Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Catalyst Scene

To me the moment that everything changes in a character's life is what I call the 'catalyst scene'. Life was bumbling along just fine (or not so fine) when all of a sudden nothing will ever be the same again for that character. The scene below is the very first one I ever wrote, and I consider it the catalyst scene for my main character Sir Midas in The Shard. Also here is the artwork I commissioned of the scene, done by Hungarian artist Andras Orr.

Midas had never heard of elves killing men before.  He slumped in his saddle, staring at the bodies scattered near the forest edge.  Crows hopped and cawed just out of kicking range.  The horses stamped their hooves and flicked their tails at flies.  The smell of corruption was yet mild.

“I don’t recognize these men,” he murmured.  He should recognize them; he knew the people on his lands.  These men had not simply been passing through.  Three axes lay near the corpses, and two of the trees showed chop marks.  Red sap flowed down the silver bark, the trees bleeding from their wounds.

Laithtaris--called the Elf Wood by men--bordered the tiny province of Welby.  It was home to the elven folk, their only remaining home since the race of man had come to the Known Lands more than two thousand years ago.  A treaty was signed at the time promising these woods to the elves, to be untouched by man for all time.  Midas had rarely heard of any encroachment of the forest; if it happened it was usually an accident and elven rangers would escort the offenders to the edge of the woods.

Three bodies lay near the trees and two more were partially obscured by the brown grass and weeds a few paces away.  Each had a single silver-fletched arrow jutting from its chest or back.  Elven arrows, thought Midas.  No man could make arrows so perfect.

He shifted his gaze to the woods.  Silverbark trees towered into the sky, their canopies forming a ceiling over the tangled shrubs and dead leaves below.  The edge of the forest was thin and the summer light shone down in beams to the forest floor, but there was no sign of elves.  This was not unusual; Midas had never seen an elf in all of his thirty-eight years.  There could be dozens of them staring at us right now and we’d never see them.

He twisted in the saddle to speak to Fridrik.  “Bring a wagon from the village.  Post a guard on these bodies until they can be loaded up and brought to Welby.  Something's happening and I intend to find out what.”

“Yes, milord,” the squire said.  He detailed two men to guard the bodies, picked out two more as escorts, and rode off toward the hamlet they’d passed on the way.

Midas sighed and glanced at Sir Brindor, who was gazing blankly into space as usual.  Amidst the stubble of his gray hair, the crater in Brindor’s head was clearly visible.  Years ago, Sir Brindor had taken part in a tournament melee, during which his helm had been knocked from his head and a mace had bashed in the side of his skull.  Healers had given him up for dead, but Brindor slumbered in a coma for three weeks and then woke up.  He wasn’t the same man--his speech was slurred and he had little memory of his previous life--but he remained a ferocious fighter, devoted to his liege lord.

“Brin!” Midas said.  

Sir Brindor swayed on his mare, but then his eyes focused and he turned to Midas.  

“Brin,” Midas repeated.  “That dwarf merchant who sold you the elven dagger, where can I find him?”

Brindor’s mouth worked silently for a bit and his face took on the confused look it always did when he was required to remember how to speak.  “Iskimir,” he finally managed.  “Sh-shhhop in Iskimir.”

Midas nodded to Brin and bent to examine the closest corpse.  The man was filthy and clothed in rags.  He looked like the beggars or thieves one might find in any of the big cities.

“How could they think to get away with this, Voor?  Even desperate men…”

“I don’t know, milord,” Voor said.

“Someone forced them.”

Voor nodded.

“Have Dalthis and two guards ride to Iskimir.  I want them to find the dwarf merchant who sells elven goods.  I want to know how he gets his goods; how he makes contact with the elves.  Make sure Dalthis takes enough coin to persuade the dwarf.  If he won’t speak to Dalthis, see if he’ll come to Welby and talk to me.”

“Yes, milord.”

            Dust rose in clouds as the group cantered over the dry field. Even in the light of day the small red moon was visible just above the horizon--an evil omen if there ever was one. Midas thought of his sons, the memory of skirling swords echoing in his mind, and despite the heat he felt a chill in his chest. Why would someone want to provoke the elves?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Little Help From My Friends

Anyone who read my previous two posts saw how I was struggling to come up with a decent cover design for my fantasy novel. It's hard. It's hard in the way that writing a novel is hard when you try to do it for the first time. I could do some mock ups that seemed kinda sorta okay, but there was always something amateurish about them.

So I turned to the one friend I know who does professional cover design. She's cool and sweet, and right now she even has a holiday discount for any work you might hire her to do. Go check out some of her work at SketcherGirlStudios, and if you are considering some cover design or other art needs, write to Vic Caswell and find out just how nice she is.

Now here are two options she came up with amazingly fast, as in just a couple of hours, from the artwork I sent her. She's willing to make any changes needed, but you can see just from these that they are far better than the examples I managed on my own.

I like the way my name appears in the one with the borders (single border and a double border), but I'm leaning towards liking the one without borders better. What are your thoughts?

