Why I joined Patreon & why you should too

Thanks to the advice of two books, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (my review here) and Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins (still reading but highly recommend), I’ve launched a Patreon page.

First, let’s talk about what it is, then why I—or any other creative—might want to try it out.

What is Patreon

The creators of Patreon describe the platfom like this:

Patreon exists because when artists get paid, they can create more amazing things.

What is Patreon


Sounds pretty good right? It’s a platform for people like you to support the artists you love by pledging a monthly payment them. This enables artists to have a predictable income, and helps funds their projects. In return, you get cool exclusive stuff and peeks behind the scenes.

Why Patreon is important to creators

In Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins share’s many arguments for why an artist needs a patron, or several. He explains that a patron can take many forms.

If you are going to create work that matters, you are going to need an advocate—a person who sees your potential and believes in your work. This isn’t just about money. You need someone to give you a chance, maybe even connect you to the right people. The publisher who pays an author’s book advance is a patron. The venture capitalist who funds a start-up in Silicon Valley is one too. But so is the church who gives a minister a salary or the donors who support nonprofit organizations around the world. Patrons do not just make the arts possible; they make the world we inhabit—and so often take for granted—possible.

Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins

Back in the day, a patron of the arts would literally commission an artist full time in order to support them. But as times changed, patrons became rarer.

These days, artists need patrons to survive. Published authors are making less and less money, even while publishing is doing better than ever. If you want to make it in the arts, it’s not enough just to have a book that sells. You need someone, or a group of someones, who are willing to champion your work, and even give you a little cash to support it.

In the New Renaissance, patrons are not some elite class of influencers. They are all around us.

Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins

Why join Patreon now?

I’ve had a plan for a long time to eventually join Patreon, but I was waiting for the right timing. I wanted to re-edit Discovering Aberration and wanted to release The Gin Thief: Episode Two, and then I thought the timing would be perfect.

But what I’ve come to learn lately is that if you want to make it as an artists, the timing is now! If you’re always waiting for the timing to be perfect, then you’re going to miss out on all kinds of opportunities.

When the Starving Artist waits to be noticed, the Thriving Artist finds a patron and shows that her work is worth investing in.

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What you get by becoming my Patron

If you decide you want to support me by pledging $1 or more per month, you get several fun things in return. First, $1 get’s you all of my ebooks.

Right now you have access to Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief: Episode one plus all future releases, and early access to upcoming releases like Grim Curio (the first 55 pages are available on Patreon now). In the coming days I’m adding short stories and some unpublished manuscripts.

Beyond this, I’m trying to cultivate a fun fan experience. First of which is our Christopher Nolan movie club where we watch and discuss every movie Christopher Nolan directed. We’re starting with Following and will end with Dunkirk.

There will be more fun stuff too. My patrons will have the chance to really get to know me, see exclusive behind the scenes material, and more. Should be a good time.

If all this sounds like something you want to support, all you need to do is visit my Patreon page and pledge $1 or more, and you’ll have access to all of this.

And if you’re a creator, now is probably the best time to cultivate your own patrons, because if you wait you’ll be missing out in the support your fans want to give you.

The Third Law - The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

Book Review: What’s Wrong with Joe Abercrombie’s The Third Law Trilogy & How to Fix It

I just finished reading the mammoth First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie consisting of The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. [You can read this review on Goodreads too]

Let’s map out how I felt through each novel.

The Blade Itself – This book shows some promise. If it keeps getting better from here, then this may be a fantastic series. Can’t wait to read more.

Before They are Hanged – What an awful title, but that doesn’t mean anything. The narrative is slipping a bit, the journey is overly long, and I’m starting to get tired of all the characters catchphrases, but this series has time to recover. I’m sure book three will make up for any missteps.

Last Argument of Kings – This is it? Really!? This is what we were building toward? WTF. It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s depressing as all hell but not even in a good way, more in a “how did I waste so much time reading this garbage” kind of way. How did such a great start get brought so low? Do I even want to keep these books on my shelf anymore?

Let’s go over what made this series end up sucking so hard.

The First Law - The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

It’s too damn long — There’s nothing wrong with a long book or series as long as knows where it’s heading, is interesting along the way, holds a sense of purpose, is well paced, or is at least somewhat enjoyable.

But The First Law is none of these things. It’s an overly long meandering story featuring mostly bland two-dimensional characters whose actions have no tangible consequences.

Character actions don’t really mater — One character gets hurt one time, and it gave the books an illusion that mistakes matter. But as cities fall resulting no negative consequence at all, plot armor is revealed in all other interactions.

