Category Archives: Atoms for Peace

Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

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Story Behind the Story: Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves

As I’ve mentioned before, my protagonists in Atoms for Peace are a lot less racist than they’d probably be in the real world. In some vague gesture of realism, one of the leads in Not In Our Stars, Not in Ourselves, is a good deal more bigoted.

L.G. “Elegy” Walker was born in East Jesus, Kentucky, grew up poor white, but by 1958, he’s a mid-level official at Cape Canaveral. The space program, a joint US/USSR effort, is about to launch humanity’s first lunar mission (reverse-engineering alien ships has jump-started space flight). Walker has remade himself into a calm, accomplished professional. He’s shrewd about who to kiss up to and who he can safely ignore, and intensely career focused. Like a lot of people who know what it’s like to have nothing, he’s a little intense about not losing what he has, hence security officer Valentina Eisenstein nicknamking him Elegy.

Despite the changes in him, the racism Walker grew up with is alive and well in him. He’s able to accept that a few blacks can be as good as a white man (there are black astronauts in the program), but they’re the exception. When ‘s framed for murder, the horror isn’t the murder but the supposed motive: he had a black lover, she got pregnant so he killed her to avoid scandal. The thought that people might think he’d crossed the color line, the thought that his parents or the other folks back home might believe it … his brain pretty much shuts down with horror.

Fortunately Eisenstein’s brain is working. A WW II Soviet sniper turned security officer, she identifies with Elegy in a way; they’ve both had to work and fight to get their present position. She knows he wouldn’t take a black lover, or one who was bottom-drawer of the working class (that’s what he’s running away from). But can she prove it? And given that he’s not really anyone important, what possible motive could anyone have for the frame?

I really like Eisenstein. She’s smart, capable, smokes a pipe (it keeps men off balance, which is useful for a security officer), and hates life in Florida with its head, humidity and lack of culture. I’d love to use her in Brain From Outer Space but I doubt I can work her in.

This was the first story in the series I wrote after moving to Durham, and the writer’s group helped a lot, straightening out some plot points. Thanks, y’all!

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Story Behind the Story: The Mind That Wanted the World

Story seven in Atoms for Peace, The Mind That Wanted the World, is the one that required the most changes.

In Brain From Outer Space, the bad guy was Torgo, an alien mind-creature Steve and Gwen had confronted a couple of years before. As the point of the Applied Science series on Big Pulp was to create a backstory for the book, telling the story of their first encounter with Torgo — inspired, but not based on, the villain in Brain From Planet Arous — was a natural for one chapter.

Unlike most aliens, Torgo’s not an evil envoy from an evil world, he’s a crook from a good world, or at least as good as Earth. That’s an advantage against the good guys: he favors cunning, subtlety and blackmail over brute force and ray weapons. Like the alien brain in Arous, Torgo finds having a body capable of physical sensation stimulating. In the movie, the brain-possessed John Agar attempts to rape his fiancee; in my story, Torgo does. He also has a dungeon full of kidnapped sex slaves, both sexes, as from his alien perspective it doesn’t matter which gender his partners are (only one woman shows up as a prisoner in Mind, but Brain establishes his tastes are broader).

So the opening scene is one woman telling Steve that her boyfriend has raped her, although she can’t bring herself to use the word. Steve, perpetual hater of bullies, is ready to bust the guy; Gwen, however dismissed the rape in the original version. Gwen was usually smarter and saw things clearer than anyone else; I thought it might be interesting to make her dead wrong for a change, representing the era’s outdated attitudes towards rape.

Going over the story for Atoms for Peace I found that didn’t work for me. After a year of #metoo, having one of my protagonists toss off standard rape-apology lines about how the woman was over-reacting, and just felt guilty about going all the way … it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. And I realized that I could make Gwen wrong even without that. In the book’s rewrite, she informs Steve that rape doesn’t prove Professor Caldwell is an alien; lots of respectable men turn into brutes when they get the chance. And if it’s not ET-related, they have no authority to take action (the woman has refused to call the police). Same result but a lot less repellent to read.

As revised, it remains one of my favorites in the twelve short stories. Atoms for Peace is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook (and someone just bought the ebook, woot!). #SFWApro, cover by Zakaria Nada. All rights to poster remain with current holder.



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Story Behind the Story: Hunting Hidden Faces

I wonder if Hunting Hidden Faces, the sixth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), doesn’t work better in book form than as one short story in a series.

The first five stories were all interconnected, but they could pretty much stand on their own. This one is a lead-in to number seven, The Mind That Wanted the World, so it’s Part One of Two. It’s also much more a setting story  than plot or character driven. It has several different subplots and a larger cast than usual, which I used to explore the alternate timeline.

