Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Zork Chronicles by George Alec Effinger

When clutter attempted to take over our apartment and force the humans out, we won, but at great cost. Many objects to which we were emotionally attached were ruthlessly frogmarched out, given to charity when possible, sometimes thrown into a dumpster. Most of the books I still have mean something to me.

The books lodged most prominently on my bookshelf and in my mind are not always predictable. I'm sure you saw plenty of media tie in novels on your last trip to the bookstore. The more prominent shared universes can afford to hire well known science fiction authors, but it is often done as work for hire without royalties, and considered unprestigeous. At any rate the constraints on the author's imagination often don't allow for great books which are remembered twenty years later.

The Zork Chronicles by George Alec Effinger are an exception to this rule, at least for me. The earliest Zork games were text only. 'Kill troll with sword' you type, and the computer responds, 'You can't see any sword here', then you die.

He mixes in his interest in mythology, and the various guides who often lead heroes on their quests in epic poems, and even his experience with Hugo and Nebula award nominations. The result is often hilarious, and he finds ways to joke about the occassional illogic of the game without breaking our suspension of disbelief.

Glorian is a guardian spirit, a young supernatural being, and a Campbell award nominee. The latter refers to Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' and the guides who help heroes along their journeys. Some of the attendees are quite well known. For instance, Shiva the Destroyer terrifies the hotel clerk into rediscovering Glorian's reservation. Despite the fun, Glorian is downbeat, feeling he is one of those destined to watch the winners then talk humbly about how it is an honor just to be nominated.

Then a mysterious envelope from the Powers That Be appears in his room, with the imprint of the Autoexec himself on it. Glorian is to guide a hero names Mirakles on a quest.

This quest is through the Zork universe, starting with breaking into the house and getting the equipment. They don't do everything quite as you're supposed to do it in Zork. Not having the Bell, Book, and Candle at the right time, they are forced to get a vast quantity of blood from their hotel room through drawer forwarding and perform a much more ancient ritual to get Mirakles out of Hades after he makes a boo boo.

I'm not going to give away too much of the plot, but there's real character development, and Mirakles son of Thrag the Well hated really learns things about himself. Somehow even the bit characters of Zork become real, and we understand the meaning of the tragic limits imposed on them in the name of game balance, which the programmers themselves probably didn't give much though to. Despite which, this is also a light fun adventure novel with a happy ending, and even the bit players come to terms with their fate.

I'm not sure if this novel is truly great in itself, or if people will take the trouble to read it when the Zork generation has passed away, but it is fun to read, and I've always remembered it because George Alec Effinger wasn't satisfied to sell his name and knock off a bit of hack work in exchange for easy money. He put a lot into this novel.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Let's Talk About Agents

I never queried.

Don’t hate me.

I also no longer have an agent. Maybe it was a bad omen that “The Phone Call” where I was invited to sign with the agency came while I was at the awkward doctor, and my call went to voice mail.

But for a while there I thought I’d “arrived.” I’d spent a couple of years researching, writing, and finally polishing my manuscript. I wasn’t going to be “that” writer: the one who queried and then had to hurry to finish a draft to send off to an agent. In fact, I was near terrified of the query. People, I wanted to write fiction! I was as angsty about the query as my teen protagonist was about her boyfriend.

I hit the conference scene. An agent liked my sample chapter. A miracle. He requested the full. Four months later I’d signed with the first boy to say, “I love your book.” I had butterflies. I had visions of my book cover and my name in print. I was so nervous about real editors reading my sex scene that I would literally sweat when thinking about it. My parents might actually read that. I was GOING TO HAVE A REAL BOOK. My agent would make it so.


After revising for months—first a different beginning, then a totally different ending—the manuscript was ready. FINALLY. It went out on submission. If I thought querying was going to be scary. Oh, lord. I’m positive there is nothing more stressful than having a book on submission. Who would say yes to my book? Who would offer the biggest advance? Which publishing house had the coolest authors for me to associate myself with? These were all the wrong the worries.

The rejections came in over months. Not days. Not weeks. Months! My book and my dreams were dying the slowest of deaths. Then one day my agent decided to take his career in a different direction. It wasn’t personal. It was business. But still.

Back to square one. I a few things to do: Write new novel. Find agent. Revise. Submit. Hope it works out. No guaranties.

And that’s where I am now.

Do I still believe it will happen? Yes. I think I can get published. Am I willing to do years of writing and potentially suffer another failed submission? Yes.

