A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Exploring Different Points of View (Or, Riding Along with an April Witch)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, I used to like to pretend.  I pretended I was an explorer, navigating the river basins and leafy pathways of tropical rain forests.  I pretended I was an astronaut, drifting through the black depths of space, my rocket ship on auto-cruise as I sat back, sipped hot chocolate from a Styrofoam cup, and read back issues of The Fantastic Four (remember, I was ten years old when I was visualizing all this!)  I pretended I was surveying the uncharted regions of the ocean floor in a deep-sea submarine, discovering new species of aquatic flora and fauna.

ff74

 

But most of all, I play-acted.  I would invent games, scenarios, sporting events where players–actual and imaginary–squared off in a battle for the ages.  Sometimes I’d be by myself in the basement or backyard, offering a complete play-by-play of the action.  I’d “play” nine innings of baseball, running through the lineups, making managerial decisions and switching pitchers when the situation dictated, impersonating every batter on both teams.  Sometimes I’d recruit my friends–the same ones who served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers–and together we’d shoot baskets or throw around the football, each of us in our world of make-believe and magic.

magic

 

As I grew older, went to high school and then college, little changed in this regard.  I’d still pretend as often as I could.  I would tell people that I never grew bored.  How could I when I was always a mere thought away from a home run in Yankee Stadium or a forehand winner up the line at Wimbledon, or a lively give-and-take in an embassy in Paris or Tokyo or Prague?  Sure, much of the time, my focus was on the here and now–homework, family matters, friends, career paths.  But when I had a moment, when I could break away from the grind, those were the times I let my mind roam and wander where it willed . . .

pathswanderingwherewill

 

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In a short story from 1952 titled “The April Witch,” Ray Bradbury writes about a seventeen-year-old girl named Cecy who possesses the extraordinary ability of entering into other beings and experiencing the world through their eyes, their senses.

aprilwitch

 

The opening paragraph of “The April Witch” makes this crystal clear:

“Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy.  Invisible as new spring winds, fresh as the breath of clover rising from twilight fields, she flew.  She soared in doves as soft as white ermine, stopped in trees and lived in blossoms, showering away in petals when the breeze blew.  She perched in a lime-green frog, cool as mint by a shining pool.  She trotted in a brambly dog and barked to hear echoes from the sides of distant barns.  She lived in new April grasses, in sweet clear liquids rising from the musky earth.”

greenfrog

 

But more than anything, Cecy wants to experience love, feel love, something her parents have warned her about.  “Remember,” they say.  “You’re remarkable.  Our whole family is odd and remarkable.  We can’t mix or marry with ordinary folk.  We’d lose our magical powers if we did.”

losemagicpowers

 

So, unable to pursue a real relationship in her own form, Cecy inhabits the person of a young woman named Ann Leary, who she then coaxes, through her supernatural abilities, to attend a dance.  In this way, vicariously, Cecy experiences her first kiss, her first date, her first, soft taste of romance.

***************

Cecy’s story hits home for me on a number of levels.  First, of course, she is able to do, quite literally, what I could only pretend to do as a boy growing up with an overactive imagination.  In her case, she wouldn’t need to wonder what it would be like to serve an ace at Wimbledon.  She could inhabit the body of the player who produces the shot, feeling it for herself.  My initial reaction to this might be envy–what a gift that would be.  If we possessed such a power, we could experience anything we wanted, any notion that took root, any desire that compelled us to dream and imagine and aspire to something that, otherwise, would be perpetually and irrevocably out of reach.

couldhavedreamandimagineanything

 

But then I consider it again.

We do have such an ability.  We can experience whatever we want.  We can drive a race car at 200 miles per hour.  We can climb Everest.  We can journey through the eyes of a mysterious “ghost girl” and come out on the other side, in a parallel universe.

everest

eyedancers

 

We can dance across the canvas of the sky, using the stars themselves as our springboards.

stars

 

Anytime we write a story, anytime we read a story, we are seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, living as vicariously through them as Cecy herself does as she enters the bodies of frogs and crickets, flower blossoms, or young women out for a night on the town.  The possibilities are endless, limited only by the scope of our imagination and the roads we choose either to walk along or bypass.

flowerblossoms

 

With The Eye-Dancers, for example, I was able to inhabit the consciousness, the points of view, of four distinct and different characters.  In short stories I have written, I’ve seen the world through the eyes of a small-town shop owner dealing with a declining profit margin and an odd customer who won’t leave him alone; a man haunted by a recurring dream of falling to his death from a high-rise; a clown in a traveling circus who discovers something horrific in one of the towns his troupe stops in; a husband coming to terms with the accident that has crippled his wife; a thirteen-year-old experiencing the moment when he knows, unequivocally, that he is no longer a child; a patron at a Chinese restaurant who reads a haunting, ominous message in his fortune cookie and then must struggle to overcome a long-held fear.

fortunecookie

 

Sometimes, as a writer of stories, as a creator of characters, I feel like a patient with multiple personality disorder engaged in a form of therapy, as effective as it is magical.  It’s no different, really, from my flights of fancy in years gone by–it is no more, and no less, than the written manifestation of them.