It’s 1957, and America knows that along with physical invasions, we have to worry about pod people, aliens who appear to be perfectly human, but aren’t. As I don’t want to infringe on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, my terms are ceecees (carbon copy people) and pups (people controlled by alien puppet masters). The burden of investigating potential ceecee and pup cases (“My girlfriend would never have broken the engagement if she was still human!”) falls on Science Investigations because nobody wants the work.

Just as our 1950s had investigators hunting down Communists and gays in government (check out the excellent The Lavender Scare to learn more on the latter), so Steve and Gwen, along with their colleagues have to hunt down whoever gets the TSC’s Senate overlords upset. Reds, gays, beatniks, civil-rights activists. Just to see if maybe they’re really outside agitators from way, way outside. It’s a waste of time, mostly, but it keeps the politicians happy.

Against this backdrop I introduced several new characters. Jo Davies is a British detective who moved out to the US after a nervous breakdown from one particularly nasty ET case. Her partner, Trueblood, is a “wolf” as they used to call guys who hit on women non-stop. He’s also psychic, a little: the LSD agents take (if they’re pupped, the puppeteer won’t be able to keep control when they’re acid-tripping) opened the doors of perception, giving him occasional flashes.

Harry Sato and Mickey Moon are FBI agents working for the Science Police. It’s a new branch that specializes in criminals using high-tech weapons or stolen alien artifacts. It overlaps some with Science Investigations, which is intentional; the FBI heads don’t want the new agency stealing too much of their thunder. J. Edgar Hoover is no longer in charge, having died in the Martian invasion. That will keep the agency from becoming quite as monstrous as it did in our timeline.

Mickey is a tall Texas drink of water. He’s clean-cut, straight arrow and saving himself for marriage. Harry is Nisei (first generation Japanese-American), a former resident of the WW II internment camps and later a member of the Nisei battalions in WW II. He’s older and little savvier than Mickey. He’s gay, but it doesn’t figure into the story at all; I want to work it into Brain From Outer Space but I’m not sure how yet.

Like I said, it’s a little aimless compared to most of this collection, but I think it’s still interesting and readable.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Short Stories

Story Behind the Story: Blood and Steel

Blood and Steel is the fifth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), pitting Steve and Dani against an army of killer robots (somewhat more substantial than the illustration, and Dani’s not fighting in her nightgown). The robots were supposed to be part of a National Guard war game, testing their robot-fighting techniques. But something’s gone wrong and people are dying …

One of the challenges in writing these short stories is that when I conceived the characters in The Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t have to go into the details of their backstory. I knew Steve and Dani met during the Invasion (the Martian invasion, that is, but even years later, that’s the one that gets capitalized) and had a one-night stand. They met again when they were both working in California, Steve for the TSC, Dani for the National Guard. I didn’t have to go into detail on either encounter.

Now, though, I was writing the second meeting. I had to explain why they’d walked away from each other back in Boston even though they had a connection. And I had to make meeting each other again feel real; even though they’d had other lovers since, I had to convey that they meant something to each other, that the night they’d spent together had meant something. And that there was enough between them to keep them together after that. Fortunately, my best friend Cindy Holbrook is a former Regency romance author, so I trust her judgment that I got the emotional side right.

I also didn’t want to have Steve, or Steve and Dani, single-handedly save the day. Not that I object to characters who can; I’ve written several. But I like the idea that in this setting Steve isn’t the hero, that the other Science Investigators are perfectly capable of handling things. As a female National Guard medic, Dani’s more unusual, but she can’t do it alone either. For whatever reason, in this series that works for me. So I had to show them both getting a share of the action, contributing to the fight, but not  defeating the bad guy on their lonesome.

Rereading it as I proofed this volume, I felt very pleased with my work.

#SFWApro. Fantastic Adventures cover by Harold McCauley, courtesy of wikimedia. Cover is out of copyright. Atoms For Peace cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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Story Behind the Story: Fire From Space

Fire From Space is the fourth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). The goal for this one was to establish Dr. Dani Taylor, last seen in The Claws That Catch, in her new role as a National Guard medic in California, which is where we will someday find her at the start of The Brain From Outer Space.

This story is also one of the reasons I never finished the darn book.

Writing the stories led me to do a lot more fleshing out of my setting and supporting cast than I had in Brain to that point. What’s life like in Wind Song, the town neighboring the National Guard base? What does everyone do for recreation? What are Dani’s platoon-mates like? I show Dani going on dates with Trueblood and Barclay, two characters from the book (Barclay may just drop out when I get back to it, he never worked out the way I wanted). But I needed a woman for her to talk to for a couple of scenes; not that I was consciously trying to pass the Bechdel Test, it just felt right. And out of the various women in the book (Gwen, DiNaldi, Jo Davies) I settled on Dr. Claire White. It turned out that was a good choice.

