Author Archives: Anthony C. Lanni

“Ghost Flotilla U-boats: Embarkation”

This week’s published piece is “Ghost Flotilla U-boats: Embarkation” by Susan Matthews, published by Baen Books. Susan is a Rainforest Retreat veteran (although she usually goes to a different session than I do, so I don’t know her very well). Susan wrote to the Rainforest email list:

At Rainforest Session Three this year I wrote the “teaser” scene for my planned “Ghost Flotilla U-Boats” project.  It had U-818 Lachs surfacing in Lake Quinault.  It was fun.
Now my first Ghost Flotilla U-Boats story is available at Baen on-line:
Elevator pitch:  “WWII German U-Boat sees Flying Dutchman, goes down in Arctic Ocean in 1945, surfaces in Lake Superior in 2005.”

From Wikipedia: Ms. Matthews served in the US Army as operations and security officer of a Combat Support Hospital, later worked as an auditor for Boeing and graduated from Seattle University with an MBA in accounting. Her debut novel, An Exchange of Hostages, was published by Avon Books in 1997. It was nominated for the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award and for the 1998 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; it also obtained fourth place in the poll for the 1998 Locus Award for Best First Novel.

  • As a submarine enthusiast, I found the portrayal of submarine life, technical references, etc. to be wonderful environment/world-building details. In case it’s not obvious, it’s very well researched. Did you find the minutiae of submarine details added to the story, or distracted from the underlying themes?
  • Speaking of underlying themes: this is ostensibly an adventure story of soldiers out of time; but really it’s a story of family. How does the author intertwine the stories of Captain Lachs’ two families, one his blood relatives, the other his crew?
  • Genre stories are usually pretty clearly defined as far as story arcs go; establish the world in the first act, have things go terribly wrong in the second act, and resolve the conflict in the third act climax with perhaps a bit of post-climactic wrap-up. Susan seems to follow this structure, but to my mind changes things up a bit, especially in the second and third acts. Discuss.

Enjoy! As always, all comments are welcome.

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“Eyelet You Go”, by H.L. Fullerton

H.L. Fullerton is a short story writer from New York that has been published in perhaps a dozen online markets, including this one from Daily Science Fiction. Information on Fullerton is rather sparse; Twitter is about the only on-line presence I could find. I have made the assumption that Fullerton is a woman, both from this story and from her by-line; beyond that I’m afraid I can’t tell you much, except that he/she/? has only a few more publications to their name than we do.

So, on to the questions!

  1. There is a continuing trend in speculative fiction, especially in the volatile short story markets, to include modern social movements within the narrative. Sometimes these are subtle, other times not so much. How do you think Fullerton incorporates her social viewpoints into this story?
  2. The story itself dances around people asking silly questions at a party, until there’s a sudden reveal that each thing that has been discussed relates quite directly with a traumatic incident in the narrator’s past. A moment later it seems as though that incident is about to repeat itself. How did you like the plot and character development?
  3. At the end, the story turns the characters around by putting the narrator in the position of being helped by her friend Gertie, who seems to think that she’s the caretaker of the duo–quite the opposite attitude of the narrator. Did you find the ending a satisfying wrap-up to the story?

Hope you enjoyed the story!

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“And With Her Went the Spring” by Caroline Ratajski

Caroline Ratajski is a software engineer living in Silicon Valley, as well as a writer who has also been published as Morgan Dempsey. Her fiction is available in Broken Time Blues and Danse Macabre, as well as at Redstone Science Fiction. She is represented by Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary, LLC.

She is also a writing buddy of Andy Romine’s. After he posted a link to this story I thought it was just too good to not be shared as a published piece.

  1. At first this is an exploration of a “lost girl” narrative; the effect on her family, neighbors, (ex-?)boyfriend. By the end, though, it’s turned into a revenge story that had me, quite frankly, frothing at the bit to see the resolution of. How does the author illustrate the various ways that the characters cope with trauma and loss, and how well does she engage the reader to identify with each character’s coping mechanisms?
  2. I found this a fascinating way to engage the Persephone myth, wherein a beautiful young woman becomes the Queen of the Underworld–but only for half the year. Did you recognize that story (assuming you’re familiar with it) in this one, and do you think it was an effective retelling?
  3. The protagonist is, like Persephone, sent to the underworld without her consent; and like Persephone, finds a way back to the world, though with different motivations and by a different method. At its heart this is a morality story, a commentary on modern society and its casual disregard for women’s lives. How do you think a story like this can affect modern mores?

