Geek Gab Halloween Special

We've got a special Halloween episode for you on this week's Geek Gab. Join Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, special guest Bacon Man, and myself, for 30 minutes of horror film geekery.


Counterintelligence for Social Media

Reader Bradford C. Walker passes along a wealth of timely and important information about how organized groups manipulate social media and its users.
This link from Cryptome came across my Twitter feed late last night, and when I looked at it I knew that this post was to come. 
I want you to look at that link and bookmark it. Archive it if you're particularly worried about it going down the Memory Hole. It is important to note the links to the UK's GCHQ agency and their involvement in the same sort of shenanigans that the US's NSA is now known to do thanks to Edward Snowden, but I want you to scroll down and start reading the body of the page. I want you to read the techniques for online information manipulation and control with an eye to the forums, subreddits, blogs, comment sections, etc. that you frequent (or did in the past) and see if you recognize any of them being used. 
I do. You see, this is not just something political campaigns do, but rather something that other interested parties--some of whom are not paid to do it--employ, such as the Social Justice cult. They do it for the same reasons that their counterparts working for real power players do: to take and wield real power. Influence is not something to laugh off; if you're not actively defending your brain via critical thinking (i.e. the Trivium Method), then you're vulnerable to being influenced in this manner.
My comment: reading through the techniques for dilution, misdirection and control of online forums, I was fascinated--and more than a little unsettled--by how many I've seen used in the field.

Read the guide and learn to recognize when you're potentially being being had. If new commenters suddenly appear on a site you frequent in the midst of a developing controversy, if they make a bunch of unsupported allegations from a position of assumed authority, and if they're given to emotional miscues while pursuing a single-minded line of argument, you may be dealing with trained shills.


Citizen Vader

Citizen Vader
Image by Red Letter Media
My post on books that informed Star Wars drew multiple calls to examine George Lucas' cinematic influences. The Star Wars saga borrows from and pays homage to so many films that covering them all in depth would require a lengthy series. You could probably sustain a whole blog on little else.

I'm going to resist that kind of scope creep and instead focus on one movie that left a deep impression on Star Wars--for good and ill. That film is Orson Welles' 1941 magnum opus Citizen Kane.

For those who haven't seen Kane, I highly recommend that you watch it. Even if you already know what "Rosebud" means, the movie is a brilliantly told character study in which Welles leads us on a journey that's far more than a mere setup for a plot twist. And contrary to most people's expectations for a 1940s drama, it features groundbreaking photography and special effects--another likeness to Star Wars.

At its heart, Citizen Kane is a haunting cautionary tale against drinking your own Kool-Aid; a warning about how idealism tainted by arrogance can ultimately cost you everything.

That synopsis alone probably gives you an idea of how Welles influenced Lucas. Let's explore the stories' similarities in depth.

Anakin Skywalker is clearly patterned after Charles Foster Kane.

Kand and Hitler
Darth Vader would be right at home on that balcony.
There are stark similarities between Kane and Vader, foremost among them is the similar trajectories that their lives take.

Birthplace: Charlie Kane was born in Colorado while it was still a frontier territory and technically part of the American Wild West. Anakin Skywalker hails from the planet of Tatooine in the Outer Rim Territories. This world on the fringes of the Galactic Republic/Empire has much in common with cinematic western settings, including its desert geography, sometimes hostile natives, and barroom shootouts.

Parental Relationships: Kane suffered a traumatic separation from his family when his mother placed him under the guardianship of a New York banker at the age of eight. Anakin is only a year older when he leaves his mother to begin his Jedi training on the city-planet of Coruscant. Both men develop severe separation anxiety that will dominate their destinies for the rest of their lives.

Idealism: Obi-Wan Kenobi comes right out and calls Anakin an idealist, and in context implies that this idealism contributed to Anakin's downfall. Kane's first act as a newspaper owner is to publish a declaration of principles which he states will govern how he treats his readers. (As a writer, I find Kane's almost immediate abandonment of this promise as personally distasteful--if not as downright evil--as any of Vader's sins.)

Corruption: Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader reflects his philosophical transformation from an idealist to an ideologue (or cultist). The dream of ultimate order and peace for the good of all becomes an absolute to which all supposedly lesser goods--including, eventually, people's lives--can and must be sacrificed.

Kane's fall is subtler and less spectacular than Anakin's, but in a way it is even more reprehensible. Vader's stated goal of universal peace through law and order is quite noble (and it's consistent with his character--the guy is, after all, a space cop). Kane's ruthless pursuit of love on his own terms is purely self-serving, and he willingly uses his readership, his family, and the electorate as mere tools in his doomed bids to get it.

Death: both characters' stories end with their deaths. But before they die, both men are reduced to crippled shadows of their past glory, isolated from the rest of humanity and stripped of the dreams they so desperately chased by their own evil choices.

Anakin and Luke Skywalker

Here we find a key difference. Kane's story is an unmitigated tragedy. Though he clearly comes to regret his loss of innocence, he never expresses remorse for the harm he's caused. Anakin's life ends with his redemption, as he rejects and triumphs over the hate that had dominated him for so long.

Of course, Anakin's salvation was only accomplished through his son's intervention. (Theologically loaded terms? You bet, but that's a subject for yet another Star Wars influences post.) In light of Luke's redemptive role, Welles' decision to kill off Kane's son rather early in the film takes on interesting implications.

Lucas dropped the ball.
Considering that the saga of Darth Vader is, in the final analysis, a redemption story (and thus potentially far more powerful than a pure tragedy), Star Wars had a rare chance to do in the science fiction genre what Citizen Kane did in drama--only better. There are brilliant glimpses of this potential in the original trilogy, which not coincidentally often joins Citizen Kane on lists of the best movies ever made.

Darth Vader's death and redemption were handled flawlessly. It fell to the prequels to chronicle the character's origin and fall in a way that reinforced his tragic yet sympathetic arc. Unfortunately, George Lucas' impatience with characterization and dialog got the better of him. Watch Red Letter Media's in-depth deconstruction of Episode III for more details.

From their humble beginnings to the early childhood traumas that set them on the path to the Dark Side, Anakin Skywalker and Charles Foster Kane have much in common. Orson Welles' superior writing and directing makes Kane's the better told story overall, but there's really no shame in finishing behind Citizen Kane.


Book Review: SJWs Always Lie

thought police

Evil has a habit of taking good words and inverting their meanings. Consider that many now use "freedom" to describe slavery to base appetites and say "love" when they really mean "fleeting infatuation that ends when physical attraction fades".

One of the latest terms to be hijacked is "social justice". The concept's moral theology pedigree can be traced all the way back to Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum. "Social justice" originally meant the authorities' obligation to make sure that society gave individuals their due as human beings.

It's ironic, but not accidental, that a teaching laid out in an encyclical that repeatedly smacks down socialism has been co-opted by socialists; or that a principle meant to ensure inalienable human rights is being invoked to abolish free speech. A new class of totalitarian activists flying the banner of social justice have gained so much influence that even their Leftist professors are starting to worry that they've created monsters.

They have good reason to fear. The social justice mob and its keyboard warriors have amassed enough power to disemploy Nobel laureates like Sir Tim Hunt and tech pioneers such as Brendan Eich, not to mention a largely silent multitude of anonymous offenders who lost their livelihoods for the crime of disagreement.

Into this bloody arena steps author Vox Day.

Having been illegally expelled from the SFWA, Vox is well qualified to give a detailed analysis of a social justice warrior purge. That's just what he's done--and much more--in his political philosophy opus SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police.

The book was originally conceived as a polemic, but the end result is more like a field guide to navigating the SJW-riddled minefields of Western academia, business, and media. Vox shares accounts of people who lost their employment and reputations to social justice witch hunts, walks the reader through a step by step analysis of the SJW attack sequence, and offers actionable advice for what to do when you come under fire for alleged violations of ever-shifting social justice doctrine.

In reading SJWAL, it fascinated me how much SJWs' elitist, polarizing, and unaccountable attitudes resemble those of a cult. This observation is consistent with the fact that all malignant ideologies now threatening Western civilization are Christian heresies to some degree.

Heresy isn't simply untruth. It's a truth unhinged from other balancing truths and exaggerated out of proportion. Pelagianism was the overemphasis on human will to the exclusion of grace. Arianism focused on Christ's divine Sonship to the point of denying His divinity. Similarly, the SJW cult absolutizes social justice while rejecting the immutable nature from which human rights are derived.

