Often games conclude with only 1 or 2 goals. On rare occasions, such as the World Cup Germany game against Australia, you might see 4 goals. For Americans used to basket ball scores in the 70s or higher, football scores in the 30s, baseball scores as high as the teens, this doesn't evoke much excitement.

Another issue is often the name. While we call it soccer, the rest of the world calls it football. American football, the sport we associate with the word, is quite popular with a lot of physical action. And sometimes, Americans seem to resent the fact that another sport would share the name of their favorite. But soccer seems to fit the term better since the game is played 90% with the foot as opposed to American football where hands, arms, etc. are used often.

It may surprise many Americans to learn, however, that the World Cup is one of the most popular sporting events in the world. Far more popular than our Super Bowl and World Series, and often even more than the Olympics. In my wife's country, Brazil, people actually commit suicide when the national team loses. Players' lives are threatened, their family members kidnapped. Some have even been killed. In other countries, these things happen as well, and you see news reports of riots or fighting at games. I know of certain places I have been warned not to wear jerseys of anyone but the local team to avoid being attacked.

Football (soccer) is serious business for these people, and they will never understand our lack of interest.

One of the few advantages of being laid off right now is that we have been able to watch almost all of the games. It's fun to learn names of players we weren't familiar with, to see countries like Ghana succeed against bigger countries. It's fun to see how many countries are represented, and to watch the enthusiasm of the fans and commentators. Footbal is truly a cross cultural game. It can bring the world together, such as the World Cup, and tear it apart when teams defeat each other. Especially when sporting rivalries match political ones.

Don't get me wrong, I still root for the Americans. I am patriotic after all. But I also root for the underdog teams, like Ghana, who somehow have made it onto the world stage and earned a level of respect they and their countries rarely see. It's a truly magical success story, and I'm so glad God blesses them with these opportunities.

If you want to see what you're missing, tune into ABC or ESPN and check it out. You may find you've found a new appreciation, maybe even a new passion. In any case, you'll certainly know more about the world around you.

For what it's worth...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Repaying The Blessing

Okay, well, it's been far too long since I even logged on here, and I'll admit, my goal of blogging here twice a week has been overshadowed by the judge search I am forced to undertake since being laid off with no warning. It's funny how some people will lay you off or fire you and want to act like it's just business and everything should be friendly and fun despite that. Maybe if I understand the foggy reasons, but if I ask what I did wrong and you can't tell me, then I think we're not going to be talking very friendly from that point on. Especially when my wife and I are struggling to stay financially afloat after some medical treatment last year messed up our credit (it's what happens when you put medical bills first and credit cards second). They knew our finances were on the edge and yet they act like firing/laying me off is no big deal. For them maybe, for me, it was a blindside of the cruelest kind.

We are not bankrupt. At least not yet. And as long as I find employment again by the time severance runs out and can make comparable wages, we'll be just fine, but I must admit that forcing me to sign a termination agreement to get severance and being unable to justify my dismissal don't make me a fan. Of course, I'm forbidden by said termination agreement to say anything bad about the company. I certainly won't have anything nice to say, so I suppose I won't mention them by name at all.

In any case, that's why my writing muse has been a little cloudy lately. I am thankful for the encouragement of friends like Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, and others locally who have taken the time to encourage me with a few words. Lake and Scholes are writer friends I met online. We've never met face to face despite having many conversations through PM and chat and FB comments, yet they took the time to encourage and support me at a most difficult time. And they and others who did speak, came up with the right words, too. Those words mean more than people may realize. Words of sympathy but encouragement. Nothing patronizing. Nothing condescending. Some people just don't know what to say to another in times like these. Thankfully, in my life, those people mostly found the strength to just not say anything at all. But for those who did say something, what they said was well chosen and well received.

I appreciate that support and friendship. And although I wish them no ill will, I hope I can be as gracious with my words in the future when they or others hit rough spots as I am now. If so, I will know I've repaid the blessing.

For what it's worth...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reviews: A Canticle For Leibowitz/Death Of A Starship

I am behind on my blogging, so apologies to anyone who actually follows this. I just finished two great science fiction books and thought I'd review them here back to back.

The first is the all-time classic "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller. I've heard about this book for years but never read it. The other day I found a copy in the used book store and decided it was time. What a delightful read.

