“The Fires of Tallen Hall” Update

For weeks, I was stuck on the first chapter of The Fires of Tallen Hall, with only nine written. That first chapter was just too choppy. Not poetic enough.

My wife had a brilliant idea. She suggested I write the entire book. Just write it, as a skeleton. Then go back and flesh it out. That way, I progressed and would end up with at least an outlined complete story. Capital!

A skeleton for me is dialogue, action, and description. Then, I add the muscle (the expository that holds it together), and the skin (the lyrical language). I planned to focus on the skeleton, and ignore the muscle and skin.

I am happy to report that as of last Friday, I have completed nineteen chapters. They’re anemic and emaciated, but they have flesh and skin over the bones.

This is an interesting point in the story. I began Aura’s initial tale in 2010. It morphed through six different incarnations: the first graphic novel, and five novel versions. At no time did I ever complete it. From Chapter Twenty forward, I am in new territory.

It would be easy to say that I have the story outlined in my head. In fact, it’s outlined on a dry erase board to my left. However, it has changed. In Chapter Eleven, I wrote a few paragraphs to reintroduce a character from A Path of Stones so the reader wouldn’t forget he exists. Those few paragraphs radically altered what I planned to be a confrontation with the villain’s henchman. Based on those paragraphs, someone else will have to deal with him.

So, there is no telling what Chapter Thirty, or Twenty for that matter, will do to the ending.

To the Death

Duel

Ygraine Pagel looked up from her work table as Aura Lockhaven entered her chamber. She cast Aura a cold glare. She said, “I know who you are.”

Aura frowned. There was a note of cynicism in the sorceress’ voice. It was not that of a merchant receiving a customer. She said, “You should. I wrote you last week. I’m interested in the emerald sphere you have for sale.”

“Hmm,” the sorceress said. “We’re both initiated magicians. There is no need for subterfuge.” She looked Aura up and down, and sneered. “Crimson. I expected death to wear black, and reveal much less skin.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Feigning surprise is disingenuous of you. My order sent you here to assassinate me,” Ygraine said.

“Wait. Excuse me?” Aura asked. She couldn’t believe her ears. Rumors abounded that Ygraine had turned her cloak, surrendering to the lust for power that seduced some sorcerers. The idea that the Order of Sorcerers would send someone from another magical order to deal with one of their own was ridiculous. The mere thought that that someone would be an enchantress, a member of an over-wrought and far-too-sensitive order that the aristocratic and rib-numbing tightly-corseted sorcerers despised, was beyond absurd. The sorcerers had the best internal constabulary of all eight magical orders, and were notorious for dispensing swift justice against members who violated their oath of non-manipulation. If they wanted to execute Ygraine, then Aura would have found a week old corpse. Aura shivered at the thought that she may have just walked into an unpredictable situation. Still, Ygraine was the finest purveyor of magical crystals in all of Ayrdland. “I’m here to buy a stone, Ygraine. I am customer, not an assassin. I don’t kill.”

“Then, that shall be your downfall!”

With that, Ygraine launched herself at the young enchantress. Before Aura could brace herself, Ygraine knocked Aura’s staff from her hand. Then, she grabbed her by the throat. Aura did not need to ponder what the sorceress had in mind. She felt that intent in Ygraine’s right hand as a malignant spell poured down the woman’s arm and flooded Aura’s neck. Aura knew some of the sorcerers’ spells, but not enough to counter them. This one was new. She didn’t have to tighten her hand. The spell did the work for her. It felt like an iron vise upon soft pine wood. Aura felt her windpipe cramp.

“Ygraine,” Aura said with a gasp. “Let me go. You’re killing me!”

“That’s the whole idea, you stupid tart!” the sorceress said.