Yes, there are times that character A is transported to place B, and they being there saves the day. This happens a lot. So much so, that whenever situations look bleak, there’s no tension because we know someone is just around the corner, especially if they haven’t been featured in a few chapters.

One of the worst crimes in story telling is showing the reader the author behind the curtain pulling the strings, but once you see it, you cannot unsee it. We saw the strings in book two, and they just get more pronounced as the story goes on.

It’s too damn boring The Blade Itself was entertaining enough. See my mostly positive review here. Before They are Hanged had its moments, though the long journey was loooooooong (spoiler: and fruitless). Last Argument of Kings was 300 pages of battle sequences, some of which had fun moments, but mostly it just dragged on and on and on till I didn’t care anymore.

For me, books are not the best medium for hundreds of pages of: “And he swung his sword, and she parried and threw a blow in return, and he ducked and hit her in the head, and she rebounded and kicked him in the shin”. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Action in books is best when executed with building tension and a quick release. The first book does this well. But this technique is lost near the end of the second book, and completely ejected from the writing process by the third.

I had a bit of a crises while writing this book review. Follow this thread to watch me make up my mind to write reviews on books I don’t enjoy, or read about the decision here.

Characters are two dimensional — The only exception to this is Glokta. He’s fantastic in the beginning, and the only reason I didn’t prematurely throw the book against a wall. But I grew bored with even him by book three. All of the inner monologue that provided depth in book one became a tired, repetitious exercise.

Logan had as much depth as a murky pond. His gimmick of uncontrollable blood lust became predictable, and whenever it was about to have real consequence, he was deus ex machina’ed out of it.

All the other characters were wastes of paper and ink. They were flat with one-track minds and the simplest of motivations. The fighters fight because the fight. The revengers revenge because they revenge. Most of these characters have absolutely no depth, and the ones who do, such as Biaz, are so convoluted they grow boring.

And a note on Biaz. While he’s written as this wise man, [spoiler] by the time it’s revealed how much of the world he controls, I was left wondering why he didn’t handle things better in the first place. Oh, that’s right, Joe justifies it with a short aside about Biaz being distracted because he was reading books for a while and forgot about the world, or something. Kind of a lame thing to pin a trilogy’s entire plot on.

And the catchphrases — “You can never have too many knives” was probably said a bajillion times. “Say one thing about the third law, say it’s prose are repetitive.” “I want vengeance fool!” These catchphrases add nothing, and become grating 400,000 words in. Cool it with the catchphrases. This isn’t a sitcom.

Maybe it’s my fault? I’ve heard about Joe Abercrombie for a long time now, and I looked forward to reading his work. Maybe my opinion is sullied by anticipation? I don’t think so, but maybe.

I don’t know, maybe you’ll like it. The series currently averages around a 4.3 rating on Goodreads. I don’t get it. Some people seem to love simple characters swinging swords and talking about vengeance for 900 pages. If that sounds like your cup o tea, then dive in. You’ll probably love it.

How I’d fix it — While I didn’t enjoy The First Law, I do think there’s a good story hidden within if you’d be willing to go haywire with a hacksaw. Here’s what you do.

Forget every character except Glokta and Biaz. Rip them all out, you won’t miss them. Now we follow Glokta along basically the same plotline, with only glimpses of Biaz and occasional confrontations as the tension mounts. And as Glokta digs deeper into the corruption of the empire, he discovers by himself (ie. the information isn’t handed to him!) that Biaz is the puppet master of a vast conspiracy. Now it’s up to Glokta to bring him down or fail trying.

I think that could a compelling, tightly plotted 100,000 words fantasy noir.

I wish so badly that was the story I read. Or anything else with that didn’t string me along for so long. But instead I got the equivalent of a blob of rambling fiction with nothing compelling to say, nowhere compelling to go, which now takes up space where better books should be my shelf. What I’m I going to do with those books? They were expensive.

Why I Chose to Start Writing Reviews for Books I Don’t Like

Lately I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma which can be summed up in one simple question. What is the point of a book review?

This question grabbed hold of me after I finished writing a particularly negative book review. Should I publish it? Why would I publish a review of something I hated? What’s to gain out of it? This brought me around to the original question: what is the point of a book review in the first place?

On the surface level, the answer seems obvious. We write and read book reviews to discover new books and share the books we love. We didn’t start writing reviews because we hated something. We started because we loved it and needed a forum to talk about it.

It wasn’t until later that we were faced with the dilemma. What do we do with books we dislike?

For a long time, I would keep quiet about these books. My thought process was, I don’t want to hamper the career of a fellow writer. I got in it to share the love, not to bring people down.