Sometimes I wonder if my hands really hold a printed book I wrote if I will feel the ecstatic first love feelings or if it will be more like, There, I endured it. But, I’m jumping ahead again. What makes either one of those outcomes worth it is that writing and yearning to get published make me feel like I’m living hard. I need to live hard and feel a lot. That’s life.

Jody Sparks is a struggling novelist who also writes web content for Angie's List, The Children’s Museum, and other fine clients.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Attracting More Reviews For Your Book

Writing a book and getting it published is a lot of work, but it’s only the beginning. Once the book is published, the marketing begins. One of the best ways to generate good word of mouth and increase your book’s visibility is to gather honest reviews.

Here are a few resources you can use to find quality book reviewers.

1. Though Examiner operates throughout the U.S. and Canada, many of its writers create local content. Find your local book or arts Examiner, or the Examiner who writes about your subject area, online. Visit his or her profile; many Examiners post links to personal websites through which you can get in touch with them. Find out if they’ll review and rate your book for The writers often have a following of subscribers who receive e-mails about all their posts.

2. BloggerLinkUp Three times a week, BloggerLinkUp e-mails go out to subscribers. These e-mails include products for review. To call for reviews for your book, all you need to do is sign up at the BloggerLinkUp website, then fill out a brief submission form. Interested reviewers will get back to you via e-mail.

3. Originally created as a social networking site for and by writers, Gather members place a strong emphasis on original written content. It’s easy to find readers on Gather, and many are willing to write reviews. Gather is also free, can be used (to a limited extent) for self-promotion, and rewards users with points that can be redeemed for gift cards or PayPal payments.

4. Author Meeting Place Advertising on this site is free. Reviews by AMP’s volunteer staff are also free if you’re willing to have your book placed at the bottom of the queue. Expedited reviews are available for a fee.

5. Writers Marketing Group Blog There are many Yahoo groups that can link you up with book lovers and reviewers. This one is especially for writers to exchange guest posts on one another’s blogs. It’s a good place to find a book to review in exchange for the author’s review of your book.

6. Reviews4Reviews Reviews4Reviews also allows you to choose from free and paying options, and is another place where authors can meet and exchange reviews.

7. Writer Gazette blog Author Krista Barrett maintains a list of reviewers and also accepts calls for reviews.

8. Manic Readers Manic Readers is also designed to connect writers and readers, and offers a variety of advertising options.

“Attracting More Reviews For Your Book” is a guest post by Erin O’Riordan. Erin writes the Pagan Spirits book blog.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day

Since my wife and I both have to work tomorrow, and our favorite restaurant is charging a fortune for dinner on Valentine's day, we decided to celebrate early. Today we had the cleaning lady and visited someone in the hospital. If that doesn't sound very romantic, we did find a few hours to spend alone together in the middle of the day :-)

Plus, I'm going to give her her Valentine's day card in the morning, with some scratch off lottery tickets in it. I'll tell her not to open it until she gets aggravated in the middle of the day, because they always cheer her up.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Passage by Connie Willis is another book I read and reread, and think about in between. Who hasn't wondered about the afterlife, unless they've convinced themselves they know already? You can base light fun fantasy on many traditional visions of the afterlife, and Niven and Pournelle wrote fascinating science fiction on the same topic.

A really serious writer will strive to comment on the human condition, in addition to creating fun adventures based on a familiar on unfamiliar mythology. Connie Willis has achieved this.

You know it's different from the first page. Two scientists studying near death experiences are trying to avoid a popular author. Connie Willis has studied the scientific literature, and the complaints scientists make about popular studies of near death experiences, and woven them into her novel. She's taken them to heart, and if you're looking for easy affirmation you won't find it here.

Yet the end is not a simple denial either. A novel can't definitively resolve the question, but she makes an amazing try. Symbols are introduced, explained not quite completely, and developed in unexpected yet completely logical ways. The ending could have many meanings, but if a simple 'no' is concealed at the core it is not obvious to me.

Monday, February 7, 2011


This is my first line for Brenda Drake's contest:

Name: David F. Weisman
Title: Absorption
Genre: Science Fiction

At rest, the young girl's eyes looked identical, but when she glanced around the room, the left had trouble keeping up with the right.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Guest Post - Leveraging Facebook

Margo Smith generously offered me a guest post for authors who want to use Facebook to promote their work. Like life, her piece offers more questions than answers, but I learned several things from this short essay, and hope you do as well.