Note that the original artwork was commissioned from Shane Tyree.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More Cover Design

I've never done a second post in one day before, but after playing around with some more cover designs, I'd like to get some feedback from people. Looking at the previous post and now this one, are any of these covers heading in the right direction, or do I need to try something else entirely? With these two below the only difference is the font used for my name at the bottom. If I did go with ones similar to this, are there different fonts and colors you think might work better? I kind of like red, but when reduced to a thumbnail it doesn't stand out as well as white or yellow.

This next one I just played with 'kerning', which changed the spread of the characters.

Designing Covers

It took years of working at writing before I began to feel somewhat competent at it, so I imagine it would be the same for learning how to design a good book cover. I don't have that kind of time, nor do I have the patience. So all of my efforts so far to design my own book cover and potentially self-publish my first novel The Shard, are not going so well.

Here are a couple of the many samples I have done:
Artwork by András Orr
Art by Shane Tyree
To my amateur eye they don't look terrible, but they do look a bit amateurish also. Even worse, when you reduce them to the size they might appear on sites like Amazon, they don't have nearly the clarity that you see on other such covers that you see. Everything I read says the text must be clear and easy to see when reduced to Amazon size. Sigh, I just don't have this kind of expertise, and I'm not yet ready to break down and pay a bunch of money to a professional!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Top 25 Acoustic Guitar Songs

I was in a mellow mood the other day and started picking out soft acoustic guitar songs to listen to. I realized I hadn't made a list in a long time, so I began writing down my favorites. In order to narrow it down, I decided that the songs had to feature the acoustic guitar and not a band sound, so generally that meant no drums (thus I had to drop songs like Mrs. Robinson and other similar songs, which are brilliant but aren't as straightforward guitar-centric as I wished) or other instruments that distract from the music. I made exceptions where I felt the guitar really stood out and the other instruments didn't really take away from it.

1. Kathy's Song by Simon and Garfunkel -- The live version from their Greatest Hits album. My all-time favorite soft guitar song.

2. Father and Son by Cat Stevens -- One of the few songs that can bring a tear to my eyes. The most beautiful song by an artist who created many such songs.

3. Pigs on the Wing (Part 1) by Pink Floyd -- Okay so it's short and a bit odd, but I just love it. The guitar sounds so simple, but try to learn it yourself and you will see the amazing little touches that make it harder than it seems.

4. Yesterday by The Beatles -- One of the only purely acoustic songs done by The Beatles, and easily the most lovely.

5. Landslide by Fleetwood Mac -- The vocals and the guitar are both simply amazing.

6. Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen -- Sad and haunting

7. Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon and Garfunkel -- When you are in mood for soft and pretty, this song pretty much defines it, and I love the guitar harmonics at the end.

8. Tangerine by Led Zeppelin -- This song has some drum in it, but it comes in the middle and the parts of this song that really blow me away are all acoustic, the beginning and the incredible outro.

9. Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel -- Lots of these two up at the top, but that's because of how amazing they are at creating gorgeous acoustic songs. I prefer the live version from their Greatest Hits.

10. Mother Nature's Son by The Beatles -- I used to sing my sons to sleep with this song, so by the age of two they could sing all the lyrics quite well.

11. Trouble by Cat Stevens -- It's hard not to use the same adjectives over and over for all these songs. All I can say is that I love this song, but just a touch less than the ones above!

12. Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson -- The grating version by Janis Joplin is more famous for some reason, but Kristofferson wrote the song and his version is far better, in my opinion.

13. Going to California by Led Zeppelin -- Jimmy Page's acoustic skills are highly underrated.

14. Suzanne by Leonard Cohen -- I grew up listening to Leonard Cohen because my mom loved him. He had to grow on me, but when I'm in certain moods he is terrific.

15. Goodbye Blue Sky by Pink Floyd -- I love the guitar on this so much; I probably play this song more than any other on my guitar.

16. Seasons by Chris Cornell -- Cornell is one of the greatest singer/songwriters of my generation, just after Maynard James Keenan in my opinion, and though he is best known for his heavy rock with Soundgarden, he can write some really great acoustic songs when he wants.

17. Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac -- Lindsey Buckingham is easily one of the greatest singer/guitarists ever. He has a lot of songs greater than this, but those are mostly with a full band sound, and this is still a great song with some wonderful fingerpicking.

18. Can't Find My Way Home by Blind Faith -- Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood together, what more needs to be said?

19. Dust in the Wind by Kansas -- I heard this song so much in my youth that I'm a little tired of it, but you can't deny how great it is.

20. Dead Man by Pearl Jam -- Eddie Vedder is another of the rare brilliant singer/songwriters of my generation.

21. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy) by Simon and Garfunkel -- Again, I prefer the version from their Greatest Hits album.

22. The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson -- Harry was a bit eccentric and perhaps a bit of a genius, too.

23. Parachutes by Coldplay -- A tiny and pretty little tune.

24. Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel -- See Parachutes

25. I couldn't decide between several Donovan songs here, so I'll mention London Town, Codine, Catch the Wind, and Colours.

Yes, there are all kinds of soft songs that beat out some on this list, but they mostly failed to meet the test of what I was looking for in particular here. However, I'm sure you can tell me ones that I really did miss such as Bob Dylan. Well, I'm not a huge fan of his acoustic songs, though I really do love some of his other work, like Romance in Durango and Black Diamond Bay and Hurricane.