We all write, read, watch, partake.  We all dream, imagine, and long for something better, something more.  We are all, each in our own way, riding high, aloft on the currents of the wind alongside Ray Bradbury’s April Witch.

ridingthewind

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The (Cover’s) the Thing . . .

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

It’s an expression so common, so overused, many of us may turn a deaf ear to it.  Perhaps we even roll our eyes and think, Can they spew out more cliches while they’re at it?

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But for authors who have worked countless hours on a novel, experiencing the high, soaring peaks and muddy, shallow bottomlands of the creative journey, and who stuck through the process, even on those dark days when all seemed lost and the literary well seemed as dry and barren as the surface of a dead world floating endlessly in orbit, the notion that the story, their story, which they have finally completed, needs the window-dressing of a sensational cover may at first blush seem rather insulting.  After all, isn’t it the story that counts?  The prose?  The characters that populate the pages?  Shouldn’t the novel stand alone, on its own merit?

valley

Of course it should, and, to a large degree, it does.  But readers can only enjoy your story if they know it exists.  They can’t become entranced by the literary world you’ve created unless they first choose to purchase the book.  And, apart from family, friends, friends of friends, what can an author who is anything but a household name do to attract a broader readership?  Social media, paid advertising, marketing, and of course joining the wonderful WordPress community are all potential ways of discovering a wider audience.

community

But creating a can’t-miss, spectacular cover for your book is essential, and its something comic book publishers have known, and practiced, since the first issues hit the newsstands nearly a century ago.

As a lifelong comic book collector, I am not ashamed to admit–there are some vintage issues I have acquired over the years simply on the basis of the cover alone.  I can well imagine the comics buyer from decades ago, the ten-year-old with the freckles, the teenager in pigtails, spinning the squeaky rack, deciding which issues they should plunk their dimes and nickels and pennies on.  In an era before cable television, before VHS cassettes and DVDs, and long before the Internet and smartphones, comic books were wildly popular.  Hundreds of issues graced the stands every month.

comicrack

A great cover was not just an option.  It was a necessity.

Classic comic book covers came in all genres, all styles, all moods . . .

From the bombastic . . .

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to the fun . . .

detective99

action57

to the spooky . . .

hos92

hos97

to the startling . . .

ASM121

shocksuspenstories7

journeyintoUW49

to the adventurous . . .

MIS44

marveltales152

to the ironic . . .

SA91

to the larger-than-life . . .

TTA10

SA2

*****

When it came to The Eye-Dancers, I knew from the outset who I wanted to design the cover.  One of the earliest posts on this website covered (pun intended!) this topic.  Matt Gaston, artist, graphic designer, and all-around talented and creative guy, is a lifelong friend of mine.  I was very fortunate that he agreed to do the cover for the novel when I asked him.

Like me, Matt is a longtime comic book collector, and we agreed that the look and feel of The Eye-Dancers cover should pay homage to our hobby.  So whenever anyone tells me, as some have, that the cover of The Eye-Dancers reminds them of a graphic novel or a vintage comic from yesteryear, I smile.  I’m sure Matt does, too.  We wouldn’t want it any other way.

eyedancers

When we were kids, Matt and I used to talk about the future.  Maybe we’d team up and do a comic book strip.  I’d be the writer, he the artist.  We never quite made it to collaborating on a comic strip.  But I like to think that The Eye-Dancers represents a little slice, a miniature helping of that long-ago dream.

*************

When that last sentence is written, when you shed a tear at “The End,” thinking of the long journey, the obstacles overcome, when you hope that your characters will move readers, that your words, your similes and metaphors, your twists and turns, your story will carry them away to another world, far, far away, beyond some distant, star-speckled horizon, consider those classic old comic books that wowed the young, and young at heart, of bygone eras . . .

