AMONGST THE STARS COVER REVEAL!!!

It’s here! At long, long last, it’s here: the cover for Amongst the Stars, otherwise known as The Song of Forgotten Stars, book III.

IT'S MY FRONT COVER YOU GUYS!!! #amwriting #ForgottenStars #AmongstTheStars #sciencefiction #spaceopera #soon

Here is the back cover copy:

ANNNNNND, the back-cover copy! I wrote the HELL out of this book, folks. I can't wait for it to be out there! #amwriting #ForgottenStars #AmongstTheStars #sciencefiction #spaceopera #soon

If that’s hard to read, never fear:

Penda Rasharri has heard the call of the stars ever since she first gazed upon the night sky. She hears them still, even after her home world’s tragic destruction and her search in a thousand different skies for a place to call her own. Even now, after being stranded for two years on the planet Xonareth with her young companions, Princesses Tariana and Margeth Osono of Gavinar Five, the stars still call to her.

Now, as the Xonarethi rebuild their cities and look themselves to the stars, Penda and the Princesses wonder if it’s time to renew their search for a way home. But partisans of Xonareth’s former King are driving the planet toward civil war, and unbeknownst to all, a mysterious spaceship — only the second in ten thousand years — is approaching the planet.

Continuing the tale begun in STARDANCER and THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, AMONGST THE STARS is a story of belonging and finding one’s way, of the promise of the future and the persistence of the past, of homecomings and departures…and of one starpilot’s search for the place she truly belongs.

What’s next? Well, I just got my proof copy of the book in the mail the other day, so I still have to make one last pass through the physical copy to correct any lingering errors that I can find. THEN, I’ll announce an actual release date, which will be in May. As has been my usual approach, I’ll be publishing the paperback first, with the e-book to come two or three weeks later.

But between now and then, I won’t be leaving you hanging: the traditional sample chapters will be on the way! Tune in next Tuesday for Chapter One! I will also soon be finalizing plans for offering signed copies of my books through this site (a much-overdue thing) and a policy for offering free copies to reviewers.

It’s almost here, folks! I’m excited!

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Yikes!!!

I can’t believe I’ve gone close to four months without posting here. The time has not been wasted, folks — but I have really fallen behind on some things.

BUT, I am indeed making progress! The long-promised Amongst the Stars is in the pipeline, and I hope to have it out sometime quite soon. I’m not promising a date, but…soon. As in, no later than Memorial Day, and likely before that, once I iron out the last bits of design and get my proof copies.

For now, here’s a little teaser of the cover!

Rasharri's Eyes

More details as they come! I’m picking up the pace now! Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!

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SHINY IN THE BLACK: a FIREFLY Christmas! (annual repost)

I wrote this story, a rare foray into fan-fiction, a few years ago and I’ve been reposting it ever since, first on Byzantium’s Shores and now here — and for this year, over on Wattpad! This is what I imagine a Very Special Christmas Episode of Firefly would be like. For purposes of timeline, we’re before the Serenity movie.

Writing this was a LOT of fun. That’s one of the main reasons fanfic exists, right? Enjoy!


Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…

Captain Malcolm Reynolds was usually the first one to exit his bunk in the morning, which, coupled with the fact that he was also usually the last one to retire to his bunk at night, went a long way to making him the way he was. Even on mornings like this one, when the night before he and the rest of his crew had been up abnormally late celebrating a score on Persephone, he was up before anyone else, no matter how much his head throbbed and the metallic taste of too much bad whiskey filled his mouth. But on this morning, as he climbed up the ladder to the hallway and shuffled toward the mess, he slowly realized that he wasn’t the first one up this time. Someone was in the mess already, and they were singing. Mal could make out the words – “God rest ye, merry gentlemen…” — and he inwardly sighed. On a typical day, Mal needed at least three cups of green tea before he was ready to deal with Shepherd Book. Today he figured to need six cups before he felt ready to talk to anyone.

“Ah! Good morning, Captain! There’s water on the stove, just off the boil, if you’re looking for tea.” The Shepherd beamed.

“Yeah,” Mal said. “I’ll get to the tea in just a moment, Shepherd, but just now I’m a bit flummoxed as to why there’s a tree in the corner of my mess.”

“Oh, that,” said the Shepherd. “I hoped you wouldn’t mind. Just a little something I picked up before we left Persephone yesterday.”

“I didn’t notice you bringing a tree on board?”

“Yes, I was worried about how to sneak it onto the ship, when I realized that God had provided me a perfect way to get it past your eyes.”

“And that was….”

“You and Jayne were ripping drunk. Zoe and Wash and the Doctor carried you on board. You weren’t noticing anything last night.”

“I wasn’t that drunk!”

“Maybe, Captain, but you got out of bed and came all the way to the mess wearing your gun, your slippers, and a pair of women’s underwear.”

“Oh.” Mal staggered over to the stove. “I think I’m gonna have that tea now, while you explain why there’s a gorram tree on my gorram boat.”

“There’s no need for language, Captain.” The Shepherd folded his hands in front of his chest, in that prayerful stance that Mal hated. Of course, Book well knew that the Captain hated it when he took that tone, which is why he did it so much more often now. Mal just grunted as he fumbled in the cupboard for his favorite mug and the tea leaves.

“Hand me the kitchen robe,” Mal said.

“Certainly.” Book opened another cupboard and pulled out a bundle of cloth, which he tossed to the Captain. This was the ‘kitchen robe’, a bathrobe that Mal kept stashed in the mess just for situations like this. He put on the robe as his tea steeped, and just in time, too, because that’s when Zoe and Wash arrived. Zoe looked all cleaned up and ready to go, as did Wash, even if no one could tell because Wash generally looked all cattawumpus, with his unbuttoned shirt over a tank top, shorts, and sandals.

“Well, this is very nice,” Zoe said. “Care to let us know what you’re wearing underneath the kitchen robe, sir?”

“I do not,” said Mal. “And you can stop laughing. We’ve all had mornings like this.”

“Not laughing, sir.”

“You laugh on the inside,” Mal countered.

“It’s true, honey,” said Wash. “You do. I, on the other hand, plan to laugh joyously out loud at our Captain and his self-induced plight.”

“I hold my liquor better than you,” Mal said.

“I never get much chance to develop my skills in that regard,” Wash replied, “seeing as how somebody‘s gotta be sober enough to fly the ship. Speaking of which, do we have a destination, Captain?”

“Can I drink my tea first before I think about business?”

“Certainly, sir.”

Shepherd Book took a step forward. “I actually have a few thoughts as to that–”

“Ooooh, pretty!” And with that, everyone turned to greet Kaylee, who had just arrived in the mess as well, wearing a freshly cleaned pair of overalls over a shirt with little red hearts all over it. “I didn’t know we could grow trees on board!”

“We can’t grow trees on board,” Mal said. “This here is a flight of fancy by the good Shepherd, who I’m sure will be explaining himself momentarily.”

“Well, I like it,” said Kaylee. “It’s shiny.”

“It’s not shiny yet, actually,” said Book. “It will be, after we decorate it.”

“Decorating?” Mal said. “A tree?”

“Yes sir,” said Book.

“So just the fact that there’s a tree on my boat isn’t even the strangest part of this whole business?”

“It’s not strange, Captain,” said Book. “It’s a tradition.”

“Preacher, you got any notion as to how many weird things people do are explained by casual use of the word ‘tradition’?” Mal sipped his tea. “That explains a lot of your whole ‘Shepherding’ job, you know.”

“Traditions become traditions because they mean something to people,” Book said. “You’ve got some traditions yourself, Captain.”

“Name one.”

“For one, your finding of an Alliance-friendly bar every year on Unification Day. And also your overindulgence every time we get a little more money for a job than you’d planned.” He smiled. “At least this tradition doesn’t involve a headache and the burning of another set of clothes.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll be taking that explanation now, if you don’t mind.”

“Certainly, Captain. It all began on–”

He was interrupted by a loud burst of raspy Chinese as Jayne Cobb staggered into the mess. “Smells like a ruttin’ forest in here,” Jayne said when he’d finished cursing in Chinese.”I hate forests. They remind me of my grandmother.”

This, as did many things Jayne said, made everyone stop talking and stare at him.

“What? Oh, I suppose you all think that forests are nice places filled with happy little creatures. Like one of Kaylee’s storybooks.”

“I don’t read ‘storybooks’,” Kaylee protested. “I’m not a child, Jayne. I’m an engineer and I’m a woman with all the needs of a woman, like—”

“Stop! Please!” Mal burst out. “You know I don’t want to hear about that, Kaylee.”

“Sorry, Captain.”

“Wash, can you just get us in the air, please?”

“I wanted to hear about this tree first,” Wash said. “I mean, since you haven’t given us a destination yet for our next job and all.”

More silence, until Zoe cleared her throat.

“By any chance, Captain, did you think to line us up a new job when we finished the old one?”

Mal shrugged. “I had other things on my mind last night,” he said.

“I’ll say,” said the newest arrival into the mess. “Although I don’t think he was exactly thinking with his mind last night.” It was Inara, who looked typically resplendent in her kimono-like morning robe. “Was she memorable, Mal?”

“Well, she–”

“You don’t remember her, do you?”

“You know, I think we’ve all got off the main topic here, which is why there’s a gorram tree on my boat!”

“Well, Captain,” said Book, “as I tried to start explaining–”

“A Christmas tree,” said yet someone else. Tensions went up as the voice of the ever-enigmatic River Tam cut through. “We had a Christmas tree at the institute. The men there said there would be presents. That was before they started the mental probes.”

River stood there in the doorway, with her brother, Simon the good doctor, standing behind her.

“River?” Simon said. “Do you remember something?”

“I remember everything,” River said. “I just choose when to talk about it.”

“So,” Simon said, “you know what the tree is?”

“I just said so,” River replied. “It’s a Christmas tree. But it’s naked. It needs decorations to make it shiny.”

“Ah,” said Book. “You see, Kaylee? That’s what I was getting at. We’ll decorate it.”

“With what?” Kaylee asked.

“Oh, all sorts of things,” said Book. “Ornaments made of painted glass. Little lights. Popcorn that we put on strings. And I even have a figurine of an angel for the very top of the tree.”

Jayne cleared his throat. “Anybody else here havin’ a hard time figurin’ out who’s crazier here, the Shepherd or the Doc’s sister?”

“I don’t think it sounds crazy,” said Kaylee. “I think it sounds nice.”

“It kind of does,” said Wash. Noticing Zoe giving him a skeptical glance, he went on, “What? I’ve been saying for years that this boat could use some more color on it.”