But now I realize that there is more to book reviews than simply sharing the love. As a writer, when reviewers are critical of my work, I learn something from it. I understand my weaknesses which gives me a chance to grow. Without feedback, both good and bad, how will I ever fulfill my goals? I don’t think it’s possible.

Beyond this, a negative review isn’t necessarily going to send all readers to the hills. Some of my favorite novels are controversial. People love it or hate it, and they leave reviews accordingly. Furthermore, if all readers thought like I did, then bad books would skew high because those who didn’t enjoy it were silent.

The top review on Goodreads on Blood Meridianperhaps my favorite book ever—is 2 stars. The top review of the book I recently finished and was so disappointed in was 4 stars. They average about the same rating.

Due to these factors, I’ve decided to change how I operate when it comes to critical reviews. If I dislike a book, I’ll now tell you about it, explain why, and dive into what I might change to make it better. On this note, I’ll be sharing my final review of The First Law Trilogy next week.

Thank you to everyone who discussed this topic with me on Twitter, effectively changing my mind. You all rock!

Interview with Book Reviewer Lilyn G from Sci-Fi & Scary

Today I want to introduce you to book reviewer Lilyn G (@ScifiandScary). You may know her from her fantastic site Sci-Fi and Scary where she blogs about science fiction and horror novels and movies, along with several other reviewers. I interviewed Lilyn via email, and I think you’ll enjoy our discussion on writing over 2000 posts, what’s so intriguing about science fiction and horror, and some author recommendations that may be under your radar.

Q: You’re the founder of Sci-Fi and Scary which you started in 2015. What drew you to writing book reviews? What’s kept you going over the past 3 years?

A: I actually addressed this in my very first blog post [link mine – check out the post, it’s interesting]. I read that the average adult only read 6 books a year. That stunned me. I can’t imagine reading so little. On top of that, I have a coworker that I introduced to books who now loves to read because I took the time to figure out what her reading level was, what she enjoyed, and was able to guide her to the appropriate books.

I wanted to talk about books like I talk about them to my friends. Nothing high-brow, but more “Was it fun? What made it fun?” That type of thing.

As for what’s kept me going? Not going to lie, it’s at least 30% that once I start something, I have a very hard time breaking from it. However, free books, free movies, my excellent team, and the great community on Twitter have all played a big part as well.

Q: If my math is correct, you’ve published nearly 2000 blog posts, many of which are book reviews. That’s incredible! Thinking back, is there any posts from your early days as a book reviewer that you’re especially proud of?

Not particularly. But I am proud of the fact that the first year I managed a post a day all on my own without any assistance. I worked my butt off that year.

Q: You’re obviously a fan of the Sci-Fi genre. What draws you to science fiction?

Specifically, I like hard science fiction (though I do occasionally enjoy the softer stuff.) I like the logic of it. It’s not fantasy where an author can make up whatever he wants. Instead, hard sci-fi starts with a solid base, extrapolates probabilities based on current science, and builds a story around that. Or it takes a near-future, gives us a character we like, and gives him realistic problems to solve, for example. All of that appeals greatly to me.

I love classic science fiction too. It’s so filled with hope and wonder. You really can’t beat it. Even though some of it is balls to the walls crazy (Ie: Death World, Harry Harrison), and you can’t deny the complete saturation of the genre with strong white male heroes, it’s still just so fun and imaginative. And it’s clean fun too.

Q: I assume horror has a special place in your heart as well, seeing as you founded Sci-Fi and Scary. What drew you to the horror genre, and why do you tend to focus on Sci Fi?

I like science fiction because of the logic and the hope it offers. I like horror because, blast it, sometimes a girl just likes to see someone get smashed over their head with their own ribcage. And, in seriousness, because it’s a safe way to be afraid and let off some of that fear and anxiety that boils up in my life.

It’s not really a misconception on your part, it’s just when you happened to check the site! Seriously, for the first few months of this year, I think I maybe had three science fiction reviews? The rest were horror. I go through spurts where I’m heavily into one or the other. (I think it depends on my mood.)

But yes, in general, I try to focus more on sci-fi for the reviews for the site, and explanation for that is simple: My cohosts Gracie and Nico prefer horror. If I read a lot of horror too, it would throw off the balance, and the site’s name is Sci-Fi AND Scary. Gotta keep them both going!

I hope to add a few more team members soon with a sci-fi love in them.

Q: If you were to meet a reader new to the Sci-Fi/Horror genres, what books would you recommend to ease them in? Why these books?

That’s a trick question, sir. You didn’t give me nearly enough information about the reader to be able to answer that.

A good bookworm doesn’t just recommend their favorite books to a potential reader. They recommend ones that they think that person would genuinely love.

