Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Writers vs. ultra-fans

I direct you to a very interesting blog post from Kevin J. Anderson (and also from Brian Herbert, with whom he has co-authored the new series of Dune novels) regarding the difficulties of writing in an established universe, particularity one created by a deceased author, and the unreasonable fan reactions it can provoke.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dramatic Rituals

Outside a tent of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, “Radar” O’Reilly stands talking to Surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce. Suddenly, Radar looks distracted. “Choppers,” he says gravely.

Hawkeye looks around. “I don’t hear anything.”

But then, a few seconds later, the distant sound of approaching rotor-blades can be heard.

The PA speakers crackle to life. “Attention! Incoming wounded,” an urgent voice warns, “all personnel report to the hospital!”


Millionaire Bruce Wayne hangs up the red phone in his private study.
His ward, Dick Grayson, who has been listening to the call watches him intently.

Wayne flips back the hinged head of a bronze bust of Shakesphere, revealing a switch hidden in the neck. He flips it back revealing a hidden switch. He activates the switch, and across the room, a bookcase slides back revealing a hidden passage. The wall inside reads: “Access to Batcave.”

Wayne turns to his ward. “To the bat-poles, chum!”


On the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Captain Picard gazes into the forward view-screen. “Mr. Data! Set course for starbase 113, warp-factor seven! Engage!”


In a flash of light, Doctor Sam Beckett finds himself finds himself in a strange time and place, in a body not his own. He takes a moment to realize how uncomfortable his new situation is, then mutters, “oh, boy.”


Facing unimaginable danger, a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper steps into a store-room and emerges seconds later transformed into a dashing hero in flowing cape.


Facing unimaginable danger, a plucky boy named Billy stands tall and shouts to the heavens, “Shazam!” With a bolt of lightning, he is transformed into a towering adult hero in flowing cape.


Facing unimaginable danger, a mild-mannered prince draws a magic sword, holds it high, and shouts, “by the power of Greyskull!” With a bolt of lightning, he is transformed into a heroic warrior.


A non-nonsense man’s voice monotones, “It was Friday, 9:15AM, we were working the day-watch out of homicide. My partner’s name is Gannon. My name is Friday. I carry a badge.”


The man turns on the small tape-recorder. The reels spin. “Mr. Phelps, your mission, should you decide to accept it,” says a voice from the tape, which continues with a brief description of some threat to U.S. security. It ends with, “as always, in the event you or any of your IMF team are caught or killed, the secretary with disavow all knowledge of their actions. Good luck. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”


Facing overwhelming numbers, the Three Musketeers draw their swords. “All for one,” they cry in unison, “and one for all!”


Though they differ in many ways, all of the above are examples of dramatic ritual, a valuable and under-appreciated device used most often in serial fiction. It’s most often seen (especially in its most obvious form) in television and comics, but it can be used in prose fiction as well.

Dramatic rituals can be long or short, obvious or subtle, but they all represent some ritualistic element repeated in most every installment of the serial (sometimes more than once).

Many such rituals are so rigid that they carry little or no original information, and do little to directly advance the plot. Rather, they often are indicative of some sort of transition, of place, status, condition, or emotion.

This subject was suggested by a recent discussion I had about the television show, Stargate, SG-1. I bemoaned the fact that the writers have taken to increasingly shortcutting past several elements of the show that are classic examples of dramatic ritual. The two major ones that come to mind both involve the Stargate, an alien transportation device, a large ring that opens worm-holes, portals to distant world.

The first such Stargate ritual is the most elaborate, called “dialing the gate.” This is the process by which a set of coordinates is sent to the Stargate, opening an outgoing portal to another world. In this, technicians in a control room enter the coordinates through a computer program. The gate activates, and ring covered with symbols spins around the outside of the device. One by one, a series of “chevrons” around the ring locks into place, corresponding with a particular symbol on the ring. As each locks, a voice announces, “Chevron six encoded, chevron five encoded,” and so-on, until the last is encoded, and the gate opens in a fountain of liquid energy.

The second is when Earth’s Stargate address is dialed by a Stargate on another planet. In this, a warning klaxon sounds, lights flash, and a voice announces, “unscheduled off-world activation!” The station comes to high alert, and a protective iris closes over the gate as the wormhole forms. They will then listen for a “GDO” signal, indicating that the activation was by friendly forces, and that it’s safe to open the iris and allow the incoming travelers through.

I don’t think there’s any fan of this show whose blood doesn’t stir a little bit at the sound of the Stargate activating. It’s a programmed, Pavlovian response: Something interesting is about to happen, and something very dangerous could happen! Get ready!

Dramatic ritual can simply be words, or a series of actions. Often, it also incorporates musical themes or sounds effects. In prose, it can include repeated descriptions or language.

The use of ritual is probably as old as human tribalism. It’s a way of unifying individuals in purpose and intent. It’s a way of encouraging loyalty, faithfulness, and patriotism. It’s why we have oaths, pledges, and prayers, and why we value those things so highly. It’s not surprising that writers have long included ritual in their story-telling.

What a wonderful dramatic tool! By merely invoking the words and actions of the ritual, little more than a cut-and-paste operation, the writer can engage and excite the reader (or viewer). They can, in a single stroke, emotionally prime them to be ready for action, romance, danger, suspense, or even humor.

Given the power of such ritual devices, and the wonderful ones available to the Stargate writers, why would they turn their back on them? There are, I think, many reasons.

It is the nature of working on most kinds of serial fiction that the creators often tire of their subject matter much faster than the audience. This is a consequence that creators spend much more time with the material than the audience, and over uninterrupted periods of time. The nature of television only makes this worse. If we hear, “chevron six encoded,” once in an episode, the writers may have seen it in a half-dozen script drafts, and it was probably rehearsed, filmed, and re-recorded many dozens of times.

