War-Songs

As those of you who have read the later books in the Angel Brings Fire series will be well-aware, one (hopefully) unique characteristic of those who inherit access to Amaiish (a.k.a. “The Fire“), is the presence of a “war-song”, (or Métschaì’l – MAYT-sha-AYE-el in the Storied Watcher’s own language) – a unique, semi-subconscious melody which sometimes plays in the background, “from everywhere and nowhere” – when one of the “New People” energizes his or her particular alien-power(s).

Not all of the Storied Watcher’s followers have a war-song (even some who have reasonably potent alien-powers don’t have one), and the precise melody experienced by those in the immediate vicinity of a given character who does have a war-song, can vary from time to time. Also, a war-song can be purely ethereal – that is, it “plays” only in the minds of its beholders – at one time, but then manifest itself in conventional (sometimes, very loud and long-ranged) sound-waves, at another time. Nobody really knows why this is, and even Karéin-Mayréij herself is somewhat at a loss to fully explain or control it.

With the above in mind, some readers have asked me, “well, what, exactly, does a ‘war-song’ sound like?”

The answer is simple : “it sounds like, whatever you think it sounds like”.

That having been said, if people want to know what kinds of tunes were going through my mind at the time when I wrote The Angel Brings Fire, I can tell you what my conception is of the war-songs used by some of the major characters… please note, this is obviously not a definitive list, and is not meant to over-rule you own imagination of what these (mostly) subtle, background-hymns would sound like, if encountered up close.

Note : Trademarks and copyrights to all songs belong to their respective owners and are only reproduced here for informative purposes.

Karéin-Mayréij : The Storied Watcher, as you might imagine, has a wide variety of these war-songs, which vary according to which combination of powers that she happens to be using.

However, I always imagined [SPOILER ALERT!] the scene when she explodes through the underground ceiling in the bottom of the R.B. Cheney Detention Facility, as being set to the exciting, rapid-paced tune of Song Seven, by Interpol or perhaps the first part of Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi (up to about 0:45 into the song), although at other times, her appearance is accompanied by a stirring, exciting blast of music akin to what’s heard at about the 2:48 mark of Heading For Nowhere by Jets Overhead or in What I’ve Done by Linkin Park (first 0:23 of the song).

And for those of you who remember Book 2 (Doubt Me Not), the ethereal song playing in Bob Billings’ car, while “Sari” pours out her heart to her new-found friends and the shocked humans begin to realize who’s in the back seat, is When Tomorrow Comes, by The Shore.

The Storied Watcher’s death-run against the “Lucifer” comet sounded (as is mentioned in Angel of Mailànkh) like a kind of godly improvement on the last few bars of the iconic Stairway To Heaven, by Led Zeppelin.

Karéin’s “oo-oo-oo” wail, which frequently accompanies her appearance at the scene of a battle, sounds like the equivalent, eerie wail done by Loreena McKennitt, in her great Celtic masterpiece, The Mummer’s Dance.

A few “war-songs” are “common” to all of the Storied Watcher’s “major” disciples; these empower all of the “more-than-humans” within earshot, when they are about to collectively embark on a major voyage, task, battle or quest. These “shared” war-songs typically have the electric, fast-paced beat found in Iridescent by Linkin Park (riff starting at 2:43) and in Frost by Vertical Horizon (riff starting at 3:39).

Tommy Singing-Bird George : Like his adopted mother, Tommy has a variety of war-songs, but the most common one (which you really don’t want to hear, especially if he’s aiming in your direction at the time) sounds somewhat similar to Bryan Adams’ immortal guitar chords at 2:35 into Run To You. His more “standard” war-song is reminiscent of the first few bars of New Divide, by Linkin Park.

Cherie Tanaka : Underneath by Alanis Morissette (the riff that starts at about 3:05 into the song). Her war-wail “oo-ai-oo” sounds like a combination of what you hear on Underneath and the similar sound at the 1:09 mark of Geraldine by Glasvegas (and keep in mind, when “The First Of The Fire” – as is the case with her angelic mentor – fully empowers herself, the effect is overwhelming; Tanaka’s war-song reverberates everywhere and leaves no doubt as to who’s on the way!

Sam Jacobson : 9th Life by Papa Roach; the song nicely captures Jacobson’s unstoppable, hard-charging, indestructible motif.

Brent Boyd : Broken Over You by Vertical Horizon, starting at about the 28-second mark.

Devon White : This one was difficult to decide, because there’s no popular song (at least not one with which I’m familiar) that is a close match for his dignified, inspirational, yet fast-paced and exciting, war-song. That said, let’s go with an admixture (if that’s possible) of parts of Quiet As A Mouse by Margot And The Nuclear So & So’s (at 0:17 into the song) and Harbour Lights by A Silent Film, starting at about 2:25.

Sergei Chkalov : Who knows? All I can say is, “if you heard Sergei’s war-song, you’d think it second only to perhaps Tanaka’s.”  Update : I now know what the redoubtable Mr. Chkalov’s war-song is; it’s Spokoynaya Noch’ by that greatest of Russian rock bands, Kino. Listen especially for the mind-blowing guitar at about 3:32 and you’ll know what it sounds like when Sergei lights up his personal Fire!

Minnie Chu : Another Way In by the Rosebuds, especially the riff starting at about the 0:40 time position. (When Ms. Chu fires her rather wicked stare, the accompanying sound is Jimi Hendrix’ famous, never-duplicated guitar wail at about 2:00 into All Along The Watchtower.)

Sylvia Abruzzio : Back-beat from Change The Sheets, by Kathleen Edwards, especially the part at about 1:58 into the song. This one is probably the best example of all, regarding how a war-song works; imagine the pace of the ephemeral, exciting, stirring electro-rock back-beat picking up, as Sylvia powers up her abilities, in similar manner to how it goes in this great tune.

