Skip to content

Archive for

>Happy New Year & Resolutions

>

Happy New Year to everyone on this side of the international date line. It’s going to be a another hot one here – probably around 30C (96F) and with the typical Brisbane humidity. Planning another day lounging around my pool (see left :)), and dozing off the effects of New Year’s Eve.
For those on the other side of the planet, I hope the white Christmas is a nice one and you are not too snowed under!
This year I have so many projects I want to start I hardly know where to begin. Choosing where to start will really be the hard part.
My New Year’s Resolution is to be productive this year on the writing front, yet to do it in such a way that I maintain the core enthusiasm that made me excited about the projects to begin with.
How about you, what are your New Year Writing resolutions?

>A Different Dracula

>
Vacation hath its perils, not least of which is that I forget what day it is… Sorry.

So… Once again, my thoughts are running back to Prince Dracula, his life, and my alternate history version of it. Of course, that’s helped by the fact that Naked Reader Press is releasing Impaler in first quarter 2011 (insert author squee here), and the novella prequel, Born in Blood, is available at Naked Reader, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Me being me, I can’t leave the myths as they stand, of course. While vampirism appears, it’s in the form of what Dracula believes is a curse, and is something he – at best – endures. I can promise there are no sparkly vampires here. The very notion is offensive: a sparkly vampire had better be on fire, in my opinion (Dracula would probably prefer ‘enjoying the view from the top of a stake’, but then his views on that matter are rather pointed – or well rounded and thoroughly greased, and at least six foot above the ground. Anyway…)

Here’s a short teaser for Born in Blood, introducing a very young Dracula, in a hostile and unforgiving world.

Born in Blood

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

I am dying.

The thought drifted across my mind, shocking in its clarity. Dying. The haze of pain and long imprisonment threatened to return, enticing me with forgetfulness, with near-oblivion until true oblivion could claim me.

I fought it with the stone-hard certainty of who and what I am. I am Vlad, the second son of Vlad Dracul, and I am a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. I would not go peacefully to my death. That I and my brother Radu had been held hostage for our father’s actions for some three years – perhaps more, for the passage of time blurred with long imprisonment – that I had been but thirteen years of age when we were first imprisoned, these things mattered only to my resolve. Our Ottoman captors would come to regret their actions.

The Ottoman Turks were not gentle with their hostages. Perhaps those of a more compliant nature than I had more congenial cells, though I doubt comfort could assuage the shame of being forced to pay the Turkish homage to the Sultan’s son Mehmed, much less our condition as de facto harem.

If the Sultan knew, he did not care.

I doubted I would care ere long, for all that I fought the inevitable. The nausea and weakness which had plagued me since last winter me had now grown so that I could no longer stand without aid. Mehmed, may he rot in his faith’s hell, thought I feigned weakness to evade his attentions.

I could still muster enough strength for action if I was sufficiently enraged, hence my current discomfort. Yesterday I had snatched a dagger from a guard’s belt and scratched Mehmed with it. Had I possessed more strength, I would have killed him.

The flogging I earned for my troubles still burned, and blood from the wounds trickled down my legs. The stone wall of my cell chilled my back, the shackles holding my wrists above my head biting into flesh, for I lacked the strength to take my weight upon my feet. My shoulders ached with strain.

The tremors wracking my body only added to my misery. I had long since ceased to try to hold up my head: it leaned against my right arm. I knew I must reek, but I had long since grown accustomed to the prison stench.

Death, even death by torture, could only be an improvement.

>It’s Only Words

>It is one of the er… interesting aspects of a writing career that moments of heartbreak and the most fallow, dark years are inextricably linked to the moments when something clicks.

Perhaps it’s true of life, anyway. Human beings are creatures of habit. If everything is going along fine – or even tolerably – nothing changes. This in terms of society explains why wars and revolutions tend to change the world in scientific and innovation terms as well as in political and social. Because once everything is made “wrong” or “uncomfortable” and a mass of humans are broken out of their routine, then you can reestablish your quotidian life using new information/science.

In 1997/8 I’d come to the conclusion I’d never sell, not at the professional level. This required I rearrange my entire life, which had been geared towards my learning the craft and trying to get published for over a decade and strongly geared that way for at least six years.

I realized early on that I couldn’t actually give up writing. It’s an ingrained habit that long predates any dreams of publishing for pay. I make up stories and I write them down to get them out of my head. I finished my first “novel” (Okay, so it was forty pages) at ten AND wrote it during finals week in fourth grade (which actually determined what kind of secondary school I would attend, so it wasn’t as unimportant as it sounds.)

So, in 98, first I tried to write just for myself, but that didn’t work. When you’re writing for yourself, there’s no reason to make sure you are understood or understandable. There’s no reason to affix the details to paper. What you write ends up sounding like memories of dreams – things that come out of the subconscious and submerge again. After a while it feels pointless.