It’s also the nature of serial fiction that, while the creators may be exposed to each and every installment of their creation, most of their audience will not. Those that do are the most fanatical, and perhaps the most likely to appreciate and value the rituals that the creators hold in low regard.

So, the simplest answer is that the Stargate creators are just sick and tired of the blasted gate, and want to get on with the story.

I suspect that use of rituals also runs counter to some writer's work ethic. Using them feels like a cheat, or a short-cut. If it isn't hard, it isn't good.

Another explanation is that the rituals simply take too much time. The Sequence by-which the Stargate is dialed is particularly long, having been developed for a feature film where it was only used once. Since then, StarGate has evolved from a pay-cable series to a series on a cable network infamous for the number of commercial minutes they wedge into an “hour” episode.

A writer working in such an environment has got consider every minute of screen-time precious. As I said before, rituals often do little to actually convey information or advance the plot. The temptation, then, is to edit them out first when time is short. In fact, it may be tempting to edit them out, even if time isn’t, to wedge in something else that the writers consider more interesting.

Yet, while I understand these things, I think it’s a mistake for the creators of this show (or any serial, dramatic or print) to completely eliminate their signature rituals, or to think of them as less than desirable elements of their fiction. While some minimizing can be forgiven, the rituals should be revisited in full on regular occasions (the dramatic equivalent of going to church or temple only on holy days, rather than not at all) to keep their power intact.
What else can we learn from all this?

1. That rituals have both power and utility to writers of serial fiction. They’re worthy additions to your creative toolbox. They aren't cheats. They're devices, and like any, they can be used or abused, done poorly, or well.

2. That rituals must be maintained and repeated to keep their power, and that once established, they should only be eliminated with good reason. That the creator is tired of them is rarely a good reason. It is more important to ask, is the audience tired of them? If so, then they need to be removed or reduced immediately, but not before.

3. That in creating dramatic rituals, it’s important to realize that you may have to live with them for a long time. Consider not only their potential power and effect on the audience, but how they will hold up under repetition. Will they ultimately prove to be a useful dramatic punctuation, or a story-speed-bump? A good rule of thumb is that brevity is a virtue.

Yet, even length can have it's virtues. Though that Stargate dialing sequence can seem to take forever, it also serves to build suspence and anticipation the longer it goes on.

And that’s all I have to say about that. I’m out of here.

“One to beam up, Scotty. Energize!”

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Anok, Volume 2 review

A nice review of my second "Age of Conan" novel, as reviewed by Ryan Harvey, over on the Sword and Sorcery site.

By the way, if anyone spots reviews of any of my books out on the web (or in print) I much appreciate hearing about them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Here's wishing everyone out there a happy Thanksgiving. We have an invitation to dine with some writer friends tomorrow, but I did spend the day toiling over a hot Texas-smoker, doing turkey breasts to take along.

In honor of the occasion, I'm digging something out of the photo-archives here. One of my major hobbies is collecting 1/6th scale action figures (GI Joe and others). The 70s GI Joe Adventure Team, a group of pulp-inspired explorers, are a favorite of mine. I did this cartoon a few years ago, but it's still kind of amusing. Click on the image to see it full-sized.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Herbie delivers!

Today was our annual "launch the local toy-drive" photo event.

Shortly after we moved to the Oregon coast, we adopted the local firming toy drive as our chosen charity. I'm a toy nut anyway, and so it wasn't much of a stretch for me to check the toy clearance sections for good deals, and even when money was tight, I could usually scrape together a few extra bucks for a bargain toy.

At first, we couldn't afford much, but careful shopping (I try not to pay more than 25% of retail, and we spend on average about $5 per gift) and improving success in our writing careers changed things.

About four years ago, we discovered that we'd pretty much filled the back of our then-New Beetle, "The Tick." There was far too much for any remote collection point, so we figured out which fire station was being used to store the toys, and headed over.

Chris and I drove "The Tick" down to the fire-station collection point, walked into the lobby, and asked if there was a place we could take toys. The receptionist pointed to a collection box in the corner. We stared at it for a minute, then said, "it isn't big enough."

"Oh," she said, "I'll come and give you a hand." I seem to recall that she picked up a bag or small back, then she followed us out into the parking lot, and discovered we weren't kidding. She went back inside, and it was all-hands-on-deck to unload the Beetle.

The next year, Felix Roldan, the toy drive coordinator, asked if they could use our Beetle-full-of-toys as a photo-op for the media to kick off the year's drive, and thereafter, it's become a tradition.

This summer, of course, "The Tick" met his heroic end protecting my life in a traffic accident. We were wondering for a while if we'd be able to carry on the tradition. But then "Herbie" came into our life, and we now have a car even better suited to delivering toys to the kids.

That first year, the car seemed full, but we've now become experts at packing toys into VW New Beetles, and we've had to put those skills to the test. Last year, I drove, and we still ended up with toys on Chris' lap and on the dash. This year, Chris drove (letting us move the seat further forward) and I rode in the passenger seat with my knees nearly in my chin. Still that, plus the fact that our stuffed-animals were vacuum packed, gave us enough room to get everything in the back. Fortunately it wasn't raining today though, as we couldn't get the hatch closed!

You can't solve all the world's problems, but you can make it a better place by starting small. No child should suffer through the holidays without enough to eat, or without some small material reminder that somebody out there cares. Most areas have toy drives and food programs to help families in need during the holidays.

I encourage you to find one of these programs in your area, and contribute what you can. It doesn't have to be much. Skip that fast-food lunch today and make a cash donation, or buy a toy or some canned-goods for your local food bank. Do it, and do it now. Heck, do it later too. Just do it! Not only are their kids in need in your area, many agencies are also shipping toys to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

A toy can change a child's life. It can give hope and comfort. It can inspire a dream, or launch a career. Remember your favorite toy as a child, and the happiness it gave you? Now it's time to share that feeling.

Here are some links to help you locate a toy-drive local to your area:

Toy Drive Locator
Marine Toys for Tots Foundation

Sunday, November 13, 2005

His name is Legion!

