#FridayFlash: Robot Money

On a warm February day in Philadelphia, just on the corner of N 6th and Arch St., as the sun slanted across Independence plaza, a robot found a $100 bill. The corner of the torn and soggy banknote was peeking from under a pile of melting snow, the last gray and gravelly remnant of the only snow that had fallen in the winter of 2034.

The robot was not programmed for much independent planning, but like all courier bots, it was linked to CarryMan Incorporated's central computers over the Philadelphia Center City WiFi Network. It took less than 30 milliseconds for the robot to report the unusual sight to Central and to get instructions that allowed it pick up the $100 bill.

With the smooth grace of piezofibronic musculature, the robot shifted its bag of documents from one shoulder to the other, then bent, wiped away the snow and lifted the bill. The robot's eyes and tactile scanners weren't designed for nanometer-scale resolution, but that wasn't necessary to tell that something was wrong.

Another consultation to Central with new information: the bill was counterfeit. Although it had the right engravure, holoimprint and ink conductivity, the embedded RFID nanochip cluster was flickering chaotically. Amid the static-filled, buzzing scanresponse, the cluster was reading as that of a $1 bill. Central concluded that the time spent in the salty slush must have caused the chips to reset to their hardcoded defaults, wiping away the viral spoof code the counterfeiter must surely have embedded. With that code, any bill scanner would have read the bill as a real $100; without it, it was a mismatch like a cowboy hat on the offset engraving of Benjamin Franklin.

The robot queried again: What now, Central? What now?

Evidence of a misdemeanor (not perpetuated by a CarryMan's owner) could be reported to the Philadelphia Police Department at earliest convenience. However, evidence of a felony had to be reported at once. (A case pending before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with whether the CarryMan's owner's connection with the suspected felony had any bearing on the reporting requirement.)

Central thought for a moment, then directed the robot to turn onto Arch St. and enter the Federal Building. While the robot was walking up the gray granite steps, glinting wetly in the February sunshine, Central composed a draft press release and alerted a human in the CarryMan Inc. PR/SM Department. The situation had real potential: a CarryMan robot, setting aside its normal tasks in order to turn in the phoney $100 bill directly to the U.S. Secret Service. As a combined CableNews/Facebook/MindBlast media campaign, the matrix of "robot helping law enforcement" and "CarryMan can handle the unexpected" was a good combination.

Through the big glass doors went the robot. Through the metal detector, through the positron emission tomography array, and up to the information desk.

Central had already sent a note to the Federal Building's main A.I., telling it to expect the robot and explaining about the counterfeit bill. The man at the information desk read the result of the conversation between CarryMan's Central and the USSS's mainframe A.I. The robot was directed to take the phoney bill up to Agent Michelle Argilente, Room 462.

Four minutes later, the robot stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor and turned without hesitation to the right. (Central had requested and received a floor map from the building A.I., which it had passed along to the robot.) In the time it took the robot to move from the elevator area to Room 462, the human in the CarryMan PR/SM Department read the draft press release from Central, made a few word changes and approved it for release as soon as the USSS took possession of the phoney $100 bill. The tweetstream update cloud would be released to all the social media sites 120 seconds after that.

The door to Room 462 was an old fashioned manual door of wood and frosted glass. With a gentle, controlled hand, the robot knocked on the door frame. A woman's voice gave permission to enter.

Seated behind one of six desks was Agent Argilente, identified by the I.D. keycard clipped to her blouse and by the nameplate on her desk. Agent Argilente turned away from the note on her screen, written by the building's A.I. and amended by her boss and by the agent down at the information desk. She stood as the robot entered, clearly aware that CarryMan Incorporated might use a video recording of this moment in a public service ad campaign. A thirteen-year veteran of the Secret Service, Agent Argilente had seen plenty of viral videos of uniformed cops being unnecessarily rude to robots who were just doing their jobs. Such things made bad press for the offending department and punitive amounts of extra paperwork. With a polite expression, she held out her hand for the counterfeit bill.

The robot stepped forward and jammed its left hand into Agent Argilente's neck, hard enough to stab through the trachea and crack the vertebrae in back. With its right hand, it smoothly slipped Agent Argilente's Glock from her shoulder holster. Before any of the other five agents could draw or even move from their seats, the robot fired TAP-TAP, TAP-TAP into the heads of Agent Tomas Corjesu and Special Agent Jennifer Cho. Special Agent Shandi Jenkins also got a TAP-TAP, but the second round went into her shoulder, not her forehead. The robot's aim was thrown off by the firing by the two remaining agents, whose names the robot was unable to read from their I.D. keycards.

Still clutching the phony $100 bill with the viral code-modified nanochip cluster, the robot fell to the floor under the hail of heavy, copper-jacketed slugs, its higher computational functions lost in the shattered, sparking ruin of its chest. The last command in the hijack instructions the robot got from the bill's rogue chipset was to crosslink its main gelcell batteries and release a guaranteed-1000-day energy supply all at once. It took less than 100 milliseconds for the robot to override the safety interlocks and initiate the simultaneous crosslink, as directed.

For more than five seconds, CarryMan Central alternated queries directly to the robot with queries to the Federal Building's A.I., trying to determine A) why it had lost touch with the robot, and B) if it could move on the press release and PR/SM media campaign. The building A.I. told Central that it had a report of shots fired on the fourth floor, but before it could send any additional information, the building A.I. also went offline. A quick check showed that the A.I.s of the surrounding buildings were also offline.

After a full fourteen seconds of thought and analysis, Central drafted a new, very different press release and sent a Red Flag e.mail to a human at the PR/SM Department.

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Tony Noland's 10 Rules of Writing

Tony Noland's 10 Rules of Writing
  1. Good handwriting is for bank clerks.
  2. No dream sequences in Chapter 1.
  3. Semicolons are like nipple pinches: fantastic if occasionally applied with panache, tedious if overused.
  4. Weather isn't a metaphor for anything. Ever.
  5. Bad guys aren't bad guys to themselves or their friends.
  6. First you start writing , then you finish writing. In between, you keep going.
  7. It's OK to say "no" to a project someone invites you to.
  8. Agents and publishers aren't evil just because you aren't their highest priority.
  9. Meeting deadlines isn't just polite, it's good for repeat business.
  10. Everyday real life is full of funny coincidences, but they look stupid in a book.
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Adieu, "Gravity's Rainbow"

As today is the last day of National Novel Reading Month, I'll offer these closing words about "Gravity's Rainbow", copied from the comment I just left over at John Wiswell's blog:
Reading "Gravity's Rainbow" was like running a supermarathon blindfolded over unfamiliar rough ground, while being intermittently tickled by octopi and slapped by BDSM fiends who misinterpreted your acceptance of their way of life with an unspoken desire to join it.

Exhausting, exhilarating and the kind of thing I'm proud of having finished. I'd brag about it if I thought anyone would care.
Unless you're in an MFA program (which I'm not) or hang out with the kind of people who discuss classics in experimental postmodern American literature (which I don't), you will have zero occasion to casually mention that you just finished "Gravity's Rainbow".