“My boat’s got all the color it needs,” said Mal. “Look, people, next person other than the Shepherd who talks is on mess patrol for a month. Shepherd, explain this. You’ve got until I finish my cup of tea, and if your explanation ain’t convincing, you’re the one on mess patrol.”

“A hard bargain as always, Captain,” said Book. “It’s an Old Earth tradition. The Bible tells us that one day, God decided to come into the world in the form of an infant, so he could save his people. Ever since then, believers have celebrated that night by doing things like exchanging gifts, and bringing trees into their homes to decorate. That’s what I’m doing here.”

“Shepherd,” Mal said, “didn’t I once tell you that God ain’t welcome on the Serenity?”

“You did, Captain. But it’s my belief that God is here, whether you consider him welcome or not.”

“Well, be that as it may, you’ve brought a tree onto my ship without asking me.”

“Would you have said ‘yes’?”

“No, but that ain’t the point. I like to be asked anyway. It’s my ship.”

“I just thought…it might be a source of pleasure for us,” Book said. “You don’t have to believe to celebrate.”

“You said somethin’ about exchangin’ gifts,” Jayne said. “What’s that?”

“Well,” Book said, “we could each randomly select a member of the crew and get that person a gift.” He noticed the scowl on Mal’s face. “Or not.”

“We should,” Kaylee said. “We don’t do enough nice things for one another.”

“I let you all stay on board,” Mal said. “That’s nice of me.”

“And your hospitality is known throughout the ‘Verse,” Inara said. “That’s why so many people flock to us to give us money.”

“Yeah,” Mal said, “I’m a loving man. But as to the money thing, you said something about a job, preacher? You got a lead for us?”

“I do,” said Book. “Of a sort.”

“Of a sort? The paying sort?”

“Not as such, no.”

“Then what is it?”

“There’s an orphanage on Haven,” Book said.

Lot of orphanages on Haven,” Jayne pointed out.

“Yes, but as it happens, I know this orphanage particularly well.” Book looked like he was remembering something…but then he snapped back to the moment. “I would simply like for us to take some of our recently abundant bounty – not all of which was obtained through means the authorities would entirely smile upon – and use it to purchase supplies for the orphanage. We would then deliver said items to the orphanage in time for an upcoming festival.”

“Supplies?” Mal asked.

Book nodded. “Food, clothing, and…toys.”

“Toys?” Mal repeated.

Jayne frowned. “And we’re doin’ this in exchange for what?”

Book just smiled.

“No way,” Jayne said. “No way, uh-uh. No way I’m givin’ some of my ruttin’ money to some bunch of orphans. Ain’t my fault they ain’t got no home. Let ’em grow up, find work, and make an honest livin’.”

“Is anyone besides me,” Simon said, “unusually touched by Jayne’s newfound belief in making an honest living?”

“Shut up, Doc,” Jayne said. “Least I ain’t hidin’ behind a slip of a girl.”

“No,” River said. “You hide behind a gun that you gave a girl’s name.”

Jayne’s only response to that was a grumbled growl.

“Let me get this straight, preacher,” Mal said. “You want us to spend some of the money we’ve fought and scrimped for and use it to give stuff to children? And you want us to do this on a time frame of…what?”

“Three days, Captain.”

“Three days. And we’re doing all this with no reward for us?”

“Not all rewards come in the form of money, Captain.”

“The ones that keep this boat in the air do,” Mal said.

“Come on, Captain!” Kaylee said. “I, for one, would like to do a job for once that don’t make me feel like I need a shower after.”

“Maybe we put it to a vote of the crew?” Simon offered.

Mal glared at him. “My ship ain’t a democracy,” he said. “But…Jayne?”

“Can’t decide, Mal,” he said. “Normally I’d be against this sort of stuff, but I’m thinkin’ that if we don’t do it, Kaylee here’ll be complaining about it for months. Might well be worth doin’ to keep her quiet.”

“Thanks, Jayne,” Kaylee said. “But really, it’ll feel good. Don’t you all want to feel good about something for once? I mean, feel good about something other than stealin’ from the Alliance?”

“There’s other things to feel good about?” Jayne asked.

Mal turned to his second in command for help. “Zoe?”

“I don’t know, Captain,” Zoe replied. “Normally I’m siding with you, but right now, I find myself a bit swayed by Kaylee’s youthful exuberance.”

“I can’t believe I’m even considering this,” Mal said.

Shepherd Book put a hand on Mal’s shoulder. “I think that maybe some part of you is seeking redemption,” Book said.

Mal glared at him.

“Not really helping your cause there, preacher,” Zoe said.

Book removed his hand.

“If we do this,” Mal said, “I’ve got some conditions. Kaylee, you are not allowed to badger me for an optional ship’s part for one month. Shepherd, you will do all cooking and mess duty for the same month. Jayne, one word that this job makes me soft, and I’m shooting you out the airlock.”

“What about me, Captain?” Inara asked, purposely blinking her beautiful eyelashes as she did so.

“Uh…I’ll think of something,” Mal said. “All right, Shepherd, where are we going first?”

“To buy some toys,” Book said. “Which means a trip to Ariel.”

“Wash, you heard the man. Let’s get in the air. I’m gonna go clean up. Can’t believe I’m doing this….” And with that, Mal left the mess to return to his bunk. Wash and Zoe headed for the bridge, and Kaylee left for the engine room. River gave Shepherd Book a look of reproach.

“You didn’t tell him the part about the elfin-man dressed in red who flies through the sky to give the children their presents,” she said.

“On the whole,” Book replied, “I figured it best to leave that part out of it.”

“Yeah,” Simon said. “That was…probably wise.”

Minutes later, Serenity lifted off and flew away from Persephone and toward Ariel.


Part Two

Wash put Serenity down on the landing pad, nice and gentle. So nice and gentle that Zoe complimented him on it.

“You’re getting’ more gentle all the time, honey,” Zoe said. “You have such a gift for handling sensitive equipment.”

“Thanks for sayin’ so, my love,” Wash replied. “But I could always use more practice–”

“All right, enough of that, you two.” Mal came up onto the bridge, fully dressed in his usual brown shirt, brown pants, brown belt, brown holster, brown boots, and probably brown socks too, if one could see them underneath all of that. “Wash, you keep the ship warmed and ready to lift if some part of this job goes south. Zoe, you’re coming along.”

“I figured, sir.”

“Captain,” Wash said, “is it really necessary to have contingency plans for this job? We’re actually conducting an honest transaction for once.”

“Yeah,” Mal said. “For once. We don’t get a whole lot of practice with this kind of thing, so who knows what might go wrong. You and Kaylee keep the ship ready. River and the Doc will keep you company. Zoe, you’ll be with Jayne, the Shepherd, and me.”

“What’s Inara doing?”

“Well, I think she’s still on her shuttle, writing long entries in her diary about how much she hates me right now.”

Zoe knew what that meant. “You told her no clients.”

“We ain’t got time. Why am I always the bad guy on this?”

“Oh, I couldn’t begin to venture a guess, Captain,” Zoe said. “Let’s go.”

Mal and Zoe began to exit the bridge.

“Zoe?” Wash called out.

“Yes, love?”

“You’re going to buy toys,” Wash said. “I could use a new stegosaurus for the collection.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The Captain and Zoe left then, and Wash reached into the small footlocker next to his seat and pulled out a handful of his dinosaur figurines.

In the cargo hold, Shepherd Book and Jayne had the cargo hauler ready to go.

“Jayne,” Book said, “do you really need that many guns?”

“Preacher, are you carryin’ that Bible of yours right now?”

“Good point.”

They lifted a crate containing coin up onto the back of the hauler as Mal and Zoe arrived and descended the criss-crossing stairs down to their level.

“Awful lot of coin to be givin’ up,” Mal said.

“A purchase of good will is never a bad purchase,” said Book.

“You get that from that Bible of yours?”

“No, it just came to me,” Book replied. “A preacher can’t live on the words of one book alone.”

“All right,” Mal said. “Let’s go. Kaylee, open her up.”

“Be careful, Captain,” Kaylee said as she opened the ship’s cargo door and lowered the ramp. Mal, Jayne, Zoe and Book drove off in the hauler. Then Kaylee closed the ship back up. She turned away from the control and nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw that River was standing there, unblinking, just inches away.

“River! You scared me!”

“Would you like me to teach you a song?” River asked.

Kaylee blinked. “Uhhh…sure, honey. I’d love to learn a song.”

“It goes like this. ‘On the first day of Christmas, the operatives brought to me….'”

“Uh, River?” Kaylee interrupted. “Is this one of those creepy songs you learned while you were captive at…that place?”

“Yes,” River said. “I guess I should learn some new songs myself.”

“Yeah,” Kaylee said. “That would be great.”


***
Mal drove the hauler through a warehouse district of Ariel’s main city. Unlike the shiny, wealthy area they had visited a few months earlier – to steal some medicine – this area was much darker and dingier. Every planet, no matter how rich, had parts like this, Mal had long since learned. No one was rich enough to banish dirt and grime forever.

“You know where this warehouse is, right, Book?” Mal asked.

“I’ve got the address right here,” Book said, holding up an electronic data organizer. “And the crate number of the merchandise we’re getting. It’ll be in and out.”

Jayne growled. “Every time one of you people says we’ll be in and out, I go through half my ammo. I haven’t had an in and out job since–”

“Jayne, I’m sure that’s fascinating,” Mal cut in. “But just in case it ain’t, why don’t you hold it to yourself?”

“Sure, Mal,” Jayne said. “I’ll just sit here and be quiet as usual while you and Zoe tell each other the same stories over and over again. Hey, can I hear that one about that time you both got your asses kicked by the Alliance? I love that one.”

“Captain,” Mal said, pointing to himself. “First mate,” he said, pointing to Zoe. “Gun for hire.” He pointed to Jayne.

“Thank you for clearing us up on the chain of command, Captain,” said Shepherd Book. “But we appear to have reached the warehouse.”

“All right.” Mal brought the hauler to a stop near an entrance. “Standard procedure. Zoe, you’ll get us in. Then, Jayne, you’re in first, followed by me, then the Shepherd, and Zoe, you bring up the rear. We’re going to try and find this crate, get it, and be done with it before anyone knows were here.”

“In and out, Captain?” Zoe said.

“In and out,” Mal agreed.

“Not usually our thing,” Zoe said as she walked to the door.

“See, Mal?” Jayne said. “This is what I’m talkin’ about.”

