Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Some bad news about my brand

What is the digital equivalent of schizophrenia?

Whatever it is, my website has it. More specifically, my brand suffers from it. That’s right, I have a brand. Every author does. Except I ended up with two brands because I bandied about the phrase “One Million Words” for years and then finally formed One Million Words LLC in 2016.

On paper it seems so easy: David Michael Williams is an author, and One Million Words is a publisher. But at this point, OMW publishes only the works of DMW, so the two identifiers are irrevocably interwoven.

Should one-million-words.com redirect to david-michael-williams.com or the other way around? One could argue they should be two separate websites, but it would be ridiculous to maintain two websites with near-identical content.

The professional marketer in me bemoans the fact that OMW has taken a backseat to DMW. After all, a legitimate company should have its own logo, website, LinkedIn profile, and so forth. But if I’m being honest, One Million Words LLC is nothing more than a string of words created expressly for the spine of my self-published novels.

Until the company produces works by other authors, it really doesn’t need to be more than that.

Don’t worry. Even if the One Million Words brand disappears someday, I’d never make my name into a logotype.

I have a bigger problem on my hands, however: David Michael Williams, as a brand, is broken.

Nota bene: Marketing is my day job. I’ve worked with countless companies and organizations on branding exercises, so I’m no stranger to concepts like positioning statements, brand platforms, target audiences, as well as the formal guidelines that govern all marketing communications. And while a solitary novelist differs from corporation in many key aspects, the same fundamentals apply to any entity that sells a product.

The root of my dilemma—my identity crisis, as it were—is that David Michael Williams, the human being, is inconsistent.

If I penned only sword-and-sorcery fantasy books, it’d be much easier to market myself, my novels, and my company. But I also write sci-fi and other subgenres of speculative fiction. You might be thinking, “No matter. Many authors publish fantasy and science fiction. They’re close cousins.”

OK, but I co-wrote a children’s chapter book too. There was also a certain stillborn pun-a-day calendar. And I can’t promise I won’t attempt an interactive storytelling experiment at some point in the future. (Anyone wanna play a grammar video game?)

Some may argue that an author should use a different pen name for each genre he tackles. There’s wisdom in that, but at the same time, I can’t get enthusiastic about juggling additional aliases. I’m one guy with a lot of different ideas who doesn’t want to limit his possibilities; is that a crime?

No, but it can be confusing to consumers, which negatively impact profits.

Or perhaps I’m oversimplifying things. There are plenty of professionals who straddle genres and/or media. Some of my favorites include Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead fame (though I like Invincible much more and am excited about the recently announced movie); the Decemberists, whose talented fingers touch projects ranging from music and visual art to children’s novels and board games; and the insanely brilliant Neil Gaiman, whose entire career I’d love to clone.

Given those folks’ success, it would seem that a diversity of creativity can be something of a brand in itself. That does give me hope, though in the short term, it won’t make building a fan base any easier. Because as much as it would streamline things, I can’t focus on just one aspect of storytelling.

I won’t.

Which means regardless of whether my website banner says “David Michael Williams” or “One Million Words,” visitors are going to get a messy, mixed bag of imagination.

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A glimpse into the (possible) future of augmented reality

Pokémon GO is only the beginning, people.

While Google Glass never really caught on, cell phones are finally poised to bring augmented reality (AR) into the mainstream thanks to a certain catch-’em-all mobile game. By leveraging GPS and overlaying computer-generated images on a real-world environment, Pokémon GO has taken a big, bold step forward in a technology that, prior to now, had taken a backseat to other advancements like 3D and virtual reality.

By Gieson Cacho [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gieson Cacho (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, folks. Even as I write this, developers, executives, and marketers are seeking out new ways to exploit AR.

Perhaps ironically, a game populated with brightly colored and sometimes cute creatures has already raised serious concerns—from at least one automobile fatality to insensitive Pokémon destinations.  Then there are instances of trespassing, distracted pedestrians, and lures that attract human victims in addition to the in-game prey.

It’s not all doom and Gloom (Pokémon pun intended), but as with any new technology, the good will inevitably be accompanied by the sinister…and the silly.

While pondering the Pokémon GO phenomenon—and admittedly participating in it—I was reminded of a short story I wrote a while back about a future where AR has penetrated every facet of society, including entertainment, commerce, and even face-to-face communication.

