Guest Author: T. Eric Bakutis

Big Happenings in the Baltimore literary SFF scene starting with this weekend.

Balticon is four days of  conference programming featuring authors, publishers, editors, artists, scientists, musicians and other creative SF luminaries beginning Friday, May 22nd.  I’ll be there on Saturday — let me know in the comments if you plan to be there.

Also, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Contest is currently underway for Maryland residents now through June 19th. No entry fee AND cash prizes for winners.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to my fellow Critique Circle partner and author:

T. Eric Bakutis.  (He will also be at Balticon this weekend, so make sure to order his book or buy it there and ask him to sign.)

Author T. Eric Bakutis

Author T. Eric Bakutis

Bio: Eric Bakutis is an author and game designer living in Maryland. The staff of Balticon selected his first novel, Glyphbinder, as one of eight finalists for the 2014 Compton Crook Award, and his short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies and small markets. When he’s not writing, he’s playing or designing videogames, hiking with his wife, daughter, and cowardly dog, or flying spaceships in virtual reality. You can find a complete list of his published works as well as links to his blog, social media accounts, and some really cool artwork at www.tebakutis.com.

  1. Eric, thanks for stopping by TasteofSherri. First question. What does the title of your novel mean? 

Glyphbinder was the title I arrived at after my first editor (at McBryde Publishing) shot down a much longer title I’d used for most of my book’s life cycle. They pointed out (correctly) that I needed something short, catchy, and memorable. After trying out a number of titles, this one stuck.

I settled on Glyphbinder because that’s the school of magic the book’s main character, Kara, pursues at Solyr, her magic academy. In my world, magic is taught in much the way you would teach programming students a “scripting language”. Instructors teach students how to paint unique “glyphs” (basically complex patterns) on the air or themselves that, when correctly scribed, accomplish a specific purpose. Like a function in a scripting language, they either do exactly what they are intended to do, or, if entered incorrectly, don’t do anything at all… which makes it less likely students will accidentally blow each other up during training.

Solyr teaches a number of different magic disciplines (Bloodmenders, Beastrulers, Firebrands, Lifewardens, and so on) and each discipline uses its own style of glyphs – think of them as different written languages, like French or German. Only a small number of students become Glyphbinders because that discipline involves learning glyphs from multiple disciplines and combining them together. It could best be described as learning to write long sentences using words from four or five unique languages at once!

Kara is a prodigy with glyph magic, one of the few Glyphbinders at Solyr, and since she’s the book’s protagonist, that made sense as a catchy title. As a bonus, choosing that title also introduced an excellent naming scheme for the whole trilogy. My second book (coming in December 2015) is titled Demonkin, because its main protagonist uses glyphs from that school, and the third book will be (tentatively) titled Bloodmender, as its main protagonist uses that glyph discipline.

GlyphbinderCoverImage

2. Which of your characters did you find the easiest to write?

Once I’m far enough into a book, all of my characters develop their own unique voice and writing them becomes second-nature, so I wouldn’t say one character is easier than another. However, I do think Trell (a character who loses his memory under mysterious circumstances) was probably the most fun to write, simply because he got to serve as my “newcomer” character (the person everyone explains things too) and also because he got some of the best lines. Trell is a rather reserved and taciturn person, but every so often he would say something that literally made me laugh out loud while reading it.

Also, Jair was a fun character to write simply because I loved his glyph discipline (Soulmage, which involves conjuring and even allowing oneself to be possessed by the dead) and because, while he remains in the background of many scenes, I knew as the author there was a lot more going on with him than evident on the surface. So in many ways Jair operates as the tip of an iceberg (for those familiar with that writing metaphor).

3. How has the BSFS helped you to grow as a writer?

One of the things the BSFS Critique Circle does that’s unique (so far as I’ve seen) is allowing each person to read their writing out loud, at the circle, and have it critiqued immediately after. I had never encountered any critique group that did this before I started attending, but I now believe this approach improves the quality of writer critiques. In my opinion, it’s in some ways superior to the traditional “read and comment ahead of time” model, even though it takes more time.

