The Modern Dilemma

March 13, 2014 11:54 am by MRM in Writing

Once upon a time, I dreamed of a shelf address in Barnes & Noble. BN was a place I spent a lot of time growing up. When I started writing, I used to walk through the Sci Fi & Fantasy section and stare at my spot on the shelf. Considering the thickness the Mc part of the phone book (which was a thing when I was a kid), I was always surprised by how few Mc-authors there were. I’d look at where I would fit in alphabetically, and imagine my paperback there. I’d do it every time I went in a bookstore, and most of the time that was at Barnes & Noble.

That dream was far away back then. It required the right amount of talent, determination, and just plain luck to get noticed. Almost every successful mainstream author has tales of how many times they sent in manuscripts and got rejections, how many years they languished, and how that one lucky break was what got them in the door. The publishing industry was ruthless, massive, and monolithic. A few score people in New York decided the fate of pretty much everyone. Then the internet happened. I like the internet. In fact, I work there.

There’s a lot of talk in my industry about “disruptive technologies.” We love the term and the technology both. In Silicon Valley, everybody yearns to be the disruptor. Kindle is a disruptive technology. Last year, ebook sales beat physical book sales for the first time (at least on Amazon), and it’s unlikely to ever go back. More than that, it’s a wonderful disruptive technology. I love it. I read a lot, and I move a lot. Moving books suuuuuucks. Every time we moved, my wife would ask me “When are you ever going to read [insert book here] again?” When she asks about the 500 or so books on my shelf, it’s hard to explain. Of course I’m not going to read all of them again. In fact, I’ll probably only reread a select few. But… but… you just don’t get it. Kindle solved that problem for me. I take all my books everywhere I go. I even get the paper, and I don’t have a massively piling up stack of ads that weighs down my recycling.

Even more than that, the Kindle has disrupted the publishing industry, because having a monopoly on printing presses no longer means anything. The good and the bad news is that anyone can become a publisher at any time. Plenty of people have beat the drum about the proliferation of published books hardly worthy of the name, but I still hold fast to the belief that the democratization of publishing will ultimately be a good thing for the world.

But it all comes back to that first dream for me—that spot on the shelf in Barnes & Noble. It’s both closer and farther away than it ever has been. Closer because I’m a much more talented writer than I once was, closer because I have several books that have been in polish mode for a while now, closer because I’ve had agent interest quite a few times, but more than that, closer in that I can send anything out whenever I want. There is no more need to wait for that bolt-of-lightning strike. At the same time, it’s farther away because that shelf, that pretty little five-walled box of plywood and paperboard, means so much less than it once did. You still need the big publishers to get there, but their model is dying. It has been disrupted. And no matter how much that dream still tugs at my heartstrings, I don’t feel like waiting on a dinosaur.

I’ve read plenty of missives by writers I love about how their work went through rejection after rejection, and only after years of persistence did they finally get their big breaks. They were patient and persistent and honed their crafts until that one agent, that one publisher, finally took a chance on them. And now we have the Dresden Files, or the Otherworld Series, or The Name of the Wind. I’ve played that game as well, even while publishing Those Who Die Young.

It’s not the rejection that gets to me. I’m okay with being judged, and even with people passing on my work. It hurts, sure, but that’s part of the game. I’ve had more luck than most, and come agonizingly close to getting two of my books out there for real. No, rejection isn’t what I hate most about the Old Way. It’s the time. You send, you wait, and while you’re waiting, you don’t send anywhere else. Sometimes you check to see what they think, and they tell you just one more month…. The Old Way is too slow for the world today, and I’m tired of waiting while the world passes me by. If writing was my only profession, I’d have a ton of freelance work to keep me company and to put my name or byline out there. I’d glad-hand with people in the industry and eventually have that chance meeting that changes my life. I’d go to conventions and I’d pitch and pitch until I whispered my blurb in my sleep.

But that’s not my life. I’m not looking down on any of those things, and they’re probably all great advice for getting your work out there in front of the Guardians of the Old Way. I’ve tried to play the online version of that game in the form of innumerable blog-hopping contests and tours. Some of my closest calls to publication came from those. Still, I simply can’t spend all of my time doing those things. I have to actually write, and when I spend my working hours on a different job I love, something gets left out in the mix. When I was pitching, that thing was writing. It took me a long time to realize how wrong that prioritization scheme was. I’m not saying I’ll never do another contest or never go to a convention, but that’s not my way any more. The Old Way got disrupted, and I’m not going to pin my hopes and dreams on boarding that sputtering train.

I’ll miss the dream. I’ll miss that spot on the shelf, near Syne Mitchell and a few other early-M writers that I wanted to “sit” beside. But the truth is, I haven’t been in an Barnes & Noble in years. I don’t even know where the closest one is. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to read the paper on my Kindle.

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Things you notice when you move

January 28, 2014 1:45 pm by MRM in Uncategorized

There are a lot of things you notice when you move: subtle differences in culture, changes in the way you go about your life, and the overall attitude of people in your new area. It’s the little things that tend to gnaw at you the most, or at least to me.I recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area (though city snobs are very clear that I’m not to say I’m in San Francisco, even to people far away from the area who make no differentiation between SF and twenty miles in any direction therefrom).

Traffic rules are different. Way different. This is partly because traffic is a pretty big deal here. However, having lived in DC (in the same way that I now live in SF), the Bay Area does things much better. Traffic moves on 101, even during rush hour. I can’t say the same about the Capital Beltway, with which I am painfully familiar.

First, the bad: The absolute worst thing California (and in particular, the Bay Area) does is merge middle lanes. Take a second to let that sink in. At various places on highways for which the speed limit is around 60 mph, you can be forced to merge with the lane of cars beside you with no chance to bail out on the curb if you can’t get in. Have fun with the following when four solid lanes of traffic going 60 are in this:

I met two of those bad boys going from Cupertino to my office in Menlo Park.

Now the good: Metered highway entrances. This idea is so good and so effective that I can’t believe major metropolises around the country aren’t required to do this by law. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, but the only other major cities in which I’ve driven are Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and Seattle. So, lots of them. The concept is simple. At most (but sadly not all) entrances to the major highway, which in the Peninsula (Silicon Valley) is US 101, there’s a stoplight. The stoplight periodically flashes green, then goes back to red, allowing exactly one car onto the highway. The genius of this is obvious the first time you pass one of these entrances while you’re on the highway—no gigantic pile-ups at every damn entrance. It’s even more obvious when you get to the occasional on-ramp that doesn’t have a meter, and you see a huge traffic jam. Now, there are still lines of cars behind that stoplight, but the pile-ups are pushed back onto the feeder roads, where they belong (and where they are way less frustrating). It’s okay to have stop-and-go traffic on a little road. It’s enraging to have it on the freeway.

Even going north on 101 at 5:30, which I’ve had the misfortune to do a few times now, the traffic in the Bay Area isn’t nearly as bad as traffic on the Capital Beltway. Cars move, even if only at a crawl.