A post-apocalyptic novel written in 1959, "Canticle" is the story of monks who are trying to preserve relics of the past in a rebuilding culture set back to the Dark Ages after a nuclear holocaust. They live in a time where things like "electricity" and "machines that fly" amaze them to think about. A time when such ideas seem like distant fantasy.

But as their culture evolves and we experience it through different generations of monks at the monastery, a number of old forgotten inventions begin to reoccur and bring new challenges and havoc to their lives.

A great examination of faith and belief mixed with interpersonal interactions and history, I found this a compelling read full of rich characters and settings and a fascinating plot.

I can see why it's so revered and plan to read it again in a few years so I can enjoy it all over again.

The second book I'll review is Jay Lake's "Death of A Starship." It's a book Jay and I have discussed when talking about faith in fiction and Christian characters appearing in scifi, and I finally managed to bump it up the queue and read it. I'm so glad I did.

I loved this book. A fast read, it's filled with action and focuses on three well drawn lead characters. Jay Lake went to considerable effort to make them realistic, even consulting priests to make sure his portrayal of Father Menard was as accurate as he could make it.

The story of an investigation into the disappearance of a major battleship, the last of a type decommissioned years before in a quest for peace, a ship so powerful it could blow away half the current fleet by itself, Menard, a ship's mechanic, and Navy assassins find themselves on colliding trajectories which take them not only toward each other, but the ship and the long suspected aliens who caused it to crash. Menard's Xenic Bureau of the church has long been seeking proof of their existence, and Menard finds their infiltration is far deeper than he'd ever suspected.

Fast-paced, tightly written, a page turner. I almost couldn't put it down. I read 92 pages the first day and split the other pages only due to busyness in my schedule.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes scifi and especially solid space opera.

Both highly recommended and enjoyable. For what it's worth...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

ConQuest 41

I got back yesterday from my first ever Science Fiction/Fantasy Convention, ConQuest 41, in Kansas City, Missouri. There are many reasons I've never attended a convention before. Most related to either money or the fact that I was uncomfortable with someone dressing up as an alien and expecting me to call them "Zorg" all weekend. Happy to report this convention was not only economical, but "Zorg" free. There were people in costumes (mostly steampunk per the theme), but most were dressed in ordinary clothes just like me.

The convention gave me a taste of how beneficial such experiences can be. The first panel, helpfully, was an introduction to conventions in general with suggestions for how to make the most of them and a breakdown of the various types and what kind of attendees they cater to.

There were typically panels from 10 am to 5 pm in three rooms simultaneously while readings occurred in another room. There was Live Action Role Play gaming and video gaming as well as writer's workshop activities.

I focused mostly on panels catering to writers which covered such topics as how to schmooze, the science in science fiction, what is steampunk, the changing face of publishing, and other related topics. Unfortunately, I only saw one reading featuring the authors of Hadley Rille Books. I enjoyed it and would have liked to see more, but my goal of building relationships got in the way as the people I needed to connect with always seemed to be available during the readings I wanted to attend.

I did get critiques of 50 pages each of my two novels which were helpful in thinking about how to make them better, and I also entered the "Story In A Box" writing contest which required you to draw from a bag your first line, setting, a character, a prop, and timeframe. My story required a steam powered vehicle, swimming in dangerous waters, and a bad angel in the future. It's included below this post.

I did meet some publishers, writers and others. I gave out 25 teaser copies of my new book, and picked up some other books I have been looking for at the various dealers. I also got a number of autographs as well as photos with George RR Martin, Toni Weiskopf and Michael Swanwick.

I definitely enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to others. I can't wait to do it again.

Here's my story from "Story In A Bag."


Floater


The stars went out one by one leaving Bia alone in the dark. Damn him! She knew she shouldn’t have listened. She knew and yet the same as always, his smile had been all it took to convince her to ignore her reservations and climb aboard his steam ship.

Another relic from the past to feed Jax’s endless fascination with history. He’d spent two years researching the parts needed to fix it and making them in his shop. “A spacecraft mechanic can fix anything,” he’d bragged.

She remembered the glow in his eyes when he told her he’d finished. A working steam ship, and he wanted her to go with him on its’ maiden voyage. The thing didn’t even look seaworthy to her. Besides, no one sailed on actual water anymore. It was unnecessary with all the abundant shuttle craft and air taxis. They could get you across any body of water in minutes, so why bother? It was the twenty-third century, for heaven’s sake. She cursed Jax again for his stupid obsession with the past.

To make matters worse, when it went down, he hadn’t even stayed with her.