Above: Mike Moscoe, author of the Lost Millenium series, MechWarrior, and much more.

Below: generic cola

When Titans Gnash

Left: Loren Coleman, MechWarrior legend and fellow Conan writer.

Center: Mike Shepard, author of the Kris Longknife science fiction series.

Right: Jay Lake, ultra-prolific short-story writer and winner of this year's John W. Campbell award for best new writer.

War of the Words

Left: Ilsa J. Bick, author of multiple Star Trek SCE and Mechwarrior Dark Age books.

Right: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, multiple award winner, author of a gazillion novels and stories, and successful under multiple names in multiple genres (science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance). Probably the Thor of this little team-up.

When Authors Clash!

When I was a kid, I used to love the comics where everyone would show up. On one scale, you had the Avengers or the Justice League of America, super-teams that often consisted of major characters with their own titles. But even better were the things like the wedding (in Fantastic Four Annual #3) of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, where literally everyone in the then-Marvel universe showed up.

Now sure, it was cool when they fought, when radioactive apes crashed the party, or when it all turned into a brawl. But even as a kid, I best liked the moments where a god-of-thunder and a guy made of orange rocks would just stand around with a drink in their hands, chewing the fat and talking shop.

In a way, I get to relive those moments, big and small, on a regular basis now. Our little town is a secret nexis in the literary universe, where authors, both great and aspiring, often meet and mingle. I still take some secret delight in looking around the room and thinking about all the books and stories people in the room have published. Even at a small gathering, the books usually number in the hundreds, and I suspect we've gotten into the thousands at times.

Here are a few shots from a genre workshop held here this weekend. Not that big as they go, but there were still shelves of books represented, award-winners, and most every genre that you could imagine. Yet there they are, just hanging out like mortal humans, sipping generic soda-pop.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Rad Party

Chris and I haven't been doing a lot of conventions in recent years, or doing a lot of parties when we have gone to conventions. Tonight, we decided to try making the party circuit. After several stops, we ended up spending several hours with the nice people from Radcon, an sf convention in Pasco, Washington.

We had a great time, and they made a very convincing case that we should attend. A lot of friends are going to be there, and it sounds like they treat their guest well, so we're thinking about it. The biggest problem for us is that Pasco is a pretty serious road-trip. Still, Herbie is due for a road-trip, so it's possible.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Check out this very nice review of "Scion of the Serpent"

Just a happy pull-quote:

"Even if the two follow-up novels never appeared, Scion of the Serpent would stand as a worthwhile fantasy read. Thankfully, the next two books are on the way…and I’m eager to follow Anok deeper into the coils of the serpent."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Orycon, day 1

Well, so far...

Terrrible traffic getting into Portland.

They put us in a smoking room, despite our non-smoking reservation.

The pocket program has no relation to reality.

Oh, well.

Tomorrow I have a panel on Stress and the Creative Lifestyle at noon, an autographing at 1, and a reading at 3:30. I'm also crashing a panel Sunday on writing tie-in novels.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Off to Orycon

Tomorrow we're off to the Orycon science fiction convention in downtown Portland, OR. It will be strange this year, as this falls on the same weekend as World Fantasy Convention, and so many of the regulars won't be there. In fact, I don't know who will be there, exactly, beyond guests-of-honor Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. Still, son-Shane will be there, so we'll have a good time, no matter what. I'll take along the camera, and see if I can get a picture or two to share.

For today's picture, I offer you something a little more abstract, a little piece I call "The Nine Lives of Banzai."

Banzai is at the very least on life number two. He got sick this year, stopped eating, and very nearly wasted away. I was sure he was a goner, but I managed to coax him into eating shrimp (his favorite food in all the world) and from there we got him back on regular food and nursed him back to health.

Well, you wouldn't know this is a cat that nearly starved just a few months ago. The other day, I looked over at the cat door in the back door to my office, and realized that Banzai was so fat, he could barely struggle through it! Now I think he's spooked, and refuses to use the cat door at all. Banzai, is not the cat of half-way-measures. But if you're ready to go all in, rub the center of this picture and receive a cosmic infusion of the Banzai-force.

Where ever he goes, there he is.

(Hmmm. There's a story in all this...)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Back on the coast

We arrived back on the Oregon coast Sunday afternoon just in time for the wind and rain to return. Typical winter weather out here What's depressing is that summer went by and I had no time to enjoy it. Hopefully next summer will be better. I wouldn't count on it though.

This is one of those "problems you trade-up for." I'll have to explain that bit of writing wisdom for you at some point.

For today's picture, I'm posting the cover for Chris' upcoming "Alias APO" novel. Watch for it next year.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A vacation is a fragile thing

At some point today, I realized that I was no longer on vacation. We're in Portland, OR, and had decided to run a few shopping errands impossible to do in our small-town home. Traffic was terrible, the parking spaces were all too small, and we were lost and never exactly found what we were looking for, despite hours of driving around.

Suddenly, all the fun had been sucked out of life. Bleh. Tomorrow we return home, and I am slightly bummed. I'll know better next time.

Good news though. Just got an email from an editor that a story of mine is being bought for an upcoming anthology. I don't know the name of the anthology off the top of my head, but it's inspired by the Evil Overlord List, I wrote the story of a guy assigned to repair the heating and air-conditioning system for an Evil Overlord, and what he finds in those overly-large ducts...

Meanwhile, a creepy little self-portrait of Chris and I standing in the entry-hall of the Flavel House in Astoria. There are mirrors hung across from each other on the walls, and they create a nifty infinity effect.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Kindergarten Herbie

Here's Herbie in front of the Kintergarten Cop school, and strange crossover if there ever was one. This is located only a few blocks from the "Goonies House," but to be honest, I don't know the movie well enough to know which of the houses it was.

