The Larry Special

One of the first things I noticed when I met the Chinese team at work was that they all go by American names. It seemed unlikely that folks born and raised in China to Chinese parents with Mandarin as a first language and English as a second language would be named things like Larry or John, and after talking to the team over lunch, they explained that their English names are chosen based on translations of their Chinese name or a nickname from college or a character in a movie or—in my favorite case—on a powerful weapon from a video game. One of my American coworkers made the comment that if he had that option, he’d just go by BFG9000. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate that the American folks go by Chinese names while we’re in China, but that’s just not how it works here. If I get to pick a name, I’m going to find something nice and simple and humble. Anyone know how to say “Super Ninja Software Master” in Mandarin?

Restaurant with sign in Mandarin
The front of the AJU Hakka Restaurant, a place down the street from the office

The day after I first arrived the American folks that were already here took me out to lunch. Somewhere along the way one of them explained that in the first two weeks he was in China he lost about 10 pounds while he learned how to use chopsticks, where the good places to eat were, and what kinds of things he liked. So far I am having none of those problems, and certainly not *losing* 10 pounds. I think I just ate four pounds of noodles at dinner, and that was after a smorgasbord at lunch. We went to the park on Sunday and played soccer for a couple hours, and I’m going to have to put in a few more shifts on the pitch if I want to go home without finding the 10 pounds the other guys lost.

Fresh dumplings in a to go bag
Ten dumplings in one plastic bag. Delicious.

Aside: There were three of us on the soccer pitch Sunday. We walked down to Shenzhen Stadium and “asked” (it may or may not have involved kicking gestures) a helpful policeman where the soccer pitches were. He pointed us around to the back of the stadium, so off we went (right through the middle of the Shenzhen International Car Show, because why wouldn’t you have a car show in the parking lot of a soccer stadium?) When we found the practice pitches, we also found a couple dozen Chinese kids having soccer practice. There were a couple empty pitches, so we slipped around the edge and started kicking a ball around, no big deal. Every time we mishit a ball (often), and someone went to retrieve it, the little heads on the pitch turned to follow us with wide eyes. It’s a very strange experience for me as a white guy that lives in the Midwest to draw so many “you don’t belong here stares.” Strange and humbling.

Detailed picture of breakfast dumpling filling
A closeup shot of the inside of the breakfast dumplings. I don’t know really want to know what’s in there.

The food here is outstanding. The last two days have included dumplings for breakfast, a feast of a dozen dishes for lunch today, a bowl of beef noodle soup for dinner tonight, and finally (finally!) some actual chocolate from a little bakery down the street for dessert. (As we left the bakery they were getting their eggs delivered. Two milk crates FULL of gorgeous brown eggs.) I’ve now been to three group dinners where we ordered a number of different dishes and sampled from each, and I’ve been able to sample and enjoy plenty of new things. The only negative is that I don’t actually know what anything is called, so I have no idea how to order again. My favorites have included a braised pork belly; roasted goose; a seafood bowl that had about four heads (not cloves, heads) of garlic mixed in with the fish, squid, onions and peppers; and the aforementioned piece of chocolate cake with raspberry filling.

Mandarin menu
The Larry Special is the fourth item down.

One of my other favorite dishes is something the American folks call “The Larry Special.” We went to lunch at a little place near the office and found a table near the back. The menu was on the table, and it had items ranging from 25 yuan on down. The leader of our merry band pointed to the menu and held up four fingers. After some pointing and some smiling and saying the word “four” a few times we had ordered four of the fourth item on the menu. The Larry Special. It came out on a sizzling, steaming cast iron plate. A healthy mound of rice dominated the middle, but I could barely see the rice for all the onion and vegetables and gravy and beef that surrounded and covered it. The Chinese are big on mixing textures, but this thing had it all. Tons of flavor from the beef and peppers and anise. Lots of texture from the rice and the vegetables and onion. The Larry Special was a win.

Beef skillet dish
The Larry Special has rice, green onion, garlic, sliced onion, mystery vegetable, pepper and anise. And probably other stuff, too.

As we were eating, they explained that they had come to the restaurant with one of the Chinese guys from work, and he had ordered that item. As soon as they saw it, they wanted it, too, and once they had it they loved it. Thus we trek to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint, point to the Mandarin menu, and confidently inform the proprietor that we want the “Larry Special.”

