Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready-Player-One-Book-CoverShall we play a game?

On second thought, skip that. I’ve never been very good at thermonuclear war, and the only way to win tic-tac-toe is to not play.

Instead, let’s delve into the online world of the OASIS in Ernest Cline’s science-fiction-cyberpunk-gaming-80s-reference-fest Ready Player One.

Holy [Insert Reference], Batman!

The first thing you need to know about this book is that is it aimed solely, squarely, and with all intents and purposes directly at the heart of the geek community. Hardly a paragraph passes without some sort of reference, quote, or allusion to the geek culture of the 80s.

Ready Player One takes the reference-saturated jargon of the nerd world and injects it into every aspect of the writing, story, and world. One minute you’re seeing a Delorean with a Ghostbusters logo on the door, and the next, you’re quoting War Games word for word.

And it’s awesome. If you’re into that sort of thing, of course. Which I am.

Number 5 Need Inpu- No, Wait, Too Much!

So. Many. Infodumps.

As a writer, one of the first rules that gets stamped on every critique, solicited or not, is that the writer must avoid loosing a torrent of trivia and burying the reader under a mountain of minutia. The theory is that it slows the pacing and brings the story to a halt, especially when it happens every few pages.

Cline breaks this rule over his knee, waves around the pieces, and then sits on them while he tells you about the history of video games.

Child of the 80s and oldschool gamer that I am, I didn’t mind these pauses in the narrative in the least. I’ve been known to wax at length about the history of computers and video games, 80s pop culture, and the like, so I was right there with him as he described the history of Tennis For Two, Spacewar!, and the like.

Of course, I am hardly in the majority in this regard. If you are one of those who just wants to blaze through the story and not get caught up in the lore of his world and ours, you may be in for a bit of a slog.

Cyberpunk Meets Teen Angst Meets Gaming History Meets Frankenstein Meets…

The book manages to be a lot of things at the same time. At it’s core, it is a science fiction cyberpunk tale about growing up in a world in which the alternate reality of an online game is so far superior to the real world that most people come up for breath only when absolutely necessary.

It is also, as I mentioned earlier, a sort of primer on the culture of the 80s and the evolution of gaming during that time. This is done primarily through the use of the aforementioned lore-heavy infodumps, but they are always relevant to the plot and characters at hand.

Since the majority of the characters reside squarely in their late teens (though some of them are somewhat younger in the mental sense), there is no lack of the sort of drama or angst that permeates every aspect of the teen worldview. Life isn’t fair, everything sucks, everyone is out to get me (which, admittedly, is sort of true, in a way), girls are amazing and terrifying, and there’s a whole world outside that I never really realized was there.

The protagonist does a great deal of whining throughout the story, but he also manages to be proactive and interesting at the same time. It can be a difficult balance to pull off, and Ready Player One does it well.

Want some romance to go along with that coming of age drama? Here you go. And while we’re at it, let’s make it with sort of gamer grrl that is the great white stag of the teenage gamer guy. Fun and witty and acerbic as hell.

And what would be better than the inclusion of a criminal megacorporation out for world domination, no matter who they have to crush in the process?

A Mirror Into A Larger, More Connected World

Like all good science fiction, a good deal of reality is reflected through the lens of one possible future. In a world that exists mostly online, things like identity, real personal appearance, geographic location, and social status blue. At times, they become totally irrelevant.

At least until you get smacked in the face with the harsh reality that things like prejudice, class warfare, injustice, and deception simply become as amorphous as the artificial world in which they worm themselves.

Ready Player One presents a world with shades of real possibility, even though it has been veneered with a dozen coats of pop culture, video game references, and the worldview of a new adult who has never known anything different.

It’s a hell of a ride, and a lot of fun. Five stars. One of my favorite books ever. You should read it right now.

I’ll wait.

So, how was it? Did you like it, or is it not something you’re particularly interested in? Leave me a note in the comments below, and don’t forget to share my Ready Player One review with all your friends. Hell, share it with your enemies, too. They deserve a good read as much as anyone.


Tomorrow’s Regrets and Yesterday’s Mistakes

Photo Credit

This morning, a co-worker informed me that his sister, who has been fighting cancer for some time, has only a month left to live. Possibly three if all goes well with her chemo. The cancer, which began in her lungs, has spread throughout her body and taken up prominent residence in her brain, where it’s set up shop, picked out china patterns, and redone the wallpaper.

It’s a terrible thing, fighting a losing battle, but it’s not the cancer I’m referring to. It’s the reflection on everything that came before. The regrets. The life that should have been, but somehow never manifested while there was still time.

Yeah, I know this isn’t my usual light-hearted fare, stuffed with Ninja Turtle references, dry humor, and a dollop of sarcasm, but stick with me. I’ll try to make it worth your while.

The Life That Should Have Been

When facing the end of a journey, any journey, you can’t help but look back on it and reflect. Sure, there are good memories. A good meal, an evening with friends, a smile from a pretty girl that you’re mostly sure wasn’t patronizing. But we don’t focus on those things. They’re still there and we can remember them when we make the effort, but they’re not the focus.

Instead, too many people look back and see only the missed opportunities, the mistakes, the things they should have done now that they’re older, hopefully a bit wiser, and have a few more XPs than they did when they started out.

I mean, who hasn’t done something stupid like attacking the darkness and wasting their magic missile spell on a joke, then ended up with a one-way ticket through the digestive system of a storm dragon. Am I right?

The advertising executive looks back and wonders what happened to his dream to be a rock star. The rock star ponders whether his life would have been better if he’d been a doctor like his mother wanted. The doctor, unable to heal himself, dreams of a life where he’d gone into advertising and wrote jingles and got to say with no irony whatsoever, But wait, there’s more!

<EltonJohn>It’s the circle of should, and it moves us all…</EltonJohn>

Why Do We Wait So Long?

So, if we look back and see so prominently all the things we should have done, all the risks we should have taken, all the opportunities we let slip through our fingers, why didn’t we just grab them in the first place?

