Fiction Archive | 6/1/2010
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Evolution of an Opening Chapter
The Tyranny of Ghosts
Don Bassingthwaite

The following comes to us courtesy of Don Bassingthwaite, as an analysis of the opening chapter to his recently released book, The Tyranny of Ghosts.


Opening chapters are tricky things. They're a reader's introduction to your story. They're where the reader meets the characters for the first time and where the roots of the story grow. You want them to hook the reader and not let go. The opening chapter of the second or third book in a trilogy is even trickier. You've already got the reader caught on the series (hopefully), but you still need to hook them on the book in their hands. The reader knows the characters, but might not remember exactly where events last left off. They certainly won't know what's happened to the characters since then. You do, though, and you want to communicate those events and probably the emotional state of the characters to the reader as quickly as possible so you can get on with the business of spinning new and exciting adventures.

In short, there's a lot riding on the opening chapters of sequels. And here's my secret: I find the opening chapters of sequels to be some of the hardest things to write. I usually go through numerous false starts before I settle on how I want the story to begin. I went through about a dozen iterations of the beginning of Word of Traitors; you may recall that I posted a variant prologue to that book when it was released. By comparison to Word of Traitors, The Tyranny of Ghosts got going relatively quickly (only five numbered drafts of Chapter One instead of twelve). Now that the conclusion of the Legacy of the Dhakaan trilogy is upon us, I thought I'd try something different and show you some of the draft stages that Chapter One of Tyranny went through.

Ignore any typos or clunky sentences that remain; remember these are drafts and I mostly want to talk about the how the chapter unfolds rather than the polish that goes on at the end. Also, it will help if you read the final version, either in your own copy of the book or in the excerpt that's posted here on wizards.com.

(59 Kbs PDF)

Obviously, there are some significant similarities that carry over between all version of Chapter One. The combat scene of a Darguul patrol as they try to ambush the heroes (Geth, Ekhaas, Tenquis, Chetiin, and Chetiin's worg, Marrow) only to be ambushed themselves, didn't change significantly between one draft and the next. I was pretty happy with the way I wrote it right from the beginning. What came after went through some serious revision, though. I'm going to pick up the chapter from the end of that fight (look for the very similar first line in the final version).

First Draft

... Marrow, Chetiin's black wolf-like worg mount, tossed the soldier down and tore out his throat as if to make doubly certain he was dead, then sat back on her haunches and licked her bloody muzzle.

Geth straddled the unconscious leader of the patrol and slapped him. The hobgoblin's eyelids fluttered. Geth put Wrath across his throat, steadying the blade with his gauntleted hand. "How did you find us?" he asked in Goblin. The words were awkward, his accent thick. The hobgoblin looked at him in confusion.

Ekhaas repeated the question more clearly as the others gathered around. The soldier's ears flicked. His eyes darted between Geth and Ekhaas, with occasional sidetrips to Chetiin, his dagger still in his hand, and Tenquis, fiddling with his crossbow as if eager to use it. The stump that was all that remained of the tiefling's long tail after Tariic's torture twitched back and forth. Geth pressed down a little on Wrath to encourage a swift answer. The soldier's eyes widened and came back to him. "We crossed your trail yesterday morning and caught sight of you in the afternoon."

With Wrath in his hand, Geth heard the answer as clearly as if it had been spoken in the human tongue—part of the sword's ancient magic. "Darguun is a big place for you to happen across out trail. Did Tariic send you to search here?" he asked. Ekhaas repeated the question again.

"Daavn of Marhaan sent us to search this way." The soldier's ears flicked again. "Us and many others!"

"He's lying about that." Ekhaas switched to the human language. "If there are others, they're few and far between. I knew I should have killed Daavn when I had the chance."

"Regret is the dagger that kills over and over again," said Chetiin. The old goblin's parchment-skin face, painted dark for stealth in the night, tightened. "Daavn and Tariic aren't fools. If I was in their place, I would think of Volaar Draal as one of our possible destinations, especially given that we travel with a duur'kala of the Kech Volaar." He nodded to Ekhaas. "If they were certain of it, though, they wouldn't have patrols wandering the mountains at random."

"They'll be certain when this patrol doesn't return," Geth said.

Chetiin shrugged. "The mountains are dangerous."