Even if you do manage to work it into conversation somehow ("Hey, the Phillies are looking pretty good this year. Think that new power hitter will pan out?" "If he can get under the ball and hit some homers. The way the ball curves when it's hit right reminds me of the way rockets fly in the same parabolic arc, what Thomas Pynchon called 'Gravity's Rainbow'. I just finished that book, actually.") you'll look like an idiot when faced with the obvious follow-up question ("Oh, yeah? What's that book about?" "Um... well... it's hard to explain..."). The book is "about" so much, there's no way to encapsulate it that will do it any kind of justice.

I will say that the book will be almost incomprehensible unless you have a decent working knowledge of all of the following:
  • the history of the London Blitz, the Nazi rocket program and WWII in general
  • polymer chemistry
  • physics, especially as related to ballistics, low-temperature phenomena and metallurgy
  • jazz composition
  • sadomasochistic sexual dominance and submission
  • ESP and paranormal phenomena
  • song lyrics from 1930s and 40s popular music
  • Russian and German
  • mood-altering drugs of all kinds
  • film-making
  • spycraft in the OSS era
Those are just the major areas. If I'd had working knowledge of a dozen other arcane subjects (and if my German were a bit better) , some of the more whipsawingly confusing parts might have made more recognizable sense.

There is a value in reading difficult books. They make you think, they make you slow down to consider every phrase, every nuance. Books like this one serve a different purpose than books that are quicker and more easily digested. I could never write a book like this, nor would I want to. I'm glad such books exist, though, and I'm glad I read this one.

Next year, maybe I'll try Middlemarch.

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No bliss like conjugal bliss

Today's words for Three Word Wednesday are: douse, naughty, pale

A pale and serene moon above
Two people, both naughty, in love
In candlelit house,
Their ardors they douse:
"Conjugal bliss, turtledove!"

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The Copperplate Killer - Part 5

The Copperplate Killer
Part 5

Thyme eased his way through the crowd, spilling more of his whiskey as he went. By the time he was nearing the piano, his glass was more or less empty. He also had taken a good look up the stairs and along the second-floor walkway. A latticework screened off the bedroom doors - enough to preserve some bit of privacy for the clients, not enough to prevent the madame and the bouncers to see who was coming and going from which room. After ten minutes of scrutiny, Thyme was no closer to figuring out where Thomson was. He was debating how he might go upstairs and start "accidentally" knocking on doors when he got lucky.

The madame had a harsh voice that went from molasses sweet when she was cajoling a client, to oxhide rough when she was berating one of the girls. After thanking one of the clients, who was going downstairs with a wide grin and a bounce in his step, she turned to snarl at the girl he'd been with. An argument ensued, which ended when the madame slapped the girl hard across the face. The girl picked up a tray from the floor in front of one of the doors and stomped down the stairs. The handprint on her face brightened to a shade of red like an overheated stove, but whatever pain she felt must have been vastly outweighed by anger. She practically flung the tray at one of the barmen and told him that she was no goddamned waitress or scullery maid, and that he could clear away his own dishes. The slap and the march down the stairs had attracted some attention. A couple of men propositioned her, clearly enticed by the idea of having a woman while she was so furious. With a toss of her head, she named a price and took on upstairs with the first man who agreed to it.

Thyme watched her go. Practically every other man in the vicinity did the same, so he felt safe in examining her closely. As they passed by, she kicked at the door where the tray had lain.

And that's where the son of a bitch is holed up, Thyme said to himself, right there.

At every other door, a whore and her client went in or out about every twenty minutes. The madame kept the girls busy, so the upstairs hallway was an active corridor. As he mentally reviewed what he'd seen since he came in, though, that particular door hadn't opened once. And why would a tray of used dishes be outside a floproom? Anything other than the usual bar food would have had to come from one of the eateries nearby. Therefore, Thomson must have had the tray sent up after being here long enough to get tired of eating pickled eggs, beef jerky and pig's knuckles. The tray had held only one soup bowl and one plate when the girl flung it at the barman, so he didn't have any of his gang with him. And if he was holed up that way, for that long, then he would have already had a girl or two by now and been done with it. He was almost certainly up there alone, killing time and waiting for the 7:05 freight train to Topeka.


Thyme looked around the room for an unoccupied whore. They were doing a pretty good business tonight, and the were all engaged in negotiating with fresh clients. He'd been in enough whorehouses to know that the minutes spent flirting and enticing were as much to allow the girls to rest their thighs between clients as it was to get the clients to pay for more exotic (and more expensive) delights. It took him a few minutes to spot one who wasn't having as much luck as the others, but he found her.

Even for a whore, she was ugly. Pop-eyed and dumpy, the heavy layers of pancake makeup couldn't hide a stupid-looking face badly scarred by the pox. As he sidled up to her, he could see she was drunker than was necessary, and mad as hell that one of her prospects had been snatched away by one of the other girls. Thyme slipped his left hand around her waist, ignoring the scream of pain from the gunshot wound.

He gagged, trying also to ignore the smell of her, a sour mixture of old sweat, whiskey and the leavings of her more recent clients.

She turned in surprise, then put on her best honey face, a visage that was more disgusting than enticing.

"Why, hello, there," she said, "how are you tonight? Lookin' fer some fun?" Her voice was gravelly and slurred, her teeth tobacco stained. Good lord, he thought, how low-rent do they come, anyways?

Thyme, playing the drunk, got through the preliminaries as quickly as he could. They settled on a price for some basic, meat-and-potatoes servicing and, still with his arm around her, he led her across the room. He could hear the snickers and even an outright laugh behind his back as he took her up the stairs, but he made sure to keep his left arm draped around her waist. They went down the hall toward one of the empty rooms.

As they passed by the door to Thomson's room, he reached his free hand up and squeezed her through her loosened bodice, hard enough to make her jump away from him. Like a squaredancer, he stepped in time with her and crashed her against the door. Whorehouse doors are never locked, and it burst open. They went stumbling in, the girl first, held in up front by Thyme's strong arm.

Thomson fired twice, two shots as fast as he could get them off from where he was sitting by the bed. Thyme felt the impact of them in the whore's chest, her body pounded back against his shoulder, thud, thud. If she'd had a scream in her, it came out as an explosive cough, a spray of blood and pieces of lung. Her arms flailed in front of her like a wounded bird. Shielded behind her, Thyme saw Thomson's face go wide with surprise as he stood, still frozen in a gunslinger's half-crouch, his eyes on the bloody froth gushing from her naked chest, visibly appalled by the jerking wreckage of the innocent woman he'd just killed.

A moment was all Thyme needed. His hand had been on his gun the instant they'd crashed open the door.

Now, shooting from the hip underneath the dying whore's arm, he fired at the shocked and immobile Thomson. Once in the left arm, twice in the left leg. Thomson staggered back with each impact, scattering the solitaire game he'd had lain out on the bed. Thyme flung the girl aside and leapt forward. Thomson raised his gun, but Thyme kicked him in the head, swinging his boot around as hard as he could. The brass toepiece caught him on the temple and raked across his face, tearing open Thomson's forehead and snapping his head back. The killer slumped down to an insensate pile, his blood pulsing steadily onto the cheap woven rug.