Claire is a brilliant scientist who’s about as far from Dani as you can get. Dani, at heart, is still a well-bred Boston woman. Like a lot of people in that era, she feels the need to look chaste, regardless of what happens when the lights go out. Claire’s quite open about liking sex, and getting it (in the real 1950s, this would have been a career killer, but the work she does is too valuable). She’s casual and fun-loving; Dani’s sober and serious. They’re a perfect comic team.

Trouble is, my plot for Brain involved Claire putting the moves on Dani’s boyfriend Steve (introduced in The Spider Strikes) for ulterior motives. By that point, five years after this story, she and Dani are best friends; even if I keep Claire’s ulterior motives the same, there’s no way she’s hitting on her best friend’s boyfriend. Particularly when she knows Dani loves Steve. My subsequent drafts the past seven years never figured that one out.

Like The Spider Strikes I made a conscious choice not to deal with sexual harassment in the military. It might come up in the novel. But I’d sooner have Dani out there healing the platoon than fending off creeps and rapists.

This story also established several changes to the timeline, most notably Sputnik going up in 1956 thanks to Russia re-engineering a crashed spacecraft or two. Khruschev realizing that Human vs. Alien now outranks East vs. West as the struggle of our time offers to go partners on a space program with the U.S. By Not In Our Stars But in Ourselves, set in 1958, the Cold War is sort-of over and we’re about to make the first moon landing.

Pop culture changes too. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Soldiers and Captain Podkayne of Mars establish the “space realism” school of SF; they’re seen less as science fiction and more a realistic Tom Clancy-style look at what war in space will be like once we’re finally fighting out there. James Dean is in The Lonely Crowd, so obviously (at least I assume it will be obvious) he didn’t die in that car crash (it’s a fantastic film, by the way, and earns him his first Oscar).

Some things, though, are worse: the segregationist opponents of Civil Rights are blaming every black protest on alien agitators (did you know Emmett Till was some kind of alien? But the aliens working in the movement covered up the autopsy!). It’s ugly but it fits the rather noirish (I think) tone of the story.

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The Story Behind the Story: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.

For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.

While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for  couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).

Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …

One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.

Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading  Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).

*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.

*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.

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Story Behind the Story: The Claws That Catch

In The Brain From Outer Space I introduced Dr. Dani Taylor, National Guard medic and girlfriend to my protagonist Steve Flanagan. I referenced her fighting something in Boston called the Devilfish, so for this story I decided to focus on that incident. That would also explain how she came to be a medic.

My template for the story was a straight 1950s SF: radioactive accident mutates lobsters, creates a race of humanoid Devilfish. They swarm into the city, killing and destroying. Dr. Danielle Taylor, daughter of Paul Taylor, distinguished founder of Taylor General, finds herself cut off with a young intern, a candy striper, a black doctor and her husband. They hole up in a department store; attempts to get anywhere invariably run into the Devilfish. Rather than run, they develop an improvised clinic for other strays — tourists, an injured National Guardsman, a pregnant woman.

As I fleshed out the story, it developed something of a Cloverfield tone. These aren’t the heroes fighting the monsters, they’re ordinary people struggling to stay alive and keep others alive. The battle we’d see in the movies is taking place somewhere off screen.

This gave me a much better handle on Dani’s character. She’s a daughter of privilege, her life clearly mapped out for her. She’s been following the map even though her parents died in the Invasion a couple of years earlier. Now, for the first time, she’s starting to see a different path, and she chooses to walk it.

She’s also very bad at triage. She wants to save everyone; as the story opens she’s given their last morphine to a dying guy instead of saving it for the living. That forces Dani to go out and scavenge for more. That’s definitely something I want to work into Brain From Outer Space when I rewrite it.

I’m also pleased with the period details in this one. Senator John F. Kennedy showing up. Smoking in hospital rooms. A passing reference to the then-current bestseller The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dani’s awkwardness at working with a black doctor. Like I said in last week’s post, writing racist protagonists doesn’t come easily to me, but I try not to write them as too modern either.

I also included several continuity references showing how things have developed since Atoms for Peace: hearings confirming the AEC corruption, another rogue experiment with a nuclear powered rocket (the sort of thing that shows the need for Science Investigators). I’m pleased with it. Hopefully whoever buys the book is too.

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Friday was only moderately inconvenient

In contrast to the July Fridays, I only suffered a slight inconvenience with added dog care this morning. And I’d already put in extra time this week, just in case, so no time lost.

