I’m very excited about the upcoming publication of two speculative fiction shorts I’ve sold. These stories could not have been written without the support and input of the talented artists in the Akron Writer’s Group.

“Devil At The Crossroads” by Shannon Waller
Colton is a dim-witted, small-time criminal who steals a compass that will lead him to the devil. He’s intent on selling his soul to become a rock star, but he’s dismayed to learn that he doesn’t have enough soul left to buy the fortune and fame he craves. Instead, he negotiates a deal that will change his life.

Advance praise for “Devil at the Crossroads”, pending publication in the Winter 2014 issue of The Colored Lens:

“The editorial team really enjoyed this one. The characters are nicely developed, and we really enjoyed the mood and tone of the piece.”

Dawn Lloyd, Editor in Chief
The Colored Lens


“Choose Death” by Shannon Waller
The Grim Reaper is bored with his job. When he botches a kill by inadvertently preventing a fatal car crash, he offers his victim the option of choosing her cause of death. Her choice changes the trajectory of his existence.

Advance praise for “Choose Death” pending publication in the March, 2014 issue of New Myths:

“. . . well written and fun . . .”

Scott T. Barnes, Editor
New Myths

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My urban fantasy novel made it to the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

The Awakening, my most recent novel, made the first two cuts of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The three reviews made me optimistic about the book’s future in the publishing business.

Here is my pitch, which put The Awakening in the top 2,000 of the 10,000 entries.

Book Description

Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) Entry

Biker chick Cassidy Walker thinks her biggest problems are selling enough jewelry at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and keeping her alcoholic mother in line. She’s wrong. When a stranger tries to kill her, she doesn’t know it’s because a powerful secret fraternity believes that she could thwart its chance to rule the world.In The Awakening, Cassidy’s odd rich aunt dies, bequeathing her an heirloom pendant with a prophecy that pits Cassidy against Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. Supposedly, Osiris will awaken, be welcomed by his modern-day minions and enslave all humanity. Only Cassidy with her pendant could stop him. The prediction is too crazy to take seriously, and she has more immediate things to worry about after her mother’s second drunk driving arrest. Then a murder and a home invasion prove that others believe the bizarre prophecy. As she faces the choice to fight or flee, a message from the sexy trickster god Coyote convinces Cassidy that the pendant does have power: the power to grant a single wish. Now she must decide whether to use it against Osiris – or use it for herself. From Appalachia to Devils Tower to California, The Awakening explores conflicting responsibilities to self, family and society, and learning to recognize who can be saved and who cannot.

The next round cut another 1500 contestants. It was judged by two Amazon reviewers who read the first few thousand words of the book; their reviews are below.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Reviews

ABNA Expert Reviewer

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The story is exciting and draws the reader in immediately. Lots of action with the motorcycle murder attempt and a look a the characters in the town who come to help the victim. The sentences flowed nicely and gave us a good description of who will be starring in this story.

What aspect needs the most work?

I felt the writing was very good and didn’t see the need for any improvement.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I enjoyed this excerpt and would like to continue reading. The author has a nice way with words and also gives us enough information to pull us into the story and let us have a look around. I look forward to finding out more about this main character, why someone is after her, and her biking adventures.

ABNA Expert Reviewer

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The strongest parts of this excerpt are the individual unique characters (loved Santa-Pete!) and the interesting plot line. It is well written and had lots of descriptive passages that set the scene and really serve to pull you into the story.

What aspect needs the most work?

The part of the excerpt that needs the most work is the introductions. For example, the introduction of the “Brotherhood” is completely mystifying (a huge switch from Cassidy’s version of events) and could use some additional background perhaps (instead of leaving us saying “Wait- What?).

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

Overall this is a very interesting story that has a lot of potential- there are unusual characters and an involved plot line that pulls you right in. While some of the story is a little confusing, it is possible that as the story continues this confusion is cleared up (this is unclear from this excerpt). The dialogue is entertaining and seems realistic- and the descriptive passages set the scenes skillfully.

In the semi-final round, a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer read the entire novel and gave it a numerical score for character development, originality, plot, style and overall strength of submission. Those numbers are not revealed to the contestants and sadly, mine did not make the top twenty-five. I debated whether to redact the shortcomings the reviewer noted, because I’ve taken the critique to heart and revised the novel to correct those problems. But I decided to reproduce it in its entirety, because if those were the worst (now corrected) flaws of The Awakening, that in itself can be considered positive.