“Well Jayne, that’s six hours since I last regretted hirin’ you.” Mal smiled. “I think that’s a new record for you, ain’t it? Hey Zoe, you got that door open yet?”

“Think so, sir,” Zoe said as she pressed a button that made the large bay door swing open. “Pretty easy, too.”

“Huh,” said Mal.

“Anybody else thinkin’ that was a little too easy?” Jayne put in.

Mal shrugged. “Well, we’ve got guns, so if we get into some local color, we can make our way out.”

“There might be armed guards inside,” Book pointed out.

“Cold feet, Shepherd?” Mal said. “This was your idea. But we’re here, and I’m not in the habit of runnin’ away at the first sign of something unexpected, especially if that unexpected thing is something that actually makes my life a little easier. Like an unlocked door. Shepherd, grab the coin. Jayne?”

Book picked up the crate of coin, and Jayne came forward and led them inside.

The warehouse was, pretty much, like every other warehouse in the ‘Verse. There’s only so much you can do, really, to dress up hundreds of stacks of thousands of cargo crates in an enormous, cavernous room.

“Well, would you look at that,” Jayne said. “A warehouse. We don’t see these too often.”

“Sure, Jayne.”

“I mean, yeah, we go into our share of storehouses, stockpiles, armories…there was that one depository we knocked over that one time…and before I joined you people, there was that distribution center job…but not a lot of warehouses.”

“Jayne,” Mal said, “are you trying to get on my gorram nerves?”

“Just commentin’ on the unique nature of this job, Mal.”

“Shut it, Jayne,” Zoe said. “Preacher, you got the crate number?”

Book consulted a slip of paper. “It’s 29-94-75.”

Mal looked at the manifest markings emblazoned on the side of several nearby crates, and determined which way they needed to go. “This way,” he said, and with Jayne in the lead and Zoe in the rear, they made their way down the corridor created by line upon line of stacked crates.

It didn’t take long to find it. The crate was pretty large, taller than Mal by about two feet, and about eight feet long and six feet across. Mal shone his flashlight on the crate and read the number. “This is it,” he said. “29-94-75. No other markings.”

“There wouldn’t be,” Book said. “The number is all they need.”

“Yeah, I know how shipping works,” Mal said. “All right, here it is. Now we just gotta get it out of here.”

“That crate’s a little big for me to haul out on my back,” Jayne said. “Of all the gorram–”

Zoe cleared her throat. “I think that’s the solution to our problem, Captain,” she said. She pointed to an open area about thirty feet away, where two forklifts stood silent.

“There it is, then,” Mal said. “Easy. Jayne, you’ll drive the lift. We’ll get the goods back out to our hauler, get back to the ship, before anyone knows we were here. No problem. See, I told you! Easy job.”

At that moment six floodlights turned on, three from each side, all trained on Mal and his crew.

“Malcolm Reynolds!” a voice boomed out from the darkness behind the floodlights. “Malcolm Reynolds, you are bound by law to stand down.”

Jayne muttered something in Chinese.

“In and out, right, Captain?” Zoe said.

All Mal could do was raise his hands and nod for the others to do the same.


Part Three

“Weapons on the ground!” the voice shouted. “Now!”

“Do it,” Mal said. He shot a look at Jayne, whose expression of disgust tended to be indistinguishable from his expression of being about to lose his temper. Slowly, Mal, Zoe and Jayne all laid their guns on the floor.

“Put that package on the floor too, preacher,” said the voice.

Book put the crate down.

“All right, face the crates.”

They complied.

“Put your hands on your head.”

They complied.

“Stand on your left feet and recite the first stanza the Alliance anthem!”

Mal glanced at Zoe. “Uh, what?”

Now the voice burst out in laughter. “All right, turn ’em off,” he said. The floodlights all shut off, and the light returned to the dim of the warehouse overhead lamps. Mal turned toward the source of the voice to see a stocky man dressed in old army fatigues approaching. The man was bald except for long, stringy hairs that hung from the back of his head; he had a thick mustache and three days’ growth of beard. He gave Mal a gap-toothed grin as he put his hands on his hips.

“Ahh, Mal, what am I gonna do with you?”

Mal and the others glanced around at the ‘lawmen’, and saw that they weren’t lawmen at all. They were a motley bunch of thieves. Not unlike themselves.

“Jonas,” Mal said. “Fancy meeting you here. I never figured you to be on Ariel. Kind of a rich world for your tastes, isn’t it?”

“Gotta go where the money is, my boy,” the man named Jonas said as he lit a cigar and took a few puffs. “‘Sides, ain’t planning on being here long. I’m guessing you weren’t either.”

“Not really,” Mal agreed. “Can we put our hands down? I don’t tend to find this posture conducive to friendly chat.”

“Ain’t so sure we’re being friendly,” Jonas said. “But sure, let your hands down. Don’t make a move toward those weapons, though.”

“Of course not,” said Mal. “After all, we’re just bein’ friendly.”

“I suppose we are,” Jonas replied as Mal and his people lowered their hands. “So, Mal, what are you doing here?”

“Same as you,” Mal said. “Doin’ a job.”

“And what would be the nature of that job?”

“Well, we’re purchasing the contents of this crate right here and going with them to a…client on Haven. Easy enough.”

“Sounds easy. Haven’s a piss-poor world…wait, did you say you were purchasing the goods?”

Mal shrugged. “Yeah, we’re doin’ it the honest way this time. Wanted to see what that was like.”

“Really. Honest. Dumpin’ a box of coin here and taking the box? That’s a new version of honest. Sounds to me like you’ve found a way of stealin’ that ends up costin’ you money.”

“Yeah,” Mal said, shooting a look at Shepherd Book, “I guess we didn’t really work all the kinks out.”

“Well, Mal, I can’t let you have this box. See, we need it, too. I’m doing a job, myself, and there’s a cantankerous old woman out on Whitefall that could use some of what’s in that box.”

“Whitefall?” Mal laughed. “You’re planning on doing business with Patience?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Oh, no reason,” Mal said. “Just make sure you plan for her to try to shoot you.”

“Nah,” Jonas said. “Patience and me go way back. I was the one who told her that she should shoot you if she got the chance.”

“Well that was nice of you,” Mal said. “She got the chance. Twice. I’m still here, still flyin’. Counts for somethin’.”

“Yeah, I guess it does. But I can’t let you take this box, coin or no. You see, Mal–”

“Hey, Captain!” It was one of Jonas’s men. Jonas rolled his eyes.

“What is it, Randy? I’m trying to be threatening here, and you’re interrupting.”

“I know, Cap, but this ain’t the box we’re here for.”

“What?”

“Look!” The wiry man named Randy held out a PDA for Jonas to look at. “See, that’s the number of the box we want. It’s the next one over. That one.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. That one’s got the farming seed and fertilizer in it. See, the one we want is in slot number 29-94-77. This slot is number 29-94-75.”

“Oh,” said Jonas.

“Well, this changes things a bit, doesn’t it?” Mal said.

“I think it does, Captain,” said Zoe.

“You see, Jonas, there’s no need to make this deal confrontational. Instead of goin’ that way, we can go another. We’re not even here for the same crate. We’ll take what we want, you’ll take what you want, and everybody’s happy.”

“Seriously, Mal? You’re after this crate? What’s in it?”

“I don’t think that really matters,” said Mal. “Haven’s not a big farming world, so you can bet I’m not looking for farming seed and fertilizer. Let’s just take what we all want and be done with it.”

Jonas kept his gun aimed at Mal as he considered things. Then he nodded at the Shepherd.

“Sure, Mal, we can do that. But I want the coin, too.”

Mal shrugged. “Give it to him, Preacher,” he said.

“Really?” asked Book.

“Yeah, really,” Mal said. “Plan was to leave the coin here anyway. But if you’re gonna take the coin, least you could do is have your boys load our crate onto our hauler for us.”

“I suppose I could do that,” Jonas said. His men grumbled, but he hissed them quiet. “A friendly gesture, right?”

“Yeah,” Mal said. “If we promise not to shoot you, can we pick up our guns now?”

“Sure,” Jonas said. “But we’ll still be coverin’ you until this is done.”

“I figured,” Mal replied as he picked up his pistol. The others followed suit.

“How’d you get in here, anyway?” Jonas asked.

“Door was open.”

“Well, I suppose you can thank me for that,” Jonas replied. “Paid the guards to leave it open and make themselves scarce. All right, boys, you heard the man. Let’s get these boxes loaded! Remember, this one here goes with them, that one down there goes with us. With the Shepherd’s coin.”

Book handed the box of coin to one of Jonas’s men, four of whom turned to the work of loading both crates while Jonas and Randy kept their pistols aimed at Mal and his people.

“Somethin’ here ain’t right,” Jayne said. “We’re gonna get screwed on this deal.”

“Well, Jayne, the screwing was built into the deal, so at least we’re not surprised by it.” Mal shook his head. “This is a weird damn job, though.”

“Nah,” Jayne replied. “There’s still some way this is gonna go south. You watch. Always happens to us.”

Mal rolled his eyes. “Not all our jobs end in disaster,” he said.

“Name one,” Jayne said.

“Well, there was–”

“You ended up drunk and with a con-woman pretending to be your wife.”

“Yeah, but it was good up to then.”

After about ten minutes, they were all outside and both crates were loaded onto their respective haulers.

“Well, Mal,” said Jonas, “I’d prefer if you’d drive off first. And try to stay out of my way in the future.”

“Pleasure doin’ business as always, Jonas,” Mal said. “But I wouldn’t mind pointin’ out that just because we were in the same place, doesn’t mean I was in your way.”

“Even so. I don’t want to get your luck on me, Reynolds. You have a history of taking on work that doesn’t leave you much of a profit. One day you’re gonna realize that ‘Just keep flying’ isn’t a great strategy for life.”

“Thanks for the wisdom, Jonas. Got some for you, too.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Patience is gonna try to shoot you.”

Jonas grinned. “Let her try.” He gestured with his pistol, sending Mal and his people off.

“I’m tellin’ you, this is gonna be a bad deal for everybody,” Jayne said as they neared Serenity.

“Calm down, Jayne. Your opinion is noted.”

Mal drove the hauler back onto the ship’s cargo hold, and Kaylee closed the hatch behind them. Simon and River were there waiting; Wash was on the bridge, and he called down on the intercom.

“Captain?” Wash said. “I’m ready to lift.”

“What are you waiting for!” Mal responded. The ship shifted beneath their feet as the engines roared and Serenity lifted off. Book and Jayne were offloading the crate from the hauler and securing it.