No book should be judged by its cover.  But it just might be purchased because of it.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Hail and (Never) Farewell

Have you ever wondered, “What if?”  What if you could fly–not with the aid of an eighty-ton aerodynamic metal ship, but simply with the rising and falling of your arms?  What if you could travel to Mars, or Jupiter, or Venus, and, once there, discover that other forms of life, non-earthly forms of life, exist elsewhere in our solar system?  What if you could go backward in time, millions and millions of years, to a green, jungled past inhabited by monstrous flying reptiles and larger-than-life thunder lizards that we of today can scarcely imagine?

trex

 

Have you ever asked?

Of course you have.  We all have.  “What if?” it can be argued, is the great creative expression, the launch pad to unforgettable stories and adventures.

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, frequently asked, “What if?”  And, in fact, he asked the very questions presented above.

bradbury

 

The stories that resulted, masterpieces such as “Here There Be Tygers,” “The Long Rain,” and “A Sound of Thunder,” among many others, are gems of the highest order.

asoundofthunder

 

But there was another “What if?” question the prolific author asked . . . What if you never had to grow old?  What if you could stay forever twelve, forever young, regardless of the date printed on your birth certificate?

The resulting story, “Hail and Farewell,” is not as well known perhaps as some of Bradbury’s more recognizable tales.  But that takes nothing away from the story’s impact, power, and poignancy.

hailandfarewell

 

“Hail and Farewell” is about a twelve-year-old boy named Willie.  When we first meet Willie, and indeed, when anybody first meets Willie, he seems like any other twelve-year-old.  He looks twelve; he’s not inordinately big for his age–in fact, he is quite small.  If you were to walk by Willie on a street corner, you probably wouldn’t look twice–just an ordinary boy, perhaps returning home from school or strolling to a Saturday matinee or walking over to a friend’s.

matinee

 

But Willie is not your average, normal twelve-year-old boy–not by a long shot.  Willie is not, in actuality, twelve at all.  He is forty-three.  That’s what his records show, those are the facts.  But Willie discovered, long ago, that, in terms of outward appearance, he is forever twelve.  He cannot grow old.  He’ll never wrinkle, lose his hair, acquire the maladies and infirmities of old age.  A blessing of the highest order?  Perhaps.  But Willie also has a price to pay . . . a repeating cycle with no end.

He can never settle in, never remain.  He is a drifter, moving from town to town, school to school, state to state.  He learns of couples with no children, patiently, thoroughly researching his opportunities, trying to discover the people in whose lives he can inject some love and laughter, if only for a little while.  And then–Willie just appears.  He knocks on a door, rings a bell, and when the door opens, he introduces himself, and, if the stars are aligned, he will have found a new home, a new temporary set of parents.  He will stay with them, love them, bond with them.  But then he will need to leave.  After all, how can a boy remain twelve forever?  Classmates will mature, graduate, go on to college and careers.  Parents will gray and grow old, all while Willie stays a boy, always on the threshold of adolescence, but never quite reaching it.  So he can stay for two years, maybe three, and then he is gone . . .

travelingbag

 

Bradbury’s story essentially asks the question, “Would it be a blessing to remain forever young?  Or a curse?  Or maybe a little of both?”

Those are questions each reader must answer for him- or herself.

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But there is another way each of us can remain forever twelve.  In our own way, we all have a little bit of Willie in us . . .

**************

In The Eye-Dancers, main characters Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are all twelve years old.  They are all also inspired by friends I knew growing up; and so, as I wrote the novel, I was, in many ways, twelve years old again.  I spent the better part of three years continually entering the minds and consciousness of my pre-teen characters, seeing the world through their eyes, hearing it, feeling it, experiencing it as a twelve-year-old might.  (Some might argue I operate that way anyway, all the time, as my default mode!  But that is a post for another day.)

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It is also my hope that readers of The Eye-Dancers are able to share in that experience, too, hopping on, as it were, a literary time machine traveling back, back . . . to younger days–days that seem, sometimes, almost forgotten, like yellowed pages in a time-worn scroll.  But then, when you rediscover them, when the aroma and memories and sights and sounds and experiences flood back in, you realize–they were there the whole while, stacked in a neat pile just outside the door.

The door just needed to be opened.

opendoor

 

**************

“But of course he was going away,” Bradbury writes in “Hail and Farewell,” as Willie must leave another couple, and begin anew. . . . “His suitcase was packed, his shoes were shined, his hair was brushed, he had expressly washed behind his ears, and it remained only for him to go down the stairs, out the front door, and up the street to the small-town station where the train would make a stop for him alone.  Then Fox Hill, Illinois, would be left far off in his past.  And he would go on, perhaps to Iowa, perhaps to Kansas, perhaps even to California; a small boy twelve years old with a birth certificate in his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago. . . .