Hope you enjoyed it! See you Wednesday!

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The Black Company, Chap. 1, by Glen Cook

“The Black Company” is the first in a series of dark fantasy novels by Glen Cook. Cook is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and spent his career working for General Motors in an automobile manufacturing plant while simultaneously writing as many as three novels a year. Now retired, Cook jokes that he got more writing done when he was working a full time job.

The Black Company series comprises ten novels and as many short stories, following the adventures of a mercenary company over several decades of their existence. Its tone is gritty and realistic, and rather than glorify war or follow more typical fantasy tropes, it simply presents its characters and situations in a realistic tone, portraying the characters as simple soldiers just trying to survive in some rather dark circumstances.

  1. Cook does several things in this rather extended first chapter. He not only sets up most of the main characters and their relationships to one another, he also illustrates the timbre of their morality, gives you their inciting incident and hints at the conflict to come, does an enormous amount of world building, and throws in a fair bit of excitement and action to boot. All this takes some time; do you think it works as is? Would you have split the chapter up?
  2. The story is written in first person, from the point of view of the Company doctor and historian, a man called Croaker. How do you think the point of view contributes to the narrative tone? What about to the world and character building?
  3. The main characters, even Croaker, are not what you would normally associate with the word ‘hero’. In fact they’re a vicious, bloody bunch of cutthroats who betray the political leader that hired him and murder several thousand soldiers in their sleep. Croaker shows a bit of hesitation at the betrayal, and that might be the only ‘save the cat’ moment in the story. Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about the characters. Did you find yourself identifying and/or sympathizing with them? Are you interested in reading more about them?

Hope you enjoyed this first chapter!

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“The Ultra Thin Man” by Patrick Swenson


“The Ultra Thin Man” is a noir detective novel set in a future world; political intrigue, murder, aliens and some really captivating characters make this a page turner.

Patrick Swenson is a teacher, writer, editor, and publisher of the Fairwood Press, a small press publishing house, which he founded in 2000. The Ultra Thin Man is his first published novel. He has been published in short form in the Like Water for Quarks, and magazines such as MZB’s Fantasy Magazine, Figment, and others.

I know Patrick as the organizer of the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, which I have attended each of the last few years.

  1. First chapters, and especially first lines, are the hook that gets an agent or editor going. We’ve heard about the importance of them over and over. How does Patrick’s first line hook you? His first chapter? Did you read what you could of the second chapter?
  2. In genre fiction, the world is often as important a character as the actual people in the story. What do you think of the world-building that happens in this chapter as Patrick sets the scene? How would you have done it differently?
  3. No matter how catchy a first line is, or how quickly an author gets your interest and pulls you into the next chapters, if the characters are not appealing the reader will quickly lose interest. Two of the characters in this chapter are seen only in hologram video playback; of the other two, one is mostly a technique to play the video, and the other is the narrator. What can you tell from this first person POV chapter about the character? Do you have enough information to become interested in him as a character?

Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Comments/Questions/Editorials are, as always, welcome.

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“The Girl in the Orange Hat” by Jack Cady

Jack Cady (March 20, 1932 – January 14, 2004) was an American author. He is most known as an award winning fantasy and horror writer. In his career he won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Bram Stoker Award, a special award from the International Horror Guild, and several others. He taught writing at the University of Washington and at Pacific Lutheran University, was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, a member of the US Coast Guard, and a fervent believer in the value of history as a means of understanding both politics and writing.

I found Cady’s work quite by accident. A collection of his short stories, including his most famous piece, “The Night they Buried Road Dog,” was lying on a mantle with a small sign that said ‘Free’ on it. Naturally I took it, and was immediately captivated by Cady’s voice. In this story, “The Girl in the Orange Hat”, Cady writes from the first person about a couple who frequent Golden Gate Park on the weekends and encounter a beautiful young woman that intrigues both husband and wife, though perhaps for different reasons.