Will Hendricks : My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark, by Fall Out Boy, especially the very first part of the song “bam wham thank you Ma’am”…

Misha (a.k.a. Mikhail Grishin) : This is a pretty hard one because I don’t have access to a lot of good, contemporary Russian rock music. So I’ll go with Hear Me by Imagine Dragons (the one from the Answers To Nothing soundtrack, not the inferior radio version!)

Wolf (a.k.a. Darryl D. Bennington) : Did you even have to askHell’s Bells by AC/DC, and also Fire Woman by The Cult (move that pointer to 0:40 and turn the volume to “11”).  😉

Otis Boatman : Forever by Papa Roach, starting at about the 0:52-second mark.

Hector Ramirez : Another one that was hard to decide upon exactly due to the lack of a good match; but let’s pick The Harbour by Leaves, starting at about 35 seconds into the song.

Jerry Kaysten : Calgary by Bon Iver, but only the short part beginning at the song’s 1:50 mark; this melody predominates when Jerry uses his “killer joke” ability. When running at high speed, his war-song sounds more like Time Turns Around by the Spoons.

Sebastiàn : Try to imagine a version of Cold Seed by Tiamat (starting at approximately 42 seconds into the song), but with a Latino beat, and that’s what this sinister and very potent “new human’s” war-song sounds like. His war-song also has (duh!) some elements of Poison by Shiny Toy Guns.

Bob Billings : There’s nothing in my music collection that’s exactly like the former salesman’s angry, ominous war-song, but the closest equivalent is Fine Again by Seether, starting at about the 1:00 mark in the song, or perhaps the riff in Narc by Interpol, found at the 0:57 mark. (It should be noted that Billings doesn’t really like using all of these “weirdo” alien-powers, so his war-song isn’t very often heard… but if you do hear it… time to get out of the way!)

Whitney Claremont : It’s not an exact match, but Healing Begins by Tenth Avenue North, is pretty close. (Off-topic note : Finally, a Christian-rock group that’s able and willing to write and perform good music, as opposed to beating you over the head with “inspirational” lyrics. Maybe there is a God?) Whitney’s war-song also (when she is pushing her powers to the limit) sounds a lot like Afer Ventus by Enya.

Melissa Claremont : Another one that’s not right on the mark but let’s go with Silenced By The Night by Keane.

Curtis Claremont : Fortunately for the eardrums of the other “more-than-humans”, young master Claremont doesn’t get to use his primary alien-power very much within the scope of the Angel Brings Fire series. However, I’ve always thought that if he could, you’d hear something sort of like some bars from Sometimes by Ours, at about the 2:44 mark.

Donny Wade : A fairly easy one… Hey Now by Augustana, especially the great slide guitar found at about 2:35 in that song, but also with elements found in The Struggle by Grizfolk.

Saquina White : The riff of Evermore by Vertical Horizon, starting at the 1:31 mark.

As noted above, these are my conceptions of what the war-songs of the major characters from the Angel Brings Fire series sound like; but they needn’t be yours. Think of any kind of music that’s (a) exciting with a good beat and (b) you like to hear, and play that in the background as you read The Angel Brings Fire!

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

The Future Burns Bright : Status Report (September 2013)

As it has been a while since the last blog posting, I thought I should update those interested, in the status of work on The Future Burns Bright (The Angel Brings Fire, Book 4).

The book was originally scheduled for release at the end of summer 2013 (and this was always do-able); however, I have run into certain production delays (outside of my direct control), having to do with the look and feel of it, that have led me to believe that the preferable thing to do, would be to delay release of the fourth and final book of the series until early 2014.

Editorial work on The Future Burns Bright (volume 2) is about 85% done (the plot is complete and how the series will end, is known; I just have to put pen to paper as it were) and should be completed before the end of this year. Without giving away too much… I’ll just say, “I hope all of you like ‘action’… because you’ll get loads of it, in this last part of The Angel Brings Fire!”

I’m also considering a separate “Epilog” volume which would describe what happens to some of the main characters, past the end of the formal narrative of The Angel Brings Fire. I might also do this as a fully Web-based “freebie” that could be read, and updated, on this blog, or on the official ABF Book Website (the two options are not mutually exclusive, of course). Please ping me by e-mail if you think this would be a good idea and if so, which option you would prefer.

As always, if you’re willing to write a review and can meet certain other qualifications, I can make a pre-release .pdf / .mobi copy available to interested parties. Please fire off an e-mail to inquiries@abfbook.telostic.com, should you be want more information.

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

The Future Burns Bright (Volume 1)… Done!

As has previously been noted on this blog, the fourth and final book of The Angel Brings Fire — namely, The Future Burns Bright — will consist of two (2) separate volumes.

I know this may seem rather counter-intuitive to some readers (e.g. “why didn’t you just call it ‘Books #4 and #5?”), but The Future Burns Bright really is a single story (you’ll just have to take my word for this). But actually, the main reason for the two-volume format is, for the paperback version of the book, the various POD publishers impose certain upper limits in terms of “maximum page count”… there was simply no way in which to properly finish the story, within the artificial limits that would have been required to fit it into a single book.

(Note : Obviously, these limits don’t apply to an e-Book; but to have done The Future Burns Bright exclusively as an e-Book, would have created an entirely different set of problems… like, “people who bought the paperback versions of the first 3 books and who don’t have an e-Reader, are “SOL”… “let’s not go there, eh”.)

In any event, I’m pleased to report that all editorial and narrative work is now complete on Volume 1 of The Future Burns Bright; it exists as a .PDF with preliminary cover art (I’m waiting for the “final” cover art to get done).

I’d ask fans of The Angel Brings Fire to be patient, as The Future Burns Bright will be available in its entirety, in the late summer of 2013… but if you just can’t wait, send me an e-mail and I’ll try to get you a preview (in .PDF, .MOBI or .EPUB e-Book formats, only) copy.