I needed to write FOR someone, but I had no audience. These days I might have written for online. How that would have turned out is anyone’s guess, and I truly have no clue. Perhaps I’d have attracted no readers, studied, and ended up about where I am. Or perhaps I’d have attracted a couple hundred, just enough to keep writing at the level I was.

As it turned out, though, self-publication at the time was – at best – silly. So I thought I’d keep writing just as a hobby and to get readers, I’d write for fandom. Finding a fandom was something else again. My dad used to introduce me to people with “this is my daughter, she doesn’t like television” – making sure people knew my handicap up front.

I’m not going to be high and mighty here and say I picked the one fandom that was out of copyright on purpose. If Anne McCaffrey hadn’t stomped so hard on all fanfic related to her work, I’d probably have fallen into dragonworld fanfic. Hard. As it was all the traces of those that I could find were long since shut down.

Other than that, my tastes verge on the fuddy-duddy. I wasn’t going to attempt Heinlein fanfic, (I’m not that crazy) or the rest of the genre. Dumas fanfic is the ONLY fanfic that runs to foursomes. Er… same gender foursomes. And I didn’t want to write erotica, anyway. I wanted to write stories.

So I fell into Austen fanfic at Derbyshire Writers Guild and The Republic of Pemberley. I got myself kicked out of the Republic of Pemberley in short order. No, I didn’t want to write erotica, but I reserve the right to make stupid jokes. Apparently, that wasn’t allowed at RoP.

This left me with DWG. And because I had learned to write for publication – even if I hadn’t been published – I studied the market first. What I found was so surprising that it took almost a year for it to penetrate.

You see, partly because I am foreign born and an ESL speaker, I paid a lot of attention to words, always. I think I’ve shared that my idea of how my work was received at publishers when I first started writing – I thought people sat around laughing at my misuse of idiom and wondering where I was from.

Because of this, I obsessed on words for many, many years. In fact, when I went to the Oregon writers workshop, Dean Smith STILL had to order me to not think about the words. (For which I can never thank him enough.)

But DWG taught me how truly unimportant words are. If you start writing a story that puts Darcy and Elizabeth in a perilous situation, you can have malapropisms in every line and grammar mistakes in more than half the text, and you’ll still have a lot of comments and a large following.

I’m not saying that people don’t care about entries, and I’m not going to say that most fanfic authors are illiterate – both would be false. At DWG though there are writers from all over the world and from all avocations. People write in their spare time and don’t spend hours polishing for the best word.

Most of them are still easilly on a par with published work. One or two are startlingly bad with words. And there is one who, for a while, had a “fandom” of this author’s own, devoted to analyzing and making fun of the tortured sentences.

And yet, even this language-slaying author had a real fandom, that followed the posted serials with bated breath and gave the author much love in comments.

Why? Well, because the plot of these series were almost unbearably tortured. There were kidnappings and murders and mad wives in towers, and men pining away for love, and women who were despoiled and… Yeah, I know, you’re laughing “all the elements of cheap melodrama.”

I will remind you that this melodrama sold more than any of our more plausible and restrained novels sell. I’ll also say that while the lack of internal logic annoys me – personally – a lot of people LIKE these extreme situations. Why? Because the extreme situations bring forth extreme emotions.

And in the end, people read to follow the emotions, to fee what characters they care about are feeling.

What I found at DWG is that the words mattered far less than characters people could love and situations that enthralled them or made them empathize.

What do you think? Should an author shamelessly play with the audience’s feelings? Do you read for the feeling of it? What makes you return again and again to an author?

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

>Awards …

>
Okay, I’m going to start out with a blatant plug. The King’s Bastard is on the ballot for the David Gemmell Award. If you enjoyed reading my book, please vote for it. Here’s the link.

So what is the David Gemmell award? According to the people who run it:

The DGLA aims to:
• Raise public awareness of the Fantasy genre

• Celebrate the history and cultural importance of Fantasy literature

• Appreciate & reward excellence in the field

• Commemorate the legacy of David Andrew Gemmell and his contribution to the Fantasy genre

This award sets out to celebrate fantasy. All the awards I’m going to mention set out to celebrate their genre.

I like awards. I like to find the books that have been short listed and read them to see what’s going on in my genre and associated genres. You discover fresh new voices and people who are pushing the envelope of their genre.

So I’ll start with the Aurealis Awards. This is Australia’s version of the Nebulas, in that the selection is made a peer review. Then there are the Hugos, which are voted on at the World Con. Then there are the RITA Awards from RWAmerica. I go to my favourite sections, the Paranormal and the Regency. That is how I discovered Melissa Marr’s books. Then there’s the RWAustralia R*BY.

