Just Chatting

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

Things have been a little crazy with most of us lately, and today’s scheduled guest has had to postpone due to family issues.  So I thought I’d drop over and update everyone on a few cool projects and things that are happening in the Magical Words tribe.

First, this week Faith had a book birthday!  Yes. that’s right, the latest Jane Yellowrock book, Broken Soul, is available now for your reading enjoyment!  If you’re not sure (and why on Earth wouldn’t you be?), you can try it out here:

http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/09/broken-soul-excerpt-faith-hunter-jane-yellowrock

Speaking of reading things that Faith writes, she and David are anchor authors for the current Kickstarter project “Temporally Out of Order”.  “This anthology will take on the challenge of interpreting what “temporally out of order” could mean for modern day—or perhaps not so modern—gadgets, such as the cell phone, laptop, television, radio, iPod, or even that microwave or refrigerator!”  Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, this is sure to be a great anthology, so check it out!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/543968884/temporally-out-of-order-anthology-sfandf

That’s not the only Kickstarter project that might tickle your fancy.  Our friend Danielle Ackley-McPhail (editor of the Bad Ass Faeries and Dragon’s Lure anthologies) is hosting a project to continue the tale of Kara O’Keefe, a child of the Tuatha and hero of the Eternal Cycle series.  “In just a few short weeks, Kara has become more than she ever imagined and nothing she ever expected. Her life has been touched by both evil and divinity until her very view of herself and the universe is transformed. She bears the scars, but none so deep as Tony DeLocosta’s, evil’s ultimate victim. The woman who is both Sidhe and human and the man who is but a shell, fractured by possession, take to wandering.”

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dackley-mcphail/eternal-wanderings-the-continuing-journey-of-kara

And last but not least, I have a question for you, our readers.  If you heard that a couple of local, published writers were presenting a free seminar for writers, what would you want the topic to be?  No idea too crazy…okay, maybe some of your ideas might be a little nutty, but who knows?  I might still be able to work with them.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

Robert Jackson Bennett: City of Stairs

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robertjbennet-low-5164The idea for CITY OF STAIRS was one of those rare ideas that come all at once. I’d been reading a spy novel called DARK STAR by Alan Furst, which is set in balkanized Eastern Europe before WWII, and it was fascinating to read a story from that era that wasn’t from a Western perspective. Then I was vacuuming and I had an old movie on in the background, a light, satirical story about a British tourist suddenly finding he physically resembles the king of a tiny Eastern European country, with many hijinks ensuing. And I thought, “I’d like to write a story about that – about being a diplomat in this fragmented sort of region.”

And for some reason I immediately imagined the diplomat as being a Southeast Asian woman, because that seemed like it would create the most culture clash within this patriarchal Eastern European culture. But of course, I knew that she couldn’t have it easy, so all of these tiny nations would have to be mad at her for other reasons.

I asked, “Why are all these nations mad at her?”

And my brain immediately said, “Because her people killed all their gods.”

And that was that.

Since the book explores gods so much, people have asked if it makes any particular conclusions about organized religion. I’m usually hesitant to tell people what my book’s about, but I’m not sure that it makes any conclusions, actually.

In our world, religion runs on faith, where one has to assume one’s god or gods are subtly intervening in one’s life, but in City of Stairs the gods are right there, rewriting reality and messing up your enemies on your behalf and whatnot. They’re much more like mythic gods, where there was never a question of believing in them or not – it’s hard to say Zeus doesn’t exist with a lightning bolt through your face.

The gods in City of Stairs probably work much more as a means to explore the nature of power. In the book, there are two cultures, the Saypuris and the Continentals. While it’s somewhat arbitrary that the Continentals received the protection and benefaction of the gods over the Saypuris, the Continentals, of course, immediately justify their position: “We were chosen. We’re special, because we received this power. We wouldn’t have gotten this power if we weren’t special.” And because they feel they’re special, they don’t have any sort of moral qualms with using this power to completely dominate the globe, to torture and oppress and enslave millions of people.

