August 29, 2015

Magic Lessons Background Information


Shadowalker, Sadhaka, Greyhawk, and Tinpenny
Cover image by Denise Jones


Characters and Plot


"Magic Lessons" is a fantasy novel set in the land of Shandar. Their world is our world transformed by time, war, and natural disaster. At the time this story takes place, the land is fractured into countless city-states, some quite large, others quite small. Trade and commerce flow between these cities thanks in large part to the efforts of a Sidhe mage named "Dreamwalker Blackwolf" who died half a century before the story opens. The two main characters are Dreamwalker's son, "Greyhawk", and a woman named "Shadowalker Wraithkiller", the crown princess of a city named "Moonreach". The story opens with Shadowalker being driven from her home by a conquering army composed of ghost-like commanders whose troops are a mountain people called, "Orcane", or "trolls". She does not know who sent this army and much of her story is concerned with the search to determine who is behind the attack that drove her into exile.

Map of Shandar
Illustrated by Denise Jones

Shadowalker's magic teacher in Moonreach is "Clearheart", a failed magic student expelled from Riverstone Academy ten years prior to the story for refusing to study any spells that were not useful as weapons. When the story opens, Clearheart is cruel and demanding, often striking Shadowalker with an invisible switch. Because he does not truly understand what magic is and how it works, he cannot communicate the little that he does know and blames her for failing to understand. His impatience with his own shortcomings and her perceived inability to grasp his lessons is magnified by his realization that the ghost-like creatures leading the army of Orcane are manufactured from magic. He recognizes in their structure the magical style of a former teacher of his named "Silvertongue". During the brief time Clearheart was a student, Silvertongue was slowly going insane. He treated his students, including Clearheart, with great cruelty, often punishing them with severe magical beatings. Because he healed each student as soon as he finished punishing them, it was impossible for his students to prove the beatings were taking place. After multiple reports, Riverstone began assigning monitors to the classes Silvertongue taught. Naturally when the monitors were present, Silvertongue did not beat his students. However, he began showing up for work clothed only in magical tattoos, which provided the Council of Magi sufficient cause to terminate him and banish him from both the academy and the city. Clearheart was also expelled at around the same time.

Shadowalker battles Icewind while Greyhawk looks on
Illustrated by Denise Jones

After being driven into exile, Shadowalker meets Greyhawk, a Sidhe mage of enormous power and experience. He agrees to teach her and help her free her kingdom from the strange army that has captured it. Unfortunately, not long after they begin traveling together Shadowalker is kidnapped by Silvertongue, the most powerful human mage in recorded history and Greyhawk's most fearsome rival. Silvertongue tries to convince her to form an alliance with him against Greyhawk. When she refuses, he abandons her in the desert. Tortured and near death, Shadowalker is found by a group of humanoid cats who call themselves, "Catkin". They take her back to their home and nurse her back to health. As if being kidnapped, abandoned, and rescued is not enough, just as Shadowalker recovers she accidentally releases an ancient weapon on the innocent and harmless Catkin. A Catkin child vanishes in the chaos that results and the child's mother is badly wounded. Fearing they can no longer trust her power, the Catkin imprison her and begin debating how they should punish her for the harm she has caused.

Ravenwing and Silvertongue
Illustrated by Denise Jones

Meanwhile in the background, Queen Ravenwing of Crystal Shores has allied herself with Silvertongue and together they are plotting to use Shadowalker as bait to draw out Greyhawk, Silvertongue's hated rival and Ravenwing's former lover. Things do not work quite as well as they plan. As one complication piles upon another it very quickly becomes almost impossible to determine who is winning this epic battle of powerful personalities and who is losing.

One of the complications not foreseen by Ravenwing and Silvertongue was the speed with which the Catkin would send out a messenger to find Greyhawk and bring him to their village. Bhora, the runner dispatched to seek out Greyhawk, meets one of the Greyhawk's cousins while on her way to find him. This cousin, known as Secondson, tells Bhora that there are many Sidhe who want Greyhawk to proclaim himself king and lead them in the defeat of the many human city-states that populate Shandar. Greyhawk, it turns out, is one of the last heirs to the throne of the ancient Elven Empire, an Empire that was destroyed by the human's own now long vanished Immortal Empire. This ancient rivalry between the human and Elven empires is one of the principal factors driving Silvertongue in his ambition to bring all of Shandar back under human control. Greyhawk, on the other hand, although he also seeks to unify the broken land, is seeking for all of the different peoples to live peacefully together with no single sentient species in power over all the others.