I’ve done my fair share of setting up awards and working on the committees that run them. The people involved in these awards all deserve a pat on the back. For instance, it takes dedication to judge fantasy section of the Aurealis Awards with over 40 fantasy books to read and you know how big those fantasy books are!

Do you read the books that are shortlisted for awards? How do you keep track of what is happening in your genre?

>On ‘Piracy’, Pricing and Twelve Days of Christmas

>Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
er.
Merry Christmas! Sorry, a faulty translator…

In my blundering about the web, I was reading about Feast of Fools and the Lord of Misrule. It’s a pity, in my usual lunatic opinion, that it has died away (or been put down). Society needs a time when the normal order is inverted. It gives those who are at the top a reason to make sure the people don’t prefer the fool’s rule. It was easier to outlaw it than to rule well, I suppose. Ah well. Perhaps I am the only paranoid who thinks the lunatics have been running the asylum for far too long, and the ones who are merely insane as a comparison to the new norm, are almost beginning to believe they’re the mad ones.

I think there is an element of this desire for an overturn of the existing order spread throughout humans — and of course it runs thicker in some of us — but it’s why we like to read of the underdog winning. Yes, there is a market for self-congratulatory camp-follower books, but I like to imagine that there is just as large a mob who like things that overturn the established order, or at least question it. Ok, so I am one of the intrinsic rebels, I suppose, albeit one who has made the unusual leap of logic that you cannot be both the victor and become authority… and still be sticking it to the man, when you are the man (a problem as prevalent in politics as publishing).

Anyway, to meander on, what brought me to wander into the Lord of Misrule and the twelve days of Christmas, and piracy, was this blog by Paul Cornell. Now I don’t know Paul Cornell, and he might be nicest fellow and most brilliant writer that ever breathed. But just as surely as the Twelve days of Christmas follow after Christmas (and not before which was what I was looking up), I found a few things in this back-to-front and I wanted to ask your opinion of them (and uh, give you mine!).

Now to quote Mr Cornell, as the fundamental point from which he starts his take on piracy and e-books:

1: Publishers have always thought that when you buy a hardback, what you’re paying more for is the chance to own it on the day of publication. Paperbacks are cheaper because they come out a year later. The reading public, on the other hand, always thought what they were paying more for was the extra physical mass and quality. (Actually, a hardback costs, one publisher told me, only from 50p to a couple of pounds more to make.) So obviously publishers think an e-book, out on the day of publication, should cost the same as a hardback. And obviously the reading public think it should cost less than a paperback. From this difference in perception stem all subsequent horrors.

Really? Am I the only person in the universe who read this, fell about in helpless laughter, and abused ‘Casablanca’ to say “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in Rick’s Casino!” It’s possible, I suppose, that some of the reading public really were unaware of any early release premium — the ones who continue to buy hardcovers of books of mine which are available in paperback, even books which have been out for nine years. But, well, hands up anyone who thought publishers really had no idea why the public thought they had to buy the hardback at that price?

Ah, you at the back. Did you bring enough of that stuff for everyone?

Look, if publishers were of the opinion that the public believed they were only paying for an early release, and not the materials of the format…. well, why on earth would they waste that 50p to couple of pounds pure profit, when printing “EARLY RELEASE” on a cheap paperback would entitle them to sell it for the same price? And why do books that only come out in paperback not get marked up for that first year? I am sorry, it won’t wash. There was always full knowledge of what the public thought. Historically excuses like a rise in paper prices and printing costs have been used as reasons to raise prices. Either those were lies, or this is, or maybe both are. But this statement is true for no possible scenario.

Which then brings us back to well, why are prices so eye-watering for electrons (from everyone but Baen and a few independents) instead of hardbacks? Especially as there are no returns (50% saving right there), no paper, printing, warehousing or distribution costs (well microscopic costs). The answer may lie in any of a dozen real reasons, none of which they’re prepared to share. Which of course brings us all to believe they are really good reasons and without malice or guile. My own guess is a reluctance or inability (or both) to change their business model and lose many historical overheads — most of which do neither writers nor readers an iota of good. Does a book read better if it was edited in New York? Does a book read better if the publisher rents offices in Manhattan or St Paul? You couldn’t get the staff to live in St Paul? Really? Being unable to find work in your field in NY must be more attractive than I had guessed. And why do they have to work in an office anyway? There is a great deal of cross-subsidy in publishing (and I suspect not all of it in ways one would expect. For instance I think you’d find the midlist subsidises the best-seller list – or the best-seller list would not be profitable). Is an advance (which puts up costs hugely) even necessary, if you can pay monthly and not years later? Of course, if there is a real reason which benefits readers and writers, there’d be nothing like a whiff of public scrutiny to show that yes, e-books need to cost $25 and garner support for that. Haven’t seen any sudden outbreaks of transparency have you?

