Digital Publishing – Notes from the Field

When that first manuscript is complete and you step back from the keyboard to consider what you have created, there comes a point when you have to decide just what you will do with it.  There are a few options, but what we all want to do is have our work seen, in one form or another and that almost always means publishing.

The traditional publishing route is fraught with difficulty and negative experiences that might falsely give the impression that your work is inadequate.  The other side to that coin is self-publishing, which once held the stench of desperation, failure, and misplaced pride in a way that almost no other business venture did.  It was the last avenue for writers who could not break through to publishers or the agents who held the keys to the kingdom of literary recognition.

Let’s not mince any words here; getting your message through to publishers and agents is difficult.  The advice you will hear is varied and at times contradictory on how to even begin.  The changing market for online publication has opened up a host of new opportunities that for some are a more preferable option than the old ways.  If your desire is to go it alone, with some planning and a willingness to let your work speak for you, digital self-publication offers a great deal of flexibility and opportunity.

To begin, I feel like I need to reinforce one key idea here; digital publishing on your own is all about persistence and perhaps a bit of savvy.  Online publication options have changed the publishing landscape in a fundamental way.  Let’s begin with the assumption that you are a capable writer and you have a good story to tell.

What do you have to do in order to succeed now?  You have to be as good as you think you are.  An avenue for your work to be judged by the people who matter most is open to you however, the proof of your work has to stand on its own.  What I would like to do here is set forth the five things I believe are necessary for engaging the world of digital publishing and for helping your work to stand out as something exceptional.  It’s not a path I’ve mastered, like you I am an adventurer in this new untamed wilderness.  Like all other trailbreakers, our survival and success depends on learning from those who have gone before and by sharing the tools of our trade.

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Cover Concepts: Visualizing a Theme

HoC-Rough-Draft-704x1024

If there is one thing I am guilty of in my writing (ok, there are quite a few, but one specifically that I take a small amount of pride in), it is my attempts to tie a number of individual stories into one powerful theme.  I feel that cover art should be the reader’s first opportunity to recognize that theme because quite contrary to popular opinion (and possibly contrary to good sense) we most certainly do judge a book by its cover.  So when I go about sketching my crude designs for a cover I know that not only does the art need to connect with the story, it has to tell the story with a single glance.

The cover for Master of the House essentially ends up being one of those portraits that wealthy families or corporations commission of their important people to denote success. It is a snapshot in time that says, “Look here.  We are powerful and we will be remembered.”  Master of the House is a hard luck story of people overcoming adversity and their own failings even as the world around them descends into very dark times.  The book itself ends with a warning about how bad things will be for them going forward.  In a sense, the cover art, the portrait of those characters is the high water mark for their success amid the criminal empire of Seaside.  It also hopefully begs the question of the reader as to how the guy in the suit gets to be the one with power when surrounded by such obviously dangerous individuals.

Now we come to the sequel, House of Cards and the dire warning left for things to come:

No one, could have foreseen how quickly the delicate house of cards we had built would fall apart.

We were set against a creature whose designs on the world included the death of a God.

We would not escape unscathed.

Now I edited that slightly to avoid any real chance for spoilers, but between that passage and the title of the book, the reader knows things are about to fall apart.  The over arching story and the saga in Seaside in particular use the progression of the Fool in Tarot readings for its symbolism in accordance with growth and struggle.  With that being the case and this book being about a massive reversal of fortunes, I devised a cover scheme that would mimic the traditional callings of the Wheel of Fortune cards in Tarot decks.

Let’s go ahead and look at the first draft layout sent to me by my artist Josh.

HoC Rough Draft

So, the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a draft (a damn good one, but still a draft).  A few things, like the center character image, are only place holders.  Likewise, the character in the lower right corner just ended up disturbing the composition of the piece and was later removed.  Let’s talk about the symbolism for a moment and the not so obvious things.

One thing that I like in particular here, is the complicated steam and gear mechanics in the background.  The technology of this world is rooted in steampunk concepts and tropes, but it is played subtly, as if it is just something to accept.  The steampunk stylings are not the core concept of this world, but because there are some major technological intrusions in this story, I felt that placing the hint of it all there to be seen after the fact was a nice touch.  Especially because the actual wheel of fortune in this instance is a gear.  When the significance of this is revealed late into the book, I think anyone who notices all this will get look back with one of those ‘ah ha’ type moments.

Fortune-JacksonNow, the Wheel of Fortune is the card or event that symbolizes a turning point, the rise and fall of people and forces via events beyond our control.  Depending on the time period, the artist, and the style; the card will always depict a few central characteristics.  A heavenly presence, a central figure in or controlling the wheel (usually Fortuna), and one person rising on the wheel while another falls.

Knowing that this is the story about how things fall apart, there are some ominous tidings already in the cover that an attentive reader will pick up on.  Envy is clearly at the center of the wheel, marking her influence on the events that have transpired or will transpire.  Worse yet, is that the heavenly figure is replaced by a dragon who looms over every thing below, both good and evil.  Yet still through it all, despite his haggard appearance, it is Julian who is rising on the wheel of fate, showing that while things are certainly not good, hope has not yet died.

Of course, that leaves the fate of the character on the other side of the wheel entirely in question.  Someone is falling from grace while Julian is rising out of the fires.  Blame has to fall somewhere for such an occurrence and when your villains are incarnations of sin…we can be sure that the heroes will be held responsible somehow.

tarot-art-nouveau-italiano_MLA-O-89844479_8856So what of style?  The last cover held a very detailed, very oil painting like quality that marked the pomp and circumstance of Julian’s Syndicate.  This cover will diverge from that significantly.  After carefully considering the options and discussing the matter with Josh, we agreed that an art nouveau style was the perfect way to implement the sweeping changes that the picture was to depict.  I’m told that unruly lines and curves denote this style and that fit perfectly into my desire to see a cover that was more or less out of control (and to color outside the lines).

This example of art nouveau to the left captures the colorful movement and lack of crisp boundaries that we’re moving towards with the cover for House of Cards.

Stepping away from the thematic now, I thought it might be fun to give a look into how or why characters look the way they do and the way in which the discussion with your cover artist can influence that look.  For this example, I’m going to use Envy as the character in question.  I like to start general with the description, hitting the important notes and then working from there.  So, this was my initial description of Envy:

EnvyShe should look enticing, sexy even.  My idea is for her to be in a slender green dress that accentuates everything, blonde hair with sharp elven features.

