Archive for June, 2012

Author’s Commentary, Part I

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jun 28 2012

My novella, Beauty of the Lilies, was released last week as an e-book. Today, then, I am posting the first part of my author’s commentary. The italic portions are extracts from the novella, and the plain text below is my comments on it. If you haven’t read the novella, and for some reason want to read the commentary anyway, be forewarned that there are spoilers.

Author’s Commentary on The Beauty of the Lilies


This story began with a character. The character began with another story.

In Chapter III of The Last Heir Colten Shevyn and Elymas Vonran debate their conflicting proposals for ruling the Empire. At one point Vonran states, “A passive emperor is still the emperor.”

In the first draft, Vonran buttressed his assertion by citing Emperor Jediah, who “devoted himself to his family and his painting”.

It was only a historical example, and the exact preoccupations of the negligent emperor were irrelevant to any point. Still, I had to write down something. I chose painting because, well, there was something about the idea that tickled me. Then I added family to keep the emperor from being completely selfish.

During the re-crafting of the scene the mention of Jediah was cut. Vonran, in the book, skips the history and goes straight to the point. It seemed better rhetoric. But I could not forget about the painting emperor. Eventually I decided to write a story about the emperor who wanted to be a painter. My first thought was: This could be funny. My second was: This could be sad. From these the whole story came.

The Beauty of the Lilies was completed in 2008. When I decided to publish it as an e-Book, I read through the story and revised it. Mostly it was a matter of style; there were no major changes of plot or character, though there was some refinement.

I am an old man now …

This begins one of my favorite bits of writing in the whole story. It was fun and relatively easy to write, and it’s sort of a crash-course introduction to Jediah and the tension of what he ought to be and what he wants to be. This prologue is the heart and spirit of the whole story, in brief.

Act I

The Beauty of the Lilies was too short for chapters, yet I wanted to divide it somehow. I decided to mimic the structure of five-act plays. The five acts are: Act 1 – Exposition; Act 2 – Complications; Act 3 – The Climax of Action; Act 4 – Falling Action; Act 5 – Catastrophe.

Lilies may or may not be a faithful rendition of the old style. At any rate, titling its sections Acts has a classy air, and I always liked the subtitle A Story in Five Acts.

He noticed Kyran Akon …

In the original story, Tervath meets Sirius Kliveen, not Kyran Akon, on his way to the meeting. Kliveen was the Chief of the Treasury, an old, testy man. I had a notion that he might come in useful, but he never did. When I began the revision, removing Kliveen was one of my first priorities. I didn’t want to distract my readers with an irrelevant character, and I was looking for opportunities to build up other characters. Eliminating Kliveen opened one up.

The emperor’s periods of long, sustained work were followed by periods of idleness.

Before I began writing Lilies I did research on painters and turned up a list of common attributes. This was one of them.

The last arrival was Jace Lukas.

But the last arrival used to be Akon. When I relegated Kliveen’s moment in the sun to Akon, I gave Akon’s introduction to Lukas. The few lines of dialogue, here between Akon and Lukas, used to be between Akon and Kliveen. Lukas was not originally in this scene at all.

Tervath began, as was his custom whenever the conversation took this turn, to tune out.

It tells you something about Jediah that Tervath is used to him turning conversations about governing into conversations about painting. It also tells you something about Tervath that he never listened.

But my primary reason for having Tervath “tune out” was that it allowed me to portray Jediah’s expertise without having any expertise myself. In fact, the whole paragraph is an analogy for the research I did into painting. I never knew there were so many different kinds of paints, or that they had a real effect on how paintings turn out. Paints that are glossy, paints that dry quickly, paints made of water and oils and even eggs. I learned a little. If I had ever gotten deeper than the Wikipedia level of research, I would have learned much.

A Turul cruiser was dispatched …

The Turul is a bird in Hungarian mythology; it was said to be the ancestor of Attila.