(All names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Welcome to Shenzhen

As I write this it is Sunday in Shenzhen, and I’m still battling with jet lag. Went to bed last night at around 10:00 PM local time, but woke up around 2:00 for half an hour, then back to sleep until 5:00. It’s difficult to get any writing done when my body can’t figure whether it wants to sleep or be awake. Everyone tells me to avoid naps and to force myself to go to bed at a normal time. I’m trying, but by noon I’m dragging like a plow horse.

I’m on the 6th floor of my hotel, and the windows hardly block the sounds of the street below. At first I thought that the birds in China were both extremely loud and extremely persistent, even in the dark, but I learned yesterday that what I thought were birds were actually scooter alarms. Many of the scooters have proximity alarms and they chirp at passersby just for walking near them. Presumably if you were to try absconding with said scooter, the alarm would wail even louder.

street with cars in the foreground, old and new highrises in the background
Intersection near my hotel in Shenzhen. Old and new development side by side.

I’m in the Futian part of the city, and it reminds me of being in New York City in Queens. Many of the buildings are in the six to 10 story range and storefronts occupy the ground floor adjacent to the wide sidewalks. There’s a certain city odor that’s more pronounced here than in New York. Eau de toilette? Or perhaps Eau de Urine. One of the tricks I’ve learned is to not flush the toilet while the sink is unstopped. I think they handle black and gray drain plumbing differently here.

Apartment building with laundry and air conditioners and detritus.
This is an average apartment building in the Futian district.

The other major smell is the food. It more than makes up for the city odor. I’ve eaten a few meals at local places, though I have yet to have actual local food. My coworkers that are more familiar with the area have been making the restaurant suggestions, so on Saturday we had Chinese food from a place that makes food from the northern part of the country. The place makes a salad that has bean sprouts, julienned red and green bell peppers, and some kind of ginger sauce. It has this amazing crunch with a blast of sweet and spicy and sour; I will be returning there soon. We followed that up with dinner from a Korean BBQ place and lunch today from a chain that I think is the Chinese version of Qdoba, but instead of a burrito you get a bowl of soup and noodles. Even if my food hasn’t been locally authentic, it’s been quite good, and I’m looking forward to trying more.

Women standing in Walmart, waiting on customers to assist
Walmart in China has people on most aisles that help with the products on that aisle.

We made a trip to one of the local stores yesterday. It turns out that the “local” store is actually a Walmart. It’s just down the street from the McDonalds, in fact. It was a lesson in global trade: America exports stores; China exports goods. The customer service here is very different. There are people on many of the aisles to assist customers. The Dove representative helped us pick out some body wash. A kind lady in the liquor department provided us with complimentary bottle openers. I’m not sure what the folks on the baby food aisle do, but I’m told they ensure that people aren’t buying formula in bulk.

Today some coworkers and I made a trip to a tailor to get sized for a suit. That involved a quick cab ride to Luohu, a shopping area with a massive train station beside it. The tailor is in a five story mall, and as I walked there I met my first tout. These are folks that stand in front of businesses and try to get you to come inside to buy goods. Or they stand in the middle of a giant concrete concourse and try to sell you watches from a paper flyer. There are touts in New York, but they’re nowhere near as aggressive as they are here. One guy followed us a quarter mile trying to sell watches. Once we were in the mall, another lady followed us up a couple floors. In between these two folks were another half dozen that were less persistent. I assume they must be making money doing this or they wouldn’t expend so much effort, but I don’t understand how.

The language barrier is immense. Not only can I not speak the language at all (shame on me), but I can’t read it, either. The street signs have recognizable letters, but most everything other than a few brand names is in Mandarin. I now have more sympathy for my pre-schooler back home that’s working hard on reading. An amazing amount of communication can be accomplished by pointing, however, and I’ve become an expert pointer. My conversations all consist of ni hao(hello), some pointing, handing over some cash, and xie xie (thank you) to finish. The other folks here have also mastered “bing shui” for ice water, though we mangle it horribly and half the time the folks at the restaurants need hand gestures to understand what we want. It really puts into perspective how terrible we are.

Overall, it’s been exciting and exhausting, and I’m only the second full day. The coming days are going to be busy with work, and next weekend we’re planning a trip to Hong Kong. I plan to stay busy enough to keep the homesickness at bay, at least for a while.

2014 Reading

January was a lousy month for writing. I wrote a short story for the William Ledbetter contest, and that’s it. I started two novels, and while I do want to finish them both, they won’t get finished with the plot or characters I had mind. C’est la vie.

On the other hand, January was a great month for reading.