It’s a very human thing to do, unfortunately, to rewrite the world so that you’re the protagonist, and city_of_stairs-cover1every good turn you have is a product of you being you, rather than random chance. It’s a very good way to talk yourself into some truly terrible decisions.
The book is also a little unusual, I think, in that it’s a fantasy that takes place in a more turn-of-the-19th-century setting than a Medieval European one, and it also features a person of color as the protagonist. There are a couple of reasons I chose to write it this way.

I sometimes think that we assume the “default” mode of fantasy is medieval because in some manner we believe the Middle Ages to be the origin point of all of Western society, as if all of contemporary history is derived from those few centuries in Western Europe.

Contemporary medieval fantasy, then, is a skip back to “The Start” of things, the origins of the world as we now know it, and it rearranges things, adding and subtracting mythic elements, variations on our own creation myth.

The thing that troubles me is that medieval Europe wasn’t really the start of things, but one historic point during a long, long swathe of fluctuation across of variety of regions. This suggestion that the Middle Ages was the global origin point from which all of modern times is derived is wholly fabricated, a sort of made up myth we tell ourselves. Perhaps it goes back to the American South’s love of IVANHOE, describing a romantic land of courtly passions that likely never existed. Whatever the case, I sometimes feel we’re using the Middle Ages as a mirror, determined to see ourselves in that era, even if in reality it would disgust us.

So I wanted to depict a period of time in which regional powers and cultures were upended. For example, during the Middle Ages, it was the Islamic Empire that was the cultural and intellectual powerhouse, often far more tolerant, liberal, and rational than, say, the Franks. And it’s likely the Islamic Empire contributed far more to contemporary Western society than Medieval Europe did: they did, after all, create things like the zero and the monetary check.

So I chose to try and capture a moment like that, a time an Eastern-European-influenced power – the Continent – has just been completely surpassed by a Southeast-Asian-influenced power – Saypur. Because the gods have died, the world has literally been rearranged, and everyone’s trying to put it back together again, both literally and figuratively, as people try and reconcile themselves to the new global reality.
Whatever their conclusions, I wanted it to be clear that the world is not always guaranteed to be as we assume it to be: all things change, and we are frequently changed with them, whether we like it or not. The trick – for both the characters of CITY OF STAIRS and those of us in the real world – is how we react to change.

***

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson Award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, won a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, has topped many “Best of 2012” lists, including that of Publishers Weekly. His fourth novel, American Elsewhere, won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. His fifth, City of Stairs, will be released in September of 2014.

He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found at Robert Jackson Bennett and on Twitter at @robertjbennett.

R S Belcher: Building a Haunted House

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Years ago, I recall reading a suspense novel by Harlan Corben, I honestly can’t recall the name of the book – I think it was Gone for Good. It was well-written, enjoyable and kept my interest, it was also one of the reasons so many writers say you need to read to write. Coban’s novel was to the plot twists, what high-fructose corn syrup is to junk food. Pretty much every chapter ended with some kind of shocking revelation that shifted everything you thought you knew about the characters and the plot—this character wasn’t really dead, they were in fact someone’s mother/daughter/long-lost step-son/ St. Bernard… you get the idea. The first few twists blew me away, but by the end of the book it was, well, funny. I’d get to the end of a chapter and laugh at what new M Night Shyamalan-esque twist the author threw at me.

Plot is a writer’s house. It’s important, very. You build it with with a strong foundation and try to build it up to code—by code, I mean you strive for internal logic, a certain degree of integrity, and a unspoken contract between you and the reader—“ You will suspend your reality and live in mine for a spell,” says the writer, “ and I won’t make that reality too rickety and inconsistent for you fall out of it, on your ass, or have it collapse all about your ears.”

I have had a love-hate relationship with plot as a writer. I think it is easy to over-plot, over-think, your story. I tend this, actually. Plot can become a straight jacket and detract from what I think is far more important than the framework of your plot, your characters.