And as a “teaser”… read on, to see the back-cover synopsis of the book!

The Angel Brings Fire
Book 4 (Volume 1) : The Future Burns Bright, Volume 1

The “Storied Watcher”, a.k.a. Karéin-Mayréij, is living up to her name : at war with the U.S. police state of 2040, she’s just paid a visit to the White House, that nobody will ever forget. But she’s not the only disaster with which the President must contend… nuclear terrorists are almost ready to set off an H-Bomb, somewhere in America.

While a FBI team tries frantically to placate the alien-girl, treachery abounds : the government plans to rid itself of her, by murdering those she loves, many of whom have been “renditioned” to a nightmarish, secret Alaskan prison.

But the friends of Karéin-Mayréij now have alien-powers of their own… and they’re in a desperate battle to stay alive, while the Storied Watcher recruits an army… one that the President (to say the least) isn’t prepared for.

Unfortunately, time’s running out… both for millions of helpless Americans, and for the family of a certain “Destroying Angel”.

It’s only a few minutes, to a bright-burning dawn…

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

Characters from Angel and The Empire

Following on a post of the same nature related to the character list from Doubt Me Not, here are some more popular-culture similes of the characters in the third book of the Angel Brings Fire series. (Note : Obviously, quite a few of the characters from the first two books are also in Angel and The Empire, and with one minor and one rather <ahem> “important” exception, I’m not going to re-portray these; what’s depicted below, except for the Storied Watcher, represents the “net new” characters from Angel and The Empire.)

First off, since the post that originally described the book’s characters, I’ve stumbled across a better “prototype” for Karéin-Mayréij, a.k.a. the Storied Watcher. This is the former Google chief architect and (as of when this is being written) the new CEO of Yahoo, namely, Marissa Mayer. She’s almost a perfect “fit” for Karéin… if her hair was done a bit differently and she had, err, somewhat longer incisors, she’d be bang-on. You’ll see what I mean by looking at this picture and this one.

The next “new” major character in Angel and The Empire, Jerry Kaysten (who is the President’s Chief of Staff… he’s actually in Doubt Me Not, but not in as important a role), has been a hard one to find a prototype for. However, if you can imagine a slightly older Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock, with thinning hair, you’ll get the idea… and the redoubtable Mr. McBrayer certainly has perfectly captured Jerry Kaysten’s eager-beaver, “anything-to-please-the-Boss”, style.

As those of you who have read it (teaser alert!) will be aware, during the course of Angel and The Empire, the Storied Watcher manages to “recruit” a number of new followers. Two of these – “Wolf” (a Tucson-area bounty-hunter) and Mikhail Grishin, a.k.a. “Misha” (a Russian deep-cover spy) – are similar to the wrestler William “Christian” Reso and this (anonymous?) Russian Spetsnaz model, respectively. (Note : “Misha” is slightly older than the guy depicted in the latter picture.)

Incidentally, I have also found an even better prototype for Minnie Chu : namely, the famous “Lady Whirlwind” of the Hong Kong martial arts film industry, the redoubtable Angela Mao Ying. Angela (in her younger days) is an almost perfect image of the FBI team leader.

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

Guest posting and commentary policy

So, here goes another one of those announcements that, in anything like an ideal world, one should never have to publish… but which, given all the sleazeball cyber-criminals and fast-buck-artists who infest the Web, is sadly necessary.

As you may have noticed if you have tried to add a guest post to The Angel Brings Fire blog, all such comments are “moderated”; that is, before the posting will actually appear, it must be reviewed and approved by myself.

Why?

Well, rest assured that this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I agree with your point of view, or if I like what you’re saying about me (go ahead, I have the proverbial thick skin), or if your comments are — up to a point — even particularly relevant to the core purpose of the blog (which is, obviously, about The Angel Brings Fire series of science fiction novels).

The reason why I (as well as 99% of other, “responsible” bloggers) have to impose this policy is because of the fact that about 99% of the “comments” that are presented for my approval, are sent in by spammers, cyber-criminals and malware purveyors, who are, I suppose, figuring that I’ll slip up and let them infest my blog with this kind of garbage, which not only would clutter the blog with all sorts of completely off-topic junk, but which would also represent a risk to the safety of my legitimate readers and posters.

Typically, these types of spam postings involve URLs (hyperlinks) that connect to “discount pharmaceutical” and “male performance enhancement” scams, but, more seriously, many of these sites also serve up what in the IT security community, we term “drive-by download” malware… that is, a virus that infects your PC, if you even visit such a site. Unfortunately, the Web is crawling with criminals who leverage this tactic, in the hope of planting a virus on a victim’s computer, and then using this malicious software to do things like stealing the victim’s credit card or banking information, launching denial-of-service attacks or using the PC as a launching pad for “hacking” elsewhere on the Internet (and when the intrusion gets detected, guess whose IP address gets flagged and raided by the police… right, the victim’s, not the criminal’s… cute little trick, eh?).

I refuse to become a passive accomplice in criminal activities of this type… hence, why I review each and every third party message that is proposed for inclusion in The Angel Brings Fire blog.

And thus, I have a special message for the next bunch of cyber-criminals, thieves and other similar a**holes who figure it would be a good idea to “enlist” my blog, into their little get-rich-quick fraud-and-malware empires :

It won’t work, so don’t waste your time.

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

Angel and The Empire is available!

I’m pleased to announce that The Angel Brings Fire, Book #3, a.k.a. Angel and The Empire, has now been published in all formats… including “conventional paperback” which typically takes the longest.