“In his bureau mirror he saw a face made of June dandelions and July apples and warm summer-morning  milk.  There, as always, was his look of the angel and the innocent, which might never, in the years of his life, change.”

dandelions

 

We are all like Willie, I think, each in our own way.  But where Willie lives in a perpetual state of comings and goings, hellos and good-byes, bonding and heartbreak, we need not have to experience his gift in such a transitory manner.

As writers, readers, dreamers, we can all say “Hail,” without the need of ever having to say, “Farewell.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Guest Post: Tammy Salyer, New Release Announcement– “Contract of War”

Since creating The Eye-Dancers website two summers ago, I have virtually met so many great people in the WordPress Community, and one person I met fairly early on is Tammy Salyer.  Tammy was gracious enough to interview me on her fantastic website back in the winter of 2013, and it was a privilege for me to post about the second entry in her Spectras Arise Trilogy shortly thereafter.

Tammy is very generous with her support of her fellow authors, always ready and willing to go the extra mile to help out in any way she can.  So it is my pleasure today to have her post about the release of Contract of War, the third and final book of her Spectras Arise Trilogy.

I cannot recommend this trilogy highly enough!  If you enjoy taut sci-fi, first-rate prose, rich characters, and suspense that compels you to keep turning the page, then I encourage you to check out the Spectras Arise Trilogy.

But Tammy can speak of her trilogy better than I can, and so without further delay . . .

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New Release Announcement

Contract of War, the final novel in a the Spectras Arise Trilogy by Tammy Salyer, a “riveting quest on the galactic fringe,” is out July 21st.

trilogycovers

 

What it’s about:

 

Contract of Defiance, Contract of Betrayal, and Contract of War follow heroine Aly Erikson and her crew of anti-Admin smugglers through an ever-escalating glut of life-and-death adventures and trials of a living on the side of liberty and freedom—whether they agree with the law or not—in the far future of the Algol star system. As former Corps members, most are no strangers to fighting and dissent, but more than anything, they want to spend their lives flying under the radar without control or interference from the system’s central government, The Political and Capital Administration of the Advanced Worlds. But the Admin’s greed-drenched dualism of power and corruption has other plans, and throughout the series, Aly and her crew are reminded of one lesson time and again: when all other options run out, never let go of your gun.

 

Contract of War begins in the aftermath of the system-wide war between the Admin and Corp Loyalists and the non-citizen population of the Algols, where everything once resembling order has been leveled. Scattered enclaves of survivors dot the worlds, living, however they can, in snarled lawlessness. Aly and her crew have carved out a niche of relative peace, doing their best to go on with their lives through salvaging, scavenging, and stealing. But with no force left to keep the lid on the pot, the pressures of chaos and discord soon cause conflicts to boil over. As enemies close in from all directions, even, sometimes, from within, the crew once again must fight—not just for survival, not just for their way of life, but this time for a future that can finally lay to rest the system’s bloody and savage past.

 

To learn more about the series and her other projects, visit former 82nd Airborne paratrooper and author Tammy Salyer at www.tammysalyer.com.

 

Grab all three novels in the trilogy while they’re on sale for 99 cents each through August at Amazon {amazon.com/author/tammysalyer}, Apple {http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/tammy-salyer/id519481023?mt=11}, Barnes and Noble {http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/tammy-salyer}, Kobo [http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/Search?query=Spectras%20Arise%20Trilogy&fcsearchfield=Series}, Libiro {http://www.libiro.com/}, and PayHip {http://payhip.com/TammySalyer}.

 

About Tammy:

tammy

Tammy writes a bit, reads a bit, and frequently races cars across intersections from the saddle of her bike. Consequently, you could probably crack walnut shells on her thighs, but she hopes no one ever tries, because … awkward. Find her on her blog (www.tammysalyer.com) or Twitter (www.twitter.com/tammysalyer), or sign up for her newsletter (http://eepurl.com/Trzh1) to be the first to know of contests, new releases, and special events you might enjoy. She’s currently working on a prequel to the trilogy and another project that has something to do with space Vikings. She hopes you enjoy reading her works and welcomes your reviews.

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Thanks so much, Tammy, for thinking of The Eye-Dancers blog on your release day!

And thanks so much to everyone for reading.

–Mike

 

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