“You see, everybody?” Mal said as he took off his overcoat and tossed it at the foot of the stairs. “Nice, simple job. No big worries, no big fuss. We’re out some coin, sure, but we’ve got a big crate full of nice, shiny toys that will make all the children in an orphanage on Haven happy.”

“Everything went all right?” said Simon. “No hiccups?”

“One little hiccup,” Mal said. “But it didn’t amount to much.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Captain,” said Shepherd Book.

“What?”

“Hey Mal,” Jayne said. “We got a problem.”

Mal glanced at Zoe. They walked aft, to where Book and Jayne were both staring at the crate, which Book had opened. Zoe took one look and let out a string of expletives in Chinese. Mal did the same, only with a string of completely different expletives in Chinese.

The crate was full of farm seed and fertilizer. They had the wrong crate.


Part Four
 

“Those aren’t toys,” Kaylee said. “Those are agricultural supplies for a new colony. Did you change the job while you were out?”

“Seal it back up,” Mal said. “That stuff is perishable, and by breaking the seal, we’ve started the decay process.”

The crew stood around, staring at the crate that was supposed to contain toys for the children of the orphanage on Haven but really contained farming seed and fertilizer that had supposedly been destined for Whitefall. Jayne and Book lifted the facing of the crate back into place and restored the seals. When they were done, Jayne stepped back and looked at Mal.

“Well, Mal, guess we got ourselves another hiccup.”

“Yeah, looks that way.” Mal muttered another curse in Chinese and then he kicked the crate for good measure.

“That won’t hurt the crate,” River said.

“It will hurt your foot if you do that again, though,” Simon said.

“So, what now?” Jayne said. “That’s it then, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Mal said. “I’m thinkin’.”

Zoe cleared her throat. “Captain, you know Jonas better than any of us. How likely is he to hold this against us?”

“Worried about us having another enemy?”

“I’m running out of space on the piece of paper where I keep their names written down, sir.”

“Yeah. Preacher, how did this happen?”

“I have no idea, Captain,” said Book. “I double-checked the numbers. We had the right slot number in the warehouse. The only way this happens is if the warehouse workers put the crates in the wrong slots themselves.”

And with that, a silence settled over the crew as they realized what had happened.

“Well, this is new,” said Jayne. “Never stolen the wrong goods before.”

“Yeah, this is definitely a wrinkle we haven’t tried before,” said Mal. “All right, I’m open to suggestions.”

“Suggestions for what?” It was Wash, who had just come down from the bridge. “Everyone’s looking awfully glum here.”

“We stole the wrong goods, honey,” Zoe said.

“Now there‘s something we haven’t done before!” Wash said. “Now what?”

“See?” Mal said. “Took him all of two sentences to get up to speed on this.”

“What do we do?” Kaylee asked. “Captain?”

“Maybe the children want to play as farmers,” River offered. “They can grow their own vegetables and work the soil.”

“River,” Book said, “the orphanage is in the middle of a city that’s a hundred miles in diameter. There’s no soil except what’s in the decorative flower pots.”

“That sounds depressing,” River said. “Children need space.”

“Well, we can’t solve every problem at once,” Zoe said. “Captain, Jonas is gonna know that he can’t open the crate without breaching the shelf-life of the goods that he thinks are in there.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Mal said. “If that’s the case, then Jonas has no idea that he’s got a crate full of toys on his ship. Which means that he’s on his way to Whitefall. He won’t know anything is wrong until Patience does. Of course, knowing Patience, she’ll have already tried to shoot him.”

“So that’s it then,” said Jayne. “We ain’t gotta do a gorram thing. Let them shoot each other and then we can sell this stuff to whoever takes over for Patience. Make back our coin, and then some.”

Mal considered this. After a moment, Shepherd Book stepped forward.

“Captain, I know that your ship is not a democracy, but I must voice my opposition to what Jayne has suggested.”

“Yeah, I thought you might,” Mal said. “Wash, go get us on a course for Whitefall. Get us there fast. We want to get there before the shooting starts.”

“You got it,” Wash said as he headed back up the stairs. “A pilot’s job is never done! Until he lands, then he’s done until the next job….”

“Zoe,” Mal said, “I’m gonna need your help figurin’ out how to approach this one. We’ve got to make a switch without both Jonas and Patience deciding that I’m cheating them.”

“Sounds like a challenge,” Zoe said.

“Why I’m givin’ it to you.”

“Wait a minute!” Jayne said. “We’re gonna try to get the toys back? Anybody else think that’s crazy?”

Simon shrugged. “I think it’s kind of shiny,” he said. Kaylee grinned at him.

“Doc, I’m gonna do somethin’ hurtful to you someday soon,” Jayne said. “Mal, how can you even consider this?”

Mal looked at Shepherd Book. “I took a job,” he said. “And even though the job’s starting to bring some trouble, truth is, that’s what jobs do. And there ain’t a job in the ‘Verse that I’m like to walk away from once I take it.”

Jayne shook his head. “I can’t ruttin’ believe this.”

“Hey, look at the bright side,” Mal said. “We’re goin’ to Whitefall to try and do business with Patience.”

“Probably be some shooting,” Zoe added.

Jayne laughed harshly. “Day’s gonna come when you’re not gonna be able to buy me off by lettin’ me shoot some folk,” he said.

Mal considered that. “Well, that’s gonna be an interesting day. Come on, Zoe. We need to brainstorm.”


***
It took them the better part of a day to get to Whitefall, which was a pretty miserable and dusty rock way out on the fringes. Malcolm Reynolds didn’t much like this world; it was run by a crusty woman named Patience who didn’t tend to practice any, and who had a nasty habit of trying to shoot him. She’d succeeded once, but the last time, Mal had got the better of her. He’d done the job, and despite some unkind words as regarding his character, he’d gotten paid. But this one was going to be tricky, no doubt about that.

“OK, Mal, we’re here,” Wash said as Whitefall loomed before the ship. “Now what?”

“Well, Patience is a woman of habit,” Mal said. “So I’m thinkin’ she’ll want to meet with Jonas in that same spot she chose to meet us in last time we were here. Good spot for an ambush. So we’ll go there and hope we’re in time to avoid some fisticuffs and general tomfoolery.”

Zoe looked at Mal. “‘Tomfoolery’, sir?”

“What? You know I like to dust off archaic words now and then.”

“Part of what makes you charming, sir.”

“Thanks for sayin’. Now, if I’m Patience, I’m puttin’ two snipers in the hills around that meeting spot, after we took care of the one she ahd there last time. And Jonas is gonna have his own sniper up there somewhere too. So Jayne and the Shepherd will take care of the snipers for us, and then we walk in and make everybody happy.”

“Aren’t we doin’ an awful lot of counting on the Shepherd to shoot people on this job?” Zoe asked.

“Probably, but that book of his is nonspecific as regards kneecaps and elbows, if I remember right. Wash, same landing spot as before.”

“Sure thing, Mal,” Wash said. “And I’ve got Jonas’s ship on the scanner now. They’re landing as we speak, two hilltops over. Looks like we got here in time.”

“It’s a Christmas miracle, Captain,” Zoe said.

Mal rolled his eyes. “Now don’t you start,” he said. “Let’s go get ready. Wash, put her down.”

“Sure thing, Captain,” Wash said.

Mal and Zoe walked down to the hold, where Jayne and Shepherd Book were waiting.

“Captain,” Book began, “I feel I should apologize for having gotten you into this business.”

“Did it with my eyes open,” Mal said. “But if you’re volunteering for a month of mess duty, I don’t think I’ll hear any objections from the rest of the crew.” He glanced around at Kaylee, Simon, River, and Inara, who all just stood there placidly. “And a month it is! All right, Zoe and me have come up with what we think is a nicely nuanced plan.”

Jayne grunted. “Book and I take out the snipers and cover you while you and Zoe try to talk some sense into Patience and Jonas?”

“Yeah, that’s about it.”

“We gotta start comin’ up with plans that don’t have quite as much ‘if’ in ’em,” Jayne grumbled.

“Every time I ask you for input, your first words are ‘I shoot them’.”

“Yeah. Not a lot of ‘if’ when the other guy’s got bullets in him.”

“OK. Get that crate ready. And Kaylee, keep the engines warm. We may need to make a fast break for it.”

“Be easier if you’d let me replace that drive inducer that I keep warning you about,” Kaylee said.

“New year’s comin’,” said Mal.


***
The scene that confronted Mal and Zoe when they peered over the edge of the knoll above Patience’s rendezvous spot was about what Mal expected: Patience sat atop her horse, while her men had Jonas at gunpoint, and Jonas’s men had Patience’s men at gunpoint. Everybody had everybody else at gunpoint.

“Whole lot of gunpoint,” Mal muttered.

“Not too late to find a desk job, Captain,” Zoe replied.

“More of us than there are of you, Jonas,” Patience said. “And I’ve got a sniper aimin’ at you right now. You’re not walkin’ away.”

“I got a man took out your sniper,” Jonas replied. “I’m not stupid, Patience. And my men are better shots than yours. Now how about you toss me the coin and we’ll be on our way?”

“All I see here is a big crate,” Patience said. “You might as well open her up and let us see the goods.”

“Suits me fine,” said Jonas. “Randy? Open it.”

Keeping his hands visible at all times, Randy popped open the crate and swung it open. “Uh, Captain?” he said.

“This some kind of joke, Jonas?” Patience asked. “That don’t look like seed and fertilizer to me.”

“What?” Jonas turned to Randy. “What is she gorram talking about?”

“This crate, sir,” Randy said. “It’s full of…toys.”

“Toys?”

“Toys, sir.”

Toys?!

“This some kind of joke, Jonas?” Patience sounded annoyed. “So you’re gonna dump fake goods on me after you have my money?”

Jonas looked uncomfortable.

“Do we go down now?” Zoe asked.

“Shhhh,” Mal said. “Things haven’t gone south enough yet.”

“Patience,” Jonas said. “Uhhhh….”

“I’d like to hear an explanation,” Patience said. “Before I shoot you myself.” She pulled out her pistol.

“Malcolm Reynolds cheated me!” Jonas said.

“Reynolds?” Patience’s eyebrows went up. “What’s he got to do with this?”

“Funny you should ask!” Mal called out as he rose up and sauntered over the knoll, his pistol in his hand but not aimed at anything. Zoe came behind him, her shotgun in her hand as well.

“Reynolds!” shouted both Patience and Jonas at the same time. Both also pointed their pistols at him, at the same time.

“Well there we go,” Mal said. “Two criminals suddenly united in purpose. Warms the heart, eh, Zoe?”

