On Sourcebooks

The proper balance between illustrations and words has been a controversial topic for writers for some time. As authors, we rely on words to communicate, and to the extent we need illustrations, we limit them to book covers.

There is a reason for this. Imagery, animation, illustration work, and getting the look of something right is almost as time-consuming as getting the story right. As authors we end up with a trade-off. Either we spend hours making what will never be better than an amateur illustration combined with an amateur attempt at compositing typography and effects, or we spend that extra time working on the words.

The old cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words” isn’t quite accurate. A picture is worth more like half a day and at least one derailed train of thought, and for me, that can add up to more like six thousand words. That’s ten percent of a medium-length novel, and that can be expensive. Really expensive.

I’m fond of saying I have an unlimited special effects budget. But I only have that if I stick to my knitting. The very moment I open Photoshop or GIMP or whatever, the limits on my special effects budget become overwhelmingly apparent, and the limits on the time I have to fiddle and adjust and tinker become even more apparent. Every hour I spend on that illustration is 1500 words I didn’t get written today.

As authors go, I’m relatively experienced with graphics tools. I know GIMP and Photoshop well. I’m a fair to middling Blender user, and I’ve got journeyman skills with the tools in the Adobe Suite. I’ve had to develop those skills over the years as I’ve worked on video game projects, animated ads, audiocast projects and so forth.

But now, my business is books, and if I’m going to be good at something, it’s going to have to be writing and not gee-whiz graphics. I’m well aware of what happens when you overspend on graphics and underspend on script.

So on to the sourcebooks. You might ask what a sourcebook is? Well, it’s where I gather all the information that doesn’t necessarily make it into a story as is. It’s where, for example, I list things like a character’s favorite school subject, or a fighter pilot’s most prestigious accomplishment or award. It’s where I take what is two-dimensional and make it three-dimensional. It’s where I find out who a character really is before they get to that important scene readers care about most.

The sourcebook is where I describe all the creatures in a fantasy story, or all the enemy starships in a science-fiction story. I also build maps (without graphics, believe it or not) and name all the locations on various planets or realms where adventures take place. Readers appreciate it when stories get their own details right from chapter to chapter.

You would be surprised at just how much source material you can produce writing a 98,000-word fantasy novel. Every character has to be accounted for. Every treasure and creature has to be written before they can be included in the story. I have a list of nearly 100 starships in my Captain Jason Hunter series. It’s nice to be able to look up their names instead of trying to keep them all straight by re-reading previous chapters.

One of the most popular features of some of my past web sites have been the character profile pages for my LadyStar warriors. My Featured Creatures™ have also been popular, and I think some of the source material I’ve composed for Starships at War will be interesting for readers too. The thing is, those past sites had tons of graphics, which are among the things I can no longer produce in the quantities I need.

I want to start putting my sourcebook material up on my site, but I don’t have the time or the budget to illustrate it all. Naturally, I already have most of it written, but with thousands of pages of material, there is no way I can generate graphics in that kind of volume. There’s also the issue of mobile readers. Even if I could get the illustrations done, making them look right on desktops and mobile devices will consume incredible intervals of time I should be investing in new chapters and new stories.

So I have to make the trade-off and sacrifice graphics in favor of words. This is fine with me as an author because I’d much rather write my creations. I’m sure some readers will be disappointed I won’t have a pretty picture to go with each page. Perhaps someday I will find an artist to illustrate what I’ve imagined here and have the budget to do it well. In the meantime, I hope you’ll understand if I go easy on the multimedia extravaganza so I can get everything written that needs to be written.

Look for new material from my sourcebooks soon. Black out.

Strike Battleship Engineers Chapter Fifty Eight

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Strike Battleship Engineers

Captain Darragh Walsh silently regarded the main viewer on the bridge of DSS Rhode Island. Two watches had been dismissed by now, and his XO was becoming more and more concerned. She stood near him, pretending to be looking at the same thing he was.

“Sir, with all due respect, you need rest. If we go into hard action, the fatigue–”

“Give me that D-rad reading again, signals,” Walsh interrupted.

A pause. “Zero Zero Six. No detectable delta from baseline since the last synch, sir.”

Nessa saw her captain curse under his breath. “What is it?”

“He’s modulating his engine emissions. I thought we were going to catch him at the edge of the atmosphere and at least get a course track,” Walsh growled. “But every bloody time he shifts his emissions and disappears before our navicomp can get a waveform. Keep driving him, helm. Get us in closer.”

Lieutenant Boyle moved to the tactical station and had the duty officer pull up the orbital track. “How accurate is our position map?”

“There’s five thousand miles of play along every vector,” Walsh replied without moving. “I could flush him out of there, but it will take all our birds.”

“What are our chances with energy only?”

