In Honor of Toni Morrison

To celebrate the life of the esteemed author Toni Morrison, I’m reposting my review of Beloved. This book ranks as one of my all time favorite reads.

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I enrolled into my contemporary literature class, I couldn’t fathom what kinds of novels my instructor planed to toss at us. I remember staring at the reading list with more than a little trepidation, and when my eyes glanced over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I groaned. The red background with the flowing gold script screamed romance to me. When it came time to read the book, I settled in with an open mind, but still trembled from the thought of sappy narration. Within the first few lines I discovered my fears were unfounded. Never judge a book by its cover!

Beloved tells us a hauntingly beautiful ghost story, brought forth by the desperate actions of an escaped slave woman, Sethe. Some may wonder whether Sethe’s actions are perhaps the wisest; regardless, her actions come back to haunt her, literally. Readers may find Toni’s writing style difficult. She packs the pages full of dreams, flashbacks, and memories that take the reader back and forth through time (think Faulkner or Virginia Woolf), and I found myself confused, having to reread the text sometimes to decipher the meaning behind the words. Regardless the excellent story makes up for this confusion. I highly suggest reading it.

On a side note: The movie failed to encompass the grittiness and emotion of which the book so brilliantly displayed.

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Fight Club
Fight ClubFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chuck Palahniuk is weird. No skirting around that, he just is. But I really like his style. When I first rated this book, I gave it a 4-star rating, but I’m returning to write a review, and I decided to augment that with an additional star.

The unnamed protagonist suffering from insomnia seeks refuge by joining many support groups by impersonating a seriously ill person of that assembly. When he meets Tyler Durden, we eventually discover that our protagonist has been slowly slipping into madness throughout the book.

Palahniuk’s big reveal at the end would have surprised me had I not seen the movie first. Still, I feel that Palahniuk’s ability to shock his readers executes perfectly in Fight Club.

Looking for something different to read? Give this book a chance. Seen the movie? Great! It was a good movie, but the book is better (even if it doesn’t have Brad Pitt).

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The Magician

He held the fate of two worlds in his hands . . . Once, he was an orphan called Pug, apprenticed to a sorcerer of the enchanted land of Midkemia. Then he was captured and enslaved by the Tsurani, a strange, warlike race of invaders from another world.

There, in the exotic empire of Kelewan, he earned a new name– “Milamber.” He learned to tame the unnimagined powers that lay within him. And he took his place in an ancient struggle against an evil enemy older than time itself.

My thoughts on Goodreads:

Magician (The Riftwar Saga, #1-2)Magician by Raymond E. Feist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fact that I knew nothing about this story when I first started reading this book left me with a more favorable impression of it.

This book started as a typical fantasy trope: A young boy (Pug), is stuck in a mundane life, but training as a wizard. The book features elves and dwarves and orcs and conflict and blah . . . Same story I’ve heard and read (and played in Dungeons and Dragons) a thousand times. However, I kept reading at a friend’s behest . . . ***spoiler, but not really because it’s in the blurb*** . . .

Then the invasion from another planet happens. I remember sitting up in my seat, exclaiming “What the h***!” (my agent demands that I quell my public expletives). Anyway, from that point on, I found myself hooked to Pug’s adventures and read the entire series. Had I even read the blurb , this book would not have had the impact on me that it did. I liked the book, but the surprise I experienced made the story memorable. Hence, I give this book four stars and highly recommend you read it.

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The Beginnings

In my upcoming novel, The Unfettered Child, I don’t spend a whole lot of time detailing the world they live in. The main characters, Samara and Orin, live on a vast, flat expanse their people call the Hunting Grounds. They are aware of other lands, but their knowledge is limited.

Here, I will satisfy the thirst some have for elaborate worlds. Come sip on the tea that is Aaruda.

Image by かねのり 三浦 from Pixabay

The picture of the Mongolian plains above should give you a good idea of what the Hunting Grounds looks like, especially in regards to the area where Samara’s unfortunate tale begins.