The mental state required to embrace such a self-contradictory worldview is responsible for Vox's First Law of SJWs and the title of his book. Because they believe that adopting an irrational ideology makes them morally superior to everyone else, SJWs have no qualms about lying to advance their goals. This includes smearing, libeling, and falsely accusing others.

SJWAL's most valuable public service has been sounding a wake-up call to ordinary people whose well-meant misconception that SJWs could be reasoned or compromised with allowed their witch hunts to gain so much traction.

By pointing out that no one--not even rocket scientists--is safe from this heretical inquisition, Vox has shown that anyone--even you--can be next. It doesn't matter if you "haven't done anything wrong" or "have nothing to hide". Since your accusers have no compunctions against lying, they have nothing against trumping up charges against you.

And no, fear of exposure and punishment is no hindrance to SJWs. The tacit cooperation of normal people in the state, media, corporations, and cultural institutions has fostered the social justice cult's lack of accountability.

What does Vox recommend for targets of SJW attacks? The gist of his advice is to recognize that you're being attacked,and know what you're dealing with, remain calm, and do not agree to any of their demands.

The most difficult--and perhaps the most important--rule for SJW victims to grasp is Vox's vehement warning not to apologize. This tenet seems to contradict a basic convention of civilized society, but taken in context, it's a sound principle. The purpose of an apology is to heal social bonds and help restore transgressors to full membership in the community. An apology is not due to someone who demands it in bad faith in order to condemn you; especially if you really haven't done anything wrong.

On a personal note, I can vouch for this book's effectiveness. Even if actual SJWs are a minority, their cultish M.O. is spreading. The corporate world, with its vague codes of conduct and dehumanizing HR departments, seems particularly vulnerable. That's where I encountered SJW-style ostracizing worthy of Kafka.

My adversaries weren't self-declared SJWs, but they followed the same attack sequence to the letter. Vox hadn't written this book yet, but I wish he had, because upon reading it I realized that I'd unknowingly followed most of its advice. True, my time with that employer came to an end, but when the dust settled neither of the parties responsible were employed there, either. I can only speculate about how things might have turned out if I'd had SJWAL to guide me through the ordeal.

Organized, unscrupulous people are out there right now, seeking their next victim. Don't leave your survival to chance.

SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, published by Castalia House, is available for Kindle and in paperback.

UPDATE: welcome, Vox Popoli readers. And thanks to Vox for the link.


Why Authors Need to Be Readers: Books that Informed Star Wars

McQuarrie Star Wars concept art
Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie
The best way to prepare for a writing career, besides writing every day, is reading at least as often. The importance of broad and deep reading for good writing strikes me as so self-evident that it baffles me whenever I ask aspiring authors how much they read, only to hear that they don't.

At this point, I could deliver an essay on the rich lessons of the great books, the necessity of developing a keen eye for characterization, pacing, and dialogue; or stocking your literary toolbox with tricks learned from other authors.

Instead, I'll point to the best example of how properly managed literary influences produced a masterpiece far greater than the sum of its parts: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Books the Influenced Star Wars
The Star Wars galaxy didn't just pop fully formed into George Lucas' head one day. Prior to creating his magnum opus, he'd spent decades devouring a catalog of works containing everything from Homer to Jack Kirby; from Shakespeare to Frank Herbert. This eclectic reading list informed Lucas' ideas and provided a solid foundation to build his space opera world on.

Here's a partial list of books that cinema scholars and Lucas himself cite as influences on Star Wars.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series: starting as a series of short stories published between 1942 and 1950, Foundation features a Galactic Empire very similar to the one depicted in the original Star Wars trilogy. There are even characters named Han and Bail.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: besides Obi-Wan Kenobi filling much the same role in A New Hope that Gandalf did in The Fellowship of the Ring, early drafts of Star Wars had an even closer resemblance to Tolkien's beloved tales. At one point, Lucas toyed with the idea of casting dwarfs as his main characters.

Arthurian Legend: there are many parallels between Luke Skywalker and King Arthur. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda resemble Merlin in several respects. Anakin Skywalker shares much in common with Uther Pendragon.

Frank Herbert's Dune: the most frequently used setting in Star Wars is a desert planet. There are multiple mentions of spice, and many Jedi powers are similar to Bene Gesserit techniques. Herbert himself pointed out 37 direct Dune references in Star Wars.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World: the original run of Kirby's New Gods stories was published by DC Comics from 1970-1973. A major theme of the Fourth World comics is a hero destined to defeat an evil tyrant who turns out to be said hero's father. Roy Thomas, then an editor at Marvel, allegedly pointed out similarities between Kirby's series and an early Star Wars synopsis during a 1972 dinner with Lucas.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Lucas' appreciation for folklorist Joseph Campbell's seminal book is well known. Campbell's treatments of monomyth and the Hero's Journey are baked into the themes and plot structure of Star Wars.

Gone with the Wind: seriously. Watch The Empire Strikes Back and pay attention to Han and Leia's dialogue. H/t Tom Simon.

These are just a few of the literary influences on Star Wars. The message is clear. If you hope to create a beloved cultural touchstone some day--or even produce minimally competent fiction--you need to start reading everything you can get your hands on.


Guest Post: You Have to Spend Money to Make Money

Reader anonme's comment on my recent posts deserves a platform, so I'm lending it mine. Take it away, anonme.
You've actually covered all three points so I'm kind of surprised they weren't in the original post. I know we have talked about these points at least twice here in the comments.
But yeah, as we've discussed, these seem like effective ways to lift yourselves out of the reader's personal slush pile.
As much as I'd love to work with Baen, after a great deal of study, I've decided I don't want to wait 9-10 months to be rejected, when I could get a out in front of an audience at the push of a button (And then get rejected) So yeah, based on your, Daddy Warpig's, and other evangelism, I've decided to go the indie publishing route (and though I don't chime in as much as a should, your posts have been invaluable).
As for the topic on hand:
When people use covers clearly cobbled together in photoshop from stock photos, having a professionally done cover will make YOURS stand out. Especially if you are doing a SF or Fantasy book. People want to see the spaceships, and robots, and all the other things your book might contain. Even in the digital storefronts, it's the picture on the cover people will first see. And like you said, this sad current trend of publishers to use boring covers with a picture of an obscure thing on solid color background might actually help an indie book with a good cover stand out. I have some experience 3D modeling, so I could probably cobble together workable cover, but I've decided to go with hiring an artist. I have an buddy from my college days I'm going to try to commission when my book is finished, but if that doesn't work out, like you said, I'll try to grab someone from deviantart or other art websites.
As for editing I definitely agree it's necessary, though it does seem to be the most daunting service to find a good one. Like you've said before in these comments, the best bet seems to be trying to find one in your personal network first, and then branching out. Though for an introvert like me, that sounds like it's going to be a challenge (I've decided not to worry too much about finding an editor until after I've finished my first draft, and did my second draft, so I've still got a while).
As for E-Formating, again another essential one. Similar to using WYSIWYG web design programs, automated programs just aren't going to get it right without hiccups. I've been debating this one since I've got some experience with HTML and CSS. But as said before some may not have time, and messing with code can be frustrating. Like Jeff said in his quote, it'll take research, skill and practice.
So now to get down to business, let's say you have to hire for all three:
Prices for commissions on deviant art vary wildly so I'm going to spitball a composite based on the various artists I've visited. Generally artists charge a lower amount for sketches and single characters and higher amounts for something more complicated so I'd wager for a cover you'd be looking at around $70 to $250.
For editing a figure you gave was around $500 to $2000 so I'll go with that.
For E-book formatting the lowball bid I've seen is $50, and for the high bid, Guido Henkel charges $150 for book less than 150K words and $250 for a format for create space, so I'm going to go with $400.
So first time author is going to be looking at $625 to $2650 out of pocket expenses. (Again, all spitball figures, and nothing to be taken as fact for any other aspiring writers lurking Brian's blog). That's a lot of skin to put into the game, but Jeff's quote work well here, as does "you have to spend money to make money".
My comments: It's good to know that aspiring authors are getting some use out of this blog. If you're one of them, pay attention to anonme's words. That's what doing your homework looks like. His figures are pretty accurate, in my experience. But don't let them intimidate you. My total editing, art design, and formatting costs for Nethereal came in under his low end number.