Geth looked back down at his prisoner. "Who knows?" he asked in Goblin.

The soldier understood him this time. Guile stirred in his eyes as he sought the right answer. That was enough for Geth. He leaned sharply on Wrath's blade.

Here, Geth has more difficulty communicating with his prisoner, the soldier describes (more or less) how the patrol found them, and Chetiin explains outright why Tariic's forces would be hunting in the mountains. Also, I make mention of Tenquis's mutilated tail. The first two points disappeared pretty quickly. There's no need to complicate matters with who is translating what and it doesn't really matter how the patrol found the heroes—the important thing is that they were found. Mention of Tenquis's tail eventually moved to a later point in the chapter, the better to highlight his emotional state (and his reasons for staying with the others . . . but more on that below).

The problem with having Chetiin explain why Tariic's forces are in the mountains is actually two-fold. First, why would he say this? Even if the reader needs to know, the heroes would already have thought of it. Second, if the heroes had thought of it, why are they in the mountains at all? This was one of the problems that kept forcing revisions because it kept nagging at me.

Sharp metal with the weight of a shifter behind it sliced cleanly through the hobgoblin's throat. The patrol leader barely had time to look surprised before his head was separated from his body. Geth rose.

"They kept their discover of us to themselves," he said. He kicked the patrol leader's twitching body. "This bastard wanted the glory of the kill."

"We'll reach Volaar Draal tomorrow," Ekhaas said. "Once we're there, we're safe. My clan won't betray us."

"If they give us refuge," said Geth dourly. He swept an arm around the site of the ambush. "Hide the bodies and cover up the blood. If another patrol happens to come this way, we don't need to make this any more obvious than it already is. I'll go find their horses—"

Marrow interrupted with a growl and a whuff. Her reddish eyes flashed in the firelight and she turned to disappear into the night. "She says she'll deal with the horses," translated Chetiin.

Geth looked after the worg, then shrugged. He sheathed Wrath, bent down, and grabbed the head of the patrol leader by the hair. As he lifted it, something fell free from the severed neck. Geth caught it with his other hand. It was a wooden disc strung on a cord. Carved into the disc was the symbol Tariic had adopted as his own. Haruuc's symbol had been a crown over the sword with which he had carved out Darguun as a homeland for the goblin races. His nephew's symbol showed a crown and a simple shaft painted purple—the Rod of Kings.

Geth pinched the disc between fingers and thumb, and squeezed until the thin wood snapped.

This little scene with the disc didn't stay long either. It was mostly there to emphasize the heroes' enmity with Tariic as well the transition in power in Darguun, and to put a reminder of the Rod of Kings in front of the reader as well as to provide an end to the scene. It ended up feeling like a hollow action, though, so it came out. Also, you'll notice Geth's kicking of the body disappeared in the final version. I was trying to emphasize the anger Geth felt, misplaced onto Tariic's lackey, but my editor suggested that this was out of character (yes, he has just killed the soldier, but it's a question of degrees of dignity) and I agreed. His more practical reaction as seen in the final version is more in keeping with his character.In the original draft, the heroes reached sanctuary in Volaar Draal in Chapter One (abbreviated here).

They'd fled Rhukaan Draal in silence, too overwhelmed by the disastrous attempt to take back the Rod of Kings to speak. They were outlaws and assassins. Worse, they were failed assassins. Tariic lived, the Rod of Kings in his grasp. Ashi and Vounn d'Deneith were dead, run through by Makka with Ashi's own sword. Dagii was lost to the power of Rod. Midian had betrayed them yet again to save himself. So had Aruget or whatever the changeling Dark Lantern of Breland chose to call himself. Only Senen Dhakaan's secret intervention had given them the chance to escape—and pointed them toward a possible refuge.

The streets of the city had been all but empty, the guards at the exits surprised at their speeding passage but still not aware over events in the plaza before the red tower of Khaar Mbar'ost. They'd let Geth and the others leave without a challenge. Blood had probably been shed over that mistake.

Through the first night, they'd ridden northwest, following the mighty Ghaal river up toward the foothills of the Seawall Mountains, making certain they were seen in hamlets and from the keeps of clanholds. The Marguul Pass lay close to the headwaters of the Ghaal and beyond it the relative safety of Breland. They'd hoped that any pursuers might make the assumption they were heading for the pass and be delayed by the misdirection. Sometime close to dawn, though, they'd turned west away from the great river, following a rocky ridge to conceal their trail.