I think fear plays a big role. We want to be safe. We want to be taken care of. We don’t want to risk what we have in the hopes of finding something more. A job in a cubicle listening to your neighbor complain about his lost stapler is a safer and more financially-stable choice than starting your own business or playing music at a club on weekends for tips and free drinks (no more than two; be responsible, kids).

Not only that, but we want to belong. We don’t want to stand out. That sort of acceptance and peer pressure can be a powerful motivator to act or not to act (but what is the question?). Facing that disappointment and resistance can be every bit as much of an obstacle as the Black Gate. The best we dare to hope for is to see an oliphaunt on the way.

Regrets, Rain Checks, and Roller Skates

In my own life, I have a number of regrets, long-lost dreams, and shoulds have have fallen to the wayside. When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading and stories and writing my own. There were even a few times when I won some acknowledgment or other.

But things changed. That dream fell away to new interests, new obsessions. It’s only in recent years that I have circled around and rediscovered writing. I only wish I’d done it sooner.

But even now, I still find plenty of excuses reasons why I can’t write. One day I feel I have nothing to say, the next I’m too tired after dealing with a schizophrenic (literally; not making this up) walk-in at work, or maybe there just wasn’t enough time.

In any event, it was a rain check. I’d get back to it later.

Next month will be the third anniversary of the publication of My Name Is Michael Bishop. I’ve written a few stories and novellas since then, but nothing substantial. No novels, no forward progress. Eleventy-hundred writing and business books later, and my velocity zero.

This is normally the part where I say something inspiring. hold aloft my magic sword and say, By the power of Greyskull! I make a stand, promise to never do it again, and to attack my goal with such laser-focus that all of space and time will bow to my demands.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t make some small changes that hopefully will add up to a result.

A Brand New Day

Here is my seven point plan for guaranteed success likely modest improvement:

  • Figure Out What I Want – Obviously, you can’t figure out where you’re going until you have a destination. Mine is to be a career writer. Moving on!
  • Every Day, Take One Step – Momentum is the hardest thing to build up when you try something new, whether it’s exercising, building a new habit, starting a career, or launching a rocket into space. But the thing about momentum is that once you get started, it gets easier and easier to keep going. Every day, at least one step toward a goal. Even if you never pick up speed, you’ll get there in time.
  • Watch For Opportunities – On a recent podcast, the guest mentioned that she always found money when she went for a walk, but only when she was actively looking for it. It would make sense to be on the lookout for any such career opportunities. When one comes along, all you have to do is grab it, shake it around a bit, and gnaw on it in the sun until you get to the marrow.
  • Treat (Almost) Every Decision As A Possible Regret – Today’s mistake is tomorrow’s regret, so sayeth somebody (I hope I’m the first to come up with it). Each decision presents a fork in the road, and unless it’s an episode of Sliders, you only get to experience one. Hasty, panicked decisions are the express pass to regret, so I’m going to make an effort to be more deliberate in my decision-making.
  • Be Present – I don’t mean wrapping myself up in paper and putting a bow on my head (though J may threaten to do it to me to be silly); what I mean is making an effort to not just coast through the day, waiting until I get through the things I have to do so I can get to the “good stuff.”
  • Never Give Up – When I launched My Name Is Michael Bishop, I had all sorts of unrealistic expectations about becoming a famous writer and selling tens of copies. That didn’t happen, and the disappointment put me off writing for a while. Now I know that this business, like so many others, is a long, hard battle up a steep hill while people throw rocks and insults. You only lose if you stop moving.
  • Number Seven – There is no number seven. Not even behind the curtain.

Regret has always been a part of life and will always be, especially when we approach the end of it. We (hopefully) still have a long way to go before we reach that point. While we may not become Brandon Sanderson or Charles Dickens or any of a thousand potential heroes along the way, as long as we push ourselves, look for opportunities, and try to leave the world a little better than it was when we found it, our lives had meaning, and nothing will be able to change that.

Wow, that was heavy. So, what do you think? Do you approach each day as an opportunity, and what do you plan to do to improve your lot? Leave a note in the comments below, and remember to share this post with your friends. Thanks for reading!


Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

The-Gifts-of-ImperfectionIf you’ve been following me on Goodreads this year (or stalking; don’t think I can’t see you hiding behind that squirrel), you have probably noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of self-help and life-improvement books this year. Part of that is due to a renewed effort to help myself (see what I did there?) improve my life (I did it again! +25 XP), break out of a decades-long depression, and just in general makes things better for myself and the people who put up with love me.

To some extent, despite a constant string of disasters and setbacks, I have done that. The latest book from which I sought to extract knowledge by means of dental pliers learn is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. The idea is to learn to accept yourself for who you are, faults and all, and show that same compassion to those around you. So, did it work, or did these Gifts of Imperfection turn out to be full of so much coal with much nicer, more personable hair than I’ll ever have?

Here we go.

There Is Still Hope

Why do you linger here here when there is no hope?
There is still hope.

When you struggle with the constant threat of self-shame and the depression that follows it around like an evil little puppy, it can be hard to remember that things can, and probably will, get better. One of the points made over and over is that perfectionism, along with much of the negativity we direct at ourselves and others, is the result of shame, and that shame’s kyptonite is compassion.

This gives you a weapon that you can deploy (or have Green Arrow shoot, if you have Justice League connections) when the shame kraken rises up out of the sea and tries to eat the Andromeda of your happiness.

No, that didn’t make any sense to me, either, although Andromeda of Happiness would be a great name for a Jefferson Starship cover band.

Basically, the idea is that you’re going to screw up, I’m going to screw up, and that’s okay. Forgiveness all around, and then we get on with our day. Things can’t suck forever. Just learn from your mistakes and try to not be a jerk.