One thing that I really have to point out here, and something that Josh would probably note as well, Envy aside, I have purposely avoided selling these covers to the audience by sleazing up the female cast members.  I really can’t stand the books that sell their story through the image of a female knight baring a midriff or who wears thigh high boots sans pants.  Point being, when I purposely noted that this charcter was meant to be alluring, it is to accentuate the fact that she is a Deadly Sin.

What I got back in regards to Envy’s distinct look was varied and provided a great range of choices.  Let’s look at them now, starting with the ones least fitting and ending with the option I eventually chose.

Envy3e

Let’s call this the “coy tom-boy” look.  To me, this is a very specific kind of appeal that doesn’t exactly hit the legendary beauty or temptation mark.  She is also somewhat more aware and smug than I wanted to show here.  The eyes and expression show off a threat that the heroes might understand, but is too well defined in the context of the story for now.

Envy2d

Here we encounter the same issue as before.  She is too assured, too outwardly dangerous or smug.  The most dangerous thing about this villain is her ability to use your own failings against you.  It is difficult to think that the clever character in the book woudl not immediately recognize this kind of character as dangerous.  In my mind, this was the “Spider Queen” look, very suitable for other ideas, just not right for this one.

Envy1aThis picture here, which I think of as the “Vallejo” look, is a perfect example of how your own discussion or idea can go just a bit too far in one direction despite being exactly what you were looking for.  The larger image of Envy here is enticing and she has that classic fantasy beauty to her.  It’s a great image, but it is also not exactly what I was looking for.  She’s cold and distant despite being attractive.  That being said, I almost went with this one because I am certain that colored in pastels, it would look amazing…

Envy1c

A surprise runner up, yet completely out of contention, I love this “Wild Child” look.  It was not Envy.  I knew that as soon as I saw it, but at the same time, I knew that this look could and should be recaptured for some other characters, likely the Shadow Elves.  She’s not prisitine enough here and there’s too much nature in the hair and gentle eyes.  I would love to use this as a base for other elven characters, especially the heroic ones.  She’s just not evil enough for Envy.

Envy1bAnd now we arrive at the chosen entry to represent Envy on the cover of House of Cards.  This particular look at her really captures the essense of this complex villain and her venomous allure.

This example nails the classic beauty ideal head on.  The slight tilt of her head and focused eyes portray the idea that she is considering her subject but do not betray the dark intent behind those thoughts.  Further, there is an innocence displayed here that in my mind, differs from the previous example with the “Wild Child”.  The innocent glance here is almost practiced, purposeful even.  This is a woman who has learned to destroy people by suggesting it to them as a best course of action, not someone who has to compell or force her victims into ruin.  When I think of dangerous beauty, this is where it takes me.

Thanks for taking a look at the design process and thanks to Josh Beach for allowing me to use some of the draft material in the discussion.  I hope to preview the cover a little bit prior to the book’s release this month.

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“Master of the House” now available on Amazon!

I’m happy to announce that Legacy of Shadow’s first book Master of the House is now available for purchase on Amazon’s digital marketplace. 

1356632710741Julian Hitchings is offered the opportunity to take control of one of Seaside’s notorious criminal gangs with all the wealth and prestige the position offers. With the aid of his oldest friend, two dangerous and desperate refugees from the north, and a cunning but unbalanced councilor, they are successful beyond all imagination.

Their success reveals that all is not well in Seaside. A sinister evil is growing in the heart of their city. Ancient debts are coming due and Julian with his comrades must break through the veil of deceit before they are manipulated down a path from which there is no escape. Failure will leave them as unwitting pawns in a game where the stakes are their very souls. With enemies on all sides, Julian resolves to take whatever measures are necessary to protect his friends and to prove to the rest of the criminal underworld that he is indeed the Master of the House.

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Short Story Friday – History Lesson

This is a fragment of a story that I have wanted to write for a long time.  In sequence, it’s out of order from any of the materials I have put together or intend to publish in the near future.  That presented a challenge in how to write this, put it out there to be read, and yet still avoid giving too much away or spoiling it.

I took the perspective of an outside storyteller here who tells things from their perspective with a bit of motivated self interest involved.  So, the narrative details will later be different but it’s interesting to know some of the characters presented and to see where it all moves to.

Without any further wordiness, I present:  History Lesson

Dell sat out on the porch overlooking the farmland. It stretched out further than his old eyes could see and beyond that point the sun was setting off on the horizon. He held a wrinkled hand out as if to push the heavenly body down further but the burning mark of the sky disobeyed him yet again.

Dell’s wife approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Even after all this time she still caught him off-guard. He wondered if she still practiced her soft footfalls or if it was so ingrained that it was merely habit now.

“The grandchildren were asking when we would leave for the parade. You promised them Dell.”

“I know. I know… I wouldn’t miss it. Fifty years, can you believe it Jacki? She has reigned for fifty years and tomorrow is the end of it. We were there. You remember don’t you?”

She smiled but Dell did not see it. “I remember.”

“And the way you used to dress! Those days… It’s hard to imagine…” he looked back over his shoulder to see Jacki’s smile turn crooked with embarrassment.

From inside the house a powerful gust of wind threw open the door and a child blew out of the entryway, laughing all the while. The gust of wind literally lifted the boy up and out of the building. It was quite graceful the way in which the boy bent with the blast of air up until the child met with his landing. He fell unceremoniously to the porch and rolled off the short series of stairs to the ground below. Behind him, two young girls gave chase on foot.

The first one reached out and touched the other on the arm. A burst of energy was shared between the two and then at once the older girl leaped a distance of ten feet or more to finally grasp the boy and retake a doll that had been stolen in jest.

Dell looked on with amusement. His wife, their grandmother, was far less tolerant.

“How many times have I told you that you will NOT use your powers in my house or on my porch?”

The children stopped their game of chase at once and shared a collective look of guilt.

“We are sorry Grandmother.” the older girl began.

“Just passing some time until we go out to the parade. It’s so quiet here in the countryside…”

The boy plead his case.

Dell looked to Jacki with a knowing smile, “Do you remember the time when there was no one who would complain of such a thing.”

