How the Stars Have Become My Church

I was sitting out by the fire pit on my backyard patio with my wife the other day, warming my knees against the flickering flames and staring up at the starry sky above. We noted a couple bright spots above us and whipped out our smart phone night sky apps (because we’re ENORMOUS geeks like that) to find out those spots were Jupiter and Mars. The following night I pulled my son’s telescope out of the basement and zeroed in on the two planets. As I got the disk of Jupiter locked in, I kept bouncing back and forth between the magnified image and the bare-eye view. The sense of scale landed for the barest moment… that point in the sky, that sphere in the eyeglass… that’s a real planet right there. A neighbor. A particularly large and impressive-looking neighbor.

I had a moment.

It was a similar moment as when I first visited the Lincoln Memorial and gazed up at the huge sculpture of the Great Emancipator. I was temporarily staggered, as if I had touched a moment of Truth.

Which brings me to another conversation I had recently with my mother-in-law, in which we discussed religion and science. Lately I’ve been catching up on Cosmos, the Seth MacFarlane-produced homage to the original Carl Sagan television program. This generation is hosted by Sagan’s heir-apparent, Neil DeGrasse Tyson… a man who had already garnered my six-year-old’s respect from Nova Science Now. Cosmos is an outstanding show… I highly recommend it.

That said, there’s a group of people online… a highly vocal group… who have come out against Cosmos with all the venom they can muster. Why are these people so angry? Because the program spent fifteen solid minutes deconstructing the notion of Intelligent Design. And that, my friends, was a declaration of war.

At least in their mind.

Why are certain people of certain specific faith systems so threatened by Cosmos? Or for that matter, the assertion of any scientific theory outside of the narrative they have constructed around their interpretation of religion? Why are science and faith seemingly mutually exclusive?

They aren’t, first of all. Let me just get that out of the way. It is my assertion that this false dichotomy of science and faith is serving to unravel some of the structure of our society. Why must we be forced to choose between evolution and Genesis, accepting one while aggressively rebuking the other? Why are we required to believe in one strictly-defined interpretation of Biblical Creation? Why do the fringe element snap their own spines while bending over backwards to prove their faith, when that very concept is a contradiction of terms?

Because people are confusing Truth with Fact. I know that’s something of an arbitrary semantical conceit, but let’s roll with it for a second. Science is the net understanding of the pursuit of observable fact in an attempt to better understand the Universe around us. Truth, if you’ll adopt my conceit, is when we attempt to discern our place in the Universe. Fact occurs all around us, and exists (to borrow Mr. Tyson’s words) whether we believe in them or not. Truth, on the other hand, exists solely in the human mind, and has a completely distinct purpose and appearance from person-to-person.

Many choose to believe in a higher power towards making sense of our place in the Universe. The Universe is pretty big. That’s a fact. How we respond to how very small we are when we have the kind of “moment of scale” I mentioned above? That’s the pursuit of Truth. If it soothes a person to embrace God, and therefore feel as if the Universe has embraced them, I can’t object.

Likewise, if a person chooses to revel in the dizzying moment of scale, sitting by a fire pit, looking up at constellations which are at the same time utterly familiar, yet ancient. Being light which spent millions of years to reach one’s eyes for that micro-second of observation… realizing that everything we see above us is a three-dimensional snapshot of eons… and taking comfort in the Fact as Truth rather than feeling small because of it? I contend this is no different than Church.

The names are different, but the feeling's the same.

The names are different, but the feeling’s the same.

It’s the human condition to resist insignificance. It’s written into our survival instincts. I’ve read recently that specific brain structures are different between atheists and theists… that we may not, in fact, have much choice in whether we believe in God or if we rely on an objective view of the Universe.

But do you know what we do have a choice in? Whether we fight over it. Whether we impose needless insignificance over one another based on a difference in the Truth we’ve adopted.

Now, I’ve been speaking from a position of atheism here, as evidenced by my capitalizing Universe the way one capitalizes God. I delight in Fact. I’ve also found a way to stitch together observable fact into an embracing Truth, and my sense of significance doesn’t suffer from a lack in the belief in a higher power. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I cease judging others because they deny observable fact, choosing to replace it with their Faith Narrative. I may not respect the Narrative, but I feel it’s my responsibility to make a place for the person if not that person’s Truth.