To clarify, "How to Know if You're Ready to Self-Publish" is a personal inventory of skills and resources. "Non-Negotiables of Indie Publishing" lists three indispensable elements of publishing. The former will give indie authors a leg up, but won't spell ruin if they're lacking and can be learned as you go. The latter are essential to success. When I started, I would've answered "no" to more than one question in the first post. I made sure to have my act together in terms of the second.


Non-Negotiables of Indie Publishing


Yesterday I posted a list of questions that authors should ask themselves before deciding to self-publish. Mr. Jeff Duntemann, one of my sources for that post, left a salient comment that nicely segues into the topic at hand. Here's Jeff.
You have to be willing to put some of your own money into the process. Most people need the services of an editor, and editors cost money. Good covers matter, and if you're not an artist yourself, cover art costs money. Creating an ebook from your manuscript isn't objectively difficult, but there's some skill and research (and practice!) involved, unless you're willing to pay somebody else to do it.
Whereas yesterday's post featured questions that an author could answer in the negative and still self-publish successfully (albeit with greater difficulty), Today we'll be covering the aspects of this business that Jeff emphasized, and which I call non-negotiables of indie publishing.

I. You Need an Editor

I've mentioned this before, and it bears repeating until all authors get it through our introverted skulls. If you plan to release a book for public consumption, you need an editor.

Your own knowledge of spelling, grammar, and story structure is irrelevant. All writers, however good they are at editing other people's work, suffer from the inescapable handicap of projecting their internal idea of how the manuscript should look onto the page.

Don't believe me? Then you probably haven't shown an early draft of your work to a competent editor before. Try it, and I promise that punctuation, words, and even whole sentences that you could've sworn were there aren't in the text. Descriptions that seemed vivid to you will be clear as mud to others.

My favorite explanation of the writer/editor relationship comes from Brandon Sanderson. He likened it to the relationship between a racing driver and a pro mechanic. The driver takes the car out for a test lap and notices that something's wrong. There's a strange vibration when he takes it past 120. The brakes feel a little soft. There's some understeer in the corners.

The driver knows that something's wrong. He might even know what's wrong. But the mechanic is paid to know exactly what's wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.

Not even tried and true beta readers can substitute for a pro editor. Readers know when something's not working, but without specialized training and experience, they're usually wrong as to why. A good editor will spot what doesn't work, know why it doesn't work, and can tell you how to make it work.

Though the stigma of indie authorship is fading, there are still some readers who won't even consider buying a self-published book. One of the main reasons that customers are gun-shy about indie books is that a significant number of self-pubbed authors are still offering sloppy, typo-riddled books for sale.

Yes, the gatekeepers are gone. That doesn't mean anything goes. It means that we, as our own publishers, bear the responsibility for bringing the best product to market that we can.

Tl;dr: don't foist your unedited MS on the public. If I can afford an editor, so can you. If you don't have time to find an editor, I can make the time to come to your house and dissolve your laptop in acetone.

Seriously, you're like the guy who hides razor blades in Halloween candy so the rest of us have to use metal detectors before we eat our Milky Ways. Don't be that guy.

II. You Need Good Cover Art
Some say that people really do judge books by their covers. I prefer to flip that statement around and say that a cover should make a potential reader judge the book worthy of closer inspection.

A good cover entices the viewer into reading the back jacket copy. The description on the back should entice the reader into checking out the book's first paragraph. A good first paragraph closes the sale.

Like sloppy editing, poor covers are another self-pubbed author tell. This state of affairs is just dumb, since there's no excuse for having an amateurish cover. In fact, cover design is one area where trad publishers have given indie authors an opening to beat them at their own game.

Trad publishing is rife with examples of questionable cover design. Whether they're chasing trends or pinching pennies with cheap stock images, trad publishers don't exactly have sterling reputations where covers are concerned.

Exhibit A:
Eisler Connexion Fatale
Is that title French for "No Loitering"?
Above is the cover that Barry Eisler's French publisher saddled one of his spy thrillers with, even though he begged them not to.

Eisler Fault Line

Here's Barry's preferred cover for the same book.

Legacy publishers have put their marketing departments (and increasingly, their accounting departments) in charge of artistic decisions. It shows, and gives indie authors a big chance to position ourselves at the head of the pack.

A less egregious, but more common, trend is trad publishers' apparent allergy to genre novel covers that actually convey genre.

Exhibit B:
Hunger Games
Cover up the title, and tell me this book isn't about birds.

A Game of Thrones
Or cats

A refreshing example of a major publishing house getting a cover pitch perfect comes, as usual, from Baen. Check this out:

Larry Correia Son of the Black Sword paperback
That, my friends, is a cover that gets done what a cover's supposed to do. Just looking at it, you know you'll be going on a high-stakes adventure in an Oriental-themed fantasy world. The fact that it came from the brush of Larry Elmore makes the book a no questions asked, on-sight purchase for a veritable army of nerds.

Speaking of which, you can buy it right now for Kindle.

Go. Right now. I'l wait.


So that cover earned Baen House a cool 100 points.

Then their marketing guys insisted that they slap this image on the hardcover.

Exhibit C:
Larry Correia Son of the Black Sword hardcover
Pictured: Black,; lots of it.
Not pictured: sons, swords.
-100 points for confusing Larry Correia with Spinal Tap. +50 points for including the Elmore version on the inside.

Make no mistake. Larry--neither of them--had a hand in this decision. When you write for a major publisher, you need to keep them happy, and that means not being a prima donna. You are paying them a considerable portion of your book's proceeds to make marketing decisions for you, so there's not much room to complain if you disagree with those decisions. As always, Larry is being a pro and throwing himself wholeheartedly into the book launch campaign.

In contrast, Indie authors answer only to their readers. This is a double-edged sword. As your own art director, you must take sole responsibility for the success or failure of your book's cover. Luckily, the internet makes finding quality artists who'll work for reasonable commissions easy.

Deviant Art has a group for book cover design. It comes highly recommended. I found my cover artist there.

Which brings me to...

Exhibit D:

I'll let Amazon reviewer Russell S. Newquist explain this cover's relevance.
I'm going to come right out and admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. First, that cover is all kinds of awesome. Second, it's a cover that screams out, "I am a science fiction novel and I'm not afraid to announce that to the world."
I'm not a fan of the recent trend in genre fiction towards bland, generic covers that try to hide the fact that the books are genre. I bought Game of Thrones back nearly twenty years ago when it was still printed with the original paperback cover of Jon Snow and his direwolf Ghost. I'm not afraid to admit that I bought that book for the cover, too.
A Game of Thrones original cover
If this book IS about cats, we've got an open and shut false advertising case.

Russell's not the only one. I've lost count of the compliments people have paid to Marcelo's cover for Nethereal--and how many said they'd bought the book solely because of it. You can become one of them!

*End sales pitch.*

Honestly, my own book's cover is the best example I have ready at hand of how a self-published novel can meet or exceed legacy publishing design standards. I'm extremely lucky to have found an amazing artist whose vision aligns with my own. And with some diligent searching, you can get lucky, too.

For those wondering about price, I'm not comfortable discussing hard numbers without Marcelo's consent, but suffice it to say that I paid less for art than for editing. And Nethereal earned enough to pay off both in a matter of weeks.

That's the beauty of Deviant Art. It's full of top shelf artists who share your problem of getting noticed. So go notice them.

III. Your Manuscript Must Be Formatted Correctly
This should be self-evident, but a lot of indie authors apparently didn't read the memo. Let me get you another copy.

Do not upload a document fresh from your word processing software to online retailers like KDP, Smashwords, etc. The likelihood of unsightly formatting errors is extremely high.

Either take the time to learn eBook formatting yourself, or if your personal techno-disruption field is as strong as mine, hire someone competent to do it for you.

I use Polgarus Stuido. Their service has a nice personalized touch, and their prices are both rational and reasonable.

To recap: your book must be professionally edited. Your book must have a professionally designed cover that conveys story, mood, and genre. Your book must be properly formatted.

If every indie author would take these three simple steps, the self-publishing stigma would quickly disappear. Yes, following these steps requires a time/money investment. But to quote Jeff again, "...if you don't believe in yourself, well, who will?"