Outside of traffic, you also have other little things that stand out. For instance, the obsession with sorted trash is almost hilariously omnipresent. I don’t mean sorted recycling—that went out of style years ago all over the country. I mean the ever-present tripartite trash consortium of landfill, recycling, and compost. Everyone, everywhere, does compost. Even in Costco.

There’s also the elephant in the room. Housing. Housing is absolutely stupidly expensive in the Bay Area, even if you keep out of San Francisco itself (which I did). I went from a 2100 square foot house in downtown Raleigh to a 754 square foot apartment, and I’m paying more on the apartment than I was on my mortgage. Most of the places, particularly in the northern parts of “The Peninsula” are pretty old. You can blame this on a lot of things, but most of it has to do with the Bay Area’s general aversion to building over things (because they’ll “lose character”) and the lack of incentive for anybody to replace things. Why build a modern apartment building when you can charge people through the nose for the one you already have? Why sell your house for denser stuff to be built on top of it when the rent you’re getting from tenants is double the mortgage you took out on it fifteen years ago? Central heating and air are foreign here. For instance, my apartment (that is relatively nice, but not top-of-the-line) has a heating unit that looks like this.
Old heating unit
I say heating, because there is no AC. In theory, we’re almost never going to need AC, and to be fair, we don’t really need a more robust heating system, as the two of those little units work just fine for the incredibly mild “winter” we’re experiencing.

It all adds up to a very weird feeling. I’ve never made more money in my life than I am right now, but I’ve also never lived in a place this small since I was a graduate student. Actually, my grad student apartment in Philadelphia was bigger than the one I currently live in, even considering square feet per resident, but the landlords at my current place are nicer than the people who ran the mostly-students building I lived in back in ’05.

There are other things: food is spicier, though it isn’t labeled as such. Sriracha is everywhere, on everything. Pretty much all craft beer is IPA, which is really starting to piss me off. Don’t get me wrong—IPAs are great, California, but branch out every now and then, okay? Stouts, sours, porters, ambers, wheats, Belgians… anything. Come on!

There have been good parts and bad parts about moving. Mostly, I’m just glad to be living in a place I can sort of call home again after two months of living out of suitcases. We’ll see how the California experiment turns out.

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So many places

January 13, 2014 2:26 am by MRM in Uncategorized

My stream of consciousness for the day…

The thing about moving all the time is that you never really get to hold onto a sports team. I grew up without a team, in Raleigh. People used to say that the Braves were our team, which always annoyed me because I disliked Atlanta as a city for no particular reason. I’d never been. Still never have, other than an airline stop or two. The Hornets were in Charlotte when I was young, but I never really got into the NBA. Also, ask a Raleigh person how much they know about or care about Charlotte, and you’ll see how much I was attached to them. It’s a three hour trip between the cities, and neither cares much about the other.
The Panthers came to Charlotte while I was in high school, and for a while I really got behind them despite their Charlotte location. It beat pretending to care about the Redskins.

Then I went to college at NC State, right in downtown Raleigh, and lo and behold I had a team that I really stuck with for a while, as it had a tendency to follow me, unlike the cities I lived in. I suspect that’s why there’s so much enthusiasm for college sports. You can move all over the country or all around the world, and you still always graduated from that same college.

Of course, after I graduated, I graduated again, mostly from a different college. And in the five years I spent graduating with various degrees from Penn, I did a few things, sports-wise. First, that was right at the start of the Eagles’ four consecutive trips to the NFC championship, so it was really easy to get behind the Birds. That was fun. Second, I was never able to see any NC State games. The only college sports games on TV in Philadelphia were the Big 10 game of the week (our nation’s dumbest conference, having twelve teams as it does), whomever Notre Dame was playing, and the Penn State game. I gave exactly zero craps about any of those, which didn’t lead me away from NC State so much as it made me not care about college sports. I didn’t know the players’ names anymore, and there was a new coach for this sport or that every other year. It was hard to keep up, and harder to care.

I moved to Seattle after that, right in the midst of when the Supersonics were being moved to Oklahoma City. Seattle is a great city. I wouldn’t mind going back there. I went to a bunch of Mariners games, and one Seahawks game. It was the first time I’d ever watched an NFL match live, and it was awesome. The Seahawks got into my blood a little bit then, and even now they’re sort of my team, at least as much as anyone is.

I held onto the Carolina Hurricanes a little bit throughout my moves, largely because it was easy not to pay attention to local hockey. It was fun to watch them win the Stanley Cup, which I did from just east of Oakland. I spent some time in DC, where I found out that it was easy not to care about the Capitol area’s teams. Everybody there hates them. They do their best to be hate-able, particularly the Redskins. Dan Snyder, the owner, is a cartoonish villain to his fans, and he deserves every bit of scorn they have for him. I went back to Raleigh, went to a few ‘Canes games, a few NC State games, and found that although I could rout for them, I wasn’t really invested in it. The NCAA tournament adds a little bit of oomph to it, but most of the time it’s just a game, with just some teams. I know to cheer for the ones in red.

We lived for a while in Raleigh, my wife and I. We had always said that we wouldn’t bother buying a house until we felt like we weren’t ever going to move again. When we spent two years at the same address (a first!), we decided it was time to buy a house. We lived there for a year, and then I got a job offer from the Bay Area. I took it. Now I’m at my grandparents-in-law’s house in Cupertino, watching the Panthers and 49ers in the playoffs. I don’t know whom to rout for.

I like the games. Fantasy football has a way of making them all interesting, even after the fantasy season is over. I know the players on both teams, who’s been hot, who’s been hurt. I see a fantastic performance and wish that guy was on my team, thinking of how many points I would have scored. I won my league this year. That was fun. Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham won me my title. Nick Foles was a nice pickup when Matt Ryan fizzled out mid-season.

I see the black-and-teal on TV now, matching up against the red-and-gold, and wonder. I’ve been a nomad for most of my life now. Philadelphia, Seattle, DC, Raleigh, and now San Francisco. It helps that I have no children. No idea how that would complicate things. Kids are something I’d like to have, I guess, but I have no idea how I’d manage it. It seems like the fun part of children happens long, long after the investment. Nothing about infants and toddlers looks like they’re worth it. Don’t get me wrong; they’re adorable. I’m also well aware that the adorableness comes in short bursts, followed by long, long periods of you acting as their slave while they hate you for it. Parents say it’s all worth it, of course. Usually.

I wonder if not having a team to call my own is sort of like not having a home. Raleigh still feels kind of like home. It’s where I was raised, after all. It’s also where the house I own still stands. The house is turning into a money pit, as houses are wont to do. People say a house is a good investment. I wonder about that. I doubt if it’s true anymore. Buying a house in the Bay Area thirty years ago would have been a great investment. Now, I doubt it. It’s probably a good investment in the same way that having kids makes you happy, in the sense that everyone says it does, but when the experts review matters, it really doesn’t.

