Wednesday, July 27, 2016

And Now Good-Bye, by James Hilton: A Review

James Hilton (1900-1954) is best known as the author of Lost Horizon, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but I did not recognize his name when I picked up a hardback with his name and the title, And Now Good-Bye. Published in 1931, two years before he published Lost Horizon and put the name, Shangri-La into the common vernacular, the copy I found was printed in 1932 by William Morrow and Company, Inc. and the pages are brittle and yellowed with age.

As a writer of dark fantasy, this slice-of-life story appealed to me only because the protagonist was one Rev. Howat Freemantle, a clergyman. The opening prologue tells of his heroism when the London train he was a passenger on derailed. He jumped from his passenger car and running to the one that had overturned and on fire, he saved five lives, dragging them from the wreckage even though his hands and arms endured terrible burns.

After that dramatic prologue that includes the story of  his nervous breakdown the resulting recovery and the heroic welcome he received when he returns to his impoverished, middle-class, and fictional village of Browdley, the novel starts detailing the good Reverend's week before the train accident.

I enjoyed the book only because I too am an ordained member of the clergy and I was surprised to read that the travails of the clergy in Great Britain between the two World Wars mirrored mine exactly, almost 90 years later. Unfortunately, the ending left a very bad figurative taste in my mouth. The solution to his problems are not ones that are held in high admiration and we discover that his reasons for his heroic behavior are not so altruistic as first thought. The book then reveals itself to be a tragedy.

Nonetheless, I am glad I took the time to read the novel. I’m well aware the trope of the morally flawed clergyman has been done to death to the point that if I am reading a mystery or other genre novel that contains a member of the clergy, I already know who the bad guy is. However, in Hilton’s day and age, the trope was still fresh and, therefore, adds a more shocking dénouement to the work. Able to put myself in the mind of a reader that would have read the book during the early 1930s, I can appreciate how Hilton constructed the tale. In addition, I always like to read outside my comfort zone. And Now Good-Bye is not a genre novel by any stretch of the imagination, but the benefit of reading a viewpoint from another time and another culture is priceless.

I started keeping track of books that I completed and since August 5, 2010, And Now Good-Bye is book #232 and my fourteenth completed book for 2016.

Artificial Intelligence Writes ‘Perfect’ Horror Script?

Artificial intelligence writes ‘perfect’ horror script? Are my days as an author finished?

Nope. Not at all.

Jack Zhang is the founder of Greenlight Essentials, a "company that is dedicated to helping entertainment professionals better understand movie data and bring big data analysis to the film industry." In other words, using audience reaction and preferences as well as box office numbers, their goal is to create movies that make mega bucks at the box office.

In other words, the end result is a film infested with two pitfalls of hack writing:

1.  trope : a common or overused theme or device.
2.  cliche : a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Currently, Greenlight Essentials has scripted a movie that was scripted mostly by computer. The film, Impossible Things, is being pushed on Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter webpage also contains the teaser video also scripted by the AI. Take a look, but be aware there is some gore involved as well as scene-chewing music. Jack Zhang's computer says you will love it especially if you are a woman under the age of 25.
“We used [AI] to generate the premise and the key plot points of the film. Before a single word was written, our AI told us that if we wanted to match audience taste, we needed to make a horror film that featured both ghost and family relationships, and that a piano scene and a bathtub scene would need to be used in the movie trailer to increase the likelihood that our target audience would like it.”
Will the movie deal well? I think so. It will be the first film coauthored by an AI that will make it a novelty, but the problem is that all future movies will only be repetitions of the exact same formula. That will burn out an audience quickly.

So, I confess I really don't feel my career as a dark fantasy author is threatened at all. Though I am guaranteed to write the occasional bomb, my successes will be my own from my own creative well.

Write on!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Progress Report on The Shrine War

Presently up to 7,235 words.

I started off with five Kitsune defending their Shinto shrine against an invading force of 10 Inugami. At this point, I have three Kitsune left taking on about six spirit dogs and one human being freaking out over what is essentially a yōkai war.