For all of our sakes, I hope “Ghost Mode” turns out to be an inaccurate prediction of what is to come.  It could be a cautionary tale.  Or maybe it’s just the musings of a closet technophobe.  In any event, I hope you enjoy this story of a near-future star whose search for excitement goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Your password: celebulicious

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Choose your own adventure (please!)

Remember those old Choose Your Own Adventure books?  The ones where you controlled a character’s destiny and guided the direction of the narrative?

I’m conducting an experiment that brings that old series of children’s books to mind.  Below you will find the beginning of three short stories.  Please read them all and then vote for the one you’d want to read in its entirety.

Pick your favorite, and just maybe it will get enough votes to earn an ending (despite my ambivalent attitude toward short fiction).

* * *

Option 1: “The Villain”

Quentin E. Donovan—the Quentin E. Donovan—sidestepped into an alley, closed his eyes, and did something he hadn’t done in a decade or more: He went into ghost mode.

A deliberate twitch of his left thumb, and the twin IRIS mods went offline.  A whispered password triggered the auto-transcript program that fueled half a dozen different Lifefeeds to quit.  Finally, he removed the sleek, pearlescent PAM—an eighth-generation iCoin Pro—from his pocket and thumbed the command to repel incoming V-captures.

No feeds, no casts, no signals whatsoever.  He was officially grid-locked.

Without the translucent menus and scrolling text in his periphery, the world seemed impossibly simple.  And slightly pink.  It took him a moment to realize his eyes were compensating for the absence of the green tinge that always coated the corner of his vision, notifying him that the ocular implants were successfully uploading his sensory data to the Sphere.

He shivered, as though losing the subtle, soothing tingle of info-exchange between his bioware and the local hotspots had reduced his body’s temperature.  The air around him even tasted dead.

No wonder they call it “ghost mode,” he thought.

Quentin turned back to the street and saw a woman approaching.  He smiled politely—no, eagerly—but she never acknowledged him, her blank stare undoubtedly combing through a number of feeds only she could see.  He just stood there for several heart-pounding seconds after she passed, until finally he identified the foreign, long-forgotten feeling called loneliness.

He pressed his palm against smooth surface of the iCoin and flirted with the idea of rebooting all of his AR apps.  But he found courage, then, in the thought of what glory lay ahead.  A shame, he thought, that his millions of fans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the thrill of this clandestine meeting he had arranged only hours before on the Darknet.

Releasing his hold on the offline PAM and rubbing his eyes (though that did nothing to restore the reassuring green glow of the IRISes), Quentin stepped onto the street, walked into a FaceCafe, and—without the aid of any tech—scanned the place for someone who looked out of place.

Closest to the door, a middle-aged woman fished a wire out of her purse and connected one end to the table’s powerport and the other end to an oversized, blaze-orange PAM.  The infant in the highchair beside her wailed until the woman returned to the device to his eager little hands.

Across the room, a guy talked to an invisible partner across the table, laughing suggestively as he adjusted the crotch of his trousers.

A few tables away, a woman furiously swiped the air with her fingers and frowned at what Quentin could only assume was bad news.

Nope, nothing out of the ordinary, he lamented.

Disappointed, he sat down and keyed in his order for a plain-taste, half-stim coffee.  He would just have to trust that the Darknet stranger he pinged—the professional Villain he had promised to pay half a million Cs to make his life more interesting—would recognize him.

No worries there, he thought.  After all, he was the Quentin E. Donovan.

* * *

Option 2: “The End”

’Twas no secret a sinister shadow had fallen o’er the realm.  Matthias had been warning neighbors and sojourners alike for as far back as he could remember.  So often had he spoken of the myriad harbingers of The End—the rising number of refugees from faraway kingdoms, the tales of war they brought with them, and other rumors of unnatural creatures roaming the countryside—that his discourse on dire omens had a practiced elegance.

He would daresay none could make the encroaching cataclysm sound as poetic as he.

Then, one day, he realized something truly was amiss.  No, an army of demon warriors had not arrived to ransack his favorite inn.  Much to the contrary, the Satyr’s Horn was empty but for Old Llew, the stout barkeep, and two patrons Matthias saw most every day but whose names he had never chanced to learn.