“A captain goes down with his ship,” he’d said. Some stupid quote he’d read in an old story or fable. She hadn’t really thought he meant it. Her last memory of him was Jax kneeling on the deck, hands deep inside a compartment, struggling to figure out what went wrong and repair it. All he cared about was saving his ship.

“What about me?!” she screamed to the stars. “If you loved me so much, why wasn’t I more important than that stupid ship?!” She sighed.

No one could hear her anyway. At least, no one who could answer. Besides, she was in dangerous waters full of all sorts of creatures she didn’t even want to think about. What if one of them heard her? No more yelling, Bia. You’ve got to not panic and stay in control if you want to live. And she desperately wanted to live. Never had she been so grateful for her mom’s insistence that she learn how to swim.

“No one swims, Mom!” she’d protested. “I don’t even like water!”

“Swimming used to be very popular,” her Mom insisted. “Remember Grandma’s stories? You never know when a skill like that might come in handy.”

Her mother was right again, damn it. She hated when that happened. She’d tried swimming for a while after the ship had disappeared, but she couldn’t continue for long. Her arms weren’t used to it. I have wimpy arms, crying out at me with every stroke! She blamed her Mom for that, too.

“Men are the ones who do the heavy labor, Bia,” her Mom’s voice echoed through her mind with such clarity that she almost expected to see her mother floating nearby. “Women take care of the softer, finer things.”

So she’d grown up shirking physical exercise as something for men. With four bothers and a father, she hadn’t needed to do it, and after she’d grown, she’d had boyfriends and friends to take care of those things requiring physical endurance.

I fell into a stereotype! My God! I hate stereotypes! Too lazy to live by my own principles! Maybe I deserve to drown out here.

A white glow floated across the water to the east, drawing her eyes to it. It seemed to float along across the water. She watched it approaching until a face appeared, and then a long white gown. Were those actually wings she was seeing? She hated clich├ęs even more than stereotypes. The angel-like creature stopped above her and looked down, smiling.

“Hello, Bia,” he said in a soft, tenor voice.

“What are you, some kind of angel?”

He laughed. “Something like that, I suppose. I’m whatever you want me to be. I appear differently to each person who meets me.”

“What are you doing here? I don’t exactly have time for light conversation.”

He laughed again. “Keeping your sense of humor, even at a time like this. That’s a good sign.”

She frowned. “Look, either help me or go away.”

“What if I told you your swimming is a waste of time?” he said. “The shore’s too far away. You’ll never make it. Not in the shape you’re in.”

She cursed to herself and sneered. “Is that why you came here? To tell me something I’d already guessed?” She started swimming again, hoping to get away from him, but he floated along above her, never losing the position he’d held when he first arrived.

“That’s it. Wear yourself out. It will make it easier when you go down,” he said.

“Look, I thought angels were supposed to help humans, but you’re not helping at all,” she said between breaths as she swam. “So shut up.”

The angel chuckled and shrugged. “I’m not that kind of angel.”

“What are you then? A bad angel?”

“Perhaps to some.”

She ignored him and kept swimming. “Fine. Enjoy your last moments, Bia.” He watched her a moment, then disappeared into the blackness as if he’d never been there.

Her arms were already tired. Maybe he was right, she couldn’t even see the shore from here. “Jax, you idiot! Why do I always choose the losers?”

She realized she might die out here, but if she was going to go, it was going to be her way. I will not just lie her and drown, damn it! The thought made her swim harder, stroke after stroke, doing her best to ignore the emptiness of the horizon in front of her.

After she’d struggled on for what seemed like an hour, another white glow appeared on the horizon, moving toward her. Not another angel. God’s mocking me, just like those religious fanatics at university did. Okay, so I have no faith in fairy tales. It’s my right. Freedom of choice and all that.

The white glow moved faster than the bad angel had. Within moments, it was upon her. A shuttle craft? She blinked. Her eyes weren’t lying. She stopped swimming and began waving frantically. “Over here! Please God, let them see me!”

God? Why am I calling him? Stupid expression! Another thing she’d gotten from her mother.

She spun in the water as she continued to wave. I don’t think they saw me. But then the shuttle turned, moving back toward her. She saw the pilot’s eyes as he leaned toward the window and peered down at her with surprise. Yes! He saw me!

The shuttle turned again and hovered over her. She saw the door slide open and the ladder drop. Even angels can be wrong? She laughed. I can’t wait to tell my mother.