Annotated Artwork for “Engines of Liberty: REBEL HEART”

For a while now it’s been necessary for me to put my illustrations online so it’s easier for me to share drawings from past books. Recently I had a chance to share all of my published art with some old friends from Spain and they commented on how much it had changed in just a few short years.

Many artists and writers–especially younger ones than I–can benefit from things I learned throughout the illustration process for the Engines of Liberty novels. I’m sharing this in the hopes that they’ll get farther ahead than I did, and in less time.

For reference, I was illustrating this book from January of 2014 through March of 2014, generally after work, or if I had time off. For this first book I used mechanical pencils with .07 and .05 lead, then shaded with a standard no.2. This was not a great way of doing it, and that’s something that became very obvious when it came time to digitize the art. I eventually switched to ink and charcoal, which will be more noticeable once the art for PATRIOT’S GAME rolls around.

Until then, here is the entire slate of art for REBEL HEART, with some notes after each piece. Please note that they are not displayed here in the order in which they appeared in the book. Enjoy!

rh40

The eponymous “mimic brigade” needed a flag, and since the crossed stars and bars of the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (ahem) was readily recognizable, I repurposed elements of it for the brigade flag. Things being what they are these days, I would likely not go this route again. The origins of the design are never discussed in the story, as it never becomes relevant. The Rebel Hearts themselves are a pretty diverse group, comprising brigade leader Hank Duncan, a black American; brigade mechanic Adam Paige, also a black American; tail gunner Ingvar Prebensen, a Dane; pilot Emma Crosby, an Anglo girl from the Carolinas; and of course, Calvin Adler, of Anglo-German descent.

 

rh39

She’s the officer in command at Camp Liberty in Ohio. I wanted her physicality to come in direct contrast with her personal demeanor. She’s stone cold and rock hard, and while these qualities can be virtues in a military leader, they have their own built-in flaws.

 

rh38

One of my favorite elements of this world is the machines that the rebels build to “mimic” magical creatures. A unique challenge of this one was the fact that it takes place at night, there are headlights cutting through the dark, and the engines from the machines kick up a lot of dust. Were I to draw it again, I spend more time on the lighting and the dust. Those were the hardest parts.

rh37

You’re really not supposed to like Captain Hamilton, so making him ugly was an obvious move.

 

rh36

Surprisingly enough, some Brits have read these books and given me feedback! As much as I avoid profanity in English, apparently I don’t do such a good job of it in…other English. 🙂 If I changed anything on this drawing, I would work on getting the angles of Godfrey’s face right.

 

rh35

Godfrey was as fun to write as Calvin was (villain and hero, respectively.) I used my brother-in-law Joseph as a model for Godfrey. I don’t think I got the light angles right for the shading.

rh34

Biggest issue on this one: Winston Fitznottingham (the mage) has an awkward stance, and his robes flutter in an unconvincing manner. I got better at this later on.

rh33

I’m still pretty proud of this one. I’d spend more time on the grass and leaves on the forest floor, annoying as they were. I’d also use models for the mages as they get blown off their brooms by the grenade blast; they look unrealistic in their poses.

 

rh31arh31b

I’d shade the wings on the dragonling mimic a little better, detail the grass island in front of Mount Vernon, try to sharpen up the details on the tree leaves, and re-shadow the mountains (and the reflection) with ink instead of so many pencil strokes.

 

rh30b

Calvin’s proportions are a little off, even for an awkward teenager. One problem I struggled with consistently was drawing the boots too big.

 

rh30

The angles on Edsel’s face and hands look weird to me.

 

rh29

I’d pay closer attention to the lighting direction on the peripheral machinery. Other than that I was really proud of how I came up with this, and how it ended up.

 

rh28

Another one where boot size wasn’t done right. Other than that, I’m pleased. My friend Zach, a lawyer, volunteered to be the model for Edsel.

rh27

Eh…I’m not thrilled with the shading. I could have made the inside darker, and the light direction clearer from the outside.

 

rh26

Okay, here’s a good one: I didn’t zoom in enough on the action (Calvin wrestling the panther, Edsel coming to the rescue.) As a result, the most exciting part of the drawing was too small, and I spent the rest of the time drawing fricking foliage.

rh24

Another instance of bad zoom control. The barn looks HUGE and empty, even though in this scene there are more than four people. Still the important part is that Calvin and Edsel are fighting.

 

rh23

In future, I would just add this text digitally instead of trying to draw the font by hand.

 

rh22

Given how this was a small piece, I don’t mind the pencil strokes for the ground, but Jack’s left hand looks puffy, and the “stench lines” from his curse look…low-energy?  Cartoonish? It brings down the rest of it.

 

rh20

This came together well, even the boots. I think Brian’s face looks a little too flat, too. Angles got tricky with fight scenes.

rh19

Another tricky face angle, this time for Calvin. I should have practiced a few light pencil lines on a separate sheet of paper.

rh18

Biggest issue here is character proportions, and shading/light direction. A recurring problem.

 

rh17

I started each chapter with a drawing of a character, but this one got three of them. I needed to control the sharpness and detail, as well as light values/direction. Normal stuff. The crispness wouldn’t change until I changed my materials.