There were no travelers to bequeath a coin for courtly verse or bawdy ballad.  Nary an adventurer in whom to confide ominous words in hushed tones.

Nay, the room was frightfully quiet.  Though it was his custom to take up his lute hitherto the midday meal, he could not.  Likewise, the three other men in the common room exchanged no pleasantries with one another.  Matthias might have stood there, a scarcely breathing statue, forever had Rosalyn, the barmaid, not entered from the kitchen door.  She seemed not at all disturbed by the alarming lack of patrons as she made her rounds, distributing foamy flagons of mead to unoccupied tables.

Matthias took a single step away from his spot by the fireplace and trembled.  Surely his eyes betrayed him, for his clothes—aye, his very skin!—seemed to crawl in a most uncanny way.  He might have attributed the abnormality to having imbibed too much of Old Llew’s bitterbrew, except the day was still young, and any gleeman of good repute knew better than to partake in intoxicating drink afore his day’s work was done.

Judging by the sparse state of the common room, he’d not have cause to sing a single verse of “Sir Ceridwyn the Clever” nor the melancholy chorus of “Lady Winter’s Lament.”

His legs felt as stiff as broadswords as he quickly crossed the common room, the cadence of his boots against the floorboards the only sound in the place.  Rosalyn seemed not to notice him as she unburdened her tray at another empty table.  Forsooth, she walked past by him without a greeting or a hint of the saucy grin that had sent many a man to bed with impure musings!

He reached for her but thought better of it.  When he called out, the syllables tasted strange on his tongue, as though he had never spoken the lass’s name before.  Despite the room’s grave silence, Rosalyn surely hadn’t heard him.  She disappeared into the kitchen once more.

And was it his imagination making a dupe of him once more?  He would have sworn to the Benevolent Lords above that the kitchen door had opened and closed without Rosalyn’s touching it.  Aye, he would have wagered two and twenty golds on the truth of it!

He hasted to the bar, his hurried steps sounding like thunder.

“What goes on here?” he demanded.  “Has the curse come at last to the Glens?”

Though Old Llew looked up from the cup he was forever drying, he seemed to stare through the bard rather than at him.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

“I am Matthias Manyroads, and well you know it, Llew!  What—?”

The barkeep’s vacant eyes blinked.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

* * *

Option 3: “The Anthropologist”

Godspeed.

The word surfaced amid her whirling thoughts and the nervous energy that tickled her skin like an invisible feather.  Godspeed.  An expression of good fortune in a new venture.  Like a journey.

No one at Indigo Academy had used that word while saying farewell to her and the other two discovery team members.  She supposed no one in Settled Space would have seriously employed such a clearly superstitious expression.  Idioms that evoked any deity had surely died off millennia ago.

The capsule-shaped stasis chamber shuddered as some subroutine or another powered up.  In a matter of minutes, the vessel’s atmosphere would adjust for the long voyage and trigger the nanites in her blood to put her body in a suspended state.  It was a painless process, but she always dreaded it.

Spaceflight was a rare delight for most but an even rarer distress for her.  She might have stayed on Indigo for the rest of her life—which, if the other scholars’ tenures were any indicator, would be another four hundred and fifty years at least—and forever eschewed the discomfort of maximum velocity if this had been any other mission.

But how can one say no to the chance to pioneer the only other planet in the universe known to harbor intelligent life?

Godspeed.  Somehow the antiquated notion seemed absolutely appropriate in light of the undeveloped and arguably barbaric planet that was their destination.  The societal and technological advances the three emissaries brought with them mimicked and even rivaled the supposedly supernatural abilities of the aliens’ sundry deities.  Yet despite her mere two hundred thirty-seven years, she wasn’t so naïve as to believe the aliens would revere them as gods.

More likely, the New People would defy them precisely because of their superiority, which threatened not only many long-established religions, but also the aliens’ egocentric belief that they lived at the center of the universe, metaphorically speaking.

A sentiment she herself had held until the day a wayward drone revealed the existence of a second sentient species on the far end of the galaxy.

“Are you ready, Anthropologist?”

She flinched at the sudden voice in her ear, and her heart rate spiked.  But then the nanites synthesized whichever hormone neutralized unnecessary anxiety—well, more of it, considering how long she had fretted earlier about the astronomically small probability her stasis protocols would fail, causing her to lie awake in the capsule for the months-long voyage.