Aura grabbed Ygraine’s arm, trying her best to break the sorceress’ hold on her throat. Ygraine’s hand was fixed to her flesh as ivy to brick. All of Aura’s respect for elders vanished. The sorceress meant to murder her. She threw her considerable weight and height into Ygraine, but her hand and spell remained fixed. Around the chamber they danced their waltz of death, knocking over the bookcase, overturning a chair, then spilling a rack of tinctures. Dozens of small bottles shattered on the stone floor, their contents mixing in a bubbling brew. Then, Aura slammed Ygraine against her table, in an effort to knock the woman loose. It only served to upset the table, sending books, rats, and even a skull into flight. A lit candle fell onto the ruins of the tinctures. The mixture erupted in flame.

The inferno diverted Ygraine’s attention long enough. Aura employed an old tactic she used against boatmen who lusted for her budding breasts when she was younger. A woman lacked the necessary external appendages, but it would still hurt. She kneed the sorceress in the groin. With a yelp, Ygraine released Aura’s throat and fell back against the table.

“Ygraine,” Aura wheezed, trying to catch her breath. “We have to get out of here.”

“I shall. The only way you’re leaving is in a coffin, assassin!” With that, Ygraine advanced.

Oh, merciful heavens, Aura thought. Ygraine was mad. It was bad enough that she wanted to kill Aura. Now, she continued her murderous assault as fire spread the floor of the windowless chamber. Noxious smoke, the result of igniting tinctures that should never be mixed, filled the air. The flames would soon reach the wood of table and bookcase, and the chamber’s timbers. If the fight lasted much longer, both women would die.

Ygraine pounced. Aura turned, dashing toward the back of the chamber. The sorceress grabbed Aura’s cloak and pulled her backwards. Let her have the cloak, Aura thought, gripping the clasp and tearing it open. Ygraine threw the garment across the overturned chair, and dove toward Aura.

As the enchantress turned to flee around Ygraine, she slipped on broken glass and spilled potion. She went down on one knee. That was all the sorceress needed. Again, she gripped Aura by the throat. Again, the vicious spell poured into Aura’s neck. Again, her windpipe constricted. Aura tried her best to wrench free, but her boots kept slipping on the wet floor. If she fell, Ygraine would simply sit on her and kill her. She had to maintain her footing. To keep herself upright, she locked onto Ygraine’s leg with her own.

Black specks appeared in front of Aura’s eyes. The spell was strangling her, ending her life one failed breath after another. Her mind reeled in panic. Aura gasped for air. None came.

“Here’s a kiss for the leader of my order,” Ygraine said.

A ball of pure life force formed in Ygraine’s left hand. It was enough to turn a human inside out. This woman not only could cast one spell, while maintaining a second of a different type, but she cast both without a single incantation. Aura had to speak an incantation, and speech was now lost to her.

The Enchantress of Hartshorn had only moments left. She lashed out with her left hand. She grabbed Ygraine’s face. Claw her eyes! Tear her skin! Rip her mouth! Anything to get her to let go. Not enough. Her hand still grasped Aura’s neck, the vile spell pouring into her throat.

Aura felt her fear and desperation coalesce into a ball of pure vitality, will, and emotion. It formed on its own volition, without any conscious thought from the enchantress. It formed without an incantation. It rushed from her chest, and poured into her right arm. It erupted in her hand as the most lethal spell in her entire arsenal – the Divine Thunderbolt.

I don’t kill, Aura said only moments earlier. If Ygraine did not release her throat, then Aura would violate that statement by shoving the ball of solid light into the sorceress’ face. The woman’s skull would survive. At this range, her flesh would be incinerated. Aura knew, as entwined as they were, that she too would take the force of the spell. She would crawl away with massive burns, burns that could be healed tomorrow. If she did not launch the spell, there would be no tomorrow for healing anything. Aura gritted her teeth. Someone was about to die, and the determining judge was Aura Lockhaven herself.

DAZ Studio 4.9 Pro -> Reality 4.3 -> Luxrender 1.6.

This is not canon.

The Evolution of Aura Lockhaven

For the fun of it, I put all three of Aura Lockhaven’s 3D incarnations in the same scene. The result reveals her evolution as a 3D character, as well as serving as graphic touchstones of her evolution as a fictional character.