 

rh16

Most of my time here went into the background, what was on the pantry shelves and all that. Also I think I was inconsistent with Calvin’s height here, but then I don’t really do another drawing of him next to Commodore McCracken. Calvin’s left arm seems a touch too long, and the typical light values are an issue.

 

rh15

Crispness and light value. Other than that, this came out well. Brian’s supposed to be a tough-guy type.

 

rh14

Needed to detail the grass more, or cover it up with more relevant stuff. Also, trying to draw muzzle flare in the dark plays haywire with the light values. This was an early attempt, and not my best one.

rh13

Originally, my friend Megan Hibbert was the model for Amelia, but she always had the same expression in every one of her pictures (a very bright smile.) I eventually swapped her out for a celebrity whose Google Images yielded a higher variety. Also, crispness and body proportions.

 

rh12

I retconned this later to make her a little taller. Crispness, etc.

 

rh11

I spent all of my time drawing Mount Vernon in the background, and not enough time on the people in the pigpen. Also needed more boars from more angles. Calvin’s eyes look weird too.

 

rh10

Boots and light values, normal stuff.

 

rh9

Now, obviously I play with the architecture at Mount Vernon, but there’s no way it’s large enough for all of the stuff in this story, and that includes this gigantic theater inside. That said, the reader will generally not be aware of this, and any number of behind-the-scenes explanations could give it credence. I’m pleased with it otherwise. I think I’d use better light values, and try to curve the projected image on the screen below. Also…the podium has no shadow on the screen.

rh8

This one worked as-is because it’s meant to be hyperbolic propaganda. King Charles is not actually an ogre in these stories.

 

rh7

Proportions and poses. I didn’t get their feet lined up right. This was the first drawing I tried like this, with them all lined up horizontally, and the only one I did like this.

rh6

Psh. This one’s perfect, fight me.

rh5

More propaganda-style art. I’d only do the text digitally, like with Jack Badgett’s saddle above.

rh4

Shading and light values. This was only the second or third piece I did overall, so I will cut myself slightly more slack.

 

rh3

Proportions, light angles, and I think I smashed Calvin’s mom’s face a little.

rh2

Calvin was modeled after my other brother-in-law, Patrick, who’s mildly autistic. I don’t think I did justice to Patrick’s/Calvin’s facial expression here. This piece was the very first one I did for REBEL HEART, or the Engines series at large. It took 3 days, and generally I’m still pleased with it. Outside of Calvin, the only thing that really bugs me is the roof tiles on the Tanners’ place. Grass, lighting, the ground, normal stuff after that.

rh1

A better version of Calvin, but again, disproportionate legs and feet and so forth.

 

rhr1

This was one of four drawings that had to be re-shot before I could include it in the book, as they’d been scanned poorly. Leg proportions and the shading on the clothes are off.

 

rhr2

Legs, shading.

 

rhr3

Just a little touch-up work on the shading, the rest of him is fine, I think.

 

rhr4

After illustrating this book, I specifically  bought a book on how to draw and shade folds in clothing, because this one was pretty glaring. Also, fun fact, I modeled these guys after James A. Owen and J. Scott Savage.

 

Whew. That was a lot. I’ll post the SUICIDE RUN art next week, and you can see how that improved over this book, and what still needed work even after all that art. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks, all.

My Best Books of 2017

Hi gang. You know the drill. Here we go:

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SCYTHE by Neal Shusterman. Reviewed here on my YouTube channel.

 

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Dublin Murder Squad 1-3, by Tana French. Comprising IN THE WOODS, THE LIKENESS, and FAITHFUL PLACE. There are 6 books so far, but 4 and 5 were letdowns. The first 3 were amazing. Reviewed here.

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DRAGONWATCH, by Brandon Mull. His premiere series, Fablehavenis a longtime personal favorite. DRAGONWATCH is the first in a sequel series that proves he’s still got it. Loved everything about this book.

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Bobiverse 1-3, by Dennis E. Taylor. Comprises the volumes WE ARE LEGION, WE ARE BOB; FOR WE ARE MANY, and ALL THESE WORLDS. Rip-roaringly good sci-fi adventure. Reviewed here.

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DRAGON TEETH, by Michael Crichton. One of his earlier works, despite being posthumously published. It’s about an intriguing period in history called “The Bone Wars,” wherein two rival paleontologists tried to outdo each other in their field, sometimes by nefarious means. Review here.

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SLEEPING GIANTS, by Sylvain Neuvel. Hell of a book! Lamentably I found the sequel, WAKING GODS, to have a touch of a sophomore slump. Nevertheless, I’m eagerly looking forward to ONLY HUMAN, the third installment. Review here.

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THE END OF NIGHT, by Paul Bogard. I would never have read this book without my brother’s recommendation, but it’s very thought-provoking. It deals with how artificial lighting impacts human biology and our ecosystems around the world. Review here.

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UNDAUNTED COURAGE, by S.R. Ambrose. Speaking of the Indianapolis Colts, this was the July selection for the Andrew Luck Book Club. It’s a detailed history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, including their lives before and after their legendary trek.

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Weird West tales, by Mike Resnick. I read 2&3 this year. YouTube video here.

 

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Lady Mechanika: La Dama de la Muerte, by Benitez. My YouTube review covers the whole series, though it was this volume in particular that I loved.