Non-fiction
War – Sebastian Junger
My Story Can Beat Up Your Story – Jeffrey Schechter
Wired for Story – Lisa Cron

Novels
Big Red’s Daughter – John McPartland
Scrapyard Ship – Mark Wayne McGinnis
On Basilisk Station – David Weber
Terms of Enlistment – Marko Kloos
Armor – John Steakley
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Redshirts – John Scalzi
Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
Sand – Hugh Howey (incomplete)

Short Fiction
Clockwork Soldier – Ken Liu
The Wrong Foot – Stephanie Burgis
Pastry Run – Nancy Fulda
Cannibal – Chuck Palahniuk
The Jackal’s Wedding – Vajra Chandrasekera
That Undiscovered Country – Nancy Fulda
The Lamplighter Legacy – Patrick O’Sullivan
Taking the High Road – RPL Johnson
Letting Go – David Walton
She Who Lies in Secret – Steven R Stewart
Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls – Richard Parks

Not many of those were published last month, let alone last year, but this is about when I read (or re-read) them, not when they were published. I do intend to finish Sand, but I found myself distracted by non-fiction. The “I should be writing” guilt doesn’t way on me as heavily when I can justify my procrastination on “research.”

Dunning-Kruger

Messrs. Dunning & Kruger sent another letter this week, but they signed it “Neil Clarke.” I shall continue with my correspondence in the hopes that the responses grow longer.

Books on Writing

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and that’s a reflection of priorities and forgetfulness. I’m busily writing away under a non-SF/F pen name, and I’ve also found that my short thoughts are more easily encapsulated on twitter, where I can be found as @dbrentbaldwin.

Today’s post, however, concerns books on writing. I’ve read a couple dozen books on the subject in the last few years, and some have been much better than others. Here are five of my favorites.

On Writing by Steven King – Half autobiography, half book on craft, it offers much sound advice for the beginner, but more importantly it offers a considerable amount of inspiration. It’s hard to read a chapter and not find myself wanting to sit down and dive headlong into a new story.

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block – These chapters are taken from Block’s long-running series of articles he wrote for Writer’s Digest, but they cover a gamut of topics, and they also a good amount of practical for the beginner and the working writer both.

Story by Robert McKee – The best of the screenwriting books I’ve read. It gets into more detail on what makes a scene work and what makes a story work than anything else.

On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels – It covers romance for sure, but it also has good chapters on character development, conflict development, inner and outer conflicts and just practical things any storyteller needs to know.

Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card – If only for the MICE quotient, but he also covers very good ground here with regard to points of view, narrative distance and ways to really get deep down inside a character.

Kindle MatchBook

Amazon has today announced that select print books, when purchased new, will include a copy of the e-book for somewhere between free and 2.99. The program is called . There’s not a hard number of books, or–as far as I can tell–a full list of what’s in the program currently, but in principle, I love this.

As a reader, this is amazing. This program includes books purchased all the way back to 1995. I suspect it won’t include all of my purchases, but I already see Neal Stephenson’s Anathem on the list. That’s one I’d like to re-read, but since I’ve taken to reading on my Kindle in the last few years and I only have it in hardback, I haven’t gotten to it. (In other words, I really love e-readers and they have changed the way I consume books.)

As a writer, I’m still good with this. I just saw an email come through from Amazon informing me that I can go to my KDP dashboard and set the promo price for my titles. That’s something I’ll be doing “real soon now.” Now granted, everything I’ve published to date has been self-published, but there are still STRANGERS reading things I’ve written (howdy, stranger), and if those STRANGERS have not yet embraced the wonder that is electronic books, I’m thrilled that when they inevitably do, the transition will be easier, at least from my end.

This is exciting and I’ve long wanted to convert my print catalog to an electronic catalog, and this is a better way to do it than converting by way of the dark corners of the internet. It’s a win for readers. It’s a win for writers. And it’s probably even a win for publishers.

Game Dev Tycoon Cheatsheet

Game Dev Tycoon: making it big time
Game Dev Tycoon: making it big time

Note (March 11, 2014): Sometime after release and after the above post was written, the game was patched and the advice offered here lost some of its effectiveness. It will still keep you from going bankrupt, and maybe it will help point you in the right direction.

Like most everyone else that reads technology websites, I saw the articles this week about how the two brothers that developed Game Dev Tycoon put up a torrent of their own game. In the torrented version of the game, the number of sales lost to piracy starts to increase until the in-game studio can’t turn a profit. As a marketing move, it was pure genius: every tech website and blog on the internet covered it. And it worked on this humble writer/gamer. So I spent the $8 and downloaded the game.

It’s wonderful.