His wife laughed, “They are young and…it’s been a long time since the wall was taken down.”

Dell nodded at this. He asked the children, “Do you know why they are celebrating the Governess and her fifty years of rule?”

“Because she’s not dead?” the boy hopefully responded.

“That’s… not a bad answer.” Jacki grinned at Dell.

Dell chuckled and began a story, “There was a time when people who lived in Britania did not have the luxury to live in the countryside you know. There was a time when all of our people lived behind a massive wall that protected us from the outside world. The Governess was one of the heroes who helped to cast Envy out of this world.”

When he said those words, the children made a motion over their hearts as if to ward off the evil that had been mentioned.

“We know all that Grandad…they teach it in school.”

The girls shook their heads in agreement and the little one added, “It’s booorinnngg…”

Dell laughed out loud and even Jacki could not help but to reveal a smile at this.

“Do you know the story about when Britania went dark? Do you know about the Long Night?”

Again the children shook their heads.

“It’s something that they won’t tell you about in school until you are much older. Even then they may not tell you what really happened the night that Governess Wellington took over the whole City State.”

Jacki nodded her agreement, “There aren’t even many who remember much less know the whole story. There may be a handful of us still alive…”

“What…what happened?” It was the younger smaller girl who finally asked.

Dell picked his youngest granddaughter up onto his lap, “Well, when your grandad was a boy, they used to require special little children like you to join up with the Elemental Guild.”

He let his words have a hint of playful mirth to them despite the serious nature of what he was telling the child.

“Special children with special talents had to do their part and serve the State.”

“I wouldn’t like that…” the girl admitted.

Dell had to look to his wife and smile at that.

“There were some people back then who did not like it either. People who could hear the dance of the elements, who could see the magic in the world around us…were very rare in those days. They were so rare that the State got to pluck you right out of your home so that you would be helpful to everyone else…even if you did not want to be helpful to everyone else. Families that did not do their duty, they were put in a place called Southwall and kept away from everyone else.”

The other two children sat down and began to listen.

“Back then there was a boy who had control over wind, much like you do boy. He taught the people in Southwall who would listen and prepared them for a time when they might be free to live as you do now. That boy was named Vavian. It was he and the would-be Governess who brought freedom to everyone in Britania by showing how far the Guild had fallen and how corrupt the Elemental Master of Fire had become…”

**********

50 Years Ago…

“That confirms it. We have to act now. Tonight.”

Vavian looked at the young mage who was tied down to the table with regret. He knew this boy. The child was named Joshua. He was a water mage of reasonably potent abilities. Vavian had helped the boy awaken to and control his powers. Now the child was writhing in agony and shouting as though possessed. The Guild had captured him in a recent raid and awakened something inside him that drove his powers to the brink of insanity.

The twins, a boy and his sister approached both Vavian and the captured boy. It was the male twin who voiced his concern first.

“What does this mean for us Vavian? It was bad enough that the Guild was rounding us up, that they had actually brought the Templars into Southwall…but this? What the hell is this?”

Vavian had no answer for him. He turned back to see the gathered mass of people who had sided with he and Sarai in Southwall. There were the free-wielding magi, they were in the most danger if this boy was an example of things to come. There were Jacki and Sarai’s Black Cats, they were in this out of loyalty. There was probably more to it than simply that. Jacki was clever. She and Sarai had probably come to realize that if the Guild was hunting down free-wielding magi, they were probably at risk too.

He did not have to answer to the question. Sarai knew what needed to be said.

“Vavian’s right. We move tonight. We take the State House by force. Our girls will provide the chaos that will allow enough of Vavian’s free-wielders to escape into the streets. We move to the State House and remove that filthy Master of Fire from office by throwing him into the street…from the fourth floor window.”

The girl twin objected immediately, “And just whom will be left in charge when you’ve gone and done this thing hrm? You? Will it be you Governor’s daughter? I would not fear leaving Vavian in charge of the Guild but that’s not what you’re planning is it?”

Sarai frowned. The wind mage was too smart for her own damn good.

“Yes, I plan to take my father’s place as the executive of the city. Removing Richter is only a single step on this path. Despite his villainy, there are many on the Senate who agree with what he has been doing. In their eyes, Southwall is a problem to be fixed, not a people to be saved…”

Vavian moved to quickly smooth over tensions. He could see some of Sarai’s girls moving around to the girl’s back-side in the event this turned into a forceful argument.

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold on Sarai, you’re scaring them.”

Vavian turned to the collection of young magi who hung on his every word. He closed his eyes and tried to center himself.

“There are things transpiring that are even worse than the conditions we find ourselves in here. The fact that the Guild is now actively hunting our kind down is no coincidence. We only need to look at Joshua here to know what kind of future awaits us.”

All eyes moved towards Joshua who was raging at something or someone and struggling against the bindings that kept him from injuring himself. Vavian nodded towards one of the twins who cautiously approached the boy and used his powers to tune Joshua out of his elemental powers. The effort nearly exhausted the young water mage but the effect of being separated from his power actually seemed to help Joshua.

Vavian continued despite the distraction, “Many of you have come to know Sarai. I know there are some of you who have families so injured by the State and the Guild that you will never trust those in positions of power. The choice we all face now is clear. We move together tonight, with the promise of a better future when Sarai takes her father’s place in the State House or we surely face death tomorrow when the Templars come back. Every confrontation with them means that more of our kind end up like Joshua there. You know well that life and its choices are never easy. Everyone here has the power to create change. I’m asking you to have faith in me one more time.”

A quiet murmur ran through the collected young magi. The girl stepped back and stood next to her brother. She had relented. If Vavian’s words could reach her, there was hope for the rest too. After a few moments where no one spoke or made a move to leave, one of the twins spoke.

“Then what would you have us do? How will you take the State House?”

Vavian’s faith in his own words was restored as his friends rallied around him now.

“We attack the power grid.”

That got their attention. The pride of Britania was the complex integration of magic into its city buildings. All throughout the City-State a complex series of delivery systems were set up to provide magical current that brought light to the citizen. It was a living testament to Guild power and influence. Where Britania hailed itself as the light of the civilized world, there was literal truth to that claim.

Even Sarai blinked her eyes at this proposal, “You’re serious aren’t you Vavian? How?”