I mean, I love middle-grade dark fantasy, for example, and some of it is very creepy, but I wouldn’t recommend it to your average adult.

Q: What under-appreciated books do you think seasoned readers should be paying more attention too?

Well, obviously indie books! [here here!] Seasoned readers need to step away from the Big Five, and plumb the depths of the small-press world. There are some fantastic stories out there that you aren’t going to find in mainstream because they don’t fit in the conformity boxes just right.

Q: Is there an author you’ve followed who you feel doesn’t get enough attention?

Oh, lots. Let’s see…

Science fiction: J.B. Rockwell, Michael Drakich, Mathew Isaac Sobin, Greg Spry

Horror: Sue Rovens, Michaelbrent Collings, Michael Hodges, Alan Baxter, Michael Patrick Hicks

Q: Have you ever found yourself excited for a particular read, then supremely disappointed? Do you finish the book in this situation, or are you like me and toss it aside with gusto?

Definitely. I’m really hard to please, probably due to the sheer amount I read, so this happens to me more than I would prefer.

It depends on the situation. Is it a review book? Then unless it’s cringe-worthy, I’m going to grit my teeth and try to plow through. Library book? Probably going to toss it aside with gusto unless I’ve already made it to the 50% mark or something. At that point it’s like “Just go ahead and finish it.”

Q: Lately, I’ve been in search of books that will change my life in some way. Books that either open my mind to a new way of thinking or make me feel in ways I haven’t felt before. Have you read anything lately that fits that bill?

In that situation I say just read outside your current genres. Honestly, I don’t look for books that are going to make me think in a new way or anything like that. My life is extremely stressful, so when I pick up a book, I pick it up for the entertainment factor and nothing else.

C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is a good one for making you evaluate the definition of humanity and one of the possible futures of artificial intelligence, though.

Q: I would assume being a book reviewer today comes with its own unique challenges. Is there anything you have to deal with that most people take for granted?

The social media / promotional aspects. I’m solitary by nature, like individual persons occasionally, but think people as a whole suck balls. So, the fact that this whole reviewing thing only really works well if people know you and trust your brand… It’s quite literally mentally and emotionally exhausting for me.

I’m a hardcore introvert that keeps getting stuck in extrovert situation.

Q: What is the highlight moment since you’ve started reviewing books?

When I took the co-worker I mentioned in the first question out to the annual Half Price Books clearance sale and saw her face just light up. We were there for a solid few hours, and she came away with a decent stack of books, and was happy as could be.

I like recommending books to other readers. I love knowing that my support of indie authors helps them sell books and put food on the table. But yeah…that smile on her face when we walked in to the book sale – a woman who until I started talking to her had read maybe 3 books her whole life – was the moment that made it worth it.


Thanks to Lilyn for taking time to answer these questions. I hope you enjoyed it too. Be sure to check out here book reviews on Sci-Fi and Scary, and follow her on twitter.

Announcing Discovering Aberration: Revised Edition (and how to get it for free)

Not long ago I announced I was done writing the first draft of Grim Curio. Now it’s time for me to switch gears while I give GC to beta readers and confidants for feedback. I’ll come back to it in a few months, but til then I have a few other projects lined up.

As many of you already know, the next project on my slate is writing the long overdue The Gin Thief: Episode 2. So long overdue, in fact, that I need a refresher on the subject material. So I’m rereading Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief: E1. Which leads me to the meat of this post…

Discovering Aberration: Revised Edition coming soon!

That’s right. I’m giving DA some love this year. The biggest criticisms it received were around mistakes in proofreading. So while I read through it, I’m revising and re-releasing it. In fact, I’m already 20% of the way through it.

What is the goal with this revision?

My plan is to keep my touch as light as possible while addressing it’s issues. It wont turn into a full rewrite. The structure and plot will remain identical. Instead, my goal is to simply clean up sections that need it, trim some of the fat, and fix errors.

Why are you revising it?

Simple, it’s weaknesses are holding it back. Initially the novel released to pretty strong sales, but they have declined to a trickle. I’ve tried to diagnose the issues and believe they are as follows:

  • Reviews that focus on poor proofreading
  • A convoluted first scene in chapter 1
  • A cover that doesn’t match its genre (possibly, will know after I address the issues above)
  • My own hesitation to sell a book with known errors

I need to address these if I don’t want DA to end up holding my career back. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be better.

Will it get a new cover? 

I don’t know yet. I love Discovering Aberration‘s cover. The team at The Book Designers did a fantastic job. They followed all my instructions and created a work of art. I have no complaints about the cover itself or their work.

