Thursday, July 28, 2011

Excerpt from The Case of the Lost Werewolf Puppy

As promised last week, here's an excerpt, showing how I use Dafydd and his non-cambat magics in combat. This is still a draft, so any comments are welcomed!


"We've got company," Paul said.

I looked again. Still nothing. "Where?"

The word had barely left my mouth when two things happened, almost simultaneously. One, I heard a low, menacing growl, maybe 20 feet from me. Two, Paul picked me up and threw me, hard. I must have flown 30 feet, in the opposite direction from the growl.

I hit the ground and skidded several more feet. If I'd had a bit more warning, I might have been able to turn my skidding slide into a controlled roll, but as it was, I hit my head and saw stars for a moment. I forced myself to shake it off, knowing, even in my confusion, that I didn't dare stay down for long. Paul was good, but I didn't know how many there were, and I couldn't rely on him to protect me.

Forcing my legs to work, I scrambled behind a nearby dumpster--Paul had good aim and presence of mind—and, hidden for a moment, glanced around to see what was attacking us.

My heart sank when I saw my friend fighting three large wolves.

Have you ever been to the wolf enclosure at the zoo? You might think you have an inkling of what I saw. Zoo wolves have a wildness about them, even in captivity. They pace back and forth, with a smooth motion that you just know could spring into a hunting charge at any moment. They look dangerous, and, on an instinctive level, humans respond to that by keeping their distance.

Let me tell you that there is about as much similarity between zoo wolves and these creatures as between a wolf and a poodle. Sure, similar species. Fur and fangs. That sort of thing. But wild wolves are tame house pets in comparison to these.

In the first place, the three creatures attacking Paul were almost half again as large as even a big wolf, almost all of it muscle. Their fur was long, shaggy and looked like it would offer decent protection, even against small arms fire. And the way they moved? Pure killing power. I've read that man is the top predator on Earth. No way. These things were way above us.

Fortunately, vampires are also above us on the predator scale, and for the moment, Paul was holding his own. He whirled with easy grace, his claws extended to slash first one wolf, than another. While I'm certain he could have handled two with relative ease, three were too much. As he tossed one wolf aside with what looked like a casual back-handed blow, another slid underneath his guard and snapped at his ankles, aiming to hamstring the vampire. Paul twisted at the last minute, and dropped one leg to catch the blow on his thigh. Then he glided to one side, positioning himself so that he faced all three wolves. He was facing in my direction, and I knew he was trying to keep their attention on him and off me.

I appreciated the effort, but I could see he wouldn't last long. Another wolf timed his motion to slash at Paul's side, and the vampire gasped, loud enough for me to hear, even from 30 or so feet away.

Time for me to get into things. Normally, I'm not the kind to get into a dust up like this, but ever since I met Paul, I knew I was going to have to be prepared to get physical, so I've been working on some things I can do quickly. First, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a potion. Keeping an eye on the fight, I unscrewed the bottle top and gulped it down. (In case you were curious, small water bottles are a great way to carry around potions. Much better than the glass vials used in most high fantasy novels.)

I felt the effects almost immediately. My vision sharpened. Sounds were clearer, and I could hear the hitching breath of one of the wolves Paul had wounded. The night air moving on my skin felt like it had weight. I nodded. Good. It worked the way I'd hoped.

I pulled out another bottle and yelled, "Paul. Heads-up!"

He truly is amazing. While still holding off three wolves, he hopped back, putting a few feet between himself and the furred buzz saws. I threw the bottle, trusting my enhanced reflexes and senses to get it moving in the right direction.

Paul did the rest. With one hand, he slashed through the foreleg of one of the wolves. It yelped and hobbled to one side, out for the moment. The biggest wolf leaped for Paul's throat, but the vampire spun one way in a quick feint and then reversed the other way, leaving the big wolf off balance.

The bottle flew, one end over another, seemingly in slow motion, closer to the fray with each rotation.

The final wolf saw it and changed direction, hind legs bunching for a leap.

I yelled. "Hey! Fur face. Over here."

The wolf's head moved to look at me, and I grinned, catching his gaze directly. I tamped down my fear, letting none of it show in my eyes or expression.

It shifted its weight slightly, preparing to leap in my direction.

The bottle rotated once. Twice. Three more times.

Paul dodged the big wolf, slashed at the smaller, which had recovered and jumped back to attack.

The bottle spun again.

Paul reached out with his right hand and caught it neatly. With a smooth motion, he lifted the bottle to his lips, and, not bothering to open it, sank his fangs into the smooth plastic and drank it down.

Immediately, his motions were faster, and his strikes had more power behind them. I nodded. Now he'd be fine. Especially since he only had two wolves to deal with. The other was just starting to leap my way.

But I'd planned to draw off one of them, so I was ready for it. I reached back into my pocket and drew out a small container. I held it ready. The wolf leaped, and it was moving fast. Without my potion, I'd never have been able to follow the movement, much less react. Under the influence of my magic however, the wolf's leap was in slow motion, and I was able to time to action for the top of its arc.

I actually moved closer to the wolf, wanting to show it that I wasn't afraid (even though I was), and needing the distance to be just right.

When the wolf was in position, I held up my container and triggered it.

I'd timed it just right. The spray hit it directly in the eyes, like I'd wanted. I jumped back as the wolf let out an anguished howl. It's precise leap devolved into a helpless tumble, and it fell, hard on one side. If it hadn't been so big, its whimpering would have sounded pitiful.

I smiled as I ducked back behind the protection of the dumpster. I held my pepper spray container in front of me, ready to hit it again.

