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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Check out this post on how to #write a #novel. It covers planning, character arcs, refining and more. #writing Click To Tweet

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.

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.

How R.L. Stine and Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing Click To Tweet

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.

Why and How I’m Creating a T-Shirt for Grim Curio

Lately I’ve had my heart set on designing a t-shirt. As all my friends in the office can attest, I’ve been bugging the hell out of them over t-shirt logo’s and designs. It’s a weird obsession, I get it, but one I’m gonna see through.

Why create a t-shirt?

For the Beta Readers

Over the last few months, I’ve had tremendous support from my team of beta readers. They read an early copy of Grim Curio, enduring my own slow pace. I’d call them all out to thank them by name, but I know privacy is something a lot of them care about, so I won’t do that. But these guys are the best.

Do I need to clarify that by guys I mean men and women? I’m from the North West and that’s just what we call everybody.

As a way to show my thanks, I want to gift my beta readers something special. Not something that will be stored away and forgotten, or worse yet, thrown away. Something they can show off and be proud of. A symbol of their contribution to Grim Curio. So naturally, a t-shirt.

For fans and supporters

If you’ve been a writer in the trenches, you know how important it is to have swag. When you stand behind a table trying to sling books, it gets rough sometimes. But then comes someone who want’s to support you all the way to the bank. They like you, your work, and want you to keep creating, so they buy everything. These wonderful people fuel the arts, and the more you can offer them, the more they’ll give back to you.

Why a shirt?

To be fair, a shirt is probably just the beginning. But shirts are awesome for a few reasons. It’s a walking piece of art that I’ve created. That’s pretty cool. More than that, if someone wears it, they’re also spreading the word about my work without have to, you know, interact with people 👍. Not only are they supporting me with their hard-earned money, but by spreading the good word. We call these people saints.

Eventually there might be mugs and posters, but we’re getting way way WAY ahead of ourselves……

The Design

Here’s the status of where we are. I’ve been coming up with concepts for almost a month, and I think I’ve finally landed on one that’s pretty good. Here it is.

This design is representative of several themes from Grim Curio. At the top we have the planet Mars, the place where many people on Earth dream of going. Below that, an eye looks up, showing the only place where hope lies in this book. The eye is red, a side effect of not wearing a full face respirator outside. The eye also appears to be stabbed by the tower below, just as an eye is gouged in the novel — which comes with plot affecting benefits.  Then there’s the tower itself, which is a massive part of the third act. Behind it is the red sun whose rays look like flames, representative of a specific even in the novel. Then there are the ruined buildings, which are the city, and the rolling earth before it which is inspired by the cover of Roadside Picnic and represents the rubble and the wastes.

So there’s a lot here that relates to the novel. Is the design good? I don’t know. I think it needs polish, but it’s maybe 80% of the way there. Some of the lines need to be cleaned up. Mars needs to be smaller, and maybe the eye too. Also, I need to figure out the color of the shirt.

If you are a beta reader, or if you have any thoughts, insight or suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments. If are interested in buying a shirt, sign up for my mailing list in the link at the top of the site, and I’ll let you know when they go on sale.

Behind the scenes

I’d been trying to come up with a t-shirt design for a while. Here’s a concept I had midway through the process.

I liked this because it’s a minimalistic self-portrait and could be cool on a shirt. I don’t like it because, as one of my friends pointed out, no woman will wear that… Haha. So no go for the first shirt, but I might revisit it for later.

Then I came up with this.

I kind of like the idea of this… but in practice it looks pretty… phallic. Soooo…. it needed some refinement. But you can see how the design above was born from this.

I decided to draw several elements of the design on their own sheets of paper. So I started with the eye and mars. Then I layered on top of it the tower and the cityscape, cutting them up with an exacto-knife.

Finally, I added the sun in the background to come to where we are today. Here it is again for good measure.

That’s it. Sign up for the mailing list to get the opportunity to pre-order this shirt when all the details are ironed out. See you around.

Planning a Novel: The Spark of an Idea

While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.

She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.

I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.

She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”

She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborn trilogy. Sounds good to me.

“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”

I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”

We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.

It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?

Find someone to bounce ideas off of

As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.

It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.

Start broad, then go more and more narrow

You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.

Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.

Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.

Ideas change

What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.

Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.

Realize that this is just the first step

The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.

That’s all I have for today. Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes. If you’re looking for more on this subject, checkout my blog post called Find Inspiration, Generate Ideas, and the Myth of the Perfect Concept.

More self portraits, oh my. Week 3

Another week, more illustrations of myself. Is that narcissistic? Somehow it feels better to me than taking selfies, lol. Once again, you can see me run the gambit of emotions throughout the week, and it shows up in the art. I mean, how could it not?

A portrait a day is pretty difficult when you consider I’m a writer first and whatever this is second (I hesitate to say artist). I’m very curious to see where this leads. I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing a panel of a comic a day featuring what I’m thinking about. I don’t know, we’ll see.

If you like these and want to see more, checkout week 1 and week 2. If you want to support my work, feel free to buy one of my books by clicking on any of their covers to the right.