The URL for the paperback version, on Amazon, is :

http://www.amazon.com/Angel-The-Empire-Brings-Volume/dp/0986915866/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1337530175&sr=8-8

The URL for Angel and The Empire, on the main Angel Brings Fire Website, is :

http://abfbook.telostic.com/Book_3/ABF_Book_3.html

This go-around in the publishing process (compared to what was encountered in the first two books) has been unusually challenging, due partly to the last-minute discovery of many minor “typos”, but mainly because of problems encountered with the printed Createspace proof; to make a long story short, despite the fact that exactly the same OpenOffice template was used to format all three books, when the proof for Angel and The Empire was received, to our dismay, what was supposed to have been 10 point font looked like it had been mysteriously reduced to 8!

Subsequent research (and frantic complaints to Createspace…) confirmed (at least this is what I think it means), that printed copies of the “real”, “final” version will be in the larger, appropriate typeface… just another example of what one deals with, in the world of PODspace…

For those of you who are already familiar with The Angel Brings Fire series of novels, you’ll notice two things that are different about this book, compared to Angel of Mailànkh and Doubt Me Not : (a) the cover art is significantly better than had previously been the case (although… it is due to be “improved” for the earlier two books as well, in subsequent editions); and, plot-wise, (b) our heroine, is, well… let’s just say that she’s in a really bad mood about what’s recently befallen her, and, unlike the situation in Doubt Me Not, she’s now in a position to do something about it!

Incidentally, there is a political narrative embedded in all of this, that should be apparent to anyone who is familiar with current events. I’d be curious to see how many of you can correctly guess what it is.

Finally, I hope that you all like the book! Whether or not you do, comments and critiques are always welcome, so if you have something to say, please don’t hesitate to do so, by entering a guest post on this blog.

Marcus Shields

Author, The Angel Brings Fire

Progress on “Angel and The Empire”

Work is now progressing nicely on The Angel Brings Fire Book 3, namely, Angel and The Empire.

Actually, the manuscript has been “done” (in a loose sense of the word, “done”) for quite some time, but it still needs to be proof-read and cleaned up before it will be ready for publication… the time-table for which — and this is very subject to amendment — is “sometime around March / April, 2012”.

Without giving too much of the plot away, let me just say that those of you who have asked for more “action” in the series, are about to be supplied with ample amounts of the same, as the Storied Watcher begins to “give some back” to the many who have done her wrong… including, but not limited to, the President of a certain future U. S. of A..

On a separate note, I think you will be very impressed by the new cover art that will shortly be applied not only to Angel and The Empire, but, retroactively, to Books 1 and 2 respectively. We have contracted with a professional artist to re-do this vital part of the series’ look and feel and the results have been… well, what they should have been from “Day 1”.

It’s really too bad that the outward appearance of what is, after all, a work of printed literature, has such an important effect on a novel’s market acceptance; but it’s one of those situations where “you can like it, or you can hate it, but you can’t ignore it”.

If you’d like a sneak peak at the cover for Book 3, just send me an e-mail and I’ll reply with a .jpg reproduction of how it’s likely to appear.

The Author

Tools of the trade : why and how I use Open Source

In conversations with aspiring writers and also with people who are just generally interested in the technical details of the self-publishing process, sometimes I hear comments such as, “Gee, you must have had an awfully good computer, with which to write a series as lengthy and involved as The Angel Brings Fire“.

It’s an understandable assumption but in fact it’s very far from the truth; consider that most of the great works of fiction in the last century, from Joyce to Orwell to Hemingway to J.R.R. Tolkien to countless others, were done either in handwriting or on primitive, manual typewriters. In my own case, I learned how to type on my late father’s old Underwood, which — though built like the proverbial tank and though “state-of-the-art” for its time — was nothing like a PC word processor.

In reality, almost any halfway modern PC would “do” as a platform upon which to launch a self-publishing project (or projects). The real issue isn’t so much what you have to work with (in terms of software and hardware), as it is (a) understanding how to set up and organize in the first place and (b) how you use, whatever you do have.

Let me explain…

When I set about to write The Angel Brings Fire, I knew that I’d need my computer environment to meet at least the following key requirements :

(1.) Flexibility – The system would have to be adaptable to a wide variety of functions, some of which might only become known well after I had started the project.

A very important side-consideration, here, is the need for the system not to be encumbered by artificial “anti-features” (for example, software copy protection) that could limit my ability to transition to more sophisticated PC hardware, without abandoning my existing investment in whatever software I had selected.

(2.) Standards compliance – The system would have to work with third-party service providers (for example on-line POD publishers) over whom I would have zero influence. Therefore it would be critical for it to maintain “standards compliance”, which is perhaps most easily explained as, “speaking a language that the rest of the computer world expects to hear”.

A good example of this would be the ability to output in familiar file formats like Microsoft’s MS-Word (.doc) document format or Adobe’s Acrobat (.pdf) format. (Note : As I discovered, a lot of computer programs are “99.9% compatible” with standard output formats. Unfortunately, many of the POD publishers require “100% compatibility”… that last one per cent will drive you stark, raving, mad!)

(3.) Reasonable learning curve – When one is writing a novel, the task-at-hand is doing just that… not in spending days or weeks trying to figure out how the word processing or presentation graphics program, works.

This is an especially important factor, given that (as studies have repeatedly shown), most PC users only ever actually experiment with about 1/10th of the long list of complex “features” that come pre-loaded into applications like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. (Is it, for example, necessary to learn how to do macro programming, in order just to write a novel?)

So even if whatever that I decided to use, was in fact larded with all sorts of “features” irrelevant to fiction-writing, it was important that I be easily able to ignore all the “chrome” and drill down to only the subset of the functions that I needed to employ.

What you really need in a word processor — at least for purposes of writing a POD novel — is a half-decent spell checker, the ability to precisely set page size dimensions and enough understanding of the program to be able to do add simple types of fields such as an auto-generated Table of Contents. (Incidentally — don’t worry too much about fonts and typefaces, presupposing of course that you can use standard ones like Times New Roman and Arial. Very few POD publishers give you any real “say” in what fonts are used, in any event, so you’ll just have to live with whatever serif and non-serif fonts that they happen to impose upon you.)