Bhora meets Secondson
Illustrated by Denise Jones

After Shadowalker is kidnapped by Silvertongue and abandoned in the desert, Greyhawk changes course from Moonreach and heads south to where she has been abandoned. Along the way, he decides to stop and visit a Sidhe maiden named, "Lotusblossom". She is his former colleague from Riverstone, retired now and living on a melon farm. Since her farm is between the place where Shadowalker is taken and the place where she is abandoned, Lotusblossom's farm turns out to be a convenient stopping point. This visit also provides Greyhawk the perfect opportunity to enlist her help in training Shadowalker. Lotusblossom is a Healer of great skill, which turns out to be very beneficial. Not only does Shadowalker desire to learn Healing, the female Catkin who was wounded by Shadowalker is in dire shape and only a highly skilled Healer can save her.

Portrait of Lotusblossom
Illustrated by Denise Jones

Changes Between Editions

The original CD-ROM publication of "Magic Lessons" was 101,400 words. The Kindle version is 84,800 words. There have been far too many changes to list here, but it seems important to at least mention the major ones.

"Magic Lessons" began life as an email story written back and forth between myself and Jeanette Upchurch. We first made acquaintance on the Usenet Newsgroup alt.cuddle where she often came seeking people to pray for her and I often came seeking readers for my more casual writing. She did not like contributing writing to the group, but she wanted to write a story with me, so I sent her the background materials for a fantasy world I had been building for several years. Almost immediately it became apparent that our approaches to any joint story were dramatically different. She was focused on writing romantic fantasy and I was focused on writing adventure fantasy. This caused quite a bit of friction in the early chapters and that friction was reflected in the CD-ROM text. In revising the story for Kindle, one of my primary goals was to smooth over or remove as much of this friction as I could while still preserving as much of the romantic quality as possible. After all, I am as bad at writing romance as she is at writing adventure. There were several erotic passages she wrote for the CD-ROM that I removed during the revision process. Most commercial fantasy writing does not contain erotica. Even worse, in the Kindle store erotica and pornography are both the same classification and I did not want to be forced to list "Magic Lessons" as "Adult Fiction, contains erotica". This was strictly a market-based decision on my part. For anyone who enjoyed the erotic passages on the CD-ROM, I can only offer my most sincere apologies, but this is the reality of the marketplace. Whether anyone happens to like it or not, reality must be recognized and accepted.

Since her erotic passages carried the plot through several critical crisis points, those points had to be completely rewritten. I also added far more descriptions, more details to existing descriptions, and in some cases, added or removed large amounts of dialogue. Because the original manuscript was written through email over a period of about two years, there was a great deal of information in the latter half of the book that had no foreshadowing and no relationship to the first half. As a result, a major part of this revision process was going back through the first half multiple times adding material necessary to build, maintain, and improve the internal coherency of the story. This building up of internal coherency was by far the most difficult part of the revision process and necessitated multiple passes through the manuscript from beginning to end. All of this cutting and adding also meant that during the revision process the manuscript went from 101,000 words to 150,000 words and finally settled at the current word count of 84,792 words. The new version is tighter, far more internally consistent, and I hope, far more believable than the CD-ROM version. The final judgment, of course, rests with the readers. Ultimately, they are the ones who will decide if I succeeded or failed in creating a better story.

East Shandar where most of the story takes place
Illustrated by Denise Jones



August 19, 2015

Flicker's Aviary Photo Editor


My how the world has changed. I first made an effort to become a better photographer back in the early 1980s while I was still in the Army. I took a correspondence course from a place called, "The New York Institute of Photography". Back in those days, there was no internet. ARPANET was already online, but it only had about 70 nodes, all of them either academic or military. There was no internet to provide online study. If someone wanted to learn something on their own time they had to search magazines and libraries for a suitable school, contact the school by mail, get the information, fill out a dozen or so forms, mail everything back along with a check, and then wait for the first module to arrive.