Speaking for myself: I think 6 dollars would cover a reasonably professional job, as long as you can sell at least 2400 copies – and as long as you weren’t carrying the overheads.

Anyway – just to have a dip at the piracy issue – to quote Paul Cornell again.

4: People just like stealing stuff. As a recent Wired magazine article pointed out, every utopian excuse for illegally downloading music, from the presence of Digital Rights Management on tracks to the inability to move tracks between systems, has now been swept away by a market desperate to sell more music. There’s literally no excuse any more. But this year illegal music downloading continued to grow, with 1.2 billion tracks being stolen in the UK alone.

I think he is conflating two issues – people like to pay as little as possible, and if possible, nothing. That’s actually not the same as ‘like stealing’. Yep. There are those too. But not the human race in general. Given the social stigma attached to theft, and the elegant scientific work showing that at least in Western Liberal Democracies a sense of fairness is ingrained, virtually from birth, no, it is not true. People will rationalise theft, but they don’t in general LIKE to steal. If you let them have grounds to self-justify their actions, more of them will do it (and that includes the utopian reason he didn’t mention, overpricing and the artists getting a tiny fraction – which have not changed). The baseline rationalisation for most piracy IMO is Robin Hood: You’re stealing from a greedy (especially if the price for an e-book matches the price of a hardback), rich (and faceless) megacorporation who robs everyone blind, and giving to the poor: ergo yourself. The fact that this is quite an accurate assessment of relative wealth does make it easier. So does the fact that it’s ‘victimless’ crime, in that the property remains available, and the victim (and there is one, really) is anonymous.

Now, you can get on your high horse and shout ‘piracy is theft and theft is illegal’ and quote lawyers at me and stand on your legal rights. By law you’re right.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to explain to those who make the law (and those who believe it will work for them) that law exists and works only at the will of the people. You can — and lawyers and governments do — pervert this to serve your ends… but there is a limit, and people break and evade laws as much as possible… if they do not have popular support. For example: There are speeding laws just about everywhere. And although they have logic behind them, they’re enormously frequently broken. Constant policing is required to keep them at all, and if they weren’t a major revenue stream with, actually, substantial support for the law in principle, the authorities would have given up long ago. On the other hand: There are places where public nudity is illegal… it’s a lot less serious or risky(okay, mostly) than speeding. Yet it requires almost no policing. Why? Because really, in areas where it is illegal, you’ll find most people support the law. If not: it is ignored or changed. The “it is illegal and I hate you for doing it” attitude leaves ‘piracy’ about where the prohibition was, or banning Christmas for ‘elf-an-safety’ reasons would. It’s not going to work, just as it has not worked too well in music.

To box clever, to shift it to the probability of illegal copying to that of a nudist offending shoppers in rural Pennsylvania in mid-winter… you need to get the public to support the law. To believe it is fair.

And to do that the steps are IMO simple. Do away with the Robin Hood syndrome and the anonymity. The real victim needs to be – and to be seen to be – the author. And I think honesty on our part comes into this too. Writers are not rich (and if you are robbing the handful that are, shrug. JK Rowling or Dan Brown can fight you on their own dime and time). The paperback you paid Aus$20 for (or US $7.99)… I got 64 cents. My advances are typically around $10 000. The latest one was $6 000, thanks to the DRAGON’S RING hardback debacle. That means I need to write a lot (working 14-16 hour days, more or less 320 days a year) and live frugally, just to survive. For the record I get 50% of my e-book cover price from Naked Reader, and Amazon gets 30%. I specifically requested (ok insisted) that the price be LOW. Knowing all this: I have extreme doubt that most of my readers would want to rip me off on the Robin Hood principle (and if they did, go for it guys, you must be in dire, dire straits, and I hope the book lifts your spirits)!

The only reason for not making this information public is it makes the rest of the chain look like they might be gouging both the reader and the writer. Of course this is not possible. Could not be true. Now if retail, distribution and publishing would care to do the same as I have, we could see that publishing really needs to charge x for books, and that theft was crippling.

Or so declareth the Lord of Misrule.

No wonder they used to put him to death!

>Boxing Day

>It’s the day after Christmas and all through my house, people are stirring….

Hopefully, everyone has had a wonderful Christmas holiday so far. Due to a number of circumstances, some foreseen and other unforeseen, I haven’t had time to pull together a post for today. I need to get ready for the next wave of Christmas guests, present opening and my third major Christmas dinner needs to be cooked. One turkey so far has been completely demolished. One ham has seen its better days — fortunately, there’s enough left for sandwiches. Tonight is the pork loin unless I find enough energy to do the Yorkshire pudding for the roast beast (which ain’t gonna happen).