By the time they'd woken from a morning's brief sleep, Marrow had joined them. Whether she'd somehow found them on her own or Chetiin had summoned her was a secret the goblin wouldn't share. No one had felt like pressing the question. Silence still hung over them.

The mountains had been in sight by nightfall. They'd turned again to follow them south for three days to Volaar Draal. Three days of bitter anger and mourning. The skirmish with the patrol was almost a relief—even if dead soldiers were a poor substitute for the death of Lhesh Tariic.


They broke camp and climbed into their saddles while the shadows of dawn were still long on the ground. By the time the sun was a handspan above the horizon, they were well away from the scene of the ambush. Chetiin and Marrow followed a distance behind the others, taking care to erase the horses' trail. After a time, they joined Geth, Ekhaas, and Tenquis and the party rode together. Ekhaas guided them through valleys and behind ridges. If there were other patrols in the area, they didn't want to be spotted a second time, not when they were so close. About midmorning, Ekhaas drew a deep breath of satisfaction and pointed ahead of them.

"There," she said. "Volaar Draal."

Geth looked and saw only one mountain among others in the middle distance. He squinted at it. In the light of the rising sun, there was a strange regularity about some of its slopes. "It's on the mountain?"

"It is the mountain," said Ekhaas. "The Kech Volaar have lived there for millennia. What better fortress than the living rock?"

I realized pretty quickly that this threw the pacing of the following chapters off completely. There needed to be a certain beat to events and it wasn't working: the spectacle of the arrival at Volaar Draal was hitting a high point too soon, plus events in Chapter Two (which take place in Rhukaan Draal) were chronologically out of sync and confusing, while Chapter Three (several weeks later) became a dud. So in later revisions, events after the ambush by Tariic’s soldiers were drawn out—also providing a better opportunity to characterize Tenquis—and the arrival at Volaar Draal moved to a new chapter from Ekhaas's point of view.

Showing what happened to the heroes in the three days between their flight from Rhukaan Draal and the ambush in the mountains was a bigger problem. I felt that it was an important thing to explain to readers but those five short paragraphs of exposition flew like a brick. A cardinal rule of writing is never say what the characters did if you can show them doing it. After struggling with this for a while, I eventually came up with what I thought was a surefire solution. Was it? Keep reading.

Work in Progress

I tend to revise as I go—I like to be happy with one chapter before I move on to the next—but sometimes revisions create their own problems. The biggest change in the third draft of Chapter One was splitting off the arrival at Volaar Draal that I described above. That fixed problems with the rhythm of the book's first few chapters but it also left Chapter One dangling awkwardly. In the meantime, however, I'd realized that I had some holes in my narrative—specifically a big gaping one around why Tenquis, the tiefling artificer enlisted to create the false rod in Word of Traitors, would want to stick around with the heroes. He's been tortured, he's an outlaw, why not just get the heck out of Darguun? In my head, I knew that he was there for revenge and this seemed like the best place to address that.

This excerpt picks up just after Geth has killed the captive soldier.

"We'll reach Volaar Draal tomorrow," Ekhaas said. "Once we're there, we're safe."

"If they give us refuge."

"My clan won't betray us."

"Then you trust them more than I trust anyone who isn't standing here right now." Geth jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "There's a gully back there. Hide the bodies in it, then cover up the blood. If another patrol happens to come this way, we don't need to make this any more obvious than it already is. I'll go find their horses—"

Marrow interrupted with a growl and a whuff. Her reddish eyes flashed in the firelight and she turned to disappear into the night. "She says she'll deal with the horses," translated Chetiin.

Geth looked after the worg, then shrugged and sheathed Wrath. As Chetiin and Ekhaas moved to deal with the other fallen soldiers, he reached down and seized the patrol leader's body by the ankles, ready to drag the decapitated corpse into the undergrowth.

Tenquis stayed close. "He died too easily," he said. "You should have let me talk to him."

Geth followed his gaze down to the head and body of the soldier, then glanced back up at the tiefling. His gut clenched, anger and sorrow coming back as if they would never leave him. The feeling almost choked him. "Maybe I should have."