Like so many other fictional worlds, Aaruda is modeled after Earth. Why not? We know it, we’re familiar with it. Unlike so many other fictional worlds, Aaruda’s overlying culture is steeped with Arabic flavoring. It’s not a unique flavoring, but rarely do we taste fiction that isn’t based on Europe.

Much of the known land in Aaruda is under the sway of the Havallan Empire (think of the Ottoman Empire). Havalla extends from the desert in all directions; from the southern border of the Hunting Grounds to the deep and dangerous jungles of the south and from the western coast to the Ogre Ranges in the east. Many thousands of miles encompass the Havallan Empire, which would be the equivalent of an empire that expands all across Europe and as far south as the northern half of Africa.

Al-Azhar mosque from Wikipedia

Temples like the one above are scattered throughout the Havallan Empire, with depictions of the Sun and the Moon.

Symbol of Najima’uwe’Alqamar min Samawi
Nenets reindeer sledge

Samara’s culture is a mix of what I know about the Apache Native Americans, Mongolian nomads, and what I learned of the Nenet people in Siberia.

Later in the story, a new culture is introduced akin to the Danes, (we all love Vikings), although these people live mainly in the mountains.

Of the fantasy races, I have introduced elves and ogres. I may add more to the world later, but for now, those are the only fantasy races represented in the book. Learn more about these in The Unfettered Child.

If you’re a writer, is your world similar to Earth or did you diverge and attempt something alien? If you’re not a writer, what kind of worlds do you like in the fantasy books you read?

That’s all for now. Thank you for reading.

~Michael C. Sahd

Man branding a cow.
I don’t mean what cowboys do to their cows!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject. I keep reading at different places that, as an author, I must create a brand. I have never quite understood what this means. After doing some research, I think I discovered a possible explanation.

I may be wrong, but it sounds like making my work into a series or writing about a world that I created to write my stories in.

Why would I want to do this? I know it helps generate sales, because readers get attached to your world and your characters, but I’m not really into writing about the same characters in one series indefinitely like so many authors do.

Book collection with series.
Book 1, book 2, book 3, book 4, book 5, book 6, . . .

I have so many ideas, and many are not in the same genre. I have a comedy in mind, several horror stories, and a steam punk adventure. Let’s not forget my current publication, Assassin Marked, a science fiction crime novel, and my soon-to-be-released dark fantasy, The Unfettered Child.

As I pondered this, I turned to one of my favorite authors, Stephen King. Everyone knows him as a horror writer, but he isn’t really. He has written many different genres, although I don’t know that he has written any space operas (he could have, but I don’t know of any).

It’s Stephen King Time

I know at this point in his career Stephen King’s brand is his name. I know I’ve picked up many of his novels just because of his name. However, if we really think about it, Stephen King does have his own world he writes in. It’s earth, but it’s this strange and twisted sort of earth with many different realities within it.

Anyone who has read his novels knows that a good majority of them, if not all, are tied together in some way or another. He has a recurring villain, bits and pieces of The Stand show up in The Gunslinger, as does a creature like the one in It. His towns in Maine show up time and time again, with incidents being mentioned by this character or that.

One of my favorite novels, Insomnia, ties in to It and others (I can’t think of the titles right now).

Anyway, I started to think. I have this world that Samara and Orin’s story takes place in (my protagonists in The Unfettered Child). I have these characters, and other characters too. Abdhul Havelle, Sigmia, Illtud, Nikolai, Zayra, and let’s not forget Priestess Samara, who saved baby Samara’s life. These characters could have adventures of their own.

My editor also pointed out that I could have my other stories tie into the world somehow, although I have no desire to tie The DuFonte Chronicles to my world, as those stories come from our very own Earth in some terrible version of the future.

Maybe I’ve missed the meaning of “branding.” What do you guys think?