The Avidan …

One of the nice things about writing different stories set in the same universe: You already have a store of facts to draw from. As established in The Last Heir, the Avidan is the headquarters for the Empire’s military.

He was still a diffident scholar.

This is kinder than what I have often thought of Trev: blah.

Anyon Timnah approached with a quick, smooth step. Nothing could be told from his face, good or bad; rarely could anything be told, beyond what he intended. He was as handsome as the emperor, but more impressive than his looks was his boundless self-possession.

So enters the last Chief into the story. For a novella, there really is a large cast of characters. I introduced every Chief with a few lines like this, hoping to quickly define each one so that they would not be confused in the reader’s mind.

The Augustus is ordering …

The Augustus is the title of Vothnia’s sovereign (and a nice one, if I may humbly say so). But no one knows that. This is one of the tricky aspects of writing: How do you smoothly get across information known to all of the characters and none of the readers?

My first try was to have Tervath ask, “The ruler of all Vothnia is taking responsibility for this act of war?”

This felt a little awkward, so during the revision I rewrote his comment. Then I added Timnah and Akon’s response to it—improving the story in another way. The Chiefs’ words give readers a feel for the Vothnians.

The Vaaris Cluster …

In The Last Heir one of Alexander’s secret bases is in the Vaaris Cluster, hidden by its electromagnetic radiation. But unless my memory fails me, the Cluster was invented during the writing of Lilies.

An Este-class cruiser … created by Vahan.

The company’s original name was Golver, Inc. I changed it because, come on, what kind of a name is that? While I was at it, I decided to change the name of the cruiser. (It was first called Aplon.) Vahan is a Sanskrit word meaning vehicle—and carrying a religious meaning of no relevance to my story.

So it is,” Timnah said—with true or false agreement Tervath would never venture to guess.

He’s a diplomat! And Tervath could easily believe a liar, too. I brought Timnah in because, in a diplomatic crisis, I had no choice but to include the Chief of State. He became, surprisingly, a favorite of mine.

Jediah circled two fingers of his left hand …

Jediah is left-handed, a characteristic I gave him because (1) The majority of people are right-handed, and Jediah does not generally fit into that category, and (2) I heard somewhere that there is a connection between creativity and left-handedness. I will not vouch for the truth of that, however.

Nyev’s eyes sharp and shuttered, Jediah’s clear and mild.

A nice contrast, and one that runs to deeper things.

Do you not know?”

Jediah is trying; he’s just not very good at it.

For a second the light in Timnah’s eyes sharpened to a needle point.

One of the things I enjoy about Akon—and Lukas, for that matter—is how upfront they are about who they are and what they think. One of the things I enjoy about Timnah is how elusive he is about who he is and what he thinks. He maintains a calm and even exterior—but beneath it he, too, is tough.

Akon’s eyes darted away from the scene with angry speed.

A very late addition; this is the last scene to undergo revision.

Their grievance is as legitimate or illegitimate as it ever was.

Jediah sees clearly—and to the way of everyone else’s thinking, simply.

Timnah smiled …

Two thoughts on Timnah’s remarks here: One, if you’re going to insult someone, this is how to do it. Two, his own opinion on the emperor is difficult to sound, though it is hard to imagine the worldly-wise Chief of State thinks the painting emperor is much of an emperor. But here it is he, not Tervath, who offers a defense for Jediah.

He wanted to defend the emperor, but he could find no words.

Tervath is loyal to Jediah beyond his own best judgment; his feelings are more positive than his thoughts.

A young man came in …

Recall that Jediah was introduced wearing old, paint-stained clothing, but his brother is introduced as being “very finely dressed”.

Fourth in line for the throne

A fact that can be gleaned from this: Jediah has three sons. I also decided that he had three daughters, but it was never mentioned. Two of his daughters were, of course, seen.

At twelve years than his brother he was only twenty-seven.