The big accomplishment this week was getting Atoms for Peace released. While Draft2Digital makes it easy to format the ebook and get a CreateSpace-friendly PDF, having to get a table of contents for the paperback meant doing two slightly different versions. That proved more time-consuming than I expected, especially getting the ToC looking right. So rather than think about the stuff I didn’t get done (as I was doing this morning) I shall take pleasure in having accomplished a demanding job (Michelle Berger’s comment on this morning’s post helped). And now it’s done. Finished. Nothing left to do but watch the dollars pile up as it flies off the digital shelves (I can dream).

I got about 3,000 words further on Southern Discomfort which is good, given I didn’t get anything done Monday or Tuesday (so I could get Atoms out before the end of the month). I did my usual quota of Leaf articles (if you need to know the difference between general liability and public liability insurance, just ask!). A couple of them were higher-paying long-form articles, which took more time than I wanted. As they pay three times as much, I want to finish them in no more than three hours, which is three times what the normal article takes. I took a good deal longer than that. It’s the same problem I had when Screen Rant bumped up articles to a minimum twenty entries — finding that much more information takes a lot of time. I need to fix that or stick with shorter stuff.

I did get some new short story stuff written: I have an unfinished, untitled first draft so I worked on that Thursday. Friday I got past a block in the first draft of a short story involving the Tarot and 1930s Hollywood. That made me feel much better, even though neither one is anywhere near even rough-draft level yet.

And I went to a smaller writer’s group this week and got some feedback on one of the new-this-draft chapters of Southern Discomfort. The feedback was very helpful.

For no particular reason other than I think it’s cool, I’m closing with this glorious image of Earth After Disaster from Jack Kirby’s Kamandi comic.


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The Story Behind the Story: Atoms for Peace

Woot! Atoms for Peace and Other Stories is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and other retailers such as Barnes & Noble as an ebook. Unlike Atlas Shagged, the stories in this one are all tied together, part of an alternative 1950s in which movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Creature With the Atom Brain, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! were all real. While I’ve covered most of the stories in early Story Behind the Story blog posts, I started this blog after the first story had come out. So here’s the odd tale of how the book and the first story came to be.

Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, declassified the reports about U.S. radiation experiments on unwitting patients (they weren’t told what the doctors were doing, or given an option to consent). That started me thinking (at least I think so, the exact chain of reasoning is a bit blurry after so long) about how that mirrored so many SF films of the 1950s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and gives the lie to every How To Write SF article that declares mad scientists experimenting on innocent people could never happen in real life). And then it hit me: what would the US be like if those movies had been real? If by the end of the 1950s we’d been under attack by multiple aliens, radioactive mutants, pod people and reanimated dinosaurs?

Hmmm …well scientific research would be tightly regulated, of course. With investigators to double-check nobody was doing illegal experiments on the sly. The National Guard would be busy fighting mutant horrors. And maybe we’d have made it into space years earlier than we did. Now if you throw the effects of one of those radiation experiments into the mix …

I liked it. But back then I had a day job, so The Brain From Outer Space took a long time to work on. Finally I had it in reasonably satisfactory shape around 2008 or 9. Then it hit me the first chapter, written to show investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery on a case and so introduce my world, worked pretty well as a standalone short story. So I tweaked it a little and sent it out.

The Big Pulp website liked it and accepted it. Then they suggested I write a series of stories leading up to it, showing how my world came to be so different. I jumped at the chance. The stories are still up there, if you’re curious. Unfortunately some of the elements and relationships in the book no longer fit the backstory. I’d also discovered problems in the story that really needed fixing. The book needed a major overhaul … and to date, I haven’t been able to fix it.

But the stories are still worth it.

The first story, Atoms for Peace, takes it’s name from the post-war slogan: sure, the a-bomb was terrifying but nuclear energy, turned to peaceful uses, was our friend! Wonderful things would come from it (check out the book Nukespeak for a look at the sunny nuclear utopianism of the era). The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was supposed to both regulate and promote the industry; it usually came down on the “promote” side and did its best to minimize the risks of radiation.

I decided that would be the basis for my story: the first documented case of “rogue science,” using ordinary people as guinea pigs. My protagonist would be Southerner Gwen Montgomery, former OSS agent. As the story opens in 1954, Gwen thinks she’s done with adventuring. But then she found the strange half-man half-lizard under the street light …

It’s a good story and I think it’s a good book. It’s a lot whiter than I’d do it today (I hope), but I know from Southern Discomfort that simply switching some of my characters to black or Latino would take lots of work, especially in a world where segregation is still the norm. As I wrote this to reuse old work, not start fresh, I kept it as it was. Though I’m pleased with my female representation as Dani, Kate Meara, Gwen and Claire all get a good share of the adventure.

I’ll have more to say about the book next week. Hopefully you’ll all have bought it by then.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.


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