 

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

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JOHNNY U AND ME, by John C. Unitas Jr. This is a career and family bio about legendary NFL quarterback Johnny Unitas, written by his son, John Jr. Unitas played for the then-Baltimore Colts (now in Indianapolis) and is in the conversation for being among the greatest to ever play the game, and certainly the greatest of his era. However, I included this book for its value as a teaching tool: it talks about his life behind the scenes, and his imperfections. Some of those old-time qualities we admire come with an ugly price tag. We would do better to respect our sports heroes for their accomplishments, and learn from their flaws. Even the Man with the Golden Arm wasn’t perfect. I applaud his son for his hard work in putting this book together

 

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ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir. Also did a YouTube review.

 

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UNDAUNTED, by Gerald Lund. This one sat on my shelf for eight years before I got around to it. It’s equal parts fiction and non-, as Lund did heavy research not just into the time period, but the people who actually trekked through the now-destroyed Hole In The Rock. I found the non-fiction elements more engaging than the overall storyline, so epic was it in scale and import.

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ON COMBAT, by Dave Grossman. A non-fiction about the physical and psychological toll on the human body in modern combat. Very enlightening.

 

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SNAPSHOT by Brandon Sanderson. Blogged it here.

Writing Update, December 2017

Hi gang,

It’s been an unimaginably busy year for me, and yet somehow I managed to get three books finished. KILL THE BEAST came out in February, and THE HERO NEXT DOOR came out last week. The other book, THE KORBADELL JOB, is currently under review with one of my favorite publishers. It’s a middle-grade fantasy.

All this, and I moved out of state, bought a house, and started training for a new job. At least life isn’t boring.

That said, I could not have done it without my friends, the Hibberts, and my mom moved in with us too, which has been nice. Between that and a lot of praying, things have gone better than it sounds on paper.

For now, I’m spending my evenings in training for a career change. I’m getting ready to get out of trucking. It will take a few months, but I’m excited to find something that works better for me.

Here’s what’s next in the meantime:

DECEMBER: I’ve got three short stories coming out on Wattpad, in a trilogy called Engines of Winter. These are sequels to Engines of Libertyset ten years after PATRIOT’S GAME. I’ll post one per week  until they’re all live.

JANUARY: Currently the audiobook for KTB is under production. It should launch around this time.

FEBRUARY: I’ll be at LTUE in Provo, Utah. I’ll post my schedule when we get closer. LTUE is a get-together between writers, artists, musicians, and producers, and it’s one of my favorite symposiums (symposia? Damn Latin) up here.

SPRINGTIME: My next book is called HOMEWORLD, about an alien invasion. More on it as I get closer to it. It won’t be terribly long, more like KTB in length. This is a fun one.

JUNE: I’m presenting at FyreCon. More details when it’s closer.

SEPT/OCT: It’s my intention to publish another book here, but I won’t announce it until the summer. This is subject to change.

Granted, the right publishing contract could derail a lot of this…so we’ll see.

THE HERO NEXT DOOR is live!

Hi everyone,

It’s been an incredibly long journey with this one and I’m so pleased that it’s finally out there. The Kickstarter backers got their perks this week, and now the book’s available to the general public.

Paperback is here. It’s $14.99.

Kindle version is here. It’s $3.99, but if you bought the paperback, it’s only $0.99.

Thank you, everyone. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year not being as crazy as it has so far 🙂

An Even Darker Friday

This is a sequel to 2016’s THE DARKEST FRIDAY.

 

They frigging got me again.

I wake up in the dark, in what feels like a cramped space. I’ve got a headache, my mouth feels like cotton, and something sting-burns on my neck where a needle pricked me. I haven’t been in this exact situation before, but I’m not an idiot: I’ve been drugged and thrown into what’s probably trunk of a car. I can tell I’m moving.

A phone buzzes in my pocket. Strange, because I threw my phone away a week ago. Some idiot kept trying to recruit me for another Black Friday. Nobody seems to get it that I don’t do that anymore. I’m able to fish the phone out. The screen blinds me in the confined darkness, and I squint at it as I fiddle with the controls to dim the light.

A video call comes through. It’s from a dipstick in a Halloween mask. Generically grotesque, like a mummy-zombie-goblin that melted against the radiator a few times.

“Hello, Jim,” he says through a voice scrambler.

“Up yours. Jim was my father. I’m James.” Just speaking sends a wave of dizziness over me and I have to squeeze my eyes shut. “The hell’d you drug me with?”

“A fancy new cocktail called Cooperation Sauce. I could tell you needed it. You weren’t cooperating.”

“I’m retired, jackhole!”

Mr. Mummy-Goblin-Zombie shakes his head. “I’m muting you on this end. Listen closely: remember your sick uncle? We have completely erased his medical debt, and approved a new cure through the FDA that will eliminate his condition in a week’s time. He’ll live a long and happy life.”

That got my attention. I don’t speak Doctor, but Uncle Craig has something akin to Super Cancer in his brain. He was supposed to be dead before Christmas. The FDA was sitting on a cure for that? And these guys got it through?

I’m still retired. But I’m paying attention now.

“In return for our services, you’ve agreed to sit in a cargo crate en route to a floating warehouse off the coast of Oregon. It’s a secured aerial facility owned and operated by the Buybazon Corporation. No humans are allowed on these W-AirHouses, and each one is loaded with security drones that are trained to kill on sight.”