Left: Victoria 6 incarnation. Center: Victoria 7 incarnation. Right: Victoria 4 incarnation.

Auras II

Victoria 4 Incarnation (April, 2010 — January, 2013):  She wasn’t even Aura Lockhaven when I designed this character. She began as my feeble attempt to create a model based on Playboy Playmate Lindsey Vuolo. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, there is no resemblance between the figure and the Playmate. How she became Aura is chronicled on my website if you’re interested. This is the graphic novel version of Aura.

Victoria 6 Incarnation (January, 2013 — August, 2016): I suspended the graphic novel when I started grad school. Upon graduating, I decided to write a fantasy novel, using the graphic novel as the foundation. That required a new physical representation of my heroine. So, I chose Victoria 6. That base figure much more human like roundness than the earlier V4 (I skipped Victoria 5 completely). Her appearance is based on her written description, so there is no resemblance to the V4 counterpart. Around 2014, I decided the gold body jewelry was too blooming difficult to describe in a written narrative, and gave her the outfit worn by the V7 version.

Victoria 7 Incarnation (August, 2016 — Present): I refused to upgrade to Victoria 7 for an entire year. Eventually, the improved posing and sculpting systems won me over. I transferred Aura from V6 to V7, slider by slider. They don’t quite look alike. The V6 base face is more heart-shaped than V7’s, but the new version is close enough. I really like the new muscular body. Aura’s transfer from V6 to V7 occurred at the same time I determined to finish her first novel by the end of 2016 and publish it. It also happened at the time I cut the opening trilogy down to a duology. This is the incarnation who appears on the cover of A Path of Stones. It is how I see Aura at the end of the series, transformed from the unsure wizardess in the brown dress into the powerful enchantress who fights tyranny.

Most of us in 3DLand anticipate the release of Victoria 8 this June. I said no to Victoria 6 and Victoria 7. We see how well that resolve lasted. So, I shall see what Victoria 8 has to offer. She best impress me. As in, she needs to step off the computer screen, perform one heck of a lap dance, and build me a stiff Manhattan. If she does, I will once again, transfer Aura to a new rig.

This is what that one, silly, little Victoria 4 figure back in 2010 started.

The Fires of Tallen Hall

2017 hasn’t been friendly to writing.

I lost January and February to releasing A Path of Stones and the subsequent marketing campaign. March fell to a hard drive failure, and doing my best to keep the old computer running. April was consumed with learning the new computer, as well as a few bouts of depression.

It’s May.

Yesterday, I resumed work on The Fires of Tallen Hall, the second Aura Lockhaven novel. I am happy to report that it is 50% complete.

In honor of that mark, here is the first promotional image of the second novel.

TallenHallSM

Aura Lockhaven in Iray and Comics

Yes, you read that right. Aura Lockhaven comics!

I’ve been experimenting with the Iray rendering engine, and the results are beyond what was expected. So, I had to see what Aura looked like.

Usually, I render her in Reality-Luxrender. That texturing system and render engine gives me more control over the look, and has far greater textural fidelity than Iray. It is, however, slow. Luxrender is the Treebeard of the rendering world. It never does anything hasty. A six hour render is just too time consuming for a comic, or even an illustrated short story. A page of a comic per week is reasonable. One panel per week is not.

Iray, however, is lightning in pixels. I can expect a render to complete between 20 minutes and 90. Extremely complicated sets and lighting require more time, but that is usually limited to fine art pieces, not the panels of a comic.

So. Here is the first image of Aura, rendered in Iray.

AuraIraySM

Aura looks great! Her skin is fantastic, and comparable to Reality. The clothes, however! They’re too orange. I can control the colors better in Reality. She’s the “red enchantress,” not the Orange Bowl Queen. Well, they are three years old, and date from her incarnation as a Victoria 6 figure (she’s a Victoria 7 now). Time to give the lady a new wardrobe.