WELL worth the $8. It’s not an easy game at first, but through some trial and error, and then reading the raw data values on the wiki, I’ve built myself a little cheatsheet to ensure that I’m making games with the maximum potential. If you want to make a Mature Virtual Pet Adventure for the Gameboy–err, Gameling–go right ahead. Just don’t expect it to make much money. If you want to play the game without the constant fear of bankruptcy, or if you’ve stalled out around the PlayStation (Playsystem) era, here are some tips!

The various development options
The various development options

One of the first things a player learns in-game is that some combinations of Genres and Topics are considered “Great combos” and they will sell well. There’s more to it than that combo, though. There’s also the target audience and the device itself.

I’ll use the Gameling as my example, because it’s where I have been able to make most of my early profits to propel my company from the garage into an office park. The Gameling favors young players. There’s a penalty assigned for the other categories. In fact, all the early consoles do this. Target your early games at the youth market, and you’ll do well. This starts to shift in the XBox 360 era, though PCs always favor Mature. Most of the combos I post below will target the highest modifier Genre for the given system. In the Gameling case it’s 1.01 for RPG and 1 for both Action and Casual. Before I dug into the numbers, I saw success with youth oriented RPGs. This explains why.

  • Gameling: youth: RPG 1.01, Action 1, Casual 1
  • TES/SuperTES: Youth: Action 1
  • Playsystem: youth: RPG 1.07, Action 1.05
  • PS2: youth: RPG 1.07, Casual 1.02, Action 1
  • mBox: youth: Action 1.07, Adventure 1.015
  • PC: Mature, any genre
  • mBox360: Everyone: Casual 1.04, Action 1.015, RPG 1
  • GS: Youth: Sim, strat, Cas 1.04, RPG 1.02
  • PPS: Youth: 1.06 RPG, 1.03 Action
  • PS3: Action 1, RPG 1

The downside to targeting the youth market is that they’re picky. There are a number of topics that non-starters and take a penalty. For any youth oriented game, avoid the following: Military, Dungeon, History, Horror, Business, Romance, Cyberpunk, Hospital, Vocabulary, Law, Game Dev, Startups, Hacking, Government, Prison, Surgery, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens, Wild West, Dance

Games target to Everyone and Mature audiences only have one bad topic: Virtual Pet. Anything else is fair game as long as it the combination works with the chosen genre.

Here’s the quick and easy list of consoles and combos. I haven’t included every console since I’ve mostly focused on the ones with high market share. The wiki has a good list, but this is filtered by age level and console.

  • G64: Any: Any combo below
  • Gameling: Youth: RPG: Medieval, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Martial Arts, Spy, Detective, School, Fashion
  • Gameling: Youth: Action: Sports, Medieval, Space, Fantasy, SciFi, Airplane, Martial Arts, Ninja, Spy, UFO, Time Travel, Hunting, Music, Rhythm, Superheroes
  • Gameling: Youth: Casual: Sports, Racing, Airplane, Martial Arts, comedy, Movies, Fashion, Music, Rhythm
  • TES/SuperTES: Youth: Action: See Gameling
  • Playsystem: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • Playsystem: Youth: Action: See TES
  • Playsystem 2: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • mBox: Youth Action: See Gameling
  • GS: Youth Sim: Sport, Space, Racing, Sci-Fi, Airplane, Martial Arts, Transport, Movies, Evolution, Life, Virtual Pet, Hunting, City, School, Fashion, Music, Rhythm
  • GS: youth: Strategy: Medieval, Space, fantasy, scifi, airplane, transport, UFO, evolution, city, school
  • GS: youth: casual: See Gameling
  • PPS: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • mBox360: Casual: Sports, Racing, Airplane, Martial Arts, comedy, Movies, Vocabulary, Fashion, Music, Rhythm, Dance
  • PS3: Action: Everyone: Sports, Military, Medieval, Space, Fantasy, SciFi, Airplane, Dungeon, Martial Arts, Horror, Ninja, Spy, Cyberpunk, UFO, Time Travel, Hunting, Prison, Music, Rhythm, Superheroes, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens
  • PS3: RPG: Everyone: Medieval, Fantasy, SciFi, Dungeon, Mystery, Martial Arts, Spy, Detective, Cyberpunk, School, Fashion, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens, Wild West

Dual Combos
You gain the ability to research dual genres at some point in the basic office. I’ve done best when I held off on this until I had 6 developers and Large games. I’m not as clear on what makes a winning game here, but I’ve tried to focus on combos that are both design oriented or technology oriented.