Vavian nodded, “One free-wielder per sector. They find the Guild Station in the area and tune-out the elemental power reserves. They’ve all trained in it. It should be simple actually. The difficulty is in getting them out into public to do it. That’s where you come in Jacki.”

The young girl, clad in black with the bored expression on her face finally found something to be interested in.

“Let’s hear the plan Mr. Magic Man.”

The other Black Cats began to giggle. Mischief was soon to be in their hands. The gravity of the situation no longer mattered. It would be fun.

Vavian returned their enthusiasm.

“I think it’s been far too long since your girls were sent out into the city-proper to play. I’d like you all to go out and have a good time. The only rule is that everyone needs to come home when you’re done. That means working in pairs and keeping an eye out for one another.”

Going out to play meant that Jacki and the Black Cats would be let loose on Britania to vandalize, steal, and generally cause havoc. The girls often used play time as a means to distract the authorities while a select number of them went about acquiring food and supplies. The order and prosperity that Vavian and Sarai had helped bring to Southwall had all but put an end to the need for such activities. The girls grinned with anticipation to finally cut loose once again.

“Make a show of it ladies. Stir up the bee’s nest. That’s the only way that the free-wielders will make it to their targets unhindered.”

“Oh, it’ll be a show alright daddy…”

Jackie winked and pointed at Vavian. He was glad it was dark enough in the building to hide his embarrassment.

It was the male twin, the one with control over water came to understand something that the others had not put together yet.

“Vavian…how will you and Sarai gain entry into the State House? Some chaos in the streets will only go so far. The House Guards aren’t going to leave their posts and I know that you can both fight but…”

“I was hoping that you and your sister would come with actually. Some borrowed skills would be most useful. I hesitate to bring anyone with fire based abilities…I think somehow Richter can affect them.”

The twins looked at one another as though they knew somehow that the conversation would end up this way.

“We’re with you but…the four of us still isn’t what I would consider a threat to a Guild Master.”

Sarai stepped forward, leaving behind what little shadow was obscuring her features. She moved towards the magi and the Black Cats all at once ceased their idle chatter.

“I’ve got that covered Actually.”

Sarai snapped her fingers and from the shadows she left behind a slender vision of death and darkness slipped down from the ceiling above. It was a woman, clad entirely in black with a pair of swords strapped to her back, and a wild look about her. Her hair was unkempt and somewhat dirty but that only served to make her appearance even more threatening.

Sarai smiled, “This is LeKitaoli. I call her Kit. Her job is to protect me…no matter what.”

LeKitaoli took a knee next to Sarai and as she did, every one of the Black Cats with the exception of Jacki did the same.

“By your will Mistress.”

“Kit, we’re going to storm the State House. A man is waiting for us there who intends to hurt my friends and kill me if given the opportunity.”

Kit pulled her hair back behind her head into a single strand and pinned it into place on her head with a small sheathed dagger.

“This man will never lay a hand on you.”

The others could now see that Kit was not human. Her elven features were revealed to everyone, even the Black Cats who had suspected but never confirmed this were in awe.

Sarai approached the twins and offered them her hand.

“I promise. With the help of you and the others, we will change this place. The Curtain Wall will come down and your families will be free to live as they like. I can make no other promises to you other than the chance to fight for your own future.”

Vavian nodded at her words. Whether Sarai knew it or not, a chance at something better was all these young people had ever wanted.

**********

Vavian and Sarai followed Kit up the steps to the grand State House. Vavian knew what Kit was, he knew what she was capable of. The two younger magi that followed in their wake found that they were unprepared for the brutal savagery that the dark elf engaged combat with.

Sarai had been explicitly clear with Kit. Unless our lives are a breath away from death, you will under no circumstances kill these men and women who are merely doing their job.

Kill, she did not.

With the need for death removed, Kit let all of her effort fall into other forms of victory. She shattered swords, hamstrung those slower than her, and delivered injuries that made continued combat nearly impossible.

As Vavian and Sarai approached the grand door to the State House, they found themselves standing next to a blood drenched and wordless Kit. At her feet were two unconscious Templars and just beyond them were another two, still conscious but crippled never the less.

One of the more dedicated Templars attempted a last ditch attempt at preventing these intruders from gaining entry into the building. His reward was a prompt kick to the chest that stole the breath from his lungs.

Sarai looked concerned but did not utter a word of complaint over the way Kit was handling things. There would be time for apologies and recompense later. Too many people were making sacrifices now for her resolve to weaken at the sight of pain. These men were alive and that would be good enough.

The twins did not object to seeing Templars finally get rewarded for the brutal way in which they had persecuted those in Southwall however, they were still essentially children at this point in their lives and the bloody truth of combat did nothing to relieve the sickened sensation in their stomachs.

Vavian had a better vantage point at the top of the entryway to evaluate how things were progressing out in the open city. He opened up his connection with wind and allowed the sounds of the city to come to him. Chaos was indeed being strewn through out. The streets were beginning to take on widespread panic. Forces had been dispatched to deal with the civil unrest that Sarai’s Black Cats were creating. Everything was moving according to plan.

“I need you.” He waved the water mage to come forward. “Lend me your strength.”

“You got it Vavian.”

The water mage reached out and grasped the hand Vavian offered to him. A flash of light came forth and both men staggered back slightly.

“What is this?” Kit quietly asked of Sarai.

“Human elemental magic can be shared, offered to another. It confers onto the one who receives the power enhanced abilities according to the element. Water for strength, Fire for precision, Air for reflexes.”

“Strength then?”

“Strength.” Sarai nodded knowingly.

Vavian approached the grand door and placed his hands into the seam of the two great wooden panels. With a considered effort and after a few seconds of prying, Vavian threw the doors off their hinges. The sound of cracking wood and tearing metal made an awful sound that caused the others to clutch at their ears.

Vavian fell to a knee panting. He had used up the entire boost of power in one tremendous effort. The twins quickly moved to his aid and lifted Vavian up to continue on.

The interior of the State House was luxurious and fully lit with numerous lumen devices integrated into the room. It was somewhere that Sarai was all too familiar with. Vavian had been here once before and the return now felt far more ominous than his first daring adventure into the seat of Britania’s power. The twins never imagined they would be in such a place. Seeing the splendor and wealth that was revealed in every corner was almost too much for young people who grew up in squalor and filth.