So we’re trying, my wife and I, and I suppose my dog as well, to figure out the best thing for us. Careers, life, happiness and all. To be fair, my dog isn’t as uncertain as my wife and I. He figured out the best thing a long time ago. We should all be staying with my parents in Raleigh, as we did briefly when moving from Seattle to Raleigh, before our apartment was ready. And he’d much rather my wife and I work from home. It’s all very simple from Chewie’s point of view. It would be nice, sometimes, to have that kind of clarity of vision.

If we took his advice, I’d see NC State and the Carolina Panthers on TV all the time. Maybe I’d remember the players’ names, or at least the coaches. We wouldn’t be paying for repairs on a house we don’t live in. And since I’m married I wouldn’t have to care about the dating penalty for living with your parents. I’d have teams that were mine, and a home (if not a house). Chewie would be happy, as would my parents dog, who loves him with a passion you wouldn’t think you could find between two dogs (one male, one female) that have both been fixed. Maggie (my parents’ dog) is not going to be happy tomorrow morning when Chewie gets in the car with my wife and sister-in-law to come to California. There’s a good chance the two dogs will never see each other again, being close to seven and six years old, each.

We’ve cruelly ignored the dogs’ wishes, though, and are going to be Californians for some time now. I have no idea for how long. We’ll have good weather, and the 49ers will be on TV. We’ll have the Giants, and to the extent I care, the Warriors. We’ll have beautiful weather all year long. We’ll have good jobs. Or I will. My wife hasn’t started hers yet, so I suppose the jury’s out for a few weeks. But we’ll live on the Peninsula, have a decently walkable neighborhood with a shoebox for an apartment (but a shoebox with washer and drier!), and have a whole new culture to absorb. It’ll be an adventure.

Each of the places was its own little adventure, and I hope this one is a good one. So many adventures. So many places.

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Author Interview with Richard Flores

April 20, 2013 7:14 pm by MRM in epublishing, Interviews, Writing

Today, I’m doing an interview with Richard Flores, author of Dissolution of Peace and editor-in-chief of Plasma Frequency Magazine, as part of his Dissolution of Peace blog tour. I’ve known Richard for a while via the Hatrack River writers forum, and I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say. At the bottom, check out the cover and blurb for his excellent book. Thanks for stopping by, Richard!

When and why did you begin writing? I really began writing with serious intentions in 2003. That was when I wrote the original manuscript for Dissolution of Peace, though it had no title at the time. But it wasn’t until late 2010 that I really began to take getting published seriously. Why the sudden motivation? I’m not a hundred percent sure. But ever since writing in 2003, the idea of doing it called to me. I finally decided that I needed to do it. It was time I finally realized a dream after having several others not work out. 

What genre are you most comfortable writing? Science Fiction. This is what I read, this is what I love, and I think that’s why it is so comfortable for me. I’ve recently found myself enjoying a lot more Fantasy, so who knows maybe I should try my hand at it. After all stretching our comfort zone is what growth is all about.

What inspired you to write your first book? Dissolution of Peace, my first novel, is largely inspired from the space operas and military science fiction that has come before it. The idea came to me in a passing thought. What if we had peace on Earth? What if the money the world spends on war was turned to science? That sparked the idea. Then I took it to the next level. Would we be able to abandon our “warrior ways” and if not, how long could we really stay unified and at peace? The idea snow balled from that. 

What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general? The most challenging part is what those outside the writing world think is the easy part, coming up with an idea. People seem to think that everything that pops into their head is going to be the next novel. But taking that fleeting idea and growing it into a novel takes a lot of work. What keeps the reader turning pages? An idea is a spark. Just as a spark doesn’t warm a room, an idea doesn’t make a story.

Have you developed a specific writing style? If I have, I haven’t noticed. I’ve been told all my published works, the three short stories and this novel, are all very character driven. I enjoy my characters the most, so I can see why people see that. Perhaps that will become my writing style.

What is your greatest strength as a writer? My willingness to learn has to be it. I am always reading new articles, books, and posts on writing. I participate in writing groups and workshops. Growth is a necessary part of this industry and I love to learn more about it.

How did you come up with the title? Dissolution of Peace came to me after so much drama. The original title for the manuscript was “Serenity” after the main character. But, as the serious SciFi fans know, the movie of the same title took that. While the association with Firefly might have been good for sales, I didn’t want to make that false promise to the readers.

Instead the name didn’t come until the 11th hour. I was using random generators and other things just to see words. While reading this long list of titles to my wife, none of which worked for me, the idea of dissolution (dissolving) peace really fit what I thought it was about. So I pitched the idea of Dissolution of Peace to my wife and editor. Eventually that was the title I stuck with.

Can you tell us about your main character? This novel centers around three main characters:

Christina Serenity is the Captain of the E.S.S. Australia, an Earth Naval vessel that suddenly finds itself in the critical points between the possibility of war between Earth and Mars. Serenity is a smaller woman, but she has a command bearing. She is respected by her crew, but the Earth Navy sees her age more. She is the youngest commanding officer of any Earth Navy ship. Serenity is a career driven woman and now that she has the command of a ship, she is happy to keep it as long as possible.

Mike Carlson is a Corporal in the Earth Security Forces, the Earth’s global police force. He has been assigned to Protective Services, and protecting Captain Serenity, for some time now. He is a thin guy. He’s not particularly attractive or ugly. He is very committed to protecting Captain Serenity and does not plan to leave that assignment any time soon.

Janice Kanter is an officer in Earth Security Forces and she was just assigned to be Carlson’s partner. She doesn’t care much for Protective Services, she only took a specialty assignment so she could eventually promote and return to a patrol assignment. She isn’t happy to get a military assignment, because that means a year or more working in PS. She also doesn’t care much for shuttle flights. Overall she is bright, an excellent marksman, and very good in defensive tactics.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp? Messages, to me, are something English teachers tell you an author meant so they can make homework assignments. I write my books with hopes to entertain and that readers will find their own special message in the novel. Novels should speak to each reader a little differently.


How important do you think villains are in a story? Villains come in varying degrees. You can have a very likable villain and a much hated villain and everything in between. I absolutely think every novel has to have a villain of some type in it.

What are your goals as a writer? I simply want to continue to produce novels and stories that people want to read. Eventually to a level that writing becomes all I do for a career.


When Earth Navy Captain Christina Serenity is brutally attacked by a traitor, her life is saved by Security Forces Corporal Michael Carlson. On the heels of her recovery, her ship is attacked by terrorists, and she is thrown into a difficult assignment. She must chase after the only clue they have, a Martian ship called the Phobos, and find out what secrets it hides. To make matters worse, someone still wants her dead.

Her ship, E.S.S. Australia embarks on a mission that leads Serenity on journey of discovery, friendship, betrayal, and revenge. She quickly learns the only thing harder to prevent than war, is love.

Now Serenity must trust her protection crew to keep her alive long enough to solve this puzzle while trying to prevent an interplanetary war.

The line has been drawn. Who will cross first?