How to Know if You're Ready to Self Publish

published books

Today, new technology has blessed authors with unprecedented advantages. But these blessings pose serious questions, and as always, wrong answers may invite curses.

Foremost among the career-defining questions that aspiring authors must answer is this: should you self-publish?

Industry professionals far wiser than I am have given sound reasons why, except for a small minority of authors, the future of publishing is indie.

I agree with their assessments. However, I'm going to add a caveat which I'm sure Joe and Jeff agree with, but which doesn't seem to be emphasized enough these days.

Not everyone should self-publish.

The barriers to entry are gone. The wide gulf between "can" and "should" remains.

Dr. Ian Malcolm

The early gold rush when you could upload a raw MS Word doc to KDP and sell a thousand copies per month is over--if it ever happened. Besides unburdening themselves of that illusion, the main lesson that hopeful indie authors must learn is that being a self-published author means taking on all the responsibilities of both an artist and a publisher.

I don't mean to scare anyone off. Indie publishing offers better working conditions and royalty splits than professional writers enjoyed at any other time in history. But I can tell you from hard-won experience that reports of the coveted Free Lunch are greatly exaggerated.

Answer these questions before you decide to self-publish.

Do you have formal business training? An MBA, an accounting degree, or even a couple of marketing courses will help you with pricing, organization, and promotion. Accountant turned self-publishing black swan turned Baen golden goose Larry Correia credits his business background with a large portion of his success.

While starting with business expertise will give an indie author a major head start, lacking it isn't the kiss of death. My formal education didn't provide me with much business knowledge. As a result, I'm taking extra time to learn as I go. Having an MFA doesn't disqualify you from indie success, but as Michael Corleone told Gardner Shaw, take a few business administration courses just to be on the safe side!

Do you understand salesmanship, and if so do you have any qualms about using effective sales techniques?
Unlike business theory, which fascinates me even though I initially sucked at it, I hate sales despite having a natural aptitude for it. It's probably because I have really high marketing resistance. I can spot most attempts to sell me something immediately, and I have a deep-seated aversion to using techniques designed to make people buy things they don't really want. (NB: do not buy extended warranties from retailers. Avoid retailers' gift/credit cards.)

On the other hand, I love sharing my interests with people. If I'm passionate about something, it's easy for me to make my excitement contagious. When I held sales jobs, I used this self-knowledge to my advantage by recommending products that I genuinely liked. If you're an author, it should be easy to harness your natural enthusiasm for your book. If not, there's a problem. Why should I buy your book if even you don't believe in it?

Luckily, hard sell "push marketing" doesn't sell books. Earning the trust of communities where your core readership hangs out is the key. Speaking of which:

Do you like engaging with your audience?
Authors are justly notorious for being introverts. Know your social strengths and weaknesses, and capitalize on your strengths.

Does your razor wit electrify large audiences? See if you can get on some podcasts and convention panels. Does the chatter of crowds wrack your skull like a dentist's drill? Then you'd probably do well to avoid signings.

Reader engagement is one area where technology has been a huge boon to authors. People in this business tend to focus on how the gates between authors and publication have been thrown down, but it's just as revolutionary how the walls between authors and readers have fallen.

Last week I serialized a short story on this blog. My readers gave me instant feedback, some of which I used to issue a new edition of the story on the same day it was published. A process that once took a great deal of time and money can now be done basically for free in an afternoon.

The upshot is. even if you're a sociopathic misanthrope, social media offers you a way to engage fans without all of that messy physical interaction.

Have you researched the pros and cons of traditional vs. indie publishing?
As I said before, indie is not a free lunch. Some authors may still be better served by trad publishing, especially those who have no business or sales acumen, hate social interaction of any kind, and belong to certain minority groups/ espouse particular political ideologies.

Before self-publishing, learn all you can about how both indie and traditional publishing work. Learn how trad publishers handle marketing, book design, royalties, and contracts. Learn about mailing lists, Amazon's ranking system, and their various promotional tools. Find out what you can expect to earn via either route. Make sure your decision is as well informed as possible.

Those are a few useful questions to ask yourself before self-publishing. Next I'll lay out some nonnegotiables for indie authors.


Geek Gab: New Ways to Motivate Them

One Ring
Geek Gab Episode 28 returns to a topic that is near and dear to many a geek's heart: Dungeons and Dragons. Co-host Dorrinal asks for advice on the campaign he's currently running. Daddy Warpig and I gladly oblige, and commenters in the live chat even throw their two cents in.

Faithful listener Bradford Walker takes home the comment gold with this treasure trove of gaming wisdom:
D&D 3.X: The other big thing that makes it comparable to Magic is the exception-based design, which Magic made a big deal. You have a handful of baseline mechanics and operations, from which you made exceptions as a way of making substantial in the mechanics the various fantasy elements of the game. (e.g. the various Improved (Combat Maneuver) Feats). Its strong use of associated mechanics also helps.
"Exception-based design" elegantly sums up a concept that I'd long found difficult to articulate. After playing and GMing for years, it wasn't until I tried my hand at designing games that I recognized how many special abilities boil down to giving characters leeway to break the core rules.

I'll leave you with another gem from Mr. Walker.
Motivation: Most games train players to be passive, to let the game-and in TRPGs, the GM--do the leading. They don't see themselves as the shot-caller, and often aren't in real life either, so they wait for someone else to tell them what to do or so on. Getting just one of the players to show up with a plan, to have an objective to pursue that isn't handed to them by the GM or the game, is all you need to start showing the other players how to make the TRPG experience a thing distinct from other RPGs and maybe see that they carry this over to real life. Entrepreneur mentality is very rewarding in this medium, and is a thing to be encouraged.
Listen to the episode here.


Nethereal for 99 Cents


Heads up. Nethereal for Kindle is $.099 cents this weekend. This is an experiment to see how pricing effects sales over a short time, so get it now while the gettin's good.


Serialized Short Story: Izcacus Part 5

Capping off yesterday's penultimate installment, I bring you the conclusion of "Izcacus".

chopper crash

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 9 (?)

Lots of climbers die no one knows how or where. Not me I won’t be like them. Im writing so they’ll know.

Crawled back to camp. Passed out. Woke up dont know when watch broke in cave. Fucking insane. That SOB Herzog killed her. The others left me for dead but jokes on them I made it back. They didn’t.

Storms got me trapped in my tent. Couldn’t leave anyway. Too tired. Neck’s burning.

Team Physician’s Notes – June 9


7:06 PM: Herzog forgot his manners. I buried an ice axe in his arm before I saw it was him barging into the tent. Saraphian raised hell, but I stitched Herzog’s wound and set the bone.

A lot’s happened in a short time. Writing helps me collect my thoughts. And who knows? We might’ve avoided this mess if the folks who came before us hadn’t been so tight-lipped.

This tent was pristine when we found it. Now it’s starting to smell like a locker room. The Russians’ provisions are spoiled, except for their salt. Herzog wants to bless it and spread it around. It’s a damn waste, but he claims to know his business.

I know my business too, which includes diagnosing viral infections. Fulbright had every sign and symptom. The disease that struck the region after WWI is a matter of record.

I’m a man of faith, but Mother Nature never needed the devil’s help to birth horrors. The insect kingdom swarms with parasites that leave their victims hollow thralls. Undeath’s as mundane as malaria.

Herzog mentioned other signs. He has a point. Near the end Fulbright was rambling in florid Turkish, but in Istanbul she couldn’t order lunch without her translator app. Not only that, she told Herzog secrets he thought he’d take to the grave.

Then there’s the matter of how a ninety pound woman held Eddie Sharp helpless as a kitten, especially when he’s the strapping athletic type and she was dead.

Saraphian started mumbling to himself about pagans fearing mountain spirits He’s clearly got baggage he should drop before he snaps. It’s driving his obsession to get Herzog down, but no one’s leaving until we’re sure we’re not plague-bearers.

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 10 (?)

Burning up. Hurts all over but wound is numb.

Had a weird dream. Dead Turk from the cave was in my tent. So vivid down to his cold hands and packing plant dumpster breath. He says he can stop the pain but I don’t want to give what he wants. Bleeding me dry.

Have to get down before I’m too weak. Wait a few more hours for storm to break. Will attempt descent even if it dosent.