Sarai held up a hand to stop the group from moving forward.

“Guardian, ready yourself.”

The dark elf drew her second sword and moved several bloody strands of hair from her face. The room slowly found itself populated by Templars and guards who quietly and efficiently surrounded the group. They entered from any and every available door and another group stood ready at the top of the stairs that would deliver them to the second of the four flights they would need to ascend.

The Templar at the top of the stair spoke for the rest.

“Sarai? You? We did not believe Richter when he assured us that you were somehow behind these attacks. We had…faith in you my lady. I am saddened that it has come to this. I am Sidar Malachi. I am sorry to say it, but you will go no further Ms. Wellington.”

“Things are about to change Templar. You are not the true Sidar. You do not bear the ring and you do not…well… Enough of that. Stand down. Escort me to my father and to Richter. It is time for a reckoning.”

Malachi shook his head reluctantly, “I am sorry for this my lady. Guards, arrest the young governess. You may dispatch of the others as necessary.”

“Wrong move.”

Sarai looked to the twins and asked the wind mage, “The lights if you’d please.”

From her pockets, Sarai produced two handfuls of small rocks and pebbles. She threw them up into the air and as she did, the girl immediately understood what she was getting at.

Centering her powers, the girl twin grasped the element of air and created multiple currents of wind to separate the stones before flinging them about the room. The tiny clouds of projectiles danced on her gusts of wind and shattered the lumen containers. Darkness began to spread through the chamber. Like a conductor before a symphony, she waved her hands about and the stones swam through the currents, shattering the remaining sources of light as they went. Only the lights that lit Sarai’s path remained in place.

Sarai began walking forward, unconcerned about the armed Templars waiting for her. All around them the room began to fill with the anguished cries of injured men. The water mage caught glimpses of Kit moving with superhuman speed through the shadows, winning fights against men who had neither the training or capacity to fight within the darkness as the Elf of Deep Shadow had.

The Templars still standing beside Malachi recoiled slightly. It was the first time Malachi could ever remember seeing his men move in fear of something. He began to consider that Sarai was correct in her assertion that he had made a mistake. Moving now before him with a deadly purpose, the cries of his men ringing out amidst the darkness, and this girl walked forward still. Unconcerned with the possibility of injury or death, her determined eyes locked onto his while her followers made embarrassingly short work of his trained soldiers.

With only several yards separating Sarai and her companions from Malachi and his men, the young woman stopped. The darkly clad warrior appeared before her as if she had melted out of the shadows surround them.

Malachi did not understand why he was hesitating to engage them now except for the nagging suspicion in the back of his mind that any attempt to do so would be futile at this point. He watched as the dark woman knelt before Sarai and quietly spoke.

“Your way is clear. Shall I remove the others?”

Sarai shook her head, “No. They must bear witness.”

Looking past her servant, Sarai calmly and evenly addressed the Templar who claimed to be Britania’s Sidar.

“You can’t stop what will happen here. Take me to Richter. I have instructed my Guardian to spare the lives of your men. They are…injured but they will live. In return, do as I ask now and take me to the Master of Fire. That bastard has to answer for his crimes. And if you still feel the need to fight us, you can then do so with his support. I think that’s a fair compropmise when the only other option I offer you is defeat.”

As if in response to Sarai’s words, the dark servant turned and growled at the Templar.

It would be as Sarai demanded. Malachi relented, regrouped his men, and began to lead them to where the Master of Fire held council with Britania’s Senate.

**********

The door to the fourth floor meeting chambers of the Senate was kicked in and as it slammed open against the old stone walls of the State House, every one of Britania’s nine Senators recoiled at the site they saw before them.

Kit held the Master of Fire aloft by what remained of his robes. Richter hung without moving in her grasp. She threw the powerful mage on to the table where the Senators had gathered to discuss the civil unrest that was brewing like a storm outside their window in the city below.

Kit’s flesh was bruised and cut. Her hair had been singed such that most of it was gone now. The stench of burning hair was pungent in the otherwise clean and sterile room.

Sarai stepped out in front of her Guardian. Vavian accompanied her and his two magi followed behind with great trepidation. In the hallway behind them, Malachi and his Templars stood waiting. The memory of what they had seen only moments before had burned a loyalty into their blood that reminded them of the true meaning of duty and honor. They watched the scene play out with pride.

One of the Senators rose up from his seat to protest the brash intrusion. He had not moved half way out of his seat when Vavian stepped forward and commanded him to sit back down.

“No. There is not going to be any discussion this time. You’ve kept generations of families in a pen of your own design. Silenced their voices and crushed their dreams. You’ve done this all while shaking a finger of rebuke at them, shaming them for refusing to give up their children to State interests…to the Guild.”

Vavian moved forward and stood up on the table where Richter’s body lay unmoving.

“You accepted the rule of a mad man out of fear. You joined with him to persecute a people who have never even raised a hand in their own defense. You never even knew what it was you sided with…”

Vavian reached down and tore off the rest of the cloak and mask that hid Richter’s face. To the shock and horror of the Senators present, they found that the mage had been dead for some time. His skin had rotted and hardened against his bone. A great wound could be seen on his neck where a blade had severed his head at some point in his previous life. What Britania had feared they encountered when LeLayhilani had entered their realm, had been welcomed with open arms in the form of Richter.

The Senators sat silently disappointed in their own failing. Vavian was not done rebuking them yet though.

“In your blind greed and lust for power, you saw fit to remove the one man from office who actually had some inclination that things were not right. Siding with Richter you arrested Governor Wellington and locked him away in the very dungeon where his daughter had been held just months before. Right now, each and every one of you is trying to figure out a way in which you walk out of this room alive. Well, do not fear. Though you are stupid and clumsy, the lady Sarai has no intention of either killing you or removing you from office. Oh no…you are going to bear witness to what is to come. Just like the Templars waiting in the hall, you will understand by the end of this night…”

Vavian was a frighteningly effective public speaker in spite of his youth. Seeing him face the Senate now without fear or regret made the twins proud that they had followed him all this time.

Sarai gently took Kit’s hand into her own.

“Thank you. You have gone beyond what your duties require of you. It is time for me to go beyond my own.”