But…. I’ve now been in publishing for a few years, and I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know then. In this case, the cover I told them to make DA doesn’t look like other books in its genre and that may be affecting sales. It’s likely that a new cover which better matches steampunk best sellers will entice more readers to give it a chance.

It’s a tough question, and potentially one with an expensive answer. Not sure what I’m going to do anything with the cover, time will tell I guess.

Will this delay The Gin Thief: Episode 2?

Just a bit. But as I said, I’m keeping my touch light and in just over a week and a half I’m 20% through it. I’m not rewriting, I’m cleaning up. So the delay should be minimal. I need to read through the book anyway to immerse myself back into that universe, and in the end this will be the best thing for my writing career. TGT: E2 is coming, and this is part of the process.

When will the revised edition be released?

Don’t know. I’ve given up with release dates. I’ve never once made an accurate prediction, so I’m not trying anymore. It’ll be released as soon as it’s done, hopefully not long. My goal is to have both DA: RE and TGT: E2 out by the end of the year. Is that goal realistic? I don’t know, but it’s what I’m shooting for.


If you want to receive a FREE copy of Discovering Aberration: Revised Edition upon its release, sign up for my mailing list. When it’s out, I’ll be gifting every one of my mailing list subscribers a free digital copy.

Join the S.C. Barrus newsletter to receive a free copy of Discovering Aberration and exclusive monthly updates.

Grim Curio’s First Draft is Finished

via GIPHY

After roughly a year and a four months, I’ve finished drafting Grim Curio! I climbed the largest mountain on the road to publishing my next work, and I feel thrilled. This is easily my most ambitious project yet, and I’m really proud of it so far.

There’s still a lot of work ahead, but you’ve got to take time to celebrate every accomplishment or you’ll get burned out in this game. I’m celebrating by taking a couple of weeks off writing and playing God of War or something. I’ll probably get antsy before the break is up and start writing again, but that’s the plan anyway.

Fun Facts

In its current state, Grim Curio clocks in at 112,000 words. It has 3 parts consisting of 29 chapters. If I were to print it, double spaced sized 12 font, it would be 436 pages.

The first and last 5 chapters easily took up the bulk of the writing time. Beginnings and endings are hard, but beginnings have the advantage of fresh enthusiasm. There were several rewrites of the first 10 chapters before I got the feeling right, and one major revision midway through.

What now?

Now I’m going to put Grim Curio aside for a couple of months to let it rest. Then I’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and tons of notes from my beta readers. In the meantime, I’m already starting work on my next few projects. I’ll talk a bit more about them later, but they involve a t-shirt, another book, and possibly Patreon.

When will Grim Curio be published?

That’s a big question I get asked often. Unlike Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief, I don’t plan on publishing Grim Curio myself. Instead I’ll query agents, get representation, find a publisher, then go through the traditional process. This process may take a year or two to complete. We’ll see.

In short, I don’t know when it’ll be published.

In the mean time…

I’ve got a lot of work on other projects ahead of me. I’ll continue to keep you posted on all of the comings and goings here, so stop by often. And sign up for my mailing list if you want to be notified when Grim Curio get’s published.

Join the S.C. Barrus newsletter to receive a free copy of Discovering Aberration and exclusive monthly updates.

My Illustrations: Why I started and where I’m going

Recently I started drawing again using only black and red sharpies on paper. No pencil, no eraser. I don’t know why I made this decision but it’s been a lot of fun so far.

It started with reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (read my review). He does regular pieces of art, sketches and blackout poems, stuff like that.

Sounds like fun. I used to draw a lot. I had a comic book I was aspiring to write back in the day, this absurd comedy following a team of bank robbers — a sloth, a turtle, and a badass starfish. It didn’t make it very far, and this was a long, long time ago.

I’m getting more and more interested in graphic novels lately, and have been thinking about writing/illustrating one in the near future. I have no delusions that my illustrations are works of art. But writers like One (creator of One Punch Man, and Mob Psycho 100) have created masterpieces from simple lines. Maybe I can do the same.

But I can’t just jump into that. Drawing a graphic novel would be a huge undertaking and would demand a ton of my time. Plus I have 2 other projects to finish before I can even consider diving in (Grim Curio and The Gin Theif: Eps 2-6ish).

On top of that, I need to develop some kind of style. I can get away with mediocre art if it has a cohesive style that can communicate a story. So that’s my vague goal, creating my own sense of style. I think I’ll fill one more sketch pad with my red and black marker shtick before moving on to pencil, and ink.


If you want to support my artistic journey, whether you’re looking forward to more sketches or a novel release, sign up for my mailing list. It’s free, you get a free ebook copy of Discovering Aberration, and when I make a release I’ll keep you informed. It’s literally an email every 6 months or so. So sign up below.