Because I was in the Army and spending 20 days out of every month in the field, my study time was extremely limited. Not to mention finding time to actually go out, take photos, develop the photos, print the photos, and so on. The one advantage I did have over ordinary civilians is there was a photography club on the post with a fully function darkroom. The guy who ran the club was an old war photographer who worked part-time, taught a couple classes a week at the club, and had a shop in town where he did portraits by appointment. In all honesty, I probably never would have finished the 12 unit NYI course without his help. Now, over thirty years later, I don't even remember his name.

I bought my first digital camera in 2001. It was a gigantic 2.1 megapixel Olympus Camedia C-700 Ultra Zoom. Well, gigantic for its day. In today's world most people wouldn't accept 2.1 megapixel camera as a selfie camera on their digital phone. I took hundreds of photos with that camera, almost all of them pure junk. Here's a picture of myself taken while my wife and I were on vacation in Hawaii. It was taken on Sunday, August 19, 2001, exactly fourteen years ago today. It was also taken barely three weeks before 9/11 destroyed all of my old assumptions about America's place in the world. I suppose, thinking back on it now, this was one of the very last "innocent" photos I ever took. I am uploading the raw, unretouched photo in 1900x1600, the default format for the camera. I'm not sure how badly Blogger will change the size, but we'll see!

Even with that old Olympus, I managed to take a few creative shots here and there. Like this one. This is a photo of a Japanese dancer performing in an annual dance competition held in Koenji, the town I live in here in Tokyo, Japan. Every year Koenji sponsors an "awaodori" style traditional dance. Troupes come from all over the country to compete and this little suburb becomes even more insanely crowded than it already is. Back in 2001 we had about 40 dance troupes. Last year there were over a thousand, about a third of them from overseas. It is a loud, colorful festival that is quite popular with both the performers and the tourists. As before, I am uploading this in the native 1900x1600 format. This photo was taken on August 27, 2001.

Now, both of those photos are completely unretouched. They look pretty good. However, with a good photo editor such as Adobe Photoshop, they could easily be transformed into something much more dramatic. In 2001, my photo editor of choice was called "Painter". It was shareware that could be tried for free and if the user liked it, they could pay $15 for a full license. I paid the $15. It did okay, but I never really enjoyed it. Most of the time I found it confusing. Learning to think in RGB after fifteen years of CYM proved to be extremely difficult for my poor brain. I'm much better now, some fifteen years further on, but even now I sometimes get confused and add when I should be subtracting or vice versa.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I recently published a short story collection called, "The Yellow Hummingbird and other stories". In learning how to create a Kindle book, I had to also learn how to create a Kindle cover image. I knew I was going to be doing this when I bought this computer, so one of the software packages I made sure to include was "Adobe Photoshop Elements/Adobe Premiere Elements". I was not the least bit surprised to find out there was a bit of a learning curve involved in mastering this new software. I jumped in and played with it for awhile.

Unfortunately, it doesn't handle certain aspects of the book cover creation process very well. Mostly because it was never intended for any kind of page layout work. I picked up a Kindle book called, "Creating Your Own Kindle Book Cover". This book is short and sweet. It breaks down the creation of a Kindle cover into a handful of discreet steps. It recommends a freeware program called "Paint.net". Yes, that's the name of the program. It relies on Windows .NET Framework to accomplish several key functions, thus the ".net" name. If you decide to download it, please ignore all of the giant green "get it here" buttons. None of them work. All of them are advertising for malicious programs you neither need nor want on your system. Use the small, inconspicuous link inside the table on the download page. Anyway, sorry for that divergence. The key point I was trying to get to was that between the two programs, Adobe Photoshop Elements and Paint.net, I was able to create a series of covers, finally selecting this one:

I did not take the picture of the hummingbird. That picture was taken by a fellow at Flickr who uses the name, "jefferyw". You see, I learned from, "Creating Your Own Kindle Book Cover", that Flickr users often upload images that other people can use commercially under the Creative Commons license. There are millions of photos and drawings at Flickr that are available under this license. Ordinary people, like me, who would love to see their work distributed widely and used commercially but who, like me, don't want to go through the time, expense, and struggle of making their work available through traditional publishing companies. I am publishing on the Kindle because I know for a fact my work is not good enough for a traditional publishing house. However, I still would like people all over the world to have the opportunity to read my stories. The cover price is not the main purpose of my publishing. Making money is a nice side effect, not the final goal. For example, at the moment I have sold only three copies of my short story collection. That means I have made less than $10. Amazon won't even transfer the royalties into my bank account until the total passes $100! I effectively have given away three copies in the hope that someday enough of them will sell for Amazon to deposit a hundred bucks in my bank account. Obviously, getting rich is not part of the plan here.

Of course, this also puts me in a bit of a quandary. I am using Creative Commons licensed work in my cover. I really ought to be giving something back to that community. I can't afford to pay anyone, so I will have to return "payment in kind" to the community pool of available resources. I'm going to have to build up a catalog of images at Flickr that other people can use for free. It is only fair that if I am drawing from this pool of resources I also give something back to it. Before I could ever hope to contribute, I had to learn how the community is organized and how to use the Flickr upload and library system. I joined Flickr, which meant I also had to join Yahoo, which in turn meant joining the Tumblr social network. Finally, after three weeks and a couple of false starts, everything is set up. Yesterday I uploaded a few images from my library to figure out the nuts and bolts of uploading. Turns out it's pretty simple. So today I tried to upload using email. That has not gone as planned, but it went well enough to get this image from my phone into my catalog at Flickr:

My family and I went to Universal Studios Osaka last week. In the evening of the 14th and again in the morning of the 15th we visited the Harry Potter experience portion of the park. It was great fun! I love the Harry Potter books! Visiting Hogsmeade was a wonderful experience. I bought a blank diary style notebook, a hand towel, and a chocolate frog. I was too big for the rides, but then again, at 5'10" and 280 lbs., I suppose I should not be surprised. I am not a small man and I have not been a small man since the United States Army piled muscle and bone mass on my once skinny frame. Thirty years of stress eating has added a comfortable layer of fat on top of the muscle and bone. I like being this size. I honestly do. I have no desire to be a skinny guy again. Unfortunately, that means sometimes I am too big for high speed roller coasters. In all honesty though, this is probably a good thing. Not only am I no longer small, I am no longer young, either!

As I was learning the Flickr interface I came across an "edit" link. This caught me completely by surprise. I have never used an online photo editor before. Never once. I did not even know they existed! This is a completely new experience for me. Remember, I learned photography in a borrowed darkroom on an Army base! I have never owned a full edition of Adobe Photoshop. The idea that someone could create a photo editor so compact it could run in a web browser was a complete shock for me. So naturally I had to try it out. Since the camera in my Japanese mobile phone is even worse than my old Olympus (hey, it was free phone! who am I to complain?), the photos it takes are far below the standard I am used to. My Ohio mobile is even worse, but then again, it's a $20 smart phone, so it's even a lower quality than my Japanese smart phone. I will definitely have to upgrade both phones one of these days, but until someone finds a way to make a global digital phone system that is both fully functional and highly affordable, I'm stuck using the bottom of the barrel in each country. I cannot afford two top quality phones with two super high speed network contracts. Not unless millions of people buy my book!

The Flickr photo editor is called, "Aviary". It is compact, fast, and functional. It does not do much. However, it has a pretty good contrast function, a pretty good bright/dark function, and a decent sharpen function. Those are the only three functions of the seven or so it offers that I used on this image. It also features crop, color adjustment, and some special effects filters. I'll get around to trying them eventually. Today though I decided to see if Aviary could bring my picture of Hogwarts a bit closer to how I saw it and how I wanted it to be seen. Half an hour or so of experimentation produced this image:

I have to admit, I'm impressed. The retouched version is a dramatic improvement over the original. It's not perfect, but the base image was pretty awful. I certainly could have done much better with either Adobe Photoshop Elements or Paint.net, and naturally those two will remain my primary photo editors. Still, if I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed how far photo technology has come. To go from a chemical darkroom with paddles and filters on a gigantic print camera to a few clicks with a mouse in only three decades is an incredible rate of advance. It is, in many ways, unbelievable. I know from first hand experience how hard it is to create a program to edit images, even with modern programming libraries and integrated development environments. To find such an editor available as a web app is, for me, completely stunning.

