Category Archives: Writing

The Magic of Words

Richard Powell (1908-1999) is one of my favorite authors. PowellHe grew up in Philadelphia, started as a newspaper reporter, then went into advertising, before becoming a popular novelist in the 1950s and 60s.  He also taught creative writing at Syracuse University.

Powell’s most famous novel was The Philadelphian.  In 1959 it was turned into a movie, “The Young Philadelphians,” starring Paul Newman.  My favorite was his last book, Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1970) about the Trojan War epic.  If you like ancient history, it’s a classic, not only for the story, but for Powell’s brilliant writing style.

PhiladelphianOver the years I’ve hunted down and read all 20 of Powell’s novels.  When I was teaching high school English I was delighted to learn that he also wrote several magazine articles for The Writer magazine. Reprinted below is my favorite among his articles.  It provides some nice advice for novices and pros alike…


The Magic of Words
Richard Powell
The Writer (October 1967)

Of course it will never come true, but I keep having this dream in which the President of the United States sends a message to Congress demanding civil rights for words.  In it, he points out how badly words are abused, and calls attention to the fact that our language is a national resource that is being mistreated even more than our rivers and air.  It is only a dream, however, and I do not look for the War on Poverty to be extended to the spoken and written word.

The trouble is that the poverty pockets in this case are too hard to get at, because they are not in city slums or Appalachia, but inside people’s heads.  People are willing to use their brains on many difficult problems—avoiding income taxes, beating the horses, sneaking an extra coffee break—but apparently most of them couldn’t care less about the problem of how to use words clearly and dramatically.  Among these people are scientists, educators, lawyers, government officials, doctors, businessmen and housewives.

Is it possible that there are also writers among them?  Yes, friends, there are writers among them.

Impact

Let us skip the problem of writers who do not know how to use words clearly.  Nobody can help them, and perhaps the published writers among them do not even want to be helped, because a murky style of writing may sometimes win critical acclaim.  Let us, instead, take up the problem of writers who use words clearly, but with no more impact than that of a wet dishrag dropped on the floor.  There are many such writers.  They may do a fine job of plotting and characterization, but they handle words like a cook ladling out alphabet soup: the first collection of letters that comes out of the pot goes into the dish.  Here is an example of alphabet-soup writing:

  • I got up this morning as happy as a lark and, as usual, ate breakfast like a horse.  I sat at my desk and worked like a mule all day and ended dog-tired.

I have given you a lot of information about my day, have I not?  I have also given it clearly.  But how many people would be interested in hearing about my zoological day?  I have used words that bored you stiff and were as dull as dishwater, including the expressions I used in this sentence.  I have used old, worn-out groupings of words.  I have used words in a lazy, thoughtless way, picking up expressions once new and shiny, but now so overworked that they have no power to hook reader attention.  The sad thing about this is that there is a magic in words when they are used with a touch of imagination.  What I should have done, if I wanted anybody to pay attention to a very ordinary collection of facts, was to call on the magic of words.  Perhaps I might have written:

  • When I got up this morning I felt like the bubbles in champagne, and breakfast tasted as if I were just coming off a diet.  I spent the day beating a typewriter ribbon to rags, and ended up as tired as the clichés I was trying not to use.

Now I have dressed my dull facts in bright clothes, and so people might pay attention, I have thrown out my collection of zoological clichés and developed some new expressions.  A cliché is an expression that, when it was new, sketched a vivid picture for people.  The first man who used the expression ‘dog-tired’ no doubt impressed his audience; they would have pictured how a dog looks when he is panting and his tongue hangs out and he flops down.  But, with use, the term dog-tired lost its force.  Nobody who reads or hears it for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time gets a vivid picture from it.  It has become a cliché.  It is now merely a crutch for lame brains; it is a mental sleeping pill.  It is a way to avoid thinking.  There is no word magic in a cliché.

I don’t want to pretend that, when I developed some new expressions to replace the zoological clichés, I simply made a flourish and pulled them out of a hat.  In the first place, I wouldn’t pull them out of a hat, because that’s another cliché, perhaps invented soon after the first magician pulled the first rabbit out of the first hat.  New expressions do not come easily to me; my brain is lazy, too, and approaches the idea of work like a teenager asked to do the dishes.  But I have learned that if I play the harsh parent with my brain, it will go to work, even though grudgingly.  It took me an hour to work out those new expressions, and if I had spent two hours on them they would undoubtedly be better.  I don’t advise writers to spend an hour on every sentence they write, because they might never finish a story or article.  But, when you need to grab attention, you must spend time and thought on the job.

It is not difficult for a person of normal intelligence to write in a colorful and dramatic way.  One summer, several years ago, I taught a writing course at Syracuse University.  Included in the homework I assigned were some problems in colorful writing.  I explained to my students that one method of colorful writing is to describe Item A in terms of Item B: for example, describe a mountain as if it were a living creature.  (It could be an old lion crouched in the distance, or a vulture hovering over the valley.)  None of my students were professional writers, and none had previously known any tricks of colorful writing.  But, when given a method of doing it, they produced such examples as these:

  1. (Describe a young girl, at her first dance, in terms of another type of living thing.)  “Jane sat in the small gilt chair beside the dance floor, thin, angular, unmoving, eyes carefully blank, legs straight out before her like knobby stems.  She seemed as much a fixture as the potted palms.”
  2. (Describe a society matron in terms of another type of living things.)  Mrs. Cheyney was, he thought, like a faded rose, even to her hands with their thorns of fingernails.
  3. (And the same.)  “Mrs. Culpepper looked for her name in the society column, easer as a St. Bernard sniffing at a hydrant.”

 This is good writing.  It is professional.  Anybody who can do this on demand could have a successful career in some form of writing.  The trick of describing one thing in terms of another is much used by good writers.  Carl Sandburg wrote a complete poem by using this trick merely one time.  The poem contains six lines and twenty-one words, and has been reprinted in many anthologies of American poetry.  It is titled “The Fog,” and Sandburg describes the fog as if it were a cat.

Some years ago, in writing a story, I wanted to describe gulls flying, and I wrote of them in terms of ice skaters:  “Gulls figure-skating against the sky.”  This happens to stick in my memory because Reader’s Digest used my words on its “Picturesque Speech” page and paid me ten dollars, the first of many delightful checks from the magazine and Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club.  While writing this article I wanted to see if I had exhausted the ways of describing gulls in terms of something else, and I came up with these descriptions:

  • The gulls went tobogganing down the snowy clouds.
  • The gulls did a waltz in the ballroom of the sky.
  • High up, a gull wheeled and curved, writing a message against the blue paper of the air.

This experiment seems to hint that there may be as many ways of describing gulls in flight as there are gulls.

Mood and atmosphere

When does a writer use such colorful expressions?  Always?  No.  That might be like a steady diet of fruitcake.  Colorful writing is used to create a needed effect – perhaps of mood or atmosphere or character – and when the effect has been achieved, it is a waste of time to do it over and over.  Nor should colorful writing be used merely to show off.  It must contribute to achieving the writer’s purpose in his piece of fiction or article or poem or speech or whatever.  I would not use colorful words to describe the ringing of a telephone, unless I needed to create a certain mood; if the mood had already been crated, I would simply say that the telephone rang, and then get on to more vital things.  But if the call was going to be important and I had to get the reader in the right mood for it, I might write:

  • I reached for the ringing telephone as if getting my first lesson in snake charming.
  • The telephone bell echoed in my head like a dentist’s drill.
  • The telephone bell made a little apologetic murmur.
  • The telephone jingled pleasantly, like an old hurdy-gurdy.