So, to end the year, let’s throw open the door and give you the floor. You can toss out ideas for upcoming posts. You can ask questions. You can comment on trends in the publishing field you’ve seen. I promise to wander through, probably in a haze of exhaustion, later on to add a few comments of my own.

>Keeping the Faith

> I was listening to a recorded interview with coach John Wooden earlier in the week. I’m sure he is a familiar figure to US readers, but for those who do not know him, he is an American basketball player and coach, most famous for winning seven NCAA national championships in a row as the coach of the UCLA team (and ten in a 12 year period).

It’s a strange thing with me. I’m not much a sport follower at all, and a very restless spectator (that said I think I would happily play any sport), yet I love movies about sportsmen or coaches who overcome the odds. I guess it’s a heroic story, but also I think to succeed in writing takes a similar high level of dedication, high-level skill and belief.

In the interview, John Wooden covered a lot of ground, and I was impressed by the sense of character that came through the audio. When he reached his ‘Pyramid of Success’ – my ears really pricked up (you can get a printable pdf copy from the links at the bottom of the John Wooden Wikipedia page). There are fifteen elements in total that build the Pyramid, and each has a whole story attached too it. Too many to list here. What really caught my attention was what he called his two ‘cornerstones’ – the two elements at the left and right bottom corners of the Pyramid. Elements so vital that if taken away they will cause the Pyramid to collapse.

The two cornerstone elements were Industriousness and Enthusiasm. Writing it down it sounds a little simple, but I guess it was something in the way he said it that really impressed me. It also got me thinking. Industriousness – I guess we all know it’s about getting the words down – putting in the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert in anything. But enthusiasm is just as vital. You can bang away at the computer, like getting blood out of stone, but if you are not inspired – if you are not filled with a raw enthusiasm for the art you are creating, then what you are producing is well crafted – but flat. I think it is true to say that an editor will more likely be excited about something raw that grabs them, then something well-crafted that seems samey. That is a real trap with crit groups – if you take on too much criticism you will kill your piece.

I guess it just struck a chord with me. I have been pushing ahead like an ice-breaker for years now, working against everything that life has thrown at me, but I think I have lost a little bit of that innocent love for the work that first drew me into this field. I am looking forward to recapturing it:)

How do you keep your love for the work alive when the going gets tough?

>Are we there yet?

>
So, another Thursday approacheth, and Kate sitteth upon her well-padded cushion to compose another scintillating Mad Genius Club post. Only… Kate sayeth unto herself “What now?” Or words to that effect.

I actually had a post planned out and even pre-written, and then Rowena beat me to it. Meanwhile my brain is somewhere in the Caribbean partying, and it doesn’t even send a postcard. I’m horribly offended.

The fact is, it’s been a hellish year for me, and I can’t wait for it to be over. I’ve got one more workday this year (today), then a smidge over a week to recover for next year’s fun and games. Getting to the end of the work year has been something of a death march – a long, painful drag with no apparent end most of the time.

I swear, if I did to a character what’s landed on me this year, I’d have people telling me there’s no way all that crap happens to anyone all at once. Besides, the character would hunt me down and kill me. And probably resurrect me so he could hunt me down and kill me again.

So, instead of a sensible, thoughtful kind of post, you’ve got a bunch of more or less aimless rambling, some cute and funny (at least, I think they’re funny), and a challenge:

Go to the Random Plot Generator, pick one or more of the options in the list, and write a short summary of a story that uses it.

Here’s mine:

Advice for the Evil Overlord:
The gun turrets on my fortress will not rotate enough so that they may direct fire inward or at each other.

Story: The Mad Scientist and the Evil Overlord engage in a pitched battle over the design of the fortress gun turrets. While they are alternating between trying to kill each other and trying to sabotage the other’s plans, the World’s Luckiest Hero saunters in, rescues the Princess, and recruits all the Evil Overlord’s soldiers and the Mad Scientist’s minions.

(okay, it’s crap. But you get the idea)

>Three Matches

>*This is the first time in a long time I forgot to post early. Sorry. It’s particularly vexing since I meant to put up the free short story I wrote for the Knight Agency blog and which is also on my blog right now. It was supposed to be an article about our favorite holiday short story — only as you guys probably know it’s easier for me to write short stories than articles. So, I wrote this. It’s set in the world of the Shifters (Draw One In The Dark, Gentleman Takes A chance. The people who frequent my diner got it yesterday because membership hath its privileges. Sorry for not writing an article, but I spent three days painting the bathroom and am now coming down with something.”