We had a great time in Astoria, and plan to go back. Perhaps we'll make an intentional round of the movie locations. I just spotted the list on-line, and discovered that we did to go a couple of Goonies locations today, quite by accident, the old County Jail, and the Flavel House (a huge Victorian built by a sea captain), which we toured this morning. I'll post some cool shots of the Flavel house later.

I'm still catching up on Astoria here, but right now, we're in the western suburbs of Portland, about to make the rounds of some of the large chain bookstores to sign stock. Will stay here until Sunday I think.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Signed stock today at the Seaside Fred Meyers. Both Scion of the Serpent and Heritic of Set in stock. Then went to the waterfront. Lots of galleries, including Ernst & Ernst, which had some wonderful space art by Frank Hetick.
My favorite piece was this one, a new angle on popular subject, Saturn. Unfortunately, the web doesn't do it justice, but have a look anyway.

Tomorrow, we hope to visit the Captain George Flavel House. Don't be suprised if some fictional version of this house shows up in some future novel.

By the way. more Astoria movies I didn't know about, Free Willy and the Ring 2.


You knew they made Goonies here, right?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Goonie Getaway

For probably a year and a half now, I've been promising Chris a get-away. ANY kind of get-away.

Deadlines, misadventure and disaster have gotten in the way. I've canceled out repeatatedly, and Chris has gone on a couple trips without me. Well, this morning I turned in the (hopefully) last rewrite on MechWarrior Dark Age, Trial by Chaos, and we jumped in Herbie and got the heck out of the figurative Dodge.

Somehow we ended up in Astoria, Oregon. I'm not sure how we picked Astoria. It was not too far, not too close, not someplace we've spent time in before, and some place that looked vaguely interesting. So far, it's great.

The Elliott Hotel is a restored downtown hotel, and we've got a gorgeous suite here. There's a rooftop garden with a view of the famous (more on this later) bridge, and a nice wine bar in the basement. Two bookstores within a block, and what seems to be half-a-dozen good places to eat. What more do you need?

Astoria is best known to the outside world for its appearance in various movies, most infamously, the Steven Spielberg movie, Goonies. But the Governator was here to do Kindergarten Cop, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 did some shooting here. My favorite Astoria film, though, is Short Circuit, where robot Johnny Five was chased across the bridge and skydived to safety.

It's unfortunate that's all people know about Astoria through. It's a nice little town, and we're having a great time just based on its own merits.

Oh, cool moment of the day. We stopped in at a Fred Meyer department store in Tillimook to see if they had my new book, Heretic of Set, which is officially out today. I didn't see the book in the sf/fantasy section, but a jobber was there putting out books. I flagged her down to ask if she'd done the science fiction section.

"No," she said, "but I have these." I looked down, and she had six copies of Heretic in her hand! We had a nice conversation, and I think it was as cool for her as it was for me. I signed the books before leaving the store. Of course we'll be hitting stores in the Astoria area, and on the way home, we'll head back through Portland and Salem, hitting bookstores and signing stock as we go.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Given that between us Chris and I have three web pages and two blogs, none of which have easy-to-remember URLs, we decided that we needed a easy access-point on the web, one that could go on business card, Herbie's licence plate frame *, etc. So here it is:

There isn't much there at the moment other than some introductory text and links back to our blogs, but you might want to bookmark it anyway, as it will serve as the hub of our little web of -- well -- web. Impressive bunch of book covers there too, if I say so myself.

* Yes, Herbie's new licence plate will be "NEW LUV," given that he's a "Love Bug" and unlike the original Herbie, a new Beetle. Given that Chris writes (along with lots of other stuff) romance, this is appropriate. To this, we plan to add a licence plate frame that says, "Love to Read?" and then "" Herbie gets so much attention everywhere he goes, we might as well put those eyeballs to work for us.

Herbie Trivia Fact: The real Herbie's license plate number is California OFP 857.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Lost Outpost

I got some fan-email the other day on a project I did a long time ago, a computer game from Sierra called "Outpost 2." The fan said some nice things, and asked why I didn't have anything about the game on my websites.

Well, it certainly isn't because I'm ashamed of the project. In fact, I remember it very fondly for a number of reasons.

Frankly, it's great that, after all these years, I still get fan-mail off Outpost 2. It was a great experience for me, I learned a lot about writing in the process, made some money, got a free trip to WorldCon, and I'm pretty pleased with how it all turned out. On top of that, some people actually took notice of my work and liked it. It is, in fact, my "lost" first published novel! So, by (somewhat) popular demand, let's revisit Outpost 2.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for Eugene, Oregon, circa 1996 or so...

Outpost 2 wasn't my first contact with the game company Dynamix (by then a division of Sierra On-line). I'd first done freelance work for them shortly after moving to Eugene. Nothing exciting. I wrote internal documentation for several of the game development tools they were using at the time. I did several manuals, and was told with great enthusiasm that there would be plenty more work for me.

Then the phone didn't ring. I sat around, decided I'd screwed it up in some way, and felt sorry for myself. I really didn't have a great load of confidence in my abilities in those days. In retrospect, I think it likely had more to do with the Sierra take-over than me. Jeff Tunnell, who brought me into Dynamix, had been moved from his seat in charge of Dynamix into his own off-site production house. I don't know what the politics of this were, but there had to be some. Possibly I was just lost in the shuffle (I certainly didn't make myself hard to miss in those days), or possibly I was "tainted" by contact with the "old regime." These things happen in business. In any case, I didn't expect to work for them again.

Then, some time later, after Dynamix had moved from its old offices in downtown Eugene to a new "high-tech" park near the University of Oregon, I heard they were looking for a writer with science-fiction background to do some work on a strategy game. I stuck my foot in the door, and soon found myself working on a project, a turn-based strategy game called "Missionforce Cyberstorm."