Each of these sentences contributes to the establishment of a different mood or atmosphere.  They could not be used interchangeably.

The same method, of course, can be used in describing people.  In my latest novel, Don Quixote, U.S.A., I wanted to describe my hero’s physical appearance, and at the same time create a mood and tell something of his character.  This called for colorful writing and for the expenditure of several hours of mental sweat to produce two sentences. As I say, these things do not come easily to me; getting them out of my head is often like trying to shake the last dime out of a piggy bank.  After four hours, I had these two sentences:

  • Mine is not the grim, strong face of the typical Goodpasture.  Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood.

In those two sentences, I provided a good deal of information about my hero’s physical appearance, the family from which he came, and his character.  I doubt that it would have been interesting to readers if I had merely written:  “All of my family have strong, grim faces, but mine is rather weak and nondescript.”

Another way to write colorful language is to exaggerate to achieve an effect.  It is not very striking merely to write that somebody is thin.  If you want to create a dramatic effect, use exaggeration.  Draw a word picture of how that person is.  For example:

  • She was so thin she could have taken a bath in a fountain pen.
  • He was so thin he could have lurked behind a needle.
  • He as so thin he could have crawled through a pencil sharpener… and with a pencil in his pocket, too.

Effective parts of speech

In trying to make magic with words, it is wise to beware of the adjective.  Nouns are good words to use in sentences.  They are like bones, providing the needed skeleton.  Verbs are good words.  They are the muscles, providing the action.  But adjectives are in most cases merely the clothing or ornaments of a sentence, and it is easy to overdress a sentence.  Let me quote the beginning of a famous speech, and count the adjectives in it:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

How many adjectives in those opening lines of Mark Anthony’s speech?  Shakespeare didn’t use any.

So in trying to put magic into your words, don’t think that piling up adjectives will do the job.  One well-chosen adjective may be perfect, like a diamond ring on the hand of a pretty woman.  Too many adjectives may be like too many diamond rings; not only does the display seem crude, but also it may hide the fact that the woman has lovely fingers.

Words should be a source of never-ending mystery and delight to any writer.  All of us should be forever curious about how words were invented and evolved and what they used to mean and what they mean now.  Another term for a cliché is a hackneyed expression.  Think a moment about the word “hackneyed.”  Do you know how it originated?  Well, back in the days of horses and carriages, a horse that was kept for hire was called a hackney.  Such animals were overworked, and were often tired and slow and thin.  Somebody started applying the term to phrases that were also tired and slow and thin: hackneyed phrases.  When first used, the term was colorful and called up a picture in the reader’s mind.  But how good a picture does it evoke now?

Are you the sort of writer who can look up a word in the dictionary without ever being lured into looking up others?  Can you run across such words as “boycott” without digging out the sad tale of Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott?  Can you hear the term “halcyon days” without discovering the pleasant old Greek myth from which it come?  If you are not fascinated by words, I feel sorry for you, because you must find the use of them a dull and tiring job.  To make magic with words, a writer must know what they mean.  And, if he hopes to use words in a new and colorful way, he must be able to recognize the old drag ways in which they have been used.

Words are like Cinderella:  sad little drudges, wearing rags and dirtied by soot.  It is in the power of writers to play Fairy Godmother, and make those drudges into shining creatures.  Words can sing and dance, growl and roar, tiptoe and march.  They will do all these things for any writer who is willing to wave the magic wand of his imagination over them.

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Get your FREE copy of “With This Shield”

free
As promised, I want to inform readers that The Wandering King (Book 2:  With This Shield), will be available for free from July 21 through July 25.  This applies only to the ebook available through Amazon.

While I made The Wandering King (Book 1: Summer, Harvest, War), available pretty much everywhere, one of the things I’ve learned over the past two years is that Amazon is king when it comes to book distribution.  Therefore, I’ve decided to offer book 2 through Amazon only. This allows me to take part in their Kindle Select program which makes the book available to readers enrolled in Amazon Unlimited.

While these are not exact figures, here is a rough estimate of the ebook sales book 1 has received from the following booksellers:

Amazon:  2,000+
Barnes & Noble:   20
Apple iBookstore:  10
Kobo Books: 5
Smashwords:  2
Scribd, and all others:  1

These are all ebook sales.  One of the big surprises in writing The Wandering King is that hard copies of books are slowly going the way of the CD, videocassette and the poodle skirt.  In comparison, roughly 50 paperbacks have been purchased through Amazon, 3 through Barnes & Noble and 10 at my local booksellers.

Also impacting my decision is that book 1 received 50+ reviews on Amazon, 1 review on Barnes & Noble, and no reviews on any of the other online sites.  Although I would like to place book 2 in as many outlets as possible, it just doesn’t seem worth the time and effort.

My apologies to all those who own a Nook.  If there is a bright side, CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution has placed the paperback version of book 2 for sale at Barnes & Noble.  I am unsure whether or not they make it available on any of the other bookseller sites.

If you pickup a free copy of book 2 and enjoy what you read, would love to know about it.  Even better, post a review on Amazon.  Your comments have the power to contribute greatly to the success of the book.

Just to mention it, a paperback version is available for $15.95.  It pains me to have to offer the paperback of book 2 for $1 more than book 1, but unfortunately the additional 60 pages of text added to the price.

Most paperbacks today fall in the 13.95 to 17.95 range.  A 375-page novel costs an average of $16.95.  Book 2 is 444 pages long, so although $15.95 is high compared to the $3.99 cost of the ebook, hopefully readers still find the cost reasonable compared to other books.

Absolute Write or Wrong?

AWAs a reader and a writer I enjoy reading other author’s blogs.  By doing so, I pick up valuable advice, and you come across the current issues facing the independent writing community.   The big issue of the day is the Amazon v. Hatchette debate, but I’ll save my thoughts on that matter for another post.

One of the other issues I’ve seen cropping up is the controversy over the writers’ website, Absolute Write.  On their site they have an extremely well trafficked forum called the Water Cooler.

The site was created in 1999 by an admirable freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer (who left in 2007).  Absolute Write (AW) boasts 60,000 users, and averages 8,000 posts a week, all on issues dealing with writing and publishing.

Over the past few months I began noticing AW popping up in a lot of conversations.  Some people claimed to love it, that it provided them with assistance finding an agent, getting a query letter polished, or critiquing their writing—while other’s absolutely hated the site, even going so far as to say they’d been banned for speaking their minds or they’d been the victim of cyberbullying by the members there.

Not belonging to any writers’ forums, I decided to check out AW.  Please understand, I did not go to their site with an axe to grind or any pre-conceived agenda.  I’d seen people speak for and against the site and was simply curious as to the truth of the matter.  So I put on my journalist’s hat and decided to do a little field research.

I spent a week ‘lurking’ to see if the site looked worth joining.  What I found was a bit overwhelming, a touch of information overload.  There are eighty active boards in the forum covering a plethora of subjects; everything from dealing with rejection, writer’s block, grammar, research, publishing scams, novels, short stories, poetry, literary agents, publishers, freelancing, songwriting, script writing… their list of topical areas is extensive.  Whether you want to talk to other writers working on westerns or greeting cards, you’ll find a home for it on AW.

Most of the areas of the site are open to everyone, but a few require you to have a minimum number of posts or six months of time logged on the site to access.

There are so many topical areas on AW that I’m willing to bet that most users gravitate toward their areas of interest and hang out there.  To visit all of the boards and read all the new posts everyday would be virtually impossible.  The boards that I visited, while some of the threads were silly, for the most part the users were respectful, encouraging and supportive of one another.