I worked on an idea for a space fantasy novel a few years ago. I might go back one day and actually write it. I got so tangled up in the plot, and the science research for said plot, that I took the idea and all the cool characters I had been building for it and put them away in a box. Plot paralysis is just as bad as writer’s block in my experience.

Shotgun Arcana cover picWhile working on my new novel, The Shotgun Arcana, my fantastic editor, Greg Cox, discussed with me a series of issues in the book that had to do with character development and plot. This stuff troubled Greg and I understood why once I saw the wisdom of his point. The Shotgun Arcana has a pretty complex plot—lots of things going on with lots of characters and a count-down to a big, final confrontation that is the crucible for my characters and their world. Greg’s concern was that I had my characters, who I worked so hard to develop as fully-realized “real people” despite their fantastic back stories and mythological world, doing things, and not doing things that were very out of character, in my mad attempt to make it all fit inside the structure of my plot. Characters would “forget” things or put them off until it was convenient for me, the omniscient plot-master, for them to attend them. I was making my characters dance around and act differently, less than their usually competent, thoughtful and usually-highly paranoid and pro-active selves It made them seem less real and it made the plot seem forced and contrived—all of which is the kind of stuff that will drag a reader, kicking and screaming out of the world you’ve worked so hard on pulling them into. Thank you , Greg, for saving me from my tunnel vision.

However, I am replete with writing sins, and I have, in the past made the mistake of just wandering along and waiting for my plot-muse to smack me up side the head and direct the traffic of the story. Not a good idea. Without a road-map, a decent idea of your plot and where it’s going, you end up with a meandering, unfocused, story that may go nowhere and take it’s time doing it. The very first novel I ever wrote was like this—written completely off the top of my head—and I thought it was brilliant, until future writer me gave it a once over two decades later. I had taken a decent story and pretty cool characters and killed it with undisciplined indulgence and no clear road map of where the hell I was going with the story and how I was getting there.

These days, I have found a balance between order and chaos that has worked pretty well for me. I writer a brief plot summary of each chapter before I begin writing that chapter and then I use it as a guide to what I want to accomplish in that section of the story. I still do a lot of my major plotting in my skull and often my finished chapter may not turn out exactly like my chapter summary, but it gives me a boundary and goals I want to meet to move the book along.

You can over-build anything—take a look at some of those plastic surgery horror story websites , if you don’t believe me. When you build your house of plot, your frame work for your readers, the best advice I would offer is don’t work so hard on the just the house. Any empty house may look pretty but it’s not doing what a house is supposed to do—be a place for people to live. Build yourself a haunted house—a decent foundation, solid architecture, a roof that doesn’t leak when the first strong logic-storm comes along, and the most important element of all, the spirits of your characters, thriving, living, knocking around in, and using, and abusing, that pretty home you built for them.

Rod RT pic 1R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter.  Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done Masters work in Forensic Science at The George Washington University, and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly. The Grand Prize winner of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Anthology contest, Rod’s short story “Orphans” was published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 9 published by Simon and Schuster in 2006.
Rod’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was published by Tor Books in 2013. The sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, is scheduled for release by Tor on October 7th 2014. His novels, Nightwise, and The Brotherhood of the Wheel are to be released in 2015 and 2016, also by Tor Books.
He lives in Roanoke Virginia with his children, Jonathan and Emily.

Daniel R. Davis

DavidBCoeDavidBCoe

[Originally posted on Facebook]

A writer I know has died. His name was Daniel R. Davis, and most of you, I’m sure, are unfamiliar with his work.

Daniel was taken from his wife and young daughter way too soon, and he was robbed of the career he dreamed of and deserved. I didn’t know Daniel well — I’d only met him in person a couple of times. But for years he was an integral part of the Magical Words community, someone who commented on posts and offered his insights and experiences on a variety of topics all relating to the written word, for which he had an enduring passion.