DUAL Combos:

  • PS3 Dual: RPG/Adv: Detective, Fantasy, Medieval, Mystery, SciFi, School, Spy (Design Focus)
  • mBox360 Dual: Casual/RPG: Fashion, Martial Arts (Design Focus)
  • grPhone Dual: Sim/Strat: Youth: Airplane, City, Evolution, Scifi, school, space, transport
  • grPad Dual: Sim/Strat: Youth: Airplane, City, Evolution, Scifi, school, space, transport
  • mBox Next: RPG/Casual: Everyone: Fashion, Martial Arts
  • PS4: RPG/Adv: Detective, Fantasy, Medieval, Mystery, SciFi, School, Spy

What are design and technology? Each genre rewards the player for focusing on either design oriented elements or tech oriented elements. I’ve outlined each genre and a general guide to slider levels for each of the development phases. When doing dual genres, I try to combine two genres with the same focuses.

The slider positions can adjust, but I’ve listed the minimum requirements. This refers to the chart at the bottom of the screen, not the actual sliders themselves. Once you start adding features to the game, you’ll have to adjust the ratios a little to ensure you get 100% functionality for each section. Don’t add features that require you to go outside the bounds listed.

The focus indicates that you want approximately 2/3 of your total points to be in that section. So if you’re making an RPG and you have 100 Design points, you should have around 50 Tech points. If you make an RPG that’s 100 Tech and 75 Design, prepare for bad reviews. As long as you follow the slider percentages, the overall focus should take care of itself unless all your features are in the wrong category.

Action Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (no more than 40%)
Phase 2: Dialogues (no more than 40%), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (20% or less), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Adventure Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (no more than 40%), Gameplay (any), Story/Quests (40% or more)
Phase 2: Dialogues (40% or more), Level Design (any), AI (no more than 40%)
Phase 3: World Design (40% or more), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (any)

RPG Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (20% or less), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (40% or more)
Phase 2: Dialogues (40% or more), Level Design (40% or more), AI (20% or less)
Phase 3: World Design (40% or more), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (any)

Simulation Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (any)
Phase 2: Dialogues (20% or less), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (any), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Strategy Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (any)
Phase 2: Dialogues (20% or less), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (any), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Casual Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (no more than 40%), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (no more than 40%)
Phase 2: Dialogues (no more than 40%), Level Design (40% or more), AI (no more than 40%)
Phase 3: World Design (20% or less), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Tip: once you start building medium games, you can judge the exact percentages based on the workload percentages for the developers you assign to each category.

There are also specific features in the game. Things like graphics and sound and savegames. From what I’ve read and seen, they don’t specifically affect your rating. What they do is give you additional tech or design points. It’s these points have the largest effect on your games reviews. Put most of your features on the “40% or more” sections above. Generally speaking, you want the tech/design points to increase from game to game, or least every half dozen or so games. This can be done by researching more features or training your staff.

Staff become very important as you start tackling larger games. I found that I like to focus on Design oriented games, so I highly recommend having 3 very capable Design folks, 2 very capable Tech folks and 2 people that are good hybrids (one of which is probably your starting character). It’s also important to train your people. Once you start making decent money on games, and you should if you’re using the combos listed here, I’d do a round of training at least every other game. The goal is to get people that can specialize in things like Story/Quest, Dialogues, Graphics, World Design and Level Design (in more or less that order). For AAA games you want at least 3 but not necessarily more than 5 specialists on the game. Those specialists will make RPG/Casual games highly effective, and those have been my most consistent money makers.

The wiki has a solid training article, but the short version is this:
Design people should use Game Design for Pirates, G3 Pixel Cup and Game Design Course.
Tech people should use Code Incomplete, G3 Code Jam and Programming Course

Game Dev Gems and G3 Game Jam will train people about equally.

Ron Raglow is broken. :(
Ron Raglow can’t train any more. 🙁

I’ve noticed a bug where the developer in the right-most chair stops upgrading at some point. I’m not 100% if it’s a bug or if that particular employee just stopped upgrading, but he also failed to grant benefits from research. Keep an eye on it if you give someone training but don’t see any improvement to their stats.

A few additional notes: Sequels sell well, but you want to wait at least a year to avoid a penalty (so make another game or two) and you get a bonus if you use a different engine. Don’t release the same genre/topic combo in a row. There’s a penalty. Trend bonuses are straightforward except for the “strange combo” trend. In that case, you actually want to release a game that has a badly fitting genre/topic. I’ve just spent this time doing research or training. We need standards here, people!

My absolute best (non-MMO) seller has been a Casual Martial Arts RPG. It moved nearly 9 million units and turned a profit of around 117 million dollars. It was only a large game, not AAA. I did make a Fantasy RPG Adventure MMO (AAA size) and it made me 430 million before I took it off the market.