Writing action scenes is not a strength of mine, but here in its unedited form is one of the latest. An Inugami has rendered Hoso, the youngest of the Kitsune shrine maidens, unconscious in a surprise attack, stolen her clothes, and used magic to create an illusion to look like her. Sneaking into the shrine's oratory, the Inugami has been able to get close enough to Sen, the head of the shrine maidens, to attack her.

Sen shifted to her right and the katana blade slid harmlessly across her chest, creating a slit across her kimono jacket as testimony to its keen edge. She continued in a spin and thrust Hoso away before she could twist the blade and use it in a circular cut.

“Hoso!” Sen cried. “Cease!” But then Sen stopped in surprise.

Hoso’s eyes were brown. Whatever stood before her had eyes of amethyst.

“Die, fox!” the creature spat and the voice was not Hoso’s but that of an Inugami. It shifted the katana in her hand, brought it above her head, and charged.

Again, Sen moved aside in the nick of time, a ribbon fluttering to the ground from her hair to show how close she had come to being cloven in two. Spinning in place, she brought up her paws, her prayer beads entwined amongst her fingers and glowing azure.

Before the Inugami could bring her sword up for a counterstrike, Sen’s fingers wove a complex mudra, her fingers entwining in the beads. A blast of blue energy struck her enemy, flinging what appeared to be Hoso into a screen. The delicate screen shattered into splinters destroying the priceless painting it framed.

Immediately, Sen’s attacker stood and shook off the effects of the blast. The attack had removed the illusion and Sen felt an overwhelming mixture of grief and fury to see an Inugami wearing Hoso’s shrine maiden attire.

Again, Sen’s fingers twisted the prayer chain within a complex dance of her fingers and suddenly an oni, a Japanese yōkai composed of pale, blue fire, stood before her. Sen pointed at the Inugami who assumed a fighting stance.

“I forbid you to shed blood in the hoiden,” she said to the oni between gritted teeth. “Humble it and remove its reason.” With a scream from the Inugami and a roar from the oni, they charged each other.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Progress Report on The Shrine War

Currently up to 6,500 words and the battle has just started.

My sole human, Brennan Woodbrygg, has just discovered that the shrine is not occupied by humans and is trying to leave with mind and body intact.

In this scene, Brennan is trying to leave unaware that a group of Inugami block the entrance to the shrine and he does not see the twin kitsune sisters, Kiku and Kuwa, hiding in the tree branches high above him.
Above him in twin trees that stood on each side of the walkway, Kiku and Kuwa watched the human as he strode quickly down the sandō toward the torii. They had no way to warn him about the Inugami that blocked the entranceway and as he came around the corner in full sight of the invading group, the human and the nine Inugami stared at each other before the spirit dogs screamed out a war cry and swarmed onto the shrine grounds.

The human turned on his heel and ran back toward the haiden.

With prayer beads dangling from their hands and glowing a deep blue, the kitsune twins pulled back the strings of their bows. An arrow of blue energy appeared notched and ready in each bow and simultaneously the two sisters let them fly.

Both found their marks in the Inugami who led the charge. The bolts shattered the soul crystals that hung on chains around their furred necks and the spirits of the Kitsune trapped within them burst out with a loud retort. The bolts of energy passed through the two Inugami violently flinging them backwards to lie still on the ground, their bodies strangely showing no wounds.

The remaining seven Inugami came to a halt and each with practiced ease slid large iron darts from their kimonos and flung them upward toward the sisters where they hid in the boughs. Kiku hugged the trunk as iron darts buried themselves in the tree around her and she heard Kuwa cry out in pain.

Some Careful Advice on Writing

Yesterday I posted a silly little writing exercise inspired by a conversation with my three sons, but as I read back over it I thought it would be another fun exercise to demonstrate the method I use to write. Now your writing style is going to be vastly different. The name of the game is not that you mimic how I write, but that eventually you have finished, published stories under your belt.

An intuitive writer by nature and personality, I did not block out the story with an outline as some writers prefer. Instead, I considered the story for two days, pondering how I could take the elements of the challengethe humor of comparing an insipid drink with the banality of kissing one's sister—and create a hopefully amusing story.