Let me just say that, despite the lame title, Missionforce Cyberstorm was a great game. As I said, it was turn-based strategy, based on a hex grid. You fielded a team of giant robots called "Hercs," piloted by "meat" androids called "Bioderms." You may recognize this as an offshoot of the first-person robot simulator "StarSiege/EarthSiege" franchise, ironically a poor-man's version of the "BattleTech/MechWarrior" franchise that I'm writing novels for now.

The interface was clever, attractive, and easy to use. By the standards of the time, the graphics and sounds were pretty good, and it had an excellent sound-track. It was one of the first games to offer network/internet multiplayer (something I sadly never got to try). At times, it was actually boxed with TWO fully functional CD-ROMs, so you could give one to a friend for network play, and that play was great fun.

In terms of anything word-based though, starting with the name, it sucked. A lot of the terminology and naming just seemed to be somebody jamming words together because they sounded "kewl." As such, I was brought in at the last-minute to overhaul some of the on-line help (also an innovation at the time) and text support files. My most visible contributions to the game are the Bioderm profiles, in which I attempted to do a little world-building and give the game a believable context. I think it made things a little bit better, but I'll state right-out that the reasons this game was good had little to do with me.

I hoped the phone would ring again soon, as at that point the EarthSiege franchise was an ongoing thing, but it didn't. I can't feel too bad, as some of that work went to my friend Dave Bischoff, an accomplished sf writer with over 50 books to his credit. (Dave later farmed out some of this work to me when he got busy, and so I have some uncredited contributions in StarSiege, a game that, to this day, I've never seen or played!)

Finally though, I heard they were looking for a "real" hard science-fiction writer for a project. And again, I put my foot in the door. I didn't have a lot of publication credits at this point, but I'd sold to Analog magazine, by God, so my hard-sf credentials were solid if not massive.

I'd heard of the original Outpost, a popular space colony simulation game from several years earlier. Imagine a crude (in terms of technology and execution) yet sophisticated (in terms of scientific detail and accuracy) version of SimCity set on another planet, and you have Outpost.

But attempts to create a sequel had hit the rocks. At one time, both late-astronomer Carl Sagan and sf-writer Gentry Lee were attached the project, but despite pouring a lot of money down a hole, a marketable product never emerged.

In desperation, the whole project was purged and started from a clean slate. The mandate was that absolute scientific accuracy was not the object -- good gameplay was. Warcraft was the hot new game at the time, so it became a real-time strategy/combat game in that mold. Brought in to head the project were Patrick Cook and Alan McPheeters, two guys who were (I think, for-sure Patrick, anyway) at that point best known for successful sports games. (One of my most vivid memories of my first visit to Patrick's office was his foam-rubber "cheese-head" hat!)

Also enter, little old me. After Sagan and Lee, I had some big shoes to fill. But I was eager, a team-player, and ready to go. Somehow, I got the job.

This is running on much longer than I planned, so I'll break this now and continue later with another installment of the story. Stay tuned.

The Heretic is coming! a bookstore near you. My local independent bookstore called last week, asking me to come and sign copies of "Heretic of Set," the second book in my "Age of Conan" trilogy. Experience has shown this means that the distributors have them, but it will likely be at least a week or two (longer in some cases) before Amazon and major chain book stores get them.

There's a lesson for you. If you're really eager to get a new book by a favorite author, you may do better to order it through a good, local, indie bookstore than waiting for it to show up at a major chain. (Not all indies are good, and not all good book stores are indie, I know that, but that's why you need to get out there, find a good one, and develop a relationship.) You get your book quicker, and support diversity in booksellers too.

Hey, that reminds me: it's not too early to order that "Scion of the Serpent" book too! :)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Assorted Small News

Just got my rewrite notes for the upcoming MechWarrior Dark Age novel, Trial by Chaos. I've barely had a chance to look at them, but it doesn't look bad. I may be busy for a while until I get it turned around. Publication date on this one is rushing up.

My wife, Chris, has turned in a proposal for a second Alias novel. Fingers crossed.

There's been some discussion of my Age of Conan novels on the forums at the official Conan site, so I decided to jump in with both feet. Check it out.

I should be appearing at the Orycon science fiction convention, Portland, OR, early November. Though I'm currently trying to get the attention of someone in programming, as they've put me on ONE panel. Is it about writing, Conan, MechWarrior, or anything like that? It's on STRESS! Actually, it sounds like it could be an interesting panel, but since I'm doing only one convention this year, I'd like to have a little bigger presence. Hopefully I can at least get in on Chris' signing so people can get the new Conan books signed.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Cover I Can't Show You

This is the cover for my upcoming MechWarrior Dark Age novel Trial by Chaos that will be released next year. Unfortunately, I can't let you see it.

The cover art (which is quite nice, by the way) depicts a new unit in the MechWarrior miniatures game which will be released at about the same time as the book, and the nice folks at WizKids don't want to spoil the surprise for dedicated game players.

So it's all classified. The art. The cover. I suspect I'm not even supposed to tell you what the unit is called, or what kind of unit it is, so I'm not going to.

Nyah, nyah!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New Love (Bug)

This news is several weeks old, but I haven't gotten around to posting it here. We mourn the passing of an old and faithful family member, and welcome a new one.

R.I.P. "The Tick"
Back at the end of July, I had an accident in our beloved 2001 TDI New Beetle, "The Tick." I lost a tire and spun out of control at highway speed, smashing backwards into a guard rail. It was a close thing, but the car was totaled. Fortunately, I was not. Thanks to those crafty VW engineers and a side-impact airbag, I walked away with nothing but a few aches and pains from the impact.

This was a great car. The turbo-diesel motor had plenty of pep, and delivered between 40-50MPG depending on the kind of driving we were doing. The roomy interior made it one of the few cars I can comfortably get my 6' 6" frame into (yes, all those New Beetle "The Arch" commericials are true). It was smooth and fun to drive, and as a said, the crash protection was outstanding.

When we learned that the car was going to be totaled, we didn't hesitate for a moment, and started searching for another TDI New Beetle. Unfortunately, it was between model years, and with fuel prices being what they are these days, a TDI New Beetle was hard to find.