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 10


3 AM: stayed awake all night. Doubt Austen and Saraphian got any sleep either.

It’s not just the pain, which went from a sharp throbbing to a constant ache, or the thin air. I’m scared as hell. No ones sure if the axe Austen stabbed me with is the same one Saraphian used on Fulbright. Im watching for symtoms. Hope all I get is a virus.

Being stranded in a freezing stuffy tent gives you time to think. I’ve been thinking back to seminary a lot. My instructors tried to “balance” that old exorcist’s medevilism with modern theories. Said demons are just metaphors for temptation or primitive attempts to explain mental illness.

I used to buy that spiel. I still think its true in most cases. But you test a theory by how well it explains events and in this shitstorm the moderns are pissing in the wind.

Five grades of demonic activity

Temptation: ordinary

Oppression: physical assault scratches, bruises, intense pain

Obsession: mental assault. Tries to wear victim down with depression lewd ideas, despair.

Possession the defenses are down and the demon’s inside. Requires victim’s consent.

Infestation: the most obscure. Best described as demonic attachment to an object or place. A pure intellect doesn’t occupy space it’s anywhere it thinks about.

That last one set me on a scary train of thought. Plenty of rubes mistook illness for demonic activity. what if we mistake possessions for illness?

or what if each side gets it half right sometimes?

The old Scholastics took this stuff seriously. Said that demons can infest objects and control animals. Hell, they can make simple organsms from scratch. Viruses ride the fence between objects and life forms.

What if a demon or a group of demons infested a virus strain? They could hitch a ride into countless hosts control the infection to cause unbearable pain and wear victims down for posession.

And if the host dies, a dead body's an object.

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 10 (?)

Dozed off. No rest. Dark now and storm still blowing. Cant write much more. Joints on fire. Feels like Im burning up but I know better than to undress.

Keep thinking of Veronicas body in the cave. Ice axe wounds remind me of
No thats wierd. Fevers messing with my head. Got to focus. Ride this out.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 11 June


Herzog the doctor and I have been trapped in this fetid tent for three days. We have no virus symptoms, but wounds and altitude sickness have left Herzog too weak to descend in the storm.

Our fuel to melt snow is almost gone. The hunger is bad, but without water we are unlikely to survive until the blizzard ends.

I will try to reach camp and return with supplies. Dr. Austen will stay here to look after Herzog who asked for more salt. I said I would bring some.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 12 June


Am I going mad? Would I know it if I were?

It was mad going out in that storm. It beat and screamed at me like an angry drunk. Held my hand at arm’s length and it vanished in the snowfall. an age seemed to pass between each step.

didn’t notice my ice axe missing until I reached an icy cliff. Dug in with crampons and found handholds. Fingers numb. Made descent somehow.

Herzog and I pieced together a rough idea of our camp’s location, but I might have blundered past it in the storm.

I have witnessed miracles on this mountain. Stumbling upon the camp was not the least. The tents were still standing All were empty of men and supplies.

False hope leads to the grimmest despair. the war taught us that, eh David?

Sudden fear urged me to leave that defiled place. Had the snow pack reached its load limit a moment sooner I would not have survived avalanche that swept the tents away. Instead I was left alone in the storm. Path to Russian tent blocked by tons of snow.

The temperature was falling. Dehydration raised the risk of frostbite. Feared losing toes and fingers more than the cave perhaps another sign of madness. But I trudged back to that restless tomb.

Entered the cave like a condemned man mounting the gallows. Fulbright’s eyes greeted me wide open in her corpses face. The stove is gone. The warmth it left fades.

Sleepless night under Fulbright’s glassy stare. I found her journal but English is easier to speak than read. She spoke to me, or I thought she did.

Pale light dawns outside. The storm has broken. I have Fulbright’s ice axe and her satellite phone. Should I call for help? Rescuers may become jailers.

Devils prowl like lions. Hypoxia thirst and exhaustion. There is the route to the Russian tent. Must take it. I cannot leave Herzog and the doctor.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 12 June

David frostbite makes it hard to write but others must know what became of us.

Found Rusian tent after noon. Feeling half dead. Herzog, Austen gone. Tent cut open—from outside or inside? Signs of struggle. Their notes left behind so I took them.

Mended tent best I could. Spread last of the salt around inner edges. Using last fuel to melt snow warm hands. Now I wait. Never been wearier but dare not sleep.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 13 June


This is my last message. We may speak face-to-face if Christ spares my soul from the Turk and his creatures.

The storm ended last night. I longed for the wind to come back and silence the cruel laughter.

Sleep took me at last. I woke to the sound of something large digging under the tent. Without thinking I fled into the night. I don’t know how far I descended before I slipped and fell. Cracked my ribs, but the sounds of pursuit drove me downward.

At dawn I saw the rocks beside me stained with blood. No other trace of my comrades.

Rotten stone ledge crumbled. Leg broken this time. No further descent.

Resting at lower altitude. Head cleared enough to remember Fulbright’s phone. Screen is cracked. Keypad is broken. I can only call the first saved contact. Rescue may mean arrest, but prison is paradise compared to this frozen hell.

Internal FSB Memo – 12 November

For immediate release to all field agents, special forces personnel, and researchers assigned to Operation Koschei.

Analysis of data recovered from a helicopter that crashed outside Stavropol on 13 June confirms that a conspiracy between Ukrainian nationalists, Wahabist extremists, and organized crime is responsible for the current epidemic.

Pertinent evidence includes the bodies of four passengers. Three have been positively identified from personal effects discovered onsite.

Austen, Fanthorpe T.: American citizen. Former surgeon whose admission of malpractice led to the loss of his medical license. Burned to death after impact.

Saraphian, Yves: Armenian who expatriated to Georgia after serving in the Azerbaijan War. Last to be identified due to advanced decomposition. Suffered broken ribs, fractured right femur, and fatal gunshot to head before crash.

Sharp, Edward: American citizen and partner in alpine touring company. Corpse bloated and flushed when pulled from wreckage. Cause of death unknown, but deep lacerations found on neck below right ear.

Unknown Subject: adult male with dark hair and ruddy complexion. Clothing decades out of date. No identification found. Cause of death: impact trauma/burning.

Notes written by the foreigners and their associates, as well as evidence gathered electronically, reveal that Sharp led an expedition to Mt. Izcacus on the Russian-Georgian border. His client, a New Zealander named Veronica Fulbright, received funding from the Stavropol group. The same group is suspected of financing a prior expedition led by her husband Wilhelm Pfarrer.

It is believed that Fulbright’s backers sought to collect viable samples of the 1922 plague for use in terrorist acts.

Based on these findings, the Border Service is directed to search Mt. Izcacus and its immediate vicinity for additional information, including the remains of Fulbright and team member Stephen Herzog, and artifacts from past expeditions.

Directorates tasked with fighting the epidemic are advised to liaise with members of the Russian Orthodox clergy.


Serialized Short Story: Izcacus Part 4

Picking up where we left off yesterday, here's "Izcacus" Part 4.

Izcacus peak

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 7

Summit Day:

Overslept a bit. Frankly, I needed it after yesterday’s weirdness. The storm blew over and laid down fresh powder, but the increased avalanche risk is minimal. Temperature holding steady. Air’s so thin it’s like breathing through a coffee stirrer.

Veronica still hadn’t left her tent by the time everyone else was ready to go. I barely got her to budge. She said she wasn’t feeling well and chose to stay behind. Austen volunteered to stay with her. I could’ve shown more solidarity, but that pearly white peak was calling my name.

Me, Saraphian, and Herzog made our summit bid. A few hours in, I got this crazy notion that the snow had turned to sand and the blue sky was really a tropical sea. The mountain was clearly messing with my head, so I decided to try a little jiu-jitsu. I promised myself a trip to Barbados if I made it to the top.

Bribing myself worked! At 2:26 PM I became the first man to summit Izcacus. Cold and tired as I was, I couldn’t resist taking in the magical view. The Bezengi Wall rose to the southwest like a crooked white blade, and the Russian foothills marched northward in green and brown columns. Clouds on the western horizon hid Dykh-Tau’s peak.

Conquering this hill has been a real achievement, which I dedicate to Wilhelm Pfarrer. For all I know, I’m repeating a feat he never got to tell the world about.

Herzog, then Saraphian, summited after me. We shot some photos, and Herzog took some snow samples. Riding high on success.