I deliberately chose a Victorian setting because of its renowned reputation for sexual repression. I too easily could have turned the story into nothing but an obscene joke, but I personally do not care to write about sexual themes. Seriously, any hack can write porn, but to take a scenario and creatively write about an indirect sexual theme without coming across as nothing more than a sophomoric off-color shaggy dog story takes years of practice. It took me an hour to write the story, but it took me two days of pondering plot and research into Victorian England and thirty years of writing experience to write a story less than 900 words.

Here is a list of what I had to research to write The Tea Experiment:
  1. The life of Queen Victoria so with a throwaway sentence I could set the time of the story: ...we discussed Queen Victoria’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee... 
  2. Common names and surnames in Victorian England: Carl Addison and his sister, Violet.
  3. As Victorian England did not have caffeine-free, diet Pepsi, I had to research tea and the different types available: the East India Tea Company, Souchong, orange pekoe, and Bohea.
  4. A realistic reason for Violet to be living with her brother: a cholera outbreak in her village near the family estate.
  5. An insipid drink: Tea imported from Indonesia to America. 
  6. An accurate French phrase to add color to the Victorian English setting: “C'est juste une façon de parler.
After I wrote the story came the hard part. Revision and correction.
  1. My narrator is attending school to become a barrister. In the original story I had him becoming a "banister," something altogether different. I only caught that on the third reading.
  2. Many words were repeated in the same sentence. As many readers internally read with a vocal voice, repetitive words must carry true impact. This sentence carries meaning with its repetition:
    “Beastly stuff,” he said as he once again picked up his cup of Souchong. “Beastly stuff fit only for a beastly people of a beastly country."
    In one paragraph I had the word "door" and "her" each mentioned three times. That only represents sloppy writing.
  3. I worked with some sentences on the cadence, reading the work aloud. If the sentence sounds good to my actual ear, chances are good that it will sound well to my reader's inner, mental ear. I have found that having alliteration, words that rhyme, and contrasting phrases in the same sentence creates a form of internal intonation (notice what I did there in those last two words?) that has become a strong part of my literary voice.
  4. Pondered for some time over simple word choices. English is rich in synonyms and some words carry more impact than others. I agree simple words are the best, but my story takes place in Victorian England where the verbiage was more complex. I wanted to convey my characters as enjoying a higher social class which makes it all the more surprising when Carl kisses his sister.
So, dangerous as it is, allow me to give you some advice if you wish to write:
  1. Write as much and as often as you can. Writing, like any art, is a muscle. If you use it, it strengthens itself. If you do not, it atrophies. This blog does not exist solely for your pleasure. The discipline of making at least one entry per week demands I write, write often and, write well.
  2. Read books on writing. I also own seven books on writing reference and grammar and I read them often. My favorite book on writing is On Writing, by Stephen King.
  3. Fall in love with words. Fall in love with sentences. A carefully crafted five-word sentence is more delightful than a sloppily written novel.
  4. Read, read, read. And read books that you are not interested in writing. I do not write romantic novels, but reading classic romance has added a delightful depth to my own work.
  5. Seriously, read that last entry aloud and hear its lyrical cadence with all the "r" sounds and the alliterative "delightful depth." That came from 30 years of writing. Do not bemoan your first experiments in writing. They are the steps toward finding your own voice. And your voice will not be mine or any other author's.
  6. Don't give up.
Good luck.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Tea Experiment: What Hath My Madness Wrought?

The Tea Experiment
An Elegant, Yet Boorish Literary Study for the Common Man
by Alan Loewen


NOTE: My three sons caught me drinking a caffeine-free, diet Pepsi and derided me for my choice in beverages when I responded, “Drinking caffeine-free, diet Pepsi is much akin to kissing one’s sister. The magic is missing and yet, if you do enjoy it, there is something very wrong with you.” Their reaction to my quaint allusion was one of strict revulsion and after discussion, my middle son challenged me to use the expression in a story. The writing exercise follows and it appears that all I have succeeded in is creating my first, albeit subtle, questionable joke.

I had joined my friend, Carl Addison, in his rooms, some floors above the busy streets of London. There, ensconced in his library we discussed Queen Victoria’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee and other matters, when Carl summoned his sister, Violet, to kindly bring us some tea.