  1. Cady’ voice is strong in this piece, counterpointing tersely descriptive sentences with rambling observation. Does it work for you? How does the rhythm and meter of the sentence construction contribute or distract from the story?
  2. The narrator/husband of the couple goes from a dispassionate observer of her reactions to the girl in the orange hat, called Maria, to an introspective review of his own knowledge about his wife and the conflict she’s seeing. Do you think this development is effectively communicated throughout the piece? How does the wife’s emotional distress resonate through his observations?
  3. Like so much literary fiction, this piece does not end so much as simply stop. There is, however, something of a climax and resolution as the events of the story unfold. Discuss how Cady brought his genre and literary sensibilities together to make this a compelling story arc.

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Random Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

From Becca’s writing prompt at the Fall (Winter?) MUG Retreat.

Yoga With My Wife

I switched off the ringer, grateful, but she’d said it in the sand of her voice—maybe holiday lights in the crowded Westfield mall got off the phone. I could see the pain in her black shoulder length hair, red lips. Some dinner, and I called Jenny back. Only polite, hot wind in our hair; desert air that smells our legs past our sex and guts and lungs—Jenny’s shrill barks as she adjusts the blankets that fit snugly around my skin.

Rabbits piled in a cage, stacked like logs without language, they say—and so memory does not begin until hair comes spilling around faces.

So she texted me, which I ignored. Vanayasas are hay bales piled; smell of straw and clean, safe gravel from approaching cars turning into parking lots, you see. Denise was very upset that I talked, she could hear cars passing on highways nearby; examples of the floorboards under our feet, climbing up as if they don’t know each other. Can’t talk to me like that laughter on our lips.

I tend to believe the former. Not that I can remember the pumpkin patch in the crib next to mine. I remember a woman, in white, vines broken and crisp, and heart, until it melded with the sound in our—Cathy moving on? What news?

Hot army shoulders, skin cracking—soft touch of gray hair peeking through, dirty. Lots of worms coming up with it, going with Jenny.

After you learn to talk.


Cathy in jeans and blue fleece, rushing—cold room; blanket draped over my lap, comfort, safety not contained in a house grimy and crunchy in my mouth, thick stringy starch burning rosemary, and it gets in your lungs and makes sirens pass.

Her voice smooth and low, the gentle touch of her fingers.

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The Doldrums

The word ‘doldrums’ is a nautical term, referring to a stretch of sea where the weather is extraordinarily calm. Sailing ships would become trapped in these areas, waiting for the hint of a breeze to come up so they could travel on.

In writing, the doldrums is a stretch of time where you just don’t have the motivation to write. I’m in that state now, and have been for some time. This is not the so-called “writer’s block” (which I refuse to acknowledge is a real thing: there’s always something else to write); I’ve got a couple of short stories and several novellas with solid ideas in my head, and I’ve been rolling over dialog and narration in my mind. This is my normal process: I think about a story for a bit before I sit down to put it on the page, revising it in my head.

I’m just not motivated to put anything on the page. I’ve opened my editor a couple of times, stared at blank pages, written treatments. But then I wander off and do something else. There’s a lot on my plate outside of writing right now, and I just can’t seem to get in the groove to actually write anything.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, if you read my last post, you’d know exactly.


Reading is, of course, why we write in the first place. We love the written word. Most–if not all–of us have a nice stack of books we’ve been dying to get through. So I’m reading, voraciously; two books in the last three days. I’m chewing through my reading list, and it’s slowly recharging my batteries. I’m reading all kinds of stuff, too, not just in my favorite genre of speculative fiction but also crime, adventure, a travelogue, all kinds of stuff, drowning myself in words and styles and ideas.

And pretty soon, I’m sure, there will be a breeze from the south-southwest, blowing me gently back into the trade lanes of my writer’s mind.

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To Read, or Not To Read; That Is The Question

For the last week or so I’ve been reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with ‘The Name Of The Wind’ and now ‘The Wise Man’s Fear’. The genre is fantasy, about a hero that goes to a University where he studies (among other things) magic. Here he makes a couple of friends, woos a girl or two, tries to find the immensely powerful wizard who killed his parents, and jousts with the rich dickhead student and antagonistic teacher who make his life miserable.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I cherry-picked the parts that line up with Harry Potter, of course. The actual book is far more interesting. However, it got me thinking about my own writing: in the first Wizard and Warrior book, Belan finds himself apprenticed at the ‘Collegium Arcane’, and–as it happens–has his own share of problems there, including a student bully and a mysterious master wizard. I approach it somewhat differently: in fact, I completely skip over the first year of Belan’s apprenticeship, and only about two weeks pass between our reintroduction to him and his departure from the Collegium.