"Next time." Tenquis seized the hobgoblin's head by its lank black hair and held it up so that he could stare into the vacant eyes. Blood dripped from the severed neck, spattering fallen leaves at Tenquis's feet. The tiefling stood looking at the head for a long moment, then spun around sharply and hurled it off into the darkness. It crashed through dry branches like some great clumsy bird before hitting an unseen tree with a solid thunk. Tenquis bent and hooked his arms under the dead soldier's shoulders to help Geth carry the body.

"Tenquis," said Geth, "why are you doing this? Why are you still with us? You didn't know Ashi. You met her—what? Three times? The only reason you even came to Tariic's notice is because you created the false Rod of Kings for us."

Tenquis, still bent over, hands under the soldier, twisted his neck to look up at him. "And because you came to me for help when your plan fell apart around you."

Heat burned in Geth's cheeks. "And that. I'm sorry."

"Remember what Chetiin said about regret being the daggers that kills? Tieflings have a saying, too: choices are a sword sharpened on both ends. I chose to help you. Apology accepted but you're not the one to blame."

He heaved the soldier's torso up off the ground, holding it away to avoid smearing himself with blood. Geth started walking backward, leading the way toward the brush-screen gully that would serve as an open grave. "You're not a part of this."

Tenquis showed needle-sharp teeth. "Tariic made me a part of it. Because of him, everything I had, all of my research, is gone except for what I managed to stuff in my pockets." His breath wheezed from exertion as he spoke, but he managed to tap his chin against one shoulder, indicating the long, labyrinth-patterned vest that he wore. The garment was magical, its pockets unnaturally capacious. Geth had seen Tenquis slide a long iron prybar into one pocket with only a slight bulge in the fabric. "Because of him, my—"

His face hardened and his mouth closed tight, cutting off the words, but Geth knew what he'd been about to say. In addition to sharp teeth, eyes of gold or black or red, and heavy horns, tieflings had another feature that betrayed the bargain that their sorcerous ancestors had struck with infernal powers in ages past: a thick fleshy tail. When Geth had first met Tenquis, his tail—as dark and shining as his skin—had betrayed his emotions as surely a hobgoblin's mobile ears. Now the sinuous tail was only a scarred stump that twitched when Tenquis spoke.

"We'll make Tariic pay," Geth said. "Him and Makka and Daavn and Pradoor."

"How?" Tenquis asked. "We're running like rats. There are four of us and Tariic has all of Darguun, plus the Rod of Kings. How are we going to make him pay?"

And now it was Geth's turn to clench his teeth together and look away from Tenquis. They pushed past bushes and reached the edge of the gully. Neither of them spoke as they heaved the patrol leader's body into the shadows below.

Tenquis's treatment of the soldier's head is another reason I dropped Geth's kicking of the corpse. There was only room for one character to be really angry in this scene and that needed to be Tenquis (Geth was angry during the fight, but it's in his character that anger fades quickly; Tenquis is the one who carries a grudge). This is also where I moved the reference to Tenquis's mutilated tail. Overall, this made for a much better reintroduction to Tenquis. Unlike Geth and Ekhaas, he's never a viewpoint character and we're never inside his head. I knew that I really need to emphasize who and what Tenquis was right up front.

However, the anger that I planned as a major force behind Tenquis's character never gelled through the rest of the story. As my editor pointed out, that left this and another early scene in the novel as either red herrings (setting up reader expectations for something that never quite happened) or just wildly out of place. If you compare this scene to the final version, you'll see that Tenquis is still angry and out for revenge, but that hot anger isn't his only motivation—based on the editor's suggestions, his anger is more cold and calculating, which also allows his intelligence to come through. Instead of being the voice of hopelessness and leaching the dynamic out of the mood ("How are we going to make Tariic pay?"), he can now talk sense into Geth and make a suggestion that moves the story forward ("We may be able to find a way to stop Tariic in the vaults of Volaar Draal.") All told, an excellent improvement to both the scene and the character.

The Finish Line

By draft five, I had the ambush polished up and the post-ambush scene set to my satisfaction—though as we've seen, manuscripts are like battle plans in that they seldom survive first contact with the enemy. Er... editor.