But not impossible...

Introducing, "Herbie, the New Love Bug"
I phoned around and located a TDI Beetle at a dealer about 60 miles from us, DeLon Volkswagen in Salem, OR. The car was a TDI, and had several options that had become near-necessities after "The Tick" had spoiled us with them for a while, such as the sun-roof and heated leather seats. It also had some other goodies like a 5-disk CD changer plus an in-dash single-disk MP3 player. So far, perfect. It also came equipped with the Electronic Stabilization Program, which might help save it from just the sort of thing that killed the poor Tick.

So far, so good. With cars so scarce, we didn't expect a choice of color, but I had to ask. "It's white," the salesman said, "with a black interior." There was a hesitation. "There is one thing that is unusual about the car. " More hesitation. "It has the Herbie kit."

Sure enough, the car had been created as part of the promotional tie-in with the 2005 film, Herbie, Fully Loaded. Well, you can see the picture.

Okay, if there are two people in the world wacky enough to drive around a Herbie every day, it's Chris and I. Chris says it's like being in parade with only one car in it. It is not a car you can go unnoticed in. People stop in their tracks. Kids point and make their parents watch as we drive by. People pull up next to you on the freeway and gawk. Everyone talks to you in parking lots.

It's fun, but you can't go unnoticed, and we feel compelled to maintain certain standards of behavior driving the car. No screaming or flipping people off in traffic. No cutting people off (unless the villains deserve it, of course!). You must always be considerate. It's a lot of pressure.

On the other hand, people are (usually) considerate to Herbie too. They seem to take extra care not to bump him in parking lots. They let him into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Kids always, always smile at you. It's a fair trade.

We're getting custom plates for the car. "HERBIE" was taken, unfortunately, but we're getting our second choice: "NEW LUV." The original Herbie the Love Bug was an original Beetle, so obviously this is a "New Love Bug." It's more than appropriate that Chris, a romance writer, is now the owner of a "Love Bug." It should get some attention parked outside her book signings. Hey, it's our car!

Appropriate. Ironic. Iconic. All of the above.

You know, you don't choose Herbie--

Herbie chooses you!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Puzzling out reviews

One of the more interesting and controversial features of Amazon (copied by other bookselling sites as well, but most significant on Amazon) is the ability of readers to post reviews of books they have (supposedly) read.

There have been many horror stories, of course, of trolls posting sham negative reviews, of stalker/"fans" obsessively slamming certain author's books, and even of low-life-types who post reviews that are thinly disguised ads for their own books. There are reviews that express a reader's anger at something besides the book itself: the publisher, or the editor, or some political leaning different than their own. Some just seem to be listening to the angry voices in their head.

Of course, the truth is like the disclaimer on those web polls, "this is not a scientific survey." A huge number of positive or negative reviews may say something about a book, but neither will insure that your opinion will go along with the pack. Not that the reviews are useless, but they're most useful when you read skeptically, looking for the poster's real agenda before taking their opinions over seriously.

Trouble for some authors is, people are lazy. They don't read any of the reviews. They look at the "rated three stars out of five based on six reviews." Thing is, with a low number of reviews like that, it only takes one crank giving you a one-star review to really throw off your curve. If you get they guy with the voices in his head that day, you're SOL.

Some of my writer friends say I shouldn't look at them at all, and they have some valid points. The commericial importance of these reviews is dubious (though I think there is some), and a writer can't let a bruised ego stop them from writing. But I'd rather know that not know, and at least be able to try to deal with a nightmare review if it comes my way. Generally, I find the posititive reviews to be encouraging, and I'm able to ignore or dismiss most of the negative ones (and sometimes even learn something from them).

But speaking personally, the Amazon reviews have been pretty kind to me. Looking at Amazon USA, my novels average a solid four-and-a-half stars.

Anthologies with my work do a little poorer, but the worst-ranked one is three-stars. That one has a one star-review, a two star, and two four-star reviews. The one-star guy just diagrees with the premise of the book (in a way I can't totally disagree with, but I wasn't the editor), and the two-star guy doesn't even realize that it's an anthology, repeatedly calling it a "novel."

Still, not much to complain about.

But it gets more complicated when you can't even understand the review. I'm speaking of the German release of my MechWarrior novel, "Fortress of Lies." I'm very excited about this book, as it's my first foreign translation of a novel (assuming you don't count the novel-length fiction that I wrote for the Sierra PC game "Outpost 2"). I also have a lot of German ancestry on my father's side, so it's kind of nice to appear there.

Well, there's a review there now. Click the link there if you want to read it yourself. If you can read it yourself.

I can't.

Okay, I admit to taking two years of German in high-school. But I didn't do that great the first year, and nearly flunked out the second year due to the deadly combination of my poor study habits and girlfriend problems (don't ask). What I did retain from all that consists of a few words and stock-phrases. But this review is well beyond my poor abilities.

I can read the stars, of course. Three of them. Not that bad really, but one hopes for better.

I could blame the translator of course (a cop-out, and an unfair one, but usually a safe bit of denial for the author), but I don't think that works in this case. See, I pasted the text into Yahoo's "Babblefish" translator program, to get some idea of what the review said. Machine translation is a very inexact business, but it's better than nothing (and better than my grasp of German). At least some of it is understandable. But some of it comes out like this:

"But in addition far down more. It is at the beginning of surely unusual to read itself in in the MW:DA universe above all, if one, as I, over one decade Classic BattleTech read."

But I can puzzle out enough to know that the reader seems to object to the books supposed similarity to a classic BattleTech novel. There seems to be an implication there that I copied it. Fact is, it was published here a decade ago, maybe longer, and I've never even heard of it, much less read it. It's possible that the main connection the reader sees is in that it has father-son issues between characters (well, it's uncle-nephew-cousin issues in the case of my novel).