(4.) Cost-effectiveness – A favorite joke of mine goes, “What’s the difference between the used car salesman and the computer salesman? Easy. At least the used car salesman knows when he’s lying to you.”

The unfortunate fact is, most computer salespeople in the “big box” stores (e.g. Best Buy, Future Shop, department stores, etc.) have, at best, a superficial understanding of how computers really work; for example, 99.9% of them would be completely at a loss, if they were to be asked to install an alternate operating system (see below) on a Windows-based PC. This causes a “blind leading the blind” scenario in which salespeople overcompensate, suggesting that shoppers purchase equipment that is unnecessarily complex and expensive.

Furthermore, computer software and hardware is a big business, in which salespeople have a vested interest in “upselling” — that is, inducing one to buy all sorts of things that have best a marginal incremental effect on the system’s responsiveness and usefulness.

One classic example of this is the tendency of the “big box” stores to hard-sell shoppers on point-of-sale warranties that are highly profitable for the store, but that are almost worthless to the purchaser. Don’t fall for this one; if your PC is going to fail, it will likely do so in the first 60 or so days, and in most jurisdictions, by consumer protection laws, the dealer has to fix it or refund your money, warranty or no warranty.

I didn’t need a PC powerful enough to run the latest 3-D, first person shooter games; I just needed one good enough to run a word processor at acceptable speeds. (The cheaper the better, as it were.) You should be able to get a decent laptop PC, appropriate for writing with, these days, for no more than about $500 U.S. (tax out). A desktop computer will cost you about $150-$200 more, simply because of the cost of the separate monitor, but on the other hand with a desktop you will get a larger editable area (a function of the larger screen size) and a generally more powerful PC.

The choice is yours, and don’t forget that a good used PC (if reinstalled with the Ubuntu Linux operating system, see below) in the $200-$300 range would be perfectly acceptable.

——————————————————————————————-

So with all of the above in mind, what, exactly, did I settle upon?

I wrote The Angel Brings Fire on a number of different computers (several of which have been significantly less powerful than what I am now using), but for the past year or so, my platform has been :

Hardware : ASUS laptop with 3 Gb (gigabytes, or billion bytes) of RAM memory and a dual-core 2.1 GHz (gigahertz, or billion processor cycles per second) CPU. The PC has a 375 Gb hard drive and a 17 inch LCD display (note : the size of the screen is actually the most important of these attributes… get the biggest monitor that you can afford!).

The truth is that, up to a certain point, the raw hardware stats (e.g. CPU, RAM, hard drive, etc.) of your computer, are almost the least important factors. Unless you are really strapped for cash (in which case almost anything post-2000 or so, will do), I would suggest acquiring a PC with at least 1 Gb of RAM, a 100 Gb or larger hard drive and (this is important, if you want to attach modern peripherals like printers or external hard drives for file backup), USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports (the more the better… since many external keyboards and mice now only come in USB form factor).

I use an external mouse and keyboard, as trying to write prose quickly on the cramped, built-in keyboards and track-pads that are typically supplied with laptop computers (especially “netbooks”, or, even worse, the on-screen pseudo-keyboards found with “tablet” PCs), is a sure-fire recipe for utter frustration.

Pay attention to your keyboard and test it out thoroughly, before you set out to write a novel with it. I seriously mean this. The keyboard is the main conduit through which you will transfer the ideas in your head — in other words, the content of your novel — into semi-permanent form, on the computer. It may sound strange to assign such a “low-tech” device, such a high priority in your technology-sourcing project, but trust me… time spent in picking the keyboard that’s right for you, will not be wasted time.

One other thing : my laptop has a cooling pad (a thin device with a couple of fans blowing upward) located underneath the PC. This is highly recommended for all laptop users as it will help reduce the heat load on the computer’s internal circuitry and will prolong its life. It is absolutely a “must-have” for anyone who intends to use a laptop for prolonged periods, in an environment with consistently high (21 Celsius / 70 Fahrenheit) ambient temperatures. (Don’t forget : it’s in the interests of the computer industry, to sell you a laptop that overheats due to inadequate internal cooling, then slowly degrades in performance and reliability, until it dies altogether… at which point, you have to shell out for a new portable computer. I am 100% sure that this cynical strategy is in widespread use today, so don’t fall for it… use a cooling pad.)

Software : I do not use either Microsoft’s Windows operating system or its MS-Office suite of software applications (the best-known of which is the Word, word processing program).

Apart from the many well-known security vulnerabilities (e.g. susceptibility to viruses) of this software, it is obtusely copy-protected in a manner that makes it extremely fragile, should anything happen to the PC hardware that you installed it on; I have seen far too many fellow writers left impotently fuming, when they’re told that “sorry, your copies of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are ‘locked’ to the specific hardware of your now-dead computer, so if you want to keep writing, you’ll have to go out and pay Microsoft all over again, for the operating system and word processor that you thought you had already paid them for”. (As I write these words, this precise set of events has just been imposed on neighbors, in the house 2 doors down from where I live…)

From my POV, copy protection of the sort that Microsoft uses with its software is little short of outright fraud. It is completely ineffective against true software pirates, who are always two steps ahead of the game; so the only reasonable conclusion is, it’s really just a form of “planned obsolescence” designed to extort more money out of honest, existing users.

Some time ago, I made a conscious decision to move away from proprietary, (and, frequently, very expensive) commercial computer software, in favor of “Open Source” (freeware) software, and I can honestly say that I have never regretted having done so. Only slightly to my surprise did I discover that the quality of Open Source software is arguably even better than that of commercial software, largely because, if a serious problem is discovered in a user-created and user-supported Open Source program, it is usually “patched” (fixed) very quickly by developers (programmers) within the user community.