Because honestly most people don’t adhere to the false dichotomy. They have found a way to make room in their lives for faith without denying science. In the words of one person, “I just don’t worry about it.”

I’m choosing to devote myself more fully to the joy of that dizzying moment of scale; that sense of Wonder I had as a child when I discovered magnets and microscopes; that thick, intoxicating sense of discovery which draws out the hope and ideals from my chest and fills my mind with moments of magic, fear, elation, and satisfaction that pierces through the cynical brain of a modern adult.

That’s my Church.

Image credit: idea go|FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cover Reveal – VIRTUAL IMMORTALITY by Matthew Cox

Greetings programs…

I have a sexy, sexy piece of art for your eager eyes this morning. Fellow Curiosity Quills author, Matthew Cox, has a cover reveal today for his forthcoming novel VIRTUAL IMMORTALITY.

Check it out, right….. here:

Virtual-Immortality-Print

A quick blurb about the book:

“Nina Duchenne walked away from a perfect life of wealth and ease to pursue a noble idea. Unfortunately, her hope of becoming a forensic investigator drowned in two years of mandatory street patrol. After one tragic night shatters her dream, she finds herself questioning the very nature of what it means to be alive.

Joey Dillon lives at the edge of a perpetual adrenaline rush. A self-styled cyber cowboy that chases thrills wherever he can find them, he is unconcerned with what will happen twenty minutes into the future. Lured into a dangerous region of cyberspace, he soon has the government of Mars trying to kill him. After fleeing to Earth, he takes refuge in places society has forgotten.

When two international agents threaten the security of West City, Nina gets command of the operation to stop them. Joey just wants to find his next meal. Voices from beyond the grave distract Nina from her pursuit, and send Joey on a mission to find out who is responsible. His suspicions lie grounded in reality while she hopes for something science cannot explain.

The spies prove more elusive than expected, convincing her they have help from a master hacker. Joey falls square in her sights with the fate of the entire West City, as well as Nina’s humanity, at risk.”

Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

On a personal note, this cover art has a specific tie-in to yours truly, but that’s news for a different day… and I’ll be posting about that in the coming days.

And on that bombshell, I’ll be checking back in with you voracious readers soon!

Cover Reveal for DESTRUCTION by Sharon Bayliss

Howdy, dark fantasy readers!

One of my fellow Curiosity Quills authors, Sharon Bayliss, is set to release her latest novel, DESTRUCTION, on April 14th. Today she unleashes the glory of her novel cover upon the world.

No Ashton Kutchers were harmed in the making of this book cover.

No Ashton Kutchers were harmed in the making of this book cover.

Here’s a message from Sharon Bayliss:

“The butterfly will show up on the cover of all four books in the series, as a symbol of redemption, hope, and re-birth. Despite the dark themes in the series, I believe that the most important themes of the series are hopeful ones, such as love, family, and triumph against adversity, which is why the butterfly is in the center.

The broken glass surrounding the butterfly rather obviously symbolizes the concept of destruction, which is also a central theme. The title Destruction refers to the fact that dark magic is inherently destructive, but also refers to how a person can be destroyed, in body or soul.

One thing I was sure of, I wanted the word, Destruction, to be in ‘pretty’ letters. I loved the contrast of having a dark and violent word look beautiful. This also fits the theme, as I wish to show the beauty in darkness and destruction, and the good in people who are supposed to be evil.”

Inherently destructive magic… sounds familiar! Want to know more? Here’s the blurb…

“David Vandergraff wants to be a good man. He goes to church every Sunday, keeps his lawn trim and green, and loves his wife and kids more than anything. Unfortunately, being a dark wizard isn’t a choice.

Eleven years ago, David’s secret second family went missing. When his two lost children are finally found, he learns they suffered years of unthinkable abuse. Ready to make things right, David brings the kids home even though it could mean losing the wife he can’t imagine living without.

