Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Unwrapping Story Ideas - Guest Post



Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by iphis

I grew up in a big-city, ethnic neighborhood where men gathered at smoky bars for a beer after working all day in the factory (to earn a wage that put bread on the table but rarely put their kids through college), where women shared gossip during a rousing game of bingo in the church basement, and Saturday night bowling leagues were an essential social requirement.

Our family bought rye bread from a bakery, bologna from the butcher, and penny candy from a grouchy old man in the corner store. He would visibly cringe when I laid a quarter on the counter and began a child’s ceremony of choice—two bb bats, one atomic fireball, four flying saucers that melted on the tongue to reveal tiny balls of sugary goodness hiding inside, two red shoestrings, one caramel (for Mom), two bit-o-honey, four candy lipsticks (to share with my sisters), and on and on until the entire twenty-five piece assortment was placed inside a brown paper sack and I scooted happily outside.

The elementary school had a big playground that doubled as an asphalt parking lot; we lost a lot of balls to the busy street below. When the shrill school bell rang, adrenalin would shoot from the top of my head down to my toes as I raced to class, sad that I had once again missed an opportunity to erase chalk from the blackboard. Today, in the early days of spring, when the snow melts and the sun shines strong, I can still catch a whiff of remembrance; drying winds that lick rock salt off roadways can mimic the chalky smell.

Once a week, my fellow classmates and I went to the school library. It smelled like old paper and lemon wax, and books were shelved on oak bookcases large enough to sail through the Atlantic with a crew of glib librarians. But everything seems bigger when you’re just a little kid.

Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by click

At first, I looked only at picture books. To my mind, Dick and Jane were real people. Several years older and wiser, I searched titles for interesting language. My favorite was one cataloged under Religion called Purple Violet Squish. I eventually bought—and still own—this David Wilkerson book.

The title of another book eludes me, but I remember some of its content. This work of science fiction, the first science fiction I ever read, inspired me to think outside the box. Over forty-years later, it still does.

For example . . .

My protagonist, we’ll call him Jim, enters a time portal and catapults through decades before landing in his own school cafeteria. He’s shoved into line and picks up a tray as he stands before a flat screen with pictures of edible selections. His finger touches a glossy of beef stew, and instantly, the machine spits out a duplicate on an index card.

He takes it to a table (made of transparent acrylic so the lunch monitors, which are beams of light, can see everything), sits on a hover chair, and wonders if a waitress will bring him his food. But the moment he places the card on the table, the picture emerges into a 3-D version of beef stew.

Within seconds, the aroma of grilled onions wafts from the paper to his nose. Savory celery chunks appear. The rim of the picture becomes the brim of a bowl full of bubbling hot stew.

At this point, a real human hands him a spoon. He dips it into the bowl, lifts a carrot to his lips, and swallows. Something in his brain is immediately comforted. At the same time, an idea registers that he must control his consumption to maintain mental acuity and physical prowess.

He takes another bite. Creamy potatoes fill his mouth with memories of happy family dinners. As the soft lump slides down his throat, he notices a perfect pea pop to the top of his dish. He bathes his spoon with gravy to retrieve the pea, and slurps it down with gusto. His eyes grow wide. That single pea tastes like his grandmother garden looks, bursting with color and steamy summer heat.

And there you have it—one potential scene in an other-worldly story, derived from the recollection of reading my first science fiction book. Some of the best story ideas are those that have incubated in memory—a vague remembrance of elementary school, a camping trip, the dog that chased you down the sidewalk . . .imagine the possibilities.

For me, story ideas from penny candies and childhood innocence build when I ask lots of questions. What if the grouchy candy man was not human (in reality, I often wondered if he was)? What if the candy had been replaced with alien produced drugs? What if the man was merely trying to protect young customers from buying the dangerous food? What if we bought them anyway?

A creative writer must constantly dream up new scenarios, and asking “what if” is essential.

At the moment, however, the question I ask myself is, “Why can’t candy still cost only a penny?”

