Tribal Rites: Why I joined SFWA

This month, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America with a blog tour–here’s my entry, and you can read more of them (beginning with Robert Silverberg’s comments as a founding member, continuing with great authors like Cat Rambo and Beth Cato) at the SFWA blog.

As a young geek, I excelled at school and struggled in only one thing, really: making friends. Oh, I had one or two, and the occasional furtive acquaintance who was a little embarrassed to be seen with me. It’s a struggle that most adolescents face at one time or another. Thankfully, I had books. I had Ray Bradbury, Stephen R. Donaldson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. Through these magical pages, I could enter new worlds, meet people I wished I knew and people I wished I could be. The idea formed that there was a way I could be them—I could be anyone. I could be a writer.

The first fantasy story I wrote was Dragonriders of Pern fan-fic, though I did not know that term at the time, and my then-instructor, unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy, praised the work as highly original. This praise always embarrassed me—I knew the work was a paean to one of my idols–so I determined that my next project would be new and striking: it would be mine.

My pathway to becoming a writer ran parallel with my course through fandom, starting by attending local Star Trek conventions with a handful of geeky friends (a peer-group at last!). At one of those, I found my first flyer for a general SF convention, a student-run affair called Not Just Another Con, or NJAC. At this, my first “real” convention, I participated in a scavenger hunt which included Pan-galactic Gargle Blaster as one of the items, and got to hear an entire room full of people cheer when Count Rogan, the Six-fingered Man, turns to flee the righteous vengeance of Inigo Montoya. Right in its name, NJAC implied that, wonder of wonders, there were *other* conventions—entire globe-spanning networks of fans who gathered on a regular basis to share their enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy literature, film, gaming and good stuff.

Within this tribe, I found hints of another, the shamans of the tribe, if you will, the writers, and I heard whispers of their Inner Sanctum, the Science Fiction Writers of America (back in the days we had only one “F”), which one must be published to join. The idea of becoming a member of a group that included so many of my author-heroes, of sharing the trials and joys of writing with like-minded souls compelled me. I’d been submitting short stories forever (I was rejected by Asimov’s when he was still there—yes, I was a precocious toddler at the time). And I had begun to develop a novel, the contract for which finally granted me entrance to the organization I had so often heard of. I had achieved not only the goal of publishing my first book, but also of crossing the boundary between fan and writer, becoming what I had wanted to be.

In SFWA, I found a vigorous, sometimes contentious, group striving toward the advancement of science fiction and fantasy literature. A place where, whatever advice or concern you have, someone else has had it, too. If they can’t help you out, they can at least commiserate. There were times early on when I was not sure I had a place in the organization, when I was still too intimidated by my “baby author” status to think of these elite writers as my peers and my colleagues. I was not always faithful in my membership, but even then, I could see the good the organization was capable of, through the Emergency Fund which supports writers in need, and through Writer Beware, which helps to investigate and spread the word about scams aimed at new writers. When I signed my next contract, part of my advance went toward a lifetime membership in SFFWA, my commitment to the new writers moving up into our ranks, and my pledge to the tribe of authors, of which I am proud to be member.

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Fantasy Novella The Grail Maiden Book Launch Today

I’ve been working on The Grail Maiden, a novella tie-in to the Dark Apostle series, for a little while now. I enjoy exploring the background of some of the secondary characters in my work, and  I hope to do more of this.  (I’m looking at you, Martin!)  This story also goes back to my historical hinge point, during Edward Longshanks’ campaign against the Scots.  In the meantime, here’s the cover by amazing artist Rachel A. Marks!

Cover art for Dark Apostle novella, the Grail Maiden

Cover art for Dark Apostle novella, the Grail Maiden

1307, Carlisle, England

Young Allyson is the first to hear of the death of King Edward II during a battle with the Scots—but cannot reveal her knowledge lest she be exposed as a witch.