I groan, loud, not caring that he couldn’t hear it.

Cyber Monday.

They want me to do to Cyber Monday what I normally do to Black Friday.

Buybazon is the biggest retailer in the world, online or otherwise. They move more merchandise than anyone in history. During this weekend, they move their floating W-AirHouses out over the water, because they’ve had issues with people trying to get to them on the ground. They’re packed with goods ten decks deep, everything from books to clothes to personal automobiles and more. Treasure troves, undoubtedly.

YouTube is full of videos of morons with homemade rockets strapped to their backs, or repurposed hot air balloons, and in one case, a DIY helicopter, that managed to land on top of the facility before the drones inside blew it to hell.

Whoever this twit is on the phone, he had knocked me out and thrown me into a cargo crate. I’m not moving in a car; I’m flying under a cargo drone. Some items are still coming into the flying facility in preparation for the online orgy of consumption. That’s how the guy sneaks me in. Once Cyber Monday is in full swing, the W-AirHouse will float inland again and start deploying delivery drones to send people their overpriced crap.

This is the thing that really ticks me off. This year Cyber Monday starts on Friday, because Black Friday starts on Wednesday. There was some beef after last year that people felt guilty about expressing such blind greed right after Thanksgiving, so the robber barons solved that problem by allowing people to indulge in that greed early on. If you never stop to be thankful, you’re less likely to feel bad for clubbing a random stranger so you can buy a cheap computer.

Friday on Wednesday. Monday on Friday. It’s like these morons in charge never look at a calendar and realize that two different days don’t happen at the same time.

No, wait, that’s not it. I know why they do it: they think they’re all-powerful, and the fact that they bilk so much money and violence out of people kind of vindicates them. I give it a decade before Halloween becomes the new Black Friday, regardless of what day it lands on.

Mr. Mummy-Goblin-Zombie is still talking. I realize I’ve tuned out. He gives me a crate number that I’m supposed to look up once I’m in the W-AirHouse.

“This is your primary target. There are secondary and tertiary targets that will earn you a bonus, but only if you have the first box. And hey, if you want to shop for yourself while you’re there,  you’re more than welcome! Just make sure the full list is complete first. Oh, and stop by sector 4 on Deck 6; the manifest shows a lot of hunting and sporting equipment there. Might come in handy for the, you know…” he makes finger pistols and shoots at me.

The call ends. I memorize the location of the primary target. This twit is going to get it, hard. Best way to ensure that is to get the loot for a handoff in person.

My crate docks with the W-AirHouse and stops moving. A drone whirrs outside, and I hear it come up to the crate, where it unlocks the lid and opens it up. It takes about two seconds to process what I am, and in that time I’m up and fighting. My hand covers its camera lens—not that I can do anything about its sonar vision or infrared scanner—as I climb to my feet. The little drone switches to combat mode and takes a swing at me. Its claw-hands are ridiculously strong, but its shoulders and elbows aren’t. Too heavy. I grab the wrist, wrench it back, and snap the arm off the drone.

Stupid. Of course they’re interconnected on a network. One of them gets “hurt” and the bigger brothers all come running. Buybazon is big and evil, not stupid. They had to figure someone would try getting in this way.

Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin must think very highly of my abilities. I’m touched.

Here’s the problem: normally when I do this, I’m armored. I’ll have a helmet with a HUD, maybe a limited personal force field, a Beating Stick, a pulse rifle, and a couple of other toys, plus a generic tool belt with some caveman-level “universal keys.” Right now I’m wearing sneakers, sweat pants, a T-shirt that hasn’t been washed in a while, and my signature trench coat. Nice of them to put the coat on me.

I club the drone with its dismembered arm, then sprint into the corridor, ducking low because of how tight the fit is. This place was never designed to be occupied by people. It’s meant for drones moving crates. There’s enough space to get around, it’s all just shaped the wrong way.

The tiny little drone engines buzz behind me, getting louder as I dash through the tight network of honeycomb tubes that take me into the main cargo area. When I get out of here, Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin is going to take a claw hammer to the face, I can tell you that much. For now, well, I kind of want to see what’s so damned important that they’d put me through this.

I’m not used to things going this fast. I reach the intended crate on the intended level and use the drone arm to pop the lid open. Inside there are several parcels wrapped differently, in brightly colored paper with metallic ribbons. Only one of them is in a drab cardboard box, sitting on top of the others, right in the middle. I grab it.

Then something hard hits me on the back. I stumble into the crate with a grunt, and the box flies out of my hand. By the time I’m up and around, brandishing the drone arm like a flaccid stick, my assailant is already on the move. He’s dressed in the typical garb of a power shopper: body armor, Jump Boots, various electro-ionic implements to serve as shields and weapons, and a pair of bulky techno-goggles wrapped around a neoprene balaclava.

An electronic screech stings my ear.

“James, we were warned there’d be another shopper in the W-AirHouse. Head to the sporting and hunting division for armor and weapons. Chase him down before he disembarks,” says the garbled voice of Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin.

They stuck an earpiece in me. Now that’s just perverse. How’d they know I’d been attacked, though? Dumbly I reach up and…yup. This whole time I’ve been wearing video specs. I really need to wake up.