~Michael C. Sahd

Art and Photoshop

During my previous three Making of a Cover posts, I told of my adventures during the week leading up to the photo shoot. Designing the cover in Photoshop had actually started weeks before that. I had so many projects going in the design of this book! Before I had my model, I had created various working covers to choose from, along with a number of text fonts to try out. Layouts, backgrounds, foregrounds, ideas upon ideas. Well, just look at them all: https://www.facebook.com/pg/MichaelCSahd/photos/?tab=album&album_id=671475539957154

Here’s an example of my first shared cover.
One I made from silhouettes

I really disliked these covers, but they were improving as I went along. The typography was another mess, and like with many of my other ideas, I turned to social media to request help deciding what to pick.

Using social media to help me decide what looks better turned out to be a very smart move, not only because my followers let me know their thoughts on the designs, but also for another reason that I will discuss in a bit.

Now came the fun part. I had my pictures from the photo shoot, and I needed to make a cover. Unfortunately, the pictures at the park didn’t sit right with me. The environment in the cold mountains of Aaruda are not the same as the humid briar lands of central Texas (Aaruda is what I named the world that Samara lives on, but it’s not really mentioned in the story. The inhabitants don’t often use the word for their planet, but I will definitely say more about it later. Maybe in another blog post, maybe in another book).

Pre Book Cover

Before I could start making the cover, I had to rifle through over 200 images to find something I liked and wanted to use. The image above is the one I finally settled on.

Then I had to get a background I was okay with using. For this, I turned to Pixabay, where I found this neat photo of a tree being struck by lightning.

Next, I had to remove the figure from the background. This is not an easy task. Any Photoshop user can tell you, hair and fur are a pain to separate from a background, even a green one. This gave me such a headache. This process is so difficult that my first two attempts were very shoddy.

my first attempt.

Take a close look at the hair and the fur. I’m sorry, but it’s terrible. She’s got some weird spiky thing happening at the edges. What happened is, in an attempt to get rid of the green screen, I had to desaturate the green in the image around the edges, making them appear dark. Hence the reason for the darkness at the tips of the fur.

I really, really disliked this and turned to Youtube to figure out a method to fix it better. What I found was instructions on how to paint hair back into the picture. So I recut out the model and got to work repainting the hair after the cut. I was very satisfied with this, and almost called it good:

Look how much cleaner that is.

However, before I washed my hands of it, I returned to social media to get opinions on my work, and let me tell you that I’m so glad I did. Three artists from the #artistsoftwitter community came to my rescue.

These artists (@ZenFuryBuddha, @GDNaturedVLLN, and @SaraGSpaceNerd) provided me with numerous tips on how to improve this picture even further. GDNatured even went so far as to do a quick example for me:

Compliments of @GDNaturedVLLN

I did like GD’s image, and I may have used it if the resolution were a little higher, but I jumped back into Photoshop and Youtube and started back to work on the cover.

Finally, I had something I was completely satisfied with:

Book cover mockup.
The final cover

I would love to hear some feedback. What do you think of the final cover? Does it pull you in? Would you grab this book off the shelf if you saw it in the store? Let me know in the comments below.

Thank you.

~Michael C. Sahd

The Costume

So I got my model, and I had my photographer lined up. What’s next? Well, she needed to look the part. I needed something directly from the book, and Samara was described as wearing mammoth skin, black leather, with a brown-and- gray fur.

My first stop was Hobby Lobby and Walmart, where I bought a few things:

This was the fabric I purchased, and I know there is very minute difference between the two black ones in the picture, but they were very different in person. The black fabric from Hobby Lobby was softer, more supple than the faux leather from Walmart.

I had a friend, as I mentioned, who intended to put this together for me, but much to my horror, he was not getting back to me. So I took the fabric over to another friend’s house and attempted to sew it myself on his sewing machine, using a pattern I bought.

What a huge mistake that was. A tailor, I am not.