Buy Now @ Amazon

Genre – Science Fiction

Rating – PG13 to R (Language)

More details about the author

Connect with Richard Flores IV on Facebook & Twitter 

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Blog Changes and a Brand New Year

January 4, 2013 9:55 pm by MRM in Code, Projects, Writing

A belated happy new year to one and all. It’s been a slow few months on the blog, so I’ll start by catching you up to speed on what’s been going on, writing-wise.

  1. Blackout is still under review by a small publisher. I should be hearing back in about a month, so I’m eagerly counting the days until the awesome/heartbreaking conclusion of that escapade.
  2. City of Magi – Volume 1 is soon to be entered into another pitch contest (Pitch Wars), this time with the help of the lovely and talented Rebecca Ann Weston, who is my mentor for the contest. She was kind enough to select CoM from the pile to be one of her alternates for the PW contest, so I’ve been editing the manuscript like mad to get things ready for CoM’s big debut.
  3. You may have noticed that I said Volume 1 in that last item. I have (very sadly) broken down and allowed City of Magi to be chopped in two. I still think it works better as one book, but I also really want to get published. Until I have dozens of books out there from professional publishers, there’s no chance of a first book being published at 250k words.
  4. TWDY 5 is ready and being edited. It’s actually been complete for months now, but time to edit has been scarce due to the holidays, a job change, and working on other projects.
  5. One of those projects taking time away from TWDY was Nightlives, my NaNoWriMo project (A winner! I even have the badge to prove it!) that turned out to be a lot of fun and definitely worth polishing to publish.

I mentioned some non-writing things that were exciting news too. In particular, I left my old job at Boeing and am now an Android Developer for ReverbNation in Durham, NC. They’re a really cool music industry tech firm that makes tools to help artists, promoters, venues, and everyone involved in the music industry. Their site is a great way to discover new music and find out about bands and shows near you. You can also embed songs on your own site, like this:



It’s a pretty cool place to work. We actually had a band (Delta Rae, very much worth checking out) in the office just the other week. All in all, it’s a pretty sweet gig. Changing from working at home to being a regular commuter (45 minutes… sigh) has drained a lot of time from my day that used to be spent writing, so I’ve had to get creative as to how to find time to keep moving with my projects. Not sure how I would have done NaNoWriMo if I hadn’t worked from home.

Outside of going blog-crazy for contests, though, I’ve been neglecting this site. Quite often I’ll think of things I want to sit down and write about, but it doesn’t seem all that related to writing, so I’ll avoid putting it on here. And that’s what’s going to change. I simply don’t spend enough of my bandwidth thinking exclusively about writing these days to maintain a blog solely devoted to my literary work. I do, however, spend a lot of time thinking about consumer electronics and software. I also do a lot of writing about politics, but for the time being I’ll avoid putting that here, as it has nothing to do with my books and has a higher likelihood of offending the occasional reader than does a rant about bad UI design. So, expect a fair number of posts in the coming months about techy things, along with more posts about stories and character development.

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More #GUTGAA–with analysis this time

I have entered yet another pitch contest in #GUTGAA, this time the small press pitch contest. The only difference is that instead of agents being the ultimate judges (as in the agent pitch contest earlier), this time it’s small press… people. Editors? Talent scouts? I don’t actually know their titles. (But I’m sure they’re awesome. One of them has even voted for my entry so far!)

I decided to enter Blackout this time instead of City of Magi for a lot of the reasons I mentioned in earlier posts. Though I think City of Magi is my best work, Blackout is “pitchier.” I know I sound like a TV Singing show judge, but what I mean by that is that it’s an easier pitch to an agent. Blackout is Urban Fantasy with a religious mythological theme. It’s short (kind of—more on that later). It’s more modern, and it’s a lot more like stuff that’s getting a lot of press today.

Before I go further, I’d like to try and absolve myself: I don’t intend anything I say as an insult, though if you read it with the right voice in your head, it certainly can sound that way. You see, one thing this contest has taught me is that I understand very, very little about the modern female mass-lit consumer. And there are so, so many of them. I pitched Blackout in this contest because I specifically think it appeals more to women—not in its actual content (the female characters are much better developed and stronger overall in City of Magi), but in its pitch, and that’s largely because I hit all the checkboxes. Urban Fantsasy. Under a hundred thousand words. Protagonist is a mid-to-low income teacher. Part of the struggle is how the events of the plot affect his love life.

Now, my analysis here (pitch to women, because they’re the consumers) is not based simply on a hunch. In fact, I did a little compiling of the data. There were thirty-two entries in the adult literature category. One of them was a nonfiction analysis of humor essay that really didn’t fit in, so for the below data, consider that one as having been set aside. Hence, there were thirty-one entries.

Of those thirty-one, no fewer than 20 were what I would call (and again, not as an insult) “chick lit.” I mean this in the same vein as “chick flicks,” which, to my knowledge is not used in a derogatory manner except by people who hate romcoms. Chick flicks tend to do very well in the cinema, and I have no doubt (particularly now) that chick lit does just as well at the bookstore. I classified an entry as chick lit if it met one of the following categories:

  1. Its stated genre was “Romance,” “Romantic Comedy,” “Paranormal Romance,” or “Women’s Fiction” (and if you don’t want your book to be called chick lit, but you market it as women’s fiction… c’mon… really?)
  2. The first two sentences established the protagonist as a plucky, determined woman trying to right her life when everything gets complicated, and she has to deal with the sullen but handsome detective snooping around her… you get the picture. If it took me all of five seconds to say “Ahhh… this book is aimed at women,” then I lumped it in there. If I had any hesitation, I didn’t include it.

Of the entries mentioned, 12 were assigned to chick lit by their self-professed genres, and 8 were my own intuition. You’re welcome to do your own analysis (or try to guess which 8 that were not automatically assigned I thought were clearly for women) by seeing the whole list at Tara Tyler’s blog. Two thirds of the entries sounds a bit high for just chance. There’s a lot of it out there. By comparison, just 8 of the others were fantasy or urban fantasy, so if you add the three paranormal romances you’d be up to 11 out of 31 entries as fantasy. Six were mainstream or literary fiction (one of which I counted as chick lit), two were genuine hard science fiction, two were thrillers, and two were historical fiction. There is some double counting in there, so the numbers don’t add up to 31, but that gives you a sense of the breakdown. There’s some fantasy going on, but holy Mary mother of Jesus is there a metric ton of chick lit.

Now, I suspect some of this is just the nature of the contest I entered, the people who knew Deanna Barnhart (who I can’t thank enough for putting this together) or followed her blog, and in that way it may be skewed toward this audience. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s less skewed than it looks. Maybe that’s the shape of the modern reading market, and because I’m not a part of that audience, I didn’t know how significant it was.

Something else that really blew my mind was the length of the entries. Now, there was one monster at 240K, which is actually shorter than the non-split version of City of Magi, but if you throw out that entry and the essay, the average length of all entries was 82,456 words. That puts me on the long end with what I felt was my “short” book at approximately 99,000 words. Pouring through comments from the agent competition and the small press competition, there appears to be consensus that books should only ever be up to 90K or so in length. 100K was just excessive, and the absolute max publishable length (from one comment) was 150K.