A Roadmap to Compassion

The Gifts of Imperfection is divided up into what Brown refers to as guideposts. Each one is focused on a particular aspect of perfectionism. Think of them as minions of the shame kraken. Each one attacks you from a different angle in order to break down your self-esteem and make you put up all sorts of barriers that prevent you from seeing things objectively.

I thought that breaking things down this way made it easier to isolate and identify each of those little minions and attack them one at a time, rather than going after the shame kraken and its army all at once. Everyone stacks up differently when faced with those aspects of imperfection (which totally sounds like an Enigma album name). One person may be particularly weak against the fear of scarcity, while another might have a problem where they constantly compare themselves to others.

And if you have to face a Charmander, I recommend using Squirtle. Water Gun is super effective!

A Little to the Left

While I did learn a few things from this book and feel that, overall, I am better off for having read it, I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I am not the target demographic. Most of the stories, anecdotes, and advice cover people and situations more in line with mothers, many of them single, and almost all of them of a strong financial background. As I have not (to my knowledge, at least) given birth to a baby human or become financially independent from my workplace, I felt a little left out.

This is not a mark against the book or anyone more suited to its material. It just would have been nice for it to be more inclusive for people in differing situations or less affluent monetary conditions.

I still want a Scrooge McDuck money bin. Ah well; maybe next year.

I’ll Have One With Everyone

As someone who has flirted with Buddhism (but never closed the deal; I’m not easy, you know), I couldn’t help but notice quite a few similarities between Buddhist teachings and many of the recommendations on the book. The central theme revolves around letting go of the fixations and obsessions that make you unhappy and color your perspective with excrement-colored glasses.

That’s some old-school sutra right there.

Spirituality is a fairly constant theme throughout the book, but it doesn’t seem to point the reader toward any particular faith. Maybe the idea is that happiness depends on having some sort of connection with something larger and more powerful than yourself, whether it’s God, Jesus, the universe, or Andre the Giant.

Have fun storming the castle.

So, the book. Definitely some good lessons, though many people may find themselves on the other side of the shop window, looking in and trying to gleam whatever knowledge they can from how the other half lives. The focus on spirituality may come across as new-age-ey, but I can understand why it was included. Like any self-help book, you’re free to take what you find helpful and ignore the rest.

Overall, I would have to say that while there are some good lessons to be had, the book isn’t perfect, and that’s okay. I forgive.

Flash Fiction Fridays Shattered Irons Part 2

Flash Fiction Friday: Shattered Irons Part 2

Last time on Shattered Irons, Foren, rider of the horsebat Alfons and one of the world’s most accomplished nappers, awoke to the trouser-changing sound of his entire world turning upside-down, rending into pieces, and floating away on the wind.

His duty, limited as it was, was to watch over one of the four massive chains that tethered the floating mountain Atumar to the ground. Not that he minds; it’s a good place for a nap. Unfortunately, that nap was cut short when the ancient chain broke and the mountain began to drift…

Shattered Irons: Part 2

Foren wanted to run, to shut his eyes, to put that image out of his mind and go back to the world of five minutes before, when he rested comfortably on the sweet-smelling grass and tussled with Alfons. But, as his corner of the mountain climbed higher and the distant peak took on a decidedly eastward tilt, he only managed a single thought that was not laden with all manner of expletives.

My mother is going to kill me.

It was a silly, almost absurd consideration among the greater implications of the broken chain, but the numbing grip of shock held tight around his mind and had yet to let go. He just stood, mouth agape, staring up at the ever-tilting mountain Atumar.

He had to tell someone. Send a message. Find help. Fix the chain. Something.

A pathetic chitter and nudging at his back broke the cycle of futile thought and brought him back to some semblance of sense, though he doubted it would do much good. He looked back at Alfons, who lay low against the grass behind him, squeaking and shuffling his folded wings. The horsebat whined and fluttered his wings, and Foren scratched behind an ear to calm him.

“It’s not your fault, Alfons. You didn’t do this,” he soothed.

But the question remained: why did this happen now? The mountain had been tethered since long before people had settled the valley, and none of the chains had ever shown any signs of weakening.

He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the intense glare of the sun, now clearly visible around the tilted peak, and peered at the length of chain hanging from the edge of the mountain. From such a great distance, Foren could make out few details, but he guessed that the break had been at least a hundred and thirty feet off the ground. Assuming someone had done damage to the chain, there was no way up other than astride a horsebat.

None of the Juvesper he knew had reason to release the mountain, at least as far as he was aware. And none of the Walkers, those without horsebats, could reach so great a height. That is, not unless they had discovered some alternate means of flight that they had thus far kept to themselves.

Too many questions. Foren’s head spun, and none of the possibilities looked at all pleasant. With a heavy sigh, he mounted the saddle affixed to Alfons’s back and took up the reins. “Well, I’d say just about everyone within a hundred miles knows that something happened. We’d better get back before someone sends for us.”

Alfons whined again, but he obeyed easily enough, leaping into the air and streaking toward the distant village at the barest squeeze of Foren’s thighs. Even at such a distance, Foren could already see the tiny black dots the made up the horsebat cloud swarming as the Juvesper Assembly took to the sky.

Every one of which seemed to be headed in his direction.

And thus we conclude part 2 of Shattered Irons. Check back next week for part 3. Me, I’m as interested as anyone in finding out what happens. I’m not much of a pantser when it comes to writing, and the randomization of the story dice really shakes things up.

So, what did you think of part 2? Do you like where the story is headed, and do you have any ideas of where it may go? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this story tidbit, please Like and Share on your social media of choice, and be sure to come back next time for Flash Fiction Friday: Shattered Irons Part 3.

Why I Stopped Eating Fast Food

Why I Stopped Eating Fast Food

Before we get started, I just want to point out that this post is in no way a damning of fast food itself, its legions of underpaid workers, or the corporate overlords who have so effectively blanketed the world in dollar burgers and super-sized cartons of fries. Don’t expect me to wax poetic about all the reasons why fast food is bad and how we should all subsist on kale smoothies and quinoa sandwiches. I’m not going to judge (unless you mean Dredd – I AM the law!) anyone’s eating habits. This is just a rundown of why I made this decision for my own life; take from it what you will. Or not. I’m easy.