But if you want to give me money instead, buy a copy of Discovering Aberration or The Gin Thief: Ep 1. Click on one of the book covers on the right to buy. Every sale counts, so buy one for a friend.

Join the S.C. Barrus newsletter to receive a free copy of Discovering Aberration and exclusive monthly updates.

My novel writing process: EXPOSED!

You’ve come up with the perfect idea for a novel. Now it’s time to sit down and write. You open your word processor, type in your working title and name (can’t start without that), go to page one and…. freeze. What now? Do I just write? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m going? I’m using Word, do other writers use Word? And…. and… and…

Who knows, maybe when you started your first novel it was a breeze. You just started typing and it felt right. But if you’re anything like many new writers out there, you might not be aware of the many ways novels get written. And even if you do know, you probably don’t know what works best for you until you discover them and give each a shot.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve given several writing methodologies a shot. My process is ever evolving as I try to find the balance of several aspects, which we’re about to dive into.

In this blog post we’ll answer the following questions

  • How can I plan my novel without getting too bogged down in the details?
  • How can I plan it and still maintain the freedom of free-writing?
  • How can I create a basic elevator pitch before I’ve even started writing?
  • How can I plot my novel and ensure my characters have a compelling arc?
  • How do I make sure each scene feels complete?
  • What word processor should I use to organize all of this?

This is a medium-depth overview. I’ll expand on each point in future blog posts, but for now this’ll be a great jumping off point if you’re wanting a crash corse in novel-writing.

Last note before we get started: this is my method, and my method is constantly changing as I hone it to suite my needs. Your method may turn out quite different from this. Use this as a jumping off point, and then change it to match your style.

Planning your novel

Gasp! I said ‘plan’. If you’re among those who fear or despise this word, worry not! Read on and you’ll find a most satisfactory compromise. You see, I used to hate planning as much as anyone, I still don’t love it. But I’ve discovered a hybrid method that will work for even the most hardened hater.

Planning vs. Pantsing

For those of you who said, “huh?” to the paragraph above, let’s touch on case of plan v pants for a second.

Planning refers to preparation before writing, often in the form of an outline, sometimes in the form of lore or backstory, etc. You might also see it called plotting or outlining.

Pantsing refers to “writing from the seat of your pants”. It’s also called discovery writing — but really, who uses two words when they could use one. In essence, it’s writing without preparation H… I mean a preparation stage (stupid autocorrect ).

I’m not going to spend too much time exploring planning vs pantsing since it’s already been discussed ad nauseam on every writers blog on the planet. And, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. If you want more a more in-depth study on the subject, google it.

What is interesting to me is why, after years of being a staunch pantser, I’ve become something of a hybrid. So let’s talk about that.

The early years, or writing without a plan

The first three novels I wrote were 100% done without preparation — 2 unpublished, the other is Discovering Aberration which you can get for free in the doobly doo below. It felt great. When others talked about planning, I scoffed. I couldn’t understand how anyone could cage themselves with an outline.

Then came revisions… I found my plots meandered. It lingered on some plot threads long past there due, lacked proper foreshadowing, and the pacing was all over the place. In the end I was forced to do several major rewrites. I mean major. It was a bummer and added at least six months to the writing process.

Attempting to outline

Eventually I attempted a full outline for another project, The Gin Thief, but as I wrote the mid to late sections, everything felt like a guess. It’s hard to account for character reactions before your characters are even written.

When it came to drafting, I found I deviated far from my plan and all that work planning seemed wasted. Furthermore, I felt confined by my own preparation. Turns out, plot ideas may sound great in the outline phase but in practice feel forced. There’s too many unaccounted for variables early on.

So I abandoned the hardline planning approach, and today follow a hybrid method that’s working extremely well for me.

The hybrid approach to planning

Today I’m somewhere in the middle. I plan just enough to give me direction, but not enough to box me in. Let’s dive in to what this process looks like.

Acts in bullet point form

First, I break down my novel into three simple lists of arcs organized by Act. Three’s just a number, you can do five or seven or whatever the hell you want. The three act structure is common and it’s what I find myself gravitating to recently, but Shakespeare wrote in five acts and he’s pretty good.

Below is an example. It’s the three acts of my novel Grim Curio, which I’ve nearly completed writing. Spoilers below, but it wont ruin the book even if you know the vague details.

Act 1:

  • James and Simon save a village from a strange, alien disease which came from another reality. It doesn’t go well.
  • Nat joins nihilist cult.
  • Scientists experiment with the nature of reality.