Fortunately, about halfway through the day, I got a call from my tailor friend. “I’m ready to work on that costume,” he said, and I was on the other end practically leaping for joy. “Great!” I responded, I’ll be right over.” What I didn’t tell him was that I already started it on it. To his great dismay, he discovered that when I showed up at his house.

“What the hell did you do?” he asked me, when I pulled out the butchered tunic that was way too large for my daughter. Looking abashed, I said, “I was trying to get started. I had a pattern. It said it was for 6-10 year old children.” What the pattern meant by that age though, was that it was meant for 6-10-year-old children of GIANTS.

Well, he took my stuff, and I didn’t hear back from him for days.

In the meantime . . . I went to work on the kukri, and I took pictures of the process. I had to think about how to make this blade. I didn’t have a forge, and I definitely didn’t have time to learn how to make one.

What I did have was a grinder. I thought to myself, I can possibly get a large blade and cut it down to size. I ran to Harbor Freight and bought a machete for $5.99

Oh wait, let me back this up. In addition to the knife, I also had to carve some buttons for the costume. We wanted it to be as authentic as possible so, in lieu of mammoth tusk, I used deer antler (that’s about the same, isn’t it?).

Then I went online and looked up ancient Siberian carvings (because my tribal people are loosely based off of them), and went to work. We had decided on toggles, and I finished them in short order:

Okay, back to the knife. I decided to use the excess deer antler to make the handle. I cut out the blade and the handle, then glued them together:

So there’s the basic kukri. Now came the hard part. I went online to look up pictures of sabretoothed cats. I needed something with its mouth open, and I found this:

I needed to carve the cat into the handle!

I have never carved anything like this before. Not that I had zero experience. After all, I am a jeweler and spent a good part of my life making jewelry out of lost wax. Still, this was a different beast (like what I did there?). I had to carve a three-dimensional cat’s head into a deer antler. Well, I went to work, and I think it came out just fine:

See how that progressed? Finally, I had to put on the finishing touches, such as the engraving and the gem. Considering it is a prop (although a functional one), I just hot glued the gem in place.

Yes, that is Arabic. If you want to know what it says, you must read my book! 😉

Making the knife was very fun.

Okay, so I had two days to the photo shoot, and I still hadn’t heard back from my friend. I had asked him if I could come over to take progress pictures, and the response I got was, “There is nothing to take pictures of.” So I was getting nervous.

The Saturday before the shoot, we went to board game night and my tailor friend showed up. As nonchalant as I could be, I asked, “Where the hell is my costume!!!” Well, not quite in that manner, but you get the idea. He told me that he would have the finishing touches done that night, and I could come get it before the shoot.

I will talk more about the next day in part three, but here is the completed version of the costume. It came out wonderfully.

That’s my daughter in her Samara costume. She says she is going to be Samara for Halloween.

Come back next week for Part 3. I will show off the pictures from the photo shoot.

Finding Samara

If anybody had been following me when I first started the publication process of Assassin Marked, they would know the struggle I went through to come up with a cover for it. Since it was such a short story I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, and I also couldn’t find any stock photography that portrayed Damian.

Fast forward two years later to when I began preparing my first full-length novel, The Unfettered Child, for publication. I wanted to really do my best with it, so I started early. I had several plans:

  1. Getting my daughter to model the main character
  2. Making a costume
  3. Doing a photo shoot
  4. Finally, making the cover

When I first had the idea, my daughter was keen on doing the photo shoot for me. For months we talked about it, and I went about buying the supplies to make the costume. After getting these supplies to a friend of ours, Dennis Swain, a tailor who makes costumes, my daughter decided that she didn’t want to do it anymore. Understandable, she didn’t feel comfortable showing her face to 1000s of people or more.

Panicking, I searched Pixabay for a suitable image that I could use. I found a few, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of them.

None of these were suitable, and all of them would require a lot of shooping.