If so, that's annoying, as at least half the novels ever written come down, on some level, to father-son issues (or at least parent-child issues). Of course, it could also be that they're saying the writing sucks. Hard to be sure.

Why is this so annoying? It is a three-star review, after all, which isn't that bad. It isn't as though I attach huge importance to these reviews. I generally enjoy the good ones, and ignore the bad ones. It isn't as though I intend to prepare a rebuttal for the review. It's ultimately one person's opinion, and you can't write a rebuttal to that.

I guess, finally, that it is because I can't understand it well enough to know how to respond to it.
It's not knowing exactly how I failed to satisfy the reader. It's not being able to prepare a defense of the book (valid or not) in the court of my own head.

Damn. There go those voices again...

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Message from Der Governator

Warning, very silly content ahead. Sometimes, my hobby of collecting and customizing 1/6th action figures, my deranged imagination, and the kind of waking fever-dream that comes from too long under deadline, converge in front of my digital camera. Then things like this happen (Site also contains cover thumbnails and information links for most of my writing published in book form). Feel free to pass this link along.

The Multiplex Archive

New Books in Stores

The first book of my Age of Conan trilogy, Scion of the Serpent, is now appearing in stores. I didn't expect it until the official release date of the 27th, but my local bookstore called me last Monday and asked me to come and sign copies, so they're out there in the distribution system, even if your local store doesn't have them yet. Amazon (see link above) was still showing it as coming soon, but hopefully that will change shortly.

(Update September 28th, 2005. This book now shows as available on

The German translation of my first MechWarrior book, Fortesss of Lies, known there as Festung der L├╝gen is also out. The first link will take you to the English edition on Amazon USA, the second to the German edition on also has the English version, if any readers in Germany want it instead (or in addition to).

Chris' Alias book done

Chris' upcoming novel based on the Alias TV series is finished, done, and accepted. The subject (an attack on the nation's oil supply) is more timely than ever. I believe it will be out in March.

Where's Steve?

It's not that I've been neglecting my blog, really. It's just that, as I said when I created this thing, deadlines have been a big part of my life for a long time. In fact, I've spent well over the last year under constantant, unrelenting, deadline pressure, and it's only been getting more intense the last six months.

Well, the good news (for me, anyway) is that I just turned in my upcoming MechWarrior novel, "Trial by Chaos." I still have a final rewrite to do on that book, but I can't start that until I get notes from my editor (in the next day or two probably). But I'm sitting here, for the first time in what seems like forever, with nothing scheduled that I have to do.

Not that I have nothing to do. There's tons of long-delayed work around the house, cleaning, redecorating, remodeling, repairs. I've got my own books to work on (and though I have another MechWarrior novel under contract after this one, I don't think I have to start it for a while yet). I've got a year's worth of recreating to do.

But for the moment, I'm enjoying doing just nothing except what I want to. Right now, I want to enter something in my blog.


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Cool news from Chris

As I hinted earlier, there is indeed nifty news from the office upstairs (literally, I work in a converted garage, she works in the attic). My wife (Christina York, for those that didn't know) has just been offered an ALIAS novel! The title (at least on the proposal, and so far nobody suggested changing it) is Strategic Reserve. It's scheduled for release March of next year, so she'd better get writing!

Congrats, sweetie. I love you, and I'm darned proud of you!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Conan Book Three turned in

I've (finally!) turned in the third book in my "Age of Conan" trilogy, to Conan Properties. My thanks to everyone there, and at Ace, for their patience and support in what has been the most monumentally huge project I've ever worked on. I had no idea what I was signing on for here! I hope you'll all enjoy the finished result when they start appearing in stores this fall.

Completed covers with titles and copy and descriptions can be seen at the official site,

I'm now working on the plot for my second MechWarrior book, so I'm plenty busy the rest of the summer.

Also, I hope (knock on wood) to have some exciting news to share from my wife (and fellow writer) Chris soon.

Venom of Luxur - cover detail

Detail from the cover of "Venom of Luxur," artwork by Justin Sweet.

Reproduced by permission of Conan Properties International.

Venom of Luxur - Cover art

Cover painting for "Venom of Luxur," final book in my upcoming "Age of Conan" trilogy. Breathtaking artwork by Justin Sweet.

Reproduced by permission of Conan Properties International.

Heretic of Set - cover detail

A detail from the "Heretic of Set" cover by Justin Sweet.

Reproduced by permission of Conan Properties International.

Heretic of Set cover art

Cover for the upcoming "Age of Conan" novel (second in my trilogy) "Heretic of Set." Amazing art by Justin Sweet!

Reproduced by permission of Conan Properties International.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Scion of the Serpent" cover art detail

Detail, "Scion of the Serpent" cover art by Justin Sweet.

reproduced with permission of Conan Properties International

"Scion of the Serpent" full cover art.

"Scion of the Serpent" full cover art by Justin Sweet.

reproduced with permission of Conan Properties International.

I've been sitting on this for a while now, but just got permission to release it. Cool, huh?

(Note added much after the fact: I was showing to someone at the local bookstore a couple days ago, and they pointed out something that I, and everyone else I've shown it to, missed in this painting. Look carefully at the background, and remember that this is about the evil snake-cult of Set. See anything?)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Age of Conan web-site

The web site for the Age of Conan, Hyborian Adventures MMORPG (to which my upcoming Stygian novel trilogy is a tie-in) has just gone live.

Lots of pretty pictures, web forums, press-material, and other goodies. Check it out.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Fortress of Lies German edition coming

The cover for the German edition of MechWarrior: Fortress of Lies, which will be out this fall.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

New MechWarrior coming

Oh, one other development to report:

While I haven't gotten the contracts yet, I think this is official enough to report. I'm taking a two-book contract to produce two new novels in the new MechWarrior series. While I'd love to be doing a follow-up to my first MechWarrior book Fortress of Lies, the next book will pick up with a totally different group of characters. I'm supposed to turn the book in mid-summer, and I believe it will be out early next year. The second book on the contract won't appear until 2007, and I don't have a clue what I'll be doing yet.