When the man she loves, a Templar, returns from France with news of the disbanding of his order and the arrest of its leaders, she realizes that the heir to England might well betray the Templars to his own advantage. She must turn for aid to the one man she dare not trust: her own husband.

Each of them holds a secret that will change the lives of the others as they work to prevent the war with Scotland from becoming the ruin of them all.

40 years before Elisha:  characters you thought you knew, history you’d never suspect.

It also includes an excerpt from Elisha Barber for those who haven’t read the series yet.

You can purchase the ebook at Amazon.com (http://amzn.to/1P4LOy9), Barnes and Noble.com (http://bit.ly/1DDmkD7) or through Smashwords (http://bit.ly/1yKLeBZ)

It’s also available in trade paperback on Amazon.com or directly from me.

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Cover Reveal: Elisha Rex!

And title reveal, too, I guess!  You can probably see why I’ve been keeping this title pretty close, but since it’s time to show off the cover, here goes!

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Once again, artist Cliff Nielsen has captured the spirit of the book–we find Elisha a changed man, in more ways than one–but here’s the cover copy to whet your interest:

“Blending magic and history, strong characters and gripping action, E. C. Ambrose brings a startlingly unique voice to our genre.”
—D. B. Jackson, author of Thieftaker

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon, cutting hair and stitching wounds for poor peasants like himself in 14th century London. But that was before: before he was falsely accused of murder, and sent to die in an unjust war. Before he discovered his potential for a singularly deadly magic. Before he was forced to embrace his gifts and end the war…by using his newfound abilities to kill the tyrannical king.
So who is Elisha now? The beautiful witch Brigit, his former mentor, claims him for the magi, all those who have grasped the secrets of affinity and knowledge to manipulate mind and matter, and who are persecuted for it. Duke Randall, the man who first rose against the mad King Hugh, has accepted him as a comrade and ally in the perilous schemes of the nobility. Somehow, he has even become a friend to Thomas, both the rightful king and, something finer, a good man.
But there is another force at work in the world, a shadowy cabal beyond the might of kings and nobles, that sees its opportunity in the chaos of war and political turmoil—and sees its mirror in Elisha’s indivisible connection with Death. For these necromancers, Elisha is the ultimate prize, and the perfect tool.
When the necromancers’ secret plans begin to bear black fruit and King Thomas goes missing, England teeters on the brink of a hellish anarchy that could make the previous war look like a pleasant memory. Elisha may be the only man who can stop it. But if he steps forward and takes on the authority he is offered to save his nation, is he playing right into the mancers’ hands?
Why does it seem like his enemies are the ones most keen to call him Elisha Rex?

Wait–so does that mean the series is over?  I mean, Elisha Rex and all that?  No, indeed.  I am currently drafting the fifth, and final volume, which you, dear reader, must wait until 2017 to read–sorry!  But I promise, it will be worth the wait.  In the meantime, you can pre-order Elisha Rex, and have it show up on your doorstep (or on your device) on Launch day, July 7th!

 

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Steve Bein, Author of the Fated Blades series

Joining my occasional series of author interviews today I’m hosting Steve Bein, who writes the Fated Blades novels, contemporary fantasy thrillers set in Japan.  The latest title, Disciple of the Wind, just came out this week!  As a Kurosawa fan myself, I really enjoyed getting to know Steve a bit better. . . and totally agree that everyone should know about the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

The cover of Disciple of the Wind, Steve Bein's latest novel.

The cover of Disciple of the Wind, Steve Bein’s latest novel.

What was the inception of the project you’re most excited about?

It’s hard to say which of the two current projects has me more excited. I have a new novel, Disciple of the Wind, and a new novella, Streaming Dawn. Together they wrap up the saga of the Fated Blades. A book release is always a thrilling event; even though this is my third time around, I’ll rush right out to the bookstore to see the novel sitting on the shelf. I still take a picture of it, and it still gives me a little buzz whenever friends text me pictures from their local bookstores. But this time Streaming Dawn may be the more exciting event, if only because I’ve never done anything quite like it before.