ABNA Publishers Weekly Reviewer

This witty urban fantasy follows motorcyclist, jewelry designer, and martial artist Cassidy Walker as she tries to juggle an alcoholic mother, a demanding aunt, and a mysterious town car out to kill her. Being a strong-willed and capable heroine, Cassidy brushes off being run off the road by a town car, and focuses on her plans to travel to South Dakota to attend a motorcycle festival. But when her life is threatened a second time, she can’t ignore it, or the fact that her family holds an ancient secret. The manuscript would benefit by removing words like “Jap” and “retarded,” which seem to function as ways to point out amusing, oddball characters rather than comment on racism and slurs. At times the novel is heavy on the banter and light on the plot moving forward, but it still delivers three engaging heroines — Cassidy, Sierra, and Mae — in this story about family bonds and loyalty.

 

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CHAPTER 2: HARLEQUIN with author’s self-critique

CHAPTER 2: HARLEQUIN

Harlequin looked critically at her makeup in the mirror. She had on white face with dark kohl emphasizing the hollows of her cheeks, the circles under her eyes, and a cleft was created on her chin. Dots and swirls in purple made the eye follow a strange path over her forehead and cheekbones. The symbols had soft magic that made people looking at her have extreme difficulty remembering anything recognizable about her features, her voice, or her build.

Harlequin used to wear masks. They took a lot less time and had more flexibility than makeup. But that was before the tragic occasion when the teenage boy thought[i] he could get in good with the local street gang by learning the identity of the Harlequin. He had only started to rip off her mask and reveal her features when Harlequin stabbed him in the heart, protecting her identity and ending his hoodlum aspirations at the same time.

She regretted killing him, mainly because it didn’t serve any political purpose. She felt responsible for allowing him to get close enough to exposing her identity to warrant his death. Oh, he probably would have grown up to be a true threat to the good citizens of the kingdom, but even criminals had their uses to a wise ruler. And Empress Savant was a very wise ruler.

Which made the rebellion of Damien, the Empress’ son, that much more frustrating.

A year ago Prince Damien had married. It seemed a good match at the time. Pandora was eighteen years old and heir to Cambaria, a neighboring seaport duchy that straddled several trade routes, and was rich in gold and horses. Pandora was lovely and intelligent, and Damien fell madly in love with her. She came to live at the palace and quickly charmed many at court.

With Pandora at his side, Damien became more interested in affairs of state. He sat in on privy counsels and made his opinions known. Occasionally Empress Savant followed his suggestions. More often she did not. He was only twenty, and many of his ideas were impractical.

Pandora whispered in Damien’s ear that the Empire should be his by right. His mother should crown him, and retire to the role of advisor to the Emperor.

The next time Damien was thwarted in council, he insisted that the throne should be his. Empress Savant laughed off the idea, as did most of the lords and ladies. Damien was furious. Pandora made a clumsy attempt to poison Savant, which Harlequin thwarted before her sovereign was in any real danger. Panicked, Pandora accused Savant of trying to poison her, and convinced Damien to flee the palace with her.

The love-struck fool did, and the couple made haste back to Pandora’s homeland. From there they rallied the rabble and called it an army, and announced that Damien was the true Emperor in exile.

Pandora’s Duchy had just enough resources to make them a nuisance, but the pair didn’t have enough sense or experience to make them a viable threat.

For now.[ii]

Harlequin put the finishing touches on her makeup and pulled a jester’s cap over her black hair. It was getting longer now – she hadn’t had to pose as a boy in a while. She had enough vanity to like its straight waterfall down to her shoulders. She checked the blades in the heels of her boots, testing the springs that would force the blades to extend when she fully flexed her foot. The blades were hinged so she could still land on her feet without breaking them, and the blade would extend again for her next kick. When battle was done, she could retract each blade so the boots functioned normally.

She looked around the room to see if she left any telltale signs of her presence. This chamber was her favorite – positioned high in the west tower with two secret tunnels that could take her almost anywhere inside or outside of the castle walls. Plus, it had a balcony where a stone gargoyle crouched with wings folded behind it, overlooking the city. The statue was gray and weathered with words in the Old High Tongue carved into the base that translated “Here Sleepeth the Titan.”

“Anything interesting happening out there, Titan?” Harlequin asked, stroking the masonry of the gargoyle’s thigh. She looked over the city, matching his gaze, then reached up absently to cup his cheek with her hand. She had an affection for the stone creature, with its larger than life muscles and the exaggerated features of his face. She fantasized about him coming to life and feeling his rock-hard arms embrace her, imagined the size of his member that was artfully disguised in the position of the statue’s legs. She leaned against his cold hardness and collected her thoughts for her imminent conference with her sovereign. She gave Titan’s thigh a final pat before turning to leave.