This is absolutely not the case with a great deal of commercial software, since all too often, the manufacturer views fixing serious bugs in “version 1.0” of a product, as an “upsell” opportunity, so as to induce the hapless users of “version 1.0” to “upgrade” (at their own cost) to “version 2.0″… of course, then the bugs in “version 2.0” are discovered, and around and around we go again. Computer users have had to put up with this kind of self-serving manipulation on the part of the software industry, for far too long, unfortunately.

The only significant downside to using Open Source products is, because they are “free”, they are sometimes deliberately ignored or denigrated by the conventional software industry, which after all has an interest in pretending that there is no alternative to their own very costly, frequently unstable offerings. For a writer, where this most often manifests, is when one goes on a POD publisher site and is instructed to use a commercial program such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop to complete some necessary function, since it’s up to oneself to figure out which Open Source alternative would be the best “fit” to perform the same task.

So my software setup consists of the following :

(5.) Computer operating system – Ubuntu Linux v. 10.10 (“Maverick Meerkat”), released October 2010 (note : I have used a number of previous versions of Ubuntu, going back to the 7.x days, as well).

This non-Windows, Open Source operating system is probably the easiest of all the versions of Linux for an average user to install, and it is much, much faster, with far lower RAM memory overhead, compared to Microsoft’s Windows 7 or Vista. It’s at least as easy to use as any other computer operating system, including Apple’s excellent (but highly proprietary and expensive) Macintosh series of computers. Furthermore, Ubuntu is completely immune from Windows-environment “malware” (viruses, “worms” and so on) that constantly plague users of Microsoft’s software; you don’t even need an anti-virus program.

There is also an offshoot of Ubuntu called “Lubuntu” that (although somewhat more difficult to get up and running), has truly amazingly low memory and CPU requirements, making it the ideal solution for users who have older computers that they don’t want to, or can’t, easily upgrade.

Having used Ubuntu for a few years, I can’t imagine going back to anything else. It’s the single best piece of computer software that I have ever encountered in my many years in the industry, and best of all, it’s completely free! (One caveat : for some reason, the more recent versions of Ubuntu have decided to experiment with a user interface called “Unity”, that makes the PC look and behave more like a cell phone. If this isn’t what you had been expecting, it is quite easy to make it revert to the older, more familiar “windows and icons” interface, though explaining how to do this is beyond the scope of this posting.)

You can download Ubuntu Linux, for free, from http://www.ubuntu.com. When you burn the “ISO image” that you so get, to a CD, you can boot your existing Windows PC with the resulting “live CD” and experiment with Ubuntu with absolutely no risk to your incumbent Windows operating system; if you don’t like the free Open Source alternative, simply shut down the PC, remove the live CD and start up Windows again.

What have you got to lose, by trying it out?

(6.) Word processor – I use OpenOffice (version 3.2) and LibreOffice (3.x), which are free, Open Source office software suites comparable to Microsoft Office 2010. (Note : OpenOffice and LibreOffice are basically the same product; the differences are highly technical and revolve around changes in the software’s Open Source license, after Sun Microsystems, the originator of OpenOffice, was sold to the Oracle Corporation.)

Incidentally, there are fully-functional versions of both OpenOffice and LibreOffice for the Windows operating system, so even if you don’t want to throw out Windows itself, you can still save quite a bit of money by using OpenOffice or LibreOffice under Windows as opposed to shelling out the hundreds of dollars needed to purchase “real” Microsoft Office.

Both of the Open and Libre office suites have a very important feature that is completely absent from Microsoft Office, namely, the ability to output to the .pdf or Adobe Acrobat, final document format (this is because Adobe is a bitter competitor to Microsoft in the world of commercial software, so Microsoft is trying to pretend that the .pdf format is not worth supporting… there are also legal issues).

One important note here : When using (say) OpenOffice to output to .pdf format, make sure to choose, “PDF/A-1a” format, since this sub-format embeds fonts and incorporates other features that on-line POD publishers almost universally require.

I also use the OpenOffice Draw vector graphics program, along with GIMP (see below), to do the covers for The Angel Brings Fire. Here again, the rule is, “select PDF/A-1a”, when exporting to Acrobat format.

(7.) Graphics and cover art program -For this I use the Open Source GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) application, which is roughly comparable to Adobe’s Photoshop (although, GIMP does not support Pantone, TruMatch or other print industry precise color matching standards, which is a rather significant disadvantage; however, there is a “dirty trick” that you can use to get sort of the same effect, namely, import a GIMP bitmap color image into OpenOffice Draw, then export it as an Acrobat PDF/A-1a, which will preserve the color properties so that these will look almost the same when printed, as they do on your computer screen).

I should note that while it is no more difficult than any comparable “professional-level” computer graphics program, do not be misled into thinking that GIMP (or Photoshop, for that matter), is easy to learn. If you don’t believe me on this, try experimenting with “Layers” or “Alpha Channels”, in either application.

There is an old saying that comes to mind here : “just as giving someone with no accounting experience, a computer accounting program, does not make that person an accountant… giving someone with no artistic ability, a program like GIMP, does not make that person an artist; it makes him or her, a non-artist with a graphics program”.

(8.) Internet browser – I use a combination of Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, primarily because (as I have found out “the hard way”), some POD publishers (whose names sound suspiciously like “C_e_t_s_a_e”) will mysteriously fail to work with one type of browser but will work perfectly well with another… even though there is no valid reason for the one over the other.

(9.) E-book distiller – For this task I use a variety of different programs, since, as I have discovered, no single application is perfect for all formats.