... to be concluded...

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#NaNoReMo update

Finished "Gravity's Rainbow", after a year of intermittent reading. Maddening, brilliant book with a frustrating, confusing end. It's still too fresh for me to think about how that chaotic, bizarre, unresolved ending might be intended as a mirror (or twisted exemplar) for how all human lives wend their way to one fragmented ending or another.

This line near the end is rendered freakishly difficult to understand by the context of the surrounding sentences:

"The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

If I see oceans of meaning in that sentence, lifetimes of possible reinterpretations, it's because I have not yet shaken off the spell of "Gravity's Rainbow".

Cat person or dog person?

This is me today (the cat, not the dog):

Which are you? The cat or the dog?

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Sexy steampunk woman with an electric drill

Saw this image yesterday on this blog post about what women should and shouldn't wear in a steampunk context:

Attractive, sexy, and interesting, yes, but is anyone else bothered by the fact that she's using an electric drill from the 1950's? This is hardly in keeping with the Victoriana-inspired steampunk ethos, is it?

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#FridayFlash: The Bloom of New Roses

"I really should find Mackay and speak to him about these roses. They're all in bloom together, not staggered at all. At this rate, we won't have a blossom left by July." Lady Barton scowled at the arbor, as though the heavy masses of petals were a calculated personal affront. Her manner was sharp and commanding; the young woman had taken to wealth easily after her marriage. "He must be doing something wrong with the pruning. These look like a pumpkin field, not a proper rose garden."

"The aggressive pruning was a necessary step, Cynthia. You'll no doubt recall that last autumn was exceedingly damp," Lord Barton said, "the perfect conditions for mildew and black spot to spread in the garden. Mackay is to be credited for saving the plants by cutting out all the bad canes. He knows what he's doing. Come have some tea."

Lady Barton turned to the cafe jardin table upon which the service had been laid for them. The Earl did so love his private "lover's teas", which he had often told her were "a welcome bit of romance and fancy in a dull life". She watched as Lord Barton poured, his palsied and liver-spotted old hands making the pot rattle on the rim of her cup with their tremor. Annoyed with her husband as always, she strode toward her chair, her usual flowing beauty marred by winces of visible pain. She eased down into the wicker chair, June sunlight playing across her smooth, satiny body.

"I recall last autumn as being exceptionally fine," she said, taking the cup from him. She picked up the sugar bowl before he could hand it to her, taking three lumps instead of her usual two. "Exceptionally fine indeed."

Lord Barton sucked on his heavy gray mustache in thought, a habit she particularly detested.

"There were a few fine days among the wet," he conceded, "but overall, it was not a good autumn for roses."

She set her spoon down, allowing it to click on the porcelain tabletop. "You are mistaken, but let's say no more about it. Fine or wet, the roses have been ruined by Mackay's handiwork." In a smooth, practiced motion, she drank off the cup in three continuous swallows then set it down hard into the saucer. Nothing could have conveyed more clearly that she did not find the present company either convivial or desirable.

"My dear, you seem out of sorts. Are you arisen from your bed too hastily?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Barton, I've delivered a child, not come back from the wars. After four weeks indoors, I'm desperate for a bit of sunshine and fresh air. Dr. Wickersby is an overprotective fool."

"An abundance of caution is no bad thing, Cynthia. He just wants to be sure you and little William are quite safe. The first few weeks are the most dangerous."

"Wickersby is an old hen and, if I may gently bring it to your attention, after James and William, I believe I know more about childbirth and its aftermath than either he or you."

He bowed his head over the tea service. "As you say, my dear, of course. And yet..."

"And yet what?" She mopped her brow with her lace handkerchief. "My god, this heat is so oppressive! It looked like it would be a fine day, but it's just beastly!"

They sat in silence for a time. Lord Barton sipped his tea, Lady Barton folding and refolding her handkerchief as it dampened with use.

"My dear..."

She rolled her eyes and glared at him.

"I was just going to say that I have good reason to believe that there were a number of pleasant days last autumn. At least, a number of days that were made pleasant for you."

Her hand slowed, nearly pausing halfway to her forehead, lace dangling. It was only a momentary flicker, hardly noticeable. As she mopped, she closed her eyes, pained.

"Don't be an ass, Barton."

He stirred his tea. "Yes, I think the time is right for us to clear the air between us. Cynthia, I've known for quite some time that you and Mackay have been lovers. This point is quite beyond discussion."

"I... that's a lie! You odious, hateful man!" She shook in her chair, gripping the arms until her fingers turned white. Her face was a strange combination of deathly pale with hard reddenings along the cheeks. A fresh sheen of perspiration broke out across her brow.

"Cynthia, please. Marrying you was the easy part. It took me the better part of a year to find and hire Mackay. Do you have any idea how tricky it was to locate a gardener who not only resembled me in face and form as I was when I was twenty years old, but who would have the brass to carry on a pas de deux romantique with the mistress of the house? I think I should be congratulated for throwing him in your path before you took up with someone more unsuitable."

She could only stare at him, the shock of revelation unlike any she ever expected. Discovery, yes. Humiliation, yes. Fury, confrontation, and condemnation, yes, yes, and yes. All of these she had prepared for, but this? This... calculation?

"Of course," he went on, "now that I have what I want from him, and from you for that matter, it's all at an end. I wanted to apologize to you, my dear. You are owed that much."

"A-apologize to me? F-for what?" The words came staggering, shuddering from her.

"Our infrequent marital congregations, which I am man enough to acknowledge as tepid and unsatisfying, must surely have suggested to you the reason for this outré escapade. Though I am unable to sire an heir to the estate, I have no desire to let it slip from my line. I needed a wife young enough, passionate enough, and foolish enough to carry on an affair under my nose. I also needed someone to father sons that I could plausibly claim as my own. James and William look enough like me that no one could question their patrimony. For the purposes of the Barton name, they are my sons and I shall raise them as such. The two people who know the truth are Mackay and you. Mackay was conveniently beaten to death last night in a pub incident I arranged. That just leaves you."

"I... I..."

"I don't expect congratulations for my thoroughness, Cynthia. I'm telling you because, after providing me with what your low-born relatives would no doubt call an 'heir and a spare', you deserve to know the truth. The curare that Wickersby has been feeding you since William was born has provided ample evidence of a lingering childbed fever. As the doctor will attest, should there be an inquest, such fevers can flare up at any time, even weeks later."

The old man rose from the table, drawing a dropper bottle from his vest pocket and circling behind her chair. Writhing but unable to stand, she tried to push his hands away. Old, spotted, and palsied though they were, his hands were still strong. He ran his fingers into her hair and gripped a handful, pulling her head back hard.

"I hoped the tea would be enough to do the job, my dear, but it seems I shall have to augment your final dose. Just to make sure you don't vomit it back up, these drops will go in the nostrils and straight to the lungs. It's a trick I learned in Bangalore. Never thought I'd have occasion to use it again."

With weak and shaking fingers, she tried to claw at him, but her French kidskin gloves rendered her nails useless.

"This will sting rather brutally, my dear, but it will be over soon. Thank you for James and William. I will forever be in your debt. Goodbye, Cynthia."