Rather than getting feedback from people who either read my piece weeks ago (and can’t remember some of their comments) or getting feedback from someone who rushed through all the pieces at the last minute (also not useful) getting feedback immediately after my critique partners have heard the piece gives me raw first impressions, which are very useful. It’s the same mindset as a reader who just read my book! The Critique Circle’s unique approach ensures each critiquer can take the time to give good feedback, and also allows me to dig deeper into feedback that I find useful before it’s forgotten.

So, the largest way the circle has helped me improve is simply by providing a sounding board for just about anything I bring in, catching all the little logic and plot points I miss and improving each story I write. It’s also a great way to see if the ideas I’m hoping to express are coming across—essentially, if the plot in my head is remotely clear on the page. Finally, I feel like I learn as much by critiquing the work of others as I do having my own work critiqued.

 4. What advice do you have for other writers?

Write, but more importantly, exchange critiques with writers who write the same genre as you do. I operated without a critique group for many years and I only reached what I consider a “professional” level in the last few years or so. I owe the majority of this progress to my great critique partners and feel a critique group is indispensable to a writer.

Part of this is because without constant critiques (especially as a relatively new writer) you have no way of knowing what’s working and what’s not. It’s like trying to learn to code without ever attempting to run your programs. You don’t even know if they work! You can spin your wheels forever and end up with stuff that simply isn’t publishable or interesting to anyone but you. That’s what I did for many years and what too many writers still do, so I believe writers should join a critique group as soon as they decide they want to write professionally.

Yes, critiquing can be painful at the start. I remember when I first joined my Texas critique group, it would hurt every time my critique partners pointed out all the ways my beautiful, perfect story wasn’t actually beautiful or perfect. Yet once I took their advice and saw how much the story improved, the discomfort of having places I could make my stories better changed to excitement about feedback that would allow me to make them great.

As a writer, think about critiques like this. Why wouldn’t you want your story to be the best story possible? Why not take advantage of the experience and knowledge of other writers to make your own work even more amazing? Once a writer stops seeing critiques as a comment on them or their writing ability, and instead sees them as free opportunities to make their writing and stories even more awesome, I think they’re on their way to writing what most consider “professional” quality stories.

5. You write in several categories of speculative fiction. Can you discuss any challenges or benefits to this approach?

In recent years I’ve actually been experimenting not only with different genres (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery) but also with different styles of writing. For example, my adventure fantasy (such as Glyphinder) has always been relatively reserved, like much of the fantasy I read growing up. My author’s voice was there, but in the background, with most of the focus remaining on presentation of characters and action… not distinctive flourishes of prose, odd sentence structure, or humor through word choice.

By comparison, in writing my recent paranormal mystery (which I’m currently shopping around) my style is far different, using conversational prose, run on sentences, sentence fragments, word-based humor, and all sorts of elements of my author’s voice to tell the story. I wrote it after expanding my reading list to genres I’d never touched before, like traditional mysteries and thrillers (the Jack Reacher books, by Lee Child, and John Grisham’s work are great examples). This opened up a whole new style of writing I’d never considered.

So, the advice I’d offer to any author in any genre is to read things you DON’T write. After I branched out into mainstream thrillers and mysteries and really paid attention to the author’s writing styles, I was able to develop an entirely different style of writing that’s just as fun and serves my stories in a different way. Some of this has bled over into my recent fantasy and sci-fi as well… while it may only appear in small doses, it adds unique flavor that simply wasn’t there before.

Terry Brooks (one of my favorite fantasy authors) and Lee Child (one of my favorite thriller authors) write *very* differently, yet both write great fiction. So I think the biggest advantage of reading and writing multiple genres is latching onto the best elements of each genre-specific approach, and using elements of all styles as necessary in your own writing regardless of genre.