Act 2:

  • James and Simon struggle to return home. When they arrive their home is drastically changed.
  • Scientists open a hole in reality.
  • Cult attacks scientists.

Act 3:

  • Revolution has broken out. Simon is caught up in it.
  • Reality is torn, leaking. James tries to fix it.
  • All hell breaks loose.

Notice how simple it all is. Just the major beats of the story in a loose arrangement. Best of all, before I’ve even written my novel I can give an elevator pitch. It’s not as refined as it will be later in the process, but having these bullet points gives you ammunition when anyone asks you, “so what’s your book about?”

Here’s an elevator pitch built from the bullet point list above: “Grim Curio is about these guys who save a village from an otherworldly disease and get punished for it. When they return home, everything has changed. Reality is torn, and a revolution is on. And that’s not mentioning the nihilist cult in the middle of it all.”

Fleshing out characters

Now we know the basic arc of our novel. You have a lot of options at this point. If you were a hardcore planner, you might start a flowchart of every scene. If you’re a lore geek, you might start nailing down all of the back story. If you’re a pantser at heart, you might just start writing.

As for me, I’m obsessed with character. I believe characters are why we read books. Everything else is just sugar on top, plot included. So my next step is spending some time getting to know them.

A characters beginning and end

First thing I like to do for all major characters is determine their starting and ending state of mind. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Could be, “Jill starts out bad, becomes good,” or “Sam hates dogs, learns dogs are man’s best friend”. That kind of thing.

And then there are characters who don’t change, static characters. There’s nothing wrong with a static character, but you should know before hand if your character is going to be unchanging, and why.

In the case of Simon, from Grim Curio, he starts as a man who believes he understands the world but has little affect on it, and ends as a man who realizes he knows nothing but the masses follow him regardless.

As for James, he’s more static. There are changes, but its much more subtle and internal. James is a man who always needs to be working, being stagnant leads him into depression. He begins believing in himself but even as his successes are marred with terrible consequences. Because of this, he stops believing in himself, continues trying anyway, and finally gets things right.

Creating character arc through sign posts

We now have our major characters beginning and ending state of mind. Time to fill in the rest with sign posts. These are plot points you can aim towards while you’re writing your scenes. If you know that Jaclyn is an asshole who becomes a saint, then each of these sign posts are the moments where small amounts of change occur. By the end of the novel, all of these small moments of change will build up to a big revelation.

If you want more information on this, I recommend reading Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland and watching these two Brandon Sanderson lectures. These resources changed my outlook on crafting character, and I consider them required reading/viewing.

Character

Plot

Do I really need to do all this work before I start writing?

HELL NO! You don’t need to do anything you don’t feel like. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On The Road in a single drugged out session, and that’s considered a masterpiece. So go do that if you feel like it. Doesn’t matter how you write it as long as it gets written.

There are zero rules to writing other than you need to put words on paper — or e ink. Don’t let anyone push you around with their rules. Your weird unheard of method may result in a best seller or critical darling. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

I don’t even always stick to my own rules. They are there to service me, not the other way around. So I deviate when I feel like it. But I’ve found having these methods in mind greatly helps me, even when I don’t follow them.

Post continues below.

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The drafting process

If you’re following along, you’ll have bullet pointed your major arcs, you’ll have created you’re major characters with beginnings and endings in mind, and you’ll have some scenes you can aim towards via character sign posts. Now it’s time to actually write.

If you’re brave, you can start by writing scene one all the way through and then move on to scene two. This is the most straight forward approach. But I’ve found simply drafting an entire scene from scratch is fraught with flaws. It takes too long, has too many uncertainties, requires too much mental gymnastics as I attempt to account for later scenes, and is prone to unexpected bouts of writers block.

But I made a brilliant discovery. Write descriptions of scenes before writing the scenes themselves. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with this. It’s been a long time since I read Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, but as I recall they have a similar method.

Before we talk about that, let’s take a look at our most potent weapon, the word processor

Sorry. This bit sort of comes out of nowhere, but I want to make sure I include it because it’s such a fundamental part of my process these days. Let’s talk about Scrivener for a sec.

Scrivener is a word processor that’s built with novel-writing in mind. You can organize things by act, scene, character, tag, and so much more. Drag and drop whole chapters at a time. It’s well worth the $45, and is by far my tool of choice.

Above is an older version of Scrivener (I need to upgrade to version 3). What you see is Grim Curio broken up by act, and each act broken up by chapter, and each chapter broken up by scene. This is how I write, and I find it invaluable. You’ll see why next.

Creating scene descriptions

Let’s say today is the first day of drafting for my new project. I have my characters in mind with some sign posts to aim for. What I do now is create a new scene file, but rather than start writing a fully fleshed out scene, I write a very short description of the scene I’ll eventually write. My goal is a rough idea of the scene in a couple of paragraphs.