“Sure does, sir.”

“Mal, I’ll shoot you where you stand,” Patience said.

“And I’ll shoot you again before you hit the ground,” Jonas said.

“Sure,” Mal said. “But then you wouldn’t hear the explanation and my counter-proposal.”

“Explanation?” Jonas roared. “You switched the crates and took the good stuff! What were you going to do, let me get shot and then sell Patience the real goods?”

Mal thought. “Huh. Zoe, that might have worked.”

“Surprised you didn’t think of it, sir.”

“I gotta be goin’ soft in my old age.”

“Happens to the best of us, sir.”

“Jonas, we didn’t switch a gorram thing. The warehouse workers screwed up. Those crates were in the wrong spots. We took what we thought was our crate, but it was really yours. And you got ours, thinkin’ it was really yours. Kind of an irony, ain’t it?”

Patience rolled her eyes. “Right now I’m wondering which of you is the less competent one,” she said.

“Well, that would be him,” Mal said. “No offense, Jonas, but at least we discovered the problem and we’re here to make it right. Now here’s our proposal. We take our crate and go on our way. You get your crate, which we stashed about a mile away from here. Then you two finish your business and everybody goes away happy. Or we go away happy and you shoot each other. Whatever you prefer.”

“Or I just take all the goods and keep my coin,” Patience said. “Mal, you’re still not very bright. Neither are you, Jonas. You may have taken out one of my snipers, but I put two up there.”

“Yeah, Patience,” Mal said. “As to that, we took out Jonas’s sniper who took out your sniper. And then we took out your other sniper. So now the only two snipers up there are mine. And they’re good, believe me. Aren’t they, Zoe?”

“The best, sir.”

“Yup. So, Jonas, we’ll take this crate now. Yours is a mile that way.” He pointed. “No reason for anybody to get shot.”

“You takin’ my hauler too, Mal?”

Mal shrugged. “I suppose we can leave it behind once we get our goods back on my ship. As a good-will gesture and all.”

“Or we can come with you and make sure we get it back,” Jonas said.

Mal shrugged. “Or that,” he conceded. “We just want our goods.”

“A bunch of toys?” Jonas shook his head. “What are you up to, Reynolds?”

“I’m doin’ a job,” Mal said. “Why does everybody keep asking me that?” He turned to Patience. “Give him the coin, Patience, and go get your box and keep running your little world. Nobody needs to get shot here. It’s Christmas.”

Patience blinked. “It’s what?”

“Never mind. Just get out of here.”

Patience sighed. “Every time you show up on this world I end up losing money,” Patience said as she tossed a sack of coin to Jonas. “That crate ain’t there and I’m puttin’ a bounty on you, Mal.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a track record here, Patience,” Mal said. “I get you the goods and then I get paid. The way a transaction’s supposed to be. You’re the one likes shootin’ people and tryin’ to get out of paying, so I’d just as soon you rode off with your men and stopped disparaging me.”

Patience laughed. “Fine, Mal, have it your way. But if you don’t mind some advice, you need to stop expecting transactions to run the way they’re supposed to. That’s why you’re still flying around in a rustbucket.” She gestured to her men, who stood down, and then they rode off.

“She only says that because she can’t fly in a ship for ten minutes without puking,” Zoe said.

“Yeah, well, let’s get this stuff back to Serenity. We’ve still got a job to do. Jonas, if you would?”

Jonas sighed. “You heard him, men. Let’s go. Least we can with him saving our bacon on this one.”

Jonas’s men grumbled but obeyed. Mal spoke into the mouthpiece on the wire he wore under his coat. “Jayne? Preacher? You can come down now. We’re all good here.”

“How’d you know where to find us, anyway?” Jonas asked.

“Dealt with Patience before,” Mal replied. “Let’s move.”

“Did you really leave her goods a mile away?”

“Yup.”

Jonas shook his head. “You could’ve kept them, sold them someplace else. Made double profit.”

“Thought of that,” Mal said. “But I need to be able to do business. No need to make an enemy out of Patience until I have to.”

They moved the crate of toys back to Serenity, whereupon Jonas ordered his men to start back to their own ship. Mal ordered his crew to get the ship ready for departure, and then he went outside with Jonas.

“Well, Mal,” Jonas said, “it was a pleasure, as always. Now, if that’s all–”

“Not quite,” Mal said. “I’ll be taking the coin that Patience gave you.”

Jonas blinked. “What?”

“You heard me,” Mal said. “You took coin from me that wasn’t yours to take. And despite that, I still came here and saved your gorram hide. Way I see it, you owe me. Let’s square up right now. Get it over with.”

Jonas stared at him. Mal sighed.

“Jonas, you really want to see what a good draw I am? And what a good shot?”

Jonas sighed and pulled the bag of coin from his jacket pocket and flipped it to Mal. “Every time I wonder how it is you stay in business, you pull something like this out of your hat.”

“Not much of a secret,” Mal said. “I don’t set my sights too high. I just keep flyin’.”

“Yeah. Well, do me a favor and don’t tell anyone you took my coin from me.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it was a payment offered in good will.”

Jonas nodded. “Yeah, call it that. But stay away from me for a while, would you?” He lit a cigar and went to join his men. Mal turned and went aboard the ship.

“OK, Wash, let’s fly. We need to be in Haven’s air within twelve hours.”

“We can just make it,” Wash replied over the loudspeaker.

Serenity lifted off.


***
Eleven and one half hours later, they were flying toward Haven. Mal came up to the bridge, where Wash was looking at a scanner.

“So?” Mal asked. “What’s the new problem?”

Wash blinked. “I didn’t call you!”

“I know, but we’re due for the next problem with this job. What is it?”

Wash pointed to the scanner. “Alliance ship in orbit. They haven’t scanned us yet, and maybe they won’t, but if they do–”

“They might board us,” Mal said. “Then again, they might not. They’re in stationary orbit?”

“Uh-huh,” Wash said. “Right above the part of town where our Shepherd’s orphanage is.”

Mal muttered several curses in Chinese.

“That’s what I said,” Wash replied.

“All right. Let me think.” Mal thought. And then he pressed the intercom button. “Would everybody please report to the hold? You too, Inara. I need everybody.”


***
The plan was this: Mal, Zoe, and Wash would stay aboard Serenity, in stationary orbit on the other side of the planet. They would load all of the toys onto Inara’s shuttle – individually, because the shuttle wasn’t big enough for something the size of that crate – and then Inara would fly down to the orphanage in the middle of the night, when Shepherd Book assured them no one would notice something like a shuttle landing on the roof. Then, Jayne, Book, Simon, Kaylee, and River would take each toy individually to a child.

It wasn’t one of Mal’s most thought-out plans, but it was the best he could come up with on fairly short notice. Mal thought it was a decent enough plan, until Zoe said “Nice plan, sir,” which was what she usually said when she thought his plans were scenarios for utter disaster. But that was the plan, and so it was that on the night before Christmas, when all through the orphanage not a child was stirring, a shuttlecraft flown by a registered Companion came down to land on the roof.

“All right, we’re here,” Jayne said as he grabbed an armful of toys. “Let’s get this ruttin’ job over with.”

“Said with the true spirit of the day,” Shepherd Book said. “All right, everyone follow me. And keep quiet. The whole place is asleep.”

“They always knew when I was sleeping,” River said. “They knew when I was awake.”

“She’s gonna be all right, isn’t she?” Jayne asked.

“Sure,” Simon said. “Isn’t she always?”

Jayne shook his head as Shepherd Book led them across the roof and into the orphanage via the roof access door, which Book lockpicked open in seconds.

“Real great security here,” Jayne remarked.

“It’s an orphanage,” Book said. “One where everybody knows there’s nothing worth stealing.”

They went downstairs, where they found themselves in a very large room, with bunk beds running down each side, and a child sleeping in each bed.

“All right, there are four more rooms like this,” Book whispered. “Every child gets a toy.”

“Right,” Jayne said, and he ran off and started randomly sticking a toy on each bed.

“Jayne!” Kaylee protested. “You can’t do it like that! You can’t give a boy a doll!”

“Why not?” Jayne asked. “They don’t like it they can trade.”

“Just do it right,” Kaylee said.

“What kind of toys did he play with?” Simon muttered.

In this way they went through the room, distributing a toy to each child. Somehow, miraculously, they got through all of the rooms without waking a single child, giving a toy to each one, one toy to each of three hundred children.

Except the last bed, which, when Jayne approached it, he discovered was empty. No child here, just rumpled sheets. Kid probably got up to go to the bathroom, or get a drink of water. “Huh,” Jayne thought. He looked at the toy in his hand – a teddy bear – and decided that he rather liked it. He’d always wanted one when he was a kid, and never got one. And this one was real nice, with a bow around its neck and everything. So there was a toy left over. So what? Kid shoulda been there in bed. Kid’s loss. He turned and headed back for the ship.

Meanwhile, River was taking her time over each gift, gently laying it on each bed, and whispering a rhyme over each child. What made it take even longer was that she was inventing each rhyme off the top of her head. Simon wondered if he should intercede, but since she was speaking in verse about things that weren’t somehow grimly dark or eerily foreboding, he thought it was best to just let her go.

Also meanwhile, Kaylee found herself wondering if it was really fair to try to pigeonhole these kids into girl toys and boy toys. After all, her toys had been wrenches and hammers and drivers and blast drills and parts from a hundred different ship engines, and look how she’d turned out! Nothin’ to be ashamed of. It was a fine life, even if once in a while she wanted something a little more than engine parts and dirty overalls.

Also meanwhile, Inara saw that the orphanage’s one lone security guard had had his curiosity piqued by some strange noises, and he came shuffling up the stairs to find a shuttle sitting on his roof. He was about to blow an alarm whistle when she came down and silenced him with a look and a flash of leg. It always worked, especially with young men like this. Barely old enough to grow a beard. Staring at her as though he’d just seen an angel. Sad world, Haven, she thought. No wonder Companions almost never come here.

“Is there a girl you like?” she asked him.

He managed to nod.

She removed a ruby brooch from her robe and handed it to him. He gulped.

“Give this to her,” she said. “And say nothing of me tonight.”

He managed to nod, again. A major accomplishment, that. And so she sent him on his way, knowing that this would be their little secret, forever. Inara could keep secrets, and what would he say? Would he talk of the beautiful woman in the spaceship on his roof? No. Of course not. She smiled.