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Image credit: http://www.biltmore.com/images/content/garden_walled_038.jpg

#NaNoReMo update - Gravity's Rainbow

Progress has been slower than expected on "Gravity's Rainbow". February has been busy for me, but the main issue is that the reading itself is getting harder, something I wouldn't have thought possible. The plot is getting horrifically tangled, with dense interweavings of half a dozen main plots and as many more subplots. The point of view is liquid, shifting from scene to scene and shifting within a scene via intricate, head-hopping terpsichore.

From one sentence to the next, the POV might shift, the tone and language might change, it's never clear what actions or events are real and what are the imaginings (or mis-rememberings) of one or more of the characters. It's a maddeningly complex book that requires close attention to every sentence. To read it quickly would take a smarter, clearer-headed person than your humble servant.

I could never write a book like this. It's a masterpiece, a work of crazy genius.

Here's a sample of the prose. In this scene, Enzian and Katje, two former camp prisoners of the SS Oberkommander Blicero, are meeting. During their captivity, Blicero involved them both in games of sadomasochistic sexual abuse. In a twisted Stockholm syndrome, both of them came to love Blicero. Now, with Blicero gone - possibly on the loose in the post-war chaos of 1945 Germany, possibly dead - Katje is making her way to freedom (and to get revenge on a would-be assassin along the way). She meets Enzian, who is now trapped in the role of commander/mascot/prophet of a group of semi-organized refugees. As they circle around each other, trying to determine how much they can trust, they discuss Blicero.

"You must have seen him more recently than I." He speaks quietly. She is surprised at his politeness. Disappointed: she was expecting more force. Her lip has begun to lift. "How did he seem?"

"Alone." Her brusque and sideways nod. Gazing back at him with the best neutrality she can be certain of in the circs. She means, You were not with him, when he needed you.

"He was always alone."

She understands then that it isn't timidity, she was wrong. It is decency. The man wants to be decent. He leaves himself open. (So does she, but only because everything that might hurt has long been numbed out. There's small risk for Katje.) But Enzian risks what former lovers risk whenever the Beloved is present in fact or in word: deepest possibilities for shame, for sense of loss renewed, for humiliation and mockery. Shall she mock? Has he made that too easy - and then, turning, counted on her for fair play? Can she be as honest as he, without risking too much?


"Blicero and I," he begins softly, watching her over burnished cheekbones, cigarette smoldering in his curled right hand, "we were only close in certain ways. There were doors I did not open. Could not. Around here, I play an omniscient. I'd say don't give me away, but it wouldn't matter. Their minds are made up. I am the Berlin Snoot supreme, Oberhauptberlinerschnauze Ensian. I know it all, and they don't trust me. They gossip in a general way about me and Blicero, as yarns to be spun - the truth wouldn't change either their distrust or my Unlimited Access. They'd only be passing a story along, another story. But the truth must mean something to you.

"The Blicero I loved was a very young man, in love with empire, poetry, his own arrogance. Those all must have been important to me once. What I am now grew from that. A former self is a fool, an insufferable ass, but he's still human, you'd no more turn him out than you'd turn out any other kind of cripple, would you?"

Terrific book. It's a difficult read, but terrific.

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The Copperplate Killer - Part 4

The Copperplate Killer
Part 4

At 11:00 they switched from brandy to black coffee. Long before they'd finished the bottle, blood had seeped through Thyme's bandages, a marked stripe of red across the cloth. With a needle and thread borrowed from the dinette's owner, he'd repaired his torn shirtsleeve, covering it all up. He flexed his left hand and arm, let the throbbing ache kindle into a burning pain.

Jesus Christ on a sidesaddle, that's one way to sober up quick, he thought. If it came to a fistfight with Thomson or one of his gang, he wanted to be ready for it. However, as he played out the scene in his mind, he only saw this capture going one of two ways: fast or not at all. Thomson was too smart to stand around throwing punches when he could take it on the lam. He might, and probably would, use one of his boys as a distraction to cover his escape.

But only if I let him.

Besides, that's what the sheriff and his deputies were for, to handle the distractions while he went straight for the main prize.

They rode around the long way to the stockyard office and tied their horses up under the copse of slippery elm alongside the water tower. Back at the dinette, Charlie had suggested walking across town to be more stealthy in their approach, but Thyme had rejected it. A walk that long on public streets would give spotters and snitches a chance to run ahead and give warning. After all, there were other lawbreakers among the rowdies at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Thyme didn't want Thomson blown because some two-bit grifter got his feathers ruffled.

Across the side of the stock pens, and along the railroad's right-of-way, by the light of the three-quarter moon they approached the saloon from the back. As they drew closer, the stink from the fenced-in yard began to overwhelm all else, even the stockyard smells of manure and animal sweat. The Silver Dollar was a busy place every night of the week, and tonight was no exception. The clay pipes that ran from the convenience troughs by the back door dumped their load of urine and beer vomit onto open ground about a hundred yards from the building. The reek from the outhouses suggested they were overdue to be moved onto fresh ground. Charlie stepped onto an especially soft spot in the spongy ground and cursed. Jeremiah put a hand to his mouth and gagged, breathing through his nose.

Thyme called for silence with a chopping motion of his gun hand. He pointed to the cluster of men around the trough. They came and went, but there were always at least a couple of men relieving themselves. However, they were all more intent on taking care of business and getting back to their drinking than they were at paying any attention to the four figures out in the shadows of the storage sheds.

As they'd planned, the sheriff took his deputies around the east side of the building while Thyme circled around the west side. Much of the clientele came and went, but the regulars and the staff would certainly know Roxborough and his men by sight. The plan was for them to stay off in the shadows of one of the storehouses and come in fast once Thyme gave them the signal. As soon as they came in, there would be an exodus, and Thyme didn't want Thomson to slip away in the crowd.

He gave them an extra moment or two, then stepped to the side of the Silver Dollar, unbuttoned and watered the ground near a convenient tree. For this, he got a string of curses cast down from an upper window. One of the whores, taking a break between customers, used a lot of short words to tell him, not only that all pissing was to be done out back, but that her opinion of his parentage, upbringing and general demeanor was a low one. He let her go on, then shouted something unintelligible back as he rebuttoned and went in the front door.

It was like any other saloon that catered to cowboys, railroad rowdies and farm laborers. The air was thick with cigar smoke and cheap cologne, the girls wore more paint than clothing and the noise was like standing under a waterfall. A piano and a violin were working away somewhere in the room, but it was impossible to tell where. Men drank, laughed, swore and drank some more. Thyme staggered forward, bumping his way toward the bar, gaining himself more curses. With every encounter, he gave a half-bow of apology, sweeping the place through slitted eyes as he turned and turned again. The bar and bar rail, the stage, the long drinking tables, the round gaming tables, the stairs leading to the rooms... Thomson wasn't here. Not on the floor, anyway. That meant he was upstairs, either with a girl or holed up alone, or he was in one of the private gambling rooms.

He tried to favor his gunshot wound during his way across the room, but at least twice, his assumed staggering brought him bumping against a patron who took exception and responded with a shove to his shoulder. The involuntary intakes of breath he covered with a rheumatic cough. His arm was throbbing by the time he made it to the bar. It took a minute or two before he got the attention of one of the barmen.