Striding down the hall, she passed one of her body doubles lounging in an alcove and nodded. This harlequin was a teenage girl, and she made the subtle hand gesture that acknowledged the true Harlequin and indicated “nothing to report.”

Harlequin nodded and gestured toward the chamber she had exited. The body double strolled in and closed the door.

Harlequin had six subordinates that were her body doubles – three males and three females, who were similar to her height and build: about five feet, eight inches, slender and athletic. Only a select few knew who the true Harlequin was. It cut down on assassination attempts.


[i] This is called a Point Of View switch, and it is bad. This chapter is presented from a limited point of view – Harlequin’s, as opposed to an omniscient POV. How would Harlequin know what the teenager was thinking? Maybe he blurted it out before he died, maybe she questioned the street gang about his failed initiation, but if so I should have included that in the story. It is OK to switch the POV when you start a new chapter, but not when you start a new sentence.

[ii] The majority of this chapter is what’s fondly referred to as an info-dump. I wanted to let the reader know the backstory of political situation, but I didn’t want to bother including it in the action. Simple laziness. Good writing shows the readers what they need to know through action and dialog. Not-so-good writing tells the reader what they need to know like a history lecture.

You can give some information to the reader through narrative, but be sure to have a light touch. Don’t talk about a character until he or she walks on stage. Don’t give context until it fits into the action or the dialog. Every writer breaks these guidelines. Sometimes it’s the only way to move forward. But if you’re aware, you’ll find a lot of easy ways to make your writing have more impact and improve your pacing.

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The Horde: Chapter 1 – Havoc (part 2) with author self-critique

 

The woman took point back towards[i] the camp, Havoc at her shoulder. As they drew closer to the firelight, Havoc could see that her coloring was fair and her eyes light. Bruises of varying sizes, old and new, mottled her skin. If not for the dirt, he guessed her hair would be almost white, though her face looked young. He wondered what she would look like clean. After she’d had a few meals. Then he shook off his speculation and focused on the business at hand.

The woman again had three arrows at the ready, and Havoc wondered how she was going to manage to shoot.

She stopped at a tent that was slightly larger than the rest, but otherwise unremarkable. It was on the outskirts of the camp, and Havoc was glad that the woman had been able to point it out. The original plan was to attack close to the center of camp on the assumption that the leaders would be camped there. They wanted to cause as much chaos as possible with their initial strike, hopefully avoiding an organized counter-attack.

Havoc and the woman positioned themselves on either side of the command tent, while three squad members slit the side and crept in. There was a slight commotion as they dispatched the insurgents inside, but nothing loud enough to draw attention. The squad moved through the camp like ghosts, killing silently in tent after tent. Havoc sensed the woman’s restlessness, but she kept to their bargain. She moved as quietly as anyone in his squad, instinctively positioning herself to cover their flank as they moved.[ii]

Inevitably, someone in a tent saw death coming too soon and managed a shrill scream before he was silenced. His cry was taken up by another who popped out of a tent and spotted the invaders. Just[iii] as Havoc drew back a throwing axe, he saw[iv] what looked like a conjurer’s trick. Three shafts appeared in the man’s body simultaneously: the shaft of one arrow bloomed from the man’s throat, choking off his scream. Another arrow was in his stomach, and a third in his crotch. Havoc looked[v] at the woman, who was standing straight up and firing almost too quickly to follow at insurgents who were now pouring from the tents. Her expression was serene, and at that moment – even dirty and in a borrowed tunic that hung to her knees – she was beautiful.

In the time Havoc had been gawking she dropped nine men. More were coming. Havoc positioned himself at her back, a long sword in his left hand and a throwing axe in his right. A bearded man with a pike charged, and Havoc sent the axe spinning towards him. Another insurgent with a broad sword closed in on the left. Havoc parried and thrust, angling his sword up under the ribs for a quick kill. He shoved the dying man sideways so he slid easily off the blade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his thrown axe split the pike man’s forehead, bisecting his eyes. The axe shimmered, then reappeared in Havoc’s hand.

A third man had been closing in. When he comprehended the scene, he thought the better of it, turned and ran. Two arrows whistled after him, one striking between his shoulder blades and the other dipping down before ascending and impaling him in his sphincter.

Havoc assessed the melee. The insurgents were scattered and fleeing, so he bellowed orders for search and destroy units to mop up. He turned to the woman.

“Anyone else?”