All set? Okay, let’s go.

I Need To Lose Some Weight

You can’t talk about cutting out fast food without some guy in the audience raising his hand and saying, “Get off the stage! We’re here to see Aerosmith!”

Some people.

Then, after evading security, you spend a pleasant half-hour discussing why healthy eating and fast food don’t mix with the voices in your head. It’s a common enough story, and it’s happened to us all.

So, being a gentleman of, let’s say, significant proportions, I need to lose weight. A lot of it. And that’s not going to happen on a diet of double cheeseburgers and burrito supremes.

Once I Pop, I Just Can’t Stop

I have something of an addictive personality. Thankfully, I’ve avoided vices like drugs and alcohol, but if you set me loose on a buffet of fried chicken and curly fries, it turns into an after-school special starring me as a fast food junkie and Alan Thicke as my TV dad who wants me to be happy, but doesn’t realize that his pressuring me to join the school track team is making me turn to disreputable late-night burger runs to deal with the stress.

My name is TR Goodman, and I’m addicted to fast food.

And, as we all know, the first step toward getting help is avoiding responsibility for ten years admitting that you have a problem. Why is fast food addictive? Hell if I know. I just know that if I eat it, something happens in my brain that turns me into a burger-crazed zombie.

It’s not pretty, and the only way to avoid it is to stop eating fast food altogether.

Cooking At Home Saves Money

It pretty well goes without saying that it’s a lot cheaper to make up a hefty pot of mushroom and barley stew at home than it is to buy a sack of burgers down at the corner drive-thru. Given that I’m still in the process of paying down a number of old debts from my care-and-responsibility-free college days, more money to dump on those old credit cards is a pretty big plus.

It also means that I have more money for the important cultural things in life. Like video games. And pretty book covers.

Now I just need to write a few books to go with those pretty, pretty covers…

It’s not that I’m never going to eat out again, but when you’re not eating out 7X per week, you save up enough that when you actually do go out, you can buy yourself a nice steak dinner. Now that’s something to look forward to.

I Can Be Supportive

Whether you’re married, in a committed relationship, or just have a cat that you really like to hang out with, your decisions affect more than just you. They affect the people (and cats) around you, sometimes just as much, if not more. And when those decisions impact the health of those around you, it becomes a problem.

My fiancee has a particular chronic ailment (not zombie-ism – sheesh) that makes her have to follow a strict diet, mostly a vegan one with some fish and a bit of chicken breast thrown in. She’s done very well on this diet, in terms of her illness, and I want to do everything I can to support her. She’s been a good sport about my addiction, and generally doesn’t say anything when I run out for sausage and cheese biscuits, hash browns, or a bag of tacos. Sometimes she even shares them with me.

And then it hit me that in doing what I was doing, I was directly jeopardizing her health by bringing all these unhealthy foods into the house. When you love someone, you do everything you can to support them, not tempt them away from what has clearly been working.

Once the guilt storm passed, it made the decision obvious.

It Doesn’t Taste That Great

I love salt and fat and heaping mounds of meat as much as the next guy. Probably more, to be honest. And while there are definitely some things on various fast food menus that I’m going to miss (I’m looking at you, Carl’s Jr burgers and hash browns from just about anywhere), but none of it really tastes that great compared to what I make at home. I just tend to be too lazy to do any actual cooking.

I Feel Better Without It

On top of everything else, this is the one that made my decision easy. The effects of eating fast food, at least for me, are similar to the annual Thanksgiving binge: a bloated, slow, waddling feeling, followed by a food coma that knocks me out on the couch in the middle of Doctor Who. It’s not fun, and I don’t want to have to have someone explain to me how the Doctor defeated the Daleks (hint: stairs).

After only a few days of “clean” eating, I have more energy, I feel better, my back pain goes away, I win the lottery, and all sorts of little physical things become easier for me. During those moments when the drive-thru becomes and the aroma of bacon fills the air, it’s those little things that remind me that I made the right decision.

So, I think that’s enough serious discourse for the moment. Those are my reasons not to eat fast food. Your mileage may vary if you decide to try something similar. If you think you might want to give it a shot, more power to you. If you read this article while dipping your fries in a chocolate shake and noshing on a bucket of fried chicken, I applaud your sense of irony.

Well played, sir (or madam or other). Well played, indeed.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Flash Fiction Fridays Shattered Irons Part 1

Flash Fiction Friday: Shattered Irons Part 1

Writing flash fiction is a great way to keep the creativity muscles sharp and avoid boredom by bouncing around between words and characters like a Tigger with a pen after eating a bowl of sugar, but the constant shifting from one world or character to the next has the unfortunate side effect of never letting you spend enough time in a single world to really explore it or its characters. It has been a lot of fun these past N^something weeks writing about different themes and situations, but this Tigger is tired of bouncing and has decided to try something new.

What if I continued writing flash fiction, but instead of changing the world, characters, and everything else each week, I remain in a single world and tell a continuing story about a consistent group of characters? I’ve never written a serial before, so it could be a lot of fun.

Let’s see how it goes, shall we?

Shattered Irons: Part 1

The great floating mountain peak above cast its shadow down across the valley below as the sun disappeared behind it. Foren stretched out on his back in the soft grass, inhaling deeply of its sweet scent as he pillowed his hands behind his head. Somewhere above him, a muted chittering sound told him that Alfons had woken up. He yawned and closed his eyes, fully intending to let the slow, rhythmic creaking of the massive chain tethering the airborne mountain lull him to sleep.

He smiled as a gust of wind and heavy thump signaled Alfons’s return to the ground. Beggar’d be looking to get fed, but there were naps to get on and Foren was never one to pass up an excuse for a snooze, however brief, and noonshade seemed as good a time as any.