~Amy Nowak

Historical Novelist Amy Nowak has lived in and researched the American West for over thirty years. Her exploration of prehistoric ruins and study of European expansion has inspired her to write candid stories that embrace bygone events, while her approachable characters arouse vitality, spiritual contemplation, and hope. She loves to cook southwestern style food and dithers between red sauce and green, but she’ll take either with a squeeze of lime. Be sure to check out her website.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making of Incarnation - Guest Post


This is an excerpt from The Making of Incarnation: A Reader's Companion, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords.

If there is one concept that is the most critical to understanding the setting for both The Awakened and Wandering Stars series, it is that of different realms of existence. In the first paragraph of Incarnation, you’re introduced to the concept of creation’s spectrum. And the following scenes take place in both the Temporal (Tima) and Eternal (Eili) realms. Though a full understanding of these realms is not impossible to piece together from the scenes of the novel, it is much easier to comprehend when walking through it chronologically. So, I’ll start with the cosmology of my fictional universe.


Creation and Rebellion


The Holy One (Saerin) originally created everything as a single, cohesive, and complex realm. All manner of living beings, as well as other non-living matter, shared the same dimension and were only separated by physical distance. The passage of time was nearly irrelevant within this realm as all things were intended to exist permanently.


One of the living beings, an angel, became discontented with his status and, in his pride, formed a rebellion to overthrow the Creator. The rebellion polarized the angelic host, and by necessity, began changing its function. The Evil One (Malrah), as he later became known, deceived a third of his kind into following him and went to war against the Holy One.


The Casting Out



The attack was repelled, and the Evil One and his followers were cast out of the presence of the Holy One. This defensive act occurred with such force that it stretched the realm, thereby revealing the intricacy of its design. The single, complex system that used to exist was pulled apart into stratified layers of existence. These layers, though still occupying the same physical space as before, were nevertheless separated by a different type of distance—dimensions of which most beings are not even aware. A vast ocean of liquid in one dimension might be solid in another, and an empty vacuum of nothingness in yet another. This is what would later be called the spectrum of creation.


Multiple Existences


As all of creation was pulled apart, objects of similar natures came to rest in groups along the spectrum. It was at this point when the three parts of a being’s existence became evident:



1) The body occupied only one location along the spectrum—the environment where it was most suited to exist.


2) Within the container of the body, the soul or consciousness experienced life at the outer limit of where it came to rest during the casting out of the Evil One.


3) The spirit—containing both the body and consciousness—extended from that point, all the way back to the Holy One at the far end of the spectrum. In this way, the spirit became like a bridge that spanned a range of creation’s spectrum.



The Great Turning-Away


Prior to being cast out, the Evil One and his angels came between the Holy One and his most cherished creation—humans. The Unfaithful (Marotru) began their assault from this position, and when they were expelled, humans and their environment ended up at the far end of the spectrum, opposite from the Holy One. It was a casualty of war that placed humans as far as possible from their creator, with enemies in between.



With humankind now vulnerable, the Evil One sought to exploit this weakness. Though unable to reach them physically, he devised a way to free his consciousness from the limits of his body. Traveling along the bridge of his spirit, he could see the spirits of all other creatures stretching back to the Holy One—pathways into other physical existences. But the spirits of the humans were not viable paths to follow; the souls who lived at the other end of those spirits were independent wills, too strong to be overpowered. Instead, the Evil One chose the wisest of all creatures lower than humans, one with the capacity for speech and just barely capable of containing his consciousness. Using this creature’s spirit as if it were a road, he traveled to the end of the spectrum and overpowered its will, stealing its physical existence for his own. This was the first instance of possession.


From one end of the spectrum to the other, only two created objects remained constant—common threads woven through each layer of existence. Two massive trees, one dark and the other light, were entwined with one another, embodying the fullness of creation in concentrated forms.



The Evil One deceived the first humans into eating fruit from the dark tree. When they did what had been forbidden, the effectiveness of the Evil One’s strategy was revealed. The humans, as well as their environment, began separating from the rest of the spectrum.


Death had entered into creation, and like a festering wound, the sickness began to spread. As this new realm drifted from the presence of the Holy One and His life-giving Spirit, its eternal nature drained away until all that was left was a place of temporary existence. On both sides of the wound (The Void), the spectrum bore the signs of a violent separation.


On the Eternal side, the environment had lost much of its form and structure. Unlike the rest of the spectrum, the Borderland, as it became known, was a place of lights and shadows, of lingering sounds and echoes.