After two weeks I decided to join, and was a bit surprised when it took them three days to ‘approve’ my registration.  Not that it truly mattered.  Not being approved simply meant I could not post anything.  There was plenty to read.  Each board had their stickies with instructions and there were a mountain of FAQs to peruse.

Once approved, there is a board for new members, so I created a thread there and introduced myself.   About a dozen people welcomed me aboard.  So far, so good.

Over the next week or so, on the various boards I visited, I began to notice a certain amount of negativity pervaded many of the conversations.  People were depressed because they were getting rejection letters, upset because they had too many ideas and didn’t know which one to work on, gridlocked by writer’s block, unable to write because they were dealing with ADD…

In an attempt to be helpful, I decided to create a thread on ‘Famous rejection stories,’ and shared about a half dozen stories about famous writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dan Brown and J.D. Salinger, who were rejected numerous times before ever getting published.  My thought in starting this thread was to try to encourage people by showing how all authors have to deal with rejection.  It’s something all writers share in common, even the famous ones.  And if you persevere, you just might get lucky like they did.

After creating the thread, someone posted a response saying that he’d heard God had been rejected numerous times before ever getting the Bible published.  Ha, ha.  Sarcastic, but not a personal attack.  Next someone posted a comment that they hated hearing that J.K. Rowling was only rejected 12 times before Harry Potter found a home.  They went on to say they’d been rejected 400 times.  Someone else picked up the idea and added that that J.K Rowling was a horrible example of a writer having a hard time getting published, that her experience was nothing compared to the pain and suffering the average AW writer experienced.  Oi.

At this point I commented that if the posters were having such a hard time dealing with rejection and getting published, why not try self publishing?

This is where my experience with AW went horribly awry and I began to understand why certain people accuse them of cyberbullying.  I was too new to the site to realize it, but I’d stumbled into one of AW’s pet peeve subject areas.  All I had to do was mention self publishing and a dozen people, most of whom had in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 15,000 posts on AW, jumped on me and began ripping me to shreds for daring to even suggest such a course of action.

The basic line of thinking expoused by the hard core AW members was, self publishing is for losers, self publishing is too hard, self publishing is too expensive, self published writers don’t get read… on and on.

In response, I posted that self publishing might be difficult or expensive for some, but if you know how to follow instructions it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t have to cost you a dime.  I went on to quote a recent research study by a group called Author’s Earnings that states 31% of the sales on Amazon are by self published authors and cited my sources.  You can find them here and here.  There are numerous articles in the media on the subject.

Unfortunately, it seems you cannot have a rational discussion on AW, not if you take up a position that goes against the convention wisdom of AW’s tenured elite.  Trying to back up what I was saying, merely caused more old timer’s to pile on.  It was as if I’d been thrown to the wolves, or perhaps more accurately, was being beaten by a bunch of old biddies using their canes and walkers.  People could see I only had made a couple of posts on their site, I was a noob.  You’d think someone, like a moderator, would have interceded and at least attempted to defend or rescue my bloody carcass, but nope.  I ended up at the bottom of a large pile without a voice raised in assistance or even in pity.

One person, with over 5,000 posts on AW, posted a novel length dissertation on the Author’s Earnings report claiming it was grossly inaccurate and that he and the other old time AW members had already concluded, self published authors never got read.  This line of thought was quickly supported by several other long time AW members.  They rather snidely told me that they’d disproved the Author’s Earnings report weeks ago.  Where had I been?  Living under a rock, no doubt.

I replied, asking as innocently as possible if the group had ever heard of Hugh Howey.  That got them howling.  I quickly learned that trying to argue or provide verifiable proof or evidence of what you are stating means nothing to the elite on AW, it only causes them to froth at the mouth.

Here I was trying to offer some simple information, stories about famous authors who had persevered and succeeded, with the goal of trying to dispel some of the negativism I saw on AW—and I was tar and feathered.

At that point, I threw in the towel and gave up posting anything additional.  I’d made a grand total of 12 posts on their site and felt like a group of vigilantes had run me off with pitchforks.

Do I see value to AW?  Yes.  Am I impressed by their long-standing members?  No.  I got the impression that they are an exclusive club, with a preset list of beliefs that you either subscribe to or they burn you at the stake.

Will I go back to their site?  For the past several days I’ve been licking my wounds, pondering that question.  If I do, it will be to read, not to share what I know.  What’s the point, when it appears their entrenched elite already know all the answers?

writing_jealousy

Beyond the Farthest Galaxy

PROM-006 - The spaceship Prometheus makes its way to a distant planet.

 

Beyond the Farthest Galaxy or The Search for Valhalla, are working titles for a science fiction novel that I would like to finish one day.  To share some of my writing with my readers, I am posting the first chapter below.

In truth, I am not a scientific person.  I’ve never been a big fan of Star Trek (I know, sacrilege) and thought the last three Star Wars movies were laughably awful.

That said, for years I’ve been tinkering with my own science fiction story.  What I like about the genre is that it’s so creative.  Like what Tolkien did with Middle Earth, it allows you to create your own world, your own creatures, planets, life forms, society, religion, etc.

The basis for the plot of Beyond the Farthest Galaxy is the classic Robert Lewis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.  No, my story is not a re-hash of Stevenson’s, I mention this only to give you a rough idea of the plot line for the story.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a pile of notes, character sketches and outlines for Beyond the Farthest Galaxy, but have not actually written much more than the first chapter.  I present it here to give people something to read.

Will be curious to hear what people think of Will and the planet Eden.

* * * * * *

1.  William Pendleton

Like two dancers moving together, Will and Rafe pulled their longbows to their ears.  The ox horn bows creaked as they took aim at a 5’ tall, two hundred pound, bipedal striped fox.

The striped fox had been named after a small animal native to a planet called Earth in the innermost systems.  They both had red fur, a long snout, pointy ears and sharp fangs, though from the pictures Will had seen of Earth’s fox, it was not as big and dangerous as the one he was looking at down the length of his stone-tipped arrow.   Their striped fox used its red fur and black stripes to blend in with the Oryo bushes that grew wild in the forests of Eden.  Many an early settler had gone for a leisurely stroll through what looked like beautiful gardens, only to have a striped fox leap out from hiding to tear out their throat.

“Now,” Rafe whispered and the two let loose their bow strings.  The arrows whistled through the air as they sped toward their target; Will’s red-fletched bolt striking the beast clean through the throat, a kill shot, while Rafe’s white-fletched shaft passed harmlessly through the Oryo bushes to thud into a tall Moroso tree.

As the beast fell, Rafe cursed under his breath.  Months ago, when Rafe had convinced Will to go hunting with him, it had been his idea to award their kills to whomever made the better shot.  Rafe had made this arrangement because he thought he had better aim, and it irritated him to learn that although his school friend couldn’t memorize and recite the names of the twenty-two inner star systems like Rafe could, Will had better eyesight and a steadier hand.

Lowering his longbow, Will commented, “You missed, again.”

Their companion, Keeta, a little humanoid creature bigger than a chimpanzee screeched in glee as she scampered through the tall grass to plunge a crude stone knife into the striped fox’s chest to make sure it was dead.  Keeta belonged to a sentient tribe called Namba that lived in the Moroso forests of Eden.  Namba weren’t as intelligent as humans, but they had their own language, had developed crude Stone Age tools and lived in the giant Moroso trees in herds of one hundred or more, mostly eating the fruit that grew wild in the forests.

Rafe considered Keeta and the Namba ‘idiots.’ In fact, he considered most humans idiots too, but Will couldn’t help admire Keeta’s skill with her crude, razor sharp knife.  The Namba had six fingers on their hands and feet and their extra digits made them extremely dexterous at things like peeling back the hide from a dead fox.