It kind of makes we wonder just where we are going with all this. Will we reach the point where we wear a camera ring on our finger and the images are automatically uploaded and cleaned up according to a standard we establish ahead of time? Has digital photography and digital photo editing brought us to a place where even a child can produce in a single afternoon an image that thirty years ago would have taken me a month to create using 35mm film, a top quality camera, and a full darkroom? This is kind of amazing, so amazing I don't mind that I spent today messing around with old digital photos rather than working on my novel, "Magic Lessons." It was worth every minute of "wasted" time.



August 06, 2015

I got impatient, went ahead and published


As anyone who reads this blog knows, a couple of days ago I posted a picture in an effort to find the creator. I had planned to wait until the end of the month, but I have already given up waiting. I guess I'm getting old.

As you can see from the image above, this morning I published, "The Yellow Hummingbird and other stories", in the Kindle store. Now all of those who have been unhappy with my Amazon.com reviews are free to come and bash my writing. I do hope they enjoy their moment of sweet revenge!

I suspect this short collection will not be popular, even at the current price of $3.99. I'm actually okay with that. The main purpose of this exercise in frustration was learning how to format for and publish to the Amazon Kindle. Now that I have that knowledge under my belt, I can clean up, "Magic Lessons", and not have to worry about searching around for a publisher. Once I have the book where I want it, I can publish it to Kindle on my own. Also, this exercise has reignited my writing addiction a bit, so I don't mind sitting down and spinning out reams and reams of words. Rewriting is still hard work, and probably always will be, but such is the life of a writer.

I am very grateful for the convenience of the modern internet. I am enormously grateful to Amazon.com for finally just last year cleaning up the KDP system enough to make it genuinely useful for anyone willing to take the time to learn it. Learning it has not been easy, but prior to 2011 even learning the system was not enough. Prior to 2011 the system itself would often introduce errors into manuscripts even when converting a clean source. Just getting my Author Page set up took over a week, but at least it was possible! I tried once in 2010 to set it up and was greeted with a labyrinth of pages referring to other pages and no real way to link myself to, "Magic Lessons". At least, not that I could find. It went much more smoothly this time.

The next step is getting, "Magic Lessons", into the Kindle Store. Once that is finished, I'll be emotionally prepared to go back to writing, rewriting, and publishing new, original fiction. I already have some ideas underway, and a dozen or so books written up as outlines (although I don't know if I actually like any of those!). After exploring all of the options available to me, at this point I have decided to focus strictly on Kindle publishing. If things go well, a couple years from now I'll take another look at Smashwords and see how well they've improved their system.



August 04, 2015

Fair Use Notice: Looking for the creator of this image


I have searched the internet using every tool at my disposal looking for the individual who owns the intellectual property rights for this image. I am planning to modify the image in Adobe Photoshop Elements and use it on the cover of a short story collection. The short story collection is called, "The Yellow Hummingbird and other stories" and will be published on the Kindle sometime before the end of August. If you created this image, or if you know the person who created this image, please contact me before August 31st so I can give proper credit on the copyright page. If no one contacts me, I will assume the image is in the public domain.


The original image is above, the version I created in Adobe Photoshop Elements is below.

This blog reaches approximately 15,000 people around the world on a daily basis (and sometimes many more!), making it by far, the most efficient means at my disposal for conducting a fair and reasonable search to locate the photographer who created this image. I have already used Google image search, but the results were too convoluted to isolate the creator of this image. This image has appeared on approximately 50-60 internet sites with at least three different attributions. About half of those sites are individual pages at Pinterest, making it impossible to determine who actually created the image. If you can demonstrate clearly that you created this image, please send me an email.

I can be contacted at sundown@hotmail.com. Please use the subject line: "Fair Use Request" to insure I don't delete your message along with the 150 or so junk messages my public email account receives on a daily basis.