In contrast, the Temporal realm retained all of its form and structure but had lost most of the radiance of eternity. What little was left clung to it like a desperate child. From that moment on the Temporal realm was but a dull reflection of what it had once been.



With the first humans cut off from the rest of the spectrum, and dying as a result, the Evil One proceeded to wage war against the Holy One and his angels, and the next stage of history was born.


The Reshaping


As the angelic forces of the Holy One fought against the demonic armies of the Evil One, the Borderlands became a theater of war. Territories developed like a patchwork quilt, places of light and life bordering areas of death and desolation.


With the Evil One’s attention focused on the war, the Holy One set into motion a plan to redeem the humans and their world. To the race of the Myndarym—angels who were capable of shifting their bodies and consciousnesses to anywhere along the spectrum—he taught the Songs of Creation. Armed with the melodies and harmonies that were integral to every part of the spectrum, the Myndarym shifted into the Temporal realm and began to change it, altering its forms and functions so that it could sustain itself and thereby survive. By the time the task was completed, some of the Myndarym had become so intimately involved and highly invested in the Temporal realm that they had begun to see it as their own creation. When the Myndarym were finally called back to the Eternal realm, some did not heed the call. They lingered, wandering within their new home, continuing to shape it as they saw fit.


Thus, the two realms were born and the stage set for the tale of the Wandering Stars. If you have read any of The Awakened books, you know that the Temporal realm eventually ends up as three parallel worlds. I’m sure you’re wondering how that happens, but I plan to dive into that topic in subsequent novels, so I can’t discuss the details just yet.

__________



Jason Tesar is the author of seven novels (in the genres of Fantasy, SF, and Military Fiction), including the bestselling Awakened series. To learn more, view his published works here, or visit his website at jasontesar.com.

Sign up for Jason’s email list to be notified when he releases the next volume of the Wandering Stars series.

Read another excerpt - Deleted Scene from Incarnation

Monday, July 21, 2014

Getting Started In Software Engineering - Guest Post

Hi there. My name’s J.T. Evans, and I’m an aspiring author that pays the bills with a Day Job as a lead software engineer. I started programming for my grandfather’s real estate rental business in 1980 when I was seven years old. All I had to assist me in my efforts were my trusty TRS-80 from Radio Shack and two books on how to program in BASIC.

Things are much easier these days, even with the growth in complex technology. There’s this thing called the World Wide Web, which I’m sure you’re aware of since you’re reading this on a web site. When I get stuck in my programming efforts, I always turn to Google (and a few other resources, listed below) to help dig me out of the hole that I’m in. It’s rare that I crack a book open for research, but when I want to learn a new language or technology, I almost always turn to a book on the topic.

So where to start in learning software engineering? The advice I’m going to give you assumes that you know the basics of working a computer, but not much beyond that.

The core of software engineering is thinking logically since that’s how computers approach their day-to-day operations. Regardless of your age, I think the best place to start learning these logical chains of thought is a program from MIT called Scratch. It’s packed full of tutorials, examples, and has a great user interface for building out your programs. There are some limitations to it in an effort to keep things simple for the beginner. Don’t be discouraged if you think, “Is this all computers can do?” Once you’ve reached the limits of what Scratch can do, it’s probably time to move on to a full-blown programming language.

Now comes the problem of which language to pick from. If you visit this page on Wikipedia, you’ll see there almost 50 different categories of languages, and hundreds to pick from! Don’t get overwhelmed. Many of those languages are for specialized purposes or were created as a class assignment in college and were released “into the wild.”

My suggestion is to use a language that is “object oriented” since you’ll rarely find a programming job these days that doesn’t require that kind of approach in development. Object oriented languages encourage properly structured sets of information and the code that operates on that information to be placed together. A good tutorial on the basics of object oriented programming (OOP) can be found at Oracle’s tutorial site. The examples are written in Java, but are simple enough that the concepts can be ported to any decent OOP language. Googling specific questions about OOP and its ideas can also help find more targeted information.

Once you’ve outgrown Scratch and have gotten comfortable with the ideas of OOP, it’s time to pick a language. My suggestion is to go with Python. Python has been around since 1991, is very robust, has tons of online support and books, is supported by a wonderful community, and has countless libraries and modules that you can put into play in your own code. It also runs on every major operating system out there (and quite a few rare ones as well). There’s also a great beginner’s guide as well.