After Rafe pulled his errant arrow from the Moroso tree, he raised his hand as if to strike the Namba.  “I told you not to let her touch them.  She’s done it again.  She’s bloodied the fur.  It’s no good.”

Will caught Rafe’s wrist and stopped him from striking Keeta.  “You can have the hide.  Just don’t hit her.”

“You sure?” Rafe said slyly.  “I took the last four.  You only got one.”

“It’s all right.  Take it.”

Rafe smiled, “If you insist.”

Rafe and Will had met in the little one-room school house on the island of Ithaca.  Their parents were members of an organization called the Anti-Technology Foundation.  Will and Rafe’s grandfather’s had both served on the first starship, the Republic Colony Ship (R.C.S.) Compass, to enter the Gaia Galaxy.  After they’d arrived, they’d found the planet, #R492, which system probe readings had determined contained the elements necessary to sustain human life,   The crew of the R.C.S Compass found five planets in the system, one of which was Earth-size, predominantly covered by water, and crawling with flora and fauna.  It looked so green from orbit they’d named it after the Garden of Eden.  The world contained two continents, Capri and Iberia and a small island they named Ithaca after the home of the ancient mariner Odysseus.  It wasn’t until they began exploring the surface and trying to set up a base that they learned Eden’s animal life, though not as advanced as humans, could be every bit as dangerous.

After the Republic colony Avalon was established on Capri and a wormhole generator constructed, starships began to pour into Gaia exploring the neighboring planets and setting up additional outposts on Capri and Iberia.   Disgusted by the way the newcomers cut down the Moroso forests and exterminated creatures like the striped fox, a group led by the R.C.S. Compass’ original crew, including Will and Rafe’s families, informed the government officials at Avalon they were going to set up their own settlement on Ithaca called Independence, and they wanted to be left alone.

Calling themselves the Anti-Technology Foundation, or Anti-Tech’s, the group published a manifesto stating that they blamed society’s ills on the scientific advancements that had polluted the inner systems.  Though they were laughed at and ridiculed in the press, the Anti-Tech’s said they intended on showing the universe it was possible to live a good, productive life by leaving their electronic gadgetry behind and living off the land.  While the robotic farms built on Capri and Iberia produced enough food to feed a dozen planets, the Anti-Tech’s on Ithaca, though happy, struggled just to feed themselves.

As Rafe stuffed the striped-fox pelt into his backpack, Will spotted a long, dark shadow as big as a cloud moving quickly across the grass.  Without a sound Keeta used her tail to scramble up a Moroso tree and hide among the giant leaves.

“Get down you big dummy!” Rafe yelled diving behind a striped Oryo bush.

The shadow passed over Will, blocking out the sun.  He gazed up at the largest creature he’d ever seen, bigger even than the atmospheric craft that buzzed over Ithaca on their way to Avalon’s starport.  People called them Eden dragons, but they weren’t real dragons, not like the ones Will had seen in the picture books at school.  Eden’s dragons weren’t lizards with scales and didn’t breathe fire.  They had feathers like a bird, talons long as a tractor blade and a beak so sharp it could bite a man in half, and sometimes did, if you got caught out in an open field and weren’t paying careful attention.  On a clear day it was difficult to spot them against the sky because of their light blue underbelly, but today was partly overcast and the giant bird easily discernable against the dark clouds rumbling across Ithaca toward the island’s central mountain, the Twin Peaks.

Squinting, Will tried to figure out what it was carrying in its talons.  “It’s caught something,” Will said, shielding his eyes with a big hand.  “Something shiny.”

Keeta poked her head out from among leaves bigger than she was, and Rafe came out from hiding among the bushes.  “It’s picked up a shuttle.”

Will had never been on a public shuttle, but each year one visited from Avalon carrying officials from the Republic.  According to Will’s grandfather, they came to try cheating the Anti-Techs out of their land.  Republic orbital surveyors had scanned valuable mineral deposits on Ithaca and wanted to buy it from the Anti-Tech’s, but Independence’s city council refused to sell.  As Will recalled, a shuttle could hover over land or water and held about twenty passengers.  The dragon carried the heavy, titanium steel vehicle as easily as a cat carrying a mouse.

“Where you figure the shuttle came from?” Will asked.

“Avalon, you idiot.  Where else?  You don’t see any shuttles in Independence do you?  We’re still back in the twentieth century.  We ride horses and plow with oxen while the rest of the universe flies space ships and manufacturers its food in factories.”

“Seem’s like a mite far to fly.  I wonder if anyone onboard is still alive.”

“Why else would it pick the damn thing up,” Rafe said watching the creature disappear behind a cloud.  “Eden dragons don’t eat metal.  They’re carnivores.  It’s flying to the Twin Peaks.  She’s going to feed the survivors to her young.”

Will didn’t understand big words like ‘carnivores,’ but figured it meant dragons liked to snack on humans, which Will already knew.

“I’ll bet you there’s all kind of gear on that shuttle,” Rafe said.  “If we could find the wreck, there’s no telling what might be onboard.  Computers, helmets, maybe even a pistol or a decent rifle.  Here we are, living in the Space Age, hunting with bows and arrows.  I was born in the wrong place.”

“If there are any survivors, maybe we could help them,” Will replied.

Rafe laughed.  “With what?  These?” he said shaking his bow.  “By the time we climb up the Twin Peaks, there won’t be any survivors.  You coming?”

Rafe had a nose like a hunting dog when it came to smelling a profit.  Though it was illegal on Ithaca to own any of the high tech devices made on Capri, all Rafe ever talked about was getting to Avalon where he wanted to gouge himself on video games, moving picture stories, and little boxes that magically played music.  Rafe’s goal was to make enough credits selling striped fox furs to bribe a shuttle pilot from Avalon to stow him onboard.  His dream in life was to get off Ithaca and go to work for one of the interstellar corporations surveying the star systems around Gaia.  According to Rafe, you could get rich if you discovered some new mineral, gas or plant, that the corporations could turn into some fancy new consumer good and sell for a fortune to the ‘idiots’ back in the inner systems.

“I’m not a farmer,” Rafe told him again and again.  “I’m an entrepreneur.”

When Rafe asked Will if he wanted to come with him to Avalon, Will shrugged and said he’d think about it.  In truth, he hadn’t thought about it much.  Will liked Ithaca.  He liked the slow pace of life.  He enjoyed walking behind his father’s plow.  Though Rafe hated it, Will enjoyed getting up at sunrise and feeding the animals in the barn.  When everyone got together to help a neighbor build a new barn, and afterwards threw a picnic with fried brownie steaks and nectar juice, Will got a nice warm feeling inside.  He loved farm life, nor could he understand why Rafe was in such a hurry to leave it all behind.

“Come on,” Rafe said.  “We got to make it to the base of the Twin Peaks before it gets dark.  You can help me carry whatever we find.  That shuttle is going to pay for my ticket off this chicken shit island.”

The two young men walked all afternoon across a vast plain of dark green sawgrass.  Sawgrass looked pleasant enough from a distance, but if you examined it closely you could see each blade was made up of teeth-like saws that could tear through cloth pants, which is why both young men wore tough, knee-high leather boots tanned from the hides of Eden’s domesticated cows called brownies that provided their beef.

With Keeta perched on Will’s shoulder, the two young men trudged across the broad empty plain keeping a close eye on the purple clouds blanketing the afternoon sky.