"Hey," he shouted, "gimme a whiskey. And when did you get rid of the back rooms?"

"What? What do you mean?"

"The back rooms, the gambling rooms. When did you get rid of them?"

The barman took his money and poured him a tumblerful. "You're misinformed, friend. We didn't get rid of the private rooms."

"You most certainly did!" Thyme gestured with his glass, sloshing a third of it onto the bar. "Them boys are playin' their cards out here, not in the room. Stands to reason you closed them up. Am I right?"

"You're drunk. Both of the rooms are where they always have been. Roulette over there," - the first door on the east wall - "faro and poker over there," - the second door - "and both of them for a high-toned class of gambler." He looked Thyme up and down, wrinkling his nose at his patched clothes and the smells that clung to him. "If you're looking for a game, I'd suggest you try one of the floor tables." He stepped away to take care of another customer, leaving Thyme to nod and mumble thanks.

So, he thought, not in the gambling rooms.

In truth, he hadn't really expected Thomson to be in them, but knowing that they catered to more serious gamblers ruled them out completely. The girls and the hootch would be a cut above the usual in those rooms, but the table stakes would be commensurately higher. Thomson was a low-born snake, and wouldn't know how to act among the satin-vest-and-silver-buckle set. That left the rooms upstairs.

Was he with a girl or was he alone? Did he have his boys with him? By Thyme's calculations, Thomson would have been holed up here since yesterday. It was the kind of place he favored, by temperament and by occupation, but this was a saloon, not a hotel. The bedrooms upstairs were meant to be used frequently and in rotation, not reserved for a guest to occupy for hours on end, let alone a day or more. When Thyme had arrived in town this morning, he'd checked with the hotels and had eliminated all of them. Therefore, Thomson had to be here. But where? Which room?

... to be continued...

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Writing a synopsis

This post by Lynette Labelle on How to Format the Dreaded Synopsis made me think of how I wrote the synopsis for Verbosity's Vengeance. My research suggested that a 3-page synopsis is most commonly requested, so that's the standard I used. Mine ended up being about 900 words, well within the other most commonly requested synopsis length, 1000 words.

The software I used for writing, yWriter5, has a pane for you to write a brief description of each scene. I used this for organizing my thoughts as I wrote. Only later did I find the "Generate synopsis" command. It collates and exports all of those scene descriptions as a Word file.

After stripping out the markings of "Chapter 4, Scene 2", or whatever, I found that I had more than 5000 words of description. Editing it down was just what you'd expect: focus on the essentials, cut everything else. It took several rounds of cutting to get it down to under a thousand words. I wrote the synopsis in order to have it ready at a moment's notice when flocks of agents started requesting it. I'm still waiting for that, but I found that one of the most useful aspects of doing this was to identify the slow parts of my novel.

When I had to cut and cut and cut, I looked for the scene descriptions that didn't add anything to the synopsis. That led me to wonder what that scene added to the book. I also found that long chunks of the book were people sitting around talking. In some cases they were building character depth, but others were just infodumping.


This distillation also showed me that some plot developments happened without good support, or in a jarring fashion. It led me to write a few new bridging scenes, to refocus some characters, and to merge some scenes in order to trade around some dialogue.

Creating the rough draft synopsis was greatly facilitated by the yWriter5 software, but the process of editing it down to three pages was still hard work. However, I can attest to the value of that work, and to the improvements it can engender in your novel.

Anyone with experience writing a synopsis want to chime in? Did you see the same salutatory effect?

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How to query: the Hook, the Look and the Book

The results of the first round in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest have me thinking about the submission and judging process. This process for the ABNA is not terribly different from the normal process for submitting a book to a publisher. These steps can be summarized (in order) as the Hook, the Look and the Book.

The Hook Also known as the pitch, the hook is a brief statement of what the book is about and who it might appeal to. Usually around 300 words, the first part is not that different from jacket copy. It's a couple of sentences that will hook the reader and make them want to read more. For a query, this will also include details about the intended audience, perhaps by way of noting its similarities (or dissimilarities) to familiar published works.

The Look If your hook is good enough to make the agent or publisher want more, the "look" is just that: enough text to allow him or her to get a good look at your prose. The reader might ask for a synopsis of the whole book (often three pages) at this point, or they might wait until later. The main purpose of the look is to get a feel for the writing. A good hook doesn't guarantee good prose. (This stage is known as a "partial", among other terms.) This would usually be the first chapter, or some set number of words, e.g. 5K.

The Book If the reader liked what they saw when they got a look, they'll ask to see the whole book. A strong opening might yet fall apart for any number of reasons. The synopsis gives a plot summary, but it doesn't convey the feeling of the prose. Characters, dialogue, action, the pacing, the ending, etc. - any of these could be wrong for this agent or publisher. This is the time when the reader will decide if this book is worth investing in. It might be right or it might be wrong, again, for any number of reasons. If the book is good, an offer might be made.

You can have a great book, but if your hook isn't up to scratch, no one will ever get that far. Having made it through Round One of ABNA tells me that my Hook was good. I'm still waiting to see how the judges react to the Look. I'll know on March 13. After that, should fortune so smile upon me, it will finally be time for my Book to enter the arena.

Did I miss any steps? Is there a crucial bit of Secret Sauce that anyone would like to share?

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#FridayFlash: "... but don't worry."


"North Korea detonated its third nuclear weapon in an underground test, but don't worry. Their missiles cannot reliably put a payload in orbit, let alone hit the continental U.S."


"We believe Iran's missiles are capable of reaching Israel, but don't worry. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has proven remarkably effective again any ground-targeted assault."


"Our drone attacks may have caused a temporary uptick in Al Qaeda recruitment, but don't worry. Their international organization has been dealt a serious blow."


"Money and technical expertise flows from Saudi Arabia into these extremist groups, but don't worry. We are exerting every effort to block that support."


"The most extreme elements, those who would benefit from the resultant chaos, would no doubt welcome this political catastrophe, but don't worry. A deal of some kind will no doubt be struck at the eleventh hour."


"Roughly translated, the communique means 'better to burn the world and rule over the ashes than to tolerate the heathen in your midst', but don't worry. These are the extreme views of what we believe to be a very isolated group of individuals."


"Big as a small office building, this asteroid would do incalculable damage were it to hit Earth, but don't worry. Its orbit is such that it will miss us by twenty thousand miles."


"True, twenty thousand miles is barely the thickness of a sheet of paper in cosmic terms, but don't worry. Since those satellites are being moved out of the way, the asteroid's orbit won't be changed by anything it might inadvertently hit."


"Yes, Senator, we failed to connect the dots before 9/11, but don't worry. The lessons of that horrible day have been taken close to heart."


"All we lack is the political will, the money, and, quite frankly, the fire in our bellies to put all the pieces together, but don't worry. The technology to launch an asteroid-capture-and-mining system is already available today - we just have to make sure we capture the asteroid, not crash it!" (general laughter from the audience)


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#ABNA Round One - Good news, Grammarian!