Leveraging Facebook: Tips for Authors

Do you have a Facebook account? Do you actively use it? Do you know how to use Facebook to reach your particular target audience? Do you know how to specifically promote your book? Do you know how to attract readers to your book via this social media tool? If the answer to any of these questions was ‘No,’ you can read on for helpful tips to market your own book with the power of Facebook.

First of all, if you have not yet created a Facebook account, I encourage you to do that. Use your real name, not the name of your book or product. Facebook likes authenticity, and so do it users, so sign up as yourself and be yourself and you’ve already made a good first step.

Now that you are on Facebook, what is the next step? Start learning how to use this as a valuable means to an end, i.e., getting yourself and your book noticed. Learn how to use this site to talk with others. Reach out to others with a love of writing or words or whatever else truly interests you. Make new friends and invite your existing friends to join you. Learn how to post to someone’s wall. Learn how to share photos, add comments and become part of the conversation. Be active, and again, be yourself. Your authentic voice will attract like-minded people and help you gain credibility as a person and an author.

Once you have done this, the next thing to do is to join or create author groups. There is a group just for authors on Facebook – have you clicked the Like button and joined this group? Get in touch with others and learn from them and let them learn from you.

You can create a page that tells all about your book. That is a wonderful first step, but now how do you bring people to see this page you have made? Try offering a free product or hosting a contest with a giveaway as an incentive for people to visit or like your site. Give away some product or service of real value and you will get visitors.

Another way to get your name – and the name of your book – out to the general public is to use the various sites available to promote your contest. Blogger Link Up has a contest/giveaway section that will allow you to reach other bloggers to spread the word of your contest. There are numerous other sites out there where they post about contests and giveaways. Get yourself on them and promote your blog, book or product by dramatically increasing your viewers.

Maximize your book exposure by using Lexicon, a Facebook tool that allows you to specify who you would like your advertising audience to be on this social site. For instance, if your book is a collection of recipes, you can place an ad on Facebook and use Lexicon to narrow the field to your perfect audience. You can select that your ad be viewed by males or females – or both! You can find others who are interested in cooking, recipes and such relevant topics. You can keep narrowing the field by age, region and various other demographics until you find your ideal foodie audience for your cookbook.

Once your contest is set up, offer extra entries – with an increased chance of winning - if your viewers also tweet about your contest. That will do a great deal to get increased visibility to your book page. Twitter is another valuable social media tool for promotion, but that is a subject for another time.

About the Author

Margo Smith graduated with a B.S. degree from BYU. She lives along the Wasatch Front and loves the beauty and peace of the Rocky Mountains she calls home. She looks with a writer’s eye at the world around her when compiling articles about a variety of subjects from current world events to online schooling to social media.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

One Story to Rule them All, One Story to Find them ...

Usually I prefer novels to short stories, but there are a few short stories that mean something to me, and have hung out in my head for years. There is only one hardcover short story collection on my bookshelves, and I bought it for one story, considering everything else a free bonus. This is my favorite short story ever, and has influenced my writing greatly.

"The Coming of Vertumnus" by Ian Watson is truly awesome. It's about the dissolution of the ego and conscious mind, perhaps to become part of something greater, or perhaps not. He starts by putting us inside the head of art critic Jill Donaldson, who is not so annoying that we wish to tune out her first person narration, but whose self centered irony and cynicism introduce an element of pleasure for the reader into the fearsome and fascinating things to follow.

The old painting described in the opening of the story seems only meant to give us a pleasurable image while introducing us to the narrator's book and career, but deeper levels of symbolism are introduced as the story goes on, which itself sets a pattern of symbolism and unexpected yet inevitable double meanings. Jill Donaldson herself becomes the tiny nude figure held by the sculptor in the painting.

For a short story such as this, anything past the first few pages might be considered a spoiler, and I don't want to give away too much. The author has researched Titian and the Hapsburg dynasty, and unless you've studied them yourself, you won't know where fact blends into fiction. This helps us get into the protagonist's head, since all the conspiracy theories feel real and possible while under the spell of the story.