Three Matches

You shouldn’t cry when it’s snowing. Besides, crying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good. Not on New Year’s Night with a blizzard blowing in low and tight over the city of Goldport, Colorado and turning everything further than two inches from my nose into vague shapes that I no more than suspected might exist.

I abandoned my car on Fairfax Avenue. People say Fairfax is the longest straight street in the western states. Perhaps it is, since it runs from one end of Goldport to the other and clean out of town on the other side. Which makes it a very easy street to follow, even in pitch dark night and under the snow. But not when your car was low on gas and the street was coated in ice.

As I got out of the car, pulling my gloves on and wishing I were wearing my snowboots and not the tennis shoes, I thought mom might have been right at that, when she said dad hadn’t left her so much as he’d left Colorado. You see, my father was a meteorologist, and mom said the Colorado weather had driven him insane being completely unpredictable. You could start the day with eighty degrees and bright sunshine and end up at noon in a hard frost and subzero temperatures. I’d always suspected dad had other reasons for leaving, but now I wasn’t so sure.

I’d left Denver, three hours ago, in eighty degree weather and bright sunshine and look at me now.

Blinking, because it felt like my eyes would be frozen in their sockets, I walked carefully along the street, heading for the sidewalk. There should be a space near the buildings where it was relatively warmer and perhaps not quite so icy. Also there was a chance – okay, a chance in Hades – that a coffee shop or restaurant or something had left its door unlocked. And that would be good, even if no one where there, because then there was the chance I wouldn’t die.

The thought surprised me, because I had been thinking of it in terms of stupidity and annoyance. Stupid, stupid Rya had left home without her snow boots, or her emergency kit in the car. Stupid, stupid Rya had blown past the small towns on the way here without thinking to get her tank filled up. Now the thought came, stark and naked. Stupid, stupid Rya is going to die.

Which stopped my mind from spinning on the track it had been playing since I’d left Denver – how to tell one’s mom and step dad about one’s little embarrassing problem. Particularly when said embarrassing problem is of a bizarre enough nature they’ll consider having one committed?

In the sudden blankness of thought, I patted my pockets, suddenly wondering if I had what it took to survive this, if perhaps there would be a reprieve from my fatal idiocy. This was when I realized my stupidity was greater than it seemed. I’d brought my mom’s jacket instead of my own. Which meant I didn’t have my cell phone, or my lip balm – so I’d die with cracked lips – or the mini candy bar I’d put there after grandma’s holiday party. On the other hand, I had a matchbook, that mom must have picked up somewhere and put in there. I brought the matchbook out, wondering why people even gave them out considering that there was no smoking in bars or restaurants in Colorado anymore. It was black, with a name and address printed on it.

I blinked. The George. On Fairfax Avenue. In Goldport. That didn’t even make any sense. I’d come to Goldport to University, but I didn’t think my mom had even bothered to visit since the first weekend of my freshman year. It was all “Rya, won’t you come home.” And “Rya, darling, grandma is having a party.”

Grandma wasn’t really. She was my stepdad’s mom. Not that there was anything wrong with her. Or with Mark, my stepdad, except I always got the impression that they were more interested in having me there so they could show what a great family we were than in me, as such.

How long had mom been carting this around? On the one hand the matchbook looked barely creased. On the other hand, there were only three matches in it. Right. Three matches.

I found the edge of the sidewalk next to the buildings. I was right there was less ice there, except for little patches there the water had melted and run or perhaps run before it froze. I could watch for those, as I moved along, looking at the numbers. From the numbers, the George was about eighteen blocks that way which, of course, gave me plenty of time to freeze to death.

But hey, I had three matches. I flashed on my favorite holiday story as a kid, The Little Match Girl. My dad had read it to me on Christmas every year, with a bunch of others – which was kind of odd since The Little Match Girl takes place on New Years. Even odder since – as far as I knew – my dad didn’t have anything against little girls, and a holiday story where the happy ending is that she froze to death while dreaming of her grandma seemed kind of strange.

I patted the pocket of my jeans, on the off chance I had anything useful there. This was Colorado. We read about people who survived blizzards on three cough drops and snow melt all the time. Not that my big issue was hunger – even if I hadn’t eaten since breakfast – but more cold. And that… well… I’d just have to keep walking.

I stomped my feet, to make sure I could still feel my toes.

As though in answer to my stomping, there was a weird sound to the right, like a muffled hiss/growl.

“Who? Who– ” I said, sounding exactly like a very enthusiastic owl. The hiss/growl came again. All I could think was that someone’s dog must have got out of their yard, but if that was a dog, then it had laryngitis problems. Scare it away with something flashed through my mind which, unfortunately neglected to tell me what I should scare it away with? My keys? The way my lanky brown hair must be all messy and now getting crusted with snow? The matches?