Jediah’s exact age is indirectly given here. But here’s the important thing: Twelve years is a significant gap between siblings because it ensures that they will never be children together. They may still be close, but at a large distance of years it must be—at least early on—a quasi-parental relationship. However, as the younger grows up and intellectually catches up to the older, friendship becomes possible. That this has not happened with Jediah and Ruark is obvious as early as Ruark’s first barbed remark—“I also see my brother is not with you.”

You invited me after the new little one was born.

A transparent lie: He really came back because of the stewing crisis with Vothnia. Jediah indicates as much by saying that the “new little one”—and the invitation—is two months old.

I will settle this,” Trev cut into their argument. “We should vote.”

This, from Trev, is bold leadership.

The Tremendous Issue

Book Reviews, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jun 21 2012

Last week I reviewed The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There was one criticism I had, when I first finished the novel, that I withdrew after further thought. I’ll share it now, but first a

SPOILER WARNING: This post will focus on the ending of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading here.

Twenty years after Notting Hill’s victory, it began to tyrannize the other cities, forcing on them its own customs and rules. When they answered with the threat of war, Notting Hill took up the challenge eagerly. Adam Wayne rebuked his people, “Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire?”

But they would not listen. So Notting Hill went to war against a hundred allied cities, and Wayne went down with his army to die.

My brother called the battle a Shakespearean slaughter. Chesterton killed – if not everyone, then at least he came close. Notting Hill was destroyed entirely. Watching the characters fall, I was startled and disappointed. I can still feel disappointed reading it again. But I am no longer inclined to criticize, because now I understand the purpose of it.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a story about patriotism. In the last, unexpected twist of the book, Notting Hill dies, as all nations eventually must. And Chesterton confronts the strongest objection to loving a country.

After the battle, “upon the field of the bloody end of it all”, a voice spoke: “So ends the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood, and all things are always the same.”

And another voice answered out of the darkness: “If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. … If our ancient humanity were a single man, it might perhaps be that he would break down under the burden of so many diverse heroisms, under the load and terror of all the goodness of men. But it has pleased God so to isolate the individual soul that it can only learn of all other souls by hearsay, and to each one goodness and happiness come with the youth and violence of lightning, as momentary and as pure. And the doom of failure that lies on all human systems does not in real fact affect them any more than the worms of the inevitable grave affect a children’s game in a meadow.”

And the first voice offered another challenge: “What might have been done to Notting Hill if the world had been different may be a deep question, but there is a deeper. What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The answer came: “The same thing that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.”

To end his story in grim failure was strange for G K. Chesterton. He wrote happy endings; in his novels I have read besides Notting Hill, I can recall only one character death, and that was of a minor villain. But it is only on the “field of the bloody end” that the question becomes so sharp. They ask, and answer again, what is the worth of Notting Hill – not in its triumph or in its weakness, but in its ruin.

And at that inevitable ruin, when a dark voice said it all meant nothing, another voice answered, “Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.”

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Jun 14 2012

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin “had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses. … When he entered a room of strangers they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.”

For a joke, Auberon Quin instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

This was the King’s joke on his modern, businesslike subordinates. He enjoyed it and they did not. After ten years, the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who took the whole thing as seriously as life itself.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. The novel begins in 1984, and it takes two time leaps so that it ends in 2014. This is enough to qualify The Napoleon of Notting Hill as speculative fiction, though its author never heard of the term.

Like all Chesterton novels, this is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. The narrator of Napoleon remarks: “Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

So the narration of Chesteron’s novels carries the same style and opinions as his apologetics.

Indeed, the fiction of G. K. Chesterton always revolves around the same things his nonfiction does. Many of Chesterton’s ideas can be seen in the pages of this book – on what makes men go mad, on the value and almost mysticism of ordinary things, and why it is better to “go clad in gold and scarlet” than in black frock-coats. But the idea that shapes the whole story is that of patriotism.

Adam Wayne was a lunatic because he was a patriot. He took Notting Hill seriously. Auberon had made the cities in mockery; he compelled them into mediavel glory for the pleasure of making his serious officials look like fools. He thought Notting Hill ridiculous, like the rest of it. The officials thought poor, small Notting Hill perhaps even more ridiculous than the rest of it. Adam Wayne thought it sacred enough to die for.