Keeping his life together becomes harder when the new children claim to be dark wizards. David believes they use this fantasy to cope with their trauma. Until, David’s wife admits a secret of her own—she is a dark wizard too, as is David, and all of their children.

Now, David must parent two hurting children from a dark world he doesn’t understand and keep his family from falling apart. All while dealing with the realization that everyone he loves, including himself, may be evil.”

If you’re an urban fantasy/dark fantasy reader, and this sounds like your particular brand of vodka, let her know. She’s looking for reviewers and blog hosts for her book release event. Have some time and are interested in an ARC? Got some blog space and have an interest in making a stop for her blog tour? You can contact her HERE. I recommend that you require a bribe of Girl Scout cookies. Thin mints, or samoas in a pinch. Tagalongs are for chumps.

Motivation and Sweaty Gym Equipment

Here’s a story that’s absolutely true…

When I was in third grade, I was diagnosed with something called Sever’s Disease, which is a short-term inflammation of the growth plate of the heel in adolescent children, usually boys. It’s most common in athletically active children. I was not one of those children. It can also be due to having too much weight bearing on the heel.

Too much weight… that was me.

I was never an active child, for whatever reason. At some point between the ninety-to-nothing pre-K years and early grade school, I ceased to be an active child and sat inside all the time. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my over-protective mother seemed comfortable with my reluctance to play outside. Nonetheless, Sever’s Disease is a short-lived phenomenon, and isn’t considered a disabling condition.

But for reasons unclear to me even now, I was exempted from Physical Education all through elementary and middle schools per this diagnosis. The result of this and a stunted social development brewed up a recipe of “husky child” that stayed with me well into high school.

I was never physically fit. I was portly, overweight… I’d go ahead and call me obese, as a matter of fact. And then came Fifth Grade, when the Presidential Fitness Challenge first came out. Our entire class was lined up by the monkey bars for a series of tests, boot camp style. Whereas the PFC was intended as an encouragement toward active lifestyles in children, our school chose to view it as a battery of obstacles we grade-schoolers had to hump over to pass. I huffed and puffed my way through the tires and the traffic cones with the speed of a Volkswagon van in neutral gear.

Then came the chin-ups.

I had never done a chin-up in my life. I lacked any kind of arm or upper body strength to perform even a single chin-up. My forearms were so weak I couldn’t even hold myself up on the bar. This was my physical condition. Rather than recognizing this, the coach (I forget his name… it was McNair or Stalin or something…) chose to encourage my classmates to berate me until I could do a single chin-up.

And even as they hurled invectives at me and belittled me for my weight and weakness, I failed.

The coach then dressed me down in front of everyone, commenting not only on my unacceptable physical fitness but also on my character. It seemed, in his eyes, I was a bad person because I couldn’t do a single chin-up.

Until very recently, I hadn’t realized what an effect this had on my psyche. I grew into adulthood, benefiting from pubescent growth spurts and a short-lived obsession on bicycling. I was never “athletic,” but for a while I wasn’t obese. As the years progressed, however, the weight began to return. As an adult, I had a choice to make.

I tried to find the motivation to exercise, but it continually slipped away from me. I would get into a zone for a week or two, but would surrender time and time again. I found exercise to be a hateful drudgery. I responded with such vehemence it began to worry me. A couple years ago, my wife signed up for a kickboxing class, and after a few months I decided to join with her. For the first time in my life exercise was fun! I stayed with it, and my fitness improved.

But shit happens, as it tends to do, and the kickboxing classes ended, sending me back into the No Motivation Zone. My wife tried to get my butt back into gear, but I slipped into malaise. Then we had a conversation one day, out of the blue, when I mentioned the chin-up debacle of 1984. A light went on. The reason I resisted exercise for so long had been buried in the memories of a fifth-grader.

I was still hearing those children call me a fatass and a turd. I was still hearing that coach tell me I was a bad person. That son of a bitch had given me a legacy of poor health, and I was no longer willing to accept that.

I’m back in the gym now, and committed to physical fitness like never before in my life. Granted, I’ve really just started, and I’m still trying to keep up with my dog, whose speeds are “Stop and Sniff” and “Windsprint.”

