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Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….

Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands

Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.

I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.

Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.

It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.

I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.

It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.

If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”

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New Demon trading cards!

As a promotion on social media for The Demon in Business Class, I created a virtual trading card deck. For cons, I printed card versions of the nine character pictures. They were done as a last-minute inspiration, made by shoving the cards’ original Instagram proportions into a business card template on, the excellent online printer. The cards turned out to be popular at cons and events, and at a better cost-per-item than postcards.

I updated the info on the back and resent the cards to print a larger order – seven this time, of the original nine, because nine is unwieldy at a con; and extra Zarabeths.

This time, Moo said the uneven border made for unsatisfactory results, and offered me the chance to do the cards over with new images. They were right of course, and I took the opportunity.

At my upcoming cons in Hartford, Raleigh, and Ft Lauderdale, I’ll be sharing the good word about Demon with new promotional trading cards!

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The Inner Loop reading series

I had a great evening under twilit stars – and frequent, seemingly aimless helicopters –  with The Inner Loop, a monthly DC reading series for poetry, fiction and non-fiction writers, at Colony Club. The headliner was Jennifer Atkinson, a poet drawn to human disaster, with readings by Joel Goldberg, Matthew Moniz, Alyssa Oursler, Alex Aronovich, Peg Alford Pursell, Alan C. Page, Leila Rafei and Sam Mahone.

Standing room only!


I’m firmly in the camp that writing is an art for the ear. Studying other languages’ poetry let me hear the latent music in my own writing. I always want my work to sound good aloud and I love to hear other authors reading. It’s a happy time for this viewpoint, with the growing market, and quality, of podcasts and audiobooks. I’ll be fascinated to see how English prose style changes for a world where most of it is heard not read. (Prediction? Dialogue tags will lose “said.”)

The evening had a warm, friendly feel. I talked shop with other writers, books with readers. A writing event is quieter than a band, with no dancing or chatter and surprisingly little phone use other than recording videos. The vibe remains casual and attentive. Even for the writers – 5 minutes, and you’re back in the audience.

There will be a bigger market for these. Already the Moth series has spread to live events in several cities. Reading for performance will be the new penmanship.

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Sexual tension in fiction

My guest post for the Fictorians, a site on writing fiction, discusses sexual tension and its different roles in different stories. It’s part of the Fictorians’ month-long Tension series.

Read it at:

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Demon release update – PhilCon and Writer’s Center

Thanks One More Page Books for hosting my first reading for DEMON last Wednesday – and to the many people, friends and strangers, who came out!

This weekend, Nov 18-20, I am paneling and signing at PhilCon!

My next reading in the Washington DC area is Thursday December 1, 7pm, at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.

*Free posters and trading cards* at both events!

Rather buy the ebook than paper? Show the ebook on your device (or a purchase receipt) and get a signed poster and a card!

See you in Philly and in Bethesda!

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Make time for new work

My main creative work since my book contract has either been editing my manuscript or developing my (approach to) social media. By any commercial measure, that’s what I should have done. Polishing and sharing best honors my creative expression.

One has creative intention too, and each success makes one’s ground more fertile. Recently my editor Vivian Caethe, fresh off her first Kickstarter success, turned a Tumblr post into a new anthology on Kickstarter, which shows how quickly ideas can bloom.

I need to be there for my finished work. I also need new work to do.

These last two weeks I’ve been making myself make things up, just opening blank text screens and letting words fly. It’s not exactly automatic writing but it’s my least self-judgmental form of creativity. Nothing that will go further in this form. Nothing anyone’s waiting for yet. It can be stupid and playful. I even wrote the outline of a wordless ten-minute play, mostly on my smartphone, in a car.

Most of these ideas will go nowhere. A few return in funny ways. A jokey conceit I never developed for my blog became a Russian propaganda television serial in my NaNoWriMo manuscript. That manuscript was once a dream, hastily written down and played with for weeks thereafter. In another year it could be a book.

It’s important to make new things, especially if it feels unimportant. Something takes root if you keep seeding.

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Books at AwesomeCon need flair

AwesomeCon‘s sales and promotional floor is so big that guides and maps never refer to it as a unit bound by walls, only to its subsections. All of it is dense with visual stimulus and novelty. Vendors sell comics, books, movies, posters, toys, models, clothing and accessories, even niche products like leather bondage wear or rings that serve as dice for gaming. Cosplay abounds, and well done.

awesomecon floor

Stand out here!

Still, you can find the printed word. A handsome cover is an attractor here. One printer sells new restyled editions of public-domain classics. Sellers have curiosities like high-end reprints or special editions of the most popular books of our day. And there are presses and solo creators.

I don’t have a lot of fine-grain insight. I saw signings, drawings, gimmicks aplenty. Whatever else, one has to look like one gives a damn and like others do too; like this is a privilege, a summit, not the end of a long and dreary line.

Soho Press has a well-dressed urbane young marketer standing between a simple logo backdrop and a skirted table of original novels. She cheerfully tells me that she’s here to support an author on a panel, but it’s a good chance to market other titles, including a new YA. She hints it was a new effort for them to come this far south.

The booth is in a side alley, without much natural crowd flow, but the display catches enough attention that she sells books while telling me about how releases get marketed. When I buy two books, she tells me one comes with a poster. She unrolls it. It’s far cartoonier than the novel’s bold graphic cover. I kindly decline.

“I’m not surprised,” she tells me. There’s a savvy in the remark that seems of a piece with the product line. A marketing meditation: how deep can brand and identity go?

Soon after, I walk past an independent writer on a busier alley. She has no backdrop, no table-skirt, just short stacks of books on naked fake-woodgrain tabletop. It looks like it’s being set up.

She calls out, seeing my glance. “Do you read books?” she asks plaintively, as if her greater hopes for connection have been dashed.

Little more to see on a closer look. She has printed glossy promotional bookmarks for each book, but no display. No description other than the cover text. It is not enough. I feel like I have to infer everything. She asks me tentative questions as if to find a hook that will attach her book to me.

Once it is clear I am less audience than sympathetic peer, we chat. She tells me of other venues where she sells books, of how a venue this size is still too much for her child. She is connected through fandom to a star of a vampire television show. Behind a bowl of candies, a framed page of small text describes donations to the star’s non-profit foundation.

I wonder how she got the idea to come to AwesomeCon. Perhaps she thought her show and star would connect her. Perhaps the size impressed her. It feels like a Hail Mary. It can’t be a cheap rental but she has failed in her research and come unprepared.

It is harsh to compare an individual to a small press, but they both took similar space in an enormous con. It does no good to be ignored by tens of thousands of people.