As the hiss/growl came again, I figured what the heck I might as well try, right? I mean, what was the worst that could happen? I’d use up the match and that would seriously cut down my possibilities of smoking three cigarette…which I didn’t have. Right.

And besides, maybe if I lit a match I would see angels or get a great dinner. Right now an hallucinatory dinner seemed preferable to dying out here knowing how cold and how alone I was. I lit the match as the hiss/growl, followed by a slithery noise, dragged closer. And there, in the middle of the snow stood… I blinked. Okay, I was hallucinating, but this was no angel known to man. It was an alligator. A very old alligator, its hide scarred and marked by past fights.

The thing is that, though it was walking through the snow, straight at me – and were alligators supposed to even be alive in the snow? Weren’t they cold-blooded? Shouldn’t it be comatose or dead or something – clacking its teeth, it didn’t look dangerous. It looked like a happy alligator, out for a jaunt. Like… something out of a live animation movie about animals who move to the city, or perhaps what happens to discarded pets.
I blinked, but he didn’t suddenly sport a little jacket or a jaunty bowler hat, so I was at least not that far gone. Or perhaps he – for some reason I was sure it was a he – was real.

The idea had me backing up, feeling tentatively with my feet, till my back hit a street lamp and I stopped. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said, as the match burned down towards my fingers. “Please don’t… I’m not… I’m only out here because I couldn’t explain to mom I was a shape shifter. I kept trying to tell her, and she kept asking me if I was gay.” My fingers burned, and I dropped the match, and it was all dark again, except for the snow swirling around. I snorted, a snort half laughter-half panic. “As if that would be such a big deal today. But how do you say Dear mom, I thought I was dreaming of turning into a fox, but my roommate told me she’d seen a fox, and dear Lord, it was running in the gardens, where I’d dreamed of being. And then I started following footprints in the snow, and I think I am a were fox. My mom would have me committed.” From the darkness came a clack-clack that could be the alligator’s mouth opening and closing. “And then I had to storm out, with nothing and without filling the gas tank. Because I didn’t know how to talk to my mom. I am so stupid.”

The clacking of teeth somehow seemed like someone saying tut-tut, and then the alligator’s nose was so near I could see it, despite the darkness and the snow. He… sniffed delicately at my jeans and my shoes, and then looked up, his eyes contriving to look very amused and strangely human. Right. Now I was going nuts.

Fine if it was going to bite me, it could bite me as I was walking towards the more populated areas of town. I thought around that address on the matchbox there were apartments. Someone was bound to find me, right?

The alligator didn’t try to follow me, as I walked on, which was good but also, inexplicably, felt really lonely. Yeah, because you know, a girl and her gator was infinitely better than being alone.

I walked another three blocks, and it felt like my head was going to freeze solid by then, when I heard a weird flapping ahead and a little to the left of me. It sounded like someone was flapping sheets in a really high wind. And while the wind was there all right, the only thing blowing around in it were snow flakes. I tried to see ahead and could see nothing, and reached for my matchbox, because maybe these were magic matches, since they could scare away gators. if I hadn’t dreamed up the whole thing.

I paused, and tried to light my match, then realized there was a parking lot to my left – leaving a space without buildings, but somewhat sheltered, since the parking lot was bordered in warehouse walls on all three sides. I lit my match, then looked up.

The snow was less thick here, and the match did give a good amount of light.

None of which explained what I saw. I’d almost have preferred angels.

Right in front of me, looking like it had just alighted on the parking lot was a dragon. Not just any dragon, no. It was a red Chinese dragon, cute lion face and all.

Okay, I thought as I blinked at it in the light of my match. I’ve gone completely around a bend.

I registered that it was holding something in its right paw. And then it started coughing. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. The match burned towards my fingers, as it coughed and spasmed. it looked like what it felt like when I transformed into the fox. But… a dragon? Dragons didn’t exist, did they?

Of course, neither did shape shifters.

As I dropped the match, I could barely see the naked young man in front of me. Which was probably good, as he seemed to be trying – simultaneously – to cover his privates and put his clothes on.

I had glimpsed enough to see he looked Chinese and about my age. He had a red dragon tattoo on his arm.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice an unexpected surprise as not only did he lack any foreign accent, but he had a southern drawl thick as corn bread and slow and molasses. “Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to. Only old Joe called and said you were one of us and you were lost in the snow.”

“One of… one of … us?”

“Yeah, a shape shifter,” he said.

“I’m not a dragon!”

He smiled. He was now dressed and very close, and he had a sweet smile. “No,” he said. “Dragons rarely get caught like this in storms. We fly. But Old Joe said you needed help. Where do you need to go? I’ll shift again and give you a ride.” The smile again. It was impossible not to trust him when he smiled like that.