"For God's sake, I can drag my ass across the carpet faster than you jog!"

“For God’s sake, I can drag my ass across the carpet faster than you jog!”

But the motivation is here, and it’s kind of weird. If anything, I’m harder on myself now than I’ve ever been before… but in a good way. I’m the one urging us to go to the gym. I’m keeping track of my progress. I’m watching what I eat, I’m tracking the calories burned, and overall I feel better about myself. Perhaps not only because my fitness is improving, but also because I’ve dug out a bitter, rusted root from my psyche.

So, why did I tell you all of this? First of all, I want everyone to be very, very careful what you say and do to a child. Words spoken in frustration, anger, or even casually without regard to its emotional impact could bury one of these rusted roots into their minds. Negative social pressure can be a powerful tool for motivation, but taken too far and it becomes a legacy of self-hatred.

Second, motivation is a big deal in our lives… and not just regarding physical fitness. It has to do with getting out of bed in the morning. Commuting to work. Going that extra mile for your significant other. Finishing that night course. Writing that novel. I feel lucky that I’ve found renewed motivation. It feels awesome! And I can’t promise you that there’s a magic wand you can wave to drop it squarely into your lap, but it is possible that somewhere in your past someone told you that you couldn’t do something. It’s possible that child-brain clutched onto it. It’s possible those words control you, and you don’t even realize it. Maybe it’s time to explore your attitudes and your personal history.

Running into self-doubt when you review your day’s word count? What if at some point you brought your third-grade creative writing paper to your parents, only to have them roll their eyes or squint just the wrong way? What if that one little gut-punch is haunting you today?

It’s food for thought.

Big News for the Dark Choir Series

Hello, everyone. I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Noble Rot.

"Hello, folks. You can call me Noble."

“Hello, folks. You can call me Noble.”

Mr. Rot and I go back almost two years. He is a saison, a french style farmhouse ale. This particular fellow is made with white grapes, and has a pleasant sour note that compliments the sweet grainy flavor and hints of pit fruit. I met him two years ago shortly after I finished the final revisions for The Curse Merchant. I’ve been saving Mr. Rot for a special occasion, one kind of occasion in particular.

Mr. Noble Rot is my celebration beer for when I signed my first book with a publisher.

Now, take a look at what I’m doing with Mr. Rot…

"I also answer to Rowdy Rotty Piper..."

“I also answer to Rowdy Rotty Piper…”

Whoa there, Sloan! Why are you pouring your celebration beer? Simple, dear reader… which brings me to my news.

The Dark Choir series has just been picked up by the literary marauders at Curiosity Quills! Hence the hold-up on the release of Curse Servant… both books were under consideration by CQ, and I’m happy to finally announce they have found a home.

What does this mean for you, dear reader? It means that both books will soon become available in both digital and print editions. It also means that I’ll be able to devote more of my attention to plotting, drafting, and revising new works.

I’ll be in touch soon with more details, including the re-release of Curse Merchant. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying a snifter or two of Mr. Noble Rot and hammering away at my latest short fiction.

Cheers!

 

 

Economic Storytelling

Happy December, one and all! First, an update… which isn’t much of an update, I hate to say. I have a “thing” going on which has delayed the release of Curse Servant. My apologies to those of you chomping at the bit to read it, but trust me… if it works out like I hope it does, it will improve the way you read the Dark Choir series. I’m hoping to hear soon whether it’ll come together. In the meantime, I’m finishing up a short story I decided to write for the hell of it. Holy cats. I haven’t written a short story in at least five years. This has been an education!

And said education is what I’d like to discuss today.

One of the important considerations in short stories, and indeed novels, is economy of words. There are a hundred ways to lead a reader through a day in the character’s life. One way is to recount every waking moment. Another is to relate only the most exciting single minutes of the day. And there’s an entire continuum between. The job of the storyteller is to choose which minutes of a character’s existence deserve the reader’s attention.