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition hit its first checkpoint today as the Round One winning selections were announced. In each of the five categories, 400 entries will go on to Round Two, for a total of 2000 Round Two entries. The selections in the Science-Fiction / Fantasy / Horror category included this very familiar title:
Hey... Tony Noland? I know that guy!
As you might imagine, I'm pleased to be on the right side of the winnowing fork. Round One was based on the 300 word query pitch. Round Two will consist of a read and critique of the 3000 - 5000 word excerpt submission.

The next checkpoint is March 12, when Amazon will announce the 500 Quarter-Finalists and launch the eBook version of each Quarter-Finalist's Excerpt. These will be open for all to read.

On to Round Two!

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Using poetic license

Today's words for Three Word Wednesday are: cumbersome, morbid, rampage

"Cumbersome" cannot be rhymed
(at least in a lim'rick well-timed);
From morbid obsession
With meter progression,
This rampage poetic, sublimed

I'm pretty sure that the verb-form neologism "sublimed" as in, "having been made sublime" will raise hackles among my readers, but if ever there was an occasion for poetic license, a poem is it.

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The Copperplate Killer - Part 3

The Copperplate Killer
Part 3
Four hours later, Thyme, Sheriff William Roxburough and his two deputies, Charlie Coniers and Jeremiah Zenkhaus, were sitting at a table in the Golden Sunset Dinette. Thyme had a wide bandage on his upper arm, a patch of bloodstained gray under his torn shirtsleeve. Charlie's nose was red and swollen, his eyes beginning to blacken. The conversation during the meal had been formal and stilted, to say the least. 

However, over double helpings of chicken fricassee and cornpone biscuits, passed around family style, Charlie had grudgingly admitted that being shot was worse than being punched in the nose, but he was still sore about it. Now, over the coffee and gooseberry pie, the talk was of various injuries, trivial and serious, that each of them had suffered during their respective careers as lawmen. Generous measures of apple brandy served to liven up the coffee and the conversation.

Sheriff Roxburough said, "It's a lucky thing you got off with just a crease, Thyme. You know I damned near killed you today, don't you? If you'd just told me you were a federal marshal right from the start, none of that ever would have happened."

Thyme smiled and sipped his coffee. "There's truth to that, to be sure. You have my apology for my... unorthodox manners today. I was acting under orders. Fact is, I'm afraid I was still sizing you up; before I had a chance to come clean with you, things got out of hand. By that time, I knew you wouldn't be in a mood to listen to me, let alone trust me, until you had a chance to go over to the telegraph office and verify my bonafides."

"What do you mean, sizing him up?" Charlie said. "You could see he was the sheriff, couldn't you? It ain't like he keeps his badge in his hip pocket, like some I could mention."


"No, that's a fair question, Sheriff. No offense taken. See, the man I'm on the trail of, this Roger Thomson, he and his gang have got a string of lawmen in his pocket, all across the territory. Some he bribed, some he blackmailed. Twice, we've had men close in on him, working with local lawmen, only to have the rug pulled out from under us." He shook his head. "Anytime one of our boys gets killed in the line of duty, it puts us all in a prickly pear mood. My superiors in Washington D.C. sent out strict orders for us to fan out quietly and find the son of a bitch. Stay low to the ground and don't call attention. It took a while, but I tracked him here."

"Well, like I said before," Roxburough replied, "you ain't the only one who's after him. Those two we have in the cage back in the jail? They shot up a saloon over by the stockyards two days ago. I thought you might be another killer for hire, come to rile things up. Those two were a handful and a half to bring in. Turns out they were looking for him, too, only they were out for that $500 reward you mentioned. West Texas Thomson, the Copperplate Killer."

"Hey, how come he's called 'The Copperplate Killer'?" Jeremiah said. "What's that mean, anyway?"

Thyme reached into his vest and took out his wallet. His silver badge rested once again in its accustomed place against the inner flap. He held up his official authorization card, heavy parchment on pasteboard, printed with an intricately detailed lettering. "He got the nickname after he killed the two marshals. They had copperplate-printed identification cards just like this one. I've heard rumors that he made up that name himself." Thyme put his wallet away and buttoned his pocket closed. "He's got a smart mouth on him, does our Mr. Thomson, and a high opinion of himself. I look forward to meeting him."

The table fell silent. The deputies looked at the sheriff, who was leaning back in his chair and looking at Thyme.

Thyme sipped his coffee and said nothing.

"So..." Roxborough said, after an uncomfortable pause, "what's your plan? Track him down, and then...?"

"Then I bring him in. I'm not going to gun him down, if that's what you're asking. A fine tribute to two federal marshals that would be, a cold-blooded murder in a fleabag hotel. No," Thyme said, "my instructions were to bring him back, alive and intact. A fair number of the boys want to spit in his eye. I'm gonna arrest him, escort him back to Washington and see that he gets a fair trial before he's hanged." He lifted his coffee cup in a toasting gesture. "After that, I'm gonna piss on his grave and whistle him to the devil. I figure he'll be in the ground by Christmas."

Jeremiah said, "You that sure he's here? And that you're gonna get him?"

"With your help I will. $500 is a lot of cash; that kind of honey draws lots of flies. Based on what you've told me, it looks like they're closing in. I need to round Thomson up quick before the bounty hunters get to him. He won't come quietly, and he's more than a match for the average manhunter. If they find him before I do, I'm gonna be left with a stack of warm bodies and no arrest." Thyme massaged his bandaged arm, wincing a bit while stretching it out. "As things stand... well, I could use your help. As a federal lawman, I don't qualify for the reward bounty, but you all would."

"Well," Roxborough said, consulting his pocket watch, "it's only 8:30. If you were serious about waiting until midnight to go after him, we'd better have another slice of pie while we talk strategy." He reached out for the brandy bottle, then waved to their server.

... to be continued...
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My revised "Bell Jar" cover

From this:

To this:


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Reactionless thrusters

Reactionless thrusters have been a convenience of science fiction for decades. After all, the plot mechanics of a novel are simplified if the spaceship never has to worry about running out of propellant.

Now, researchers in China claim to have developed a scaled prototype of a microwave relativity engine that functions as a reactionless thruster. Energy goes in via microwaves, they bounce around for a while in a resonance chamber... and that's it.

No propellant expelled, no fuel gets used up. As Galileo would say, "Eppur si muove."

I'm going to go ahead and call BS on this, not merely because this violates the laws of physics as we understand them and because Boeing Aerospace worked with the lead inventor for a while then scrapped the project. My rejection is based on two things:
  1. Chinese scientists are always coming out with amazing, revolutionary, miracle stuff which seems to work only in China.
  2. The thrust is toward the wide end of the resonance cavity. This suggests that the effect observed is not a quantum force imbalance but the result of outbound radiation pressure. Nifty, but not revolutionary and not something that would work in outer space.
I recall reactionless thrusters making an appearance in Ringworld, one of the classics of science fiction. Larry Niven showed a perfect understanding of the system when he had Wu embed his scooter in the middle of a flying castle. With no propellant exhaust, the thruster can be in the center of mass of your object. This makes steering much easier.