But then, nobody ever mistook horsebats for patient creatures. Unlike their miniscule bat cousins, horsebats adored people and were raised alongside their riders as mount, pet, and best friend all rolled into one. Before Foren even managed to skirt the edge of unconsciousness, Alfons had crawled over top of him, chittering and whuffling at his jacket in search of his aftershade treat.

Foren feigned sleep and pretended to ignore the beast, but the dam holding back his laughter cracked, crumbled, and finally broke by the time Alfons nudged his face with his nose, chittering with utmost insistency and puffing insect-smelling breath all over him. With a grin, he opened his eyes and scratched behind Alfons’s ears, eliciting a contented whine before the horsebat learned too far into the touch and flopped to the ground beside him in a tangle of wings and fur.

Still chuckling, Foren rolled over and scratched up and down his friend’s hairy, exposed belly. “Let’s see how you like it, huh? Not so nice being pinned down with an ugly face staring down at you, is it?”

For his part, Alfons wriggled and chittered in joy. Foren knew all the best spots to scratch after having been together for the better part of twenty years, when both of them were little more than babies. After several minutes of wrestling and scratching, he pulled back, breathless with laughter as he reached into an inner jacket pocket. “I know what you want. How do a few sugared crickets sound?”

At the merest mention of the treat, Alfons flipped back onto his belly and scampered up to his friend. His mouth still moved as if it was chittering, but in his excitement, the sound had risen higher than Foren could hear. He crouched low, ready to pounce as Foren withdrew the first treat, then sprang upward as it was tossed high in the air.

The force of the wind generated by the beating of Alfons’s wings pushed Foren onto his back, but he did not miss the view of Alfons snatching the cricket out of the air and greedily downing it without ever changing course. One after another, he tossed crickets in random directions into the air, and each one was gobbled down by Alfons without either cricket or horsebat touching the ground.

Once the sixth and final cricket was consumed, Foren relaxed, fully intending to return to his noonshade nap as Alfons wheeled and dove and frolicked in the air above. After a few moments of watching the play, when the first fuzziness of sleep began to creep over his mind, an urgent cry from above roused him to full consciousness.

High above, Alfons was circling a spot on the chain and crying out to alert him to the danger. Foren’s heart sank when he saw what had upset the horsebat.

The side of one of the chain’s links had broken, and that link was being slowly pulled apart by the force of the mountain above. Interminable minutes passed before it finally snapped, leaving him helpless as the mountain began drifting skyward, trailing the upper part of the chain as the lower part thundered to the ground in front of him.

So, what did you think? How do you feel about exploring this new (as yet unnamed) world with me? I have no idea of where the story is headed, but that’s the fun. We’ll travel together and see just what kind of trouble this pair can get into. Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to share with friends, family, your grandma, your grandma’s dog (or cat; we don’t judge here), and anyone else you think might enjoy it.

Thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Fridays: One Star's Honor

Flash Fiction Friday: One Star’s Honor

So, here we are, about to set out on another excursion into the delightful, terrifying, and occasionally frustrating world of Flash Fiction Friday. After a few weeks of downtime brought on by famine, disease, and a powerful bout of laziness, I’m back with a new story inspired by a roll of the Story Dice and fueled by coffee.

<Announcer>Coffee: Because drinking creamer and sugar alone would just be silly.</Announcer>

Actually, I’m doing something a bit different this week. I’ve been on something of a self-improvement kick the last few weeks, reading The Nerdist Way and Your Money Or Your Life, both of which I intend to review in the future, and getting back into exercise.

I decided that I didn’t want to write just another steampunk flash fiction with a few cool concepts but not a lot of depth, but instead something more challenging, something with subtext and romance and other cool stuff that’s hard to do well.

While there is always room for improvement, I’m pleased with the results and hope you enjoy this week’s story.

One Star’s Honor

Dania tipped the silvery visor down the tip of her nose and peered with an arched eyebrow across the café table at her companion. The iridescent reflection of the midday glare off her eyewear danced across his face, and he bent forward to dodge the light. From where Dania sat, it looked almost as if Wuln were trying to squirm his way down into the book just to avoid talking to her. Really, who still read paper books nowadays?

“I know what you’re doing, Dani, and I don’t appreciate it,” Wuln muttered with a bare glance in her direction over the top of the book.

Typical. Leave it to Wuln to sulk when any sane human would be bouncing with glee. “Sweets,” she rumbled as she pushed down the book so she could see his face. “It’s an honor. Why can’t you see that?”

His gaze met hers, and he gave her the look he reserved for battles he knew couldn’t win, but was determined to fight anyway. “I don’t care if they’re going to make the whole empire stop what they’re doing and spend an hour chanting about what I did and how handsome I am. I’m not going.”

A smile flashed Dania’s lips as she trailed the back of a claw along one of his fingers. “They don’t give out medals for being handsome.”

Though he was, and if the company ever started giving out medals for the most human sentients, Dania felt certain that Wuln would be the first recipient. Of course, she was a bit biased, but a wife deserved a few pardons when it came to such things.

Wuln scrunched up his nose at her, but did not pull his hand away. In fact, his cheeks pinkened a touch and his scent grew more acute, causing her to shiver. “No, but you know what I mean. It’s not a big deal. Really.”

That claw trailed up his palm, and she savored the warmth of his bare skin against the short hairs on the back of her hand. “I could make it an order.”

“You wouldn’t.”

By Sage, he could be stubborn. Dania laid her palm against his and caressed one of his fingertips with the edge of a claw as she rested a foot against his beneath the table. “No. I suppose I wouldn’t, but there’s no reason to be so swine-headed about this. Two hours. That’s all. Just be embarrassed for two hours, and then you’ll come home and we can pretend it never happened.”

Fingertips slid back against her claws as Wuln sighed. “They’re going to make me wear the whites. I hate wearing the whites.”

A soft chuckle bubbled up from deep in her belly. “I know you do, but you look so good in them. And it’s just for one night.”