I just finished reading Tiger! Tiger! by Alfred Bester. It’s a dystopian sci fi novel written in 1956. It was “out there, man”, so to speak. One thing I noticed was how good Bester was at only giving us the bits that matter. The novel churned forward like a juggernaut, and I consumed it quickly. Granted, Bester wasn’t trying to write literary fiction, nor was he (necessarily) trying to challenge the reader’s comprehension skills. The content did all the challenging for him. Bester also wrote for comic books… he’s the man who penned the Green Lantern Oath. He credits his work in the trenches at DC Comics for teaching him how to choose his words sparingly.

Now, on the other hand, I’m reading a post-apocalyptic novel right now which, though not necessarily “poorly written”, certainly lacks Bester’s sense of economy. At one point the authors spent an entire page describing the main character breaking away from the story to go upstairs, shower and shave, get dressed, and return to the story. I remember thinking to myself “why didn’t they just say ‘he got cleaned up and returned’?”

Granted, some authors deliberately weave their words into something that requires the reader to step up to the literary plate before taking a swing. Others choose to “stall the engine” in order to slow the pacing on purpose. And these are choices… important choices at that. A good storyteller is mindful of the throttle, excises unnecessary narration when the story needs to gain speed, yet allow the reader to take a breath from time to time. But it should clear to any reader that a good storyteller is cognizant of these choices, and isn’t just hammering out words. In truth, it’s a sign of good revision skills.

I hope to return to the blog soon with some good news. Until then, have a lucky Friday the 13th, and if I don’t see you before, Happy Holidays!

Author, Writer, Novelist, Wannabe?

Yesterday, Author Michael Shean posted an engaging article about the Myth of the “Real Writer.” In fact, you should probably run over there and catch up before I go on. I’ll wait here.

All set? Awesome!

Last night over dinner, my neighbor and I continued this conversation in detail. The central question: “When do you call yourself an author?” It wasn’t long before we realized this wasn’t a simple discussion of semantics.

Though the semantics do matter. What is the distinction between a “writer,” an “author,” and a “novelist?” Are these distinctions meaningful enough to merit clarification? Perhaps more importantly, are these distinctions agreed upon by enough people at large to actually serve a purpose?

One might easily categorize the three terms in orders of descending specificity. All novelists are authors, but not all authors are novelists. Likewise, all authors are writers, but not all writers are authors. As a writer might be defined as “one who writes,” and a novelist as “one who writes novels”… what then is our definition of “author?”

It’s a legitimate question, and one that is not served by looking up Merriam-Webster. People have a sense in their minds as to what an author is. And when a person self-identifies as an author, we immediately prescribe a set of assumptions upon that person based on this sense. And the point becomes relevant when a stranger asks the classic get-to-know-you question: “What do you do?”

It’s a very short, very sticky question to ask anyone. Particularly in the States, we tend to categorize people by their vocation, making the question “what do you do (for a living)?” But what if one self-identifies as an author, yet does not earn enough from writing to pay the bills? Is it fraudulent to represent oneself as an author when one doesn’t yet (and may never) possess the means to support a lifestyle strictly through writing?

Because the odds are that’s the assumption. Movies and TV shows have penned this artificial sense of what an author does. There’s this myth of the “Book Deal” that changes a life overnight, and that once a person gets this “Book Deal”, they are immediately shifted into a full-time position of writing for a living.

That’s fantasy, but it’s a fantasy many people hold as fact. Thus, when someone asks me “what do you do,” I have to weigh in my own mind to what extent I’m violating their assumptions of what an author is. They may consider me a “wannabe.” Is that fair?

Honest truth… I don’t care. It’s the way social interactions work. We all deal with filters from others all the time. We work to navigate around them at times, other times choosing to stampede through them.

But my takeaway from last night’s conversation is this: Most people won’t recognize my lifestyle as that of an author. When I self-identify as an author, I’ll need to brace myself should they eventually contradict that assertion, simply because I’m not sitting at a desk all day whipping out pages, talking to agents and editors, receiving advances and/or royalty checks, and packing crates of hardbacks to my latest book signing.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Update: Curse Servant Release Delayed

Hey there, you ghosts and goblins…

First, some business. The release of The Curse Servant will be delayed. Before you panic, allow me to assure you this is for a very positive reason! I can’t really talk about that reason at the moment, but things are developing which could end up drizzled in awesomesauce. Thank you for your patience, in the meantime!