“Too risky. Energy targeting is a toss-up as long as his cloak is operational. The Mantids, on the other hand–”

“D-rad spike. Zero One Four. Right on schedule.”

“You keep playing me, you bastard,” Walsh muttered. “One way or another, you’re going to make a mistake, and I’m going to be there when you do. Helm, steer four degrees starboard. Maintain your velocity.”

“Aye, captain. Helm answering. Course now four one mark one. Clock cycling two zero zero. Back to our original track.”

The malevolent shape of Walsh’s destroyer banked quietly and then resumed her course along the extreme outer edge of Bayone Seven’s magnetic field. The dark side of the planet’s atmosphere was peaceful, which only made things more difficult for the Rhode Island. As long as the chemical composition of the atmosphere was predictable, a cloaked ship could remain practically invisible indefinitely. The alternative was the “stock market” of tactical officers. They needed conditions to change in much the same way stockbrokers needed prices to change. Up or down didn’t matter. All that mattered was what they could buy or sell while conditions were in flux. It was when the readings changed that the slight difference between the new and old would reveal clues as to the position of a cloaked ship. If Rhode Island caught a solid waveform, her enemy would be reduced to background radiation and a debris field so fast they wouldn’t have time to realize they were dead.

“Steady as she goes, helm.”

Walsh stood resolute. Aside from his words, it was hard to tell if he was even breathing. Boyle cycled and re-cycled the tactical map, applying every overlay she could think of. Nothing brought up more than the edge of the planet and the same spectrographic analysis pattern for the atmosphere. Now she was cursing under her breath.

“Tactical. Identify readings at planet’s edge. Analysis, quickly,” Walsh ordered.

Boyle relinquished the controls and the tactical officer focused the ship’s short-range sensors on the darker patch at the edge of the planet’s terminator. “Low pressure zone in the atmosphere, sir. Could be a high-altitude storm of some kind.”

“Latitude?”

“Forty-one degrees north approx–”

“Helm! Hard-a-larboard! All ahead emergency flank speed!”

The Rhode Island’s pilot narrowly avoided an embarrassing accident at the sudden shout from her captain. She shoved the controls and rammed the throttle forward. The destroyer dove back to port and exploded towards the planet surface.

“Missile warning! Threat board! Vampire! Vampire!”

“Countermeasures! Now!” Walsh grabbed an overhead handhold to steady himself as the deck pitched under his feet. Lieutenant Boyle was thrown against a bank of sensor readouts. She grabbed the shock harness on the second sensor officer’s crash couch to keep from slamming to the deck.

High-speed breakaway transmitters rocketed into space as Rhode Island rolled away. A deadly anti-matter torpedo screamed through the deflection zone only a few hundred yards from where Walsh’s ship had been a moment before. The warhead impacted one of the countermeasures and detonated at a range of 65 miles. The shock knocked out every light on the bridge. For several chilling moments, the only illumination was the glowing red threat indicators. The captain’s voice shouted in the darkness.

“Tactical! Bring us up fast!”

When she could see again, Boyle noticed Walsh was still forward of the pilot’s station, watching the display like a hungry vulture.

“Forward launchers two and three! Target the trailing edge of the storm at zero six!”

“Affirmative! Warhead ready indicators missiles two! three–!”

“Fire blind! Push him, tactical! Push him!”

The lethal warship banked back to starboard and accelerated towards her fading target. A pair of agile Mantid-class birds screamed from Rhode Island’s forward launchers and tore through the orbital track like demons with rocket engines. A moment later concussion warheads detonated, causing devastating spherical explosions each of which tore a million tons of gas and debris out of Bayone Seven’s exosphere and then vaporized it in a twelve-million-degree hypernova. Waves of feedback plasma energy shook the angry Skywatch ship like an avalanche.

“Weapons detonation! Range zero point two!”

“Readings! Quickly!”

“D-rad indicator zero one five! No change!”

Boyle was back at tactical. Watching. Reading. Looking for anything that she could use to suss out even a hint of the enemy ship’s course. But it was like looking at a calm ocean from the beach. There just wasn’t anything there for the Rhode Island’s sensitive tracking instruments to get hold of. She moved quickly back to her captain’s side.

“We didn’t even get a firing position.”

“He’s got a scorch mark in the seat of his pants now, lieutenant,” Walsh said with a sinister tone in his voice. “He takes another shot at us and I’m going to give him a set of bite marks to go with it. Helm, resume orbital track. Back to our original course. Ahead one-half. Reload forward launchers two and three and arm warheads for short-range engagement.”

Rhode Island maneuvered back to her pursuit course and went back to watching and waiting with a full spread of concussion missiles armed.

A chill crawled up Lieutenant Boyle’s neck. No matter how high the rank of the person asking, she knew she would never be able to explain how the captain knew. The ship’s automatic threat avoidance systems never activated. Not one instrument on the ship had registered a thing until the enemy missile was right on top of them.