I also recently found out that Python is the #1 language used in universities for teaching people how to program. If you’re about to graduate high school, now is a good time to jump into Python. If you’re still in elementary school, middle school, junior high, or similar, then things might change between now and when you hit college. That’s fine. I’ve personally gone through almost a dozen programming languages in my life. That’s the exciting part of being a software engineer. The learning and forward growth never stops! Almost everything I’ve learned in one language has made it easier for me to pick up the next language and run with it.

So, now that we’ve picked Python, how do we go about learning the language? Well, I’ve already linked to the to the support, community, books, and beginners guide. I’d suggest starting with the beginner’s guide, and when you get stuck, jump into the documentation specific to the area you’re working in.

If the documentation confuses you, don’t get frustrated. Sometimes it’s written by people that are so close to the topic at hand, they can’t see the flaws or shortcomings in what they are trying to say. This is when I would suggest turning to Google or other research resources. My favorite site for finding help from others is StackOverflow. Just a word of advice: Chances are, someone else has encountered your problem and asked a question that has a great answer attached to it. Use their search to try and see if this has happened. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, then feel free to ask away!

One thing I always do with a new language is to find a project to code. This will push me to try things outside tutorials and walk-throughs. It will also keep me interested in the process, as I will have a goal in front of me. Something I like to do in new languages is to write a recipe catalog piece of software. It’s pretty straightforward, but you can get really fancy with it if you like. It involves objects (the recipes, the ingredients, the tools) and actions on the objects (add, delete, adjust quantity, replace with another ingredient, search, sort, filter, etc.). Give it a shot, and try to write something to track your recipes for yourself.

Once you have a firm grasp on the language of your choice, how do you take things to the next level? This is where finding some “coding buddies” comes in. It’s rare for a software engineer to code in isolation. More often than not, a software engineer is on a team and must play well with others. This means dividing up the work, writing specifications, sticking to those specifications, interoperating on a personal and technical level, and hitting deadlines. Of course, this is describing a work environment, but it also describes open source software projects.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is a concept you may have heard about, but just in case, I’ll describe it in brief. In the early days of computing, the source code to software was kept super secret. This prevented people from stealing, borrowing, or using trade secrets and such like that. This idea of keeping things secret still exists in many industries and governments. However, in the early 1980s a movement started up to create software in which the source code was shared with the world for all to use (with certain limitations) in order to improve upon software capabilities.

In 1983 The GNU Project was started by Richard Stallman, who also went on to found the Free Software Foundation in 1985. With Stallman’s efforts joined with many others, FLOSS became a reality. The efforts were mostly grassroots for several years, and then Linus Torvalds released Linux in 1991, which ignited a slow-burning fuse of open source innovation. By the end of the 1990s, open source efforts were popping up every day. Today, there are countless projects in endless areas that are open source.

My tip to you is to find a project that you can be passionate about. If you find several, pick one. Just one. This will allow you to focus your efforts instead of spreading yourself too thin. Most software projects have a bug list or a to do list or a feature request list of some sort. Find those lists, and target something easy to add or fix. Download the software’s source code from their open repository, and get to work! Remember that a key part of contributing to an open source project is communication. Contact the project maintainer and ask if you can help. Let them know specifically what you would like to help with (name the feature or bug that you would like to do) and ask permission to assist.

Most of the time, project leads are spread a little too thin, and they’ll gladly take your help. The next step is to write the code according to the project’s standards and to the best of your ability. Part of the software engineer’s life is something called “peer review.” This means that a peer of yours takes a look at your new code and finds places where it could be improved, altered, modified, or fixed. They are not doing this to demean your abilities or efforts. This is to ensure that the best possible product rolls out the door at the end of the day. Peer reviews are a fantastic opportunity for learning. If the person doing the review does their job right, they won’t just reject the code with a brief note. They’ll take the opportunity to explain why the code needs to be modified. This will help you learn and grow and improve. Take advantage of this. I’ve been programming for 34 years, and I still learn things from peer reviews.