Second, I had a blast last weekend for my birthday. I ate lobster for the first time. It was, like, just a giant-sized crawfish, as far as I could tell. I also discovered the amazing life-changing properties of tequila and limeade. Thanks to everyone who sent me well-wishing!

Third, HOLY CRAP IT’S ALMOST HALLOWEEN! I don’t think I’ll ever get over Halloween. It’s just the cat’s balls, really.

And fourth, as I completed my last copy-edits for Curse Servant, I realize just how much commas are my kryptonite. It’s not that I keep forgetting the rules for commas… I seem to have a full-blown mental blank. The rules shift in my head. They make sense one moment, but not the next.

Commas are Congress.

Be safe out there tomorrow night, whether walking with kids, whether you are a kid, or whether you’re just kidding yourself. Enjoy some dress-up. Indulge in some dark fantasy. And remember your ancestry.

And don't forget the pumpkin pi.

And don’t forget the pumpkin pi.

Cover Reveal – The Curse Servant

Today’s the day, friends!

First of all, I’d like to thank Travis Miles for continuing to provide awesome covers for the Dark Choir series. Also for being patient with a persnickety indie author such as myself.

Second, I’d like to comment briefly on the two Dark Choir novels. The Curse Merchant began as a near-reality urban fantasy, drenched in mood and tone. The noir elements were almost inadvertent, a product more of the character and the city in which the story was set than an active choice.

Once again, a surprise came bundled up in The Curse Servant. This book is perhaps darker in mood than Curse Merchant , but the plot is heavily peppered with politics and social commentary. Again, I feel this is a consequence of the city of Baltimore as a stage for the story. Ultimately the near-reality of this universe shall, by design, unravel to reveal more and more of what lies beneath. We’ll take a tiny peek behind the curtain in The Curse Servant.

Okay, enough talk… here’s the cover:

CURSE-SERVANT-MEDThe Curse Servant will be available for purchase in eBook format both from Amazon and Smashwords on October 31st. Keen-eyed readers will recognize this as the one year anniversary of The Curse Merchant’s release. (it might also be a horror-themed holiday)

Please share and spread the word. If you haven’t read The Curse Merchant, it’s available for only $0.99. So go catch up on the intrigues of Dorian Lake and see you guys on the 31st!

Curse Servant Update & Autumn Anticipation

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we’ve enjoyed a very mild summer. Last weekend, for example, we had a few days with highs in the low 70′s. We’re looking at another such weekend coming up just in time for our county fair. All of this to trumpet the coming of autumn, easily my favorite season. Everything changes into something that feels, at least to me, more comforting and reminiscent of youth. Last night I made some pumpkin gnocchi and curried butternut squash soup. My beer choices have shifted from the summery blondes and wheats to the malty festbiers and brown ales. Soon the leaves will change and the first wisps of chilled air will blow over the Catoctin ridge into my back yard.

I’ve always wondered why it is that my senses seem to come alive during the autumn. I figured it may be because I was born in late October. My son was born in the middle of summertime, and he still prefers the heat of summertime. I don’t know… correlation may not mean causation, but I’m thoroughly jazzed. (not to mention I have a birthday coming, as does my wife, and we have an anniversary… all in the same two-week space)

Another thing to be jazzed about? I’ll be revealing the cover of The Curse Servant on Monday. Yep, this Monday, the 16th. It’s an awesome little piece of art, and I feel it really captures the darker tone this book has taken. Speaking of which, the final revisions are complete on Curse Servant, and it’s in the hands of an editor for one last spit-polish. I may be announcing my release date Monday, as well… but that sort of depends on the editor’s schedule.

In other news I have begun my next project. After putting Top Secret Manuscript ™ on indefinite hold until I figure out how to satisfactorily voice a sixteen year old, I began outlining my latest project. It, too, is independent of the Dark Choir series… and from what I hear from my wife and my critique group, it’s kind of ambitious. We shall see if I can pull this off. If I can, I think it will rock faces!

See you guys right here on Monday for the cover reveal!