Here’s a contrived example:

James enters the village, and immediately is struck by their strange customs. Everyone is gathered around a great dead tree that’s scorched black. The people are coated in mud and dirt, and as they work they toss more dirt on their skin. Their homes are burrows in the ground.

As James approaches, they notice him and send someone to intercept/question him. He makes some basic mistakes, but recovers a little. They lead him to talk to the village elders, but their conversation is interrupted by screams.

I’m not trying to write well here. I’m just getting a basic idea of how the scene will progress. When that’s done, I create the next scene file and do it again. I’ll do this as far as I possibly can before it feels like I’m forcing it. Usually this is a few chapters worth of scene descriptions.

As I read through the descriptions, using Scrivener I can rearrange them easily if needed. Later I’ll come back, go back to scene 1, and start fleshing it out.

Writing the scene

From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Go through your description and expand. Don’t worry about writing perfect prose. Just get the scene done and feeling pretty good. Then move on to the next scene description and expand that. Do this over and over until you reach the end of your written scene descriptions.

Now that we have a series of drafted scenes, I go through several passthroughs to improve them.

Phases of rewriting

I tend to go through my scenes at least four times. Each time, I focus on a different element of storytelling.

First passthrough I focus on character. I make sure motivations feel legit, make sure dialog feels real, and generally just try to keep each character inline with their personalities.

Second passthrough I focus on descriptions. The best narration engages the senses, so I try to mimic what I consider the best. That means making sure every scene not only has a look, but a feel, a sound, a scent. If a character touches a wall, I want a line about the texture. If they enter a kitchen, I want a line about the scent.

Third passthrough I focus on prose. That’s the words themselves. I like books with good word economy, meaning never using two words where one will do. This doesn’t necessarily mean using big words all the time, but I also don’t shy away from big words if they feel right.

Forth passthrough I just refine and cut. If there’s anything extra that doesn’t service the characters or the plot, I cut it. Even if it’s really good on its own. Doesn’t matter. Cut mercilessly. After all this work, you’re gonna have paragraphs that you labored over that don’t fit right. Don’t be sentimental. Cut the shit out of them.

Bear in mind that four passthroughs is on the low end for me. That’s a straight forward scene without too many complications. The first and last chapters of Grim Curio both had at least 10-15 passthroughs, as well as some all out rewrites. Keep massaging it til it feels right.

If you want some points to focus on while you rewrite, checkout out this list of questions to keep in mind while drafting.

This + 1 year = NOVEL!!!

Continue this cycle over an over again for about a year, and you’ll have a damn fine novel. When you’ve written up to the end of your scene descriptions, start writing descriptions again and write towards your sign posts. Then expand and refine. And again and again.

That’s it. That’s my process. If you want me to get more granular on any topic, let me know and I’ll make time to do so. If you like this post and want more like it, then please share through your favorite social network. If you want to support my work, buy a novel using a link to the right, or sign up for my mailing list in the doobly doo above. Until next time, I’ll see you around.

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How R.L. Stine & Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing

What makes a novel great?

I’ve been sucking on this questions like a breath mint for months. What makes a novel great? I don’t mean good, entertaining, or popular. Those are all worthwhile things.

What makes a novel great? Not good, worthwhile, or popular, but great? Maybe it's all about timing. #books Click To Tweet

But I’m seeking greatness. I’m seeking works of fiction that will stick with me long after I put them down. Books that’ll change my mind, make me feel different from before I picked them up.

On this hunt for greatness, I’ve made a few discoveries. And over the next few months, I’m going to explore what I found.

Sleeping with Goosebumps

When I was young, novels like Goosebumps granted me a safe place to find thrills, mystery, and a little danger. I still remember bits of It Came From Beneath the Sink and Monster Blood.

Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.

You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Die today, I doubt it would have the same effect.

Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos

The make-out years

I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.

Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.

The book that changed everything

During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled itThen again and again…

Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.

First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.

I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.

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All About Timing

Outside influences

This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the RyeI don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.

Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.

Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.

Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.

So maybe greatness is all about timing.

Fight Club fifteen years later

I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.

Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.

What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.

So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.

So maybe I’ll try to pick up A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man again. Maybe last time I tried the timing was off.

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I consider Fight Club a book that changed my life. If you haven’t read it, it’s probably about time. Consider supporting this blog by purchasing the paperback, ebook, or audiobook.

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.

[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]

While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.

The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.

We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.

No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.

“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.

While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.

Apparently there’s a comic book adaptation too. Neat.

Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.

Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.

All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.

So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.