I jump down a level and rip open a few crates. The best I can come up with is a baseball bat and a can of pepper spray, before Mr. MZG warns me that the other power shopper is getting away. I hurry back to the receiving dock, taking a shortcut through the honeycombs, and I have an idea. Once I’m in the receiving area, I’m set upon by three drones, but they’re not the security kind. Three quick bashes to the dome—four for the stubborn drone at the end—renders them inert. I throw them in the only open crate and crank the lever to drop it out of the launch port, just as the power shopper comes in with the parcel. My parcel.

There’s no dialogue. This isn’t the movies. When two alpha wolves face off in real life, you just start beating the crap out of each other. We did. It hurt. My glasses went flying. I got a hand on his goggles and yanked down to fire the pepper spray, but then his balaclava came free and I found myself looking into a mirror. Well, an aged mirror.

“Dad?”

“James,” he gasped.

Jim Kotter. The greatest power shopper in the history of the militarized Black Friday. The only guy who, as far as stats go, has been more successful at it than I have. Also, he’s dead.

“You’re on my bladder,” Dad wheezes.

I roll off of him, stunned. How is he alive? Where has he been all this time? What is in that box, that somebody wants it so badly?

“Son, I…” he begins.

We don’t get the chance to talk. Security drones race into the receiving dock and turn their lasers on us. Dad pulls his goggles back on, and I toss the pepper spray aside, brandishing the floppy drone limb. What I wouldn’t give for a laser cannon…

“They’re not attacking. Not yet.” Dad pushes a button on his goggles. “Cellular signal is strong. They’re broadcasting.”

“To the client?” I ask. Well, not really clients, more like captors, but whatever.

“To everyone. This is on the Web, kiddo.”

I glare. “How much you want to bet we’re working for the same guy?”

“Someone who wanted the top two power shoppers in a mega-match?”

“Aboard a W-AirHouse?”

“Dammit,” Dad hisses.

The drones’ targeting lights come on. Dad and I jump in opposite directions, dodging the lasers before the drones can track us and correct their aim. We have to get out of the dock…and I have just sent Dad’s crate on a return trip. Crap. Gotta go the hard way.

We run and tuck and roll our way past the drones, which bump into each other in the tight quarters. A laser burns through my coat, searing the leather to a stinky crisp. Dad takes a hit square to the back, but his armor has some kind of reflective quality that bends the laser away. We leap into the open honeycomb corridor and crawl at full speed.

“What’s on Deck 5?” I ask.

“Books. No good.”

“They only told me where the sporting goods are, do you know where we can find laser cannons?” I ask.

“Home & Garden, Deck 9. We’ll never make it. Sporting goods!” The corridor curves up ahead, and we follow it until it opens right back where we came from.

“Go get something, I’ll close off the access,” I say. Dad runs off. I step aside and raise the floppy arm above my head. Just as a security drone flies out of the honeycomb corridor, I smash the heavy end of the limb down on it, wrestling it to the ground. It’s big, about the size of a man, but the shape of a wasp. Grabbing its wings, I pick it back up and swing it into the next incoming drone, plugging the hole. The lasers fire at random, cutting into each other, shredding the drones until their inner workings fail. I take a few more burns to the jacket and one more that cuts through my funky T-shirt, stinging my flesh and making me scream.

I’m not dead, so the laser is on a low setting. It should have gone right through me. Whoever’s at the controls is trying to make a show of this. Growling to myself, I drop the wrecked drones and go after Dad. More drones are coming, but I’ve bought a few seconds at least.

“We’ve got to get out of here. They’re toying for now, but eventually the audience will want something worse. You know how people are,” Dad says as he yanks a bulky, backpack-size object out of a crate and slings the straps over his shoulders.

“People suck,” I agree, pulling on another backpack. “Dad, where have you—”

“Later, kiddo. When we survive. Control room is on Deck 3.”

As a kid, people told me I was exactly like my dad. Not that I looked like him, but I was like him. I take after Mom’s side in terms of looks. Dad, though…he never did anything halfway. It’s what makes him the best at whatever he tries. So when he goes for the control room, I know exactly what he’s doing.

“Dad, give me the box,” I say, jogging behind him, looking over my shoulder as the security drones buzz over us.

“It’s not a weapon, Jamie. It’s not even valuable on the open market. It’s a trinket for trillionaires,” he says. “Useless here.”

“I have a point to make,” I say. We speed-crawl through the honeycombs to Deck 3. Dad gives me a quick look, loaded with depth and meaning, and I can tell he’s making the same assessment of me that I had just made of him. We are, after all, the same.

He gives me the box.

The drones swarm the room in great numbers, moving as only a hive can. Hot laser fire rains down all around us—they aren’t messing around now. We take cover under a shelf of crates, but that won’t protect us for long. I reach into my coat and grab one of the two laser cannons I had taken from the drones on the previous deck.

“Shoot back, Dad.” I shove the pistol into his hands, taking the other for myself. Again, sparing the dramatics, we carve a path to the control room. Dad melts the lock off and tugs the door open, covering me as I go in. His laser-reflective armor protects the doorway as I use the last of my cannon to melt through the computer core at the center of the W-AirHouse.