I did come up with a few designs from these. The one with the beanie, I replaced with a fur hood and cropped the chest. I put some really cool effects in her eyes. It was a nice substitute, but not good enough.

The frowning, dark-haired girl was the closest in appearances to Samara, but not quite sufficient. The redhead had a good expression, but changing that hair color would have been horrible. Finally, I did something with the silhouette, and that made it close to the final design of my cover.

I was very disappointed. After some time, the subject was brought up again, and my daughter took pity on me and agreed to do it again, on the condition that her face not be shown. Not a problem, an action scene is generally better than just a simple pose.

She had mixed feelings herself. One part of her was very interested in being on the book cover, while the other part was afraid of being in front of a camera. She very obviously doesn’t like her picture taken. For me, she was the best candidate for Samara, despite her hair color.

So it was decided, we were to move onto the photo shoot.

To be continued …

Assassin Marked

Michael released Assassin Marked in October of 2017. However, Damian made his first appearance long before that, in a short story Michael wrote while still in high school.

Although nothing ever came of the original story, Damian continued to inhabit some primal domain in Michael’s imagination. He finally returned to our world in a dialog practice that Michael wrote for a college writing class. This, too, found itself filed away among many of Michael’s other writings.

Years later, Michael’s wonderful wife (who also happens to be a professional editor) took a look at Assassin Marked. After much persistence from her, Michael made the story what it is today, and Damian emerged from his secret hut, hidden away in Michael’s imagination.

The DuFonte Chronicles

In addition to Assassin Marked, Damian will be featured in future stories and novels in the DuFonte Chronicles, including Lavender Rose.

The DuFonte Chronicles!

Angela (Pooled Ink Reviews) rated it FOUR STARS  “ASSASSIN MARKED is a short story that introduces what is sure to be a very interesting world. Damien seeks vengeance, Victorias loyalties tear her apart, both have a choice to make that will alter the course of their lives. Do they obey orders? Or do they allow love to sway them and death to chase after? This is the story of an assassin marked.  …more

Grace J Reviewerlady rated it FIVE STARS “Firstly, let me say that Im not and never have been anything remotely like a fan of sci-fi. However, I just have to follow that up by saying I LOVED this short story! …more

Amanda (A Brighter Shade of Hope) rated it FOUR STARS “I would recommend this book to anyone who loves science fiction, gunships and assassins or is up for a simple but gripping read set in the solar system. I’m not sure if there are any plans for continuation of the story, but I would definitely love to read more of Damian, Victoria and the ruthless Syndicate in the future.  …more

 

 

If you are unaware of who Paul Burt is, you’re about to learn. How? Well, he narrates Assassin Marked. That’s how. Of course, you can also find out more about him at his website, or by clicking his name above or the image below.

Paul Burt
Paul Burt

If you’re wondering how I met Paul, it was on ACX, a website to help authors connect with voice actors. I auditioned a few voice actors, and I liked Paul’s reading the best out of the bunch. I feel he most accurately captured the noir style I was going for with Assassin Marked.

Those of you that have read Assassin Marked know that a good portion of the story is written from the point of view of the female protagonist, Victoria Maruska. I feel that, as a male, it is very difficult to portray a female’s voice when reading out loud. Many men give the female voice a high falsetto that is really awful to hear. Paul Burt managed to pull off Victoria without the falsetto, and it was pretty good. The only way it could be better would be if a woman had read it (but then Damian’s portion would have suffered, haha).

I’m really excited to see how well my readers like the audiobook. To get a copy of the audiobook, you can click here and sign up. Just think, now you can listen to Assassin Marked while driving or while waiting for an appointment! Even though it the audiobook was only released this afternoon, people have already ordered it. I can’t wait to hear their feedback!

Here is a sample of Paul Burt reading the book:

Assassin Marked Audio

I hope you’re as excited as I am. If you get it, please let me know what you think in the comments below.

That’s all for now.

~Michael C. Sahd