“Anthropologist?”

Ysa never called her by her real name.  Maybe the title amused her.  Or maybe Ysa, who ranked among the most gifted physio-biologists in Settled Space, thought learning the name of such a young scholar was beneath her.

“I am,” she replied at last, though she wondered if anyone could be fully prepared for the first face-to-face contact with a new race.  Yet she knew better than to express any doubts to Ysa, who had never made a secret of her cynicism for the New People or the mission.

“Your attitude might change when they begin studying you in return, Anthropologist.”

“We will see.”

She was thinking about how good it would feel when Ysa saw how wrong she was about the aliens when the vessel began its countdown to the unprecedented journey to Earth.

* * *

—Editor’s note: as of 11:59 p.m. April 3, “The Anthropologist” had the most votes and will, therefore, get an ending…which is not to say I won’t circle back to one or both of the other contestants at some point.  Thanks to all who helped with this experiment, which has indeed taught me a few things, including this: once you give others a choice, you suddenly realize which option you really favor.

—Another editor’s note: while “The Anthropologist” edged out “The Villain” by a single vote, I ended up pursuing the latter.  I simply couldn’t figure out how to write “The Anthropologist” as a short story.  It got too big too quickly!

—Yet another editor’s note: “The Villain” (now called “Ghost Mode”) has been submitted for publication consideration.  Want a sneak peak?

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Want to write? Get a life

Close your eyes and imagine a writer.

What do you see?  A free-spirited young woman writing in a leather-bound journal beneath a tree?  A middle-aged man with a cup of joe in hand, hunkered over an antique typewriter?  Maybe a tortured soul pouring over his or her laptop well into the wee hours of the night?

No matter the person and setting you envisioned, one fact remains consistent: that quintessential writer was working alone.

Even if you pictured a hip twenty-something tapping away on a tablet in some coffee shop, the rest of the patrons surely faded into the background.  That’s because writing happens in an impenetrable bubble on an island of solitude in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s a lonely job, but someone’s gotta do it.

The worst-kept secret about writers is this: We’re all control freaks to varying degrees.  When writing fiction, an author pretty much gets to play god.  We mold the world, birth a cast of characters (oops, I mean people), and direct the action from the safety of our own mind.  What we say goes, and even if we, every now and then, have to consider the proverbial reader who will one day adore our published work, at the end of the day, we pen the tale we want to tell.

As previously confessed, I’m addicted to planning.  I love to get lost in my own little worlds, considering plot problems from every angle and examining the protagonist’s motivation from prologue to epilogue.  I use an outline for novels, construct a timeline to ensure consistency, draft character profiles, and narrate my brainstorming in Microsoft Word—the whole nine yards.

Worldcon/Chicon logoChronic planning is a part of my personality even beyond the craft of writing.  So when I had to make a decision about whether or not to drop everything attend Worldcon in Chicago last weekend, my first instinct was to forget the whole thing.  You see, if I don’t have time to plan, I tend to navigate down the path of least resistance.  Maybe it’s because fictional messes are fun to invent and clean up, while real-world complications cause stress.

But here’s the thing: A writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  There isn’t some literary fairy who swoops down to scoop up a finished manuscript, waves a magic wand, and disseminates the supposed masterpiece to the masses.  We writers need people (whether we want to admit it or not), and that’s why I took an impromptu personal day at work, recruited my sister to accompany me on the three-hour drive down to Chicago, and dropped the 70 bucks for one-day admission to Worldcon (hosted by Chicon this year) in the hopes that I would run into a certain editor who has expressed interest in my novel, If Soul Can Sleep.

For someone unaccustomed to—and certainly uncomfortable with—taking risks, the trip was a considerable gamble.  After all, the editor in question was scheduled for only one small-scale event that day, and the kaffeeklatsch required on-site registration, which opened the day before.  I arrived an hour before the intimate Q&A was scheduled to begin and signed up as a third alternate.

Miraculously, the stars aligned, and there was just enough room for me.

Defined as “the premier gathering of authors, artists, fans, dealers, and more in the world science fiction community,” Worldcon covers the many aspects of speculative fiction, including fantasy and sci-fi, the two genres my novel straddles.  Of course, peppering this editor of a major publisher was a highlight of the day—not to mention being able to introduce myself afterwards.  (No “yea” or “nay” yet, but hopefully soon!)