“What if Montana comes back?” Will asked.  The old timers that had crewed the R.C.S Compass called the two last remaining Eden dragons Montana and Nebraska, because they said they were as ‘big as the states of Montana and Nebraska.’  Though Will had no idea what a ‘state’ was, he figured they must have about the size of John Franklin’s barn, which was about the biggest thing Will had ever seen.

“Montana’s going to be busy for a while,” Rafe said urging Will to pick up the pace.  “It’s Nebraska I’m worried about.  Don’t look at me you idiot, keep your eyes on the sky.”

They trekked across the field without any trouble and made their way over the Oryo covered foothills to the base of the Twin Peaks.  It was too late in the day to make it up to Montana’s nest on the snow-capped northern peak, but by nightfall they were able to make it half way up the mountain to the place where the air became too cold for trees and bushes to grow and they were forced to camp out in one of the many caves that dotted the eastern face.

“I know what you’re thinking before you even open your mouth,” Rafe said as they chewed on the tough, cured beef sticks they carried in their packs.  “No, we ain’t making a fire and cooking up some of that ceva meat.”

Ceva were a stork-like bird that lived in the Moroso trees, famed for the brightly colored red, orange and gold tail feathers.  The humans on Capri had hunted out all of the ceva for their feathers which they sold to the inner systems for ladies’ hats.  Rafe had taken to shooting the birds with his bow just to scalp off the feathers, making Will suspect he had a secret contact in Avalon.  What birds had survived on Capri and Iberia had flown to Ithaca where the Anti-Techs placed them on their endangered species list and protected them under their animal rights’ laws.  That didn’t stop Rafe.  He wasn’t against breaking the rules when there were credits to be made.  None of which Will understood.  The universal monetary system was made up of invisible things called credits you couldn’t carry in your pocket.  They lived in something Will’s grandfather called a ‘system,’ only it wasn’t a star system.  On the contrary, from what Will could figure out, this kind of system was so small, you couldn’t even see it.  Nor did he see the sense of trying to store up something you couldn’t hold in your hands.

Will refused to shoot birds just for their feathers, something Rafe dubbed ‘idiotic.’  He hated to see their carcasses go to waste, so when Rafe killed one of them, he had taken to wrapping up the ceva meat to cook.  He would have liked to have brought some home to his family as it tasted like chicken, but Rafe said he’d only get arrested for poaching, so instead he cooked the breasts and thighs for Rafe and Keeta.

“No fires,” Rafe glared at him.  “Go to sleep.”

Using a rock for a pillow, Will wished he’d thought to pack a blanket.  Keeta curled up into a ball beside him, providing some warmth, but not enough to keep his teeth from chattering after the sun went down.

They rose early and began to climb the rocky east face keeping a close eye out for Nebraska who was known to live on the southern peak.  Like the ceva, the humans on Capri had shot up all their dragons, leaving only Montana and Nebraska.  Every year when the shuttle from Avalon arrived in Independence, one of the subjects the government and Anti-Techs liked to argue over was the fate of the two remaining giant birds.  The Republic’s officials claimed the dragons were a nuisance that mistook their robotic farming machinery for brownies, which cost them a fortune every year in lost equipment.  The city council at Independence refused the Republican Guard’s planetary fighters permission to fly across their air space, saying the dragons had  been on Eden first and had as much right to be there as humans, a position Rafe considered ‘moronic.’

Will sweated as he climbed, even after snow began to appear among the rocks.  He was beginning to agree with Rafe that maybe the Republic was right for once, and maybe the city council was foolish for letting the last of Eden’s dragons live, especially when Montana and Nebraska might make a meal out of him at any moment.

Using whatever cover they could find, which wasn’t much, as no fauna grew this high on the Twin Peaks, the two young men made their way slowly through knee-deep snow.  It was getting so cold, Will’s hands had turned red as a tomato making him try to remember what he’d learned in school about frostbite.  While he fretted over such things, Keeta began to jabber excitedly in his ear.

Rafe hid behind a large outcropping of rock and motioned for Will to join him.   “Your little pet…”

“Don’t call her that.”  Like the ceva and the dragons, the humans on Capri had been merciless to the Namba, selling their populations to the inner systems as pets that they advertised as ‘smarter and easier to train than dogs.’

“All right then, your girlfriend then.  I was only trying to give her credit for spotting it first.  Look up there,” Rafe said pointing at a mangled piece of wreckage that had once been a titanium steel hovercraft.  With the roof smashed in, it looked like a burned out shell of a building.

Keeta chattered in alarm and together the two young men ducked behind the rock as a large dark cloud drifted lazily across the snow.  They watched as Montana returned to alight on the shuttle.  Like a farmer opening the double doors of a barn, the dragon used its long talons to pry open what was left of the shuttle.  The bird lifted its cruel red eyes to the sky, opened its curved beak and thrust its head downward as rapidly as a striking snake.  Montana tore a row of blue cushioned seating from the craft and tossed it aside.  Eventually it found what it was looking for.  Rafe gasped as they watched the giant bird snatch up a lifeless human from the wreck, lift its head and swallow the body whole.  Flapping its wings excitedly, she rummaged with her beak in the shuttle coming away with another human, this one alive—though not for long.  The man got off three shots from an energy pistol before Montana ripped him in two with her talons as easily as Will might snap a breadstick in half at Sunday supper.  With a high pitched screech of triumph, the dragon launched itself off the shuttle.  With a piece of what had been a man in each of its claws, the giant bird soared over their hiding place, banked between the Twin Peaks and flapped its way to the top of the northern peak where it fed the bloody remains to a single blue-feathered hatchling.

“Come on.  Now’s our chance,” Rafe whispered.

His throat dry and his knees wobbly, Will followed Rafe as he struggled through the deep snow.  Will was plenty scared, but determined to see if they there were any survivors left that might need their help.  What they found reminded Will of the time a transport ship carrying colonists from the inner systems had crash landed on Ithaca not far from Independence.  His grandfather had told him to close his eyes, but Will had to look, and had been horrified at the sight of dozens of human bodies dangling from the Moroso trees like the blood red flowers that bloomed on them in Spring.

Keeta scampered back and forth across Will’s broad shoulders, chattering to herself nervously as Will fought back an urge to vomit up the brownie stick he’d eaten for breakfast.  Like the transport ship, the shuttle was torn and twisted beyond recognition.  Thankfully Will saw only six bodies.  The first four had no pulse, the fifth breathed, but bled from his abdomen and appeared unconscious.

The sixth was a woman hiding in the tail section under what remained of the single engine.  While Rafe looted the ship, giggling in girlish delight every time he found some new treasure, Will knelt in the snow beside a dark-haired woman only a few years older than himself. As he lifted the sheet of metal she’d been hiding under, his heart leapt into his throat.  The girl was prettier than a newborn colt or a field of sweet corn on a summer’s morning.  The sight of her face and fluttering eyelashes took his breath away.

“I-I didn’t think anyone would c-come,” she shivered, her breaths coming in smoky gasps.  “Who sent you?”

“I’m just here with Rafe,” Will said apologetically.  “Are you hurt?”

“My leg,” the woman said.  Her body convulsed from the pain and the cold.    “I think it’s broken.  If you could just…”

“Don’t go no where,” Will said.  With Keeta chattering in his ear, even though he didn’t understand Namba, somehow they both knew each other’s minds.  Keeta pointed toward what he was looking for.  In what used to be a storage bin, Will found a pile of blankets.  He took them back to the woman and wrapped her in them.

“Thank you,” the woman said trying to smile.  “My name is Joan.  My father is the director of the E.M.C.  If you can get me out of here, he’ll pay a rich reward.”