 But since you asked about inception, let’s go with Streaming Dawn, because it has its inception in Disciple of the Wind. It was originally the third storyline of Disciple, chronicling the exploits of Kaida, the pearl diver and runaway fan favorite of Year of the Demon. In Demon we meet her before she begins her career as a ninja badass; in Dawn we get to see what an unstoppable terminator she has become. (Batman fans may recognize the homage to Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns.) In the end my editor and I decided that Disciple of the Wind was just too long, and my choices were to remove one of the three protagonists or to dramatically trim down all three story arcs. I think this is the best book of the series, and it couldn’t have stayed that way if I made deep cuts into the story. To keep it pure, Kaida slipped out—being a ninja, she’s good at that—and snuck herself into her own standalone project.

the cover for novella Streaming Dawn

the cover for novella Streaming Dawn

What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

 All of my novels intertwine stories from different ages of Japanese history. In Year of the Demon the principal characters were Mariko the 21st century cop, Daigoro the 16th century samurai, and Kaida the 15th century ninja-to-be. All three were to return in Disciple of the Wind, but Mariko and Daigoro had too much to do. (Their enemies are much more powerful in this one.) Extracting Streaming Dawn could have been nightmarish if I’d written the novel as a novel—that is, as one big storyline that just so happens to skip around in history. But I don’t write that way. I write all three storylines one at a time, as if each one were intended to stand alone. Every character gets my undivided attention. That’s part of why Streaming Dawn can stand on its own: it did stand alone, at least at first.

 But the process was a lot more complex than a simple cut-and-paste job. Weaving all the stories together changes them all. New themes emerge, and then I go back and draw them out for each character. And of course each story is originally written in service of the novel; I write them individually but not independently, if that makes sense. The other storylines are always looking over my shoulder. So Streaming Dawn as it is now isn’t the story I wrote before I wove it into Disciple of the Wind, and it isn’t quite the story I extracted from Disciple either. It’s better than those; the characters matured with each iteration, and the plot unfolded and refolded into new and more interesting shapes.

What kind of research did you do before beginning Disciple of the Wind?

There’s that old proverb, “write what you know,” and what I know is samurai movies. Somehow I discovered Kurosawa in junior high—specifically Ran, his re-envisioning of King Lear in 16th century Japan. I’ll admit most of the Shakespearean themes were over my head; at that age I was more interested in the samurai slashfest. But my fascination with the bushido tradition started there, and it has only grown since then. Today I have a whole shelf of samurai history books, along with all my philosophical volumes on bushido and the Zen/bushido connection.

 So that’s the body of background research I’m starting from in writing all of these novels. As I’m writing, it’s more about the specific details—family crests, waypoints on the great roads, that kind of thing. That work is never done. For Disciple of the Wind, I had to delve into marriage and divorce law of the Kamakura era. That was an unexpected turn.

 How does your research inform your world-building? Can you give a specific example?

 I think the world-building is born in the research. I decide what emotional tone I want to set in a given scene, and then I dig around for the right details to make that tone sing out. For example, in Streaming Dawn there’s a moment where Kaida is feeling trapped, and she has to meditate on what she’ll do next. I put her in a dingy attic crawlspace, the sleeping quarters for all the manual laborers in the castle she’s infiltrated. This made me look for the right source of lighting, something dirt cheap, ideally with the greasiest, foulest smoke imaginable. Lo and behold, there it was: poor Japanese servants used to use sardine oil lamps.

 That’s the sort of discovery you can’t make up. You only find it by being true to the world and being true to the character, and then letting them tell you what you need to do next.

 What’s your first-draft process?  Outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?

I’d love to do speed-anything when it comes to writing, but for me the whole process is quite slow. For Disciple of the Wind, it was two volumes of hand-written notes before I could create an outline, then another hand-written volume that was filled in gradually as I ran across unforeseen wrinkles to iron out.