Finally meanwhile, Shepherd Book went all the way to the lowest level of the orphanage, where the oldest kids were. These kids were in the worst shape, the ones most likely to end up in something a bit worst than Mal’s line of work, the ones most likely to end up on the wrong end of someone’s gun or floating dead through the Black. He had little hope that a toy, just one toy, would be enough to budge more than maybe one or two of them off the trajectory their lives had them on, but lots of miracles had started from smaller stuff than a single toy. He laid each one on a bed, and tried not to linger too much over the one particular bed, the one over there on the left. On his way back up to the roof, he paused at the door to the headmaster’s apartment. He wondered if he might say hello, under other circumstances. Or if he might rather go in there with a gun instead of a bible. He lingered there only a moment and then returned to the roof.

“Are we all here?”

“We’re just waiting on Jayne,” said Simon.

“Where is he?!”

At that moment, Jayne was muttering, “Where’s the gorram stairs around here?” He’d gotten lost. It was a bigger orphanage than he’d though, and now he had no idea how to get back up to the roof. But he had to get up there, fast; the night was getting old and people would be getting up soon. He rushed around, all over the place, looking behind every door, until he found the stairs up. “‘Bout time,” he said. And then he stopped, because there was an eight-year-old girl looking at him.

“Uhhh…hi there,” he said. “You should be in bed, youngster.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” said the girl. “I have bad dreams. I wanted a drink of water.”

“Well, you got your drink, so back to bed.”

“You’re not from here,” the girl said. “Are you here to steal things?”

“No,” Jayne said. “Not this time, anyway. Maybe tomorrow, haven’t figured out the next job yet. Don’t know. Gotta keep moving.” But he didn’t move. That girl just stood there, looking at him. All big-eyed, with her tangled hair and bedrobe that wasn’t filthy but had seen better days anyway…. “I think your eyes are stuck,” he said. “I gotta go.”

“Bye,” she said. And she stood there watching as he went halfway up the stairs, where he stopped.

“Aww, gorram it,” he said as he turned back and came back down. “This is for you.” He handed her the teddy bear. “Hold onto it tight when you sleep. Might help with them dreams. I got a preacher friend who says this is Christmas, so…have a ruttin’ happy Christmas.” And then he went up the stairs, practically running up them, to get away from the girl with the big eyes.

“That all the toys?” he asked when he got on board the shuttle.

“There were about twenty or so left over,” said Simon. “I left those in a playroom.”

“We’re all ready, right?” Inara called back.

“We’re all here!” Book said. “Close her up and let’s go home.”

Inara guided the little shuttle back into the air, and up into the sky toward the planet’s other side, where Serenity lay in orbit.

“What took you so long, Jayne?” Kaylee asked.

“Got lost,” Jayne said. “And…there was a little girl. Don’t worry, I gave her a toy.”

River pointed at his shirt, his red shirt. “A man with a beard wearing red came in the night to give her a present,” she said. “Just like the old stories!”

Jayne stared at her. “What is she ruttin’ talkin’ about?”

“Nothing,” said Book.

When they arrived on Serenity, Mal was there, waiting.

“Nice work,” he said.

“Thank you, Captain,” said Shepherd Book. “I appreciate it.”

“I did a job,” Mal said. “Soon as that tree gets dry and starts dropping those sharp needles all over my mess–”

“I’ll have it down, sir.”

Mal nodded and headed for his bunk. “Nice work, everyone,” he called out. “Zoe, wake me when we get to Persephone.”


***
A few weeks later they’d done another job, and they all had a little extra money. Not a lot, but some. So they all decided to exchange gifts. Mal wasn’t sure whose idea it was, or if it even was anyone’s idea, but it seemed to happen anyway.

Zoe gave her dear husband Wash that stegosaurus figurine he’d wanted. Wash gave his beloved wife Zoe a brand new leather vest.

Shepherd Book gave Simon an old copy of a very old anatomy book, a ‘classic text’ on the subject, from Old Earth. Simon gave River a rose made out of glass, with gold leaf on the petals; she commented on the fact that it had thorns. River gave the Shepherd a new Bible, which she promised him she would leave ‘uncorrected’.

Kaylee gave Jayne a new carrying case for Vera, his favorite gun; Jayne gave Inara a robe that she knew she would look stunning in but would never ever ever wear in front of Jayne. And Inara gave Kaylee a new engine stabilizer and one of her own robes.

And Mal? He got what he always wanted. He got to keep flying.


The End

Merry Ruttin’ Christmas
and a Happy Gorram New Year!!!

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[tap tap tap] Is this thing still on?

So, almost two months without an update? Yeesh, that’s terrible.

November was…not good, folks. Not good at all. At least it was terrible as far as my writing goes; on the personal front, things are fine. But November was easily the worst writing month I’ve had in all of 2016 and the worst I’ve had in several years. November was NaNoWriMo, so I should have produced at least 50,000 words. In fact, I produce only 21,262.

Ouch.

Why is this? Well, I cannot lie, but I also don’t want to be political on this site, so I’ll simply say that the results of the American Presidential election threw me for a serious loop that did major damage to my mood for a big chunk of the month. It took almost ten days afterwards for that hangover to wear off and for my creative brain to lurch back into motion, by which time NaNoWriMo was a lost cause. Alas.

But it wasn’t all bad. I did finish the Doomed Kayak Expedition horror novel! The draft ended up at just under 84,000 words, which is the shortest thing I’ve written yet, and I’m sure that when I edit it I’ll get it down below 80,000. For me that is positively Hemingway-esque in terms of brevity! I also gave that book a title:

The Jaws of Cerberus.

If you’re wondering to what that name refers in terms of the book, well…hopefully the book will see the light of day sometime in 2018.

What’s next? A space opera novel! No, not Forgotten Stars IV, but something new. It’s a new series, but it’s set in the Forgotten Stars universe. I’m not sure right now where it fits time-wise with that series, but I am not planning any direct overlap at all (that’s the current plan, anyway), so it might not matter. I don’t have a title yet, but I can tell you this much:

  • It’s book one of an open-ended series of space adventure books.
  • The main ship is a light freighter named Orion’s Huntress.
  • The crew is initially comprised of four women with varying degrees of trust issues.
  • The Captain and the astrogator are lovers.
  • The ship’s doctor actually owns the ship, which makes her relationship with the Captain rather tense.
  • While I don’t have a title yet, my current idea is for every book in the series to have the word Huntress in it, alluding to the ship.

This is an idea I’ve been knocking around for a while. This is nothing new: I like to let my ideas knock around for a good long while! So here I go with this one. I’m aiming for a series of shorter books, around 100,000 words each, with each book being relatively self-contained. This is more Firefly or Miles Vorkosigan than, say, Star Wars or The Song of Forgotten Stars.

So that’s what’s going on right now. Stay tuned for more posts, I hope! I have 2017 to plan, after all. I’m behind on editing and publishing, so I’ll have more to say about those things in days to come. Stay tuned!

Because in my head I'm still twelve. #AmWriting #overalls

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Good news, bad news, and NaNo News

It’s a mixed bag today, folks!

First:

good news everyone

STARDANCER received a really nice review from the book blog Tea and Titles. Check it out: Four Things I Loved About STARDANCER!

The world is Stardancer is hugely detailed, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Kelly has thought of everything from food to customs to games, and none of it feels overdone or irrelevant. There’s this really beautiful scene where two of the characters are teaching each other their language—it’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever read. The best thing is that it’s very easy follow. Sci-Fi can be quite confusing at times, but I didn’t get lost in all the details here.

Read the whole thing, and then, if you haven’t read STARDANCER yourself, well, I think it’s time you started questioning your life choices!

That’s the good news. Next we have the not so great:

glass case of emotion

Sadly, Amongst the Stars (The Song of Forgotten Stars, Book III) is not going to be out in November. I simply have not been able to get the work done. I’m hoping for December, but January is looking more likely. I apologize to you all. I really want my readers to finally learn what’s been going on since we last left Princesses Tariana and Margeth and their trusty navigator, Lt. Rasharri!

Stay tuned, folks — the wait will be worth it, I promise!

(Now, why is the book delayed? Well, I hate to admit it, but I think that John Scalzi is on to something here….)

And in NaNo News….

via GIPHY

My current WIP, the kayaking-meets-Greek-tragedy horror novel, has spun a wee bit longer than I expected at first, so I’m likely to spend the first part of NaNoWriMo finishing that. Then I will be onto my new space opera novel, which will be followed by Forgotten Stars IV, and then, way down the road, the second half of Seaflame!. So at least I know what I’m writing for a while. Also, I’m hoping to have the first John Lazarus novel (still trying to nail down a title) ready for release sometime next summer.

So that’s where we are for right now. If you haven’t read STARDANCER or THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, now would be a great time! AMONGST THE STARS is coming soon, folks! Just not quite so soon as I’d hoped. But soon!

Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!

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It’s NaNoWriMo time!

via GIPHY

Yes, that’s right: NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) is just around the corner! It’s that wonderful time of year when thousands of writers around the world spend their Novembers chasing the goal of averaging 1,667 words a day. I will be participating for my FIFTH consecutive year. My record is two-and-two (I made a game effort last year, but I fell short due to our NYC trip at the end of the month, and I have a lot of trouble feeling guilty about that). I wrote this post for Byzantium’s Shores a couple of years back, conveying my advice for achieving NaNoWriMo success, and while certain facts in the post have changed (i.e., what I’m working on this year), the advice has not, so here it is! I’ve edited it a little to reflect where I am this year.

National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” as it’s usually called, starts on November 1. This will be my fifth time doing it, and I can’t wait! My project this year is a science fiction, space-opera novel I’m not-actually-calling Lightning Bug. My project’s official NaNoWriMo description is as follows:

The all-female ragtag crew of the spaceship-for-hire Orion’s Huntress seems to always find a way to bite off more then they can chew, or get in over their heads, or find themselves up the creek without a paddle…and yet, with pluck and guile and a bit of blaster-fire, they manage to keep flying! In this story, they take on an urgent job and a mysterious passenger with her own agenda….

This is the first novel set in a new series that takes place in the same universe as my Forgotten Stars novels (the third of which to be published this December).

NaNoWriMo isn’t really about finishing. It can be, but my experience is that it’s more about the work. It’s about setting a high goal and working toward it, relentlessly, and with some camaraderie that can’t always be found in real life. Fifty thousand words in one month is absolutely doable, but it’s also not the easiest target to reach if you’re not used to it, and it’s particularly devilish that the challenge comes in a month with only 30 days and one of the major holidays of our year. (Well, for now, anyway, since we seem hell-bent as a culture on making Thanksgiving about as relevant a holiday as Columbus Day, but that’s a rant for another time.) NaNoWriMo is about producing a big chunk of work, regardless of worrying about if it’s good or not. So, in that vein, if you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo this year, here are my thoughts on how to best approach it for success:

1. Know what you’re going to write.

Have your mind made up so as soon as you sit down at the keyboard on November 1, you can charge out of drydock, thrusters on full. Don’t sit down at the keyboard and then try to decide what story you’re going to tell.