I have to admit, this all leaves me speechless. I had researched this before, and I thought the target was 120K on submission (to hit something like 400 pages). This is particularly true given that the first thing any good editor is going to do is look for what she can cut out of the book. They want to trim the fat and they don’t do that by asking for longer descriptions. A 120K manuscript can easily become a 95K published book in the hands of a particularly vicious (and I mean that in a good way) editor. How long does a submitted 80K manuscript end up? I can’t imagine paying for a 70K book. I have literally never read a book that short, and I would assume something of that size was intended for a younger audience. Is this the face of chick lit? Am I missing the audience or am I looking at a completely different crowd from where I usually am, at least in fiction today?

In reverse order, the last books I have read are:

  1. The entire Game of Thrones series (these are all massive)
  2. The entire Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (~600 pages each)
  3. The Hunger Games (~100K words, the rest of the series was a little shorter)
  4. Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong (350ish pages, so approximately 100K)
  5. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (333 pages, so approximately 95K)


I never read books that are shorter than 90K, it would seem. It isn’t at all the case that I think you need that kind of length to be complete or to be interesting. I don’t doubt that great stories can be told in 50,000 words or less. I’m just stunned by the view that you can’t be longer than 90K if you want to get published as a first time author, or that books longer than 150K are “out of style” as one commenter in the agent contest mentioned. Out of style? Did people never pick up any of the Harry Potter books? The first Harry Potter was 77K, but the last four were all close to 200K, and I enjoyed them all. Is Game of Thrones (first book, 284K, and that was the shortest one) not the most popular work of fantasy in the world right now? If I go back further in my reading queue, you’ll find Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (259,000) and A Wise Man’s Fear (399,000), both of which are insanely awesome and very long.

Again, I don’t think you need length, but I have a hard time seeing people get turned off by it.

UPDATE: With three out of four judges voting for Blackout, I moved on to the finalist round! Thanks to all the judges and congratulations to all the other finalists.

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A different pitch

September 20, 2012 8:56 am by MRM in Projects, Writing

Things didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped in the #GUTGAA agent pitch contest, and while I’m a little disappointed, I’m not too upset about it. There were a lot of great entries, and mine wasn’t the only one I liked that didn’t get picked. I’m also happy with the transformation in my pitch that occurred because of the pitch polish week.

Sadly, the agents were very busy with all the pitches—too much to give feedback except in the cases where they were voting. I’d love to know what turned them away from CITY OF MAGI… though… I have my suspicions. The other entries were very heavy on chick lit and romance (I was in the “adult” section), and the judges were very fond of the genre.

I was particularly perplexed by a type of comment I saw rather often (paraphrasing here): “The pitch really could be tightened up, and I was confused as to whom you were talking about at [some part], but the idea intrigues me and the first 150 don’t have the same problems, so you’ve got my vote.” It certainly isn’t the case that only romances and chick lit went forward, but… the existence of a plucky female lead frustrated by a rough-and-tumble lawman who is on her side but sort of isn’t at first… that certainly didn’t hurt your chances. I could have played up the romance between Grayson Kearney and Zia Locke in CITY OF MAGI, but I feel like that would be getting away from the true heart of the book, which is the fantasy and intrigue.

This sort of sounds like grumbling or sour grapes, but I certainly don’t intend it that way. I’m very thankful for the opportunity and wish the winners the best as they go forward. The GUTGAA pitch contest was the first time anything about CITY OF MAGI was read by agents, and this has been fantastically instructive for me. The biggest lesson that I can take out of this when I continue sending out CITY OF MAGI is to read up on the agents to whom you submit. Proud chick lit lovers aren’t going to instantly warm up to epic industrial fantasy. Urban fantasy was big in this contest too. I would actually love to know if it was the subject, the writing, or just the length that turned the judges off. I’m leaning more towards splitting the story in two when next I query it. It’ll break my heart, but perhaps it’s for the best. It also means the inevitable trilogy is two thirds done instead of only one third.

The contest has also given me a theory about agent submissions. They care a lot more about the idea and the story sample than the pitch. Agents are the ones who do the real pitches. If they have a really cool story idea and the writing is good in the book, it doesn’t matter if an author can’t pitch to save his life. The agent will write a killer pitch to her contacts at various publishers. She’s the one selling it. A pitch to an agent, then, is only important in that it manages to pique her interest, not that it could get your book published. Of course, piquing an agent’s interest takes a well-written query… sometimes.

Sometimes you’re in luck and the agent feels like reading a sample anyway because they’ve never read a book where dragons are Indian-cow-style holy creatures that are also sort of a nuisance and are endangered by habitat encroachment, but the government doesn’t want to limit settlements, so it’s up to Caitlyn, who never wanted to be anything but a dragon biologist and wishes she could get out of the shadow of her famous, late, father, and is on the run from Agent Aidan Michaels, a gruff FBI field agent assigned to corral the dragon hippies but who just can’t take his eyes off of Caitlyn… okay… you get it. Also, I’m not writing a book about dragon hippies. Maybe a short story. But God help me if I ever name a main character Aidan. I’m pretty sure that name only exists in romance books. Hmm… this makes me want to do a quick check.

Names I have used for major characters:

Male – Grayson, Malcolm, Lear, Malloy, Alak, Remy, Ian

Female – Zia, Sundari, Pae, Erica, Mede, Quinta, Cindy, Srii, Susan

I don’t think there are any romance character cliché names in there. Maybe Remy.

In any case, #GUTGAA is far from over, and a week from Monday they’ll be starting a different pitch contest, this time for small press rather than agents. I’m going to take a cue from the above and pitch a different book this time. I’m going to go with BLACKOUT. It’s not as polished a manuscript as CITY OF MAGI, but it’s complete and is a much different story. It is urban fantasy, has religious overtones (another thing I noticed was popular), and is much, much shorter.

Without further ado, here is the first draft of my pitch for BLACKOUT.

Title: Blackout

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Word Count: 98,477


They say God doesn’t ask more from you than you can handle. Well, they never got drafted into a millennia-long battle because the angel of death needed a new body for his foot soldier. Malcolm Anders is a teacher and a part-time gymnast, at least when he isn’t covering up evidence at the site of a body he woke up over. He clings to threads of the life he crafted for himself, every day getting closer to having it destroyed by a spirit, Saraqael, who never asked permission to wage his holy war in Malcolm’s body. Saraqael costs Malcolm his stability, his plans for the future, and the woman he thought he’d be with forever. He seeks the help of a priest to get his life back, but what they discover only draws Malcolm deeper.

The demon Andras, Saraqael’s eternal foil, has chosen Philadelphia for this century’s uprising. His infernal legions possess the weak, the angry, and the criminals. With an army of demon-possessed soldiers, Andras plots to disrupt the divine plan and begin Armageddon before the world is ready. Using Malcolm, Saraqael hunts down Andras’s legionnaires one by one, as he has over the centuries. When the demons discover Malcolm’s identity, though, they bring the fight to him and kidnap his friend and wannabe lover, Pae, inspiring Malcolm to change the rules and bring Saraqael into his waking mind. Together they fight to save Pae, Philadelphia, and the world in a city that doesn’t even know it’s under siege.