Nevertheless, as I read I found myself thinking about how Rothfuss approaches situations at the University, how he builds Kvothe’s character and challenges him, and how he does his world-building and describes magic. Inevitably I started comparing it to my own work, thinking up new scenes where I could do similar things.

Now some writers may say ‘So what?’, and others will say ‘Run like hell’, and still others fall somewhere in the middle. The question really is, how much is too much? Can you read while writing?

I find I can, especially if it’s in a different genre than what I’m writing. It’s very easy to disassociate in that case. When it’s the same genre, as in my example, it’s more difficult (obviously) but the long and short of it is I very rarely turn the ideas I have while reading into actual prose: and when I do, it’s months or even years later, after the idea has had time to germinate and grow and be influenced by a dozen other things.

That, to me, is the real secret. Nothing we write is born in a vacuum: everything comes from bits and pieces of other things we’ve seen over the years. In my opinion there’s no issue with reading while you write: just don’t write about what you’ve read, at least not until it’s had a chance to be warped and changed by the next thing you read, and the next; and that movie you saw, and the news story on the internet, etc., etc.

Because really, the last thing you want to do as a writer is stop reading. That’s what got you here in the first place. Don’t ever lose that.


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Characters we love to hate: Engaging with readers part II

Last week I talked about qualities to give your hero(ine)s to make them likeable characters, so your readers will engage with them and root for them.

The other side of the coin, of course, is unlikeable characters. Whether it’s your Big Bad (think Voldemort), a persistent but lesser antagonist (like Draco), or just an ornery minor character (think Kreacher, Sirius Black’s house elf), it’s always good to give your reader someone they can hate. Here are some qualities you can stir in to sour the pot:

  • The Know-it-all who acts with Certainty. Everyone hates a know-it-all.
  • Superiority complex and arrogance. (Especially if they’re incompetent!) This goes right along with the first one.
  • Hypocrisy. This is a great one; characters who expound beliefs and then don’t follow them.
  • Fanaticism.
  • Unjustified success, like when a character succeeds because of plot reasons, not because of character development. Watch out for Mary Sues (a character mapped on the author’s personality), who often succeed only because the author wants them to. Also remember: even when success comes through character growth, it still has to make plot sense.
  • Pleasure in cruelty (which is a shortcut to evil). But watch this one: you can flip this on its head by providing Justification! If we sympathize with the rationale, then we start to like them again.
  • Cowardice. We just don’t respect cowards; thoughtful retreats are ok, but not quitters.
  • Self-serving.
  • Cheats/oath breakers/liars/deception. Again, Justification can turn this around. It’s why we end up liking characters like Locke Lamora.
  • Taking the easy way out.
  • Kicking people when they’re down Unless they deserve it, of course. Also this goes back to a bunch of the likeable qualities; Redemption, Justification, owning their flaws, recognition of their flaws, and readers identifying with the motive.
  • Never feeling apologetic or remorseful.
  • Laziness. They need to earn what they get.

So, now you’ve got a bunch of qualities to deliver. How do you get the reader to know your character? Not by telling them, that’s about as interesting/exciting as these lists. Instead, telegraph those qualities with one of these techniques:

  1. Actions. Especially when other characters are not looking, likeable actions show character.
  2. Dialog. Snark is fun, but hard; real dialog is inane, but written dialog must be tight and do a couple of things (show character, move plot along, etc.)
  3. Voice is key, that is often what grabs first.
  4. Other people’s perspectives: when one character talks about another one, it telegraphs the second character’s qualities. This is the only place where you can just ‘tell’ about a character–because at the same time, you’re showing things about the character that’s talking, and moving plot, etc.

Finally, there’s how characters deal with crap. Any of the previous methods can be used to show this, but the reaction of a character to regular day-to-day stresses tells a lot about them. As Mercedes Lackey said, “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.”

Okay, it’s exercise time. Take your hero, and especially your villain, and list out 5 negative and 5 positive qualities. No silly stuff or clichés! Then write a paragraph from another character’s P.O.V., someone not part of the main plot, about that character. See where that takes you; I’ll bet you get a lot out of it.

If you can think of any more likeable or unlikable qualities, or have any comments, please feel free to join the conversation!


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