Now, “Know what you’re going to write” has some wiggle-room. I’m the type of writer called a “pantser”, meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline entire novels prior to writing, and if I do any outlining at all, it’s merely a scene or two in advance just so I can work out the timing and sequence of events in my head in the very near term. Other than that, I rarely have any great idea where the story is going.

Perhaps, however, you’re an outliner. You like to have a detailed outline ready to go, or maybe you like to figure out your characters in gory detail prior to writing. Lots of writers spend lots of time doing this kind of prep work — outlines, character sketches, that sort of thing — and if you’re one of them, have as much of that done as possible before November 1. November is not a time for prep work, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo.

2. Choose your style, and the simpler, the better.

Remember, NaNoWriMo is about producing a lot of words in a specific timeframe. Therefore, it’s not really the best time in the world for experimenting with your literary style. If your default style is toward the florid but you’ve had a hankering for writing a crime novel in a kind of Dashiell Hammett style, maybe November isn’t the right time. Likewise, NaNoWriMo really is not the time to write your near-future dystopian tragedy in rhyming Iambic pentameter.

3. Give your internal editor the month off.

Again, you’re looking to cover a lot of ground in November. You can edit later. There just isn’t time for revision, unless you realize that your story has gone well-and-truly off the rails and that you simply must backtrack to Albuquerque so you can take that left turn you missed. If you have to do this, fine, but don’t delete the work you’ve done. Leave it in there. Move it to the end of the file, past a couple of page breaks, but those words are still work you did. When it comes time to verify your wordcount at the end of the month, all Na NoWriMo will do is count your words. Nobody is going to read your work to make sure it’s coherent.

So: if you really have made a story error, by all means, go back and take another stab at it, without deleting what you’ve already produced. Generally, though, NaNoWriMo is not the time to try and make every sentence sing and put every word in its exact place.

4. Know when you are going to write.

This might actually be the most important thing. If you’ve been noodling around with writing for a long time but new to the crunch of NaNoWriMo, you’ll likely be very surprised at the amount of work and time involved in producing 1667 words in one day, much less every day for thirty days. Plan your writing time, right from Day One. It’s important. Know when you are going to write. If you normally get up at 7:00 every morning, maybe get up at 6:15 and write until seven. If there’s usually an hour after dinner when you’re unoccupied, set that aside for writing. On Sundays, maybe join the football game in progress after 2:00 instead of insisting on watching the whole thing. You have to budget your time, because while the NaNoWriMo goal of 50000 words in thirty days is doable, falling behind is also very doable, and getting caught up once you’re behind by even a day or two is a lot less doable. Make every effort to start the month ahead, so that if you need to take a day or two later on to produce less than 1667 words, you can afford it.
ff
It’s good that this year NaNoWriMo starts on a Saturday (unless, of course, your job doesn’t give you Saturdays off). Getting off to a strong start is essential, and with two weekend days to launch, the schedule is quite conducive to it. Take advantage! Don’t tell yourself that you can make it up with a couple of 5000 word marathon sessions at some point, because quite frankly, you won’t.

What NaNoWriMo really helps is to train the brain — mindhack, if you will — to see writing as a job that can be approached in discrete chunks, as opposed to some mystical process driven by the capricious magic of some Muse. Believe me, there’s enough magic and mystery in writing already, so it can also be seen as a job where a daily word count is similar to a pro painter’s “Get this many square feet of the wall painted today”.

5. Have some music preselected and ready to go.

If you’re the type of writer who likes music as you work, figure out what your music is going to be. Make your playlist. Select some albums. I write to music, and I like to pair my work to my listening. Writing a fantasy swashbuckler? Here are some suggestions! I’ll also be producing a post at some point about music for writing space operas.

And make sure your music is accessible. Figure out what’s available on Google Play or whatever streaming service you use. Figure out what’s available on YouTube. Load some music onto your phone, for if you’re writing someplace without an Internet connection. If you’re old school, make a stack of CDs or vinyl. It’s all part of creating your writing mood, and getting in that mood quickly.

6. Don’t let friends and family guilt you about your focus this month.

Luckily, this has never been a problem for me, but I know it has for others (there’s a long thread about it on one of the NaNoWriMo message boards). If anyone gives you shit about writing, be firm in claiming this time for yourself. If they press, tell them that you have set a personal goal for yourself and you are working toward it. Would they guilt you if the goal you set was, say, running a marathon and you were doing a lot of training? I’m guessing not. Well, it’s the same thing. A personal goal that needs met is still a personal goal, no matter what. And if the other person is mocking of your personal goal? Well…I can’t really offer advice there, except to note that mocking someone’s goals, dreams, and efforts to make those things come true isn’t really something that should be endured from a “loved” one.

7. Interact with other people pursuing the same goal!

NaNoWriMo is a fairly big deal. The website has a lot of separate forums, from genre forums to forums for people of similar age groups to regional forums so you can connect with people in your area. Some areas even have “meet-ups”, where you can actually go and hang out with other writers who are having their own sessions. I’ve never done that (in this area, the meet-ups always seem to be held in the Northtowns, which is a bummer), but I wouldn’t mind someday. Find NaNoWriMo people on whatever social media you use — Twitter and Instagram have a lot of them — and share thoughts and success stories and kudos and cheers and vexing frustrations. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

8. Don’t lose the story.

It’s about telling a story, after all. So go ahead and tell it!

(Oh, and my user name is Jaquandor, for those who want to “buddy up” or whatever it is they call it.)

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Plotting? Never! (And other stuff)

Hey there, folks! Time for a few thoughts on…stuff. (Wow, I is articulate.)

:: In the current WIP, I have reached what I think is roughly the halfway point. I hope so, anyway — I would really like to be able to finish this work in October and get right onto the next thing in November for NaNoWriMo.

At the halfway point of the WIP, I am outlining the rest. #amwriting

To that end, I am shifting from my “pantsing” approach to “plotting”. I have noticed, during the last several WIPs, that I’m slowly adopting a hybrid approach to the age-old question of whether I plot things out or write by the seat of my pants. It seems that I start off writing by the seat of my pants, merrily getting my characters into a bit of a pickle, and then I step back and start plotting as I figure out how they get out of said pickle. This seems to be paying the most dividends as I write.

When I get to the plotting stage, this is when I step away from the computer and whip out the pads and pens. Plotting on paper feels good, and the act of writing longhand a bit — even if it’s notes and rough-sketch stuff — lends a different feel to the proceedings. I’m a big fan of changing up the routine a bit, once in a while. It keeps the entire enterprise fresh.

And if anyone’s wondering, there’s a reason the word in caps in my notes above is DEATH. This particular story does not turn out well for most of the participants.

:: I’m starting to get notes back from Beta Readers and proofreaders for FORGOTTEN STARS III, so Huzzah!!! I don’t think I’m going to have the book out as early as I’ve had the last two out, but it will be out by mid-December at the latest. I’d like to be ready by November, but I’m not sure. We’ll see. So much time and so little to do — wait, scratch that. Reverse it.

:: Ksenia Anske on making sentences “turn”:

I was going to write you a whole whiny post on how I can’t sleep, and how writers and sleep are enemies, but my brain decided otherwise. I keep discovering new things every day, it seems, and this particular one helped me today in writing killer sentences. So of course I had to share it with you. Remember the post on having every sentence turn? Well, it’s even deeper than that. Turns out, a sentence can turn three ways, and it’s up to you which way you want to turn it, and according to the way you turn it, you can either rope your reader into suspense or have them relax. This is scary stuff. Scary powerful, I mean. It teaches you how to manipulate your reader, which of course is what we writers do. But I had no idea about this! And now that I know, I can’t write the way I used to anymore. I see it everywhere.

Very much worth reading! I confess that I do not understand all of it.

:: Sara Letorneau on doubt:

No writer (or anyone pursuing their dreams) is immune to the monsters of doubt. At any time during our process, we might lose faith in our story, our characters, even our own abilities. And when we do, the effects can cripple us, sometimes to the point of giving up.

I tend to…well, I can’t ignore doubt, but I note its presence and tell it to sit in the corner while I work. Mainly it’s because I genuinely don’t know how to do anything other than write.

:: Briana Mae Morgan on carving out time to write:

The thing about writing is that it’s almost never convenient. You never have time to write. Even when I worked from home, I found about a thousand other things to do besides writing. You do have to make time to write if you want to get serious about writing. Although the word “make” bothers me, because it’s more about finding the time. In today’s post, I’m sharing how I learned to use pockets of time to meet my daily writing goals.

I note that she references the new mobile version of Scrivener for iPhone and iPad devices. I gotta say…look, I’m a Scrivener fan and I use it faithfully now, but the fact that the Apple users get the really good stuff, despite being outnumbered by both Windows and Android users, kind of irritates me. Scrivener is not a huge project being developed by a company with deep pockets. I get it…but still. I want the good stuff, too!

:: John Scalzi on how we present ourselves in real life versus how we do so online:

Over on Facebook, a person who claims to have met and interacted with me (and he may have! I meet and interact with a lot of people) suggests that he wouldn’t want to associate with me because, among other things, there’s a difference between how I present myself online and how I present myself offline, which this fellow takes to mean that I say things here, that I wouldn’t say there. Which means, apparently, that I’m false/dissembling/a coward and so on.

Interesting. I wrote some months ago about my approach to social media, and I do find that I “present” differently in various spaces, owing more (I think) to the way the different communities function than out of any intent to mask aspects of my character or whatever. I mean, it’s pretty easy to follow some links and see other aspects of my character at play. I swear more on Twitter these days than I used to, and I’m unlikely to geek out in this space about Star Wars or my eternal fascination with bib overalls and/or pie throwing, but hey, that stuff is out there if you look around. Anyway….

:: Finally, I turned 45 the other day! Why not celebrate by buying a book?

If a writer can't push their books on their birthday, why have birthdays! #amwriting #indiebooksbeseen #indiebooks #sciencefiction #spaceopera

See you around the Galaxy!

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Taking Stock: August 2016

So August is done and September is here! So where am I, especially in light of the goals I’ve espoused for the next chunk of time?