First 150:

I snapped out of it Thursday morning with a pain in my jaw. Someone had punched me in the face. The adrenaline coursing through my veins was all too familiar. Damn it. Again? The man underneath me moved. Wait, he wasn’t dead yet? I don’t usually come to until it’s all over. My victim clawed and scraped at the ground, desperately reaching for… oh shit, a gun. So much for trying to stop. My hands were bloody already. I hit him hard in the back of the head. It was frighteningly exhilarating. Despite my history, violence is kind of a new thing for me. Blood splattered out beneath him. Something snapped. He screamed.

Why? Why can’t I just go out to a movie like a normal person—a normal person who goes right the hell home after the show ends? I hit him again. I’d like to be merciful, but chances were that he didn’t have much left anyway and it’s not like I could just get up and apologize.


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#GUTGAA Agent Pitch Contest

September 17, 2012 8:48 am by MRM in Projects, Writing

I’m officially entered in the #GUTGAA (Gearing up to get an agent) pitch contest today. You can see my entry here at Jaye Robin Brown’s blog.  It was probably the most nerve-wracking 240 words I’ve ever written, but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. For the very first time, a literary agent (several, actually) is going to read my query and decide whether or not she wants to see more. It’s not like the query is supposed to be exclusively on one site, so I’ll paste my entry here.

TITLE: City of Magi

Genre: Industrial-Era Fantasy (Adult)

Word Count: 272,888


When Astosen’s greatest military hero is found dead of an apparent heart attack, only Grayson Kearney, intelligence peddler, magus, and smuggler extraordinaire, suspects there is more than meets the eye. He enlists the help of Zia Locke, the hero’s daughter and a Magi Knight in the Astosenian military, and together they connect her father’s murder to a monarchist plot to overthrow Astosen’s fledgling democracy.

The enemies from within engage the help of continental superpower Valania, who is eager to weaken its former colony. Astosen’s independence was won with the discovery and production of the magi stones, a portable form of magic that even non-magi can use. Valania dreams of restoring its empire’s reach by seizing control of Astosen and its monopoly on magi stone production.

Grayson guides Zia through the depths of the capital city Dein Astos’s underworld to discover the truth, bring her father’s killers to justice, and fight to save the country. Dein Astos may not be perfect, but it’s the capital of the free world and the city that allowed Grayson to grow from an abandoned orphan into the architect of an underground empire. It’s a city unaware of his influence and guardianship, and one that only he has the power to defend.

CITY OF MAGI is a work of fantasy set in a magically-powered industrial society. It is the beginning of a saga spanning the length of the world war for control of the magi stones.

There are a few parts that I’m more nervous about than others. In particular, the beginning data that the reviewer begins with. I got more than a few comments about my word count in the “pitch polish” part of GUTGAA, some positive and some not. There is a school of thought out there that a 272,000-word book simply cannot be sold.

I get it. CITY OF MAGI is a pretty long book, and quite a few people told me to cut it in half. This could theoretically be done. There is a decent break point at about 150,000 words in, and to make the second half into a full book, it would likely take about an extra ten or twenty thousand words to encapsulate, so CITY OF MAGI very easily could be the first two books of a series.

Perhaps this is the whiney artist in me, but I just hate that idea. This whole book played as one story, and I’m putting it out there now because it really, really works. I’ve had several reviewers, some who took it a few chapters at a time and some who read it in its entirety, and the reviews have been almost embarrassingly positive. This is my best work, and it was written as one story. It works best that way. I paced this book very deliberately to ratchet up the action the further you got into it. The beginning isn’t slow at all, but it is more character and interaction based than Michael Bay-style holy-balls-did-that-just-explode action adventure. Which isn’t to say that things don’t explode in that first 150,000 pages. If I promise you nothing else about this book, it is that stuff blows up. I swear it.

In any case, it’s not the ‘splosions that get to me. It’s the arc and the closure of the story that I would most morn if the book were split into two. (Side note to agents and publishers: I will totally split this book into two if you want me to. I’ll just pout privately and then do as awesome a job wrapping the individual pieces as I did putting together the whole thing.)

The other part of the pitch I’m most nervous about is the tiniest part at the end. As the clock ticked down to submission time, I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to include one little word: the “It’s” in the last sentence: “It’s a city unaware of his influence and guardianship, and one that only he has the power to defend.”

I know what you’re thinking—without that word, the sentence isn’t a sentence. And the thing is… I really wish I had left it a fragment. I had it as a fragment for about a half hour prior to the submission, and then I got a case of nerves. What if the agents think I’m just a fragmenting fiend who doesn’t understand sentence structure? I mean, this is a contest for unpublished authors, so I’m not exactly George R. R. Martin, sitting on infinite amounts of writing credibility, able to twist the language and dare you to tell me I’m wrong.

No, I’m not a literary legend, but I still wish I had left it a fragment. The more I read the whole query out loud, the more I wish I hadn’t gotten nervous. I’d take that one word back if I could. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with it. Sure, it’s not a sentence that way, but the fragment has more power than the completed sentence ever could. The fragment is more true to my style overall.

Alas. I’m still happy with the entry, though. CITY OF MAGI is a long, awesome book. I had to distill the essentials of the plot, the magic of the world, all of the fantasy, and still gain the reader’s interest in just 240 words. There wasn’t actually a word limit, but your pitch has a very limited welcome on an agent’s desk, desktop, or iPad. You can see the original version of my pitch here (or just keep reading).

Grayson Kearney is the head of a smuggling enterprise in the capitol of the free world, Dein Astos. When a military hero is murdered, Grayson uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the stability of the nation. That murdered hero is the father of Zia Locke, a promising young officer in the Astosenian army. With her help, Grayson ties together the threads of a plot to overthrow Astosen’s fledgling democracy and restore the monarchy. They find that conspiring monarchists aren’t shy about reaching for unsavory sources of aid, even if it endangers the republic. This includes reaching out to the Valanian military, who hope to retake their former territory amid the turmoil.

Grayson isn’t Dein Astos’s most upstanding citizen, but he’s not about to let the city he loves fall back under the thumb of a despotic superpower or a power-hungry tyrant. D.A. may not be perfect, but it’s the capital of the free world and the one place where an abandoned orphan like Grayson can rise to the top.

City of Magi is a work of fantasy set in a magically-powered industrial society, and can be the start of a series.

The original version (besides being 50 words shorter) doesn’t have a hook at the beginning. You know that Grayson is a smuggler, but I gave that to you in perhaps the most boring way possible. “When a military hero is murdered…” is the action. That should lead (and in my agent-readable version, it did). The old version also separates the introduction of Grayson from some of the more interesting points about him without a decent expository reason to do so. This was also corrected in the second version.