It’s after three. We’re starting down.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 7 June


Today I stood on the summit of Izcacus with two foolish men. The dread from the cave drove away any joy I might have felt.

These men embody the Western mind’s habit of forgetting anything it finds unpleasant. They disregard the horror we found yesterday and busy themselves posturing or searching for poisons in the snow. I think that cave harbours a worse poison.

We returned to camp after dark, wind-burned and weary. The doctor came out and said Fulbright is getting worse. Aches, nausea, and a high fever.

Dr. Austen went to get supplies around noon, and Fulbright’s tent was filled with smoke when he got back, so he put her in his. We checked her tent, and it smells of smoke inside. There is burned paper on the stove, but no one can tell what it was.

Dr. Austen showed us a knife he found in Fulbright’s tent. It is old with dark stains that are not rust. I realized it was the knife from the cave and felt like I was sinking into the snow. Austen asked Fulbright why she had it, but she claimed not to know it was there.

I told the others that we should get off the mountain now. Austen said Fulbright can’t climb down, especially not in the dark. I said leave her. Sharp called me a coward and lunged at me, but Herzog held him back. Now they say wait and see how Fulbright is tomorrow. Fools.

Team Physician’s Notes – June 8


6:03 AM: Altitude 15,800 ft. Gale-force winds, heavy snow. Temperature 4° F. O2 level 11.2%.

Blizzard started around 9:00 PM. Wind beating the tent like a kettle drum kept me up all night. Patient’s fever has risen to 104. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness, mumbling gibberish and complaining of pain. Lack of cough and congestion argues against HAPE. Suspect a virus.

7:17 AM: Inspected patient for cause of infection. Found three-inch long diagonal cut on her left shoulder blade. Wound site highly inflamed. She claims no memory of being cut. Wound’s location makes self-infliction unlikely. Patient’s clothing undamaged.

Examined knife found in patient’s tent. Two stains on blade. A dark sticky substance, possibly blood. The other is certainly blood, and fresh.

12:22 PM: Saraphian came inquiring about Fulbright’s condition. I told him that even if she were fit to travel, which she’s not, we’d still have to wait out the storm. He argued for leaving her but shut up and turned white as a sheet when her babbling started again. I asked what was eating him, and he bolted into the storm ranting about Fulbright speaking Turkish.

Saraphian’s right about one thing. We must get to a lower altitude soon—for his sake.

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 8


6 PM: I’m hesitant to write this down. What decided me was knowing that we’re all tired and oxygen starved. I want to record the details so I can examine them later with a clear head.

Austen came to my tent about an hour ago. His face was lined and weather-beaten—the first time since we met that he’s looked his age. I asked, half-joking, what was worth braving the storm to bother me about. He put on the look surgeons wear when they tell you the patient didn’t make it. He said Veronica had asked for me—to hear her confession.

I admit that my gut response was indignation. I may have quoted Michael Corleone. I know I said that summiting had taxed me too much to go out in the storm. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how Veronica knew I’d been a priest.

Austen’s a patient guy. Though a man of science, and a Baptist, he showed more respect for Veronica’s wishes than I did. Realizing that sobered me up. I told him I could only administer the sacrament to a Catholic, or at least a baptized Christian who agrees with Church doctrine on the matter. Austen said Veronica had converted when she’d married Wil, though he wasn’t sure how serious she’d been.

I fell back on my last defense. Without priestly faculties, I can only hear someone’s confession in a life-or-death emergency. I asked Austen if Veronica’s case qualified, and he just nodded.

That’s how I found myself trundling through frigid, near whiteout conditions to Austen’s tent. The sickroom scent hit me when I opened the flap, and when I saw Veronica’s red swollen face peeking from the mummy wraps of her sleeping bag, I knew she’d been right to send for me.

8 PM: Austen came and told me that Veronica passed. He’s sure it was a virus, and he’s torn over what to do next. His fear is that those corpses we found died of the same disease—the one the Russians dynamited a pass to contain—and that we’re at risk of infection. He says it’s happened before. Frozen bodies found in the Alps contained viable Spanish Flu particles.

Alpine tradition calls for burying Veronica in a crevasse, but Austen asked about the ethics of keeping the body for research. Her tent’s been without heat for more than a day, making it perfect for cold storage. He thinks it’ll help, so I hid my misgivings.

The Church and I may have grown apart, but I’d rather be shot than violate the seal of confession. Was what happened between me and Veronica sacramental? It was close enough that I didn’t tell Austen. It’s why I feel dirty writing this now.

Veronica was delirious when I came to her bedside. She alternated between incoherent mumbling and tearful pleading for the pain to stop. I thought it was me she was begging. I’m less sure now.

I tried coaxing her back to lucidity. Several minutes passed without success, so I decided to begin the sacrament. The instant I made the sign of the cross, her whole demeanor changed. She fell quiet. Her dull, half-closed eyes were suddenly wide open and piercing. Her face looked like an old painting with the eyes cut out and someone else staring at me from behind it.

She told me things then, calmly and in exquisite detail—shameful things only I and the chalice chippers from seminary should know.

God forgets absolved sins. A retired exorcist warned me about those who don’t forget—the counsel for the prosecution. They can’t make us do evil. They tempt us to condemn ourselves.

I asked if I was speaking with someone who died in the cave. She said he wasn’t dead. She said we won’t be either.

I’m tired and thinking’s hard. I won’t write what else Veronica said. It might be her fever or my hypoxia. Just in case I got the box of salt from my pack and blessed it.

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 9


11 AM: The storm finally broke. I’m going out to give Veronica last rites. Who knows when death really occurs?

2 PM: Saint Michael defend us in battle. Cast into hell the evil spirits who seek the ruin of souls. Goes something like that.

Veronica’s tent was cool, not cold. Smelled like a slaughterhouse. No reason it should have since her stove was gone—along with her body.

I must’ve cried out because the others came running, or as close as you can get to running in knee-deep snow.

Snow without any footprints

Sharp was livid. He thought someone threw Veronicas body off the mountain. Soften it up first in the heat. I think he suspected me.

Saraphian muttered about hearing voices coming from Veronica’s tent last night. Sharp demanded he say it out loud. Saraphian laid into him, shouting that everything had been wrong since the cave and that Veronica was speaking like the diseased Turks.

Sharp exploded. He accused Saraphian of cutting Veronica to get her sick and make us leave. They nearly came to blows, but Austen broke them up. Sharp turned on Austen, saying he’s senile and no wonder they took his lisence. Austen said we’ve been up here too long and it’s effecting our judgment.

Now Sharp thinks Veronica’s not dead. He thinks she wandered off in the storm and wants us to go look for her. Austen said Sharp’s thinking with his pants. I told them to bury the hatchet til after we find her.

Saraphian refused to join the search. He was red-faced and shaking. Said to leave the izcacus and get off the mountain. Sharp told Saraphian to climb down alone. I said you don’t leave your people behind. Sharp said we could go and he’d search alone. Austen agreed to help search to prove Sharp wrong about Veronica.

Saraphian went quiet.

3 PM: We’re going out to look for Veronica. Saraphian’s with us. He says he’s resigned to fate, but my presense gives him comfort.

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 9 June

David I am in the Russian tent. Should have turned back like Sharp said. He’s as good as dead now. The rest of us scattered.

The cave was warm. Reeked like an open grave in summer. Our escape was a miracle. My ice axe did nothing. But Herzog I think threw salt and she fell at his words. I lost him when they swarmed us.

I ran don’t know which way. Doctor and I somehow found old tent at the same time. Red army markings. More than fifty years old but kettle still on stove waiting for climbers’ return. It smells clean. Not like a tomb. We are cold but afraid to light the fire.

The storm is starting again. With luck we are too lost for the blood-drinkers to find us.


Serialized Short Story: Izcacus Part 3

Continued from yesterday: "Izcacus" Part 3


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – May 31


9 AM: According to this morning’s measurements, the glacier has receded 12 m compared to samples taken from the same location this time last year. DDT, dioxins, and heavy metals are present in higher than normal concentrations.

1 PM: Yves Saraphian was waiting for me back at Bezengi base camp. I was surprised to see him, if not entirely happy. I’m grateful he got me out of hot water with those Russian border guards, but he never lets me forget it.