“If I spill something, it’s going to stain.”

“When have you ever spilled anything?”

A temporary reprieve arrived in the form of lunch, delivered by a stick-thin human waitress with an altogether too-long mane for her tiny frame. Dania beamed inwardly that the excessive amount of bare skin displayed by the server did nothing to draw Wuln’s attention, though it grated that he took the opportunity to shield himself once more with that book.

She would need to take another approach. The near-intoxicating aroma of her mate’s desire indicated that her physical teasing had certainly had an effect, if not the intended result. Still, Wuln had given so much to the company in his years of service, and if they finally saw fit to show him even a fraction of the respect he deserved, she would not let that opportunity pass. Loving her had already cost him too much.

Neither spoke until their platters were nearly empty. Then he murmured, almost too softly to hear, “It’s not right. If I can’t take you with me, I don’t want to go. You’re not just my chef, you’re my wife. If anyone deserves to be there with me, it’s you.”

Dania whispered a soft sigh and stretched across the table to caress his cheek. “You sweet, stubborn, stupid man. Right now, it doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong. We’re together, and nothing they do or say can change that. Times will change, and things will get better, but for now, we take whatever victories we can, and it that means I have to stay home and make dinner while you listen to a dozen boring speeches about how good your béarnaise is while they give you your first Michelin, I’ll take it.”

Wuln kissed and nuzzled her palm before taking her hand in his and sliding it down to cover his heart. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

She could almost feel his heart chanting her name as she fell into his gaze. Slowly, she smiled. “Well, I have to admit that your béarnaise is pretty good.”

He snorted, but the tiny smile curling at the edges of his lips signaled her victory. “Fine. You win. I’ll go, but I’m not going to enjoy a moment of it.”

Dania felt her whole face brighten, and saw it reflected in Wuln’s own smile. “Just don’t eat too much of the slop they serve at the head table. I’ll have a feast waiting when you get home.”

“Yes, Chef.”

So, how do you think it turned out? Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience writing romance, but it was an interesting challenge and I plan to do more of it in the future.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and make sure to share this story though your favorite flavor of social media (I like strawberry cheesecake Twitter; it’s a lot of calories, but it’s full of Gundams and Sailor Scouts).

Flash Fiction Fridays An Ocean Without Rails

Flash Fiction Friday: An Ocean Without Rails

Wow, three weeks in a row of Flash Fiction Friday. This is actually turning into a regular thing. This week, the Story Dice gave me a ship, a stag, and a train. As is my wont, I wrote up a bit of steam-inspired flash, which I have shared below.

Fair bit of warning, though: I’m super crunched for time this week, so I have not had any time to edit or proof this week’s story before posting it. As is the case with all first drafts, errors are likely to abound, misspellings litter the landscape like discarded Taco Bell wrappers on a frat house floor, and you may find your first look at one of my first drafts terrifying.

But take heart, gentle reader. Know that no matter how much suffering may be wrought by this unpolished prose, J and I will be seeing Nightwish in concert and celebrating our seventeenth anniversary. It’s going to be awesome.

Onward, into the wild frontier of the first draft!

An Ocean Without Rails

It had been often said that only the bravest or most foolhardy of men would dare attempt to cross the great salt sea. Once upon a time, Captain Shu Xi had been one of those men, bursting with tales of the wonders and dangers lurking among and beneath those waves. That was a time when men sailed by the stars, risked death each time he set out into the blue, and then came home filthy, half-starved, and barely able to remember what a woman looked like.

Then someone invented the damned steamship and ruined everyone’s fun.

It had taken two years of poverty and the threat of losing his ship before he’d finally given in and had it retooled with a steam engine that took up most of the cargo bay and a massive propeller so he could keep up with all the fancy new cargo ships his competitors had taken to using. Of course, the lack of cargo space meant he had to improvise how to actually drag his goods from port to port.

Shu scaled the ladder to the crow’s nest to survey the long line of barges stretching nearly a quarter mile behind. Each one connected to the next through a series of steel cables, rigging, and half a hundred different clamps, pulleys, and good old-fashioned knots. From so high, his crew looked like little more than distant ants, scurrying to and fro as they tightened and adjusted the myriad of webbing needed to keep the waves from tearing his aquatic locomotive to pieces.

The corners of his lips pulled downward as he spied a cluster of men two barges away. It looked as if they were in a brawl or some other struggle. He pulled a spyglass from his vest pocket and swung it around to face the disturbance. What he saw made him swear under his breath and slide down the ladder, already calling out to the first mate to watch the bridge before leaping into the wiring connecting the ship with the first barge.

A litany of curses rampaged through his consciousness. Someone on that barge didn’t do his job, and now the entire voyage was at risk. If somehow they lived to see shore again, Shu would make his displeasure obvious in the most physical manner. But before that, they needed to get it locked back up.

He dropped to the deck of the first barge and barreled his way toward the second, weaving in and out to dodge the crew and shouting, “Out of the way!” to warn them aside.

First, he heard the shouting. Must have been a dozen men trying to subdue the beast, and it didn’t sound like they were having much success. He almost stopped cold when he heard the monster’s cry, a bellow of frustration and rage that shook his bones made his heart stutter. A deep breath steeled his resolve, and he redoubled his efforts, fists clenched at his sides as he charged ahead.

When he reached the aft railing, he leapt again, fingers stretched toward the mess of cables leading to his destination. Rough, corded steel slipped along his fingers before he found purchase, but then gave way as the cable snapped and he dropped face-first into the churning saline waves.

The impact blew the air from his lungs and allowed seawater to rush in to fill the void. Shu coughed, sputtered and heaved, desperately working to clear his airways he bounced along between the barges, dragged along by nothing more than his iron grip on the snapped cable.

“Man overboard!” someone called out from above.

The edges of his vision blurred and began to darken. No help would be coming. The first barge’s first concern would be to ensure that the rest of the cables remained intact and the train did not come apart, and the second barge had much bigger problems, the sounds of which still reached him, even as the waves rolled over him again and again.