 Even if I were a pantser instead of a plotter, I don’t know how I could write these books any more quickly.  They’re more complex because the stories are braided together. Each protagonist’s storyline has to be structured so that it reveals the right information only at the right time. Otherwise one character’s high-tension moment is a spoiler for the next character’s moment.

How do you start revisions?

I always write Mariko last, because she’s the one who ties the whole book together. Once she’s done, there’s a massive cutting and pasting process to create what can really be called the first draft. This will open with Mariko, then cut away to a historical piece, then return to Mariko, then go back in history… you get the idea. Once I’ve got that, then I can read the whole thing through and look for problems to solve, themes to tease out, that kind of thing.

 I revise the whole manuscript at least once before I allow anyone else to see it. Then it goes to my agent, and maybe to other beta readers. By then I’ve had more time to mull it over, so the next stage of revisions can change the book quite a lot. Only then does my editor get a look at it.

If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?

Bestselling novel in the history of publishing. Translated into 100 languages.

 Just kidding. One reviewer compared me favorably to James Clavell; that was a big deal to me, because I’m such a fan of Clavell’s work. I get a lot of my world-building techniques from China Miéville, so I’d be delighted to see someone compare me to him. That would be a nice blurb to see on the cover: a quote from George R.R. Martin, singing my praises by comparing me to Miéville and Clavell. As long as we’re dreaming here, I’ll dream that.

What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work?  Any research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?

There are little details about characters that never make it into the book. Mariko listens to the Black Keys. Daigoro is a hell of an archer on horseback. One of the characters—I won’t say who—is about 100 years older than s/he appears to be. If the book had a DVD commentary track, I could drop in little tidbits like that.

Where should readers go to find out more about your work?

I post updates, appearances, interviews, and all that stuff at http://www.philosofiction.com. You can also like me at facebook/philosofiction and follow me on Twitter @AllBeinMyself.

Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?

I just love ARMA’s site. That’s the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, and they have all kinds of interesting stuff on swordsmanship, ranging from the historical to the hypothetical. A major time suck for history nerd martial artists like me.

 Bio

 Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is a philosopher, photographer, traveler, translator, martial artist, and award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sInterzoneWriters of the Future, and in international translation. His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, was met with critical acclaim, and his second novel, Year of the Demon, was named one of the top five fantasy novels of 2013 by Library Journal. Steve’s newest book, Disciple of the Wind is in stores now, and his new novella, Streaming Dawn, is available now for your e-reader. You can find his work at Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Audible.

 Steve teaches philosophy at Texas State University. He lives in Austin with his partner Michele and their Lab, Kane.

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The Truth about Bird-brains, Crows and Fantasy

I was delighted to see this video recently on the Huffington Post about a girl who, after feeding the crows in her yard for years, has started receiving gifts from them in return.  Elisha Magus (now out in paperback) features crows on the cover, and in the pages–crows who are devoted to the woman who loves them.

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

My own interest with corvidae (the avian family that includes crows and ravens) might be traced to a panel I served on with a few other authors about the role of ravens in fantasy.  To prepare for the panel, I studied up on these great, dark birds, so often associated with doom and despair (thanks, Poe!).   If you do a quick search on Youtube, you can find all kinds of videos featuring crows and ravens doing clever things, things that birds were not, until recently, regarded as clever enough to do.  At least, according to Christian Europeans.

Norse mythology includes the two ravens who keep company with Odin, [Hugin (thought) and Munin(memory)] while Northwest coast natives, and many other Native Americans, tell stories about Raven as a trickster–a role you can’t get without being clever.  Crows have been caught on camera helping themselves to an ice fisherman’s catch–by watching for the flag to go up, then pulling up the line with their beak, holding down the slack with a claw, and pulling up more until the fish is theirs.  They also learned how to operate a vending machine for corn by dropping shiny things in the slot.  In the right environment, a person could do pretty well by partnering with the corvidae, in spite of their tricks–and authors like Charles de Lint have a lot of fun with them.