I hope this information can make the game more fun for someone else. Good luck and enjoy. (And go buy it, you cheap bastards. It’s only $8.)

The Ghoul Hunter’s Apprentice

It’s been a long time coming, but The Ghoul Hunter’s Apprentice is finally here! After writing Antigen, I wanted to write something that was jam packed with action and adventure and mayhem and explosions. I think I’ve succeeded. The Ghoul Hunter’s Apprentice is a young adult urban fantasy that will appeal to fans of The Dresden Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s not a book with cute vampires or sexy werewolves, though.

“So what do you really do?”
“I work for an organization that polices supernatural affairs. I hunt monsters. Ghouls, malingering djinn, rogue wizards, the odd politician. Things that go bump in the night. I’m one of the people that bumps back. That’s why no one else could come for Dr. Mason’s corpse. I’m one of the people that usually handles that sort of thing.”
It made sense, in a way. Her mom was on the road a lot and she often left in the middle of the night. No wonder Ana hadn’t seen any disasters in the news when her mom went out on a job.
Ana took a slurp from her limeade. “Vampires?”
“There’s no such thing as vampires.”
“So you’re telling me that fairy tales are real, but not vampires?”
“Right. Neither are werewolves. Pure fiction. Honestly, the worst monsters aren’t even supernatural. They’re people that find a little bit of power and abuse it for all they can.”

The Ghoul Hunter's Apprentice Cover

Look at that pretty lady masquerading as a sixteen year old girl…

There are secrets in the Greene house–dark, deadly secrets–and they threaten to tear Anastasia Greene’s world to shreds…

It’s hard being a young wizard in 21st century America. Dodging the Council of Wizards and staying out of the public eye is tough enough, but when fifteen year old Ezekial’s mentor Stanley is kidnapped by ghouls, Eze loses the closest thing he’s ever had to a family.

Anastasia Greene has lived with her mother and grandparents for sixteen perfectly ordinary years, but when her grandparents disappear, Ana discovers a world she never suspected. Ghouls lurk in every shadow and djinn walk the Earth disguised as humans.

Opposed by ghouls and genies, evil wizards and ancient nightmares, Ana and Eze are pushed together in a fight for survival. Ana must uncover her own hidden past, and Eze must develop his magical abilities if either hopes to find the families they’ve lost.

It’s currently available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Apple. The paperback is in process and will be available from Amazon and CreateSpace sometime in the next week or so.

The hardest thing for a new author (other than writing a good book), is getting the book to readers. If you enjoy the book, tell a friend about it. Or leave a review. Or both! Every little bit helps.

And now, for your reading pleasure, the first chapter:

Chapter One – Hunting Wizards
The lights in the room dimmed as the spell gained power. Eze huddled into the corner, trying to absorb everything his master chanted. There would be a test later, and the price of failure would be more beatings and more memory exercises. Majesty, the old man that had dominated his life for the last six months, wouldn’t be happy until Eze could control a dozen ghouls. Eze had a feeling that Majesty wouldn’t be happy then, either. Nothing ever seemed to the please the wizard, not even when Eze did exactly what he instructed.

“Are you paying attention, boy?” Majesty asked. His reedy voice echoed from the bare walls.

Eze snapped his attention back to the withered man. “Yes, sir.”

“Why isn’t there a ghoul standing in my circle?”

“You transposed the last two words of the spell.”

“And why am I not a smoking husk of wizard ruins?”

“You grounded yourself to iron.” That kept him from smoking. Whether he was a husk or not was debatable.

“Maybe there’s hope for you yet. Pay attention.” The wizard gripped the radiator and began chanting again. His voice rasped and croaked like a coffee can full of old stones. Purple and blue smoke formed a hurricane of color above the chalk circle in the middle of the room. Lights flashed in the swirling mists. They dissolved to reveal a writhing, humanoid shape with
oversized shoulders and protruding spikes.

“Master. Serve,” the creature hissed.

Majesty stepped away from the radiator and shuffled around the creature. A flick of his wrist sent it a pace forward. Its head rotated; glowing reptilian eyes swept around the room and settled on Eze. It crouched, muscles straining as its expression turned from confusion to hunger.

“Do not harm the boy,” Majesty said.

The ghoul shifted its weight and looked back to Majesty. Eze realized he had held his breath and let it out with a gasp.

The wizard crossed the room to the door. “Follow me.”

The ghoul and Eze both followed him to the front of the farmhouse. The wizard’s walking stick tapped the hardwood with each stride as he led them outside onto the front porch. A distant glow lit the horizon, but everything near the house was dark.