There was, from the beginning of our interactions, a quiet confidence to Daniel. He hadn’t been published yet, and he never tried to pass himself off as an expert or as someone who had met more of his goals than he actually had. But he knew — he KNEW — that one day he would be a published author, one who took no short-cuts, one who worked his tail off, knowing that he had to in order to realize his dreams and ambitions.

And yet, as dedicated as he was to his writing, he was even more devoted to his wife, Jayne, and their lovely daughter.

My thoughts are with them today, but they are also on Daniel’s creative journey. Because while his death is a tragedy, there is at least some light here as well. Daniel’s first book — actually Daniel and Jayne’s first book, WHILE YOU WERE AWAY, was published last month by Red Sage Publishing, under the name D.J. Davis. Daniel didn’t have long to enjoy this first literary success, but he did see his book published.

I believe that Daniel would want us to lend his support to Jayne as she struggles to help their daughter make sense of what has happened. But I also believe that he would want us to celebrate the craft to which he devoted so much of his admirable passion and skill.

And wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to Daniel and his loving partnership with Jayne, to their creative vision and their determination to succeed in this crazy business, if we all went out and got a copy of WHILE YOU WERE AWAY today? Wouldn’t it be cool if we managed to push it into the top 100 on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Maybe even the top 10?  The top 5? I’ve got my copy. Go get yours.

Daniel, we all miss you. Jayne, you and your family are in our thoughts, our prayers, our hearts.

[Buy the book on Amazon here]

Bad News

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

Folks, I don’t like sharing bad news at the best of times, but this is the worst kind of news.  Daniel Davis, writer and friend of Magical Words, has been diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer.  He suffered with Crohn’s Disease for many years, so when he started losing weight and feeling more pain, he assumed his Crohn’s was acting up again.  By the time they figured out what was truly wrong, the cancer had progressed too far.  His wife has alerted us that Daniel is home, under hospice care.

Just before he fell ill, he and I had agreed to have him be a guest on Magical Words to promote his novella, While You Were Away.  That appearance is obviously not going to happen now.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t hear about his book.

Kev Thorsin has returned from a twenty-year war campaign across the stars, battle-weary and ready to settle down with the woman he was forced to leave behind. Amidst treachery that’s left his transport ship a floating hulk, he learns his own world has been overthrown by a corrupt regime. He’s driven to return to the only woman that’s been on his mind since the day he left.

While You Were Away is a science fiction/romance, with plenty of steamy love scenes to warm up the coolest nights.  Daniel says, “I love writing heroes and heroines who are strong and confident in their own right, but who become so much more together than apart, a partner they can rely on when the chips are down and the crap’s about to hit the fan in the worst way.  The action explodes from the first pages, hot and heavy, and carries you through to a climax both satisfying and thrilling.  I hope you enjoy While You Were Away, my first work with Red Sage, and will join me for many more to come.”     

If you’d like to purchase his book, you can buy it directly from Red Sage at the link.

Even if you don’t want to buy a book, Daniel would love to hear from you.  I won’t guarantee that he can answer emails or good wishes, but please send him your support and love anyway.  If you’re friends with him on Facebook, you can post messages on his page – his wife is keeping an eye on it for him.  And of course you can leave comments here.

And now for a personal moment.  I never got a chance to meet Daniel in person – the one year he came to ConCarolinas, I had family commitments that I couldn’t break.  I had always looked forward to sitting down over a drink and talking pirates with him, and it’s breaking my heart that we won’t get that chance.  Daniel, honey, I hope you’re comfortable and surrounded by the people who love you.  I’m sending out prayers for peace and light, and I’m holding you in my heart.  As are many more of us.  You have friends, and we’re wishing the best for you.  We’ll all see each other one day on Fiddler’s Green.

 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Character

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robertjbennet-low-5164Character is possibly the trickiest thing for a writer to make work. It’s one of the most insubstantial and abstract elements in writing, but it’s also one of the most vital: when people love a character, they’ll return to their books again and again, sometimes solely for the “hang-out” appeal.