This EmDrive is a nice bit of science fiction. It'll be fun to watch the media reaction until this gets disproven.

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#FridayFlash: The Monster

Again, I open the door.

Again, I turn on the light.

Again, I descend.

The knife in my hand is heavy, but the balance is so fine that it seems to float at my side. The steel is a surgical-quality molybdenum alloy; the handle is hand-carved Sumatran rosewood. It's an excellent knife, capable of severing thigh-thick meat and bone with one swipe. I can't remember how I got it, just that I paid dearly for it, with money and with more than money.

How I hate it. How I hate everything.

I reach the bottom of the stairs and turn, eyes closed. After so long, I don't need to see it to know where it is. I don't need to see it, don't want to see it, wish I couldn't see it.

In the darkness behind my closed eyes, I step forward. Six paces will bring me to it. There is nothing else in the basement, nothing between me and it. No matter how many times I've tried to wall it up, to hide it, to bury it... it is always there.

Six paces.

Eyes closed or eyes open, it is at my feet. I can hear it rasping, hear the sucking, tubercular rhythm as it balances on the edge of its own kind of death.

I open my eyes, pretending to be brave in the confrontation.

Pretending I have a choice.

But you do have a choice, don't you?

Its voice licks at my mind like a split tongue, covered in weeping sores. Wrapped in the filthy, years-unwashed blanket, pale gray eyes stare up at me from the inhuman folds of flesh. Too human they look... too human...

Ah, but you know I AM human, on the inside at least. No matter what form I wear, I am as human as you are. As human as you allow me to be.

No, I want to shout, no, no, NO!

A mouth of fang and gore splits wide, the chest convulsing in what it means to be a laugh.

Have you forgotten? You made me from your own flesh. You are my father and my brother, my creator and, if you wish it, my destroyer. You disgust me, father, but I can do nothing to you. Do I disgust you? Then kill me.

I raise the knife, the perfectly balanced, perfectly beautiful knife.

The laugh presses against me again, the silent wetness of it filling me with loathing and disgust, bringing acid gorge to my mouth. Half-choking, I swallow it back down, as I always do.

You coward. Kill me and you kill yourself. Go on... do it. You are nothing without me. I give your pathetic life purpose and meaning. Am I the burden of this house? Am I the monster under the stairs? You know that to be a lie.

I am no burden; I am your blessing. I am no monster; I am your muse.

In the light and shadow, the knife gleams.

Feed me. NOW.

I hold my left hand waist high over the gaping mouth. The excellent blade slices deep into my palm, so deep and so quick I feel nothing. As ever, I feel nothing.

My blood rains down onto the thing on the floor, splashing on and around it, covering the face of it with a spattering wash of coppery slick. The tongue, impossibly long, snakes out and laps around, smearing and wiping from the spurs of broken bone on its crest to the black talons of its feet. I clench my fist and the blood pulses through my fingers, running down and away in a stream.

For as long as it takes, I stand and bleed. More than minutes, less than hours.


My hand is cold and numb; I pull it in close to the warmth of my chest. The blade is still in my right hand, still hanging at my side, still perfect, still excellent.

Its eyes are closed. Soon, it will sleep. I retreat to the stairs and begin to climb.

There will come a week when I will challenge it. When I will withhold my lifeblood and watch it die crying. When I will slice the blade down and sever its grinning head from where its shoulders should be. When I will deny the truth that binds us together and embrace the lie that will set me free.

I will die when it dies. I live because it lives.

I die because it lives. I will live when it dies.

I live, and I will live.

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An angry screed about agents and publishers

I wrote an angry screed about agents and publishers, which I was going to post in response to this article about "10 Writing 'Rules' We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break". I've decided to post this photo montage of Pinkie Pie instead:

So cute! So funny! So inoffensive and non-harmful to a writing career!

Why not post the angry screed? Because agents and publishers.

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Quoth the limerick: "Kiss my ass"

Each week, Three Word Wednesday provides a set of words as a prompt. Today's words are: Backfire, embarrass, taste

Embarrass me, mock me, deride
For my limericks with verbal elide
A backfire taste?
Of talent, a waste?
I like 'em, so why should I hide?

I've been feeling self-conscious about my limericks. I was fine when I thought nobody cared, or when I had a few people say that they gave a moment's pleasure. However, when I got the distinct impression that I was being looked down upon for writing limericks, it gave me pause.

Fleeting smiles and being ignored mean that my work isn't to your taste. That's fine. Having you say that nobody writes limericks, that this poetic form is not merely trivial but beneath any serious writer? That makes me wonder what I'm doing to myself and my reputation by writing them.

Wisdom comes slowly, of course, and more slowly still to a closed mind than to an open one. The wisdom I found is this: my reputation is what other people think of me. The core fact that I forgot is that I don't write poetry for YOU. I write poetry for ME. These limericks are pretty much the only poems I share with you because they are safe. They're light, amusing, nonthreatening... defanged and declawed.

So mock, mock, mock if you will. If the sight of a limerick fills you with the desire to sneer and scoff, to dismiss and deride, go ahead. Allow your preconceptions to suck the life and light out of your world and revel in your Seriousness of Purpose.

A limerick is a poem in the same way that a cupcake is food. If you can't handle the cupcakes, stay out of the pastry shop.

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The Copperplate Killer - Part 2

The Copperplate Killer
Part 2

"I wasn't aiming for your shoulder, you skunk. Now put your damned hands on the rail or you get one in the belly."

Still swearing, Thyme stepped over the deputy and gripped the hitching rail. The altercation had gathered a murmuring crowd; the gunshot scattered them, but they soon came back in even greater numbers. After the sheriff relieved Thyme of his Smith & Wesson, he had a couple of Highwater's good citizens tie his feet in a hobble and secure his hands behind his back.

The deputy, roused from the dirt and holding a bandana to his weeping nose, was put in charge of guiding the prisoner the four blocks to the town jail. Jeered at by the following crowd and shoved, tripped and kicked by the deputy the whole way, Thyme held his tongue. He figured he owed it to the deputy to let him get some of his own back.

After all, these two would be taking orders from him soon enough. Why spoil the surprise before they got someplace where they could talk?

The jail was between the land registry and a feed store. An open office in front led to a walled off area with two iron barred cells. Both were occupied. As they entered, a man stood up from the desk in front and said, "Jesus, William, another one?" Then he saw the deputy, following in last of all, with his hand gripping the back of Thyme's neck. "Hot damn, Charlie, what happened to you? This mudhen give you some trouble, did he?"

"Just hush up and cuff him to the bar, Jeremiah," the sheriff said, "hands and feet." He turned to Thyme. "Hey, you. Rattlesnake. You see that ring in the ceiling? You give Jeremiah one bit of trouble, just one little bit and it'll be a loop around your neck and run through that ring. We'll pull you up on your toes, tie you off and let you cool down for a couple of days that way. You understand me? Good. Jeremiah, put the irons on him."