Recent studies suggest that crows are about as bright as your average seven-year-old.  They use tools, have complex social behavior, and learn by watching one another.  We could do worse than to be bird-brains like this.

But it’s also true that they are carrion birds, hence their association with death and dying, and other references in fantasy, like calling Gandalf “storm-crow” because he often shows up when there’s going to be trouble, and, of course, Feast for Crows, by George R. R. Martin draws upon the image of the battlefield decked with corpses, and picked at by scavengers.  In my own work, Rye, the crow-magus tells Elisha that the birds like him–because where he goes, they are sure to eat well.

It is this rich combination of intelligence and resonance that makes crows and ravens such fascinating creatures to write about, and to interact with.  When I took my falconry workshop, I was told to watch out for crows because they will mob a raptor, and the falconer spoke of having to cancel a demonstration when too many crows showed up and the hawk refused to fly.  This behavior also makes them handy for the wildlife watcher. I was lead to a pair of great horned owls by a very noisy and insistent crow.  (the owls didn’t look too happy either).

When I see their silhouette in the sky, or hear that distinctive cry, I have a new measure of respect for these birds, carrying a world of stories upon their wings.

 

 

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Satirists, Lost and Found

Last week was an interesting one in the realm of satirical literature. It brought us word of the sad passing of a modern master, Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, and also of the re-discovery of the grave of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and a founder of the genre.

I am a Don Quixote fan from way back, beginning with the musical version, “Man of La Mancha,” starring Peter O’Toole (another master).  I once wrote an essay for my Themes in Literature class relating Oedipus’s choice to blind himself at the end of Oedipus Rex with Quixote’s arch-nemesis, the Knight of Mirrors:  it is a hard thing to face one’s self and what one has become.  I own three copies of Cervantes’ novel:  a big, fat paperback which I read while on a backpacking journey through Spain, a leatherbound edition from the 1800’s with each “book” in the novel in its own separate volume, and the Modern Library edition, illustrated by another of my favorites, Salvador Dali.

Pratchett and Cervantes both used the tools of story-telling to convey their meanings, and hold up that dreaded mirror to their contemporary lives.  They created engaging characters, brought them through great adventures, and made readers laugh along the way.   Entertainment was the vehicle that carried their questions into the hearts of their readers.

Both men, Cervantes and Pratchett, have been viewed in their own time primarily in that light, as entertainers, authors of funny books easily read and passed along.  But Cervantes’ long legacy suggests the greater depth of his work, and a close reading of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza finds the author poking fun at government, at chivalric ideals, at literature itself.

Similar concerns may be found in Pratchett’s marvelous novel, The Nation, in which a young man’s home is destroyed, and must be painstakingly rebuilt–in an area known as the Mothering Sunday islands, a jab at the British explorers who traipsed about “discovering” and re-naming many things that already had perfectly good names to begin with.  What constitutes good governance? What values should rule society and who gets to decide them?

As Cervantes suggested, there is a fine line between madness and vision.  In the grand tradition of the king’s fool, the entertainer is often the carrier of truth, the sorts of truths we find hard to examine.  We turn away from our own reflection, but the funhouse mirror of a good satire beguiles us into a closer look. After all, it’s only a story.

Archaeologists and academics around the world hope that discovering Cervantes’ grave and the publicity surrounding this event will result in a resurgence of interest in his work.  Will Terry Pratchett, one of his literary heirs, one day be celebrated in such a way?  Only time will tell.

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Ancient Aliens vs. Good, Hard Work

While recovering from recent illness and exhaustion (and under duress by another family member) I wound up watching a couple of episodes of a program designed to convince us that many of the great ancient monuments of the world were built by aliens. Yep, that old saw is still around.  Actually, what they say now to avoid *some* of the consternation of claiming that ancient peoples (particularly non-Europeans) weren’t capable of building their own architecture, is that the aliens brought tools and techniques, which the locals then applied.