The most thought-provoking feedback I got was that the fantastical elements of the story didn’t come through in my original pitch. My first reaction was “How am I supposed to explain the system of magic for my world in a pitch letter?” The answer took me longer to come to than it should have. I didn’t need to explain it. I just needed to put a fantastical hook in there. Much like the action hook at the beginning of the revised version, there needed to be something to promise the reader a hint of fantasy more interesting than “There are knights and stuff, and, uh… you know… magic. Yeah, that’s the ticket.” I did that with the inclusion of one item very central to the story: magi stones. My only explanation of the system of magic in CITY OF MAGI was to mention that magi stones are portable, universal magic holders. And that’s enough. That’s all that really can be in a brief, attention-getting letter.

Of course, I say this after only having revised my original pitch and submitted to a contest, so perhaps I’m marvelously wrong and one of the judges would have preferred the original, but I think I’ve put forward the stronger impression of my book with the revision. Thanks again to Deana Barnhart for putting #GUTGAA together. It has inspired me to stop just creating more stories and get back out into the business and social side of writing.

There is, of course, one more part to the contest, and that is to include the first 150 words of the book. I’d be an awful blog host exclude just that part, so without further ado, the opening of CITY OF MAGI:

The funeral march of Alexander Locke began at dusk. Grayson Kearney watched the crowd of politicians, family friends, comrades-in-arms, and reporters walk slowly through the spidery shadows of the weeping willows lining their path. For them, it was a tragic loss: Alexander Locke, great Magi Knight, hero of the republic, leader of men, felled by a heart attack at only fifty-five years of age. Grayson shook his head at their simple, ignorant grief. They should have been outraged. Locke had been murdered.

Hundreds long, the procession wound its way up the cliffs overlooking the Western Sound, through the gates of the National Cemetery, and came to a close at the end of the Trail of Remembrance. Grayson stood solemnly across the cemetery at the grave of a woman he never knew, watching the mostly black-clad crowd with occasional flashes of purple cloaks as they fanned out around the fresh grave. 

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

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Gearing up to get an agent

September 3, 2012 12:10 pm by MRM in Writing

Hello and welcome to all fellow #GUTGAA participants and my regulars. It’s been something of a tumultuous year for me, both writing-wise and life-wise, but I’m getting back into the social side of writing and getting query letters ready for my manuscript to finally send it out and make a push for publication. In between finishing the polishing of my book and now, I simply couldn’t help myself from writing a completely different book, several issues of my web serial, Those Who Die Young, and toying with ideas for a third full novel. It occurred to me that I had to take a step back from writing new stuff to put out the books that I’ve finished, so here I am. I also bought my first house, ran three marathons, and went through a handful of other changes in how things go day-to-day.

To get back into the blogging habit, I joined another blogfest, which worked great to get me a-blogging the first time around (see all my old posts tagged REN3, which I loved). This one is called Gearing Up To Get An Agent, giving rise to the awkward acronym of GUTGAA. It’s actually the perfect blogfest for me, as that’s my main goal in writing right now and something I’m doing anyway. Thanks to Deana Barnhart for hosting!

Today is just the meet & greet, for which we’re supposed to post a brief bio and answer a few questions. Without further ado, questions first:

  • Where do you write?

I write in my living room, legs extended on the couch, laptop in proper lap position. I have an espresso lungo at my side and a corgi curled up at my feet. There could be lots of distractions, but in the morning I have everything off and the house to myself.

  • Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?

To my left is a picture my wife bought of Pioneer Square in Seattle taken in 1905. It’s always interesting to look back into the past like that. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to Pioneer square today, but it’s a different world now.

  • Favorite time to write?

In the morning before work. Writing for an hour is part of what I do to get my head in the right place before I walk over to my office.

  • Drink of choice while writing?

Espresso lungo. I usually have one or two while writing for an hour in the morning.

  • When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

I’ll often play some music, either Chinese symphony or Medeski, Martin, and Wood. I can write with noise, but not if the television is on.

  • What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

My latest manuscript (not the one I’ll be talking about in the pitch part of this blogfest, because it’s not polished yet) was inspired by a writing dare to myself. I’ve never written in first person POV before, so I wanted to try that. When I sat down to write a scene, I was thinking of cliches. One of the most cliche things you can do is start a story right after a murder (unless you’re writing a murder mystery, in which case this is forgiven). It’s also incredibly cliche to start a story with someone waking up. I decided to one-up this level of cliche-dom by having a scene that starts with a character waking up during a murder, just to see if I could make it work. Obviously, if he was the person getting murdered this would be a short and morbid story, but I thought it would be more fun if he was the killer. And I also thought it would be more fun (and less cliche) if, instead of being surprised or horrified, his reaction was "Damn it, not again." I loved the scene so much I made a book out of it.

  • What is your most valuable writing tip?

Write the scene you know. I never would have finished the manuscript for my best novel if I had given in to my impulses to stop when I didn’t know what happened next in the story. I might not have known what happened in the next scene, but I knew what happened several chapters later, and I went ahead and wrote that. It’s easier to connect two disparate points in time when you know what happens at either endpoint than it is to push forward not knowing where you’re going.

That’s all for the questions. As for my biography? I’m a thirty-one-year-old software engineer from North Carolina who loves reading and writing science fiction and fantasy when I’m not reading and writing in code. I’ve been writing for a little over a decade now, and only last year completed my first manuscript. This year I completed another. I’m also the author of an ongoing ebook serial, Those Who Die Young, which is currently for sale wherever fine ebooks are sold.

My interest in writing started back in college when I was editor of a student publication, though there I did more news and opinion writing than fiction. As I drifted into graduate school, collecting a handful of accidental degrees before settling on computer science, I started really believing I could be a writer and putting more effort into polishing my craft. I’m married to a  wonderful woman who is a fantastic critic when she has the time, and I have a Pembroke Welsh corgi who does everything in his power to stop me from writing if he hasn’t been exercised enough before I start. Jerky sticks can distract him, but only sprinting in circles for fifteen minutes can truly satisfy him.

I’m excited to meet all of the other GUTGAA participants out there, and I want to give a special thanks to one of them, Meredith Mansfield, without who’s heads up I never would have known about this.

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Blackout – An Excerpt

April 2, 2012 5:45 pm by MRM in Writing

I’m back! Huzzah. March was been a crazy month for a number of reasons, the most exciting of which (for me) is that I bought a house. That was the single most stressful transaction of my life, but it’s all over now, so I can finally feel like a grown-up. Yes, I’m over thirty and my little brother has a kid, but I’ve always felt like I was in a state of suspended post-adolescence, probably because I was in school until I was 27.

One other exciting thing has been going on, writing-wise: I’ve really been powering through my latest work, Blackout, and I thought you might enjoy a sample of the reason TWDY 5 has been a little delayed. I mentioned Blackout in my previous post, but I just to recap: the MC is a math teacher in west Philadelphia who is being periodically possessed by the Angel of Death to assassinate members of a demonic cult. None of this is particularly important in the snippet below, but I’m really jazzed about how easy and quick the sentence long elevator pitch for this book is.