The most important one is the Open Source Calibre combination distiller and e-Book converter / reader (versions are available for almost every major computer operating system from Windows to Linux to the MacOS), but — unfortunately — while Calibre does an excellent job in most respects, its output of some of the most important formats (for example .mobi for the Amazon Kindle series and, especially, .epub for the Apple iPad  / iPhone series), is noticeably inferior to what is created by the on-line conversion tools offered by POD publishers like Amazon and Lulu.

The other thing about Calibre is that the quality of its output can vary dramatically, depending on how you set up some very obscure settings that are specific to each format.

It’s also worthwhile to download and install every “free” e-Book reader program (Kindle Reader for the PC, Mobipocket Reader, etc.) that you can find, so you can preview what the purely digital versions of your novel will look like. You will quickly see that the rendering of the work differs hugely, depending on the software. This is one of the “rough edges” of e-Book publishing that I would expect to see fixed in the next two to three years.

Other comments and tips (in no particular order)

The most important single comment that I can give to technologically unsophisticated authors is, “backup, backup, backup — and never have all your backups on the same physical hard drive”.

I cannot stress this factor strongly enough. Physical media — that is, hard drives, USB flash memory keys, CDs, DVDs and so on — will all fail exactly when it’s most inconvenient (say, when you just finished that last, 8-hour editing session). But these days (unlike in the early days of the microcomputer revolution, which I’m <ahem> old enough to remember), storage media, as expressed in “billions of bytes”, is now incredibly cheap; there’s no excuse not to make multiple replicated images of your creative work (e.g. document files, graphics, layouts, etc.).

To give you an idea of the relative space requirements, the manuscripts of every major book to make all the world’s best-seller lists in a single year, could easily fit in the same number of megabytes as needed to accommodate a single digital movie. You probably have several such movies on anything like a new PC. So… Q.E.D..

Be aware that you will probably need to create multiple versions of your manuscripts, just to comply with the idiosyncrasies of the major POD publishers; Lulu wants to see it in “this” format, while Createspace requires “that” format and someone else, wants it in yet another guise. To avoid completely losing track of which version or copy is which, think ahead and devise an filing protocol (that is, “which files go in which folders on the hard drive, based on what criteria”), ahead of time. This might not be a major issue if you are only dealing with a single publisher, but even there, it’s still a good idea.

Finally, a word about computer security (obligatory since I do that for a living in my “day job”). This is a huge subject that could easily justify a blog all of its own; however, just a few very high-level tips :

Don’t use Microsoft Windows, since it’s by far the most vulnerable consumer-level operating system; either shell out the substantial extra dollars that an Apple MacOS-based PC costs, or install Ubuntu Linux. If you must use Windows, then don’t bother with anything other than Windows 7, which — though it still has many security shortcomings — is far better than anything that Microsoft has previously brought to the market.

If you use Windows, don’t bother with a commercial anti-virus program like McAfee or Symantec; instead, install Microsoft’s own, semi-free Microsoft Security Essentials, which is, within its limits, an excellent, low-overhead AV program. (Note that if you use Ubuntu, you don’t need an anti-virus program. This is pretty much true for the MacOS as well, although less so.)

In dealing with various entities on the Web (everyone to POD publishers to those in charge of blogs such as this one), you will need to establish “credentials” that prove your identity when “authenticating” (logging in to), the corresponding Websites and Web portals. Just remembering which set of user names and passwords correspond to which sites, is a job beyond most of us (including the author), so either write your credentials down on a piece of paper (keep a copy of it off-site, like maybe at work), or, alternatively, use a “pasword vault” application like KePass or Password Safe or Roboform. Do not use the same user name and password for all of the Websites with which you communicate; use a different one for each site, so that in the unfortunate event that someone compromises (steals) your credentials for one site, at least they won’t be able to automatically do so for all the other sites. If you do use one of the “password vault” applications, make sure to back up its database frequently, since if you don’t, if your hard drive dies… need I say more?

Remember that you cannot assume that anyone who you encounter on the Web, is really who he or she says that he or she is. Today’s cyber-criminals are absolutely ingenious in their ability to “impersonate” identities to gain a false sense of trust with their victims, who usually find their bank accounts (and credit ratings), quickly depleted thereafter. Use common sense — if something’s “too good to be true”, it almost certainly is. (Here’s an example : You receive an unsolicited e-mail message saying, “we think your self-published novel is a ‘hit’, and we’d like to submit it immediately to {name of big New York publishing company here}… all we need is your credit card number and DOB, so we can print a few hardcopies to take and present to the review team”. However much you and I might dream of such an outcome, ask yourself… how likely is it? And what are the consequences to me, if it turns out to be a fraud?)

Moral of the story : Think with your head, not your heart… as difficult as that is to do, when using your computer on the Internet.

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Anyway, that’s what I used to write The Angel Brings Fire. I hope that you’ve gleaned some new information in reading what’s above, because had I known all of it when I started out, all four (and a half) volumes of the novel would probably have been written, by now!

The Author

Visualizing the characters

From time to time, I have been asked, “just so I can get a picture in my head of what the different characters of The Angel Brings Fire series of books actually look like, can you describe for me, which well-known (e.g. ‘already famous’) actors or public figures, each character most resembles?”

I’m kind of reluctant to do this for the time-honored reason that when one reads a book (as opposed to watches a movie), half the point of the exercise is to imagine what you think the characters should look like, as opposed to having someone specify it for you. That being said, if you really must see pictures, I have tried to locate some that can be reviewed :

Book 1 : Angel of Mailànkh

Karéin-Mayréij a.k.a. the “Storied Watcher” : Think of Rebecca De Mornay in Beauty and the Beast. This is the nearest simile that I could come up with, but it’s not as exact as I would like; in fact, the ‘real’ Karéin is a little younger-looking, with bigger eyes (sort of like Zooey Deschanel in the movie Elf) and a slightly bigger forehead, however it’s as close as I can get with publicly-available images off the Internet. Note that in Book 2, her hair is ‘granny-gray’, not blond… and that she’s in fact considerably better-looking than the original Ms. De Mornay…

Sam Jacobson : Think of a younger Brian Denehy in Rambo (I) or perhaps (if you took a bit off the gut and got rid of the gray hair) in Cocoon (I). Jacobson is a big and heavy-set guy, but he’s still in good shape… as you will see when you get to Book 4!