Sure enough, Saraphian’s here to call in the favor. He’s searching for Wil Pfarrer’s body—with a team that includes Pfarrer’s widow (she’s kind of attractive in a well-preserved news anchor sort of way). I remember hearing the reports when he disappeared. Damn shame. I’d be all for helping them if they weren’t searching Izcacus.

Saraphian accused me of superstition. I assured him that my break with the faith was as clean as his, albeit for different reasons. Ockham warned against invoking unnecessary entities, and rustic curses worry me less than another run-in with the FSB.

Easy solution: play chicken. Quote such an inflated guide fee that Fulbright will be nuts not to blink first.

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 2

We set out on the glacier the morning after meeting Herzog (and paying him enough to fund his research for the rest of the year).

The temperature’s rising, but it’s plenty cold enough to induce hypothermia. On the map, the glacier looked like a curvy line wending southeast, but up close it’s a maze of scree and fang-like ice pillars. Mountain faces on every side make it easy to forget the outside world exists. The wind’s so loud that the guy next to you has to shout to be heard.

It was late afternoon when we neared the path that Saraphian said leads to the mountain. An avalanche had blocked the way. Just our luck.

That’s when Herzog started earning his outlandish fee. He led us back a mile to a low saddle. The way up was a gentle snow slope, but the other side turned out to be a steep descent over icy rock. Yours truly spotted the best way down.

It was dark before we all made the descent, and a nasty snowstorm blew in afterward.

The next morning I opened my tent and became one of the few Westerners to see Izcacus.

It was like seeing my hopes vindicated. My shout woke the others, who might’ve complained if they hadn’t seen what I saw: an ashen, snow-marbled pyramid thrusting upward from the collision of four serrated ridges. The snow had stopped, but the peak was lost in the clouds. I could tell that, wherever it was, the summit easily rose above 5000 meters.

The others reacted in different ways. Veronica stared as though expecting to see something. Austen looked as poleaxed as a skeptic who’d bumped into Sasquatch. Saraphian crossed himself. A moment later, so did Herzog.

We’re up around 3000 meters now. I was worried about Austen, but the altitude’s hardly slowed the old guy down. He advised us to spend a few days acclimatizing. So, we’re searching the glacier at the mountain’s base. Avalanches may have swept remnants of Wil’s expedition off the mountain, as the stench on the wind suggests.

I knew what this job could mean, but being out in some of the remotest wilderness on earth can sour you on the prospect of hauling a colleague’s body from a crevasse. Think I’ll dedicate my summit bid to Wil.

Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 4 June


Not so much as a glove’s turned up on the glacier. I should be disappointed, but I’m relieved.

Herzog thinks the bodies are down a crevasse where we can’t reach them. He attributes the ghastly stench to animal remains—not that we’ve found any of those, either.

Eddie insists on checking the slopes to be sure. Normally I’d agree despite his clear case of summit fever, but I get chills looking at that monster looming over me. It’s unnatural—or rather too inhumanly natural, like hurricanes or the void of space. The satellite phone is small comfort, knowing who’s waiting on the other end.

Herzog and Saraphian bowed to Eddie’s taunts, and Austen says we’re acclimatized. Looks like I’m past the point of no return.

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 5


6 PM: Good progress today. The route we picked took us up the west flank of the south ridge. We made camp in a snow field at around 4000 meters with cliffs on two sides sheltering us from that shrieking wind. The lower slopes are unseasonably free of snow (indicative of warming climate?), so avalanche risk is minimal.

Seems we’re not the first to try this route. Veronica found ropes in a chimney about a hundred meters above us. They’re modern lines—the same brand that Wil preferred, she says.

Whoever fixed those ropes was climbing faster than us, which makes sense considering Austen’s age and Veronica’s inexperience. Hell, even I’m feeling a little woozy. Must be rustier than I thought.

Sharp figures the previous team camped on the ridgeline just below the shoulder. He wanted to go up the chimney, but Austen says there’s too little daylight for a technical climb. I agree. Better to tackle it fresh in the morning.

Sharp’s drive to keep climbing is understandable. Those ropes were the first signs of life since we entered the valley. I don’t know what’s worse: the earsplitting racket when the wind’s blowing, or the deathly quiet when it’s not.

Team Physician’s Notes – June 6


12:00 AM: Altitude 13,120 ft. Weather clear. Temperature 0° F. O2 level 12.5%.

Rose and met Sharp and Fulbright exiting the latter’s tent. They admitted sleeping little. Saraphian checking the gear. Reported fatigue and shortness of breath normal for this altitude.

Herzog still asleep. We roused him with difficulty, and he awoke gasping for air. Moderately hypoxic. No other signs of pulmonary edema. I advised Herzog to stay in camp and rest. He said he’ll see how he feels once he’s up and about. I advised him to stay hydrated. He said he would.

12:31 AM: Breakfast. Even instant coffee tastes and smells irresistible at this point. Its value as a bronchodilator outweighs any diuretic effects.

1:06 AM: Setting out for the day’s climb. Herzog has improved and is with us.

5:32 AM: We made it onto the ridge by the skin of our teeth. Fulbright slipped in the chimney and pulled everyone off the slope above. Only Sharp prevented the worst. He grabbed hold of the fixed rope and belayed us until we got our grip again. Thank God for Wil Pfarrer! It’s a miracle that old rope held. For the record, I take back any aspersions I cast on Eddie Sharp’s abilities.

No injuries except a few bruises and Fulbright’s faulty crampon, which caused the fall when a binding broke. Saraphian probably missed it due to mild hypoxia. I told him to be more careful.

6:16 AM: Altitude: 14,470 ft. Wind’s gusting. Black clouds to the north.

No sign of Pfarrer’s team. Sharp insists they camped here, since going any farther would’ve put them in an avalanche zone. Saraphian thinks the camp was swept off the hill or buried.

Fulbright wants us to press on. Seconded by Sharp. Saraphian and I oppose. Herzog wants to study a shrinking serac up on the shoulder. He’s identified a route leading up.

7:38 AM: Setting out again.

10:03 AM: Altitude: 15,049 ft. The weather’s taking a turn for the worse. Heavy snow reducing visibility. The temperature’s risen since dawn, but the wind’s pummeling us.

10:46 AM: Found cave along the route. Entrance mostly blocked with snow. Trying to clear it.

2:15 PM: Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Cave interior strewn with human remains. Smells like the meat locker where my uncle kept a wild hog carcass. Corpses not from Pfarrer’s team. Much older. Strange maxillary deformities. Body near the center immaculately preserved. Male in late 30s – early 40s. Frozen solid, but no frostbite. Complexion ruddy. Wool coat ca. early last century too thin for this climate. Saraphian agitated. Talking rapidly and cursing. Says this man was a Turk. We’ve probably found Ottoman refugees left stranded when Russians closed the pass.

Sharp, Fulbright, and Herzog rummaged around. Turned up some gloves, bits of rope, a knife, and the like. Nothing here postdates the 20s except for modern boot prints. Not all of them ours.

Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 6 June


We made camp on the shoulder. No one knows I found Wil’s journal in the cave. I’m shivering in my tent. I wish I were just cold.

The cave made me fear this mountain. Wil’s notes make a night descent in the storm sound preferable to spending another minute here.

I know how my husband died, though closure brings no comfort. Let Wil’s body rest forever in the abyss like he wanted. Better to leave him down there than risk disturbing what he took with him. Let the world keep thinking he never brought his clients to harm, however good his reasons.

I’ve held my satellite phone and contemplated calling the first saved number a dozen times tonight. I could tell them we found nothing, but my concrete fear of disappointing the client still trumps my abstract fear of that ruddy corpse.

Part 2
Part 4


Serialized Short Story: Izcacus Part 2

Yesterday I shared the first part of my horror/techno-trhiller story "Izcacus". Here's Part 2.

Caucasus scenery

Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 28 May


I watched the eastern sky turn red-gold behind the Bezengi Wall on our descent, but night lingered in the mountains’ shadow until long after landing. The wind was cool and carried the scent of beech forests as bittersweet as the memories it brought.

Mestia gave me a severe case of culture shock. The airport is just a gravel strip and a tower that looks like a postmodern sculpture inspired by a mac peripheral. Mediaeval towers jut up all over town like the splintered ribs of something huge and half-buried.