The power cuts out instantly all throughout the ship. But for the glaring red lights on the security drones, the whole deck falls into darkness. Dad grabs my backpack and pulls me out of the control room. He still has his HUD goggles, so I keep a hand on his shoulder and sprint after him, even as the angle of the floor tilts in an odd direction. The W-AirHouse is going down.

“To the honeycomb?” I ask.

“Closed off. I didn’t want to do this, but…close your eyes!”

I do. A few seconds later, a searing blast of heat eats through the wall of the W-AirHouse, and a shock of cold, wintery sea air cuts into the gaps of my clothes, stinging my laser burns.

Scorch grenade. Hardcore.

Dad leaps headfirst out the hole. We’re at an elevation of about two thousand feet. Not drastic, but you don’t want to hit the water from this height. Fortunately, the sporting goods section had recreational jump jets. I turn and hold up the box so the drones can see me. They stop firing. Whatever it is, they want it and know not to compromise it. So I throw it on the metal grating, crush it with my shoe, and fall out of the hole in the side of the flying building.

Grabbing the hand control off of the backpack strap, I slip it over my knuckles and go after Dad. The ignition switch fires the engine right up. I’ve never used one of these before, and while the strap around my torso feels fine, I realize I had forgotten to put a pair of straps around my thighs. The jet stays on, but I feel like most of me is dead weight as it spirits me away from the now-falling W-AirHouse.

Sight is out of the question. Wind speed and the cold cut at my eyes, so I have to squint and blink a lot until Dad comes up to me again and takes me by the arm again, flying me to shore.

“We just porked Cyber Monday,” I say to him, shouting over the roaring wind.

“Yup.”

“They’re gonna be mad.”

“Yup.”

The W-AirHouse belly-flops against the cold, gray ocean. Coast Guard ships are already racing there from the nearest port, no doubt commandeered by the all-powerful Office of Economic Control and Societal Assurances. They will have to salvage as much of it as they can. The flotsam and jetsam will only get more expensive on Buybazon, because the supply is so much lower now. Whatever. They should have let me stay retired.

Our jet packs have enough ionic power to make it to shore, but we’re still about a mile off the coast when an airborne Merecedes-Benz Z-series flies up beside us, belly-open. A trio of neckless thugs in suits drags us onboard with—I kid you not—a fishing net. We try to fight free, but we have nothing left. Once we’re inside, they close the belly, cut us out of the net, and restrain us as we kneel on the floor.

Mr. Mummy-Zombie-Goblin gets out of the passenger seat and faces us, now without his mask. I know him: Senator Bernard Stewart. The Man of the People. Elected on a wave of populism and standing up for the mythical Little Guy.

Spoiler alert, there is no Little Guy, unless we’re all the Little Guy. Except for guys like Stewart. He’s on top, and he knows it. He just doesn’t want you to know it.

“That was a stupid thing you did, James,” Senator Stewart says in his signature smarmy twang.

“I’m not sure which of us you mean,” Dad says.

“Me either.” Stewart nods to the men holding Dad. One of them draws a pistol from an underarm holster.

“No!” I shout.

A deafening explosion rings out in the enclosed car. Everyone is wearing earplugs except for me and Dad…who isn’t dead. The shot had compromised his jet back. Still tangled in the remains of the net, he can’t move his legs. So when the thugs open the belly of the Mercededs again and shove him out over the surf…you can imagine how I feel.

I try to fight them. It doesn’t work. End of that story.

“I am a man who serves society, James Kotter Jr,” Stewart sneers. “And society is built on order. When I place an order, I expect it to be filled. When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed. If I can’t get what I expect, how can you expect any different? Would this make us equal?”

“Are we still on camera?” I spit.

Stewart chuckles. “Facts are facts, regardless of who’s watching. You just dealt serious economic damage to your fellow man. It’s bad enough that you don’t participate in Black Friday and Cyber Monday like everyone else. Why, those two holidays do so much to fuel our economy! The cut prices help the poor, and the taxes help the needy. Your refusal to be a part of that is akin to theft. Have you ever thought of that?”

“I’ve thought of a lot of things. I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to you when your thugs aren’t around,” I say.

“Oh? Why would you say that?”

“Because if you were going to kill me, you never would have brought me aboard. You still think you can get me to do this again. You don’t seem to get it that I’m retired.” I glare, eyes burning with tears. “And you just killed my dad, who I thought was dead. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.”

“I admire your boldness, James. I can see I underestimated you.” He looks out the rear window. I can’t see, but I imagine the W-AirHouse is mostly sunk by now. Stewart continues. “But when I want something, I will get it. You still owe me a Christmas present.”

I rise to my feet, despite the no-necks on me. “Oh, you’ll get it, Stewart. Signed and delivered, you can count on that. You’ve made two big mistakes already today. The hat trick would be letting me out of this rig alive.”

Stewart just grins that million-dollar grin, which had gotten him elected to a third term. “You may go home now. Enjoy the holidays. Next year, I will hire you again, and I will make sure you do as you’re told. Merry Christmas.”

The thugs open the door and kick me out over the beach. I use the last of the jump jet fuel to land without breaking a leg. The sky is gray, and the ocean is grayer. A few people walk across the stretch of sand, but most of them are indoors like sane people. I stare out over the water.