This scene was … interesting. Iray should have rendered her in 20 minutes or less. It’s just one figure, a few clothes, a simple set, and two lights. She took an hour to reach 15% completion! That is not acceptable. This required some drastic measures. I could only surmise that the issue lay in the fact that Aura is a custom made, slider-by-slider, character. All those morphs had to slow her down. So, I made a single character morph and applied to to a stock G3F. If you don’t know what that means, I essentially turned her into a character I can sell. Instead of ten different morphs for her mouth alone, I have just one that says Aura Lockhaven, and it controls both face and body. That cut load time in half, but did not significantly increase render time.

Oddly enough, I experimented by rendering her in the Beta edition of DAZ Studio 4.9, instead of the public release of 4.9.3. She rendered much faster. At eleven minutes, she had only reached 10% completion. Not great. Not good enough for a comic. Better than 15% after an hour. At that point, I stopped the render to check her pose. Satisfied, I resumed the render. Within four minutes, she shot from 10% to 55%.

What the heck! There is no difference between 4.9 Beta and 4.9.3. They are identical. Why would stopping and resuming the render cause that much of a speed increase? My wife speculates that stopping it freed tied up resources in either the cache or VRAM.

It does matter. I’d like to know the answers so I can correct them. However, this opens the door for Aura Lockhaven illustrated short stories and comics.

I plan a few short comics, as in ten to twelve pages. They will fill in the gaps between novels, and provide a bit of backstory to some of the characters and situations. They will be free, on my website. Why not? Give them away as promotional items, and as fun things to fans.

This also opens the door for the Sarethian Seven to be that series of illustrated short stories I’ve envisioned for three years.

I will leave you with a scene I call “Night of the Wraiths.” Aura seems to be in a wee bit of a predicament.

Wraiths

Reader Reviews of A Path of Stones

What readers are saying about A Path of Stones:

A Path of Stones is a marvelous testament to the human spirit and the ability to overcome one’s past. Filled with heart racing adventure, wondrous magic, and danger around every corner, it truly reflects the creativity and boundless imagination of the author. This book has led me down my own path of stones.” — L.J.

“This is not your basic genre book, a rehashing of the same story with different characters as so many of even my favorite series have become. This is uniquely well written. I like that it moves well, and especially that the main character is one I can relate to. It tells the story of a young girl who loses everything and is then betrayed by the only family she has left on top of that. It follows her self-discovery and how she learns to go from powerless to powerful, and then on to learn to control that power. There are a lot of layers beneath the surface of the story. If you like stories of the “supernatural” or “otherworldly” written for readers who like a story to teach as well as entertain, this might just be for you.”  — K.L.K.

Check it out at www.njbmedia.com.

 

 

Computers, Content, and Colds

March has been an interesting month.

It began with a hard drive crash on my trusty Sager laptop. Sigh. I replaced the hard drive, and then reinstalled my DAZ Studio content. One. Item. At. A. Time. That took ten days.

Then, my computer CPU spiked at 98C. Whoa! That’s almost at meltdown temperature. Well, Sager made a mistake with their technical manual. They didn’t say to replace the thermal compound every time I removed the heat sink. With all the brick dust in the air (I live next door to a brick factory), I have to remove the sinks once a month to clean the fins. New thermal compound brought the temperature down to a mere 68C. But the damage had been done. My CPU was wearing out.

Time for a new computer. I bought a new Sager 8156. It comes with an i7 7700 CPU, and 32G RAM, upgradeable to 128G (oh, yes, I will!). Not only that, but it has a geehonking big GTX-1060 graphics card with 6G VRAM. So, I can render in Iray as well as Reality.

Time to reinstall all that DAZ content. Again. This time, however, I popped the hard drive from the old machine into the external dock and ghosted the content folder over. That only took six hours.

My wife inherits my old computer. It will serve her well for several years, as long as she doesn’t render on it. No problem. As our content folders are synced, all she has to do is give me a saved scene on a flash drive, and I’ll render it on the new computer, while we sit back with a bowl of popcorn and some beers. The couple that renders together …

Still, it took close to a week to install all my programs and test out the new system.

