"For the sake of humanity, join in Bitterwood's revolt." - Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Building a Better Dragon

I was in high school when Dungeons and Dragons was first breaking into popular culture. I bought the boxed set with the red dragon on the cover and was hooked. When I went to college, I devoted roughly 20% of my intellectual energy to classes, 30% to playing spades, and the remaining 50% to running D&D games. I was never the sort of dungeon master who invested any money in pre-made modules. For one thing, I had no money. For another, I liked crafting my world to provide unique challenges for the people playing in my games. And the name I gave my D&D universe? Dragonsworld.

I know. Not terribly imaginative. I introduce this bit of ancient history primarily to explain how I came to spend so many hours thinking about creatures that didn’t exist, and wondering if they ever could exist. Could there be a dragon lurking somewhere in a jungle, waiting to be discovered? Or, could a dragon evolve from an existing animal, if not through artificial selection, then by the careful manipulation of genes? Back in the mid-eighties, the scientific world was abuzz with discussion of the genetic code, and it seemed like any day we would learn to rewrite DNA and make our own monsters… within limits.

After college, I made up for some of the education I’d lost to D&D by reading a lot of non-fiction. I loved the writings of Stephen J. Gould, a biologist who explained genetics and evolution in terms even I could understand. One lesson I carried away from his writings is how constrained evolution can be. Who your ancestors are sets limits on what you (as an organism) can become. For instance, vertebrate life, since it crawled out of the seas, has been limited to creatures with four limbs. These limbs can turn into an amazing number of things—arms and legs and wings and flippers—but, for hundreds of millions of years, four’s been the limit, because whatever first crawled out of the sea all those years ago had four limbs, and all birds, reptiles, and mammals descend from it. Once you tune into this fact, it’s easy to wander through a zoo and see how everything is connected. You can look at a bat wing and see the same bones you find in a chimp's hand, stretched and distorted and with a different set of pulleys, but still, under it all, the same shared framework.

Unfortunately, the four-limb rule was bad news for the dragon that sat atop that pile of gold on the D&D box set. It had six limbs—four legs, two wings. Also, let’s face it… the typical fantasy dragon just wasn’t terribly aerodynamic. It was pot-bellied and had kind of stubby wings. The only way they could get off the ground was in a magical world, unbound by the laws of physics we operate by on Earth.

The challenge to my imagination became to design a creature that would be instantly recognizable as a dragon without requiring any new rules of biology or physics.

Here are the assumptions I made:

  1. My dragons would have two legs and two wings, like birds and bats. Birds and bats use the bones that make up the fingers of our hands to form wings. I wanted my dragons to have hands as well. So, a thumb and two fingers would be devoted to a clasping hand, and the remaining two fingers would become wing struts. (See figure 1.)
  2. My dragons wouldn’t breathe fire. Yeah, I can think of some scenarios where this is vaguely plausible, but earth to date hasn’t evolved any fire breathers and I don’t think it will any time soon. Acid and poison spitters, sure. But, fire’s a no no.
  3. A tiny dragon isn’t much fun. I wanted these beasts to be big. Unfortunately, flight seems to favor the small. Still, there have been some big flying creatures in the past. The biggest I could find was the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a forty foot wingspan. This gave me my upper limit on size. I have evidence that creatures this big can fly here on Earth.
  4. Just why were dragons always sitting on top of piles of gold? Seriously, what did they need it for? It wasn’t as if they were going to go down to the town square and buy melons in the market. Or, could they? Accumulation of wealth implies a societal structure… money has meaning only in the context of civilization. So, why couldn’t dragons be civilized? If you’re smart enough to know the value of money, you are smart enough to know the advantages of working together, using tools, etc. Dragons are also traditionally portrayed as being able to talk, and in our world, talking leads to culture. This meant my dragons probably had mythologies about their history and strong ideas about their place in the world--ideas that might be in stark contrast with other talking creatures, like humans.

With these as my guidelines, I started imagining a dragon that was something between a bird and a lizard. Fortunately, the fossil record has a couple examples of just such creatures, the most famous being Archaeopteryx. Archaepteryx wasn't very big but if you supersize him and make him a little scalier, you get a pretty passable dragon. Throw in "hands" in the middle of the wings and you're pretty close to the sort of winged dragons that haunt the world of Bitterwood. (Figure 2) In Bitterwood, if frequently refer to "fore-talons" and "hind-talons." These are the draconian equivilents of hands and feet. However, dragon hind-talons are much more dexterous than our feet, since they use them to carry weapons, live-stock, virgins, etc. when they fly.