The theme that came up over and over again as these predominantly white middle- or upper- class white collar authors and “experts” spoke was that, really, if people had to make the pyramids from scratch it would be such Hard Work.  And I was struck by the fact that these are people who have probably never had to do that kind of physical labor. Is it hard to be a researcher or an author or an academic?  Yes, but in a very different way from the hard work of being a manual laborer.  To these people, the idea of doing such work, likely very distant from their own upbringing, seems alien in itself.

The speakers on the show probably chose their professions.  They probably had a range of possibilities open to them, from family and educational options that showed what a wide range of things they might do.  Let’s scroll back a few hundred or a few thousand years.  What career options existed?  There is the military, of course, with its own hierarchy of leaders and followers–many of whom were likely drafted only as needed.  For the upper class, maybe a priesthood or a role with the nobility.  For those in the middle, maybe scribe or healer, maybe foreman or artisan (potters, weapons-makers, weavers, painters–a more skilled variety of labor).

Medieval mason's marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

Medieval mason’s marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

And for everybody else there was manual labor.  Whether they were farmers, masons or ditch-diggers, they were working hard all day, every day. It’s what they did, and what they expected to do.  In some societies, a good worker might learn the more skilled aspects of their job, or supervise others.  (And many people around the world today are living in these same circumstances, working physically demanding jobs all day, every day.)

For the fortunate, this job came with some sort of pay, possibly in food rather than wages, and the chance to go home to one’s family.  For many, the “job” was, in fact, slavery, and involved the bare minimum of care needed for survival and continued labor.

The speakers wondered why the ancients would have made such huge stones, then had to move them, rather than making many more smaller stones–but stone-cutting is a craft requiring education and dedication, while stone-moving is a combination of brute force and a clever transportation system.  If you have thousands of people at your disposal (perhaps literally), you train some of them, and for the rest, you hand them a rope and tell them where to walk.

How much work is it to build a pyramid?  A whole, heaping lot. Years or decades worth.  But when you have thousands of people who are doing their job, and are good at their job–whether that means cutting stone or hauling it–they can, and will get that job done, especially when they are motivated by immediate punishment or reward, or–and here’s another key to the “mystery” of how the ancients got stuff done–by religious conviction.

Those who believe that their work serves the cause of one or more deities are capable of great things indeed. They’re not building stone temples on a whim, but because the good of their entire society may depend upon how well they do it–the elegance of the design, the alignment with celestial markers, the beauty of the final product.

I wanted to slap the so-called experts every time they wondered how it was possible for someone with primitive tools and techniques to carve a symmetrical design.  These guys never tried it.  I have, actually.  Is it hard?  Sure:  it is both mentally and physically challenging.  If I dedicated the same amount of time every day to learning to carve stone that I have to my own profession I’d get pretty darn good at it, especially if I had started from childhood, under the care of a master-carver.  The ancients were experts, too.  They worked from an early age to learn all the tools and techniques available to them, and to apply those things to good advantage.

The really mind-blowing thing about those ancient monuments is how much our ancestors accomplished when they put their minds and backs into it.  I stand in awe of these accomplishments when I think of how hard it is to carve a stone or to shift even enough dirt or rocks to build a patio.  To build an entire step-pyramid, complete with elaborate carvings and painted murals is, indeed, nothing short of genius.

These ancient alien theorists underestimate so much about humanity. They underestimate the inspiration of religious faith to motivate both leaders and workers.  They underestimate the efforts of thousands of people, willingly or unwillingly working together on a large project.  They underestimate the ingenuity of such people to devise new techniques when they want to achieve something significant and have the time and willpower to work on it.  Most of all, they underestimate the value of simple and effective hard work.

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