Carl was addicted to Souchong, imported by the East India Tea Company, and Carl was enchanted by the deep, rich flavor and smoky aroma that came from preparing the tea over slowly smouldering pine logs. I myself enjoyed a good cup of orange pekoe, but I did not wish to inconvenience Violet by making her brew two separate pots. In my own rooms, I drank naught but Bohea, but as Carl referred to the brand merely as swill, I kept my poverty-induced secrets to myself.

Violet brought us the tea service and acted as hostess while she poured the strong libation into individual cups. Though normally living at the family estate in Sussex, an outbreak of cholera in the nearby village had persuaded her parents it best that Violet stay with her brother in London until the infection ran its course through the populace. She was a delicate creature of eighteen years and though her hair and eyes were a mousy brown, her feminine features and pretty face made up for other minor faults. In her company, I usually found my own thoughts pondering possibilities between us, but my future as a barrister had not yet been assured and her parents would never condone a relationship between their priceless Violet and a lowly student unable to even afford a decent tea. I found myself unable to keep my gaze off of her as she left the room.

Fortunately, Carl had not noticed my sudden lack of manners. Lost in his steaming cup, he inhaled the aroma deeply. “How I do love a good cup of tea,” he said. “I believe it is what has made Britain what it is today.” He lifted his cup in a form of salute. “British ingenuity and tea. The sun will never set on our empire.”

“Here, here,” I replied and joined him in our first sip of the heady brew.

He sat the cup down on his tray, momentary lost in thought. “Do you know the Americans are exporting their tea from Indonesia?”

“You don’t say,” I responded.

“By my word,” he said. “As if they could compete with our own resources in India. You know, I confess that I tried some.”

“How bohémien,” I replied with some surprise. “And what was it like?”

“Beastly stuff,” he said as he once again picked up his cup of Souchong. “Beastly stuff fit only for a beastly people of a beastly country.”

“Indonesian tea,” I mused with a faint shudder. “Drinking it must be akin to kissing one’s sister. The magic is completely missing and yet, if you do enjoy it, it implies there is something very wrong with you.”

Carl put the cup back down on the tray, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What a ghastly thing to say,” he said.

C'est juste une façon de parler,” I replied with a shrug. “Merely a figure of speech, but the spirit of it is true.”

“I daresay you might be right.” At that we heard a faint knock at the door and Violet entered. “I’ve come to gather up the tea things,” she said.

“Thank you, my dear,” Carl said, “but may I impose on your good nature to assist in an experiment?”

“Why, dear Carl, you know I am always willing to help you with your studies.”

With that, Carl got up off his chair and immediately swept her up in an embrace.

Stunned into inactivity, I could only watch and stare with mouth agape as Carl smothered his sister with a kiss directly on her lips, holding her as Violet’s eyes grew wide in shock and horror. It was a full half a minute before he released her and, with a shriek, Violet fled the room.

I ran to the hallway only to see Violet fleeing into her bedroom and slamming the door shut followed by distant muffled sobs.


I turned to see Carl back in his chair, deep in thought. “And what,” I demanded in a fury, “was the result of that?”

Carl looked at me, lost in a pensive mood. “I fear,” he said, “that in the near future whenever I think of dear Violet, I shall always think first of Indonesian tea.”


I turned to see Carl back in his chair, deep in thought. “And what,” I demanded in a fury, “was the result of that?”

Carl looked at me, lost in a pensive mood. “I fear,” he said, “that there is something very wrong with me.”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Adrift Off The Great Red Spot, 22°51'23.14"S, 98°49'24.40"W

Io and Jupiter courtesy of NASA

Adrift Off The Great Red Spot, 22°51'23.14"S, 98°49'24.40"W
by Alan Loewen

"Mayday, mayday! This is Captain Arthur Vinson of the floating refinery, Daphne's Tear. I am adrift 800 kilometers away from the wall of the Great Red Spot, twenty-two degrees, fifty-one minutes, twenty-three point fourteen seconds south and ninety-eight degrees, forty-nine minutes, and twenty-four point forty seconds west. Over."