Brent Boyd : This one’s easy. Think of Keir Dullea in 2001, A Space Odyssey. You don’t even have to imagine a change of uniform for him.

Devon White : Another pretty easy one; think of a young Will Smith or Eddie Murphy. Will Smith in Independence Day is almost a perfect fit.

Cherie Tanaka : Uh-oh… this one’s quite difficult, since I don’t know of a popular actress who looks a lot like the Mars mission’s Science Officer. I was able to find a picture of a San Franciso-based writer named Joyce Hirohata, who looks eerily like my own conception of this character.

Sergei Chkalov : Another one for whom there is a pretty close, pre-existing prototype in the movies; think of Elya Baskin (but when he was in his mid-20s to early -30s, not as he is now) in 2010 or in DeepStar Six. Note : Sergei Chlakov is a little leaner and more muscular than Elya, however.

Sylvia Abruzzio : (A minor character in Book 1, but a major one indeed in Books 3 and 4) : Perhaps the easiest of all to visualize; think of Cher in Moonstruck and you’re 99.99% on target.

Hector Ramirez : There haven’t been a lot of popular culture characters lately that closely map to my conception of Hector, who, like Sylvia Abruzzio, has a significantly larger role in the later Books than in Books 1 and 2. None the less, a young Benicio Del Toro (maybe add a few years to the face in this picture) will give you an idea of what Hector looks like.

Book 2 : Doubt Me Not

Bob Billings : Think of Beau Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys (maybe with a little thinner mane at the top) and you won’t be far off what ol’ Bob looks like. At other times I have pictured Billings like a young Ray Milland or a young Alan Arkin, as well.

Whitney Claremont : Margaret Avery in The Color Purple is a pretty close match. Note however that Whitney is not as, uhh, “full-busted” as is Ms. Avery and is generally pretty slim, almost gaunt, overall.

Melissa Claremont : A bit challenging because teenage African-American actresses are not individually as well known as some of their non-African-American counterparts; but Kylee Russell when she was about 14, would be a close match for the young Ms. Claremont.

Curtis Claremont : Another easy one — think of Gary Coleman as a kid on Diff’rent Strokes. The only slight dissimilarity is that Curtis’ ‘Momma’ has made sure that his hair is always cut short, almost to the point of him being bald.

Tommy Singing-Bird George : Really almost any Mexican-American or Native-American boy of about 7 to 10 years of age would do, but this picture is a pretty close facsimile of what the Storied Watcher’s adopted “son”, looks like.

Minnie Chu : (Along with the others in her FBI team, a minor character in Book 2 but a major one later on) : She’s a pretty good match for Lucy Liu, earlier in her career.

Otis Boatman : This “mountain of a man” FBI agent is almost an exact double of Michael Clarke Duncan.

Will Hendricks (a.k.a. the “Third Agent”) : Think of Bill Paxton in Predator 2 (another one of my favorite movies, by the way!) and you’ll get the idea.

Finally — Remember, you don’t have to go by what I have described above. By all means, imagine the characters however you want to.

The Author

(Note : Edited on August 4, 2012, to correct a couple of URLs that were returning “404’s”, after the original linked images on third-party sites were deleted or moved.)

Begone, ye accursed DRM!

As many of you know by now, The Angel Brings Fire, Books 1 & 2, is now available in e-Book (.EPUB) format, from iTunes. The e-Books can either be accessed by searching for “Angel Brings Fire” in the search field (currently on the top right of the iTunes interface), or by referencing the following direct links :

http://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/the-angel-brings-fire-book-1/id467695286?mt=11

http://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/the-angel-brings-fire-book-2/id467674463?mt=11

There is, however, one caveat to the preceding, and it’s unfortunately a big one : despite my policy that The Angel Brings Fire should not be encumbered by “DRM” (“Digital Rights Management”), I have been receiving reports that attempts to open .EPUB versions of these e-Books in third party computer e-Reader applications (for example the popular “Calibre” program), after they have been downloaded (and paid for) via iTunes, have failed with a “Locked By DRM” (or similar) error message. Needless to say, those to whom this has happened, are the proverbial “unhappy campers”, since they have in effect paid for content that they can’t conveniently access.

I have reason to believe that this situation is unique to iTunes and is probably the result of Apple’s highly (ahem) controversial strategy of tightly locking content purchased through iTunes, to only “approved” devices (e.g. iPads, iPhones, iWhatevers).

I’d like to re-state to everyone involved, that any application of DRM, or any other similar copy protection for that matter, to The Angel Brings Fire series of e-Books, has not been intentional, on my part : in fact, the opposite has been the case (I have been very careful to avoid “enabling” DRM, where that option has been presented to me). This includes content posted to iTunes, obviously.

I am attempting to get in touch with the publishers involved to determine where this “anti-feature” ended up infesting my e-Books, but please be aware, as an individual author, I have very little leverage over the entities involved.

So if you find that you cannot effectively use a copy of an Angel Brings Fire series book that you have legitimately paid for, please send me an e-mail and I’ll mail you (or otherwise arrange to send you) an “unprotected” version of whatever volume(s) that you have purchased.

And while we’re both at it, let’s raise a collective glass to being “collateral damage in the ‘Internet Piracy’ Wars”. Frankly, the faster that DRM dies the ignominious death that it so richly deserves… well, that won’t be fast enough for me.

The Author