She walked over and examined the dead and dying. Havoc noticed[vi] that none of her targets would die quickly, though all had fatal wounds. She stepped over the scattered bodies to the pike man that Havoc had slain and nudged him onto his back with her foot. She nodded, walked back over to Havoc and smiled that fey smile of pure pleasure. Havoc grinned back.

“What is your name?” he asked.

She looked down and shook her head firmly.

“Can you speak?”

She met his eyes briefly, looked down again shrugged one shoulder.

Havoc looked around at the slaughter. “With your permission, I’ll call you Karma.”

She smiled an impish smile and nodded.

“I could use a warrior like you. Hell, I could use a battalion of warriors like you. Unless you have a home and family you want to get back to?”

Havoc found himself relieved when she shook her head decisively ‘no.’

“The pay isn’t great, but it’s always on time, and the food is as regular and decent as we can manage. After two weeks, if you want to join for good, I’ll swear you in to the service of the Empress Savant. All right?”

Karma stepped closer to him, laid her tiny hand on his arm and nodded her head. Havoc felt himself getting aroused by her closeness. He put his arm companionably about her shoulder and said “Come on. Let’s get washed up and have something to eat.” She nodded vigorously and he threw back his head and laughed, feeling as lighthearted as he had in a long time.

 


[i] Awkward. A better phrasing would be “She took point, Havoc at her shoulder. As they drew closer to the camp’s firelight . . .”

[ii] The rhythm of the sentences in the last few paragraphs is monotonous. It’s best to vary sentence lengths and structure

[iii] A good practice after writing a first draft is to find all instances of the word “just” and delete them. It just doesn’t add anything.

[iv] This is not the first (or, lamentably, the last) instance of describing surroundings through the filter of “Havoc saw.” It’s unnecessary.

[v] Told you it wouldn’t be the last.

[vi] And here’s another.

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The Horde: Chapter 1 – Havoc (part 1) with author self-critique

THE HORDE

By Shannon Waller

CHAPTER 1: HAVOC

The waxing moon shone brightly in the sky[i]. Havoc peered through the thick forest, then motioned to his Alpha Squad to follow quietly. The insurgent camp ahead was sloppy. Their guards were too few and too far apart, and all the sentries on the north side now lay with their throats slit. As he crept forward he could see their campfires, and the stench from the open latrines made his eyes water. As he drew closer, he heard a raspy voice ahead.[ii]

“Next time, I want to hear you make some noise. I like my women loud, and I’ve been patient with you long enough.” There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and an intake of breath. “One way or the other, I’m going to make you scream.” [iii]

Havoc crept closer. Just past the tree line, there was a wooden post in the ground about eight feet high. A small, naked woman was tied to it, her arms stretched above her head. A short, wiry man was tucking himself back into his trousers. Havoc calculated how far away the main camp was. It was far enough.

He ran swiftly and silently[iv] behind the man, his short sword out. He was in the woman’s direct line of sight, and he hoped she had the sense not to betray his presence. With his free hand, he put a forefinger in front of his lips in the universal ‘shhhh’ sign.

Her eyes flickered briefly before focusing on the ground.

Havoc covered the man’s mouth with his large, calloused hand and drew his sword cleanly through the man’s windpipe. A hiss and a gurgle was the only sound. Havoc forced his victim’s head to face the woman, and drove his sword into the man’s groin. He felt him flinch and shudder.

Through dry and cracked lips, the woman smiled.

Havoc held[v] the man until the life left his body. Then he lowered him to the ground and cut the woman free. In the dark he couldn’t tell much about her, other than that she looked undernourished and filthy. He took off his tunic and helped her put it on. Her hands were clumsy at first, but seemed to regain their dexterity quickly. He saw her glance appraisingly at his heavily muscled bare torso, which was crisscrossed with scars.

Havoc whispered, “Can you understand my language?”

She nodded.

Havoc gestured towards the forest where his squad was barely visible through the trees. “Go back there and wait. We’ll get you to safety, but first we have some business to attend to.”

She shook her head firmly. She mouthed the words ‘Follow me’ and gestured towards the camp. Then she turned and glided towards the western edge of the encampment. Surprised, Havoc grabbed for her, catching her wrist. She deftly twisted out of his grip and continued towards the camp. Havoc’s jaw dropped in shock, then he started after her, motioning behind him for his squad to follow.

She crept through the tents at the outskirts of the camp, moving confidently and quietly. About thirty yards in, she stopped, motioning to a tent that looked like all the others. She made a cutting motion and pointed to his sword. Havoc obliged.

As soon as the slit in the tent was large enough, the woman scurried through. Havoc enlarged the rupture enough[vi] to fit his two hundred and twenty pounds through, and followed.