If (like me) you are not an art aficionado, visualize one of Archimboldo's painting as described. Various fruits and vegetables are used to form a three dimensional human shape in a painting. Now imagine a future ecological movement using this image as a symbol. Now an oil billionaire who claims to be concerned about the excesses of the environmental movement has immitative pornographic paintings forged, which pretend to be by the same artist. These could destabilize some environmental groups. Now an exhibition of the paintings is bombed. Who did it, environmentalists, or those whose avowed intent is to discredit them?

The protagonist is kidnapped and drugged by people claiming to represent the Hapsburg dynasty. 'Ringbinders' will be in her brain for a long time, and neither she not the reader can take her perceptions at face value from then on. She's hallucinating things, unless of course she's become able to perceive realities that others cannot yet see.

Ultimately this story is not about a fictional world, or even a possible future, but who and what we are now. It's also a wild ride, to read for fun while having your brain twisted.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Nicolaos lives in ancient Greece, and is startled when a dead man falls to the ground from above him. Not just any dead man either. This is the corpse of Ephialtes, one of the fathers of democracy. His death was murder not suicide, since he was killed with a bow before falling. This could cause civil war in Athens, because many believe that the old men who held power before his time murdered him in order to seize it again.

His successor Pericles is impressed by Nicolaos's wit, and hires him to uncover the killer before the city is torn apart. The protagonist doesn't have a word for private detective, and there don't seem to be any in Greece yet, but he decides that is what he wants to do with the rest of his life. And a good thing too, because someone wants to kill the nosy citizen poking into their business, so he may not have time to do much else.

Sometimes the author does an amazing job taking us to ancient Greece. I loved the hard bitten story when old men, women, and young children swallowed hemlock, so the rest of their community would have a chance to avoid starvation after the Persian army stole their food. On the other hand, the romantic lead is sometimes a little too modern in her attitudes for me to suspend disbelief, although the author points out some things that have made her different from her compatriots.

Take a look at this book, or visit Gary Corby at A Dead Man Fell from the Sky and say hello.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My Favorite Weird Indie Fiction of 2010

Hi, readers. My name is Erin O'Riordan, and I regularly blog at Pagan Spirits. David Weisman has graciously allowed me to write a guest post at Breaking In Before Breaking Down. I present to you condensed reviews of two of the best books I read in 2010, both from small publishing houses and independent authors. Both are a little weird.

1. Punk Minneapolis by Peter Joseph Swanson

It's not exactly a hot tub time machine, but Peter Joseph Swanson's Punk Minneapolis ( Publishing) will take you back to 1989. Forget everything you've seen on I Love the '80s. That's all about corporate yuppie mall stuff that would make Raven, Becky, Sandra, Tope and Bunny Umber want to puke. They're punkers, and their purpose in life is to rock out, drink beer, steal pizza and other essentials and offend the yuppie world. Life isn't all pepperonis and salad bars, though. Strange things are happening, things that seem to center on the crazy nun who stalks the uptown Minneapolis pizza parlor (formerly a hair salon) where Raven, Becky and Sandra work. Is that really her face Raven sees in his second-floor window at night? What is the K-Mart Ouija board trying to say? Are there really space aliens in the walls, as Tope says? Several bizarre accidents and cosmic revelations later, we arrive at the '90s. Punk is dead, and so are some of the characters. Others have moved on to become what they once feared and loathed. Only Raven has remained somewhat true to his artistic ideals, wondering how he can make a novel of the beer-soaked, pizza-greased, Plasmatic chaos that was 1989.

2. Refracted by Sheila Deeth

Refracted by Sheila Deeth (Gypsy Shadow Publishing) is the kind of book that starts out by making the reader wonder, "What am I reading?" After the first chapter or two, you might think you were in a Christian fiction novel, one that follows child witnesses to Biblical events who tell of miraculous happenings from their own points of view. Soon you begin to realize these characters aren't particularly religious, at least not in any orthodox way. After the third chapter, the narrators aren't quite so innocent anymore, and a bigger picture begins to emerge. Let me give you a hint: this is a work of science fiction, though one that's told in a particularly poetic voice. It evoked a number of associations for me. Let me name just a few so I can attempt to parse out the flavors of this fantastic dish:

~If you read The Prestige by Christopher Priest (or even saw the movie), you can have some idea of the strange, eerie type of science fiction this turns out to be

~If you think back to the horcruxes in the Harry Potter series, and how Lord Voldemort split his soul into pieces, you can imagine the meaning Deeth assigns to the colors of the rainbow

~If you read the anthology She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror you can have some idea of the various settings.

That's probably all I can say without spoiling too much.