More so, as writer David Liss puts it, “Character is story,” meaning the best stories have conflicts and plot developments whose origins lie in the characters. So not only is characterization vital in its own right, when properly done, it act as a catalyst for nearly all other parts of the story.

So how to make characters work? How to make them feel “real”?

The thing to remember is that characters have their own agency, their own individualized wants, needs, and assumptions about the world. A writer must imagine that what they would be doing if the story never got around to involving them at all: they must have real lives and real desires that seem to extend beyond the page. Illuminating these elements is essentially what characterization is. Before you can do that, you have to answer three questions:

1. What does this character want?
2. Why do they want it?
3. What do they expect from the world?

These take time to answer. Sometimes I’ll start writing a character in a book, knowing that who they are now isn’t quite right – they’re more or less a placeholder. When I finally figure out who they need to be – once I’ve answered the three questions in a manner I find satisfactory – I come back and rewrite all their scenes. This isn’t a huge amount of fun to do, but it’s a way to move forward in the story knowing that some things will need to change. Sometimes changing the character makes the story much easier, too: once I realize who they are and what they can do, later events and sequences become much easier to navigate.

The next step is to how to communicate this vantage point to the reader, dropping signifiers into the text about what the character’s perspective is. The metaphor I like to use for this is a drop of paint falling into a glass of water: this tiny, hugely concentrated dot of color will suddenly diffuse when it strikes the water’s surface, slowly coloring the whole of the glass.

What I like to try and find is a handful of small details about the character, which can then be used as material from which we can extrapolate their perspective. Something as simple as the manner in which they read the newspaper, or the way they sleep on a couch… these small details about the character can be used as peepholes into who these people are on a grander level.

Here’s a short scene from my upcoming novel City of Stairs, where the main character goes to see the city_of_stairs-cover1local governor for a request. All that’s known is that the governor has a military background:

“Governor Mulaghesh will be with you shortly,” says the attendant, a chiseled-faced young man with a starved, mean look to him. “She’s currently taking a constitutional.”
“I’m sorry, she’s what?” asks Shara.
He smiles in a manner he apparently believes to be polite. “Exercise.”
“Oh. I see. Then I’m happy to wait.”
He smiles again, as if to say, How charming to think you had another option.
Shara looks around the office. It has all the soul and ornamentation of an axe: everything is clean gray surfaces, strictly designed to function and to function well.
A small door on the side of the room opens. A shortish woman of about forty-five marches in, wearing a standard-issue gray tank top, light blue breeches, and boots. She is drenched in sweat, which runs in beads down her immensely large and immensely brown shoulders. She stops and examines Shara with a cold eye, then smiles in a manner just as cold and marches over to the desk. She grabs hold of the corner, kicks her right foot up, and grasps the ankle with her right hand, stretching out her quadriceps.
“Well, hi,” she says.
Shara smiles and stands. Turyin Mulaghesh is, much like her offices, cold, spare, brutal, and efficient, a creature so born and bred for battle and order that she cannot tolerate another manner of living. She is one of the most muscular women Shara has ever seen, sporting wiry biceps and a sinewy neck and shoulders. Shara has heard stories of the feats Mulaghesh performed during the minor rebellions in the aftermath of the Summer of Black Rivers, and she finds herself believing all of them when she studies the immense scarring along Mulaghesh’s left jawline, not to mention her ravaged knuckles. She is, needless to say, a very unusual sort of person to occupy what’s fundamentally a bureaucratic position.

This scene, which occupies less than a page of the book, tells you more or less all you need to know about this character. Turyin Mulaghesh is a character who wants everything to work, and to work well. She is someone who believes she herself should live up to those values, hence why she’s going for a jog in standard issue military fatigues rather than being stuck to her desk. She also has little tolerance for frivolous excess, hence why her offices are almost completely devoid of decoration. And though this is less suggested, Mulaghesh expects the world to always get in her way, to attempt to cause problems for her, and it’s up to her to set things right.