Kit nodded her understanding and watched as the child she knew to be a hero of legend took Britania into her own hands.

“The Guild is dead.” she proclaimed.

Taking Richter’s body from the table, Sarai cleaved its head off and threw the bloody stump out of the window overlooking Britania. She heaved the remainder of his body out with it seconds later. Glass and thick corrupted blood outlined the shattered glass.

“What ever experiment was planned for Southwall, it ends tonight. Join me in observing how our path forward will be lit not out of fear but out of hope for our own greatness.”

She beckoned them to stand and watch, then requested Vavian to send out the first signal.

Vavian approached the window but not before bringing the twins along with him to bear witness.

“You have just as much right as anyone you know…”

They smiled and took one another’s hand.

Vavian stepped out onto the balcony and lifted his hands to the sky. A single but expansive burst of heat lightning appeared over the Capitol Building. Seconds later, as if in response to the flash of light, Britania began to go dark. Its man-made lights, powered by Guild magic, fueled by fear and tradition…all began to go dark. Within a moment, the city was almost completely without the magical power that was the central pride of its existence.

“This is the darkness you have left your own kind in for hundreds of years. Bask in the fear and terror that comes with it just as those families have done for generations.”

Vavian’s condemnation of Britania’s social structure was damning.

One of the Senators turned to Vavian and laughed.

“This…this is your grand justice? You would condemn us all to the same fate as those unfortunate souls in Southwall? You would destroy everything we have built to ease your sense of social justice? Boy you are no better than the creature you threw before us tonight. And as for you Ms. Sarai Wellington, you are not fit to stand in your father’s house…”

“I will decide who is welcome in my home and who is not.”

The resounding voice of Virgil Wellington caught them all by surprise. He was escorted and slightly supported by one of Malachi’s Templars. The man was in poor physcial shape but still carried himself with as much dignity as his injuries could afford.

“Father?!?” Sarai pushed her way through to see the man.

He shook his head, “Finish what you started girl. You promised me that you would prove your worth. So show them.”

Sarai nodded.

“Vavian…please.”

Vavian smiled, “Of course.”

Lifting his hands yet again to the night sky, he let loose another volley of heat lightning into the air. It was a signal yet again.

This time the signal was to those still residing in South Wall. All at once the quarter of the city became alive with light and magic. Free-wielding magi from all corners of the slum worked to illuminate their homes, light their furnaces, and cast fire into the night sky. It was a spectacular display.

“Each one of them, a human in control of his gifts. Every one of them a point of light in the city. All of them offer hope for a future that may be frightening but also holding the gift of potential in all of us.”

Sarai’s voice softened.

“They hold no malice. This is not a victory. There are no sides. There is only us…US. A people united for once in our miserable existence. There is worse yet coming than what we saw in Richter. My Guardian warns me that an army is being raised in secret in the south. We must be ready. We must be whole and it must begin now.”

To her amazement, a few of the Senators took to a knee before her. The one who protested so openly to her but a moment before was the first. As his old knees sank uncomfortably to the floor, the man looked to Virgil.

“You were right my old friend…you were right.”

Virgil looked down. Being right did not change the fact that the truth was more frightening than any of them truly knew yet. As the fifth Senator took a knee to acknowledge Sarai’s ascendance to the executive office of the city, it was confirmed. Sarai would lead the great City-State of Britania. There was much to explain and far more to do but a revolution had ended here without true bloodshed and the city would unite as one.

Sarai looked about and wondered where it would all go next. She caught sight of Vavian, and the twins taking a knee before her as well.

It was sudden anger that made her words sound fearsome in this company. She pointed at the twins and commanded them.

“Never! You will never kneel before me.”

She grasped Vavian and pulled him up, firmly holding his hand in hers.

“You especially. We…I, owe you all a debt that will never and can never be repaid. You and anyone else who has shown me kindness over the past two years will never be anything other than equals in this house.”

Years of her training in politic and governance were shining through now, polished by experience and colored by love, Sarai made no attempt to hide her emotions. They looked out together at the changing scene of night in Britania.

“It is just as you said once…a thousand points of light, a thousand chances for a future.”

**********

Present Time…

Dell had become so wrapped up in telling the story that he had failed to notice how late it was getting. They would have to hurry now to make it into the city in time for the celebration.

If his grandchildren noticed they were in risk of missing out on the parade, they made no sign of it. To his surprise, they were full of questions about the two magi who accompanied Vavian and Sarai into the State House that night.

Dell could not help but smile at this. It was something that went without discussion in his family. There would be time to tell them later.

Jacki had gone into the house and come out again with a glass of water. She knew Dell would be parched from the long story but in her own sly way she was giving him an opportunity to reveal the truth to the children. Dell just sipped the water and returned the sly glance to Jacki.

With the story concluded, the children rose up, began their back and forth fussing at one another again, and ran towards the house to gather their things.

Dell pulled Jacki close to him. The story brought back a lot of memories for them both.

“You spared them the worse of it.” Jacki said quietly.

“That’s because the victor gets to decide how competent the opposition was in hindsight.”

“You left me out entirely.” she chided him.

“It would not do well for our grandchildren to hear how their grandmother went about slitting throats and using foul language.”

“Oh…I don’t know about that. The girls could use a role model.”

They laughed but Jacki’s hand instinctively moved to her side where the Guild Master’s fire had left a permanent reminder of that night.

Dell saw it and straightened her hair to move her attention away from the wound.

Their embrace was interrupted when they heard one of their grandchildren running back through the house and again bursting out of the door. It was controlled this time. The boy stopped in front of his grandfather and pointed a finger at him.

“It was you! You were the water mage!”

Dell grinned and flung what remained of his glass of water at his grandchild.

The little boy shrieked in surprise but when the liquid stopped mid flight and returned into the glass as the old man righted it in his hand, the shriek turned to laughter.

The little boy turned and ran back to his sisters bragging that he was right.

Jacki gave Dell a smirk, “If you get to show off to them, I should be allowed to swear around them.”

Dell laughed and together they prepared to join the celebration of a revolution that history would not remember their parts in.

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Short Story Friday: The Trial of Rearden Black Part 2

Today’s short story is a direct continuation of last week’s story.  All of this takes place in a city called Lux and will begin to lay the groundwork for what I intend to be the third story overall in the Legacy of Shadow series.