Captain Walsh folded his hands behind his back, then took a deep breath and exhaled, eyes fixed on the forward viewer.

Reader Opinion: Would a Wiki make you Clicky?

As many of you know, there’s a lot going on in most of my book series. I have an 800-page source book for LadyStar, and my written notes for the Starships at War universe just passed 100 pages. I expect if I took the time to compile it, Kings and Conquests would be close to 100 pages too.

Question: Would it be of any value to you as a reader of any of these three series to have an online resource listing the characters, prominent locations, equipment, ships, creatures, villains, etc. possibly along with art wherever possible? I’m pretty sure it will help me a bit, as keeping track of 1000 pages of source material isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I’m not planning to use the standard wiki software, as I find it far too finicky and over-engineered for what I have in mind.

Instead I’m planning to establish permanent addresses for my books and their corresponding series on my web server. These pages will function as both information resources for readers and as landing pages for any promotions I do. Alongside these pages, I think background details on characters and so forth would be useful and attractive, especially for new people.

So, what do you think? Would you like to see something like this? Leave your comments below and tell me what you’d like to see! Black out.

The Praetorian Imperative

I have for some time considered writing a series involving a wide-scale fleet action, and I’m pleased to report I got a start on it this week. Naturally this will not proscribe continued work on Starships at War. I have at least two more books on deck for that series.

First Praetorian is the historical conflict Skywatch faced in the early era of the Core Alliance. It was my universe’s “Jutland in space.” In this new series, called Destroy All Starships, the defeated Praetor’s shattered belligerents gave way to several smaller collectives of like-minded citizens, one of which is the Victorian Confederacy, situated in three small star systems just beyond the Magellan Frontier. The story in this series will recount the first “aftershock” of the Praetorian war.

The adversaries in the new books will be an aggressively unified front consisting of two already-introduced races, the Sarn Star Empire and the Yersian Unity, along with two new races, the Kraken Decarchy and an as-yet unnamed faction which will be found with Ithis weapons and technology at a crucial point. All of the enemy races will be armed with unique weapons, both ship-mounted and individual, and will have tactics to match.

Our heroes will be joined by the Proximan Kingdom, a feline race with a strong affinity for the code of chivalry and certain medieval sensibilities updated to reflect their advanced exploration and scientific capabilities. All Proximan soldiers are trained with the sword, and I think you will all approve of the direction I’m taking that most ancient of weapons. I’ll give you a hint: their swords don’t glow.

Many characters from Starships at War will return, and will find themselves fighting alongside some new allies, including several new starships, more than a few new ship types, some new technology and weapons, and a fair number of unexpected encounters in deep space. There will be a lot of exploration and discovery in these books, which will make the story just a bit more like “where no man has gone before” while packing in more of the non-stop action you have all come to expect. I’m told action and dialogue are my strong suits, so that’s where I plan to invest most of my focus.

The artificially intelligent gunships I introduced in Fleet Commander Recon have evolved considerably and will be paired with properly trained crews to perform some highly entertaining feats of legerdemain. We’re also going to do some large-scale surface engagements, so the Skywatch Marines will get some time in the spotlight too.

The Praetorian Imperative will be going on pre-order shortly. If you are on my mailing list, you’ll get advance notice and a discounted price. I’ll throw a couple sneak peek chapters up in the Library-Tron too.

I’m planning at minimum a trilogy, so expect an announcement on book two relatively quickly afterwards.

Goodbye Gravatar

Memorandum to the WordPress developers:

I have a 60 second time limit on retarded in my company. I do this because I do not have time to debug someone else’s broken, buggy software. When I want to change my profile picture, and it takes four attempts (after three successful uploads and the WordPress.com site telling me the profile picture was successfully updated) only to discover my “gravatar” wasn’t changed, I take corrective measures.

Since I have 40 years of experience programming computers, those corrective measures consist of me reaching deep into the source code for WordPress and aggressively ripping all the gravatar code out down to the last byte.

Consider this notice the gravatar “feature” has been permanently disabled on this web site with extreme prejudice.

The new editor was yanked out too. When I write, I really don’t need a “user experience.” I don’t want a 20-something to ride up on a scooter, straighten his horn-rimmed hipster glasses and start gesturing at Powerpoint. I just want to write the post. Perhaps soon I’ll write an article about why hammers have handles and why there aren’t a thousand buzzword-hooting idiots chasing VC dollars promising to upgrade handles for a better user experience.

Black out.

Site of the Day

Long ago, when the Internet was very different from what it is today, there were more than a few destinations that had lists they called “The Site of the Day.” This was how we discovered things like the live coffee maker camera and Zombo.com before social media and search engines.