The only response was the soft hiss of static.

Vinson did not believe in luck, but if he had he would have had to admit he had attracted a very bad surplus of it lately.

Daphne's Tear was a huge nanoKevlar balloon a full kilometer in diameter holding to its underside the refinery and the cramped quarters Vinson called home. As Daphne's Tear drifted through the upper clouds of Jupiter, it scooped up the rich gases of the atmosphere and its refineries turned it into fuel for the energy-starved ships that now transported humanity among the planets.

It was a dangerous job, the annual mortality rates almost a full three percent, but after just a year, Vinson would have enough in his bank account to retire for life to a terraformed Mars with a great view of Olympus Mons.

But now, it looked like he was just going to be just a statistic after all except maybe becoming the first black man to die in Jupiter's atmosphere.

And because of his nonexistent bad luck, a rare upper atmospheric lightning blast had fried Daphne's electronics including his rescue pod. He had cobbled together enough batteries and spare electronics to get the radio working, but so far there had been no response.

To make matters worse, Daphne's Tear now drifted in the jet stream of Jupiter's upper atmosphere toward the wall of the Great Red Spot, an anticyclonic storm that had raged in Jupiter's southern hemisphere for centuries.

He looked out the thick steelglass window to see the wall so very far away yet getting nearer, an angry turmoil of winds and boiling clouds. The 400 kilometer per hour winds would shred Daphne's Tear to small pieces in seconds.

He sent out another Mayday.

And this time he was rewarded with a faint response.

"Daphne's Tear, this is the April Devil. I am seven hundred kilometers from your position, ETA estimated to be six hours. Over."

Vinson breathed a sigh of relief. If he was going to die, at least he wouldn't be alone.

"April Devil, this is Daphne's Tear. Be aware that I am going to impact the wall of the Great Red Spot ETA eight hours. Over"

"Received, Daphne's Tear. We're on our way. Have your escape pod ready for ejection and pick up."

"No can do, April Devil. A rogue bolt wiped out my electronics. I have no escape pod. I repeat, I have no escape pod."

There was a lengthy pause in the response.

"We'll think of something, Daphne's Tear. Be there in six hours and am relaying your Mayday."

Vinson sat back in his chair, his fingers massaging tense temples. He had six hours to think of a way of transferring himself from his ship to the April Devil.

They say time flies when you're having fun. It also flies when the prospect of sudden death rears itself. Other calls from other floating refineries came in but being too far away, all they could do was offer prayers and wishes for good luck.

When the April Devil arrived, the wall of the Great Red Spot was much closer. Only two hundred kilometers away and the lightning bolts, hundreds of kilometers long danced through the boiling clouds, forming a nimbus around each cloud-like feature, each individual bolt equaling hundreds of the lightning bolts ever produced on Earth.

If he was going to die, at least, thank heaven, it would be quick.

But in six hours, he had come up with a solution. It was the solution of a desperate man and desperate men can be fools, but there was no other way.

The April Devil hung beside him four kilometers away.

Vinson clicked on the radio. "This is Captain Vinson. Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

"This is Captain Abby Constantine, at your service." The close proximity of the April Devil had removed the hiss from the transmission. The voice was clearly female. "Any idea of how we are going to get you from the Daphne's Tear to over here?"

Vinson took a deep breath. "Your ship has an access tube that goes all the way to the top of the balloon?"

"Yes, it does," Constantine replied. "but how does that help you get from your ship to mine?"

"I'm going to atmo it."

"What? Are you insane?"

Vinson laughed. "Certainly, but listen. Bring the April Devil right under my gondola. I can hold my breath for forty-five seconds, long enough for me to drop down to the airlock on top of your balloon. The outside air pressure is close to cabin pressure. The temp is a balmy five degrees Celsius."

"And if you try to breathe you'll die from lack of oxygen and every exposed body part will be sunburned to the point of almost needing a skin graft. And you'll probably break every bone in your body when you hit my balloon."

"Details, details. I'm a dead man any other way. And I'm not worried about the sunburn. I'm black enough to protect me for a limited time. Let me try it."