Our hero is one Malcolm Anders, teacher, boxer, amateur parkour enthusiast, and unconscious killer. Here, Pae Xiaolu, one of his former students, now a senior in college, brings her parents and friends to watch him in a parkour competition in Center City Philly. I had more fun introducing her parents than I have any other characters in any story I’ve written, except perhaps for Roland in TWDY. Sundari is a fellow teacher at Malcolm’s school and his best friend. Hope you enjoy.

Sundari marveled as I set about checking the obstacles and planning my freestyle routine. There were fifty competitors meandering about, occasionally doing warm-up front flips off the walls. The biggest crowd was around the Love sculpture and the drained fountain beside it. We weren’t allowed to touch the actual sculpture. Years of being a public work of art ensured it was sturdy, but they couldn’t have a bunch of idiots vaulting off of it for show. Everybody had a plan to incorporate it nonetheless. Other than the Liberty Bell, it was the most famous symbol of the city. I wondered whether or not the stand counted as part of the sculpture. If it was only the letters that I couldn’t touch, then I might be able to vault up and do a handstand, framing the sculpture with my legs for a second before I flipped off. This needed clarification.

Sundari tapped my shoulder. “Why does the scaffolding go up so much higher than the seats?”

“So I can climb it and jump off.”

Her eyes bulged. “Are you kidding me? You’re going to jump off of that?”

I shrugged. “Probably. I might have to for the speed course.”

“That must be thirty feet high!”

I pointed out a raised wood platform. “That’s only about fifteen feet down, and if you hit it and roll, you’re fine. You just have to be ready to jump back off the platform to the ground when you come up from the roll.”

By ten o’clock, the crowd had started gathering. I checked in and got my number and my times to report to the speed course start and the freestyle start. I’m not famous, so I had an early start time. I knew I could be competitive, though. This was my city, my day, and damn it, I still had a buzz from killing someone this morning. I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed that aspect of my preparation, but something in my body really did.

At quarter to noon, I saw Pae. How could I not? She was wearing shorts that were arguably cut to be a bathing suit bottom and a bright pink midriff-baring tank top. Her three friends were similarly attired and proportioned, but had the misfortune of walking next to her. The only person turning more heads than Pae was the taller, older woman behind her. I recognized her instantly: Pae’s mom.

I had thought Pae was bullshitting me when she’d said her mother had been a Swedish bikini model. I forget what the context of the conversation was. That night, I had googled her mother’s name. And that’s how I had come across a few dozen pictures of Aaltje Mikkelsen in her twenties. In some, she wore a barely-there bikini and wore it well. In others, she wore less, and wore it even better. Pae waved and steered the group towards Sundari and I. When they were ten feet away, the cluster of Amazonian blondeness parted enough for me to see a pudgy, balding Chinese man walking beside Aaltje. That would be Yu Xiaolu, who must have saved the planet in a previous life. He wore a yellow, short-sleeved button-down shirt with an Asian-style half collar, khaki shorts with cargo pockets, and Rainbow flip-flops. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing a white tank top undershirt and a tuft of chest hair. I could only assume he wore his shorts so loose to accommodate his gargantuan balls, because I’ve never seen a couple more mismatched. Aaltje was four inches taller than him without the pumps she wore, and in a clingy blue and white summer dress she started my blood boiling before she lowered her stylishly-oversized sunglasses to get a better look at me.

Pae greeted me with a hug. I wasn’t in much position to refuse. “Hi Malcolm! I had no idea this thing was going to be so huge. Are you excited?”

So it wasn’t Mr. Anders in front of her parents and friends. I could play along for a day. “Glad you could make it, Lucy.” She gave me a relieved grin when I didn’t call her Pae. “I’m always excited for a competition. This is my friend Sundari. Your parents, I assume?”

Aaltje stepped forward and extended her hand in an old-fashioned-lady-style kiss-my-hand kind of gesture. I caught myself leaning forward to do exactly that just in time to turn it into a step forward to clasp her hand in both of mine and shake it gently, the only other way I know how to meet such a greeting. She curtsied and flipped her hair.

“It is very nice to meet you, Mr. Anders. My daughter speaks highly of you.” Her accent could have come straight out of an eighties porno. “Tell me, you pronounce you name Ahn-ders, not Ann-ders, are you Swedish?”

“My grandfather immigrated. His name was Andersen, but he dropped the suffix when he came to the States. We still have family in Stockholm, but I haven’t seen them in years.”

Pae’s father stared at me from the back of the group. “Why’d you drop out of school, Anders?” If Aaltje’s accent came from an eighties porno, then Yu’s was from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If I was ordered to come up with a racist caricature of a Chinese man, it would sound like Yu Xiaolu. He didn’t offer to shake my hand, so I stood my distance and didn’t try to shake his.

“I took a masters and went into teaching, Mr. Xiaolu.”

“Pae said you were PhD student when you taught her class. You got masters degree and left. I did my PhD at Stanford; we had people like that. They were dropouts.”

How kind. “I decided to focus on teaching, and I didn’t want to be a nomad, going wherever I could get a post-doc and then hoping someone died so I could find a tenure-track position at a college in a livable area. The market is pretty crowded at the high end for math professors.”

Yu pressed on with the interrogation. “You could do industry. Lots of math PhD’s in computer companies, finance. Pays much better than teaching.”

“I like teaching, and right now I’m quite glad I didn’t take the advice of the recruiter from Lehman Brothers who was after me when I graduated.”

Aaltje never flinched while her husband grilled me. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw the corner of her lip turn up. She found the whole thing amusing. Pae, on the other hand, squirmed in place with a kill-me-now look. She didn’t interrupt her father, though. Her friends stood behind her and looked away, doing their best to hide giggles at the awkwardness of the situation.

Yu folded his arms. “Pae said you help with her classes.”

“That’s what she hires me to do.”

He gestured to the dozens of freerunners practicing on the equipment. “Why do all this?”

Really? I wondered if he thought I was banging his daughter. “Because I like it. I grew up a gymnast, and I like competition. It keeps me in shape.”

“If you have time to do that—”

I cut him off. “Mr. Xiaolu, I teach your daughter math on a contract basis. How I like to exercise and my career path isn’t relevant to that. Right now, I’ve got to go get ready for the first part of the competition. It was very nice to meet you.” I offered him my hand. He hesitated, then shook it. I turned back to Aaltje and shook her hand again. “Ms. Xiaolu.”

She flashed me a practiced, cover-girl smile. “Call, me Aaltje, please.”

“Of course.” I turned to Pae. “Lucy, thanks for coming. I’m up fifth on the speed round. You can probably get the best view of everything from up on in the bleachers there, and you should be able to get a flier that explains the course from one of the people wandering around.”

Pae hugged me again and whispered in my ear. “Sorry about that. And thanks for calling me Lucy.”

“Don’t worry,” I whispered back. “I’ve dealt with worse from parents.”

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