As long as we're looking at pictures, at Ravencon a few months back, I ran into an artist named Christina Yoder who had a fantastic sketch of something she called a "parragon" in her portfolio. (Figure 3). I was excited when I saw this picture. It's obvious Christina has studied anatomy, and I found this sketch to be a very plausible interpretation of a dragon. She tells me she's drawn the details from her pet parrot and from bats that flit around where she lives. It's not hard to imagine this creature in the real world, if not today, then in the past, sharing space in the sky with Archaopteryx.

Finally, the ever-talented Mr. Cavin sent me this collage of a dragon, taking quite literally my wishes to show the underlying biology of the beasts. (Figure 4.) The thing I love about this picture is that it's easy to look at the dragon's face and see its shared genetic heritage with a chicken. Should you ever find yourself confronting a dragon with a forty foot wingspan, a useful tactic might be to shake your fists at it while shouting, "You don't scare me, you big chicken!" It's still going to kill you, of course, but at least you'll impress your friends with your knowledge of anatomy. "He was smart," they'll say. "Shame he got eaten."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Dragons are Here!

So, I mentioned in an earlier post last week over at whateverville that I had gotten 4 copies of Bitterwood. On Friday, I got an additonal 40. They now stand in my living room, an impressive little wall of books that leaves me feeling a little numb, to be honest. I only got a handful of contributors copies of Nobody Gets the Girl. I've never been in the presence of 40 copies of anything with my name on it. I know it's silly, but I look at a stack of 40 books and wonder... are there that many people out there who want to read this? 400? 4,000? Even 40,000? More?

The thing that is most frightening about being an author is the fact that your fate depends so much on the actions of strangers. I go to a lot of conventions and talk to a lot of audiences, but, realisticly, even if I did this every weekend, I probably wouldn't meet 4000 people. Even if I could magically persuade every person I meet over the course of a year to go buy my book, it would probably only sell 1/10 the number of books I need to sell for this thing to be considered a success. In the end, the book is going to rise and fall on the actions of people I don't meet, readers who are going to walk into bookstores without knowing who I am, spot my book, pick it up, and decide to buy it based on the cover art and the text on the jacket.

Luckily, my book has a truly eyecatching cover by the insanely talented Micheal Komarck, and the hardworking crew at Solaris has put the whole thing together into a wonderful looking package. The teaser text on the back accurately captures the conflict of the book without giving anything away, and the front cover has a special printing varnish that gives the eye of the dragon a glossy finish. They eye actually looks wet, enhancing the effect that you are seeing Bitterwood's reflection. I think a lot of people are going to pick up this book once they see the cover.

Fortunately, I already have some evidence of this. When I got my books, they were shipped directly from Simon and Schuster, and the boxes are labled, "Do not display before June 27." But, I was at the Borders in Winston Salem yesterday, and, as I often do, I walked to the spot in the bookstore where my Bitterwood would be if it was released yet. And... they had it. Two copies. But, the way the books were sitting, it was obvious that a third copy had been sitting between the two earlier, as there was a Bitterwood-sized gap in between the two. I met my friend Greg there and he bought a copy. I checked with the information desk to see if they knew how many copies they had. As I suspected, they had started the day with three, but said they wouldn't be able to tell if any had sold until the next day.

That night, Greg took me back to Borders to pick up my car, and I couldn't resist going back inside. For one thing, my book had been sitting spine out, and I figured I'd turn the last copy cover out so that the eye-catching cover could do its magic. That turned out not to be neccessary... the book was gone. Apparently, all three had sold in a single day... at least two to complete strangers.

I swung by the Borders in Greensboro and the book wasn't out yet. The computer said it was "arriving soon."

So, I'd like to ask anyone reading this to do me a favor. Go to your local bookstores this week and let me know if you find a copy in stock. If it's sitting spine out and there's room on the shelf, I'd appreciate it if you could turn it cover out. (Don't be rude about this though... I wouldn't want you to hide someone else's book doing this.) If your local bookstore has a copy, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop me a line, or just post that information here, saying that the book is available at Bookstore X in City Y. Thank you in advance for your hard work and dedication.
There's going to be a lot of news coming up over the next few weeks as Bitterwood rolls out. I hope to have some signings lined up soon. I'll be at Readercon after the 4th of July, and hope to be doing a reading there, though I haven't got my final schedule. I'll also soon be announcing a contest. A very important element of my fantasy novel has somehow made it into print without ever being named. So, once there's been time for a decent pool of people to have read the book, I'll describe that nameless thing and explained why it remained unnamed, and hold a contest to name it. Sorry to be so vague... watch this space.