A short pause. "Maneuvering now. Give me five minutes."

"I'll be generous. I'll give you ten, but not a second more."

Arthur Vinson looked around the small cubicle he had called home for three months. Sadly, he patted the console. "Sorry, old girl. Sorry it had to end like this."

He made his way to the airlock, ripping the sheet off his small bed. He gave one last look to what he had called home, stepped into the airlock, and cycled it closed behind him.

Looking out the little window, he watched as the April Devil swung underneath him. Below, he could see the target. Right on top of the balloon, an airlock connected to a small needle-like corridor with a ladder that ran straight through the balloon to the gondola below.

And through the thick walls of his own gondola, he could dimly hear the wails of the winds of the approaching Great Red Spot.

Deliberately and slowly, Vinson placed goggles over his eyes, wishing that there had been room in the cramped quarters for an atmospheric suit. However, gondola builders had other ideas than basic safety. There simply was no logical need for having such a bulky item in a gondola where all space was a premium. Anyway, if there was a need to leave the gondola itself for any reason, sometimes even in an escape pod, you were probably dead anyway.

So Vinson hyperventilated his lungs until he felt dizzy. Then quickly making sure his goggles securely protected his eyes, without a moment's further pause, he pushed the escape bar that blew the emergency locks of the outer door open.

He fell toward the April Devil and all he could perceive was a barrage of color and cold and sound and the overwhelming need to breathe. The winds of Jupiter buffeted him, but streaming up around the mass of the April Devil's balloon they slowed his fall just as he hoped they would. Behind him, holding onto it with a death grip, Vinson's bed sheet acted as a fluttering tail to slow his descent even more.

He still approached the other balloon at a frightening speed.

He hit the nanoKevlar surface of the April Devil's balloon with a thud and he felt something snap in his chest, but by grace, he was only a yard away from the airlock. The gamble had worked, but the last card had not yet been drawn.

This close to the surface of the balloon, the ascending winds were quieter, so ignoring the screaming pain in his chest, Vinson let the adrenaline of fear drive him to the airlock on hands and knees.

It was when he had the airlock door open that he lost the strength to hold his breath. With a gasp, Arthur Vinson drew the atmosphere of Jupiter into his lungs and he felt a moment's relief for there was air at last in his lungs.

Unfortunately, its oxygen content was measured in scant molecules per square foot.

And then he noticed the aroma, a delicate presence of roses, the perfume of Jupiter.

And now unconscious, he was not aware of the arms reaching out for him.

* * * *

He awoke to a pair of bright green eyes looking at him with concern. He coughed and decided that was a bad thing, but he couldn't stop.

Everything throbbed with agony, but pain was good. Pain meant he was alive.

"Captain Vinson?"

Breathing deeply, Vinson looked up at his rescuer, a trim lady with green eyes. He wanted to respond, but even the thought of talking simply inspired another coughing jag.

"Please don't try to talk or move. We're just an hour away from one of the Southern platforms. They have a hospital bed all ready for you."

* * * *

Six months later, Arthur Vinson stared out the window of his home just far away from the slopes of Olympus Mons to watch the annual climb of green vegetation up its lower slopes. Each successive year, the green limb climbed just a little higher. Vinson was determined to watch that happen for many, many years. He was hoping to get married, raise some children, and share the wonders of this incredible, new world.

It was good the media had finally left him alone. Humanity's adventures in the Solar System eventually pushed his story down the list to be replaced by other heroes, but Arthur Vinson still had his name in the history books. Not only was he the first man to fly the winds of Jupiter, he had also been the first to breathe its perfume and survive.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Progress Report on The Shrine War

Currently up to 5,533 words on The Shrine War and just came to the actual battle scene where the five kitsune shrine maidens must guard their beloved shrine to Inari Ōkami from an invading horde of Inugami.

Of course, my token human is trapped between the two and the kitsune are already down by one.

It will be interesting to see how four kitsune armed only with magic and fox-like wit can defeat ten Inugami also armed with magic and very sharp katanas.

The red fox is the art work of Blood-Kitsune-zaku whose work can be viewed here. The artist of the graphic has released the work for noncommercial use with modification.