The Trial of Rearden Black Part 2

The magi who accompanied Jayden moved into their places. Thomas Frasier took the spot of the water mage, his wife Jennifer took the spot of the fire mage, and the yet unnamed apprentice took the place of the wind mage. As was the custom, the position of an earth mage remained vacant. Instead, a vessel containing the cleanest soil and salt possible was in its place.

Rearden took a hard gaze at Jayden but did not voice any objections to the continued contest. Something interesting was at play here and curiosity was overriding his desire for an assured victory. Just as the council president prepared to stop Jayden from attempting activation of the now lifeless automation, Rearden held up a hand to pause him.

“If I am to win, I will win outright. There will be no question of it. Allow Mr. Dagny the time he needs. I do not want any lingering questions if I am to be Headmaster of this honored organization.”

Continue reading

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Villains

Most stories live and die by the worth of their villains.  They are in one way of looking, the reason for telling stories.  There are rare exceptions.  Stories of self exploration and mastery, biographies, etc can all circumvent the need for an outside actor to move the plot along.  When it comes to fantasy fiction the need for an evil, an obstacle, or person of ill intent is key to the genre.

I think it can be very easy to slip into the trope of the mustache twisting black hat villain in fantasy fiction.  To avoid this, I think that rooting your story in the antagonist motivation is critical.  When I began conceptualizing the Legacy of Shadow series, I honestly did not have a set direction for it.  The world came first and presented me with problems that really bothered me and somewhat ruined the rationale for such a place.

I knew that I wanted some omnipresent force to oppose the heroes.  I knew that I wanted this force to be something that did not have to confront them directly, but that could corrupt their very reasons for stepping into the field of conflict.  My first attempt at the character who would become my ultimate villain for this series was known only by title: “The White Witch”.  Please bear in mind that at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of The Chronicals of Narnia.  Seriously.  I didn’t.

This character was aloof and distant and somehow responsible for the trials and tribulations of the world I created in the Legacy of Shadow series.  She was generic and…boring.

So, I began to ask myself questions about her.  What had she done to be responsible for the undead curse placed upon the land?  Stepping back, I had to ask, what is she to begin with?  ”Elf” was the answer.  More specifically, a “Light” elf when compared to the thus far heroic “Dark” elves that this world and its characters encountered.  Then came the inversion, the typically heroic by nature good-guy forest elves would somehow be responsible for…what?  Or should it even be all of them?  Why not just one?  What if one member of this otherwise pristine race of creatures did something so terrible, that…

That what?  What could one character do that would be so condemning to vilify that character for all time?  The answer was:  she is responsible for the death of her entire race.  Already there were no light elves in the story but there were uncountable undead creatures.  So, this character became responsible for the death of her entire race and that genocide resulted in a world ravaged by undead hordes of elves.

Now we were getting somewhere.  It wasn’t very far down the road but the wheels were spinning.

What would make a character commit genocide on their own race?  Would it be purposeful?  Or would it be accidental?  Well, one thing that was certain in my mind was that this villain would be something that a reader could understand however, sympathy was not something I wanted to extend to her.  Accidental was right out.  Purposeful?  This was a more difficult thing to accomplish.

I was stuck.  I needed something beyond petty vengeance, something grand something…that was eluding me.  That’s when Jimi Hendrix happened to me.  That’s when I turned up the music in my car and happened to turn my ear at the right moment to hear the lyrics that unlocked the remainder of my story.

“Anger he smiles, towering in shiny metallic purple armor. Queen jealousy, envy waits behind him. Her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground…”

It wasn’t much but the idea of sins personified struck me just the right way.  It’s been done countless times, sure.  This time though I felt I had found a unique hook.  This “White Witch” became Envy in my mind, the personification of a unique and deadly power.  (Her color happily changed in my mind as well.)

What would the personification of Envy possibly find herself jealous of?  What would a creature with immense power and a hatred of anything more powerful than it turn its attention towards?  God.  That personified sin would turn its rage towards the one thing that truly held dominion over it, in this case God.  Now the genocide of a entire race could make sense within the context of one powerful entity looking to dethrone another.

Thus my Deadly Sin Envy, the Queen of Jealousy was born.

The reasons that surround her actions and the way in which she achieves her goals are all details that play out in the book but the important thing here is that the villain’s motivations are genuine and even though a reader would not agree with her actions, they can understand those motivations never the less.

I began this by commenting that a villain’s actions are the driving force for most plots.  While this is true for Envy’s actions as the story moves forward, she is still a somewhat distant, a force that can not be engaged for most of the tale.  Her motivations and the way by which she seeks to achieve those goals create a dread and even outright fear in other characters lending credence to their own actions.  This does not even speak to the ways when Envy does reach out into the moral realm, how characters who are directly touched by her actions take on a villainy all of their own.

Creating a complex villain on an epic scale has allowed me to tie characters, places, and most importantly a plot of epic scope into a story that has its roots in a concept that everyone can identify with “Too much is never enough”.

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Site Update

Preview Chapter 2 of Master of the House was added to the site today.  Give it a read if you want to see the interworkings of Seaside’s gangs start coming into play and a revelation of the book’s true villain.

Chapter 2 – The Magician

Please go back and take a look through Chatper 1 – The Fool to start your read.  A little more about the world this book is set in can also be found here.

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Story Framing

I learned a great deal in putting together Master of the House.  It’s a single encapsulated story with a clear beginning and a definitive ending.  It follows four major characters to their journey’s conclusion and manages a complex plot with several story arcs.

I’ve read that many publishers have a problem with giving first time authors any more than 120,000 words for a book with around 135,000 being the upper limit.  I can understand why.  The production costs scale up around that point and it is difficult to gauge the potential success of a new author.  Master of the House is about twice that size.  To tell the story I set forth there I really needed that much room to move and to deal with a cast of complicated characters.

My follow up project is something even bigger.  I refuse to think small.  I want to write about full worlds of characters that move, think, and live in ways that make sense despite the fantastic settings they are in.  Knowing this, I’ve had to step back and frame that story, the plotting, and the pacing into distinctly smaller packages that I can weave together over time.