From this, we know how she’s going to react to things. Even though it’s not stated in the scene, it’s hard to image Turyin Mulaghesh patiently and politely waiting while someone else wastes her time, or thoughtfully sitting through meetings. Mulaghesh wants to Get Shit Done, and anything that doesn’t go toward that goal is something that needs to be dispensed with immediately, and with great prejudice.

This is something of an easy example. Mulaghesh is a brash and extroverted character who wants to make herself known and goes about doing so with great enthusiasm. More reclusive, withdrawn characters are sometimes harder to illuminate. But if you can find a detail or moment that can acts as a flash of light, sending illumination into their darkest recesses, and showing the reader who they are and what they want, it will amplify everything else happening on the page.

***

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson Award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, won a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, has topped many “Best of 2012” lists, including that of Publishers Weekly. His fourth novel, American Elsewhere, won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. His fifth, City of Stairs, will be released in September of 2014.

He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found at Robert Jackson Bennett and on Twitter at @robertjbennett.

R. S. Belcher: Building Character

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

Shotgun Arcana cover picWhen I began work on my first novel – The Six-Gun Tarot – I made a decision to make as many of the characters in my tiny little town of Golgotha, Nevada, as unique as possible. I wanted everybody in the town to have some dark secret, some special gift, or some unique history. I have received some very positive feedback on my characters in Six-Gun, but I don’t think it was just giving the shop-keep a wife who was a head in a jar, or making my female protagonist a member of a secret Lilith cult, and a living weapon to boot— I think the reason my characters breathed for people was because I tried to make them, well…people.

At this year’s RavenCon, I was fortunate enough to be a guest and to have the honor of being on a panel with some very cool folks discussing the concept of “Writing the ‘Other’” (here it is on YouTube if you’d like to watch it— http://youtu.be/OCZ8POMs588). Fantasy and SF have traditionally, and ironically, been genres chock full of straight white guys. You might have a sentient green vapor cloud from Ganduras VIII in the novel you’re reading, but how many female or GLBT protagonists have you seen in a space opera or high fantasy?

As humanity changes, adapts and evolves, it behooves us, as writers, to try to create imaginary people that real people can relate to, root for, and give a damn about. And, no I’m not talking about making the sentient green vapor, a gay sentient green vapor for the sake of diversity; I’m talking about visualizing characters that may be very,very different in back story and lifestyle from you, the person at the keyboard. It’s a challenge, it requires research, and empathy and above all, respect for someone else who lives their life a way other than you do.

At a recent panel at the Virginia Library’s Festival of the Book, I was asked by a writer in the audience about how he could make his futuristic characters seem more three-dimensional—they seemed kind of wooden to him. I told him to focus less on the time period, less on the exterior and more on the interior of the person.

The Six-Gun Tarot and its sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, are set in 1869 and 1870, respectively. I never lived in that time—I’m no history scholar but I write my imaginary people from the prospective that regardless if it’s a thousand years in the past, or a million years in the future, if dragons rule the skies or technology has made us like unto gods, human beings will still hate and fight, cry and worry, resent, covet, care, rail against paying taxes, laugh, screw, doubt, die, and love. Those things, and all the things that spin out of those messy parts of us, can bring a being made out of words to life more than any brilliant metaphor, masterful plot, or subtle subtext.

 

Rod RT pic 1R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter.
Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done Masters work in Forensic Science at The George Washington University, and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly.
The Grand Prize winner of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Anthology contest, Rod’s short story “Orphans” was published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 9 published by Simon and Schuster in 2006.
Rod’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was published by Tor Books in 2013. The sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, is scheduled for release by Tor on October 7th 2014. His novels, Nightwise, and The Brotherhood of the Wheel are to be released in 2015 and 2016, also by Tor Books.
He lives in Roanoke Virginia with his children, Jonathan and Emily.