Well, in August I wrote 32,474 words for an average output of 1047 words a day. That ain’t bad, especially considering that I had several days of very low output and one outright zero-words day (owing to an overnight trip we took to attend the Sterling Renaissance Festival and to go to the Erie County Fair). There were also some struggle-days as I wrestled with the climax of Through the Pale Door, but I eventually figured most of that out and got the thing finished. So I had set my deadline to finish that draft at August 31, and I just made it. Huzzah! I even had time to leave myself some editing notes, because this draft is, shall we say, lumpy. It’s going to need some heavy lifting at edit-time to get it seaworthy. But that’s OK.

With two-thirds of the year gone, and with my favorite time of year stepping up to the plate, where am I for 2016? Well, as of August 31 I have written over 241,000 words of fiction (not including blogging, tweeting, Facebook babbling, and stuff on Tumblr), and I have written the words “THE END” twice, which is nice. It’s good that I’ve found the one area of life where I can be considered a workaholic, I suppose.

So what’s next? Well, the next “big” thing I want to do is the first book in my new space opera series (which doesn’t have a title, or even a Not-the-actual-title, yet). I don’t have enough of the background work done on that book yet, though, to get into it, and in any event, I kind of want to save that project for this year’s NaNoWriMo, in which I will attempt to break past my .500 record for the last four years. (I opened my NaNo career with wins in 2012 and 2013, but I lost in 2014 and 2015.) However, I don’t want to draft nothing at all in the two-month meantime (and I’m still waiting for beta-reads and editing notes to come back on Amongst the Stars), so…I’m trying something different.

[ASIDE: Hey, as of RIGHT NOW AS I WRITE THIS, I’ve come up with the Not-the-Actual-Title for the new space opera book. It will be code-named Lightning Bug, for reasons that are totally NOT obvious in ANY way. Uh-uh.]

Or I’m returning to something old. Depends on which way you look at it.

My first NaNoWriMo project was a supernatural adventure story involving a doomed kayaking expedition to a legendarily impossible-to-run river in the northern Yukon. While I got about 70,000 words written of it, I had to set it aside after a while because I wasn’t sure where it was going and I was up against the need to edit Stardancer, which I was on the verge of releasing – or maybe I felt the need to get going on The Wisdomfold Path – hmmm, I’m not really sure, maybe it was both. Anyway, this story never got finished, so I’m taking another whack at it right now, with an eye to keeping it short. Or at least, short for me.

Between September and October, I have sixty-one days to work with, because on November 1 I will be starting Lightning Bug (not the actual title), and I’d like to not have another unfinished version of the same story sitting out there. So my goal is to bring this story in under 60,000 words. At my usual 1000 words/day quota, I should have just enough time to pull this off. I usually don’t worry so much about word-count goals, but this is a new challenge, and new challenges are pretty cool, aren’t they?

It helps that I have the previous draft to use as reference. I am reworking quite a bit of it, albeit typing it anew rather than trying to edit the old. Once this is done, well, who knows. But it’ll be another story of mine in the hopper, awaiting a future engagement.

And just think, someday you lucky folks will be able to read all this stuff! That’s why I’m doing all this.

So, if you’ll excuse me….

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Looking ahead: setting goals for the rest of 2016 and into 2017!

As we head into the final third of 2016, it’s worth looking ahead, both to the conclusion of this year but into the next. So here’s what I hope to get done over the next sixteen months and change!

via GIPHY

:: Publish Amongst the Stars (The Song of Forgotten Stars, book III). This is a no-brainer. This book has to get out there! I hope readers will enjoy what’s in store for Tariana, Margeth, Lt. Rasharri, and their friends this time out. The series does not end with this book, but we do reach the end of the larger story’s first act.

Sadly, there will almost certainly not be a Forgotten Stars book in 2017. I haven’t even started drafting Forgotten Stars IV (although I do have some notes and some ideas for what happens in it), and I’m not sure how soon I’ll be getting there.

:: NaNoWriMo: my project this year will be my new space opera series! I’ve been doing a lot of background work and brainstorming for this one, since it’ll be a more character-driven series and more episodic in nature than the Forgotten Stars books. I’ll also be writing in a more adult tone for this one, which I’m looking forward to doing.

:: Signed copies of all existing books. This is something I’ve meant to do ever since I released Stardancer, and I’m frustrated that I haven’t got there yet. I really truly mean to do it soon! Hopefully in the next few months, once I get a chance to restock my supply of my own books. Stay tuned for details, but if you’ve ever wanted a signed copy of one of my books, you’ll soon be able to have precisely that.

:: Publish GhostCop and start editing its sequel. I had originally planned to get GhostCop out this year, but I decided to push it to 2017, because otherwise I wasn’t sure if I’d have anything ready for release next year, and I don’t want to go more than an entire year without anything coming out. Since I’m not sure when the next Forgotten Stars book will be on the docket, this looks to be my best bet.

As for the sequel? As of this writing I am now wrestling with that book’s climax and I have high hopes for making my deadline to finish the first draft by August 31. Yay! After that, I will let the manuscript lie fallow until March 1, 2017, at the earliest. (I am a staunch believer in letting manuscripts sit for a long time before attempting edits.)

:: Lighthouse Boy. Ahhh, now here’s a bit of a problem: I’m still not sure where I’m going with this one. The problem is the structure of the entire project: it’s one large book, kinda-sorta split in two. (The framing device is that the book is a autobiographical manuscript left behind by Our Hero later in life, which has just been found in two parts by an academic dude who leaves annotations and stuff all over the manuscript.)

So while I have the first draft of the first half done, I’m waffling currently on whether I write the second part and then edit the entire thing en masse, or edit the first part and then write the second. For various reasons, I’m leaning toward the former – mainly because if I need to change anything in Part One to reflect and/or anticipate the events of Part Two, I can’t do that if I’ve already edited and released the first one.

I am also really considering serializing this book, once it’s done, on Wattpad prior to publishing the entire thing, or maybe as a series of chapbooks. We’ll see. In any event, if I go the way I’m leaning, I won’t start drafting Book Two of Lighthouse Boy until some time next year, and then return to Forgotten Stars after that.

:: Attend local cons! I need to do more of this. Buffalo Comic-Con is coming up in September, and I’ll be in attendance, albeit as a ticket-buying fan. But I’ll be there, sizing things up and hopefully doing some interacting. Next year, once I have four books out, I’d love to be able to set up a dealer table of my own. We’ll see.

Locally, there are a surprising number of cons right now. Buffalo Comic-Con has been growing for several years, and this year it was joined by a new one, Nickel City Con, which was just held last weekend but next year apparently shifts to May. There are also UBCon and EerieCon, neither of which I’ve yet attended. (I can’t attend EerieCon this year because its dates coincide with an annual getaway trip The Wife and I take every year.) I do wonder if the Buffalo con scene is getting a little oversaturated, but as long as they all exist, I’ll try to attend as many as I can.

:: Short fiction. I’ve been thinking that it might be time to start writing some short fiction again. Right now I don’t really have any ideas ready to go, but that’s never a problem. I can walk down the street and spot ideas to write. What would I do with short fiction? I’m not sure. If nothing else, I can post it all on Wattpad, which I’ve already started doing with some of my older stories.

So there are some of my “stretch goals” for the next year-and-change. Will I make them all? Maybe, maybe not…but I’m going to have a hell of a time trying! Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!

Because in my head I'm still twelve. #AmWriting #overalls

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How to Kill Your Darlings

After “Show, don’t tell!”, “Read a lot and write a lot”, and “Never fight a land war in Asia”, the most common bit of writing advice may well be “Kill your darlings.” This means that sometimes there will be things in your writing that you really really really love, passages that sing to you every time you read them, passages which make you think that maybe you’re actually good enough for this writing business after all…but which you must remove from your book or story because the story itself is better without it.

That’s what it means: Kill your darlings. If the book is improved by killing something you see as a darling, then you have to smother it in its sleep. Poison its coffee. Push it off the bridge. You get the idea.

Sometimes when writers kill their darlings, the darlings resurface in another way – perhaps as a short story, or the idea gets recycled, or so on. Years ago, fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson issued an anthology of short stories, but it also included a fallen darling of his: a chapter from his book The Illearth War, which he ended up cutting for sound reasons but which he also didn’t want to see gone forever. So darlings don’t have to stay dead.

But how do you know when it’s time to kill a darling?

Well, here’s the thing, for me: All darlings are suspect, and some of them are impostors. So the task isn’t to kill darlings, it’s to kill the things that are not darlings, so that the things that are can shine in all their darling glory. Your darlings are awesome. You don’t want to kill your darlings! You have to lure the non-darlings out into the open, and then you have to strangle them and toss them overboard. No mercy for the non-darlings, folks!

This requires a pretty hard-nosed and blunt approach to one’s own story. You have to see story errors for what they are, and ruthlessly eliminate them. Killing darlings is painful, but killing false darlings? Dragging the impostors outside by their hair and pushing them into a deep pit? That feels great! But since false darlings almost always look like real darlings, what’s a writer to do?

Well, sooner or later, every false darling will start to stand out like a sore thumb. If you have doubts about a certain thing in your story – a character, a subplot, a scene, whatever – then that’s a red flag that the thing you’re looking at is a false darling.

There’s an entire plotline in the first draft of Forgotten Stars III that will never see the light of day, because I recognized it for what it was – a false darling – very soon after I finished writing the first draft. It might have even been within a day or two of writing the words “The End”, and I wrote in my editing notes to delete it. And delete it I have.

Another problem with false darlings isn’t even that they’re disguised as real darlings, it’s that we’re trying desperately not to see them as false darlings, because we’re invested for whatever reason in their survival. These ones are the hardest. That plotline in Forgotten Stars III that I deleted? I tried valiantly to convince myself that it could stay, that it wasn’t too damaging, that I could make it work with some good editing…but eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that the thing had to go.

False darlings don’t want to go. They want to stay. They want to live off the energy of your story. They want to suck down that good energy and live on, ruining things for all time. And if you let them, they will. So kill them.

“But what if I kill an actual darling?” You’ll probably realize it. What can be removed, can be put back. A story isn’t like a game of Jenga…and if you have to put it back, maybe it’ll be even better. I’ve edited out actual darlings only to have to re-insert them before, and when I do, I usually just rewrite tham, and they come out better. So don’t worry about this.

Truthfully, I have yet to find a false darling that I feel bad about excising, and neither should you. And if you’re worried about a “wasted idea”? Don’t! If the idea is that good, it’ll work itself in someplace else. And if not, well…you’ll forget about it eventually, anyway.

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