In a sense, what was one large story will be broken up into 3-5 smaller books that will hopefully be more digestible to a potential publisher.  Looking at the plot line I had set forth there were obvious “acts” with in it, just like a play.  By framing each one of those and fleshing out the characters, point of conflict, and conclusion; I will be better prepared to tell the larger story over all.

For instance, the work I am doing right now follows the meeting of the central cast and their origins.  It will show the challenges that they face, the reasons for their choices that set the story into motion, and will reveal some portents of what is to come.  Had I kept on with this draft in the larger scope of work, these things would have stayed the same.

To re-frame this “act”, I had to establish a villain that would provide one book’s worth of challenges and I had to determine what a valid but compelling point to end the book would be.  In essence, framing my current work required more immediate action, villains to drive a short story, and then a cliffhanger that would make it worth the reader’s time to move to the next inevitable book.

I hate serialization.  I really do.  The kind of manga I hate the most is the kind that never really reaches a climax or has a full ending, but instead drones on and on indefinitely.  I really think that by starting my frame large for this Legacy of Shadow series and then moving in with details for each part of it, that I can avoid doing the things I hate.

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The Grindstone


Your face could be here!

This morning started off like most others.  Get dressed, take the dog out, prepare some coffee…wait.  Out of milk?  All hope is lost.

The day will surely be a waste.

I am relegated to using my wife’s soy milk for my delicious morning beverage.  For all accounts, if I were turning pages out today, this would give every indication of a low output day.

I think writers have a specific comfort routine that sets the stage for page production.  Those days when your regular word count is blown by before you realize it and everything clicks are just awesome.  But those days are the exception and not the rule.  Most days are going to have a distraction, or two, or five.  The dog will bark at the neighbors.  Your phone will ring every minute.  Something.  It’s some sub-clause of Murphey’s Law.

The show really does have to go on though.  Getting serious about your writing takes dedication that no one is going to reward you for and unless you have a VERY understanding spouse or significant other, it likely will not even be acknowledged.  Those days that you will sit down and find yourself stuck are the functional norm.  Like everything else, you can train yourself to lift this burden and get down to it.  Here are some tips that I find help me to move past the “writer’s block”.  (I hate that term with a passion.)

1.  Music.  This for me is the skeleton key of writing.  It puts a theme to my work, sets me in the mood of my characters, and literally gets my heart pumping.  I kind of keep notes based on music.  It’s like an mnemonic device for when I have a great idea but I’m not at that point of writing.  I make a note about a character, idea, and song to listen to.  It jump starts my work in a way that is outright enjoyable for me.  If you need to write an action scene, turn up the rock music.  Writing a villain?  Listen to how villains speak and think in gangster rap.  Some wistful narrative time?  Hit up the country music with the sad song and regret.  Build a soundtrack for your work in your mind and write to it.  Even if your hands and mind aren’t coordinating, the music will help it come together on the screen.

2.  Outline.  I hate this one, I really do.  I want to sit down and get to work.  Damn the planning.  Damn the pen and paper.  Time is slipping away and…  Well, that’s mostly true. I really do hate outlining.  I don’t mean that in the larger capital “B” book sense, but in the chapter and section sense I can’t stand it.  But…it’s necessary at times.  You will find that some chapters have a critical element to them.  They are in my mind, the chapters before critical conflict.  I think a class would describe them as ‘rising action’ sections.  Point is, for me there are times when the plot and character interaction is complicated enough that I need to set down the guidelines on paper.  I need to see it and not remember it.  The outline becomes a checklist for progression.  Tackling one item from the outline at a time will move you along and see you past the opening inertia of the work.

3.  Go go go.  Crappy advice.  I mean it though.  Go, go, go!  Shut up.  Shut out.  Tune out. Turn off your wi-fi connection and go, go go.  Most people when facing a slow morning or writer’s block aren’t really out of ideas.  I think they are juggling two or more concepts so intently that they just fail to move forward.  Pick one and go.  Pick one and play it out.  It doesn’t matter (at first) if it’s great, lousy, or out of character.  You have a backspace button.  You have cut and paste tools.  Make yourself write ten full lines.  Don’t think about it just put your nose to the grindstone and go.  You really have to put something of substance down.  One or two lines will not do the job.  It’s too easy to second guess that.  A nice big fat paragraph though?  Before you erase it and start again you’re going to have to read it and make sure you aren’t wasting time spent.  Imagine you’re back in high school and you get the five minute warning that a testing period is about to end.  Go at it like that, with reckless abandon to get all you can on paper (screen).

In the end, however you go about it, you’ll probably be telling the story you actually want to tell and then it’s just a matter of editing a little bit after the fact.  Find ways to trick and defeat your own self doubt because that’s usually the real reason you’re looking at your screen with naked indecision.

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On the self-help powers of coffee

I’ve never been a morning person.  Even working as a city planner where my mornings began at 6AM I never entirely adjusted.

Sure, there was coffee but it was more a crutch to get me to 9 or 10 in the morning where my thinking would clear up and email would be caught up on.

Taking charge of this project has meant adjusting my life to a new working time.  If I don’t get myself moving and working by around 9, then it becomes easy for those blocks of time to begin crumbling around me.  Start after 10?  Only two hours until lunch.  Fifteen minutes off the beginning and end…by the time the work is actually put in, I may have completed about two pages of fresh material.

That doesn’t fly.

Owning the mornings has been a bit of a check-point for progress.  On a given day I try to put down a minimum of 2,500 words.  That’s somewhere between four and five pages.  If I’m on track with it, this happens before lunch.  After that, everything else is a bonus.

Word counts and page counts don’t really mean a whole lot but as a self guidance tool it means that you can see yourself moving forward.  If you’re ending up with a prose that full of wordiness or junk writing, that’s one thing; however if you’re moving towards the conclusion or point of the chapter you’re working on, it’s all positive movement.

You can always edit down and tighten up language later.  Master of the House is a 250,000 word book that I put together in six months.  That’s not bragging nor is it a work volume that everyone can match but the point is, keeping yourself on track and owning up to those difficult mornings…

Those cold…sub 30 degree mornings…

at your desk…

outside of your warm and inviting bed…

Well, no one said that there weren’t going to be sacrifices in the name of art.  Grab a warm cup of coffee and stop letting the day slip away from you.

Tomorrow I’m going to start discussing theme and scope of Master of the House.  How you get to these things is something you need to have control over to move your project forward.

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