Glyphbinder Kindle version is currently on sale for $0.99

Thanks, Eric, for your hints and insight and I wish everyone a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

Love,

Sherri

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Valley of the Voles

The Valley of the Voles, the soap opera of the garden, if you will. A frivolous post, but next week I will return with an interview by author T. Eric Bakutis.

For Mother’s Day two years ago my husband bought me this lovely arch for our patio. We planted clematis and the plants — white and purple flowers — grew in beauty and stature. It was everything I ever wanted.

arch

 

Last year, for Mother’s Day, my husband built a planter to the right of the arch. We put in roses of sharon and hyacinth and talked about strawberry plants. In building the planter, my husband made the planter level with the existing patio, joining on the bottom with the mulch in the bed that creeps around the west side. There was a slight gap between the bottom of the planter and the ground. In little beastie language this means “Come on in” or “Open door policy” as translated by my friend Nancy. Against all intention, we’d designed an attractive rodent condominium. The renters came.

I thought we had a mole. Instead, we had voles.

Mole:  A solitary animal that digs tunnels in your yard and eats grubs.

Vole: A rodent cousin to a mouse. 155 different species. They have litter after litter. If you have an outside cat, you might have been gifted a dead one.

They run paths through your grass until they reach bare dirt. From above, it looks like a labyrinth extending through your yard. I caught my first glimpses of dark gray skittering down the trails, the trails that ended/began at one corner of the planter, but I wasn’t ANGRY. Live and let live.

Then they ate my clematis. The green shoots above ground were chomped off. I dug up what was left.

Here is the root ball. You can see there were about 100 individual roots. Three were left.

The eaten clematis

The eaten clematis

After examination, I followed the underground tunnel back the planter and collapsed the tunnel, backfilling with my gloved hands. I replanted the clematis.

By now I’d seen at least two voles. They liked to do their morning labyrinth run at the same time I came down to check my hyacinths after putting kids on the bus. One was gray and slinky and the other was fat and brown like a gerbil. They appeared to be friends. Maybe more than friends, if the gerbil was pregnant.

I read up about voles. How, if you don’t have a dog or cat, you can buy fox, coyote, or dog urine on Ebay and hunting websites. Huh. What’s to stop someone from peeing into a container and selling it as ‘predator urine.’ Seriously. And how was I supposed to spread it around.  No.  This was not a feasible plan.  I was, however, willing to give my neighbor’s dog a lot of water to drink and let her run around my yard. Conclusion: No discernable vole exodus.

But, at least my hyacinths were blooming. Three purple flowers of miniature bells all in a row, strong and fecund in their second year of blooming.

And then this.

They dragged it down into their hidden lair.

They dragged it down into their hidden lair.

Not okay, voles.  This is NOT OKAY. Again, I dug up their tunnel, tracing the litter of hyacinth bells and little bits of green. They’d pulled the whole thing down, leaving only that one green leave behind.

The next day the second hyacinth was pulled down into a hole. Not even a leaf left behind.

My husband stepped in. “This is enough,” he said. He brought home mouse traps, baited them with peanut butter, but the ants ate it all up.

He pulled up the third, and last, hyacinth. The tunnel was evident underneath. They’d been working on it. I imagined the little rodents in prison white and black stripes. Maybe taking turns, one popping up for a smoke break, before tunneling again. We put the hyacinth leaves in a mouse trap and laid it across their labyrinth paths. The trap sprung, but didn’t catch anything.

My husband went shopping again. He came home with two things: mouse poison and CLEMATIS LEAVES.

The voles had misinterpreted my tunnel collapsing behavior. I was saying, “Move on.”  They thought I meant move to the other corner of the planter. New trails appeared in the grass on that end.

My husband and I set the clematis leaves in the traps. We caught a vole. We set out the poison near the gap.  It was nibbled.

We set out another trap with clematis leaves.

Leaves plucked from somone else's clematis plant and kept on ice because that's how our voles like it.

Leaves plucked from somone else’s clematis plant and kept on ice because that’s how our voles like it.