“Did I hear mention of a reward?” Rafe said joining them.  His backpack bulged with electronic goods and he carried an old projectile rifle over his shoulder.   “I was going to tell you to forget her and help me carry this heating unit down the mountain, but…  How much of a reward?”

The woman eyed Rafe like he one of those acid spitting plants that grew in the Moroso forests and it had wrapped its vines around her ankle.  “Not a hollow credit unless you drop what you are carrying and help Mr. Fairchild.  I believe he’s still alive.”

Rafe laughed.  “You’re in no position to bargain.  Come on Will, leave her, and help me carry this equipment.  With everything I’ve collected, we can not only book passage to Avalon, we’ll be able to live like senators.  I bet we don’t have to work for a year.”

Joan reached up and touched Will’s face, searching his eyes.  Her fingertips sent electric waves rippling up his spine like picture’s he’d seen of a science project called Jacob’s Ladder.  “Please help Mr. Fairchild.  Carry him here.  We’ll cover him in blankets and hide him.  I’ll send a rescue team.  We’ve got to try.”

Will nodded and found the man with the gut wound and was about to lift him, when Rafe got in the way.  “Hold on there hero.”  Going through the man’ pockets he found a picture I.D.  “Lieutenant Winston Fairchild, Eureka Mining Company, Navigator, E.M.S. Meridian,” Rafe read.  “Ooh.  Lieutenant.  I’m taking his boots.  They’re a good pair of synthetics.  Perfect for sawgrass.”  He pulled off the left boot, then the right, crying out in surprise as a pair of goggles fell to the ground.  “Looky here,” he said.  “Mr. Fairchild’s is hiding an optical headset in his boot.  Must be something worth hiding.  What could..?”

A black cloud covered them and a flap of giant wings knocked over both young men as Montana swooped down and snatched up Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will fell hard against a twisted bit of metal that used to be the main beam of the shuttle.  Gingerly he touched the bump rising on the back of his head.

Keeta keened in terror and clung to his neck as Will picked himself back up.  He looked up through the hole in the shuttle’s roof to watch the majestic blue bird bank between the twin peaks as she carried Fairchild to her nest.

“Sorry about your friend,” Will said.  Carefully he put his arms under the woman and lifted her off the ground.  With Rafe berating him, telling him to drop Joan and help him carry his loot, and Keeta screeching in his defense, Will started down the Twin Peaks.  Paying no attention to Rafe, Will hurried as fast as he could through the deep snow, carrying the woman as easily as a newborn lamb.

“Do you know what your Namba is saying?” Joan whispered weakly.

That surprised Will.  “You understand her?”

“Some.  Don’t you have an electronic translator?” the woman said and laughed lightly.  Just seeing the woman smile made Will’s heart beat faster.  “I forgot, you’re Anti-Tech.  Your Namba is saying that your companion is evil.  She keeps repeating it over and over, boka, boka, boka.  It usually means bad.  But in the pitch she’s using, it means evil.

Rafe had his rough edges, but Will never thought of him as any worse than anyone else on Ithaca.  “Rafe’s my friend,” he said defensively.  Come to think of it, Rafe was Will’s only friend.  The only one his age in the little school house they’d attended since they were boys.  One day on the playground Will found two of the older kids banging Rafe’s head against a tree, claiming he’d picked something out one of their pockets.  Will didn’t think it fair for two older boys to bloody Rafe’s face the way they were doing, so had pulled them off Rafe.  When they turned their rage on him, Will blackened one of the boy’s eyes and broke the other one’s nose before their school teacher Mr. Edwards happened along and made him stop banging their heads into the same tree they’d been using to punish Rafe.

Ever since that day he and Rafe had been friends.  He’d been overjoyed when Rafe asked him to join him hunting and fishing.  Even if Rafe usually found some clever way, like claiming Keeta bloodied the pelts, to keep most of their catch, it was good to have a buddy.  Even if Rafe called him a ‘big dummy’ more than he liked, that didn’t make him evil.  Did it?

“Your friend is not a friend,” the woman said pulling her blankets closer around her.  “You’re freezing.  Take one of these blankets.”

“Thank you m’am, but that would mean stopping and I ain’t about to stop here in the middle of this open ground.  Not with Montana roosting close by.”

By midday they’d left the snow behind and began their way down the rocky slope.  Will found a cave that provided shelter against the wind and set the woman down inside.

“We’ll rest a few minutes,” Will said.  “You hungry?”

“Starving.”

Will broke his last beef stick into three equal pieces and shared it with Joan and Keeta.  “Should have thought to shove some snow in my pack,” Will said ruefully.  “It would have melted by now and we’d have something to drink.”

The woman looked at him gratefully as she chewed.  “I can’t figure out what someone like you is doing with someone like him.”

“Oh, Rafe’s not that bad.

“No, he’s worse.”

As Will chewed thoughtfully, Rafe caught up with them.  Scowling, Rafe unhooked his heavy pack and set it down gently, so as not to break any of the electronic gadgets he’d found.  Wordlessly, Joan and Rafe glared at each other.

“Come here dummy.”  Taking Will’s elbow, Rafe led him outside and showed him the goggles he’d found in Lieutenant Fairchild’s boot.  “She didn’t care about him.  She wanted this.”  He flipped open the glasses and fit them on Will’s head.  Tapping a button on the frame, Rafe said, “Go to files.  Search for Valhalla.”

Will blinked as the clear glass of the goggles snapped on and a series of lines, words and planetary maps flashed before his eyes.  The images moved so fast Will began to feel dizzy.  He pulled the goggles from his face and handed them back to Rafe.  “Makes my head hurt.”

“Yeah, well, that goes away,” Rafe said.  “It’s an old optical headset.  I don’t think the data is stored on the glasses, it’s probably saved on a secure server somewhere, this is just a link.  But you can use it to access Fairchild’s personal credit account, read the intergalactic news, talk to a friend, watch a movie.  Short of wiping your ass, this little baby will do just about anything.  But the really important stuff, I found in a folder he had labeled ‘top secret.’  I don’t understand it all.  It has to do with planet named Valhalla.  And if it’s top secret, it’s worth a lot of credits to someone.  This thing is as good as a treasure map.  I sell this to the right buyer, the two of us can get away from cow town and live like emperors.  The only thing you need to do is—dump the dame.  You don’t have to cut her throat, just leave her here.  With that leg of hers, she’ll never make down the mountain.  Both of our hands will be clean.”

“Now Rafe, you know I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can.  If you don’t, you’ll force me to put a bullet in her.”  Lowering his voice, Rafe added.  “We bring her back, she’s going to rat me out to the city council.  All our plans will be ruined.  I’m doing this for your own good, Will.  You’re the only friend I got here.  All you gotta do is walk away.  Go on.  Start down the hill.”

Will took a few steps back toward the cave.  “I’m sorry.”

The woman had been right.  Rafe was evil.  He watched his friend unsling the rifle from over his shoulder and point it at him.

“Now, I’ve never had any practice with one of these.  But at this range, even I can’t miss, you idi…”

Rafe never finished his sentence.  His first glimpse of the giant winged bird was reflected in Will’s eyes.  They’d finally found Nebraska.  Or rather, Nebraska found them.  Will ran for the cave, never taking his eyes from the creature.  It was huge, even bigger than Montana, and easily recognizable by the scar that ran from under its right eye down its throat and through the white feathers on its chest.  Its wingspan wider than John Franklin’s barn, the dragon swooped in out of the sun.  Too late Rafe turned and tried to fire, but in his terror he fumbled with the gun, dropping it before he could get off a shot.  Nebraska landed on him like a hawk on a rabbit, covering Rafe with his talons, but not squashing him under his weight.  The dragon screeched and rolled Rafe over with a single talon like a cat toying with a mouse.