After coughing up enough salt water to allow a breath, Shu shook his head to no avail, trying to cast off the creeping darkness that both worked to limit his vision and weaken his body. He was a man of the sea, and he would not allow a bit of water to be his end.

He began to climb.

Every muscle howled in protest, and the burning of that effort spread quickly, through his arms and down his torso and into his legs. It would have been easy, so seductively easy, to just let go and give himself to the sea. It would claim him eventually, he had no doubt, but not today. Not while he had a cargo to deliver and men under his protection.

One hand over the other, he made his way up. Legs wrapped around the cable and held on tight each time the slippery steel threatened to elude his grasp. More than once, the cable slipped through his fingers and he had to scramble to regain his grip. Below, the waves beckoned, promising a long sleep. Gods, he was tired. With every meter’s progress, sleep sounded better and better, but not now. He had a job to do, and he’d be damned if he let it go undone.

It felt like a year had passed by the time Shy stumbled over the railing. The blackness threatened to overwhelm him now. Through the haze, he saw his crew struggling with the beast, a four-legged brute covered in course fur and crowned with a nest of shimmering silver antlers. Silver flashed as it thrashed, barely held by a dozen ropes as it lashed out with hoof and great swings of its head. For the most part, the crew appeared to have avoided injury, but they would lose the battle before long.

Shu coughed again, spattering the deck with another mouthful of salt water before hooking an arm over the railing and hauling himself to his feet. His gaze locked with the massive stag as he shambled forward. Fury raged within those eyes, and now it fixed squarely on him.

He grimaced as he stepped forward. While he kept the beast’s attention two more ropes hooked around its neck, holding it more securely, but still not enough. It snorted and bellowed and tried to rear up, but somehow the crew fast.

When he reached the creature, Shu turned back, then spun toward it, fist outstretched as he threw his entire body into the swing. Bones snapped upon impact, and a surge of pain shot through his arm that nearly took him off his feet. With a roar that sounded tinged with surprise, the stag fell, unconscious.

Shu couldn’t see anything now beyond a hazy mess of fur on the deck surrounded by blackness. He knew he was about to pass out. The body could only take so much, and a broken hand combined with his previous lack of oxygen seemed to be his limit. He gave the order to have the beast taken back down below, and then he slept.

So, what did you think? What sort of story would you put together based on this week’s dice roll? Let me know in the comments below, and remember to Like and Share. Thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Fridays: A Gentle Breeze I Swear

Flash Fiction Fridays: A Gentle Breeze, I Swear

Last week, I challenged myself to write a new piece of original flash fiction every Friday based on a roll of the Story Dice. The idea behind this was to get my butt in the chair and actually get back to writing, as opposed to my original authorial plan for the past year, which has been to read books on writing and think about how oh-so-nice it would be to have a dozen books under my belt and legions of fans all clambering for another. Believe me, it was awesome.

And you know what the best part of that plan was? It didn’t require any actual effort. Just a dream, a little imagination, a liter of unacknowledged self-doubt, and a great mountain of laziness that just begs you to say, Eh, I’ll do it tomorrow.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure I’d actually make it to a second week, but, surprisingly, here it is, fresh and steaming from the bread oven where I keep my brain. For the second week in a row, for your reading…let’s say pleasure…is this week’s installment of Flash Fiction Fridays.

Strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

A Gentle Breeze, I Swear

Risti bent over the wheel and braced herself against the wind. All around, the crew struggled to secure the airship, tightening and rearranging the massive spiderweb of cabling that connected the hull to the great balloon above, lest one of them snap and they all make a real quick descent. Through the rain, she saw their mouths move as they called out to each other, but the storm stole the sound of their voices before any could reach her.

She would kill him if they lived through this. Really ain’t gonna be more than a little wind and a few drops of rain, he’d cajoled. Come on now, Risti. There’s money to be made on this cargo, and you well on know that there ain’t no ship here that don’t want the job.

The wheel jerked, and a gust of wind tossed the ship sideways. For a moment, she was airborne, dragged along with the ship by nothing more than a white-knuckled grip on the wheel and the rope that tied her to the steering console. The rope dug into her frame, and any gratitude for its presence was lost in the irrational thought that it might cut her in two. But as soon as she lifted off the ground, was was forcefully reacquainted with the deck in a face-first sort of manner.

The world swam, spinning far more than seemed reasonable. And not just the world. The wheel spun back and forth as the ship twisted out of control, thrown to and fro by the swirling gale. Lightning flashed, and everything seemed to slow down as the ship was flung sideways once more. The wet grain of the wooden deck slipped against her fingers as she slid away, struggling for purchase.

In the distance, one of the crew was launched into the air as the knot tying the rope around his waist came undone. Limbs flailed in every direction as he streaked past. She’d already given him up for gone when he collided with one of the overhead cables and somehow managed to hold on. His body whipped around like a flag, but somehow he managed to maintain his grip long enough for to slide back down to the deck.

Lucky bastard, Risti thought as she crawled back toward the wheel, clawing for any purchase she could find against the soaked deck and finding little more than the bare seams between planks and the occasional loose nail. He’ll be more careful with his knots from now on.

By the time she hauled herself back to her feet and regained control of the wheel, her arms burned, the metallic tang of blood filled her mouth, and loose strands of hair plastered across her goggles, obscuring what little visibility she had. The ship couldn’t last much longer in this storm. She had to get under the worst of it if they were going to have any chance at making it to breakfast.

She wrapped an arm around the wheel and waved at the kharren first mate. When she had his attention, she jabbed her hand repeatedly downward toward the deck. He nodded in understanding, and then began relaying her order to the rest of the crew.

Once everyone understood, she pulled the levers on either side of the console to vent the fore and aft air bladders. Her stomach lurched as the ship dropped, losing altitude at a disconcerting rate. Swirling masses of cloud rushed up all around as the ship plummeted toward a desert floor still invisible through the storm.