“Stay in the shadows and await further instructions,” he commanded the ghoul.

The ghoul stomped across the porch and dropped into the darkness on the other side of the steps. It stood perfectly still, perfectly silent. It wasn’t the first ghoul Majesty had put on guard duty, but it was the first where he’d shown Eze how to do it.

“It will follow basic instructions from me alone,” Majesty said. “Are you ready to summon?”

Bile rose in Eze’s throat, burning. He swallowed it. “I guess.”

Majesty backhanded him with the stick. A line of pain erupted on the side of Eze’s face, but he kept his hands still at his side. “There is no guess,” Majesty said. “If you falter, you die.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“And don’t even think about attacking me with a creature you summon. You’ll get a beating that will make you wish you’d never been born.” The wizard towered over him, his face contorted with fury.

“Yes, Majesty.” Eze shuffled back into the summoning room in the back of the house. He stopped by the radiator and touched the iron as he had been taught. Paint flaked under his hand. It was really an old bedroom with plywood windows, but Majesty used it for all his summoning. Eze rehearsed the spell in his head and tried to steel himself for handling magic.
Any spell he cast made his stomach heave. It was like eating peas and chicken livers, but worse. Like eating cold chicken livers. Magic made his whole body ache, but Majesty didn’t care. Eze couldn’t understand how wizards cast multiple spells a day and controlled multiple ghouls at a time. He didn’t have much choice but to try, not if he wanted to avoid another beating. Not if he wanted to eat.

“Any day now, Ezekial.” Majesty slapped his cane against his palm.

Eze closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Ash allu kan—”

Something feral roared outside the house, breaking Eze’s concentration. He stopped the spell, and a thin layer of lavender mist dissolved at his feet.

“What the devil?” Majesty stalked to the bedroom door and threw it open.

The creature roared again, but cut off mid-cry. Loose boards on the porch creaked. The front door of the house banged open and a cloaked figure swept in from the darkness, metal glinting before him.

“Inferne!” Majesty shouted. A ball of flame gushed from the end of his staff and exploded over the intruder, charring him to cinders.

Only it didn’t. The intruder dropped his arm from his face and revealed a woman with the hardest eyes Eze had ever seen. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” she said. The pistol in her fist popped twice.
Majesty’s body jerked. He dropped to his knees. As he fell, he lifted his staff again.

The pistol popped a third time. Majesty crumpled. The staff clattered away.

Eze stared at the woman, dumbfounded. She aimed her pistol at him, but didn’t shoot. His knees trembled.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice cracking.

“I’ll ask the questions here. Hands up.” She marched forward, the dark hole of the barrel never wavering from him. “What’s your name?”

“Ezekial.” He glanced at Majesty. “You shot him.” He poked Majesty with his toe. The wizard didn’t move. “I think he’s dead.”

The woman ignored Majesty and the blood puddling out from him. Eze backed away from the corpse, his heart pounding. Majesty had talked about raising corpses, but Eze couldn’t remember the words. He didn’t want to remember the words.

“Stop.” She moved closer and motioned toward the floor with the gun. “On the ground. Hands behind your back.”

He stared at her, his mouth dry. “Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“On the ground!”

Eze settled on the floor. The old wood scratched at his knees. She had an aura of command that Majesty could only have imagined.

“Face down.” She pulled his hands behind him and tied them together with something thin that bit into his wrists. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

She circled around and crouched before him, her long jacket splayed out on the floor. “How long have you been with Hiram Majedski?”

“Hiram who?”

Her mouth tightened. “The wizard.”

Eze shrugged; his cheek scraped the floor, aggravating where Majesty had hit him. “A few months.”

The woman stared at him until he couldn’t match her gaze and looked away. “You’re his apprentice?”

“I didn’t want to be.”

“But you were?”

He closed his eyes. She was going to shoot him. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Do you have a family?”

“No.” Not anymore. He blinked away the tears.

“What happened to your family?”

“My momma she… drugs.” It was believable. He hoped she wouldn’t press him on it.

“I see. Have you opened a summoning portal?”

Eze opened his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered. Here it comes. She was gonna shoot him for sure.

“What happened when you did?”

“A ghoul came through. A small one.”

“What happened to you?”

“Threw up on the floor and Majesty beat me with his stick.” He studied a splinter protruding from the floor a few inches from his nose.

Her jacket rustled. She sighed. “I’m going to give you a chance, kid. Don’t screw it up.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. The handcuffs cut into his wrists.