Will stumbled into the cave and snatched up his bow and quiver.

“Don’t!  He’s not worth it!  He was going to kill us both,” Joan yelled.  She wore an optical headset similar to the one Rafe had taken from Fairchild.  “I’ve got a signal.  Don’t go…”

Notching an arrow in his bow, Will ran back outside, Keeta alongside him.  The first missile stuck the bird in the chest.  It was like trying to bring down a starship with a pointy stick.  Shouting and waving his arms he tried to get the creature’s attention.  If he distracted the beast, Rafe might be able to roll to safety.  Nebraska glanced over at him like he was an annoying fly.  The giant bird reared up and flapped its wings, throwing a cloud of rocks and dirt at him, driving Will back a step.  Wiping the dust from his eyes, he aimed his second arrow at the bird’s face and let fly.

Keeta hopped up and down in glee.  An eye shot!  White fluid oozed from the red orb and the beast screamed in pain and rage.  Now Will had his full attention.  Deciding it had had enough fun with Rafe, the dragon raked its sharp talons over him, slicing Will’s school pal up like a loaf of bread.  Rafe screamed in agony, his dismembered arms and legs flopping on the rocky ground the same way a ceva’s body twitched after you cut off the head.

Will placed a third arrow in the dragon’s throat and was reaching into his quiver again when Nebraska reared back his head, aiming to spear Will with its beak.  Only Keeta ran out in front of him, drawing the bird’s attention, diverting his aim.  The beak struck with cobra-like quickness—snatching up the little Namba.  Keeta wailed as Nebraska lifted its head to the sky and opened its jaws wide.  With a single gulp the dragon swallowed Keeta whole.  A bulge that had once been Will’s friend slid down the bird’s long neck and disappeared.

More angry now than afraid, Will put a fourth arrow into the bird’s throat, which in its hurry to get at Will trampled on what remained of Rafe’s body.  The young man’s head and chest splattered against the hard ground the same way an overripe plum exploded when you threw it against a wall.

As the dragon reared back its head, knowing he was about to die, Will let fly a fifth arrow.  It flew straight and true right inside the beast’s open beak.  As the arrow pierced Nebraska’s pink tongue, out of the corner of his eye Will detected an arrow of another kind speeding at the dragon’s back.  Something long and white as snow struck the creature from behind.  The next thing Will knew, Nebraska was enveloped in a wall of flame.  The white missile had been fired by a robotic system fighter that soared high overhead, doing a victory roll between the Twin Peaks.  Will was knocked off his feet by the concussion.  Nebraska tried to spread its wings and fly, but its feathers lit up faster than dried hay in a brush fire.

Joan had managed to crawl from the cave where she lay on the ground watching.  With Nebraska filling the mountain air with black smoke and screeching out its death knell, Will picked up the woman and carried her back inside lest they both end up trampled underfoot.

“Are they both gone?”

“Yes,” Will said.  “You did that?”

“If you have the credits, in a matter of minutes you can have an X-11 shoot down anything on Eden.  I may go to jail for breaking about a dozen of your laws, but you were worth saving.  I can’t believe I watched you stand up against a dragon with only a primitive bow.  That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Keeta was the brave one,” Will said.  I’m just a big dummy, he thought.  Will glanced at Rafe’s backpack and considered opening it to see what Rafe traded his life for, but left it alone.  He needed to get Joan to a doctor.

Nebraska finally ceased its cries and fell, landing so hard it shook the ground.

“Wait here.  I’ll be back,” Will said, intent on making sure Montana was not hovering overhead.  Nebraska sizzled like a steak on a grill at a picnic on Foundation Day.  The air smelled like burnt ceva.  Like he’d been drawn to the colony transport crash site, Will could not help but stare at Rafe’s body.  It looked as smashed, broken and bloody as one of Eden’s oversized mosquito’s that Rafe had liked to squash with a hammer.

Not far from Rafe’s remains his rifle lay on the ground.  Will considered picking it up, but what was the point?  The Anti-Techs would only take it from him.  The sun broke through the clouds and glittered on something lying next to the gun.  It was the goggles Rafe had found on Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will put them on, but grew frustrated and took them off when he was unable to figure out how to make the pretty pictures flash before his eyes.

Rafe had called it a treasure map to a planet called Valhalla.  Will had never heard of the place, but the idea of owning something ‘secret’ lifted goose bumps on his arms.  Like Joan, he would break the law too.  He shoved the glasses into his pocket and went to tell her it was safe to move.

The Good, the Bad, the Mediocre: Amazon Reviews

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Good Reviews: The Bubbles in the Champagne

Since publishing The Wandering King in April of 2013, approximately 2,000 copies have been distributed through various booksellers.

Ninety-seven percent of the sales have been e-books rather than hard copies, and 99% have been through Amazon. A distant second is Barnes & Noble (20 sales), and behind them is Apple iBookstore (2 sales). Dead last is Smashwords (1 sale).

The success The Wandering King has received on Amazon has been largely due to the reviews.  The average rating of your combined reviews gives your book a ranking under the ‘top rated’ listing and a special spot on Amazon’s web page.  This ranking has placed my book in the #1 to #3 spot under the Ancient Greek History category for the last 9 months.

To date, the book has received 40 reviews on Amazon.  Here is a breakdown of the number of 5-star through 1-star reviews:

                (28) 5 stars
                (9) 4 stars
                (2) 3 stars
                (1) 1 star

It has been a delight to read reviews such as:

  • Turning the last page of a good book, ending a good read, is like saying goodbye to a dear friend. One relishes the experience of both and longs for more time together…                    

                                       Dianne Smith

  • Many thanks to the guy who wrote this book. Really enjoyed it and have recommended it to all my friends. The book is something special, great character development; this man can really write.  

                                      Steve Fowler

  • Well-crafted historical fiction both educates and entertains the reader. Stephen Marte’s ‘The Wandering King’ achieves those goals. I’m looking forward to reading more of his story…

                                      Gregory Stoltz

  • Fantastic story, absolutely loved this. It is the story of a young Spartan growing from boyhood to manhood. The author portrays a character raised in a harsh world, but who still dares to defy tradition and what is expected of him. Brilliant, I cannot wait for the sequel…

                                      Tomas

A heart-felt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write a review.  You have greatly contributed to the success of The Wandering King.

I do not know Dianne, Steve, Greg or Tomas, or the vast majority of my reviewers, which makes reading their reviews immensely gratifying.  Knowing people you’ve never met in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Portland enjoyed the story so much they can’t wait to read more, is music to any writer’s ears.

Admittedly, I do know four of my reviewers. My mom, my brother and two friends have reviewed The Wandering King, but they all read the book and enjoyed it, so their reviews are legitimate. Knowing Amazon will delete your book and toss you off their site if you try planting fake reviews, is all the motivation any author should need to play it honest.

I wish I could get more of my family, friends and co-workers to post reviews. When someone tells me they’ve read the book and loved it, my stock response is: “Put it in writing. Post a review.” Unfortunately, the majority of people who have told me they’ve read the book, never post anything.

Bad Reviews: The Worm in the Apple

The Wandering King has received only one bad review. After a year of nothing but good reviews, I received this in May 2014:

  • This is one I put down early. I’ve read Herodotus a number of times and have wondered what Doreius [sic] and His [sic] adventures to the lotus eaters could have looked like. The author tells his story rather than shows. The writing lacks even basic description. I do not have any idea where the other reviewers gave this book even a score higher than 2. It’s that briutal [sic].