But surrounding myself with thousands of fans and aficionados of science fiction—and books in particular—served as a stark reminder that few, if any, successful artistic endeavors center on a single individual.  For novels in particular, agents, editors, artists, and many others play a role in getting the writer’s work to the widest possible audience.  Considering how much time I spend typing the hours away, alone, in my home office, it was a blast to spend some time as part of a community.

In addition to the kaffeeklatsch, I attended a panel comprised of new writers.  One of the best question posed to the group had nothing to do with tips for getting published.  When asked, “What do you do when you’re not writing?” I was floored by the wide array of answers that came up when these fine folks talked about their “day jobs,” hobbies, and past careers:

  • A former hard rocker who became a database builder
  • A professional storyteller at Renaissance fairs who also blogs for Reading Rainbow
  • A manufacturing professional who wrote his last book on a smart phone while soaking in the tub after long shifts on the floor
  • A stay-at-home mother who’s planning to go back to school for a doctorate so that she can build robotic legs for paralyzed children
  • An administrative assistant who is going back to school for become a special education teacher

While listening to their anecdotes, I amassed a plethora of proof that real writers don’t live in seclusion; in fact, they grab life by the jugular, have fascinating experiences, and take risks. After all, how can you write what you know if all you know is a glowing computer screen and a bottomless mug of coffee?

Being a writer is only as lonely as you let it be.  And if you want to write about exciting, adventurous characters, you have to take a page out of their book.

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Why sci-fi and fantasy?

Map of All Things Fantasy

There are no shortage of alien worlds to explore…or create.

In hindsight, I was a fan of fantasy from almost the beginning.

While I didn’t become addicted to books with dragons on the cover until freshman year of high school, I had more than a few flirtations with the genre as a child.   Consider the following brushes with science fiction and fantasy:

  • Medieval cartoons like Gummy Bears and Smurfs introduced me to the idea of magical spells and mythical creatures.  Meanwhile, Transformers and G.I. Joe wove sci-fi into their action-packed storylines.
  • In my earliest days as a LEGO builder, I gravitated toward the Space and Castle sets over the run-of-the-mill Town sets.
  • I devoured Fantastic Four, Iron Man and plenty of other Marvel titles as a teenager.  These serials explored otherwise ordinary folks imbued with super powers and the extra-terrestrials that made occasional layovers on planet Earth.
  • Although I never got into Dungeons & Dragons, I got hooked on the original Final Fantasy video game in sixth grade.  That 8-bit role playing game borrowed a lot of conventions from its paper-and-dice counterpart, including white, red, and black magic; healing potions; enchanted weaponry; and an epic quest that crossed a vast world and millennia.

Before I began building the world that would become the setting for The Renegade Chronicles, I dabbled with different ideas—scenarios that, while not sword-and-sorcery fantasy, fall into the umbrella category of speculative fiction.  It started with  a failed novel about an alien with an unpronounceable name who owned a robot and cruised the galaxy in a space ship.  In junior high, I created a G.I. Joe- and comic book-inspired reality in which a top-secret government-funded agency routinely saved the world from terrorists.

Although the DragonLance saga held up a big billboard sign for me, I was already well on my way down the road to becoming a sci-fi and fantasy author.  Books with dragons on the cover didn’t convert me into a fan of the strange and supernatural; they simply gave me a reliable source of that which I craved and paved an entry path to drafting fiction rife with wizards, warriors, and (yes) dragons.

The lure of the unusual—that’s what gets me to pick up a book, turn on the TV, or start a video game.  And never has there been a better time to be a connoisseur of speculative fiction, whatever the medium.  In fact, one could argue that we’re in the midst of an oversaturation of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and multitude of subgenres therein.

Too much of a good thing (even when it’s mixed with plenty of subpar samples) is a problem I can deal with.  Straightforward sword-and-sorcery has lost some of its allure over the years.  And straight-from-the-mold space opera fails to get my pulse pounding.  It takes an innovative twist to hook me these days.

Looking ahead, I see many more years of enjoying the innumerable realms of “what if?”  When strange, new worlds become predictable and clichéd, the fantasy addict seeks out stranger, more unique fare.  Or makes his own.

Either way, it’s a worthy quest in my estimation.

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