Such was definitely the case for my grand solution to the problem of showing what happened to the heroes in the three days between their flight from Rhukaan Draal at the end of Word of Traitors and the ambush at the beginning of The Tyranny of Ghosts: I would simply move the action up three days and start with them fleeing from Tariic. In fact, the first time I had the idea to show this (draft four), I started it as a flashback after showing the ambush set-up, but I'm not overly fond of early flashbacks, so I ditched that pretty quickly in favor of opening the book with their flight. Here's the late and entirely unlamented opening to the final draft of Chapter One of The Tyranny of Ghosts.

3 Aryth, 999 YK (early winter)

The harsh call of alarm horns finally came as the fugitives approached the southern gate of Rhukaan Draal.

As a youth in the forests of the Eldeen Reaches, Geth had seen animals flee from a spreading brush fire. The sound of the alarm was like those flames. It chased them. Chased them and passed them. Ahead, four hobgoblin guards sprang up from the side of the gate. They looked confused—Geth wondered if they recognized the former shava, the sacred sword-brother, of the old lhesh Haruuc Shaarat'kor—but they brought their spears up with a swift certainty born of Darguul discipline.

They were too slow, though. The spears were still loose in their grasps when Geth crashed in among them. He swung Wrath without care, the sword's heavy, twilight-purple blade shattering spear shafts and biting through armor into hobgoblin flesh. Another time, he might have checked his blows. The guards were innocents, just reacting to commands.

But not this time. Ashi was dead and the commands that the guards reacted to were Tariic's.

He struck hard and savagely, lips peeled back to bare sharp teeth. The thick hair on the back of his neck and on his forearms—where it had not been burned away by the torture Tariic had ordered—rose like the hackles of an animal. Wide animal eyes blazed with fury. Wrath slashed to his left, then to his right, then he was through the ragged line, but he wasn't finished. He wrenched on the reins, turned his horse sharply, and struck again. One of the first guards he'd hit held a hand over a long bloody gash across his shoulder. Geth lashed out and the guard went down with his throat gaping wide. Geth twisted in his saddle. Another guard, trying to back away, caught Wrath's blade squarely in his skull. The sword cleaved the bone almost down to the hobgoblin's eyes.

Then small hands were slapping Geth's face and pulling on his ears, and Chetiin, clinging to the saddle behind him, was shouting in his strained, scarred voice. The old goblin grabbed his head and jerked it around. Ekhaas and Tenquis were already past and riding hard, long shadows racing beside them in the light of the setting sun. Both the hobgoblin duur'kala and the tiefling artificer stared back at him over their shoulders, but they didn't slow down.

"Go!" Chetiin rasped in his ear. "After them!"

Geth jerked his blade free and wheeled his horse again. He kicked hard at the animal's sides and it surged into a gallop. Behind him, he heard the thin wail of a horn blown in urgency and without breath. The last of the guards responding to the alarm. Tariic would know they'd left the city. Soldiers would be after them soon. Maybe more than soldiers. With the power of the Rod of Kings, Tariic could empty Rhukaan Draal and command its entire population to pursue the fugitives if he wanted to.

Geth didn't look back.

They rode without speaking as dusk turned into night. Geth was glad for the silence. Rage and anguish seethed inside him. Anguish for the murders of Ashi and Vounn, run through by Makka with Ashi's own sword. Rage at Makka for having done the deed. Rage at Midian Mit Davandi for betraying them yet again. Rage at Aruget—or whatever the changeling Dark Lantern of Breland chose to call himself—for abandoning them. Rage at Tariic and at Pradoor, the blind goblin priestess of the Dark Six.

Rage at himself for thinking he could try to save Haruuc's dream of Darguun and homeland for the dar, the three related races of hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears. Rage for imagining he could be a hero. Now he and Ekhaas and Chetiin and Tenquis were outlaws and assassins. Worse, they were failed assassins.

Wrath pushed at him with memories of those who had wielded it in ancient times, great warriors and stealthy rogues of the ancient Dhakaan, a reminder that it was the Sword of Heroes. Geth thrust the memories away. The only thing they reminded him of was the curse carried by the Rod of Kings, the unceasing visions of Dhakaan's imperial glory that had doomed Haruuc and brought Tariic to the lhesh's throne.

The sword subsided.

As the first of Eberron's moons rose into the night sky—tonight orange-red Aryth, the early moon of winter—Chetiin spoke again. "Turn here."