He looked around. Enough light filtered through the fabric of the tent for him to make out piles of weapons, stacked haphazardly. The woman stood next to a stack of longbows, flipping through them quickly like cards. She stopped, held one up and bounced like a child receiving Solstice gifts[vii]. The unstrung bow was almost as tall as she was. She strung the bow expertly and slung it over her shoulder, grabbed a quiver and started searching for arrows.

Most of the weapons looked worthless, but Havoc figured he had time to check if there were any items of power among the piles. Havoc[viii] concentrated, spreading his arms wide. He made a quiet grunting sound, earning a quick glare from the woman. With altered vision, he saw a purple glow coming from the bow on her shoulder and the quiver now on her back, and some faint glows scattered among the weapons. He focused on the strongest glow coming from the piles.

He dug through rusted sickles, dented helmets, and worn greaves. He paused when he reached to toss aside some non-descript leather boots. They pulsed with a blue light.

Havoc took off his worn footwear and slipped on the leather boots. They looked small, but they fit easily and comfortably around his feet. He had hiked for six hours in the dark, and more in days before, and he had a few blisters and aches. He hadn’t really noticed the discomfort until his new boots eradicated all traces of weariness and injury. He smiled with satisfaction and placed his old boots on the pile.

He looked around. The gently glowing heat from the magic was fading from his sight. Most of it was centered on the woman. In addition to her bow and quiver, a small woven pouch at her side had an odd green glow. It was magic, but not the kind he was used to seeing.

He gestured towards the slit in the tent, and she nodded. She crept through, and he followed. Rather than head back to where the rest of his squad lay in wait, she pulled three arrows out of the quiver and nocked them as though she would shoot all three at once. She started to move towards the center of camp.

Havoc put a hand on her shoulder – just to get her attention, not to force her to stop. She paused and looked at him, impatiently tossing her head forward.

“I get it. You want revenge,” Havoc whispered. “Fall back with me to the rest of the squad, and we’ll do a tactical assault in formation. I don’t want you shooting any of my soldiers by mistake.”

She hesitated, then nodded.

“Do you know where the command tent is?” he asked quietly as they moved back to join the assault team. She nodded and pointed in the direction she had been heading before they started to back track.

Havoc positioned himself where he knew he would be visible to all of his unit leaders and most of his squad. He used hand signals to indicate the change of plan. They would begin the assault on the command tent, thanks to the intel provided by the former prisoner.

He motioned several of the soldiers forward, and they approached. Havoc pointed out the similarities in their garments – not distinctive enough to be a recognizable uniform, but enough to tell friend from foe in combat if you knew what you were looking for. The woman nodded.[ix]

“OK” Havoc whispered. “You lead us to their captain’s quarters, and then let my soldiers do their job. They are going to try to take out as many as possible without raising the alarm. You and I are going to watch their backs and silence anyone who tries to rouse the camp.”

The woman frowned, a recalcitrant expression in her eyes.

“Work with me on this, and I promise I’ll help you deal with anyone in particular you want to have a crack at.” Her face lit up and she smiled a lovely smile, with even white teeth visible in the moonlight. Her expression made Havoc slightly uncomfortable, knowing what she was looking forward to. He himself found satisfaction in killing his enemies, but the look on her face was pure pleasure, without a trace of fear.


[i] This is a terrible first sentence. No characters, no action, not even a setting – only the information that it’s night. Why should anyone keep reading? The next sentence would have been a better opening line.

[ii] Too much passive voice in this paragraph. The active voice is much more engaging. The passive voice is endemic to the whole document, I fear.

[iii] This paragraph is more effective: it gives an inciting event by showing, not telling.

[iv] Adverbs are a red flag for weak verbs. Instead of qualifying the verb “ran,” it would be better to use “sprinted,” “glided,” “dashed” or “raced.” No, none of these verbs translate exactly to “ran swiftly and silently,” but they make for better prose and take nothing away from the impact of the sentence. I’ve learned to always have a thesaurus handy when I’m composing. You’ll see way too many adverbs in The Horde.

[v] Should have used “gripped”

[vi] I repeated the word “enough” in back to back sentences. I could have used “sufficient,” but it would be even better to delete that qualifier entirely. The sentence doesn’t need it.

[vii] Not bad. The simile is one everyone should recognize while in keeping with the sword & sorcery setting.

[viii] Don’t use a proper noun when you can use a pronoun. I should have said “He concentrated.” I make this mistake over and over.

[ix] She nods too much. Even for a mute.

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