But I have a lot of fun with the first book, and it's good to be returning to this universe.

Checking in from the mines

Book two of my "Hyborian Age" world-of-Conan trilogy, "Heritic of Set" has been turned in, pounded on (in a good way) by my editor, rewritten (mostly expanded actually, I added another 10K words), and turned in again.

I'm plugging along on the final book, Venom of Luxor. A life-threatening illness with Banzai, one of our two cats, has put me behind schedule. Fortunately, Banzai has taken a dramatic turn back from the brink, and is doing well this week. So is the book.

Back to work.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Oscars with Howard

Steve standing next to the Howard Hughes's "Hercules" flying boat while attending an Oscar party being held there.

photo by Christina F. York

Tonight I took an evening off from the third Conan book to go with Chris to a special benifit Oscar party being held in honor of "The Aviator." It was held at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, about 50 miles from our home.

The Hercules flying boat is indeed a wonder. The mind simply has trouble grasping just how huge it is unless some point of reference is offered. When we first saw the plane, it was in the finally stages of assembly, and a workman was up on the horizontal tail, a surface that I'd guess is about the size of a tennis court. Every time he would walk to the edge of the tail so you could see him, the plane would seem to magically double in size. But when he walked out of sight, it seemed to shrink down again. The entire plane is a gigantic optical illusion.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Conan book turned in

I turned in the second book in my trilogy set in the world of Robert E. Howard's Conan, "Heretic of Set" on Sunday. Now working on the third book, "Venom of Luxur."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Three guys walk into a room...

(I posted this earlier today on the news server at, but I'm preserving it here for posterity)

Three guys walk into a room. One is a television writer, and the other two are science fiction writers who have been hired to help him on a genre project...

TV Guy: Okay, our basic premise is a love-triangle. There's this sailor who's in love with a girl. He's not much of a looker, but he's honest, hard-working and good-hearted. His rival is a mean, violent brute of a guy three times our hero's size, and this is a violent society they live in, so they have to fight for her attentions.

SF Guy 1: So he doesn't have a chance.

TVG: (Smiles) So you'd think, but...

SFG2: Does he have a laser pistol? Some kind of rail gun? Maybe a sentient sea-bottom mining robot as a sidekick who...

TVG: No, no, no, we don't have any of that high tech stuff in this show.

SFG1: I thought this was a genre project?

TVG: Well, it is, but...

SFG2: ...because the thing about visible light lasers is, they aren't actually great weapons because the energy doesn't penetrate and can be reflected. There are some ablative armor systems that...

TVG: No lasers!

SFG2: Sorry. What about the robot?

TVG: No robots. None. Just listen a minute. The little sailor is always able to beat the other guy in a fist-fight because...

SFG1: Is this a martial arts thing? Because I failed gym in high-school and...

TVG: (Sighs) No, there are no martial arts. Just old-fashioned, bare knuckled fighting.

SFG2: That makes no sense then. Because he's just a little guy, and this other guy is much larger. (Smiles.) Wait! The sailor grew up on a heavy gravity planet, right? Well let me tell you why that doesn't work either...

TVG: Both of you, just shut up and listen for a minute!


TVG: (Smiles) Okay then! Here's the twist. The little guy always wins because -- wait for it -- he gets super strength from eating canned spinach.(The Science Fiction guys stare in stunned silence for a while.)

SFG2: That just doesn't work. It's just -- spinach right? Spinach is good for you and all, but super strength?

TVG: We've got this great scene where he lifts a battleship and...

SFG2: No, no, no, that just doesn't work. There just isn't enough food energy in a whole field of spinach.

SFG1: Well with sufficient mechanical advantage and some very complex rigging...

SFG2: The friction in such a system alone would render it unworkable.

SFG1: Show me the math on that! Look, I've got five bucks here. Let's run up a computer simulation and...

TVG: Please, please! There are no levers. No rigging. He has super strength. It'll be a great scene. Very visual and exciting. And remember, this is really about the love triangle, so it's also kind of (grins) Freudian, if you get my drift.(SF Guys stare at him for a moment)

SFG2: He'd have to be converting the mass of that spinach directly into energy somehow.

SFG1: Does it have to be spinach? What if there were an alien plant...

SFG2: One that somehow naturally concentrates fissionable uranium...

SFG1: So he has a fission reactor in his stomach?

SFG2: Maybe just radiothermal, in which case instead of uranium you'd want...

TVG: It's spinach! Just plain old spinach! The kind you get in a can, in the store!

SFG1: Frozen retains more of its nutrients.

TVG: (Sighs) He is not going to carry a brick of frozen spinach in his shirt.

SFG2: Spinach gives him super strength?

TVG: Just go with that premise for a while, okay?

SFG2: Regular old spinach?

TVG: That's right. Just take that as a given.

SFG1: Okay, that's allowed. You're allowed one.

SFG2: So why doesn't the big guy get his own can of spinach?

SFG1: This isn't some alternate world where spinach is a rare commodity is it? He's right. The big guy could just get a can of spinach and beat the snot out of the little guy.

SFG2: Logically, he's bigger, he'd be even stronger, right? I mean, is this proportional to muscle mass or...?

TVG: It only works for our hero! Okay? Just him.

SFG1: So he's some kind of mutant then, with natural super-strength, but the spinach is a catalyst...

TVG: He's not a mutant!

SFG2: Okay, he's in the Navy. What if he volunteered for some kind of secret nanotechnology program...

TVG: Look, he's just a guy. It's just spinach. It only works on him. It's a simple love triangle, a classic rivalry...

SFG2: That's just stupid. Look, you've established a premise here, and the rules say you have to...

(Later that day)

A man and two women walk into a room.

TVG: Okay, our basic premise is a love triangle...

Romance Writer 1: Oh! That's great. I can see why they brought us here, Jill!