This was singularly foolish to his fellow provosts, but also singularly inconvenient. They had strictly commercial – and highly profitable – uses for Notting Hill. A Lord High Provost who could not be bought – who resisted their seizure of his city to the point of violence – that was more than they had ever dealt with.

Through the struggle for Notting Hill, the question is brought to fore: Is it rational to be a patriot? Is it sane to dress in gold and scarlet for glory, or to dress in black for dignity?

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Children of Angels Blog Tour

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Jun 06 2012

If you, as a reader, have ever lingered in the Christian speculative fiction genre, you’ve run into Nephilim. Good Nephilim, bad Nephilim, Nephilim with superpowers, with swords, with psychological complexes.

But did you ever see a Nephilim in school?

Upon discovering that he had abilities not within normal human parameters – such as jumping multiple stories into the air – Jeremy Lapoint entered the Higher Humanity Institute. There he and more than two hundred fellow students trained in their somewhat freakish gifts. But the question remained – was he right in thinking their abilities came from an ancient angel bloodline, or were they right in saying the abilities came from reaching humanity’s next evolutionary stage?

Kathryn Dahlstrom, in Children of Angels, turns yet another Christian pen at the Nephilim. But she takes it in a direction I have not quite seen before. As a reviewer wrote, “This is not the first book I have read about half angel/half human beings, but it’s totally different from what I have previously read. Although I am not of the intended audience age, I enjoyed the book.”

I recommend the reviews posted at Reviews from the Heart and Bibliological Bibble-Babble (sounds fun, doesn’t it?). Of course, the best way to form an opinion of a thing is to study it yourself. Over at Amazon, a generous excerpt is available for anyone wishing to get a taste of Children of Angels.

And, you know, all the buying opportunity you need is there, too. If you’re interested.

The Phenomenon

Misc. | Posted by Shannon
Jun 01 2012

Lately I’ve been occupied with e-books, primarily how to create them. It’s one of those things that’s easy for those who do it. For those who don’t, it’s hard to get on the right track. But I’m making it – seeking advice, following guides, running Google searches when confused by the guides, downloading software I’d had no notion existed, copying my milk-run e-book onto my Kindle and happily discovering that it looks pretty much like the e-books that cost money.

I’m still absorbing the phenomenon of e-books. About six months ago I officially joined it, getting a Kindle. E-books lack the real, physical presence of paper-and-ink books. You can’t fill your shelves with e-books, or hold one in your hand with the sense that it is all right there, right at that moment. In a way, e-books only exist one page at a time.

Ah, but there are advantages. The highlight and notes feature is nice – especially for those genetically indisposed to write on their books with a pen. (There’s this faint sense of vandalism …) Just as nice, it’s all stored away in one place. Select the right option, and you can see all your highlights, notes, and bookmarks. And if you’ve ever spent half an hour paging through a book for the passage you know is there, you will see the usefulness of Kindle’s search function.

An e-reader can contain a whole personal library – in its own time an efficient compression. Best of all, thousands of books in the free domain can be downloaded for nothing. My own collection has thrived on this.

All this notwithstanding, I still prefer the old books. I like the solid physical reality, the freestanding individuality of each book. I have seen books where the Kindle edition was cheaper than the print by cents. I would never, under a choice like that, buy the e-book.

But I know that some people would. How this will affect the publishing industry, or how far e-books will carry their triumph, I will not venture to guess. It may be that e-books will overtake print until we end in the sci-fi vision of paper books being rarities, luxuries, antiques.

In another sci-fi vision, maybe World War III will throw us back to the Middle Ages, and then paper books will be rare for a different reason. However it will be, for the time print and e-books alike are prospering, and it’s new enough that everybody – publishers, readers, writers – is trying to figure out what, exactly, the possibilities are.