Friday, June 15, 2007

More reviews, slap-bait

A detailed review of Bitterwood popped up today at the Fantasy Book Critic site. There is a potential spoiler about the setting of the book in the review, but it's the sort of thing I've been wondering whether I should be coy about or not.

The Solaris site has also posted an excerpt from what must be a print review on their blog, under an edited version of the Fantasy Book Critic review. You can read it here, with the potential spoilers removed. A few negative comments about the book have also been removed, but I don't want to create the impression I'd rather not have you read negative comments. The review said, for instance, that the human characters were not devoloped as well as the dragons, and mentioned finding a few of the human characters annoying. I personally like all my human characters, naturally, but I can see how they might come across as less sympathetic than the dragons.

Joy Marchand is currently reading the book and is about at the midpoint, and she told me she wanted to slap one of my human characters, Pet. For what its worth, I wanted him to be slap-bait . . . there's no reason the human cast all has to be lovable.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Prime Codex review

A nice review of Prime Codex, the latest anthology I have a story in, may be found here. It says some very nice things about my story "To the East, a Bright Star." I'm still waiting to get my hands on a copy of the anthology myself, since it just launched about ten days ago, but I've read several of these stories by fellow codexians and can vouch that this anthology is going to be a good read.

I've also recently made a sale to another anthology, for my IGMS short story "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth." Unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot of details about the anthology yet, such as when it's being published or even what the title of the collection is. Watch this space.

Monday, June 4, 2007

rage, jealousy, intrigue, backstabbing, love, hate, mixed emotions, and loss of hope

Rick Novy has just reviewed an advance reading copy of Bitterwood at his blog "Frothing at the Mouth," which is, I must note, a blog name I wish I'd thought of. Check it out.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


I spent Friday and Saturday at ConCarolinas in Charlotte. This was the most panel intensive con I've ever attented. I was on 4 back to back panels Friday night, then wound up moderating 4 panels on Saturday (I was scheduled to do 3 of them, and wound up getting drafted for the last when the moderator was unable to attend the con).

Among the highlights of the con were seeing my fellow Codexians Alethea Kontis and Ed Schubert. I hadn't seen Alethea since DragonCon back in August, so it was good to catch up with her. She was there plugging her many projects, including her picture book AlphaOops, the anthology she coedited Elemental, the books currently being published by her small press Nyx Books, and, of course, her upcoming Dark Hunter guide. Ed was there promoting his work on Intergalactic Medicine show and pulled off the most impressive feat of writing I've witnessed in many years.

Ed was on the panel I had to moderate at the last second, a panel called the "Quick Write," where teams of writers have only 7 and a half minutes to write an entire short story. Ed's team consisted of Steve Cross and an audience member (who's name I didn't write down, alas). The challenge was to write a story using randomly generated prompts from the audience... and the prompt's turned out to be Napoleon, Kuala Lampoor (I'm sure I just misspelled that), an inkpen... and when I asked and audience member for a genre, he said, "musical." The team rose to the challenge, with Ed writing the ending, and managing to write actual song lyrics to bring the story to a close. I didn't write down the lyrics, alas, so I can't repeat them here, but the entire room was laughing so hard it really doesn't matter.

Of course, the in the first round the other team also knocked my socks off. It consisted of Robert Buettner, Glenda Finkelstein, and Debra Killeen. In the first round, they wrote a story about a scientist who is given a cardboard box and opens it to find a recently killed baby t-rex head inside. I've attended several quick-writes at various cons, and this was definitely the most professional sounding story I've ever seen produced in seven minutes. The amazing thing was that, for three writers, I couldn't tell where one writer's work ended and the next's began. I picked up a copy of Robert Buettner's first novel, Orphanage, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.

I also wound up on two science panels with Stephen Euin Cobb, host of the podcast "The Future and You." The two panels sort of blended together as we discussed such exotic concepts as transhumanism (which I'll loosely describe as the theory of what humans will be once they are no longer human), how to plausibly travel outside the solar system without falling back on any exotic physics like warp drives or hyperspace, and how science may be becoming indistiguishable from magic for a majority of people.

I feel a little guilty about skipping out on the Sunday part of the con. I planned to only stay Friday night so I could save money on a Saturday night hotel room. Ah well. Now I know. Next year, I'll budget the extra time and cash to get the full con experience.