As you may have guessed, social media and search engines have done away with most of the fun on the web (along with pretty much everything else), so sites like mine are taking up the slack with our blogrolls. Enjoy my new Site of the Day list alongside links to my other web projects.

Those of us who know what the Internet used to be are not thrilled with what the Internet has become. The main reason I have a blogroll and a “Site of the Day” list is because we need to return to a time when sites just linked to each other.

If you have a site and would like to exchange links, drop me a line!

Ranko Whelan and Cici Ryan Encounter a Mystery

Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors will be a standalone story much like Secret of the Witchwand and No Savage Under This Moon. The warriors explore a mysterious abandoned keep near the Gunsuan Tower Grounds where the first beacon was found during the events in Dawnsong: the Last Skyblade.

I’m publishing Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors as a free webcomic.

Headed Back to Comics

As part of the 20th Anniversary celebration of LadyStar, my next book will be a digital comic. I’ve been developing models for the LadyStar characters for some time now, and I think my technology (such as it is) has caught up to the capabilities we had when I did my first webcomic back in 2008. I’ll be performing a couple of simultaneous experiments as part of the project.

First, I have a Patreon, where I’ll have previews and extras for readers. I’ll be publishing the books on my bookstore and on Kindle. The books will be titled Fury of the Venom Legion and will depict a confrontation between the Ajan Warriors and the minions of Bane Cryptic Sai Magnen. Each book will be 60-80 pages and will release in sequence.

Secondly, I will be publishing a free parallel story in weekly chapters on Webtoons titled Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors. The parallel story will serve as a prequel to the events in Venom Legion and will be released in weekly chapters.

I produce a fair amount of art that doesn’t find its way into the comics during production, so I will be posting some promotional works on Instagram.

The purpose here is two-fold. One, I am fully committed to promoting Enchanted Airship and middle grade fiction in general. Also the LadyStar characters have always gravitated towards books, comics and games, which means once we have a new comic we’ll be 2/3rds of the way to fulfilling the trifecta.

If I’m successful, I will rebuild LadyStar.net to its original vision and launch our first new game book sometime in early 2019. All the new books will take full advantage of the version 12 Jericho engine and the premium EPUB3 format I spent most of the summer converting my bibliography to.  I think the comics and fiction will promote each other quite effectively.

If you’d like updates on my progress, be sure to join my mailing list. Black out.

What Do You Want for your Kids?

I’ve met a lot of people from many different cultures around the world and one thing I know for certain they all had in common was they wanted the best for their kids. I’ve wondered on occasion what parents would say if they were asked “if you could make a list of the top three things you would want your kids to be doing when they aren’t in school or asleep, what would they be?”

My priorities might be a little different than others but I think most parents would agree they would want one of those three things to be reading. There is no doubt that reading improves educational performance among all ages and all achievement levels. The best part is it doesn’t matter what your child is reading. It could be a comic book, a history book or a story about pirates. The more children read, the better they get at learning.

Books have a unique magic that other media cannot duplicate. They inspire something called the “fictive dream,” where a reader and an author work together to create a story that takes place entirely in the mind. Active minds create opportunities to learn, whether it is facts on the page, new words a young reader has never encountered before or just dreaming about what a faraway place or time might have really been like. There is no activity a child can engage in that can be potentially more rewarding.

My other two priorities would be going outside to play and explore and either playing or practicing music or a musical instrument. I have to admit those two are my based on my own experiences as I was heavily involved in both sports and music growing up and in school.

Because I know how rare educational opportunities can be for some families, I make it a priority to include “learning moments” in my LadyStar™ and Ironjammers™ stories. I introduce real-world concepts like why iron creates sparks in this excerpt from Dawnsong The Last Skyblade:

“We should keep one candle lit all the time, huh?” Jessica said.

“Especially at night, otherwise we won’t be able to see at all. This place is going to be pitch black after dark,” Shannon added.

“How come it makes sparks like that when you hit those rocks together?” Cici asked, playing with the little pieces of flint.

“It’s ’cause of iron!” Jessica exclaimed. “I remember when me and Talitha were in the Dandelion Guides and went on the nature tour! We learned how to make campfires and torches and lots of stuff. If you take something real hard and hit it against a piece of iron, it makes sparks fly because iron burns in the air!”

Talitha nodded, confirming Jessica’s explanation.

Just enough to introduce the idea. Kids who read this might be inspired to go look up the rest of the story. There are numerous moments like that in each book. I plan ahead to make sure I have plenty of opportunities for learning moments. It makes my LadyStar and Ironjammers novels more than just novels. I want them to be inspirational and encourage readers.

I’d like to encourage you to consider a LadyStar story for your next book purchase. I think you’ll agree they help make learning fun and will make your son or daughter want to read more.

If you’d like to see some sample chapters from Dawnsong The Last Skyblade, you can read them in the Library-Tron.

Reading more is always a good thing.