Dad. They killed him. Gone and back and gone again in half an hour. My heart sags with anger and loss. Someone will answer for this pain.

I walk home and slept off the shock of the day, not knowing what else to do.

I’m a simple man. I hurt people, I break things, and I sleep.

 

Two days later, on the real Cyber Monday, a package comes for me in the mail. The drone drops it off on my doorstep and doesn’t even wait for a signature. The box is big, like a doghouse, and has a handwritten label on it. Curiousity beats me, and I bring inside to open it up.

It’s a recreational jump jet with a punctured ionic reactor, the hole about the size of a bullet. Attached to it is a laserproof vest with an inflatable inner lining that has been deployed.

I must be grinning like an idiot.

There’s a note. I unfold it and read the handwriting, the same handwriting I’d seen on all my childhood birthday cards.

Happy Monday, Son. We’ll talk soon.

16 Lessons in 25 Years: My turning points as a writer.

Author Shot

 

#1: Age 8. I want to write stories.

My 3rd grade teacher got me started on it and I have never stopped.

#2: Age 11: Ditch the ever-evolving daydream.

I kept starting and restarting the same story idea with whatever I was daydreaming about at the time. This went on for years. It was a really long time before I finished a book.

#3 Age 14: I’m only writing fanfic. That’s not how I get where I want.

From Power Rangers in elementary school to Beast Wars in middle school, I was only putting twists on other peoples’ stuff. I needed to write my own. So I quit doing fan fiction.

#4 Age 15: This is how the great ones steal stuff. I shall do the same.

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Let’s pretend I said that. More to the point, I figured out how to start making my own stuff, even if it was based originally off of other things I liked. (Writers start this way all the time.)

#5 Age 18: I finished! And people like it! Feelsgoodman

I finished a teenaged cyborg story (based entirely-too-closely on my senior year of high school). A friend-of-a-friend read it, and heaped praise on it. That was…really really cool.

#6 Age 21: There is a such thing as over-writing.

One of the first stories I wrote after my mission was about 25,000 words long, consisting entirely of a dude fighting robots on a train. This is…not necessary. But I got it out of my system. Mostly.

#7 Age 24: I can edit patiently.

For the first time, I ponied up the cash to print off a book I wrote, then bought a red pen and made the whole thing bleed. This was where I realized I liked to edit much better than I liked drafting.

#8 Age 25: I am prolific, and I suck at it!

I tried writing a sci-fi one month, a fantasy the next month, and a paranormal the month after. Each one was garbage because I didn’t get the necessary genre bits right. I was just trying to prove I could “write anything.” I wasn’t ready.

#9 Age 26: I know how to get rejected a lot.

And sooooo many agents helped me learn. Then I finally landed one.

#10 Age 27: Dangle the right carrot, and I can do anything.

My agent was close to getting one of my books placed with a Big5 publisher. I just needed to rewrite the entire damn thing in a month. That month was December. And I was a production manager at a website business. Caffeine became my surname and I worked myself into a bedwetting stupor. But I finished the book on time! The publisher rejected it.

#11 Age 28: Message fic sucks no matter who is writing it.

The book that lost me my agent was a “message fiction” book, or a social message thinly masked by a story and characters. Right wing, left wing, or anywhere in between, these kinds of books suck. Even if the message is good, message fic is not.

#12 Age 29: It’s possible to reboot an idea successfully.

And I did, by combining a few scrapped projects, wrapped around the right concept. That’s where Engines of Liberty came from, staring with REBEL HEART.

#13 Age 30: Sequels are hard.

Until I wrote SUICIDE RUN, I had never finished writing a sequel. Holy cow, it’s a different animal. But now I know how!

#14 Age 31: It’s easy to kill yourself at this.

I was working 50-60 hours a week at my day job, then coming home and getting revved up on caffeine so I could draw for several hours each night to illustrate PATRIOT’S GAME. I’m not proud of this. Caffeine might not be a hard drug, but I was very much addicted and it affected my health both physically and mentally. This made me a hazard to myself and others while I was at work. After a few hard crashes on weekends, my wife helped me realize what I was doing to myself, and I dialed it back. Not worth it.

#15 Age 32: Now that I’ve done this three times, I can streamline my process.

Once I was done with the Engines trilogy, I knew what I was doing. I knocked out KILL THE BEAST in a whole 3 months.

#16 Age 33: It’s not supposed to get easier.

In many ways, THE HERO NEXT DOOR was the hardest book I’ve ever written, and the artwork didn’t go any faster than it did for the other books. In fact it went a lot slower. That’s the price you pay for quality work–it takes time. I’m still working on getting faster at that. Maybe that will be my lesson at age 34.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Trucker Man Reads Girly Books: BURN BY BURN by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian 


TMRGB is a series of blog posts wherein I, a disgruntled CDL driver who wakes up way too early for this crap, recommend effeminate fiction to the masses.

I enjoyed Jenny Han’s first Lara Jean novel, and the library had this one (different series, with a co-author) so I grabbed it. I had to run a lot of trailers back and forth between a drop yard and an oil refinery, so I plugged it in and enjoyed it a decent amount.

The advantage of the audio version was that each of the three main girls got a different narrator. (Even without that, they were all written distinctly, so reading it in print wouldn’t have been a problem.) Kat is the Tough Chick, Lilia is the Popular Chick, Mary is the Homely Quiet Chick.