I thought about it. My dorm would be good, but it was in the middle of campus, and someone would see me arrive on dragon back. I took the matchbox out, “I wonder,” I said, speaking as much to myself as to him, “If the George has a parking lot where no one would see you land.”

He blinked. “The… Why the George?”

“I don’t know. My mom had this matchbook with the address. I just found it in her jacket pocket.”

He gave me a half-evaluating half-puzzled look, then smiled. “The George it is, then. If you’ll just let me change…”

Modestly, he stepped just far enough away from me that he could shape shift without my seeing him naked, which was reassuring. Then the coughing started, and the sort of odd sound that suggested flesh being compressed and twisted and… a red dragon walked through the snow towards me. When it scrunched its face and let down its wing, it looked exactly like the young man’s expression when he smiled. I climbed the wing, carefully, hoping not to hurt him, and sat astride him then, because he seemed to be waiting for something, and because dragons – apparently – don’t come equipped with seatbelts, I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around his neck.

It was oddly intimate, but also very warm. Blessedly warm. I had to fight to keep awake, it was so… cozy and also because the relief of being rescued hit me.

In almost no time, we were flying over a diner. I could see even through the snow, a neon dragon flipping pancakes, and neon letters proclaiming The George.

My dragon friend flew over the dragon, to a parking lot at the back and let me down. I went around the front door which – surprisingly – was open. And the George was lighted and filled with groups of people. A young man with long dark hair, tied back, was at the grill. He turned and gave me a curious look as I came in, but I didn’t care. I was so exhausted. Of course, I didn’t have any money, but perhaps they’d just let me sit down and make a phone call.

I collapsed into a seat and closed my eyes and next thing I knew, I heard the southern drawn, “Kyrie this is the young woman that Old Joe called about.” I opened my eyes to look into the familiar face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never even asked your name.”

“Rya Stevens,” I said.

“Ah. I’m Conan Lung,” and then as though he feared I’d laugh, “My parents used comic books to study English. They thought it was a good American name.”

“Sounds like a lovely name. And you were a hero. I mean, you rescued me.”

I swear he blushed bright red. “Oh, it was nothing.”

The young woman he had introduced me to – Kyrie – grinned at me. “You poor thing must be frozen. Relax and I’ll get you coffee. Do you want a clam chowder?”

“I don’t have any money on me. I–”

“Oh, never mind that, we’ll just get you warmed up. You can pay some other time.”

She bustled away and Conan said, “that’s Kyrie. She and her boyfriend Tom own the diner.” I felt ridiculously relieved she wasn’t Conan’s girlfriend. Like I had some claim on him, or something.

“You said Old Joe told you about me?” I said.

“Yeah.” And at my look. “Alligator shifter. He said you were nice.” The blush came again. It was fascinating. I’d never met a man who blushed like that.

To stop staring at him, I looked around the diner. So many people, and none of them seemed very interested in us. In the next table over, there was a man scribbling in a notebook. He was probably fifty and he had… I stopped. He had hair exactly the color of mine. And I knew him. Oh, I hadn’t seen him since I was five, but a girl knows her own father.

“Dad,” I said.

He turned around, and he was dad. His mouth dropped open. “Rya!”

“Dad.”

“You… did your mom tell you where to find me?”

I shook my head. “My mom knew where to find you?” She’d told me he’d left the state. She’d told me he never wrote.

He nodded and frowned at me a little, then squinted. “Are you… the one they called about?”

I nodded.

“So you’re one of us?”

“Us?” That again.

“Most people who come to the diner, and all here today are shape shifters. This is our safe place. The owners are shape shifters too. You… shift?”

I nodded.

“Fox?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Your mom was afraid… she wanted me to leave. She made me leave and she told me never to contact you or she would… She has pictures. I didn’t…”

“Oh, dad,” I said.

Later on I said a lot more, as we talked over the sixteen years of my life he’d missed. He’d been living in Goldport all along, but mom hadn’t told him I’d gone to college there. Now I understood why she’d tried to convince me to go to UC Boulder – because Dad was living in Goldport, retired and writing a novel. She’d been trying to convince him to move. She’d met him at the George just last week.

“Well,” I said. “She won’t want to ruin me and herself by implication. I mean, she’s my mother.” Though she might cut me off completely now she knew I too was a shape shifter. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I’d be left without any family now.

When the chowder came, I noticed there was an unlit candle on the table, and I struck my last match and lit the candle from it.

This time, the story of the little match girl did have a happy ending.

>Bonus post from Rowena

>Angry Robot has opened to subs for one month.

‘The month of March 2011 will be Open Door Month at Angry Robot. The publisher has put together a dedicated team of readers, who will diligently work through every submission received. The best of these will be considered for publication by the Angry Robot editorial team.’

Here’s the link.