It continued the whimper, and I peered out from behind the ripe metal structure. The wolf was frantically pawing at its eyes and letting lose pitiful whines and whimpers, in between racking coughs. It tried to look in my direction, but its eyes were screwed shut and watering profusely.

After a moment, it stood up and staggered away, apparently out of the fight for good.

I nodded in satisfaction. I'd gone all the way and bought the Triple Action spray, a mix of pepper spray, tear gas, and a UV dye, for good measure. Not that I thought we'd be identifying him in the near future.

I turned my attention back to Paul's fight, while still keeping some of my attention on the retreating wolf.

My efforts had helped. Paul was bleeding freely from several wounds, but the smaller wolf was retreating, tail between its legs and one paw held up while another dragged the ground in an obvious limp.

The larger wolf was attempting a fighting retreat, but its movements were slow, and as I watched, it turned tail and ran.

Paul started to chase after but then sagged, coughing. I recognized the effect of the potion wearing off, and I hurried to him. My own potion was fading, but I could still see well enough to watch both wolves backing away. I held up my pepper spray and motioned in the direction of the third wolf, whose pained howls could still be heard, moving in the opposite direction.

Both wolves snarled but continued to run (or limp) away.

So what do you think?  I was pretty pleased with how well Dafydd did in this fight.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Magic System in the Warlock Case Files

Magic system design is crucial for a fantasy author. You want something that has internal consistency and preferably looks and feels different from other magic systems. By the way, Brandon Sanderson in his Mistborn saga has one of the best-designed magic systems I've ever read. If you haven't read them, do so. They are excellent.

I'm not saying my magic system is even close to his, but I did give it a lot of thought before I started writing, and I've continued to tweak it as I go along. I didn't want Dafydd to feel like a D&D style wizard who tossed around fireballs and called down lighting bolts. I wanted him to use his magic tactically and to give some thought to how he could use his powers.

In the first story, I said he could create potions, do divination-style magic and read auras. I also said that he needs time to do his magic. He can't pop off spells at a moment's notice. He needs time and set-up. As you'll see in the book I'm writing now, I break that rule, but for a specific type of magic. My husband actually came up with a way he could use that type of magic in combat, and I'm looking forward to writing the climactic fight scene in that book where he tries something new.

But until then, I've stuck with the original rules. When I write fight scenes, I have to think carefully about Dafydd and what he'll do. I can't make him sit on the sidelines while Paul does all the fighting. Basically, I've dealt with it by having him augment himself and Paul with potions (enhancing speed, strength and reaction). He uses pepper spray to good effect against a werewolf, and he's used his magic to trick and misdirect.

Sometimes I have him avoid the fight entirely and save someone, freeing Paul up to so what vampires do best. Beat the tar out of bad guys!

Of course, he uses his magic outside of combat. Aura reading has come in very handy while talking to other vampires, and I have a scene where he uses ritual magic to track someone down.

Check back next week when I'm going to post a draft of one of the fight scenes from The Case of the Lost Werewolf Puppy. You'll be able to see both of them in action. I'd love feedback on what you think of how I've written Dafydd and his magic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Editing and Producing the Best Possible Product

I'm on several ebook forums, and lately there's been a lot of discussion about the quality of self-published works. Most of the discussion has been very distressing to me as an author and sometime editor.

First, let me be very clear. Every author, self-published or traditional, has an obligation to produce the very best product for readers. Anything less is unacceptable, and readers have every right to reward other authors who keep quality in mind.

Okay, now that I've said that, let me also say that editing is tougher than it looks and can be VERY subjective. Many of the people who slam authors for mistakes have obviously never written or edited professionally. It's easy to sit in your armchair with a book and a red pencil, finding errors in a book you never wrote or edited.

It's impossible for an author to proof his or her own work, beyond a certain point. I saw that in spades this week. I was doing a mostly final rewrite of The Case of the Haunted Vampire, and I had been very careful in my re-read and rewrite. Then I pulled out the critiques from the online critique group, Critters. Mostly the story received high marks for professionalism and editing/writing quality. The readers found several grammatical/tense/consistency errors. I had missed all but one in my last re-read.

You know what else was interesting? None of them found all the errors they found as a group. It took eight people to find the errors I corrected yesterday. There's probably a few more out there. I have hired a professional editor for a final review, and I'll bet she'll find some of them. Will she find everything? Probably not.

And this was a work that most readers said was very high quality.

Those were just the objective errors. What about the subjective stuff? A couple of readers commented on my use of tense. One even asked if I had originally written the story in present tense and rewritten it in past. Ugh, no. I wrote part of one story once in first person, present tense. It was an interesting experiment, and I learned a lot, including that present tense is a bitch to both read and write. I went back recently to re-read that story and found a bunch of places I'd slipped into past tense. Never again.

But back to this story, which is told in first person, in a very conversational style. I did use present tense a few times, because it's what we do when we speak. An example is when Dafydd was talking about Annie's, the diner he was going to. I wrote "Annie's is pretty well known as a gay hangout." One of the readers called me on it. Another noted the tense shift but indicated it was okay if I was doing it for style reasons. I was doing it for stylistic reasons. Think about it. Annie's exists today. If I were telling the story to a friend about going there, I'd probably say "We went to Annie's last week. It's a great place to eat!" I wouldn't use past tense in the second sentence, so I had Dafydd use present tense as well.

Subjective, eh? Six different editors would probably give me seven or eight opinions.

What's the point of this rant? Simple. Authors need to have a commitment to writing the best possible story and making it as perfect as possible. If we do that for you, readers, will you give us a bit of leeway and understand it's impossible to make a work perfect, even when we give you our best possible effort?