“What do you mean?”

She guided him forward, toward the open door. “I know another wizard, one that’s not a megalomaniac necromancer. He’ll help you.”

“I don’t want to be a wizard. Majesty didn’t give me any choice.”

“You don’t have any choice. Once you start, you either learn to control it, or you become a public danger. You’re already a risk.”

She took out a cell phone and thumbed the front cover. “This is Helena. I found the source of the ghouls.” She paused, listening. “Just a cleanup crew. No one else was here.” The phone clicked as she ended the call.

“What was that?”

She looked at him blankly and waited a moment before speaking. “If you have any clothes, we need to get them out of here. Do you have a room?”

“In the back.”

“Lead the way. I’ll do the packing.”

It didn’t take long for him to point her to his few shirts and spare pair of pants.

“You got a suitcase?” she asked.

“No.”

She searched the room and settled on a pillowcase. His clothes were promptly stuffed inside. “Let’s go.” She motioned him toward the open front door.

On the front steps, the ghoul lay dead. The back of its head looked like a smashed pumpkin, but it stank like rotten eggs. Eze’s stomach did a flip.

She led him around it and into the darkness, seemingly unafraid of any of Majesty’s other guardians. He glanced into the night, looking for the other ghoul. It worried him that he hadn’t seen it. Those things didn’t ask first before attacking.

“You, uh, kill any more ghouls out here?” he asked.

“No. Were there others?”

“Majesty had another one on guard.”

“No, he didn’t.”

Eze wasn’t sure what to make of that. He’d seen the thing himself. Unless Majesty had sent it back.

The woman led him down the driveway to the blacktop road and along the edge a ways. Eventually they stopped at a gray sedan parked half in the ditch. She opened the passenger door and waited for him climb inside.

Eze tried to make himself as comfortable as possible with his hands locked behind his back. Whoever she was, whatever she was, she hadn’t hit him yet, and that was a step up.

Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

Microsoft Word and Quotation Marks

I’m dealing with a seventy thousand word manuscript right now and I was having some trouble with quotation marks. For some reason I decided to change all my smart quotes to normal straight quotes. The document stayed that way for a while, and then I was editing it and realized that I hated the straight quotes. So I did a find and replace, looking for ” and replacing with “. (Those should both be straight quotes.) It looked good at first, but then I noticed that the quotes at the end of my sentences were all going the wrong direction.

Then I spent a couple hours trying every way imaginable to fix them without having to fix every sentence by hand.

I failed.

In the end, I copied my text into a fresh document, did a find and replace of ” and ” and it magically worked. My hypothesis is that a combination of the auto-correct settings, my large (ish) manuscript and track changes caused the issue where find and replace wouldn’t fix them like it always has in the past. The downside is that it completely blew up my track changes history, but I have various copies saved with older versions, so it’s not a big deal.

In related news, I’m working on The Ghoul Hunter’s Apprentice this weekend. Just when I thought it was done, I received some AMAZING feedback from a member of my writing group, and it’s inspired me to take a big machete to a number of the opening chapters. My darlings, they are a dying.

New Short Stories

I put a couple new short stories on the usual sites last night.

Steampunk airship cover
The Whirlybird Cover

When Eden steps off the zeppelin in Chadwick, he’s ready to finally put the war behind him and go see his lady love. Not long after he arrives at her father’s steam powered workshop, the war steals back into his life in the form of a rival suitor and his gang of baldknobbers. Eden’s in for the fight of his life if he wants to win his girl’s heart and not get himself strung up as a traitor.

Yes, that’s a Baldknobber steampunk short story. It has fantastical gadgets, men with silly hats and a dashing escape.

Available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and (someday soon) Apple.

replacements story cover
Replacements Cover

When Kayleigh’s grandmother takes a cybernetic replacement body, she becomes a virtual superwoman. Unfortunately, Kayleigh’s grandmother just can’t keep up. The family is forced to explore a new world split between the young, the old and the eternally young. What they discover threatens to tear them all apart.

This was my entry for last quarter’s Writers of the Future contest. It didn’t place. I’ve sent it out to a few of the scifi magazines and had it rejected, so I’ve decided to make it generally available. I was going for a scifi Glass Menagerie thing, but I’m not as talented as Ken Liu (yet).

Available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and (someday soon) Apple.

I did these covers myself. The Whirlybird I like fairly well, though that particular image has to be the most overused piece of steampunk stock art. The image for Replacements wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I’m not good enough with Photoshop to put that kind of effect onto someone’s face. If I were, I would have found a picture of an elderly woman since it would have fit the story much better.