The Danger of the New Shiny

So, instead of focusing on the rough draft of The Riddle Box this week, or drilling down on the lines I have to memorize for Hamlet, or just conserving my energy for the crazy roadtrip we have this weekend or the move I should be packing and planning for — I decided I needed a further distraction. Like a new collaborative writing project with my friends.



Let’s talk about the Gray Witch.

“I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.”

– Terry Pratchett

If you do nothing else, follow this link to the transcript I pulled this quote from. Why Gandalf Never Married 1985 Talk by Terr Pratchett. I found this from another quote floating around on Tumblr, and was absolutely floored.

Because, here it is. In 1985, Terry Pratchett beat me to the punch. In a speech he gave at a convention he perfectly explained what I’ve been fumbling around for years trying to express. He summed up Swordpunk in an aside:

“But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber — hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.

To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.

Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of cliches, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.”

The “consensus fantasy universe’. That’s swordpunk. In three goddamn words.

He then proceeds to document the gross dichotomy of gender roles in magic. Wizards are wise, powerful and male — witches are crafty, evil, and female. And that’s troubling and stupid.

It just absolutely flabbergasts me. I’ve been floundering around with these concepts for years, since before I even started work on Spell/Sword, and to find it put so neatly when I was five years old is amazing.

It makes me feel inspired. It makes me feel — I’ll say it — proud. Proud and important, even though it’s completely unwarranted from such a silly book. I want to raise my hand from the back of the speech hall and say “I’m here, Mr. Pratchett! I’m here, and I’m trying. I’m trying to do that thing better! I have three magic users in my book and all of them are female, and through them I’m trying to explore the spectrum. Cotton, wizard of order, seer and battle-mage, the refined and learned wizard of lore and might. Rime, mage of chaos, unfettered and burning Reality like a sun going nova. And The Gray Witch, unknown and unknowable, the magic of forever, of stone and sorrow. I have a witch that is different! SO different!”

Mr. Pratchett peers over his glasses at me, and drums his knuckles on the lectern. An awkward cough fills the sudden silence.

I leap back to the present before some sort of time rift develops or I collapse from Hyper-Anxiety.

Salon Witch, Albert Joseph Penot (1910).
Salon Witch, Albert Joseph Penot (1910).

My witch is different, as I hope the few of you that have read the book can attest.

In lore and legend she is the expected crone, laughing and mad and malevolent. But when Jonas stumbles into her yard with Rime in tow, she is not what he expected — or I hope what the reader expected.

She is gray, all gray like the edge of a storm. She is nude and unconcerned, merry and strange, her brown-eyes still human but beyond that completely Other.

And she is sad. And sure. The greatest curse of all is certainty. Necessity.

The character is overtly sexual, but never in a prurient manner. Her nudity is barely described, as component as the red hat she wears in her wide-bucket garden.

I know so little about her! Writers are supposed to be God, but she eludes me. She frightens me more than a little, which is why I skitter into poetry when I describe her.

The fear and loathing that Mr. Pratchett correctly observes in the depiction of the Dark Feminine I do not truly jettison, but wrap it into the character along with all the strange unknowns of her identity. She is not a gibbering octogenarian that can be dismissed, pitied, or relegated to lesser status. She is a character of ill portent, but should never be seen as a minor force – -she is Beyond. Almost beyond gender entirely, but never quite.

I’ll try to put in some dopey male wizards next time around, Mr. Pratchett. To underline. It’ll have to wait for Book Three, the cast of Riddle Box is already set.

“I’m here,” I whisper across the years and the ocean to Mr. Pratchett. “And so is the Gray Witch. Be careful what you wish for?”



Art is a magic spell.

With each line, each lyric, each spatter of paint, each glob of clay we cast it. Careful and mad we summon the spirits once again, the true power of our race, that we may act as conduit to the Unknown. Even the dullest brute among us calls out to the demi-god of the television remote, the demon of the freeway, the howling eidolon that lurks in stones and stars and the thousand turns of dumb luck.

But artists are the true shamans.

We need it to mean, we need it to matter. With matter we shape the energy latent, the paths untaken. Some see God in the scratch of the violin, some seek God in the twist of wire and glass. Others just want to show the pain, the rain, the song of the train. All energy, all magic, passing through our hands in an instant then gone.

But if we cast proper, cast careful, cast well…the spell can linger. The shape and form of enchantment can suck in air, and its hands close as if by reflex and it shambles forward into the world to wait for a new victim, a new audience. What we make with true hearts can ward and weave the world, sing it quiet into a better form, shine as a light in the dark, cage the dark beast for a time, hum and giggle like a wine-drunk fairy.

So take it serious, take it real, pound your bones to meal. Stomp and stammer and crash and clamor.

Sing a song, write a tale, draw a thing. Dance or build or break or live.