They’re not friends, not at first, but their paths cross like poorly planned state highways that your dispatcher lies to you about, and they soon find themselves in a convoy…nope, sorry, they find themselves working together to deliver a high-value load of revenge against bullies.

I kept thinking of “Mean Girls” as I listened to it, though this book has slightly sharper teeth. There are a few F-bombs, teen drinking is casually accepted, and there are some sexual situations as well, so be aware. While I’m not fond of that content in YA, Han and Vivian weren’t gratuitous about it, and the instances all played into the plot.
The setting kind of made me wish I owned a house on a coastal American island, probably after I retire from trucking.

Final note, this book was very much the “first act” in a trilogy. There was some resolution to the initial conflict but you can tell this flaming crapstorm is only heating up.

I will real the sequel after I take some time off–I’ve read like three Girly Books in a row without meaning to, I need a change of pace.

Get back to work.

The One We Didn’t Thwart: A Halloween Treat

We had more than two hundred fifty adventures together. We crammed them all into a hundred and four days—give or take.

Things always got crazy. We changed the world. We changed the galaxy. At the end of every afternoon, it changed back, and that was fine.

Same old us. Same mad scientist in town. Same harmless pet platypus.

Then, one day, The Doctor made a “zombie-inator” without a self-destruct button…one that did its job.

He pulled the trigger. The -inator was somehow aimed straight at our yard.

My brother was Patient Zero.

He got our mom. She turned our dad. Then our sister, and her boyfriend, and soon our whole block.

The Tri-State area fell. We tried to save it. We fought it as long as we could, but you can’t fight the sunset.

My brother fled. At first it didn’t matter—taking him down wouldn’t have changed what he did.

Friends. Family. Loved ones. Lives destroyed…oh, what might have been.

This morning, though, I woke up, and I knew things were different. He’d returned. You can’t spend all that time with someone without knowing when they’re about to be breathing down your neck.

So to speak.

I wanted to be angry at him. In the end, it’s not his fault. It’s Doof’s. And he’s long gone.

If anything, I will be grateful. Before I have to finish him, I get to say the words.

One.

Last.

Time.

“Well, Ferb. I know what we’re gonna do today.”

Trucker Man Reads Girly Books: KISSES IN THE RAIN, by Krista Lynne Jensen

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Amazon link

TMRGB is a series of blog posts wherein I, a disgruntled truck driver who unfortunately is not allowed to have a beard because of current job requirements, recommend effeminate fiction to the masses.

Seattle.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…provided that you are a west coast trucker.

I hate Seattle. It does nothing but rain, and the paper mills all smell like broccoli that’s been overboiled in a construction yard outhouse. Also the music is overrated. The worst part, though…the worst part of it is the trucking.

Is the sun up? Are you on Interstate 5? My psychic powers tell me that you are going no faster than 30 miles per hour. Yes! Real psychic powers! Now send me money.

Are you in Seattle proper? I am so, so sorry. No, don’t worry about what the GPS says, you can go down that road. There’s a low bridge but only in the right lane. Yes, everything is tight and packed and hard to get through. Those caveman-looking people? Why, those are hippies. Yeah, still have hippies in Seattle. They haven’t gotten the message yet.

And to answer your unasked query, I do indeed want to saw the entire western edge of Washington off and push it into the ocean Lex Luthor-style. There is nothing redeemable about the place…

…unless Jace and Georgie are real. If that’s the case, well, okay, I guess they can have it. But you can’t make me truck there. Oh, you’re my dispatcher? I guess you can make me truck there. But you can’t make me like it.

Yes, this is where I stop blabbing about trucking and start blabbing about KISSES IN THE RAIN by my friend, Krista Jensen.

Jace is a super chill Bachelor Hunk who lives in a rundown rental with a rescue dog and his own deep thoughts. He works at a restaurant, making food. He just got used by a girl so that she could make her ex-boyfriend jealous, and he vents his frustration by rage-riding his motorcycle through the Rain City. Oh, and he’s unconsciously handsome.

Image result for robert downey jr lip bite gif

Georgie also just got out of a bad relationship, but hers was a little bit easier, ’cause the guy died. The downside is that Georgie was in the car with him when he snuffed it, and she’s still trying to put herself back together, mentally and emotionally speaking. She comes to Seattle and gets a job at the same restaurant as Jace.

Ooooooh, are they gonna hook uuuuuuup?

Um, duh? Did I mention a rocket ship somewhere? This is guy-fi, not sci-fi.

Image result for lip bite gif

 

Among the strengths of this story–other than persuading me not to go Full Metal Supervillain on the Pacific Northwest–was the depth behind the main characters, and how they both had to do some self-examination before realizing they were ready to be with someone else.

Georgie probably had the more interesting arc on this front. It was nice to read about a character who’d been damaged by an abusive relationship but was later able to work her way out of the trauma by understanding that the abuse wasn’t her fault. Presenting that kind of relationship in fiction is a safe way to show how that abuse takes shape, because in real life people don’t always cotton on to it when it’s happening.

Also it was cool that Jace had a motorcycle. I don’t, because I have kids.

Final note, this book made me hungry for peppery shrimp with blackberry sauce. Time to go hit the fridge.

Carry on.