The lodgings are filled with refugees from the ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia (even though there’s not much stopping the war finding them here). Eddie calls guilt an occupational risk of climbing in the Third World. He says you learn to ignore it. But I can't meet these people's tired, fearful eyes.

We’ve temporarily set up shop at a campground on the outskirts. The dodgy security and lack of amenities are what’s driven most climbers to the Russian side, which is exactly why we’re starting from Georgia.

Everybody’s getting on well enough—better than expected in Austen’s case. I don’t know how the client convinced him to come, and I don’t want to know. Still, Eddie can be rather abrasive sometimes. I should keep a close watch on them both.

Eddie’s nosing about for a guide who’s got firsthand knowledge of the southeast Bezengi Glacier, and Austen’s gone off to hire a Jeep. (I told them I’m staying behind to make sure our supplies are packed properly, and there’s plenty of time for that after I’ve rung Stavropol.)

The next leg takes us through the Svaneti region along the Inguri River road. From there most climbers follow the trekking route to Shkhara—which is our plan too, if anyone asks.

The client wants results, but the more I try to focus on business, the more I find myself staring up at that saw-toothed ridge. I can’t help picturing Wil trudging around some glacier up there. My excitement almost overwhelms my fear.

GeoRaider Blog
Starring Eddie Sharp

Hey, sports fans! Sorry for the prolonged media blackout, but there’s a method to my madness, as you’ll soon see.

I’m actually writing this on May 28 and scheduling it to be posted in three weeks. Why keep my public waiting? Well, some of you took Monday’s post to mean that I’ve been gearing up for a major expedition, and now I can confirm your deductions. (I’ve always said I have the smartest readers on the planet.) This time, the prize is a major Caucasian peak (and I don’t mean it’s white…okay it is, but white like snow, not like Ward Cleaver).

Following me so far?


So when somebody mentions the Caucasus, most mountaineers would think of Elbrus, Dykh-Tau, or Shkhara. And in this case, they’d be wrong. Some of the old-timers on this blog are probably onto me by now, and are doing top-notch largemouth bass impressions. For the sake of the newbs out there, here’s a little story.

Climbers started invading the Caucasus in the 1880s after Graham’s conquest of Dent du Geant left nothing worth doing in the Alps. The silver age climbers conquered every major Caucasian peak they could find in pretty short order before heading off to the Himalayas.

What’s interesting is they missed a few. The Caucasus’ greater height, remoteness, and political instability have always made them far less accessible than the Alps. There are still Caucasian peaks over 4000 meters that don’t have official names.

I can hear some of you saying, “Big deal! That’s nothing you can’t learn from five minutes on a wiki.” Well here’s something that no amount of web research could teach you—until now.

Back in the 20s, the Russians sealed a pass that used to run through the mountains from Georgia. The route had always been obscure, but thanks to a little dynamite and a lot of rock, it ceased to exist. That landslide cut off a whole massif from the outside world for almost a century.

But it gets even better! In the early 70’s a Chinese climber named Huan Yu gave a talk at the London Alpine Club on his involvement in the ’52 Russian Everest attempt. Huan claimed that the Soviets had run their Himalayan training regime out of a Red Army base in the Caucasus. He also let slip that a team had gone missing on an “uncharted mountain over 5000 meters” near the north Bezengi Massif. Allegedly, no search was conducted because it would’ve meant sending rescuers into “forbidden territory”.

Tales of a “Caucasian Shambhala” have met with rising skepticism over the last 10-15 years, mainly from young inexperienced types. For once I think it’s fair to blame the internet. Granted, you won’t find the missing five-thousander on any modern maps (since the Russians keep it off of hardcopies, flight paths, satellite photos, and online mapping services). There are grainy snapshots taken from neighboring peaks, but pictures are easy to fake these days.

Me, I’ve got all the proof I need from Wil Pfarrer. Despite our heated debates on this blog and elsewhere, if he said the mountain’s real, I take it as gospel. But I don’t have to, because it was real enough to kill him.

Some of you might still lump the Caucasian Shambhala in with El Dorado and the Kangchenjunga Demon, but I’m willing to put my mouth where my money is.

That’s right. I’m so sure that there’s an unconquered 5000 meter peak somewhere in the Caucasus that I’m on my way to climb it.

Hence the posting delay. The Russians still consider the area off limits, but by the time they read this, I’ll have been to the summit and back and will probably be hosting a slideshow at GRHQ.

Assuming I don’t get thrown in jail or buried in an avalanche, expect to see plenty of pictures on Friday.

Posted 2014/06/18 at 14:00 MDT.

Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 29 May


I can’t say I’m pleased with Eddie at the moment.

First, Ed the “Mountain Man” waits until we’ve landed in the Dark Ages to tell me he’s got no experience with the southeast Bezengi Glacier. He assures me it’s no problem; he’ll hire a local. Later he swaggers up to me, all smiles, and announces he’s found a guide. He just needs another grand.

So I give him the money, possibly due to hypoxia. What does Eddie do? He comes waltzing back into camp with a dodgy looking Armenian tagging along like some mangy stray.

No worries, says Eddie. Yves here is the real deal! He saw alpine combat during the USSR’s breakup. Been guiding teams all over these hills ever since.

Now, after a bum-numbing ride through the Land that Time Forgot, Saraphian turns what was supposed to be our final planning session into a row when he says he doesn’t know Izcacus.

I ask him who the bloody hell Izcacus is. In that porridge-thick drawl of his, Saraphian explains that Izcacus means Blood-Drinker. Apparently that’s our destination’s local name.

Austen, ever the legalist, says he thought the mountain didn’t have a name. Saraphian puts on a superstitious villager act worthy of a Hammer film and actually says that the locals avoid speaking the mountain’s name for fear of bad luck.

Austen throws a fit. Eddie rambles on about how lots of peaks have spooky names, like Death Mountain in the Urals and Nanga Parbat’s playful “Man Eater” nickname. Somehow, Austen doesn’t seem appeased.

Saraphian finally defused the situation by recommending yet another guide—an American named Steve Herzog who’s studying effects of Soviet-era pollution. Saraphian makes Herzog sound like an eco-terrorist, but ambivalence for the law highly recommends him for this team.

Saraphian advises hiking to Bezengi base camp, where he’s sure we’ll find Herzog. I’m already in so deep that there’s nothing for it but to let Saraphian earn his guide fee.

What am I doing here? Everything smells like goat, and it’s impossible to get a decent claret.

Why couldn’t you have had a proper job, Wil—or at least better business sense? If you’d screened your clientele more carefully, you’d still be alive, and I’d still be in Fairlie!

Diary of Yves Saraphian – 30 May


Please forgive my long silence, brother. I have not written because not much has changed. There is always fighting. Once it was in Azerbaijan. Now it is in Abkhazia. The Svaneti region reminds me of home. Apart from that, I like it.

I write again because a new thing has happened. Westerners have come and hired me for their expedition. That is not so new. What is new is that they wish to climb Izcacus.

You would chide me for joining them. The war took your life before it could take your belief. I sometimes envy you that, but I could not do my job if I still believed the tales of the priests.

The villagers share those superstitions. They act as if the plague were banished only yesterday—as if the carriers did not perish when the Russians sealed the pass.

I tell people here they do not know the way of the world. The same Turks who brought disease here attempted genocide against my people. Others tried to destroy our nation when the Soviet Union fell. I have killed and watched men die. Ghosts from the past are nothing.

My clients are strange, even for Westerners. I called them all Americans at first, but the woman corrected me. She calls herself after a fruit or bird, but to me all English-speakers sound the same: loud and arrogant.

One—the man called Sharp—is more arrogant than the others. He says he is a famous climber, but I have not heard of him. He colors his hair brown to hide the grey and preens like a teenage boy around the woman, but he pays well.

The doctor is older, but strong. They say he has made many climbs, and I believe them. He glares at Sharp and mutters to himself. Sometimes his hands shake.

They climb Izcacus because the woman’s husband went there and did not return. For all I know, he is rotting in a Russian prison. His wife gives us orders, but she sounds, looks, and smells nervous. I know these signs from the war.

The others became angry when I told them I have never been to Izcacus. Sharp only said he wanted someone to guide them on the glacier. I am confident in surveying the mountain to find a route, but that is not enough for them. So I will take them to Herzog.

I am not afraid. But the sooner I finish this job, the better.

Part 1
Part 3