Make it. Make the thing. Cast your spell and keep your eyes clear. Open the gate in the back of your spine and let the magic work.

I Need Reviews!


On Amazon, on Goodreads, on Facebook, scrawled on butcher paper and taped to the side of your car.

Those of you who have already finished reading — please take a second and post a review online. Even if you had problems, especially if you have legitimate criticism. I’m starting from zero promoting the book, and my best ally is word of mouth. This is the quickest and easiest way you can help me – especially with an Amazon or Goodreads review. It helps boost the visibility of the book, and helps new readers make an informed decision.

Negative reviews are no problem — what you hated about the book may be the thing that convinces a new reader to give me a shot.  The initial word of mouth from the book’s release has officially subsided, and now I need to dig in for the long haul. INCREMENTAL GROWTH, BABY. So, if you’ve read the book — please, please take a moment and click some stars and type a sentence or two online. You do that crap on the regular anyway, right?

And, now on to some more unprofessional behavior, tinged by desperation.

I have copies of Spell/Sword to mail out. I will send it to your house. TO YOUR HOUSE. [US only, please.] I can also hook you up with the Kindle version if that’s your preference. If you read this far and you want to give it a shot, just drop me a line in the comments and I’ll get one shipped out. Do I want a review in return? Absolutely — but you can make it as mean-spirited as you desire.

I know the hustle’s hard, but we gotta enterprise, the carnival

-Wyclef Jean

Back to the Airwaves

This is one of my innumerable ‘Hey Blog, What’s Up Old Friend?’ posts.

As is obvious from yesterday’s post, I’m dealing with a lot of grief. My mom passed last week and that post is all I really want to say about it for a while.

Segue from Maudlin to Shameless Self-Promotion — ACTIVAAAAATE.

Stanley Spudowski always elevates the mood.
Stanley Spudowski always elevates the mood.

Fellow fantasy writer C.B. McCullough wrote a lovely review of the book, and it makes me feel like punching the air while riding on the hoverboard from Back to the Future II. I’m going to return the favor and review his work The Path Less Traveled.

Progress on The Riddle Box continues — I met my goal of 30 pages last week, and dagnabbit I’m going to buckle down today and at least write five more.

Pleasant Discovery

It’s always a treat when you stumble upon a new facet of the characters you’re writing.

I’ve been with Rime and Jonas for a while now, through Spell/Sword and in

Phil Noto
Phil Noto

their far, dark future of Lodestar. As every writer must, I know a lot about them. More than I’ll ever subject the reader to, more that would remotely be germane to the narrative. But still I can be surprised, and find out something brand new about my protagonists in the process of writing.

I’ve been working on Riddle Box, the second book, and it’s a murder mystery. It’s completely different from Spell/Sword structurally, and purposefully puts the kids in a radically different situation than the first book.

Today, I discovered that Rime is a huge nerd for mystery stories.

I mean, me too — but Rime is a pretty sour sort, and can be a moody jerk. It is positively delightful to watch her get jazzed up about solving the mystery of The Riddle Box.

What’s next? Am I going to find out Jonas is an opera geek?

black wire fever

black wire fever.

I wrote this poem years ago, trying to explain and capture a certain feeling. An intense anxiety coupled with a desire to interact, to read, to flip between channels, web pages, build a model, read a book, watch a movie – flipping between different apps on my phone over and over. Just punching wires into sockets trying to suck up enough juice to lay quiet, to lay still.

It’s clearly rooted in anxiety, mis-directed psychic energy. It can be turned to

Artist Unknown
Artist Unknown

nothing productive, nothing useful, nothing creative.  Just more and more black wires leading to empty pages , burning through the html of the universe.

I’ve been feeling it a lot lately.

I wouldn’t call it a hell, but it’s definitely one of the tunnels that lead there.

Name of the Knight

Enough people have finished the book to start asking me some pointed questions about it.

Questions like:

1. Wait, what?

2. Is it RHYME or REE-MAY?

3. What’s all this about Jonas being a murderer?  Say it ain’t so!

4. You do realize that the ogre’s name changes in Chapter One?

Artist - Bruno Vergauwen
Artist – Bruno Vergauwen

5. Wait, you killed them? Why are you so horrible?

To which I respond:

1. Dude, I know, right?

2. It’s RHYME, like ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

3. Not telling. Yet. Keep buying books, suckers.

4. [hides in a barrel]

5. Dude, I know, right?

And a couple of people have also asked “So, Jonas keeps mentioning his Master, the knight he served. What’s his Master’s name?”

Here’s the fun part. I have no idea.

Names are very, very important. The best ones appear, fully formed in the savannah of my mind — or I fall upon them like wild beasts in the tall grass.

And I haven’t caught his Master’s name yet.

I know the shape of their story, the gleam in the old man’s eye — but not his name, not yet.

Isn’t this great? It’s like Spell/Sword is spoiler-proof.