As if that wasn’t enough, I caught a bad cold. The song lyric “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes” was written for Texas weather. Hot. Cold. Dry. Wet. Blah!

By Monday, I should be ready to resume writing The Fires of Tallen Hall, the second Aura Lockhaven novel. It is a third of the way done, so catching up won’t take too long.

In the meantime, I will leave you with the first piece of 3D art performed on the new Sager, in Iray. I call it Not That Easy … she just isn’t that easy to bring in, much less take out.

Not that Easy.

Book Covers: More Important Than I Realized

Never judge a book by its cover? Baloney! Tommyrot! Poppycock! Book covers are important — more important than I realized.

Book buyers buy books for four reasons: they know the author (Stephen King sells on his name alone), they are following a series (Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files), they read a glowing review and are interested, and finally, the cover grabs their attention.* The latter is especially true for freshmen authors like me. Our names aren’t known, our series are just beginning, and no one has reviewed our books yet.

A Path of Stones is selling quite well on the Apple iBookstore. So far, I’ve sold more than 50 copies, and average at least one sale per day. I’ve finally been able to access the Apple iBookstore, via iTunes, to see what the listing looks like.

Because the title begins with the letter A, my book is smack in the middle of the second row of Popular Fantasy. Nice placement. But the cover struck me. It stood out among the other three rows. For openers, it’s the only cover that features two characters, not just one. Secondly, it’s one of only two in which the characters are actually doing something, not just standing there. All the other covers feature portraits or objects. They aren’t boring, but my one scene of action shines in a sea of portraiture.

This is the cover:

pathcovera

I followed Frank Frazetta’s concept that the cover depicts action and drama, even if it does not convey the actual plot of the story. If you look at his marvelous paintings, all of them depict action. Even the classic painting of Conan standing on a pile of corpses conveys action. The action has just passed, and we have a good idea of the skull-cleaving that transpired. We want to read the story to see it for ourselves.

Remember, the the book cover is marketing. Given that the average online book shopper spends about three seconds scanning rows of potential purchases, it is important to grab the buyer’s attention fast. I’d say the cover to A Path of Stones is doing just that. I’ve made enough from the Apple store to buy two tanks of gas and a cheeseburger.

Apparently, Frazetta’s concept isn’t followed much these days. Also, apparently, it still works.

*  Non-fiction book buyers have reason to buy a book that outweighs the four I listed. They’re researching a subject. That’s rarely the case for the reader of fantasy fiction.

Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing is often presented as the be-all and end-all of marketing efforts, especially to those of us who are independent writers and publishers.

No, it isn’t! The problem is that the presentation of it to us is painted in broad strokes using a massive brush. It’s over-generalized. It has to be broken down into components. Here is my social media campaign for A Path of Stones, the results, and my observations.

I have four social media outlets: Facebook, WordPress, DeviantArt, and Twitter. The first three exist because I like them, and I’ve been active on them for years. Twitter is simply an exercise in mercenaryism because I still don’t understand what a novelist is supposed to do with a mere 140 characters (besides kill them — a George R. R. Martin joke). Between the four sites, I have 600 friends, followers, readers, and fans.

I began marketing A Path of Stones on those four outlets on January 15. By book release day, February 15, everyone knew I had written and published a novel. The likes, shares, and retweets were phenomenal. The majority of my friends, fans, and followers were behind me. A month later, here are the sales results:

Hardback: 2

Paperback: 0

Kindle: 3

ePub: 53

All those ePub sales were through the Apple iBookstore, a marketplace that I have absolutely no control over. It was a last minute decision when Lulu offered it to me as part of an expanded distribution.

If likes, shares, and retweets translated into sales, I would have made enough by now to buy a car.

Those numbers look dismal! It looks like my social media campaign was a failure. Not necessarily. Let’s look beneath the numbers and at each of the four sites.