If you can’t find a project that will take you on (which would surprise me), then perhaps it’s time to find a mentor who will work with you individually to help you grow and learn. Most large enough cities have one (or more) computer clubs you can join and learn from. This is a great chance to meet like-minded people, make some friends, and maybe find a mentor.

One final thought is that to tell you that software engineering is not something you will learn overnight. It’s very much like chess. Learning how the pieces move is relatively easy, but mastering the skill can take years of dedication. I’m not trying to discourage you with the amount of work ahead of you, but to set some expectations. This will help get you through the dark days when you seem to write nothing but bugs (this still happens to me). Just look forward to those days when you create something that runs just like you want it to! Those are the exciting moments that I look forward to in my job of software engineering and in my hobby of programming.

About J.T.:
J.T. Evans arrived on this planet and developed into an adult in the desolate, desert-dominated oil fields of West Texas. After a year in San Antonio, he spent a year in the northern tundra of Montana. This yearlong stint prepared him for the cold (yet mild compared to Montana) climate of the Front Range of Colorado. He has thrived in the Mountain State since 1998 with his lovely Montana-native wife and newly created son. He primarily pays the bills by performing software engineering and other technocentric duties. Like most writers, he dreams of earning enough income via publications to drop the day job and prosper.

Monday, July 7, 2014

INITIATION



"You must not stop," they told him as they took his clothes, except for his breeches. "Not longer than to catch your breath."

Barefoot and all but naked he walked into the deep darkness beneath the earth. The stone floor cut his feet. Half-felt tendrils brushed at his bare flesh. Things skittered before his steps.

“I won’t fear. I am a Butterfly Warrior,” the boy whispered.

The darkness closed around him and with it the walls. Slowly he was forced to stoop, then to shuffle bent double. He had entered a place where sound and light were invaders doomed to defeat by the infinite patience of the ageless earth. The passage narrowed further. He dropped to his knees, sinking into the slick muck on the cavern’s floor. He could feel the weight of the earth around him, straining to crush him.

The earth was strong. Strong as his master the Sun. They were not always friends.

“I will have faith. I am a Butterfly Warrior,” the boy said softly, and his voice skittered from stone to wall echoing and reechoing in the darkness. He slithered into the passage on his belly.

He crawled for a nightmare eternity, stone scraping his narrow shoulders. His knees and toes, elbows and fingertips were grated raw. The filth of the passage oozed burning into his wounds. His breath echoed around him, mocking him, muttering of boys lost and dead beneath the earth.

He stopped exhausted. Tears stung his eyes.

“I will not despair. I am a Butterfly Warrior!” the boy gasped and forced his toes and fingers to drag him another few feet. The air began to move and far ahead his light-starved eyes faintly detected a patch of darkness lighter than the rest. His struggles took on a frantic energy, until with a strangled cry, like a newborn’s scream, he flopped out of the tunnel and into the open air beneath the stars.

He lay a still a long time. He found himself on a wide landing jutting from the side of the mountain. Far below the jungle's dark canopy rippled. The sounds of bats and bugs and monkeys drifted up to him. A panther's scream sent a shiver through him. 

With nothing else to do the boy staggered to his aching feet. Compared to the filthy hole he'd crawled through, the night was icy. His knees trembled. His muscles protested their new position. His feet screamed. His sweat dug furrows through the cavern much covering him. His rebelling body made him sit again. There was no where to go, no way to continue. The sky was lightening. Dawn was minutes away. He had to keep moving, but the mountain side was sheer, nearly smooth.

“I will continue where others cannot!” he growled through clenched teeth. “I am a Butterfly Warrior.”

He forced himself to stand, to creep to the very edge of the balcony. Still he could see no way to continue. The sky turned silver, then blood red. He was going to fail.

The searing crescent of the sun sprang over the horizon. 
 

"I will continue where others cannot." He said the words softly this time, finally understanding.


He jumped.

The Power exploded within him. Wisdom and strength filled him. His flesh was scorched black as jet and his eyes white, featureless as pearl. From his back burst his new gorgeous wings of black and white and purple. He landed, a new creature, and folded his wings like a glorious cloak at his back.

He lifted his fists and screamed to the sky. “I AM A BUTTERFLY WARRIOR!”

~SJA

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