In the morning, I saw a vole wandering in circles.  My husband shoveled it. I did not take a picture. Two gray voles dead, but nothing doing with the fat brown one. I’d started calling him/her Gus.  Worried that Gus couldn’t get to the poison (it was inside a plastic container), my husband removed the top.  More poison nibbled.

Then, in checking the mousetrap, we found it deconstructed all over the lawn.  Our guess is that a vole (Gus?) was caught in trap and a hawk flew down and picked up the whole thing, then dropped it and it flew into pieces across the yard.

Finally the traps sat there with shriveled clematis leaves. No more poison nibbled. We threw away the traps and the poison. Last weekend — Mother’s Day — we dug up the mulch and top layer of soil, dumping it on a tarp. Didn’t see any voles. Didn’t find any lair. We mixed around the soil, took out the end plants, put the end plants back in, put the top layer and then the mulch back on. We planted grape vines on either side of the arch. Voles are not supposed to like grapes vines.

Digging up the vole tunnels, looking for the hidden lair (which we never found).

Digging up the vole tunnels, looking for the hidden lair (which we never found)

Clematis transplanted to front yard, hopefully to climb up the lamp post on the right and cover with flowers.

Clematis transplanted to front yard, hopefully to climb up the lamp post on the right and cover with flowers.

If I had been faster to post this, that would be the end of the saga about voles. But, after Mother’s Day I went down to the patio. Laying at the bottom of the stairs with no visible wounds?  A dead vole.

 

Baltimore Riots

Baltimore has been in the news because of Freddie Gray’s death. Because of the rioters who burned down the CVS. Because of decades of simmering anger.

There are other places to read, comprehensively, about why the riots happened and what should be done and whether the National Guard was called in too soon or too late. Plenty of sources for finger pointing and blaming.

I don’t know that I have anything to add.

I love Baltimore. Pivotal moments in my life are intertwined with this city.

I was born in Baltimore. Two of my children were born at Mercy Hospital. My first ‘real’ job (a company check rather than a personal check from, say, a babysitting job) was at the Maryland Science Center right in the Inner Harbor. I’d drive down on Friday afternoons, right after school, excitement building as I went ‘into the city’ while everyone else was on the other side of 95 driving away. After work, at night, I’d stand on the roof and look out over everything (until someone called the police about ‘a jumper’ and I was reprimanded). Then I crouched on the roof to survey and wonder.

Before grad school I lived over by Morgan State — a white face floating in a solidly black neighborhood. That was the same year that I taught 9th grade English at Catonsville Alternative School. It was, I believe, good to experience these things together.

My husband and I had our first date at Pazza Luna in Locust Point, a gourmet restaurant operating inside a row home.

After marrying, I moved in with my husband to a 1200 square foot home in Federal Hill. My husband rehabbed the inside in his spare time, ripping out the stairs and rebuilding them when he got home from work around 11 pm. (Sorry, neighbors).

We moved to the ‘burbs, but soon we were back, driving down Pulaski Highway to Hopkins. I’d do that drive countless times over the next three years. I still make that trek every 3 months. Here’s a picture from our first window (before the new Children’s Center). The cupola is, to me, civilization. It is within the chapters of my novel about Baltimore burning because of that.

Hopkins view from room 833.

Hopkins view from room 833.

So when I began writing, again, it seemed natural that the critique group would be down in Baltimore. Parallel parking and walking past liquor stores, Natty Boh neon, Ravens logos.

I love Baltimore. Rioting is wrong. Destructive. Painful. I don’t condone the looting and the throwing and the burning.

But.

I also do not condone slapping a quick Bandaid on Baltimore and trying to shove this problem under the rug. It’s out. National news. International even. Decades of history erupted in poisonous lava. While our sore is open, I invite our leaders, our citizens, our neighbors, to clean it out. Make changes. Create good from this angry outburst. Address the root of the problem, beyond the temper tantrum.

Love,
Sherri