My Facebook presence is divided into two parts: a personal profile and an author’s page. My friends on my personal profile are old high school friends, college friends, fraternity brothers, friends I’ve made in Texas, and the core of an old LiveJournal forum that stuck together after the forum folded. The majority of the followers of my author’s page are the same people. Most are younger than I am and have children. They don’t have much discretionary income, and the ones who do are not necessarily fans of fantasy fiction.

My fans on DeviantArt are mostly other 3D artists, and those who like Frazetta-inspired images of buxom women playing with swords. They put the fanatic back in fan. But they like art, not necessarily words. If I had published an art book, I’d probably have sold 50 copies that first day.

WordPress and Twitter are made up of the same types of folks, writers and artists who band together to learn from each other and support each other. Not all of us like fantasy, and those of us who do may not take a chance on a freshman writer’s first novel. If I had written a book on self-publishing, it would have sold like crazy between WordPress and Twitter alone.

So, it would seem that my social media marketing fell flat solely because my market isn’t represented in my four sites. That is not something that is reflected in the generalized statement of using social media marketing for sales success.

There is a way around that. I could join several forums and Facebook groups specifically designed for fantasy fiction. Then, I could plug my book. I can’t do that. Not only is advertising against the rules of most forums and groups, it’s also poor manners. I’m mercenary enough with Twitter. If I am going to aim my social media marketing deliberately at a specific target, I’d join it, become part of the group, get to be known, and stay silent about my book for at least six months. Then, I’d mention it in an off-handed way, such as “You know, I wrote a book on just that very thing. Maybe you’d like it.” That is a possibility; I just haven’t explored it yet.

Going back to the likes, shares, and retweets for a moment. I received more of those for my “I’m published!” posts than any other at any time. The attaboys sure felt good. Encouragement is worth its weight in gold.

In no way am I discouraging you from using social media marketing. I’m simply saying don’t be disappointed if it appears to generate little to no sales.

Now, all that said, I can see where social media marketing works in an outstanding manner for certain groups. Niche writers for one. Say this blog were about the life of a childfree middle-aged pagan man writing in a college town (it actually is, but imagine if that were the focal point). Over the years, my readers here would reflect similar lifestyle tastes. If I wrote a book on that subject, based on my blog posts, and offering twelve new chapters never seen on the web, it would sell and sell well. In fact, that’s exactly how some best-sellers are written.

The same goes for the Millennial generation. I know a few 20 year olds, and they have more than 3,000 friends on Facebook. They are a collective group of young people. If one posted “My new novella comes out today,” 1,000 of their friends would buy it immediately. That’s just how that generation operates. Mine is different. We Baby Busters are loners. We believe if we can’t make it on our own, we don’t deserve to make it (which is why my Kickstarter campaign was so stressful). Two totally different mindsets. I may pick on Millennials, but I admire their optimistic communalism and I hope it never disappoints them.

The campaign for The Fires of Tallen Hall will no doubt be more successful. I’ve noticed a trickling increase in traffic here, on Facebook, and on DeviantArt. In fact, twice now, someone found this blog by searching for my name, and once someone searched for The Fires of Tallen Hall, which appears only at the end of A Path of Stones as a “to be continued in …” line. That tells me the readers of the ePub edition got curious. They will come back. They will tell their friends. Their friends will visit. They will bookmark this page, and my website. That is called the “soft marketing” approach — word of mouth. To my way of thinking, it’s the slowest, but the best.

 

 

St. Patrick’s Sale

St Patricks Day 2

St. Patrick’s Day is the day that all Americans think they’re Irish, and my Irish wife avoids restaurants and bars like the plague. In honor of the day, I’m holding a sale on all eBook editions of A Path of Stones. They will be 25% off, for March 17, 18, and 19. So, tell all your friends that they can get in on the fun of A Path of Stones for only $ 2.99, both Kindle and ePub editions.

Visit www.njbmedia.com for details.

Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day, and don’t drink any watered down Guinness.