In the spot he indicated a path split off from the main road to snake up into an area of rugged hills. More notably, however, it ran sharply northwest, back the way they had come. In the distance among the hills, the fires of a Darguul clanhold or farmhold made little sparks against the night.

"It's the wrong way," said Ekhaas. Her lowered ears, mobile and expressive, betrayed her sorrow and her exhaustion more surely than the flattened features of her face. "If we want to find refuge with my clan and warn them against an alliance with Tariic, we travel southwest to Volaar Draal."

"Tariic is a schemer," Chetiin said. "Senen Dhakaan told us to go to Volaar Draal in secret but you're a duur'kala of the Kech Volaar. It won't be hard for Tariic to guess that we've fled there. We need to create a false trail."

"By doubling back so that Tariic thinks we're hiding at some clanhold?" Geth asked doubtfully.

"No. Think like Tariic. Ekhaas would seek refuge among her clan. Where would you or Tenquis seek refuge?"

Geth frowned and tried to drag the answer out of his battered mind but Tenquis came up with the answer first. "We'd flee Darguun for Breland," the tiefling said. Moonlight glittered on the golden orbs of his eyes and from the gold flecks in the polished horns that grew back from his brow and the short spikes that edged his chin like a goatee. "Marguul Pass lies northwest of Rhukaan Draal. If Tariic believes we've doubled back to the northwest, he'll think our journey south was the false trail and that we intended to go to Marguul Pass all along."

"At the very least he'll be forced to divide his search parties. We'll travel to the edge of the Seawall Mountains, about two days, then turn south again and follow the mountains to Volaar Draal." Chetiin nodded to the distant lights. "That's Piinraan farmhold. I doubt if they'll have heard of events in Rhukaan Draal yet. We'll be able to buy supplies for the journey there: blankets, warm clothes, food—"

The thought of facing more Darguuls, even if they had no idea of Tariic's deeds, made Geth's stomach clench. "I can hunt while we travel," he said. "I can make shelters out of brush."

Chetiin gave him a measured look, his eyes large against the wrinkled parchment of his face. "Piinraan will provide us with more than just supplies. We want Tariic to know where we're traveling. When word does reach Piinraan of the attempt on his life, they'll know we were there. They'll tell searchers and the information will reach Tariic."

He dropped his voice and added, "I mourn Ashi, too, Geth. We said we would take the Rod of Kings away from Tariic and we will. But we need to rest and plan first or we will fail and Tariic will win. Khaartuuv kurar'dar, mi shi morii'dar.

Geth's hand rested on Wrath's hilt and the magic of the sword translated the Goblin words for him: To avenge the dead, remain among the living.

The shifter bared his teeth and turned his horse up the path toward the lights of the farmhold.

I thought it worked well. It hits what I'd consider to be all the necessary points for an opening chapter. It's got action. It re-introduces the characters. It reminds readers what's going on. But as my editor pointed out in her comments, it explains a lot but it doesn't actually add anything meaningful to the story. In the words of my high school English teacher (and some of the most meaningfully condensed writing advice I've ever been given), "So what?" It confuses a good clean start to the book with too many details. It also has the disadvantage of, once again, making Geth too angry and ultimately unlikable. Yes, he's angry, but he's still the hero. Riding down and slaughtering a couple of hapless guards doesn't work for him.

In the end, with the final revision of the manuscript, I went back to starting the story just as I had on the first draft, but with some of the most important details pulled out of the flight from Rhukaan Draal and scattered throughout. A clear but short explanation of how the heroes hoped to throw Tariic off their tracks, for example. The source, if not the manifestation, of Geth's rage. Most importantly, I think, the reason why the heroes don't just sneak back into Rhukaan Draal and challenge Tariic directly—as Chetiin says in this draft (and Tenquis says in the final version), "Khaartuuv kurar'dar, mi shi morii'dar. To avenge the dead, remain among the living."

Thanks for following along!
– Don

About the Author

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of numerous fantasy and dark fantasy novels. His most recent books are Mistress of the Night (with Dave Gross) and the books of the Dragon Below trilogy that introduced Geth, Ashi, and Ekhaas: The Binding Stone, The Grieving Tree, and The Killing Song.

Don live in Toronto, surrounded by gadgets, spice jars, and too many books. You can find him online at dbassingthwaite.com.