And then she saw it, the normally pristine sand awash with the only rain it would likely see for the next year, and far too close for comfort. Risti slammed the bladder vents shut and pulled another lever to signal the engine room to stoke the boiler to full. If they didn’t regain some lift right quick, they were in for a landing the likes of which they were unlikely to walk away from.

The ground swept up toward them. They were too close. Not enough time to build the lift she needed to pull out of the dive. She cried out, ordering everyone to hold on, and then she spun the wheel all the way to the left, nearly turning the ship sideways as it spun into a wild corkscrew. While it did the trick of slowing the actual descent, it had quite the opposite effect on the meager contents of her stomach. She just hoped they wouldn’t make an appearance before all was said and done.

Closer. Closer. Windblown sand stung the exposed portions of her face and coated her teeth. She spat and sputtered, but did not loosen her grip. Still, the combination of wet wood and the force of their spin were too much to overcome. The wheel slipped free, and she tumbled to the ground. With a deep breath and a silent prayer, Risti closed her eyes and waited for the end.

Only the impact never came.

Every muscle groaned with protest as Risti pushed herself up enough to see the desert around her. Sand still bit into her skin, carried by the swirling masses of wind, but at least the ship was stable, even if it was only a dozen meters off the ground. She turned away from the wind and heaved a slow, measured breath before calling out for a damage report.

She wouldn’t kill him. Of course she wouldn’t…but imagining all the different ways she might do so would certainly be entertaining.

So, what did you think of this week’s story? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to Like and Share this post with your friends. Thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Fridays By Ram Or By Sea

Flash Fiction Fridays: By Ram Or By Sea

One of the problems that I constantly run into in my writing journey is looking down the long road of novel writing and thinking, Eh, I’ll start tomorrow. It’s going to take forever to finish, so one more day won’t hurt. One day leads to another, then another, and before long, an entire year’s gone by and I have nothing to show for it other than blank pages and stacks of empty taco wrappers. (What, you mean you throw out your taco wrappers more than once a year? Now that’s ambitious.) One of the tools I’ve found to get the creative blood pumping and remind the muse that there’s more to life than tacos and anime marathons (those are awesome) is flash fiction.

And do you know what the best part of flash fiction is? It doesn’t take long to write and you’re done in a flash! (Get it? A flash? Eh, never mind.)

So, my plan is to periodically (every Friday if I’m industrious; less often if not) write and post a bit of flash fiction here for you to endure enjoy. And where will I find the constant stream of ideas necessary for such a monumentous (it’s a word now) undertaking of unpolished prose? The app Story Dice. Each time I sit down to write flash fiction, I’m going to pull up the app and write based on whatever dice come up. For this week’s piece, it gave me the image you see above. Sometimes the best way to get things done is Under Pressure.

Now I hear David Bowie and Freddy Mercury singing. Great song, Under Pressure, and talking about it lets me put off the actual writing for a few moments.

*bobs head and listens*

Oh, fine. Here we go:

By Ram Or By Sea

Menel spread his arms to better feel the caress of the winds against his skin. From his perch, he could see the entire valley spread below him. The distant village, tucked in the shadow of the opposite ridge, appeared as little more than a circle of toadstools rung clustered around a central pond.

His memory swam with stories of that pond and the homes surrounding it, stories of misspent youth, lazy afternoons that stretched into infinity, of lost loves and half-forgotten relations, of old friends long-gone. No one lived there now. The toadstools stood empty, silent guardians of a history that existed only within him, and he would carry them wherever the winds deemed to carry him.

The river of thought broke upon the rocks as the bleating of his companion dragged Menel back into the present. A reflexive smile that did not quite touch his heart stretched his lips, and he pulled his gaze away for the last time to focus on his friend.

“There, now,” he cooed to the battle ram as he scratched deep within the wool behind a black ear. “I did not go far.”

The ram bleated again, a long, low rumble as he turned his head into Menel’s hand. That cold smile warmed at the sound. Such a simple pleasure, a moment between friends who had seen more than either wished and still had so many miles to go. That his steed could still take joy in such a simple thing as a scratch, despite the long road in front of them, Menel could not help but share some small piece of it.

Animals are not so dumb as people think. There is always a lesson, if we take the time to listen.

He touched his forehead to the ram’s and raised a hand so he might scratch behind both ears at once. He shut his eyes and tried to lose himself in the scent of oiled armor mixed with the natural odor of wool, the prickling of the short black hairs of the ram’s face against his, and the sound of pleasure at the scratching, but he could still hear feel the village pulling at him.

It begged him to stay with words that had no sound. It did not want to be left behind, lost to new growth and, perhaps in time, new stories of new people who did not know the other had ever existed. He could see it as clearly in his mind, a portrait of the past that held so many years of joy, tears, and a thousand other emotions with and without names.

But it would only be a portrait, a single frame that did not reflect the decay, the loss, everything that had been left behind. A portrait he could take with him. He could close his eyes and gaze upon the past whenever he chose, but if they were to survive, he had to keep moving forward.

He would have another name, another life, and when those who knew it passed on at the end of their short years, he would do it all over again. They both would, as they had done since the first light of the first dawn kissed the earth and gave it life. And they would continue to do so until the final sunset, when they would finally be allowed to rest.

The portrait faded as Menel drew back and opened his eyes, meeting the doe-eyed gaze of his oldest friend. He did not glance back to the village. He tucked it away in his heart among the countless others he had known in his long years.

The ram bleated again, and no nodded. “Yes, old friend. It is time we moved on.”

He swung up onto the saddle and urged the ram forward. He picked his way along the mountainside, leaving that valley and its ring of toadstools behind them. Across the next horizon, they would find another home. New memories. Stories he had heard before, but were always new. Finally, he smiled. He always did love a new story.

So, what did you think? Please comment below and share with your friends. Thanks for reading!