                                    Sparta Fan

If Sparta Fan had an axe to grind with me, he succeeded.  His 1-star review succeeded in knocking The Wandering King off its perch as the #1 top-rated Ancient Greek History book on Amazon.  Seems hard to believe one review could knock me out of the top seat, but it did, which has adversely affected book sales.

As a professional writer who has spent a lifetime researching The Wandering King and three years writing and polishing his work, it is distressing to read, “the author tells his story rather than shows” and “the writing lacks even basic description.”

I refer Sparta Fan to the first chapter of the book, which appears here in my blog, The Planistai. To quote a sample of showing versus telling:

  • While we waited, I noticed Gorgo was trembling beside me. “Are you all right?”
    She looked at me wide-eyed. “I am so excited!”

If I wanted to tell the reader how Gorgo was feeling, all I had to do was say, “Gorgo was excited.”  Instead, these two lines show her trembling and wide-eyed.

Also in the same chapter appears:

  • “No girl is going to tell me what to do,” my cousin Pausanias snorted. Especially not the daughter of Cleomenes. Pausanias was a husky boy, with a thick neck, gloomy, deep-set dark eyes, a face full of pimples and a broad, pug nose that had always made me think of him as a wart hog.

If I wanted to tell the reader Pausanias did not like Gorgo, all I had to say was, “Pausanias did not like Gorgo.” Instead you see how Pausanias feels through his dialogue. Also in the paragraph is a brief description of Pausanias’ appearance. Why Sparta Fan would state the book “lacks even basic description” makes me wonder if he even read it.

Rather than continue to quote additional excerpts from The Wandering King, if you want to make up your own mind on the matter, please read the sample chapter on this site: The Planistai. It’s free.

I apologize if I sound defensive. I am. Writing is an intensely personal experience. Your books are like your children. Insult my son and like any good parent, my reaction is to leap to his defense.

A friend who read Sparta Fan’s review called it a ‘hatchet job.’ In looking over the other books Sparta Fan’s has reviewed on Amazon, I see he’s highly rated a number of books by British author David Gemmell. I’ve tried to read Gemmell’s work, but I don’t care for his style. I would describe his writing as, ‘historical fantasy,’ which doesn’t interest me. To be fair to Sparta Fan, I am guessing he was expecting historical fantasy like Gemmell’s work and instead got historical fiction. 

In the end, what I’ve learned from reading Sparta Fan’s review is that everyone has different preferences, and you can’t expect to please everyone.  It’s like looking at a painting by Picasso. One person sees an odd collection of blocks and colors that remind them of fingerpainting, while another person sees a woman weeping that is so evocative the viewer is moved to tears.

I suppose all I can do is be thankful that the majority of my readers appear to enjoy my writing.  On the flip side, I’ve learned that reading negative reviews can destroy your motivation.  Who wants to spend all of the time and energy required to write a book if some stranger with an axe to grind is going to piss all over your work?

Mediocre Reviews: The Flavorless, Chewy Steak

The Wandering King has only received two 3-star reviews. In one, the reviewer had nothing but good things to say about the book.

  • The Wandering King is an entertaining read that paints a different picture of the principal families of Sparta than other books of the same genre. Interesting stories, good detail, and enough action to keep the pages turning.

                                          David Nolletti    

David appears to have enjoyed the story.  Why he gave it an average rating is a mystery.  Perhaps to him a 3-star rating means it met his expectations or maybe some people are just tough reviewers.

The only other 3-star review commented that the book was “entertaining” but he found it troublesome that I used some modern language that he did not feel was appropriate to ancient Greece. Wish he had given some examples. If he had, I would have corrected them.

* * * * *

Where initially I loved seeing a new book review appear, I am now a lot more tentative about reading them.  It’s tempting not to look them at all lest it sap my energy to keep writing.  That said, I have no intentions of quitting.  Yes, I write so others will read what I’ve written, but first and foremost, I write to create something I would enjoy reading, and that feeling is not likely to go away.

If others have had similar experiences or advice regarding book reviews, would be curious to hear them.

Stealing Helen

stealing helen cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Co-Authoring a Work of Fiction

In March, I placed a new short story titled, Stealing Helen, for sale on Amazon.  It was co-authored with my cousin Richard LaVerghetta.  I wrote about growing up with Rich in my blog post, The Calling.  Rich’s mother and my mother are identical twins, so Rich and I spent a lot of time together when we were young.  In the process we developed some similar interests, such as our love of ancient history.

One night while Rich and I were watching the movie Troy, we spent the majority of the time groaning at all of the movie’s errors.  For instance, in one scene the Greek city of Sparta appears on the coast.  In actuality, Sparta is inland, about 30 miles from the sea.

Sad to say, Troy is about as accurate as Sarah Palin’s 2011 comment that during the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere rode to warn the British, not the American colonists.  While laughing at the movie’s many gaffs, we wondered if the film had a historical consultant (it doesn’t).  If it had, we postulated that the poor fellow probably demanded his name be deleted from the credits as it would serve as a black mark on his career.

Thus the idea for Stealing Helen was born.  It’s main character, Donald, is a fictional history professor at Princeton University, and the historical consultant on the film.  Most of the characters are based on real people involved with the film, including; Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Peter O’Toole, Diane Kruger and the director Wolfgang Peterson.

To let people know this is not journalism, this is farce, we added a sub-title on the cover, “A satire about the movie Troy,” and we added a disclaimer on the copyright page stating, “This is a work of satire.  All characters and events in this story, including those based on real people, are entirely fictional.”

To write the story, Rich and I adopted a technique we used when we were teenagers.  I wrote a scene of the story, sent it to Rich, who wrote the next scene, and so forth.

What began as a project to poke fun at Troy, became something else as the story progressed.  I’m not sure how it happened, but as we were writing we began drawing parallels between what was going on in ancient Troy and what was going on in Donald’s personal life.

The end result, particularly the ending of the story, was a surprise to Rich and I, as it concluded with a scene we had not foreseen when we initiated the project.  Chalk it up to the magic of writing.   Sometimes delightful things happen that you hadn’t anticipated.   What started out as comedy, ends with something poignant to say about relationships.

Decision to Place only on Amazon

The story appears only on Amazon.  At this point, I see no reason to place it on Barnes & Nobles or Smashwords, as neither book seller yields anywhere near the number of readers as Amazon.  From what I’ve noted over the past year, Amazon truly is king.

One additional note.  It appears that Amazon’s ‘free book’ promotion is drying up.  It’s no where near as effective as it was a year ago.  In April 2013, when I offered The Wandering King for free for five days it yielded approximately 900 downloads.  When I did similar with the short story Inherit the Flames early in 2014, it yielded about 150 downloads.  Stealing Helen yielded only 75.

From what I’ve read, Amazon has woken up to the fact that they don’t make any money by offering free content.  So it seems they’ve changed their mysterious algorithms related to book rankings yet once again.  Where in the past, after offering your book for free it ended up placed high in its book category, now there is no lift at all after the book’s free promotion is concluded.  Which gives authors one less reason to give their book away.

What Amazon is now pushing is their new ‘countdown deal’ promotion.  Instead of offering your book for free, this new deal enables you to lower the price of your book for 5 days.

I imagine these changes will help Amazon accomplish its goal of eliminating the mountains of free content on their site, and make them more money.

My apologies for not posting something here in my blog to let people know when Stealing Helen was free.  If you are interested in reading an amusing short story, the good news is that it’s only .99 cents.  That’s a bargain in any historical epoch.

Inherit the Flames

flames3

In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.