The sheriff covered Thyme, always keeping a clear line of fire on him as he was secured by wrist and ankle to iron bars set in the wall. To a running chorus of comments from the two men in the cells, Charlie spat on the floor between Thyme's feet, a viscous hawk of blood and snot. He pulled Thyme's hat off, then started riffling his pockets, dumping the contents into the hat: coins, paper money, a notebook, a wallet, assorted items. A patdown for weapons brought out a hidden boot knife. Last of all, he unbuckled the tooled leather gun belt. With a scowl, Charlie dumped the entire load onto the desk in front of the sheriff before crossing to a washbasin and pouring out some water from an enameled pitcher. He shouted at the other prisoners to be quiet, then began mopping up his bloody face.

The sheriff tilted his chair back and put his feet on the desk. "Now that you're good and comfortable," he said, "who are you and what are you doing in my town?"

"It's a long story," Thyme replied. "Can I get a glass of water before I tell it? Between this nick you took out of my arm and that walk in the sun, I'm feeling a mite woozy."

From the washbasin, Charlie called out, "I'll put a woozy right around your goddamned neck, you polecat bastard. Answer the question."

The other deputy, Jeremiah, exchanged a glance with the sheriff, who said, "Charlie, go on over to Doc Vincent's, get a plaster on that nose, and tell him I might have a customer for him. No, don't argue with me, just go do it. I'll meet you over at the dinette later. Go on, now." With a last scowl at Thyme, Charlie wrung out his bloody bandana in the basin and stuffed it in his pocket as he stomped out. After the slam of the door, the room was quiet.

The sheriff nodded to Jeremiah, who stood and poured a tumbler of water from the pitcher. This he placed on the desk in front of the sheriff, where Thyme could see it.

"You're a smooth one, son, I'll grant you that. Not the usual kind of barrel scrapings we get in here. That tells me you're here on a job, special. Now, that blood you're dripping on my floor is something I can easily have one of the boys clean up later. Bearing in mind that I have no compunction at all leaving you where you stand until you talk or until you pass out and die of a fever from that wound, I'm gonna ask you again: who are you and what are you doing in my town?"

"My name is Justification Thyme. As for what I'm doing here... it's in my wallet." He nodded at the desk.

The sheriff leaned forward and picked up the item, opening the flap to reveal multiple sheets of folded paper and pasteboard cards, as well as something else. From where he stood, deputy Jeremiah, said, "Justification Thyme? Heh, anybody ever call you Justin for short? Justin Thyme?" He laughed at his own joke, then had to tell the two prisoners to quiet down when they joined in. Thyme didn't laugh.

With Thyme's wallet open, holding a sheet of heavy paper and one of the pasteboard cards at arm's length, the sheriff brought his chair down with a bang. He stared at Thyme for a moment, then got a fixed look on his face.

"Watch him. I'll be back in a bit, maybe an hour, maybe less." He stood and reached for his hat.

"William? Where are you going? What's up?"

"Just watch him." And just like that, the sheriff was gone, out the door with Thyme's wallet and papers in his hand. Again, the jailhouse was left in silence after the closing of the front door. Jeremiah looked at Thyme, and Thyme looked back, unruffled.

"Who the hell are you, anyway?"

Thyme shrugged. "Can I have that glass of water now?"

... to be continued...

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Tiny icons for my signature

I'm only posting these 100 x 100 icons so I can link to them and use them in my e.mail signature. Anyone who gets an e.mail will have an easy way to find me by clicking on a familiar icon. I got these icons from their respective owners. They were too big to fit comfortably in my sig, though, so I resized them with GIMP to be a consistent and in proportion to each other.

No other purpose to this post, really. This is just for my convenience. No need for you to read any further or send any of your friends here so they can link to these 100 x 100 icons. Nobody else needs to do this.

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Bleeding Ink

People tend to get emotional over their writing tools. Over at Today's Author, I talk about how I acquired one of my most beloved fountain pens... and about how I almost destroyed it.

Cry, beloved... cry.

The discovery, resurrection, endangerment and rescue of a vintage double-jewel, blue diamond Parker 51 - this morning at Today's Author.

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How to write a proper book review

Nothing makes authors happier than having their books reviewed thoughtfully by attentive readers. Nothing make authors cringe more than crappy reviews by people who don't know how to review a book. A poorly written review is worse than useless, since it may ascribe a rating to a book that doesn't warrant either the pedestal or the pillory. The worst possible reviews hang laurels (or cow pats) on the book for things not related to the book itself: the price, the DRM, the merchants who carry it. A properly written review will communicate to potential readers of the book. It should say three things:

1. What the author was trying to do. A Western drama featuring a gunslinger bent on revenge is trying to achieve certain things in the adventure vein. These will be different than the goals of a book about a 12 year old girl, orphaned by smallpox and shipped across seas to live with a uncle in the West Indies colonies. For either of these (or for any other book), if the expected tropes and forms are being turned askew, that's very important to know. At the very least, your review should say what the book is about. If the point of that Western is to show how the love of a good woman can mend the gunslinger's broken soul, the potential reader need to know that.

2. How well the author succeeded. This is where your opinions start to come in. Does the book work? Without giving away any more of the plot than is necessary to make your qualitative assessment, was the author able to tell a convincing story? Were there jarring plot elements, bad dialog, incongruities, or other mechanical features that made the book fall short of the author's intent? If the author wanted to convey atmosphere and existential angst, then elements of loss and grief are perfectly suitable outcomes. However, they would be a complete failure in a book that was supposed to deliver action and adventure. If you can't tell how well the author succeeded because it's not at all clear what the author was really trying to do with the book, say so.

3. Your opinion of the book's value. The author set out to do something and succeeded (or failed) to some extent. Is it worth the reader's time to come along for the ride? Are some parts of the book good enough to offset the weaker parts? Is there one aspect that is so egregious that the whole book should be skipped? The cover, the typography, the layout, and other related matters deal with the reading experience should be dealt with here. While #1 and #2 are just about the book being reviewed, this is a place where you as the reviewer can put this book in context with other books, or with movies, TV show or other storytelling devices. If the book is derivative or overly reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Confederacy of Dunces, say so. Some readers will be put off by that, others might find that a argument in favor.

Remember: reviews are written for potential readers, NOT to make the author feel good (or bad) about what he/she has written.

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Verbosity's Vengeance: elevator pitch

The agents and publishers that I've submitted to have already seen this, but I thought you might like to as well. If you ARE and agent or publisher and want to read the 3 page synopsis or the opening chapter, shoot me an e.mail

"The nefarious Professor Verbosity threatens Lexicon City with a mysterious new superweapon and only the Grammarian can stop him… just as soon as he hires a decent sidekick. Mix in the interference of the Avant Guardian (a goofy superhero wanna-be), a mysterious stranger who strikes from the shadows, and a beautiful, brainy college professor with a thing for superhero technology, and the Grammarian has his work cut out for him.

VERBOSITY’S VENGEANCE: A GRAMMARIAN ADVENTURE NOVEL is a fast-paced, superhero science fiction story. This book is a complete, polished novel of approximately 113,000 words, intended for readers 14 to adult. The Grammarian’s superpowers derive from a combination of high-tech gadgetry and exceptional verbal ability; superhero fight scenes and an action-filled plot are balanced with clever wordplay, language-based abilities, and word nerd humor."

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